“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

Susan Granger’s review of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz said, “This new movie will relate the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them,” while candidate Donald Trump rented an Iowa movie theater and distributed free tickets.

Problem is: while this $50 million thriller allegedly relates the attack on the diplomatic compound in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in 2012, the now-retired CIA station chief, identified only as Bob, denies he ever issued an order to “stand down.”

“There never was a stand-down order,” he told the Washington Post/Associated Press. “At no time did I ever second-guess that the team would depart.”

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee found that the CIA and military acted properly in responding to the attack by Islamic extremists and determined that there was no delay in sending a CIA rescue team and no missed opportunity for a military rescue.

“No one will mistake this movie for a documentary,” stated CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani. “It’s a distortion of the events and people who served in Benghazi that night. It’s shameful that, in order to highlight the heroism of some, those responsible for the movie felt the need to denigrate the courage of other Americans who served in harm’s way.”

Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction best-seller, adapted by Chuck Hogan and directed by Michael Bay, it begins with “This is a true story” and is peppered with violent shootouts, firebombs, and an invented bus explosion.

Hunky John Krasinski plays a rugged Navy SEAL-turned-private security contractor, along with Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, James Badge Dale, David Denman and Dominic Fumusa.

FYI: The real Benghazi contractors were the Global Response Staff, created by the CIA. And then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s name is never mentioned, although blame is implied.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a patriotic, action-packed 4. Just don’t expect accuracy or clarity.

04

 

“Ride Along 2″

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

 

After its predecessor grossed over $150 million, this sequel was inevitable, so rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube and comedian-turned-actor Kevin Hart are reunited as bickering, mismatched cops.

Having paid his dues as an Atlanta security guard, manic, motormouth’d Ben Barber (Hart) just graduated from the Police Academy and is now a rookie (probationary) cop, trying to measure up to his stern, soon-to-be brother-in-law, Det. James Payton (Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) is his fiancée.

This time, they’re off to Miami to track down a suspiciously slippery South Beach computer hacker, A.J. (Ken Jeong), which leads them to a suave millionaire businessman/philanthropist Antonio Pope (Benjamin Bratt), the sinister czar behind a major interstate drug pipeline.

Sloppily scripted as yet another buddy-cop comedy by Phil Hay and Matt Manfred, it’s formulaically directed at a fast pace by Tim Story – with lots of explosions and car chases, including one that evolves into what looks like a video game, and climaxes in a shipping-container storage yard.

“Classic!” Ben quips. “Something always goes down in a container yard!”

Not surprisingly, every woman in the cast – with the exception of the wedding planner, Cori (Sherri Shepherd) – wears sultry, skimpy attire, including a Miami homicide detective, Maya Cruz (Olivia Munn), who arrives at a crime scene clad in tights and a sports bra.

The funniest bit involves “Star Wars” trivia, which I suspect was ad-libbed, and to add a bit of “Fast and Furious” flavor, there’s even a cameo from that franchise’s Tyrese Gibson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ride Along 2” coasts in with a recycled 3, filled with silly slapstick.

03

“The Benefactor”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Benefactor” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

 

With a dazzling resume that includes “Pretty Woman” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” now 66 year-old Richard Gere seems to be attracted to eccentric character studies, following “Arbitrage” (2012) with “Time Out of Mind” (2014) and now his cinematic interpretation of Francis L. Watts – a.k.a. Franny.

Arrogant yet affable Franny is a wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist, haunted by guilt. As his story begins, he’s developing a children’s hospital-wing project with married friends (Cheryl Hines, Dylan Baker). Smoking pot in the back seat of their car, euphoric Franny’s impulsive but distracting hug leads to an automobile accident that kills the couple.

Five years later, living in seclusion while recovering from devastating injuries, Franny receives a call from their twentysomething daughter, Olivia (Dakota Fanning), whom he affectionately calls Poodles. Newly married to Luke (Theo James) and pregnant, she wants to move back to Philadelphia.

Exuberantly extravagant to an extreme and eager to facilitate in any way he can, Franny gets Luke a prestigious position at his now-completed children’s wing of the hospital, pays off Luke’s student loan and buys them the suburban house Olivia grew up in.

Problem is: Franny has become addicted to pain-killing morphine – and Luke refuses to refill his prescription. In a bizarre, vaguely homoerotic scene, Franny persuades Luke to take Ecstasy before they embark on a daredevil ride.

