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“Calvary”

Susan Granger’s review of “Calvary” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Opening with a quote from St. Augustine: “Despair not, one of the thieves was spared. Presume not, one of the thieves was not.”  Set in a small village on the wind-swept coastline of Ireland, this subtly provocative thriller begins when a good-hearted cleric, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is threatened in the confessional booth.  Sexually abused – years ago – by a pedophile priest who has since died, one of Father James’s bitter parishioners is determined to wreak revenge by killing him in exactly seven days: “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Over the next week, weary Father James wrestles not only with the concept of his own mortality but also the declining influence of the Catholic Church in contemporary society, as he confronts various members of the rural  community, gruffly making amends and meeting with disparate suspects, all of whom have been unrepentantly sinning for many years.

There’s the sinister, perversely atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen) and the rich, despairing businessman (Dylan Moran), along with the vulgar butcher (Chris O’Dowd), whose promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) is blatantly having an affair with an African immigrant auto mechanic (Isaach de Bankole).  He counsels a jailed serial rapist/killer (Domhall Gleeson, Brendan’s real-life son) and is scorned by a policeman (Gary Lydon) and male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). It seems that Father James’s only benign acquaintances are an elderly American author (M. Emmett Walsh) and a philosophical Frenchwoman (Marie Josee Croze) whose husband just died. Finally, Father James, a widower before he became a priest, tries to counsel his confused, suicidal daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who perceives his becoming ordained in the Church as abandonment.

An Oscar nomination seems inevitable for Brendan Gleeson, who propels the elliptical, ticking-clock psychodrama, conceived by Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”) and magnificently photographed by Larry Smith. Filming took place over a period of 29 days in the weather-beaten fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Calvary” is an intense, compassionate 8, revolving around the complicated concept of forgiveness.

“What If”

Susan Granger’s review of “What If” (CBS Films)

 

What if you had charismatic Daniel Radcliffe as your leading man? Wouldn’t you strive for the most interesting, original vehicle possible to separate this now 25 year-old man from his Harry Potter past?  That obviously didn’t concern Toronto-based director Michael Dowse (“Goon”), who dives into a cloying, predictably formulaic rom-com, based on Nora Ephron’s observation, “Men and woman can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” which Billy Crystal verbalized in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989).

Med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has become a hermit, living in the attic of his sister’s home, ever since he caught his former girlfriend cheating on him. Cautiously venturing out one night, he meets a flirtatious animator, Chantry (Zoe Kazan), at a party given by his blowhard best-friend Allan (Adam Driver).  Composing cleverly cynical refrigerator-magnet poetry, they hit it off immediately, but she’s already living with Ben (Rafe Spall), a high-powered diplomat with the United Nations. So they become friends, sort of, since Wallace has feelings for her that are definitely not platonic. Not surprisingly, when globe-trotting Ben departs for Dublin for six months, Chantry and Wallace become inseparable, kind of.

Adapted by screenwriter Elan Mastai from T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s stage-play “Toothpaste and Cigars,” it’s coyly sweet and snarky, never establishing a consistent tone – with hip, yet trifling banter passing for dialogue and Chantry’s whimsical cartoons quickly becoming an annoyance.

Making an interesting transition to adult roles, Daniel Radcliffe seems to be channeling Hugh Grant in his bashful-yet-brash British mannerisms. With big blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, Zoe Kazan works her theatrical heritage; she’s the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord and granddaughter of director Elia Kazan. Adam Driver is familiar from HBO’s “Girls,” while Rafe Spall is the son of British character actor Timothy Spall. In supporting roles, Megan Park plays Chantry’s promiscuous sister and Mackenzie Davis is Allan’s hot-to-trot girl-friend.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, What If” is a trifling, tedious 3. It’s not even worth placing on your Netflix queue.

“The Giver”

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

 

Published back in 1993, Lois Lowry’s young-adult novel was a touching, dystopian fantasy, centered on a 12 year-old boy.  If it had been filmed back then, it would have preceded similar stories like “Ender’s Game,” “Elysium,” “Divergent,” and the “Hunger Games” franchise.  But now, it’s just one more bland, teen-centric story, set in the distant future, depicting a post-apocalyptic society of “true equality.”

The Community, as it’s called, is supposed to be Utopia. Classless, climate-controlled, and conflict-free, it’s an isolated world that’s free of poverty, famine and other forms of suffering.  Choice is unknown; achieving sameness is everyone’s goal. Tranquility reigns, enforced by “precision of language,” meaning people are constantly apologizing and saying, “I accept your apology.”

