“Captain Fantastic”

Susan Granger’s review of “Captain Fantastic” (Bleecker Street)

 

Taking ‘helicopter parenting’ to a new extreme, former hippie Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) is raising his six children, ages 7 to 18, off-the-grid in the Pacific Northwest forests.

Ten years ago, Ben and his Buddhist wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), became survivalists, teaching their kids to be self-sufficient, stalking and killing game and homeschooling them in philosophy, history, literature, science and five languages.

Subjected to a strenuous exercise routine, they sleep in a yurt, do chores in adjacent tree houses and teepees, and play musical instruments around a campfire at night. Unconventionally counter-cultured, they ignore Christmas, celebrating Noam Chomsky Day, named after the leftist ‘60s icon.

Each child has a unique name. There’s Bodevan (George MacKay), who secretly yearns to go to college; teenagers Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Vespyr (Annalise Basso); rebellious Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton); Nai (Charlie Shotwell); and young Zaja (Shree Crooks).

But when hospitalized, bi-polar Leslie commits suicide, her wealthy, conservative parents (Frank Langella, Ann Dowd) blame Ben, forbidding him and the children to come to the traditional funeral.

Their subsequent road-trip – in an old, converted school bus named Steve – forms the crux of the drama, as grieving Ben reluctantly introduces his bohemian brood not only to capitalistic civilization but also the materialistic rituals of polite society, most evident when they visit their aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn) whose children are glued to their iPhones.

Superbly cast Viggo Mortensen delineates the radical, highly principled mountain-man who lovingly treats his children like young adults, speaking to them with forthright honesty, yet is forced to confront his own fitness as a father.

Actor-turned-writer/director Matt Ross questions the cost of idealism and isolationism, along with what family values are important. One of his cleverest sequences finds the family pretending to be evangelistic Christians to elude arrest by a pursuing policeman.

Apparently, the script draws from Ross’ own life, having been raised by a single mother in rustic, often primitive collective-living situations.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Captain Fantastic” is a wryly amusing, enjoyable 8, revealing a different kind of superhero.

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“Swiss Army Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “Swiss Army Man” (A24)

 

As bizarrely provocative as “The Lobster,” yet not as engrossing, this twisted tale involves a shipwreck survivor, Hank (Paul Dano), stranded on a deserted beach.

After giving up all hope of rescue, at the moment when Hank tries to hang himself, he spies a corpse washing up on the sand. It’s Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), who soon becomes the castaway’s confidante/best friend.

While Manny’s flatulence initially annoys Hank, he soon finds it useful – mounting Manny’s back, allowing his expelled gas to propel them across the waves like a motorboat. That leads to other experiments in which Manny’s inert body proves a useful tool to ignite fires, chop wood, fish, and hunt wild game, as Hank struggles to survive.

In Hank’s delirious imagination, Manny not talks with him but guides him in an extended exploration of masturbation and other existentialist possibilities of life as they’re trekking through the woods.

Music video co-writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively calling themselves Daniels, create a darkly humorous, surreal concept that’s wildly imaginative until it becomes gratingly irritating and contrived.

According to notes, it all began as a weird joke that was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing Labs, drawing on ideas generated in their 2011 short films “Dogboarding,” “Puppets,” “My Best Friend’s Sweating” and amplified in “Pockets” (2012).

When Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy”) and Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) agreed to play the leads, the amiable collaboration grew to include cinematographer Larkin Seipe as they filmed on Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, and in the redwood forests outside Eureka, California.

As the uniquely stylized ‘bromance’ blossomed, an underwater kiss seemed inevitable.

FYI: Daniel Radcliffe only used a stunt double for the scene in which Manny is attacked by a vicious raccoon.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Swiss Army Man” is a strange, fart-filled 4, an absurdist fantasy.

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“The Legend of Tarzan”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Legend of Tarzan” (Warner Bros.)

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ mythic 19th century superhero comes alive again in this fun, old-fashioned action-packed adventure that touches on colonialism, racism, even sexism.

From the moment I saw Alexander Skarsgard emerge bare-chested as the fanged vampire on HBO’s “True Blood,” I thought he’d make a wonderful Tarzan – and, obviously, I was not alone.

Working from Burroughs’ 1912 concept, screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, guided by director David Yates, amplify Skarsgard’s physicality by enhancing his John Clayton, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, with the emotionally restrained melancholy of a man caught between two cultures – a quality that previous Tarzans, like Christopher Lambert and Johnny Weissmuller, were unable to capture.

Raised in the jungle by apes, his primal instincts are impeccable; educated by European civilization, his judgment is acute.

