“Star Trek: Beyond”

Susan Granger’s review of “Star Trek: Beyond” (Paramount Pictures)

 

‘Back in the 1960s, I became an avid fan of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi TV series, which not only boldly explored new worlds but also set forth challenging concepts, tackling relevant social issues with philosophical ingenuity and inventive diplomacy.

Yes, the sets were tacky but provocative ideas and redemptive life-lessons flourished.

Several movie franchises continued in that vein but, under the stewardship of J.J. Abrams, character complexity has become secondary to continual conflict and spectacle, sacrificing much of the emotional satisfaction.

There’s Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), along with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Pavel Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin, who tragically died at age 27).

They’re all on-board as this installment begins in the enormous Yorktown Spaceport. Three years into their five-year tour, they embark on a rescue mission that leads them through a dangerous, uncharted nebula.

After the Enterprise is disabled by an evil enemy, reptilian megalomaniac Krall (Idris Elba), the crew is stranded on the alien planet Altamid, where they’re befriended by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a vengeful, rebel warrior who has taken up residence inside a shipwrecked, century-old Federation vessel.

It’s generically scripted by Simon Pegg (who plays chief engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott) and Don Jung and formulaically directed by noise-and-action obsessed Justin Lin (“Fast & Furious”).

Unfortunately, the narrative quest for a powerful artifact is diluted by far too many frantic skirmishes, quick edits and vertiginous CGI battles, including one in which multiple Kirks ride multiple motorcycles.

Thankfully, ever-logical Spock and grumpy, acerbic Bones still banter so actors Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban deliver much-needed comedy relief, along with the timely use of the Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage.” Plus there’s a fleeting moment of nostalgia, a glimpse of the seven original Starfleet crew.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Star Trek: Beyond” is an explosive, shoot ‘em up 7. Although there’s too much hardware and too little heart on this voyage, the franchise should “Live long and prosper.”

07

“The Innocents”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Innocents” (Music Box Films)

 

In Warsaw, Poland, after the Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s Germany in W.W. II, it’s estimated that the occupying Russian troops raped 500,000 women and about 100,000 of them subsequently committed suicide.

Working with several credited writers, director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel,” “Gemma Bovary”) was inspired by the true story of Madeline Pauliac, a French doctor and Resistance fighter, who helped a group of Polish nuns, most of them virgins, who were convinced that their ordeal has doomed them to eternal damnation.

Their story begins in December, 1945, when Teresa (Eliza Rycembel), a novice Benedictine nun, begs French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage) for assistance.

Returning to the convent, she is severely reprimanded by the steely Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) and French-speaking Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) for revealing their shameful secret to a stranger.

As the psychological drama unfolds, Dr. Beaulieu learns that, on three separate occasions, Russian soldiers brutally raped the nuns, leaving six of them and one novice pregnant.

Since their behavior is dictated by the strict rituals of their order, this insular religious community has become devastated not only by the atrocities but also by repercussions that might tarnish the convent’s reputation.

And once, when driving back to the Red Cross base through the snow-covered forest, Dr. Beaulieu is ominously accosted at a Soviet checkpoint.

Dr. Beauliu’s life is further complicated by her relationship with Dr. Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), a Jewish physician whose parents died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He ends up assisting the hesitant nuns who are under oath not to allow their bodies to be exposed or touched.

Working with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, Fontaine displays incredible sensitivity to the scandalous situation, particularly the anguish of Mother Superior’s syphilis and Sister Maria’s intricate worldliness (she wasn’t a virgin when she took her vow of chastity).

In French, Russian and Polish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Innocents” is a starkly desolate, yet compassionate 7 with timely relevance for women today.

07

 

“The Infiltrator”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Infiltrator” (Broad Green Pictures)

 

It’s a new twist on a familiar story, as a law-abiding everyman becomes entangled with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel.

Back in 1986, Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) was a devoted husband and father, working as a U.S. Customs agent in Tampa, Florida. In the opening scene, he’s about to make an undercover drug deal in a bowling alley when the microphone strapped to his chest overheats, the excruciating pain almost blowing his cover.

Although his injury makes him eligible for paid retirement, Mazur refuses. Determined to make a significant dent in the “War on Drugs,” he decides to go after the real kingpins who control the massive cocaine importation to the United States.

“Don’t follow the drugs,” he says. “Follow the money.”

Calling himself Bob Musella, he poses as a flamboyantly successful money-launderer, cleverly duping Colombian distributors and their corrupt bankers, like suavely scheming Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his wife, Gloria (Elena Anaya).

Tension mounts as an elaborate sting operation takes form, particularly when Bob’s leather briefcase with its cleverly hidden tape recorder unexpectedly pops open at just the wrong time.

Based on Mazur’s memoir, it’s adapted by Ellen Brown Furman and directed by her son, Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), who elicits authentically chilling performances from Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo,” TV’s “Breaking Bad”) and John Leguizamo, as his enigmatic informant/sidekick, Emir Abreau.

