"
"

“Life”

Susan Granger’s review of “Life” (Columbia Pictures/Sony/Skydance)

 

Several years ago, renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking cautioned that contact with alien life could spell disaster for the human race: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.”

But Hawking’s grim warning has not deterred cosmic exploration.

After Mission Specialist Rory Adams’ (Ryan Reynolds) risky retrieval of a damaged capsule containing valuable soil samples from Mars, the crew of the International Space Station’s Pilgrim 7 has reason to celebrate.

Along with Adams, astronauts Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Ekaterina Golovinka (Olga Dihovichnaya), and Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) are concluding their eight-month exploratory mission.

And when Science Officer isolates a microscopic single-cell organism in a petri dish and feeds it glycerin, it becomes the first proof of extraterrestrial life. Satellite viewers from Earth cheer and a group of children from New York name the specimen “Calvin” after their Calvin Coolidge School.

Resembling a translucent, star-shaped octopus, Calvin begins to grow, quickly adapting to its environment, becoming stronger and smarter. As excitement builds, Calvin escapes containment, becoming a multi-tentacle predator, extinguishing members of the crew one-by-one, despite their often foolhardy attempts to save one another.

As the Science Officer observes: “Life’s very existence requires destruction.”

Scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Zombieland”) and stylishly helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House,” “Easy Money”), the futuristic concept seems scientifically plausible, grounded in its own horrific reality.

Seamus McGarvey’s sweeping cinematography reveals the claustrophobically cramped containment of the eerie space station, while composer Jon Ekstrand’s score enhances the sinister suspense.

(Full Disclosure: My son, Don Granger, is Executive Producer of “Life.”)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Life” is an intense 8 – a tantalizing thriller.

08

“Kid Victory”

Susan Granger’s review of KID VICTORY (Vineyard Theater Off-Broadway)

 

An angst-filled adolescent is the pivotal player in an elusively dark, dour and disturbing new musical by Greg Pierce (“Showgirl”) and renowned Broadway composer John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), who previously collaborated on “The Landing” (2013).

In a flash-image prologue, a young man is seen handcuffed to a basement wall with only an air-mattress on the floor.

It turns out that, after disappearing several months, 17 year-old Luke Browst (Brandon Flynn) has been rescued from drugged captivity in this dungeon and returned to his small Kansas hometown.

Luke used the moniker ‘Kid Victory’ when playing an Internet boat-building and racing game. That’s how he met Yachticus Nine, a.k.a. Michael (Jeffry Denman), a creepy former high school teacher who abducted him, tranquilizing him with opiate-laced root beer.

“Her found out where I lived and…took me away,” Luke says.

Once the sordid ordeal is over and he’s back with his perplexed parents, Luke’s adjustment is difficult. His domineering mom (Karen Ziemba) is very religious, inviting a fellow churchgoer into their home for some bizarre counseling involving marbles.

While Luke’s orthodontist dad (Daniel Jenkins) tries to understand, his old girlfriend (Laura Darrell), confused by his emotional distance, warbles “I’d Rather Wait.”

The one person Luke relates to is bohemian Emily (Dee Roscioli), who gives him a job at her eclectic garden supply store. Then there’s a “Not Quite True” confrontation with a suspicious detective (Joel Blum).

Although director Liesl Tommy elicits fine performances from her cast, the book is quite confusing. Playwright Greg Pierce (nephew of actor David Hyde Pierce) never achieves the dramatic intensity of the book/film “Room,” which is also about a sexual predator holding someone in captivity.

Quite deliberately, Luke has no song. He has lost his identity. And the Kander’s downbeat music is less than memorable. This is not a ‘cast album’ you’d want to acquire and listen to later.

Bottom Line: It’s a disappointing theatrical experience.

“Table 19″

Susan Granger’s review of “Table 19” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 

Angst-riddled weddings have always been ripe for satire but this rom-com doesn’t satisfy even the most meager expectations.

Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick) was supposed to be Maid-of-Honor at her oldest friend’s Midwestern wedding but then the bride’s brother/Best Man, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), breaks up with her – via a text message.

So clumsy, insecure Eloise finds herself relegated to a remote section of the reception, seated with the losers that the bridal couple felt obligated to invite but hoped wouldn’t come.

Bickering Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) own a diner. Elderly, pot-smoking Jo (June Squibb) was the bride’s childhood nanny. The bride’s cousin Walter (Stephen Merchant) is just out of prison for embezzlement but doesn’t want anyone to know. And virginal, teenage Renzo (Tony Revolori) is eager for some carnal experience.

