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“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Susan Granger’s review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios)

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Are you ready for the on-going Spider-Man origin story? This one finds the webslinger joining Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, cavorting with the Avengers like Iron Man and Captain America.

Frantic 15 year-old, high-school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is frustrated because, although he’s been given an awesome high-tech suit by billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he’s told not use his superpowers except on a local level, reporting to Stark’s flunkie, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).

“Can’t you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?”

Although he’s supposed to keep mum about his alter-ego, in chemistry class Peter thoughtlessly tinkers with his web-fluid formula in chemistry class, blowing his cover to his quintessentially geeky best bud Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and, eventually, to his bewildered Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

While Peter’s grades are suffering at the Midtown School of Science and Technology, his hormones are ranging over a flirtatious senior (Laura Harrier), who’s running the Homecoming celebration.

She’s the daughter of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a villainous salvage contractor-turned-contraband alien-arms merchant. Flying with huge metallic wings, he’s known in the comics as The Vulture.

Riffing on the iconic comic-book character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, it’s a fragmented collaboration between team of six screenwriters and Jon Watts (“Cop Car”), whose direction is uneven.

Filled with running gag references to other Marvel movies, there’s a segment in which Captain America (Chris Evans) figures not only in Peter’s history class, as the teacher lectures about conflict over the Sokovia Accords, but also in gym, saying, “So you body’s changed. I know how that feels.”

There are also amusing cameos from Zendaya (as Mary Jane, a.k.a. MJ), Donald Glover (as burglar Aaron Davis), and Stan Lee (as an irate Queens neighbor). But I felt the final post-credit scene with Cap chiding the audience for its patience fell flat, although a Spidey sequel is obviously in the works.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a scrappy 7, evoking fond memories of the adolescent angst in John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

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“The Hero”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hero” (The Orchard)

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Sam Elliott has never stopped working in films, ever since he made his debut with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).  And – in real life – it’s Sam Elliott who eventually married their co-star Katharine Ross.

In “The Hero,” Elliott plays veteran actor Lee Hayden, whose biggest hit was a cowboy film in the 1970s. Lee’s only job these days is doing voice-overs – in his distinctive, smoky baritone – for commercials, like “Lone Star Bar-Be-Cue sauce, the perfect partner for yer chicken…”

Living alone in a small house in Malibu, Lee is turning 71 – and has just been told that he’s got pancreatic cancer. Divorced and alienated from his resentful, now-adult daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), Lee spends time with his drug-peddling neighbor/friend/former co-star Jeremy (Nick Offerman).

That’s where he meets flirtatious 35 year-old Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who immediately latches onto Lee, explaining that she has a ‘thing’ for older men, along with the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

So Lee asks Charlotte to accompany him to a banquet at which he’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild.

Mixing Ecstasy in their champagne in the back of the limo en route to the dinner, they both get high, which explains why Lee gives a perplexing acceptance speech which, inexplicably, “goes viral” on the Internet, leading to an onslaught of offers and a potentially big audition.

Empathetically co-written by Marc Basch and director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), it’s about resilience in the face of mortality, and it has a special resonance for those who have ever tried to succeed in mercurial show business.

Propelling every scene, Sam Elliott delivers an understated, yet Oscar-caliber performance, and it’s fun to spot Katharine Ross in a small part as Lee’s ex-wife.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hero” is a compassionate 7, drenched with melancholy.

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“War for the Planet of the Apes”

Susan Granger’s review of “War for the Planet of the Apes” (20th Century-Fox)

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Following “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014), this third installment begins two years after the fight for existence between enhanced primates and humans.

There’s a brutal attack by troops under the command of a renegade Colonel (Woody Harrelson), causing peace-loving Caesar (Andy Serkis) to realize that his tribe must leave their forest habitat and find a new homeland – like a Biblical epic.

Although he organizes their journey, bereft Caesar is determined to find the Colonel and wreak vengeance, recognizing – to his chagrin – that he’s becoming more and more like human-hating Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his thuggish followers who serve as “donkeys” for the humans, acting as trackers.

Caesar is accompanied the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), who serves as his moral compass, and two cohorts. Riding horseback across the snowy mountains, they pick up a mute, orphaned girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), whose family was killed by the Colonel’s troops, and a precocious zoo chimpanzee, self-named “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), obviously mimicking his human captors.

When they finally track down the shaven-headed Colonel in his fortified compound, his mysteriously fanatic demeanor evokes memories of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.”

Caesar then discovers that the ruthless Colonel is forcing the apes he’s captured to build a mysterious wall, a concept which is connected to a rapidly spreading virus that robs humans of their ability to speak.

