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ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

Susan Granger’s review of “ALL THE PRETTY HORSES” (Miramax)

As muddy and meandering as the Rio Grande, this 1940’s Western is the soggy saga of two buddies, Matt Damon and Henry Thomas (the “E.T.” kid, now grown up), who ride across the border from Texas to Mexico to be real cowboys. Faithfully adapted by Ted Tally from Cormac McCarthy’s fascinating novel, the concept is never fully realized by director Billy Bob Thornton. Instead, the pace is confusing and uneven, nuances that define the characters are under-developed, even the visual style is inconsistent. As the episodic story unfolds, Damon and Thomas are joined on the trail by a cocky kid, Lucas Black (“Sling Blade”) who is obviously riding a stolen horse and carrying a stolen gun. They suspect he’s going to be trouble – and he is. Then there’s the seduction of Damon by Penelope Cruz, the lusty daughter of the aristocratic Mexican, Ruben Blades, who owns the sprawling horse ranch where they’ve secured jobs. Despite a nocturnal swim under the stars, director Thornton even manages to make their love scenes dull; at one point, they’re stupidly commenting about having something up their noses. Miriam Colon scores as Cruz’s aunt who’s rightfully suspicious about Damon, this gringo who winds up in a Mexican penitentiary, albeit on false charges. Then there’s what seems like an awkwardly added epilogue with Damon telling his tale of woe to a sympathetic West Texas judge, played by Bruce Dern. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “All the Pretty Horses” is ponderous, pretentious 3. Basically, none of the characters – except Miriam Colon’s – exude passion or even interest. The actors seem to be going through the motions – and the audience senses it on an conscious or unconscious level, refusing to make an emotional commitment to the tale.

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A GIRL THING

Susan Granger’s review of “A GIRL THING” (Showtime TV miniseries)

Aptly named because of its appeal to a female audience, this star-studded, four-hour mini-series revolves around the troubled patients of a savvy, perceptive Manhattan psychiatrist (Stockard Channing). In the first story, an confused, uptight attorney (Elle Macpherson) with a fear of intimacy is unexpectedly attracted to a bisexual advertising executive (Kate Capshaw). Written and directed by Lee Rose, it’s sensitive, spirited and spunky – as are the subsequent stories. But this is the most intriguing with its insightful dialogue and daring, nude seduction scenes. The second segment centers on three estranged sisters (Rebecca DeMornay, Alison Janney, Glenne Headley) with unresolved issues who are forced by their dead mother (Elizabeth Franz) to confront the real meaning of family. In the third tale, a wife (Lynn Whitfield) suspects her husband (Scott Bakula) is cheating, so she hires a “top-of-the-line decoy” (Linda Hamilton) as bait but, instead, discovers he’s having an affair with a waitress (Mia Farrow). A bottle of tequila later, the three furious women plot their revenge. In the final episode, an unstable, seriously disturbed woman (Camryn Manheim) threatens the doctor and a fashion model (Peta Wilson). All four stories deal with challenges of love, trust, vulnerability, betrayal and our fragility as human beings trying to establish and maintain relationships despite our own insecurities. In a memorable supporting role, the caustic owner of a coffee shop (Margo Martindale) provides another link as another “ambassador of lost souls.” On the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge, “A Girl Thing” is an engaging 8, airing in two parts – Sat., Jan. 20, and Sat., Jan. 27 – at 8 PM on SHOWTIME TV with additional play dates Jan. 29 and 30th, at 8 PM. If this were a continuing series, like “Sex and the City,” I’d watch every week.

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BEFORE NIGHT FALLS

Susan Granger’s review of “BEFORE NIGHT FALLS”

