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“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” (Lionsgate)

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There are no surprises in this buddy action-comedy. Two established American stars (one Caucasian, one African-American), supported by some stalwart, foreign character-actors, engage in lots of violence, peppered with profanity.

Disgraced Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is an elite private security guard – a.k.a. bodyguard – who botched an assignment when a Japanese arms-dealing client succumbed to sniper fire.

So when his former girl-friend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Young), asks him to safeguard a witness, promising to restore his “Triple A” reputation, he accepts the assignment.

Bryce is to provide protection for convicted hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is going from Manchester, England, to The Hague to testify in International Criminal Court against the deposed “ex-Soviet Union” Belarusian president, Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman).

Spewing obscenities, Darius Kincaid’s badass Latina lover, Sonia (Salma Hayek), is incarcerated in a Dutch prison. As part of the bargain, his evidence is her get-out-of-jail card.

Needless to say, Bryce and Kincaid have a bad history together. They’re about to embark on a perilous 24-hour road trip together, and they soon discover they must rely each other to survive.

Scripted by Tom O’Connor (“Fire with Fire”) and directed by Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”), it’s generic to its core and chock full of clichés. The vintage plot is neither original nor inventive. And every scene looks as if it’s filmed through a gauzy haze.

The use of stunt doubles for both is obvious, particularly during the extended chases through Amsterdam. And it becomes ludicrous, even laughable, to see them both emerge unscathed from gun battles that leave their car riddled with bullet holes.

The only saving grace is the occasionally humorous verbal sparring between Bryce and Kincaid.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a 5, missing its mark.

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“Brigsby Bear”

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

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This charming, low-budget comedic drama came and went too quickly – because Sony Pictures Classics had no idea how to market it. Which is a shame because it has a quirky, provocative theme.

Shielded from the “toxic air” outside, 20-something James (Kyle Mooney) lives in a hermetically sealed bunker, underground in the California desert with his parents, April and Ted Mitchum (Jane Adams, Mark Hamill).

Isolated, James spends his days obsessively watching hundreds of VHS episodes of a fantasy TV show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” featuring a huge, anthropomorphic teddy bear that repeatedly saves the galaxy, while subtly home-schooling James in science and mathematics.

One night, James hears sirens and sees lights coming toward their bunker. When the police arrive, they arrest the Mitchums for kidnapping James from the hospital just after he was born.

Bewildered, James is questioned by Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) and reunited with his real parents, the Popes (Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh), who have never stopped searching for him.

Understandably confused by the middle-class suburban existence into which he’s thrown, James’ primary reference is “Brigsby Bear” which, as it turns out, cartoonist Ted Mitchum created exclusively for James’ viewing. No one else has ever seen or heard of the show.

Yet when James goes to the movies, he discovers a medium to which he can relate. With the help of his ‘new’ sister Aubrey (Ryan Simkins), her aspiring CGI artist pal Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and empathetic Det. Vogel, James sets out to film a conclusion to Brigsby’s saga – much to the consternation of the Popes and their clueless therapist (Claire Danes).

Written by Kyle Mooney with James Costello, it’s directed by Dave McCary – all “Saturday Night Live” alums. Instead of plunging James into predictable negativity about his abduction trauma, they infuse his character with whimsical creativity, surrounding him with good, kind people willing to collaborate to fulfill his pop culture vision and find closure.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Brigsby Bear” is a sincerely sweet 7, poignant and life-affirming.

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“Birth of the Dragon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Birth of the Dragon” (BH Tilt & WWE Studios)

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Charismatic martial artist Bruce Lee has inspired numerous filmmakers, eager to chronicle his legend. Some have been more successful than others.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1964, when cocky Lee was first trying to promote himself as a superstar, George Nolfi creates this fictionalized account of a mythic bout between Lee and Shaolin master Wong Jack Man, who resented Lee’s determination to teach Kung Fu to Americans.

“You fight for ambition and pride,” Wong Jack Man told Lee, “but you do not fight with your soul.”

Although Lee (Philip Ng) had been a strict practitioner of the Wing Chun methodology, after his encounter with the more spiritual, acrobatic Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia), supposedly he began to change not only his style of fighting but also his combat philosophy.

Apparently, their infamous match took place in private, not in public, and probably in nearby Oakland in a warehouse.

Riffing off Michael Dorgan’s 1980 article in “Official Karate” magazine about the fight, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson have added a pulpy, East/West romantic subplot that involves Lee’s struggling apprentice, Steve McKee (Bill Magnussen).

