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“The Lego Ninjago Movie”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lego Ninjago Movie” (Warner Bros.)

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Bookended by two live-action sequences featuring Jackie Chan as the Chinatown curio store narrator, this animated feature delves once again into the world of plastic toys.

Indeed, it’s almost a duplicate of “The Lego Movie” (2014), redundantly utilizing a wise guru and a sought-after Ultimate Weapon that turns out to be common household object.

In the Asian island city of Ninjago, there’s this average high school student, Lloyd (Dave Franco), whose absentee father is wicked, ego-maniacal Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), making Lloyd an outcast and giving him obvious Daddy issues.

Riffing on the Luke Skywalker “Star Wars” mythology, it revives the combative good son/evil father concept – with Lloyd’s overprotective mother KoKo (Olivia Munn) serving as the voice of reason.

Meanwhile, martial arts Master Wu (Jackie Chan) has been training a color-coded, elemental Ninja team to battle pompous, four-armed Warlord Garmadon, who happens to be his brother. And Lloyd, as the Green Dragon Ninja, secretly trains with them.

There’s the Red Fire Ninja Kai (Michael Pena), the Blue Lightning Ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), the Black Water Ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson), the half-human/half-robot White Ice Ninja Zane (Zach Woods), and the Black Earth Ninja Cole (Fred Armisen). They’re Power Ranger-like warriors.

Eventually, the Ninjas must team up with Lord Garmadon to save their metropolis from annihilation by “Meowthra,” a giant house cat.

Utilizing a script filled with pop-culture puns and gags that have been cobbled together by a veritable gang of screenwriters, directors Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan rely on Animal Logic animation – with original directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller now taking producer credits.

FYI: Ninjago is pronounced two different ways. When referring to the fictional city, it’s nin-JAH-go. But when it’s used as a battle cry, it sounds like, “Go, Ninja, Go!”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is a frenetic 5, familiar family fare that becomes another brick-building commercial.

05

“Friend Request”

Susan Granger’s review of “Friend Request” (Entertainment Studios/Global Media)

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Like “Unfriended,” Simon Verhoeven taps into social media to propel this tech-terror thriller which starts out with a provocative premise before it inevitably dissolves into clichéd carnage.

College student Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is undoubtedly one of the most popular coeds on campus. Since she has more than 800 ‘friends,’ she graciously accepts a ‘friend’ request from lonely Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), a strange, hoodie-clad, Goth-like classmate.

But then Marina becomes obsessed with Laura, who lies to her about a birthday party. That tips troubled Marina over the edge, causing Laura to ‘unfriend’ her. In retaliation, Marina posts a video in which she’s seen committing suicide by hanging herself and setting herself on fire.

In an accompanying message, Marina vows that Laura will soon understand what real loneliness is. And that’s just the beginning of the torment Marina directs toward Laura. Cyberstalking reigns, as horrific videos suddenly begin appearing under Laura’s name.

Unable to delete the videos and cancel her demonic on-line account, Laura takes desperate measures, enlisting the services of a hacker, Kobe (Connor Paolo), when her real-life friends start being ceremonially killed by grisly, gruesome, supernatural methods, particularly CGI wasps.

“That’s not code,” Kobe declares, examining the mystical videos of their deaths. “I think it’s a ritual.”

Or, as the tagline proclaims, “Evil is trending.”

Co-writing the screenplay with Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch, German director Simon Verhoeven is the son of director Michael Verhoeven and actress Senta Berger. He is not related to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Friend Request” is a formulaically trashy, throwaway 3, filled with far too many jump scares.

03

“Literally, Right Before Aaron”

Susan Granger’s review of “Literally, Right Before Aaron” (Screen Media Films)

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Writer/director/editor/composer Ryan Eggold relates the strange, agonizing story of lovelorn, thirtysomething Adam (Justin Long), who gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Allison (Cobie Smulders), telling him that she’s getting married and inviting him to her upcoming wedding.

Against the advice of his best friend Mark (John Cho), hapless Adam decides to pack up his VW Beetle and drive back home to San Francisco to attend the nuptials, hoping to convince himself and everyone else, including her fiancé Aaron (Ryan Hansen), that he’s truly happy for her.

As one embarrassment after another humiliates Adam, Mark echoes the viewer’s sentiment by plaintively asking, “What are you thinking? Why are you doing this?”

Whiny Adam is an aspiring nature-documentary filmmaker who is being browbeaten by his employer, egocentric Orson Schwartzman (Peter Gallagher), host of TV’s “Nature Calls…”

But he isn’t able to embark on his future until he emotionally discards the idyllic concept of fairy-tale love that has kept him enmeshed with Allison, his college sweetheart.

