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“Wild”

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

 

Reese Witherspoon has a lock on a Best Actress nomination, delivering her most fearless performance since she won an Oscar for “Walk the Line.”

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir follows the author’s grueling 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert near the Mexican border to the mountains of Oregon and Washington. Determined to leave behind the drug abuse and sex addiction that torpedoed her marriage following the death of her mother, Cheryl (Witherspoon) embarks on her own cathartic walkabout.

Weighed down by an overstuffed backpack and too-small hiking boots, woefully unprepared Cheryl trudges into the wilderness, resisting relentless urges to give up. Frequent, non-linear flashbacks fuel her determination, particularly emotional memories of her spunky, ever-optimistic mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who walked out on an abusive husband to raise Cheryl and her younger brother by herself, only to succumb to lung cancer at the age of 45.

Adapting Cheryl Strayed’s  “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” author/screenwriter Nick Hornsby (“About a Boy,” “An Education”) and director Jean-Marc Valee (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Young Victoria”) deliver an emotionally volatile character study, augmented by colorful supporting characters, evocative imagery and magnificent vistas.  Using only available light, “Wild” was filmed outside by cinematographer Yves Belanger, capturing amazing sunrises and vivid sunsets, while dropping unabashed plugs for REI camping supplier and Snapple.

After flops like “This Means War” and “How Do You Know,” Reese Witherspoon was floundering in a rom-com crevasse.  So her company, Pacific Standard, started investing in properties with strong female roles. Her first hit as a producer was “Gone Girl”; she’d hoped to play the lead until director David Fincher decided on Rosamund Pike. Then came “Wild.” Now, Witherspoon’s working on Kimberly McCreight’s “The Outliers” about people with unusual powers and M.A. Larson’s “Pennyroyals’ Princess Boot Camp” about warrior princesses.

FYI: Laura Dern is actually only nine years older than Reese Witherspoon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wild” is a compassionate 7, an arduous, stream-of-consciousness journey of self-discovery.

‘Whiplash”

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

Writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”) draws on memories of his own days as a music student to create this compelling coming-of-age drama about a prodigy whose ambition is to be a celebrated jazz drummer, another Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa.

19 year-old Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first-year student at a prestigious Manhattan musical conservatory. Obsessively driven to succeed, partly by the failure of his ineffectual father’s (Paul Reiser) writing career, Andrew impresses everyone who listens to him, particularly instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose abortive music career has made him embittered and resentful of kids with potential.

Clad in black, Fletcher is an impatient, sadistic perfectionist who not only bullies and belittles his pupils but also pits them against one another by ruthlessly forcing them to compete for a spot in the school’s elite jazz band. So Andrew must contend with both a fellow newcomer (Austin Stowell) and an upperclassman (Nate Lang), while Fletcher cruelly accuses him of being a “retard,” “pansy ass” and “tonal catastrophe.”

Citing tough love, sociopathic Fletcher’s excuse is that his job is “to push people beyond what was expected of them.” He says the two worst words a teacher can say to a student are “Good job.”

Succumbing to Fletcher’s monstrous “practice” imperatives, Andrew relinquishes his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and all semblance of a normal life. But it’s odd that there’s no scene showing the tormented students commiserating with one another, since 29 year-old Damien Chazelle stresses the “anything for art” theme that has propelled cinematic stories going back to Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes” (1948), starring Moira Shearer.

Likeable Miles Teller fulfills the promise of his work in “The Spectacular Now,” while veteran character actor J.K. Simmons delivers a flawless supporting performance.

(FYI: the title comes from a compelling composition by the late Hank Levy, which Miles Teller plays, along with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Whiplash” is an abusive yet electrifying 8, defining the parameters of artistic sacrifice.

“Dumb and Dumber To”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dumb and Dumber To” (Universal Pictures)

 

More and more, Hollywood is looking back to its future. Understand that there’s a fine line between a reboot – which is a new take on an old concept – and a sequel. Since the original twosome is back and this story picks up after the 1994 original, it’s a sequel.

As it begins, Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) desperately needs a donor for a kidney transplant. When he finds a 23 year-old postcard from an old flame, Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner), informing him that she’s pregnant with his child, Harry and his buddy Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) discover that Fraida gave the baby girl up for adoption, but she shows them a recent photo of Penny (Rachel Melvin), a smokin’ hot babe. Lloyd convinces Harry to try to find Penny, ostensibly to donate a kidney but also because he’s smitten with the way she looks: “She’s fruit of the loom.”