The plot revolves around the determination of King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) to exploit and enslave the Congo under the guise of colonialism. Working for the King, villainous Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) concocts a deceptive conspiracy to bring aristocratic Lord Greystoke back to his native country, arousing the suspicions of American diplomatic envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson).

Soon after Greystoke, his smart ‘n’ spunky wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) and perceptive Dr. Williams arrive, they discover the sinister scheme and must battle overwhelming odds, venturing onto the vast plains and into Tarzan’s jungle habitat.

After helming the final four “Harry Potter” films, director David Yates knows how to juggle the intricacies of narrative story-telling with visually sweeping, vine-swinging excitement.

Yates, cinematographer Henry Braham and production designer Stuart Craig reap amazing authenticity from locations in Gabon on which CGI animals (gorillas, lions, elephants, cape buffalo and crocs) are superimposed.

FYI: Heroic African-American George Washington Williams was introduced in historian Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” (1998).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Legend of Tarzan” is an escapist, highly entertaining 8, the best live-action Tarzan epic in decades.

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“The Shallows”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Shallows” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

 

Still grieving over the death of her mother, Nancy (Blake Lively) is a medical school drop-out who decides to pay an homage visit and surf on her mother’s favorite Mexican beach: a remote, jungle-enshrouded crescent-shaped cove that’s almost totally deserted.

After making a few phone calls to check-in with her dad and younger sister in Galveston, Texas, Nancy zips on the top of her wetsuit, tethers her foot to her surfboard and wades into the waves.

A strong swimmer, Nancy soon catches up with two Spanish-speaking dudes who are also enjoying the exhilarating surf; one is wearing a GoPro camera on his head.

After a while, Nancy returns to the beach to munch a late lunch she’d stored in her backpack and then decides to return to the clear, turquoise-blue lagoon for one last run, just as the guys head home.

That’s when an enormous shark surfaces. It’s a Great White that’s been lured close to shore, chomping on the carcass of a dead blue whale. With Nancy now in his feeding grounds, he bites her thigh.

Shark facts: Because sharks don’t have hands or tentacles, they explore with their mouths and teeth – and surfers are particularly vulnerable, far more than swimmers, because they paddle further from shore, dangling their limbs the water.

To escape the encircling fin, ever-resourceful Nancy, whose leg is bleeding profusely, crawls up on a jagged rock about 200 yards off-shore – with only a wounded seagull for company.  It’s low tide, so she’s safe – temporarily. When the tide reverses, the sea will engulf her precarious perch.

Scripted by Anthony Jaswinski, scored by composer Marco Baltrami, and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”), it’s a tension-packed survival thriller – with terrific underwater shots as Australia subs for Mexico.

Statuesque Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”), who did 75% of her own stunts, darts about wearing a teeny-weenie bikini – until, unfortunately, the denouement falls flat.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Shallows” is a scary, suspenseful 6, causing a feeding frenzy at the box-office.

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“Warcraft”

Susan Granger’s review of “Warcraft” (Legendary/Universal)

 

Since “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993, film adaptations of popular video games have never done as well as expected at the U.S. box-office. What propels studios to finance them is international acceptance, especially in China, where more than two million people play the World of Warcraft game.

The story revolves around a race of gigantic warrior beasts, called Orcs, who are forced to flee from their dying homeland of Draenor when the warlock Gul-dan (Daniel Wu) opens a portal to Azeroth, where they battle unsuspecting humans, led by war-chieftain Blackhand (Clancy Brown).

Only the Orc soldier Durotan (Toby Kebbell) asserts that peace can be achieved through compromise with King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), whose brother is the noble knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel).

In the meantime, Lothar’s son Callan (Burkely Duffield) is determined to impress his father on the battlefield and Durotan’s mate Draka (Anna Galvin) has a baby. Plus, there’s the ascetic Azeroth wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) with his young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and a fanged half-breed with green skin, Garona (Paula Patton), who claims to be half-Orc and half-human.

Utilizing Chris Metzen’s branded characters and story, British director Duncan Jones (“Moon,” “Source Code”), sharing co-writing credit with Charles Leavitt (“In the Heart of the Sea”), crowds the sci-fi plot with too many mythical creatures, magical subplots and visual effects, since all the exotic Orcs are motion-captured via digital animation.

The concept also ‘borrows’ liberally from films like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars,” “Avatar,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and TV’s “Game of Thrones.”

FYI: originally named Zowie, Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son; his birth prompted Bowie to write the song “Kooks” for his 1971 album “Hunky Dory.”

In conclusion, one should note that – in the past few years – the gaming industry has evolved, abandoning “games” in the literal sense in favor of inter-action, creating a mini-cinematic experience for players.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Warcraft” is a curiously campy 4 – too much war, too little craft.

