“A LEGO Brickumentary”

Susan Granger’s review of “A LEGO Brickumentary” (Radius TWC)

 

Like the interlocking construction bricks, LEGO-maniacs come in all shapes and sizes, as demonstrated by documentarians Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge, who examine the LEGO phenomenon

Jason Bateman voices our genial mini-LEGO guide on this click-by-click, brick-by-brick journey showing how this simple, plastic toy has become a ubiquitous cultural icon, catapulting a small Danish company, founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, into a $4 billion business that once nearly folded.

Apparently, in the late 1900s and early 2000s, LEGO focused on producing specialized theme sets, based on “Harry Potter,” “Star Trek,” and “Lord of the Rings,” among others. But there was no natural demographic. As a result in 2003, LEGOs popularity declined. When the company listened to its customers and reverted to its original concept, sales rebounded.

Then “The LEGO Movie” (2014) became an animation favorite, reminding us how playing was absolutely awesome.

Now, stop-motion LEGO animation is a YouTube phenomenon. Artist Nathan Sawaya specializes in LEGO sculptures, and a Seattle mom named Alice Finch has won the top prize at three consecutive LEGO conventions for creating a fantastically detailed model of Rivendale, the “Lord of the Rings” Elven village, utilizing more than 200,000 bricks.

Stephen Pakbaz, one of the NASA engineers behind the Mars Curiosity rover, built a LEGO replica that is now sold as a LEGO set, and Dr. Daniel LeGoff, a New Jersey psychologist, uses LEGOs to help autistic children communicate with one another.

Plus there are testimonials from “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker, pop musician Ed Sheeran and NBA player Dwight Howard, among others.

An interesting sidebar reveals how a life-sized X-Wing Starfighter – encompassing eight tons of bricks – was built in Denmark over a period of 17,000 hours and then shipped to Times Square to coincide with Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” promotion.

FYI: There was once a LEGO factory, offering tours, in Enfield, CT, but it’s now closed.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A LEGO Brickumentary” is a family-friendly 5 – a 90-minute infomercial.

05

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Sandbar Pictures)

 

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez examines the psychological research conducted in August, 1971, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and funded, in part, by the U.S. Dept. of Naval Research.

Zimbardo randomly divided 24 Stanford University students into prisoners and guards and placed them in an improvised prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, paying them $15 a day to participate.

Almost immediately, as the volunteers assumed their assigned roles, they exhibited behavior that reflected distress and despair, abuse and degrading, sexualized humiliation, proving how situation shapes conduct.

As one of Zimbardo’s graduate-student assistants says, “I don’t think we can call this an experiment anymore. It’s a demonstration.”

Taught in journalism classes today, this notorious study illustrates questionable methodology/ethics, the frightening pliability of reality, and the effects of power in all its permutations. It’s another “Lord of the Flies.”

Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s 2007 book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” it’s a horrifying re-enactment, featuring Billy Crudup as imperious, often patronizing, Zimbardo who later served as an expert witness in one of the Abu Ghraib trials.

Ezra Miller (“Trainwreck”) delivers a memorable performance as rebellious Prisoner #8612, along with Michael Angarano (“The Knick”) as the cocky, manipulative guard who adopts a John Wayne persona, complete with swagger and Southern drawl.

And there’s a simmering class/race undercurrent, epitomized by Zimbardo’s ‘consultant,’ Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), an ex-con who spent 17 years in San Quentin.

Working closely with Alvarez, cinematographer Jas Shelton emphasizes the claustrophobia with tight close-ups and tracking shots up and down the hall.

Unfortunately, there are no backstories about the students, except poor Prisoner #2093 (Chris Sheffield), who was living in his car for the summer.

And the muddled third act wavers between ambiguity and cautionary oratory, followed by a bewildering epilogue that seems at odds with the rest of the narrative. It’s amazing that Zimbardo and the University weren’t sued by the subjects.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is an intense, provocative 6, as role-playing goes horribly awry.

06

 

 

“Vacation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Vacation” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema)

 

In “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), Chevy Chase originated the hapless character of Clark Griswold, an eagerly oblivious dad who drove his family 2,500-miles cross-country to Walley World, America’s favorite fun park.

In this reboot, Ed Helms (“The Hangover”) plays Clark’s moronic son, Rusty Griswold, a regional EconoAir pilot who yearns to re-create the same childhood road trip with his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two bickering sons: sensitive, guitar-strumming James (Skyler Gisondo) and foul-mouthed, bullying Kevin (Steele Stebbins), who wants to commit fratricide.

“You just want to redo your vacation from 30 years ago?” Debbie asks. “Isn’t that just going to be a disappointment?”

For her – you bet.

