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TUMBLEWEEDS

Susan Granger’s review of “TUMBLEWEEDS” (Fine Line Films)

Why see Tumbleweeds? One very compelling reason: Janet McTeer, who’s been dubbed “the next Meryl Streep.” The plot, involving a flighty, narcissistic mother and profane, outspoken adolescent daughter who hop in a car and head for a new life in California, sounds like Anywhere But Here, but this affable, low-budget comedy is far more focused, character-driven, and less artificial than the Susan Sarandon/Natalie Portman star vehicle in which the supporting players seemed like cardboard cut-outs. Besides, there’s Janet McTeer, a remarkable, highly respected British actress who won Broadway’s Tony several years ago as Nora in a revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The Amazonian McTeer plays a working class woman from North Carolina who drags her smart-aleck teenage daughter (Kimberly J. Brown) through her many abusive, failed relationships, finally trying to settle down in Starlight Beach, a quiet seaside town near San Diego, and find happiness with a long-haul trucker (Gavin O’Connor) who’s contemptuously referred to as “the future ex-husband.” There have been four previous ex-husbands. Directed and co-written by Gavin O’Connor, the story is loosely based on the relationship between screenwriter Angela Shelton (O’Connor’s ex-wife) and her own strong-willed, free-spirited mother. And the tone of the film is curiously reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Twitchy supporting actor Michael J. Pollard makes a brief but memorable appearance, looking not much older than he did in Bonnie and Clyde, back in 1967. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Tumbleweeds is a rueful but significant 7, because of Janet McTeer’s complex, funny, multi-faceted performance which includes an impeccable Southern accent.

07

SWEET AND LOWDOWN

Susan Granger’s review of “SWEET AND LOWDOWN” (Sony Classics)

Vintage jazz aficionados will appreciate Woody Allen’s fanciful mock documentary about a legendary musician of the 1930s, allegedly the second-best jazz guitarist in the world. This totally fictional character, named Emmet Ray and embodied by Sean Penn, is a jaunty, self-absorbed egotist who justifies his aloof, amoral behavior by explaining that he’s an “artist.” Ray lives in awe of his idol, Django Reinhardt, the son of gypsies who lives and plays in France, and brashly admits that loves his guitar more than any woman who ever shared his bed. There are two memorable women with whom the itinerant Ray becomes involved. First, he lives with the long-suffering, worshipful Hattie (superbly played by British actress Samantha Morton), a mute laundress whom he picks up on the Boardwalk on the Jersey shore. Then, he impetuously marries the beautiful, bitchy Blanche (Uma Thurman), a socialite writer searching for inspiration. Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol, and John Waters contribute supporting roles, and famed Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei (Raise the Red Lantern) makes a memorable American film debut. The sensational soundtrack includes I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Limehouse Blues, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Sweet Sue, All of Me, and I’ll See You in My Dreams, tastefully arranged by pianist Dick Hyman – but, curiously, not the title song, written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1925 musical Tip-Toes. There are more than a dozen guitar solos by the real-life Django Reinhardt, lifted from his old recordings, while musician Howard Alden supplies the notes for Sean Penn’s realistic guitar strumming. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Sweet and Lowdown is a genial, light-hearted, rhythm-filled 8, whimsically proving that art imitates life.

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THE WHOLE NINE YARDS

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WHOLE NINE YARDS” (Warner Bros.)

