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“The Assignment”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Assignment” (Lionsgate/Saban Films)

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In the pantheon of schlocky B-movies, Walter Hill’s psycho-sexual thriller scores on star-power alone.

This pulpy saga begins with a gratuitous, full-fontal nude scene involving a nasty hitman named Frank Kitchen, who is hiding out in a sleazy San Francisco hotel after a bumping off a San Francisco gangster named Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia).

Suddenly, Frank is confronted by thugs who deliver him to a megalomaniacal plastic surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), whose medical license has been revoked. Because Frank killed Rachel’s debt-riddled, playboy brother (Adrian Hough), she’s determined to wreak her own deviant kind of revenge.

When Frank (Michelle Rodriguez) awakens some time later, he discovers that he’s undergone a sex change. Without embarrassment, Frank examines his pert female breasts and is furious about the surgical removal of his penis. Which doesn’t seem to deter his blossoming relationship with flirtatious nurse (Caitlin Gerard) with whom he previously had a one-night stand.

When Dr. Kay is subsequently committed to a mental institution, a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Green (Tony Shalhoub) is assigned to evaluate her sanity. Calm and confident, despite being confined in a straitjacket, she flaunts her Intellectual superiority, quoting Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.

Collaborating with co-screenwriter Denis Hamill, veteran director Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “48 Hours”) subversively taps into the provocative topics of plastic surgery and gender re-assignment, subjects he delved into back in 1989 with “Johnny Handsome.”

Several sequences conclude with a freeze frame, followed by what looks like a comic-book illustration, subtly alluding to the story’s recent publication as a graphic novel in France.

Admittedly bisexual Michelle Rodriguez (“Girlfight”) is never quite convincing as the raspy-voiced tough guy and she denied in a Huffington Post article that it’s her body in the nude scenes.

FYI: Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez previously co-starred in James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Assignment” is a titillating, trashy 3, an audacious excuse for a lurid killing spree.

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“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

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

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As years go by, more and more poignant survival stories that have been buried in Holocaust history are surfacing.

This one begins on a beautiful day in 1939 at Poland’s Warsaw Zoo, where Antonia Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is helping her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenberg) tend the animals. That afternoon, she resuscitates a newborn elephant calf who cannot breathe – with its distraught mother’s at her side.

But then German aircraft appear overhead, and bombs reign down, killing many of the terrified beasts, while others escape to roam the city’s streets.

Led by Berlin’s chief zoologist, sinister Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Nazis commandeer the grounds, saving only “prize specimens” for selective breeding, savagely slaughtering the rest.

Meanwhile, within the city, the Jewish population is being herded into a ghetto, locked behind barbed wire to starve or, later, be loaded on boxcars and sent to concentration camps.

Appalled at the brutality, Antonia and Jan come up with defiant plan. Since the German soldiers love pork, they’ll turn the zoo into a pig farm, feeding the animals garbage from the ghetto.

While Antonia cares for their dwindling menagerie, Jan drives his truck into the ghetto, where he hides Jews in bins, covering them with refuse and smuggling them into his human sanctuary, where they hide until the Resistance forges papers and transports them to safety.

Since Lutz Heck often makes unexpected visits to the zoo, it’s up to Antonia to keep him distracted, as jealous Jan observes from a distance.

While Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) radiates beatific compassion, Angela Workman’s perfunctory script is a flaccid, almost antiseptic adaption of Diane Ackerman’s haunting 2007 non-fiction book.

Sensitively helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), the most memorable moments include Antonia’s empathy with a traumatized Jewish teenager (Shira Haas) who was raped by German soldiers – as the tension mounts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is nobly stoic 7, heralding one brave couple’s unobtrusive heroics.

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“Queen of the Desert”

Susan Granger’s review of “Queen of the Desert” (IFC Films)

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Described as “the female Lawrence of Arabia,” Gertrude Lowthian Bell was a fearless explorer, formidable diplomat and resourceful archeologist, propelled by a passion for adventure and intrigue.

Beginning in 1915 with the international conference in Cairo that determined how the former Ottoman Empire was to be divided after World War I, it alludes to the tremendous sociopolitical influence Bell had on the future of the Middle East.

Born in Victorian England to one of Britain’s wealthiest families, Gertrude (Nicole Kidman) was the first woman to earn first-degree honors in modern history at Oxford. Bored with stodgy society and chafing against its gender restrictions, she arrived in exotic Tehran in 1892, to visit her uncle, British Ambassador Frank Lascelles.

At the Embassy, she met scholarly, soft-spoken Henry Cadogan (foppish James Franco), who taught her Farsi and with whom she had a tragic romance.

Fiercely intelligent and independent, Bell is determined to trek with a guide (Jay Abdo) and camel caravan through the Syrian desert, learning about the Bedouin culture, noting: “For the first time in my life, I know who I am. My heart belongs to no one now but the desert.”