Furman subtly uses the glamorous beauty of German actress Diane Kruger, who played Marie Antoinette in “Farewell, My Queen” and Helen in “Troy,” to dazzle the gangsters as Musella’s fabricated fiancée – although she looks nothing like real-life rookie officer Kathy Ertz, whose inconspicuous, girl-next-door quality is obvious during the credits.

But there are other, better, movies about the international drug trade, like “Traffic,” “Rush” and “Escobar: Paradise Lost.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Infiltrator” is a suspenseful 6, a stylishly slick espionage thriller.

06

“Ghostbusters”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ghostbusters” (Columbia Pictures)

 

The infectious charm of the original “Ghostbusters” (1964) was the goofy chemistry between bright, slyly satiric “SNL” comedians (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) and ectoplasmic special effects.

The problem with this mediocre re-make is not the gender-redo but its lack of originality, along with a scarcity of in-jokes, irony and cynicism – and a repetition of the same supernatural special effects.

The story begins as Columbia University Physics Professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) realizes her bid for tenure has been endangered by the re-issue of a parapsychology book she wrote years ago with a high-school pal, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy).

When Erin tracks Abby down, she discovers that Abby’s still chasing ghostly phenomena, partnering with crazed tech-head Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). They’re soon are soon joined by cheeky MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a walking encyclopedia of New York folklore.

Setting up shop above a Chinatown restaurant, they joined by a dimwitted assistant, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), who’s hired simply because he’s hunky. His incompetence is a running joke that overstays its welcome.

The playful plot involves Manhattan’s historic Aldridge mansion whose resident female ghost starts an epidemic of psychic nuisances. While the Mayor (Andy Garcia) and his assistant (Cecily Strong) are deep into deceptive denial, culpability can be traced back to Rowan North (Neil Casey), a resentful, demented creep.

Working from a screenplay co-written by Katie Dippold (“The Heat”) and director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Spy”), it‘s packed with coveralls-clad girl-power, along with some familiar faces.

Bill Murray is a respected debunker; Dan Aykroyd’s a cab driver who “don’t believe in no ghosts;” Ernie Hudson is Patty Tolan’s Uncle Bill; Amy Potts is a receptionist at the Mercado Hotel – and there’s a bust of the late Harold Ramis outside Erin’s office at Columbia University.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ghostbusters” is a fantasy-funny 5 – slime-time for female friendship.

05

“The Secret Life of Pets”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Secret Life of Pets” (Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

 

Admittedly, Pixar’s “Toy Story” came up with the fantasy first, but this animated adventure, set in Manhattan, explores the concept of what your pets might be up to when you’re gone for the day.

Beginning with a merchandising short featuring lawn-mowing Minions from “Despicable Me,” the main story kicks into gear as Katie (Ellie Kemper) disrupts the domestic tranquility of her beloved Jack Russell terrier Max (Louis CD.K.) by bringing home a huge, shaggy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet).

Filled with resentment about Duke’s desire for dominance, caustic Max turns to Chloe (Lake Bell), the neighbor’s lazy Russian blue cat, along with his close circle of canine pals, including the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and fluffy white Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has a major crush on Max.

Then, one day, when their dog-walker becomes distracted, Duke takes off in the park, clutching Max’s leash in his mouth. Soon, they’re lost and fall into the clutches of a manic, street-wise rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart), vindictive leader of the Flushed Pets, a group of resentful, sewer-dwelling animals who loathe the humans who abandoned them.

Worried that Max is missing, Gidget enlists help from Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a predatory falcon who lives on the roof, and they eventually wind up in Brooklyn with Pops, an elderly, partially-paralyzed Bassett Hound, who slyly knows his way around better than anyone else.

Working from an idea by Illumination Entertainment’s Chris Meledandri and a script by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney cheerfully sentimentalize the four-pawed characters, giving them distinctly human characteristics, even the fish, parakeet and guinea pig.

The action pieces are diverting, particularly when Max and Duke explore a sausage factory, where they gorge themselves into a stupor, but the redundant animal-catcher chases grow tedious.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Secret Life of Pets” fetches a sweetly spirited 6, providing a 90-minute diversion for youngsters who have already seen “Finding Dory.”

06

“The Purge: Election Year”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Purge: Election Year” (Universal Pictures)

Combining sanctioned violence with the timely political scene proves an audience-intriguing premise for this third installment in James DeMonaco’s subversive, low-budget, horror/thriller franchise.

It reveals a futuristic America in which mayhem and murder are legal one night a year. During the 12-hour Purge, people can either try to stay safe or go on a crime-spree, suffering no consequences for their actions.

Sgt. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now head of security for idealistic Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a Presidential candidate who promises to end the barbaric ritual, having lost her family during the mayhem several years ago.

Abolitionist Roan is now a prime target for the NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America), a white supremacist group that views Purge Night as purification, a necessary escape valve that encourages economic subjugation. Their Oval Office candidate is a conservative/Christian minister (Kyle Secor).

So when a betrayal forces Leo Barnes and Charlie Roan out onto the streets of Washington, D.C., they must fight for survival – against blood-thirsty, axe-wielding, paramilitary fiends, wearing Abraham Lincoln and George Washington masks.