Particularly when Debbie re-visits the humiliating projectile vomiting of her Memphis college sorority days, when she was known as “Debbie Do Anything” for her binge-drinking, and she winds up swimming in human excrement.

Then there’s their rented Tartan Prancer, an Albanian minivan with button booby-traps and a navigation system that speaks only Korean; a suicidal Grand Canyon river-rafting tour guide (Charlie Day); the rickety Walley World roller-coaster; and multiple cover versions of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” theme song.

Stripped to his skivvies, hunky Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) is Stone Crandall, a wealthy, right-wing, Texas weatherman who’s married to Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), but nothing much clicks until Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo do a nostalgic cameo in their original Truckster station wagon.

Based on characters created by John Hughes and Harold Ramis, it’s written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), who make their directing debut. Given the haphazard timing and ham-fisted staging, their bumbling inexperience is painfully obvious.

It’s also too bad so many of the humorous gags are in the Coming Attractions trailers. And while one would think of the comedic subject as family fare, its’ R-rating for profanity, sexual vulgarity, graphic nudity, along with crude pedophile and AIDS jokes, should discourage parents from bringing youngsters.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Vacation” is a frustratingly un-funny 4. Skip this forgettable trip.

04

 

 

“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (Paramount Pictures/Skydance)

 

This fifth incarnation of the “Mission Impossible” franchise begins with a spectacular, pulse-pounding stunt in which IMF agent Ethan Hunt climbs aboard a huge A-400 cargo plane as it’s taking off.

Yes, that’s really Tom Cruise! And the thrill-ride fun is just beginning…

Ethan is in the middle of a mission when he discovers that a stealthy group of terrorists, known as The Syndicate, led by coldly sinister Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are working discredit the IMF by insidiously recruiting former intelligence operatives from around the world to destabilize countries and ‘eliminate’ major international figures.

Problem is: no one will be believe him, particularly incoming CIA chief, Alan Huntley (Alec Baldwin), who discredits him and the entire operation.

Enter mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a lithe femme fatale, ostensibly from Britain’s MI6, who has infiltrated the Syndicate, yet may or may not be playing both sides. But since she resourcefully saves Ethan’s life – not once but twice – that earns her some credibility with suspicious IMF operatives (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg).

Adding unexpected touches of humor, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”) superbly crafts the intricate, fast-paced espionage suspense, building to several dynamic highpoints, elegantly photographed by Robert Elswit.

There’s an eye-popping assassination attempt in the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot;” Ethan’s daring dive into a whirling maelstrom, holding his breath during a perilous underwater retrieval; and an intrepid car-and-bike chase in Morocco – plus other stunning surprises along the way.

Effectively at the top of his game, vital-yet-vulnerable Tom Cruise is heroically resilient, often matched stunt-for-stunt by stunning Sweden’s Rebecca Ferguson, whose name ‘Ilse’ evokes memories of another enigmatic Swede, Ingrid Bergman, in “Casablanca.”

Fittingly, Joe Kraemer’s propulsive score includes strains of Lalo Schifrin’s original TV series theme.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My son, Don Granger, produced this movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is a taut 10, the most exciting action-adventure of the summer.

10

“Pixels”

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

 

Forget the hype! “Pixels” is just another stupid Adam Sandler man/child movie from Happy Madison Productions (“Jack and Jill,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”).

The visually inventive credits sequence introduces 13 year-old Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) being defeated by mullet-wearing Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Andrew Bambridge) at the 1982 Worldwide Video Arcade Championships.

Skip ahead to present-day – with Brenner (Sandler) working as a Geek Squad-type home-video system installer, wearing a shirt emblazoned with “The Nerd.”

Suddenly, various historic sites around the world, including the Washington Monument and Taj Mahal, along with Manhattan and London, are under siege by giant, weaponized video-games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong.

As it turns out, when NASA sent a time capsule into outer space in 1982, it showed Sam and his pals playing video games, which intergalactic aliens interpreted as Earth’s declaration of war. According to the boorish President of the United States (Kevin James), only Sam and his cronies (Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage) can save the world. +

Written with a insouciantly sexist slant by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling and directed by Chris Columbus (“Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” franchises), it also features Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox, Sean Bean and Jane Krakowski – with cameos by Martha Stewart and Serena Williams.

What’s interesting is conjecture about why Sony cut a scene showing invaders blasting a hole in China’s Great Wall. In confidential Sony e-mails that were hacked and publicly released last year, Beijing’s Film Bureau members objected to any depiction of the destruction of one of their national treasures; apparently, Sony self-censored to pacify them.

The lesson: never underestimate the allure of the Chinese box-office, worth $4.8 billion in 2014, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Only 34 foreign films are released in China each year; 14 must be in ‘high’ tech formats like 3D or IMAX. And movie studios receive 25% of the box-office receipts.

