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“Live By Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Live By Night” (Warner Bros.)

 

As a director – with “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo” to his credit – Ben Affleck is besotted by atmospheric authenticity, particularly in his hometown of Boston.

After fighting the Huns in Francer in W.W.I, disillusioned Joe Coughlin (Affleck) returns home to Prohibition-era Boston, vowing never to take orders from anyone again. Resisting all authority, he becomes a thief and an outlaw.

Unfortunately, he falls in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), the sassy, selfish mistress of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).

Badly beaten and believing that Emma is dead, Joe allies himself with Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), boss of the rival Italian Mafia, much to the chagrin of his law-abiding dad (Brendan Gleeson), a bigwig with the Boston police, who warns, “What you put out into the world will always come back to haunt you, but never how you predict.”

When Pescatore sends him to Tampa to run Florida’s rum-smuggling racket, Joe marries sultry Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), a black Cuban emigre, making him a target of the Ku Klux Klan leader (Matthew Maher), brother-in-law of the pious, pragmatic sheriff (Chris Cooper).

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s aspiring starlet daughter (Elle Fanning) takes off for an ill-fated trip to Hollywood, eventually becoming a Bible-thumping evangelist who opposes Joe’s plans to open a casino.

Adapting Dennis Lehane’s pulpy 2012 crime novel, Affleck drowns in melodramatic subplots and extraneous characters, consistently choosing clichéd style-over-substance.

Sumptuously photographed by Robert Richardson, it’s dazzling at times – yet self-defeating. Like when Joe emerges from a particularly brutal bloodbath without a spot on his cream-colored linen suit and matching fedora.

Jess Conchor’s detailed production design and Jacqueline West’s glamorous costumes are often more riveting than the chaotic action.

In addition, Affleck’s not adept at casting. As the romanticized gangster anti-hero, he’s torn between decency and deception – and that contradictory uncertainty dilutes his already-stiff, stone-faced performance.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Live By Night” is a fumbling, unfocused 4. It’s fatally flawed.

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“Assassin’s Creed”

Susan Granger’s review of “Assassin’s Creed” (20th Century Fox)

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Based on Ubisoft’s popular video game, this time-tripping sci-fi film rarely rises above incoherency.

The saga begins with a series of ominous biblical texts, informing us that a device known as the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden contains “the key to free will itself.”

Which is why in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition, the Knights Templar were searching for this artifact so that they could enforce peace through “the power to control all freedom of thought.” Their opponents, the secret society of Assassins, are all about free will, even if that includes violence.

Flash forward to America, where “a career criminal,” Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), is on Death Row in Texas, about to be executed by lethal injection for murder.

Instead, he’s transported to an Abstergo Industries laboratory in Madrid where – under the supervision of Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her creepy CEO father, scientist Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) – he’s hooked up to a virtual reality/time machine called the Animus.

(Abstergo is Latin for “cleanse,” serving as the super-secret research facility of the contemporary Knights Templar.)

The Animus technology enables Cal to participate, via holograms, in the actions of his genetic ancestor, a hooded Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender), a counter-revolutionary fighting in 15th century Spain with his companion Maria (Ariane Labed).

Filled with parkour-like jumps off medieval rooftops, their shadowy mission is to make sure that besieged Sultan Muhammad XII doesn’t surrender the precious relic – “the seed of mankind’s first disobedience.”

Based on a scrambled screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, Australian director Justin Kurzel (“Macbeth”), working with cinematographer Adam Arkapow, concentrates on the swashbuckling visuals rather than the choppy, seemingly endless exposition, augmented by Kurzel’s younger brother Jed’s musical score.

Although Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson and Michael K. Williams appear briefly, their talents are wasted on triviality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Assassin’s Creed” is a fantasy 4, presumably following the gamers’ franchise.

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“Patriots Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Patriots Day” (CBS Films/Lionsgate)

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Chronicling the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its intense aftermath, this is a heavy-handed, by-the-numbers action-thriller about how a community responded to an act of terror.

Assigned to duty on the finish line, feisty Police Sgt. Jimmy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) has a sore knee so he phones his wife (Michelle Monaghan) to bring him his knee brace.

Meanwhile, two Muslim rebels, Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) Tsarnaev, are calmly making nail-filled bombs and loading them into their backpacks.

When the explosions occur, there’s graphic carnage and predictable pandemonium, as first responders rush to help, inadvertently separating families by dispatching victims to different hospitals.

Inevitably, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) clashes with the FBI’s Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) during the methodical four-day investigation and ensuing manhunt, particularly about when to release the terrorists’ photos to the media.

Jimmy Saunders seems to be everywhere; he’s obviously a composite character, superficially incorporating the heroism of several different Boston cops.

