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ALMOST FAMOUS

Susan Granger’s review of “ALMOST FAMOUS” (DreamWorks)

Cameron Crowe’s first film since “Jerry Maguire” is so engaging, entertaining and authentic that it’s destined to become a rock-era classic. Set in 1973, this slightly fictionalized, semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story revolves around a baby-faced 15 year-old (Patrick Fugit) prodigy whose intelligence and enthusiasm land him an assignment from “Rolling Stone” magazine to interview Stillwater, an up-and-coming band. With the help of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a bewitching “Band-Aid,” he meets the charismatic lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) who invites him to join the tour, much to the dismay of his mother (Frances McDormand) who relentlessly repeats, “Don’t do drugs!” Soon he’s part of the inner circle of the band he idolizes, disregarding the caution of his rock critic mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman): “Friendship is the booze they feed you to make you feel cool.” Eventually, of course, the rookie reporter becomes disillusioned, honest and unmerciful. What’s so compelling is Crowe’s infallible casting which doesn’t have a single discordant note. Patrick Fugit embodies innocent bewilderment, revealing one layer of surprise after another. Billy Crudup is dynamite, a superstar waiting to happen. Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s real-life daughter) gives a captivating, flamboyant yet hauntingly poignant performance. Frances McDormand is bracingly funny, playing with perfect pitch. Philip Seymour Hoffman is mesmerizing, exploding like a land mine. Finally, Crowe, cinematographer John Toll, art directors Clay A. Griffith & Clayton Hartley, and costume designer Betsy Heimann cleverly capture the sense of time and place. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Almost Famous” is a soaring, spirited 10. I loved it! I haven’t had such a good time at the movies in ages.

10

WHIPPED

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

Luscious Amanda Peet deserves better than this wretched sex comedy. She’s built up a loyal following from TV’s “Jack and Jill” and made a charming appearance in “The Whole Nine Yards,” but this is a disaster. Written, produced and directed by Peter M. Cohen, the story revolves around three, single twenty somethings who gather each Sunday morning for breakfast in a Manhattan diner, along with a fourth buddy who is married, to brag and exchange graphic tales of their erotic Saturday night conquests. They’re self-proclaimed experts in “scamming” which involves scoring a date and having sex with a woman. Brian Van Holt plays the Wall Street guy, the slickest of the trio; his trick is to approach women and pretend to be their friend’s brother. The friend is always named Jen because, as he reasons, “they all have a friend name Jen.” There’s Zorie Barber, a shallow pseudo-hippie, East Village screenwriter type; pathetically eager Jonathan Abrahams, who’s supposed to be sensitive; and Judah Domke, who gets vicarious thrills and whose exploits with a juicer and an egg beater are minor league. However, the group’s womanizing camaraderie is challenged when they meet an enigmatic, uninhibited sexpot – that’ s Peet – and she begins to date all three – at the same time. It seems she’s scamming them, waiting until the second date to have sex and then vowing to each that he, and he alone, is the one she truly loves. The less said the better about the grotesque scene in which Peet’s vibrator is dropped into an unflushed toilet. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Whipped” sinks to an obnoxious low with a creepy, cynical, coarse 1. It’s a smutty, repellent sleazefest.

01

HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME

Susan Granger’s review of “HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME” (Dimension Films)

This is the fourth segment, the first in five years, and the final episode of the series. If you’re not a die-hard fan, you need to know some background. The Highlander is an immortal, born centuries ago in the Scotland. He and the other immortals who walk the earth, calling themselves “the seed of legend,” can be killed only when beheaded, which usually occurs in a sword-fight with another immortal. The victor in such a duel gets the “quickening,” absorbing the strength and experience of the defeated amid bolts of lightning. Morose Christopher Lambert stars, once again, as Connor MacLeod with Adrian Paul as his protŽgŽ, Duncan MacLeod, who – this time – go after Jacob Kell (Bruce Payson), an evil, diabolical, power-hungry immortal who has gone renegade. Kell’s after Connor because, centuries ago, Connor killed his father, which is understandable since Kell burned Connor’s mother at the stake. Make no mistake, this is a gruesome group and the recitation of their history is often contradictory. Plus, Duncan’s got this girl-friend (Lisa Barbuscia). Anyway, both MacLeods are determined that Kell will not be the last immortal – “In the end, there can be only one.” Problem is: it’s disjointed and tiresome. Even the choreography of the sword-fights is clunky and choppy. Blame that on first-time director Douglas Aarniokoski. The gimmick is that Lambert, who’s starred in the “Highlander” films, is now teamed with Paul, star of the syndicated TV series (1992-98). The two, supposedly born 70 years apart in the 16th century, have appeared together only in the first episode of the TV series. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Highlander: Endgame” is a dreadful, time-traveling, almost incomprehensible 2. As they say: “That’s one blessing of immortality – there’s always tomorrow.”