And when other well-wishers ask why he’s there, someone says, “Adam and Allison used to go out,” and another adds, “Literally, right before Aaron.” Hence the title.

According to Ryan Eggold’s Director’s Statement, this an “anti-romantic” comedy, relating an unconventional story, juxtaposing the incongruity between how we expect things to turn out and how they actually do.

Actor Justin Long duly embodies masochistic Adam, while Cobie Smulders (TVs “How I Met Your Mother”) is enchanting as Allison. They’re supported by a steadfast roster that includes Dana Delany, Luis Guzman, Kristen Schaal and Lea Thompson – experienced thespians whose considerable talents are wasted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Literally, Right After Aaron” is pathetic 4, revolving around a petulant jerk.

04

“Brad’s Status”

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

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Writer/director Mike White tackles a particularly privileged mid-life crisis as a neurotic father takes his talented 17 year-old son on a New England college tour.

Although he lives in a beautiful suburban home in Sacramento, California, with his loving, supportive wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), angst-riddled Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) never stops whining and complaining.

An idealist, he’s opted to work in the non-profit sector, which means he’s earned considerably less money than his Tufts University classmates.

There’s former White House press secretary-turned-author Craig (Michael Sheen), wealthy hedge-fund manager Jason (Luke Wilson), retired-in-Maui tech guru Billy (Jermaine Clement) and Hollywood director Nick (Mike White) whose $9 million mansion is on the cover of Architectural Digest.

“For them, the world isn’t a battlefield, it’s a playground,” Brad muses.

Now Brad’s off to visit East Coast colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams), a musical prodigy who has a good chance of being accepted at Harvard. Or, at least he would have, if he’d not messed up the date for his Admissions interview.

Determined to rectify the scheduling snafu, Brad tries calling his influential college classmates from whom he has felt estranged.

While he’s utterly convincing, Ben Stiller has played similar malcontent roles before – in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “While We’re Young” and, more recently, “The Meyerowitz Stories.”  But his totally self-absorbed Brad Sloan seems somewhat smarmy, given today’s ‘real world’ problems.

Eventually, Brad gets his comeuppance from Troy’s flautist friend Ananya (Shazi Raja) but not before this middle-aged creep imagines running off with bikini-clad Ananya and another nubile undergrad.

Filmmaker Mike White indulges in seemingly endless fantasies and inner monologues, overly narrated by Ben Stiller. But it’s difficult to evoke sympathy for this resentful materialist. The more we know about him, the less we like him.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Brad’s Status” is a sardonic 6, stuffed with deceptive sentimentality and self-pity.
06

 

 

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (20th Century-Fox)

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Following his deliriously astonishing “Kingsman” (2015), Matthew Vaughn’s cynical, R-rated sequel continues the stylized spoof of James Bond spy stories.

With her retro-50s headquarters hidden deep in Cambodian rainforest ruins, the megalomaniacal villain is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the world’s most successful – and demented – drug dealer, who manages to destroy most of the Kingsman knights along with their bespoke tailor shop on Savile Row.

That leaves only Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the cheeky former London street kid-turned-superspy who is in love with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), daughter of Sweden’s King and Queen (Bjorn Granath, Lena Endre), whom he rescued in the first film’s climax.

Eggsy and gadget-wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) venture across the pond to Kentucky to find American spy allies at Statesman bourbon brewery, run by Champagne – “Call me Champ” – (Jeff Bridges), whose cowboy team includes Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and tech-whiz Ginger Ale (Halle Berry).

Meanwhile, Poppy has implanted a mysterious virus to infect and, eventually, kill every drug user in the world. She intends to blackmail the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to bargain for the antidote. But her plan backfires when he opts to double-cross her – to the chagrin of his chief-of-staff (Emily Watson).

Meanwhile, having miraculously survived being shot in the eye, suave Harry Hart (Colin Firth) – whose Kingsman code name is “Galahad” – is suffering from “retrograde amnesia.” Locked in a padded cell, he believes he’s a lepidopterist (a butterfly collector).

And there’s an extended pop cameo by Elton John, being held captive as Poppy’s piano-playing prisoner.

Based on comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, it’s sloppily scripted by director Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who rely far too much on crudely explicit sex gags, maniacal action and exaggerated CGI, lacking the essential element of surprise which made the original such a success.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a sassy, satirical 6, as the flippant, fun-filled, fantasy franchise continues.

06

 

 

“Rebel in the Rye”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rebel in the Rye” (IFC Films)

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Since J.D. Salinger repeatedly refused to allow a movie to be made of “The Catcher in the Rye,” filmmaker Danny Strong decided to dramatize the story of how and why this literary classic was written.