What the perennial pranksters don’t know is that someone else is also searching for Penny, a killer (Rob Riggle) who’s in cahoots with Penny’s scheming stepmom (Laurie Holden), who is slowly poisoning Penny’s wealthy adoptive father, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist (Steve Tom).

After “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” (2003) flopped, directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Three Stooges”)  realized that their franchise really depended on re-igniting the imbecilic chemistry between Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, even though 20 years has passed.

Despite (or perhaps because of) input from six credited screenwriters, it’s ironic that the actors seem to be having more fun with the moronic, mistaken identity slapstick than the audience.  Blind jokes and fart jokes abound, along with pee and poop jokes.

Instead, catch Jeff Daniels as the anchorman on TV’s “The Newsroom.” And, if you really want funny, go to YouTube and watch Jim Carrey mock Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials on the Halloween edition of “Saturday Night Live.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dumb and Dumber To” is a disappointing, tedious 2, ineptly trying to reprise the vulgarity and sophomoric humor.

“The Imitation Game”

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

 

Locking an Oscar nomination as Best Actor, Benedict Cumberbatch brings to life the story of Alan Turing, the obsessive genius who cracked the German Enigma code during W.W.II.

As the Luftwaffe bombed London and German U-boats were sinking ships in the Atlantic, brilliant but troubled Alan Turing, was recruited to join five other mathematicians in Hut 8 of the undercover facility at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire to try to crack the Nazis’ complex military code which defied decryption by changing every night at midnight.

Awkwardly anti-social, Turing’s blunt, condescending rudeness immediately alienates Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) and his colleagues (Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard). Nevertheless, he builds digital ‘thinking’ device, an artificial intelligence that’s obviously an early computer – with the help of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only woman judged bright enough to associate with the code breakers. That leads to a conundrum, as outlined by MI6’s shadowy Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong): Enigma must remain top-secret because if the Allies thwart too many German attacks, the enemy will become suspicious and adopt another code.

Based on Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography of Alan Turing, screenwriter Graham Moore begins the character study in 1951, when Turing was charged with “gross indecency,” a British euphemism for homosexuality; within this framing device, Moore calculatedly inserts insightful flashbacks showing how Turing was bullied during his formative school years and traces his burgeoning friendship with an understanding schoolmate who introduced him to cryptograms. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) steadfastly struggles to maintain suspense, introducing a subplot about a spy possibly infiltrating the team, and then tying the plot strands together with a tragically shocking conclusion.

Benedict Cumberbatch has already proven his versatility, embodying TV’s Sherlock Holmes, Australian anarchist Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate,” and the slow-witted son in “August: Osage County.”  Here, he exudes a compelling arrogance that adroitly masks his wounded vulnerability

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Imitation Game” is an engrossing, if emotionally evasive 8, featuring Cumberbatch’s exceptional performance.

“Rosewater”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rosewater” (Open Road)

 

What did Jon Stewart do on his three-month hiatus from “The Daily Show”? He wrote and directed this political drama, adapted from Newsweek correspondent/broadcast journalist Maziar Bahari’s best-selling memoir, “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.”

As it begins, 42-year old Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who holds Iranian/Canadian citizenship, arrives in Tehran to interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was challenging controversial incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. Befriended by his driver (Dimitri Leonidas), Bahari is able to video Moussavi’s young supporters protesting Ahmadinejad’s declaration of a “landslide victory” hours before the polls closed.

Immediately afterwards, Bahari was taken from the home of his mother (Shohreh Agdashloo) by Revolutionary Guards and accused of espionage by the Islamic Republic. Spending the next 118 days in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, surreally haunted by the ghost of his father (Haluk Bilginer), who had been imprisoned by the Shah in 1953, Bahari was brutally interrogated and tortured by Jabadi (Kim Bodnia) who blindfolded Bahari could only identify by his rosewater-scented cologne. The pace during particular section slogs far too much.

Meanwhile in London, Bahari’s pregnant wife (Claire Foy) led an international campaign to obtain his freedom, which was picked up by media outlets, including Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Eventually, Iranian authorities released Bahari on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.

Making his screenwriting/directorial debut, Jon Stewart acquits himself admirably, even tossing in a few New Jersey jokes.  The challenge when making a political drama is to intrigue the audience without appearing didactic. And this concept is particularly pertinent, given ISIS’s capture, torture and beheadings of journalists.

Jon Stewart, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and a mostly Arabic crew filmed in Amman, Jordan, in 2013 during Ramadan, as the Syrian civil war erupted nearby.  (FYI: James Gandolfini was originally slated to play the interrogator before his untimely death.)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rosewater” is a relevant, insidious 6, acknowledging both the cost of oppression and absurdity of totalitarian regimes.

