“The Shallows”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Shallows” (Columbia Pictures/Sony)

 

Still grieving over the death of her mother, Nancy (Blake Lively) is a medical school drop-out who decides to pay an homage visit and surf on her mother’s favorite Mexican beach: a remote, jungle-enshrouded crescent-shaped cove that’s almost totally deserted.

After making a few phone calls to check-in with her dad and younger sister in Galveston, Texas, Nancy zips on the top of her wetsuit, tethers her foot to her surfboard and wades into the waves.

A strong swimmer, Nancy soon catches up with two Spanish-speaking dudes who are also enjoying the exhilarating surf; one is wearing a GoPro camera on his head.

After a while, Nancy returns to the beach to munch a late lunch she’d stored in her backpack and then decides to return to the clear, turquoise-blue lagoon for one last run, just as the guys head home.

That’s when an enormous shark surfaces. It’s a Great White that’s been lured close to shore, chomping on the carcass of a dead blue whale. With Nancy now in his feeding grounds, he bites her thigh.

Shark facts: Because sharks don’t have hands or tentacles, they explore with their mouths and teeth – and surfers are particularly vulnerable, far more than swimmers, because they paddle further from shore, dangling their limbs the water.

To escape the encircling fin, ever-resourceful Nancy, whose leg is bleeding profusely, crawls up on a jagged rock about 200 yards off-shore – with only a wounded seagull for company.  It’s low tide, so she’s safe – temporarily. When the tide reverses, the sea will engulf her precarious perch.

Scripted by Anthony Jaswinski, scored by composer Marco Baltrami, and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”), it’s a tension-packed survival thriller – with terrific underwater shots as Australia subs for Mexico.

Statuesque Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”), who did 75% of her own stunts, darts about wearing a teeny-weenie bikini – until, unfortunately, the denouement falls flat.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Shallows” is a scary, suspenseful 6, causing a feeding frenzy at the box-office.

06

“Warcraft”

Susan Granger’s review of “Warcraft” (Legendary/Universal)

 

Since “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993, film adaptations of popular video games have never done as well as expected at the U.S. box-office. What propels studios to finance them is international acceptance, especially in China, where more than two million people play the World of Warcraft game.

The story revolves around a race of gigantic warrior beasts, called Orcs, who are forced to flee from their dying homeland of Draenor when the warlock Gul-dan (Daniel Wu) opens a portal to Azeroth, where they battle unsuspecting humans, led by war-chieftain Blackhand (Clancy Brown).

Only the Orc soldier Durotan (Toby Kebbell) asserts that peace can be achieved through compromise with King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), whose brother is the noble knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel).

In the meantime, Lothar’s son Callan (Burkely Duffield) is determined to impress his father on the battlefield and Durotan’s mate Draka (Anna Galvin) has a baby. Plus, there’s the ascetic Azeroth wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) with his young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and a fanged half-breed with green skin, Garona (Paula Patton), who claims to be half-Orc and half-human.

Utilizing Chris Metzen’s branded characters and story, British director Duncan Jones (“Moon,” “Source Code”), sharing co-writing credit with Charles Leavitt (“In the Heart of the Sea”), crowds the sci-fi plot with too many mythical creatures, magical subplots and visual effects, since all the exotic Orcs are motion-captured via digital animation.

The concept also ‘borrows’ liberally from films like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars,” “Avatar,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and TV’s “Game of Thrones.”

FYI: originally named Zowie, Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son; his birth prompted Bowie to write the song “Kooks” for his 1971 album “Hunky Dory.”

In conclusion, one should note that – in the past few years – the gaming industry has evolved, abandoning “games” in the literal sense in favor of inter-action, creating a mini-cinematic experience for players.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Warcraft” is a curiously campy 4 – too much war, too little craft.

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“The BFG”

Susan Granger’s review of “The BFG” (Walt Disney Studios)

 

Blending live action and computer animation, Steven Spielberg has adapted Roald Dahl’s fantastical tale, featuring Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) as the titular character, The Big Friendly Giant.

Scripted by the late Melissa Matheson (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”) and directed by Spielberg, it’s set in London in the early 1980s and revolves around 10 year-old orphan, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely insomniac  who – at 3 a.m. – spies a 24-ft.-tall giant lurking about the cobblestone streets, collecting and dispensing phosphorescent dreams to unsuspecting sleepers.

She sees him and he sees her. Reaching his hand through an open window, the grandfatherly-looking BFG gently plucks Sophie out of bed because – if word got out that giants roamed the city – that would end their nocturnal visits.