Novice writer/director Andrew Renzi says he was inspired by John E. DuPont, whose strange proclivities were previously depicted in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” But clichés abound in this clunky melodrama, and there are so many implausible plot holes that even Gere’s legendary silver-fox charm cannot fill them all.

While Franny seems to spend more time at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art than Rocky Balboa did, this developed-at-Sundance script eventually dissolves into a conventional, nightmarish addiction parable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Benefactor” is a bumbling 3, revolving around guilt and generosity.

 

03

“The Forest”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Forest” (Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures)

 

Situated at the base of Mt. Fuji, the Aokigahara Forest is Japan’s most notorious suicide site. Former advertising veteran, now first-time feature film director Jason Zada uses this aptly named “Sea of Trees” as the folkloric centerpiece of this wannabe horror story.

As it begins, Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) discovers that her willful, self-destructive twin sister Jess has disappeared in rural Japan, where she moved to teach English. So she bids farewell to her restaurateur husband (Eoin Macken) and hops on a plane to search for her sibling, whom she subconsciously senses is still alive.

After traveling by train to the Aokigahara region and checking into an Inn, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), an expat American travel writer who offers to let her accompany him and a knowledgeable, yet timid park ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), into the fabled forest where Jess was last seen on a class field trip.

Screenwriters Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca delve into how the 14-square-mile woodland is haunted by angry ‘yurei,’ the twisted, tormented ghosts of those who have died there. The ambiguously malevolent result is only vaguely creepy.

Best known as spirited Margaery Tyrell on TV’s “Game of Thrones” and rebellious Cressida in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” franchise, Natalie Dormer does her best with woefully underwritten dual roles.

Although Jason Zada utilizes familiar jump scare tactics, along with spooky sounds and eerie, ominous music, he fails to achieve the necessary suspense to sustain audience interest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Forest” is a formulaic, trivializing 3. If you’re curious about the real-life location, I suggest watching “Aokigahara: Suicide Forest,” a 20-minute short.

03

 

“The Girl King”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Girl King” (Wolfe Video)

 

Legendary Greta Garbo was the first on-screen “Queen Christina” (1933), ruling Sweden in the middle of the 17th century and stunning Europe by abdicating her throne. Now, Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki attempts to explain her defiant actions, tying into her sexuality and feminist empowerment in this perhaps overly literal biopic.

Ascending to the throne as Queen-elect at the age of six, young tomboy Kristina was the only surviving legitimate child of King Gustav II Adolf (Samuli Edelmann) and his mentally unstable German Queen Maria Eleonora (Martina Gedeck). Raised to rule by Chancellor Alex Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist), she officially became Queen at age 18 in 1644.

Passionate about the arts and devoted to the writings of French philosopher Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau), Queen Kristina is determined to bring European culture and sophistication to Sweden. Known as the Minerva of the North, she pursues peace, signing the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War.

Baffling and infuriating her austere courtiers, the androgynous Queen enjoys wielding a sword, prefers dressing like a man and spurns suitors who wish to marry her. Instead, she becomes infatuated with bubbly blonde Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), who becomes her official “bedfellow.”

The subsequent scandal erupting from their lesbian liaison turns the capricious Queen against conservative Lutheranism. Accepting an invitation from the Pope, she becomes a permanent guest of the Holy See. Pope Alexander VIII once described her as “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame.”

Her palace, the Riario, now the Corsini, on the Lungaria in Rome, became the meeting place of scholars and musicians, containing the greatest collection of Venetian painters every assembled. Queen Kristina is one of only three women buried in the Vatican.

While Swedish actress Malin Burska embodies courageous, un-compromising Kristina, she’s hampered by Michel Marc Bouchard’s melodramatic script, which was written in French and haltingly translated into English by Linda Gaboriau.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Girl King” is a sexually-charged 6, blending geo-politics with a transgender dilemma.

06

“A Royal Night Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Royal Night Out” (Atlas Distribution & Ketchup Entertainment)

 

When World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, a spontaneous city-wide street celebration erupted throughout London.

As King George VI (Rupert Everett) prepares to address his loyal subjects, restless teenage Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret yearn to escape from the protocol of Buckingham Palace for one madcap evening and mingle incognito among the jubilant crowd.

Although the stern Queen Mother (Emily Watson) objects, Elizabeth, nicknamed Lilibet by the Windsor family, persuades their weary father, egged on by P2 (as in Princess Two), as fun-loving Margaret is known, to permit them to spend the exciting evening at The Ritz.

