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“Hacksaw Ridge”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hacksaw Ridge” (Lionsgate)

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Featuring the most brutal wartime carnage since “Saving Private Ryan,” director Mel Gibson depicts a true-life biopic about a pacifist, a man whose unconventional beliefs made him a pariah among his peers.

Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, idealistic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists in the U.S. Army during W.W.II as a medic – to save lives.

A conscientious objector, he refuses to use a weapon, which confuses his tough drill Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and infuriates other recruits in his barracks. Refusing to quit boot camp, pious Doss is threatened with a court martial because he won’t obey Army regulations.

Then his platoon is shipped out to the Pacific island of Okinawa, where they’re ordered to take Hacksaw Ridge, a steep, 35-foot cliff upon which the Japanese have been hunkered down in bunkers.

Complete with flamethrowers and flying bodies, savage battles ensue, after which Dawes reveals remarkable courage. Instead of retreating, he stays atop the Ridge for five hours, bravely retrieving one wounded comrade after another, praying, “Lord, help me get just one more…”

Following “The Man Without a Face,” “Braveheart, “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto,” this is Gibson’s fifth film as director, and there’s no denying his talent as he places this avowed pacifist amid a bloody spectacle.

Although it’s often difficult separating the artist from his work, one might interpret casting Jewish Andrew Garfield as an act of atonement for Gibson’s virulent anti-Semitic ranting. Plus, there’s an obvious connection with war-obsessed Gibson, since his father moved the family to Australia to avoid his sons being drafted to serve in Vietnam.

Working from Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan’s cliché-riddled script, Gibson elicits fine performances, including Teresa Palmer as Dawes’ wife, Hugo Weaving as Dawes’ alcoholic father and Rachel Griffiths as his abused mother

The conclusion is lifted from Terry Benedict’s documentary “The Conscientious Objector” (2004).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hacksaw Ridge” is an intense, viscerally stunning 7. Idealized and idiosyncratic, it illuminates the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor.

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“American Pastoral”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Pastoral” (Lionsgate)

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Ewan McGregor has not been successful in adapting Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel, revolving around a father’s disillusionment with the American Dream when his daughter becomes a terrorist during the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s.

But it’s not for lack of trying.

Awkwardly bookended by novelist Nathan Zuckerman’s (David Strathairn) visit to his 45th high-school reunion, it’s the story of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor), a Jewish ‘golden boy’ and star athlete, who marries Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, and settles into a seemingly bucolic life on a farm in Old Rimrock, a WASPy western New Jersey township.

Having inherited his father’s glove factory in Newark, Swede is an avowed liberal, employing a work force that is 80% black.

So  it’s somewhat inexplicable when his rebellious, Vietnam War-protesting, 16 year-old daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes radicalized, bombing the local post-office/gas station and killing its proprietor before joining the Weather Underground and disappearing for many years.

Long after his wife’s nervous breakdown, stoic Swede continues to search for Merry, which is why he responds to a mysterious visit from seductive Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), who claims to have information about her whereabouts.

Nathan Zuckerman is obviously Philip Roth’s alter-ego, and the story is narrated by Swede’s younger brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans). In literature, “pastoral” denotes a rustic technique of reducing life’s complexities into artificial simplicity.

But what screenwriter John Romano and director MacGregor fail to grasp is Roth’s acerbic humor and sarcasm, so the result is shallow and superficial. Historically, Roth’s novels have been difficult to adapt for the screen since they’re so introspective.

It was folly for Ewan McGregor to star in his directorial debut; he needed that ‘third eye’ to guide his choices, including casting the leading man. And his depiction of the Newark riots is woefully inadequate.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Pastoral” is a florid, flawed 5, compressed into tawdry melodrama.

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“The Front Page”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Front Page” (Broadhurst Theater, Oct., 2016)

 

Long before the demise of many daily newspapers, long before television, long before anyone even conceived of the Internet, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote this cynical comedy about muckraking reporters in a Press Room in Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building.

These whiskey-guzzling, cigar-smoking, misogynistic ruffians have assembled on the eve of a hanging that’s scheduled for 7 a.m. since Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) steadfastly refuses to push up the execution so they can make their newspaper’s morning edition.

“Not much you can do with a hanging,” one says ruefully. “Now if we had the electric chair in this state, that’s something you can sink your teeth into.”

Excitement arrives as escaped convict Earl Williams (John Magaro) crashes into the emptied press room, much to the delight of competitive Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), who hides the anarchist in a roll-top desk so he can phone in his ‘scoop’ in time to join his anxious fiancée (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) at the train to New York.

Although it’s self-consciously stretched to almost three hours, Jack O’Brien directs at a frenzied pace.

