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NOTTING HILL

Susan Granger’s review of “NOTTING HILL” (Polygram/Universal Pictures release)

She’s the most dazzling, famous movie star in the world and he’s the sheepish, fumbling proprietor of a tiny travel book store on funky Notting Hill in London. Can they falls in love? Why not? In this joyous, contemporary fairy tale, anything’s possible. Especially with a script by Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral) that’s reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday.” The set-up has Julia Roberts, a glamorous American actress, meet Hugh Grant, a book-seller, in his shop – after which he inadvertently spills orange juice all over her T-shirt. She agrees to let him awkwardly clean her up in his nearby flat and – well, nature takes its course. But their path to romance has plenty of bumps which I won’t ruin for you. Suffice it to say, she’s the impetuous aggressor, while he’s wary. She’s sophisticated; he’s shy. She’s agile; he’s clumsy. She’s direct, saying whatever she thinks; he’s understated and evasive, musing, “I’ve opened Pandora’s box, and there’s trouble inside.” Director Roger Michell has astutely assembled a superb British supporting cast, particularly Rhys Ifans as Grant’s wild, Welsh flat-mate and Emma Chambers as his ditsy sister, with Alec Baldwin in an uncredited cameo as Roberts’ boy-friend who drops in unexpectedly. There are several mischievous sequences involving the absolute idiocy people display in the presence of a celebrity and a comic sparring-match with the British tabloid press, plus a timely scandal involving obscene photos and sly, amusing repartee involving Mel Gibson’s bottom. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Notting Hill” is an amusing, captivating, relentlessly entertaining 10 – a perfect date movie and one of the most delightful films in years!

Susan Granger rate this movie 10 out of 10

INSTINCT

Susan Granger’s review of “INSTINCT” (Touchstone Pictures)

Violence has become a negative catch-word recently, so it’s refreshing to see how the concept is explored in this psychological thriller, based on Daniel Quinn’s book “Ismael.” Anthony Hopkins plays a highly respected primatologist who has been jailed for killing two Rwandan rangers and injuring others after choosing to live in the wild with mountain gorillas for nearly two years. Held captive in an overcrowded maximum security prison for the criminally insane, he is interrogated by a bright, ambitious psychiatrist, Cuba Gooding Jr., who is eager to understand the mysterious truth behind the scientist’s actions in anticipation of writing a best-seller. While simplistic, Gerald DiPego’s script is intelligent and thoughtful, delving into the concepts of illusion and freedom, combined with the lust for domination and control, ultimately dividing people into “givers” and “takers.” Director Jon Turtletaub (“Phenomenon”) integrates the brutal reality of prison life with memories of what transpired in Africa to motivate Hopkins’ violent behavior. The challenging, combative chemistry between Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. is palpable, escalating the tension level, which is already elevated by the hostile sadism of the prison’s guards and warden. But a subplot involving Maura Tierney as Hopkins’ daughter never jells, and the conclusion is cloyingly melodramatic. Arguably the most versatile and talented actor on the screen today, Anthony Hopkins evokes a volatile power and fury reminiscent of Hannibal Lechter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” while Cuba Gooding Jr. displays a forceful, bruising intensity. And special-effects wizard Stan Winston works wonders with the gorillas. On the Granger Movie Gauge, “Instinct” is a compelling 7, commanding attention from start to finish.

Susan Granger rates this movie 7 out of 10

THIS IS MY FATHER

Susan Granger’s review of “THIS IS MY FATHER” (Sony Pictures Classics)

