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“Rampage”

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

 

If “A Quiet Place” could be considered sublime horror, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new monster movie, based on a 1986 arcade game, falls into the ridiculous category.

Back in 1993, there was breakthrough bio-engineering technology, known as CRISPR, which gave scientists a way to treat incurable diseases through genetic editing. In 2016, fearing its misuse, the U.S. Intelligence Community designated genetic editing a “Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.”

Cut to the explosion of an American spaceship. Its cargo was a genome experiment gone awry, and three CRISPR vials fall to earth, much to the consternation of nefarious brother-and-sister execs (Malin Akerman/Jake Lacy) at a Chicago company called Energyne.

At San Diego Wildlife Preserve, primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), who prefers animals to people, has formed a strong bond with an albino silverback gorilla named George that he rescued from poachers and with whom he communicates in sign language.

Suddenly, overnight, once-docile George becomes hyper-aggressive and grows to gigantic proportions. Obviously, he’s become infected by a pathogen from one of the vials. And there are two other mutations: an agile 30-foot-long Rocky Mountain wolf and an immense Everglades crocodile.

These enhanced predators wreak terror and destruction on Chicago, where an Energyne sonar beacon beckons them – with Okoye and former Energyne scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) trying to administer an antidote to George as a wily government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) runs interference.

BTW: George isn’t just Weta Digital CGI. He’s based on 6’9”-tall motion capture performer Jason Liles, who spent hours watching gorilla footage, joining mo-cap actors like Andy Serkis (“Planet of the Apes”) and Doug Jones (“The Shape of Water”).

Collaboratively scripted by Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, it’s formulaically directed by Brad Peyton (“San Andreas”). And apparently, charismatic Johnson wields enough clout to insist that the original sad ending be more optimistic.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rampage” rumbles in with a foolish 5, it’s Godzilla on steroids.

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“Beirut”

Susan Granger’s review of “Beirut” (Bleecker Street)

 

Charismatic Jon Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) is such a good actor that it’s a shame his considerable talents are wasted on this disjointed political thriller, set in war-torn Lebanon in 1982.

Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a top U.S. diplomat, happily married to Nadia (Leila Bekhti) and living in Beirut. Having no children of their own, they’ve taken in Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a 13 year-old Palestinian refugee, treating him like “part of the family.”

At a cocktail party, Mason discovers that Karim’s older brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), is a terrorist suspected in the massacre of the Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics – and Mossad agents want to question Karim.

Without warning, Karim’s brother and his cohorts barge in, guns blazing and grab Karim. Nadia is killed in the chaos, and Mason is bereft.

Cut to Boston 10 years later. Perpetually depressed Mason has become a union negotiator and a bona fide alcoholic. One night in bar, he’s approached with an offer he cannot refuse.

His close friend/CIA colleague Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) is being held hostage by now-grown Karim (Idir Chender), who demands the return of his brother from the Israelis.

But the Israelis don’t have his brother, forcing Skiles to deal with the PLO. Milling around are three other key players: cultural attaché Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), CIA agent Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), and the Embassy’s Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham).  Each has his/her own agenda.

Jon Hamm’s bleary Mason Skiles is totally believable, even if the convoluted plot isn’t – perhaps because it’s based on a 27 year-old script, written by Tony Gilroy (“Bourne” franchise), and loosely inspired by CIA Station Chief William Buckley’s 1984 kidnapping.

Director Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”) and editor Andrew Hafitz seem unable to twist the pieces together coherently, and the lighting is so dark and murky that it looks as if it was filmed in a bunker, making it difficult to distinguish one actor from another.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Beirut” is a frustrating 4, losing suspense along the way.

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“A Quiet Place”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Quiet Place” (Paramount Pictures)

 

Some moviegoers absolutely love to be scared, frightened out of their wits. If so, this dystopian horror thriller is for you.

Emily Blunt and her husband John Krasinski play Evelyn and Lee Abbott, a married couple, living on a secluded farm in upstate New York. It’s Day 89 – after most of the civilized world has been decimated by an alien invasion of hideously hungry creatures who detect their prey by super-sensitive sound.

Knowing that silence is absolutely essential to survival, the Abbotts, always barefoot and alert, are determined to protect their three young children: Beau (Cade Woodward), Regan (Millicent Smmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe).

Regan is deaf, so they communicate primarily through sign language with only occasional whispers. And when – just for an instant – their vigilance fails, tragedy occurs.

Amid the constant peril, Lee is desperately trying to locate other survivors and devise an effective hearing-aid for adolescent Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who always feels a bit neglected.

FYI: Deaf in real life, expressive Ms. Simmonds scored solidly last year in “Wonderstruck.”

