“Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (Universal Pictures)


I’ve always been fascinated by the Ouija Board. For the past century, this creepy board game, manufactured by Hasbro, has intrigued players around the world.

Its popularity rose sharply after America’s Civil War, since families lost so many loved ones in battle, many of whom remained unidentified. Using the Ouija Board, grieving relatives often gathered in the parlor to consult the ‘spirits’ for reassurance.

But there’s also been a fear that using the device could lead to demonic possession, which led to admonitions for users, like never play alone, never play in a graveyard or where a terrible death has occurred, and never bid ‘goodbye’ to the entity with whom you are in contact.

So it’s altogether appropriate that a timely Halloween movie revolves around this supernatural concept.

Set as a prequel to “Ouija” (2014), the story revolves around California’s Zander family back in 1967.

Lonely, widowed Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) – a.k.a. “Madame Zander” – runs a fake medium business – creating séances with help from her daughters, 14 year-old Paulina (Annalise Basso) and 9 year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson), who simulate connections with a netherworld.

When Paulina discovers the Ouija Board at a neighborhood party, Alice buys one, thinking it will enhance her sessions. Problem is: young Doris becomes haunted by some malevolent Polish-speaking entity (Doug Jones) that turns out to be a Nazi doctor.

Predictably, Alice realizes that it’s time to summon a priest. In this case, it’s the principal of Doris’s parochial school, Father Tom (Henry Thomas), a widower who joined the seminary after his wife died.

Working with co-writer Jeff Howard and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, writer/director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus,” “Hush”) embraces the time frame wholeheartedly, utilizing the nostalgic Universal logo and old-fashioned place-card, giving these characters creditable backstories and, eventually, establishing a connection to the previous installment.

FYI: Ouija Boards have figured in other horror movies like “The Exorcist” (1973) and “Witchboard” (1986).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a spooky 6 – for those who enjoy being scared.



“Keeping Up With the Joneses”

Susan Granger’s review of “Keeping Up With the Joneses” (20th Century-Fox)


“Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.”

Just after Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) pack their children off for summer camp, mysterious new neighbors move into a house in their secluded cul-de-sac in an Atlanta suburb.

They’re Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot). He claims to be a travel writer, a master of many languages who blows glass for a hobby; she’s an Israeli social-media consultant, enmeshed in food blogging and charity work.

But it’s obvious from the get-go that the glamorous, sophisticated Joneses aren’t who they pretend to be.

So Jeff, who works as a Human Resources counselor at MBI, an aerospace defense corporation, and Karen, who dabbles as a home-design consultant, are determined to unmask their real identities.

That involves suspicious Karen following Natalie to the mall on a lesbian-tinged, lingerie-buying mission – and amiable Jeff lunching with Tim, attempting to bond at a secret, underground Chinese restaurant that specializes in serving live snakes.

Once it’s established that the Joneses are, indeed, covert operatives, the wannabe satirical action/spy caper goes nowhere at a tedious pace.

Formulaically scripted by Michael LeSieur (“You, Me and Dupree”) – with only one topical joke, involving Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner – and lethargically directed by Greg Mottola (“Adventureland,” “Superbad”), it’s a dud.

Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) aces dorky, while Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) remains perky. But roguish Jon Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) and statuesque Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”) seem to be in another film entirely, never really connecting to their nosy neighbors, the flaccid plot or supporting players like Patton Oswalt and Matt Walsh.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is a tepid, tedious 3. Don’t bother.



“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”

Susan Granger’s review of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” (Paramount Pictures/Skydance)


Full Disclosure: My son, Don Granger, produced this film.

When British novelist Lee Child’s stoic hero, ex-Military Police Major Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), learns that Army Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who heads his old investigative unit, has been arrested for espionage, causing the death of two US soldiers in Afghanistan, he knows she’s innocent.

But trying to prove that is another matter. When he appeals to a Judge Advocate in Washington D.C., Reacher discovers a paternity claim against him, revealing that he may have a delinquent teenage daughter, Samantha (Danika Yarosh).

Basically a lone wolf, a laconic, hitchhiking vigilante who lives off-the-grid, Reacher must work with Susan Turner, whom he breaks out of a high-tech military prison, and rebellious Samantha to unravel a nefarious government conspiracy, involving a sneering contractor (Patrick Heusinger) and smarmy General Harkness (Robert Knepper).

Reacher’s search for a mysterious munitions supplier called Parasource takes them to New Orleans, where there’s a climactic rooftop chase, high above a Halloween parade in the French Quarter.