This Irish romantic drama is a uniquely personal collaboration between first-time writer-director Paul Quinn and his brothers Aidan Quinn (“Michael Collins,” “Practical Magic”) and Declan Quinn (cinematographer on “Leaving Las Vegas,” “One True Thing”). It’s the bittersweet story of a Chicago schoolteacher (James Caan) who travels to Ireland to discover his roots and learns the sad, true “Romeo and Juliet”-type tale of his mother and the father he never met. The screenplay stemmed from a story the Quinns’ Irish-born mother used to tell about ill-fated lovers in her village. The couple’s secret is something the tight-lipped locals still refuse to discuss – 50 years later. Told in flashback, Aidan Quinn plays Kieran, a shy tenant farmer, who meets Fiona (Moya Farrelly), a lovely, free-spirited 17 year-old, and they fall in love. But her alcoholic mother, who owns the farm on which Kieran works, disapproves because he’s poor and a bastard child. Eventually, the community, mobilized by a tyrannical priest (Stephen Rea), manages to separate them. The acting is admirable with a stalwart supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Colm Meaney, Brendan Gleeson, and Donal Donnelly. The weakness of the film is the contrived structure. Paul Quinn’s tragic story-line is so full of hackneyed interruptions that it loses its power – which is too bad since the poetic imagery evokes a society smothering under the weight of doomy superstition and inevitable tradition. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “This is My Father” is a gentle, moving 6. And the family collaboration will continue as the Quinn brothers’ Ireland-based sister Marian is developing a script about four Dublin girls.

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AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME

Susan Granger’s review of “AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME” (New Line Cinema)

This comedy sequel continues the satirical adventures of “The International Man of Mystery,” beginning with a James Bond’ish theme as the “Star Wars”-inspired introduction scrolls up the screen. In a nutshell: After Austin Powers (Mike Myers) discovers that his beloved bride, Vanessa Carrington (Elizabeth Hurley), is really a Fem-Bot (female robot), he is informed by the Head of British Intelligence (Michael York) that fiendish Fat Bastard (Mike Myers), the Scottish henchman of Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), has stolen his mojo (his essence, his life force, his sex drive), using time travel machine to go back to 1967 when Austin was cryogenically frozen. So Austin has to go back to the swingin’, shagadelic ’60s to retrieve his manhood. That’s where he meets groovy CIA babe, Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham): “Shagwell by name. Shag-very-well by reputation.” So much for plot. Relying primarily on sight gags and toilet humor, director Jay Roach desperately grabs laughs wherever he can find them. And that includes a Jerry Springer Show riff in which Dr. Evil’s son (Seth Green) confronts his father, along with Nazi and Ku Klux Klan sons, claiming: “My Father is Evil and Wants to Take Over the World.” What’s new? Dr. Evil has a tiny clone, known as Mini-Me. Robert Wagner and Rob Lowe play the ’90s/ ’60s versions of Dr. Evil’s second-in-command – and Rob does the best R.J. Wagner impression I’ve ever seen! Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Tim Robbins, Willie Nelson, and Woody Harrelson pop up in cameos. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” is a goofy, sporadically funny, silly 6. Oh, behave! And stay for the credits.

06

TARZAN

Susan Granger’s review of “TARZAN” (Buena Vista/Walt Disney)

“Tarzan” is the best animated adventure since “The Lion King”! Not only does it have family drama, laughter, love, and five new songs by Phil Collins, but it offers young boys a viable role model for the emotional conflicts of adolescence. The story begins as a shipwrecked infant is orphaned in Africa when his parents are devoured by a leopard. Despite the initial reluctance of her mate, he is adopted by a loving female gorilla, Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), who has herself lost a child. As Tarzan matures into a young man (Tony Goldwyn) with the instincts and athletic prowess of a jungle animal, his idyllic habitat is invaded by British visitors, most notably Jane (Minnie Driver). Quickly realizing that she’s more like him than any other animal he’s ever seen, he’s immediately intrigued – and far too curious. Meanwhile, her nutty father (Nigel Hawthorne) and gun-toting, big game hunter (Brian Blessed) pose a threat to the sanctity of the jungle. That much is predictable from the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic. Yet there’s a lot that’s new here. Tarzan no longer swings on vines; instead, he glides through the trees like a skateboard surfer on safari. And Cheetah’s been replaced by annoyingly brash, comical Terk (Rosie O’Donnell). But, even deeper, this Tarzan is an adolescent in search of his own identity, wondering: Who am I? What am I? And, most important, where do I belong? It’s a coming-of-age comedy-drama, not unlike “The Lion King,” and the thoughtful, sensitive conclusion differs from the traditional tale. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, this “Tarzan” is a timely, triumphant 10. He’s a hero for our times: a cool guy who seeks harmony and acts from the heart, utterly devoid of machismo.