Unfazed, she encounters hostile nomadic warriors and fends off admiring sheiks. At the fabled city of Petra in Jordan, she banters beguilingly with T.E. Lawrence (miscast Robert Pattinson). Meanwhile in Damascus, the unhappily married British Consul General, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis), falls in love with her.

Unfortunately, all of this sounds far more dramatic than it is on the screen. Accompanied by Klaus Badelt’s symphonic score, the vast landscapes are magnificently photographed by Peter Zeitlinger.

But writer/director Werner Herzog (“Aguirre,” “Fitzcarraldo”) never delves into the inherent drama. The screenplay is lethargic and dialogue is archaic.  Nicole Kidman’s pale, porcelain beauty is more of a distraction than an enhancement, coupled with her unfortunately inability to exhibit a variety of facial expressions.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Queen of the Desert” is a florid 5. Helmed by Werner Herzog with that heavyweight cast, it should have been so much better.

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“Saban’s Power Rangers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Saban’s Power Rangers” (Lionsgate Films)

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Nostalgic fans of its namesake sci-fi show propel this live-action film’s intended audience, whose memories stretch back to the 1990s Fox Kids series, adapted by Haim Saban from “Super Sentai’ on Japanese TV.

Revolving around superheroes in color-coded costumes, this origin story begins with a prehistoric flashback revealing that the original Power Rangers were humanoid-looking extraterrestrials who, led by Zordon (Bryan Cranston), arrived on Earth millions of years ago to defend the planet from a power-hungry alien invader, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

When a meteor strike annihilates most of them, along with the dinosaurs, Zordon’s consciousness is loaded into their spacecraft’s computer system by his loyal android, Alpha 5 (Bill Hader).

More than 60 million years later in a rural California town called Angel Grove, nerdy Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler) discovers a mysterious energy source hidden in an underground cave in a nearby mountainside.

He’s joined by four other angst-riddled high-school delinquents: disgraced quarterback Jason (Dacre Montgomery), loner Zack (Ludi Lin), ostracized cheerleader/gymnast Kimberly (Naomi Scott) and sullen, sexually-conflicted Trini (the singer Becky G).

What they unearth are mysteriously glowing medallions that enhance their speed, strength and agility. It’s all great fun until they realize their real purpose.

That’s revealed when they find Zordon’s buried spaceship and encounter Alpha 5, who observes “Different colors! Different kids! Different-colored kids!”

In the meantime, evil Rita Repulsa returns, determined to steal the Zeo Crystal that’s buried below a Krispy Kreme store. So the ethnically diverse teenagers must – somewhat tediously – train to morph into a cohesive team to thwart her global ambitions.

Superficially scripted by John Gatins and chaotically directed by Dean Israelite (“Project Almanac”), it contains lots of folklore from the original series, little Easter eggs (inside jokes), along with reprising the “Go Go Power Rangers” theme.

FYI: Previously, there were two dreadful cinematic incarnations: “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie” (1995) and “Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie” (1997).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Saban’s Power Rangers” is a slick yet silly 6, scheming for franchise possibilities.

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“CHiPs”

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

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This raunchy, lame-brained reboot of the NBC-TV show begins with the disclaimer: “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this film. At all.”

You think?

Writer/director/actor Dax Shepard stars as Jon Baker, a battered, former motocross hotshot who tries to save his faltering marriage by joining the Highway Patrol.

When painkiller-popping Baker is partnered with a recent transfer officer, Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Michael Pena), he has no idea that Ponch is actually an FBI agent whose real name is Castillo. He’s been dispatched from Miami to go undercover to investigate a multimillion-dollar robbery.

It seems there are some corrupt cops, led by Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio), hijacking armored cars. Apprehending them involves the guys on wide-bodied Ducati bikes engaging in lots of high-velocity vehicular chases on the Los Angeles freeways. (Around 150 stunt performers are listed in the credits.)

In my recollection, the TV version (1977-1983) of “CHiPs” was campy/cheesy, yet wholesome, featuring cool cats in mirrored sunglasses who, week-after-week, caught crooks in sunny Southern California.

In this lewd, crude, R-rated incarnation, there’s a great deal of gay panic. The most prevalent homophobic gag involves buff, exhibitionistic Baker, stripped down to his tighty whities, impishly taunting obviously uncomfortable Ponch.

Insofar as females are concerned, they’re simply sex objects and, as such, subjected to disparaging remarks. Apparently, Ponch cannot view an attractive woman in yoga pants without needing to masturbate. And it doesn’t help the feminist cause to have a sexually insatiable supervisor (Jane Kaczmarek).

