“The Last Face”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Face” (Saban Films)


Years ago, Robin Wright, who was married to Sean Penn, optioned this concept as a “passion project,” involving both Penn and Javier Bardem, but funding fell through. When Wright and Penn divorced, Penn obviously got custody, casting his then-fiancée, Charlize Theron, in the role Wright had wanted to play.

Born in South Africa, Theron might have been a superb choice, but Penn was so obviously besotted with her beauty that he rapturously photographs her like a glamorous fashion model, not an altruistic doctor.

That – among other elements – dilutes the veracity of this fragmented, savagely realistic depiction of war-ravaged people.

The melodramatic plot revolves around Dr. Wren Petersen (Theron), the uptight daughter of the famous humanitarian founder of Medecins du Monde, who meets roguish surgeon Miguel Leon (Bardem) at a Monrovian refugee camp. Sparks ignite!

“Before I met Miguel, I was an idea I had. I didn’t really exist,” she muses.

Years later, when Wren has become director of an international aid agency, their paths cross again in Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Sudan, where Wren reverts to her roots, joining Miguel and his blood-soaked cohorts (Jean Reno, Jared Harris), desperately trying to save lives amid barbarism.

In his first directorial duty since “Into the Wild” (2007), Penn, recognized as a human-rights activist in Haiti, relies on Erin Dignam’s shallow, preachy script, filled with whispered, often incoherent dialogue.

While a prologue proclaims the “impossible brutality” of the West African conflict, Penn’s focus is on the love between a man and a woman, as if the stench of death is some kind of an aphrodisiac.

There’s a resonant “Hurt Locker” moment when Wren muses about an “addiction to emergency,” which is not surprising since it’s chronicled by “Hurt Locker” cinematographer Barry Ackroyd.

But how does one deal with lines like – “You know that girl I was dancing with? She watched her sister get raped to death, and she was raped as well? “

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Last Face” is a gruesome, gravely disappointing 3 – Penn’s pompous indulgence.


“The Glass Castle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Glass Castle” (Lionsgate)


Here’s a dysfunctional childhood recollection that makes the anti-Establishment patriarch “Captain Fantastic” (2016) look like a candidate for Father-of-the-Year. At least he never starved or tortured his children!

In Destin Daniel Cretton’s screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ 2005 best-selling memoir, Walls’ abusive, alcoholic father Rex is seen all-too-often through rose-colored glasses, or perhaps that’s Woody Harrelson’s colorful, manipulatively roguish interpretation.

Working as a Manhattan gossip columnist in the 1980s, riding in a taxi after a posh restaurant dinner with her financier fiancé (Max Greenfield), Jeanette Walls (Brie Larsen) spots her grubby, itinerant parents dumpster-diving on the Lower East Side. Which ignites a series of flashbacks.

Nomadic Rex and Rose Mary Walls were free spirits. An intelligent but self-destructive bohemian, Rex (Harrelson) was unable to hold a job or cope with authority, while self-centered Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) would rather paint than cook for her hungry kids. Which is why, as a three year-old, Jeannette suffered serious burns trying to boil hot dogs.

Living in extreme poverty in rural Welch, West Virginia, the Walls family eventually squatted in a shack without plumbing, heat or electricity, except when Rex hot-wired it from neighboring properties. To say the kids were neglected and malnourished is an understatement.

Instead of being resentful about her reprehensibly unconventional Appalachian upbringing, Jeanette Walls maintains that it made her and her three siblings resilient and self-reliant: “With a complicated childhood, you can either focus on the positive or the negative, and I chose to focus on the positive.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate cinematically. As depicted by Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and co-writer Andrew Lanham, the impoverished Walls kids had perfect teeth, wore clean clothes and didn’t get sick. They’re rarely seen suffering or struggling, which contradicts the grim truth of Walls’ candid autobiography, diluting its emotional potency.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Glass Castle” is a slick, sanitized 6, succumbing to sentimentality.



Susan Granger’s review of “Menashe” (A24)


Set in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, this is the story of a Jewish widower (Menashe Lustig) who has lost custody of his beloved 10 year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski).

According to strict Hasidic custom, the youngster cannot be raised by a single parent. He must live with a father AND mother, so Menache’s married, financially secure, judgmental brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), has become Rieven’s condescending guardian.

Rebellious Menashe is a portly, disheveled klutz who refuses to wear the traditional long, black coat and hat and carelessly fails to provide proper meals for Rieven when the boy does visit. He’s the epitome of the luckless “schlimazel.”

Although the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) encourages him to re-marry to provide an appropriate home in which to raise Rieven, Menashe doesn’t want a new wife. All he wants is his precious son.

Working in a small, kosher convenience store, Menashe’s earnings are meagre, meaning he will be hard-pressed to host a proper reception in his tiny apartment after the Memorial for his late wife Leah, who died a year ago.  But that’s something he’s determined to do.

Loosely based on actual events in Menashe Lustif’s life, documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein, working with co-writers Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, has fashioned a gentle, unconventional character study, offering an intimate glimpse into the cultural mores and manners of the Hassidim, punctuated by a subtly melancholy, even haunting musical score.

Already recognized as a Yiddish comedian on YouTube, this is Menashe Lustig’s first foray into drama – and he’s a natural, evoking memories of Ernest Borgnine in “Marty.” Indeed, all of the actors, except one, are practicing Hasidic Jews.

And if ultra-Orthodoxy sounds intriguing, watch “Fill the Void,” “The Wedding Plan,” “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” and “The Women’s Balcony.”

