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“Everlasting”

Susan Granger’s review of “Everlasting” (Super Grande Films/Indie Rights)

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Writer/director Anthony Stabley has devised a different twist on the traditional horror film, combining his ominous concept with a murder mystery.

“Darkness can take over your life, even when you think you have everything under control,” notes Matt Ortega (Adam David), a high-school filmmaker who receives a mysterious package containing a DV tape depicting the torture and murder of his girlfriend Jessie (Valentina de Angelis).

Grief-stricken Matt then compiles his own cinematic memorial to the spirit of admittedly irresponsible, thrill-seeking Jessie, recounting the time they spent together – in preparation for a confrontation with the killer who dumped her body on the roadside in Topanga Canyon.

Eager to flee from her fractured, dysfunctional family in Colorado, Jessie responded to an ad that entices attractive young women to come to Los Angeles to embark on a modeling career.

After trying to dissuade her, Matt reluctantly offered to drive Jessie, cinematically documenting their scenic stops along the way.

“It’s easier to leave the people you love before they leave you,” she tells him.

Upon arrival at their destination, Matt and Jessie discover that her road to Tinseltown success will be littered with squalid intrigue and sordid encounters involving fetishes and bondage. Indeed, the first person they encounter at a Hollywood party is Guinevere Turner, who scripted “American Psycho.”

While Anthony Stabley adroitly establishes the emotional authenticity of their romantic relationship, Matt and Jessie, nevertheless, seem ill-suited to one another.

Matt exudes a sweet naïveté, rooted in emotional stability, while Jessie’s vulnerable volatility not only includes a preference for tight chokers because she likes the pressure on her neck but also a penchant for sado-masochistic sex.

Veteran thespians Elisabeth Rohm (“American Hustle”), Pat Healy (“Compliance”) and Michael Massee (“Se7en”) are memorable, while Jon Bickford’s cinematography is compelling.

FYI: Making its U.S. premiere at the 17th annual Nevermore Film Festival, “Everlasting” copped the Jury Award for Best Feature.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Everlasting” is a suspenseful, subversive 6, revealing the seedy underbelly of “La La Land.”

06

 

“Silence”

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

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Filmmaker Martin Scorsese (“Kundun,” “Last Temptation of Christ”) is obviously fascinated with the foundations of faith, adapting Shusaku Endo’s 1966 historical novel about two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan to find their mentor who is rumored to have renounced his religion under torture.

In 17th century Buddhist Japan, Catholicism has been outlawed and its believers persecuted. But fervent Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are determined to track down Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

As they search, they minister to converted villagers who risk their lives to hide them from the wily Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who give suspected Christians the opportunity to recant by stepping on an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

If they refuse, the Inquisitor mercilessly torments and tortures them in a myriad of graphically gruesome ways, including hot-water scalding, burning on a pyre, drowning on a crucifix in the rising tide, or slowly bleeding to death while hanging, upside down, over a pit.

Betrayal is a recurring theme, as their guide Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) repeatedly deceives them, yet begs forgiveness, promising to be stronger next time.

Scorsese notes that in order for Christianity to live, it needs “not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.”

Father Rodrigues’ eventual compassion for this frightened informer reveals that, in his devout soul-searching, he has come to an understanding of weakness, along with sacrifice.

The struggle is between apostasy and martyrdom – when one’s actions determine the fates of others. The title refers to Rodrigues’ prayers for divine guidance – and the silence that ensues.

As anguished Father Ferreira notes, “There are some things more important than the judgment of the Church.”

Visually magnificent and superbly mounted, it’s more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional catharsis. Perhaps because Scorsese, co-writing with Jay Cocks, chooses moral ambiguity, disdaining a melodramatic soundtrack.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Silence” is a savage, yet spiritual 7, a dour depiction of an agonized, seemingly endless pilgrimage.

07

 

“The Comedian”

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

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Back in 1983, Robert De Niro played a sociopathic wannabe celebrity in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” starring Jerry Lewis.  Obviously, the delusional character intrigued De Niro because in “The Comedian,” he’s a former TV sit-com star, Jackie Burke.

Aging Burke has hit hard times, unable to move beyond nostalgic references to “Eddie’s Home.” One night when an obnoxious heckler with a web-cam taunts him at a comedy club in Hicksville, Long Island, he clobbers the guy in a scuffle that winds up on YouTube.

After spending 30 days in the slammer, Jackie reports for community service at a homeless shelter, where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also atoning for an angry outburst.

Despite their obvious age difference, they connect. He takes her to the Comedy Cellar and his lesbian niece’s wedding; she takes him to a birthday dinner for her domineering father (Harvey Keitel).

Cobbled together by a disparate quartet of screenwriters (Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman) and superficially directed by Taylor Hackford, it’s filled with strained insult comedy, a Friars Club Roast of a legendary comedienne (Cloris Leachman) and a sleazy game show, reminiscent of “Fear Factor.”

