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SHAFT

Susan Granger’s review of “SHAFT” (Paramount Pictures)

When Samuel L. Jackson learned that director John Singleton was doing “Shaft,” his first reaction was, “Why do we need a remake?” – which was mine, too. Gordon Parks’s 1971 original, based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel, starring Richard Roundtree, was emblematic of the vitality of the blaxploitation genre, plus Isaac Hayes’ thematic music. But Roundtree is back as the original Shaft, 29 years older – and so’s the theme. Jackson plays his nephew, NYPD detective John Shaft, a different hero for a different time, fighting against hate crimes and drugs. His character’s more volatile, ruthless and violent. And he views violence in a different way. When things get dangerous, Jackson’s Shaft kind of smiles, indicating, “I can handle this.” The plot revolves around a racially motivated homicide. Walter, a spoiled young college kid (“American Psycho’s” Christian Bale), kills a young black student, skips bail, and flees the country for two years – after hiring a tattooed thug (Jeffrey Wright) to kill the only witness (Toni Collette) to the murder. When Walter sneaks back home, Shaft finds him – but his father, once again, posts bail, so Walter’s back on the streets only, this time, he’s after Shaft – along with two corrupt cops (Dan Hedaya, Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and a Dominican drug lord (Jeffrey Wright). Shaft’s only allies are a colleague (Vanessa Williams) and a streetwise buddy (Busta Rhymes). Director John Singleton and writer Richard Price delve into the usual urban crime scene, predictably punctuated by street-smart profanity, and come up with a disappointing conclusion. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Shaft” is a stylish, slick 6. It’s hip and cool – if you dig that “It’s my duty to satisfy the booty” action. And a sequel’s already in the works.

06

TITAN A.E.

TITAN A.E.

Susan Granger’s review of “TITAN A.E.” (20th Century-Fox)

Apparently, Bill Mechanic, chairman of 20th Century Fox, wanted an animated movie for 13-14 year-old boys, a group that hasn’t shown much interest in cartoons other than comic books. So this is the result. Set in the year 3028, the Earth has been blown apart by a vicious alien race made of pure energy called the Drej. The hero, predictably, is a cynical teenager (voiced by Matt Damon), a rebellious drifter who works on a grungy salvage station. His life is changed when he finds his father, a brilliant scientist who built the Titan (a mysterious spaceship that has the power to create a planet), has left him a genetically encoded ring with a map. With “I happen to be humanity’s last hope,” he’s off on an adventure on the Valkyrie with its captain Korso (Bill Pullman), who once worked with his father, along with fighter pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore), plus the sarcastic First Mate Preed (Nathan Lane) and Gune (John Leguizamo), the Peter Lorre-like navigator – with the ruthless, villainous Drej in hot pursuit. There are plot-holes enormous enough to fly a space craft through, perhaps because so many writers were involved – and the formulaic concept reminded me of the old TV series “Battlestar Galactica” with a touch of “Wing Commander” thrown in. And what’s with Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a kangaroo-like weapons expert? Animator Don Bluth combines 3-D and 2-D which is visually disconcerting – except for two sequences. One involves the Ice Rings of Tigrin where one spaceship chases another through giant, reflective crystals and the other with vibrating, brightly colored hydrogen trees. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Titan A.E.” is a weird, action-packed 4 – unless you’re a teenager. Then, perhaps, it might just be a cool sci-fi trip set to edgy, electronic rock music.

04

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

RETURN TO ME

RETURN TO ME

Susan Granger’s review of “RETURN TO ME” (MGM release)

