“Hands of Stone”

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

 

Evoking memories of “Raging Bull” (1980), Robert De Niro returns to the boxing ring again – this time as Ray Arcel, the legendary trainer who coached welterweight boxer Roberto Duran in the 1970s.

As an impoverished 16 year-old from Panama, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) made his professional debut in 1968 and retired in 2002 at the age of 50. But his story begins at Madison Square Garden in 1971, when Arcel first saw Duran fight.

“Ring sense is an art,” Arcel says. “A gift from God that flows out of a fighter like a painting that flows out of an artist.”

Obviously, Arcel felt that Doran was bestowed with that blessing and had great potential, if he could master the strategy. His nickname was Manos de Piedra (“Hands of Stone’).

Problem is: Duran was indulgent, undisciplined and self-defeating.

In June, 1980, Duran defeated cocky Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) to claim the WBC welterweight title. In their subsequent November rematch, he stunned the boxing world during the eighth round by returning to his corner and forfeiting, allegedly saying the words “no mas” (no more).

Duran’s bizarre behavior is then explained by his supposed PTSD as a result of seeing American flags in the crowd. His father was a U.S. soldier who abandoned him as a child in Panama City.

Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz has crafted a fragmented, often incongruous, “rags-to-riches” biographical narrative, superficially spanning 10 years, including Duran’s courtship of his impressionable, schoolgirl wife, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), and the subsequent births of their five children.

While soft-spoken Robert De Niro is effective and Venezuelan-born Edgar Ramirez has his charismatic moments, the overall effect is ennui because Jakubowicz’s concept lacks focus.

There are too many undeveloped subplots: political bickering between Arcel and Duran’s manager, Carloa Elete (Ruben Blades), and entanglements with the Mob, personified by Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), revealed in conversations with Arcel’s wife, Stephanie (Ellen Barkin).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hands of Stone” is a fumbling, formulaic 5, despite the fancy footwork.

05

“Don’t Breathe”

Susan Granger’s review of “Don’t Breathe” (Sony)

 

An integral part of a critic’s job is to gear a movie to its intended audience. So – if you like horror genre – this is for you.

Opening with a gruesome tease, it quickly becomes a home-invasion thriller that pits a trio of teenage thieves against an unexpectedly resourceful victim: an aging Iraq War veteran, blinded in combat.

Carefully calculating just how much cash they can take to avoid a grand larceny rap if they’re caught, Alex (Dylan Minnette) uses his dad’s security-company connections so he and his friends can rob houses belonging to Detroit’s wealthy.

But his cohorts aren’t quite so careful. Wallowing in luxurious fantasies, Rocky (Jane Levy) tries on glamorous clothes, while her absurdly named boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), gleefully desecrates and destroys valuables.

Rocky discovers there’s a Blind Man (Stephen Lang) with a huge stash of currency hidden in his dilapidated house in an isolated Motor City neighborhood. It’s a settlement he received when his beloved daughter was hit and killed by a reckless driver who was subsequently acquitted.

Rocky figures that the loot will enable her and her vulnerable younger sister Diddy (Emma Bercovici) to flee to California – far from the trailer park and their abusive mother with her latest boy-friend.

Sedating the Blind Man’s guard dog isn’t difficult, but once they’re inside the house, they get more than they bargained for. Trapped in a menacing cat-and-mouse game when they discover the grim secret that the vengeful old man is hiding in the basement, the malevolent tension escalates exponentially.

Scripted by Rodo Sayagues and Uruguay-born director Fede Alvarez (2013 “Evil Dead” remake), its cleverly crafted misdirection and night-vision shocks are reminiscent of “Wait Until Dark” (1967) in which a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) was threatened in her small apartment.

Cinematographer Pedro Luque and production designer Naaman Marshall should also reap credit for much of the claustrophobic suspense.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Don’t Breathe” is a scary 7. Inhale deeply, exhale slowly – and expect a sequel.

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“Southside With You”

Susan Granger’s review of “Southside With You” (Miramax/Roadside Attractions)

 

Aimed specifically at an audience that relishes fictionalized famous romances – Jacqueline Bouvier/John F. Kennedy and Prince Charles/Diana – this was inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.

It’s summertime, 1989, in Chicago when smart, serious, self-confident Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), a second-year corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin accepts an invitation from Barack (Parker Sawyers), a junior colleague whom she’s mentoring, to attend a meeting at a low-income Southside church regarding a community center.

Insisting to her parents that this is not a date, Michelle, nevertheless, take care in preparing for this expedition. Their first stop is the Art Institute, where Harvard-educated Barack impresses her with his knowledge of African/American art, particularly Ernie Barnes, whose vibrant paintings depict black American life in the 1970s.