Bruce Willis teams up with Friends Matthew Perry in this formulaic mobster comedy. Willis plays a cool professional hitman who moves incognito into an upscale Montreal suburb, while Perry is his nerdy neighbor, a dentist, who immediately recognizes him as Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski, who squealed on his former employers, the Gogolak crime family of Chicago. “It’s not important that I’ve killed 17 people,” Willis tells the incredulous Perry. “What’s important is how I get along with the people that are still alive.” Soon, the disparate men find they share a common bond: someone’s trying to kill them both. Perry’s shrewish wife, vamped with an outrageous French accent by Rosanna Arquette, complains that her husband is “the only dentist who can’t make money!” She not only wants to kill him so she can collect on his life insurance but she also wants to nab the reward for nailing The Tulip. Enormous Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) ostensibly works as an enforcer for Janni Gogolak (Kevin Pollak), while Amanda Peet is sweetly sympathetic and remarkably helpful as Perry’s dental assistant who has a secret yearning to be a contract killer. Plus there’s Natasha Henstridge, as Willis’ cold, calculating ex-wife, who inexplicably finds the bumbling Perry sexually irresistible. Writer Mitchell Kapner repeatedly capitalizes on a running joke about the Canadian habit of putting mayo on a hamburger, and director Jonathan Lynn does his best to keep the zany, bizarre action moving quickly. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Whole Nine Yards is a ludicrous, lame, farcical 4. Problem is: these are amiable but crude, essentially superficial caricatures, not three-dimensional characters, like Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro in the mob comedy Analyze This.

04

WONDER BOYS

Susan Granger’s review of “WONDER BOYS” (Paramount Pictures):

The pressure’s on Curtis Hanson directing his first picture after the highly acclaimed L.A. Confidential. Adapted by Steve Kloves from Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, the theme here revolves around a middle-aged author who is creatively paralyzed after having published a successful novel seven years ago. Although it is not explained in the movie, a ‘wonder boy’ is someone who has experienced great success early in life and then has to face the fear and insecurity of living up to himself. Michael Douglas plays the cynical, dissolute college professor who cannot finish the manuscript for his next book – which now numbers more than 2,500 single-spaced typewritten pages – as he spends a picaresque “Wordfest” weekend frantically juggling his newly pregnant mistress, a suicidal student, his visiting editor, the corpse of a dead dog, and a fur-trimmed jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Frances McDormand is his romantic interest; she’s the college chancellor who’s married to the head of the English department. Tobey Maguire is a gifted but deeply troubled writing student who catches the eye of Robert Downey, as Douglas’s flamboyant editor from New York. Katie Holmes is a seductive young student with a crush on Douglas, and Rip Torn is successful, self-satisfied pop-culture writer. Set in wintry western Pennsylvania – superbly photographed by Dante Spinotti – it’s a screwball, character-driven story whose eclectic inhabitants are wacky, weird and whimsical. And the memorable soundtrack includes Bob Dylan’s new song, “Things Have Changed.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Wonder Boys is a sly, darkly humorous 7 – aimed at an intelligent, sophisticated audience.

07

REINDEER GAMES

Susan Granger’s review of “REINDEER GAMES” (Dimension Films/Miramax)

Ehren Kruger’s screenplay must have read better on paper because the film, directed by John Frankenheimer, lies like a bleak lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. Ben Affleck plays a convicted car thief whose cellmate (James Frain) in a cold Michigan prison has a gorgeous penpal girlfriend, Charlize Theron, whom he met through a lonely hearts magazine. When the cellmate dies in a food fight, Affleck assumes his identity, getting the sexy girlfriend but also her psychotic older brother (Gary Sinese), a small time crook who wants his help in taking down the Tomahawk Casino on Christmas Eve. His bizarre scheme includes having his grungy gang dressing up like Santa Claus with the “ho, ho, ho” becoming a heist. From the beginning, wholesome Ben Affleck, who always seems to look like an aging frat boy, is miscast in this cartoonish saga of betrayal, particularly as when openly yearns for a cup of cocoa and slice of pecan pie. Beautiful Charlize Theron has enough charisma for both of them, along with an ability to convince men to believe anything she says, particularly when she flashes her bare breasts. And no one can do a buffed, tattooed, over-the-top nutcake like Gary Sinese. But the dim-witted plot consists of a fast-paced series of intricate double-crosses that stretch from the barely plausible to the patently ridiculous. And the absurd ending, literally, had people laughing in disbelief. Fortunately, Ehren Kruger has Arlington Road and Scream 3 under his belt and John Frankenheimer will be best remembered for Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Reindeer Games is an icy, idiotic, illogical 3. My advice: don’t play. Christmas has come and gone – just as this movie will.

