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“Salt of the Earth”

Susan Granger’s review of “Salt of the Earth” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

One of the most dazzling documentaries ever, the Oscar-nominated “Salt of the Earth” chronicles the work of humanistic photographer Sabastiao Salgado – as seen through the eyes of his son, Juliano, and filmmaker Wim Wenders.

This unique visual odyssey into “the heart of darkness” begins as Salgado comments on one of his most recognized images, a shot of 50,000 men in the vast Serra Pelada gold mine that formed part of the indigenous “Workers: Archeology of the Industrial Age” series, published in 1993.

Born in the Brazilian mining town of Minas Gerais, Salgado studied economics, working with the World Bank in France in 1969 – after the political unrest of Brazil’s military coup. Seeking artistic fulfillment, he and his wife, Lelia, then left for Niger in 1973, when he launched his concept of picturing nobility amid suffering and deprivation.

“We humans are a terrible animal; we are extremely violent,” Salgado notes. “Our history is a history of war; it’s an endless story.”

Determined to live with the people he was photographing with his Canon, Salgado obviously empathized with them, demonstrating a deep understanding of their dire situation. This series went on to include “Migrations” (2000) and “Sachel: the End of the Road” (2004).

Bitterly disillusioned about mankind’s salvation, Salvado eventually returned to Brazil, where he found his family’s once-verdant ranch in Aimores parched by draught. Working with Leila, he launched an experimental program of reforestation, conservation and education, which became “Instituto Terra,” a model for similar efforts worldwide.

That inspired his most recent project, “Genesis,” encompassing pristine areas of Earth that have retained their primordial characteristics: Siberia’s Wrangel Island, Amazonia and Papua New Guinea.

Berlin-based filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire”) is one of the most important auteurs to emerge from the “New German Cinema” period in the 1970s. Wisely, he films this cinematic revelation mostly in black-and-white, matching Salvado’s starkly haunting photographic eye.

Film buffs will rejoice that many of Wenders’ early films, long out-of-circulation, are now available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

In English, French and Portuguese, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Salt of the Earth” is a magnificent 9, filled with indelible imagery.

“Cinderella”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cinderella” (Disney)

 

Based on Charles Perrault’s 1698 “Cendrillon, or the History of the Glass Slipper,” this live-action extravaganza re-imagines the romantic folk tale for the 21st century.

As the story begins, 10 year-old Ella (Eloise Webb) is living happily with her merchant father (Ben Chaplin) and devoted mother (Hayley Atwell), who urges her to “have courage and be kind.”

Years later, after her mother’s death, Ella’s father marries haughty, mean-spirited Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) who has two vain daughters: Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).

After he dies on a business trip, now-grown Ella (Lily James) is treated like a scullery maid and banished to the attic where she befriends the house mice. But she doesn’t lack self-esteem, as evidenced by her chance encounter with Prince Kit (Richard Madden) while riding her horse in the forest.

Eager to see his son married, the ailing King (Derek Jacobi) hosts a ball, inviting all eligible women in the land. But the only way Ella can attend is with the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who weaves the necessary magic, transforming Ella’s tattered pink gown into butterfly-encrusted blue.

There’s the familiar fantastical pumpkin coach, glistening glass slippers and frantic flight at the stroke of midnight – with the Prince in dogged pursuit.

Faithfully adapted by Chris Weitz and Aline Brosh McKenna, it’s impeccably cast and eloquently directed by Kenneth Branagh, who emphasizes the importance of courage, kindness – and forgiveness.

FYI: Lily James and Sophie McShera co-star on PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” in which Lily plays aristocratic Lady Rose while McShera is the ambitious kitchen assistant Daisy. And Richard Madden is notable as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” King of the North Robb Stark.

While three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell creates sumptuous costumes, Dante Ferretti’s production design dazzles, Patrick Ledda’s visual effects entice and Haris Zambarloukos‘s cinematography is impeccably idealized, it’s a shame that Disney didn’t include more of the memorable “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” music from its own whimsical 1950 animated version.

Adding to the overall enjoyment, this film is preceded by the animated short “Frozen Fever.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cinderella” is an elegant, enchanting 8 – with the song “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” over the end credits.

“The Lovers”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lovers” (IFC Films)

 

Whatever could go wrong during the making of Roland Joffe’s action/adventure/romance – did.

Unfolding across multiple centuries and continents, this exotic epic begins in India with an ancient legend about a set of gold, serpentine rings that signify true love. According to the mythology, lovers united by the two halves of the magical ring are destined to be together forever.

Cut to contemporary times, when Jay Fennel (Josh Hartnett), a marine archeologist, goes unconscious as the result of an underwater diving accident in which he rescued his wife Laura (Tamsin Egerton). They were exploring the wreckage of an 18th century merchant ship that sank on the Great Barrier Reef.

