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“Bears”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bears” (Disneynature)

 

Disneynature’s fifth theatrical documentary follows a family of three grizzlies – protective mother Sky and her two newborn cubs: curious Scout and obedient Amber. Set in Alaska’s rugged Katmai National Park, it begins as they emerge from their snowy den after winter hibernation and make their way down the mountain trail, barely avoiding an avalanche. As they proceed toward the grassy meadows and streams where they can feed on spawning salmon, danger lurks.  Statistically, only half of all bear cubs survive their first year of life, succumbing either to starvation or predators – like Magnus, the area’s dominant alpha male, the outcast Chinook and the prowling wolf Tikaani.

British co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey (“African Cats”), working with co-writer Adam Chapman, anthropomorphize the animals, giving them human names, characteristics and imagined dialogue, to create an educational, emotionally appealing story, which is amiably narrated by John C. Reilly. Parents should know the abandonment and drowning scares are delicately handled but could, nevertheless, upset tiny tots.

The vibrant cinematography is spectacular, both aerial and ground shots, and youngsters will be amused by the vivid footage of the bears’ clumsy but efficient fishing as the salmon jump out of the water, valiantly trying to make it upstream. George Fenton’s symphonic score emphasizes the intrinsic drama, epitomized by Olivia Holt’s “Carry On.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bears” is an engrossing, engaging 8 – and the closing credits reveal behind-the-scenes glimpses of filming in the wild.

“Transcendence”

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

 

In the motion picture industry, it’s often difficult to make the career transition from cinematographer to director because, often, when cameramen direct, they make the fatal mistake of concentrating visual imagery, as opposed to storytelling. And Willy Pfister, renowned collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s who won an Oscar for filming “Inception” (2011), falls into this trap.

The story begins in the near future – after the information superhighway has been derailed. Cell phones litter the streets and a computer keyboard makes a convenient doorstop. As the narrator, neurobiologist Max Walters (Paul Bettany), recalls the “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology,” flashbacks begin. Five years earlier, research scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife/collaborator Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) were developing a sentient computer called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Think of omniscient HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The triumph of artificial intelligence over human individualism terrifies RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a militant rebel group led by Bree (Kate Mara), who launch a deadly series of terror attacks around the country. A radiation-laced bullet leaves Will dying, as Evelyn and their colleague Max upload his consciousness into PINN, which is moved to a hastily-constructed $38 million data center in the Southern California desert that’s powered by thousands of solar panels. Soon Will/PINN becomes digitally omnipotent, creating creepy, obedient nano-zombies that horrify Will’s former associate (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy).

The ethical conflict inherent in mind control is an intriguing concept, but first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s muddled, simplistic, highly derivative thriller is filled with blandly one-dimensional characters speaking confusing techno-babble. Calling Wally Pfister’s directing heavy-handed is an understatement; there’s no sense of danger, tension or emotional connection in his tediously slow pacing.  And director of photography Jess Hall comes up with too many slow-motion droplets of water and ascending flares filled with energy particles. Sci-fi was far better served by Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Transcendence” is a terminally boring 2. What a waste of talent and money!

“Heaven Is for Real”

Susan Granger’s review of “Heaven Is for Real” (TriStar Pictures)

 

Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book, this story focuses on the bond between an affable Midwestern minister and his precocious four year-old son who insists that he went to Heaven, where angels sang and he visited with Jesus.

In the farming community of Imperial, Nebraska, popular Crossroads Wesleyan Church pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) works as a repairman, high school wrestling coach and volunteer fireman.  He and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) have two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum), and are constantly coping with the challenge of paying their bills. They’re deeper into debt after Todd breaks his leg and suffers painful kidney stones, followed by Connor’s ruptured appendix. But Todd’s belief is really tested when young Connor matter-of-factly describes going to heaven during his surgery. When the youngster adds details that cannot be explained rationally, Todd begins to question his own convictions, researching near-death experiences and consulting with a psychologist at a nearby college. His quest influences his sermons which, in turn, upset skeptical parishioners, like Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church), particularly when the press becomes involved.

Adapted with subtly wry humor by director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) and co-writer Christopher Parker, it remains non-denominational/non-sectarian – for the most part – serving as an effective metaphor to raise provocative questions about the fundamental nature of faith and the almost universal desire for an afterlife. What elevates this above recent religious films like “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead” are skillful production values: writing, directing, cinematography, editing, and, above all, acting.