Upon ritually graduating from childhood and receiving his lifetime job assignment, Jonas (Brendan Thwaits) is chosen by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) to be the next Receiver, meaning he’s to be taught by the titular Giver ( bearded Jeff Bridges), a tormented soul who holds the collective cultural memories.  As Jonas learns about the pain of love and war, and the ecstasy of art and music, he becomes determined to ‘free’ not only his family (Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes), including a continually crying infant, but also one special girl, Fiona (Odeya Rush).

In this disappointing screen adaption by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, directed by Philip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” Salt”), the protagonist has been transformed from a child into a young adult, which dilutes the impact of the ethical/moral conflicts and loss-of-innocence theme but allows for a sweetly plausible romance and some vaguely religious overtones. Working with production designer Ed Verr5eaux and cinematographer Ross Emery, Noyce creates this eerie, not-so brave new world monochromatically, allowing Jonas to slowly notice subtle bits of color, eventually including vivid greens, blues and reds. Except for Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, the actors are nondescript, delivering strangely stilted, unmemorable performances.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Giver” is a platitudinous, all-too-familiar 5, unlikely to satisfy avid fans of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning book.

“Step Up: All In”

Susan Granger’s review of “Step Up: All In” (Lionsgate)

 

The fifth flick in this franchise fades a bit, perhaps because there’s a tediously melodramatic storyline and not enough dancing. And no Channing Tatum. The leading man chore falls to self-centered Sean (Ryan Guzman), who decides to stay in Los Angeles when his group, the Mobsters, returns to Miami.

“There’s a magic that happens when you dance,” he says. “The world is in synch and, for one perfect moment, you feel alive.” Taking work as a janitor in a dance studio owned by the immigrant grandparents of Moose (Adam Sevani), he spots a VH1 promo for a TV reality-show dance contest called The Vortex, hosted by a preening, Lady Gaga-like diva, Alexxa Brava  (Poland-born Izabella Miko). Since the prize is a coveted three-year contract at Caesar’s Palace, Sean and Moose, who has landed a job at an engineering lab, set about recruiting a new crew composed of Moose’s old pal Andie (Brianna Evigan), along with Hair (Chris Scott), Vladd (Chad Smith), Monster (Luis Rosado) and Jenny Kido (Mari Koda),  dancers featured in past “Step Up” movies.  This disparate assemblage decides to call themselves LMNTRIX, pronounced “elementrix.”  When they arrive in Sin City, they find themselves on a collision course with both The Mobsters and The Grim Knights, headed by their perennial rival, Jasper Tarik (Stephen “Stevo” Jones).

Laboriously scripted by John Swetnam (“Into the Storm”) and energetically directed by former competitive ballroom dancer-turned-music video helmer Trish Sie, it’s formulaically predictable and utterly bland, except for the musical numbers. Working with three additional choreographers, Sie abandons the flash mobs in the street, which were featured in previous films, in order to concentrate on ensemble dance-offs that become fantastic extravaganzas, set to cutting-edge club music. Starting with the opening number, one routine is more flashy, daring and colorful than the next – culminating in the gigantic, Cirque du Soliel-like, nine-minute finale, complete with pyrotechnics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Step Up: All In” is a faltering 4, except for the dance sequences.

“Into the Storm”

Susan Granger’s review of “Into the Storm” (Warner Bros.)

 

Far too timely in the season of tornados, this action-packed, natural disaster thriller features professional storm-chasers, thrill-seeking amateurs and some teenagers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Set in the region of the Midwest region known as Tornado Alley, it begins on Graduation morning at Silverton High School. As vice-principal, Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage) is in charge of making sure everything runs on time – without a hitch. Problem is: the weather report worries him. A widower/single father, he’s shepherding two sons, Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress), through their difficult teenage years.  Although it’s Donnie’s responsibility to film the ceremony, he sneaks off to hang out with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Carey), helping her with a video project concerning environmental awareness, leaving his younger brother in charge of the camera. Suddenly, a tremendous storm approaches, bringing with it a professional storm-chasing team, headed by documentary filmmaker Pete Moore (Matt Walsh) with Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) as his meteorologist and three camera operators (Lee Whittaker, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter). Plus, there are the adrenaline junkies, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), whose crazy, daredevil antics are supposed to temporarily ease the tension with a little humor.

Populated by generic, one-dimensional characters who speak in clichés, it’s written by John Swetnam and directed by Steven Quale. What makes viewing it memorable are the intense, amazingly realistic visual effects, which depict not only the wind and rain but also the monstrous impact of several cyclones striking the same place at the same time, leaving destruction in their wake. There’s also a provocative issue revolving around how reality television has made stars of several real-life storm chasers, prompting scores of people to take irresponsible risks in order to capture the video or image that will make them rich and famous.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Into the Storm” is a suspenseful 6, a truly terrifying thrill ride.