02

NURSE BETTY

Susan Granger’s review of “NURSE BETTY” (USA Films)

Irresistible Renee Zellweger stars in this darkly comedic romantic fable as Betty Sizemore, a soap-opera obsessed Kansas housewife caught between fantasy and reality. She’s a plucky, small-town waitress whose philandering, abusive husband is brutally scalped and shot in their dining-room by two professional hitmen when a shady drug deal goes sour. Cowering in an adjoining den, she’s emotionally traumatized by witnessing the violence. Her reaction is to enter a fugue state, defined by the American Psychiatric Assoc. as “a combination of amnesia and physical fright,” impelling the individual to flee from customary surroundings, assuming a new identity. So, in her delusion, she becomes Nurse Betty, a character on “A Reason to Love,” who adores Dr. David Ravell whom she jilted six years ago. Determined to right this wrong, she takes off for Los Angeles, not knowing that the hitmen’s drugs are stashed in her Buick. Inspired by “Being There,” “Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Pulp Fiction,” the clever, twist-filled script by John C. Richards & James Flamberg should cop an Oscar nomination, and Neil LaBute’s farcical direction contrasts with the bitter bleakness of “Your Friends & Neighbors” and “In the Company of Men.” Renee Zellweger exudes enough wacky, guileless, sweet innocence to emerge as a beguiling Oscar contender, yet it’s Morgan Freeman who astonishes as the elder, courtly hitman who does a dream dance sequence on the edge of the Grand Canyon at night. Chris Rock is hilarious as his acerbic, hard-headed, excitable protŽgŽ with Greg Kinnear, Aaron Eckhart and Allison Janney delivering shimmering supporting gems. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nurse Betty” is a weird, deliriously funny 8, a crazed, playful, defiantly twisted collision of alternate realities.

08

THE WATCHER

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WATCHER” (Universal)

Just what we need: another lurid, trashy serial killer saga. This time, Keanu Reeves plays an elusive homicidal maniac who engages in a gruesome ticking-clock cat-and-mouse game with James Spader, a burnt-out FBI agent who has suffered a traumatic nervous breakdown after too many years on the job with the LAPD. To taunt Spader, who has relocated to Chicago, Reeves packs up his trusty piano wire and moves too. Before long, he starts mailing photographs of the lonely, unsuspecting young women who are his intended Windy City victims, challenging Spader, along with the Chicago Police Department, to stop him within 24 hours before he strikes again. In the midst of this murderous frenzy, there’s Spader’s psychologist, played by Marisa Tomei, who is even less convincing as a medical professional than Jennifer Lopez in “The Cell.” Writers David Elliot, Clay Ayers and Darcy Meyers, along with first-time director Joe Charbanic (helmer of music videos for Reeves’ band Dogstar), dwell on the warped thrill of the methodology and the chase, revealing, early on, exactly whodunit since the killer says he and the cop “need each other to give meaning to our lives.” Plus, as Reeves explains, “We’re all stacked right on top of each other, but we don’t notice each other any more.” After that, it’s all sound effects and tricky camera-work, along with a muddled, discordant soundtrack. James Spader’s acting technique can be described as ‘wooden deadpan’ while Keanu Reeves maintains his perpetually monotone ‘dude’ persona which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. Chris Ellis, as Spader’s self-important colleague, is the only cast member who manages to be convincing. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Watcher” is an appallingly awful, amateurish 2. The real torture is watching it.