It’s Greg Kinnear’s appealing Everyman that makes the premise believable. Cherubic Connor Corum’s portrayal seems guileless and natural, while Thomas Hayden Church satisfies as Todd’s friend/banker and Margo Martindale scores as an angry, bitter bereaved mother. The only distraction comes from an awkward framing device involving Akiane Kramarik, a young Lithuanian painter whose portrait of Jesus resembles a pop star.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Heaven is for Real” is a sensitive, spiritual 7 – recommended for family-viewing.

“Le Week-End”

Susan Granger’s review of “Le Week-End” (Music Box Films)

 

With their longtime marriage in danger, Nick (Jim Broadbent), a Birmingham college philosophy professor, and his schoolteacher wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan), board the Eurostar from London to Paris, where they honeymooned 30 years ago. Their anniversary celebration sours immediately when Meg discovers Nick has booked them into a shabby, cheap hotel, so she commandeers the credit card and switches them to a posh place with a luxurious suite overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

As their holiday unfolds, amid visits to bookstores, bistros, museums and Samuel Beckett’s grave, it becomes obvious that Nick’s being forced into early retirement and it’s not clear whether restless Meg’s future plans include him, now that their two sons are grown. A chance encounter with Nick’s slyly smug, highly successful Cambridge buddy, American ex-pat Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), followed by a dinner party at his Rue de Rivoli flat, is the catalyst that crystalizes the compromises they’ve both made over the years, as Nick wryly confides in Morgan’s neglected, stoner son (Olly Alexander) and Meg turns to Morgan’s pregnant, young French wife (Judith Davis).  There’s recrimination, followed by hints of reconciliation – along with songs by Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, and an amusing dance sequence that evokes memories of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a Part.”

This marks the fourth collaboration between screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (“Venus,” “The Mother,” “The Buddha of Suburbia”), who capture mid-life melancholy and reflective regret. The two British actors are seasoned pros who are able to clearly – and endearingly – delineate the tart complexity of their bickering characters. While Jim Broadbent is familiar to American audiences from “Gangs of New York,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Another Year” and “Iris,” for which he received an Oscar, elegant Lindsay Duncan was seen in “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Mansfield Park.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Le Week-End” is an unsentimental, bittersweet 7, appealing to older, art-house audiences who enjoyed “Quartet” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

“God’s Not Dead”

Susan Granger’s review of “God’s Not Dead” (Freestyle Releasing)

 

Why the sudden proliferation of Christian movies? Have Hollywood’s heathens been converted? Not likely. Biblical films have been around as long as the movie business; back in 1927, “The King of Kings” depicted Mary Magdalene’s liaison with Judas Iscariot. In recent decades, evangelical Christians have become voracious media consumers; Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” remains the highest-grossing independent film ever.

But this maudlin melodrama is not only forgettable but also unlikely. Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is a pre-law student who enrolls in a philosophy class taught by arrogant Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). On the first day, Radisson outlines the philosophers they’ll be studying, all of whom are atheists – and insists that each student sign a pledge asserting: “God is dead.”

Immediately, the proselytizing concept loses credibility – because no teacher at a legitimate academic institution would make that demand, augmenting it with the threat of failure in the course.

As a devout Christian, Josh cannot comply, despite protests from his girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford, daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford). When Professor Radisson demeans religion as “primitive superstition,” Josh decides to defend his principles in a mock trial with fellow students serving as the jury. While Josh’s support of God’s existence is intelligent and thought-provoking, too little time is spent on theology. Instead, non-Christians are portrayed as loathsome and self-centered. There’s a corporate exec (Dean Cain) who ditches his cancer-stricken girlfriend (Trisha LaFache) and refuses to visit his mother who is suffering from dementia. And a Muslim father (Dean Cain) whose daughter (Hadeel Sittu) is banished for her beliefs.

Written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon and directed by Harold Cronk, it’s contrived and undeniably amateurish, including a cameo from “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “God’s Not Dead” is an implausible 3, likely to please only the faithful – with a host of Christian-centric movies to follow, including “Left Behind” with Nicolas Cage as a commercial airline pilot caught in the wake of the Rapture.

“The Raid 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Raid 2” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

It’s obvious from the getgo that this genre sequel to Gareth Evans’ 2011 “Raid: Redemption” is going to be an intense, uber- violent action adventure. Set in Indonesia, just hours after the conclusion of the previous film, it’s the epic tale of a heroic Jakarta cop infiltrating an underworld cartel in order to weed out the rampant corruption within the city’s police force.