The play’s biggest laugh comes – not from the script – but when actor John Slattery from TV’s “Mad Men” voices Hildy’s determination to get out of newspaper reporting to get into something respectable, like advertising.

Although he has top billing, Nathan Lane doesn’t appear until late in the second act. He plays Hildy’s ruthless editor, Walter Burns – and, as always, his comic timing is impeccable.

I attended the matinee on Sunday, Oct. 30, when a medical emergency forced the farce’s third act to an abrupt halt for about 20 minutes so an audience member could be evacuated by ambulance.  Judging by the general age around me, one imagines the victim may have been as old as the play.

Making its Broadway debut in 1928, starring Osgood Perkins (Tony’s father) & Lee Tracy, it was revived in 1969 with Robert Ryan, Helen Hayes, Dody Goodman & Peggy Cass and in 1986 with John Lithgow & Richard Thomas.  It was also filmed several times – first with Pat O’Brien & Adolphe Menjou, then with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and again with Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau.

Kudos to Douglas W. Schmidt’s squalid set with its many candlestick telephones, capturing the sleazy tabloid ambiance, as do Ann Roth’s shabby suits. And the supporting cast includes Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Sherie Rene Scott, Dylan Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, Patricia Conolly, and Dann Florek, among others.

If you’ve never seen it, perhaps you’ll find it funnier than I did. “The Front Page” has a limited engagement through January 29, 2017.

 

“The Handmaiden”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Handmaiden” (Amazon/Magnolia/CJ Entertainment)

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Set in 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation, auteur Park Chan-wook’s romantic melodrama revolves around larcenous Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), an ambitious pickpocket recruited to help a con man, known as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who is planning to seduce lovely, lonely Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to obtain her large inheritance.

This aristocratic Japanese heiress lives in a magnificent manor house, deep in the woods, with her tyrannical uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an avid collector of rare exotic books whose tongue has turned black from licking his ink brushes.

Groomed since childhood to marry avaricious Kouzuki, devious Hideko tells Sookee that, when she was little, her deranged aunt (Moon- So-ri) hanged herself from a cherry tree and has become a ghost.

When Sookee has slyly established her servant status in the sumptuous household, fraudulent Count arrives, explaining he’s a painter from an impoverished noble family. Perverse Kouzuki hires him to forge illustrations for new books that can then be sold as originals.

One evening, Kouzuki invites several potential clients to a formal reading of sadomasochistic stories from his collection. Dressed in full geisha attire, exuding a shimmering sexuality, Hideko artfully entices and arouses her audience.

What the gentlemen don’t realize is that Hideko and Sookee are engaged in their own lesbian love-making, satisfying their intimate desires and setting their own goals. So who is manipulating whom?

Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Water’s 2002 “Fingersmith,” which was set in Victorian England, it’s been adapted by South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”) and co-writer Chung Sen-kyung.

Like “Rashomon, this lushly atmospheric tale is told in three parts and from multiple points-of-view, intensified by Cho Young-Wuk’s melodic score.

In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Handmaiden” is an elegant, erotic 8, an elusive, yet exquisite example of sybaritic Asian cinema.

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“Inferno”

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

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Director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks have previously collaborated on “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) and “Angels and Demons” (2009). So what happened to their adaptation of Dan Brown’s thriller is a mystery.

This time, renowned Harvard art historian/“symbologist” Robert Langdon (Hanks) gets mixed up with a villainous billionaire, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who is determined to reduce the world’s population by unleashing a sinister super-virus as an apocalyptic plague.

But Langdon doesn’t know what’s happening when he awakens in Florence, Italy, in a hospital room. He has amnesia, plus a nasty cut on his head. At his side is Dr. Siena Brooks (Felicity Jones, whose two front teeth, unfortunately, resemble Chiclets).

Soon, they’re both on the run, relentlessly pursued from Venice to Istanbul by an assassin (Ana Ularu), dressed as a Carabinieri and employed by enigmatic Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) from a covert security company, along with Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), director of the World Health Organization, who once had a romantic relationship with Prof. Langdon.

Alluding to Botticelli’s painting, depicting Dante’s conception of Hell, the film consists of a series of prophecies, visions and trippy hallucinations, peppered with extended chase sequences, searching – in vain – for a coherent plot.

The clumsy script by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”) is rambling and disjointed, and Ron Howard’s direction is consistently chaotic.

One sequences has Langdon and Brooks darting through Florence’s Boboli Gardens, eluding a drone, before darting into the Palazzo Vecchio to track down Dante’s death mask. Then they’re off to examine the horses atop St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

The climax is set in Istanbul’s subterranean Basilica Cistern, built in 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I. Film buffs may recall that James Bond rowed through it in “From Russia With Love.”