Driving his rattletrap yellow Datsun with a rusted hole in the floor, chain-smoking Barack seems much more laid-back, particularly when he delivers an inspiring speech, emphasizing consideration and empathy.

Impressed, Michelle agrees to extend the day to include dinner and a movie – Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A chance encounter with one of her law firm’s partners impels Michelle to inform Barack that their relationship should be professional and platonic.

That’s followed by a kiss, as her reserve melts outside a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor.

Snagging a plum part on TV’s “One Life to Live” in 2005, Tika Sumpter’s subsequent films include “Get On Up” and “Ride Along 2.” Having read a synopsis of “Southside,” she encouraged writer/director Richard Tanne, eventually becoming lead producer, helping cast British actor Parker Sawyers.

The result seems remarkably authentic, reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” trilogy – in which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke walk around, talking about their lives. Here, Michelle and Barack discuss family, race and career ambitions.

Of course, only the Obamas would know how true-to-life it is – and they’re not talking.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Southside With You” is a subtly sweet 6, a heartfelt date movie, culminating with John Legend’s song “Start” over the end credits.

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“Kubo and the Two Strings”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kubo and the Two Strings” (Focus Features)

Beginning with the ominous warning – “If you must blink, do it now” – because “if you look away, even for an instant, our hero will surely perish.”

Set in ancient Japan, this animated fantasy-adventure revolves around an 11 year-old boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), a story-telling musician whose skill at origami (the art of paper-folding) resonates with Hosato (George Takei), Akhiro (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro).

While taking care of his ailing mother, who warns him to be home before nightfall, the tranquility of Kubo’s life is suddenly shattered when he accidentally breaks a supernatural curse.

Accompanied by a snarky, sassy Monkey guardian (Charlize Theron), Kubo flees, determined to acquire three specific pieces of armor that belonged to his late samurai-warrior father in order to fulfill his destiny.

Joined by a genial, wisecracking, weapons-savvy Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) – with the help of his magical shamisen (lute) which brings his origami figures to life – Kubo battles malevolent spirits, like his mother’s twin Sisters (Rooney Mara), and his grandfather, the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

Created over a period of five years by the Portland, Oregon-based, stop-motion animation company, Laika Films (“Coraline,” ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls”), it’s written by Marc Haimes & Chris Butler and directed by Laika’s president/CEO, Travis Knight, son of Nike chairman Phil Knight.

While the folkloric story seems needlessly complicated, the hand-crafted, painstakingly detailed imagery – inspired by dolls from Japan’s late Edo period (early 1600s-mid-1800s) – is dazzling, seamlessly blending art with computer technology.

Stop-motion animation utilizes tiny puppets with steel armatures, covered with cloth costumes, silicon skin and manufactured hair. Filming takes place on tabletops in large warehouses, as rippled shower glass and torn bits of paper on a moveable metal grid create the illusion of undulating ocean waves.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a visually stunning 8, delivering delightful, family-friendly entertainment.

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“War Dogs”

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

 

Director Todd Phillips brings the same raucous sensibility that characterized his “Hangover” trilogy to this supposedly ‘true story’ about how a couple of dorky Florida stoners became international arms dealers.

When 22 year-old David Packouz (Miles Teller) ran into his old Hebrew-school chum, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill),  Packouz was feeling adrift, doing massage therapy and selling high-thread-count bedsheets to retirement homes – to the chagrin of his long-suffering girlfriend (Ana de Armas).

When brash, obnoxious Diveroli relates how he’s devised a scam to lowball government contracts, Packouz decides to join him.  It seems that after the U.S. government under Dick Chaney was charged with cronyism with Halliburton, Lockheed Martin and large other corporations, smaller bidders were solicited to supply munitions, as needed.

That’s how these two idiotic dudes become weapons contractors for the Pentagon, despite their personal disdain for President George W. Bush and America’s involvement in the Iraq War.

“It’s not about being pro-war; it’s about being pro-money.”

Starting small, they perfect their hustling techniques – which leads them on a trip to Jordan, where they journey across 500 miles of dangerous desert from Amman to Baghdad to deliver a truckload of Italian-made Berretas.

Bradley Cooper shows up as sleazy Harry Girard, whom they meet at an Ammo Expo in Las Vegas, which Diveroli describes as “Comic-Con with grenades.” That encounter eventually takes them to an Albanian warehouse filled with 93 million rounds of AK-47 ammo whose origins are questionable.

Based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article, their story has been adapted by Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic and director Phillips, who attempted to make it into a satirical buddy comedy – with lots of ‘chapter’ breaks and without much success.

FYI: the real Diveroli pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy and was sentenced in 2011 to four years in prison. In May, 2016, he filed a lawsuit, alleging that the filmmakers stole his story.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “War Dogs” is a flaccid 5, only fitfully funny.