Adapting Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, Strong (co-creator of the TV series “Empire”) asserts not only that Holden Caulfield was Salinger’s alter ego but also that Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, was Sally Hayes.

When he was 22, Jerome David Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) fell madly in love with then-16 year-old Oona (Zoey Deutch). Flanked by socialites Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Marcus (who married William Saroyan), Oona played coy with many suitors, including Orson Welles and cartoonist Peter Arno; in 1942, she was dubbed Debutante of the Year.

But Salinger persisted and, when he went off to fight in W.W. II, Oona promised to wait for him. So when he read in the newspaper that she’d married 53 year-old Charlie Chaplin, he was devastated.

Dispatched to Europe just in time for D-Day, Salinger was permanently scarred by the brutality that he witnessed on the front lines, suffering what we now know as PTSD. Nevertheless, encouraged by his agent (Sarah Paulson), he kept working on his 1951 novel about poignant adolescent angst.

Translated into 30 languages, it has sold 65 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 copies a year!

From childhood, Salinger felt tortured. Encouraged by his mother (Hope Davis) but thwarted by his critical father (Victor Garber), he studied creative writing at Columbia under Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), editor of “Story” magazine, who became his mentor, insisting that Holden Caulfield was worthy of his own novel.

Salinger later published “Franny and Zooey,” “Nine Stories” and other minor works. Married three times, he eventually chose a reclusive life of Zen Buddhism and meditation, isolated in the Cornish, New Hampshire woods until his death in 2010.

Despite Strong’s best efforts, the essence of J.D. Salinger remains elusive.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rebel in the Rye” is a feeble 5, cheesy and implausible.

05

 

 

“Viceroy’s House”

Susan Granger’s review of “Viceroy’s House” (IFC Films)

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Having entranced audiences with “Bend It Like Beckham, “British-raised filmmaker Gurinder Chadha goes back to her family’s roots with this splendid historical drama.

Set in India during the chaotic weeks leading up to the 1947 Partition, it begins with the words: “History is written by the victors.”

Having served as Viceroy of Burma until its independence, patrician Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his compassionate wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) are dispatched by King George VI to diplomatically conclude England’s 300-year colonial rule and hand over power to India’s new leaders.

Which is easier said than done because Mountbatten must decide whether to accede to the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) to set up a pluralistic nation with a Hindu majority, or listen to the pleas of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzuil Smith) to partition India into two countries, establishing a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Division doesn’t create peace,” warns Gandhi. “It creates havoc.”

During this tumult, an ardent young Hindu, Jeet (Manish Dayal) arrives in Dehli to train as Mountbatten’s valet. He is smitten with Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a dutiful member of the Viceroy’s household staff, who is promised to a Muslim man chosen by her father (Om Puri).

Their illicit romantic conflict serves as a microcosm of the far larger struggle, resulting in the violent carnage and suffering that inevitably followed the sectarian displacement of more than 10 million people. It was the largest human migration in history, as Muslims trekked to Pakistan, displacing Hindus and Sikhs, who went to settle within India’s newly drawn borders.

Based on “The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition” by Narendra Singh Sarila, it’s been adapted by Chadha with co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini, who utilize a familiar “Upstairs, Downstairs” formula, amplified by Ben Smithard’s visuals and A. H. Rahman’s score.

FYI: What Chadha leaves out is Edwina Mountbatten’s well-publicized affair with Nehru.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Viceroy’s House” is a personally poignant 7, revealing a cultural legacy that still reverberates today.

07

“American Assassin”

Susan Granger’s review of “American Assassin” (Lionsgate/CBS Films)

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Derivative but diverting, this timely political thriller centers on covert U.S. operatives zeroing in on terrorist factions and renegade mercenaries.

It begins on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his blonde, bikini-clad girl-friend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega). She accepts, but their idyllic vacation ends in a bloodbath when Katrina is killed, along with other beach-goers, by Uzi-toting Muslim terrorists from a Libyan group under Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmad).

Determined to avenge Katrina’s murder by infiltrating Al-Mansur’s Tripoli-based cell, traumatized Rapp quits his graduate studies to buff up and learn marksmanship, martial arts and Arabic, which attracts attention from U.S. intelligence.

Although the CIA director (David Suchet) has his doubts about channeling Rapp’s unbridled thirst for revenge, the counterintelligence chief (Sanaa Lathan) views him as an ideal assassin because “He’s testing through the roof!”

So Rapp is sent off to be trained by grizzled, ex-Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) at a no-nonsense boot camp in Virginia, where he goads his pupils to “kill me.”