Last November, Wang Fenglin, v-p of the China Film Producers Assoc., predicted that – within three years – the Chinese film market will overtake the United States as the largest in the world.

Meanwhile, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pixels” is a toxic 3 – a sloppy, sci-fi comedy bust.

03

“Southpaw”

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

 

At the Cannes Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein publicly predicted that Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler,” “Prisoners”) would get a Best Actor nomination as light-heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope.

In preparation for this arduous role, Gyllenhaal bulked up and worked out with boxers Victor Ortiz and Miguel Gomez.

As his saga begins, Billy’s idyllically happy with a wonderful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and precocious young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). But his world comes crashing down when Maureen is accidently killed after Billy confronts taunting Miguel Escobar (Gomez) after a charity dinner.

Billy’s anger and despair leads to suspension and substance abuse. His promoter/manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) quits and Leila is placed into the care of family services.

Determined to win back custody of his daughter, Billy finds a rundown gym, owned by gruff Titus ‘Tick’ Willis (Forest Whitaker), who agrees to train him for a comeback, teaching him to control his emotional volatility.

“Boxing isn’t about this,” Tick says, indicating his fist. “It’s about this,” he continues, pointing to his head, “It’s a game of chess.”

Obviously obsessed by masculine aggression and brutal violence, writer Kurt Sutter (TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”) and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) dwell on physical brutality and intense realism.

And cinematographer Mauro Fiore films the bruising, bloody fight scenes like pay-per-view television, complete with commentaries by Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr.

While Gyllenhaal garners deserved praise for his dedicated work, the part was originally meant for Eminem., who came from the streets, had boxing experience, along with a real-life daughter, and overcame the death of his childhood friend/fellow rapper, Proof, who was shot and killed in 2006.

When Eminem bowed out, so did DreamWorks. So the project was in turnaround until Harvey Weinstein bought in, bringing Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal. And that’s how movies get made.

If you like boxing movies, along with “Rocky,” I’d recommend “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter” – all far better than this.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “Southpaw” is a seriously slick, sweaty, strenuous 6, filled with extreme spiritual and physical suffering on the road to revenge and redemption.

06

“Paper Towns”

Susan Granger’s review of “Paper Towns” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Following “The Fault in Our Stars,” this is the second screen adaptation of a John Green novel for Young Adults – and a bit of a disappointment in comparison with the first.

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) has been infatuated by Margo Roth Spiegelman (Brit supermodel Cara Delevingne), ever since her family moved in across the street when he was nine years-old. By they get to high school, eccentric Margo has her own cool clique, barely acknowledging geeky Q in the corridor.

Then, one night, near the end of their senior year, Margo crawls into his bedroom window, asking him to drive her around their hometown of Orlando, Florida, to wreak revenge on friends who have betrayed her. After that exhilarating escapade, rebellious Margo mysteriously disappears.

Enlisting two nerdy buddies – Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) – Q is determined to find Margo, who conveniently leaves clues to her whereabouts. Eventually, Q realizes Margo has gone to Algoe in upstate New York, one of the ‘paper towns’ she told him about.

FYI: ‘Paper towns’ is a term used by mapmakers who put non-existent places on their maps to ensure copyright protection.

Q convinces his friends, along with Radar’s girl Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Margo’s BFF Lacey (Halston Sage), to make a 1,200-mile road trip to Algoe, promising to get them back home in time for prom.

Adapted by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber and directed by Jake Schreier (“Robot and Frank”), it’s conventionally plotted and overly contrived, emphasizing themes of taking risks and developing your own perspective by delineating the disconnect between Q’s image of Margo and her image of herself. But that’s all too anticlimactic.

There are some quirky, appealing moments – like Radar’s parents’ collection of black Santas and a timely commentary on a T-shirt with the Confederate flag. Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) does a cameo as a gas station cashier.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paper Towns” is a formulaic 5, appealing primarily to pre-teens or those who have never seen John Hughes’ angst-riddled comedic dramas.

05

“Ant-Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ant-Man” (Disney)

 

Comic-book movies have become a generic part of our popcorn-fare culture – and Paul Rudd’s wise-cracking Scott Lang/Ant-Man adds some surreal, light-hearted amusement.

Electrical engineer-turned-cat burglar Scott Lang is determined to go straight after being released from San Quentin – if only for his adored daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). But, as an ex-con, he’s unable to get a job. Frustrated, Scott agrees to another heist.

That’s where he steals a ‘suit’ that enables him to shrink to microscopic size. It’s the invention of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, reclusive tech genius Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants him to break into his old company to stop his villainous protégé, Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll), from selling his innovative technology to the military.

Pym’s skeptical daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), is eager to don the suit but her protective father forbids it, insisting she’s more valuable working covertly as Cross’s colleague.