Adrenaline-propelled Cruise is renowned for doing his own stunts – and he doesn’t disappoint, particularly when he uses a salt shaker to punch through a car window.

Adapted by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz and director Edward Zwick from the 18th of Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, this crime thriller introduces two kick-ass women. Formidable Maj. Susan Turner proves she can fight in fierce, hand-to-hand combat alongside muscular Reacher, while resourceful Samantha turns out to be a quick learner.

Like Cruise, sinewy Cobie Smulders did her own stunts, catapulting her alongside Cruise’s previous cohorts Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) and Emily Blunt (“Edge of Tomorrow”).

FYI: In the first “Jack Reacher” (2012), author Lee Child was a police officer; this time, he’s a TSA agent, scanning Reacher’s ID. “A theme is developing,” he notes. “I’m always in uniform, and I’m always somewhat suspicious of what’s going on with Cruise.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is a gritty, suspenseful 7, filled with intense action.



“Wild Oats”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wild Oats” (The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay Entertainment)


Eva (Shirley MacLaine) is a retired 10th grade social studies teacher who, when her husband dies, accidentally receives a $5 million check from his life insurance policy, instead of the $50,000 that she expected.

Her first impulse is to return it, but then her best friend Maddie (Jessica Lange), whose husband has just left her for his young secretary, suggests that she endorse and deposit the check immediately so they travel to an exotic place and have some well-deserved fun.

As soon as the check clears, Eva and Maddie take off for Las Palmas de Grand Canaria in the Spanish Canary Islands, where they happily settle into the posh Presidential Suite, ready to pamper themselves with food, drink and extravagant resort clothes.

To their delight, Chandler (Billy Connolly), a rather mysterious Scottish businessman, takes an immediate liking to Eva, while adventurous Maddie catches the eye of twentysomething Chip (Jay Hayden).

Back home, realizing their error, the insurance company dispatches Vespucci (Howard Hesseman), a ready-to-retire agent, to try to retrieve their money.  Arriving at Eva’s house, he encounters her disbelieving daughter Crystal (Demi Moore) who agrees to go with him to Grand Canaria.

Meanwhile, Eva and Maddie realize that they’ve been conned by Chandler, who is working for Carlos (Santiago Segura), the local wine baron.

Playing off one another, Shirley MacLaine (“Postcards From the Edge”) and Jessica Lange (TV’s “American Horror Story”) are believable as close friends, but MacLaine seems far more comfortable with comedy than Lange.

Basically, these veteran actresses deserve better material than this predictable, cliché-riddled script by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers, superficially directed by Andy Tennant.

FYI: Sarah Jessica Parker was originally supposed to play Crystal; she was replaced by Demi Moore.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wild Oats” is a flaccid 4, well suited for the Lifetime Channel on which it premiere’d.



“The Accountant”

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


Admittedly, screenwriter Bill Dubuque’s original concept is potentially intriguing: an enigmatic mathematical savant becomes an underworld bookkeeper/assassin.

When we first meet Christian Wolff, he’s a troubled youngster, working on a jigsaw puzzle. Rather than cater to his autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, his sadistic, domineering military father (Robert Treveiler) forces him to confront it, training him in martial arts combat and survival skills, bizarrely shifting his developmental disorder from a liability into an asset.

As a result, now-adult Wolff (Ben Affleck) launders money for various criminal organizations, deftly disguising himself as a mild-mannered CPA with a nondescript office in rural Illinois strip mall.  Socially awkward, he’s a loner who finds solace in routine and ritual.

Ostensibly dwelling in a suburban tract house, Wolff keeps his valuables – original paintings by Renoir and Jackson Pollock, along with cash and an armory of weapons – in an old Airstream trailer, hidden in storage locker.

But soon-to-retire U.S. Treasury Agent Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) is determined to unmask the mysterious accountant, enlisting the help of Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a savvy financial Analyst whose dogged determination is propelled by a need to hide her own felonious past.

Their paths cross when Wolff’s hired to balance the books by robotics CEO Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow) after his company’s over-eager accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) discovers a discrepancy involving millions of dollars – which makes Wolff a target for brawny Braxton (Jon Bernthal), a hired killer.

Unfortunately, as the cryptic, character-driven saga unfolds, via numerous flashbacks, it becomes increasingly complicated, as director Gavin O’Connor, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and editor Richard Pearson seemingly disregard several pretentious subplot distractions to chronicle the violent carnage.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Accountant” is a fragmented 5. It doesn’t add up.