The most interesting participant is Dun Mengh (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was carjacked by the Chechen brothers. Escaping from their clutches, he called 911, revealing the terrorists’ intention to take more bombs to New York and directing them to the shootout in Watertown.

Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have previously collaborated on the far better “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) about the deadly oil explosion in the Gulf and “Lone Survivor” (2013) relating a Navy SEAL mission gone wrong. So they know the docudrama drill.

Raised as the youngest of nine children in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Wahlberg has strong Boston roots, filming “The Departed,” “The Fighter” and his “Ted” comedies there.

The film concludes with a shot of real-life survivor Patrick Downes, the first amputee to compete again in the Marathon, falling into the arms of his wife, who lost both legs in the bombings.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Patriots Day” is a simplistically sober 6, concluding that tragedy can bring out the best in everyone.

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“The Founder”

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

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Michael Keaton (“Spotlight,” “Birdman”) plays ruthless Ray Kroc in this backstory of the ubiquitous McDonald’s franchise, an innovative, assembly-line idea that revolutionized the fast food industry.

In 1952, traveling salesman Kroc was working hard, peddling milkshake machines to drive-ins in the Midwest, while avidly absorbing “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“Nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”

Then he gets a huge order from a roadside restaurant in San Bernardino, California, run by brothers Maurice “Mack” (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard “Dick” (Nick Offerman) McDonald.

Intrigued, Kroc marvels at their mechanized fast-food operation, learning how they transformed their kitchen into a speedy “symphony of efficiency” and persuading them to allow him to franchise their carefully managed concept.

As Kroc’s ambitious enterprise grows, he not only becomes increasingly alienated from his long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) but also develops a relationship with the wife (Linda Cardellini) of one of his business associates (Patrick Wilson).

But Kroc soon realizes that, because of his restrictive contract with the McDonald brothers, he’s losing money. Enter Harry J. Sonneborn (BJ Novak), a financial advisor who convinces him that he needs to own the land on which he builds.

Cold-hearted Kroc maintains “Business is war,” adapting the iconic Golden Arches into a global brand.

Scripted by Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) and directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), it captures Kroc’s ambiguity, as Michael Keaton’s warm smile and folksy friendliness takes the edge off Kroc’s cutthroat business strategy.

TWC co-chairman Harvey Weinstein summed up the timely relevance of Kroc’s story, noting: “You have a persistent and, at times, calculating entrepreneur representing both the best and worst of American businessmen…It’s up to audiences to determine whether he’s a visionary, an opportunist or a crook – and how that fits in our society.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Founder” is a slick, slyly sleazy 7 – revealing the Faustian bargain that created one of the world’s largest food corporations.

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“Fences”

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

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Adapting a Broadway play for the screen is always a challenge – one that Denzel Washington found daunting, particularly since August Wilson’s iconic chronicle of a dysfunctional family is a Pulitzer Prize-winning glimpse into the essential African-American experience.

Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the 1950s, it revolves around the relationship between a bitter, Negro League baseball player-turned-sanitation worker, 53 year-old Troy Maxon (Washington), and his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis)

They’re joined by Troy’s best friend/co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), rain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) and adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) by another woman. Their current conflict concerns Troy and Rose’s teenage Cory (Jovan Adepo), who’s hoping for a football scholarship.

When we first meet hyper-talkative Troy, he’s riding on the back of a garbage truck in the Hill District, complaining to Bono that only whites get to be drivers, sitting in the comfortable cab, while blacks do the heavy lifting, lugging the trash cans.

Although “Fences” opened on Broadway in the 1980s, the movie version was delayed since Wilson was steadfast in his insistence on an African-American director.

In 1987, when Eddie Murphy wanted to transition into serious roles, Paramount Pictures bought the rights for more than $1 million, then a staggering price for a theatrical property. But that never panned out, nor did other plans, particularly after August Wilson died in 2005.

Following Wilson’s poetic, still-relevant text like “a holy spirit,” as a director Denzel Washington elicits insightful, intelligent, nuanced performances from his acting ensemble but – with action primarily restricted to the yard of a two-story brick home – it’s visually claustrophobic, not cinematic enough to disguise its theatrical origins.

Which means there’s a seemingly insurmountable emotional barrier between players and viewers, while the fence epitomizes not only Troy’s deprivation of a chance in the major leagues but also his inability to empathize with his wife and son.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fences” is a formidable 8, featuring authentic, award-worthy performances.

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“Lion”

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

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When five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is accidentally abandoned in a railroad station, he gets on a train and falls asleep, travelling thousands of miles across India, far away from his family, left to fend for himself as an orphan on the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta).

