Susan Granger’s review of “SOLOMON & GAENOR” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Oscar nominated as Best Foreign Language Film, the love story called “Solomon & Gaenor” is set in the Welsh Valleys around 1911. Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is a young Orthodox Jewish boy whose parents run a pawnshop and drapery business. For added income, he trudges through the gray mist of the muddy, wet valleys selling cotton fabric door-to-door. That’s how he meets gentle Gaenor (Nia Roberts), whose father and elder brother are miners. They’re immediately attracted to each other but Solomon – painfully aware of the rampant anti-Semitism of the period and rebelling against his heritage – conceals his Jewish identity, telling her his name is Sam. After surprising her with a pretty dress of red calico that he made himself, they become clandestine lovers. In a deliciously awkward scene, he meets her family. “Now I want to meet your family,” Gaenor pleads. “I want to make it right.” But Solomon, ashamed, knows his devoutly religious family will not accept her, nor him if he chooses to stay with her. Meanwhile, his sister becomes suspicious, Gaenor gets pregnant and is denounced in chapel, and there’s a strike at the coal mine. The ensuing scandal spells tragedy in director/writer Paul Morrison’s confident, well-directed screenplay. And what etches “Solomon & Gaenor” indelibly in your mind is the beautiful photography the evokes the time, the place, and the mood. On the minus side, is the low-key, uneven way the story unfolds slowly, utilizing a measured, meandering pace. English subtitles translate the Welsh and Yiddish. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Solomon & Gaenor” is a tough, uncompromising 7. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” in Wales, capturing the exquisite pleasure and unbearable pain of first love.
Susan Granger’s review of “THE CREW” (Touchstone Pictures)
First “Space Cowboys,” now another quartet of cranky, old geezers gear up for a final mission. No, they’re not saving the planet; they’re saving their sanity. It’s been too many years since Bats (Burt Reynolds), Brick (Dan Hedaya), Mouth (Seymour Cassel) and Bobby (Richard Dreyfuss) had anything to do but sip slurpees and ogle bikinis from the verandah of the Raj Mahal, a ratty retirement hotel in South Beach, Florida. Once they had it all – money, power, women and respect – but now they’re facing eviction from the semi-squalor of their suddenly trendy, ocean-view apartments when Bats comes up with a plan. They steal an unclaimed corpse from the mortuary where Brick works and shoot the dead guy in the lobby of their hotel. Predictably, their anti-gentrification scheme works. Squeamish yuppies flee the crime scene and their landlord relents, offering a rent reduction and hefty bonus for signing long-term leases. They’re into heavy-duty celebration until they discover the corpse was the senile father of a paranoid South American drug lord (Miguel Sandoval) – and that Mouth spilled the story to a stripper/hooker (Jennifer Tilly) who threatens to blab unless the wiseguys bump off her wealthy, widowed step-mother (Lainie Kazan). Chaos reigns when this crime caper goes sour, much to the consternation and confusion of a police detective (Carrie-Ann Moss) who has more than a passing interest in Bobby. While I didn’t find the gang-whiz along the side of the road particularly funny, Barry Fanaro’s screenplay, directed by Michael Dinner, contrives to elicit chuckles if not belly-laughs. And why not? Fanaro used to write and produce TV’s “The Golden Girls.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Crew” is a satirical 5, a genial geriatric Goodfellas.
