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“Once Upon a Time in Venice”

Susan Granger’s review of “Once Upon a Time in Venice” (RLJ Entertainment)

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Today’s conundrum: Why did Bruce Willis want to make this wannabe action-comedy caper that turns out to be neither? Money is the only answer.

Willis plays Steve Ford, a disgraced former police officer-turned private detective, who works with his bumbling millennial protégé, John (Thomas Middleditch), serving as narrator, in the kooky underworld of the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles, where Steve warns local kids against the dangers of drugs and hookers.

When Steve’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Buddy, is dognapped by some local thugs, he’s determined to retrieve him – with the help of his pal, depressed surf-shop owner Dave Jones (John Goodman), who is going through a nasty divorce.

The evidence leads them to a low-life cocaine-peddler named Spyder (Jason Momoa); Yuri (Ken Davitian), a ruthless Russian loan shark; and “Lew the Jew” Jewison (Adam Goldberg), a real-estate developer who needs Steve’s help to track down graffiti artist Salvatore Lopez (Tyga) who has been defacing his buildings with obscene murals.

Hovering around, causing trouble, is Lupe the Bitch (Stephanie Sigman) who fancies the stolen pooch Buddy, much to the chagrin of Steve’s sister (Famke Janssen) and niece (Emily Robinson).  Plus there’s Kal Penn as a surly convenience store owner.

The highlight of the ‘action’ is when Steve (or his stunt double) goes for a naked skateboard chase sequence. Yes, that’s a sight to see!

Written by siblings Mark and Robb Cullen (“Heist,” “Lucky,”) and directed with modest film-noir flair by Mark Cullen, it reaches a humiliating low-point when Steve stuffs a revolver between his bare butt cheeks.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” is a frantic 4, fueled by testosterone.

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“Rough Night”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rough Night” (Sony)

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Feminism takes a couple of steps backward with this estrogen-forced comedy in which a Miami bachelorette weekend goes awry.

Trying for a gender-flipping reversal on “The Hangover” and “Very Bad Things,” blended with “Bridesmaids,” the raucous riff revolves around Jess Thayer (Scarlett Johansson), who is running for the Florida state senate. While she projects a strait-laced image, Jess wasn’t always a goody-two-shoes.

Indeed, as Alice (Jillian Bell), her needy, still-single college roommate reminds her, she once encouraged her in a frat-house beer-pong tournament, whispering “Do it for womankind.”

Now Jess is getting married, and Alice organizes this party weekend at a posh beach house borrowed from one of Jess’s campaign donors.

There’s strident political activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and almost-divorced New York socialite Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who were once a hot ’n’ heavy duo back in college days – plus Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Kate’s free-spirited Australian chum, dubbed “Kiwi” by jealous Alice.

After drinking, snorting cocaine and carousing as a posse, complications arise over the accidental death of the brawny male stripper (Ryan Cooper) whom Frankie hired, augmented by the inconvenient attentions of the smarmy swingers-next-door (Demi Moore, Ty Burrell), not to mention the arrival of menacing jewel thieves.

Working from a cliché-laden script she co-wrote with Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello (Comedy Central’s “Broad City”) makes her feature directorial debut.

The plot is predictably formulaic and the flimsy, not-very-likable characters are stereotypical, so there’s not much new here – except, perhaps, how the Peter (Paul W. Downs), the upright groom, and his nerdy buddies back home are celebrating at a subdued wine-tasting.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rough Night” is only a fitfully funny 5, ostensibly celebrating female friendship.

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“Transformers: The Last Knight”

Susan Granger’s review of “Transformers: The Last Knight” (Paramount Pictures)

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Admittedly, I’ve always been the oldest woman in the theater – but I do keep hoping that, somehow, this multi-billion dollar sci-fi franchise will redeem itself.

I had high hopes for this fifth installment, particularly when the prologue, set in the Middle Ages, showed King Arthur waiting for Merlin (Stanley Tucci) to help him to win a battle against the Saxons.

Despite the legendary Knights of the Round Table, it wasn’t Merlin’s magic that gave Arthur power. It was the intergalactic Transformers.

Apparently, they’ve been hanging around Earth for eons, going back to Stonehenge, even battling Nazis.

So much for the history lesson except, as astronomer Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) explains, Merlin was given a sacred “magical” staff which can still be controlled but only by his only living descendant, Viviane Wembley (Laura Haddock), a skeptical English Lit professor at Oxford University.

Switch to wisecracking mechanic/inventor Cade Yaeger (Mark Whalberg), who has been hiding in a forsaken junkyard with Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) and some heroic Autobots.