As Jay lies in a comatose dream state in a Boston hospital, his subconscious mind goes back to 1778 in Bombay, when he was a Scottish soldier named James Stewart. India was under Colonial rule back then.

During some inexplicable Anglo-Maratha conflict involving the British East India Company, the Governor (Shane Briant) dispatches James on a perilous mission, during which he become romantically involved with a female warrior, Tulaja Naik (Bollywood superstar Bipasha Basu), who is destined to betray the man she loves.

Working from a story by Ajey Jhankar, writer/director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”), spent many years on this convoluted project, which was previously called “The Invaders,” then “Singularity.”

Originally, American actor Brendan Fraser was to play the lead with actress Neve Campbell as his wife. As years passed and financing faltered, they dropped out. Filming took place in Queensland, Australia, and Chambal, Orchha and Gwalior in the state of Madhya Pradesh – with additional scenes added in London.

According to Bipasha Basu’s publicist, this is her first English-language film, and she was encouraged to take the part of the warrior by Hilary Swank when they met at various international film festivals.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lovers” is a flailing 4, lacking any meaningful connection between the two timelines.

“Chappie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Chappie” (Columbia Pictures)

 

South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp catapulted to international acclaim with the subtly apartheid-themed “District 9” (2009), followed by the uneven health-care allegory, “Elysium” (2013).  Now he’s back with what looks like a dystopian update of the sci-fi “RoboCop” (1987).

In Johannesburg, the police have started to use mechanical crime fighters known as Scouts with remarkable success. They’re the invention of gentle, geeky Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), an artificial intelligence engineer who is now determined to develop one of his droids into a sentient creature.

That infuriates a highly competitive, bullying ex-military, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has devised a monstrous killing machine named The Moose, which their tech-company boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to activate.

Denied permission to pursue his passion, Deon steals discarded robotic parts and loads them in his van, only to be car-jacked and kidnapped by a trio of moronic criminals (Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Canbtillo) who owe money to a local crime lord.

While held captive, Deon convinces them to allow him to construct a sophisticated cyborg named Chappie. Childlike Chappie is eager to learn, yet left in the company of these thugs, he soon acquires a gangsta mentality and vocabulary.

But Deon is his ‘Maker’ and, as such, still exerts a major influence on his decision-making ability. Major conflict and carnage is not only predictable but inevitable.

Co-writing with his wife Terri Tatchell (“District 9”), director Neil Blomkamp’s convoluted concept continuously defies logic. It serves primarily as a showcase for the cyberpunk rap-rave group Die Atwoord, whose “I Fink U Freeky” has charted more than 61 million YouTube views.

Blomkamp’s favorite actor, Sharlto Copley voices Chappie and plays his physicality through motion capture and CGI, evoking unfortunate memories of “Star Wars” annoying Jar-Jar Binks.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Chappie” is a chaotic 5, as the stylish heavy-metal hardware short-circuits.

 

“Wild Tales”

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

 

Opening with one of the shortest and most amusing segments, Argentinean filmmaker Damian Szifron’s unconventional anthology is built around the psychological concept of revenge.

“Pasternak” deals with a fateful encounter on a plane, as a suave music critic (Dario Grandinetti) begins a conversation with a beautiful model (Maria Marull), seated across the aisle. Within moments, they discover they’re not the only people in business class with a connection to the model’s ex-boyfriend, Gabriel Pasternak. Think “Twilight Zone.”

“Rats” revolves around a waitress (Julieta Zylbergberg) in a roadside diner who discovers that her only customer (Cesar Bordon) is the loan shark who drove her father to suicide. When the ex-con cook (Rita Cortese) learns the truth, retribution seems inevitable.

As the cautionary “Road to Hell” begins, a rich, arrogant businessman (Leonardo Sbarglia) is driving his shiny, new Audi, rudely giving the finger to a redneck (Walter Donado) in an old Peugeot. Then when the Audi gets a flat tire, road rage takes over.

In “Bombita,” a Buenos Aires demolition engineer (Ricardo Darin), whose car keeps getting towed in streets that don’t have NO PARKING signs, destroys his career and his marriage.

“The Deal” finds a wealthy patriarch (Oscar Martinez) paying his gardener (German de Silva) to take the blame for a hit-and-run accident caused by his spoiled son (Alan Dalcz).

Finally, “Til Death Do Us Part” occurs during a festive wedding reception in which the bride (Erica Rivas) discovers that the groom (Diego Gentile) is cheating on her.

Writer/director Damian Szifron confidently links these diverse short stories around the same behavioral theme: what happens when people are pushed to the edge.  It’s an intriguing and compelling concept.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wild Tales” is an inventive 9, one of the most entertaining Foreign Language films of 2014.