Susan Granger rates this movie 10 out of 10

LIMBO

Susan Granger’s review of “LIMBO” (Columbia Pictures)

John Sayles makes movies the way James Michener wrote books, traveling to fascinating places and placing imaginary characters amidst very real situations. Think of the intelligence and creativity of Sayles’ “Secret of Roan Inish,” “Lone Star,” “Matewan,” “Passion Fish,” and “Men with Guns.”

Alaska is America’s last frontier. Its vast expanse of rugged, untamed wilderness is both setting and antagonist in “Limbo,” the story of three isolated people who come together to face their own demons and to explore the very nature of emotional and physical risk Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays a tough, frustrated bar singer with a troubled, strong-willed teenage daughter, Vanessa Martinez. David Strathairn is a quiet, traumatized ex-fisherman-turned-handyman who invites them to join him for a weekend cruise which goes sour when his half-brother (Casey Siemaszko), who owns the boat, reveals he’s being pursued by killers after a drug deal went bad. Their lives, past and present, form the crux of the superbly crafted drama which places them in a life-threatening survival situation from which they may not successfully emerge, depending on the whim of a quixotic bush pilot (Kris Kristofferson). “Limbo” is John Sayles’ most unflinching, daringly original, and powerfully disturbing film, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s performance of bruising, heart-wrenching intensity is definitely Oscar-caliber. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Limbo” is a piercing, suspenseful 8. The ambiguity of its ending may be frustrating, but your reaction and subsequent conclusion reveal more about you than about the characters in the film. Remember, “limbo” is defined as “a condition of unknowable outcome.”

Susan Granger rates this movie 8 out of 10

THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER

Susan Granger’s review of “THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER” (Paramount Pictures)

Based on Nelson DeMille’s best-selling thriller, this is serious sleaze. Set on a swampy Southern Army base, the lurid story mixes rape and murder with betrayal and serious questioning of powerful West Point principles. John Travolta stars as a Criminal Investigation Divison Warrant Officer who is assigned to solve a bizarre crime. The nude, dead body of the daughter (Leslie Stefanson) of a distinguished General (James Cromwell) with political ambitions is found spread-eagled and staked to the ground in the middle of a training field. Whodunit? And why? He and his partner, rape counselor Madeleine Stowe, are given 36 hours to come up with discreet military answers before the FBI launch their own investigation. Who could have a motive to kill the beautiful West Point graduate who worked in the Psychological Operations Unit? Everyone, it seems. From the woman’s Commanding Officer (the always suspicious James Woods) to the base’s Provost Marshal (Timothy Hutton), who seems to pop up repeatedly in odd places, to the General’s fiercely loyal Adjutant (Clarence Williams III). “How she died seems to be tied to the way she lived,” Travolta astutely observes, after uncovering some decidedly freaky films detailing the woman’s promiscuous, sordid sex life. Writers Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman pepper the script with flippant banter, as if they couldn’t make up their minds about how seriously to take the grisly, gruesome subject matter, and director Simon West repeatedly contrives to return to the sordid, brutal crime scene as the murky melodrama unfolds to its ironic, if unlikely, conclusion. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The General’s Daughter” is a perversely kinky 4. It’s tortuous, tormented, and trashy.

04

THE RED VIOLIN

Susan Granger’s review of “THE RED VIOLIN” (Lions Gate Films)