Bitter about her place on the seating chart and hurt by watching Teddy make moves on the replacement Maid-of-Honor (Amanda Crew), Eloise enjoys a brief flirtatious distraction with Huck (Thomas Cocquerel), an Aussie wedding crasher.

But when Hank disappears, heartsick Eloise finds herself bonding with her disparate tablemates.

Based on a generic story by Mark and Jay Duplass, writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (“Spellbound,” “Rocket Science”) pivots around Eloise’s awkward situation, glossing over any semblance of character development.

After debuting in Blitz’s “Rocket Science” and showcasing her comedic timing in “Up in the Air,” vivacious Anna Kendrick deserves better than this, as do the rest of the cast. Remember June Squibb in her Oscar-winning supporting role in “Nebraska”? And how charming Tony Revolori was in “Grand Budapest Hotel”?

FYI: Unmistakably resembling his father, Wyatt Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Table 19” is a deficient 4. Decline with regrets.

04

“The Belko Experiment”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Belko Experiment” (Orion Pictures)

 

What does it take to survive at work?

That’s the question posed by this psychologically provocative horror/thriller, set in a factory in Bogota, Colombia, where 80 of Belko Industries’ American employees have been relocated.

One morning – on a day when local personnel have been sent home by heavily armed security guards – there’s an ominous announcement on the intercom that they will be participating in a ruthless game and “in eight hours, most of you will be dead.”

Understandably alarmed, they quickly discover that all the doors and windows of their high-rise building have been blocked by metal shutters, so there’s no escape.

Then they’re told to pick several of their co-workers to die – with the warning that failure to comply will result in more of them being killed remotely by a tracker microchip that has already been embedded at the base of each employee’s skull “for security reasons,” supposedly in case of a hostage situation.

To no one’s surprise, a “Lord of the Flies” mentality takes over. Systems middle-manager Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), who is sexually involved with co-worker Leandra (Adria Arjona), urges everyone to work together to try to find a solution.

In contrast, COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), along with creepy Wendell Dukes (John C.McGinley), opts for sacrificing the weakest and least essential among them as terror ensues.

Written by James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” ”Slither”) and directed by Greg McLean (“Wolf Creek,” “Rogue”), it suffers from stereotypical characters, a cliché-riddled plot and bleak predictability.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Belko Experiment” is a relentlessly chaotic 5, filled with violent carnage.

05

“Beauty and the Beast”

Susan Granger’s review of “Beauty and the Beast” (Disney)

batb-sptableread-banner

Bill Condon’s hybrid live action/digital remake of the “tale as old as time” has sumptuous special effects and enhanced character backstories.

Set in rural France in 1740, it introduces brainy Belle (Emma Watson) whose academic father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), has been imprisoned in the Beast’s labyrinthine castle.

Because he was once a spoiled young Prince, spurning pleas for assistance from an old lady/witch, the ghastly, horned Beast (Dan Stevens) has been cursed until he can find true love.

Eager to escape the confines of her provincial village and unwelcome romantic advances by boorish, boastful Gaston (Luke Evans), Belle offers to exchange places with her beloved father.

Welcomed by the Beast’s anthropomorphic household, Belle meets Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson, warbling the title song), her son Chip (Nathan Mack), candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), mantel clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), feather-duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Madame Garderobe (Audra MacDonald) and her harpsichord husband, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci).

Their lavishly dazzling, Busby Berkeley-like “Be Our Guest” musical number took six months of planning and 15 months to complete.

Transitioning from Harry Potter’s pal Hermione Granger to fabled Belle, Emma Watson exudes feisty cleverness, ingeniously inventing a laundry mechanism using a horse and a barrel.

Walking on lifts in a prosthetic muscle suit, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) personifies the gruff yet intellectual Beast via performance capture and MOVA, a facial capture system.

While Beauty and the Beast bond over their shared love of literature, too much has been made of Gaston’s admiring sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) being gay; it’s a subtle nuance, nothing more.

Adapted by Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), it reflects the contemporary social consciousness that’s been raised since 1991, when Disney’s animated version was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

Director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) and musicians Alan Menken have added four new songs, including the bittersweet ballad, “How Does a Moment Last Forever.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Beauty and the Beast” is an elegant, yet nostalgic 8. It’s enchanting.

08

 

“If I Forget”

Susan Granger’s review of “If I Forget” (Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre)

 

Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hanson”) has written one of this year’s most provocative Off-Broadway plays.