That’s how he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime – one that takes him all the way to Australia, where he’s adopted by a loving couple (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), growing up, safe and secure, in Hobart.

25 years later, guided only by fractured, fragmented memories and steadfast determination, adult Saroo (Dev Patel) discovers a technological phenomenon known as Google Earth, which leads him back to his long-lost village and a birth family he barely remembers.

Based on an astonishing true story, “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley (2014), it’s scripted by Australian poet/novelist Luke Davies and sensitively directed by Garth Davis, making his feature film debut; previously, Davis was best known for TV commercials, including Toyota’s “Ninja Kittens.”

The result is spiritual without succumbing to sentimentality.

Diminutive Sunny Pawar exudes a charismatic vulnerability, and the guilt-conflicted resolve shown by Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is raw, strong and powerful. Their performances are enhanced by Rooney Mara, as Saroo’s supportive girlfriend, and Nicole Kidman, exuding nuanced devotion.

The film’s secondary theme revolves around the unconditional love of an adoptive parent; the two mother-figures are the pillars that support the story – and there’s not one wrong note, look or line of dialogue.

More than 80,000 children disappear each year in India. So this story’s emotional and structural elements strike a basic, universal chord.

While much of the first section is in Hindi with English subtitles, it’s neo-realistic and immersive, transcending language barriers, since its primal appeal revolves around the search for family and identity. And the poignant credits pair the actors with their real-life counterparts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lion” is a triumphant 10. It’s the intimate, uplifting drama you’ve been yearning for.

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TOP 10 LISTS for 2016

Susan Granger’s TOP TEN list for 2016:

 

MOVIES: (in alphabetical order):

ARRIVAL

DEADPOOL

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

HELL OR HIGH WATER

LA LA LAND

LION

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

MOONLIGHT

SULLY

ZOOTOPIA

ACTOR:

Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

Ryan Gosling in “La La Land”

Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Michael Fassbender for “The Light Between Oceans”

Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nocturnal Animals”

Tom Hanks in “Sully”

Michael Keaton in “The Founder”

Viggo Mortensen for “Captain Fantastic”

Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool”

Denzel Washington in “Fences”

ACTRESS:

Amy Adams in “Arrival” & ”Nocturnal Animals”

Annette Bening in “20th Century Women”

Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures”

Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”

Natalie Portman in “Jackie”

Emma Stone in “La La Land”

Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Tilda Swinton in “A Bigger Splash”

Alicia Vikander in “A Light Between Oceans”

Rachel Weitz in “Denial”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” & “Hidden Figures”

Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water”

Ralph Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash”

Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Simon Helberg in “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Tracy Letts in “Indignation”

Dev Patel in “Lion”

Robert Redford in “Pete’s Dragon”

Peter Sarsgaard in “Jackie”

Michael Shannon in “Nocturnal Animals”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Viola Davis in “Fences”

Elle Fanning in “20th Century Women”

Naomie Harris in “Moonlight”

Felicity Jones in “A Monster Calls”

Nicole Kidman in “Lion”

Helen Mirren in “Eye in the Sky”

Janelle Monae in “Hidden Figures”

Lupita Nyong’o in “Queen of Katwe”

Octavia Spencer in “Hidden Figures”

Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea”

BEST DIRECTOR:

Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”

Garth Davis for “Lion”

Clint Eastwood for “Sully”

Tom Ford for “Nocturnal Animals”

Stephen Frears for “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”

Pablo Larrain for “Jackie”

Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”

David Mackenzie for “Hell or High Water”

Denis Villenueve for “Arrival”

“20th Century Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “20th Century Women” (A24)

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Set in 1979, writer/director Mike Mills weaves an intriguing tale about Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a chain-smoking, single mom who enlists the help of family and friends in nurturing her rebellious 15 year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he struggles to find his identity while growing into manhood.

They live in a large, old house in Santa Barbara, California, with a couple of boarders: punk photographer Abby (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited feminist recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), an earthy carpenter/handyman who’s helping Dorothea renovate the ramshackle Victorian place.

Skateboarding Jamie is also influenced by his sexually promiscuous best friend, 17 year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who insists on maintaining a platonic relationship, despite her disconcerting habit of sneaking in his window and climbing into his bed at night.

Best remembered for telling his 75 year-old dad’s story in “Beginners” (2010), starring Christopher Plummer, Mike Mills once again draws on semi-autobiographical material to paint a compelling cinematic portrait of a devoted mother who is, admittedly, floundering during a period of social and cultural upheaval.

Mills indulges in plenty of long pauses, making for a rather slow pace, yet casting Annette Bening was a brilliant choice, because she embodies unconventional, middle-aged, lonely Dorothea, coalescing this multi-generational comedic drama.

