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“The Duff”

Susan Granger’s review of “The DUFF” (CBS Films)

 

Ever since John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” teen rom-coms have been a popular genre – with updates like “Mean Girls” and “Easy A.” But they were before the onslaught of digital devices and social media.

Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is a happy, honor-roll high school senior until her next-door neighbor, football-captain Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), jokingly tells her that she’s known as the DUFF – or Designated Ugly Fat Friend – to her popular and gorgeous peers,  Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos).

Not surprisingly, this ridicule sends her into a tailspin. While her recently divorced mom (Alison Janney) tries to placate her, Bianca’s self-confidence is shattered.  Miserable, she spins into action, un-friending, un-following and disconnecting her BFFs’ Twitter, Facebook, Tumblir and other accounts.

Determined, defiant Bianca then decides to re-make her dorky reputation by striking a deal with perceptive Wes. She agrees to help him pass chemistry to save his threatened athletic scholarship to Ohio State, and he promises to teach her how to attract the guitar-strumming guy (Nick Everman) she secretly adores.

Even an embarrassing dressing-room disaster caught on a frenemy’s video that goes viral does not deter her. Predictably, resilient Bianca emerges triumphant from this identity crisis.

Based on the YA novel by Kody Keplinger, it’s formulaically adapted by Josh A. Cagan and amiably directed by Ari Sandel, juggling comedy with romance and pathos.

Primary credit goes to Mae Whitman, best known for her roles on TV’s “Arrested Development” and “Parenthood.” Sassy and savvy, Whitman’s comic timing is superb. Indeed, the entire cast is so likable that it’s easy to ignore the fact these so-called teenagers are really in their 20s.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The DUFF” is a subversively snarky, yet sensitive 6, updating George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with 21st century technology.

“Hot Tub Time Machine 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Despite its inherent absurdity, the original “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) was really funny, as middle-aged men traveled back in time to try to make wiser decisions in their youth.

Previously suicidal Lou Dorchen (Rob Corddry) was able to realize his dream by joining Motley Crue – a.k.a. Motley Lou – and founding Google – a.k.a. Lougle.  He became a womanizing, substance-abusing billionaire who neglects his nerdy, resentful son Jacob (Clark Duke), who serves as his butler.  Meanwhile, Nick Webber (Craig Robinson) went from rags-to-riches by ripping off songs that hadn’t been written yet.

During a bacchanal at Lou’s New Orleans mansion, a mysterious assailant shoots him in the groin. When  Jacob and Nick drag bleeding Lou into the magical Kodiak Lodge hot tub, they emerge in 2025 in an alternate universe, where Neil Patrick Harris is President, Jennifer Lawrence stars in a Meryl Streep biopic called “Streepin’ it Real,” and ‘smart cars’ turn on you if you’re not polite.

Screenwriter Josh Heald and director Steve Pink compensate for John Cusack’s absence by adding his alternate-universe son, an insufferable groom-to-be (Adam Scott) who joins them in trying to stop a killer. And, yes, Chevy Chase does another cameo as the repairman.

Stuffed with references to genitalia and far-better time-travel movies like “Looper” and “Terminator,” the entire concept is witless, homophobic and misogynistic.

Adding insult along with injury, there’s a TV gameshow called “Choozy Doozy,” hosted by Christian Slater, featuring virtual-reality anal rape.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is a crass, trivial 3. Pull the plug and empty the Jacuzzi!

“Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (20th Century-Fox)

 

When British director/producer Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) wanted to make a James Bond movie, he was rejected by the Broccoli family that controls the franchise. So he got this idea of spoofing the concept of dapper gentlemen involved in international intrigue.

In the prologue, British superspy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) – a.k.a. Galahad – is involved in a botched Middle East mission that costs the life of one of his cohorts.  Seventeen years later, Hart comes to the rescue of that cohort’s son, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), a troubled South London street kid.

Hart is a member of an elite, super-secret organization of gentlemen spies, known as Kingsman, who work out of a swank Saville Row tailor. They operate beyond the purview of any government, taking their code names from the legendary Knights of the Roundtable.

When a Kingsman dies, inscrutable Arthur (Michael Caine) holds a competition for his replacement. Hart nominates Eggsy, who finds himself up against aristocratic snobs. While Eggsy is being tested by Merlin (Mark Strong), a brilliant but batty tech-billionaire, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) launches a bizarre scheme to cull Earth’s population by offering free cellphone and Internet service.

Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons and scripted by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, it’s filled with derring-do and outrageous gadgets. There are bulletproof blazers, programmable wrist darts, poison-spiked shoes, etc. And Valentine dwells in a spectacular mountain lair.

Wearing a baseball cap and utilizing an exaggerated lisp, Samuel L. Jackson is a scene-stealer, although suave, sophisticated Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) proves himself as an adroit, impeccably stylish action hero, an anti-elitist who firmly believes that upper-class grace is learned, not inherited.

While Sophie Cookson impresses as Eggsy’s classmate, Sofia Boutella dazzles as Valentine’s henchwoman, taking out foes with her flexible blade-runner legs. In a small but memorable part, Hanna Alstrom is a Scandinavian Princess who entices Eggsy with a crude offer he cannot refuse.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is an amusing 8 – a rowdy romp.

“Fifty Shades of Grey”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Universal/Focus Features)

 

Cleverly timed for Valentine’s Day, this film adaptation of E.L. James’ provocative novel revolves around a man’s desire for kinky sex and a woman’s determination to achieve emotional satisfaction.

“I don’t do romance. My tastes are very singular,” dapper Seattle billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) explains to naïve, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who wants love and commitment.

They ‘met cute,’ when Anastasia’s journalist roommate (Eloise Mumford) gets sick and she’s dispatched to interview him for the college paper. An English Lit major, she’s clumsy and flustered; he’s icily formal and arrogant. But they connect, even though he asks her to sign a nondisclosure agreement over their first glass of white wine.

Flirtatiously batting her big blue eyes and curious about what being a sex slave means, lithe Anastasia willingly enters Christian’s locked “playroom,” where she learns about Dominance and Submission, Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism  – in a sanitized way.

Less shocking than “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), it combines “9½ Weeks” with the luxurious enticements of “Pretty Woman” – and doesn’t get torrid for the first 40 minutes. Even then, when Anastasia’s spanked, blindfolded, and smacked with a riding crop, the soft-core sex scenes are choreographed into stylized sterility, as atmosphere triumphs over action.

That’s overwhelmingly evident when Christian plays melancholy, post-coital sonatas on the piano, giving Anastasia momentary glimpses into his traumatic childhood.

Adroitly adapted by Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”), it’s been criticized by domestic violence organizations and banned in Malaysia for “scenes that are not of natural sexual content.”

Exuding natural playfulness, Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson; previously she was Justin Timberlake’s one-night stand in “The Social Network.”  Former British model Jamie Dornan – a.k.a. “The Golden Torso”- plays a serial killer on the BBC-TV series “The Fall.”

Problem is: they have no erotic chemistry – and the supporting cast, including Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle, is wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a fetishistic 5 – with two future installments on the way.

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”

Susan Granger’s review of “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” (Paramount/Nickelodeon)

 

After success of 2004’s “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie,” a sequel was inevitable, as the colorful characters in Stephen Hillenburg’s TV toon embark on another adventure.

Under the sea in Bikini Bottom, porous SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) and his purple starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) once again foil an attempt by their scheming, one-eyed nemesis, Plankton (Doug Lawrence – a.k.a. Mr. Lawrence), to steal stingy Mr. Krab’s (Clancy Brown) secret formula for succulent Krabby Patties to save his Chum Bucket eatery from bankruptcy.

But then, suddenly, the precious recipe for the delicious delicacies disappears from the vault at the Krusty Krab! Pandemonium reigns until the rival restauranteurs join forces on a perilous mission.

SpongeBob, Patrick, Mr. Krabs and Plankton, along with the curmudgeonly cashier Squidward Tentacles (Roger Burnpass) and savvy squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), travel to the surface to track down the villainous pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who has transformed his ship into a food truck and serves as Narrator.

Visual gags abound. Bubbles the hyper-intelligent dolphin (Matt Berry) shoots lasers out of his blowhole, while SpongeBob and Patrick take a spin in a cotton-candy machine, emerging on a crazed ‘sugar high.’ There’s a time-tripping excursion into the Jurassic past, seagull poop jokes and a plethora of puns.

Mr. Krabs commands: “Release the condiments!”  SpongeBob replies, “With relish!”

Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger inspire directors Paul Tibbett (who handles the underwater sequences) and Mike Mitchell (who helms the live-action scenes) to soar off into muscle-bound superhero territory. The result is predictably uneven.

Given the choice and the extra surcharge, the 3-D is superfluous.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” is a silly, surreal, squeezable 6, making family-friendly waves in our world.

