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“The Diappearance of Eleanor Rigby”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Writer/director Ned Benson captures various aspects of a marital relationship in this composite of two earlier versions of the film, relating the same New York-set tale from the spouses’ different perspectives.

Far from Paul McCartney’s British spinster, this Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) is an irrepressibly beautiful woman who adores her husband, Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy).  But when tragedy strikes in the form of the death of their baby son, their marriage collapses.  While their loss is a devastating blow to both of them, each responds differently. In their sorrow, they have lost the power to communicate to one another and cannot seem to reconnect. While he holds his grief in, taking after his distant father (Ciaran Hinds), and struggles to maintain the Village restaurant/bar he owns, she tries to commit suicide, jumping off a bridge. After she’s rescued, she runs home to her parents (Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt) in Westport, submerging herself in sadness.

If you can forgive the misguided titular Beatles reference, it’s an innovative, intriguing experiment in parallel film-making. But, after seeing “Her” (which detailed Eleanor’s perspective) and “Him” (which relates Conor’s point-of-view) back-to-back and contrasting them, the amalgam “Them” gets more than a bit tedious, given first-time filmmaker Ned Benson’s plodding pace. Jessica Chastain is elegantly brittle yet touching, while James McAvoy epitomizes sulky, melancholy desperation. In addition, there are memorable supporting performances from Viola Davis as Eleanor’s college professor, Jess Weixer as her sympathetic sister, and Bill Hader as Conor’s cook and best-friend.

The backstory is that after Harvey Weinstein bought the rights to “Her” and “Him” at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, he decided to consolidate Benson’s ambitious concept into “Them.” Problem is: it doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. “Them” doesn’t repeat scenes to show the conflicting viewpoints and how memories differ as they struggle to overcome their anguish – and that makes it less emotionally compelling.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is a sensitive, sorrowful 7, a love-gone-awry trilogy.

 

“Annabelle”

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

 

Do you remember the collection of horrific, supernatural artifacts belonging to Fairfield County’s husband-and-wife ghost-hunting team, Lorraine and Ed Warren, which were on display in “The Conjuring” (2013)? Among them was a demonic doll named Annabelle, which was kept in a locked cupboard. She’s front-and-center this time ‘round. As the prologue explains, dolls have been cherished objects since the beginning of time.  And wide-eyed, grinning Annabelle is no exception.

Set in Southern California in 1969 and slyly referencing Mia Farrow from Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” the pregnant protagonist is named Mia (Annabelle Wallis), who gives birth to a baby girl named Leah. Mia’s married to medical student John (Ward Horton), who presents her with Annabelle since she’s expressed her love for large, garish, vintage dolls. When they’re viciously attacked and their elderly neighbors are brutally killed by members of a Satanic cult (an obvious allusion to Charles Manson’s followers), the invaders leave behind an errant demon. Even when the young family moves from Santa Monica to an apartment in Pasadena, spooky, telekinetic Annabelle goes with them. Eventually, Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), who runs an occult book store, clues helpless Mia in – but do they ditch the doll? John tries – but she miraculously shows up in one of the moving boxes and assumes a place by Leah’s bed. Even calling in their parish priest (Tony Amendola) doesn’t seem to help.

Screenwriter Gary Duberman and “Conjuring” cinematographer John R. Leonetti never manage to make the killer doll concept as terrifying as it should be. One interesting touch is how they lifted composer Joseph Bishara’s theme from “The Conjuring,” making it the music on Leah’s mobile.  But, in general, crude, gimmicky horror movie clichés prevail: all-too-familiar ominous occurrences like slamming doors, creaky rocking chairs, curtains fluttering in a non-existent breeze, malfunctioning electrical appliances, sporadic TV reception and an endangered baby carriage.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Annabelle” is a tedious 2, a strictly superficial fright-flick that’s teasingly rated R for “intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror.”

“Gone Girl”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gone Girl” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Utilizing Gillian Flynn’s savvy, streamlined screen adaptation of her 2012 best-seller, director David Fincher has created an intense Hitchockian thriller – with an innocent man accused, a coolly elegant platinum blonde, psychologically complex characters who cannot be trusted and constant suspense as the mystery unfolds. Since I had not read the novel, the bizarre plot twists and turns took me by surprise. Yet what’s most impressive is the cinematic artistry of the entire cast and production team.

Ben Affleck is totally convincing as bewildered Nick Dunne, whose beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), inexplicably disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary. She’s a Harvard-educated, literary celebrity known as “Amazing Amy,” who moved with him to Missouri after they both lost their writing jobs in Manhattan. Seeking solace with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), with whom he owns a local bar, Nick grimly struggles to figure out what might have happened, along with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens). All he knows is that he came home to find a smashed coffee-table and his wife missing. As the dogged investigation proceeds, details about perfectionist Amy’s past and the fragile state of her marriage to Nick are revealed – with everything pointing to his guilt -particularly after Amy’s parents arrive from New York.

