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“Home Again”

Susan Granger’s review of “Home Again” (Open Road Pictures)

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Nepotism has run rampant in Hollywood’s movie industry from the time of its inception, when dozens of relatives of moguls Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor were on the Universal and Paramount payrolls.

So writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer has a prime Hollywood pedigree as daughter of producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers (“The Intern,” “It’s Complicated”) and producer/director/writer Charles Shyer (“Baby Boom,” “Father of the Bride”).

Ms. Shyer launches her career with this character-driven romantic comedy, focusing on Alice (Reese Witherspoon), who has just separated from her workaholic Manhattan-based, music-producer husband Austen (Martin Sheen) and moved to Los Angeles, where her deceased Oscar-winning director/father left her a sprawling Spanish mansion.

As Alice is celebrating her 40th birthday, she’s picked up by 27 year-old Harry (Pico Alexander), an aspiring filmmaker who just happens to be looking for a place to live – with his ambitious moviemaking pals/partners: Teddy (Nat Wolff) and George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Flattered that the young men recognize her as a former cinema siren and charmed by their passion for films, Alice’s mother Lillian (Candice Bergen) suggests they bunk in the luxurious guest cottage. Convenient!

Plus, Alice’s adorably precocious young daughters – Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) – adore the blandly amiable, energetic guys who soon become intricately involved in their lives.

Soon Alice discovers that it’s nice to have millennials around the house, like having 24/7-computer tech service, live-in babysitters and sex with someone who’s 13 years younger.

Meanwhile in a silly subplot, Alice’s attempt to launch a new career as a freelance interior decorator is being torpedoed by Zoey (Lake Bell), an obnoxious, self-involved socialite.

Although there are contrivances galore and the less-than-compelling conflict could get lost in a cone of cotton candy, it’s a superficially amusing diversion, particularly when Reese Witherspoon and Candice Bergen display their adroit comic timing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Home Again” is an implausibly sparkly 6, a fun chick-flick.

06

“Tulip Fever”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tulip Fever” (The Weinstein Company/Paramount Pictures)

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Filmed in 2014, then shelved, this costume drama fails on almost all levels, despite a prestigious cast that includes three Oscar-winners: Christoph Waltz, Alicia Vikander and Judi Dench.

So what went wrong?

Supposedly based on a true story, the romance revolves around Sophia (Vikander), an orphan raised in a convent where the feisty Abbess (Dench) arranges her marriage to elderly widower Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), a wealthy merchant who desperately wants an heir.

As time goes by, Sophia is unable to get pregnant. So when vain Cornelis hires aspiring artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to paint a portrait of him and his lovely ‘trophy’ wife, Sophia and Jan fall in love.

Complications arise when Sophia’s saucy servant Maria (Holliday Grainger) becomes pregnant by the fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell), threatening to blackmail Sophia by revealing her adulterous trysts.

What’s galling is that this inane soap opera is set in 17th century Amsterdam, where a commodities exchange once revolved around exotic tulip bulbs, the most prized being the mutants with irregularly striped petals. Fortunes were made and lost in “Tulip Mania.”  That’s where the real drama takes place.

According to Skidmore Professor Mehmet Odekon’s financial encyclopedia “Booms and Busts,” this was the first significant, speculative ‘bubble’ in European financial history, damaging the Dutch economy for many years.

Despite elegant efforts from cinematographer Eigil Bryld and production designer Simon Elliott, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) fails to capture the blooming fervor of this historic context, relegating it to background.

Worse yet, he’s unable to generate heat among the three principals, ceding all sexual tension to the supporting players – with Jan’s drunken pal Gerrit (Zach Galifianakis) supplying hollow humor.

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks first optioned British novelist Deborah Moggach’s 1999 best-seller, planning to pair Natalie Portman with Jude Law at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. – until British Chancellor Gordon Brown abruptly closed the tax loophole funding films.

Then several years passed before Harvey Weinstein hired playwright Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) to adapt Deborah Moggach’s script with all its dreadful dialogue. And Ms. Moggach can be spotted as an ‘extra,’ an old lady, drinking beer and puffing on a clay pipe, in the tavern.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tulip Fever” is a tasteless, torpid 3, wilting as it unfolds.

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“Leap!”

Susan Granger’s review of “Leap!” (The Weinstein Company)

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Aimed specifically at pre-teens, this animated feature has a bizarre history. Originally a French/Canada co-production, titled “Ballerina,” it performed well in Europe last year. Unfortunately, the Americanized version lost its magic somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Set in the French countryside of Brittany in the late 19th century, the story begins at a dreary orphanage, where spirited 11 year-old Felice (Elle Fanning) and her scruffy friend Victor (Nat Wolff) decide to run away to Paris, where Felice can become a famous ballerina and Victor an accomplished inventor.

After escaping from the surly Supervisor, Monsieur Luteau (Mel Brooks), they arrive in the City of Light, where they’re accidentally separated.

The Eiffel Tower is under construction, and Victor lands a menial job as an apprentice in the prestigious atelier of Gustave Eiffel.

After wandering the streets, Felice sneaks into the Paris Opera Ballet.  When the guard catches her, Felice is befriended by Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepson), the lame cleaning lady who has a second job as a housekeeper for evil restauranteur Regine Le Haut (Kate McKinnon).

Madame Regine’s daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) is also an aspiring ballerina, so Felice deviously wangles her way into Ballet Academy auditions by impersonating snotty, selfish Camille.

Although she yearns to play the part of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” untrained Felice has a problem. As Master Merante (Terrence Scammell) puts it, she has “the energy of a bullet and the lightness of a depressed elephant.”

Thinly scripted by Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun and co-director Eric Summer, working with co-director Eric Warin, it relies on a formulaic, yet predictable, often anachronistic underdog plot, exhorting young viewers to “follow your dreams.”

There are many similarities to “Anastasia”: both girls flee from orphanages, both have precious music boxes somehow connected with their past, and both pretend to be someone they’re not.

FYI: “The Nutcracker” didn’t premiere until 1892 and was not performed outside of Russia for many years after that.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Leap!” falls flat with an inconsistent, barely functional 4. Wait for the DVD.

04

“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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“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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