Susan Granger’s “LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST” (Miramax Films)
Having done “Henry V,” “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing” on film, Kenneth Branagh, who comes from working-class background, continues his determination make Shakespeare more relevant to contemporary audiences. This time, he punctuates the Bard with ’30s and ’40s musical numbers. Set in Europe in 1939, just before the outbreak of W.W.II, the romantic comedy begins when the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and three companions (Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester) swear to shun all distractions and study for three years. But no sooner have they made their monastic vows than the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and three lovely ladies-in-waiting (Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo, Natascha McElhorne) show up, and the four flirtatious couples pair off to songs from Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin. The fact that his cast has mediocre musical ability didn’t deter Branagh’s enthusiasm. “It wasn’t our ambition to achieve the slickness and impossible perfection of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” he explains. “What we did want was abandonment to the enterprise, joy and commitment to the songs and dancing.” Indeed, singing “Cheek to Cheek” mid-air, they float to the rafters of a library. Branagh wavers uncomfortably between the various styles of American musicals, attempting to combine the crisp, formal precision of Busby Berkeley’s choreography with the more relaxed ambiance of Gene Kelly. Also, in his ambitious attempt to condense the narrative and combine the ensemble numbers, Branagh loses much of the comedy, except for Nathan Lane as the clown. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a whimsical 7, putting a frothy, new spin on old Will.
Susan Granger’s review of “SUNSHINE” (Paramount Classics)
Hungarian director Istvan Szabos’ epic, three-hour saga chronicles the rise and fall of three tumultuous generations of a troubled Hungarian Jewish family. Their name is Sonnenschein, which means sunshine in German; the title also refers to a delicious herbal tonic that the family brews. Ralph Fiennes plays three roles: the patriarch, Ignatz Sonnenschein, who marries his cousin and begins the process of assimilation by changing the family name to Sors; his son, Adam, who converts to Roman Catholicism, primarily to get into Budapest’s best fencing club, and becomes an Anti-Semitic snob, slashing his way to Olympics victory; and Adam’s son, cynical Ivan Sors, who joins the Communist secret police after W.W.II. The sweeping story by Israel Horovitz begins in 1840 and extends through the fall of Communism, encompassing more than 100 years – like Bertolucci’s “1900” and Visconti’s “Leopard.” Its theme is how all governments – Monarchy, Fascism or Communism – are corrupt, and how the choices we make – for better or worse – determine our future. In a unique casting twist, Jennifer Ehle plays Valerie, the woman whom Ignatz loves, and, as she ages, Ms. Ehle’s real-life mother, acclaimed actress Rosemary Harris, continues the same character about whom a grandson says, “She was the only one of us who had the gift of breathing freely.” Recently, mother and daughter were both Best Actress Tony-Award competitors; Ms. Ehle won for “The Real Thing.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of to 10, “Sunshine” is a thoughtful, ambitious, elegant 8 – but, because of its length, it’s better suited as a three-part TV miniseries on an adult-oriented channel that could accommodate the graphic brutality of one torture scene in a concentration camp, along with the sexual content and nudity.
Susan Granger’s review of “3 STRIKES” (MGM release)
Referring to California’s controversial ordinance that requires a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a third felony, the title tells it all – and this inept movie is definitely out. Written and directed by D.J. Pooh, the rap-record producer who co-wrote Friday (1995) with Ice Cube, it adds little to the urban comedy genre. Brian Hooks plays a hapless twice-jailed loser who has every intention of going straight when he’s released from the Los Angeles County Jail. “I’m going to do whatever it takes not to go back,” he vows. But when his pal, De’Aundre Bonds, picks him up in a stolen car, they smoke a little weed and get involved in freeway gunplay with the LAPD. He’s innocent but his image is caught on videotape. Immediately, he finds he’s once again on the lam – with no one willing to help him. So where does he hide? The Ritz Carlton Hotel, where else? Who would think to look for him there in the midst of a citywide manhunt? On the screen, just about everything goes wrong. The crude script is inane, the characters little more than racial stereotypes, the rude dialogue filled with clichŽs, and flatulence propels the toxic humor. Even the car chases are boring. N’Bushe Wright doesn’t stand a chance as Hooks’ remarkably tolerant girl-friend, and David Alan Grier is wasted as a trigger-happy detective on his trail. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, 3 Strikes barely musters a 2. This is a truly dismal cinematic experience!