David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “The Fight Club”) is a stickler for detailed authenticity, keeping the alleged crime scene pristine as participants painstakingly track down multiple whodunit clues within the perspective-shuffling structure.  As partners in this rumination on contemporary marriage, Affleck is amiably opaque, while Rosamund Pike is inscrutably enigmatic. So who’s the real sociopath? Tyler Perry scores as the slick defense attorney who takes Nick’s case, coaching him on how to manipulate the media. And Neil Patrick Harris is solid as Amy’s snide, suspiciously creepy ex-boyfriend.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gone Girl” is a dark, tension-filled 10. Those who have read the book tell me Gillian Flynn tweaked the ending’s timeline which may or may not satisfy purists. But I can already hear Oscar buzz.

“The Good Lie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Good Lie” (Warner Bros.)

 

Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) stars as a smart ‘n’ sassy employment agency counselor who is assigned to find jobs for three of the Lost Boys of Sudan when they arrive in the United States. They’re among the 100,000 orphaned children who walked nearly a thousand miles, without food or shelter, to escape the civil war in sub-Saharan Africa in 1983.

Resembling the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of The Lost Boys of Sudan,” the prologue introduces six youngsters who survived the brutal massacre of their village. Because their parents were killed, they joined together, forming a tribal unit, as they made their way on foot to a refugee camp in Kenya.  Miraculously, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal) and Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Weil) endured.  After spending 13 years in the Kakuma refugee camp, the three young men are dispatched to Kansas City, while Abital is sent to live with a foster family in Boston.  Scared and distraught at being separated, they’re met at the Missouri airport by feisty Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), who realizes she has to teach them about basic American technology: how to work light switches, electrical appliances and the telephone. Only with her help can they can acclimate to this challenging, often bewildering new culture – and, as a result, her life, too, is inevitably changed.

One scene is indelible: when deeply spiritual Jeremiah quits his job at a supermarket after his boss orders him to discard ‘expired’ produce, rather than give it to a needy woman for her hungry family.

Inspired by real events, it’s been fictionalized by screenwriter Margaret Nagle (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) and directed by French Canadian Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazar”), who felt it was imperative to cast from within the displaced Sudanese community in the U.S. and U.K. Indeed, these young actors deliver a unique authenticity to their touching, transformative struggle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Good Lie” is a sensitive, sincere 6, an inspiring, redemptive tale of courage and compassion.

“The Equalizer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Equalizer” (Sony/Columbia Pictures)

 

Denzel Washington still has star power. That’s the only explanation for the surge at the box-office when this grisly, gruesome, ultra-violent thriller first opened.

It begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “The most important days in your life are the day you were born and they day you find out why.”  Then introduces quiet widower Robert McCall (Washington), who works as a manager at a Home Depot-like, super-hardware store in Boston, where he mentors a younger employee (Johnny Skourtis) who wants to be a security guard. McCall is a loner, eating and drinking tea in his usual booth at a local diner while he reads literary classics by Hemingway and Cervantes. One night, he strikes up a conversation with teenage Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a Russian-born hooker who is being terrorized by menacing mobsters. What she doesn’t realize is that McCall is The Equalizer, a justice-obsessed, former CIA-operative who comes to the aid of those who cannot help themselves. After McCall single-handedly dispatches the crime syndicate with aplomb, Moscow oligarch Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich), sends retribution in the form of Teddy (Martin Csokas), a ‘fixer’ who – years ago – ruthlessly murdered his adoptive parents. Much of Teddy’s torso is covered with a demonic tattoo and to call him misogynistic is an understatement. In one agonizingly lengthy scene, he strangles another prostitute who tried to help Teri. Can McCall vanquish this sadistic psychopath, along with a pack of corrupt cops? That’s the question.

Tracing its antecedents back to a ‘80s CBS-TV series starring Edward Woodward as the vigilante, it’s predictably scripted by Richard Wenk (“The Mechanic,” “The Expendables 2”) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “Training Day”), who relishes the carnage.  Running 131 minutes, this crime drama feels far too long, but Denzel Washington consistently plumbs the depths of McCall’s character and there are relevant cameos by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Equalizer” is a formulaic 5, as Denzel Washington challenges Liam Neeson as the new aging action hero.

“Tracks”

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

 

“I just want to be by myself,” says adventurous, 27 year-old Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) when she’s asked why she wants to walk 1,700 miles from the remote northern Australian outpost of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on the Western Coast. Disenchanted with so-called civilized society, she spent nine months trekking in battered tennis shoes – with only her black Labrador Diggity and a quartet of nasty, serenely unpredictable camels for company.