As time goes on, Evelyn must cope with the complications of pregnancy – like planning to make use of a soundproofed barn bunker for the birth and a tiny oxygen mask to stifle the newborn’s cries.

But things don’t often go as planned, particularly in cases like this, when stepping on a rusty nail can prove as deadly as an explosive device.

It’s a tour-de-force for actor/producer/director John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the taut screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Working with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and composer Marco Beltrami, Krasinski cleverly employs the absence of sound to intensify the relentless terror.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Quiet Place” is an eerie, angst-riddled 8, an unsettling, totally different kind of creature feature.

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“Blockers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Blockers” (Universal Pictures)

 

Three Chicago high-school girls make a pact to lose their virginity on Prom Night, while a trio of parents band together to stop them.

Their story begins on the first day of elementary school, when the girls become instant BFFs. Fast-forward to high school, and the teenagers are still thick-as-thieves.

Julie (Kathryn Newton) is the light of her overly-clingy, single mom Lisa’s (Leslie Mann) life. Still suffering because her wise-cracking dad, Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), disappeared after cheating on her mom, sweet, bespectacled Sam (Gideon Adlon) suspects she’s gay. And athletic, adventurous Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) was raised in the image of Mitchell (John Cena), her softie/jock dad.

Before they take off for the Prom, Julie declares to Sam and Kayla that she’s planning to have sex with her longtime boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips), filling them in on all the salient details. Her determination inspires both Sam and Kayle to plan their own deflowering.

Problem is: when Julie leaves on Prom Night, she inadvertently leaves a message app running on her laptop. Vigilant Lisa spies the somewhat bewildering, emoji-riddled group texting, which concludes with the unmistakable #sexpact2018. And she’s determined to prevent Julie from making the same mistakes she did.

Springing into ‘helicopter’ parental action, Lisa, Mitchell and Hunter anxiously embark on their own overly-protective pursuit, encountering myriad mishaps along the way.

Writer of the “Pitch Perfect” movies, Kay Cannon makes her directorial debut, working from a script by five men: brothers Brian & Jim Kehoe, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Eben Russell. With that many collaborators, it’s no wonder that the concept loses emotional grounding because there’s no consistent tone, although there are strong messages about female empowerment.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Blockers” is a sporadically bawdy 6, a sloppy, sanitized sex comedy in which the young women make their own decisions.

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“Unsane”

Susan Granger’s review of “Unsane” (Fingerprint Releasing)

 

Determined to prove that he could make a creditable, horror film on an iPhone 7, prolific Steven Soderbergh (“Magic Mike,” “Logan Lucky,” “Traffic,” and the “Oceans” trilogy) took a cast, headed by Claire Foy (“The Crown”), and small crew to a dingy, abandoned hospital north of New York City.

Shooting during the day and editing on his laptop at night, he managed to make this $1.5 million movie in 10 days. Problem is: the all-too-familiar, cat-and-mouse plot by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein (“Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector,” “The Spy Next Door”) is clumsy, cliché-riddled and underwhelming.

The wannabe psychological thriller revolves around a snarky financial analyst Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), who has moved from Boston to a town in Pennsylvania as she deals with residual trauma from an obsessed, deluded stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard).

“Rationally, I know my neuroses are colluding with my imagination,” she admits. “But I’m not rational.”

After visiting a psychiatric counselor, candidly expressing suicidal ideations and stupidly signing a consent form, Sawyer is involuntarily committed to Highland Creek Behavioral Center, a mental-health facility, ostensibly for 24 hours.

“This is all a terrible mistake,” she maintains.

But then Sawyer’s sanity is called into question after she spies a creepy orderly who looks just like her stalker – which prolongs her incarceration, alongside mentally disturbed, shiv-carrying, tampon-tossing Violet (Juno Temple) and opioid-addicted Nate (SNL’s Jay Pharoah).

Technical details: As cinematographer, Soderbergh used three iPhone 7 Plus phones, shooting in 4K video with an app called FiLMiC Pro controlling the shutter speed, color and focus. He also utilized clip-on Moment lenses and a hand-held DJI Osmo stabilizer, which is, basically, a selfie stick.

FYI: Actually, Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (2015) was the first notable film shot on an IPhone.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unsane” is an experimental, absurdly contrived 6, evoking a creepy kind of claustrophobic suspense.

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“Isle of Dogs”

Susan Granger’s review of “Isle of Dogs” (Fox Searchlight Pictures/Indian Paintbrush)

 

From the fertile imagination of filmmaker Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Life Aquatic,” “The Darjeeling Limited”) comes this unique, stop-motion animated tale of a youngster looking for his lost companion, featuring the distinctive voices of Anderson’s regular repertory company.