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“The BFG”

Susan Granger’s review of “The BFG” (Walt Disney Studios)

 

Blending live action and computer animation, Steven Spielberg has adapted Roald Dahl’s fantastical tale, featuring Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) as the titular character, The Big Friendly Giant.

Scripted by the late Melissa Matheson (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”) and directed by Spielberg, it’s set in London in the early 1980s and revolves around 10 year-old orphan, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely insomniac  who – at 3 a.m. – spies a 24-ft.-tall giant lurking about the cobblestone streets, collecting and dispensing phosphorescent dreams to unsuspecting sleepers.

She sees him and he sees her. Reaching his hand through an open window, the grandfatherly-looking BFG gently plucks Sophie out of bed because – if word got out that giants roamed the city – that would end their nocturnal visits.

So the BFG whisks terrified Sophie off to Giant Country, where sinister Fleshlumpeater (voiced by Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (voiced by Bill Hader), constantly bully him.

While the BFG sticks to a vegetarian diet of slimy Snozzcumbers, his colossal cohorts are “cannybulls” (cannibals), often kidnapping young “human beans.” Even though the BFG hides her in his cave, Sophie is in constant danger.

The only answer – she believes – is to seek assistance from Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) in Buckingham Palace. At that point, their adventure really comes alive.

Much amusement emanates from the BFG’s whimsical dialect known as “gobblefunk,” filled with garbled malapropisms.

There’s also a lot of farting. The BFG deplores burping but celebrates flatulence, which he calls “whizzpopping,” a gastric reaction stimulated by the upside-down bubbles in Frobscottle, the fermented Snozzcumber beverage, which he eagerly shares not only with Her Majesty but also her Welsh corgis.

While newcomer Ruby Barnhill is certainly spunky, much credit should go to Mark Rylance’s astute performance, characterized by alienation and affection. But one can only wonder about the different comedic pace that would have been set by Robin Williams, Spielberg’s original casting choice.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The BFG” is an entertaining, escapist 8. Good? Yes. Great? No.

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“The Free State of Jones”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Free State of Jones” (STX Entertainment)

 

Think you know 19th century American History? Think again! Chronicling the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, this harrowing adventure reveals the sordid truth about the so-called Reconstruction Era.

First seen as a battlefield medic in the midst of the 1862 bloody conflict, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, who eventually becomes disillusioned with the Southern ‘cause’ he was supposedly fighting for when Confederate soldiers wantonly confiscate his and his neighbors’ grain and livestock.

So he deserts. After a harrowing chase into the swamps, he joins up with runaway slaves and, eventually, other white defectors to form a guerrilla army, waging skirmishes against the Confederacy and, in 1864, proclaiming their rebel stronghold as the Free State of Jones.

But their regional insurrection leads to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan whose hooded members are determined to re-assert white supremacy.

Writer/director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games,” “Pleasantville”) consulted with numerous noted historical scholars so the ambitious, well-intentioned drama oozes authenticity, like a thoughtful, even literal re-enactment – from Newt’s viewpoint.

Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight epitomizes messianic heroism, teaming up with noble, neck-shackled, formerly enslaved Moses (Mahershala Ali), who deliberately endangers his life by registering newly emancipated, black voters as Republicans, and courageous Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domestic plantation slave.

Problem is: Neither Moses’ nor Rachel’s perspectives are evident, and the epic structure is confusing because it’s intercut with a subplot, set 85 years later, involving Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a descendant of Newton, who is on trial in 1945 for breaking Mississippi’s law against interracial marriage.

FYI: Newton eventually fathered five children in his common-law union with Rachel and nine more with his beleaguered wife, Serena (woefully miscast Keri Russell from TV’s “The Americans”), with everyone apparently happily living on his 160-acre farm in Soso.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “The Free State of Jones” is a revisionist 7, strategically aimed at adult audiences fed up with superhero, video game and animated features.

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“The Conjuring 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Conjuring 2” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema)

 

Renowned Connecticut demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) return with another ‘documented’ case, this time set in 1977 in England.

After their Amityville debacle, clairvoyant Lorraine insists that they take a break from their demanding case work. While working on that notorious investigation at the Lutz home on Long Island, New York, she had a profoundly disturbing vision of a horrifying nun – shown in the opening séance sequence.

But when the Catholic Church requests their assessment of a paranormal situation in Great Britain, they respond to the evangelical summons, pack their Bible and travel to North London, where a working-class family has been driven from their home by poltergeists.

Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) is a single mother, raising her four children in a crumbling public housing in the borough of Enfield. Her youngest daughter, 11 year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), is tormented by angry undead spirits claiming ownership of their flat.

