“Infinitely Polar Bear”

Susan Granger’s review of “Infinitely Polar Bear” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Maya Forbes’ episodic, autobiographical family comedy is based on her own confusing childhood in the late 1970s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father, Donald Cameron Forbes, was manic-depressive or bi-polar, once writing on a hospital admission form that he was “infinitely polar bear.”

Chain-smoking Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) is impulsive, unpredictable and eccentric. He adores his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and their two precocious daughters, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) and Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky).

While Cam comes from wealth, he’s unable to hold a job. Both Cam and his patrician parents (Keir Dullea, Beth Dixon) are dependent on bits of money doled by his grandmother, the matriarch of an old Boston blue-blood family.

So it falls to Maggie to be the bread-winner. To that end, she gets a scholarship to earn her M.B.A. at Columbia University. For the 18 months she’s in New York, troubled Cam must fight to hold it all together to take care of the spirited, grade school-age girls in a cramped, cluttered apartment.

In the pivotal leading role, Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher,” “The Hulk”) artfully combines rumpled resentment over the hard choices they’re forced to make with a mercurial abundance of humor, love – and Lithium. While Zoe Saldana is sympathetic and believable, her role seems oddly underwritten in comparison with his.

Deftly glossing over the darker aspects of mental illness, innately optimistic Maya Forbes helms her first feature film with insight and sensitivity, deftly integrating sequences from some of her late father’s Super 8 home movies.

In college, Maya Forbes wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, then moved to Los Angeles, where she spent four years as a writer/producer on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.”  She’s married to writer/producer Wally Wolodarsky and 12 year-old Imogene is their real-life daughter. Maya also writes songs with her younger sister, China Forbes, lead singer of the band Pink Martini.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Infinitely Polar Bear” is an engaging, enigmatic 8, an offbeat, feel-good film that tugs at your heartstrings.

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“Big Game”

Susan Granger’s review of “Big Game” (Relativity/EuropaCorp)

 

En route to a peace conference in Helsinki, Air Force One is attacked from within by turncoat Secret Service Agent Morris (Ray Stevenson), who pushes the unpopular, ineffectual President of the United States (Samuel L. Jackson) into an escape pod to crash into Finland’s frozen wilderness.

Meanwhile, 13 year-old Oskari (Onni Tommila), son of a renowned hunter, has embarked on a traditional rite-of-passage, spending 24 hours alone in Lapland’s rugged terrain, armed only with a bow and arrow. What he hunts and kills on this walkabout in the wild will prove what kind of man he is.

Witnessing the fiery crash, timid but determined Oskari discovers the wreckage and promises to lead President William Moore to safety, declaring, “My forest, my rules.” But it’s not that easy.

But Morris, who parachuted to safety, and co-conspirator Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus), the illegitimate son of a Gulf oil sheik, are on their trail, since psychopathic Hazar considers POTUS his ultimate trophy.

Back in Washington, D.C., the incredulous Vice-President (Victor Garber) sputters, “You’re telling me you lost the President like you lose a set of car keys?”

Not surprisingly, he and the Pentagon intelligence officers (Felicity Huffman, Ted Levine) declare Air Force One’s disappearance “the most serious terrorist act since 9/11,” dispatching an experienced senior field analyst (Jim Broadbent) to lead a Special Forces unit on a rescue mission.

Concocted by Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander (“Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale”) from an improbable story by Helander and Petri Jokirita, this ridiculous action-adventure blithely combines thriller elements from “Air Force One,” “Cliffhanger,” “Escape From New York” and “White House Down.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Big Game” is an escapist 6, destined for popularity on the Netflix queue.

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“Amy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Amy” (A24)

 

This booze ‘n’ drugs documentary about British songwriter/vocalist Amy Winehouse rises above the ordinary in the capable hands of Asif Kapadia, who previously scored with his 2011 cinematic portrait of Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna.

Long before winning six Grammys and acquiring her signature beehive, tattoos and Cleopatra-like eyeliner wings, Amy grew up, as one pal puts it, “like a classic North London Jewish girl with lots of attitude.”

But the telltale signs were there, including teenage bulimia and depression, perhaps beginning after her domineering father, Mitch, left her mother, Janis, to live with another woman when Amy was nine.

In her early years as a musician, Amy was fortunate to have her first manager Nick Shymansky and two girl-friends – Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert – who stuck by her until her sassy self-destructiveness drove them away. Then came her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a junkie who introduced her to heroin and crack-cocaine.

Fearless in front of an audience, cheeky Amy was terrified of only one thing: fame.

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous,” she declared in a radio interview when she was 20. “I don’t think I can handle it. I’d probably go mad.”

Five years later, she wrote and performed the powerfully personal “Rehab” about her refusal to enter a drug rehabilitation facility. In July, 2011, Amy died of alcohol toxicity at age 27.

