“The Finest Hours”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Finest Hours” (Walt Disney Pictures)

 

Set in 1952, this fact-based rescue-adventure story chronicles the treacherous Coast Guard mission to save the crew of an oil tanker that split apart during a ferocious storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In an extended prologue, shy Coast Guard captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and his buddy Gus (Beau Knapp) go on a soda shop double-date. That’s where he meets Miriam (Holliday Grainger), the spunky telephone switchboard operator who becomes his fiancée after she asks him to marry her.

When a massive nor’ester hits the New England coast, a T-2 oil tanker, the SS Pendleton, bound for Boston, cracks in two, leaving more than 30 men eerily stranded on its sinking stern. As senior officer, first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) immediately takes charge of the bickering crew.

Meanwhile, at the Coast Guard station, Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders Webber and his crew to traverse the notoriously perilous Chatham shoal to rescue the survivors in a motorized, 36-foot wooden boat, facing frigid temperatures, monstrous waves, hurricane-force winds, poor visibility and, eventually, a lost compass.

Based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 non-fiction book, it’s confusingly scripted by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson and formulaically directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Million Dollar Arm”) with Ben Foster and Kyle Gallner lending strong support.

While the authenticity and comprehensibility of the actors’ accents waver, the CGI is impressive, if not immersive. Earnest, resourceful Webber and his crew emerge as true heroes, their understated bravery emphasized by Carter Burwell’s intrusively hokey score.

FYI: Hastily constructed of inferior metal during World War II, T-2 tankers were known as “serial sinkers,” since they often snapped in half during cold weather.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Finest Hours” storms in with a sturdy, seaworthy 6, another old-fashioned profile of courage.

06

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Screen Gems/Sony)

 

The pitch for this novelty horror/action/romantic comedy satire must have been intriguing: an absurdly quirky, comedic reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic tale of tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England.

“It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains,” says spirited Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), explaining the mysterious plague that has beset Hertfordshire. So she and her four marriageable sisters are masters of Chinese martial arts.

The beautiful eldest sister, decorous Jane (Bella Heathcote), immediately catches the eye of eligible Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), while strong, confident Elizabeth spars with perpetually brooding Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), a snobbish, yet renowned zombie killer.

As the zombie infestation increases, Elizabeth accuses Darcy: “You are as unfeeling as the undead.”

Inevitably, they must band together to vanquish the decomposing ghouls from the land, including an (underdeveloped) image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the opening sequence, as the Bennet sisters (including Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber and Millie Brady) slip weaponry into the garters of their Regency-era finery, writer/director Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down,” “17 Again”) sets a playful, cheeky, girl-power tone – which fades all-too-soon.

Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling 2009 novel of the same name, the result is neither funny enough nor scary enough. Worst of all, the walking dead gimmick grows tedious and tiresome.

FYI: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was an adaptation of another Seth Grahame-Smith novel.

Charles Dance and Sally Phillips play the Bennet parents, while Matt Smith (TV’s “Doctor Who”) adds amusement as prissy Parson Collins. Jack Huston is dastardly as Mr. Wickham, and Lena Headley glowers as Darcy’s Amazonian warrior aunt, Lady Catherine de Bough.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a feebly fanciful 5, and a post-credit scene suggests there may a sequel.

05

“The Boy”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boy”

 

This creepy story begins as a young, emotionally vulnerable American woman, Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan), arrives in an unknown town in England to apply for a nanny position. A car picks her up and takes her to the sprawling Heelshire family mansion that’s situated in the middle of a thick forest.

Elderly Mr. and Mrs Heelshire (Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle) greet Greta cordially and introduce her to their eight year-old son, Brahms, an extraordinarily realistic-looking porcelain doll. It seems that the real Brahms died in a house fire 20 years ago, and caring for this life-sized doll has become their coping mechanism.

“Whatever it might look like on the outside, our son is here. He’s very much with us,” she’s told.

Seeing delusional Mrs. Heelshire cuddling the doll, calling it “Mama’s good boy,” triggers a strong, sympathetic reaction in Greta, who agrees to take the nanny position, caring for Brahms while the Heelshires travel for an extended holiday.

Greta is given a strict set of detailed rules which must be followed, including how to treat Brahms: his face must never be covered and he must never be left alone.

Stashing the doll in a corner after the Heelshires depart, Greta soon becomes romantically involved with Malcolm (Rupert Evans), the local grocer, who tells her that Brahms once had a young girl friend who disappeared after a playdate, and he was implicated as her killer.

Soon, Greta hears childish laughter, along with spooky footsteps. Her jewelry and clothing start to disappear, and the Brahms doll turns up in odd places, as she becomes more and more paranoid.