Mostly in Yidddish, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Menashe” is a sensitive 7, offering sympathetic insight into a self-segregated community.



Susan Granger’s review of “Detroit” (Annapurna Pictures)


In this scathing docudrama, Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker’ and “Zero Dark Thirty,” depicts the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the volatile summer of 1967.

It begins on the night of July 23 with a violent police raid on “The Blind Pig,” an unlicensed bar and African-American social club located on the second floor of a printing company, inciting what came to be known as the 12th Street Riot.

A mob forms when the partygoers, celebrating the return of two Vietnam War veterans, are herded into paddy wagons. At first, bottles are thrown, then bricks, as the mood of the crowd quickly escalates into looting and arson, punctuated by shouts: “Burn it down!”

That leads to a visceral confrontation at the seedy Algiers Motel, where seven black men and two white women are brutally humiliated, graphically tortured and abused by police officers, resulting in the deaths of three innocent youths.

Working from an unflinching script by her longtime collaborator Mark Boal and in-your-face cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Bigelow tells the agonizing, provocative story from various, often conflicting perspectives.

There’s Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), an overtly racist police officer, seemingly based on 24 year-old David Senak, who was exonerated and placed back on duty after he shot and killed an unarmed looter during the riots, and Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a factory worker moonlighting as a security guard.

Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) and Larry Reed (Algee Smith) are members of an R&B group called The Dramatics. Robert Greene (Antony Mackie) is an unemployed veteran. Julie Ann Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever) are teenage hitchhikers from Columbus, Ohio.

Plus Aubrey Pollard (Nathan David Jr.) and Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), who fires a toy starter pistol out the window which alerts the Michigan State Police and National Guard, who think he’s a sniper.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Detroit” is a sordid, sadistic 6, filled with so much excessive violence that it induces revulsion, emerging as exploitative, racial torture pornography.



Susan Granger’s review of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (STX Films)


From Luc Besson, the visionary French director of “Lucy” and “The Fifth Element,” comes this $200 million sci-fi fantasy, consisting of an episodic series of missions originating on Alpha, a space station in the Magellan Current that keeps expanding, adding new entities, becoming an intergalactic, multicultural hub.

Inspired by a series of ‘60s French comic books by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin, the story focuses 28th century space adventurers, cocky Major Valerian (Dane De Haan) and sassy Sergeant Laureline (British fashion model Cara Delevingne). They’re military-trained operatives and long-time partners, traveling on a spacecraft called Alex, reporting to the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock).

After the near-eradication of a peaceful, iridescent beach species called Pearl People, they embark on a mission that takes them to The Big Market, an extra-dimensional tourist bazaar on the planet Kirian, where they retrieve a rare creature, a Mul Converter, the last of its species, that can make copies of whatever it ingests, from a Jabba the Hutt-type black marketer, Igon Sirus (voiced by John Goodman).

Another involves flamboyant Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke), who has enslaved an exotic, shape-shifting “glamapod” named Bubble (Rihanna) in Paradise Alley. There’s sinister, megalomaniacal military Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) and the Doghan Daguis, a CGI trio of furry, fast-talking platypus-like critters who broker information.

Insofar as plot goes, it’s all very confusing.  If you’re determined to see this, just to sit back and enjoy the dizzying visual spectacle that Besson created with Weta Digital effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk and production designer Hugues Tissandier.

Rutger Hauer does a cameo as the President of the World State Federation, while French directors Benoit Jacquot, Louis Letterier and Olivier Megaton can be glimpsed as military officers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a fast-paced, incomprehensibly futuristic 4, an epic indulgence.



Susan Granger’s review of “Kidnap” (Aviron Pictures)


Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) is devoted to her six year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa). A single mother, she works as a waitress in a New Orleans-area diner and spends all of her free time with her boy.

While Frankie’s playing at a nearby amusement park, Karla steps away to take an important phone call from her attorney; apparently, her ex-husband is suing for sole custody. When she looks up, Frankie’s gone.

Frantically searching, she spies a woman shoving Frankie into a teal-colored Mustang GT and driving off. Running after the kidnapper, distraught Karla drops her cell phone in the parking lot.

Climbing into her red Chrysler minivan, she takes off in pursuit. “As long as my son is in that car, I will not stop,” she vows. “Wherever you go, I will be right behind you.”

Making good on her word, Karla recklessly weaves in and out of traffic on Louisiana’s highways and back roads, leaving not only wrecked cars in her wake but also critically injured bystanders, including a motorcycle policeman. Collateral damage.

When she stops briefly at a local sheriff’s office, the officer at the desk calmly picks up the telephone and tells her to wait. Looking at a bulletin board filled with photos of missing children, Karla realizes she hasn’t a moment to spare and darts back to her battered vehicle.

Eventually, Karla discovers that there are two abductors, Terry and Margo Vicky (Chris McGinn, Lew Temple). They’re a crazy, confrontational backwoods couple who are operating a child trafficking ring out of an old farmhouse near a swamp on a dead-end road.

Working from Knate Lee’s pulpy, simplistic script that often defies logic, Spanish director Luis Prieto (“Pusher”) amps the suspense, keeping the tension taut, as Karla vows, “You messed with the wrong mother!”

FYI: According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 800,000 children are abducted in the United States each year; that’s roughly 2,000 a day!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kidnap” is a frenetic 5, a high-octane chase thriller.


“The Emoji Movie”

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


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.




“Atomic Blonde”

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


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.




“The Dark Tower”

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


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.



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


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.”