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“The Ghost in the Shell”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Ghost in the Shell” (Paramount Pictures)

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If you’re into the latest whiz-bang technology, this dystopian sci-fi thriller is a live-action remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk anime, based on Masamune Shirow’s popular 1989 manga series.

Its publicity campaign has focused on Scarlett Johansson’s appearing to be ‘almost’ naked, dashing around a futuristic cityscape in a flesh-colored, skin-tight casing; she’s a cyborg law-enforcement officer known as the Major. The gimmick is that when she dons this “thermoptic” suit, she is basically invisible.

Major Mira Killian is the first of her kind: a military-designed robot with a human brain. She’s an integral part of a counter-cyberterrorist task force, known as Public Service Section 9, operating under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano).

They’re pursuing a villain known as Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), who has been eliminating Hanka Robotics scientists by hacking into the consciousness of different accomplices to make them commit murder.

Problem is: Kuze’s warnings about the company begin to dovetail with glitches in Major’s brain that make her more self-aware and increasingly curious about discovering her true identity – which is amplified by the insistence of her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), that memory is irrelevant.

Director Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) pays homage to the original film and many scenes – like a cigarette-smoking surgeon in a sterile lab, a detective with eye implants that look like binoculars, and a fight scene in a shallow pool of water – come directly from the comic-book source.

Obviously, the Major’s nude-effect attire demanded the most attention. Textured in a puzzle-like pattern, the eye-catching camouflage suit was created by costume designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller, along with the CGI experts at Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta Workshop.

FYI: Scientists are already working on an ultra-thin invisibility cloak that manipulates particular wavelengths of light in order to blend an object into the background.

Problem is: miscast Scarlett Johansson is never convincing in her struggle to discover her humanity. And the uproar over casting a Caucasian actress in an iconic Japanese story is understandable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Ghost in the Shell” is a frenetic 5, favoring style over substance.

05

“T2: Trainspotting”

Susan Granger’s review of “T2: Trainspotting” (Columbia/Sony)

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Back in 1996, Scottish filmmaker Danny Boyle celebrated sneering, rebellious, drug-drenched youth in “Trainspotting.” In this sequel, Ewan McGregor and the Leith lads trip into middle-age.

Re-visiting the same characters 20 years later, it recalls how Mark Renton (McGregor) ripped off his friends in a lucrative drug deal. Apparently, he took the money and fled to Amsterdam, where he kicked his heroin habit and plunged into respectability, including a failed marriage.

When Renton returns to Edinburgh after his mother’s death, only the sniveling junkie, Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is estranged from his wife and child, welcomes him. Spud’s best scene is when he explains to a support group why he feels that the biggest obstacle to sobriety is daylight savings time.

Feigning friendship, Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) – a.k.a. Sick Boy – remains furious about Renton’s betrayal. Attempting to atone for his sins, Renton tries to help him and his Bulgarian prostitute partner, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), turn the decrepit family pub into an upscale brothel by scamming a small European Union development grant.

And the ill-tempered, impotent psychopath, Begbie (Robert Carlisle), has escaped from prison, determined to wreak revenge.

Scripted by Johnny Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle as a character study, it’s filled not only with striking images, inducing nostalgia, but also a contemporary commentary on urban gentrification, noting the uneasy rise of the populist movement that fueled Brexit.

Although they’d toyed unsuccessfully with Irvine Welsh’s 2002 follow-up book “Porno,” the idea of a reunion ignited in mid-2015, when Boyle bumped into Ewan McGregor in a London pub, where they began patching up a feud that began when Boyle cast Leonardo DiCaprio, instead of McGregor, in his big budget adaptation of “The Beach.”

“I decided enough is enough,” admits McGregor. “And I wanted to work with Danny again.”

Not to disappoint, Boyle revives Renton’s “choose life” speech, focusing the rant on the brutality of social media and the dispiriting economy.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “T2: Trainspotting” is a bitterly cynical 5, redundantly evoking regret and acceptance.

