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“The LEGO Batman Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The LEGO Batman Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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This inventive, animated spin-off of 2014’s “The LEGO Movie” astutely ridicules the Caped Crusader, beginning with the title sequence, since “All important movies start with a black screen.”

In the opening scene, self-centered Batman (Will Arnett) protects Gotham City from a series of desperados, led by the demented Joker (Zach Galifianakis), then regales its citizens about his heroics.

When he’s not crime-fighting, narcissistic Bruce Wayne lives in luxurious isolation with his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After microwaving leftover lobster, Wayne watches ‘Jerry Maguire” in his Bat Theater – until he’s joined by eager orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).

Then Gotham City’s new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) suggests that her department work with the Caped Crusader, rather than just flashing the Bat-signal whenever his vigilante services are required, noting, “We don’t need an unsupervised adult in a Halloween costume karate-chopping poor people.”

So brooding Batman must learn to cooperate with law enforcement and accept Dick’s fervent desire to become his sidekick “Robin” after the Joker recruits a slew of supervillains, like Sauron from “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong” and the “Wicked Witch of the West” from The Phantom Zone, Superman’s metaphysical space prison.

What makes Chris McKay’s awesome satire work is that many moviegoers are tired of the egotistical Dark Knight – from TV’s ‘60s Adam West to Christian Bale, courtesy of Tim Burton.

Dipping into DC Comics’ universe, a horde of screenwriters (Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Wittington) came up with a multitude of clever gags, cameos and pop culture references, including Superman (Channing Tatum), The Riddler (Conan O’Brien),  Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams) and Bane (Doug Benson).

Plus, there’s Maria Carey as Gotham’s Mayor McCaskill and a nod to Donald Trump’s taxes.

Visually, it’s a delight to see plastic LEGO building-blocks come to life, courtesy of Australia’s Animal Logic, in this family-oriented adventure.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is a silly, subversive 7, energetically played for laughs.

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“The Great Wall”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Great Wall” (Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment)

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Filmed entirely in China, this epic, $150 million action/adventure/fantasy was designed to stun the Western world like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).

Directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), who orchestrated the opening and concluding ceremonies of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Summer Games, it relates a 12th century Chinese legend.

Riding on horseback through the Gobi desert, European mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon) and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) evade nomads in the rugged steppes while searching for “black powder”(gunpowder) which will change the future of war.

When they’re taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, headed by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Ling (Jing Tian), they discover that the Great Wall was not erected to protect from foreign invaders. It’s a fortress against hordes of ravenous, dinosaur-like creatures – the mythical Tao Tei – that attack every 60 years.

Created by Industrial Light & Magic, the pageantry of first battle scene is awesome. The massive formations of the elite military garrison are color-coded: crimson archers with massive crossbows and a bright blue Crane Corps of spear-toting, female aerialists, secured by cables, bungee-jumping down the wall to stab the reptiles.

Lurking within is another Western captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who helps Tovar plan an escape. And the aerial conclusion, involving hot-air balloons, is dazzling.

“The biggest challenge was integrating the two cultures,” Zhang Yimou says. “So we spent a lot of energy and time working on the story.”

Working from an ambitious screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, based on a simple story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the plot is straightforward with little or no character development and dialogue that’s bizarrely peppered with contemporary phrases. 80% is in English, 20% in subtitled Mandarin.

His social consciousness raised, Garin eventually acknowledges the Chinese army’s altruism with its principled culture of “trust,” celebrating the cohesive unit over capitalism and individuality.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Great Wall” is a sumptuous 6, a visual spectacle.

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“Paterson”

Susan Granger’s review of “Paterson” (Amazon Studios)

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Paterson (Adam Driver) is a New Jersey Transit bus driver in Paterson – they share the name.

Paterson leads an orderly, routine life. Every day, he gets up early, kisses his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), makes coffee and eats a bowl of Cheerios before walking to the bus depot.

