"
"

“The Dinner”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Dinner” (The Orchard/Protagonist Pictures)

 dinner

When teenagers commit a heinous crime, how should their parents react?

That’s the ethical dilemma propelling writer/director Oren Moverman’s meandering morality play/meditation, based on Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s controversial bestseller, first published in the Netherlands in 2009.

It begins with the narrator, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), as he and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) prepare to join Paul’s older brother Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) at a pretentiously elite and outrageously expensive restaurant for dinner.

Since their sibling rivalry has left them estranged since childhood, the brothers rarely socialize, but their three sons (Charlie Plummer, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Miles J. Harvey) have grown up together. Now 16, two of the teenagers commit a callous hate crime in an ATM booth that’s shocked the country.

While their sons’ identities have not yet been discovered, although a video was posted on YouTube, their parents must decide what action to take.

Pragmatic, politically ambitious, yet principled Stan Lohman seemingly has the most at stake, since he’s a popular U.S. Congressman who is launching a campaign for Governor, an exalted position his trophy second wife has set her sights on.

Troubled Paul is a former high-school history teacher whose incipient rage ripples just below his superficial calm, while patient, supportive Claire is a cancer survivor.

The narrative debate is structured around the epicurean feast’s successive courses, but Moverman (“Time Out of Mind”) and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski take us away from the posh restaurant setting momentarily by intercutting disconcertingly fragmented flashbacks of the children’s childhoods and the brothers’ trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, where so many lives were sacrificed.

The central psychological carnage is overly complicated and self-consciously clever, but Steve Coogan’s agonizing grasp of acerbic Paul’s frustration is stunning. Richard Gere falls back on his usual grace and charm, while Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall convincingly embody their respective roles.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Dinner” is an ominously unbalanced, undercooked 4, culminating in an infuriatingly enigmatic conclusion.

04

 

 

 

“Snatched”

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

Snatched-1

Goofy comedienne Goldie Hawn (“Overboard,” “Bird on a Wire”) hasn’t made a film in 15 years, so I was really looking forward to her return to the silver screen, particularly teaming up with fearlessly funny Amy Schumer.

Reviving her obnoxiously neurotic “Teamwork” persona, Schumer plays Emily Middleton, a potty-mouthed loser whose rock-star boyfriend (Randall Park) dumps her just after she’s splurged on a ‘nonrefundable’ vacation-for-two at a resort in exotic Ecuador.

Since no one else will accompany her, Emily convinces her uptight, over-protective, divorced mom Linda (Hawn) to go, whining, “Put the fun back in nonrefundable,” leaving her nerdy, agoraphobic brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) at home.

Venturing out to the pool, they’re immediately befriended by “strictly platonic” Ruth (Wanda Sykes) and Barb (Joan Cusack), who caution them about the kidnapping that’s about to occur when Emily convinces Linda to go on a ‘sight-seeing’ jaunt through the Amazon jungle with a handsome stranger named James (Tom Bateman) whom she met swilling cocktails at the bar.

Once they’re abducted by Morgado (Oscar Jaenada), a stereotypical Latino villain, and thrown into a filthy cell, the mother/daughter comedy grinds to a halt, as Emily learns to be less self-centered and stodgy Linda opens up to taking risks.

Throw in a chivalrous pseudo-adventurer/explorer (Christopher Meloni) and a disgusting tapeworm which takes center stage for far too long. Taking a jab at the ineptitude of the US State Dept., there’s also an ineffectual bureaucrat (Bashir Salahuddin) whose only advice to the victims is: “Get to Bogota.”

Scripted by Katie Dippold (“The Heat,” “Ghostbusters” remake) and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies”), it’s crude and vulgar – and only fitfully amusing. Perhaps because Levine lets some vacation-from-hell scenes go on too long and there’s little fractious, familial chemistry between Hawn and Schumer.

At 91 minutes, if feels interminable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snatched” is a flashy, flimsy 5. Cancel this trip.

05

 

 

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Susan Granger’s review of “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (Warner Bros.)

king

Director Guy Ritchie diminishes the magnificent Arthurian legend and the mythology of the sword known as Excalibur to brutal butchery in this indecipherable medieval muddle.

Intended as an origin story, it begins as King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and his Queen are killed by his treacherous younger brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who sacrificed his own wife to Dark Forces, led by the evil sorcerer Mordred, in order to seize the Crown.