Susan Granger’s review of “BRING IT ON” (Universal Pictures)
It’s not all pirouettes and posing for the razzle-dazzle pom-pom squad! Cheerleading is competitive and this exuberant teen comedy never lets you forget it. Kirsten Dunst plays the perky, newly-elected captain of the Toro cheerleading squad of Rancho Carne High School in San Diego. It’s a prestigious position since the squad’s won the national championship for five years and is heading for its sixth trophy. That is until Dunst befriends a transfer student (Eliza Dushku) and her brother (Jesse Bradford) and discovers that the Toro’s perfectly-choreographed routines were, in fact, stolen by the ruthless former captain (Lindsay Sloane) from the Clovers, a hip-hop squad from East Compton. A visit to that inner-city school confirms the theft and the ire of the understandably angry captain (Gabrielle Union) of the African-American team that’s also taking part in the upcoming national championships in Daytona. It gets kind of awkward and rah-rah rough here as Dunst laments, “My whole cheerleading career is based on a lie.” But Dunst is a good enough comedienne to carry it off, gamely switching moods with a mischievous myriad of expressions. Written by Jessica Bendinger and directed by Peyton Reed, it’s a silly, slangy and ultimately conventional spoof, touring the girls’ locker room with an unusual skirmish involving teeth-brushing. No doubt, cheerleading is a sport that requires discipline, timing, strength, and concentration but that and the edgy, moral racial angle is neither emphasized nor deeply explored here, nor was it part of the trailer. Instead, the racial tension arises unexpectedly. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bring It On” is a bouncy, energetic 4, filled with gymnastics, dance and PG-13 sex appeal. As Dunst says: “This is not a democracy – it’s a cheerocracy.”
Susan Granger’s review of “FINAL APPEAL: THE OUTER LIMITS” (Showtime TV)
On Sunday, Sept. 3, at 8 PM, the two-hour final episode of “The Outer Limits” concludes the popular sci-fi series which aired 132 original, made-for-television episodes during six seasons. Written by Sam Egan and directed by Jimmy Kaufman, “Final Appeal” is set in the year 2076, when the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear a landmark case. Amanda Plummer plays Dr. Theresa Givens, who has been sentenced to death for her “crimes against society.” Her transgressions center around the use of a time-travel device which violates a stringent ban on all technology in the wake of a devastating, world-wide technological holocaust. So it’s back to the horse ‘n’ buggy as transportation and communication are restricted to the lowest levels of development. Kelly McGillis is her defense attorney, while Michael Moriarty is the prosecutor. Charlton Heston is the Chief Justice who is joined on the bench by Robert Loggia, Cicily Tyson, Swoozie Kurtz, and Hal Holbrook. The trial’s outcome is unexpectedly prompted by a surprise witness, a terrorist played by Wallace Langham. The concept of using technology as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills is intriguing, particularly with the use of film clips from previous “Outer Limits” episodes to illustrate different points-of-view. But, as actors, Amanda Plummer and Michael Moriarty muddle their characters. It’s one thing for a thespian to choose an unusual line-reading, it’s another to waver uncomfortably on the edge of bizarre. Plus, the staid courtroom setting tends to grow static as the participants are confined to specific places. So, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Final Episode” culminates in a 5, begging the question: What will become of a world that has outlawed the tools it has traditionally used to solve its problems?
Susan Granger’s review of “ART OF WAR” (Warner Bros.)
Talk about synchronous ideas: the same week that psychologist Richard Hatch became ultimate “Survivor,” “Art of War” celebrates the concept of manipulation and control. It’s all about using strategy to understand your opponent and defeat him. The idea of “Art of War” is based on an ancient handbook by Sun Tsu, a powerful Asian general who believed that wars can be won without ever having to actually fight. Many great generals, including Napoleon, used Sun Tsu’s philosophy, and its tenets are as applicable to business, politics and winning TV game shows as they are to war. In the international suspense thriller, Wesley Snipes plays a covert American agent, a “fixer,” who gets involved in the emerging trade relations between China and the Western world as a group of murdered Chinese refugees is found in a container in the New York harbor and the Chinese U.N. Ambassador is assassinated in the midst of delivering a speech. Because he was in the wrong place at the right time, Snipes is accused and the only witness who can prove his innocence is a Chinese translator (Marie Matiko). Meanwhile, Donald Sutherland is the U.N. Secretary General, a Canadian, with Anne Archer as his iron-fisted chief of security. Maury Chaykin is a senior FBI agent with his own agenda, while Michael Biehn is Snipes’ partner. And Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is a successful entrepreneur, an Eastern cowboy straddling two cultures. Director Christian Duguay relishes the gratuitous, realistic violence of Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry’s script, but it’s Snipes’ hip, cool charisma that ties the enigmatic story together, On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Art of War” is a slick, synchronous 7, the final summer popcorn picture. “It’s the game that makes us tick” – and Wesley Snipes is the winner here
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.