So it’s up to Cade, Viviane, and a 14 year-old orphan, Izabella (Isabel Moner), to find the artifact and thwart evil Decepticon Megatron (Frank Welker).

Of course, they do get a little help from their Autobot friends: Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl), Hound (John Goodman), Hot Rod (Omar Sy), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Daytrader (Steve Buscemi).

There’s this new law: “Transformers are illegal, except in Cuba,” enforced by a special military agency, the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF), that’s hunting them down.

So where’s Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)? Is he on his home planet of Cybertron? And why?

Clumsily patched together by three writers, six editors and director Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor”), it’s a tedious, two-and-a-half-hour jumble of characters and idiotic battles, filled with pyrotechnics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Transformers: The Last Knight” is an explosion-filled, mind-numbing 3, a $250 million Hasbro Toy promotion.03

“Beatriz at Dinner”

Susan Granger’s review of “Beatriz at Dinner”  (Roadside Attractions)

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It’s always a shame when superb performances get mired down in melodrama – like serving a tantalizing appetizer with an indigestible meal.

Altruistic holistic healer Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a middle-aged Mexican-born divorcee, is having a rough time. Her Los Angeles neighbor objects to the incessant bleating of her pet goat, and her old Volkswagen barely starts when she turns the ignition.

Nevertheless, Beatriz wears a perpetually beatific expression as she heads off down the coastline from the cancer clinic where she works to an exclusive Newport Beach enclave to give a massage to Cathy (Connie Britton), a wealthy client whose teenage daughter Beatriz helped recover from chemotherapy.

Not surprisingly, Beatriz’s car breaks down in the driveway. So Cathy convinces her husband Grant (David Warshofsky), a contractor, to graciously include Beatriz as a “friend-of-the-family” guest at a small dinner party they’re hosting for Grant’s boss, Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow), a billionaire real estate tycoon who owns hotels and golf courses around the world.

Pompous Strutt arrives with his third, much younger wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), along with Grant’s junior colleague Alex (Jay Duplass) and his social climbing wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny).

After first mistaking sanctimonious Beatriz for a maid, Strutt further infuriates her by showing off iPhone photos of his latest ‘trophy’ hunt in Africa – in boastful poses that are reminiscent of Eric and Donald Trump Jr.’s gloating over their ‘big game’ killings.

Heavy-handedly written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta – previous collaborators on “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl” – it’s a predictable parable about the entitled ‘haves’ and long-suffering ‘have-nots,’ forced by circumstance into a social interaction in which there’s a presumed intimacy with an employee.

While waiting for the inevitable confrontation between passive-aggressive Beatriz, burning with righteous indignation and imbibing far too much wine, and vulgar, capitalistic Strutt, the concept collapses. White and Areta clearly cop out by inserting incoherent magical realism that never rings true.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Beatriz at Diner” is a deeply flawed 5 – and ultimately frustrating.

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“Cars 3″

Susan Granger’s review of “Cars 3” (Pixar Animation/Disney)

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If you thought it was weird seeing a young Carrie Fisher and resurrected Peter Cushing in “Star Wars: Rogue One,” wait ‘till you hear Paul Newman’s gruff voice as Doc Hudson in outtakes from the first “Cars” outing in 2006.

This third installment begins as the current champion, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), is trounced by a new, sleek, black-with-purple headlights “tech” car, Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), who gloats, “I can’t believe I get to race Lightning McQueen in his farewell season.”

Realizing “the racing world is changing,” following a fiery crash, discouraged Lightning discovers that his Rust-eze sponsorship is now owned by smarmy Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion), who wants him to become a racing brand.

Eager to race in the Florida 500, Lightning reports for training at the high-octane site where Jackson Storm toned up. That’s where he meets Cruz Ramirex (voiced by Cristela Alonzo), a peppy performance coach who refocuses his angry outbursts with “Use that!” endeavoring to increase his speed from 198 mph to 210 mph.

When that doesn’t work, Lightning goes in search of Doc Hudson’s legendary guru, Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper).

After Paul Newman’s death in 2008, Pixar decided to eliminate, rather than re-cast the role of Doc Hudson in “Cars 2” (2011). Now, Newman’s mentor legacy has been revived with new images and repurposed vocals.

Directed by veteran storyboard artist/animator Brian Fee from a script by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich and story by Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell and Jonathan E. Stewart, it pokes fun at our culture’s reliance on trendy self-help mantras, introduces some female empowerment and attempts to reconcile the reality of graceful aging.