Set in the Japanese Archipelago in the near future, this dystopian fable, narrated by Courtney B. Vance, revolves around Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), whose bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), is banished when Megasaki City’s cat-loving, dog-despising Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) decrees that, following an outbreak of a type of flu known as Snout Fever, all canines must be exiled to an island previously used for trash disposal.

Hijacking a small aircraft, intrepid, 12 year-old Atari, the adopted nephew of corrupt Mayor Kobayashi, crash-lands on Trash Island’s bleak wasteland, determined to rescue his beloved Spots. Instead, he runs into a bickering pack of banished pets.

There’s Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and King (Bob Balaban), along with Chief (Bryan Cranston), a gruff, battle-hardened stray; a silky former show dog, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson); and a TV-loving, psychic pug (Tilda Swinton).

The unconventional, original sci-fi screenplay is by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, who were obviously inspired by the stylistic films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa.

With the dogs speaking English and the people speaking Japanese, it’s exquisitely depicted in visual detail by the inventive ‘puppet’ artists at Twentieth Century Fox Animation with evocative music by Alexandre Desplat.

Unfortunately, the running joke involving a translator (Frances McDormand) grows tedious, as does a conspiracy subplot, encompassing a feisty foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), while Yoko Ono’s ‘scientist’ adds nothing and is ultimately distracting.

FYI: It’s the longest stop-motion film ever, beating out “Coraline” by two minutes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 of 10, “Isle of Dogs” is an admirably idiosyncratic 8 – thanks to its timely, politically provocative, fascistic undertones.

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“Chappaquiddick”

Susan Granger’s review of “Chappaquiddick” (Entertainment Studios)

 

First used in 1954, the term “affluenza” refers to an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege. That, plus the corrosive arrogance of being a Kennedy in Massachusetts, explains why Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s hopes of ever becoming President of the United States sank on the night of July 18, 1969.

Since most moviegoers under age of 40 are probably unfamiliar with the sordid story, on that night – just as Apollo 11 was heading towards the moon – Ted Kennedy recklessly drove his Oldsmobile off a small, wooden bridge on Chappaquiddick. He managed to escape but left helpless, 28 year-old Mary Jo Kopechne to slowly suffocate/drown in the submerged car.

Basing their pulpy, procedural melodrama strictly on testimony during the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court inquest, first-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan establish the time, place and characters but never ignite the emotionality of the situation – and John Curran’s methodical, heavy-handed direction details Kennedy’s irresponsible, incredibly selfish passivity during and after the calamity.

Questions like – How much had Kennedy been drinking that night? Was he having an affair with Mary Jo? And why did he wait 8-10 hours before reporting the accident? – are never addressed, although Kennedy and his cousin Joe Gargan, known as his “fixer,” admitted that without Bobby Kennedy’s young, unmarried “boiler room” girls, there would have been no weekend beach party on Martha’s Vineyard.

The physical resemblance between actor Jason Clarke and Kennedy is striking, while Kate Mara is convincing as demure Mary Jo, as is Ed Helms as Gargan.  And Bruce Dern is ferocious as the stroke-stricken, yet still-cunning patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, whose only advice to his youngest son is one word: “Alibi.”

Perhaps speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols) puts it best, noting, “History has the final word on these things.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Chappaquiddick” is an infuriating 5, revealing how ‘justice’ is very different for the rich and powerful.

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“Admissions”

Susan Granger’s review of “Admissions” (Mitzi Newhouse Theater/Lincoln Center: Off-Broadway)

 

Satire reigns supreme in Joshua Harmon’s provocative new play, tackling the timely topics of racial representation and white privilege, while skewering liberal hypocrisy.

At Hillcrest, a progressive New Hampshire prep school, the head of admissions, Sherri Rosen-Mason (Jessica Hecht), has proudly increased the student body’s diversity quotient from 6% to 18% – and soon it may climb even higher.

While she’s encouraged to fervently pursue this concept of inclusion by her husband, Bill Mason (Andrew Garman), who serves as headmaster, they both recognize the need to continue to fast-track enrollment of white legacy students.

Complications arise when their son Charlie (Ben Edelman) and his inseparable best-friend Perry, the bi-racial son of Sherri’s best-friend Ginnie Peters (Sally Murphy), both apply to Yale, primarily because both boys love the movie “Mystic Pizza.”

Not surprisingly, Perry gets accepted, while Charlie’s application is deferred, despite the fact that Charlie’s SAT scores exceeded Perry’s and he took three A.P. courses when Perry only took two.

Furious Charlie is understandably bitter that Perry benefits from racial quotas while he’s summarily sidelined as just another ‘entitled white man.’ It’s full-blown Ivy League irony – with a nod to Jews who, historically, were excluded by the Old Guard.

