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“Selma”

Susan Granger’s review of “Selma” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Ava DuVernay’s film about the voting-rights struggle of 1965 is not only timely but relevant, given the continuing racial turmoil over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The historical drama begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, then meeting in the Oval Office with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), whom he urges to support passage of a national Voting Rights Act.

To underscore the need for change in March, 1965, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership advisors travel to Selma, Alabama, for a peaceful, non-violent protest – then boldly march 50 miles from Selma to the state’s capital of Montgomery.

Stressing that raising white America’s consciousness is as crucial as organizing black communities, King outlines his three principles of protest: “Negotiate, demonstrate, resist.”

Hideous brutality erupts. Opposition comes not only from Sheriff Jim Clark (Tim Houston) and his posse on the Edmund Pettus Bridge but also Alabama’s contemptible Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Determined to discourage King by monitoring his movements and disrupting his marriage to Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) leaks secret F.B.I. recordings of King’s adulterous liaisons.

First-time screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay  (“Middle of Nowhere,” “I Will Follow”) ambitiously condense years of anecdotal history into solemn, yet stirring expository dialogue and introduce supporting characters whose specific purpose is to embody differing points-of-view.  Co-producer Oprah Winfrey plays an elderly churchwoman unable to register to vote.

So it’s David Oyelowo’s powerful, provocative portrayal that electrifies.  Born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo astutely reflects Dr. King’s oratorical cadence and canny political strategy. Had Dr. King not been assassinated in 1968, just three years after the Selma march, he would have been 86 on January 16.

As for the controversy over the depiction of President Johnson, it’s not unusual; debates about historical accuracy also plagued Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Selma” is an inspiring, impassioned 8, delivering Dr. King’s reverberating message of perseverance.

“Taken 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Taken 3” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Liam Neeson returns as former CIA operative Bryan Mills in this third segment in the action-packed franchise.

Set in pedestrian Los Angeles, rather than exotic Istanbul or Paris, it begins with a cold-blooded murder, as heavily tattooed Russian mobsters execute an innocent accountant because they’re owed money and there’s none in his boss’s safe.

At the same time, Bryan Mills is visited by his angst-riddled ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose marriage to wealthy Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott) is floundering. Shortly afterwards, Lenore’s body is found in Mills’ bed – with her throat cut. And Mills is the primary suspect.

Determined to protect his now-college age daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and track down Lenore’s killer, Mills goes “down the rabbit hole,” dodging the LAPD, led by Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

Illogically scripted by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton (“Transporter 3,” “Colombiana”), it lacks the essential ingredients that propelled the first two thrillers: namely, a persuasive plot and the compelling need for an anguished, aging, perennially pursued father  with a “particular set of skills” to rescue a kidnapped member of his family.

What it offers, instead, is a domestic melodrama punctuated by discordant series of screeching, seemingly endless car chases, careening around the Southern California freeways. It seems obvious from the getgo who the villain is, so there’s little surprise when his culpability is revealed.

Unexpectedly transformed into a middle-aged action hero back in 2009, 6’4” Liam Neeson has emerged as the craggy, Celtic John Wayne of his generation.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Taken 3” is a tediously trifling 3, laying generic groundwork for Mills’ grandchild to be kidnapped if and when there’s another installment.

“Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death”

Susan Granger’s review of “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” (Relativity Media/Hammer Films)

 

Back in 2012, when Daniel Radcliffe chose to play the widowed Edwardian solicitor Arthur Kipps in the original “Woman in Black” as his breakout role after Harry Potter, it sparked inordinate interest in the psychological horror thriller. Its pedestrian sequel not only lacks Radcliffe but also the terror factor.

During Germany’s WWII bombing of London in 1941, caretakers are charged with escorting a group of children out of the war-torn city and into the safety of the countryside. They take refuge in the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House that happens to be haunted by the vengeful, darkly veiled, titular female.

Much to the consternation of prim schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), the sinister apparition soon becomes obsessed with stalking shy, young Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents were killed in the Blitz. As a result of that trauma, he’s become mute, unable to scream when the menacing, malevolent spirit appears.