As he drives his No. 23 route around the city, he observes his disparate passengers and listens to snippets of their conversation.

He comes home at the same time for dinner each night, walks their cranky English bulldog Marvin, and enjoys a beer at a corner bar. But his passion is writing poetry in a small notebook.

Paterson indulgently supports Laura’s whimsical black-and-white circular painting, black-and-white clothes, black-and-white cupcake-baking and country-singer ambitions; in turn, she encourages his gift for poetry. They love each other dearly.

Deadpan Adam Driver (“Silence”) embodies this quiet, observant man who derives creative inspiration from an Ohio Blue Tip matchbox, while the quirky exuberance of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is seemingly boundless.

There is very little plot, as such, and the contemplative poems were written for the film by Oklahoma-born Ron Padgett, whose work is obviously influenced by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and the “New York School.”

Admittedly, independent writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s leisurely, low-budget films (“The Limits of Control,” “Only Lovers Left Alive”) are an acquired taste, one that I’ve yet to attain, although I do admire his cinematic eye.

Working with Frederick Elmes, he captures an idealized beauty in the mundane scenes of a dilapidated city that was once an industrial center.

Aside from the scenic Great Falls of the Passaic, Paterson is perhaps best known as the birthplace of comedian Lou Costello and the subject of an epic modernist poem by William Carlos Williams, a physician who lived in nearby Rutherford.

Williams viewed poetry as “equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” Obviously, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson agrees.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Paterson” is a subtly stoic 6, a melancholy meditation.

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“Fifty Shades Darker”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fifty Shades Darker” (Universal Pictures)

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When we last saw Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), she’d brusquely walked out on domineering Seattle billionaire Christian Grey (scruffy Jamie Dornan) after he not only took her virginity but turned her into his sex slave.

Not long afterward, she has a job as an assistant to the editor in a publishing house. But when Christian buys an entire art exhibit of her photos, gullible Ana returns to his bedroom – with a “Chronicles of Riddick” poster on the wall – and his kinky Red Room (a.k.a. dungeon), which has been sensuously redecorated.

Their arrangement is renegotiated and, this time, he promises: no pain – unless you count nipple clamps.

Problem is: in addition to a creepy, spurned stalker (Bella Heathcote), there’s a pivotal woman lurking in Christian’s twisted psyche. It’s his mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) best friend, Elena (Kim Basinger), the cougar who taught Christian all about obedience and sado-masochistic sex.

“He needs a submissive – in life as well as in the bedroom,” she tartly informs skittish Ana.

Complicating matters further, Ana’s smarmy editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) loses his livelihood when Christian buys the publishing house where she worked, and he’s determined to wreak revenge.

Adapted by Niall Leonard from his wife E.L. James’ novel with its Harlequin dialogue and ineptly directed by James Foley, it’s now obvious that Christian is a psychologically disturbed sex addict.

There’s no romance or erotic foreplay en route to the simulated, stylized sex scenes, just silly soft-core porn, which quickly becomes so ludicrous that it’s laughable.

FYI: Film buffs may recognize Ana’s line, “I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself.” In a sly tribute to Melanie Griffith – Dakota Johnson’s real-life mother – screenwriter Niall Leonard lifted it from Griffith’s sassy 1988 “Working Girl.”

Over the end credits, there’s a teaser for “Fifty Shades Freed,” scheduled for 2018.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fifty Shades Darker” is a trashy, tawdry 2, tarnishing the luster of Valentine’s Day.

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“Toni Erdmann”

Susan Granger’s review of “Toni Erdmann” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Going into the Oscar Foreign Language race as an overwhelming favorite, German filmmaker Maren Ade’s poignant comedic-drama revolves around a practical-joking father who tries to reconnect with his uptight daughter by creating an outrageous alter-ego.

Within that context, Ade satirically tackles feminism, workplace sexism, international capitalism, and German arrogance within the European Union.

