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“The Emoji Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Emoji Movie” (Columbia Pictures/Sony Animation)

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For technology luddites and those who have never encountered a smartphone, Emoji are pictographs and ideograms that are used to convey electronic messages via texts.

Originating on Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s, Emojis were popularized by Apple’s iPhone and soon adopted by Android and other mobile operating systems. Their addictive popularity led to inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. While their meanings can be culture-specific, their use is now almost universal.

Which undoubtedly led to Sony’s financing this $50 million animated feature. Co-written and directed by Tony Leondis, it’s obviously aiming for the same juvenile audience that crowded “The LEGO Movie.”

Set in Textopolis, a fanciful workplace within an adolescent boy’s smartphone, the story revolves around Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), an emoji that was created without a filter, meaning he’s a nonconformist, able to express multiple emotions.

Gene’s task is to be the “meh” (or disinterest) symbol, but he wants to be more than just that. Which is why his sinister supervisor Smiler (voiced by Maya Rudolph) orders him terminated. Unwilling to accept his fate, Gene and his once-popular buddy Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden) go off in search of help.

Eventually, an error involving a punk hacker dubbed Jailbreak (voiced by Anna Faris) catapults Gene on a trip that allows him to get reprogrammed so he can be what the world wants him to be.

Being generous, this entire endeavor could be interpreted as a metaphor so that youngsters who feel they “don’t fit in” can experience comfort and camaraderie.

Product placements abound: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Candy Crush, Just Dance, Spotify, Dropbox and the Cloud. And whatever they paid British actor Sir Patrick Stewart to portray the Poop emoji, it’s a credit that will quickly be dropped from his resume.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Emoji Movie” is a mind-numbing 1. It’s cinematic malware, a total time-waster.

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“Atomic Blonde”

Susan Granger’s review of “Atomic Blonde” (Universal Pictures/Focus Features)

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As the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, a behind-the-scenes spy thriller was unfolding, revolving around undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who was dispatched to retrieve information vital to the safety of Western intelligence.

As she’s being debriefed by her handlers (Toby Jones, John Goodman), it’s revealed that another MI6 agent, James Gascoigne, had a list of every espionage officer in the city on both sides of the Cold War conflict.

When he was killed by a Russian agent (Johannes Johannesson), the list went missing. MI6 wants it back since it contains the identity of an infamous double-agent named Satchel.

In order to achieve her objective, Boughton must singlehandedly battle not only the KGB but also Stasi operatives, Allied spies and even rogue members of her own organization, like self-serving psychopathic David Percival (James McAvoy) and predatory Delphine Lesalle (Sofia Boutella), a sultry French operative who winds up in bed with her.

None of this poses much of a problem since Boughton’s seemingly fearless and ferocious, taking on teams of thugs and – in one memorable sequence – knocking them down a stairwell, one by one, while looking stunning in shiny thigh-high boots and sipping tumblers of Stoli-on-the-rocks.

Working from screenwriter Kurt Johnstad’s convoluted adaptation of Anthony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” director David Leitch (“John Wick”), who once stunt-doubled for Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, trained Charlize Theron for three months to embody the emotionless, enigmatic heroine in stunning fight sequences, chronicled by French cinematographer Jonathan Sela to the beat of ‘80s Europop.

Battered and bruised, Theron traded her vanity for a swollen face and sealed-shut eye. Which is actually not surprising since she previously won an Academy Award playing a hefty serial killer in “Monster” (2003), directed by Patty Jenkins who subsequently helmed “Wonder Woman.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Atomic Blonde” is an adrenaline-propelled, smashing 6, steely and stylish.

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“The Dark Tower”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Dark Tower” (Columbia Pictures’Sony)

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If you read Stephen King’s sprawling eight-novel saga, which reportedly took more than 30 years to assemble, you may understand what’s happening on-screen. If not, it’s an epic hit-or-miss proposition.

The story begins in earthquake-plagued Manhattan, where teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is suffering horrific nightmares following the death of his fire-fighter father. When his mother (Katheryn Winnick) sends him to an asylum for psychiatric evaluation, he escapes, literally running for his life.

Apparently, Jake has vaguely defined but formidable psychic powers. He feels compelled to document his terrifying, apocalyptic visions in spooky sketches which include a mysterious Man in Black and an impassive hero known as the Gunslinger.