Riffing off a 1983 novella by British horror author Susan Hill, screenwriter Jon Croker and director Tom Harper toss in more convoluted plot points, like the ghostly Woman’s complicated backstory, a stern headmistress (Helen McCrory), a local doctor (Adrian Rawlins), and a fearful RAF pilot, Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), who is struggling with cowardice.

It’s unfortunate that cinematographer George Steel’s spooky sequences feature shaky, jump scares that are ominously punctuated by the creepy, predictable sound track.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” is a feeble 4, concluding with a scene that suggests that a third installment may be on its way.

“Still Alice”

Susan Granger’s review of “Still Alice” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Julianne Moore elevates this sensitive chronicle of a woman’s descent into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s. From her midnight panics to her courageous struggle, Moore’s restrained, delicately nuanced performance scorches with ferocious intensity.

Brilliant, beautiful, 50 year-old Alice Howland (Moore) is a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University who she suddenly starts to forget words during a lecture. She’s a dedicated jogger who then becomes confused about where she is, even though she’s in the familiar environs of Central Park.

When her neurologist diagnoses early-onset Alzheimer’s, Alice’s supportive husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research physician, is at her side. Worse yet, through further testing, Alice discovers her particular strain of the disease is genetic. That profoundly affects her grown children:  Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish).

Determined to end her life when her deterioration becomes unbearable, she stores up sleeping pills, hiding them in a bureau drawer, posting a reminder on her computer.  It’s Alice’s daily struggle to stay connected when the tenuous threads are fraying that propels the tragic, character-driven plot.

Working from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have constructed a compassionate, enlightening story – that’s heightened by their own personal drama.

Mr. Glatzer and Mr. Westmoreland are married and, as they were developing this script, Glatzer was told he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s degenerative and, ultimately, fatal. That obviously gave a sense of urgency to completing this project.

“Still Alice” was made for less than $5 million and shot over 23 days in Manhattan, mostly in a brownstone on West 162nd Street that was under renovation. And the score by British composer Ilan Eshkeri is subtly unobtrusive yet evocative.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Still Alice” is a profoundly eloquent, empathetic 8. According to statistics, Alzheimer’s will affect in roughly one in 85 people, worldwide, by 2050.

 

 

“A Most Violent Year”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Most Violent Year” (A24)

 

Set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history, J.C. Chandor’s intense noir-thriller combines political intrigue with industrial corruption.

Ambitious, idealistic Hispanic immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) started as a fuel truck driver for a heating oil distributor. When he marries the mob-connected boss’s daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain) and they take over the family business, he discovers it’s not easy being honest in the crime-riddled city.

After making a deal to purchase a waterfront storage facility, Morales is faced with a series of brutal anonymous attacks, hijacking his drivers and stealing his fuel. Egged on by Anna and his lawyer (Albert Brooks), he turns to desperate measures to protect his property, his family and his chunk of the American Dream.

Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) conjures up memories of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and the scene where he explains to new salesmen how to act classy and close a deal is a gem.  There’s also a chase on an elevated train and shootout on the 59th Street Bridge between Manhattan and Queens.

Adopting a thick Brooklyn accent, Jessica Chastain is formidable foil, and the strong supporting cast includes David Oyelowo, Eyles Gabel, Alessandro Nivola and Jerry Adler.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”) was writing the script when the tragic shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, not far from his home.

“It made me think of this idea of escalation – how in act of violence ripples on society,” he recalls. And this taut, richly atmospheric crime drama obviously takes inspiration from Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City,” also set in 1981.

Chandor’s next film tackles the explosion and sinking of the British Petroleum offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Most Violent Year” is a gritty, savvy 7. Impeccably crafted, it evokes a turbulent time.

The Gambler

Rupert Wyatt’s discordant remake of the 1974 James Caan movie has a fatal flaw:  the spoiled, self-destructive protagonist is not someone with whom you’d like to spend two hours.

By day, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) works as an English professor at a Southern California college, spouting Shakespeare and Camus, while berating his students in classes that resemble bizarre group-therapy sessions.