Spain’s most acclaimed young actor, Javier Bardem, makes his American debut in this cinematic parable and portrait of Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted for literary and sexual transgressions in Cuba. A writer and homosexual, Arenas was perceived as a threat to Fidel Castro on both counts. After escaping from the haunting Kafkaesque nightmare of the notorious El Morro prison, he tried unsuccessfully to flee Cuba by inner tube before emigrating to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift of “undesirables.” Arenas settled in New York’s Greenwich Village where, suffering from AIDS, he committed suicide at the age of 47. Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat”) writes and directs this righteously honest, impressionistic biography with intelligence, delicacy and craftsmanship, beginning with Arenas’s rural childhood that was marked by an idyllic communion with nature. With cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, Schnabel utilizes various film stocks and colorations but without the flashiness of Steven Soderberg’s “Traffic.” While exploring Arenas’s obsession with indiscriminate sex (he claimed to have had 5,000 lovers by age 25), the screenplay, however, offers little analysis or explanation for Arenas’s quirks of character. Although Schnabel originally envisioned Benicio Del Toro as Arenas, it’s Bardem’s dynamic, astonishing performance that elevates the dreariness and depression of the fragmented tale, along with Sean Penn and Johnny Depp’s cameos. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Before Night Falls” is a strong, poetic, imaginative 8, representing freedom of expression in form and content. His cry, “I’m a citizen of nowhere…the State Department declared me a citizen of nowhere, so legally I don’t exist,” resonates.

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THE PLEDGE

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

In this dark psychological drama, Jack Nicholson delivers a wrenching performance as a stressed-out Reno police detective facing retirement. On his last day at work, there’s a grisly homicide. An eight year-old girl has been found slashed, raped and mutilated in the Nevada snow. Her distraught mother (Patricia Clarkson) forces him to promise to find the killer, intoning:”Do you swear by your soul’s salvation on this cross made by our daughter?” Despite the “confession” of a retarded Native American (Benicio Del Toro), coerced by another cop (Aaron Eckhart), Nicholson is convinced that the child molester is not only still free but will strike again. So he ploddingly goes undercover, buying a local gas station and befriending a battered single mom (Robin Wright Penn) with a trusting young daughter (Pauline Roberts) he can use as bait. Judging by Sean Penn’s first two films (“The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard”) and this, his directing choices are as quirky as his acting choices, beginning with extreme close-ups of Nicholson ice fishing, armed with a bottle of Glenfiddich. The sequence where Nicholson breaks the tragic news to the parents is set in the barn of a turkey farm; it’s a long shot with no dialogue. That scene is profoundly moving, graceful and lyrical, as are Nicholson’s conversations with the child’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) and a psychologist (Helen Mirren). But the story by Frederick Durrenmatt (“The Visit”), adapted by Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, is flat and deliberate, almost lethargic, framed by Nicholson’s bizarre ramblings and ruminations, resulting in an emotional detachment which is hard to overcome. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Pledge” is a haunting 8, emerging as a subtle study of pathological obsession.

08

SNATCH

Susan Granger’s review of “SNATCH” (Screen Gems)

British writer/director Guy Ritchie repeats the hip “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” formula with this new, ultra-violent crime caper – and it’s less effective the second time ’round. This is all about a diamond heist gone sour, bare knuckle boxing and a dog who swallows a squeak toy. Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”) is Franky Four Fingers, a diamond thief and gambler, who is passing through London en route to New York to deliver a glittering 86-carat gem that he stole in Antwerp to his Anglophobe boss, Dennis Farina. While distributing some smaller sparklers to his boss’s mobster cousin and other Hatton Garden jewelers, he places a bet on an illegal boxing match. What he doesn’t know is that he’s been set up for robbery – and worse. So much for the gruesome, convoluted plot. The gritty, working-class characters are sadistic gangster caricatures and not at all likable, in contrast to the four lads in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” Brad Pitt is almost unintelligible as One Punch Mickey, an Irish gypsy boxer; he’s brawny and buff but he seems to be babbling incoherently. As for Guy Ritchie’s Tarantino-like craftsmanship in directing, it’s simply “been there, done that” as the colorful, if over-aggressive, bumblers energetically bungle their way from mishap to mayhem. And what’s with the supposedly symbolic scenes of cruelty to animals? Surely Ritchie’s torrid courtship of Madonna and Child cannot have robbed him of all originality. However, one must credit him for a disgustingly unique explanation of the phrase, “as greedy as a pig.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Snatch” is a confusing, shamelessly repetitive 4. Its continuous action and frenetic pace don’t make it either fresh or funny. I’m curious to see what genre Ritchie tackles next.