Derived from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel and based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, it’s scripted as a character-driven action adventure by Mark Bombeck and director Matt Reeves, deftly augmented by Michael Seresin’s evocative cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s stirring score.

What’s most amazing are the detailed, intricate, motion-capture visual effects, epitomized by Andy Serkin’s empathetic performance. Motion capture involves an actor wearing special censors as his movements are captured by surrounding cameras. The effects artists then create a digital character from the 3D computerized images of the actor’s actions and facial expressions.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is an awesome, elegiac 8, as humanity is reflected back through the apes. A “must see” for lovers of this franchise.

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“The Beguiled”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Beguiled” (Focus Features)

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Stylish filmmaker Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette,” “Lost in Translation”) has adapted Don Siegel’s lurid 1971 Clint Eastwood western, based on the pulpy 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel.

Set in war-ravaged Virginia in 1864, it begins as a badly wounded Union solder, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), collapses near Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where he’s spotted by a youngster, curious Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), who is collecting mushrooms in the moss-draped woods.

Since the onset of the Civil War, the inhabitants of the plantation house have been not been able to leave the premises and have not laid eyes on a man.

“You are a most unwelcome visitor,” declares matriarchal Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman).

Indeed, Cpl. McBurney’s predatory presence immediately ignites a toxic brew of desire and jealousy, particularly between the gullibly romantic teacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the saucy teenager, Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning).

As all the young ladies vie for his attention, Miss Martha observes: “It seems like the soldier being here is having an effect.”

Tackling the vengeful headmistress role originated by Geraldine Page, Kidman slyly embodies the simmering, repressed sexuality of the period, as do the rest of the ensemble. Christian women of the Confederacy were raised in a rigorously puritanical sisterhood, schooled in prim ‘n’ proper artifice, disguising their destiny as decorative ornaments.

Collaborating with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, production designer Anne Ross, and costumer Stacey Battat, writer/director Sofia Coppola tastefully captures the muted, candle-lit Southern Gothic atmospheric style, filming in and around New Orleans.

Interestingly, author Thomas Cullinan conceived the scheming soldier as Irish, so Colin Farrell’s Dublin accent makes him even more exotic, sexy and charming. In this manipulative melodrama, he’s believable as a mercenary who deserted when faced with the horrors of battle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Beguiled” is a savory, estrogenic 7, a subtle potboiler that empowers the feminist perspective.

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“Baby Driver”

Susan Granger’s review of “Baby Driver” (TriStar Pictures/Sony)

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British writer/director Edgar Wright puts the pedal to the metal for this propulsive, music-driven crime caper.

The titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) is paying off a debt to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) by working as his rubber-burning getaway driver. Doc is the ruthless, short-tempered mastermind behind a series of robberies in Atlanta.

Baby’s backstory involves a tragic automobile accident in which his parents were killed, leaving him with chronic tinnitus, a “hum in the drum,” as Doc calls it – meaning that Baby functions best when rock music is blaring from one of his many iPods directly into his earbuds.

While Doc employs different thugs for each robbery, his most trusted crew includes coked-up Buddy (Jon Hamm), his wife Darling (Eliza Gonzales), and menacing, trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx).

When he’s not involved in high-speed car chases, Baby hangs out at the diner where his mother once worked. That’s where he falls for a dreamy waitress named Debora (Lily James) who just wants “to head west… in a car we can’t afford, with a plan we don’t have,” listening to T. Rex’s “Debora” and Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y.”

Their first date is at the local Laundromat where clothes spin around in time with the music.

Propelling this inventive thriller, Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “The World’s End”) synchronizes the symphony of automotive action to the energetic rhythm of what’s playing on Baby’s mixtape, named after a Simon & Garfunkel track on their “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album.

It’s expertly choreographed by Ryan Heffington, best known for his music videos, and cranked up by Bill Pope’s vivid cinematography.

Familiar from “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” expressive 23 year-old Ansel Elgort personifies the laconic wheelman, tenderly caring for elderly Pops (C.J. Jones), his wheelchair-confined, hearing-impaired foster father.

Kevin Spacey is at his wickedly sly best, and Jon Hamm simply chews the scenery with glee! Of course, the soundtrack’s a killer.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Baby Driver” revs up with an adrenaline-propelled 8. It’s a gas!

08

“Okja”

Susan Granger’s review of “Okja” (Netflix)

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Inventive director Bong Joon Ho (“Snowpiercer,” “The Host”) has concocted a satirical action-comedy, blended with a controversial, socially-conscious allegorical fable.