Working from a twisty screenplay by newcomer Stacey Menear, this eerie horror story is directed by William Brent Bell (“Stay Alive,” “The Devil Inside”), evoking memories of far-better pictures like “The Conjuring,” “Child’s Play,” “Poltergeist” and “Magic.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boy” is a strange, intense 3, delving into the paranormal and leaving the door ajar for a sequel.

03

“Norm of the North”

Susan Granger’s review of “Norm of the North” (Lionsgate)

 

Riffing on the animated popularity of “Ice Age” and “Frozen,” this CGI tale introduces an amiable, appealing, English-speaking polar bear named Norm (voiced by Rob Schneider) who dances the Arctic Shake.

After his King of the North grandfather (voiced by Colm Meaney) disappears, greedy Mr. Greene (voiced by Ken Jeong), an unscrupulous real estate developer, decides to airlift pre-fab condos, turning their pristine wilderness into a tourist attraction.

So Norm stows away on a boat to New York City, where he pretends to be an actor in a bear costume in order to infiltrate Mr. Greene’s nefarious operation in order to stop him.

That’s where he crosses paths with Vera Brightley (voiced by Heather Graham), Greene’s marketing executive who’s eager to get her savvy daughter Olympia (voiced by Maya Kaye) into a better school. Lifting the concept of sidekicks like Minions, Norm is accompanied by three flatulent lemmings.

Scripted by Daniel & Steven Altiere and Malcolm Goldman, directed by Trevor Wall, the shoddy slapstick is not only derivative but formulaic. The characters are weakly developed and the animation is remarkably cheesy, particularly when compared with Pixar and Disney. The only bright spot comes from quips emanating from the seagull Socrates (voiced by Bill Nighy).

FYI: originally developed as a direct-to-DVD release, it somehow found its way into theaters, perhaps because of its perfunctory environmental message about the dangers of climate change.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Norm of the North” is a stale, trivial 3; it’s a charmless, blandly boring 93 minute interlude.

03

“School of Rock”

Susan Granger’s review of “School of Rock” (Winter Garden Theatre/Jan., 2016)

 

In this screen-to-stage adaptation, Alex Brightman plays Dewey Finn, the aging wannabe rock ‘n’ roller who is summarily fired by his own band. It’s the comedic role that catapulted slobby, manic Jack Black to fame and fortune back in 2003; Brightman echoes his comic energy and volatile physicality.

Broke and facing eviction, freeloading Dewey impulsively impersonates his ex-bandmate Ned Schneebly to get a job as a substitute teacher at Horace Green, an elite prep school. That’s where he transforms his fifth-grade class into Battle of the Bands contenders.

Following the plot of Mike White’s screenplay, the book been adapted by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Mary Poppins”) and Disney lyricist Glenn Slater with the score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Cats,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera”).

It’s oddly reminiscent of Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which was originally written for high schoolers. And this is the first time Webber has opened a musical on Broadway before London since “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971).

While none of the songs are particularly memorable, Brightman’s enthusiasm ignites the terrifically talented pre-teens, who immediately endear themselves with “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man” under the direction of Laurence Connor, who staged the current “Les Miserables” revival, and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter.

Starchy, skeptical Summer (Isabella Russo) is the’ goody two-shoes’ who becomes the band’s manager. Yearning to connect with his father, Freddy (Dante Melucci) defiantly takes out his frustration on the drums. Classically trained pianist Lawrence (Jared Parker) lets loose on the keyboard.  Prodigy Zach’s (Brandon Niederauer) on lead guitar with Katie (Evie Dolan) on bass.

Encouraged by her two gay dads, tiny belter Tomika (Bobbi Mackenzie) emerges from her shell of shyness, joining the back-up vocalists (Carly Gendell, Taylor Caldwell). And Barbra Streisand fan Billy (Luca Padovan) becomes the band’s stylist.

Wailing “Where Did the Rock Go?” Sierra Boggess plays the uptight principal with a secret penchant for Stevie Nicks, while Spencer Moses as the real Ned Schneebly with Mamie Parris as his bossy girl-friend.

The production design is superb – from Anna Louizos’ flexible sets and imaginative costumes to Natasha Katz’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design. One suggestion: since the music is very, very loud, it would be merciful if ear plugs were sold in the lobby, along with drinks and candy.

 

 

“Kung Fu Panda 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Kung Fu Panda 3” (20th Century-Fox/DreamWorks)

 

As “Kung Fu Panda 2” ended, Po’s long-lost biological father Li realizes, “My son is alive.”

So this third installment of the animated trilogy is about Po (voiced by Jack Black) reuniting with Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and discovering his roots in their ancestral panda village, while coping with Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), a self-righteous, power-hungry spirit that’s risen from the dead, leading zombie-like warriors.

Villainous Kai resembles a huge, horned yak bull – and could terrify very young tots, especially in 3D, since he possesses the power to freeze his enemies into stone.