Dressed in pale pink chiffon evening gowns, the effervescent Princesses quickly manage to evade their dim-witted, easily distracted military escorts (Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon).

Eager to explore the fabled Curzon Club in Mayfair, do the Lindy Hop and attend an “all-nighter” at the Chelsea Barracks, mischievous Margaret hops on a bus to Trafalgar Square. Dutifully determined to find her sister, Lilibet follows, only to realize she has no money to pay the fare.

That’s just the first time naïve Lilibet is gallantly rescued by a cynical Royal Air Force pilot (Jack Reynor), who seriously doubts that victory will change anything about Britain’s class-riddled society. Reluctant to reveal her true identity despite her posh accent, she introduces herself as “Lizzy.”

Scripted by Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood, this diverting, frivolous fantasy is directed with nostalgic charm by Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”), evoking memories of Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.”

Canadian actress Sarah Gadon (“Belle”) captures sensible Lilibet’s sense of loyalty and responsibility, while Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) embodies exuberant Margaret’s life-long penchant for partying and champagne.

FYI: The filmmakers have taken chronological liberties, since Princess Elizabeth was 19 in 1945 while Princess Margaret was only 14. And, while they did venture out to the Ritz that night, they were accompanied by several vigilant chaperones.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Royal Night Out” is a spirited, speculative 6, an engaging escapade.

06

“Anomalisa”

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

 

Make no mistake: this is an R-rated animated feature – for adults!

In writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” he raised provocative philosophical questions which he now explores existentially, utilizing puppets in stop-motion animation.

First seen on an airplane en route to Cincinnati, middle-aged Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is the acutely depressed author of a successful customer-service self-help book called “How May I Help You Help Them?”

Preparing to deliver a motivational speech the next day, Michael checks into the posh Fregoli Hotel, dutifully calls his wife and son in Los Angeles, and tries to re-ignite an old flame for a drink.

Significantly, everyone Michael speaks with – the flight attendant, taxi driver, desk clerk, bellhop, hotel manager and family members – looks and sounds the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), often robotically repeating banal phrases.

Wretchedly lonely and disillusioned, he encounters an insecure, impressionable young admirer, Lisa Hesselman (voiced Jennifer Jason Leigh), a naïve Akron bakery-sales rep who – after some apple mojitos – eagerly responds to his overtures in her own distinctive voice, warbling Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

“You’re an anomaly,” he tells her after they share a long, slow, explicit sex scene. “You’re Anomalisa.”

Kaufman’s story originated in 2005 as a “radio play” for composer Carter Burwell’s Theater of New Ear at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles; Burwell scored Kaufman’s screenplays for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and now this.

Working with animator Duke Johnson, Kaufman focuses one man’s darkly comic yet desperate need for human connection. Michael’s plastic face has visible black seams running temple-to-temple, along the hairline and down his chin, obviously dividing it into quadrants that can become unhinged.

FYI: Kaufman often uses Francis Fregoli as a pseudonym, referencing the Fregoli delusion, a rare psychiatric condition in which a person sees the rest of the world as populated by multiple versions of one, ominously malevolent individual.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Anomalisa” is an absurdist, surreal 8, superciliously meditating on our increasingly prevalent social isolation.

08

 

“Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip”

Susan Granger’s review of “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip” (20th Century-Fox)

 

Combining live-action with computer-generated characters, this is the fourth installment in the chirpy chipmunk series that began in 2007.

As the plot unfolds, mischievous Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), chubby Theodore (voiced by Jesse McCartney) and studious Simon (voiced by Matthew Gray Gubler) are concerned that their beloved surrogate dad/manager, Dave Seville (Jason Lee), is so overly amorous with his ER doctor girlfriend, Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), that he’s bought an engagement ring. They’re terrified by the idea that Dave will abandon them when they become a family.

So the furry friends reluctantly team up with Samantha’s loathsome, teenage son, Miles (Josh Green), to travel from Los Angeles to Miami, where they think Dave is about to propose. Problem is: en route, one of the chipmunks accidentally frees all the animals in the cargo hold.

Obviously, the disruption of an airborne menagerie irks the federal air marshal, vengeful Agent Suggs (Tony Hale), who promptly threatens them with prison and puts them on the No-Fly list.

Scripted by Randi Mayem & Adam Sztykiel, based on anthropomorphic, strato-falsetto characters created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr., and the Chipettes created by Janice Karman, and directed by Walt Becker (“Wild Hogs”), it’s predictably filled with pee & poop jokes which tiny tots seem to find hilarious.