Adapted by Marion Nelson from Robyn Davidson’s international best-seller and directed by John Curran (“Praise,” “We Don’t Live here Anymore,” “The Painted Veil”), it’s a ploddingly paced, episodic journey of endurance and self-discovery that begins early in 1977 and lasts nine months.  Robyn’s disenchantment with people includes American photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whom she grudgingly allows to join her occasionally at pre-arranged points, since that’s part of her contract with National Geographic magazine, which is financing her trip. Despite his occasional insensitivity, Rick’s enthusiasm and kindness are contagious, as Robyn gradually discovers.

Robyn also befriends Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), an Aboriginal elder who imparts regional wisdom as they walk through sacred sites, and he serves as a buffer between her and some intrusive followers. Through her interactions with him, the racial prejudice and callous discrimination against the indigenous population that was rampant throughout Australian culture for so many years becomes obvious.

Propelling the picture almost singlehandedly, Mia Wasikowska  (“Stoker,” “Jane Eyre”), who was born in Canberra, embodies the compelling, ferociously capable Aussie heroine, while director of photography Mandy Walker (“Australia”) deftly captures the rugged, sun-scorched imagery and shimmering, empty stillness of South Australia and the Northern Territory.

As Robyn Davidson wrote, “I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space. I enjoy being with the Aborigines and learning from them. I like the freedom of being on my own, and I like the growth and learning processes that develop from taking chances.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tracks” is an exhausting, exhilarating 7, an inspirational saga.

“This Is Where I Leave You”

Susan Granger’s review of “This Is Where I Leave You” (Warner Bros.)

 

Boasting a star-studded cast, this dysfunctional family dramedy finds adult siblings forced to reunite as they mourn their recently deceased father. Predictably, old tensions flare up amid rampant regrets.

Shortly after Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) discovers his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his boss (Dax Shepard), he’s informed that his father has died and he’s expected to sit ‘shiva’ at their Westchester County home. (In Jewish tradition, ‘shiva’ is a seven-day period of grieving.)  Trying to hide his own problems, he suddenly finds himself embroiled with his sister-in-law Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who is married to his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and desperately trying to get pregnant. Meanwhile, his stoner younger brother, Philip (Adam Driver), unexpectedly shows up with a much-older girl-friend, Tracy Sullivan (Connie Britton), who looks startlingly like Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), the WASPy matriarch who happens to be a renowned child psychologist. Judd’s only confidante is his bossy sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), who is still guiltily conflicted by her past relationship with a brain-injured neighbor, Horry Cullen (Timothy Olyphant). And to compound Judd’s melancholic confusion, he is suddenly confronted with the romantic availability of a former flame, ice-skater Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), just as Quinn arrives unexpectedly to try to patch things up.

Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his rueful best-seller, it’s directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), who filmed it in a real house on suburban Long Island, New York. The ensemble cast struggles valiantly to rise above what amounts to a simplified, sitcom version of “August: Osage County,” revealing one unhappy secret after another.  But, alas, they stumble over the emotional baggage that lurks around every corner. Not one character has depth, including Judd, who maintains, “I don’t do complicated.” They’re all sappy stereotypes, relating to each other’s foibles with clichés and only a few shreds of authenticity.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “This Is Where I Leave You” is an implausibly exaggerated 5, wasting the efforts of so many talented people.

Steve Solomon’s one-man show at Foxwoods

Susan Granger’s review of Steve Solomon’s show and evening at Foxwoods Resort & Casino

 

Forget about driving to Atlantic City or flying to Las Vegas, Foxwoods delivers it all – right here in Connecticut.  Conveniently located off I-95, the Northeast’s largest resort casino offers not only superb accommodations and excellent dining but also top-notch entertainment.

Like Steve Solomon’s “My Mother’s Jewish, My Father’s Italian and I am in Therapy” – in which comedian Solomon regales the audience for 90 minutes with hilarious ethnic stories about his fractured family while he’s ostensibly waiting in his therapist’s office. At the end of WWII, his Jewish GI father brought home an Italian war bride, but the two families never got over the culturally mixed-marriage. This one-man show ran for two years in New York, which is not surprising since he riffs on his Brooklyn roots and life as a physics teacher on Long Island. Now, Solomon’s touring the United States. Clad informally in a blazer, he artfully involves spectators as he jokes about his increasingly deaf parents, his chain-smoking sister and terminally stupid cousin, while doing vocal imitations of each of these characters, as well as sound effects.  His receptive audience convulses with laughter.