Tucked in a basket and sent downriver in a skiff (like Moses, one supposes), their young son is rescued by kindly prostitutes and raised in a brothel in bustling Londinium – with no idea of his Celtic heritage and birthright.

But once hunky Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, a moment sabotaged by a David Beckham cameo, his quest is clear.

Despite the presence of loyal friends (Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen, Tom Wu) and a supernatural assist from a prescient Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbee), there are many obstacles in his way, prompting Arthur to note (echoing Donald Trump): “I thought leading a revolution against that evil wizard would be easier.”

Working from the simplistic, almost unintelligible screenplay he wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, based on a story by Joby Harold and David Dobkin, Guy Ritchie opts for style over substance, relying on swashbuckling swordplay, mumbled dialogue, rock music and a plethora of special effects, including gigantic, fantastical elephants used as war machines and lots of slithering snakes.

Obviously, Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Sherlock Holmes”) was aiming at establishing a new Camelot franchise, perhaps telling the tales of all the Knights who sit at the Round Table but I doubt that will ever happen, particularly since there isn’t even a glimpse of the essential character of Merlin., let alone Lancelot or Guinevere.

If you’re curious, perhaps you should view John Boorman’s far superior “Excalibur” (1981).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a fumbling, fractured 4, unfolding like a frantic video game.

04

 

 

 

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”

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

Norman-movie

The satirical subtitle says it all: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” as New York-born Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar fashions a dryly witty character study.

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a prescient, if nebbishy con man who befriends an up-and-coming Israeli politician, Deputy Minister of Trade Mischa Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), impulsively buying him a pair of expensive shoes, costing a whopping $1,200.

Three years later, when Eshel has become the Prime Minister who may be able to bring peace to the Middle East, he remembers Norman, extending a gesture of recognition, which briefly elevates Norman’s influential status among New York Jewry.

Now 67, Richard Gere proves he’s become a first-rate character actor, embodying likeable, lonely Norman Oppenheimer, who – as the title cards testify – bet on “the right horse.”

Operating with nothing more than business cards, a cell phone and chutzpah, he’s a “hondler,” a master manipulator who insinuates himself into the proximity of power, making promises that he’s hard-pressed to deliver.

While Lior Ashkenazi is one of Israel’s leading stage, film and television actors, this is his first major role in an American film. His energetic Eshel evolves from an insecure wannabe to a near-messianic statesman. Not surprisingly, Ashkenazi’s next role is playing a young Yitzhak Rabin in the upcoming action-adventure “Entebbe.”

The supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi, as a rabbi, and Hank Azaria as a “nooj,” a pest, a well-intentioned “mensch” – like characters in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow.

Plus, there’s Michael Sheen as Norman’s Wall Street lawyer nephew, Josh Charles as an elusive tycoon and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli government investigator, reporting to the Knesset.

In short: Norman Oppenheimer is a pathetic, shamelessly name-dropping cipher, a political Zelig, seemingly desperate to make himself a superficial footnote to history.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Norman” is a schmoozing 6, a challenging, cautionary tale about ambition gone awry.

06

 

 

 

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Marvel Studios/Buena Vista)

guardians

For this action-driven sequel, writer/director James Gunn cleverly revisits the irreverent comic book concept of maverick mercenaries that he created for the 2014 original.

In 1981 in Missouri, the prologue shows Peter Quill’s mom (Laura Haddock) and ‘spaceman’ dad (a very youthful Kurt Russell) driving in their 1979 Ford Cobra to a special place in the forest where he plants something bizarre.

Skip ahead 34 years, when the Guardians have bartered with the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to protect the golden-skinned Sovereigns’ valuable batteries from a ravenous beast in exchange for the return of their prisoner, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Glamora’s (Zoe Saldana) mean sister.

Problem is: impudent Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) has stuffed batteries in his backpack, arousing Ayesha’s imperious ire. After an intergalactic chase, the Guardians’ spaceship Milano crashes on Berhert, where they’re greeted by a glowing, egg-shaped craft, containing Ego (Kurt Russell), who tells Quill (Chris Platt) – aka Star Lord – that he’s his long-lost father. Cue the origin story.

So they’re off to explore Ego’s private planet, meeting Empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who bonds with muscular Drax (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista). Meanwhile, on Contraxia, Quill’s foster father, blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), has been exiled by the Ravagers’ Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), and there’s a mutiny led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan).