The prologue introduces Lucy Mirando (Tilda Switon), the ethically-challenged CEO of a powerful, multi-national, agrochemical corporation. She announces that her company will breed a new pig-like creature, a gigantic mammal, to solve the world’s hunger problem, distributing 26 genetically modified super-piglets to locations around the world to be raised by local farmers within their own “eco-friendly” culture.

Ten years later, on a remote mountaintop in South Korea, orphaned 14 year-old Mija (An Seo Hyun) has bonded with her grandfather’s super-pig, Okja.  Now as big as a hippopotamus, Okja is Mija’s constant companion, romping through the tranquil countryside, even saving her life on one harrowing occasion.

Suddenly, an obnoxious celebrity TV veterinarian, Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), appears at their farm. He takes one look at Okja and proclaims her the Super Pig Winner. Which means she’ll be shipped back to the United States, displayed in New York and then dispatched to a blood-soaked slaughterhouse in Paramus, New Jersey.

Unwilling to part with her beloved beast, determined Mija joins idealistic members (Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Steven Yeun) of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) to rescue Okja. That leads to a zany rampage and chase through an underground Seoul subway mall.

Brashly scripted by Bong Joon Ho and shrewdly adapted into English by Jon Ronson (“Frank,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats”), it was filmed in two languages and three countries (South Korea, Canada and the United States) for about $50 million.

The artistry of cinematographer Darius Khondji blends seamlessly with the astonishing visual effects conceived by conceptual artist Hee Chul Jang (“The Host”) and created by Erik-Jan De Boer (Oscar winner for the tiger in “Life of Pi”). So An Seo Hyun and Okja are the real stars.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Okja” is an audacious 8, playing in a few select theaters for Oscar consideration and widely available for streaming on Netflix.

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“Napoli, Brooklyn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Napoli, Brooklyn” (Roundabout Theatre Company: Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre – off-Broadway)

 

Tolstoy once wrote, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Set in New York City during the 1960s, Meghan Kennedy’s domestic drama revolves around the Muscolino family: an Italian couple and their three American-born daughters.

The parents, Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) and Nic (Michael Rispoli), are caught between their Sicilian culture with its Old World values and the freedom of the New World, epitomized by Brooklyn.

As the play opens, their middle daughter, Vita (Elise Kibler), has been dispatched to a convent after brutish Nic savagely beat her when she tried to protect her younger sister, feisty Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), who has chopped off her long hair. And self-sacrificing Tina (Lily Kaye),the eldest daughter, feels guilty for not protecting Francesca.

Then there’s Albert Duffy (Ejik Lochtefeld), the kindly, courteous, Irish butcher who secretly adores Luda, and his adolescent daughter Connie (Juliet Brett), who bonds with her BFF Francesca. Plus gentle Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), an African-American co-worker who befriends awkward Tina.

Commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre, playwright Meghan Kennedy (“Too Much, Too Much, Too Many”) drew from the recollections of her Italian-American mother who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In interviews, Meghan Kennedy has alluded to how girls born to immigrants “had to fight so hard to find their voices, and even harder to keep them intact.”

Character development is what propels this immigrant experience, as each participant poignantly changes within the context of the play when a real-life disaster rocks their Park Slope neighborhood.

As long-suffering Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding, expressing her love for her family through her cooking, praying to an onion because God seems to be ignoring her poignant entreaties.

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the acting ensemble is superb, and Edelstein handles the episodic, often overwrought drama with finesse, working in conjunction with set designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Ben Stanton, costumer Jane Greenwood and sound specialist Fitz Patton.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” plays a limited engagement Off-Broadway through September 3, 2017. Tickets are available online at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300.

 

“Once Upon a Time in Venice”

Susan Granger’s review of “Once Upon a Time in Venice” (RLJ Entertainment)

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Today’s conundrum: Why did Bruce Willis want to make this wannabe action-comedy caper that turns out to be neither? Money is the only answer.

Willis plays Steve Ford, a disgraced former police officer-turned private detective, who works with his bumbling millennial protégé, John (Thomas Middleditch), serving as narrator, in the kooky underworld of the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles, where Steve warns local kids against the dangers of drugs and hookers.

When Steve’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Buddy, is dognapped by some local thugs, he’s determined to retrieve him – with the help of his pal, depressed surf-shop owner Dave Jones (John Goodman), who is going through a nasty divorce.