04

SUGAR & SPICE

SUGAR & SPICE

Susan Granger’s review of “SUGAR & SPICE” (New Line Cinema)

Cheerleaders become bank robbers…that had to be the sales pitch for this off-beat, teen crime-caper comedy that inexplicably tickles the funny bone. To begin with, there are these five cheerleaders at Lincoln High School. They’re best friends, bosom buddies, golden girls. So when their perky, relentlessly optimistic A-squad captain (Marley Shelton) gets pregnant by the simpleminded star quarterback (James Marsden) and discovers the Beatles were wrong – “Love isn’t all you need!” – they decide to rob a bank. After all, that’s where the money is, right? At least according to Keanu Reeves in “Point Break,” the vintage surf ‘n’ heist film, with specifics supplied by the rebellious daughter (Mena Suvari) of a convict (Sean Young). While the wholesome, devout Christian (Rachel Blanchard) and fantasy-ridden Conan O’Brien fan (Melissa George) take a bit of convincing, the Harvard-bound brainchild (Sara Marsh) opts out. But the human pyramid doesn’t collapse, since she’s quickly replaced by a munitions dealer’s daughter (Alexandra Holden). There’s a slight hitch when a jealous member of the B-squad (Marla Sokoloff) squeals to the police but she’s quickly appeased. Sure, it’s shallow. It’s supposed to be. What do you expect from a fizzy, pop culture send-up, complete with red-white-and-blue pom-poms and Madonna lyrics recited as inspirational poetry? Director Francine McDougall, writer Mandy Nelson and cinematographer Robert Brinkmann share the same vision: taking “girl power” to outrageous extremes. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sugar & Spice” is a sassy, irreverent, saucy 6. Despite memories of the tragedy of the Columbine shootings in 1999, this satirical dark comedy about girls and guns offers more giggles than one might expect. “Cheerleaders kick…!”

06

SAVE THE LAST DANCE

Susan Granger’s review of “SAVE THE LAST DANCE” (Paramount Pictures)

It’s hard to argue with success and this romantic drama has definitely struck a chord with its target audience: teens. While dealing with the weighty themes of family, grief, responsibility, urban violence and cross-racial romance, screenwriters Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards and director Thomas Carter concentrate on the growing attraction between a blond ballerina (Julia Stiles), who has recently moved from suburbia to Chicago’s South Side to live with her bohemian, jazz trumpeter father (Terry Kinney) after her mother’s death in a highway accident, and a black club kid (Sean Patrick Thomas). They’re high-school seniors and they’re both passionate about dance. She’s turned on by his energetic hip-hop moves and he digs the funky frolic beneath her frosty surface. Friendship comes first, then love. But she wants to study ballet at Julliard and he wants to study pediatric medicine at Georgetown University. The inner-city plot is contrived and formulaic with a trite, hackneyed climax, but the two leading players elevate the concept. Julia Stiles, last seen on-screen as Ophelia to Ethan Hawke’s “Hamlet,” is not only beautiful to look at but her voice is cultured and cultivated. She exudes warmth and intelligence. Sean Patrick Thomas, best known for TVs “The District,” radiates intensity and inner conflict as an ambitious Afro-American who respects his roots even as he works to break free of their constraints. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Save the Last Dance” is a high steppin’, soulful 7 – an updated “Flashdance” for the MTV audience. A warning for suburban adults: if you’re not familiar with ghetto kids’ lingo, you may at times be clueless as to what they’re saying.

07

THE WEDDING PLANNER

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WEDDING PLANNER” (Columbia Pictures)