Although the fast-paced plot is convoluted, there are intergalactic battle sequences galore and lots of zany humor, including pop-culture references to “Cheers,” “Pac-Man” and “Mary Poppins.” The adorable antics of Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are scene-stealers, plus there are a couple of Stan Lee cameos, along with “Awesome Mixtape #2.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is an overstuffed 7, followed by – count ‘em – five additional scenes during the seemingly endless credits.

07

 

 

 

“The Circle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Circle” (STX Entertainment)

The-Circle-Movie

Tackling the “Me-centric” revelatory culture of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., James Ponsoldt’s timely thriller delves into the ubiquitous perils of contemporary technology.

When Mae Holland (Emily Watson) goes to work for The Circle, a massively powerful social media company in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s thrilled. Beginning as a ‘guppy,’ she’s assigned to a Customer Service desk, where she’s expected not only to excel but also to participate in off-hour and weekend events with her co-workers.

Run by a management team consisting of charismatic visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and businessman Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is touting a new social interface app, TruYou, a single-identity password solution which eliminates anonymity, along with SeeChange, a tiny, inconspicuous webcam that can be attached to any surface to emit constant surveillance.

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better,” claims evangelistic Eamon Bailey at one of his “Dream Friday” pep talks.

Grateful that she can extend her insurance coverage to include her frail, multiple sclerosis-afflicted father (the late Bill Paxton, in his last screen role) and that the company’s omnipresent monitors saved her from drowning when she foolishly went kayaking alone at night, guileless Mae offers to relinquish all personal privacy and go “fully transparent,” so that everything she does can be seen by Circle members.

Obviously, this leads to more than one embarrassing incident, the most tragic involving Mae’s off-the-grid buddy Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who just wants to craft chandeliers out of deer antlers, along with the alienation of her best friend/mentor Annie (Karen Gillan).

Adapting his own 2014 novel, Dave Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour,” “The Spectacular Now”) meanders toward ominous melodrama, subtly reducing the fascistic future’s pivotal, high-tech skeptic Ty (John Boyega) to an enigmatic, incomprehensible cipher.

Comparisons with George Orwell’s prophetic “1984,” Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View,” and Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” are inevitable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Circle” is a sleekly sinister, satirical 6, evolving into a cautionary tale.

06

“Their Finest”

Susan Granger’s review of “Their Finest” (STX Entertainment)

their-finest-poster

During World War II, both in England and America, there was a strong sense of purpose. Today, we live in a world that is not only notoriously fractured but also highly ambiguous – with a breakdown of many traditional virtues and values. Which is why a nostalgic romantic comedy like this resonates with those who remember.

During the savage London Blitz in 1940, advertising copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information to work with the film division to bring “a woman’s touch” to bolster morale. Britain wants the United States to enter the war and is relying on cinematic propaganda to convince recalcitrant Yanks, particularly women.

Since Caitrin’s injured husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a frustrated painter, her paycheck comes in handy, even though she’s told “Of course, we can’t pay you as much as the chaps.”

Partnered with sexist screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Caitrin pitches a purportedly true story about patriotic twin sisters, Rose and Lily Starling (Lily & Francesca Knight), who stole their father’s boat in Southend and crossed the English Channel to help evacuate wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.

Problem is: her embellished story doesn’t jibe with what really happened. When there’s a difference between “truth” and “facts,” the filmmakers are given the mandate: “authenticity informed by optimism.”

With the help of aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), the movie-within-the-movie turns out to be great fun, involving Jeremy Irons in a self-satirizing cameo, along with a strong ensemble cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Rachael Stirling.

Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, it’s helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “Italian for Beginners”), who should have sped up the pace a bit.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Their Finest” is a sly, bittersweet 7 – with a tasteful feminist twist.

07

Disneynature’s “Born in China”

Susan Granger’s review of Disneynature’s “Born in China” (Walt Disney Company)

BornInChina-title-e1492106682468

This G-rated Disneynature documentary focuses exclusively on animal species unique to China: pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, snow leopards, Chiru antelope and red-crowned cranes, a traditional Chinese symbol of good fortune and longevity.

Educational, it’s filled with spectacular landscapes and extraordinary close-ups of animal activity, centering on three specific families over the span of a year, beginning and ending in the spring.

In the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, attentive Ya Ya is a first-time mother, raising her curious cub Mei Mei in a forest habitat, where solitary adult pandas consume 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Until vivacious Mei Mei can quickly climb a tree, making her safe from predators, Ya Ya must watch over her.