The evidence leads them to a low-life cocaine-peddler named Spyder (Jason Momoa); Yuri (Ken Davitian), a ruthless Russian loan shark; and “Lew the Jew” Jewison (Adam Goldberg), a real-estate developer who needs Steve’s help to track down graffiti artist Salvatore Lopez (Tyga) who has been defacing his buildings with obscene murals.

Hovering around, causing trouble, is Lupe the Bitch (Stephanie Sigman) who fancies the stolen pooch Buddy, much to the chagrin of Steve’s sister (Famke Janssen) and niece (Emily Robinson).  Plus there’s Kal Penn as a surly convenience store owner.

The highlight of the ‘action’ is when Steve (or his stunt double) goes for a naked skateboard chase sequence. Yes, that’s a sight to see!

Written by siblings Mark and Robb Cullen (“Heist,” “Lucky,”) and directed with modest film-noir flair by Mark Cullen, it reaches a humiliating low-point when Steve stuffs a revolver between his bare butt cheeks.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” is a frantic 4, fueled by testosterone.

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“Rough Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rough Night” (Sony)

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Feminism takes a couple of steps backward with this estrogen-forced comedy in which a Miami bachelorette weekend goes awry.

Trying for a gender-flipping reversal on “The Hangover” and “Very Bad Things,” blended with “Bridesmaids,” the raucous riff revolves around Jess Thayer (Scarlett Johansson), who is running for the Florida state senate. While she projects a strait-laced image, Jess wasn’t always a goody-two-shoes.

Indeed, as Alice (Jillian Bell), her needy, still-single college roommate reminds her, she once encouraged her in a frat-house beer-pong tournament, whispering “Do it for womankind.”

Now Jess is getting married, and Alice organizes this party weekend at a posh beach house borrowed from one of Jess’s campaign donors.

There’s strident political activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and almost-divorced New York socialite Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who were once a hot ’n’ heavy duo back in college days – plus Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Kate’s free-spirited Australian chum, dubbed “Kiwi” by jealous Alice.

After drinking, snorting cocaine and carousing as a posse, complications arise over the accidental death of the brawny male stripper (Ryan Cooper) whom Frankie hired, augmented by the inconvenient attentions of the smarmy swingers-next-door (Demi Moore, Ty Burrell), not to mention the arrival of menacing jewel thieves.

Working from a cliché-laden script she co-wrote with Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello (Comedy Central’s “Broad City”) makes her feature directorial debut.

The plot is predictably formulaic and the flimsy, not-very-likable characters are stereotypical, so there’s not much new here – except, perhaps, how the Peter (Paul W. Downs), the upright groom, and his nerdy buddies back home are celebrating at a subdued wine-tasting.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rough Night” is only a fitfully funny 5, ostensibly celebrating female friendship.

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“Transformers: The Last Knight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Transformers: The Last Knight” (Paramount Pictures)

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Admittedly, I’ve always been the oldest woman in the theater – but I do keep hoping that, somehow, this multi-billion dollar sci-fi franchise will redeem itself.

I had high hopes for this fifth installment, particularly when the prologue, set in the Middle Ages, showed King Arthur waiting for Merlin (Stanley Tucci) to help him to win a battle against the Saxons.

Despite the legendary Knights of the Round Table, it wasn’t Merlin’s magic that gave Arthur power. It was the intergalactic Transformers.

Apparently, they’ve been hanging around Earth for eons, going back to Stonehenge, even battling Nazis.

So much for the history lesson except, as astronomer Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) explains, Merlin was given a sacred “magical” staff which can still be controlled but only by his only living descendant, Viviane Wembley (Laura Haddock), a skeptical English Lit professor at Oxford University.

Switch to wisecracking mechanic/inventor Cade Yaeger (Mark Whalberg), who has been hiding in a forsaken junkyard with Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) and some heroic Autobots.

So it’s up to Cade, Viviane, and a 14 year-old orphan, Izabella (Isabel Moner), to find the artifact and thwart evil Decepticon Megatron (Frank Welker).

Of course, they do get a little help from their Autobot friends: Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl), Hound (John Goodman), Hot Rod (Omar Sy), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Daytrader (Steve Buscemi).

There’s this new law: “Transformers are illegal, except in Cuba,” enforced by a special military agency, the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF), that’s hunting them down.

So where’s Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)? Is he on his home planet of Cybertron? And why?

Clumsily patched together by three writers, six editors and director Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor”), it’s a tedious, two-and-a-half-hour jumble of characters and idiotic battles, filled with pyrotechnics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Transformers: The Last Knight” is an explosion-filled, mind-numbing 3, a $250 million Hasbro Toy promotion.03