05

“Sausage Party”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sausage Party” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment)

 

Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to go marketing en route home from Seth Rogen’s raunchy animated comedy because, feeling like an idiot, I was giggling as I went up-and-down the food aisles.

Aimed directly at adults, or those who consider themselves such, this surreal, profane parable revolves around Frank (voiced by Rogen), a packaged sausage who, along with his hot-dog bun girlfriend, Brenda (voiced by Kristen Wiig), is eagerly anticipating being purchased and going to the Great Beyond.

Problem is: when a returned jar of Honey Mustard (voiced by Danny McBride) reveals what’s really in store for these consumer goods, far beyond the Shopwell grocery store, Frank and his friends are determined to spread the word and save themselves from being gobbled up.

Riffing off the Pixar “Toy Story” concept, Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“This Is the End,” “Superbad”) came up with this religious-beliefs vs. scientific-thought quest by sentient foodstuffs as they’re trying to comprehend their ultimate fate and ascertain their place in the universe.

Tucked into the shamelessly pun-filled, sociopolitical narrative, there are ethnic rivalries, epitomized by Sammy the quarrelsome Jewish Bagel (voiced by Edward Norton, channeling Woody Allen) and the Middle Eastern flatbread Lavash (voiced by David Krumholtz).

Plus the voices of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Nick Kroll and Salma Hayek, as a Sapphic taco shell attracted to Brenda.

The stunning animation is supervised by Conrad Vernon (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) and Greg Tiernan, who owns Vancouver-based Nitrogen Studios with his wife, Nicole Stinn. Nitrogen is best known for producing “Thomas & Friends” about Thomas the Tank Engine.

Narrowly avoiding the dreaded NC-17 rating, it squeaked by with an R. Historically, adult-aimed animated movies go back to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972), followed by the sci-fi “Heavy Metal” (1981) – and in 2015, there was the existential “Anomalisa.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sausage Party” is a scatological, sexually explicit 6 – with a rousing finale.

06

“Hell or High Water”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hell or High Water” (CBS Films)

 

Reminiscent of “Unforgiven” and “No Country For Old Men,” this gritty, contemporary Western, set in West Texas, focuses on the Howard brothers, who concoct a plan to wreak revenge on the greedy bank that swindled their dying mother out of her land.

Brooding divorced dad Toby (Chris Pine) is determined that his two sons inherit the oil-rich family acreage which is under threat of foreclosure. So he turns to his sociopathic, ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) for help.

Toby devises a clever plan to rob several small small-town branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, then launder the money through an Indian-run casino, just over the state line in Oklahoma. With untraceable casino checks made out to Texas Midlands Bank, he can settle their debt.

Wearing hoodies and ski-masks, Toby and Tanner start the early-morning heists. But that draws the attention of acerbic, about-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who slyly surmises that these aren’t your usual bank robbers, not meth-heads or sociopaths, since they take only small denomination bills from the cash drawers.

“I may have one hunt left in me,” he tells his laconic Mexican/Comanche partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Realistically written with an ambiguous morality by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), astutely directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam,” “Starred Up”), it’s an irony-riddled, character-driven drama, authentically set amid foreboding billboards promising debt relief, magnificently photographed by Giles Nuttgens.

While Pine propels the complex, emotionally engaging plot, Foster projects pervasively dangerous volatility. Exuding almost-paternal patience in his pursuit of the outlaws, Bridges affectionately engages Birmingham with relentless racist teasing.

Even bit players have full-realized roles, like the waitresses played by Katy Mixon, Debrianna Mansini, and Margaret Bowman. And the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis evokes pervasive melancholy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hell or High Water” is an exciting 8, moving toward its enigmatic, yet inevitable Lone Star conclusion.08

 

“Ben Hur”

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

 

Why remake “Ben Hur” (1959), the epic sword-and-sandals adventure that set an Oscar record, sweeping 11 out of the 12 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler) and Best Actor (Charlton Heston)?

This new version, produced by Mark Burnett (TV’s “Survivor,” “The Voice”) and Roma Downey (TV’s “Touched By an Angel”), the husband-and-wife team behind the 10-hour TV miniseries “The Bible,” returns Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ” to its devoutly religious roots.

Set in Jerusalem, it’s the story of two brothers:  a wealthy Jewish nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (John Huston), and his adoptive Roman sibling, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). When ambitious Messala betrays their family, Judah vows revenge and, through his encounters with Jesus of Nazareth (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro), witnessing the Crucifixion, learns compassion and forgiveness.

Working from a script by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, Russian-Kazajh director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) achieves period authenticity, depicting communal life and the graphic brutality of Judah’s five years as a galley slave, battling Greeks on the Ionian Sea.

