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EAST-WEST

Susan Granger’s review of “EAST-WEST” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Oscar-nominated as best foreign film, France’s “East-West” begins in 1946, when Stalin launched a propaganda campaign aimed at Russian emigrants living in the West, offering amnesty and a chance to participate in the post-war reconstruction of the USSR. So an idealistic physician (Oleg Menchikov), his French wife (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their young son return to his homeland with high hopes of a bright future. But as soon as they land in Odessa, they discover they’ve been duped. The zealous military is convinced that 90% of the expatriates are “imperialist spies” and, as such, are subject to constant supervision and brutal interrogation. The doctor and his family are assigned to a tiny apartment in a dilapidated building which houses five other families who share a communal bathroom and whatever black-market goods they can steal. “They can’t force us to stay,” the wife reasons. But her husband knows otherwise, begging, “Forgive me.” While he works within the system, trying to secure his family’s release, she becomes involved with a passionate, 17 year-old competitive swimmer (Serguei Bodrov Jr.) who is just as eager to escape as she is. Then a visiting French actress, Catherine Deneuve, offers the victims a glimmer of hope. Writer/director Regis Wargnier (“Indochine”) captures the dismal dreariness of social repression and political enslavement but fails to create compelling, three-dimensional characters. For example, after two years in a Soviet labor camp, Sandrine Bonnaire emerges looking exquisite – with perfectly manicured fingernails – and the escape “attempt” at night in a wintry sea is so far-fetched that it strains credulity. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “East-West” is a bleak, flimsy 5. It’s too slick and simplistic to be truly engaging entertainment.

05

BATTLEFIELD EARTH

Susan Granger’s review of “BATTLEFIELD EARTH” (Warner Bros.)

THE BACKGROUND AND THE CONTROVERSY: Since 1975, John Travolta has been an outspoken devotee of Scientology, an “applied religious philosophy” that claims to have millions of followers. Travolta credits its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, for all his spiritual and worldly success and fervently believes that Hubbard’s writings, particularly “Dianetics,” contains mankind’s hope for salvation. Hubbard taught that Earthlings are the pawns of aliens. He preached that psychiatry was a timeless evil, that, in a distant galaxy, alien “psychs” devised implants that would ultimately wreck the spiritual progress of humans. The psychs and their “blackened souls” are to blame for sin, violence, and crime. In addition to his religious writing, Hubbard also wrote science-fiction and, for 15 years, Travolta has been trying bring this Hubbard tale to the screen. But Scientology is controversial, teaching that a “suppressive” person deserves no mercy. He may be “tricked, lied to, sued, deprived of property, injured or destroyed by any means by any Scientologist.” A California appeals court called Scientology’s treatment of a member “manifestly outrageous,” awarding him $2.5 million for “serious emotional injury,” a ruling that was twice upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, yet the litigant has never collected. In France, last November, Scientology staff members were convicted of fraud. And a German court ruled that Scientology used “inhuman and totalitarian practices.” Disaffected Scientologists fear that this movie will entice believers and reinforce Hubbard’s anti-psychiatry message. Indeed, in the “New York Daily News,” John Travolta acknowledged his mission saying, “If we can’t do the things now that we want to do, what good is the power? Let’s try to get the things done that we believe in.'”

THE REVIEW: In post-apocalyptic 3000, mankind is an endangered species. Alien Psychlos rule, enslaving the “man-animals” they capture as they strip the planet of its mineral resources. The villainous Terl (John Travolta) is the Psychlo Chief of Security – a huge, snarling, dreadlock’d, fearsome creature. The hero is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a human hunter who leaves his mountain hideout, determined to discover who the demonic Psychlos really are and how to defeat them. Remember “The Postman”? Well, that’s the ambiance – only there’s no Kevin Costner. It’s a mythic good guys vs. bad guys story but Corey Mandell’s screenplay, based on Hubbard’s book, has so many sappy clichŽs and ludicrous, far-fetched loopholes that they incite unintentional laughter. For example, Tyler is a primitive caveman, barely able to communicate, yet he discovers a library and is able to assimilate all its knowledge immediately. He then dupes the Psychlos into believing he’s mining a mountain but substitutes gold bricks from Ft. Knox which, curiously, the ore-hungry Psychlos have never discovered. And, finally, Tyler’s rebellious cohorts from the subterranean dungeons jump into Harrier jets – which have not been serviced in eons – find them full of fuel and fly with precision into a final battle with the Psychlos. So much for believability. Credit the stylish special effects involving art/set direction to first-time feature-film director Roger Christian – that’s his background. But the heavy-handed Christian uses an unusual “center wipe” edit device between every scene, which is distracting and annoying. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battlefield Earth” is an awful, grim, tedious 2. “Please, I made a mistake,” pleads Forest Whitaker, Travolta’s henchman. But he’s shown no mercy, nor is the audience. As for the allegation that this boring movie will recruit youth – I doubt it!