“Life teaches you how to live it, if you’re lucky enough to live that long,” concludes Tony Bennett, one of Amy’s childhood idols, who collaborated on a “Body and Soul” duet with her a few month before she died.

Utilizing early home movies and contemporary newsreel footage, overlaid with previously recorded audio interviews, director Asif Kapadia and editor Chris King chronicle her decline and degradation.

But Mitch Winehouse maintains that this bleak bio-pic not only misrepresents his daughter’s life but also his part in it. FYI: he figures prominently in the lyrics of “Rehab,” telling her that she’s “fine” without it.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Amy” is a disturbing, disconcerting 7, following this talented pop idol on her deadly downward spiral.

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“Escobar: Paradise Lost”

Susan Granger’s review of “Escobar: Paradise Lost” (Radius)

 

Veteran Italian actor Andrea di Stefano makes his directorial debut with this thriller about a young Canadian surfing instructor who becomes involved with infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The story opens in 1991, when Escobar (Benicio del Toro) is about to go to prison. But before he turns himself in, he decides to hide his fortune, giving Nick (Josh Hutcherson) a 9-millimenter gun and detailed instructions how to stash the loot in a cave and then kill the guide who has been enlisted to help.

So how did Nick get into this mess? That’s told in flashbacks.

Apparently, he was riding the waves of Medellin’s beaches with his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) when he met vivacious, idealistic Maria (Spanish actress Claudia Traisac), Escobar’s favorite niece.

After being helicoptered onto Escobar’s sprawling hacienda in the jungle for a lavish birthday celebration, Nick discovers the then-popular politician has just renovated a new health clinic for the poor. And when he naively inquires how Uncle Pablo got rich, Maria blithely answers, “Cocaine!”

She explains that people in this tropical region have been chewing coca leaves for centuries and Uncle Pablo is just “exporting the national product.” But it’s not that simple.

When Nick is assaulted by some thugs in town, he mentions it to Escobar, who promptly “takes care of it.”  The bullies are subsequently murdered and found hanging by their feet from a tree.

Even after Nick marries Maria and is absorbed into Escobar’s powerful web of deception and intrigue, he doesn’t seem to realize what’s happening until Colombia’s Minister of Justice is viciously assassinated and Escobar goes on the run.

Ambitiously attempting to evoke memories of “The Godfather,” writer/director Andrea di Stefano has obviously fictionalized real events to achieve suspense. While Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) remains expressionless and opaque, the film’s greatest asset is the wily, ruthless menace conveyed by Benicio del Toro, who won an Oscar for “Traffic.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is a disturbing, yet unfocused 5, dissolving into multi-lingual melodrama.

05

 

“Jimmy’s Hall”

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

 

While not as compelling as his highly acclaimed “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006), this is the latest addition to Ken Loach’s socially conscious films about downtrodden people who challenge the dominant political narrative.

Set in 1932 in bucolic County Leitrim, still recovering from the Irish War of Independence 10 years earlier, the story revolves around Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who returns home after being summarily deported to Depression-era America because he was deemed subversive by the Roman Catholic Church.

Jimmy’s ostensibly back in Ireland to help his ailing mother (Aileen Henry) with the family farm, but he soon gravitates to meetings held in the now-abandoned Pearse-Connolly Hall, which he founded a decade earlier.

Refurbished and revitalized into a community center, it becomes the place where young people come to study the poetry of W.B. Yeats and other Irish icons, along with enjoying popular music, dancing and boxing.

“The hall is a safe place,” Jimmy maintains. “It brings out the best in us.”

“What is this craze for pleasure?” questions Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), the parish priest, who condemns jazz music, along with the building, describing it as the “Los Angeles-ization” of the culture.

This social hub is also where Jimmy reunites with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), his former sweetheart who’s now married. While Jimmy gives her a pale blue dress he bought for her in New York, their sexual attraction becomes virtuously sublimated into collective organizing, which erupts into a protest against the forced eviction of poor tenants laborers from the estates of wealthy landowners.

Working with his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, British director Ken Loach skims over the elusive socio-political context to concentrate on the fictionalized conflict between provocateur Gralton and the oppressive clergy of the “Holy Mother Church.”

Evocatively filmed on location in Leitrim and Sligo, it depicts in meticulously realistic, period detail the harshly picturesque countryside where the actual events occurred.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 o 10, “Jimmy’s Hall is a subtly stolid 6, a romanticized cinematic portrait of a Celtic agitator who died in New York in 1945 and is buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

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“Faith of Our Fathers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Faith of Our Fathers” (Pure Flix Entertainment/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

 

This evangelical, Christian-themed saga revolves around two strangers united in their efforts to learn more about their fathers on an impromptu road trip to Washington, D.C. to visit The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Boasting a Beatles-inspired name, John Paul George (Kevin Downes) is engaged to Cynthia (Candace Cameron Bure), who’s eagerly planning their upcoming nuptials. At her suggestion, he embarks on a quest to find Wayne, the son of the man his dad befriended in Vietnam back in 1969.