“American Honey”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Honey” (A24)


British filmmaker Andrea Arnold finds cinematic inspiration in a group of young American drifters, those tattered, tattooed, often defiant, yet seemingly aimless teenagers that lurk around places like Walmart.

One of them is abused, 18 year-old Star (Sasha Lane) who deposits her two younger half-siblings in the care of their disaffected mother before blasting out of Muskogee, Oklahoma, with a group of hard-partying rowdies who drift around in a white van, hustling questionable magazine subscriptions.

Catching her eye, charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is the alpha male, who explains, “We don’t only sell magazines. We explore America.”

He travels separately in a convertible with “mean girl” Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), who manages the eclectic, almost-feral crew: Corey (McCaul Lombardi), a surfer-dude who whips out his penis for kicks, and “Star Wars”-obsessed Pagan (Arielle Holmes).

In perhaps the most strange, yet memorable scene, Star courts danger, taking off with three wealthy, middle-aged Texans, wearing white Stetsons, in their fancy car to rake in some quick cash.

Like her Oscar-winning short “Wasp” (2003) and “Fish Tank” (2009), writer/director Andrea Arnold works closely with cinematographer Robbie Ryan to create a Diane Arbus-like, cinema-verite atmosphere, displaying a somewhat disconcerting fixation on bugs.

For two hours and 42-minutes, Arnold focuses on these disaffected misfits, traveling through the Midwestern heartland, taking the title from a song by Lady Antebellum and featuring singalongs with Rihanna and Ludacris.

Discovered by Andrea Arnold on a beach, Texan newcomer Sasha Lane exudes sexuality, eager to viscerally explore all of her senses and experience intoxicating sensations, while Shia LaBeouf personifies the sleazy, hotheaded con artist who will, inevitably, disappoint.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Honey” is a subtly scrappy 6, a rambling, often repetitive road picture depicting a slice of Americana.


“The Girl on the Train”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Girl on the Train” (Universal Pictures)


If you were expecting an enticing psychosexual thriller, like “Gone Girl,” forget it!

This grim screen adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s best-selling novel dissatisfies in every way, except one: Emily Blunt delivers a powerhouse performance as the pathetic protagonist, Rachel Watson.

Lonely Rachel Watson is a deeply depressed alcoholic who rides Metro North train back and forth from suburban Ardsley-on-Hudson to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, pretending she still has a job.

A bleary-eyed divorcee sipping cheap vodka from a designer water bottle, Rachel projects her vicarious fantasies onto suburbanites living in the stylish houses that run along the tracks near her old home.

She’s fascinated by one golden couple in particular: beautiful, blonde Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) and her handsome husband, Scott (Luke Evans). “She’s what I lost,” Rachel convinces herself.

Not really. Deeply discontented as a Stepford housewife, Megan is flagrantly promiscuous, even trying to seduce her psychiatrist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez).

Adding to the intrigue, Rachel’s ex-husband Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) lives up the block; he’s now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). They have a baby girl, and Megan was their nanny.

When Megan suddenly goes missing, Rachel becomes obsessed, reporting to a suspicious detective (Alison Janney) that – from the commuter train – she once spied Megan embracing another man on her upstairs balcony.

Problem is: Rachel suffers from boozy blackouts, so she’s not really sure what she remembers, except that – after one drunken night – she woke up bloodied and bruised.  Matters get worse when Megan’s dead body is found.

Clumsily scripted by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”) and directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), it’s more like a tediously cheesy soap-opera than a murder mystery. And since the sneering, sleazy villain skulks around like a thug, it’s not difficult to guess who he is.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Girl on the Train” derails with a flimsy, fragmented 4, – quite frustrating.


“Denial” (Bleecker Street)

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


Until the late 1980s, British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) enjoyed respectability among his peers, even though his best-known book “Hitler’s War” (1977) claimed that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust. But then Irving began to deny the existence of the Holocaust, ridiculing claims that there were gas chambers.

When a strident American academic from Queens, New York, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), accused him of anti-Semitism in “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1993), it never occurred to her that she – and Penguin Books – could be sued for libel – or that the ensuing court cast would put acceptance of the Holocaust on trial.

Under British law, the burden of proof lies on the defendant. In America, it lies with the plaintiff. So Lipstadt, a history professor at Emory University in Atlantic, could either settle out of court, which Irving would claim as a personal victory, or proceed; she chooses the latter.

Solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce against Prince Charles, prepares the case which dour Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) presents at London’s Royal Court of Justice on Lipstadt’s behalf.

Patching together actual transcripts and meticulously researched recordings, screenwriter David Hare (“Wetherby,” “The Hours”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard,” TV’s “Temple Grandin”) proceed as the eight-week courtroom drama evolves. As a result, sneering, smarmy David Irving was not only discredited but also disgraced.

Too bad the filmmakers didn’t try for more of an emotional connection with Deborah Lipstadt, comparable, perhaps, to “Woman in Gold” (2015), in which Helen Mirren played Jewish refugee who went back to Vienna to reclaim a Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis.

In the current political climate, the release of this film couldn’t be timelier, examining concepts like fact-checking, conspiracy theories, and the need for concrete evidence when making claims.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Denial” is a somber, suitably shaming 6, yet without a satisfying showdown moment.


“Queen of Katwe”

Susan Granger’s review of “Queen of Katwe” (Disney/ESPN)


Based on a true story, this film chronicles how talented Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from the poverty-stricken streets of Katwe, a township that’s south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, became a world-class chess champion.

Her journey begins when resilient nine year-old Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who runs a sports outreach program of the local church’s youth ministry, teaching scrappy slum kids, struggling to survive, how to play chess – bribing them with a free cup of porridge.

Like Phiona, he’s suffered deprivation and hardship. Because of class discrimination, even with an engineering degree, Katende cannot get a proper, full-time job without family connections.

In chess, Phiona is told, “The small one can become the big one.”

Phiona’s enthusiasm for the new game infuriates her hard-working, widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), whose income depends on Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) selling maize in the marketplace.

But when compassionate Katende realizes that illiterate Phiona is truly a prodigy, he finds ways to help her not only to learn to read but also overcome the many obstacles thrown in her path.

Based on Tim Crothers’s 2012 non-fiction book, William Wheeler’s melodramatic, triumph-of-the-underdog script follows a predictably biographical, sports story formula – with far too many platitudes.

With extraordinary sensitivity, Indian-American Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) depicts the harsh, almost unimaginable squalor in which the family lives, often without food, shelter, schooling or medical care, and directs Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga with utmost delicacy.

Her debut performance is richly enhanced by the supporting cast, headed by David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave”).

Great credit should also go to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for capturing the authentic African shantytown atmosphere, along with production designer Stephanie Carroll, costume designer Mobotaji Dawodu and editor Barry Alexander Brown.

And the charming closing credits feature the actors standing alongside their real-life counterparts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Queen of Katwe” is an inspirational 7, concluding that being a winner can be a mixed blessing.



“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

Susan Granger’s review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (20th Century-Fox)


Adapting Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young-adult novel would seem like a perfect fit for the macabre imagination of eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton. Too bad he squanders this spine-tingling opportunity.

When shy, teenage Jake Portman (bland Asa Butterfield) is summoned to his beloved grandfather’s tract home in suburban Florida, he realizes that the old man is dying, the victim of nefarious thugs.

But not really. As Grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp) explains, it’s all connected to the bedtime stories Jake’s heard over the years about leaving Poland just before W.W. II, accompanied by creepy vintage photographs of a bizarre orphanage on a small British island, off the coast of Wales.

With the help of a grief counselor (Allison Janney), Jack convinces his parents (Chris O’Dowd, Kim Dickens) to let him visit his Grandfather’s mysterious island refuge – in hopes of achieving closure.

After extensive exposition, the fun begins when Jack time-travels back to Sept. 3, 1943, to find vampy, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), tenaciously guarding her fascinating flock of mutants.

There’s weightless Emma (Ella Purnell), who has to wear lead shoes to anchor her to the ground; Olive (Lauren McCrostle), who dons long gloves because her fingers ignite fires; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who re-animates objects so they can fight each other; tiny, mute twins in clown costumes; plus other oddities.

They’re living in a continual 24-hour Loop, just prior to a Nazi bombardment. And ghoulish, invisible monsters called “Hollowghasts,” personified by Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), are determined to acquire that Loop when they’re not gobbling eyeballs.

While initially intriguing, Jane Goldman’s script falters, particularly in the climactic chase sequence, as Burton liberally lifts eerie, Gothic-tinged concepts from “Big Fish,” “Back to the Future,” “X-Men,” “Groundhog Day” and “Harry Potter,” leaving teaser traces for a sequel.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a strangely spooky, stylish 6, stumbling when it should soar.