Finding his way to an abandoned house in Brooklyn, Jake stumbles through a portal into a surreal dimension known as Mid-World, where he not only encounters the trench coat-wearing Gunslinger (Idris Elba) but also the demonic Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey).

“His Shine is pure,” marvels the Man in Black. “His Shine is beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” concurs his cohort. Which means Jake’s brain contains the power to topple The Dark Tower, a spire that protects not only our planet, called Keystone Earth, but also other parallel worlds within our galaxy.

Meanwhile, the righteous Gunslinger keeps repeating a mantra: “I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.”

Assembled as a complex, completely confounding, mythological patchwork by screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”), it’s a choppy, incoherent hodge-podge of surreal chase/action sequences, a visual spectacle that’s confusingly edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Dark Tower” is a forgettable 4. For a sci-fi fantasy, it’s a sullen, superficial slog.

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“Dunkirk”

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

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W.W.II’s Miracle of Dunkirk has never been addressed in American cinema. It details the epic rescue of 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France: the biggest evacuation in military history.

From May 27 to June 4, 1940, the Allies were surrounded on all sides by German forces (never named, just referred to as “the enemy”), while the Luftwaffe repeatedly buzzed and bombarded the beaches.

Since the water was too shallow for destroyers to get close to the beach, brave British civilians volunteered to cross the English Channel in everything from fishing boats to barges to retrieve the troops – while under constant bombardment.

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan (the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception,” “Interstellar”) tells the suspenseful survival story from three meticulously interwoven perspectives, based on fictional characters.

The terrified men on the beach are personified by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who joins a fellow soldier (Aneurin Barnard) and an infantryman (Harry Styles) in a desperate fight to make it off the mole, an eight-foot-wide pier that’s overseen by Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh).

There’s the aerial perspective of Farrier (Tom Hardy), a senior RAF Spitfire fighter pilot who has only one hour to take out Nazi planes and provide cover for the men on the ground and in the water.

Sailing from England, there’s a small, wooden yacht, resolutely piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) with his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and tagalong pal George (Barry Keoighan). En route, they save a shivering, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a torpedoed ship.

Utilizing minimal dialogue and eliminating backstory, Nolan relies on cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s visual imagery, Hans Zimmer’s music and primal sound to propel the visceral drama.

Since Nolan shot with IMAX cameras, try to see “Dunkirk” on a six-story IMAX screen. It’s like virtual reality without the headset.

FYI: Pop heartthrob Harry Styles of the beloved boy band One Direction makes an auspicious acting debut. Because of his presence, his devoted fans around the world will get a much-needed history lesson.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dunkirk” is a taut, tension-filled 10 – the most intense, immersive war story since “Saving Private Ryan.”

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“Grounded”

Susan Granger’s review of “Grounded” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! George Brant’s provocative theatrical monologue revolves around a cocky U.S. Air Force Pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) who revels in her job, feeling exhilarated “up in the blue,” dropping missiles on desert fortresses in Iraq.

As she tells it, her beloved F-16 is out of there even before the explosion happens. Afterwards, she unwinds with other “Top Gun” boys, downing drinks at the bar.

While on leave at home in Wyoming, she meets Eric, who works in a hardware store. “Most guys don’t like what I do,” she notes with a macho swagger. “Feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.”

Seeing her in a flight suit, Eric’s turned on. Soon she’s pregnant, which means she has to take a desk job. “I want the sky. I want the blue, but I can’t kill her,” she wails plaintively.

After her daughter is born, she reports back for active duty, only to discover that she’s been re-assigned to the “Chair Force.” Her new job is to pilot an $11-million unmanned drone, sitting in front of a video monitor in an air-conditioned trailer on a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada – for 12 hours each day.

She’s devastated but her commander assures her, “In one year, the drone will be king.”

The evocative lighting (Solomon Weisbard), sound (Kate Marvin) and cinematic projections (Yana Birykova) convey the harrowing reality and immediacy of long-distance combat. A drone pilot not only sees the faces of the ‘enemy’ close-up but also bears witness to the destruction when her missiles hit the ground.

Although Eric gets a job as a blackjack dealer in a casino and does his best to try to understand the pressure she’s under, the Pilot eventually suffers PTSD or, according to the latest lingo, “a moral injury.”