“Out of the Dark”

Susan Granger’s review of “Out of the Dark” (Participant Media/Vertical Entertainment)

 

In the opening scene of this supernatural scare story, a man is killed in a spooky old house deep in the jungle of Colombia, South America.

Years later, a young couple, Sarah (Julia Stiles) and her husband Paul (Scott Speedman), move into that same house with their young daughter, Hannah (Pixie Davies).  Sarah has relocated to Bogota from London to help run the Harriman paper manufacturing company that belongs to her father, Jordan Harriman (Stephen Rea). Since Paul is a children’s book illustrator, he can work from home.

But then the ominous omens start.  There are strangely bandaged children hiding in the bushes that surround the garden where Hannah plays. They seem to have a bizarre connection with the annual Festival of the Saint’s Children, commemorating a horrific event 500 years earlier when the children of the village were burned alive in a local church by ruthless Spanish Conquistadors.

The first mishap to befall Hannah comes when her favorite stuffed animal disappears and she gets trapped in a dumbwaiter shaft trying to retrieve it.  Shortly afterward, she develops a mysterious skin rash which the company doctor cannot seem to treat. Then Hannah is spirited away, presumably by the menacing children.

Sarah, Paul and Hannah’s babysitter Catalina (Vanesa Tamayo) are understandably panicked as Jordan and the police dispatch search parties. But it’s up to Sarah to question vindictive villagers and unravel the murky background of environmental contamination and corporate malfeasance.

Making his feature film debut, Spanish director Lluis Quilez opts for style over substance, since he’s given little to work with by the trio of screenwriters: Javier Gullon, David Pastor and Alex Pastor. None of the bland characters – other than adorable Hannah – are at all compelling, which deprives the audience of emotional involvement.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Out of the Dark” is a forgettable 4, filled with grim, ghastly ghosts.

“Kill Me Like You Mean It”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kill Me Like You Mean It” (Fourth Street Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

Billed as a “film noir for the stage,” this silly Off-Off Broadway parody follows hard-boiled Detective Ben Farrell (Nathan Darrow) as he tries to prevent his own murder. If he looks familiar, Darrow is best known as FBI agent Edward Meechum on TV’s “House of Cards.”

Farrell’s convoluted quest begins when he reads a realistic and eerily specific description of his own impending murder in a popular pulp serial by writer Tommy Dickie (David Skeist). Not surprisingly, the life-imitates-art concept involves leggy femme fatales, laconic dialogue and spiritual corruption. The duplicitous dames are bodacious blonde Lydia Forsythe (Natalie Hegg) and sassy brunette Vivian Ballantine (Sarah Skeist).

Playwright Kiran Rikhye, director John Stancato and composer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Cronin encompass every detective cliché imaginable, including references to classic movies like “Laura” and “The Maltese Falcon.”

Cleverly, they directly include the audience, with limited “Director’s Cut” seating directly on the stage.  As a result, the show’s conceit encompasses different point-of-view. No one can see everything, but everyone views something intriguing – with credit going to set designer Michael Minahan, lighting expert David Bengali, costumer Angela Harner and Ava Meyer’s props/graphics.

Beginning during the early 1940s, coinciding with the end of W.W.II, a new genre of American films emerged. These dark, melodramas dealt with issues of obsession, addiction and jealousy, delving into the dark, haunted mysteries of human nature.  While their antecedents can be traced back to German Expressionism of the 1920s, they borrowed elements from the gangster, detective and mystery genres, combining them into a new cinematic form, known as film noir. Indeed, the darkness that characterized most scenes was a deliberate embracing of oppressive shadows, utilizing the claustrophobic effect of a lack of light.

This is the latest absurdist production of Stolen Chair, the innovative theatrical troupe that previously scored with “The Man Who Laughs.”

“Kill Me Like You Mean It” plays at the Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2ns Avenue, through March 8. For more information, visit www.stolenchair.org.

“Let the Right One In”

 Susan Granger’s review of “Let the Right One In” (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn: 2014-15 season)

 

The National Theatre of Scotland has adapted the popular Swedish horror film, “Let the Right One In” (2008), transferring it to the stage of St. Ann’s Warehouse, 29 Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Combining an examination of teenage alienation with a chilling vampire fable, this thriller revolves around lonely, socially awkward Oskar (Christian Ortega) and wan, mysteriously agile, eternally adolescent Eli (Rebecca Benson).

Set near a housing project in a Stockholm suburb in the 1980s, their bleakly compassionate story begins in a wintry forest, where a serial killer, Hakan (Cliff Burnett), drains his victims’ blood into a plastic jug.  “Forgive me,” he mutters, slicing his latest prey’s throat.