Francois Girard’s stirring, sumptuous epic follows the turbulent, if convoluted, journey of a legendary violin, famous for its perfect acoustics and unusual reddish hue. Up for auction in Canada, the stringed instrument has traveled around the globe for more than 300 years when an American expert (Samuel L. Jackson) is summoned to authenticate its worth. Created by a 17th century Italian, Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), as a legacy of love for his unborn son, the violin becomes an embodiment of his grief when his beloved wife Anna (Irene Grazioli) and child die in childbirth. Mysteriously, a Tarot-card reader has predicted a long, nomadic, adventure-packed life for Anna, coupling her fate to the future “life” of the Red Violin. As the intriguing story evolves, the spell of the violin seems to bewitch the lives of its various owners. It travels to monastic Austria, where it goes to a six year-old child prodigy. In England, it falls into the decadent hands of a Byronic musician (Jason Flemyng) who uses it in his flamboyant courtship of a volatile novelist (Greta Scacchi). From there, it’s brought to Shanghai, where it winds up as a treasured artifact in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Finally, Chinese authorities send it to the auction hall in modern-day Montreal, where eager bidders, descendants and friends of the people it has touched, are obsessed with acquiring the instrument. The mystery, of course, is who will wind up with this fabled masterpiece? Although the pace and quality of the sprawling flashback episodes differ greatly, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Red Violin” is an exquisite, captivating 9. It’s a sweeping, cinematic symphony, a unique combination of classical and contemporary, both in music and imagery.

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SUMMER OF SAM

Susan Granger’s review of “SUMMER OF SAM” (Buena Vista/Touchstone)

The perennial question facing film-makers has always been: Should movies try to influence their audience – using morality stories, fables, fantasies, etc. – or should movies simply, often boldly, reflect the society of their time? Spike Lee chooses the latter. There’s no doubt that the anger and violence, stupidity and intolerance that he depicts are real. But do you really want to spend a sluggish two hours with these unpleasant, unsavory characters? Set in the sweltering summer of ’77, when the Son of Sam psychopath, David Berkowitz, went on his bloody killing spree in the Bronx, the story revolves around two couples who are long-time friends. Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo are into disco, while Jennifer Esposito and Adrien Brody are punk rockers. Each has his/her own sexually explicit problems (mostly drug-connected) but, collectively, they’re spooked as they’re swept into the gruesome details of Berkowitz’s indiscriminate slaughter. And Ben Gazzara scores as the local crime kingpin who is determined to protect his neighborhood. Problem is: there’s no bond between the moronic characters and the audience. Is it the one-dimensional roles in the episodic screenplay by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, and Spike Lee? Perhaps. But, as a director, Lee seems out of his element with these idiosyncratic Italian-Bronx characters and keeps us utterly detached. And, as an actor, Lee delivers a wretched performance as a TV newscaster overemphasizing each line. While this film is visually stylish and vigorous with pertinent historical imagery, it is, as Jimmy Breslin says, just one of eight million stories of the naked city – and quite a racist one at that. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Summer of Sam” is a bleak, brutal, repellent 3. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

03

ARLINGTON ROAD

Susan Granger’s review of “ARLINGTON ROAD” (Sony Pictures/Screen Gems Release)

This contemporary thriller stars Jeff Bridges as a college professor whose FBI-agent wife was killed in a botched raid on an alleged right-wing cult. The film was scheduled to open in May, shortly after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. With its tagline, “Fear thy neighbor,” its release was understandably postponed. The theme revolves around how everyday appearances can be deceiving. This concept is personified by a seemingly normal, all-American couple – Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack – who move with their three children into a suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Gradually, Bridges, who teaches a course in terrorism, senses something suspicious about them. Is he just paranoid or are they part of a lethal, para-military conspiracy? “There’s no gratuitous violence,” Bridges says, “but it does deal with a violent subject, with militia groups – and how some people express unhappiness toward the government and their own lives. Certainly, I would hope it doesn’t lead to copycat crimes. However, it’s a tough subject: whether the arts reflect society or lead society. I don’t know if we want to put restrictions on creativity, but, at the same time, we certainly do not want to inspire people to do violence.” Writer Ehren Kruger and director Mark Pellington are obviously manipulative as they explore this volatile subject with a stylish scenario that leads to a grim, uncompromising, over-the-top conclusion. Both Cusack and Robbins seem to relish their intriguing, intimidating roles with an evil glee, and Jeff Bridges delivers a solid performance as the tormented widower who becomes a pawn in their plot to dismantle American society. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Arlington Road” is a sinister, scary 6, making you skeptical about anyone’s safety. It delivers a chilling shiver on a hot summer’s night.

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