“Trainwreck”

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

 

Confession: I had never seen Amy Schumer on Comedy Central, so her earthy brand of brash humor was, at first, a bit unnerving. Her culturally relevant, confessional comedy has no limits: nothing is too intimate or inappropriate for her to say – or write – in this raunchy, role-reversal rom-com.

Her story begins with a flashback, as their philandering father (Colin Quinn) informs young Amy Townsend and her little sister why he and their mother are divorcing, having them repeat: “Monogamy isn’t realistic.”

Flash-forward 23 years. Hard-drinking, commitment-phobic Amy is a magazine features writer and serial slut, seducing whom she wants when she wants, but never spending the night. Her man-of-the-moment is WWE’s muscleman John Cena, who stuns her when he wants to get serious.

Then her saucy, shallow “S’Nuff” editor (Tilda Swinton) assigns sports-loathing Amy to interview Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a successful Manhattan orthopedist whose patients include America’s top athletes, like his sensitive-but-strangely stingy best-buddy, NBA superstar LeBron James.

Obviously charmed by her indecisive, yet uninhibited candor, sweetly geeky Conners invites her to dinner. That leads to drinks – and soon Amy is back at his condo, climbing on top of him. But there are plenty of spiky speed bumps on this road to romance.

Collaborating with director Judd Apatow (“40 Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”), it’s Schumer’s show. Episodic and overly long, much of it works.

According to interviews, Amy’s vulnerable character seems to parallel her own life – including a married sister named Kim (Brie Larson) and an angry, outspoken father suffering from multiple sclerosis.

“When I was writing this script, I realized that I had a really hard time letting somebody love me and felt like I didn’t deserve it,” she says. “And now I totally do. I think I’m a woman to love.”

Once empowered, Amy Schumer is a revelation, and it’s not surprising that she’ll be the stand-up opening act of Madonna’s new show in September.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Trainwreck” is a sneaky, subversive 7, slyly delivering love- spiced laughter.

07

“Time Out of Mind”

Susan Granger’s review of “Time Out of Mind” (IFC Films)

 

At the New York Film Festival, Richard Gere identified this story about a homeless man as one of his proudest projects in an illustrious career that includes “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), “Pretty Woman” (1990), “Chicago” (2002) and “Arbitrage” (2012).

Problem is: while this is the kind of role actors yearn for – I suspect audiences will yawn.

When George Hammond (Gere) is evicted from his squalid New York City apartment, he’s forced to suffer the indignities of vagrancy, wandering the streets, searching for a drink and his next meal.

Needing somewhere to sleep, he goes through the long process of checking into Bellevue, the dingy men’s shelter in Manhattan. To get a meal voucher and a bed for the night, George must answer probing questions about his personal history.

Amid similar unfortunates, he’s isolated and adrift – until he begins conversing with a garrulous fellow (Ben Vereen). And when George accosts a young woman (Jena Malone) in a laundromat, it turns out that she’s his estranged daughter.

New York-based writer/director Oren Moverman (“The Messenger,” “Rampart”) never delves into why George is homeless. Instead, he focuses on George’s travails. It’s plodding, minimalist, socially-conscious film-making.

The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s 30th studio album, since Moverman and Gere met while working on Todd Haynes’ Dylan pseudo-biopic “I’m Not There” (2007), which Moverman co-wrote.

Obviously improvising much of the time, Gere delivers an anguished performance. At the NYFF, he said, half-jokingly, that “what probably really helped was: I was right in the middle of a divorce (from Carey Lowell), so emotions were right on the surface.”

Recalling a panhandling scene, filmed on Astor Place, Gere noted: “I’ve been down there a million times, usually rushing through to try not to be recognized. But as the character, I freaked out because no one would even make eye contact. It’s that black hole of failure that they can see from two blocks away.”

Appearing in cameos are Steve Buscemi, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeremy Strong and Michael K. Williams.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Time Out of Mind” is a tedious, freewheeling 4, an underwhelming movie-going experience.