FYI: Comedian Harry Einstein, father of actor Albert Brooks, really died on the Friars Club dais in 1958. “That excited me,” recalls De Niro. “One scene – and you want to do the whole movie.”

De Niro captures Jackie’s bitter, simmering resentment, while Leslie Mann wrestles with Harmony’s demons. Edie Falco is Jackie’s frustrated manager, while Danny De Vito and Patti LuPone play his long-suffering brother and resentful sister-in-law.

After doing “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” together, De Niro and Harvey Keitel click, along with cameos by Charles Grodin, Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Jessica Kirson and Hannibal Buress.

But the brash script turns sour when there’s an unexpected twist and Jackie forces residents in a Florida retirement home to sing along as he changes “Makin’ Whoopee” into the scatological “Makin’ Poopy.” Shades of De Niro’s “Dirty Grandpa” debacle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Comedian” is a flimsy, faltering 5 – and definitely not funny.

05

 

“Gold”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gold” (TWC-Dimension)

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As a critic, I’m often asked, “Do you really stay ‘till the end of a movie, even if you know it’s not very good?”

The answer is “Yes,” because you never can tell what surprises may surface – and that certainly applies to this twisted tale, chronicling the effects of greed and friendship.

In 1988, paunchy, whiskey-guzzling Kenny Wells (almost unrecognizably balding Matthew McConaughey) inherited his family’s once-profitable Washoe Mining Corporation in Reno, Nevada.

But it’s failing, so Kenny works the telephones out of a local bar where his girl-friend (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a waitress.

Enter maverick geologist Michael Acosta (Venezuelan star Edgar Ramirez), who convinces Kenny that there’s gold, hidden deep in the steamy jungles of Borneo. Forming a handshake partnership, they set off for Indonesia, establishing an excavation site on the banks of a river, where Kenny comes close to dying of malaria.

When they find gold, perhaps the richest deposit of the 20th century, Washoe Mining stock soars. And if getting the gold was hard, keeping it proves to be even more difficult.

Suddenly, they’re pursued by a New York investment banker (Corey Stoll) and his competitor (Bruce Greenwood), along with a flirtatious financier (Rachael Taylor) and the Wells’ family’s previously-doubting banker (Stacy Keach).  Everyone wants a piece of the action.

Adding to the chaos, there are complications with Indonesia’s corrupt Suharto regime.

Inspired by Canada’s 1990s Bre-X mining scandal, it’s superficially scripted by Patrick Massett & John Zinman (TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) and unevenly directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), who relies far too much on Kenny’s expository questioning by an FBI interviewer (Toby Kebbell).

Following “Sahara” and “Fool’s Gold,” this might be considered as the latest installment in Matthew McConaughey’s treasure-hunter trilogy – and certainly the least satisfying.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gold” is a fraudulent 5, proving that following what glitters may have unintended consequences.

05

 

“Split”

Susan Granger’s review of “Split” (Universal Pictures)

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M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the cinematic scene with audacious plot twists in “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” But “The Lady in the Water,” “The Village,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” “After Earth” and “The Visit” were subsequent disappointments.

Now he’s back with a vengeance, infusing a horrifying abduction story with preposterous pop psychology and a last act that links up with one of his earlier films. No spoiler here. That’s tantalizing enough.

Psychologically disturbed Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) kidnaps three high-school girls. According to his compassionate therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), he suffers from DID (dissociative identity disorder), manifesting 23 different personalities with a 24th called the Beast about to surface.

Imprisoned in a subterranean bunker, his teenage victims are terrified. There’s popular Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her bestie Marcia (Jessica Sula) and their disconsolate classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a loner whose deeply disturbing backstory is gradually revealed.

While Claire and Marcia make desperate attempts to escape, Casey cautiously tries to deal with their captor, particularly when his personality surfaces as prattling Hedwig, a nine year-old boy who feels menaced by his elders.

Because when he’s take-charge Dennis, orderly Miss Patricia, or flamboyant fashionista Barry, they don’t stand a chance, having been told they’re “sacred food” for the Beast when he arrives.

Best known as Professor Xavier in “X-Men,” James McAvoy’s transformations are stunning, moving from one guise to another, subtly sifting his posture, demeanor and speech patterns. With her subtle manipulations, sad-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy fulfills the sly promise of her breakout work in “The Witch.”

Produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse on a $10 million budget, Shyamalan’s taut yet playful thriftiness, coupled with Mike Gioulakis’s haunting cinematography, has already paid off at the box-office,

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Split” is a suspenseful 7, a supernatural thriller that becomes a teasing origin story, perhaps propelling a sequel.

07

 

“Live By Night”

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

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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 France 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.

04

 

“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.

04

 

“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.

06

 

“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.

07

 

“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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