02

UP AT THE VILLA

Susan Granger’s review of “UP AT THE VILLA” (USA Films release)

If you weren’t besotted by the beauty of Italy in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” this screen adaptation of a novella by W. Somerset Maugham should send you directly to your travel agent for tickets to Tuscany. The story, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its glorious setting. Set in the 1940s, lovely Kristin Scott Thomas is an impoverished British widow who has a weekend to decide whether to accept the marriage proposal of a wealthy but stuffy suitor, played by James Fox, the recently appointed Governor of Bengal in colonial India, or the amorous advances of a rakish, married American adventurer – that’s Sean Penn. So, instead of making any commitment, she indulges in a duplicitous night of passion with an Austrian refugee, Jeremy Davies, who worships her. She thinks it’s a flighty one-night stand but Davies has other ideas, which result in a confrontation at gunpoint. So much for the pulp melodrama plot. The most pleasurable moments come from Anne Bancroft and Derek Jacobi, Anglo-American expatriates who amuse and entertain Florentine society. Philip Haas (“Angels & Insects,” “The Music of Chance”) directs from a screenplay by his wife, Belinda Haas, who is partial to having actors exclaim, “by Jove!” Very little is mentioned about the rise of fascism and the horrors of Mussolini’s regime except to acknowledge its inconvenient intrusion into the leisurely pleasures of Florentine life. Pino Donaggio’s swelling, soggy score is best described as “elevator music,” but Maurizio Calvesi’s cinematography is sumptuous. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Up at the Villa” is a glossy but dull 4 – basically, it’s Masterpiece Theater at the movies. Better choice: rent the video of “Tea With Mussolini.”

04

RETURN TO ME

RETURN TO ME

Susan Granger’s review of “RETURN TO ME” (MGM release)

Tinged with traces of “Love Story,” “Ghost” and “Moonstruck,” this romantic comedy has its moments – but, unfortunately, most of them turn out to be sappy. David Duchovny doffs his “X-Files” Fox Mulder persona to play a successful Chicago architectural engineer whose wife (Joely Richardson), an ardent zoologist who works with primates, dies in an automobile accident in one of the early scenes of the picture. While he’s still blood-stained and grief-stricken, his wife’s heart is transplanted into Minnie Driver, who’s a shy, naive waitress working in her family’s Irish-Italian restaurant. Despite the bizarre circumstances, you know that these two are eventually gonna meet and fall in love. Predictability and foreshadowing weigh heavily on the script written by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake. Perhaps a more experienced director could have quickened the pace, trimmed some scenes, and meshed the elements better – but inexperienced Bonnie Hunt helms her own material. In addition, she co-stars, as Driver’s confidante and wife of Jim Belushi, and she’s cast at least four relatives named Hunt in supporting parts. It’s like a congenial family movie under a big studio banner. Despite its lack of focus, it is amusing to watch it unfold, particularly when senior pros like Robert Loggia and Carroll O’Connor are bantering about old singers, old songs, etc., since the title song comes from a vintage Dean Martin ballad. David Duchovny and Minnie Driver are charming to watch; one just wishes they had wittier, more sophisticated material to work with. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Return to Me” is a sweet but stumbling 5. Ah, the fickle finger of fate!