The Hodgson family’s plight fails to elicit the sympathy of their doubting neighbors, while parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) aggressively asserts her own doubts. Yet there’s some support from amateur researcher Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney).

Based on the notorious Enfield Haunting, it’s scripted by Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, David Leslie Johnson and director James Wan (“Saw,” “Insidious”) as another haunted house tale but this time with a creepy twist, like the wall of crucifixes that are bizarrely turned upside down.

With the help of cinematographer Don Burgess, production designer Julie Berghoff, editor Kirk Morri and composer Joseph Bishara, Wan amplifies the foreboding and dread with sound design, jump-scares and demonic surprises – including a ghoulish leather reclining chair, a self-propelled toy firetruck and a craggy, old man who suddenly pops up, not to mention creaking floorboards and pounding noises.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Conjuring 2” is a supernatural 6, continuing the scary franchise.

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“Buyer and Cellar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Buyer and Cellar” (Westport Country Playhouse: June, 2016)

 

Laughter rocks the theater as Michael Urie brings Jonathan Tolins’ hit Off-Broadway comedy to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Urie opens the subtly seductive satire with several disclaimers, making it clear that it’s is a work of fiction, since none of this “could possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”

On a stage sparsely furnished with a round café table, chair and bench, Urie relates how Alex More, a struggling gay actor in Los Angeles, gets hired to be the sole, always subservient clerk in the private mini-mall that Barbra Streisand has created for herself in the basement of a barn adjacent to her Malibu mansion.

Since Barbra’s a compulsive shopper, her quaint, European-styled arcade includes an antique shop and clothing boutique, stocked with her abundant collection of vintage dresses, object d’art, and dolls.

Its creation is detailed in Streisand’s 2010 coffee-table photo book “My Passion for Design.” As Alex notes from the front cover flap, this is the “refuge she’s longed for since the days when she shared a small Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother and grandparents…”

Often recognized as Marc St. James from TV’s “Ugly Betty,” lanky Michael Urie energetically captures the iconic Streisand persona with a few masterfully nuanced mannerisms, including flipping her hair and shrugging one shoulder asking, “Am I right or am I right?”

Director Stephen Brackett reins in campy caricature, cleverly balancing superstar Barbra’s alleged perfectionism with sensitivity, affection, even empathy, adding emotional heft to a subplot involving Alex’s struggling screenwriter boyfriend Barry.

At the after-party, playwright Jonathan Tolins (“Secrets of the Trade,” “Twilight of the Golds”) revealed that the reason Westport was able to book this original production was because the show will be filmed there for broadcast on Theater Close-Up on Channel 13/WNET, joining a new wave of televised theatrical presentations that includes the current Broadway revival of “She Loves Me.”

The obvious question everyone asks is, “Has Barbra seen this?” Apparently not. If she were in the audience, her reactions to the tart absurdity would divert attention from the stage.  So, when it’s on TV, Ms. Streisand can watch in privacy.

Irresistibly amusing, “Buyer and Cellar” runs at the Westport Country Playhouse until July 3.  For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“Central Intelligence”

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

 

If you’re really desperate for yet another odd-couple caper, consider this fast-paced froth that’s almost immediately forgettable.

Mild-mannered Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is a disgruntled accountant who married his teenage sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) yet yearns for the glory days when he was Senior Class President and the town’s most popular jock.

As his 20th high school anniversary looms, Calvin re-connects with Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne “The Rock”  Johnson), a shy, sensitive soul who’s “super into unicorns” and remains grateful to Calvin for a singular act of kindness when he was the once-obese victim of cruel shower-room bullies – which is shown in flashback with lots of inventive CGI.

When now-grown Calvin and Robbie – now known as Bob Stone – meet for a drink, they bond again. But then a CIA bigwig (Amy Ryan) shows up at Calvin’s house, informing him that Bob is actually a former undercover agent gone rogue after killing his partner.

So – is Bob the good guy that Calvin remembers? Or has he gone to the dark side?

Soon, hapless Calvin joins fanny-pack-wearing Bob on-the-run from law enforcement and a complex, high-stakes conspiracy involving the Black Badger that only he can help unravel.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (“We’re the Millers,” “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) from a script he co-wrote with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (“The Mindy Project”), it capitalizes on the chemistry between Hart and Johnson, who display a genuine camaraderie, plus cameos from Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul and others.

While the “role reversal” concept works, the espionage plot is sloppy, the weakest link in the comedic chain of events. And – after the horrific massacre in Orlando Florida – the violent scene in which Calvin’s office is splayed with bullets as onlookers duck for cover seems particularly disturbing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Central Intelligence” is a sweet, high-spirited 6, revolving around mid-life male anxiety and concluding with an extended epilogue and blooper reel.

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