“Big Hero 6″

Susan Granger’s review of “Big Hero 6” (Walt Disney Animation)

 

In recent years, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been revitalized – with “Frozen,” “Tangled” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” That trend continues with this action-packed Marvel comic book collaboration.

The story revolves around Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), who lives in the futuristic East/West multicultural hybrid called San Fransokyo in Northern California. A cocky 14 year-old tech geek who already graduated from high school, he spends his time with back-alley robot-battles, much to the dismay of his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who want him to go to college.

Hiro becomes enthusiastic about the endeavor, impressing stern Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) with his knowledge of “microbots,” nano technology that can form anything.  Then tragedy strikes. And heartbroken Hiro bonds with gentle Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable, translucent vinyl robotic Healthcare Companion designed to ease pain of all sorts. Their friends include adrenaline junkie GoGo Tamago (Jamie Chung), laser-blade innovator/neat frek Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry specialist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and the Godzilla-obsessed fanboy Fred (T.J.Miller).  Together, they utilize their creativity to morph into high-tech avengers, battling a kabuki-masked villain.

Under the supervision of Pixar’s executive producer John Lasseter, directors Don Hall (“Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt”) have created a charming, if bland origin story, scripted by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts, inspired by the titular comic book heroes, borrowing from Japanese anime. But it’s the gentle, waddling giant Baymax that delivers the warmly puffy emotional resonance. Every kid will want one.

FYI: before the film starts, there’s a new short “Feast,” presenting life, love and, especially, food, as seen through the eyes of Winston, a Boston terrier. And stay through the end credits for a surprise about Fred’s parentage.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Big Hero 6” is a bouncy, beguiling 7. It’s family fare that values brains over brawn.

“The Homesman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Homesman” (Roadside Attractions/Saban Films)

 

If you thought Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005) was bizarre, it’s tame compared with his second Western in the director’s chair.

Two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a pious 1850s pioneer, unkindly described as “plain as a tin pail.” Which is why, she says, “I live uncommonly alone.”

A self-sufficient spinster, Mary Bee volunteers to transport three wailing, often hysterical young wives (Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto, Sonja Richter) who have gone insane from the hardships of frontier life in the Nebraska Territories. Driving a converted covered wagon with barred windows, she’s to deliver them to a parish in Hebron, Iowa, where they’ll be properly cared for. Almost immediately, Mary Bee realizes she’ll need assistance, which is why she rescues George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim-jumping scoundrel, from the hangman’s noose after he promises to do whatever she asks.  Accepting her offer of $300, Briggs grudgingly agrees to accompany her on the difficult, dangerous journey.

As resilient, resourceful Mary Bee Cuddy, Hilary Swank effectively embodies feminism in the mid-nineteenth century, valiantly coping with emotional and psychological alienation and isolation, while director/writer/actor Tommy Lee Jones confounds and consistently surprises as ornery, taciturn Briggs.

Plus, there are indelible cameos from James Spader, as an inhospitable hotelier; John Lithgow, as the earnest preacher; Tim Blake Nelson, as a repulsive drifter; and Meryl Streep, as a kindly churchwoman. (FYI: Grace Gummer is Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter.)

Scripted with bleak, if poetic eloquence as an episodic road saga by Jones with co-writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, it’s based on Glendon Swarthout’ s 1988 novel, which was originally optioned by Paul Newman.  Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto vividly captures the forbidding inner and outer landscape, as does Marco Beltrami’s piano-and-string score. But nothing prepares you for the devastating plot twist that comes close to the end.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Homesman” is a sturdy, understated 7.  Or, as one wag said, it’s No Country for Crazy Women.

“Wolves”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wolves” (Ketchup Entertainment)

Are you ready for a new werewolf film? They’ve been a horror cinema staple since Lon Chaney Jr.’s “The Wolf Man” (1941) and its four sequels. The concept was even turned into a popular comedy “An American Werewolf in London” (1981).

In this particular creature-feature, teenage Cayden Richards (Lucas Till) awakens from a nightmare, only to realize that the sex, rage and violence of his ferocious fantasy has become reality.  Panicked, he goes on the run, desperate to learn more about his lycanthropic affliction, particularly when he discovers that he was adopted.