When Rama (Iko Uwais) joins a covert undercover police force, he’s given a new identity and sent to prison where he befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), the hot-tempered scion of a crime family. Two years later, when Rama gets released, Uco’s grateful father, Bangun (Tio Padkusadewo), gives Rama a job as an enforcer. Problem is: impatient Uco wants to take over the business and is tempted by seductive offers from leather-gloved Bejo (Alex Abbad), a rival boss who previously bumped off Rama’s bad-seed brother in a sugarcane field. That places Rama right in the middle of a father/son turf war, fighting off psychopathic assassins like Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), while his long-suffering wife and infant son wait on the sidelines.

Obviously, Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans surrounds himself with martial arts specialists who pride themselves on inventive methods of annihilation – like pushing a man’s face onto a steaming griddle. Stretched over two-and-a-half hours, the relentless mayhem is adroitly photographed and carefully choreographed with a bizarrely artistic flair, particularly the careening, multi-vehicle car chases, reminiscent of “The French Connection” – all punctuated by a primarily percussive soundtrack.

There’s little CGI, so it’s all accomplished by stuntmen and adroit editing. But how the combat scenes with their explicit carnage managed an R-rating is a mystery; NC-17 would have been more appropriate. But then it couldn’t have played in mainstream theaters.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Raid” is a sadistic 6 – and the fact that it’s subtitled doesn’t much matter since the bloody, brutal brawling transcends the language barrier.

“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” (Warner Bros.)

 

Have you ever seen lemurs dance? In this nature documentary, narrator Morgan Freeman transports you thousands of miles away – to the island of Madagascar, where the Earth’s oldest primates dwell.

More than 60 million years ago, the ancestors of these lemurs floated from East Africa on the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean to Madagascar on little rafts of vegetation. In that strange, isolated environment with no predators, they flourished, developing into a variety of species, some as large as a gorilla. Now, because of the growth of civilization, over 90% of their forests have been destroyed.  All the giant lemurs are extinct – and the types that are left are in danger.

Filmmakers David Douglas and Drew Fellman (“Born to Be Wild”) spent three months exploring the elusive lemurs’ exotic habitats and working with American primatologist Dr. Patricia C. Wright, Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, who describes their female-centric power structure.

Known as the “Eighth Continent,” massive Madagascar is about the size of Texas – with a varied topography.  Established in 1991, Ranomafana National Park provides 112,000 acres of protected rainforest and has become only indigenous home to many species – from the Greater Bamboo lemurs to the Ring-tailed lemurs and the Mouse Lemurs which, as the smallest primates in the world, have the same genetic foundation as humans. While the large Indri lemurs are the shrill choral masters, it’s the dancing Sifakas that steal your heart. They’re playful, arboreal acrobats, leaping great distances between trees covered in needle-sharp spines.

To their credit, the filmmakers never anthropomorphize these adorably furry creatures. Instead, they allow the lemurs’ expressive faces and frisky antics, captured by the astounding imagery of the 3-D IMAX format, weave a compelling web. If only it was a rousing call to some kind of action.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is an enchanting, educational 7, delivering its ecological message about conservation in a most delightful way. See it daily at the IMAX Theater in the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk.

“Rio 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Rio 2” (20th Century-Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios)

 

While this animated sequel stuffs in twice as many characters and twice the amount of comedic subplots, it redeems itself with progressive percussive pop music.

Those rare Blue Spix Macaws, domesticated Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and free-spirited Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are raising their three chicks: wise Bia (Amandla Stenberg), adventurous Tiago (Pierce Gagnon) and adolescent Carla (Rachel Crow). But when Blu’s Minnesota buddies, traveling eco-activists Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), find a flock of Blue Spix Macaw as they’re trying to halt logging in the Amazon rainforest, they announce that the endangered species is not extinct. So Jewel decides that it’s time to introduce her iPod-loving kids to their natural wild habitat in South America. Nerdy, neurotic Blu, who wears a fanny pack with a GPS for navigation, is understandably reluctant about making the 2,000-mile journey. Nevertheless, they descend on Rio de Janeiro, along with the party-hearty toucan Rafael (George Lopez) and the rapper duo of cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx). Before long, they find Jewel’s lost-lost family, including her stern father Eduardo (Andy Garcia), overbearing Aunt Mimi (Rita Moreno) and preening childhood playmate Roberto (Bruno Mars), whose charm ignites citified Blu’s jealousy.  Meanwhile, in the waterfront Carnavale, the villainous, Shakespeare-quoting cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) is plotting revenge with Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), a poisonous pink-and-purple tree frog who adores Nigel but cannot be touched, and mute Charlie, a tap-dancing anteater with an extra-long, elastic tongue.

