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“War Machine”

Susan Granger’s review of “War Machine” (Netflix)

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Over the last few years, Netflix has established itself as a premiere steaming service. Now, Netflix is breaking new boundaries by debuting Brad Pitt’s provocative “War Machine” for home viewing on Friday, May 26, the same day it opens for Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Rover”), it’s a black comedy, loosely based on Michael Hastings’ non-fiction best-seller “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” expanded from a 2010 “Rolling Stone” expose that led to President Obama’s dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal.

Pitt plays cocky, charismatic Glen McMahon, the fictional, four-star General who struts in to command US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, deploying a controversial military strategy called counterinsurgency or COIN.

“We are here to build, to protect, to support the civilian population,” he says. “To that end, we must avoid killing at all cost. We can’t help them and kill them at the same time.”

The humor is savage, skewering the absurdity of this particular war – which toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and is propelling both Canada and the Netherlands to withdraw troops.

So Gen. McMahon flies to Paris with his rowdy, booze-soaked entourage (Topher Grace, RJ Cyler, Anthony Michael Hall, John Mangaro, Emory Cohen, Daniel Betts, Anthony Hayes) and a reporter (Scoot McNairy) to reassure the French and, incidentally, celebrate an anniversary with his long-suffering wife (Meg Tilly).

Initially a clownish, clichéd caricature, Brad Pitt develops delusional McMahon into a tragic figure, while Ben Kingsley is farcical as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Tilda Swinton scores as a skeptical European politician.

“In the last several decades, we have not been as good at extricating ourselves from wars as we are at waging them,” notes Michod, “so it becomes increasingly messy as wars begin to look perpetual and unwinnable.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “War Machine” is a slyly satirical 7, the first big-budget, day-and-date theatrical release that you can stay home and see.

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“Alien: Covenant”

Susan Granger’s review of “Alien: Covenant” (20th Century-Fox: Scott Free Production)

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Back in 1979, Ridley Scott helmed the shocking sci-fi thriller “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver, and containing one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on the screen, heralded by the memorable slogan: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

In 2012, he made the mythology-heavy prequel “Prometheus,” introducing Michael Fassbender as the enigmatic British “synthetic” – a.k.a. android – David, created by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).

Fast-forward 10 years later to 2104, as a massive spaceship called Covenant – transporting 2,000 human passengers and 1,140 embryos – is headed on a couples’ colonization mission to terraform a planet that’s still seven years away.

An American android update named Walter (Fassbender) is at the controls when a violent stellar flare jolts the crew of 15 out of their cryo-sleep pods. The Captain (James Franco) is immediately killed, leaving Daniels (Katherine Waterston), his widow, to cope with this catastrophe and survive on her own, instead of settling down in a cabin on a lake.

Out of necessity, the religious First Mate, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), assumes command, immediately making a grievous mistake by diverting the Covenant to Origae-6, where the Prometheus disappeared, when he hears a distress signal containing a plaintive John Denver song.

On this vast, verdant but seemingly uninhabited planet, they encounter ruthless David, who lures them into a cavern that turns out to be trap, filled with those vicious, ravenous creatures called Xenomorphs, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, that burrow into human bodies as spores and then burst forth in quasi-humanoid form with an eyeless helmet-head and a mouth dripping with slime.

Working from a script by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen & Michael Green, Ridley Scott, who will be 80 later this year, adroitly frames existential speculation about the creation of human life and projections for its survival. But, aside from the hyper-intelligent androids, the human characters lack both delineation and development.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Alien: Covenant” is a splattering 6, another slithery creature-feature.

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“The Women’s Balcony”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Women’s Balcony” (Menemsha Films)

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The highest-grossing film in Israel in the past three years, this good-hearted, yet provocative comedic drama is about the power of women in a battle against modern religious fundamentalism.

Set in an older Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, it begins with a celebration as Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), along with the rest of their close-knit congregation, parade from their homes through the streets to the synagogue for the Bar Mitzvah of their grandson.

Suddenly, during the service, the synagogue’s sex-segregated balcony for female worshippers, collapses. The wife of elderly Rabbi Menache (Abraham Celektar) is hospitalized in a coma, leaving him confused and depressed.

Awkwardly gathering in the only space available, the male members of the Mizrahi congregation don’t have the 10 men needed for a minyan when, seemingly out of nowhere, appears Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) with some of his seminary students.