03

THE NEXT BEST THING

Susan Granger’s review of “THE NEXT BEST THING” (Paramount Pictures)

Madonna’s fans will be lining up to see The Material Girl tackle this timely, thoughtful dramatic comedy, directed by John Schlesinger. What they don’t realize is that America’s first openly gay leading man, Rupert Everett, steals the show, just the way he did in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Madonna and Everett play best friends. They’re both bright, unconventional and impulsive – with lousy taste in choosing lovers. One evening, after a few too many drinks, they wind up in bed together – and, soon afterwards, she discovers she’s pregnant. Eager for motherhood, she offers Everett a choice: he can either stay uninvolved, be the baby’s “uncle,” or assume the role of father. He opts for fatherhood, so they decide to live together and raise their son (Matthew Stumpf). Theirs may not be the perfect family – but it’s the next best thing. Everett proves to be an ideal father, putting the child’s interests first and foremost, refusing to develop other attachments in his life. Their good-natured, non-traditional arrangement works superbly for several years – until Madonna meets the man of her dreams (Benjamin Bratt) and ends up in a nasty fight for custody of the boy. That’s when Thomas Ropelewski’s character-driven script gets serious. Keep in mind, this is not a controversy about homosexuality. It’s about significant human emotions, ties that bind, and commitment. Unfortunately, Bratt’s underdeveloped role is less sympathetic, particularly since the audience has formed a compelling attachment to Everett, making the courtroom scenes anticlimactic. And don’t miss Madonna’s rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie over the final credits. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Next Best Thing is a thoroughly enjoyable, enigmatic 8 – asking: What is a father? What is a family?

08

THE CIDER HOUSE RULES

Susan Granger’s review of “THE CIDER HOUSE RULES” (Miramax Films)

Adapted by John Irving from his own best-seller, this is the extraordinary story of one boy’s journey into maturity in the 1940s. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) grew up in a sheltered existence at an orphange in St. Clouds, Maine, under the kindly, paternal care ofether-addicted Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) who, each night, after reading a chapter from Charles Dickens, bid the wistful, unwanted boys a poignant “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” As Larch’s favorite, Homer learns a lot about performing safe, if illegal, abortions but less about right and wrong. Which is why he decides to explore the outside world, hitching a ride with a young woman (Charlize Theron) and her fiancŽ (Paul Rudd), an Air Force pilot. Taking a job as an apple picker, he joins a black migrant worker crew, headed by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter (Erykah Badu). Director Lasse Hallstrom is sensitively and affectionately in tune with Irving’s off-beat, idiosyncratic characters, eliciting substantial, Oscar-caliber performances as Homer copes with a crisis of conscience involving abortion, medical ethics and racial prejudice. Wide-eyed and impressionable, Tobey Maguire is delicately convincing, particularly as he’s dazzled by luminous Charlize Theron. Michael Caine not only masters the elusive accent but captures the fierce intensity and enormously touching vulnerability of Larch. And edgy Delroy Lindo is tender yet terrifying, never hitting a false note. The fable-like quality is greatly enhanced by Oliver Stapleton’s vivid, impressionistic photography. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Cider House Rules is a haunting 10. Mixing quirky humor, menace, and pathos, it’s an emotionally uplifting experience – one of the best pictures of the year.

10

THE GREEN MILE

THE GREEN MILE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE GREEN MILE” (Warner Bros.)