This Jewish-American family drama takes place in an upper-middle class neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at the turn of the last century – 2000-2001 – in the midst of political turmoil, specifically the breakdown of the Israel-Palestine peace process.

As the three adult Fischer offspring gather to celebrate the 75th birthday of their recently widowed father, Lou (Larry Bryggman), it becomes obvious that he can no longer live alone in the family home.

Although he’s up for academic tenure, scholarly son Michael (Jeremy Shamos) is about to publish a highly controversial book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” asserting that the Holocaust obsession that haunts the minds of American Jews has made contemporary Judaism “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship.”

As a W.W. II veteran who helped liberate Dachau, Lou is deeply offended. “For you, history is an abstraction,” he says. “But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long century, there are no abstractions anymore.”

Adding to their angst, Michael and his Gentile wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) have a troubled teenage daughter, Abby, currently traveling in Jerusalem on a Birthright trip to Israel.

Like most families, each sibling has his/her memories and often differing versions of family history. Michael’s older sister, caustic Holly (Kate Walsh from TV’s “Private Practice”), is married to Howard (Gary Wilmes), a successful lawyer/stepfather to her teenage son Joey (Seth).

The youngest, unmarried Sharon (Maria Dizzia from TV’s “Orange Is the New Black”), has been their father’s primary care-giver and is bonding with the Guatemalan family who run a bodega in a building the family owns.

Superbly cast and sensitively staged by director Daniel Sullivan, it evokes other intense family sagas, like “August: Osage County” and “The Humans.” Kudos to Derek McLane for his multi-level set, Jess Goldstein for costumes, Kenneth Posner for lighting and Dan Moses Schreier for original music & sound design.

The world premiere of “If I Forget” is at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

Given the current rise of anti-Semitism, “If I Forget” could not be timelier.

 

“Get Out”

Susan Granger’s review of “Get Out” (Universal Pictures/Blumhouse)

get-out-movie

Giving a satirical jolt to what’s been described as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives,” Jordan Peele in his directing debut has created one of the most critically acclaimed horror movies in recent years.

As Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) packs to join his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), on a weekend in the country to meet her parents, he hesitantly asks her if she’s told them that he’s black. Amplifying the edginess, Chris’ paranoid TSA buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery) repeatedly urges him not to go.

(The audience is already wary, witnessing a prologue in which a black pedestrian in suburbia is stalked and stuffed into the trunk of a car.)

But Rose quickly assures anxious Chris that her parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), will welcome him with open arms. Yet their overt geniality is suspicious.

Dean’s a neurosurgeon, an Obama-admirer who says it’s cool to be black, and Missy’s an Earth Motherly hypnotherapist who offers to help Chris kick his smoking addiction.

Chris’ uneasiness is understandable, particularly in the eerily ominous presence of the African-American housekeeper (Betty Gabriel) and gardener (Marcus Henderson) who previously cared for Rose’s elderly grandparents and are “like family.” Plus, Rose’s pugnacious brother (Caleb Landry Jones) seems overly competitive.

As an observant photographer, Chris’s discomfort heightens during a garden party at which the elite guests’ stereotypical veneer cracks. Their bizarre behavior heightens Chris’s feeling of vulnerability, impelling him to escape.

Having honed his skill on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele,” writer/director Jordan Peele knows the difference between satire and parody. His subversive, surrealist sequences are stunning, depicting the soul-sucking danger posed by so-called liberals.

“The real thing here is slavery and sex,” Peele says. “In a social thriller, like this, the monster is society.”

As the black Everyman surrogate, British Daniel Kaluuya (“Sicario”) is superb, exuding the sensitivity of Sidney Poitier with a touch of Jimmy Stewart.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Get Out” is an astute 8, an insidiously scathing, cinematic commentary on racial tension in America.

08

 

 

“Kong: Skull Island”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kong: Skull Island” (Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures)

kong

Ever since 1933, the huge gorilla-like creature named Kong has been a cinema icon, and this new action-packed sci-fi adventure evokes legendary monster movies of bygone years with a fresh perspective.

In 1973, just after the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War, Earth-mapping satellite photos revealed a long-hidden landmass in the South Pacific, known as Skull Island, surrounded by a perpetual storm system.

That prompts investigator Bill Randa (John Goodman) to initiate an exploratory expedition, muttering, “There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington” – a line which immediately elicits audience laughter.

To guide his team of scientists (China’s Tian Jing, Corey Hawkins), Randa hires black-ops survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). They’re joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a plucky “anti-war” photo-journalist, and given a military escort, headed by embittered Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) with his intrepid squadron.