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“The Boss Baby”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boss Baby” (20th Century Fox/DreamWorks Animation)

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Somewhere in the clouds above, Baby Corp. runs an adorable newborn assembly line, where babies are manufactured and families formed.

That’s according to the overactive imagination of seven year-old Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), who is totally content as the only child of doting parents (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow) who read him endless bedtime stories and sing the Beatles’ tune “Blackbird” as his lullaby.

But then Tim’s perfect little world is disrupted by the arrival of a baby brother named Theodore. In Tim’s mind, the demanding infant is a tiny tyrant, dispatched by Management, arriving in a business suit, wearing a Rolex and carrying a briefcase. And he can talk.

Theodore manages to remain infantile by gulping a magic formula and sucking on a psychedelic pacifier. “One thing was clear,” now-grown Tim (voiced by Tobey Maguire) recalls. “He was the boss.”

When his cohorts arrive in the guise of a ‘play date,’ which is actually a business meeting, the titular tot explains that, since their parents both work at Puppy Co, they need to infiltrate the company to eliminate the inherent threat of its newest product: an adorable Forever Puppy that will never grow up.

Based on Marla Frazee’s charming 36-page picture book, it’s adapted by screenwriter Michael McCullers (“Austin Powers” sequels) and director Tom McGrath (“Madagascar” trilogy), delving into competitiveness and jealousy.

Oddly enough, its high-concept is aimed at grown-ups, not children, particularly casting Alec Baldwin whose distinctive voice evokes memories of “30 Rock” and his “Saturday Night Live” caricature of Donald Trump.

Among the many pop culture references, there’s a running gag about “Lord of the Rings” Wizard Gandalf, embodied in Tim’s Wizzie alarm clock, and the line “Cookies are for closers,” referencing Alec Baldwin’s seminal scene in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

FYI: Young Miles Christopher Bakshi is a grandson of pioneer “Fritz the Cat” animator Ralph Bakshi.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Boss Baby” is an intermittently funny 5, skewering sibling rivalry.

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“Going in Style”

Susan Granger’s review of “Going in Style” (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema/Roadshow Pictures)

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Bill Gates once said, “Banking is necessary, banks are not.” Which may be why bankers and banks have become popular cinematic villains.

Like the hapless brothers in last year’s “Hell or High Water,” three Brooklyn-based seniors suddenly realize that – because of a nefarious local bank – they’re going to be broke and homeless.

Joe (Michael Caine) comes up with the idea of an armed robbery after conferring with a sleazy Williamsburg Savings Bank manager (Josh Pais) about his adjustable mortgage that has suddenly tripled, threatening him, his divorced daughter and beloved granddaughter with foreclosure and eviction.

Joined by longtime friends Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Al (Alan Arkin), Joe then discovers that the Wechsler Steel Company, where they’ve all worked for years, has outsourced to Vietnam and their pensions will be confiscated by the same Williamsburg Savings Bank.

Retribution seems to be the only answer. What have they got to lose? Suffering from renal failure, Willie needs a kidney transplant, and cantankerous Al, a jazz saxophonist, is fed up with teaching music to talentless kids – like the son of a saucy grocery store clerk (Ann-Margret).

Viewing “Dog Day Afternoon” as a cautionary tale, the retirees decide to seek advice from a professional thief (John Ortiz). After several ‘trial runs,’ they work out a watertight alibi and disguise themselves in rubber masks depicting the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.), unaware that they’ve aroused the suspicions of an FBI agent (Matt Dillon).

Adapted by Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures,” “St. Vincent”) and directed by actor Zach Braff (“Garden State”), this crime caper is actually a remake of Martin Brest’s 1979 movie, starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg.

FYI: Ironically, President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was as an Executive Producer of this gibe at corporate greed.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Going in Style” is a salty 6, a mildly amusing, slapstick comedy that’s filled with scrappy banter.

06

“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.

03

“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.

05

“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.

06

“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’?

03

 

“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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