Nearby, there’s a mischievous troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys. Tao Tao is an adolescent male who is being forced out of his family fold to learn to fend for himself. Rebellious, he joins an all-male sub-group, dubbed the “Lost Boys.” Parents should know there’s a huge predatory goshawk that swoops in, determined to devour Tao Tao’s little sister.

Then, thousands of miles away on the craggy highlands of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, there’s majestic Dawa, an elusive snow leopard, representing one of the endangered species. Hunting wild goats, mountain sheep and belligerent yaks, she’s raising two little cubs while facing ever-present danger from other ferocious leopards, as a snarling rival triggers an ominous territorial challenge.

Directed by ecologically-conscious Lu Chuan of China’s Shanghai Media House, it’s scripted by Lu, David Fowler, and renowned British nature filmmakers Brian Leith & Phil Chapman (BBC’s “Wild China” series). Barnaby Taylor’s orchestral score incorporates Asian instruments, like a Tibetan horn, Mongolian fiddle and Chinese dulcimer. It’s cross-cultural diplomacy at work.

Like most Disney films, it anthropomorphizes adorable animals in order to teach life lessons, yet I found it curious that Disney chose John Krasinski, not a woman, to narrate this story about animal mothers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Disneynature’s “Born in China” is a suspenseful yet sedately spiritual 7, as the circle of life continues.

07

 

 

“Unforgettable”

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

unforgettable-movie-660x296

When David Connover (Geoff Stults) takes up with Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) after his divorce from Tessa (Katherine Heigl), he has no idea about the can of mean-spirited worms he’s opening.

As this tepid psycho-sexual thriller begins, battered Julia is being interrogated as the only suspect in the murder of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides), against whom she once got a restraining order.

Skip back six months to when Julia left San Francisco to begin a new life in Foothill, a (fictional) Southern California suburb, with her fiancé David and his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).  A former Wall Street hotshot, hunky David has just opened a boutique microbrewery in his hometown.

But when icy, embittered Tessa – Lily’s possessive mother – sees how happy he is with amiable Julia, she’s devastated. Her intuitive vulnerability is heightened because she has never been able to satisfy the expectations of her own rigid, perfectionist mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd).

We’re told that Julia doesn’t use Facebook, which is bizarre since she was an editor for an online literary publication in San Francisco. But that leaves a portal so Tessa can cyberstalk her, shrewdly creating a fake FB profile and utilizing it to contact Julia’s ex, as her devious revenge plot takes shape.

“Everyone’s got a weird ex, but this Psycho Barbie is something else,” warns Julia’s best friend (Whitney Cummings). “You need to come back home with me.”

Working from screenwriter Christina Hodson’s implausibly convoluted script, longtime producer/first-time director Denise Di Novi never alludes to skin color or class, cleverly casting blond, beautifully Botox’d Katherine Heigl as the sinister, sadistic, sociopathic villain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unforgettable” is a flimsy, frustrating 4 – and quite forgettable.

04

“The Lost City of Z”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lost City of Z” (Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street)

 lost-city-of-Z-actors-poster-face-new

Based on David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller, this saga chronicles the incredible adventures of a status-seeking British soldier, Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who explored the Amazon River a full century ago.

Dispatched in 1906 by the aristocratic Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett’s mission is to map the dangerous, uncharted realms of eastern Bolivia, where it borders with Brazil.

Thrashing through the South American rainforest with his Army comrades, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), plus requisite guides and porters, he discovers not only the source of the Rio Verde River but also tribal pottery and carvings, indications of an ancient city and long-lost civilization hidden somewhere in the dense foliage – and he is determined to find it.

Driven by this mystical, near-maniacal obsession, Fawcett learns a great deal about anthropology and endures an excruciating second expedition in 1911, accompanied by another explorer, scornful James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who becomes a dangerous liability.

Meanwhile, back in England, his dutiful wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children become accustomed to his long absences. Eventually, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) decides to join his third expedition in the 1925; they were never seen or heard from again.

As foretold by his indigenous guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello): “For you, there is no escape from the jungle.”

This quest concept started seven years ago with Brad Pitt. Several incarnations later, it’s chronologically adapted and referentially directed by James Gray (“The Immigrant”) with scenes subtly suggestive of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Yet cinematographer Darius Khondji never even comes close to John Boorman’s expansive, atmospheric imagery in “The Emerald Forest.”

Problem is: there’s little emotional involvement or critique of England’s patronizing imperialism, topics which intrigued Werner Herzog in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lost City of Z” is a sprawling yet superficial 6. As Fawcett says, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

06