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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.

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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.

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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.

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BAIT

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

Motor-mouthed comedian Jamie Foxx’s thriller-comedy may be called “Bait” but never it grabs the hook. Foxx plays a good-natured, small-time thief on parole who, as the story begins, is caught stealing prawns from a Brooklyn restaurant with his brother (Mike Epps). What the hapless brothers don’t realize is that, across town, two professional criminals are lifting $42 million in gold bars from the Federal Reserve. But Foxx finds himself sharing a jail cell on Rikers Island with one of the pros (Robert Pastorelli), who has buried the loot in a secret location and then suddenly dies of a heart attack. Thinking he can use Foxx as “bait” to track down the other pro (Doug Hutchinson), a computer wizard who masterminded the “heist of the decade,” a ruthless treasury investigator (David Morse) has a tiny, satellite-controlled radio device that continually broadcasts his location secretly implanted in Foxx’s jaw. Knowing that the high-tech hacker can get into their computers, the agent sends internal Treasury e-mails implying that Foxx is actually an undercover agent who has discovered the whereabouts of the stolen gold. The ploy succeeds but soon the petty criminal finds he, his girl-friend (Kimberley Elise) and their baby son are in danger. Three writers – Tony Gilroy, Andrew and Adam Scheinman – and director Antoine Fuqua (“The Replacement Killers”) make the fragmented plot almost incomprehensible. The only thing that’s made abundantly clear is the difference between shrimp and prawns, and that Hutchinson is trying to imitate John Malkovich. Plus, the galloping finale at the racetrack is simply ludicrous. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bait” is a dismal 3. The hip-hop soundtrack rocks, but Jamie Foxx needs far better material if he wants to be a major movie star.

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BEST IN SHOW

Susan Granger’s review of “BEST IN SHOW” (Warner Bros./Castle Rock Entertainment)

There’s something about dog shows that’s terribly amusing. I know those who show off their purebreds take them very, very seriously, but for onlookers, like Christopher Guest, the possibilities for comedy are endless. In fact, sanity goes to the dogs where Best of Breed trophies are concerned. This wacky mockumentary, a worthy successor to “Waiting for Guffman,” centers on Philadelphia’s annual Mayflower Dog Show, similar to New York’s Westminster Dog Show. Diverse contenders include, from Illinois, a bickering, neurotic yuppie couple (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock) with Beatrice, their depressed Weimaraner; from Florida, a milquetoast menswear salesman (Eugene Levy) with, literally, two left feet and bubbly, his promiscuous wife (Catherine O’Hara), showing Winky, their Norwich Terrier; from North Carolina, a fly-fishing shop owner (Christopher Guest) with his beloved Bloodhound Hubert; from New York, a flamboyantly gay couple (John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean) with Miss Agnes, one of their Shih Tzus; and from the Main Line, a trashy trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) and her hired handler (Jane Lynch) with their two-time champion Standard Poodle, Rhapsody in White. Plus there’s the show’s President (Bob Balaban), chairman (Don Lake), and mis-matched commentators (Jim Piddock, Fred Willard), along with a long-suffering hotel manager (Ed Begley Jr.) Guest and his co-scripter Eugene Levy obviously encouraged their ensemble cast into improvisational riffs that are executed with somewhat predictable but barkingly loony, fast-paced finesse, particularly the one-liners and non-sequiturs. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Best in Show” is a dementedly funny 9. It’s a hilarious howl – a walloping woof!

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REMEMBER THE TITANS

Susan Granger’s review of “REMEMBER THE TITANS” (Walt Disney Pictures)

Back in 1971, when high school football was everything to the residents of Alexandria, Virginia, local officials were forced to integrate the schools and hire a black man, Herman Boone, as head coach of the T.C. Williams Titans. First, he and the older, beloved white coach with more seniority, Bill Yoast, had to learn to work together. Then they were faced with molding a group of rebellious teenage boys into a winning team while teaching them valuable lessons about becoming men. Their respect, friendship and determination healed a town torn by fear, ignorance and prejudice. Based on a true story, scripted by Gregory Allen Howard, first-time director Boaz Yakin propels the gradual process of discovery and bonding among the participants. A highlight is the pre-dawn cross-country run, culminating at the Gettysburg Battlefield, where Boone notes: “50,000 men died on this same field fighting the same battle we are still fighting today…If we don’t come together on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed.” Denzel Washington radiates intensity as the tough-yet-fair taskmaster Boone, who divides his enraged players into color-blind squads, offense and defense, at training camp, saying, “football is about controlling that anger, harnessing that aggression to achieve perfection,” reminding them how, in mythology, the titans were greater than the gods. Bill Patton strikes a different note as the gentle, quiet, taciturn Yoast with his precocious, outspoken, football-obsessed daughter (Hayden Panettiere) who provides comic relief. What distinguishes this film is its honesty, a credit to the young ensemble actor/players. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Remember the Titans” is an inspirational 8, an emotionally-uplifting testament to the power of the human spirit.