But before heading to see whoever’s headlining at the Fox Theater, be sure to schedule a sumptuous dinner at Cedars Steak House, where Mark can regale you with his up-close-and-personal Sinatra stories while Shawn supervises the impeccable staff. Entrees include delicious double-cut Colorado lamb chops with fresh herb demi-glace (which we had), an array of seafood, including Maine lobsters, along with steaks and prime rib. Cedars is the perfect place for a family gathering or to celebrate a special occasion.

If you’re staying at the impressive Grand Pequot Tower, your car will be whisked away to free valet parking while you’re greeted by a friendly front desk attendant. The reasonably priced rooms and bathrooms are spacious and scrupulously clean, offering a breath-taking panorama of the surrounding forest.  You have free access to a well-equipped gym and pool, and you can choose from an array of luxurious spa treatments.  The Foxwoods Rewards Card enables you to earn points while playing your favorite slot machine and table game, including Bingo, Keno, Poker or Race Book. The only downside is the smoke-filled air. While we slept comfortably on a non-smoking floor, Foxwoods’ many gaming casinos reek with cigarette smoke, including the so-called smoke-free Rainmaker casino, which is only open on weekends.

Foxwoods is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, a native Algonquin people known for their tenacity and spirit of survival in southeastern Connecticut.

 

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (Universal Pictures)

 

Mystery novelist Lawrence Block’s world-weary detective Matthew Scudder comes to the silver screen, capably embodied by Liam Neeson (“Taken,” “Unknown,” “Non-Stop”) in an obvious attempt to start a new film franchise.

The prologue, set in 1991, establishes Scudder as a former NYC cop, a recovering alcoholic who gave up booze after a shootout went tragically awry. By 1999, Scudder has become an unlicensed investigator, noting: “I do favors for people….in return, they give me gifts.”

Recruited by Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a recovering junkie, Scudder reluctantly takes a case involving Peter’s drug-dealing brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and killed, despite his having paid a $400,000 ransom.  After another female victim is discovered, dismembered in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, and the daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche) is taken hostage, the trail leads to a pair of sadistic serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who purposely target someone related to a criminal so the police won’t be summoned. After questioning the graveyard’s creepy groundskeeper (Olafur Darri Olafsson), Scudder pursues the culprits with the help of a young apprentice, TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless black teenager who wants to be private eye.

Adapted and directed by Scott Frank (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “The Lookout”), this grimly intense thriller alternates between long, talky interludes during which little happens and sequences of such explicit, horrific violence that they border on gruesome pornography.  Adding insult to injury, during the final credits, there’s a notice from the American Humane Society that no animals were harmed in any of the scenes.

Not surprisingly, Liam Neeson captures technophobic Scudder’s moody melancholy, but this marks a complete career departure for Dan Stevens, best known as the late Matthew Crowley on TV’s “Downton Abbey.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a fierce, ferocious 5, filled with offensive scenes depicting graphic torture and grisly mutilation of women.

“The Boxtrolls”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boxtrolls” (Focus Features)

 

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” this quirky concept emanates from Laika animation studio in Oregon, where hand-drawn images are meticulously integrated with RP (rapid prototyping) and CG (computer-generated) pictures. Their painstaking stop-motion process consists of filming frame-by-frame (movies use 24 frames per second) while subtly controlling the characters, props, sets, etc. And when using 3D, each frame is manipulated twice. Eventually, the thousands of photographed frames are artfully edited and projected together sequentially, making the characters come to life.

Set in a Dickensian city called Cheesebridge, the grotesque and somewhat convoluted story revolves around an orphaned 11 year-old (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) who was lovingly raised by tiny, timid creatures called Boxtrolls who dwell beneath the cobblestone streets, speak unintelligibly and wear cardboard boxes that double as hiding places when they’re scared. He wears a box labelled Eggs, which has become his name. Boxtrolls are terrified of an obsessively aspiring aristocrat, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who is determined to capture each and every one of them so he can qualify for a coveted White Hat. Envious, socially ambitious Snatcher has convinced Cheesebridge’s gullible citizens that Boxtrolls are dangerous which is obviously not true. Then one day when Eggs ventures out, he’s spotted by foolishly snobbish Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who’s curious about who he is and where he comes from.

Adapted by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava from Alan Snow’s novel “Here be Monsters!,” it’s subversively propelled by directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, along with producer/lead animator Travis Knight, director of photography John Ashlee Prat, production designer Paul Lasaine, editor Edie Ichioka and composer Dario Marianelli. Through their collaborative efforts, fun abounds – along with surprisingly sophisticated humor. The inventive, imaginative visuals are weirdly wonderful and the voices expressive, including Simon Pegg, Jared Harris, Toni Collette, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan and Nick Frost as supporting characters.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boxtrolls” is a spooky, surreal 7, an emotionally resonant, steampunk fantasy – with a deliciously droll sequence during the end credits.