“Get On Up”

Susan Granger’s review of “Get On Up” (Universal Pictures)

 

Tate Taylor’s unconventional James Brown biopic chronicles the chaotic life of the Godfather of Soul – but not in any chronological order.  It begins with the incident that led to Brown’s arrest following a 1988 high-speed police chase and then cuts to reveal sequences from his childhood in a shack in the backwoods of South Carolina, where he was abused by his father (Lennie James) and deserted by his mother (Viola Davis), leaving him in the care of a paternal aunt (Octavia Spencer), a brothel madam. During these jumbled flashbacks, Brown breaks the so-called fourth wall, addressing the audience to express his innermost feelings.

Not surprisingly, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) grows into a life of petty crime. Arrested in Toccoa, Georgia, for stealing a man’s three-piece suit from a car, he sings at a gospel concert for penitentiary inmates. His innate talent so impresses Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the frontman for the Famous Flames, that he persuades his mother to allow Brown to move in with them when he’s on parole. Joining up with promoter Ben Bart (Dan Akyroyd), the rest is musical history.

Awkwardly scripted by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth from a story by Steven Baigelman, it’s briskly directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), whose biggest coup was casting charismatic Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42.” Boseman is brilliant, energetically re-creating Brown’s strut, swagger, and rubber-legged shimmy, including his spectacular splits. The filmmakers’ problem lies with focus and making the contradictions in Brown’s personal life palatable, including roughing up DeeDee (Jill Scott), one of his wives. Known as the hardest working man in show business, James Brown was totally self-made, influencing a generation of hip-hop R&B singers-dancers like Michael Jackson, Prince, Usher and Chris Brown. But his ego was colossal. Few could address him by his first name, his temper tantrums were legendary, and his drug-addled paranoia eventually did him in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Get On Up” is a swingin’ but scrambled 6. Lacking cohesion, it never quite finds its rhythm.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” (DreamWorks Pictures/Disney)

 

Gastronomes will be salivating as Lasse Hallstrom revisits “Chocolat” (2000) territory.  Impressively introduced by executive producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, the story revolves around a displaced family from India that opens Maison Mumbai, 100-feet directly across the road from Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred, classical French restaurant.

When the rickety car carrying the emigrant Kaddam family breaks down near the idyllic village of Saint-Anton-Noble-Val in France’s rural Midi-Pyrenees region, Papa (Om Puri) decides that he’s found the perfect place to open a boisterous, Bollywood-esque eatery – much to the dismay of widowed Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a stern, snobbish perfectionist whose celebrated country inn specializes in elegant haute cuisine, catering to the aristocracy, including the President of France. Tempers flare and knives are brandished in a territorial culture clash, as the rustic rivalry between the two establishments heats up. More complications erupt when a competitive, love/hate relationship develops between earnest Hassan Kaddam (Manish Dayal), a self-taught, extraordinarily talented cook, and Mme. Mallory’s slyly ambitious sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who teaches Hassan how to find wild mushrooms on the riverbank. While tradition-bound Mme. Mallory covets another Michelin star, Hassan Kaddam, toting his family’s exotic spice box, must grapple with the emotional price one pays for international success, including coping with Parisians’ desire for nouveau metro molecular fare.

Based on Richard C. Morais’s 2010 best-seller, adapted for the screen by Steven Knight (“Locke”), it’s directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who serves up so many mouth-watering scenes – like a surprisingly seasoned omelet, steaming boeuf bourguignon and perfectly plated pigeon with truffles – that the lush photography of Linus Sandgren deserves special mention, along with A.R. Rahman’s lively score.  Masters of their craft, Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Bollywood star Om Puri are irresistible as sparring partners, even though their emotional trajectory, admittedly, seems foreordained, as does the romance between Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a deliciously poignant, highly improbable 7, a spicy fairy tale for foodies.

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Marvel Studios/Disney)

 

Marvel expands its cinematic clout to encompass another colorful franchise, encompassing a rag-tag team of intergalactic adventurers.  Headed by Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord (Chris Pratt), the quintet includes the green-skinned warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), vengeance-seeking Drax the Destroyer (WWW champ Dave Bautista) and two endearing CG characters: clever, cybernetically-enhanced, gun-slinging Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, a humanoid, self-regenerating tree whose one line of dialogue (“I am Groot”) is uttered repeatedly – but with different intonations – by Vin Diesel.