After a chance meeting with a fellow werewolf named Wild Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson) at roadside biker’s bar, Cayden winds up in Lupine Ridge, a strange, isolated community that is populated by two clans of shape-shifting werewolves. Some are law-abiding citizens, while others live anarchically in the hills. Led by powerful, purebood Connor Slaughter (Jason Momoa), they’re ruthless killers.  Peace-loving John Tollerman (Stephen McHattie) takes Cayden in, giving him work on the family farm, but bartender Angelina (Merritt Patterson) – the pureblood female whom Connor has chosen to bear his child – warns Cayden, “You’re too good to stay here.”

Then, under a full moon on Halloween, Connor goes crazy. “Stay in your homes tonight – and lock your doors,” Cayden warns the townfolk.

While David Hayter is recognizable as the iconic voice of Solid Snake in the “Metal Gear” video game series, he’s also credited as co-screenwriter of “X-Men,” “X2: Men United,” “The Scorpion King,” and “Watchmen.”  This is his directorial debut – and his helming inexperience is, unfortunately, evident. Perhaps his first mistake was casting Lucas Till, who previously played Havok in the “X-Men” franchise; as an actor, he is utterly lacking in charisma, delivering a performance that best described as ‘confused.’ That makes alpha-villain Jason Momoa (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) the far more compelling character. Then there’s the problem of the cascade of furry clichés that clutter the utterly predictable plot.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wolves” is a turgid 3 – a bloody, brutal bore.

“Force Majeure”

Susan Granger’s review of “Force Majeure”  (Magnolia Pictures)

 

The ‘picture perfect’ Swedish family is introduced in the opening scene, as Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two beautiful children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren), pose for a photographer on the first day of their skiing vacation at Les Arcs in the magnificent French Alps.

The following day, when they’re enjoying a festive lunch at an outdoor café, a terrifying cascade of snow seems to be headed directly towards them. “It’s a controlled avalanche,” explains Tomas. “It doesn’t look controlled to me,” retorts Ebba, as they’re suddenly blanketed in an eerie mist. During that brief interim, panicked Tomas grabs his iPhone and flees, while Ebba tries to protect the frightened children.

Sheepishly returning shortly afterwards, Tomas realizes that their family dynamic has changed. And it’s not just because of what he’s done. It’s also because he lies about leaving, a denial which infuriates Ebba even more, as they recount their contrasting versions of what happened to Norwegian friends (Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius) at their Alpine hotel.

Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund, it’s a provocative psychodrama, revolving around a man’s survival instinct and subsequent guilt. “The male superhero is the most reproduced character on film,” says Ostlund, explaining why he created Tomas’ shameful torment.

This deliberately paced, marital-discord dilemma is set against visually stunning skiers gracefully gliding down the meticulously manufactured slopes, punctuated by squeaking sounds emanating from the creaking ski lifts that transport them back up the mountain – gloriously photographed by Fredrik Wenzel.

Selected as Sweden’s official entry for the foreign language Academy Award, “Force Majeure” is an emotionally eviscerating 8, exploring gender stereotypes and assumptions.

 

“Birdman”

Susan Granger’s review of “Birdman” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/Regency Enterprises)

 

In an astonishing technical achievement, director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“Babel”) films this satirical backstage comedic drama in what looks like one long, continuous take, transcending time and space, soaring off into hallucinatory flights of fantasy, while remaining grounded in the present.

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a fading, egocentric movie star, renown as the black-winged comic book hero Birdman. Now he’s determined to prove himself on Broadway by directing and starring in a self-financed adaptation of Raymond Carter’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Facing mounting adversity during previews, Riggan must not only cope with his just-out-of-drug rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and embittered ex-wife (Amy Ryan) but also his harried lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis), actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), insecure leading lady (Naomi Watts), and her supercilious actor/boyfriend (Edward Norton). What makes Riggan delusionary is the voice of Birdman, as his alter-ego, firmly lodged in his brain, enabling his mystical telekinetic powers.

Essential to this thought-provoking character study – co-written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Do – are Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid cinematography, and Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione’s seamless editing, propelled by Antonio Sanchez’s percussion-based score.  It’s restlessly paced – if inexplicable.

This is the peak performance of Michael Keaton’s career, ironically skewering fellow actors who have succumbed to the narcissistic lure of our culture’s celebrity-obsession, donning superhero costumes and cashing big paychecks.  If you recall, Keaton played the title role in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and its sequel “Batman Returns” (1992).

Plus, there’s a strong supporting cast, including Lindsay Duncan as a venomous yet influential theater critic who vows to sabotage Riggan.

There are celebrity in-jokes and sly digs at the subversive role of social media in today’s world, embodied in a small card on the mirror in Riggan’s dressing room: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Birdman” soars to an intense, immersive 10. It’s an exhilarating visual experience for those who enjoy highly imaginative cinema.