Po’s wise master, the red panda Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), tells him to become a martial arts master, coaching the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and David Cross), saying, “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now.”

Predictably, there’s a natural rivalry between Li and Po’s adoptive father, the goose named Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong). The resolution indicates there’s room for Po’s relationship with both to grow and flourish. And a love interest for Po is introduced by the inclusion of ribbon-dancing Mei Mei (voiced by Kate Hudson).

Scripted by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Burger, supervised by directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, the landscapes and calligraphy are superbly rendered. This is DreamWorks Animation’s first co-production with their partner Oriental, and the first American animated feature to be co-produced by a Chinese studio.

FYI: Although Angelina Jolie’s character of Tigress has fewer lines in this installment, four of her children supplied additional voices.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is a supernaturally sweet 6, revolving around the concept of forgiveness and family, recommended for children over the age of six.

06

“Room”

Susan Granger’s review of “Room” (A24)

 

Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) delivers an exquisite, Oscar-worthy performance as Joy, a young woman held captive in a small garden shed with her five year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her original 2010 best-seller and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”), it’s basically told from Jack’s point-of-view. Jack has never left the squalid, sound-proofed, 10-by-10-foot room in which his Ma has been imprisoned for seven years. He was born there.

Gazing through the solitary skylight, Jack can see clouds, rain and an occasional leaf – but nothing else. Everything he knows about the outside world he’s learned from his resourceful Ma by playing games or watching television.

On his fifth birthday as Jack grows more curious, Ma informs him that she was 17 when she was kidnapped by a psychopath known as Old Nick (Sean Bridges), who visits periodically to deliver groceries and rape Ma, while Jack cowers in the wardrobe.

She says now is the time to plan their escape, a risky maneuver which will involve Jack’s bravely separating from his devoted mother for the first time in his life.

Eventually, Jack meets his grandparents (Joan Allen, William H. Macy), who divorced after Joy’s abduction, and Grandma’s new husband, Leo (Tom McCamus).

Once he’s in the outside world, Jack is understandably bewildered by his newfound freedom, while Joy tries to cope with the brutal psychological trauma she’s endured for so long.

Their adjustment process is complicated further when Joy agrees to a major TV network interview, only to be sandbagged when her motivations as a mother are questioned.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay create an astonishingly intimate mother-son connection, although those who have read the novel may miss some of its daring frankness involving the concept of privacy and personal space.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Room” is a resilient, cathartic 8, combining a wondrous metaphor with a suspenseful thriller.

08

“Dirty Grandpa”

Susan Granger’s review of “Dirty Grandpa” (Lionsgate)

 

I’m fairly certain that this wannabe comedy is one of the most dreadful films Robert De Niro’s ever made, if not the worst. And the scene in which the two-time Oscar-winner masturbates to porn has got to be the most humiliating of his career.

De Niro plays a recently bereaved widower who cajoles his uptight lawyer grandson, Jason (Zac Efron), into driving him from Atlanta to Boca Raton. It’s the week before Jason’s scheduled to marry demanding, obsessively-controlling Meredith (Julianne Hough), but he reluctantly agrees.

As soon as they hit the road in Meredith’s pink Mini-Cooper, Grandpa confesses that he’s been celibate for 15 years and is determined to get laid. Not surprisingly, they meet up with three college students.

Shadia (Zoey Deutch) knew Jason from photography class and Lenore (Aubrey Plaza) has a yen for older men, meaning Grandpa’s ‘in like Flynn,’ as they used to say, referring to Errol Flynn’s legendary prowess with women. Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), their gay African-American buddy, becomes the target of Grandpa’s racist, homophobic insults.

After a brief detour to visit Grandpa’s old Army buddy (Danny Glover), they all hook up in Daytona Beach, where drugs and bikini-clad babes reign supreme.

Obviously attracted to Shadia, Jason inadvertently smokes crack and collapses on the beach. With penises shaped like a Nazi swastika inked on his forehead and naked except for a plush toy on his genitals, Jason’s then mistakenly accused of child molestation.

Adding to the embarrassment, Dermot Mulrony plays Jason’s lawyer father, Adam Pally’s his idotic cousin, and Jason Mantzoukas is a zany drug dealer, working alongside a couple of complicit, corrupt Florida cops (Henry Zebrowski, Mo Collins).

Screenwriter John M. Phillip, whose claim to fame is writing skits for Sacha Baron Cohen, contributes relentlessly filthy vulgarity, sketchily directed by Dan Mazer. The primary running gag involves Grandpa sticking his finger in Jason’s butt. And don’t confuse the title with Johnny Knoxville’s mischievous “Bad Grandpa.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dirty Grandpa” is a tedious, testosterone-propelled 2 – raunchy, repellent and desperately not funny.

02

 

“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