Chaotically scripted by Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks and Toni Brenner from a story by Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha, it’s filled with vividly colorful merriment and jubilant musical numbers, supervised by Sergio Mendes with composer John Powell, singer-songwriter Carlinhos Brown and original compositions by Janelle Monae and Wondaland. But the effect is uneven. Jemaine Clement’s rap-infused rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” seems discordant, while Kristin Chenoweth soars with the torch song “Poison Love.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rio 2”is an exotic 6, a frantic, family-friendly adventure that’s filled with familiar feathered friends.

“Draft Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Draft Day” (Summit Entertainment)

 

Each May, National Football League general managers wheel-and-deal, trying to sign the best college players. So, when Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) of the Cleveland Browns gets a call from the Seattle Seahawks, offering to trade their star quarterback, he must decide whether he’s willing to sacrifice his first, and perhaps only, chance to build his own dream team, for what looks like a ‘sure thing.’

Sonny’s in a bind. His fabled coach father died the week before, and his spunky girl-friend Ali (Jennifer Garner), the team’s salary-cap manager, just informed him that she’s pregnant.  Sonny really wants linebacker Vonte Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who will serve the team in the long run.  Besides, the Browns already have a strong quarterback (Tom Welling), now fully recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him much of last season. On the other hand, the head coach (Denis Leary) desperately wants running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father (NFL vet Terry Crews) was also a Brown. And the team’s owner (Frank Langella), tells him his job’s on the line unless he picks a winner.

Written by Rejiv Joseph and Scott Rothman and directed by Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Kindergarten Cop”), this sports dramedy is, basically, about having the courage of your convictions – with split-screens effectively heightening the tension. The pressure takes place behind closed doors in the executive offices, as opposed to the playing field, while statisticians observe that sometimes first-round picks turns out to be duds, while a sixth-rounder, like New England’s Tom Brady, excels.

Kevin Costner (“Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams”) is solid, as are Garner and Leary, with Ellen Burstyn as embattled Sonny’s outspoken mother and Sean Combs as a slick agent. Cameos include real-life Browns, past and present, including legendary Jim Brown, plus sports figures Chris Berman, Mel Kiper, Jon Gruden, Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Draft Day” scores a shrewdly suspenseful 6. Not as good as “Jerry Maguire” or “Moneyball,” but football fanatics will undoubtedly enjoy it.

“The Bridges of Madison County:

Susan Granger’s review of “The Bridges of Madison County” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theater ‘2014)

 

Translating the iconic 1995 love story in which Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood’s simmering passion ignited the screen into a Broadway musical is a challenge.  Yet composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown does it superbly, while the exquisite voices of Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale soar gloriously.

Set in 1965, melancholy Francesca Johnson (Kelli O’Hara) nostalgically recounts her journey as a young Italian war bride transplanted from Naples to the vast cornfields of Iowa with the opening number “To Build a Home.”  Married to stolid Bud (Hunter Foster) for 18 years, they now have two teenagers, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena). When Bud and the bickering kids take off for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, Francesca stays home. So when National Geographic photographer, Texas-born Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale), stops by to ask directions to a particular covered bridge, she offers him iced tea and a home-cooked meal.  Acutely aware of their emotional connection, one intimacy inevitably leads to another as they trill the ballad “Falling Into You.”

With a lilting Italian accent, Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific,” “Pajama Game”) gracefully embodies Francesca’s unspoken sadness and earthy, repressed sensuality, while Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) exudes soulful conviction. Their second-act duet, “One Second and a Million Miles” is a show-stopper. As Francesca’s nosy but kind-hearted neighbors, Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin add much needed humor, while Whitney Bashor, as Robert’s ex-wife, sings the folk ballad “Another Life.”

Based on Robert James Waller’s sudsy, 1992 best-seller about loneliness, love and longing in the American Midwest, it’s adapted by Marsha Norman (“’night Mother,” “The Color Purple”), who dilutes the essential romantic aspect by devoting far too much time to trivia with Bud and the farm kids.  And director Bartlett Sher, perhaps inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” clutters the stage with far too many distracting, obviously disapproving, rustic bystanders who keep busily moving props on Michael Yeargan’s stylized set, enhanced by Donald Holder’s dramatic lighting.