So the BFG whisks terrified Sophie off to Giant Country, where sinister Fleshlumpeater (voiced by Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (voiced by Bill Hader), constantly bully him.

While the BFG sticks to a vegetarian diet of slimy Snozzcumbers, his colossal cohorts are “cannybulls” (cannibals), often kidnapping young “human beans.” Even though the BFG hides her in his cave, Sophie is in constant danger.

The only answer – she believes – is to seek assistance from Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) in Buckingham Palace. At that point, their adventure really comes alive.

Much amusement emanates from the BFG’s whimsical dialect known as “gobblefunk,” filled with garbled malapropisms.

There’s also a lot of farting. The BFG deplores burping but celebrates flatulence, which he calls “whizzpopping,” a gastric reaction stimulated by the upside-down bubbles in Frobscottle, the fermented Snozzcumber beverage, which he eagerly shares not only with Her Majesty but also her Welsh corgis.

While newcomer Ruby Barnhill is certainly spunky, much credit should go to Mark Rylance’s astute performance, characterized by alienation and affection. But one can only wonder about the different comedic pace that would have been set by Robin Williams, Spielberg’s original casting choice.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The BFG” is an entertaining, escapist 8. Good? Yes. Great? No.

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“The Free State of Jones”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Free State of Jones” (STX Entertainment)

 

Think you know 19th century American History? Think again! Chronicling the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, this harrowing adventure reveals the sordid truth about the so-called Reconstruction Era.

First seen as a battlefield medic in the midst of the 1862 bloody conflict, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, who eventually becomes disillusioned with the Southern ‘cause’ he was supposedly fighting for when Confederate soldiers wantonly confiscate his and his neighbors’ grain and livestock.

So he deserts. After a harrowing chase into the swamps, he joins up with runaway slaves and, eventually, other white defectors to form a guerrilla army, waging skirmishes against the Confederacy and, in 1864, proclaiming their rebel stronghold as the Free State of Jones.

But their regional insurrection leads to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan whose hooded members are determined to re-assert white supremacy.

Writer/director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games,” “Pleasantville”) consulted with numerous noted historical scholars so the ambitious, well-intentioned drama oozes authenticity, like a thoughtful, even literal re-enactment – from Newt’s viewpoint.

Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight epitomizes messianic heroism, teaming up with noble, neck-shackled, formerly enslaved Moses (Mahershala Ali), who deliberately endangers his life by registering newly emancipated, black voters as Republicans, and courageous Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domestic plantation slave.

Problem is: Neither Moses’ nor Rachel’s perspectives are evident, and the epic structure is confusing because it’s intercut with a subplot, set 85 years later, involving Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a descendant of Newton, who is on trial in 1945 for breaking Mississippi’s law against interracial marriage.

FYI: Newton eventually fathered five children in his common-law union with Rachel and nine more with his beleaguered wife, Serena (woefully miscast Keri Russell from TV’s “The Americans”), with everyone apparently happily living on his 160-acre farm in Soso.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “The Free State of Jones” is a revisionist 7, strategically aimed at adult audiences fed up with superhero, video game and animated features.

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“The Conjuring 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “The Conjuring 2” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema)

 

Renowned Connecticut demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) return with another ‘documented’ case, this time set in 1977 in England.

After their Amityville debacle, clairvoyant Lorraine insists that they take a break from their demanding case work. While working on that notorious investigation at the Lutz home on Long Island, New York, she had a profoundly disturbing vision of a horrifying nun – shown in the opening séance sequence.

But when the Catholic Church requests their assessment of a paranormal situation in Great Britain, they respond to the evangelical summons, pack their Bible and travel to North London, where a working-class family has been driven from their home by poltergeists.

Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) is a single mother, raising her four children in a crumbling public housing in the borough of Enfield. Her youngest daughter, 11 year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), is tormented by angry undead spirits claiming ownership of their flat.

The Hodgson family’s plight fails to elicit the sympathy of their doubting neighbors, while parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) aggressively asserts her own doubts. Yet there’s some support from amateur researcher Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney).

Based on the notorious Enfield Haunting, it’s scripted by Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, David Leslie Johnson and director James Wan (“Saw,” “Insidious”) as another haunted house tale but this time with a creepy twist, like the wall of crucifixes that are bizarrely turned upside down.

With the help of cinematographer Don Burgess, production designer Julie Berghoff, editor Kirk Morri and composer Joseph Bishara, Wan amplifies the foreboding and dread with sound design, jump-scares and demonic surprises – including a ghoulish leather reclining chair, a self-propelled toy firetruck and a craggy, old man who suddenly pops up, not to mention creaking floorboards and pounding noises.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Conjuring 2” is a supernatural 6, continuing the scary franchise.