02

THE WAY OF THE GUN

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WAY OF THE GUN” (Artisan Entertainment)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for “The Usual Suspects,” makes an auspicious directorial debut with this crime thriller about two small-time crooks who call themselves Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), the real surnames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They’re raising capital by selling their sperm in L.A. when they overhear a conversation about Robin (Juliette Lewis) who has been hired for $1 million by a wealthy couple to be a surrogate mother. Immediately, they concoct a kidnapping/ransom scheme. But when they unconventionally abduct the waddling, very-pregnant Robin from her obstetrician’s office, despite the presence of her bodyguards (Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt), and hide her in a hotel in Mexico, complications begin, and she gives birth in the midst of a gunfight. What the inept, sociopathic thugs don’t know is that the biological father (Scott Wilson) of the newborn boy, the man they’re shaking down for $15 million, launders money for organized crime and that he’s hired a mob-connected “fixer” (James Caan) to take care of the situation. (Curiously, the “fixer” has an assistant who in real-life is Geoffrey Lewis, Juliette Lewis’s father). One of the menacing Caan’s better lines is “I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough to never forget.” As you might expect from a Christopher McQuarrie script, the confusing plot twists and turns, tricky double-cross following tricky double-cross, within back-stabbing sub-plots, and nothing is ever exactly what you expect it to be except, perhaps, the shoot-’em’up finale. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Way of the Gun” scores a slow-paced but grimly stylish, snarling 4, profane and violent from start to finish – with not one likable character.

04

THE WATCHER

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WATCHER” (Universal)

Just what we need: another lurid, trashy serial killer saga. This time, Keanu Reeves plays an elusive homicidal maniac who engages in a gruesome ticking-clock cat-and-mouse game with James Spader, a burnt-out FBI agent who has suffered a traumatic nervous breakdown after too many years on the job with the LAPD. To taunt Spader, who has relocated to Chicago, Reeves packs up his trusty piano wire and moves too. Before long, he starts mailing photographs of the lonely, unsuspecting young women who are his intended Windy City victims, challenging Spader, along with the Chicago Police Department, to stop him within 24 hours before he strikes again. In the midst of this murderous frenzy, there’s Spader’s psychologist, played by Marisa Tomei, who is even less convincing as a medical professional than Jennifer Lopez in “The Cell.” Writers David Elliot, Clay Ayers and Darcy Meyers, along with first-time director Joe Charbanic (helmer of music videos for Reeves’ band Dogstar), dwell on the warped thrill of the methodology and the chase, revealing, early on, exactly whodunit since the killer says he and the cop “need each other to give meaning to our lives.” Plus, as Reeves explains, “We’re all stacked right on top of each other, but we don’t notice each other any more.” After that, it’s all sound effects and tricky camera-work, along with a muddled, discordant soundtrack. James Spader’s acting technique can be described as ‘wooden deadpan’ while Keanu Reeves maintains his perpetually monotone ‘dude’ persona which sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. Chris Ellis, as Spader’s self-important colleague, is the only cast member who manages to be convincing. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Watcher” is an appallingly awful, amateurish 2. The real torture is watching it.

02

DUETS

Susan Granger’s review of “DUETS” (Hollywood Pictures/Disney)

For Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow, making this dark comedy was obviously a labor of love since it’s directed by her real-life father, Bruce Paltrow (creator of TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” “The White Shadow”), who was stricken with throat cancer. Shooting began in Vancouver only three weeks after he completed radiation therapy. The story revolves around six unhappy characters hoping to win $5,000 in a karaoke competition in Omaha, Nebraska. Huey Lewis plays a karaoke hustler who meets his long-lost daughter, a third-generation Las Vegas showgirl – that’s the too-thin, too flat-chested-to-be-believable as an innocent showgirl Gwyneth, when they’re introduced by her grandmother (Angie Dickinson in a cameo) at her mother’s wake. Paul Giamatti’s a meek, mild-mannered salesman, obsessed with redeeming his frequent flyer miles, who picks up a hitchhiking escaped convict, Andre Braugher. And Maria Bello, as a scheming waitress/wannabe rock star, promises sexual favors to a Cincinnati taxi driver, Scott Speedman. They’re all maudlin misfits who like to sing but, for the most part, their renditions make you cringe. Gwyneth’s not bad warbling “Bette Davis Eyes,” but she’s not good either. Written by John Byrum, this manipulative, ill-fated project has gone through several incarnations, beginning originally as a starring vehicle for Gwyneth Paltrow and her then-fiancŽ Brad Pitt. After they split up, it was revised and, in an unprecedented move, because of its violent content, Disney shopped “Duets” around to other studios; eventually, studio executives decided to re-cut it, editing the objectionable scenes. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Duets” is a disappointing, discordant 4. This rambling, raucous road trip-to- redemption saga strikes a distinctly sour note.