05

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Susan Granger’s review of “RULES OF ENGAGEMENT” (Paramount Pictures)

It’s the sheer star power of Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson that propels this picture. Based a novel by James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy, it revolves around a highly decorated 30-year Marine veteran, Col. Terry Childers (Jackson), who is court-martialed. The case involves an incident in which the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was surrounded by angry, fanatic demonstrators. Amid the violence, Childers was ordered to take in three helicopters and evacuate the terrified Ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family. In the subsequent melee, three of his Marines were killed and, following his explicit orders, his men gunned down 83 Yemeni civilians – men, women and children – and wounded many others. Col. Childers became a scapegoat in the diplomatic outcry that followed . To mount his defense, Childers chooses a wartime buddy, a cynical, just-retired Marine lawyer, Hays Hodges (Jones), whose life he saved in Vietnam back in 1968. Together, they face off against a malevolent National Security Adviser (Bruce Greenwood) and a young, zealous prosecutor (Guy Pearce) – but they lack the hard evidence necessary to present a strong defensive case. Director William Friedkin captures the intense tension of this combat-and-courtroom drama but he’s hampered by Stephen Gaghan’s hackneyed, predictable screenplay which is marred by superficial characterizations and clichŽ-ridden dialogue. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rules of Engagement” is a slick, suspenseful 7. And, if you enjoy this kind of provocative, what-really-happened enigma, I recommend “Courage Under Fire” with Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington, which delves into a combat incident during the Gulf War.

07

AMERICAN PSYCHO

Susan Granger’s review of “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (Lions Gate Films)

It’s really hard to be objective about this picture. I loathed it. But why? Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel, it revolves around Patrick Bateman, a vain, rich, vacuous Wall Street stockbroker who becomes a serial killer. The profanity-laden screenplay leaves much of the gruesome gore of the grisly dismemberment and grotesque disembowelment of his victims to the imagination and attempts, instead, to be a black comedy. For example, the stylized opening sequence depicts crimson drops of what one might assume is blood – but, in truth, they’re drippings from a thick raspberry sauce being poured over an exorbitantly over-priced poultry entree served at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. Yes, Patrick Bateman is a phony, obsessed with designer clothing, exercise, and pop music. Writer/director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner have fashioned a sanctimonious social satire on the greedy excesses of the ’80s, and Christian Bale plays the psychopath with exuberant relish as Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, and Jared Leto lend support. Plus there’s an abundance of male and female nudity with the warm skin tones photographed in exquisite settings. But what made me flinch was the cold, explicit glorification, the utter delight the movie-makers took in the sleek horror of murder. To me, serial killers simply aren’t funny – no way, even if – as it’s suggested inconclusively – it’s all in Bateman’s warped mind. (Leonardo DiCaprio was wise to have bailed out of this project.) On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Psycho” is a reprehensible 2 – and it should have been NC-17, not R. Trimming a sex scene involving a threesome orgy does not make this film acceptable for a multiplex, where young people can and do sneak in. I wish I hadn’t seen it.

02

WHERE THE MONEY IS

Susan Granger’s review of “WHERE THE MONEY IS” (USA Films)

When Paul Newman gets a roguish twinkle in his eye, you know there’s gonna be trouble – and that’s just what happens when a sexy, seductive nurse, Linda Fiorentino, discovers that her newest catatonic patient is actually a bank robber who faked a paralytic stroke to get out of prison. In this clever, unconventional caper, Newman plays Henry Manning, a renowned thief who got caught in a Denver bank vault during a massive power failure. Now he’s playing feeble in an Oregon nursing home, just waiting for the right time to re-claim his life. “There’s an element of Butch Cassidy in Henry,” Newman says in the press notes, quoting The Sundance Kid’s oft-repeated line: “Keep thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” The problem occurs when the larceny-minded Fiorentino, who yearns for adventure, tries to recruit him into masterminding a local heist. “I’m playing brain-dead, not brain-damaged,” he scoffs – but soon the plot thickens, much to the dismay of Fiorentino’s hapless husband, played by Dermot Mulroney. While Linda Fiorentino’s ex-prom-queen-without-a future character is intriguing, this is Newman’s film – from beginning to end. You can’t take your eyes off him. There’s a delicious scene in which he explains, “Faking a stroke isn’t easy – you gotta work at it,” demonstrating how he learned to control his reactions with a G. Gordon Liddy-inspired lighted match-burning-his-hand. Written by E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright and directed by Marek Kanievska, it’s a taut story, filled with tension and suspense. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Where the Money Is” is a low-key, fun-filled, spirited 7, taking a cool cue from jailbird Willie Sutton’s answer to why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

07

BLACK AND WHITE

Susan Granger’s review of “BLACK AND WHITE” (Palm Pictures/Sony Screen Gems)