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THE PATRIOT

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

Do you realize there’s never been a big, blockbuster Revolutionary War movie – until now? “The Patriot” will change all that. In 1776 in South Carolina, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a former hero of the French and Indian War, is now a widower and devoted father of seven children. Rebuking those who advocate war against England’s King George III over taxation, he’s become a pacifist – until the battle literally lands in his backyard, as a cruel, arrogant British colonel (Jason Isaacs) deliberately murders an innocent child. Savage, bloody revenge quickly follows as Martin, wielding a Cherokee tomahawk, organizes the civilian militia. These excellent marksmen are guerrilla fighters, avoiding muzzle-to-muzzle confrontations with Redcoats in an open field. But Martin’s not the real patriot – that honor goes to his idealistic son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), whose early enlistment in the Colonial Army is motivated by principle. Written by Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”) and directed by Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”), it’s a challenging, exciting, character-driven story, capturing the human element that is too often lost in history – with heart-wrenching moments like melting a lead toy soldier into ammunition. As the tale’s emotional pivot, the conflicted father and reluctant hero, Mel Gibson delivers a touching, tautly textured performance, ably supported by Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Aubjonois, Lisa Brenner and Tom Wilkinson. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is magnificent, even when capturing the violence of war at its most brutal, and John Williams’s score is superb. Sure, there are some clichŽs, but on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Patriot” is a compelling, powerful 10. It’s a stunning, sweeping, spectacular saga.

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THE PERFECT STORM

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

“More people die on fishing boats, per capita, than working in any other job in the U.S.. Every journey a fishing boat makes can be an all-or-nothing risk. It is life at its most exhilarating and its most terrifying,” says director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”). And that’s just what he captures in this true story of struggle and humanity aboard a swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, sailing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in late October, 1991. Early in Bill Wittliff’s screenplay, based on Sebastian Junger’s best-seller, we meet the crew of six. The veteran captain (George Clooney) is frustrated because he can’t find fish on the Grand Banks, yet a rival skipper (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) brings in huge hauls. His right-hand man (Mark Walhberg) needs money to build a new life with his girl-friend (Diane Lane). There’s a devoted dad (John C. Reilly) with an estranged wife and son, a free-spirited Jamaican (Allen Payne), a lonely guy (John Hawkes), and a last-minute replacement with a bad attitude (William Fichtner). The skipper’s convinced he can change his bad luck streak in remote Flemish Cap, and he does. But then trouble begins. There’s a rogue wave, a man overboard and the ice machine breaks – with 60,000 lb. of fish that could spoil. But that’s minor compared with a deadly monster storm approaching which a Boston meteorologist describes as “a disaster of epic proportions” that also threatens the lives of a Coast Guard helicopter rescue team trying to save three people stranded on a sailboat on the high seas. It’s formulaic and there are clichŽs, but the walls of water, created by fluid dynamics simulating real-life phenomena, are awesome. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Perfect Storm” is a terrifying, suspenseful 8. Hang on for the white-knuckle thrill ride of the summer!

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THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE

Susan Granger: “THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE” (Universal)

They’re ba-a-a-a-ck! The intrepid squirrel who has a slight problem with flying (“Out of practice”) and the goofy moose who’s a few crayons short of a box – otherwise known as Rocky and Bullwinkle – are back to save the wacky world from destruction. After years of being trapped in TV animation, those villainous Soviet spies from Pottsylvania, Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander) and Natasha Fatale (Rene Russo), along with their dastardly Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro) have broken the secret code and made the leap into reality, courtesy of Minnie Mogul, a Phony movie producer (Janeane Garofalo). It seems Fearless Leader has a plan to conquer the planet by turning Americans into zombies by using really bad television broadcasting so he can unseat the President of the United States (James Rebhorn). So Rocky and Bullwinkle leave Frostbite Falls and join up with a bumbling rookie FBI agent (Piper Perabo) to come to civilization’s rescue. Based on Jay Ward’s cartoon characters, this live-action/animation adventure, written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Des McAnuff, has absurd slapstick for the kids and occasionally clever language humor for the adults. And fans of Robert De Niro will chuckle at his Germanic parody of his own famous “Taxi Driver” line: “Are you talkin’ to me?” June Foray still voices Rocky, while Keith Scott does Bullwinkle, along with the stentorian narrator. Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jonathan Winters – in three roles – make cameo appearances. Whoopi’s even named Judge Cameo, who astutely rules: “Celebrities are above the law.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” is a silly 6, filled with pretty punny dim-witted humor. Evil has met its moose.

06

THE FIVE SENSES

Susan Granger’s review of “THE FIVE SENSES” (Fine Line Films)

“The senses are elemental, and in connecting us to the world, they connect us to each other,” says Canadian writer/director/producer Jeremy Podeswa. In this compelling urban story, he delicately interweaves five separate crisis situations that intersect in a poignant drama involving a missing child. There’s Ruth (Gabrielle Rose), a grief-stricken, recently widowed massage therapist who is unable to touch her rebellious daughter emotionally, and the troubled teenager Rachel (Nadia Litz) who became distracted while vicariously watching lovers in the park when the adorable toddler in her care wandered off. Their neighbor Rona (Mary Louise Parker) is a cynical, indecisive baker whose cakes are beautiful to the eye but bland to the taste until her passionate Italian lover (Marco Leonardi), a chef, arrives in Toronto. Rona’s best friend (Daniel MacIvor) is a sardonic bisexual who believes he can identify the scent of true love, noting: “The nose knows.” Another neighbor, an opera-loving French ophthalmologist (Philippe Volter), discovers he’s going deaf and is determined to build a “library of sounds,” something to fall back on. Each of the characters is infatuated with one of the five senses while going through a trauma or hardship, and they’re all lonely, searching and afraid of something. Essentially, this is an episodic, fragmented ensemble piece about relationships – and the choice of whether to give up or to keep going. Because of the editing, some subplots work better than others, while cinematographer Greg Middleton balances the definitive essence of time and place. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Five Senses” is a stylish, intimate, spiritual 7. It’s an intriguing example of the elegant art of cinematic craftsmanship.

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