04

UNDER SUSPICION

Susan Granger’s review of “UNDER SUSPICION” (Lions Gate Films)

Powerhouse performances propel this tense, gripping psychological thriller set amidst the carnivalesque festival of San Sebastian in Puerto Rico. Morgan Freeman plays a local police chief who summons a prominent tax attorney – that’s Gene Hackman – to his office for an interrogation prior to a gala fund-raising party that the attorney is hosting at a posh hotel across the street. There have been a series of grisly murders of young girls in the precinct and, for reasons that later become clear, Freeman suspects that Hackman is involved in the sordid scandal. But why Hackman, who lives in a magnificent villa with a sultry trophy-wife (Monica Bellucci) whom he describes as “a beautiful woman who moves through life unchallenged”? Yet, as Hackman nervously flicks his fancy cigarette lighter, there’s something suspicious about him, as a cocky young detective (Thomas Jane) repeatedly points out. And the ultra-courteous Freeman, who would like to be the next superintendent, cleverly reads the desperation in Hackman’s body language, maintaining that he’s only trying to clarify some details. Adapted by screenwriters Peter Iliff and Tom Provost from Claude Miller’s French cult classic, “Garde a Vue” (“The Inquisitor”), and directed by Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space,” “The Ghost and the Darkness”), the character-driven crime-mystery unfolds, revealing how both men have painful pasts filled with secrets and lies. “You peel my onion down to the nub,” admits Hackman. But the tedious repetition of the cross-questioning and the too-frequent flashbacks detract from the narrative, diluting its impact as the plot takes a dangerous, tortured twist. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Under Suspicion” is a disturbing 6, as deceptive as the costumes of the San Sebastian street carnival.

06

WOMAN ON TOP

Susan Granger’s review of “WOMAN ON TOP” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Spanish star Penelope Cruz is as intoxicating as Brazilian bossa-nova rhythms in Fina Torres’s wannabe “Like Water for Chocolate” that also uses cooking as a metaphor for passionate romance. As Isabella, she’s both cursed and blessed. She’s cursed with severe motion sickness that forces her to be “in control” of her movement – driving, dancing and being on top when she makes love. Yet she’s blessed with culinary genius, working as chef in a small seaside restaurant owned by her mucho-macho musician husband, Toninho (Murilo Benicio). But when she catches him in bed with another woman, she flees Bahia, seeking solace with her childhood friend, a transvestite (Harold Perrineau, Jr.) in San Francisco, where she’s “discovered” by a TV producer (Mark Feuerstein) and becomes the sultry star of a local cooking show. Meanwhile, despondent Toninho is determined to win her back. So much for story. It’s charismatic Penelope Cruz that fascinates. Curiously, she’s not a traditional beauty; her thin nose is far too long. But she’s stunning, radiant and utterly compelling, particularly when she sways to Luis Bacalov’s Latino score. On the other hand, Vera Blasi’s flimsy plot goes beyond disbelief, needing far too much voice-over narration. And Fina Torres’ clumsy attempt at magical realism cannot compare with Alfonso Arau (“Like Water For Chocolate”), even with Thierry Arbogast’s caressing cinematography. Aside from Murilo Benicio’s realization that, without his wife, his life is barren, there is no character development. Harold Perrineau Jr. serves as comic relief, and Mark Feuerstein’s fumbling ineptitude grows cloying quickly. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Woman on Top” is a frothy, sensuous 6, as ephemeral and enchanting as the aromas that waft from Isabella’s cuisine.

06