There are not too many films that attempt to give viewers an insight into contemporary American society like Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and “Get on the Bus” along with Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth.” But now there’s James Toback’s “Black and White,” which delves into race relations and hip-hop music in New York City. Toback sets the stage in an early classroom scene in which a young black girl talks about how all the white kids she knows romanticize the ghetto life, while all her black friends just want to get out of it. There are several intersecting plotlines. Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr. play documentary film-makers examining privileged white teens who are obsessed with street life. That’s Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffman, Bijou Phillips (daughter of John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas), Eddie Thomas and Kim Matulova. Then there’s the rap mogul/gangsta, played by Oli “Power” Grant from Wu-Tang Clan, and Joe Pantoliano as a District Attorney with family problems. Ben Stiller is a crooked cop who bribes a college basketball star, played by Allan Houston of the Knicks, plus Mike Tyson as – who else? – Mike Tyson. Claudia Schiffer surfaces as a grad student. Even Donald Trump’s former wife, Marla Maples, shows up. James Toback obviously improvised much of the fragmentary action as he went along with no sense of cohesion or purpose, so this is not a smooth, evenly edited picture, but perhaps it isn’t supposed to be. And the most authentic buzz about deceit and treachery comes from the recruited performers, not the professional actors. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Black and White” is a complex, sexually energetic, fast-paced 4. It’s a risky, interesting concept but not a very good movie.

04

28 DAYS

Susan Granger’s review of “28 DAYS” (Columbia Pictures)

The girl-next-door has grown up. Sandra Bullock takes a brave dramatic leap as a drunk stumbling on her way to sobriety in this contemporary cautionary tale. Written by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), the story begins with Sandra reeling around Mahattan in a boozy haze. She’s a drinking, drugging party girl and the debauchery never stops, even at the wedding of her sister (Elizabeth Perkins). But when she swipes a limo and crashes it into the front porch of a house, she gets a DUI and 28 days in court-ordered rehab. And that’s a real awakening. Defensive and heavily into denial, she first has to be convinced that she is, indeed, an addict. Then she has to want to live a different life, even if that means ditching her good-time boy-friend (Dominic West) who’d like to marry her. But the core of the story takes place in the rehab community, where she meets a motley assortment of characters including her counselor (Steve Buscemi), heroin-addicted roommate (Azura Skye), an irresistible gay German (Alan Tudyk) – who has the best dialogue in the picture – and a testosterone-laden baseball player (Viggo Mortensen). Yet the vision of director Betty Thomas seems unfocused, skipping from slapstick comedy to fuzzy memory flashbacks, from a silly riff on soap operas to a romance that never develops, all within the serious substance-abuse concept. Think of capturing the gallows humor of “Girl, Interrupted.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “28 Days” is a scrambled 7. But Sandra Bullock shines. She’s a revelation, delivering a compelling, surprisingly convincing performance after her recent falters in “Hope Floats” and “Forces of Nature.” Even when she’s bruised and battered, she’s beautiful, bringing a haunting sadness to her portrayal.

07

FREQUENCY

Susan Granger’s review of “FREQUENCY” (New Line Cinema)

Once you see this movie, you can’t stop thinking about it. “Frequency” poses the question: What if you could travel back in time and change your past? That’s the dilemma that faces NYPD Detective John Sullivan (John Caviezel) who discovers that, while using an old ham radio just when a natural phenomenon, an aurora borealis, is lighting up the night sky, he is actually talking with a man who died 30 years earlier – his own father. Back in 1969, his dad, Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), was killed fighting a warehouse fire. But what if John could warn his father and, thereby, save his life? It’s worth a try, isn’t it? But, then, if it works, the past is inexorably changed, so what happens to the present? That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. Like “The Sixth Sense,” this is not a movie you want to know too much about. Toby Emmerich has written a stunning, multi-layered thriller that’s part murder mystery, involving a serial killer, part family drama, revolving around the loving relationship of father and son. Science-fiction time-travel fantasy goes back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and Emmerich’s imaginative contribution is cutting-edge. Credibility is maintained and continuity matches, despite the complicated plot twists and mind-bending paradoxes involving temporal intersections with parallel universes. Director Gregory Hoblit (“Primal Fear”) keeps the action fast-paced and the tension taut, shooting the ham radio scenes like a live, multi-camera TV show. What’s on the screen is totally entertaining, emotionally gripping, and so thought-provoking that you may want to see it twice. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Frequency” is an exciting, surprising 10. If you’re into edge-of-the-seat suspense pulling the cosmic strings of time travel, “Frequency” will light your fuse.

10