Finally, adding insult to injury for fans of Dan Brown’s best-sellers, the conclusion was changed because, according to Howard, “it wasn’t cinematic.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Inferno” is an inane, frenzied 4, fumbling the franchise.

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“Certain Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “Certain Women” (IFC Films)

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Kelly Reichardt is a feminist filmmaker, based in Portland, Oregon, known for her minimalism in “River of Grass,” “Old Joy,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Night Movies,” “Wendy and Lucy.”

Adapting short stories by Maile Meloy, she has created a cinematic portrait of several disparate women set in desolate Livingston, Montana.

Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is a lawyer whose angry construction worker client Fuller (Jared Harris) refuses to accept the fact that, since he has already accepted a settlement for a workplace injury, he cannot be further compensated. “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen,” she complains.

Alienated Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is a wife, mother and business owner who is trying to convince an elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) to sell her some “authentic” local sandstone so that she can use the rocks for the home she’s building with her philandering husband Ryan (James LeGros) and their sullen teenage daughter, Guthrie (Sara Rodler).

Last – but certainly not least – Native American Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is a shy, lonely horse rancher who becomes infatuated with disillusioned Elizabeth Travis (Kristen Stewart), a recent law school graduate who commutes to teach a night class in educational law twice a week at a rural school, as Jamie looks forward to their chats at a nearby diner after class.

As writer/director, Ms. Reichardt is much less concerned with plot than the inner turmoil of her quietly suffering characters, working closely with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, eliciting excellent performances from her ensemble. Unfortunately, however, the pacing of her mini-dramas is slow and uneven.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Certain Women” is a meditative, soulful 6, occasionally stunning in its bleak silence.

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“Boo! A Madea Halloween”

Susan Granger’s review of “Boo! A Madea Halloween” (Lionsgate)

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Multimillionaire filmmaker Tyler Perry gets points for timeliness on this holiday-themed comedy, released three years after 2013’s “A Madea Christmas.”

Once again, Perry plays the titular Mabel “Madea” Simmons, a wisecracking, cantankerous grandmother. Perry also plays Madea’s brother/longtime foil, Uncle Joe, along with Brian Simmons, Madea’s nephew/Joe’s mild-mannered son.

The villains are sassy, disrespectful teenagers – typified by Brian’s feisty 17 year-old daughter, Tiffany (Diamond Webb), who talks back to her father when he tells her that he has to work on Halloween so she should remain at home with relatives.

With Madea left in charge, Tiffany and her nervous pal Aday (Liza Koshy) concoct a story about how their house is haunted by a homicidal maniac named Mr. Wilson and the bedrooms are only safe places.

Hovering around are Betty Ann “Aunt Bam” Murphy (Cassie Davis), Madea’s candy-stealing, medical marijuana-card toting cousin, and lusty, lisping Hattie Mae Love (Patrice Lovely), as a Simmons family friend.

After Tiffany and Aday sneak off to a forbidden party at Upsilon Theta fraternity, Madea realizes that they’ve stuffed pillows under their blankets to fool her. That unleashes frumpy Madea’s wrath, not to mention her bodice.

Which arouses the ire of hard-partying pranksters behaving like zombies and demented clowns, furious that their merrymaking got shut down.

After several eerie, supernatural encounters, tough-talking Madea seeks shelter in a church, where she repents her sins, specifically being a “ho” and spending “time on the pole.”

Writer/director/actor/producer Tyler Perry claims the Madea character is based on his own mother and aunt and says the idea for this project originated as a gag in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” (2014).

It’s the eighth in the low-budget Madea series and only the second that wasn’t adapted from a stage play. In an obvious nod to the YouTube audience, Perry features several social media stars, including Tyga (as himself).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Boo! A Madea Halloween” is a frightful 4, filled with vulgar slapstick and a mockery of child abuse disguised as “a good whuppin’.”

04

 

“Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (Universal Pictures)

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I’ve always been fascinated by the Ouija Board. For the past century, this creepy board game, manufactured by Hasbro, has intrigued players around the world.

Its popularity rose sharply after America’s Civil War, since families lost so many loved ones in battle, many of whom remained unidentified. Using the Ouija Board, grieving relatives often gathered in the parlor to consult the ‘spirits’ for reassurance.

But there’s also been a fear that using the device could lead to demonic possession, which led to admonitions for users, like never play alone, never play in a graveyard or where a terrible death has occurred, and never bid ‘goodbye’ to the entity with whom you are in contact.

So it’s altogether appropriate that a timely Halloween movie revolves around this supernatural concept.