A native of Indiana, McKee is in love with a young Chinese girl, Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), a “binu” (servant/slave) who is working to pay off her immigration debt while being groomed as a prostitute by the gangster Triad’s Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing).

After its premiere at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, there was a wave of criticism because Nolfi concentrated more on the Caucasian student than either of the Asian leads. So editing adjustments were made. Unfortunately, they did little to improve the inherent melodrama.

FYI: Bruce Lee became a movie star and guru to stars like Chuck Norris, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lee died in 1973 after suffering a brain edema believed to be caused by an adverse reaction to pain medication. Still alive, Wong Jack Man served as a consultant on this film.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Birth of the Dragon” is an unevenly paced 4, saved only by Corey Yuen’s superb action choreography.

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“Good Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “Good Time” (A24)

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Determined to leave the “Twilight” franchise far behind, British actor Robert Pattinson is barely recognizable as a small-time criminal determined to break his mentally-challenged younger brother out of custody.

Cynically dubbed “Of Vice and Men” by those who recognize the modern-day reference to John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novel about two displaced Depression-era migrant workers, it’s a gruesome, violent crime drama from street-savvy, guerilla-filmmaking siblings Josh and Benny Safdie (“Heaven Knows What”) from Queens, New York.

They’re outspoken advocates of “cinema verite,” emerging from the French New Wave that insisted on neo-realism. That means shaky, hand-held camerawork, natural lighting and unlikable, distressed characters mumbling insignificant dialogue while wallowing in depravity.

The pulpy, rambling story begins as Constantine “Connie” Niklas rescues his troubled brother Nicky (co-director Benny Safdie) from a psychiatric evaluation about an incident involving their abusive grandmother.

Connie wants Nicky at his side during a bank robbery, which goes wrong when a dye-pack explodes as they make their getaway, dousing them both in red. Bumbling Connie flees, but panicked Nicky falls into a plate-glass door and gets arrested.

Dwelling in a squalid, shadowy underground culture of drugs and thugs, scumbag Connie manipulates his girl-friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to max out her mother’s credit cards for Nicky’s $10,000 bail.

But then a brawl with another inmate at Rikers Island sends Nicky into a hospital. When Connie tries to stage an escape, he inadvertently springs another patient, Ray (Buddy Duress).

They end up hiding out with teenage Crystal (Taliah Webster), who accompanies them to a dingy, deserted Adventureland theme park in search of Ray’s hidden stash of liquid LSD.

That’s where they encounter Oscar-nominated actor Barkhad Abdi, the emaciated Somali immigrant who played the pirate threatening Tom Hanks’s “Captain Phillips” (2013). Photographed in a black light, he has an eerie purplish-blue glow; his brief, ill-fated appearance is perhaps the most memorable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Good Time” is a far-fetched, feverish 5, bastardizing the jailbird term for days deducted from an inmate’s sentence for good behavior while in prison.

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“The Only Living Boy in New York”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Only Living Boy in New York” (Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions)

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“Something’s missing, and we all feel it…” are the words that cryptically introduce this coming-of-age story about a wannabe fiction writer who becomes involved with his father’s mistress.

Lifting its title from the famous Simon & Garfunkel 1970 song, the story revolves around Thomas Webb (Callum Turner), the privileged, twentysomething son of artistic, emotionally fragile Judith (Cynthia Nixon) and arrogant Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), a prominent publisher.

While his erudite parents host frequent dinner parties for Manhattan’s literati at their spacious Upper West Side brownstone, preppy Tom prefers to live in a Lower East Side walk-up, pining for artsy Mimi Pastori (Kiersey Clemons), who already has boy-friend whom she’s planning to join in Croatia.

After some coaxing, lovesick Tom confides his heartache to an inquisitive, garrulous neighbor, W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), an alcoholic author who’s more than willing to offer ambiguous philosophical advice, becoming Tom’s coach/therapist while deriding New York’s gentrification.

Whiny Tom’s equilibrium is further challenged when he inadvertently discovers that his father is having an affair with a sexy British editor, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Curious, Tom starts stalking mercurial Johanna and soon they’re also squirming between the sheets.

Screenwriter Allan Loeb (“The Space Between Us,” “Collateral Beauty”) and director Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer,” “Gifted”) present a concept that’s distinctly derivative, borrowing liberally from similarly themed films, like “The Graduate,’ “Wonder Boys,” “The Squid and the Whale” – while delivering an implausible third-act twist.