After his beloved dog dies, divorced, middle-aged music teacher Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) feels totally lost. So he tries to reconnect with his only child – daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) – who is obsessive about her executive consulting work in Romania.

When Winifred, an eccentric prankster, turns up, unannounced, in Bucharest for the weekend, Ines is curt and obviously annoyed. “Are you really human?” he finally inquires.

Refusing to give up, free-spirited Winifred defiantly becomes an abrasive con-man, a “management coach” named Toni Erdmann, creating chaos in Ines’ high-pressure business life.

“It’s very complicated,” he admits.

The most memorable moments occur when Ines performs Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in the middle of an Orthodox egg-painting party, followed by doffing her too-tight cocktail dress for an impromptu, existential, all-nude “team-building” birthday brunch.

After spending more than two years researching and writing, director Maren Ade notes: “The directing part is more about making the story more rich and complicated in its subtext.”

“I am interested in the drama of daily life, making the banal moments as dramatic as possible,” Ade goes on. “I like to shoot lots of variations on that so that, when I am at the editing table, I can continue to ‘write’ in a way.”

For that reason, it’s not surprising that “Toni Erdmann” runs nearly three hours – and the slow-building, character-establishing pace tests the audience’s patience.

FYI: Three-time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson Is determined to come out of semi-retirement to star in an English-language remake – with Kristin Wiig as his long-suffering daughter.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Toni Erdmann” teases with an unpredictable, exuberant 8. It’s wildly rebellious and absurdly redemptive.

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“The Bye Bye Man”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Bye Bye Man” (STX Entertainment)

 

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“Don’t think it! Don’t say it.”

That’s the cautionary phrase that propels this horror-thriller, based on an urban legend.

In the prologue, deranged journalist Larry Redman (Leigh Whannel) grabs his shotgun and goes on a shooting rampage, killing eight neighbors along with himself. That was in 1969.

Cut to the present, as three University of Wisconsin students – nerdy Elliot (Douglas Smith), his sexy girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and a jock named John (Lucien Laviscount) – rent a large, if decrepit house in rural Madison so they can live off-campus.

Then Eliot makes a discovery. There are mysterious inscriptions inside his bedside table, a repeated warning that reads: “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” And the scrawled words, “Bye Bye Man.”

No one seems to know what that means, but, at a housewarming party, Sasha’s psychic friend Kim (Jenna Karnell) conducts a séance which reveals a malevolent, supernatural presence.

“Something is coming,” she says, and Elliot connects that to “The Bye Bye Man” mantra as his paranoia grows.

Sure enough, Elliot soon glimpses a ghastly ghostly, hooded figure (Doug Jones of “Pan’s Labyrinth”), as lethal hallucinations and more sinister questions arise.

Adapting from Robert Damon Schneck’s 2005 short story, “The Bridge to Body Island,” screenwriter Jonathan Penner and his wife, director Stacy Title, go with the evil boogeyman curse concept, rather than developing an intriguing backstory to explain it.

Instead, Title (“The Last Supper,” “Let the Devil War Black”) relies on predictable jump-scares and not-so-subtle misdirection to sustain the tension which culminates, not surprisingly, in grim ambiguity.

While the three primary characters are stereotypical, familiar faces surface as Faith Dunaway appears as Larry Redmon’s aged widow and Carrie-Ann Moss circles as a suspicious police detective.

FYI: Australian actor/writer Leigh Whannel created the “Saw” franchise with James Wan; and actress Cressida Bonas once had a romantic fling with Britain’s Prince Harry.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Bye Bye Man” is a tiresome, tepid 3. Don’t watch it.

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“The Space Between Us”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Space Between Us” (STX Entertainment)

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Originally intended for mid-December release, this teenage sci-fi adventure/romance was wisely moved to coincide with Valentine’s Day.

Because of the increasing depletion of Earth’s resources, Genesis Space Technologies, founded by eccentric visionary Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) – channeling Elon Musk/Richard Branson – is determined to colonize Mars.

Working with NASA, Genesis launches a pioneering team to settle for four years in an experimental colony called East Texas.  The astronaut crew of six is confidently led by Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery), who declares: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

Complications arise mid-trip when Sarah discovers she’s pregnant. Afraid of losing vital funding, Nathaniel insists on total secrecy, even when Sarah dies giving birth to Gardner.

Skip ahead 16 years. Now a precocious, inquisitive teenager, Gardner (Asa Butterfield) has been raised by Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) and her fellow scientists in an antiseptic, artificial environment.

Feeling isolated, Gardner strikes up a secret Internet friendship with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a cynical, angst-riddled Colorado teenager, shuttling between foster homes.

Exuding adolescent fervor, Gardner is eager to meet Tulsa and explore his origins, but he’s told that since he was born on Mars, his internal organs (heart, etc.) could not adjust to Earth’s atmosphere. In short, it would kill him.

Predictably, Gardner boards a shuttle spaceship, breaks out of quarantine, finds street-smart Tulsa and they embark on a road trip, searching for his father. Pursued by Nathaniel and NASA officials, Gardner races against time to discover who he is and where he really belongs.

Melodramatically scripted by Allan Loeb from a cliché-riddled story by Stewart Schill & Richard Barton Lewis, it’s inconsistently directed by Peter Chelsom, making it difficult to sustain disbelief.

Nevertheless, it’s visually stunning and surprisingly tender. The most memorable moments reflect Gardner’s surprise and authentic amazement at Earth’s wonders, along with his ingenuous imitation of courtship, based his favorite movie, Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Space Between Us” is a sweet 6, achieving only a lukewarm launch.

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“Everlasting”

Susan Granger’s review of “Everlasting” (Super Grande Films/Indie Rights)

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Writer/director Anthony Stabley has devised a different twist on the traditional horror film, combining his ominous concept with a murder mystery.

“Darkness can take over your life, even when you think you have everything under control,” notes Matt Ortega (Adam David), a high-school filmmaker who receives a mysterious package containing a DV tape depicting the torture and murder of his girlfriend Jessie (Valentina de Angelis).

Grief-stricken Matt then compiles his own cinematic memorial to the spirit of admittedly irresponsible, thrill-seeking Jessie, recounting the time they spent together – in preparation for a confrontation with the killer who dumped her body on the roadside in Topanga Canyon.

Eager to flee from her fractured, dysfunctional family in Colorado, Jessie responded to an ad that entices attractive young women to come to Los Angeles to embark on a modeling career.

After trying to dissuade her, Matt reluctantly offered to drive Jessie, cinematically documenting their scenic stops along the way.

“It’s easier to leave the people you love before they leave you,” she tells him.

Upon arrival at their destination, Matt and Jessie discover that her road to Tinseltown success will be littered with squalid intrigue and sordid encounters involving fetishes and bondage. Indeed, the first person they encounter at a Hollywood party is Guinevere Turner, who scripted “American Psycho.”

While Anthony Stabley adroitly establishes the emotional authenticity of their romantic relationship, Matt and Jessie, nevertheless, seem ill-suited to one another.

Matt exudes a sweet naïveté, rooted in emotional stability, while Jessie’s vulnerable volatility not only includes a preference for tight chokers because she likes the pressure on her neck but also a penchant for sado-masochistic sex.

Veteran thespians Elisabeth Rohm (“American Hustle”), Pat Healy (“Compliance”) and Michael Massee (“Se7en”) are memorable, while Jon Bickford’s cinematography is compelling.

FYI: Making its U.S. premiere at the 17th annual Nevermore Film Festival, “Everlasting” copped the Jury Award for Best Feature.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Everlasting” is a suspenseful, subversive 6, revealing the seedy underbelly of “La La Land.”