Soon fanatically zealous Rabbi David is not only supervising the reconstruction of their synagogue but also reprimanding the women for their immodesty, urging them to cover their hair, and insinuating that the accident occurred because of the sins of the women.

When the women realize that there’s no place for them in the newly rebuilt synagogue, they raise money for a new balcony, only to discover that patriarchal Rabbi David intends to spend their funds on a new Torah scroll.

That incites a female rebellion, bravely led by determined Etti – reminiscent of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Plus, there’s a romantic subplot involving Etti’s niece (Yafit Asulin) who falls in love with Rabbi David’s assistant (Assaf Ben Shimon).

Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama grew up in a religious family in Jerusalem and was inspired by the women in her neighborhood.  And according to director Emil Ben-Shimon: “This film raises questions about whether every believer can choose his or own path of faith…and the price of extremism.”

In Hebrew with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Women’s Balcony” is a celebratory 6, offering a revelatory glimpse into a compelling dilemma.

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“The Dinner”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Dinner” (The Orchard/Protagonist Pictures)

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When teenagers commit a heinous crime, how should their parents react?

That’s the ethical dilemma propelling writer/director Oren Moverman’s meandering morality play/meditation, based on Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s controversial bestseller, first published in the Netherlands in 2009.

It begins with the narrator, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), as he and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) prepare to join Paul’s older brother Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) at a pretentiously elite and outrageously expensive restaurant for dinner.

Since their sibling rivalry has left them estranged since childhood, the brothers rarely socialize, but their three sons (Charlie Plummer, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Miles J. Harvey) have grown up together. Now 16, two of the teenagers commit a callous hate crime in an ATM booth that’s shocked the country.

While their sons’ identities have not yet been discovered, although a video was posted on YouTube, their parents must decide what action to take.

Pragmatic, politically ambitious, yet principled Stan Lohman seemingly has the most at stake, since he’s a popular U.S. Congressman who is launching a campaign for Governor, an exalted position his trophy second wife has set her sights on.

Troubled Paul is a former high-school history teacher whose incipient rage ripples just below his superficial calm, while patient, supportive Claire is a cancer survivor.

The narrative debate is structured around the epicurean feast’s successive courses, but Moverman (“Time Out of Mind”) and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski take us away from the posh restaurant setting momentarily by intercutting disconcertingly fragmented flashbacks of the children’s childhoods and the brothers’ trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, where so many lives were sacrificed.

The central psychological carnage is overly complicated and self-consciously clever, but Steve Coogan’s agonizing grasp of acerbic Paul’s frustration is stunning. Richard Gere falls back on his usual grace and charm, while Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall convincingly embody their respective roles.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Dinner” is an ominously unbalanced, undercooked 4, culminating in an infuriatingly enigmatic conclusion.

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“Snatched”

Susan Granger’s review of “Snatched” (20th Century Fox)

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Goofy comedienne Goldie Hawn (“Overboard,” “Bird on a Wire”) hasn’t made a film in 15 years, so I was really looking forward to her return to the silver screen, particularly teaming up with fearlessly funny Amy Schumer.

Reviving her obnoxiously neurotic “Teamwork” persona, Schumer plays Emily Middleton, a potty-mouthed loser whose rock-star boyfriend (Randall Park) dumps her just after she’s splurged on a ‘nonrefundable’ vacation-for-two at a resort in exotic Ecuador.

Since no one else will accompany her, Emily convinces her uptight, over-protective, divorced mom Linda (Hawn) to go, whining, “Put the fun back in nonrefundable,” leaving her nerdy, agoraphobic brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) at home.

Venturing out to the pool, they’re immediately befriended by “strictly platonic” Ruth (Wanda Sykes) and Barb (Joan Cusack), who caution them about the kidnapping that’s about to occur when Emily convinces Linda to go on a ‘sight-seeing’ jaunt through the Amazon jungle with a handsome stranger named James (Tom Bateman) whom she met swilling cocktails at the bar.

Once they’re abducted by Morgado (Oscar Jaenada), a stereotypical Latino villain, and thrown into a filthy cell, the mother/daughter comedy grinds to a halt, as Emily learns to be less self-centered and stodgy Linda opens up to taking risks.

Throw in a chivalrous pseudo-adventurer/explorer (Christopher Meloni) and a disgusting tapeworm which takes center stage for far too long. Taking a jab at the ineptitude of the US State Dept., there’s also an ineffectual bureaucrat (Bashir Salahuddin) whose only advice to the victims is: “Get to Bogota.”