Then there’s a jarring tonality shift toward frenetic NASCAR/Formula One-like racing action when Judah learns how to become a charioteer from Nubian Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who reminds him, “The first to finish is the last to die.”

Of course, the centerpiece is the exciting Circus Maximus chariot race. While real Andalusian and Hungarian horses were used in the thunderous close-ups, computer-generated doubles did the dangerous stunts. About 400 extras served as spectators, increased to over 100,000 with special effects. It’s just a shame that British actor Jack Huston (grandson of director John Huston) is far too bland.

FYI: The book was first turned into a Broadway spectacular with a treadmill-enabled chariot race using real horses. Then there were two silent films before the 1959 movie that was more secular than religious.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ben Hur” is an inspirational 6, aimed directly at a Christian faith-based audience.

06

 

“Anthropoid”

Susan Granger’s review of “Anthropoid” (Bleecker Street)

 

Based on the true story behind two Czechoslovakian operatives’ mission to assassinate S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich, this wannabe WW II thriller should be more suspenseful than it is.

In December, 1941, when Czechoslovakian loyalists Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute from London into their Nazi-occupied homeland, they must devise a way to implement “Operation Anthropoid.”

That’s the code name for the elimination of Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), Hitler’s third-in-command, behind Himmler. As the logistical architect of Hitler’s Final Solution to eradicate the Jewish population, he was known “the butcher of Prague” for his ruthless brutality.

Burdened with historical background about the Munich Agreement in which the Allies allowed the Third Reich to annex the German-speaking Sudentenland, the narrative drags as Josef and Jan attempt to reach Prague.

They need to make contact with what’s left of the Czech Resistance, personified by Ladislav (Marcin Dorocinski) and “Uncle” Hajsky (Toby Jones). But when their reconnaissance decoy ‘girlfriends’ lead to romantic entanglements – Jan with Maria (Charlotte Le Bon) and Josef with Lenka (Anna Geislerova) – betrayal seems inevitable.

After their chaotic attack on Heydrich’s car, the Nazi net tightens, forcing Josef and Jan to take refuge in the basement of Saint Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, along with a couple of other freedom fighters. That’s where the final, six-hour shootout takes place.

Written by Anthony Frewin and British director/cinematographer Sean Ellis, it’s filled with disconcertingly jerky, hand-held camerawork, its deliberately faded color resembling old-newsreel footage, punctuated by a minimalist soundtrack.

It’s also unfortunate that neither Cillian Murphy (“In the Heart of the Sea”) nor Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Gray”) even approximate a Czech accent.

FYI: A second film about Mission Anthropoid is scheduled later this year, starring Jack O’Connor and Jack Reynold.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Anthropoid” is a flat, somewhat frustrating 5 – for its failure to engage emotionally.

05

 

 

“Indignation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Indignation” (Roadside Attractions/Summit Entertainment)

Retaining authenticity in adapting Philip Roth novels has often been a problem, as evidenced in “The Human Stain,” “Elegy” and “The Humbling.” So “Indignation” at least veracity going for it.

Set in 1951, this coming-of-age story revolves around industrious Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a working-class Jewish teenager from Newark, New Jersey, who earns a scholarship to a small, Christian college in Ohio, primarily to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in the Korean War.

The only son of Max (Danny Burstein), a kosher butcher, and his formidable wife Esther (Linda Emond), neurotic Marcus immediately resents being forced to share a dorm room with two other minority/Jewish students (Philip Ettinger, Ben Rosenfield) and refuses to join the only Jewish fraternity.

Then he’s totally bewildered by the casual sexual promiscuity of his WASPy crush, self-destructive Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who gives him oral sex on their first date after he takes her to dinner at a fancy French restaurant.

The most volatile – and memorable – scene occurs when resolute, rebellious Marcus confronts Winesburg College’s domineering Dean Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts) about his pervasive, condescending anti-Semitism, alluding to British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

“You are destined to be an outstanding lawyer,” hypocritical Caudwell grimly concedes.

As former CEO and co-founder of Focus Features, James Schamus firmly established his preference for high-quality, arthouse-audience films like “The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Lost in Translation,” “Far From Heaven” and “A Serious Man.”

Now, making his writing/directing debut, Schamus is obviously besotted by showing how his young adult protagonist encounters and explores the social paranoia of the post-WWII Jewish experience. And Logan Lerman (“Percy Jackson” films, “Fury”) rises to the challenging, deeply-textured role.

But the intense edginess is episodic, adhering to a careful, perhaps overly-cautious rhythm.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Indignation” is an admirable but tedious 6, serving as a tragic reminder of consequences of America’s once-prevalent, puritanical moral conformity.

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