Susan Granger’s review of “THE CLOSER YOU GET” (Fox Searchlight)
After producer Umberto Pasolini made The Full Monty about four unemployed Englishmen, he turned his attention to Ireland, where five frustrated, Guinness-guzzling bachelors feel they’re sorely in need of spicy female companionship. Every night, they meet at the pub and bemoan the lack of eligible women around. To that end, they place an ad in The Miami Herald, inviting any and every adventurous “fit and healthy” American woman to visit their remote, rustic fishing village on the west coast. Object: matrimony. It’s an action that precipitates much consternation among the local Irish womenfolk. Of course, the romantic fantasy is a lot of blarney because you know exactly what’s going to happen long before it does in William Ivory’s whimsical script which is based on a story by Herbie Wave. Ian Hart, who played John Lennon in Backbeat and the detective in The End of the Affair, is the ring-leader, Kieran O’Donnagh, a butcher who doesn’t seem to notice that his feisty female assistant Siobhan (Cathleen Bradley) secretly adores him. His sheep-farming brother Ian (Sean McGinley) also doesn’t seem to notice that the right woman for him is pouring drinks just across the bar. And so it goes. Is this another Waking Ned Devine? No – but first-time film director Aileen Ritchie keeps it frothy, particularly when Bo Derek’s 10 unspools at the church’s movie night instead of The Ten Commandments. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Closer You Get is an engaging, amusing 7, proving “the closer you get to something, the harder it is to see.”
Susan Granger’s review of “THE NINTH GATE” (Artisan)
Problem is: when Roman Polanski directs and Johnny Depp stars, you expect more than you get in this grim, third-rate horror mystery. Returning to his Rosemary’s Baby roots, Roman Polanski helms this thriller, casting Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous antique book dealer who is hired by a wealthy New York publisher, Frank Langella, who has just acquired a rare 17th century Venetian text called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows. Langella is a demonologist who believes that this tome, along with another two, are manuals of satanic invocation. Legend has it that if the engravings in the books are assembled properly, Lucifer will be released from Hell. Depp’s assignment is to locate the other two volumes in France and Portugal and to ascertain their authenticity. Interesting concept. Only what comes next makes little sense. Depp goes to Europe and develops what he terms a “growing obsession” with his mission. Predictably, there’s a femme fatale, Lena Olin, along with Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigneur, who serves as Depp’s mysterious guardian. Based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, it’s been adapted for the screen by Enrique Urbizu, John Brownjohn, and the director who make the quest remarkably incoherent and quite lacking in suspense. Cinematographer Darius Khondji does remarkably sinister camera work, and production designer Dean Tavoularis creates a convincing replica of Manhattan since Polanski, who is considered a fugitive, could not film in the United States. Curiously, if you saw Eyes Wide Shut, you may find the secret sect of robed society people interested in the occult vaguely familiar. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Ninth Gate is a blithering baroque 4. Scary? No. Silly? Yes.
Susan Granger’s review of “NORIEGA: GOD’S FAVORITE” (Showtime TV)
On Sunday night, April 2nd, at 8 p.m., Showtime premieres a made-for-television character study of the final years of Panamanian General Manuel “Tony” Noriega’s reign. Bob Hoskins stars as the cunning and clever, yet desperate and dangerous dictator – and the resemblance is eerie. And Hoskins is talented enough to embody all the contradictions of Noriega’s character, a man who believed in voodoo and claimed to be a Buddhist yet kept Hitler’s picture next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose heroes included Moammar Kadafi and Mother Teresa, who tortured and killed people yet refused to eat meat because he opposed the slaughter of animals. Born out of wedlock, he was abandoned by his mother when he was just five, forced to fend for himself on the streets of Panama. Convinced that he was God’s favorite and blessed with manic energy, Noriega not only survived but succeeded in acquiring more power than anyone else in his country. Scarred and pock-marked, he was an ugly strongman who suffered under the tyranny of beautiful women. Written by journalist Lawrence Wright and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, this is a speculative biography, since it deals with events no outsider ever witnessed, examining the complications under the volatile surface, bypassing the headlines and the stereotypes. Certainly Noriega is a despicable thug, yet he’s wickedly intriguing, not unlike other Central American dictators who consider themselves victims of U.S. foreign policy. On the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Noriega is an enigmatic 8. And the real Noriega is still in prison outside Miami, serving a 40-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, and cocaine-smuggling. But he’s up for parole this year and – with his government influence – who knows?
Susan Granger’s review of “GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI” (Artisan)
Writer/director/producer Jim Jarmusch re-imagines the gangster picture as a quirky cross-culture fusion of Eastern philosophy, hip-hop music, urban darkness, and movie iconography. He focuses on Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), an assassin who is obsessed by the noble precepts of the 18th century warrior text, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, applying them to his work as a contract killer. In the samurai tradition, Ghost Dog has pledged his loyalty to one master (John Tormey), a small-time New Jersey mobster who once saved his life, with whom he now communicates only by carrier pigeons. He’s a loner whose only human contact is with a French-speaking ice-cream vendor (Isaach DeBankole) and a curious little girl (Camille Winbush) he meets in a park. The deliberately slow-paced, character-driven plot involves a great deal of brutal violence, stemming from vengeance, jealousy, and countless double-crosses, climaxing in a blood-drenched finale. Curiously, Ghost Dog doesn’t speak a line of dialogue until 45 minutes into the film. The blasting musical soundtrack by Wu Tang Clan’s RZA underscores both the hit-man’s zen-like qualities and the lurking menace of his allegorical environment. Jarmusch says he built his characters from his experience living in New York’s Little Italy, where he witnessed the death of an old Mafia order. In fact, he maintains, some of the actors came from that world: “They’re gentlemen to me, but they’ve also killed people.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an offbeat, thought-provoking 6. While it’s not a film to enjoy, it’s one adventurous movie-goers may appreciate.