Scripted by Katie Dippold (“The Heat,” “Ghostbusters” remake) and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies”), it’s crude and vulgar – and only fitfully amusing. Perhaps because Levine lets some vacation-from-hell scenes go on too long and there’s little fractious, familial chemistry between Hawn and Schumer.

At 91 minutes, if feels interminable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snatched” is a flashy, flimsy 5. Cancel this trip.

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“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Susan Granger’s review of “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (Warner Bros.)

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Director Guy Ritchie diminishes the magnificent Arthurian legend and the mythology of the sword known as Excalibur to brutal butchery in this indecipherable medieval muddle.

Intended as an origin story, it begins as King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) and his Queen are killed by his treacherous younger brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), who sacrificed his own wife to Dark Forces, led by the evil sorcerer Mordred, in order to seize the Crown.

Tucked in a basket and sent downriver in a skiff (like Moses, one supposes), their young son is rescued by kindly prostitutes and raised in a brothel in bustling Londinium – with no idea of his Celtic heritage and birthright.

But once hunky Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, a moment sabotaged by a David Beckham cameo, his quest is clear.

Despite the presence of loyal friends (Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillen, Tom Wu) and a supernatural assist from a prescient Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbee), there are many obstacles in his way, prompting Arthur to note (echoing Donald Trump): “I thought leading a revolution against that evil wizard would be easier.”

Working from the simplistic, almost unintelligible screenplay he wrote with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram, based on a story by Joby Harold and David Dobkin, Guy Ritchie opts for style over substance, relying on swashbuckling swordplay, mumbled dialogue, rock music and a plethora of special effects, including gigantic, fantastical elephants used as war machines and lots of slithering snakes.

Obviously, Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Sherlock Holmes”) was aiming at establishing a new Camelot franchise, perhaps telling the tales of all the Knights who sit at the Round Table but I doubt that will ever happen, particularly since there isn’t even a glimpse of the essential character of Merlin., let alone Lancelot or Guinevere.

If you’re curious, perhaps you should view John Boorman’s far superior “Excalibur” (1981).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is a fumbling, fractured 4, unfolding like a frantic video game.

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“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”

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

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The satirical subtitle says it all: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” as New York-born Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar fashions a dryly witty character study.

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a prescient, if nebbishy con man who befriends an up-and-coming Israeli politician, Deputy Minister of Trade Mischa Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), impulsively buying him a pair of expensive shoes, costing a whopping $1,200.

Three years later, when Eshel has become the Prime Minister who may be able to bring peace to the Middle East, he remembers Norman, extending a gesture of recognition, which briefly elevates Norman’s influential status among New York Jewry.

Now 67, Richard Gere proves he’s become a first-rate character actor, embodying likeable, lonely Norman Oppenheimer, who – as the title cards testify – bet on “the right horse.”

Operating with nothing more than business cards, a cell phone and chutzpah, he’s a “hondler,” a master manipulator who insinuates himself into the proximity of power, making promises that he’s hard-pressed to deliver.

While Lior Ashkenazi is one of Israel’s leading stage, film and television actors, this is his first major role in an American film. His energetic Eshel evolves from an insecure wannabe to a near-messianic statesman. Not surprisingly, Ashkenazi’s next role is playing a young Yitzhak Rabin in the upcoming action-adventure “Entebbe.”

The supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi, as a rabbi, and Hank Azaria as a “nooj,” a pest, a well-intentioned “mensch” – like characters in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow.

Plus, there’s Michael Sheen as Norman’s Wall Street lawyer nephew, Josh Charles as an elusive tycoon and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an Israeli government investigator, reporting to the Knesset.

In short: Norman Oppenheimer is a pathetic, shamelessly name-dropping cipher, a political Zelig, seemingly desperate to make himself a superficial footnote to history.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Norman” is a schmoozing 6, a challenging, cautionary tale about ambition gone awry.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″

Susan Granger’s review of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Marvel Studios/Buena Vista)

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For this action-driven sequel, writer/director James Gunn cleverly revisits the irreverent comic book concept of maverick mercenaries that he created for the 2014 original.

In 1981 in Missouri, the prologue shows Peter Quill’s mom (Laura Haddock) and ‘spaceman’ dad (a very youthful Kurt Russell) driving in their 1979 Ford Cobra to a special place in the forest where he plants something bizarre.