Carrying this intense performance piece on her slim shoulders is Elizabeth Stahlmann, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Under the direction of the Yale Rep’s Liz Diamond with a metal chair as her only prop – she establishes an easygoing rapport with the audience, which intensifies their empathy as she becomes mired in conflicting emotions, steeped in the psychological side-effects of remote warfare.

FYI: Anne Hathaway, who played the Pilot in Julie Taymor’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, immediately optioned the property and it’s in development as a major motion picture.

“Grounded” plays at the Westport Country Playhouse thru July 29. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Wish Upon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wish Upon” (Broad Green Pictures/Orion Pictures)

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One doesn’t often see horror pictures released in the middle of summer, but perhaps filmmakers figured that this $12 million supernatural thriller might turn a profit even before its DVD release in the fall.

Still traumatized by the suicide of her mother (Elizabeth Rohm) when she was a youngster, 17 year-old Clare Shannon (Joey King), along with her friends Meredith McNeil (Sydney Park) and June Acosta (Shannon Purser), is having a tough time in high school.

So when her dumpster-diving dad, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), gives her an old, octagonal Chinese music box with an inscription that promises to grant its owner’s seven wishes, she’s intrigued.

Clare’s first wish is that her nasty nemesis, Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford), would “just go rot.” Sure enough, the next day, mean girl Darcie develops a ghoulish necrotizing fasciitis. Then one of her acquaintances inexplicably dies.

Predictably, Clare goes on to wish for a large inheritance, instant popularity and the affection of a hunky jock, Paul Middlebrook (Mitchell Slaggert), as gruesome deaths mysteriously mount up.

Eventually, Clare asks a nerdy admirer named Ryan Hui (Ki Hong Lee) and then his cousin (Alice Lee) to decipher the Mandarin lettering on the malevolent box. That’s when Clare realizes that her selfish wishes are actually killing people.

Scripted by Barbara Marshall (“Viral”) and directed by longtime cinematographer John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle”), it’s a simplistic adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a cursed artifact gives its owner three wishes, each of which exacts a dreadful punishment.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wish Upon” is a twisted 3, proving there’s always a price to be paid.

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“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”

Susan Granger’s review of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” (Actual Films/Participant Media/Paramount Pictures)

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Not long after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a crack in Antarctica’s ice shelf caused a 1.1-trillion-ton block of ice to calve, forming a colossal iceberg which is already breaking into huge chunks.

Couple that with the increasing threat of mega-fires, worsening floods, deeper droughts and worldwide temperatures hitting a record high for the third year in a row. So to call this documentary follow-up to 2006’s Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” timely is an understatement.

Former Vice-President and Nobel Peace Prize-recipient Al Gore updates his observations with advances in climate science, encompassing enlightened global energy policies and the latest in technology.

“Mother Nature is telling us, and people are noticing it,” Gore maintains.

According to Gore, global warming is the most threatening part of our ecological crisis because the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet is the most vulnerable part of the Earth’s system.

More than increasing population and advanced technology, the one factor that may determine Earth’s future is our way of thinking and the values on which we base the decisions we make.

As the late economist Rudi Dornbusch observed, “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they would.”

Because of that, Gore believes that President Trump’s decision to leave the Agreement has isolated the United States in the world community – with China trying to step in to assume a leadership role.

Gore points out that the real risk is that other countries will retaliate by trading among themselves as they create advances in solar and wind energy. And they have the legal right to place barriers on U.S. products that contribute to carbon pollution.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” is an effective, impassioned 6, as environmentally-conscious citizens and their governments struggle to cope with consequential challenges.

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“The Big Sick”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Big Sick” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)

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With comic book adaptations and animation crowding the multiplexes, this surprisingly witty, sweet-natured romantic comedy is a welcome change.

Based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, it relates how a struggling Pakistani/American comedian (Nanjiani) in Chicago connects with flirtatious grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan), as what they both thought was a one-night stand develops into a real relationship.

Kumail’s devoutly Muslim family expects him to enter into a traditional, arranged marriage with an eligible Pakistani woman. So he avoids telling them about his growing affection for Emily because he knows his parents would disown him if he married a Caucasian.

It’s the classic dilemma of a trying-to-assimilate, second-generation immigrant caught between two worlds, and Kumail’s cross-cultural deception leads to their eventual breakup.