After some rigorous martial arts training from Hope, Scott learns not only to shrink but also to command an army of CGI ants, riding atop a winged carpenter ant named Antony, in preparation for a final showdown atop a Thomas the Train Engine set.

Cobbled together as two father/daughter stories by Edgar Wright, Jon Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, it is fragmented and exposition-heavy, often reminiscent of “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957).

And when British screenwriter Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) was abruptly fired as director because of ‘creative differences,’ helming was taken over by Peyton Reed (“The Break-Up”).

FYI: when he made his comic strip debut in 1962, scientist Hank Pym was the Ant-Man, who created a protective helmet with which he could communicate with ants in order to fight Communist agents. Later, Pym assembled the superhero team of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Pym’s beloved Wasp.

So how does Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man measure up?

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ant-Man” is a splashy, simulated 7, utilizing macro-photography and motion-capture technology. There are two end-credits scenes. The first acknowledges the advent of a new, female superhero; the second is a teaser for Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

07

“Cartel Land”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cartel Land” (The Orchard)

 

Inspired by “Border Madness,” an investigative article in “Rolling Stone,” this documentary revolves around the recent battles between drug cartels and two vigilante groups along the Arizona/Mexico border, where idealism has been destroyed by economic reality.

Stark and scary, it opens on the front line – in the desert, south of the Rio Grande – in the middle of the night, when Mexican drug dealers are cooking methamphetamine. Meth is their ticket to money and power.

In the Mexican state of Michoacan, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a gray-haired surgeon known as “El Doctor,” leads the Autodefensas, a citizen’s militia against the ruthless Knights Templar cartel that has threatened the region for years.

At the same time, in Arizona’s 52-mile-long Altar Valley, a corridor known as Cocaine Alley, Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads Arizona Border Recon, a small paramilitary group whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping into the United States.

“They’re terrorizing their own country,” Foley says, “and now they’re starting to do it over here.”

Apparently, in this area south of Tucson, corruption abounds, and the U.S. Border Patrol has basically abandoned enforcement.

Intrepid filmmaker Matthew Heineman, along with co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll, has captured on-camera dozens of real shootouts, disturbing episodes of brutal torture, agonizing interrogations at gunpoint, and severed heads, resulting in violent, dramatic footage that’s not fully explored or explained.

FYI: In the Wild West, the term “vigilante” had a positive spin, designating watchful guardians, often organized without legal authorization, to keep order and punish crimes when lawful prosecution failed. But, in recent years, “vigilante” has been applied by the media to extremist, anarchistic assassins.

Matthew Heineman lets the audience decide which description applies at this particular time and place, explaining, “Over the year I was embedded with both Nailer and El Doctor and their vigilante groups, the more complex the story became: It was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands.”

In English and Spanish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cartel Land” is a chilling, compelling 7, ripped from today’s headlines.

07

“Mr. Holmes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mr. Holmes” (Miramax/Roadside Attractions)

 

Ian McKellan plays craggy, cranky Sherlock Holmes, as the 93 year-old British detective attempts not only to ‘solve’ his last case but also to separate fact from fiction about his life.

Retired to Dover on the southeast coast of England, Holmes lives in a cottage with a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her curious, precocious son, Roger (Milo Parker), who helps him tend his beloved beehives.

Ruminative Holmes realizes that his memory is failing, along with his powers of deduction. To remedy that, he’s experimenting with royal jelly and prickly ash, a rare Japanese herb with rejuvenating qualities.

What he’s struggling to recall are the details of a case involving his relationship with a melancholy, married woman (Hattie Morahan) that’s revealed in flashbacks to postwar London and bombed-out Hiroshima.

Burdened by his celebrity, Holmes is also irked by the way his colleague, Dr. John Watson, exaggerated, even fabricated details in the stories that made him famous, maintaining he actually prefers a cigar to a pipe and never wore a deerstalker cap.

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (2005), this character study is deftly directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” ”Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”) with Ian McKellan (“Lord of the Rings,” “X-Men”) delivering a magnificently complex performance as Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictitious sleuth,  whose exploits are still popular on the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’s “Elementary.”

Kudos to cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, production designer Martin Childs, costumer Keith Madden and composer Carter Burdwell – for creating such a convincing period piece.

If you’re as dazzled by Ian McKellan’s acting as I am, see “Gods and Monsters” (1998) in which he plays “Frankenstein” director James Whale; it’s another meditation on life and aging – for which then-debuting director Bill Condon won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

And if Meryl Streep ever vacates her position as First Lady of American film, Laura Linney should be next in line for that exalted position.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mr. Holmes” is an enigmatic, elegant 8, unraveling the exquisite mystery of memory.

08