What do you get when you pair luscious Jennifer Lopez with macho Matthew McConaughey? A bland, wannabe “My Best Friend’s Wedding” – without the charm or humor. The term “screwball” romantic comedy was coined around 1936, to describe Carole Lombard’s ditsy heroine in “My Man Godfrey.” Over the years, it has come to be associated with romantic exaltation of a very down-to-earth kind. But, in order to be successful, a screwball romantic comedy needs some originality, at least some appealing characters and snappy dialogue, to sustain it. Unfortunately, screenwriters Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis aren’t up to the task. As a result, screwball soon becomes cornball. Set in San Francisco, the contrived, prosaic plot revolves around an ambitious, highly organized, workaholic wedding planner (Lopez) who “meets cute” with a handsome pediatrician (McConaughey) who saves her from being crushed by a runaway dumpster when her Gucci pump gets wedged in a grate. It’s instant attraction – until they discover that she’s been hired to plan his wedding to a wealthy businesswoman (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras). That’s the big complication, along with a silly subplot in which Lopez’s father (Alex Rocco) arranges for her to marry a Sicilian immigrant (Justin Chambers). Jennifer Lopez is no Julia Roberts – and Adam Shankman’s broad, heavy-handed direction doesn’t help. Her “drunk” scene is truly an embarrassment. On the other hand, the dance sequences, particularly the Lopez/McConaughey tango, reflect Shankman’s strength as a choreographer. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Wedding Planner” is a flimsy 5. It’s a mediocre date movie that will soon be forgotten. Besides, the best scenes are in the Coming Attractions trailer.

05

BEAUTIFUL

Susan Granger’s review of “BEAUTIFUL” (Destination Films)

Mark Twain once said, “A soiled baby with a neglected nose cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty.” As a corollary, this clumsy satire forces audiences to spend two hours with Mona Hibbard, a vain, self-centered, thoroughly disagreeable protagonist, played by Minnie Driver, in her grating quest for the Miss America-like beauty pageant crown. Mona was born in a shack in Naperville, Illinois, to white-trash parents who apparently tolerated her passion for entering beauty contests while fostering her low self-esteem. Now the mother of an illegitimate daughter, she passes off the little girl (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, instantly recognizable from Pepsi TV commercials) as the daughter of her best-friend/ room-mate (Joey Lauren Adams) – which becomes a problem when the maternal care-giver implausibly winds up in jail. And we’re supposed to believe that the precocious child doesn’t know who her real mother is! Jon Bernstein’s manipulative, clichŽ-filled screenplay sinks below soap-opera, as Mona’s secret could be exposed by an inquiring TV reporter (Leslie Stefanson) whose own ambitions were thwarted by Mona several years earlier in an incident involving dumping industrial-strength adhesive on her flaming, twirling baton. Actress Sally Field makes her directorial debut with this film; mercifully, she can never sink lower. Nor can Kathleen Turner, inexcusably chewing up the scenery as Mona’s pageant mentor. There is one funny moment, though, when Mona sings “The Wind Beneath My Wings” to a pregnant woman about to give birth in a supermarket. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Beautiful” barely manages a shallow 2. If you’re intrigued by beauty contests, rent Michael Ritchie’s satirical “Smile” or the more recent “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”

02

THE EXORCIST

Susan Granger’s review of “THE EXORCIST”: THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN

So what’s new about William Friedkin’s horror-thriller? You’d be surprised. Adapted from William Peter Blatty’s best-seller about demonic possession, it’s quite an eye-opener particularly viewed from a PC-2000 perspective. Like when Linda Blair, playing a “normal” 12 year-old whose body is possessed by the Devil, stabs her crotch with a crucifix while screaming a blasphemy. Would that scene get an R-rating from the MPAA today? One wonders. So much is in the eye of the beholder. So, let’s go back to 1973, when “The Exorcist” was first released. Still reeling from the sexual revolution of the ’60s, Hollywood was striving for candor and honesty, finally free from the restraints of the Hays Office and Breen Code. Now, as then, the graphic, anti-religious language is the primary shocker. The new version includes 11 minutes of new footage with enhanced sound. In one of the added scenes, a younger priest (Jason Miller) asks an older priest why Satan would harm an innocent girl. The older priest replies that Satan has only one purpose: “The point is to see ourselves as an animal and ugly…to reject the possibility that God could love us.” Plus, there’s a scene in which Blair does a crab walk down the stairs, upside down on all fours, bleeding from her mouth and screaming loudly. And there’s a more positive ending in which an atheist detective (Lee. J. Cobb) feels closer to God for having known the exorcist priests. Apparently, Blatty, a devout Roman Catholic, always wanted this final message of good conquering evil, while Friedkin opted for people to reach their own conclusions. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Exorcist” (2000) is still a gruesome, intense 8. It will always be remembered as the movie which launched a new genre of pop culture horror films.

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