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“Central Intelligence”

Susan Granger’s review of “Central Intelligence” (Warner Bros.)

 

If you’re really desperate for yet another odd-couple caper, consider this fast-paced froth that’s almost immediately forgettable.

Mild-mannered Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is a disgruntled accountant who married his teenage sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) yet yearns for the glory days when he was Senior Class President and the town’s most popular jock.

As his 20th high school anniversary looms, Calvin re-connects with Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne “The Rock”  Johnson), a shy, sensitive soul who’s “super into unicorns” and remains grateful to Calvin for a singular act of kindness when he was the once-obese victim of cruel shower-room bullies – which is shown in flashback with lots of inventive CGI.

When now-grown Calvin and Robbie – now known as Bob Stone – meet for a drink, they bond again. But then a CIA bigwig (Amy Ryan) shows up at Calvin’s house, informing him that Bob is actually a former undercover agent gone rogue after killing his partner.

So – is Bob the good guy that Calvin remembers? Or has he gone to the dark side?

Soon, hapless Calvin joins fanny-pack-wearing Bob on-the-run from law enforcement and a complex, high-stakes conspiracy involving the Black Badger that only he can help unravel.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (“We’re the Millers,” “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) from a script he co-wrote with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (“The Mindy Project”), it capitalizes on the chemistry between Hart and Johnson, who display a genuine camaraderie, plus cameos from Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul and others.

While the “role reversal” concept works, the espionage plot is sloppy, the weakest link in the comedic chain of events. And – after the horrific massacre in Orlando Florida – the violent scene in which Calvin’s office is splayed with bullets as onlookers duck for cover seems particularly disturbing.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Central Intelligence” is a sweet, high-spirited 6, revolving around mid-life male anxiety and concluding with an extended epilogue and blooper reel.

06

“Finding Dory”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Dory” (Pixar/Disney)

 

After the endearingly forgetful blue tang won our hearts in “Finding Nemo” (2003), Dory deserved a feature film of her own.

“Hi, I’m Dory. I suffer from short-term memory loss” is the way she sweetly introduces herself.

Years ago, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) became separated from her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton & Eugene Levy), but she suddenly remembers something about Monterey, California.

“I can’t find them on my own. I’ll forget,” Dory says, sorrowfully.

So Nemo (voiced by Hayden Rolence) and his dad Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) join Dory and journey from Australia across the Pacific Ocean to an aquatic rehab center, the Marine Life Institute in California.

While “Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release” is MLI’s mission, much of the film’s comedy comes from its cranky seven-legged octopus Hank (voiced by Ed O’Neill), who is determined to get to the Cleveland Aquarium.

Since she can read and speak whale, amnesiac Dory also has amusing encounters with her near-sighted white shark pal Destiny (voiced by Kaitlin Olson) and brain-addled beluga buddy Bailey (voiced by Ty Burrell), while Nemo and Marlin befriend gruff, Cockney sea lions (voiced by Idris Elba & Dominic West). Even the sea turtle Crush (voiced by Andrew Stanton) re-appears.

Written by Andrew Stanton who co-directs with Angus MacLane, it’s basically the same episodic story with a Pacific regal blue tang replacing the orange clownfish. With its watery refraction and reflection, the naturalistic animation is dazzling.

The ending was revised after Pixar executives viewed the cautionary documentary “Blackfish” (2013) about keeping orcas in captivity; now, MLI’s underwater inhabitants have the option to leave when they’re ready – and Sigourney Weaver does a vocal cameo.

FYI: While many fish stores have stocked up on exotic, expensive blue tangs, parents should know that they’re fragile and require a very specific tank set up and care.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Finding Dory” is an emotionally engaging 8, offering splashy family fun.

08

“Now Your See Me 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Now You See Me 2” (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment)

 

I love magic and stage illusion, which is why I so enjoyed “Now You See Me” (2013). But – poof! Most of that’s gone from this shallow, often incoherent sequel.

The previous thriller introduced an elusive team of rogue tricksters, known as the Four Horsemen. There’s renowned illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). Wearing a pork-pie hat, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a master hypnotist. Flipping a deck of cards, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) specializes in street magic and sleight-of-hand.

While their female cohort, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), has disappeared, she’s replaced by spunky Lula (Lizzy Caplan), a fake-violence specialist who once pulled a hat out of a rabbit.

A year after their Las Vegas heist, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) reconvenes them, and soon they’re involved in a chase through some kind of a pipeline, transporting them from Manhattan to Macau, China, and an ancient magic shop run by Li (Jay Chou) and his grandmother Bu Bu (Tsai Chin).