At night, Bennett gambles. As the story starts, he’s $240,000 in debt to a Korean mobster (Alvin Ing) with only a week to repay.  Every time his rich mother (Jessica Lange) bails him out, he goes back to the blackjack or roulette tables. No penny-ante stuff.  This over-privileged jerk is into high stakes risk-taking.

His compulsive “double or nothing” wagering brings him into contact with one crooked loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) after another (John Goodman), along with a state tennis champ (Emory Cohen) and basketball star (Anthony Kelley).

Revising Karel Reisz and James Toback’s original concept, screenwriter William Monahan (“The Departed”) moves the macho action from New York to Los Angeles, while director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) goes for snarky, superficial slickness.

Miscast Mark Wahlberg seems ill-at-ease as an intellectual; he’s far more convincing in blue-collar roles. The only believability emanates from Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”), as Bennett’s most gifted student and, eventually, girlfriend; since she works as a waitress at the casino, she knows about his addiction.

“You’re one of those guys who started out with no problems at all, and now you have all of them,” she astutely observes.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Gambler” is a second-rate 4. You can’t win with a weak hand.

“American Sniper”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Sniper” (Warner Bros.)

 

Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”) is among our finest American filmmakers. Which is why, perhaps, so much is expected of each and every film he directs.

This somber story pays tribute to Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. military history, credited with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills.

Set in Iraq, the opening scene is riveting as Kyle (Bradley Cooper) must decide whether to shoot a woman and a young boy. The same pivotal scene is repeated midway through the story – at a time when it’s far better understood.

Prior to that, however, there’s the conventional biography. Where Kyle came from (Texas), how he met his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and why he nobly embarked on four tours of duty. Apparently, it all went back to Kyle’s father’s dictum that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.

Devoted to God, country and family (in that order), Kyle envisioned himself as a sheepdog, protecting others, while his expertise earned the nickname “The Legend.” But when he eventually returned home, after eliminating “the Butcher” Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the Syrian-born marksman who was terrorizing U.S. troops, Chris Kyle suffered post-traumatic stress, like many other soldiers.

Episodically scripted by Jason Hall, based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, written with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice, it’s a tense, respectful, yet ambitious examination of what compelled Kyle to fight, the toll violence takes on the soul and what it cost him to recover his humanity after nearly a decade at war.

Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) bulked up to play rugged, muscular Kyle, and while there are surprises – like how often soldiers called their loved ones on Sat phones in the midst of combat – most of the plot is not only predictable but recalls themes that have been explored before, like in Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Sniper” is a solid, if stilted 6, a sad, serious study of the effects of brutality and violence.

“The Interview”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Interview” (Sony Pictures)

 

Despite cyber-warfare against Sony and terrorist threats from North Korea, this controversial James Franco/Seth Rogen black comedy opened on Christmas Day in 331 independent theaters and earned more than $1 million. It was also available for rent or purchase on VOD.

That’s just the legal side. According to web calculations, it was pirated in digital format more than 200,000 times in the first 10 hours. After 20 hours, the illegal downloads topped 750,000 – mainly overseas, since Sony did no worldwide release.

So what’s it all about? Sleazy TV interviewer Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his buddy, producer Aaron Rappaport (Seth Rogen), are tabloid journalists who specialize in celebrity interviews.  When these mega-morons learn that North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un (Randall Park) is a fan of the show, they arrange an interview.

“This will be as big as Frosty Nixon,” Dave enthuses.

That’s when they’re recruited by manipulative CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) to use their visit to Pyongyang as an opportunity to assassinate the notoriously humorless, 31 year-old Supreme Leader.

Seth Rogen, who directed along with Evan Goldberg, is the straight man, while Franco overdoes his caricature of a dimwit TV host who is far more concerned with popularity than credibility.

Korean-American comedian Randall Park (HBO’s “Veep”) is audacious, his own show debuts in 2015. And Diana Bang scores as Sook, Kim’s duplicitous communications officer.

Opening with a sweet little North Korean girl singing about launching nuclear war against the United States, the raunchy, obviously collaborative screenplay was written by Dan Sterling (“The Daily Show,” “The Office,” “Girls”). It’s a provocative premise that’s never developed, so the farce fizzles.

Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and the creators of “South Park” have done political satire far better.

Bottom line: Despite innumerable “Lord of the Rings” references, repetitive poop/potty jokes prevail, as the absurd slob-comedy fails to live up to its hype.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Interview” is a silly, sloppy, sophomoric 4. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it’s much ado about very little.

“Mr. Turner”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mr. Turner” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

The renowned British painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1861), was obviously an eccentric, as filmmaker Mike Leigh illustrates in this historical character study.

In 1820s Holland, Turner (Timothy Spall) is first glimpsed, scribbling in his sketchbook. After jotting down his observations abroad, he returns to his townhouse on Harley Street, where he’s greeted by his doting father (Paul Jesson) and devoted housekeeper/mistress (Dorothy Atkinson).

Over the next quarter-century, Turner creates magnificent landscapes and seascapes, while cantankerously coping with a bitter, estranged mistress, two grown daughters and art critics, including judgmental members of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, even Queen Victoria.

In a salon scene, his capricious contemporaries include John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), John Constable (James Fleet) and Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage).

Ornery, stubborn and passionately devoted to authenticity, Turner, on one occasion, has himself strapped to the mast of a ship so he can observe first-hand a storm at sea.

When he visits Margate to paint harbor scenes, he rents a seaside room under an assumed name from Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), whose husband is a retired seafarer. After Mr. Booth dies, Turner and Sophia Booth amiably cohabit in Chelsea until his death.

Having studied art at the Camberwell School, writer/director Mike Leigh (“Topsy-Turvy,” “Vera Drake,” “Secrets and Lies”) and his cinematographer Dick Pope are obviously besotted by this prodigious craftsman and colorist, whose impressionistic work influenced Monet and Whistler, among others.

Embodying troubled Turner with grunts, snorts and spit, portly Timothy Spall delivers a memorably brutish portrayal. However, it’s curious that Leigh completely ignores Turner’s penchant for Venice, where he created some of his most radiant works.

Confession:  when I saw “Mr. Turner,” I was given the choice of English subtitles. At first, I demurred but, after trying to decipher many garbled utterings, I chose the subtitles and was most gratified.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Mr. Turner” is an exquisite, erudite 8, exuding color and exacting visuals.

“Big Eyes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Big Eyes” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Do you remember those kitschy “big-eyed waif” paintings that were so popular in the early 1960s? They were created by an artist named Keane – and the stranger-than-fiction backstory is fascinating.

Imperious Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was a master of merchandising, commercializing his enigmatic “little hobo kids.”  But he didn’t actually paint them. They were created by his wife Margaret (Amy Adams).  As it turns out, the Keanes were living a colossal lie that fooled the entire art world.

After leaving her first abusive husband, Margaret fled with her young daughter Jane to San Francisco, where she was selling her charcoal portraits for a dollar or two at outdoor art fairs. Then she met insistently charming Walter, who told her he studied in Paris, chiding: “You undervalue yourself.”

After they married, fast-talking Walter manipulated his naïve, gullible wife into allowing him to sell her work under his name, claiming they could have never achieve fame and fortune unless she hid the truth that she was the artist.

Insecure and isolated, Margaret eventually left Walter, moving to Honolulu, where Jehovah’s Witnesses encouraged to expose the fraud and enabled her to take Walter to court.

Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood”), it’s directed as a serio-comedy by Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Sweeney Todd”). Burton uses Walter’s megalomaniacal dominance and Margaret’s submissiveness as symptomatic of the gender barriers that were prevalent in that repressive era.

While Amy Adams sensitively captures Margaret’s timidity, reticence and complicity in her own victimization, Christoph Waltz exudes frenzied exuberance and smug persuasiveness.

They’re supported by Danny Huston, as San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and Terence Stamp as New York Times art critic John Canaday, along with Jon Polito, Jason Schwartzmann and James Saito.

FYI: now at age 87, Margaret Keane still churns out those paintings of innocent, sad-eyed children.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Big Eyes” is an intriguing but curiously shallow 7, revealing art as identity theft.