Although the glibly cosmopolitan characters are only superficially developed, pros like Jeff Bridges (who also serves as executive producer), Pierce Brosnan, and Cynthia Nixon bring far more to the screen than is on the written page – with adroit support from Wallace Shawn, Debi Mazar and Tate Donovan.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Only Living Boy in New York” is a shallow, wryly sordid 6. As Brosnan’s character would put it:  “It’s serviceable.”

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“Wind River”

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

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As this suspenseful murder mystery begins, a terrified teenage Native American girl is running across the snowy Wyoming tundra. Barefoot and bloody, she eventually stumbles and falls, dying under the bright light from a full moon.

According to Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the rugged U.S. Fish & Wildlife Officer who found her as he was tracking a predatory mountain lion, she died of pulmonary trauma, drowning in her own blood, having inhaled too much sub-zero air, causing her lungs to burst.

That’s what both he and the coroner tell rookie FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who declares her death a homicide. After all, there’s conclusive evidence that the Arapaho girl was not only beaten but also raped – and she was obviously fleeing from someone.

“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” Jane explains, evoking memories of Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

It turns out the girl was the best friend of Cory’s daughter, who died three years earlier under similar circumstances.

As the plot unfolds, clues lead them to a nearby oil rig, where the resident roughnecks are accustomed to violence-against-women, staging a shocking shootout, reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s.

Best known for his “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016) screenplays, writer Taylor Sheridan makes his directorial debut, working this gritty, intricately structured thriller with subtle sensitivity and pacing finesse. His utilitarian characters are understated but deliberately delineated.

Even the supporting cast, including Native Americans actors Graham Greene as the Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief and Gil Birmingham as the teenager’s stoic father, who asks only “to sit here and miss her for a minute,” while her mother (Tantoo Cardinal) dissolves in grief.

And kudos to cinematographer Ben Richardson, who captures the savage man vs. nature essence of the desolate, impoverished wasteland known as the Wind River Indian Reservation. It’s visually spectacular.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wind River” is a powerful, action-packed 8, concluding with the distressing postscript: “There are no records available for tracking missing and murdered Native American women.”

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“Appropriate”

Susan Granger’s review of “Appropriate” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! The plot points of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dysfunctional family drama pivot on anti-Semitism and white supremacy, evoking Biblical themes.

When the Lafayette family gathers at their recently deceased father’s dilapidated Arkansas plantation house, memories are revived as shameful secrets are revealed by the discovery of a scrapbook containing explicitly horrifying photographs of lynching and mason jars containing pickled body parts.

Having dutifully cared for their father, the eldest sibling, embittered Toni (Betsy Aidem), expects the most from the upcoming Estate sale and auction; recently divorced, she’s had a rough year, and her troubled, slacker son Rhys (Nick Selting) is moving in with his father.

Her brother Bo (David Aaron Baker) and his Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), arrive from New York with their children: rambunctious pre-teen Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and teenage daughter, Cassie (Allison Winn), who has a crush on her cousin Rhys.

The angst-riddled youngest brother Franz (Shawn Fagan), the prodigal son once known as Frank, appears unexpectedly with his sensible, New Age girl-friend, River (Anna Crivelli), insisting he wants to make amends for past misbehavior, including alcoholism, substance abuse and child-molestation.

Setting up the conflict, the first act is provocative and revelatory. But the second and third act meander, making it seem endless – and exhausting. They’re combined in this production by director David Kennedy and punctuated by the deafening, incessant chirp of cicadas; credit sound designer Fitz Patton.

After each family member indulges in a long, explanatory soliloquy, anger erupts and chaos reigns, epitomized by the rotting decay and eventual deconstruction of scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s cluttered set.

FYI: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014-15 Obie Award for this as Best New American Play.

Containing mature themes and crude language, “Appropriate” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until September 2. For more information, call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

“Logan Lucky”

Susan Granger’s review of “Logan Lucky” (Bleecker Street/Fingerprint Releasing)

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Let’s face it: crime capers are fun – and this slick heist may be Steven Soderbergh’s best. It’s a blast!

After a leg injury sidelined him from a football career, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) traded his helmet for a hardhat. But now his limp means he can’t even hold a construction job.

Commiserating with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), whose forearm was blown off in Iraq, Jimmy comes up with an idea. They’re gonna rob North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway – with a bit of help from their hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter).

Jimmy’s worked underground at the Speedway and has inside information about the complex pneumatic tubing system that sluices cash from the souvenir and concession stands into the speedway’s vault. Seemingly dimwitted Jimmy is a man with a plan.