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“Silence”

Susan Granger’s review of “Silence” (Paramount Pictures)

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Filmmaker Martin Scorsese (“Kundun,” “Last Temptation of Christ”) is obviously fascinated with the foundations of faith, adapting Shusaku Endo’s 1966 historical novel about two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan to find their mentor who is rumored to have renounced his religion under torture.

In 17th century Buddhist Japan, Catholicism has been outlawed and its believers persecuted. But fervent Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are determined to track down Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

As they search, they minister to converted villagers who risk their lives to hide them from the wily Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who give suspected Christians the opportunity to recant by stepping on an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

If they refuse, the Inquisitor mercilessly torments and tortures them in a myriad of graphically gruesome ways, including hot-water scalding, burning on a pyre, drowning on a crucifix in the rising tide, or slowly bleeding to death while hanging, upside down, over a pit.

Betrayal is a recurring theme, as their guide Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) repeatedly deceives them, yet begs forgiveness, promising to be stronger next time.

Scorsese notes that in order for Christianity to live, it needs “not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.”

Father Rodrigues’ eventual compassion for this frightened informer reveals that, in his devout soul-searching, he has come to an understanding of weakness, along with sacrifice.

The struggle is between apostasy and martyrdom – when one’s actions determine the fates of others. The title refers to Rodrigues’ prayers for divine guidance – and the silence that ensues.

As anguished Father Ferreira notes, “There are some things more important than the judgment of the Church.”

Visually magnificent and superbly mounted, it’s more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional catharsis. Perhaps because Scorsese, co-writing with Jay Cocks, chooses moral ambiguity, disdaining a melodramatic soundtrack.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Silence” is a savage, yet spiritual 7, a dour depiction of an agonized, seemingly endless pilgrimage.

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“The Comedian”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Comedian” (Sony Pictures Classics)

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Back in 1983, Robert De Niro played a sociopathic wannabe celebrity in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” starring Jerry Lewis.  Obviously, the delusional character intrigued De Niro because in “The Comedian,” he’s a former TV sit-com star, Jackie Burke.

Aging Burke has hit hard times, unable to move beyond nostalgic references to “Eddie’s Home.” One night when an obnoxious heckler with a web-cam taunts him at a comedy club in Hicksville, Long Island, he clobbers the guy in a scuffle that winds up on YouTube.

After spending 30 days in the slammer, Jackie reports for community service at a homeless shelter, where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also atoning for an angry outburst.

Despite their obvious age difference, they connect. He takes her to the Comedy Cellar and his lesbian niece’s wedding; she takes him to a birthday dinner for her domineering father (Harvey Keitel).

Cobbled together by a disparate quartet of screenwriters (Art Linson, Jeff Ross, Richard LaGravenese, Lewis Friedman) and superficially directed by Taylor Hackford, it’s filled with strained insult comedy, a Friars Club Roast of a legendary comedienne (Cloris Leachman) and a sleazy game show, reminiscent of “Fear Factor.”

FYI: Comedian Harry Einstein, father of actor Albert Brooks, really died on the Friars Club dais in 1958. “That excited me,” recalls De Niro. “One scene – and you want to do the whole movie.”

De Niro captures Jackie’s bitter, simmering resentment, while Leslie Mann wrestles with Harmony’s demons. Edie Falco is Jackie’s frustrated manager, while Danny De Vito and Patti LuPone play his long-suffering brother and resentful sister-in-law.

After doing “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” together, De Niro and Harvey Keitel click, along with cameos by Charles Grodin, Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Richard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Jessica Kirson and Hannibal Buress.

But the brash script turns sour when there’s an unexpected twist and Jackie forces residents in a Florida retirement home to sing along as he changes “Makin’ Whoopee” into the scatological “Makin’ Poopy.” Shades of De Niro’s “Dirty Grandpa” debacle.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Comedian” is a flimsy, faltering 5 – and definitely not funny.

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