Procurer/enabler Hakan and his ‘child’ Eli have just moved next door to Oskar and his embittered, alcoholic single mom (Susan Vidler). While creepy Eli is obviously a vampire, she shuns that label, saying, “I’m not that. I choose not to be that…so I am not that.”

Yet, when meek Oskar is abused in the school’s locker room by a sadistic bullies led by cocky Micke (Andrew Fraser), feral Eli uses her supernatural powers to come to his rescue, resulting in bloody carnage.

Rebecca Benson’s performance is remarkable, using her voice to alternate between innocent, childlike sincerity and weary, ancient wisdom.

Originally based on John Alvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel and screenplay of the same name (remade in English as “Let Me In”), it’s been adroitly adjusted for the stage by Jack Thorne and stylishly directed by collaborators John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett (“Once,” “The Glass Menagerie”).

Christine Jones’s icily sparse “Scotlandavia” production design sets the haunting atmosphere, as does Olafur Arnalds’ cello-laden musical score, Gareth Fry’s sound design, Chahine Yavroyan’s phosphorescent lighting and Jeremy Chernick’s special effects.

Running 140 minutes with one intermission, the miraculously effective “Let the Right One In” has been extended through March 8.

“Unfinished Business”

Susan Granger’s review of “Unfinished Business” (20th Century-Fox)

 

As extensively shown in the previews, St. Louis exec Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn) feels such antipathy toward his bullying boss, Chuck Portnoy (Sienna Miller), that he storms out of the corporate office and decides to start his own scrap-metal company.

His only cohorts are aging Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), who has just been fired, and a goofy, inexperienced dullard, Mike Pancake (Dave Franco). For a year, they struggle as independent mineral salesmen, working out of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Finally, they get the proverbial ‘big break’ – which demands they travel to Portland, Maine, and then on to Hamburg and Berlin, Germany.

Predictably, everything that can go wrong does. It’s Oktoberfest, propelling out-of-control partying, along with a contentious G8 summit and Europe’s largest gay fetish festival.

In forced camaraderie, Dan winds up in a bizarre public art installation/hotel as the typical American businessman, while Tim consumes an assortment of drugs and Mike loses his virginity.

Sloppily scripted by Steven Konrad (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Pursuit of Happyness”) and ineptly directed by Ken Scott (“Delivery Man”), it’s filled with underdeveloped characters and inconsequential subplots.

Dan tries to cope with a domestic crisis, involving his bullied teenage son (Britton Sear) and unhappy daughter (Ella Anderson); morose Tim is stuck in a loveless marriage; and Mike expresses a desire to master adventurous sexual positions.

Ever-charming, Vince Vaughn’s energetic cleverness nevertheless wears thin, as he radiates desperation, coping with James Marsden as Chuck’s slick confidante and Nick Frost as a potential client. Pedestrian is the best way to describe the entire enterprise.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unfinished Business” is a trivial 3. Watching a fumbling comedy flop isn’t fun.

“The Lazarus Effect”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lazarus Effect” (Relativity Media)

 

In a Berkeley, California, science laboratory, medical researcher Frank (Mark Duplass), his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and their cohorts make a remarkable discovery: by injecting a psychedelic chemical called DMT into the part of the brain called the amygdala, they can revive the dead. They call it the Lazarus serum.

After a successful but unsanctioned experiment on a lifeless dog, they’re ready to make their work public – even though the revitalized canine exhibits some bizarre behavior.

Filled with Catholic guilt, conscience-stricken Zoe asks: “What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?”

Not surprisingly, when the authorities find out about what they’ve done, the lab is closed. And in an attempt to recreate the experiment, Zoe is electrocuted – which propels grief-stricken Frank to test the process on her.

While Zoe appears to be resuscitated, something vengeful and evil has grown within her. Now zombie Zoe, she’s capable of telekinesis, telepathy and a disconcerting predilection to dilate her pupils.

Riffing on the Frankenstein myth, the cliché-riddled screenplay by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater recycles science, religion and horror, touching on the various moral issues involved before dissolving into predictable violence.

Olivia Wilde is remarkably good, whether she’s reciting techno-babble or going bonkers, stalwartly supported by Mark Duplass, along with Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger.

What’s surprising is that director David Gelb chose this weird, low-budget project after the success of his foodie documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” profiling Japan’s greatest sushi chef.  But Gelb utilizes far too many ‘jump scares’ in which something off-screen darts at someone, accompanied by a loud noise.

FYI: If you look at Olivia Wilde’s eyelid in the poster, you can discern “John 11” on her veins, referring to the Biblical resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus, as related in the Gospel of John.

And if this creepy concept intrigues you, consider the far-better “Flatliners” (1990), starring Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lazarus Effect” is a faltering 4, as the fright ultimately fizzles.