They’re joined by an African-American bodega owner (Mykelti Williamson) who’s furious about a spike in his “Purge insurance” premium, his immigrant employee (Joseph Julian Soria), and an anti-Purge EMT (Betty Gabriel).

Starting with “The Purge” (2013), followed by “The Purge: Anarchy” (2014), writer/director James DeMonaco has tapped into today’s adversarial political climate, a pulpy polarization that feeds on anger and aggression, frosting it with a layer of pop culture satire.

Not that his idea is new. “A Clockwork Orange” first shocked audiences with ritualized slaughter, followed by many films over the years, including the recent “Road Warrior” and “Hunger Games.”

What’s unique about DeMonaco’s dystopic concept is that – within a so-called civilized society – ALL crime has been legalized for 12 hours.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Purge: Election Year” is a fascistic 5, appealing to the homicidal maniac lurking inside everyone who has experienced something as simple as road rage.

05

“Independence Day: Resurgence”

Susan Granger’s review of “Independence Day: Resurgence” (20th Century-Fox)

 

This sci-fi sequel fizzles like a soggy firecracker. Set 20 years after the original, it begins with peace on Earth, as if mankind had finally realized that the biggest threat comes from outer space.

To that end, Earthlings are now utilizing the technology acquired from the extra-terrestrials to build up our defenses, including tactical bases on the Moon and Saturn.

Incoherently bobbled together by four different screenwriters (Dean Devlin, Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, James Vanderbilt), working with director Roland Emmerich, it’s a frenzied, fragmented fiasco.

What’s missing is a charismatic hero, like Will Smith’s swashbuckling Marine pilot Captain Steven Hiller. Before “Independence Day” (1996), Smith was best known as TV’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” After that, until bad choices torpedoed his career, Smith’s movies dominated the Fourth of July weekend.

So without a central character, we’re left with token supporting characters, each doing his/her thing when the bug-like aliens return, causing epic, global destruction to drain Earth’s molten core.

Jeff Goldblum’s wisecracking engineer David Levinson has been working with Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a psychiatrist studying humanity’s consciousness since the alien invasion, and Judd Hirsch is still around as his father, ferrying a school bus of children.

Brent Spiner’s eccentric Dr. Brakish Okun awakens from a coma with a bewildering alien-brain connection. And the former exotic dancer played by Vivica A. Fox is now a health-care worker.

Although the White House Oval Office is occupied by a female POTUS (Sela Ward), Bill Pullman’s former President Thomas H. Whitmore surfaces again, along with Maika Monroe as his daredevil daughter.

Other newbies comprise the Earth Space Defense Team, hotshot fighter pilots led by the late Capt. Hiller’s son, played by Jessie T. Usher, and his renegade rival Liam Hemsworth.

And the climactic battle with the immense, indomitable Alien Queen is lifted from “Aliens” (1986) in which Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) proved a far more formidable foe.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Independence Day: Resurgence” is a tedious 3 – failing even as a patriotic popcorn picture.

03

“Our Kind of Traitor”

Susan Granger’s review of “Our Kind of Traitor” (Roadside Attractions/Studio Canal)

 

This cinematic adaptation of spymaster John le Carre’s 2010 Cold War thriller opens with a tantalizing glimpse of the Bolshoi Ballet, followed by the cold-blooded execution of a family on an icy, snowy road.

Then it shifts to Morocco, where an estranged British couple – Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered poetry professor and his savvy lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) – are dining in a posh café in Marrakech.

When Gail leaves him to respond to a phone call, Perry’s hailed by gregarious Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a wealthy, flamboyantly tattooed Russian oligarch, urging him to join his jovial group at a nearby table.

One thing leads to another, as naïve Perry discovers that Dima, who possesses a photographic memory for numbers, is a money launderer for the Russian Mafia, headed by “The Prince” (Grigory Dobrygin), who signals his enemies’ death warrants by presenting them with an heirloom pistol.

Acutely aware that his days are numbered, Dima is desperate to defect with his family – using Perry as a gullible go-between – seeking the help of British Intelligence, offering incriminating information about a corrupt Parliament member (Jeremy Northam) who’s fronting London’s newest bank.

MI6’s skeptical Hector Meredith (Damien Lewis, wearing horn-rimmed glasses), who has his own motive for pursuing this nefarious MP, arranges asylum for Dima’s family.  Along with clueless Perry and Gail, they take refuge in a ‘safe house’ in the Alps, but the Russian gangsters are hot on their trail.

“Why did you choose me?” Perry eventually inquires.

“There was no one else in the restaurant” is Dima’s ultimately logical reply.

Densely scripted by Hossein Amini (“Wings of a Dove”) and methodically directed by Susanna White (“Nanny McPhee”), it’s distinguished primarily by Anthony Dod Mantle’s stylish cinematography and solid performances, particularly from Stellan Sarsgard, who replaced originally cast Ralph Fiennes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Our Kind of Traitor” is a subtle, stodgy 6, engaging but ultimately forgettable espionage.

06

“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.

08

“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.

04