Back in Radiator Springs, there are glimpses of McQueen’s girlfriend Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) with comic relief from the buck-toothed tow-truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).

And this feature is preceded by a seven-minute short: “Lou” about the comeuppance of a schoolyard bully.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Cars 3” is a sentimental 6, as the anthropomorphic vehicles take more laps around the cinematic track.

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“The Book of Henry”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Book of Henry” (Focus Features)

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As a critic, I believe it’s my job to evaluate how well a movie accomplishes its vision and fulfills its purpose. In the case of “The Book of Henry,” I’m not sure exactly what that was – or is.

In the dysfunctional Carpenter family, sensitive, precocious 11 year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) manages the family finances, constructs steampunk inventions in a formidable backyard treehouse and evidences a maturity far beyond his years.

Perhaps that’s why he realizes that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the vulnerable girl next-door, is being abused by her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who happens to be the Police Commissioner.

Henry and his adorably bespectacled, eight year-old brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) live in suburbia with their hard-working, yet remarkably immature single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who spends her free time on the couch playing violent video-games. That’s when she’s not drinking wine with her sassy waitress friend (Sarah Silverman).

Unable to communicate productively with Child Protective Services, Henry slyly devises his own scheme, which involves training Susan as a sniper, equipping her rifle with a night-vision scope, and delivering explicit instructions on how to murder hulking Glenn Sickleman, despite her plaintive protestation: “We are not killing the police commissioner!”

After delivering a stunning performance opposite Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” young Jaeden Lieberher doesn’t disappoint, nor do Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) and Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”).

The problem lies with novelist Gregg Hurwitz’s capriciously implausible script, which veers from suspicions of child-molestation to tear-jerking terminal-illness melodrama to tense thriller.

That leaves director Colin Trevorrow, who helmed the quirky, Sundance-acclaimed time-travel comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012) and “Jurassic World” (2015), trying to pull together a multitude of disparate threads and contrived coincidences.

Leaving this misguided mess behind, Trevorrow’s now directing “Star Wars: Episode IX” (2019).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10 “The Book of Henry” is a confounding 4. Best forgotten.

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“47 Meters Down”

Susan Granger’s review of “47 Meters Down” (Entertainment Studios)

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Ever since Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975), summer has become synonymous with sharks. Consider “The Shallows,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Open Water,” “The Reef,” even “Sharknado.”

So what about this latest entry?

Lisa (Mandy Moore) invited her younger sister Kate (Claire Holt) to join her at a Mexican resort after her longtime boyfriend dumped her because, as he said, she was ‘too dull.’

Determined to lighten Lisa’s depression, free-spirited Kate insists they go out dancing, where they meet two local lads (Santiago Segura, Yani Gellman) who talk them into a risky maritime adventure, even though the concierge warned them not to take side-trips that have not been ‘approved’ by the hotel.

Early the next morning, they walk out on the dock to board the rickety Sea Esta, as Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) explains the shark-tank excursion. Assuring him they’re experience with scuba equipment – which, for terrified Lisa, is not true – they don wet suits and face-masks equipped with radio communication.

After illegally ‘chumming’ the water to attract ravenous sharks, the guys climb into the observation cage first, going down five meters. When they emerge, they’re exultant about how exciting it is.

So the gullible gals follow. Then the chain snaps, dropping them 47 meters down to the bottom.  At that depth, they can no longer converse with the boat. Soon, they’re running low on air and the Great Whites are circling.

To make matters worse, they know that if they try to swim to the surface quickly, the rapid decompression (a.k.a. the bends), causing nitrogen narcosis, can kill them.

Shot in the Dominican Republic and the Underwater Studio in Basildon, outside of London, it’s sketchily scripted by Ernest Riera and director Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”) under the aegis of producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who subsequently sold off the rights.

But a third act twist turns out to be ridiculous, reducing this underwater thriller to B-movie status.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “47 Meters Down” scores a scary, suspenseful 7 – with the hashtag #Sharkbait.

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“Maudie”

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

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Sally Hawkins delivers an exquisite performance as eccentric Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis.

Set in the late 1930s in rural Nova Scotia, Maud has been crippled since childhood with rheumatoid arthritis. Cheated out of her parents’ inheritance by her selfish brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), she’s sent to live in Digby with her stern, spinster Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), who treats her as if she’s feeble-minded.

Determined to make her own way in the world, indefatigably optimistic Maudie spies a HELP WANTED ad in the general store and trudges several miles on a dirt road to the tiny, ramshackle cottage owned by surly fish-peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) to apply for the job as his live-in housekeeper.