For series devotees, Erik Estrada, the original Ponch, does a cameo. And Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real-life wife, plays his estranged, on-screen spouse.

FYI: President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is one of the Executive Producers. Make of that what you will.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “CHiPs” is a tasteless, testosterone-fueled 3. How many ways can I say ‘un-funny’ and ‘stupid’?

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“Wilson”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wilson” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Based on Daniel Clowes’ 2010 graphic novel, this dark comedy revolves around an eccentric, middle-aged misanthrope who lives a shabby apartment with Pepper, his engaging wire fox terrier, and is prone to befriend and then brusquely criticize strangers when they’re out for a walk.

After his father dies of cancer and his only friend moves away, irascible Wilson (Woody Harrelson), who is far too forthright and honest, makes a half-hearted attempt to socialize, mentioning to a lonely companion (Margo Martindale) that he misses his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), who left him 17 years ago.

Leaving Pepper with Shelly (Judy Greer), a sweet-natured dog-sitter, he re-connects with Pippi, who has conquered her crack addiction and is now working as a waitress. Warily, she informs him that the baby he thought she aborted and gave up for adoption is now a teenager.

After some sleuthing, Wilson and Pippi track down now-17-year-old Claire (Isabella Amara), who is living in a nearby suburb with her adoptive parents.

“Why the hell do people move to the suburbs?” Wilson muses. “It’s like a living death.”

Stalking overweight, alienated Claire at the mall, Wilson watches her being bullied by classmates and chooses that bizarre moment to introduce himself, noting: “I’m sure they picked on Copernicus…it’s a badge of honor.”

Stunned, Claire, who is dressed in black and obviously also an outsider, rolls her eyes and backs off. But she’s intrigued enough to join Wilson and Pippi for a disastrous weekend trip to visit Pippi’s judgmental sister Polly (Cheryl Hines).

Superficially adapted by Daniel Clowes (author of “Ghost World”) and clumsily directed by Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”), it’s memorable mostly for Woody Harrelson’s ineffable charm and multi-faceted performance. Despite his scowl, the twinkle in his eye begs forgiveness for a multitude of sins.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Wilson” is an edgy, quirky 5, reminding us about the importance of integrity.

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“The Red Turtle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Red Turtle” (Song Pictures Classics)

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This 80-minute animated fable is memorable for its dazzling aesthetic and imaginative storytelling, which explains its Academy Award nomination.

Beginning with a roiling sea, the story revolves around a man who is lost in the waves and washes up on a tropical island, seemingly inhabited only by birds and curious, scuttling sand crabs.

As he explores the lush vegetation, thick forests and rock walls beyond the beach, he slips and falls into a crevasse. Instead of drowning in the water below, he finds a way out. And that’s only the first lesson he learns in coping with loneliness and the forces of nature around him.

As time slips by, he builds a raft out of bamboo from the forest and sets sail, only to have it destroyed by some beast lurking under the water. That happens again and again when he rebuilds and attempts to get back to civilization. The creature will not let him leave.

As it turns out, his nemesis is a gigantic red turtle. Which, in his fantasy, mysteriously shapeshifts into a beautiful red-haired woman, discreetly covered by a large shell. When he decides to abandon the raft, she discards her shell.

They mate and have a child. But danger lurks over the decades, as they struggle to find food and survive tsunamis.

Collaborating with Isao Takahata of Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away,” “Princess Monoke”) and screenwriter Pascale Ferran, Dutch animator/director Michael Dudock de Wit went to the Seychelles, where he took thousands of photographs, preparing to recreate how time stands still in such an environment.

While the sounds of nature abound, along with Laurent Perez Del Mar’s ethereal music, there’s no dialogue. Except for some CGI in the turtle, the spare, hand-drawn imagery conveys the emotions inherent in the castaway’s adapting to and making peace with his situation.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Red Turtle” paddles in with a sumptuous, survivalist 7. Because of its leisurely, dreamlike pace, I suspect its appeal will be more to adults than children.

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“Life”

Susan Granger’s review of “Life” (Columbia Pictures/Sony/Skydance)

Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) in Columbia Pictures' LIFE.

Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) in Columbia Pictures’ LIFE.

Several years ago, renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking cautioned that contact with alien life could spell disaster for the human race: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.”

But Hawking’s grim warning has not deterred cosmic exploration.

After Mission Specialist Rory Adams’ (Ryan Reynolds) risky retrieval of a damaged capsule containing valuable soil samples from Mars, the crew of the International Space Station’s Pilgrim 7 has reason to celebrate.

Along with Adams, astronauts Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Ekaterina Golovinka (Olga Dihovichnaya), and Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) are concluding their eight-month exploratory mission.

