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GLADIATOR

Susan Granger’s review of “GLADIATOR” (DreamWorks)

“Are you not entertained?” charismatic Russell Crowe roars scornfully to the cheering crowd in the Roman Colosseum. Certainly there hasn’t been this kind of awesome sword-and-sandals spectacle since “Spartacus,” “Ben-Hur” and “Cleopatra.” Set in 180 A.D., Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general who promises his aging mentor, Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) that, as his appointed successor, he will return power to the Senate, thus restoring the Republic. That infuriates Caesar’s evil, envious son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who becomes Emperor and orders Maximus’ execution. But Maximus escapes, becomes a slave and learns from an entrepreneur (Oliver Reed) how gladiators can fight their way to freedom and vengeance. That’s when the excitement ignites. For years, Hollywood believed that historical epics were too expensive; now, high-tech computer wizards can digitally revive that classic genre. Ridley Scott has cleverly recreated a mythic form in defiantly modern terms under the raw, realistic influence of “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan,” meaning there’s lots of gruesome, bloody carnage, plus surreal, dreamlike glimpses of Elysium. What’s most impressive is the gloriously detailed world Scott creates on-screen, inhabited by characters whose emotional motivations come from a contemporary mentality. These are real people coping with real problems in a brutal, superheroic setting. But there are weaknesses in David Franzoni’s story – like alluding to an unexplained affair between Maximus and Commodus’s sister (Connie Nielsen) – and the overt, almost comic villainy of Joaquin Phoenix, whose power-hungry demeanor suggests a demented “Richard III.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gladiator” is a savage, sweeping, spectacular 9. Thumbs up!

09

I DREAMED OF AFRICA

Susan Granger’s review of “I DREAMED OF AFRICA” (Columbia Pictures)

Kuki Gallmann is an amazing woman whose story is a testament to courage, determination, and tenacity. Two years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Kuki and spending several evenings with her on her ranch in Kenya. An Italian aristocrat by birth, Kuki (Kim Basinger) begins her tale with how she met Paolo (Vincent Perez), her second husband, who convinced her to move with her young son, Emanuele, to Kenya in 1974, over the protests of her mother (Eva Marie Saint). Despite difficulty in adjusting to the tempo and pace of life, the dangerous wildlife, greedy poachers, the ravages of nature, and – most of all- the loneliness at Ol Ari Nyiro ranch, Kuki fell passionately in love with Africa. Her devotion was so intense that it withstood two devastating losses. Paolo was killed in a car accident driving home with a cradle for their unborn daughter and, three years later, Emanuele, an amateur herpetologist, was fatally bitten by a puff adder. Yet, with all this inherent drama, the film skims over the surface. Written by Paula Milne & Susan Shilliday and directed by Hugh Hudson, it never develops an emotional connection between the audience, nor does it communicate a challenging sense of adventure. Instead, it unfolds with the languid pace of a magnificent travelogue. While Kim Basinger is appealing, she doesn’t capture Kuki’s zest and enthusiasm – let alone her flamboyant style and Italian accent. In comparison with “Out of Africa,” Kim’s no Meryl Streep, nor is Vincent Perez a Robert Redford. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “I Dreamed of Africa” is a stunning, lyrical 6. You can stay at Kuki’s Mukutan Retreat in Laikipia on the edge of the Great Rift Valley to experience the wonders of Africa’s wilderness. But if you can’t take that trip, seeing this movie is the next-best thing.

06

THE BIG KAHUNA

Susan Granger’s review of “THE BIG KAHUNA” (Lions Gate Films)

Set in the tacky 16th floor hospitality suite of a hotel in Wichita, Kansas, this is the fascinating tale of the clash of innocence and experience as a trio of Chicago marketing reps for an industrial lubricant company try to land an important account at a Midwest trade convention. Larry (Kevin Spacey) and Phil (Danny DeVito) know their careers are on the line if they can’t close this potentially lucrative deal with an elusive client, while Bob (Peter Facinelli) is a rookie from the research department who holds their future in his inexperienced hands. Their clichŽ-filled banter is bitter, funny, and strangely unsettling. Treading on Glengarry Glen Ross, Hurlyburly, and Waiting for Godot territory, chemical engineer-turned-playwright Roger Rueff has adapted his stage play, Hospitality Suite, into a complex, character-driven screenplay; while his writing is incisive, the conceit of confining the action to one tiny room seems claustrophobic on-screen, yet John Swanbeck’s direction is unerringly effective. Producing this on a budget under $2 million was obviously a labor of love for Kevin Spacey whose edgy energy should be harnessed as a powerful strategic weapon – and his ominous silence is as threatening as his blunt anger. Subdued and convincing, Danny DeVito is equally – if not more – amazing as a jaded, weary veteran, questioning spirituality and looking for answers to “the big questions.” And Peter Facinelli’s crafty innocence as the devoutly Christian, recently married neophyte is right on target. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Big Kahuna is a compelling 7, leaving you to draw your own conclusions about the meaning of life and how one’s personal beliefs should affect business dealings.