A pivotal moment occurs when everyone gathers around the TV to watch then-President Jimmy Carter deliver his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, using the energy crisis to allude to the vulnerability of the American soul, a prescient prelude to the upcoming Reagan era.

To underscore its period authenticity, Mills borrows from Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic essay “Koyaanisquatsi” and has Dorothea reading “Watership Down” and “Future Shock.”

Music plays a major part of the meandering moviemaking tapestry. While Dorothea prefers standards like “As Time Goes By,” she’s willing to experiment with the Talking Heads vs. Black Flag.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “20th Century Women” is a sensitive yet snarky 7, observing, “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.”

07

 

“Passengers”

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

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It’s a terrific sci-fi premise: Two passengers on a 120-year journey on the immense, ultra-luxurious spaceship Avalon emerge from their hibernation pods 90 years too early.

Along with 5000 paying passengers and 258 crew, they’re headed for a distant colony on a planet called Homestead II, which offers a ‘promised land’ alternative to “overpopulated, overpriced and overrated Earth.”

After a damaging asteroid strike, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) emerges from cryogenic sleep. Roaming around, he realizes that he’s the only one awake – with just a genial bartender, an android named Arthur (Michael Sheen), for company.

Jim is a mechanical engineer, so he spends a full year trying to remedy the situation – to no avail.

When he’s almost suicidal with loneliness and desperation, Jim finds another awakened passenger, a beautiful New York writer, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). Naturally, a romantic relationship develops but it’s built on a deception which, inevitably, must be revealed.

To tell you the subsequent turns and twists would spoil the suspense.

Existentially written by Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “Dr. Strange” and the upcoming “Mummy”) and helmed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), it’s filled with profound moral and philosophical dilemmas. Indeed, this provocative, character-driven screenplay was featured in the 2007 Blacklist of the “most liked” unmade scripts of the year.

In addition, it’s well-cast with remarkably innovative visual and production design, including an automat-style cafeteria, excellent CGI, and Aurora has a sleek travel wardrobe to-die-for. It’s obviously no coincidence that Aurora is also the name of the title character in Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Unfortunately, disappointment settles in during the concluding act, which seems to have been adjusted by a focus group that demanded some spectacular action/thriller sequences.

FYI:  Years ago, when Weinstein owned the project, Keanu Reeves was slated to star with Reese Witherspoon, then Rachel McAdams. But that didn’t pan out. So Sony’s Joe Rothman cast likeable, bankable Pratt and Lawrence.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Passengers” is an absorbing 6 that, sadly, squanders its compelling castaway concept.

06

 

“Why Him?”

Susan Granger’s review of “Why Him” (20th Century Fox)

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According to writer/director John Hamburg, the idea for this crude, crass comedy about an uptight father meeting his daughter’s obnoxious boyfriend came from Shawn Levy when they were making “Night at the Museum.”

What particularly intrigued Hamburg was how the world had changed since he made “Meet the Parents.” Previously, adults were in charge; now, young Silicon Valley techies have become billionaires. So he made that generational conflict the pivotal point.

Stanford senior Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) is in love with 32 year-old Laird Mayhew (James Franco), an unconventional, narcissistic video-game mogul. And now her Midwestern parents are coming to California for Christmas.

Her doting father Ned (Bryan Cranston) and overprotective mother Barb (Megan Mullally) have no idea that Stephanie has quit college and moved in with profanity-spewing Laird until they – along with Stephanie’s teenage brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) – arrive at his Xanadu-like mansion in Palo Alto.

Laird’s zany estate is managed by his trainer Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) and a disembodied computer guru, Justine (Kaley Cuoco) – with a New Age chef serving edible soil, topped with plankton foam.

Laird’s wealth is even more galling to Ned, whose old-fashioned printing business in Michigan, is rapidly failing, since Laird has a paperless house, fitted with electronic Japanese commodes with bidet sprays, eliminating the need for toilet paper.

Scripted by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, it’s occasionally amusing but, since Stephanie’s character is so underwritten, there’s no empathy for her choice of outlandishly eccentric, shrewdly manipulative Laird.

There are cameos by Elon Musk and the Band KISS, along with timely relevance when suspicious Ned investigates Laird’s finances, discovering that much has been fraudulently inflated.

But many gags are telegraphed in advance, like the inevitable disaster involving an aquarium holding a dead moose entombed in its own urine. And while Ned realizes Gustav’s ambushes parallel Kato’s in “Pink Panther” movies, neither Laird nor Gustav understand the cultural reference.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Why Him?” is a blatantly raunchy 4, prompting the question: Why bother?

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