Set as a prequel to “Ouija” (2014), the story revolves around California’s Zander family back in 1967.

Lonely, widowed Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) – a.k.a. “Madame Zander” – runs a fake medium business – creating séances with help from her daughters, 14 year-old Paulina (Annalise Basso) and 9 year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), who simulate connections with a netherworld.

When Paulina discovers the Ouija Board at a neighborhood party, Alice buys one, thinking it will enhance her sessions. Problem is: young Doris becomes haunted by some malevolent Polish-speaking entity (Doug Jones) that turns out to be a Nazi doctor.

Predictably, Alice realizes that it’s time to summon a priest. In this case, it’s the principal of Doris’s parochial school, Father Tom (Henry Thomas), a widower who joined the seminary after his wife died.

Working with co-writer Jeff Howard and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, writer/director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus,” “Hush”) embraces the time frame wholeheartedly, utilizing the nostalgic Universal logo and old-fashioned place-card, giving these characters creditable backstories and, eventually, establishing a connection to the previous installment.

FYI: Ouija Boards have figured in other horror movies like “The Exorcist” (1973) and “Witchboard” (1986).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a spooky 6 – for those who enjoy being scared.

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“Keeping Up With the Joneses”

Susan Granger’s review of “Keeping Up With the Joneses” (20th Century-Fox)

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“Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.”

Just after Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) pack their children off for summer camp, mysterious new neighbors move into a house in their secluded cul-de-sac in an Atlanta suburb.

They’re Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot). He claims to be a travel writer, a master of many languages who blows glass for a hobby; she’s an Israeli social-media consultant, enmeshed in food blogging and charity work.

But it’s obvious from the get-go that the glamorous, sophisticated Joneses aren’t who they pretend to be.

So Jeff, who works as a Human Resources counselor at MBI, an aerospace defense corporation, and Karen, who dabbles as a home-design consultant, are determined to unmask their real identities.

That involves suspicious Karen following Natalie to the mall on a lesbian-tinged, lingerie-buying mission – and amiable Jeff lunching with Tim, attempting to bond at a secret, underground Chinese restaurant that specializes in serving live snakes.

Once it’s established that the Joneses are, indeed, covert operatives, the wannabe satirical action/spy caper goes nowhere at a tedious pace.

Formulaically scripted by Michael LeSieur (“You, Me and Dupree”) – with only one topical joke, involving Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner – and lethargically directed by Greg Mottola (“Adventureland,” “Superbad”), it’s a dud.

Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) aces dorky, while Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) remains perky. But roguish Jon Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) and statuesque Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) seem to be in another film entirely, never really connecting to their nosy neighbors, the flaccid plot or supporting players like Patton Oswalt and Matt Walsh.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is a tepid, tedious 3. Don’t bother.

03

 

“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” (Paramount Pictures/Skydance)

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Full Disclosure: My son, Don Granger, produced this film.

When British novelist Lee Child’s stoic hero, ex-Military Police Major Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), learns that Army Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who heads his old investigative unit, has been arrested for espionage, causing the death of two US soldiers in Afghanistan, he knows she’s innocent.

But trying to prove that is another matter. When he appeals to a Judge Advocate in Washington D.C., Reacher discovers a paternity claim against him, revealing that he may have a delinquent teenage daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh).

Basically a lone wolf, a laconic, hitchhiking vigilante who lives off-the-grid, Reacher must work with Susan Turner, whom he breaks out of a high-tech military prison, and rebellious Samantha to unravel a nefarious government conspiracy, involving a sneering contractor (Patrick Heusinger) and smarmy General Harkness (Robert Knepper).

Reacher’s search for a mysterious munitions supplier called Parasource takes them to New Orleans, where there’s a climactic rooftop chase, high above a Halloween parade in the French Quarter.

Adrenaline-propelled Cruise is renowned for doing his own stunts – and he doesn’t disappoint, particularly when he uses a salt shaker to punch through a car window.

Adapted by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz and director Edward Zwick from the 18th of Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, this crime thriller introduces two kick-ass women. Formidable Maj. Susan Turner proves she can fight in fierce, hand-to-hand combat alongside muscular Reacher, while resourceful Samantha turns out to be a quick learner.

Like Cruise, sinewy Cobie Smulders did her own stunts, catapulting her alongside Cruise’s previous cohorts Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) and Emily Blunt (“Edge of Tomorrow”).

FYI: In the first “Jack Reacher” (2012), author Lee Child was a police officer; this time, he’s a TSA agent, scanning Reacher’s ID. “A theme is developing,” he notes. “I’m always in uniform, and I’m always somewhat suspicious of what’s going on with Cruise.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is a gritty, suspenseful 7, filled with intense action.

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