But when Emily develops a mysterious infection and is placed in a medically induced coma, distraught Kumail rushes to the hospital and steadfastly stays by her side.

That’s where he meets her frazzled parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano, Holly Hunter), who are wary of Emily’s ex-boyfriend hovering around during their family vigil, particularly since they’re having their own marital issues.

Scripted by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the downtrodden computer programmer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) who pick the scabs off painful themes, it’s adroitly directed by Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”), showcasing Kumail’s sardonic comic timing.

What makes it extraordinary is the detailed delineation of each character, including Kumail’s family (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Shenaz Treasury) and his comedy club buddies (Bo Burnham, Jurt Braunohler, Aidy Bryant).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Big Sick” is an endearing 8. Kumail describes this crowd-pleasing date movie as “a romantic coma-dy.”

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“Despicable Me 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Despicable Me 3” (Universal Pictures)

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Gru and his mischievous yellow Minions have conquered the Chinese box-office! According to China’s tracking company Entgroup, this third installment opened as the biggest animated hit in that country’s cinematic history.

The story follows former bad-guy-turned-secret agent Gru (Steve Carell) and his fellow agent wife Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), along with their three adopted daughters – maturing Margo, unicorn-obsessed Agnes and playful Edith – who travel to Freedonia to meets his long-lost, ostentatiously wealthy twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell), who wants Gru to return to villany.

Having been unceremoniously fired by the new Anti-Villain League boss (Jenny Slate) and deserted by his sinister Minions, reformed Gru and clumsy Dru take on Balthazar ‘Evil’ Bratt (Trey Parker).

Bratt is a resentful ‘80s-obsessed child TV star-turned-diamond thief, who has a sassy robot on-call, a trusty keyboard guitar, a penchant for Rubik’s Cube and a fervent desire to destroy Hollywood. Tossing bubble-gum bombs, Bratt endlessly repeats his tagline: “I’ve been a baaaad boy!”

Too bad that most of this is in the theatrical trailer.

Franchise screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, working with co-directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices the babbling, nonsensical Minions), maintain a frantic, if disjointed pace, filled with inoffensive jokes and colorful sight gags.

‘Back in 2015, Coffin confirmed that the Minions, clad in goggles and dungarees, are all male, noting, “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine the Minions being girls.”

FYI: Julie Andrews vocalizes Gru and Dru’s rotten mother Marlene, while Trey Parker is better known as the co-creator of TV’s “South Park.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Despicable Me 3” is a silly 6, leading audiences to expect more innocuous sequels in the future.

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“The House”

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

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A strong contender for the Worst Picture of the Year, this new Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler comedy fails on almost every level.

In suburban Fox Meadow, Scott (Farrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen are justifiably proud of their accomplished daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins), who just got into Bucknell, the college of her choice, earning a full, town-funded scholarship.

Problem is: sneaky Bob (Nick Kroll), the corrupt Councilman, decides to divert the designated funds to build an elaborate municipal swimming pool, leaving no money for Alex. Since neither Scott nor Kate ever thought about saving for their daughter’s education, they’re panicked.

But their best friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), whose estranged wife (Michaela Watkins) dumped him because of his gambling addiction, comes up with what they think is a brilliant idea: Why not open an illegal, secret casino in Frank’s spacious, almost-empty house?

Frank assures them that over the summer, they can make at least a half-million dollars. The Johansen’s split will be more than enough money for Kate’s tuition.

Where do they get the working capital to finance this elaborate fully-staffed casino, complete with a blackjack table, craps tables, a roulette wheel, surveillance cameras, dealers and bartenders?

And why does bumbling Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel) represent the only law-enforcement around?

Working from an absurdly implausible script he wrote with Brendan O’Brien, Andrew Jay Cohen (“Neighbors”) makes an inauspicious directing debut.

In this stale, sophomoric farce, the charmless Johansens behave like middle-aged dorks – with Kate re-experiencing her love of weed and Scott inadvertently getting a macho ‘fix’ by becoming an enforcer known as The Butcher. That leads to a cameo by Jeremy Renner as a ruthless mobster.

The depravity gets worse when two foul-mouthed females (Lennon Parham, Andrea Savage) square off in a “Fight Club” brawl while townspeople bet on the outcome.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The House” is an atrociously tedious 2. What a terrible waste of time and talent!

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