When Rapp goes into the field to track down stolen weapons-grade plutonium, he’s accompanied by another trainee, Victor (Scott Adkins), and a Turkish agent, Annika (Shiva Negar), eventually facing a former American agent-turned-rogue mercenary (Taylor Kitsch) dubbed Ghost, who is brokering the plutonium-239 deal in Poland.

Based on a series of pulp novels by the late Vince Flynn, it’s adapted by – count ‘em – four different screenwriters, including Stephen Schiff (TV’s “The Americans”), and directed by Michael Cuesta (“Kill the Messenger”).

The cliché-riddled result is completely predictable, including a climactic showdown at sea, involving a speedboat, helicopter and the U.S. fleet.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Assassin” is a flat, formulaic 5, despite its fast-moving action sequences.

05

 

 

“mother!”

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

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If you needed proof of the adage “Love is blind,” look no further than Jennifer Lawrence starring in her boyfriend Darren Aronofsky’s macabre horror/melodrama that’s tinged with increasingly hysterical, pseudo-religious overtones.

Writer/director Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) blends “Rosemary’s Baby” with “Requiem for a Dream,” making the cynical assertion that – for the artist – creative inspiration is more important than love or life itself.

Opening with the image of a huge Victorian country house burning, along with its female inhabitant (Lawrence), it relates the tortured tale of a nameless, archetypal couple (Lawrence, Javier Bardem).

He’s a famous, self-absorbed poet who craves adoration and idolatry. Serving as his self-sacrificing “inspiration,” she’s renovated and restored his idyllic old house, which burned down before they met. Like a radiant Earth Mother, she’s determined to “make a paradise” for him, even while self-medicating.

One evening, a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) knocks at their door, explaining that he thought this was a B&B and he needs a room for the night. Rather than turn him away, the poet invites him to stay, much to the dismay of his timid, subservient, much younger wife.

It turns out their coughing, chain-smoking visitor is a doctor who is soon joined by his arrogant, predatory wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and, later, by their two bickering sons (Domhnall & Brian Gleeson), one of whom kills the other.

Then an unwelcome horde of other parasitic intruders arrive, along with relentless violence and increasing destruction.

“Who are these people?” she inquires – with increasing panic. (Aronofsky positions almost every shot either as a close-up on Lawrence’s face, over her shoulder or from her point-of-view.)

Cryptic Biblical allusions abound as subtext in this abstract, metaphysical allegory with cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s flamboyantly bizarre visuals evoking the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and other intense, apocalyptic visions.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “mother!” is a grim, grotesque 2, turning into another instance of pretentious, self-indulgent torture-porn.

02

 

 

“The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Mathias”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias” (The Duke on 42nd Street/Off-Broadway)

 

According to Roman mythology, the Rape of the Sabine Women refers to a time when the men of ancient Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from surrounding areas during the festival of Neptune Equester.

During the Renaissance and afterwards, it became a popular subject for painters, particularly Jacques-Louis David’s “The Intervention of the Sabine Women.”

Now, playwright Michael Yates Crowley transforms it into a darkly satirical indictment of American rape culture, revolving around a 15 year-old Springfield high school student, Grace B. Matthias (Susannah Perkins), dressed in a baggy sweater, who recounts her sexual assault to a Lawyer (Jeff Biehl).

Grace’s rapist Jeff (Doug Harris) is a not the star football player on the team known as the Romans. Instead, he’s the shy sidekick of the quarterback Bobby (Alex Breaux), and Grace’s tortured ambivalence is obvious, since she says she’d like to forgive him, just like the Sabine woman ‘forgave’ their captors by marrying them.

But those around her have differing viewpoints. Her callous cheerleader pal Monica (Jeena Yi) urges her to keep quiet, noting “Boys don’t like smart.” A misogynistic newsman (Chas Carey) focuses on the potential damage to the Romans’ season. The guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky) is emotionally conflicted. And the townsfolk fall back on the classic re-victimizing “Did she asked for it?” scenario.

Sensitively directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set reveals a high-school gymnasium with lighting by Barbara Samuels, and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes.

The exciting, innovative concept – with its inherent complications – was inspired by the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case which involved the rape of an intoxicated teenage girl by two football players.

And it’s particularly timely since President Donald Trump is trying to dismantle the Obama administrations 2011 guidelines that require schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault.

FYI: In 1954, the short story “The Sobbin Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet, was adapted into a M.G.M. musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which subsequently became a stage musical.

This Playwrights Realm production, which is presented without an intermission, is at The Duke on 42nd Street thru Sept. 23. For tickets, call 212-223-3010 or go to www.dukeon42.org.