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“Kong: Skull Island”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kong: Skull Island” (Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures)

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Ever since 1933, the huge gorilla-like creature named Kong has been a cinema icon, and this new action-packed sci-fi adventure evokes legendary monster movies of bygone years with a fresh perspective.

In 1973, just after the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War, Earth-mapping satellite photos revealed a long-hidden landmass in the South Pacific, known as Skull Island, surrounded by a perpetual storm system.

That prompts investigator Bill Randa (John Goodman) to initiate an exploratory expedition, muttering, “There will never be a more screwed-up time in Washington” – a line which immediately elicits audience laughter.

To guide his team of scientists (China’s Tian Jing, Corey Hawkins), Randa hires black-ops survivalist James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). They’re joined by Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a plucky “anti-war” photo-journalist, and given a military escort, headed by embittered Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) with his intrepid squadron.

After dropping bombs to shake up the island’s seismic core, they discover prehistoric beasts that boggle the imagination, particularly the wrath of gigantic Kong as he swats helicopters out of the sky.

Those who survive meet up with grizzled Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a W.W.II pilot who was shot down in 1944, and embark on a perilous trek through primeval jungle terrain.

Scripted by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly from John Gatins’ pulpy story, it’s filled with allusions to Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation “Apocalypse Now.”

Competently directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”), it’s enhanced by an assortment of menacing CGI beasts created by Industrial Light & Magic, particularly Tony Kebbell’s authentic facial-capture Kong performance which surpasses Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake that won the VFX Oscar.

This Kong is a 100-foot tall gorilla/man hybrid, walking upright and roaring mightily before munching the tentacles of a huge octopus and battling the massive Skullcrawler lizard.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kong: Skull Island” is a spectacular 7. It’s a fun-filled creature-feature, concluding with a post-credit franchise promotion.

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“Before I Fall”

Susan Granger’s review of “Before I Fall” (Open Road Films)

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Lifting the supernatural premise of Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” this angst-riddled YA melodrama follows 17 year-old Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) who must re-live the same crucial Friday over and over again.

It happens to be Cupid’s Day in the Pacific Northwest, as Cascadia High School celebrates Valentine’s Day with “val-o-grams” rose deliveries that gauge every student’s popularity.

Self-centered Samantha has reached the pinnacle of the popularity poll, surrounded by three friends: Ally (Cynthy We), Elody (Medallion Rahimi) and domineering Lindsay (Halston Sage).  Like many admittedly bitchy cliques, they cruelly pick on an ostracized outcast, wild-haired Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris).

What’s more existentially significant is that, for Samantha, this particular Friday precedes a party hosted by temporarily parent-less Kent McFuller (Logan Miller), who has adored Samantha since elementary school, even though she’s currently enamored with hard-drinking Rob (Kian Lawley).

Their frivolity is followed by a fatal car crash. Forced to repeat that day over and over again, Samantha eventually becomes enlightened, learning important life lessons, even if it’s too late.

Based on the best-selling novel by Lauren Oliver, it’s adapted by Maria Magnetti and directed by Ry-Russo Young. Problem is: Samantha is somewhat passive in this doomed timeline loop; things happen to her as timely morsels of pertinent information about her little sister (Erica Tremblay) and mother (Jennifer Beals), among others, are eventually revealed.

In addition, Zoey Deutch, who recently played Bryan Cranston’s college-age daughter in “Why Him?” appears too sophisticated to be convincing as a high-school senior – particularly since this film’s intended audience is adolescent girls.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Before I Fall” is an awkwardly schmaltzy 6, delivering a sympathetic “savor every moment” message about redemption and hope.

06

“Logan”

Susan Granger’s review of “Logan” (20th Century Fox)

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As the “X-Men” saga continues, Logan (Hugh Jackman) – a.k.a. Wolverine – is caring for cranky, critically ill Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), along with the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), in a hideout along the Mexican border.

It’s 2029, when mutants are almost extinct. Weary Logan earns his living as a chauffeur, driving his own limousine, and drinking far too much. But he’s still the feral mutant with massive claws and a trigger-sharp temper.

Answering a call from the Liberty Motel, a desperate Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) offers Logan a wad of money to take her 11 year-old, Spanish-speaking daughter Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota, near the Canadian border. He’s initially reluctant until he realizes the rebellious, claw-wielding child, who will become X-23, has psychic powers similar to his own.

That catapults Logan into parental protective mode. From an “X-Men” comic book, Laura learned about a place called Eden, where mutants, like her, are nurtured, not hunted, and she’s determined to get there.

But villains are hot on her trail, like the cyborg Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant).

Supposedly, this is the final installment in Wolverine’s solo trilogy, preceded by “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) and “The Wolverine” (2013). By now, Jackman’s Wolverine has entered the classic pantheon, joining Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.

Directed by James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Walk the Line”), who co-wrote the script with Scott Frank and Michael Green, it’s delves into aging Xavier/Logan’s patriarchal rapport and Logan/Laura’s father/daughter relationship.

It’s also the 10th film in the “X-Men” franchise. Cathartic, it fits into the Western genre – with cinematic references to George Stevens’ archetypal “Shane.”

It’s also R-rated for graphic, gruesome violence and profanity, so parents are advised NOT to bring young children.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Logan” is an elegiac 8. And you don’t have to sit through the credits; there’s no “X-Men” epilogue.

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“A Cure for Wellness”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Cure for Wellness” (20th Century-Fox)

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When a young, ambitious Wall Street investment banker is dispatched to Switzerland to retrieve his company’s CEO from a mysterious, idyllic spa, encased in an Alpine castle, he discovers that the concept of “wellness” is open to macabre interpretation.

Upon his arrival, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) observes the elderly, outwardly contented residents wandering around in white robes, playing croquet, yet no staff member seems willing to tell him where his boss, Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener), is.

As the plot twists and turns, Lockhart is in an automobile accident. Awakening with a broken leg, he discovers he’s now a patient, cared for by suavely sinister Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who explains that the spa’s miraculous rejuvenation treatment comes from the water.

“Drink!” he’s urged. “Drink the water.”

Hobbling around the asylum grounds, Lockhart meets Hannah (Mia Goth), a pale, hollow-eyed adolescent who says she’s lived there all her life, waiting for her father to arrive.

Commandeering her bicycle to search for a telephone, Lockhart takes Hannah into a tavern in a nearby village whose Bavarian residents display an obvious antagonism to the castle and all it represents.

In addition to an excruciating torture scene – with Lockhart strapped in a dentist’s chair, evoking horrifying memories of Laurence Olivier/Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man” – and a shocking rape, involving incest, the most malevolent scare comes from the repellent use of slimy, slithering eels.

Working with Justin Haythe (with whom he collaborated on “The Lone Ranger”) on the morbidly inventive screenplay, director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) channels Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” with cinematic nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg.

But this dystopian thriller slogs along for an ominous two-and-a-half hours, saddling viewers with a surly antihero, lunatic villain and ghastly, nightmarish imagery, courtesy of production designer Eve Stewart and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Cure for Wellness” is a creepy 4. It’s grotesque Gothic horror gone awry.

04

 

“A United Kingdom”

Susan Granger’s review of “A United Kingdom” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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In London in 1947, the future King of Botswana, Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who was studying law at Oxford, met a beautiful Englishwoman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), at a Mission Society dance and, soon after, they impulsively married.

That’s just the beginning of this intriguing true story. Original opposition to their union came not only from Ruth’s racist father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) but also from the British government. Britain’s South Africa regime had recently introduced the policy of apartheid, so a biracial couple ruling a neighboring country seemed out of the question.

Economically, Britain needed access to resource-rich South Africa’s uranium for their nuclear program and gold-mining rights, which were vital to replenishing the depleted reserves following W.W.II.  Plus there was a strategic threat of South Africa’s invading Bechuanaland (later known as Botswana).

So their scandalous union precipitated an international crisis, which was further complicated by Seretse Khama’s obstinate uncle/guardian, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene). Acting as Regent, he has repeatedly urged his people to cooperate with the traditional colonial government.

In addition, Seretse’s aunt (Abena Ayivor) and sister (Terry Pheto) believe his marriage to a white woman demeans the black women of their Bamangwato tribe.

But when dignified, defiant and ultimately persuasive Seretse Khama arrives back in his African homeland with resilient Ruth – that changes everything – along with the discovery of diamonds.

Based on Susan William’s historical book “Colour Bar,” it’s simplistically adapted by Guy Hibbert and sensitively directed by Ghana’s Amma Asante (“Belle”), who astutely utilizes her superb ensemble, headed by David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) – with Jack Davenport and Tom Felton as the intimidating, bureaucratic villains.

Sam McCurdy’s stunning cinematography captures the flat, sunbaked landscape of Botswana, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, but the editing is erratic.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A United Kingdom” is a compassionate, if shallow 6, an inspiring geopolitical biopic.

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Susan’s 2017 OSCAR PREDICTIONS

Susan Granger’s Predictions for the 89th Academy Awards:

 

Every film year acts as a mirror & reflects the tenor of the times. When the Oscars began in 1929 to celebrate the motion picture industry, the winner was William Wellman’s anti-war “Wings.”

The subsequent Depression years celebrated character studies like “Grand Hotel,” “The Great Ziegfeld” and “Rebecca.” After the turmoil of Kennedy’s assassination, the Academy chose light-hearted fare like “Tom Jones,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Oliver!” And in 2000, the last time a Republican won the White House, after losing the popular vote, “Gladiator” won the Oscar.

Socio-politics inevitably influence the choices of the almost-7,000 Academy voters and, this year, the Academy inducted 683 new members. How they’ll vote is an unknown factor.

Back when studios had people under contract, they voted in “blocs” for the films of their home studio. As Joan Crawford once said, “You’d have to be an idiot to vote against the studio that holds your contract and produces your pictures.” But the studio system no longer exists.

After last year’s #Oscarsowhite protest, there was jubilation that 20 people of color were nominated this year. Seven actors of color are vying for top honors – and in other categories as well. Bradford Young (“Arrival”) is the first African-American cinematographer to be nominated, and Joi McMillon (“Moonlight”) is the first African-American woman editor to be nominated.

The impact of social media cannot be underestimated, since every casual remark and facial expression is open to interpretation. That puts added pressure, since voters are supposed to reward the best work, not to meet quotas. Yet, even scandal-tainted Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”) seems to have been forgiven.

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” seems to be the favorite but there are pitfalls – and Awards strategists are aware of them, knowing clients like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling will double their fees if they pocket an Oscar. So they’re working to define the film’s basic message: this movie matters because it celebrates artists, their creativity, their hopes and dreams.

But the fact remains: after Donald Trump’s election, the atmosphere has grown more charged and partisan. So will voters choose a light, escapist romp in serious times?

Alphabetically, the nine BEST PICTURE nominees:

ARRIVAL: a sci-fi time-travel thriller about a linguist who communicates with aliens

FENCES: the adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about race relations

HACKSAW RIDGE: the story of a WW II pacifist who won the Congressional Medal of Honor

HELL OR HIGH WATER: the saga of West Texas bank robbers that the question: when a bank steal from you, is it OK to rob them to save your family farm?

HIDDEN FIGURES: celebrating the contribution of African-American women working at NASA

LA LA LAND: a bittersweet nod to Hollywood musicals as star-crossed lovers follow their dreams

LION: the true story of a displaced Indian lad who is adopted by Australians and traces his roots

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: a gut-wrenching drama about a family tragedy and its consequences

MOONLIGHT: the three-part story of a young man exploring his racial and sexual identity

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominated for BEST ACTRESS: Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), garnering her 20th nomination.

Natalie Portman was the presumptive favorite but Emma Stone’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award tips the scale toward victory, although France’s Isabelle Huppert remains a strong threat.

MY PREDICTION: Emma Stone

Nominated for BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck (“Manchester By the Sea”), Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”), Denzel Washington (“Fences”).

While Casey Affleck copped critics’ kudos, Denzel Washington won the SAG award, making this category far more competitive, particularly since Viggo Mortensen’s character’s motto – “Power to the people, stick it to the man!” – resonates.

MY PREDICTION: Denzel Washington

Nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis (“Fences”), Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”), Michelle Williams (“Manchester By the Sea”).

It’s not really accurate to classify Viola Davis’ role as supporting since she co-starred but her placement in this category assures her a win.

MY PREDICTION: Viola Davis

Nominated for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”), Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea”), Dev Patel (“Lion”), Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”).

MY PREDICTION: Mahershala Ali, who eloquently spoke about being a Muslim and not persecuting those who are different – when he won the SAG Award.

Nominees for BEST DIRECTOR: Denis Villenueve (“Arrival”), Mel Gibson (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester By the Sea”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”).

MY PREDICTION: Damien Chazelle

Nominees for BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: “Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Lion,” “Moonlight.”

MY PREDICTION: “Moonlight”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” “The Lobster,” “Manchester By the Sea,” “20th Century Women.”

MY PREDICTION: “Manchester By the Sea”

Nominees for BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: “Finding Dory,” “Moana,” “My Life as a Zucchini,”
“The Red Turtle,” “Zootopia.”

MY PREDICTION: “Zootopia,” examining implicit bias and discrimination in an animal kingdom.

Nominees for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “A Man Called Ove: (Sweden), “Land of Mine” (Denmark), “The Salesman” (Iran), “Tanna” (Australia), “Toni Erdmann” (Germany).