04

“The Gallows”

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

 

Kathie Lee Gifford’s daughter Cassidy is a new scream-queen in this paranormal “found footage” thriller.

Growing up as the daughter of the “Today” show co-host and NFL Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, Cassidy enjoyed many privileges, including a having her foot-in-the-show business door. After an inauspicious debut in “God’s Not Dead” (2014), she landed a plum role in this horror thriller.

First-time filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing obviously recognized a good publicity hook when it was dangled in front of them, particularly since their incoherent script doesn’t contain a shred of suspense or originality.

On October 29, 1993, a Beatrice, Nebraska, high-school thespian, Charlie Grimille, literally, died on-stage in a freak prop-malfunction during a production of a play called “The Gallows.” Despite school board objections, 20 years later, the drama department decides to mount this jinxed play once again.

But then a vengeful spirit arrives on the scene. The night before the scheduled opening, three students sneak into the auditorium to destroy the set. Suddenly, they’re trapped in the locked building where phone lines are down, and they’re joined by the leading lady.

Supernatural forces seem to be at work in the form of a killer with a hangman’s noose.

Curiously, the stereotypical characters have been given the same first names as the actors who play them. Reese Mishler is the leading man/football star who has a crush on the wannabe actress, Pfeifer Brown. Cassidy Gifford is Pfeifer’s snobbish cheerleader pal, and Ryan Shoos is the annoying videographer.

Jason Blum, producer of “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious,” picked up this derivative, low-budget flick with its shaky, grainy camerawork, irritating audio and C-list cast. With the exception of the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” Blum has become a 21st century Roger Corman, churning out cheap Blumhouse chillers that click at the box-office.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Gallows” is an ominous, yet totally predictable 2 – in the “Blair Witch”-style horror sub-genre.

02

“Minions”

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

 

It was inevitable that the yellow, goggle-eyed squeakers that stole most of the attention in “Despicable Me” would get their own spin-off. This animated prequel reveals a time before Minions became loyal servants of the evil villain Gru.

Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, the prologue reveals that these tiny, single-celled organisms have been around since time began, searching for villainous masters to serve. Over the ages, a T-Rex, an Egyptian pharaoh, Dracula and Napoleon fell because of the ineptitude of these nefarious henchmen.

Exiled to a cave in Antarctica, they fall into a deep depression – until Kevin decides to embark on a quest to look for a new scoundrel to serve, accompanied by enthusiastic Bob and one-eyed, ukulele-toting Stuart.

Washing ashore in Manhattan in 1968, they discard their woolies for denim dungarees before hitchhiking to Orlando, Florida, with bank robbers (voiced by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney), heading for Villain-Con and the “world’s first female supervillain,” Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock).

Then they’re off to tea-slurping, scone-gobbling London to join Scarlet and her daffy inventor husband, Herb (voiced by Jon Hamm), sneaking into the Tower of London to steal the Crown jewels belonging to the Queen (voice by Jennifer Saunders).

Minions’ creator, director Pierre Coffin works with Kyle Balda, whose credits include “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and “Banana” (2010), a four-minute Minion short, and screenwriter Brian Lynch (“Puss in Boots”) – and it’s Coffin who vocalizes the babbling Minions’ bizarre gibberish.

Given their linguistic limitations, the Minions remain supporting characters, and that becomes a problem when there’s no clear, relationship-based narrative to connect their anarchic, absurdist escapades in a fast-paced, full-length feature.

Instead of Pharrell Willliams’ funky hip-hop tunes, the soundtrack is filled with ‘60s nostalgia, including The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Kinks, The Turtles and Donovan’s euphonious “Mellow Yellow.”

And there are no compelling action sequences that make the extra 3-D charge worthwhile.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Minions” is a silly, slapstick 6, amusing enough until “Despicable Me 3,” scheduled for the summer of 2017.

06

“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.

08

 

“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.

06

“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.

07

“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.

06

“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