FYI: there’s one amusing ‘inside’ remark: when treated disdainfully in First Class by subversive, idiosyncratic director John Waters, snippy Alvin retorts, “Don’t judge me! I saw ‘Pink Flamingos’!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip” is a tediously silly, slapstick 3 – more of the rollicking rodents.

03

 

“Point Break”

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

 

Long before she won an Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow directed “Point Break” (1991), a bank robbery thriller involving California surfers, starring Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze as the iconic hedonistic surfer/culprit. Its cultish popularity spawned the touring show “Point Break Live!”

This reimagined version is set in the world of extreme sports. The new Johnny Utah (Australian actor Luke Bracey) is a motocross racer who goes undercover after a personal tragedy for which he feels guilty.

Utah finds himself embedded with Bodhi (Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez), the ringleader of a mysterious, eco-activist group. They participate in a series of globetrotting extreme-sports Ordeals, known as the mythic Osaki Eight, supposedly devised by an Asian Zen mystic.

“We don’t live off the grid – we live on it, but on our own terms,” which means they support their lifestyle by robbing the rich to feed the poor, defying death to “honor the earth” in order to achieve Nirvana.

Working from a confusing, underdeveloped, emotionally insipid screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (“Total Recall,” “The Thomas Crown Affair”), director Ericson Core, best known as Director of Photography on “The Fast and The Furious,” concentrates on the spectacle, show-casing visually impressive stunts.

“Everything we did was authentic,” says Core. “We’ve done essentially no greenscreen or C.G.I. work at all.”

Along with gnarly surfing on the massive swells off Teahupo’o in Tahiti, there’s wingsuit flying on the Swiss Alps and dizzying free rock- climbing at Angel Falls in Venezuela. Reportedly, the budget reached $105 million, financed by Alcon and China’s DMG Entertainment.

What’s missing is humor, along with homoerotic bromance chemistry between Luke Bracey and Edgar Ramirez and Teresa Palmer’s underwritten love interest Samsara.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Point Break” is a disappointing 3 – another pointless remake.

03

10 BEST OF 2015

AT THE MOVIES: Susan Granger’s 10 BEST for 2015 (listed alphabetically):

 

PICTURE:

“Bridge of Spies” – Fact-based spy-swap story, set during the Cold War.

“Creed” – Re-birth of the “Rocky” legend for another generation.

“Ex Machina” – A scientist creates a remarkably life-like cyborg.

“Inside Out” – Pixar Animation delightfully details how our minds work.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” – Explosive, post-apocalyptic action epic.

“The Martian” – A rousing sci-fi adventure about an astronaut stranded on Mars.

“Son of Saul” – Holocaust drama set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

“Spotlight” – Boston Globe reporters expose the Catholic Church’s pedophilia cover-up.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Revival of the galactic, good vs. evil adventure.

“Trumbo” – Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo battles the Hollywood blacklist.

DIRECTOR:

J.J. Abrams for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Ryan Coogler for “Creed”

Pete Docter for “Inside Out”

Alex Garland for “Ex Machina”

Tom McCarthy for “Spotlight”

George Miller for “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Lazlo Nemes for “Son of Saul”

Jay Roach for “Trumbo”

Ridley Scott for “The Martian”

Steven Spielberg for “Bridge of Spies”

ACTOR:

Michael Caine in “Youth”

Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo”

Matt Damon in “The Martian”

Johnny Depp in “Black Mass”

Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant”

Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs”

Al Pacino in “Danny Collins”

Ian McKellen in “Mr. Holmes”

Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl”

Mark Ruffalo in “Infinitely Polar Bear”

ACTRESS:

Cate Blanchett in “Truth”

Patricia Clarkson in “Learning to Drive”

Brie Larson in “Room”

Helen Mirren in “Woman in Gold”

Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette”

Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years”

Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn”

Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck”

Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van”

Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl”

SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Tom Courtenay in “45 Years”

Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation”

Joel Edgerton in “Black Mass”

Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina”

Harvey Keitel in “Youth”

Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight”

Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies”

Michael Shannon in “99 Homes”

Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”

Jacob Tremblay in “Room”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Elizabeth Banks in “Love and Mercy”

Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight”

Laura Linney in “Mr. Holmes”

Rooney Mara in “Carol”

Rachel McAdams in “Spotlight”

Helen Mirren in “Trumbo”

Kristen Stewart in “Clouds of Sils Maria”

Alicia Vikander in “Ex Machina”

Julie Walters in “Brooklyn”

Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs”