“Ready Player One”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ready Player One” (Warner Bros.)


Sci-fi, virtual reality and nostalgic pop culture collide in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s sprawling 2011 best-seller about a teenager’s quest to win a game that will give him control of a massive digital universe.

Set in 2045 in dystopian Columbus, Ohio, the story revolves around Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an orphaned nerd, living in “the stacks,” a grimy, vertical trailer park. Like everyone else, Wade spends most of his time immersed in a virtual game-room called the Oasis where one can be whoever one wishes.

Before he died, eccentric tech-genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left players one last contest. Whoever can solve three challenges will inherit not only his fortune, worth half a trillion dollars, but also control over the Oasis, which he founded with his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).

Wade Watts has chosen the hipster Parzival as his avatar in the Oasis, playing alongside his best friend, Hulk-sized Aech (Lena Waithe). Wade’s dazzled by the skill and daring of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who teams up with them, along with Dairo (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao). They’re the good guys.

The bad guys are epitomized by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the ruthless CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), who hires teams of hardcore gamers, known as gunters, to find Halliday’s Easter Egg, following obtuse clues drawn from trendy memories of every movie, comic book and video game the socially awkward programmer Halliday ever saw or played.

That propels seemingly endlessly chaotic car/motorcycle/monster truck chases through a murky wonderworld to blaring rock music, battling T-Rex, King Kong and Mechagodzilla – with an occasional assist from The Iron Giant.

Co-written by novelist Cline and Zak Penn and spectacularly imagined by production designer Adam Stockhausen and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it’s adroitly directed by Spielberg, who occasionally injects some sweetness, sentiment and emotional involvement – but not often enough.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ready Player One” is an overstuffed, escapist 8, brimming with flashy eye candy and fantastic fanboy ferocity.


“Sherlock Gnomes”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sherlock Gnomes” (Paramount Animation/Rocket Pictures)


This animated sequel would never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for Elton John, who executive produced 2011’s “Gnomeo & Juliet.” John and his husband, David Furnish, continue to be amused by the ‘punny’ idea of garden gnomes coming to life.

“The first film was a love story about how gnomes from two battling gardens fell in love,” he explains. “This is new one is an adventure that takes place after they married and moved to London from Stratford-Upon-Avon.”

It seems that all the lawn ornaments in London are being stolen: proper gnomes like Lord Redbrick (voiced by Michael Caine), Lady Blueberry (voiced by Maggie Smith) and Mrs. Montague (voiced by Julie Walters), along with Fawn (voiced by Ozzy Osbourne).

So the legendary sleuth Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his long-suffering assistant Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) show up to help Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) search – before they’re smashed to smithereens.

Looking for clues, Sherlock visits a doll museum, where he runs into his ex, a self-obsessed Victorian doll named Irene Adler (voiced by Mary J. Blige), who launches into a song-and-dance number, “Stronger Than I Ever Was,” by Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Utilizing deductive logic, Holmes views his perennial adversary, maniacal Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou), disguised as the little, yellow, pie-boy mascot of Goobarb Pies, as a prime suspect.

Elton John can be glimpsed in a cameo as a pink, piano-playing gnome. His sound-track contributions also include “Empty Garden,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “I’m Still Standing” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting).”

Working from Ben Zaslove’s bare-bones screenplay, it’s helmed by John Stevenson (“Kung Fu Panda”) who pads it out as much as possible.

Except for some imaginative black-and-white sequences, showing what Sherlock is thinking, the animation is not remarkable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sherlock Gnomes” is a flimsy, forgettable 4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave.


“Pacific Rim Uprising”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pacific Rim Uprising” (Legendary Pictures/Universal)


Anticipation of the international box-office is what propelled this generic sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 epic “Pacific Rim,” which flopped in the United States but made millions overseas.

Laden with special-effects, its sci-fi plot pitted humans against the Kaiju, which are alien-engineered sea monsters that emerged from a multidimensional gateway, known as the Breach, located on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

Sacrificing his life, Gen. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) was one of the original’s heroes. Ten years later, mankind’s preservation is in the hands of Stacker’s rebellious son, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), who notes, “I am not my father…my generation, we were born into war.”

A former Jaeger pilot, Jake makes a tidy sum from selling parts salvaged from decommissioned Jaegers, those giant human-shaped robots operated by co-pilots who mind-meld with the machinery and each other.

“If you can steal what no one else can,” he says. “You can live like a king.”

Spunky 15 year-old Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) is also after parts for her small, one-pilot Jaeger that she dubs Scrapper.

When Jake and Amara are apprehended by the authorities, they’re dispatched to train the next generation of Pan Pacific Defense Corps pilots at a Chinese military base, where Jake gets into a rivalry with Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, who resembles his squinty-eyed father Clint).

Significantly, Guillermo del Toro (Oscar winner for “The Shape of Water”) is not directing this time ‘round. Instead, Steven S. DeKnight is at the helm, working from a simplistic script by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin, based on characters created by Travis Beacham.

Rounding out the cast, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman return as eccentric scientists Dr. Newt Geiszler and Dr. Herrmann Gottlieb, plus Rinko Kikuchi as Jake’s adopted sister, Mako Mori.

Owned by the Beijing-based Dalian Wanda Group, Legendary Pictures backed this project, filmed in Australia and China.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pacific Rim Uprising” is a frustrating 5, featuring mindless, metallic mayhem.


“A River Below”

Susan Granger’s review of “A River Below”

river below

Somehow lost in the overwhelming number of releases, Mark Grieco’s documentary turns out to be one of 2017’s most challenging and provocative. It begins with scenes of a nighttime dolphin hunt, which are repeated – in different contexts – throughout the film.

Known as ‘botos,’ thousands of the Amazon River’s pink bottle-nosed dolphins are slaughtered each year, threatening their extinction and changing the biodiversity of the region.

A key element in Brazil’s highly profitable fishing industry, these dolphins are killed and used a bait to catch carnivorous catfish, known ‘piracatinga,’ that are attracted to their rotting flesh. Killing dolphins is illegal, but no one seems to enforce the law.

The plight of these endangered river dolphins is examined by two different conservationists: Colombian marine biologist Fernando Trujillo and Brazil TV’s popular adventurer Richard Rasmussen, a Steve Irwin-like naturalist who broadcast footage of local fishermen spearing and butchering a pregnant dolphin for bait.

Myriad ramifications emanate from this appalling newscast. While public outcry leads to the implementation of a five-year moratorium on piracatinga fishing, there are serious economic consequences for the impoverished river communities that have lost their livelihood.

In addition, there are pertinent ethical implications about exactly how Rasmussen’s shocking footage was obtained. According to the fishermen pictured in the video, Rasmussen put them up to the stunt and paid them for their participation.

Adding that, Dr. Trujillo’s alarming revelations about rising toxic mercury levels in deliberately mislabeled Amazon fish place his life in danger.

“What kind of world is this when a biologist needs to be scared to tell the truth?” he asks.

So in their fervent desire to save the Amazon River’s pink dolphins, environmentalists have ignited controversy, once again raising the question, “Does the end ever justify the means?”

In English, Spanish and Portuguese, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A River Below” is a fascinating 7, questioning how media activism affects social change.



“The Boy Downstairs”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boy Downstairs” (Film Rise)


The problem with awkward, indecisive, ordinary people is that they’re dull to watch – and filmmaker Sophie Brooks’ low-key rom-com hits all the boring buttons.

Returning to New York after spending three years in London, 30’ish Diana (Zosia Mamet) is an aspiring writer who, ostensibly, works in a bridal shop but, judging by her spacious Fort Greene apartment, is still being financially supported by her indulgent father.

It isn’t until after she’s moved into the apartment building, owned by an indulgent widow, Amy (Deidre O’Connell), that Diana realizes her old boy-friend, a musician named Ben (Matthew Shear), lives on the ground-floor with his new girl-friend, realtor Meg (Sarah Ramos).

Frequent, extended flashbacks reveal how the fumbling romance between squirrely Diana and snuggly Ben flamed and fizzled when decided she preferred freedom over commitment, leaving him heartbroken.

But now Diana’s back in Brooklyn, filled with regrets and heavily into full-time flirting with good-guy Ben. That they’ll reconnect and re-ignite their relationship seems to be a foregone conclusion.

As the plot plods on, one might wonder how this dreadful dirge got financing – which leads to a far more fascinating connection.

Less than five years out of NYU film school, writer/director Sophie Brooks makes this feature film debut, choosing mousy Zosia Mamet as her leading lady.

Zosia (TV’s “Girls”) is the daughter of playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse. Her maternal grandfather was playwright Russell Crouse, co-writer of musicals like “Anything Goes” and “The Sound of Music.”

Unfortunately, Zosia’s querulous Diana is so constantly befuddled that it’s hard to either identify or sympathize with her. Her hair, make-up and wardrobe choices make her look as unattractive as possible, and Diana’s strained sarcasm is further alienating.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boy Downstairs” is a frustrating 4. Better luck next time.


“Love, Simon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love, Simon” (Fox 2000: 20th Century-Fox)

love simon

This new, upbeat romantic comedy has already broken records: it’s the first major studio PG-13 wide-release, playing in multiplexes, as opposed to art houses, to revolve around an openly homosexual adolescent.

Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” the narrative introduces popular, 17 year-old high school senior Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), who ruefully notes he’s never ‘the leading guy.’ Instead, he’s relegated to being ‘the best friend.’

So Simon decides: “I’m done living in a world where I don’t get to be who I am. I deserve a great love story.”

Affable Simon lives in an idyllic Atlanta suburb with empathetic parents (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and younger sister (Talitha Eliana Bateman), plus a trio of supportive pals (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).

But Simon hasn’t ‘come out’ yet. His reluctance leaves him open to blackmail by a Drama Club classmate (Logan Miller) when his mysterious ‘virtual’ love interest is revealed.

“I’m supposed to be the one who decides when and where and who knows,” Simon responds.

It seems that Simon, utilizing the pseudonym ‘Jacques,’ has been corresponding on the school’s chat board with another anonymous student, dubbed ‘Blue,’ who is also gay. As suspense builds, Blue’s identity is kept secret until the sealed-with-a-kiss climax.

Adapted by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger (TV’s “This is Us,” “About a Boy”), it’s directed by teen-savvy Greg Berlanti (TV’s “Dawson’s Creek,” “Brothers & Sisters”), who is quick to note: “There’s as many different LGBTQ experiences as there are different kinds of people…and, hopefully, this film makes it easier for them to tell their story.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love, Simon” is a sweetly sincere, sensitive 7, a timely, yet different coming-of-age story.


“A Fantastic Woman”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics)


Filmmaker Sebastian Lelio examines the emotional stigma of transgender in this sensitive, Oscar-winning Chilean film.

In Santiago, Martina Vidal (Daniela Vega) and Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes) are in love. She’s a young waitress/cabaret singer; he’s 20 years older, the owner of a printing company.

After celebrating Martina’s birthday one evening, Orlando becomes ill, suffering a fatal aneurysm. Martina rushes him to the emergency room, but he dies on the operating table.

Instead of being able to mourn her loss, grieving Martina is suddenly viewed with distrust because of her sexual identity.  To the hospital staff and police, she’s a suspicious person. To Orlando’s family, she’s perverted because she’s a trans woman.

A detective, Adriana Cortes (Amparo Noguera), subsequently visits Martina at the restaurant where she works, explaining that she’s from the Sexual Offenses Unit.

“Was he paying you?” she asks.

“We were a couple,” Martina answers truthfully, adding, “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults.”

As bitter conflict erupts, she is forbidden to attend his funeral, and Orlando’ grown son (Niccolas Saavedra) confiscates their dog, threatening to evict her from the flat she shared with his father. At issue is the fact that Martina is still considered, legally, a man.

Perhaps Orlando’s estranged wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) best epitomizes our patriarchal society’s ignorance and confusion, noting, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

Charismatic Daniela Vega delivers an anguished, transcendent performance. Discovered by Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”) as a LGBTQ “cultural consultant,” she convinced him that he needed a transgender actor.

“Her uniqueness pushed the script further,” Lelio clarifies. “I was trying to make the script to be as complex as she was.”

As it turns out, Daniela Vega is the first transgender protagonist, propelling Chile’s first-ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Fantastic Woman” is an empathetic, ethically compelling 8, tender and well-timed.


“Tomb Raider”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tomb Raider” (Warner Bros./MGM)


You can’t blame Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina,” “Tulip Fever,” “The Danish Girl”) for the inconsistencies of this cinematic reboot of the popular video game. As a petite Lara Croft, she’s feisty and fit-as-a-fiddle.

After proving her energy and endurance in a grueling bike race through East London, Lara remains unwilling to concede that her globe-hopping industrialist/explorer father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), is dead, although he disappeared seven years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since.

After unlocking a puzzle box and unearthing papers revealing her father’s obsession with finding the tomb of Japan’s evil Queen Himiko, who was buried alive 2,000 years ago, Lara takes off for Hong Kong, where she commandeers a boat that belongs to Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose father sailed with Croft to the mysterious island of Yamatai.

Shipwrecked as they approach Yamatai, Lara and Lu Ren are captured by mercenary Matthias Vogel (Walter Groggins), who is also searching for the tomb. His job is to excavate the site and disinter Queen Himiko, despite repeated warnings from Richard Croft and, later, Lara.

As Lara’s adventure continues, the rapid succession of melodramatic cliffhangers make it look more and more like the Perils of Pauline.

Inconsistently, often nonsensically scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, it’s formulaically helmed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (“The Wave”), who makes his mark with the CG action pieces, like showing tenacious Lara, whose hands are bound, swept away by a raging river and entrapped in the rusted cockpit of crashed plane that’s dangling over a waterfall.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi appear far too briefly, primarily to set up a sequel.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tomb Raider” is a sprawling 6, as the foreseeable franchise continues.



“The Forgiven”

Susan Granger’s “The Forgiven” (Saban Films)


Based on Michael Ashton’s play, “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” this intense docudrama examines the (fictionalized) relationship between the iconic South African cleric Desmond Tutu and a notorious, white-supremacist murderer who is seeking clemency.

In the mid-1990s when the Archbishop (Forest Whitaker) was appointed by then-President Nelson Mandela to head the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to confront the atrocities of apartheid, one of the defendants was Afrikaner Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an unrepentantly racist psychopath.

To capture the Archbishop’s attention, Blomfeld wrote him an articulate letter, referencing Plato and Milton. And, according to compassionate Desmond Tutu: “No one is beyond redemption.”

Incarcerated in Cape Town’ brutal maximum-security Pollsmoor Prison, Blomfeld’s past is explored in flashbacks, juxtaposed with a larger investigation of Operation Hacksaw, a police conspiracy that resulted in the disappearance of a black teenager whose grieving mother (Thandi Makhubele) pleads for justice in a climactic courtroom scene.

Burdened by a distracting prosthetic nose, Forest Whitaker delivers a powerhouse performance that’s been enthusiastically endorsed by Desmond Tutu himself – and he’s matched by surly Eric Bana’s charismatic savagery.

In an interview with “Entertainment Tonight,” Whitaker expressed gratitude that he was able to meet Tutu before he took on the role. Noting, “I was trying to understand the man. I knew his laugh and sense of humor. I knew how his felt, his passion, his faith, etc… I was trying to capture the spirit of the man.”

Adapted by playwright Michael Ashton and director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”), it’s unfocused, slowly paced and overly earnest. In addition, its theatrical origins are obvious, resulting in stilted, overly talky confrontations.

On the other hand, William Wages’ cinematography captures South Africa’s imagery, particularly when it’s augmented by Zethu Mashika’s mournful music.

If the inflammatory subject matter seems familiar, somewhat similar situations were previously depicted in John Boorman’s “In My Country” and Tom Hooper’s “Red Dust.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Forgiven” is an overly formal 5, better suited to the stage.



“A Wrinkle in Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Wrinkle in Time” (Disney)


For many years, Madeleine L’Engle beloved 1962 sci-fi fantasy was considered too unwieldy, steeped in religious and spiritual concepts, and, therefore, un-filmable.

Nevertheless, Disney backed director Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th”) on this $100 million-plus project, which revolves around rebellious Meg Murry (Storm Reid), a biracial teenager whose adolescent angst is augmented by the disappearance of her physicist father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine).

“Most days I hate myself,” Meg admits, reflecting what most middle-schoolers feel. The underlying goal is for Meg to learn to let go of her emotional baggage, grow more confident, and accept herself as she is, faults and all.

So Meg embarks on a cosmic journey, ostensibly searching for her father who went missing four years earlier, just as he discovered a breakthrough way of traveling great distances through space, utilizing something called a tesseract.

Meg is accompanied on this celestial quest by her precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her admiring, supportive classmate, Calvin (Levi Miller).

They’re led by three ethereal beings: capricious Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), quotation-spouting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and colossal, all-powerful Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey with dazzling, rhinestone-studded eyebrows), who urges Meg to “Be a Warrior.”

The first place they visit is verdant Uriel, populated by talking flowers; it’s a favorite of Mrs. Whatsit, who transforms into a green dragonesque creature, taking them on a galactic ride on her cabbage leaf-like wings.

Then it’s off through another, mind-bending, interstellar portal to find Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis). Eventually, resilient Meg must match wits on a foreboding, mercurial planet called Camazotz with The It, a giant, disembodied brain (voiced by David Oyelowo).

Adapted by Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell (“Bridge to Terabithia”), it’s loaded with bold feminism and multi-racial/multi-culturalism. But it’s also burdened by a diffuse, often confusing storyline and too many garish, overbearing visuals which quickly become disconcerting.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Wrinkle in Time” is a family-friendly, yet frustrating 5, a psychedelic, self-empowering trip.