It begins in 1988, when grief-stricken, nine year-old Peter, whose cancer-ravaged mother has just died, is abducted from Earth and zapped into the cosmos. Now thirtysomething, he still carries his Walkman and earphones, bopping to a mixtape of funky ‘70s songs, like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Come and Get Your Love,” and “I’m Not in Love.”  Piloting his own spacecraft, Peter is an intrepid mercenary, scavenging once-populated-but-now-deserted planets, on the payroll of a blue-skinned Ravager, Yondu (Michael Rooker). Dispatched after a mysterious silver Orb, Peter discovers it’s also coveted by ruthless Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a villainous warlord who wants to trade it in exchange for the power to destroy Xandar, home to the Nova Corps, the space militia that’s been at war with Ronan’s race, the evil Kree, headed by all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appeared during a brief post-credit scene in “The Avengers” (2012).

Humorously adapted from the Marvel comic book series by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn (“Slither”), it’s an origin story, filled with irreverent one-liners and running gags, propelled by wise-cracking Chris Platt in his first leading role after years of playing supporting parts in “Her,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Moneyball” and TV’s “Parks and Recreation.” Completing the ensemble are Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, Djimon Hounsou as Ronan’s lieutenant, Glenn Close as Nova’s Defense Minister and John C. Reilly as her Corpsman.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is an energetic 8. In 3D, it’s goofy, space-faring fun.

“Hercules”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hercules” (Paramount Pictures/M.G.M.)

 

Sword-and-sandal is a genre unto itself. Often set in classic Greco-Roman or Biblical history, it generally features a simplistic plot with a muscleman hero. Its appeal is primitive. The men are bare-chested, the women are curvaceous, and the villains are scheming royals/aristocrats. There’s lots of physical combat, although the action can border on silliness and camp. A series of 19 movies about Hercules were made in Italy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, following Steve Reeves’ highly successful “Hercules” (1957). The demigod has been played by Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband), Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (a.k.a. Rock Stevens), Mike Lane – and now Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

In this revisionist version, Hercules is a restless mercenary whose devoted nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) serves as his mythmaker, weaving stories to enhance his image and reputation as the son of Zeus, who impregnated the mortal Alcmene, rousing the understandable ire of his goddess wife Hera. Hercules’ crew also includes the droll soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), childhood friend Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal who resembles a sturdy Nicole Kidman), and shell-shocked, feral mute, Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). Responding to a plea from lovely Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), they journey to Thrace, where they’re greeted by treacherous King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes), who wants them to train his troops to fight an army of demons.

Based on Steve Moore’s comic books, adapted by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, and directed by Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), it slogs along, punctuated by impressive, computer-enhanced battle scenes and a few memorable moments. Like when Hercules, wearing the vanquished Nemean lion’s head as a helmet, picks up a horse-and-rider, hurling them to the ground. If you’re willing to spring for the 3D surcharge, the military formations are impressive as spears come whizzing by you.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hercules” is a frenetic, fitfully fun 4, a popcorn picture that becomes a tongue-in-cheek tussle.

“Lucy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lucy” (Universal Pictures)

 

Starting with the provocative premise – that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity – this is strictly science fiction. Filmmaker Luc Besson knew that this percentage figure was inaccurate, yet plunged ahead with his inventive adventure, revolving around a naïve young American named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into delivering a mysterious metal briefcase to a Taiwanese crime boss, Mr. Jang (South Korean actor Choi Min Sik), and forced to become one of his drug mules. When she’s repeatedly kicked in the gut, there’s leakage from the bag of blue crystals, a narcotic known as CPH4, that’s been surgically inserted in her abdomen, and a metamorphosis occurs: Lucy becomes superhuman.  Determined not only to wreak primal revenge on her captors but also to acquire more and more knowledge, employing her increasing array of powers and skills – she contacts Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a neuroscientist who is lecturing about cerebral capacity at a university in Paris.

Cleverly utilizing computer-generated imagery, while suspending all sensible logic thru fragmented, episodic story-telling, French writer/director Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “Leon: The Professional,” “Taken,” “The Transporter”) has created a fast-paced, blood-splattered, eerie escapade, shot on a mere $40 million budget. Obviously inspired by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Neo in “The Matrix” franchise, Besson even takes the name Lucy from the fossilized skeleton of man’s earliest ancestor, Australopitchecus afarensis, which was discovered in 1974.

In addition to playing butt-kicking Black Widow in Marvel’s “Avenger” movies, Scarlett Johansson vocalized the seductive computer in Spike Jonze’s “Her” and embodied the elusive, enigmatic, enticing alien in Jonathan Glazer’s surreal “Under the Skin.” So, as cleverly awesome Lucy, she can believably handle telekinesis, intercepting electro-magnetic signals and communicating via satellites. Look for Johansson to emerge as Angelina Jolie’s successor as the preeminent female action star.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lucy” is a weird yet strangely intriguing 7, posing fascinating philosophical questions, like: Does time truly exist? Why are we really here? And is our essence immortal?