John discovers that Wayne (David A.R. White) lives in a dilapidated shack, warily guarding a stack of old letters from John’s dad.  When John requests to read them, Wayne demands $500 for each.

Deeply religious, John’s dad (Sean McGowan) often quotes from the Bible – John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  But Wayne’s dad (Scott Whyte) is a cynic, irritating their serious Sergeant (Stephen Baldwin), who turns up later to answer the question of how both soldiers died.

While the inspirational concept is certainly admirable, writer/director Carey Scott, working with co-writer Harold Uhl, along with Kevin Downes and David A.R. White, heavy-handedly telegraphs every plot twist ahead-of-time, and the Vietnam flashbacks are so amateurish that they lack credibility.

John’s dad is seen scribbling these precious letters in pencil on tiny scraps of paper in the battlefield as rain pours down; but when John views them, they’re clearly written on what appears to be pristine notebook paper.

Since the characters are superficially stereotypical, it’s difficult for actors to be believable. And when you realize that combining the protagonists’ names turns out to be “John Wayne,” it lands like a thud, along with the proclamation: “I have a heavenly father who loves me more than an earthly father ever could.”

If you’re searching for faith-based films, I recommend 2014’s “Calvary” and “Ida” – which take both devotion and film-making seriously.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Faith of Our Fathers” is a faltering 4, preaching to the choir.

04

“Terminator Genisys”

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

 

“I’m old – not obsolete,” proclaims Arnold Schwarzenegger’s monosyllabic cyborg, as the sci-fi fantasy franchise continues.

It begins in 2029, when John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the human resistance, sends Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect his mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). Unexpectedly, the timeline fractures, so Kyle lands in Los Angeles in an altered version of the past, complicating his mission to re-set the future.

The aging, re-programmed T-800 (Arnold) has become Sarah’s avuncular protector, turning her into a hardnosed warrior. She’s devoted to him, calling him “Pops.” But they’re up against another, more sophisticated killing machine, T-1000 (Korean star Byung-hun Lee), consisting of menacing, malleably mutating, metallic goo – and it’s even more lethal.

Now, the impending Judgment Day, when Skynet goes rogue, isn’t 1997 but 2017, when Skynet plans to take over the world, utilizing a nefarious operating system called Genisys that coordinates everyone’s portable communication devices.

You may need a flow chart to follow this confusing, fragmented plot, complete with gibberish dialogue and bizarre flashbacks to future events, scripted by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, directed by Alan Taylor, based on James Cameron’s original concept.

Since Taylor directed several “Game of Thrones” TV episodes, he cleverly cast Emilia Clarke (a.k.a. Daenerys, mother-of-dragons) as Sarah Connor, the role originated by Linda Hamilton; she has an easy camaraderie with Arnold.  Unfortunately, Australian actor Jai Courtney’s Reese, when clothed, turns out to be a rather bland and uninteresting fellow.

In an obvious appeal to video gamers, there’s lots of digital spectacle and staged destruction. One of the most memorable scenes has the then-37 year-old Austrian bodybuilder fighting the now-67 year-old ex-Governor, courtesy of CGI.

And J.K. Simmons surfaces for comic relief, playing an alcoholic, yet determined L.A.P.D. detective who has spent three decades trying to unravel the Terminator mystery.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Terminator Genisys” is a tangled, transecting 7, proving time travel is a tricky thing.

07

 

“Magic Mike XXL”

Susan Granger’s review of “Magic Mike XXL” (Warner Bros.)

 

When Steven Soderbergh’s over-the-top comedy romp was a surprise hit in 2012, a sequel was inevitable. So three years later, Mike (Channing Tatum) abandons his burgeoning furniture business to re-join the brawny Kings of Tampa for one last road trip to a Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

In Jacksonville, Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard), a flirtatious photographer. And when Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) does an impromptu solo, grinding on a soda machine, just to bring a smile to the face of a glum mini-mart clerk, Mike realizes they all need to come up with some new, erotic moves.

So it’s onto Savannah to find raunchy Rome (Jada Pickett Smith), who runs Domina, a private pleasure palace where black women can indulge their fantasies. While Mike convinces her to become their new Master of Ceremonies, she can’t hold a candle to Matthew McConaughey’s charming zest.

Insofar as eye-candy goes: these buff, oiled-up, half-naked, virile guys – including Matt Bomer as Ken, Adam Rodriguez as Tito and Kevin Nash as Tarzan – show off their rippling, washboard abs and deliver lots of pelvic thrusts, joined by Donald Glover as romantic rapper Andre, NFL Super Bowl Champ Michael Strahan as athletically-inclined Augustus, and Stephen ‘t’Witch’ Boss as Malik, who mirrors Mike in the show-stopping finale.