“Jupiter Ascending”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jupiter Ascending” (Warner Bros.)

 

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a lowly Chicago maid who lives with her extended Russian family and spends most of her days scrubbing toilets.

Suddenly, she discovers she’s the rightful heir to an intergalactic empire. Like Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries,” she’s skeptical at first. But hunky, chivalrous Caine (Channing Tatum), a wolverine space warrior wearing hover boots, literally sweeps her off her feet, soaring above the Loop to escape evil forces that are in hot pursuit.

Caine and his cohort Stinger (Sean Bean) convince Jupiter to fight aristocratically evil Balem (Eddie Redmayne) for control of the planet Earth. It seems Earthlings are, basically, bred as DNA livestock waiting to be ‘harvested’ to prolong the lives of a decadent Royal Family.

Jupiter is a ‘recurrance,’ the genetic reincarnation of the previous Queen, the deceased mother of three squabbling siblings (Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton).

Inanely scripted by Neville Kiser and flamboyantly directed by brother-and-sister Andrew and Lana Wachowski, it’s a ludicrously pulpy ‘lust in space’ saga, studded with elaborately vivid, eye-popping visual effects more suited to video games. There’s even a cameo with “Brazil” director Terry Gilliam.

Poor Eddie Redmayne – brilliant as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” – whispers his malevolence; he must be praying that Oscar voters don’t see this debacle before they cast their ballots.

Having shown his acting chops in “Foxcatcher,” Channing Tatum deserves better. He’s saddled with lines like, “Your Majesty, I have more in common with a dog than I have with you.” To which, giddy, clueless Mila Kunis replies, “I love dogs!  I’ve always loved dogs!”

So why did Warner Bros. give the Wachowskis $175 million to squander on this cosmic soap opera? They made “The Matrix” (1999), creating a wondrously profit-making sci-fi world that begat several sequels. While their subsequent “Speed Racer” (2008) and “Cloud Atlas” (2012) were disappointing, they were still able to command enormous sums. That’s today’s movie industry.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jupiter Ascending” is a preposterous 3, a cinematic disaster.

“Black or White”

Susan Granger’s review of “Black or White” (Relativity Media)

 

Writer/director Mike Binder delves into his own family history for this timely dramedy, starring Kevin Costner as a grieving widower who must fight to retain custody of the beloved bi-racial granddaughter.

Still stunned over the death of his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) in an automobile accident, Scotch-swilling attorney Elliot Anderson (Costner) is, nevertheless, determined to continue to raise seven year-old Eloise (Jillian Estell) in Brentwood, the affluent Los Angeles suburb where she’s lived all her life.

Eloise’s mother (Elliot’s 17 year-old daughter) died in childbirth. And Eloise’s biological father, Reggie (Andre Holland), is a crack-smoking, drug-addicted ex-con with a long rap sheet; he’s never taken any interest in Eloise’s life.

Suddenly, Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena – a.k.a. Grandma Wee Wee (Octavia Spencer) – demands to be her guardian, seeking to move Eloise to be near her extended family in working-class Compton. At irrepressible Rowena’s side as they head into the courtroom is her slick lawyer brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie).

Filmmaker Mike Binder plays the “race card” with perceptive clarity and moralistic compassion, throwing in strong supporting characters, like Eloise’s African-immigrant math tutor (Mpho Koaho) and a perceptive family court judge (Paula Newsome).

Returning to work with Binder, who directed him in “The Upside of Anger” (2005), Kevin Costner is wearily convincing, as is outspoken Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). Their conflicted characters are intricately drawn and detailed, while precociously observant Jillian Estell is the center of the custodial conflict.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black or White” is a subtle 6, serving as yet another reminder of how much racial bigotry matters.

“Mortdecai”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mortdecai” (Lionsgate Films)

 

The reason that even the most famous stand-up comics periodically return to comedy clubs to try out new material is that – in front of an audience – they can immediately determine whether people find what they’re doing funny.

What a shame Johnny Depp didn’t have that opportunity – because his considerable talents are squandered playing the preening, aristocratic poof, a man besotted by his mustache.

Based on “Don’t Point That Thing at Me” (1973), the first in a series of three cult novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli, this caper comedy chronicles the misadventures of British Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), a snobbish, tax-dodging art dealer, his disapproving trophy wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his studly manservant Jock Strap (Paul Bettany).

“Every man should have a Jock, don’t you think?” muses Mortdecai, twirling his walrus whiskers.