Tinged with traces of “Love Story,” “Ghost” and “Moonstruck,” this romantic comedy has its moments – but, unfortunately, most of them turn out to be sappy. David Duchovny doffs his “X-Files” Fox Mulder persona to play a successful Chicago architectural engineer whose wife (Joely Richardson), an ardent zoologist who works with primates, dies in an automobile accident in one of the early scenes of the picture. While he’s still blood-stained and grief-stricken, his wife’s heart is transplanted into Minnie Driver, who’s a shy, naive waitress working in her family’s Irish-Italian restaurant. Despite the bizarre circumstances, you know that these two are eventually gonna meet and fall in love. Predictability and foreshadowing weigh heavily on the script written by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake. Perhaps a more experienced director could have quickened the pace, trimmed some scenes, and meshed the elements better – but inexperienced Bonnie Hunt helms her own material. In addition, she co-stars, as Driver’s confidante and wife of Jim Belushi, and she’s cast at least four relatives named Hunt in supporting parts. It’s like a congenial family movie under a big studio banner. Despite its lack of focus, it is amusing to watch it unfold, particularly when senior pros like Robert Loggia and Carroll O’Connor are bantering about old singers, old songs, etc., since the title song comes from a vintage Dean Martin ballad. David Duchovny and Minnie Driver are charming to watch; one just wishes they had wittier, more sophisticated material to work with. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Return to Me” is a sweet but stumbling 5. Ah, the fickle finger of fate!

05

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Susan Granger’s review of “RULES OF ENGAGEMENT” (Paramount Pictures)

It’s the sheer star power of Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson that propels this picture. Based a novel by James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy, it revolves around a highly decorated 30-year Marine veteran, Col. Terry Childers (Jackson), who is court-martialed. The case involves an incident in which the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was surrounded by angry, fanatic demonstrators. Amid the violence, Childers was ordered to take in three helicopters and evacuate the terrified Ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family. In the subsequent melee, three of his Marines were killed and, following his explicit orders, his men gunned down 83 Yemeni civilians – men, women and children – and wounded many others. Col. Childers became a scapegoat in the diplomatic outcry that followed . To mount his defense, Childers chooses a wartime buddy, a cynical, just-retired Marine lawyer, Hays Hodges (Jones), whose life he saved in Vietnam back in 1968. Together, they face off against a malevolent National Security Adviser (Bruce Greenwood) and a young, zealous prosecutor (Guy Pearce) – but they lack the hard evidence necessary to present a strong defensive case. Director William Friedkin captures the intense tension of this combat-and-courtroom drama but he’s hampered by Stephen Gaghan’s hackneyed, predictable screenplay which is marred by superficial characterizations and clichŽ-ridden dialogue. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rules of Engagement” is a slick, suspenseful 7. And, if you enjoy this kind of provocative, what-really-happened enigma, I recommend “Courage Under Fire” with Meg Ryan and Denzel Washington, which delves into a combat incident during the Gulf War.

07

AMERICAN PSYCHO

Susan Granger’s review of “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (Lions Gate Films)

It’s really hard to be objective about this picture. I loathed it. But why? Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel, it revolves around Patrick Bateman, a vain, rich, vacuous Wall Street stockbroker who becomes a serial killer. The profanity-laden screenplay leaves much of the gruesome gore of the grisly dismemberment and grotesque disembowelment of his victims to the imagination and attempts, instead, to be a black comedy. For example, the stylized opening sequence depicts crimson drops of what one might assume is blood – but, in truth, they’re drippings from a thick raspberry sauce being poured over an exorbitantly over-priced poultry entree served at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. Yes, Patrick Bateman is a phony, obsessed with designer clothing, exercise, and pop music. Writer/director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner have fashioned a sanctimonious social satire on the greedy excesses of the ’80s, and Christian Bale plays the psychopath with exuberant relish as Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, and Jared Leto lend support. Plus there’s an abundance of male and female nudity with the warm skin tones photographed in exquisite settings. But what made me flinch was the cold, explicit glorification, the utter delight the movie-makers took in the sleek horror of murder. To me, serial killers simply aren’t funny – no way, even if – as it’s suggested inconclusively – it’s all in Bateman’s warped mind. (Leonardo DiCaprio was wise to have bailed out of this project.) On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Psycho” is a reprehensible 2 – and it should have been NC-17, not R. Trimming a sex scene involving a threesome orgy does not make this film acceptable for a multiplex, where young people can and do sneak in. I wish I hadn’t seen it.

02