But he needs an explosives expert. Which is why he turns to infamous Joe Bang (scene-stealing Daniel Craig with an admirable Appalachian accent), who’s currently incarcerated in a nearby West Virginia prison. But Bang insists on including his Born Again hillbilly brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan/Dennis Quaid).

So, after a few setbacks, it’s time for the good ‘ol boys to launch their larcenous lark at NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day.

Don’t discount a sweet subplot involving Jimmy’s precocious daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with ex-wife (Katie Holmes), who’s competing in a Little Miss West Virginia pageant. The opening scene involves Jimmy explaining to Sadie why he loves John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Less effective is another subplot detour involving a pompous, loudmouth British racer (Seth McFarlane). But casting Hilary Swank and Katherine Waterston in pivotal bit parts makes up for any shortcomings.

Working from a complicated, convoluted screenplay from an ‘unknown’ writer named Rebecca Blunt (a Soderbergh pseudonym?), inventive director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh excels in lighthearted, off-kilter comedy.

And concluding disclaimer notes, “Nobody was robbed during the making of this movie. Except you.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Logan Lucky” is an amusing, escapist 8: “Oceans 7-Eleven.”

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“Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” (Open Road)

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No better than the cartoons you can see on television, this animated sequel zeros in on squirrels Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) and Andie (voiced by Katherine Heigl), who are obviously destined for one another but face a number of obstacles on a circuitous road to romance.

Perpetually grumbling Surly and the rest of his gluttonous gang hang out in abandoned Nibbler’s Nut Shop near Liberty Park, gobbling artisanal, previously shelled morsels. Conscientious Andie is annoyed by their slothful behavior and relieved when an explosion destroys the dilapidated building.

But then Oakton City’s corrupt Mayor (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) announces plans to bulldoze their park, turning it into “Liberty Land,” an amusement center, avoiding safety compliance to maximize profits. We know he’s a bad guy because his car’s vanity license plate is MBEZZLIN.

Rising in protest, Surly, Andie and their cohorts are unexpectedly aided by white-furred Mr. Feng (voiced by Jackie Chan), who lives in Chinatown, having mysteriously evolved from a street rodent into a “weapon of mouse destruction.”

Plus, there’s Precious (voiced by Maya Rudolph), a scrappy, pop-eyed pug that frolics with Frankie (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), the Mayor’s daughter’s French bulldog who, after lapping up her regurgitated food, whines, “What are you, vegan? It’s go no taste!”

Scripted by director Cal Brunker with co-writers Bob Barlen and Scott Bindley, the anthropomorphic concept underlines the value of friendship and working together toward a common goal, amidst the chaos caused by a rolling Ferris Wheel-on-fire and a real mole playing Whack-a-Mole, noting, “The very existence of this game offends me!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” scurries in as a frenzied 4, a back-to-school time-waster.

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“Annabelle: Creation”

Susan Granger’s review of “Annabelle: Creation” (Warner Bros.)

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With paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren living in nearby Monroe, Connecticut audiences have always had a special place in their psyches for her and her late husband Ed’s collection of occult relics.

The real Annabelle, housed in a protective glass cabinet in the Warrens’ Museum, is a plain-looking, vintage Raggedy Ann-type doll, unlike the film’s garishly painted toy that’s fashioned in a child’s image.

After introducing demonic Annabelle in James Wan’s thriller “The Conjuring” (2013), she earned her own spinoff a year later. Now there’s an origin prequel.

It seems that 12 years after toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) lost their seven year-old daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident, they open their sprawling country house to Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of six girls from a local Catholic orphanage.

There’s Janice (Talitha Bateman), partially crippled from polio, and her plucky best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson). Since the other girls are older, they share a communal bedroom, relegating Janice and Linda to bunk beds in the sewing room where Esther created doll costumes.

Although they’re forbidden to enter the locked bedroom that once belonged to the Mullins’ deceased daughter, that’s just where they go, opening a Victorian wardrobe containing a large, wooden doll wearing a white dress.

When that doll inexplicably appears in different places around the house. Janice is panicked although Sister Charlotte and the others aren’t yet convinced of the shadowy doll’s satanic connection.

Scripted by Gary Dauberman and directed by David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”), the creepy concept makes full use of production designer Jennifer Spence’s architectural layout for the dark farmhouse, photographed by Maxime Alexandre.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Annabelle: Creation” is a spooky, scary 6. If you want to delve deeper, the New England Society for Psychic Research is hosting “An Evening With Annabelle” on October 29, 2017, with Lorraine Warren in Monroe. Peril is priced at $169@ and all participants must sign a release form.

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