Skip ahead 34 years, when the Guardians have bartered with the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to protect the golden-skinned Sovereigns’ valuable batteries from a ravenous beast in exchange for the return of their prisoner, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Glamora’s (Zoe Saldana) mean sister.

Problem is: impudent Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) has stuffed batteries in his backpack, arousing Ayesha’s imperious ire. After an intergalactic chase, the Guardians’ spaceship Milano crashes on Berhert, where they’re greeted by a glowing, egg-shaped craft, containing Ego (Kurt Russell), who tells Quill (Chris Platt) – aka Star Lord – that he’s his long-lost father. Cue the origin story.

So they’re off to explore Ego’s private planet, meeting Empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who bonds with muscular Drax (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista). Meanwhile, on Contraxia, Quill’s foster father, blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), has been exiled by the Ravagers’ Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), and there’s a mutiny led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan).

Although the fast-paced plot is convoluted, there are intergalactic battle sequences galore and lots of zany humor, including pop-culture references to “Cheers,” “Pac-Man” and “Mary Poppins.” The adorable antics of Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are scene-stealers, plus there are a couple of Stan Lee cameos, along with “Awesome Mixtape #2.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is an overstuffed 7, followed by – count ‘em – five additional scenes during the seemingly endless credits.

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“The Circle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Circle” (STX Entertainment)

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Tackling the “Me-centric” revelatory culture of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., James Ponsoldt’s timely thriller delves into the ubiquitous perils of contemporary technology.

When Mae Holland (Emily Watson) goes to work for The Circle, a massively powerful social media company in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s thrilled. Beginning as a ‘guppy,’ she’s assigned to a Customer Service desk, where she’s expected not only to excel but also to participate in off-hour and weekend events with her co-workers.

Run by a management team consisting of charismatic visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and businessman Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is touting a new social interface app, TruYou, a single-identity password solution which eliminates anonymity, along with SeeChange, a tiny, inconspicuous webcam that can be attached to any surface to emit constant surveillance.

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better,” claims evangelistic Eamon Bailey at one of his “Dream Friday” pep talks.

Grateful that she can extend her insurance coverage to include her frail, multiple sclerosis-afflicted father (the late Bill Paxton, in his last screen role) and that the company’s omnipresent monitors saved her from drowning when she foolishly went kayaking alone at night, guileless Mae offers to relinquish all personal privacy and go “fully transparent,” so that everything she does can be seen by Circle members.

Obviously, this leads to more than one embarrassing incident, the most tragic involving Mae’s off-the-grid buddy Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who just wants to craft chandeliers out of deer antlers, along with the alienation of her best friend/mentor Annie (Karen Gillan).

Adapting his own 2014 novel, Dave Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour,” “The Spectacular Now”) meanders toward ominous melodrama, subtly reducing the fascistic future’s pivotal, high-tech skeptic Ty (John Boyega) to an enigmatic, incomprehensible cipher.

Comparisons with George Orwell’s prophetic “1984,” Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View,” and Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” are inevitable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Circle” is a sleekly sinister, satirical 6, evolving into a cautionary tale.

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“Their Finest”

Susan Granger’s review of “Their Finest” (STX Entertainment)

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During World War II, both in England and America, there was a strong sense of purpose. Today, we live in a world that is not only notoriously fractured but also highly ambiguous – with a breakdown of many traditional virtues and values. Which is why a nostalgic romantic comedy like this resonates with those who remember.

During the savage London Blitz in 1940, advertising copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information to work with the film division to bring “a woman’s touch” to bolster morale. Britain wants the United States to enter the war and is relying on cinematic propaganda to convince recalcitrant Yanks, particularly women.

Since Caitrin’s injured husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a frustrated painter, her paycheck comes in handy, even though she’s told “Of course, we can’t pay you as much as the chaps.”

Partnered with sexist screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Caitrin pitches a purportedly true story about patriotic twin sisters, Rose and Lily Starling (Lily & Francesca Knight), who stole their father’s boat in Southend and crossed the English Channel to help evacuate wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.

Problem is: her embellished story doesn’t jibe with what really happened. When there’s a difference between “truth” and “facts,” the filmmakers are given the mandate: “authenticity informed by optimism.”

With the help of aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), the movie-within-the-movie turns out to be great fun, involving Jeremy Irons in a self-satirizing cameo, along with a strong ensemble cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Rachael Stirling.

Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, it’s helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “Italian for Beginners”), who should have sped up the pace a bit.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Their Finest” is a sly, bittersweet 7 – with a tasteful feminist twist.

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