07

THE BASKET

Susan Granger’s review of “THE BASKET” (North by Northwest Entertainment)

The impact of regional film-making is growing and this independent “family film” is one of the best to emerge in recent years. Working with three friends, film-maker Rich Cowan has created a character-driven, intriguing tale of opera and basketball, nostalgia and history, love and war set amid the rolling wheat fields of Washington State. His company, North by Northwest, raised the $3 million budget for the period drama, set in the rural town of Waterville in the midst of World War I. The story begins as a pastor/physician welcomes two German war orphans, 12 year-old Helmut (Robert Karl Burke) and his 17 year-old sister, Brigitta (Amber Willenborg), into his home. At the same time, a new school teacher named Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote) arrives from Boston, bringing with him phonograph records of an evocative German opera called “The Basket” about a stranger who saves a town that is threatened by barbarians at the gates. The plot of the opera obviously parallels the suspicion, prejudice and intolerance of Waterville’s citizens, much to the dismay of a sympathetic farmer’s wife (Karen Allen) who bears her own wartime tragedy. “Why are you teaching the children a German opera when we are at war with them?” she asks. Conlon also introduces a then-new sport called “basketball” with its emphasis on teamwork, saying: “To defend a mighty wall, each one must fight for something small.” Ultimately, Waterville challenges Spokane’s experienced team for money – which will allow the farmers to buy the new thresher that they desperately need for harvest season. Despite its slow-pacing, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Basket” is a warm, heartfelt, uplifting 7. It’s a gem, one of those rare, thoughtful, beautiful movies with a feeling of “A River Runs Through It.”

07

CROUPIER

Susan Granger’s review of “CROUPIER” (Shooting Gallery Films/Loews Cineplex series)

This compelling crime caper by British director Mike Hodges is what low-budget, independent film-making is all about. Back in the ’70s, Mike Hodges did the critically acclaimed “Get Carter,” starring Michael Caine, and this is in the same vein. It’s based on a script by Paul Mayersberg, who years ago wrote one of my all-time favorites sci-fi films, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, a frustrated, aspiring novelist whose father (Nicholas Ball) gets him an interview for a job as a croupier at the Golden Lion Casino in London. And why not? He has the hand of a conjurer – or an experienced card player. Reluctantly, he takes the job at “the house of addiction,” philosophizing, “You have to make a choice in life: be a gambler or a croupier – and live with your decision.” And Jack is coldly obsessed with watching people lose since, after all, a good customer is a consistent loser. One of the most intriguing losers is a beautiful gambler (ER’s Alex Kingston) from South Africa with whom he has an affair, deceiving his lover (Gina McKee), a store detective who believes Jack’s high-tension job has made him into a miserable zombie. He also becomes involved with a fellow croupier (Kate Hardie). “I’m not an enigma,” Jack explains. “I’m a contradiction.” Jack’s ultimate aim is to become totally detached (i.e.: “The croupier had reached his goal – he no longer heard the sound of the ball.”). Jack’s behind-the-scenes casino adventures and the various scams are intriguing but his hackneyed internal monologues about the book he’s writing soon become tedious. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Croupier” is a clever, stylish, cynical 7. “Gambling,” we’re told, “is about not facing reality, not counting the odds.” But, ah, the con artists!

07

THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS

Susan Granger’s review of “THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS” (Universal)

Hey, if George Lucas can do a “Star Wars” prequel, why not The Flintstones? This prehistoric, live-action prequel goes back to the bachelor days of Fred Flintstone (Mark Addy) and Barney Rubble (Stephen Baldwin), showing how they court and marry Wilma Slaghoople (Kristen Johnston) and her room-mate, Betty O’Shale (Jane Krakowski), respectively. It turns out that curvaceous Wilma’s the daughter of doddering Col. Slaghoople (Harvey Korman) and snooty, snobbish Pearl Slaghoople (Joan Collins) who want her to marry Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson), the suave, sneaky scion of a respectable old-money family who wants to use the Slaghoople fortune to pay off a mob debt. But Wilma loves blue-collar Fred, who has just secured a job at the rock quarry in Bedrock. Chip invites everyone, including Fred and Barney, to be his guests at the opening of a new resort hotel in Rock Vegas. Based on the animated Hanna-Barbera TV series, the collaborative screenplay, credited to four writers, utilizes every known prehistoric clichŽ, while Brian Levant’s direction desperately underscores each sight gag and pun. Alan Cumming plays two roles: The Great Gazoo, a tiny, wisecracking alien who was sent to Earth to observe the mating rituals of humans, and Mick Jagged, one of Betty’s suitors, while Ann-Margret warbles on the soundtrack. Problem is: it’s too talky for kids – they get really restless – and too tacky for adults. At 90 minutes, it seems excruciatingly long. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” is an exaggerated, frantic, cornball 3. If you really, really, really love the Flintstones, you’re gonna enjoy this movie. If not, yabba-dabba-don’t bother with this fossil.

03

Gossip

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

Who hasn’t speculated about the link between news and gossip? At least, that’s the premise for a college journalism class assignment proposed by “professor” Eric Bogosian. And three students – James Marsden, Lena Headley, and Norman Reedus – decide to test his theories. One night at a drunken, off-campus party, Marsden sees a beautiful, wealthy, virginal freshman, played by Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s real-life daughter), making out on a bed with Joshua Jackson. Hudson calls it quits before she passes out, but Marsden decides to start an “experimental” rumor that she’s “put out” for Jackson. It’s kind of like “Cruel Intentions” goes to college. The slanderous story spreads quickly throughout the university, soon acquiring salacious details, including a black rubber bra. But then it turns ugly, implicating that Jackson took advantage of Hudson after she passed out, not before, which leads to his subsequent arrest. Working from a taut, tension-filled screenplay by Gregory Poirier and Theresa Rebeck, “NYPD Blue,” “ER” director David Guggenheim explores and exploits the date rape concept, bringing in Sharon Lawrence as an angry cop and Edward James Olmos as a homicide detective. It’s an intriguing, dangerous premise but the execution lacks believability. Why wouldn’t any suspected rape victim undergo a medical examination? What accredited college would allow Bogosian to rant and rave in class? Which students can live in such an extravagantly hip loft? And why would these distraught people talk and behave in such an incomprehensible way? On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Gossip” is nasty, tawdry, inept 3. Despite its R-rating, it’s obviously targeted at a teenage audience.

03

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