Susan Granger’s review of “DROWNING MONA” (Destination Films)
In this comedic whodunit, Bette Midler plays a despicable, foul-mouthed woman whom any number of people had both a desire and a motive to murder. So, when her yellow Yugo has a problem negotiating a curve and ends up plunging off a cliff into a lake near her hometown of Verplanck in New York’s Hudson Valley, the chief of police (Danny DeVito) suspects foul play. Indeed, he discovers her brake lines were cut. But who is the culprit? Is it her long-suffering, battered husband (William Fichtner)? What about her belligerent, moronic, one-handed son (Marcus Thomas) or his handsome business partner (Casey Affleck), whom happens to be engaged to the police chief’s daughter (Neve Campbell). Or could it be the town’s most promiscuous waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis)? Other suspects include the local auto mechanic (Kathleen Wilhoite) who specializes in Yugos, a cop who scolded Mona for speeding (Peter Dobson), and a snoopy neighbor (Tracey Walter). Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld and director Nick Gomez shamelessly pilfer Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry and Murder on the Orient Express, tossing in plot twists and nasty red herrings which tend to fall flat in the midst of the tasteless mess that should have been a wacky farce. Whodunit? Who cares? On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Drowning Mona is a floundering 4. And Bette Midler played this type of odious oddball once before – remember Ruthless People?
Susan Granger’s review of “THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY” (Paramount Pictures)
“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” says Matt Damon as the chameleon-like Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s creepy, star-studded thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Tom Ripley’s a leech, an amoral outsider, obsessed with the hedonistic la dolce vida of Dickie Greenleaf, a charming rogue, brilliantly played by Jude Law, whom he’s sent to bring home from Italy: “You’re the brother I never had. I’m the brother you never had.” Frustrated, Ripley not only covets Dickie’s privileged lifestyle, he wants to be Dickie, so much that his brutal killer instincts take over. Ripley’s so diabolically clever, so adept at imitation and fabrication that he fools everyone except Dickie’s girl-friend – that’s Gwyneth Paltrow, a bland Grace Kelly clone, which is quite appropriate since the story’s set in the ’50s, when social distinction and class status meant everything to this detached group of people. Also involved in this spellbinding, sexually ambiguous, melodramatic intrigue are Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Dickie’s snotty, suspicious friend, and Cate Blanchett, as a rebellious socialite who believes Tom’s ruse. (I’m curious: what if Blanchett had exchanged roles with Paltrow?) After The English Patient, Anthony Minghella does not disappoint with this visual portrait of a pathological liar. John Seale’s cinematography is stunning – from the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean to the twisting, cobbled alleys of Italy, particularly the eerie final shot in which a mirrored Ripley is reflected in a subtle myriad of distorted identities. Gabriel Yared’s music, primarily period jazz, truly complements the story. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a complex, provocative, potent 10. It’s frightening yet fascinating.
Susan Granger’s review of “MAGNOLIA” (New Line Cinema)
As a follow-up to the porn movie scene of Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson examines the emotional effects of physical and spiritual cancer in this manic, rambling tale of dying fathers and their pathetic children in the rootless ’90s. In what is basically an ensemble movie, set in a single, very long day in California’s San Fernando Valley and not unlike Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Jason Robards provides the connective tissue as an irascible television producer with terminal cancer and a grieving, guilt-stricken trophy wife (Julianne Moore). He begs his male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to find his long-lost son so he can make amends. Played with fervor by Tom Cruise, the son’s now a charismatic sex evangelist, motivational guru and host of a TV info-mercial, teaching “Seduce and Destroy.” Strutting and swaggering, he goads his male audience into sexual exploits. In a somewhat parallel story, Philip Baker Hall, the guilty host of a popular TV show, called “What Do Kids Know?” and married to Melinda Dillon, is also ailing, as his estranged, coke-snorting daughter (Melora Walters) becomes involved with a good-natured cop (John C. Reilly). One of the current Quiz contestants (Jeremy Blackman) is desperate for attention, while a former Quiz Kid (William H. Macy) watches his life disintegrate in a bar. Three hours, ten minutes is a long time to keep an audience involved in 10 characters, connected by chance and coincidence, even with Robert Elswit’s inventive cinematography and Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” song interwoven into the fabric of the convoluted, overly talky narrative. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Magnolia is a cacophonous, kinetic, audacious 7 with a bizarre, illogical, climactic conclusion related to the Bible, Exodus 8:2.