It seems that an unethical tech prodigy, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), is determined to acquire a card-shaped mini-circuit board that would give him access to everyone’s private information.

Suddenly, their old nemesis, malevolent corporate financier Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), reappears and he’s teamed up with Merritt McKinney’s evil twin brother (Woody Harrelson).

At the same time, Dylan Rhodes becomes enmeshed in discovering what really happened to his Houdini-like father who drowned back in 1984, because it’s obvious that skeptical Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a professional debunker, knows more than he’s willing to reveal.

Scripted by Ed Solomon and directed by Jon M. Chu (“Step Up,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”), this contrived caper collapses under the weight of its convoluted misdirection. What’s missing from is any sense of urgency or suspense. There’s also no sense of playfulness or flaky fun.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Now You See Me 2” is a frenzied 5 – displaying an initially flashy flair that quickly fizzles.

05

“Maggie’s Plan”

Susan Granger’s review of “Maggie’s Plan” (Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Writer/director Rebecca Miller was obviously trying to make a screwball romantic comedy, set in New York, but the result is tepid from beginning to end.

Realizing that her biological clock is ticking, ditsy, self-absorbed Maggie Hardin (Greta Gerwig) longs for a child. That’s why she’s requested sperm for artificial insemination from Guy (Travis Fimmel), her husky, brainy, former college classmate who’s starting a pickle business in Brooklyn.

At the same time, she falls for John Harding (Ethan Hawke), a shaggy college professor/wannabe novelist. He’s unhappily married to a dour, intimidating Danish anthropologist, Georgette Norgaard (Julianne Moore), and they have a couple of young children.

Discarding Mr. Pickle as an afterthought, Maggie discovers she’s pregnant, so middle-aged John leaves Georgette and marries much-younger Maggie. Problem is: after a few years, Maggie realizes not only does she not love John but that he was better off with Georgette. Hence, the plan.

Acclaimed as the current darling of independent cinema in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” Greta Gerwig not only delivers confusing inflections but she swallows her sentences, a habit that becomes increasingly annoying.

Showing the decidedly un-glamorous lives of Manhattan intellectuals, Rebecca Miller (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Personal Velocity”) dwells on pretentious details, rambling on about arcane academia, but she doesn’t extend much effort insofar as character development and/or motivation, using Maggie’s best friends (“Saturday Night Live” alums Bill Hader & Maya Rudolph) as a Greek chorus.

“The characters are not me,” Miller asserts, “but they do reflect how I felt as a daughter, as a woman on my own, as a parent, and so on.”

Rebecca Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, and her husband is actor Daniel Day-Lewis. So it’s not surprising that she alludes to Slovij Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic who has gained international acclaim, asserting that ideology is an unconscious fantasy that structures reality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maggie’s Plan” is an acerbic, idiosyncratic 4, tartly erudite to the extreme.

04

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”

Susan Granger’s review of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Filled with Michael Bay’s usual high-octane action, this new 3-D sequel in the blockbuster franchise finds Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard) and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) battling villainous Shredder (Brian Tee) and his henchwoman Karai (Brittany Ishibashi).

When Shredder escapes from a police convoy, he joins forces with mad scientist, Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and two idiotic ex-cons, Bebop the giant warthog (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady the rhinoceros (WWE’s Stephen ‘Sheamus’ Farrelly), to open a trans-dimensional portal to another galaxy, where the diabolical, disembodied Commander Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) plans global domination, utilizing his Death Star-like Technodrome warship.

Tipped off by resolute TV reporter April O’Neill (Megan Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), the heroic, hard-shelled quartet – named after famed Renaissance painters – come out of hiding in the sewers, catching the attention of former corrections officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), who has become a hockey stick-wielding vigilante, and skeptical NYC Police Commissioner Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney).

Idiotically scripted, once again, by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, the nostalgic silliness is earnestly directed by Dave Green (“Earth to Echo”), who does the best he can to captivate the attention of youngsters with the motion-capture animated mutant heroes-in-a-half-shell who long for a normal life.

Working with cinematographer Lula Carvalho, Dave Green’s city action sequences and in the Brazilian rainforest are particularly memorable.

FYI: The reptilian-hero concept first surfaced in 1984 as a Mirage Studios comic-book. Its success led to toys, video games and several Saturday morning TV-cartoon series. At one point, the Turtles represented 60% of all movable toy characters sold in the United States. The brand was rebooted in 1990 with Michael Bay’s first MTNT movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” is a fan-friendly 5, another funny-book brought to life.

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