Their ridiculous gyrations delight Andie MacDowall’s uninhibited, cougar-like, sex-starved Southern divorcee and Elizabeth Banks’ convention chief, who candidly wonders whether Mike still has the magic. And the raucous interlude in a LGBT club is an obvious nod to the gay audience.

Based on producer/star Channing Tatum’s nostalgic experiences, it’s superficially scripted by Reid Carolin, choreographed by Alison Faulk and directed by Gregory Jacobs – with the concept’s creator/producer Steven Soderbergh behind-the-scenes as cinematographer and editor, using the pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Magic Mike XXL” is a sleazy, sybaritic yet surprisingly sweet 7, revolving around a troupe of male strippers who are determined to elevate women’s self-esteem.

07

“Max”

Susan Granger’s review of “Max” (Warner Bros./M.G.M.)

 

Rin Tin Tin lives! Well, almost. Combining elements of “American Sniper” with a family theme, this hybrid canine adventure revolves around a war dog whose U.S. Marine handler is killed in Afghanistan.

As his story begins, heroic Max is on a specialized search mission in Kandahar with Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amiel), who is killed during a skirmish. Desolate and unruly, Max suffers from PTSD, returning to the Texas dog-training facility. Slated for euthanasia, he’s unable to relate to anyone except Kyle’s rebellious teenage brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins).

Back in 2000, President Clinton signed a law allowing military working dogs (WMDs) to be adopted by their handlers or their civilian families, so Max comes to live with the Wincotts, despite reservations by Justin’s grieving parents (Thomas Hayden Church, Lauren Graham) who are justifiably wary.

When he’s not pirating video games, sullen slacker Justin hangs out with BMX-riding Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and tough-talking Carmen (Mia Xitlali), who teaches him how to relate to distraught Max.

As they bond, Justin discovers that Kyle’s Marine buddy, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is not only lying about Max’s role in Kyle’s death but has also become involved with an illegal weapons deal involving the local Mexican gang leader (Joseph Julian Soria), a crooked cop (Owen Harn) and two vicious Rottweilers.

Directed by Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans,” “Fresh”) from a conventionally patriotic, cliché-riddled screenplay he wrote with Sheldon Lettich (“Rambo III,” “Double Impact”), it’s burdened not only by clunky dialogue but also Trevor Rabin’s manipulative score.

Kudos to animal coordinator Mark Forbes, who used several different Belgian Malinois as Max. FYI: The military switched from German Shepherds several years ago. Belgian Malinois are smaller, lighter and more agile; in addition, they live longer and don’t suffer from hip-dysplasia problems that plague German Shepherds.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Max” is a schmaltzy 6, yet parents should be aware that some of the ferocious dog fights may be too scary for young children.

06

 

“Ted 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Ted 2” (Universal Pictures)

 

The most inventive sequence in this lackluster sequel opens the titles, as the Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) marries his gum-chewing girlfriend, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), with Sam Jones (1980s Flash Gordon) officiating, followed by a lavish Busby Berkeley-like dance number atop a giant wedding cake.

Cut to one year later, when Ted and Tami-Lynn squabbling. Although Ted has no genitals, they agree that having a baby will quell their domestic strife and save their relationship.

So Ted and his “thunder buddy,” John (Mark Wahlberg), pay an ill-fated visit to a sperm bank, then sneak into New England Patriot’s QB Tom Brady’s house at night, hoping to use him as a donor.

When that fails, they visit adoption agencies, only to discover that, according to Massachusetts law, Ted’s not really a person but a piece of property. So it’s off to find the fledging lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) who will take on their legal/philosophical civil rights case – pro-bono.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot in which a creepy Hasbro janitor (Giovanni Ribisi) tries to kidnap Ted and dissect him to discover his ‘secret’ to manufacture a new line of sentient, self-aware, Ted-like bears.

When writer/director Seth MacFarlane (TV’s “Family Guy” creator) devised this profane, pot-smoking CGI teddy bear character, it was kind of sweet and amusing. But this inept sequel revolves around one crude joke. And it grows stale fast.

Perverted and proudly politically-incorrect, there are seemingly endless marijuana reference, punctuated by celebrity cameos (Jay Leno, Morgan Freeman, John Slattery, etc.) – with Liam Neeson delivering dead-pan humor, purchasing a box of Trix cereal.

Following a clever soundtrack homage to “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs on a road trip from Boston to New York, there’s lovely, lyric interlude in which Seyfried sings “Mean Ol’ Moon,” mesmerizing various woodland creatures, including a raccoon and a lobster. But the climactic Comic-Con chase sequence falls flat. It’s all hit-or-miss mediocrity.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ted 2” is a flagrantly fumbling 5. The bawdy bear is back – and it’s disappointingly un-funny.

05