And when Science Officer isolates a microscopic single-cell organism in a petri dish and feeds it glycerin, it becomes the first proof of extraterrestrial life. Satellite viewers from Earth cheer and a group of children from New York name the specimen “Calvin” after their Calvin Coolidge School.

Resembling a translucent, star-shaped octopus, Calvin begins to grow, quickly adapting to its environment, becoming stronger and smarter. As excitement builds, Calvin escapes containment, becoming a multi-tentacle predator, extinguishing members of the crew one-by-one, despite their often foolhardy attempts to save one another.

As the Science Officer observes: “Life’s very existence requires destruction.”

Scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Zombieland”) and stylishly helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House,” “Easy Money”), the futuristic concept seems scientifically plausible, grounded in its own horrific reality.

Seamus McGarvey’s sweeping cinematography reveals the claustrophobically cramped containment of the eerie space station, while composer Jon Ekstrand’s score enhances the sinister suspense.

(Full Disclosure: My son, Don Granger, is Executive Producer of “Life.”)

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Life” is an intense 8 – a tantalizing thriller.

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“Kid Victory”

Susan Granger’s review of KID VICTORY (Vineyard Theater Off-Broadway)

 

An angst-filled adolescent is the pivotal player in an elusively dark, dour and disturbing new musical by Greg Pierce (“Showgirl”) and renowned Broadway composer John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), who previously collaborated on “The Landing” (2013).

In a flash-image prologue, a young man is seen handcuffed to a basement wall with only an air-mattress on the floor.

It turns out that, after disappearing several months, 17 year-old Luke Browst (Brandon Flynn) has been rescued from drugged captivity in this dungeon and returned to his small Kansas hometown.

Luke used the moniker ‘Kid Victory’ when playing an Internet boat-building and racing game. That’s how he met Yachticus Nine, a.k.a. Michael (Jeffry Denman), a creepy former high school teacher who abducted him, tranquilizing him with opiate-laced root beer.

“Her found out where I lived and…took me away,” Luke says.

Once the sordid ordeal is over and he’s back with his perplexed parents, Luke’s adjustment is difficult. His domineering mom (Karen Ziemba) is very religious, inviting a fellow churchgoer into their home for some bizarre counseling involving marbles.

While Luke’s orthodontist dad (Daniel Jenkins) tries to understand, his old girlfriend (Laura Darrell), confused by his emotional distance, warbles “I’d Rather Wait.”

The one person Luke relates to is bohemian Emily (Dee Roscioli), who gives him a job at her eclectic garden supply store. Then there’s a “Not Quite True” confrontation with a suspicious detective (Joel Blum).

Although director Liesl Tommy elicits fine performances from her cast, the book is quite confusing. Playwright Greg Pierce (nephew of actor David Hyde Pierce) never achieves the dramatic intensity of the book/film “Room,” which is also about a sexual predator holding someone in captivity.

Quite deliberately, Luke has no song. He has lost his identity. And the Kander’s downbeat music is less than memorable. This is not a ‘cast album’ you’d want to acquire and listen to later.

Bottom Line: It’s a disappointing theatrical experience.

“Table 19″

Susan Granger’s review of “Table 19” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Angst-riddled weddings have always been ripe for satire but this rom-com doesn’t satisfy even the most meager expectations.

Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick) was supposed to be Maid-of-Honor at her oldest friend’s Midwestern wedding but then the bride’s brother/Best Man, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), breaks up with her – via a text message.

So clumsy, insecure Eloise finds herself relegated to a remote section of the reception, seated with the losers that the bridal couple felt obligated to invite but hoped wouldn’t come.

Bickering Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) own a diner. Elderly, pot-smoking Jo (June Squibb) was the bride’s childhood nanny. The bride’s cousin Walter (Stephen Merchant) is just out of prison for embezzlement but doesn’t want anyone to know. And virginal, teenage Renzo (Tony Revolori) is eager for some carnal experience.

Bitter about her place on the seating chart and hurt by watching Teddy make moves on the replacement Maid-of-Honor (Amanda Crew), Eloise enjoys a brief flirtatious distraction with Huck (Thomas Cocquerel), an Aussie wedding crasher.

But when Hank disappears, heartsick Eloise finds herself bonding with her disparate tablemates.

Based on a generic story by Mark and Jay Duplass, writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (“Spellbound,” “Rocket Science”) pivots around Eloise’s awkward situation, glossing over any semblance of character development.

After debuting in Blitz’s “Rocket Science” and showcasing her comedic timing in “Up in the Air,” vivacious Anna Kendrick deserves better than this, as do the rest of the cast. Remember June Squibb in her Oscar-winning supporting role in “Nebraska”? And how charming Tony Revolori was in “Grand Budapest Hotel”?

FYI: Unmistakably resembling his father, Wyatt Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Table 19” is a deficient 4. Decline with regrets.

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