While “Toni Erdmann” garnered praise, it’s 2 hours, 42 minutes long, and its first hour tests the viewer’s patience. What may tip the scale is that Oscar-winning Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi (“A Separation”) has declared that the uncertainty surrounding his ability to travel to the United States was “in no way acceptable.” A vote for Farhadi may show solidarity with all immigrants, and Academy voters could take that into consideration.

MY PREDICTION: “The Salesman”

Nominees for BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “Fire at Sea,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Life, Animated,” “OJ: Made in America,” “13th.”

This is one of the most contentious categories. “O.J.: Made in America” originally screened, in its seven-hour, 47-minutes, entirety at Sundance and played one week in May at theaters in New York and Los Angeles. One of its five ‘chapters’ then aired on ABC-TV, then all five ran on ESPN, before being released as a DVD. So, is it a TV documentary or a film? It was financed by a TV network and won many TV awards.

MY PREDICTION: “O.J.: Made in America”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “Audition” (“La La Land”), “City of Stars” (“La La Land”), “How Far I’ll Go” (“Moana”), “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (“Trolls”), “Empty Chair” (“Jim: The James Foley Story”).

MY PREDICTION: “City of Stars”

Nominees for BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: “Jackie,” “La La Land,’ “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Passengers” – for which Thomas Newman nabbed his 14th nomination, bringing a record total of 90 for any family; the Newmans include Alfred, Lionel, Emil, Thomas, David and Randy.

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST FILM EDITING: “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Hell or High Water,” “La La Land,” “Moonlight.” Both “Arrival” and “La La Land” won ACE Awards from their Guild.

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Silence.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: “Arrival,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Hail, Caesar!,” “La La Land,” “Passengers.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: “Deepwater Horizon,” “Doctor Strange,” “The Jungle Book,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

MY PREDICTION: “The Jungle Book”

Nominees for BEST COSTUME DESIGN: “Allied,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Jackie,” “La La Land.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING: “A Man Called Ove,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Suicide Squad.”

MY PREDICTION: “Star Trek Beyond”

Nominees for BEST SOUND EDITING: “Arrival,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Sully.” Remember, pictures frame the story but it’s the sound that makes it seem real.

MY PREDICTION: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Nominees for BEST SOUND MIXING: “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”

MY PREDICTION: “La La Land”

Nominees for BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: “4.1 Miles,” ”Extremis,” ”Joe’s Violin,” “Watani: My Homeland,” “The White Helmets.”

MY PREDICTION: “Joe’s Violin”

Nominees for BEST ANIMATED SHORT: “Blind Vaysha,” “Borrowed Time,” “Pear Cider and Cigarette,” “Pearl,” “Piper.”

MY PREDICTION: “Piper”

Nominees for BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: “Ennemis Interierurs,” “La Femme et le TGV,” “Silent Nights,” “Sing,” “Timecode.”

MY PREDICTION: “Ennemis Interierus”

“The Salesman”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Salesman” (Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group)

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Iran’s Academy Awards entry as Best Foreign Language Film is another marital drama from Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (“The Separation”).

When Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) Etesamis are forced to evacuate their crumbling Tehran apartment, they move into a more dilapidated abode, one that was previously occupied by a single woman with a young child.

The clutter she left behind when she was evicted gives subtle clues as to who she is and the promiscuous life she led. She’s described as “a woman with lots of acquaintances…who lived a wild life.”

Emad and Rana are both actors, working in an amateur theater company’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” playing Willie and Linda Loman, respectively.

There are problems translating the blunt sexuality of this American classic for an Iranian audience, particularly the local censors. Although it’s not immediately apparent, this play-within-a-play takes on subtle significance.

One day, when Emad is out, the doorbell rings. Thinking it’s her husband, Rena unlocks the front door and goes off to take a shower. But it isn’t Emad. It’s a stranger who brutally assaults her and flees, leaving his keys and his minivan outside.

Rana never saw her attacker, nor do we. When Emad suggests going to the police, emotionally devastated Rana refuses, explaining, “I don’t want to have to tell it in front of everybody.”

Indeed, Rana would have to justify why she left the door open and, inevitably, her reputation would suffer. She feels shamed, guilty and afraid to be alone, while enraged Emad is determined to track down the intruder and wreak revenge. Which he does.

When the culprit is revealed, it’s a total surprise. And the final confrontation between the Etesamis and Rana’s shadowy assailant is a riveting revelation.

Asghar Farhadi builds a suspenseful, if contrived thriller that’s haunted by themes of inadequacy, intimacy, respect and, as Miller says, “Attention must be paid.”

In Farsi with English dialogue, on the Granger Movie Gauge, “The Salesman” is an engrossing 8, an empathetic commentary on contemporary Iranian society.

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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.

07

 

“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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