When a rare Goya painting – “The Duchess of Wellington” – goes missing after a robbery, Mortdecai is recruited by secret agent Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) to find the stolen canvas and ascertain the Swiss bank account number of Nazi Hermann Goering that’s supposedly scribbled on its reverse side.

Their globe-trotting quest takes them from London to Hong Kong to Moscow to Los Angeles – and back again.

Scripted by novice Eric Aronson and helmed by screenwriter-turned-director David Koepp (“Premium Rush”), it’s not only charmless but chock full of clumsy slapstick, campy violence and smutty sexual innuendos. Perhaps realizing they had little choice, given the thin material, the cast self-consciously mugs for the camera – entrapping hapless supporting players like Jeff Goldblum as a sleazy American art dealer and Olivia Munn as his nymphomaniac daughter.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to10, “Mortdecai” is a tiresome 2 – a misfire that’s mortifying for all concerned.

“Mommy”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mommy” (Roadside Attractions)

 

Xavier Dolan is an incredibly talented 25 year-old French-Canadian filmmaker, who seems obsessed with the Oedipal mother/son relationship.

His first film, the semiautobiographical “I Killed My Mother,” made when he was 19, explored the betrayal he felt when his exasperated mother sent him off to boarding school. In this thematic sequel, he examines the maternal bond from a different perspective.

Widowed for three years, mercurial, middle-aged Diane “Die” Despres (Anne Dorval) works as a children’s book translator and house cleaner in suburban Montreal.  Afflicted with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), her 15 year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Piton) is prone to loud, violent outbursts and irresponsible actions.

After setting fire to the cafeteria, combative Steve is expelled from juvenile detention. So Die must assume complete care of her uncontrollable, mentally ill teenager.  Unexpected help arrives from their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a shy teacher with a speech disorder, who agrees to tutor Steve.

In Canada, apparently, there’s a new law that allows an anguished parent to hand over custody of a difficult child to the state. While this obvious ‘escape hatch’ hovers over the psychodrama, feisty Die summarily rejects it, although a youth counselor tells her: “Loving people doesn’t save them. Love isn’t enough.”

Filmed by cinematographer Andre Turpin in a 1:1 aspect ratio, the frame is a perfect square – in contrast to most films, which are more wide than tall. As a result, writer/director Xavier Dolan’s unique choice evokes a raw feeling of constricted, claustrophobic compression, perfectly matching the chaotic subject matter, particularly with his use of close-ups.

Despite his youth, wunderkind Xavier Dolan has already directed five feature films. He started as a child actor in TV commercials when he was four. Among his many jobs as he grew up, he dubbed the voice of Ron Weasley in the French-language versions of the “Harry Potter” franchise.

In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mommy” is an edgy, emotionally explosive 8, individualizing an exhausting struggle many parents are forced to endure.

“Project Almanac”

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

 

Found footage and an undiscovered basement laboratory fuel this teen time-travel adventure.

When socially awkward high-school science whiz David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is searching in the attic for a project to propel a scholarship grant to attend MIT, he discovers a bewildering image from his seventh birthday party on his late father’s video camera.

Convinced that his father invented a temporal displacement device, David and nerdy buddies – Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) – are determined to follow his dad’s detailed instructions to replicate it – with David’s giggly younger sister, Christina (Ginny Gardner), documenting the process.

But their increasingly incredible experiments desperately need a stronger power source, so they hook up to a car battery that belongs to pretty, popular Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), on whom David has a secret crush. And sparks fly as they time-travel.

Predictably, their first ‘jump’ is a chemistry exam ‘do over,’ another is to wreak revenge on bullies and score at the Lottery. But when they frolic at the music festival Lollapalooza, having bought used backstage passes on E-Bay, something goes awry. Blame it on ripples from The Butterfly Effect.

Although they pledged never to time-travel alone, guilt-riddled David does – with disastrous results.

Screenwriters Andrew Deutschman and Jason Harry Pagan, along with novice director Dean Israelite, concentrate on the prep work, more than the consequences. What could have been a poignant reunion between David and his dad is almost dismissed, along with other provocative opportunities.

Among other pop culture allusions, the teens refer to the sci-fi thriller “Looper” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

But the hand-held camera work is formulaically shaky and the clichéd jump cuts are distracting. Produced by Michael Bay, this film, not surprisingly, has been gathering dust on-the-shelf for a year.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Project Almanac” is a frenetic 4. “Back to the Future” it isn’t.