Since no one else will come near him, grumpy Everett grudgingly hires Maudie, although he constantly berates her, curtly telling her that his dogs and chickens are more valuable to him than she is.

Resolutely cheerful and creative, Maudie slyly finds time to paint while doing her chores, dabbing colorful flowers and vibrant birds on the shelves and walls of Everett’s 10’ x 12’ house, along with any scraps of wood she can find.

Everett’s verbal abuse of Maudie continues until, one day, a visitor (Kari Matchett) from New York City shows interest in buying some of her decorative artwork. That prompts enterprising Maudie to post a sign: “Paintings for sale.”

Meanwhile, Maudie and Everett get married, and she gradually confides shameful secrets from her past which, eventually, lead to a deeper understanding of her loneliness and need for independence.

Scripted as a simplistic biopic by Sherry White, splendidly photographed by Guy Godfree, and sensitively directed by Aisling Walsh, Maudie’s spirited plight strikes a poignant chord, culminating in a short clip from Diane Beaudry’s National Film Board documentary “Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows.”

Along with Maud’s artwork, the Lewis’ little house is on display in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Maudie” is a simplistic, sincere 7, an improbable success story.

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“The Journey”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Journey” (IFC Films)

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Perhaps better suited to the History Channel, this film imagines a car ride during which Ireland’s sworn enemies, Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and Martin McGuiness (Colm Meaney), began to communicate after decades of hostility and violence in Northern Ireland.

In October, 2006, while trying to work out what became known as the St. Andrews Agreement, Rev. Paisley needed to fly from the famed Scottish golf resort to Belfast to celebrate his Golden Wedding anniversary with his wife. For security reasons, McGuiness insists on accompanying him.

As various mishaps and delays lengthen the time it takes to make 50-mile trip to the Edinburgh airport, the lifelong adversaries begin to converse for the first time.

Taking a conciliatory position, garrulous McGuiness, the former Irish Republican Army leader, initiates their interaction. At first, Paisley, the crusading 80 year-old founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, is overtly confrontational, exuding moral superiority. Eventually, his stern countenance softens, along with his vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric.

What they don’t realizes is that their young Scots chauffeur (Freddie Highmore) is actually an undercover British agent, charged with monitoring their private conversation which is being watched via a secret camera by MI-boss Harry Patterson (John Hurt) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens).

Scripted by Colin Bateman and directed by Nick Hamm – with memorable performances from both Spall and Meaney – it provides an imaginative look at the background leading up to the assumption of power by First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2007.

In reality, Paisley’s wife Eileen was with him at St. Andrews; he and McGuinness did not actually begin to dialogue with one another until six months after the Agreement was signed.

On the Granger Mo vie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Journey” is a simplistic 6, giving the impression of eavesdropping on a historic conversation.

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“The Hunter’s Prayer”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Hunter’s Prayer” (Lionsgate/Saban Films)

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When her wealthy parents are murdered in their suburban New York, home, teenage Ella Hatto (Odeya Rush) is thousands of miles away at a posh Swiss boarding school, sneaking out to a trendy nightclub with her boyfriend Sergio, unaware that she’s next on the assassin’s hit list.

But he’s no ordinary killer. Conflicted, conscience-stricken Stephen Lucas (Sam Worthington) has gone rogue. Suffering from PTSD and addicted to heroin, he’s filled with regrets over his military past. So Stephen decides not only to spare Ella’s life but also to track down the other gunmen who have been hired to kill her.

Posing as a bodyguard sent by her family, he explains that there’s a contract out on her as punishment for her father’s financial treachery.

As they travel across Europe, eluding a shadowy so-called friend (Veronica Echegui) and corrupt FBI agent (Amy Landecker), Stephen and Ella get to know one another, establishing an unlikely relationship that’s reminiscent of Luc Besson’s subversive “Leon: The Professional.”

“How do you do it?” Ella inquires. “Kill people.”

By the time they reach the imposing 19th century Yorkshire estate that belongs to malevolent Richard Addison (Allen Leech) and serves as a lavish front for his illegal narcotics distribution, they’ve become a team.

Working from a far-fetched, thinly sketched script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, based on a 2004 novel “For the Dogs” by Kevin Wignall, resourceful director Jonathan Mostow (“U-571,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Breakdown”) relies on action, rather than exposition and dialogue, to propel this effective thriller. As a result, brawling fight scenes, careening car-chases and brutal shootouts abound.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Hunter’s Prayer” is a gritty, fast-paced 6, best suited for video-viewing.

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