After dropping bombs to shake up the island’s seismic core, they discover prehistoric beasts that boggle the imagination, particularly the wrath of gigantic Kong as he swats helicopters out of the sky.

Those who survive meet up with grizzled Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a W.W.II pilot who was shot down in 1944, and embark on a perilous trek through primeval jungle terrain.

Scripted by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly from John Gatins’ pulpy story, it’s filled with allusions to Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation “Apocalypse Now.”

Competently directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”), it’s enhanced by an assortment of menacing CGI beasts created by Industrial Light & Magic, particularly Tony Kebbell’s authentic facial-capture Kong performance which surpasses Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake that won the VFX Oscar.

This Kong is a 100-foot tall gorilla/man hybrid, walking upright and roaring mightily before munching the tentacles of a huge octopus and battling the massive Skullcrawler lizard.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kong: Skull Island” is a spectacular 7. It’s a fun-filled creature-feature, concluding with a post-credit franchise promotion.

07

 

“Before I Fall”

Susan Granger’s review of “Before I Fall” (Open Road Films)

before-i-fall-ban

Lifting the supernatural premise of Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” this angst-riddled YA melodrama follows 17 year-old Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) who must re-live the same crucial Friday over and over again.

It happens to be Cupid’s Day in the Pacific Northwest, as Cascadia High School celebrates Valentine’s Day with “val-o-grams” rose deliveries that gauge every student’s popularity.

Self-centered Samantha has reached the pinnacle of the popularity poll, surrounded by three friends: Ally (Cynthy We), Elody (Medallion Rahimi) and domineering Lindsay (Halston Sage).  Like many admittedly bitchy cliques, they cruelly pick on an ostracized outcast, wild-haired Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris).

What’s more existentially significant is that, for Samantha, this particular Friday precedes a party hosted by temporarily parent-less Kent McFuller (Logan Miller), who has adored Samantha since elementary school, even though she’s currently enamored with hard-drinking Rob (Kian Lawley).

Their frivolity is followed by a fatal car crash. Forced to repeat that day over and over again, Samantha eventually becomes enlightened, learning important life lessons, even if it’s too late.

Based on the best-selling novel by Lauren Oliver, it’s adapted by Maria Magnetti and directed by Ry-Russo Young. Problem is: Samantha is somewhat passive in this doomed timeline loop; things happen to her as timely morsels of pertinent information about her little sister (Erica Tremblay) and mother (Jennifer Beals), among others, are eventually revealed.

In addition, Zoey Deutch, who recently played Bryan Cranston’s college-age daughter in “Why Him?” appears too sophisticated to be convincing as a high-school senior – particularly since this film’s intended audience is adolescent girls.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Before I Fall” is an awkwardly schmaltzy 6, delivering a sympathetic “savor every moment” message about redemption and hope.

06

“Yen”

Susan Granger’s review of “Yen”  (Lucille Lortel Theatre, Off-Broadway)

 

With an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Manchester By the Sea” tucked into his resume, Lucas Hedges makes his New York stage debut in this MCC production.

Hedges plays 16 year-old Hench who – with his mentally-challenged, hyperkinetic half-brother, 14 year-old Bobbie (Justice Smith) – occupies a filthy room in one of London’s council flats. Since their diabetic, alcoholic mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), lives with her latest boyfriend, they have no parental supervision.

As a result, these dysfunctional adolescents spend most of their time playing violent video games and watching porn. Between them, they own one T-shirt which they exchange whenever one or the other leaves to steal food, batteries, etc.

Their dog, named Taliban, is confined to another room because of his tendency to bite.

The tedious isolation of the boys’ lives is broken by the arrival of a 16 year-old Welsh neighbor, Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), from across the courtyard, who is concerned about Taliban’s incessant barking and perceives the parallel between Taliban’s abandonment and their own.

To explain the title, Yen is a synonym for longing and it’s what Jenny’s late father used to call her.

In this latest import from London’s Royal Court Theatre, playwright Anna Jordan so overloads the melodrama with desolation and depression that it’s hard to relate to the characters on an emotional level. So something must have been lost mid-Atlantic.

Confidently directed by Trip Cullman, the acting ensemble does its best, but this Greenwich Village production – with Mark Wendland’s set, Paloma Young’s costumes Ben Stanton’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s music & sound design – radiates bleakness, augmented by Lucy Mackinnon’s video projections, jolting sound effects and a bright light that shines directly at the audience.