Eventually, of course, Charlie re-thinks his ire, noting, “If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat.”

Jessica Hecht delivers a bravura performance, subtly shading much of the speechifying dialogue, ably supported by Ann McDonough as her hapless Development staffer Roberta, who confesses, “I don’t see color. I don’t look at race. Maybe that’s my problem.”

Director Daniel Aukin adroitly slices and skewers, putting his well-chosen cast through their paces, as playwright Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews,” “Significant Other”) places the essential dilemma right in the laps of Lincoln Center audience members.

Currently playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, “Admissions” has been extended through May 6, 2018.

 

“Escape to Margaritaville”

Susan Granger’s review of “Escape to Margaritaville” (Marquis Theater on Broadway)

 

It’s difficult for me to be objective about Jimmy Buffett, because I consider his wistful, seductively sybaritic Margaritaville concept to be the most imaginative and inventive since George Lucas’ STAR WARS.

Admittedly, if you’ve never heard Buffett’s music or considered the laid-back debauchery of Margaritaville, you might – at first – be a bit confused by this jukebox musical. Particularly when devoted fans (known as Parrotheads) are boozing on $16 (frozen) margaritas even before the curtain goes up.

The escapist plot, patched together from Buffett’s tuneful pantheon, revolves around Rachel (Alison Luff), an uptight, workaholic environmental scientist, who embarks on a bachelorette week with her soon-to-be-married BFF Tammy (Lisa Howard), getting away from her fat-shaming fiancé (Ian Michael Stuart).

Traveling from Cincinnati to an informal Caribbean island resort called Margaritaville, they’re met by guitar-strumming Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan), the beach-bum Casanova/entertainment director, and Brick (Eric Petersen), the sweetly dense bartender.

After Rachel informs him she’s eager to get soil samples from the local volcano, Tully tells her: “Work is a dirty word around here. If you say it again, we’ll have to wash your mouth out with tequila.” That’s a song cue for Rachel to poignantly declare, “It’s My Job.”

Along with romance and the inevitable “lost shaker of salt,” the breezy, beach bar festivities include Marley (Rema Webb), the wry manager; Jamal (Andre Ward), the hapless handyman; and D.J. (Don Sparks), as a rascally reprobate pilot.

Superbly cast and cleverly staged by Christopher Ashley, Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley’s sit-com storyline is slyly cobbled together, using disparate Jimmy Buffett classics like “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” “Come Monday,” “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” etc.

Walt Spangler’s palm-fronded sets are splashy, as are Paul Tazewell’s costumes, and musical supervisor Christopher Jahnke’s steel-drums resonate from the on-stage orchestra. But what’s with the singing/tap-dancing insurance salespeople zombies? They made no sense whatever.

Personal note: I’m still sad that Buffett’s 1997 musical “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” based on Herman Wouk’s novel, never made it to the Great White Way.

Bottom line: if you’re a Parrothead, it’s the most fun you’ll have on Broadway this season!

“Death of Stalin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Death of Stalin” (IFC Films)

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Humorist Steve Allen once said, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” He later amended that with, “Tragedy plus time plus the will to be amused equals comedy. If you don’t have the will to laugh, you won’t be amused – whether it’s by a Chaplin or anyone like him.”

Perhaps that’s my problem with Armando Iannucci’s banal attempt to find caustic, slapstick comicality in the amoral ineptitude of high-ranking, ruthless, murderous merchants of torture and death, portrayed here as Keystone Kops.

On March 2, 1953, the Soviet Union’s dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after ordering a recording of a Mozart concerto he’d heard on the radio from the broadcast’s panicked director (Paddy Considine), who must reassemble the orchestra and piano soloist (Olga Kurylenko), with a replacement conductor, to fulfill the tyrant’s request.

Admittedly, this first, frantic sequence – “a musical emergency” – is amusing.

Then, viewing Stalin’s comatose body in a puddle of urine, his sycophantic colleagues on the Central Committee gather to discuss what comes next. They cannot summon a physician, since all the good doctors have been sent to Siberia.

Obviously, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are vying for control.

As Stalin’s body is laid out for public inspection, there are complications with his neurotic daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), and alcoholic son Vasily (Rupert Friend), depicted as preening and petty.

After seemingly endless incompetency and jockeying for power, arrogant Nikita Khrushchev emerges as the USSR’s new leader. Then, when Khrushchev attends a concert, he’s unaware that Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepowski), seated behind him, is secretly plotting his downfall.

Based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it’s adapted by David Schneider, Ian Martin and Scottish-born director Iannucci (HBO’s “Veep,” “In the Loop”), who assembles a star-studded cast to do his manic, motor-mouth bidding.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Death of Stalin” is a savagely satirical 6 – but it’s not very funny.

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