Remember The Green Mile. You’ll hear it a lot at the Academy Awards next March. This film has Oscar written all over it. Based on Stephen King’s best-seller, it’s set on Death Row in a Southern prison in 1935. The title refers to the stretch of lime-colored linoleum from the cell block to the electric chair. Tom Hanks plays the head guard who recalls, in flashback, his poignant, mystical friendship with an unusual prisoner, a black man with a mysterious, supernatural gift. This massive, seven-foot tall inmate, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, was convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls, yet his naive nature and gentle demeanor not only raise questions about his guilt but also about the inexplicable nature of miracles. As in every fable, there has to be a villain. In this case, there are two: Doug Hutchison, as Hanks’ sadistic subordinate, and Sam Rockwell, as a vicious serial killer. And there are three executions. The second is so boldly horrifying that the words like gruesome and gory seem trivial. But there’s also humor and, in a very visceral sense, the audience participates every step of the way. Writer-director Frank Darabont’s casting is meticulous. Hanks and Duncan, in particular, deliver extraordinary performances, along with James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, and Patricia Clarkson. Nothing is perfect – the bookending device used at the beginning and end is weak – but who cares? Perhaps the biggest advantage of making a great film like this is knowing what not to worry about. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Green Mile is a compelling, powerful 10. Nothing can prepare you for the suspenseful grip this haunting story holds – and the chilling gamble that must be taken. An absolute masterpiece, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

10

MISSION TO MARS

Susan Granger’s review of “MISSION TO MARS” (Touchstone Pictures)

Every critic has favorites – and one of mine is good science-fiction. Unfortunately, I had high expectations for this adventure/drama, starring Gary Sinese, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Kim Delaney and Tim Robbins. Directed by Brian De Palma, this astronaut saga is so derivative of 2001, Close Encounters, and Apollo 13, not to mention numerous other space odysseys, that the territory it explores seems too familiar to be as truly exciting as the coming attractions trailers lead you to believe. The story begins in 2020, when NASA has successfully landed a team of astronauts on Mars. However, shortly after their arrival, there’s a catastrophic disaster on the red planet and the Mission Commander is the sole survivor. Alerted to the danger by his one cryptic message, a second NASA crew is sent on a hurried six-month journey to rescue him. Once there, mysterious and shocking discoveries await them, including the provocative pseudo-scientific hypothesis that the DNA for life on Earth originated on Mars. But, Houston, there’s a problem. Based on a story by Lowell Cannon with Jim & John Thomas, the heavy-handed screenplay by the Thomases and Graham Yost, is filled with stereotypical characters spewing idiotic, clichŽ-ridden dialogue. On the other hand, the cinematography and special effects are definitely cool, particularly the zero-gravity scenes which resemble ballets in their grace and ease. You forget the actors are hanging on wires, balancing upside-down, spinning, and pushing themselves around. Then there’s the hole in the spaceship that’s filled by soda pop. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Mission to Mars is a middlin’ 5. Granted, it beat Red Planet to the screen, but I still have high hopes for the similarly themed second Mars movie of the season.

05

WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?

Susan Granger’s review of “WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?” (Columbia Pictures)

After The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, even Primary Colors, there’s no question that director Mike Nichols relishes exploring the relationship between the sexes. Which explains why he was drawn to comedian Garry Shandling’s concept of an extraterrestrial who was sent to Earth to impregnate a woman as a part of some sort of universal domination plan. Having this alien come from an advanced civilization of neutered, cloned males with little knowledge of the behavior of the female of the species is a clever concept, ripe for scathing social satire, but its execution misses the mark. In addition to his writing and producing efforts, Shandling stars, utilizing his wry, dead-pan understatement to be an awkward, almost totally passive hero. The primary gimmick revolves around his surgically implanted penis which emits a motorized humming sound when he becomes aroused. The gag is amusing the first time, the second, even the third. After that, it loses its vibe. Posing as a banker in Phoenix, his copulating mission is simple. “I have to have sex right away,” he gasps. “I’m really very horny!” A sleazy co-worker, played by Greg Kinnear, takes him to troll at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where he meets Annette Bening, a neurotic, lovable Earth-chick who is, indeed, easy. “Don’t laugh,” she says, “but I’m working as a real-estate agent” – a line that immediately elicits chuckles as a reminder of her role in American Beauty. Bening’s terrific, while John Goodman, Linda Fiorentino, Camryn Manheim, Janeane Garofalo and Ben Kingsley add to the mix. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, What Planet Are You From? is a droll but silly, superficial 6. I suspect Garry Shandling will have a limited big-screen career as a leading man.

06