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HOLY SMOKE

Susan Granger’s review of “HOLY SMOKE” (Miramax Films)

With last year’s Hideous Kinky and now Holy Smoke, Kate Winslet seems determined to reach beyond her classic Titanic heroine. In this psychosexual drama, Kate plays Ruth Barron, a young, vulnerable Australian tourist in India who succumbs to the spiritual “enlightenment” of a charismatic guru. Ruth thinks she’s found salvation and transcended into bliss, but her horrified parents are sure she’s lost her mind. So they lure her back home to a Sydney suburb and hire an American “cult exit counselor,” P.J. Waters, played by Harvey Keitel, to deprogram her. Dressed in black from his dyed hair to shiny cowboy boots, the tyrannical P.J. is a jaded, slick, persuasive brain-washer who demands to be left alone with sari-clad Ruth in an abandoned shack in the Outback for three days. There, they play brutal mind-games while exploring their carnal lust, engaging in a fierce battle of wills and, oddly, reverse roles. Ruth uses her voluptuous body to sexually dominate and mentally control P.J., dressing him in drag and then savagely humiliating him, leaving him whimpering. Australian writer/director Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady, The Piano, Sweetie) collaborated on the script with her sister, Anna Campion (Loaded) and, despite a few moments of comic relief from Ruth’s grotesque family of wackos, they’re heavily into the provocative issues of religion, sex and power. Brooding tough guy Harvey Keitel is simply overmatched by willful, outspoken Kate Winslet. You know from the beginning that he doesn’t stand a chance against her, particularly when cinematographer Dion Beebe exquisitely bathes her nude body in sensual, shimmering light. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Holy Smoke is a bizarre 4, presenting a frustrating battle of the sexes that seems unfairly matched.

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RIDE WITH THE DEVIL

Susan Granger’s review of “RIDE WITH THE DEVIL” (USA Films)

Before making Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick spent years searching for the perfect “unknown” actress to play Scarlett O’Hara, realizing that a famous Hollywood star would never be believable in the role. It’s too bad the Taiwanese director Ang Lee didn’t follow his precedent. When celebrity pop singer Jewel appears, dressed like a 19th century farm girl, it’s jarring, breaking the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for this epic to be effective. In this revisionist Civil War saga, set in the border state of Missouri, childhood friends Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich join a rag-tag, rebellious guerrilla group called the Bushwhackers who are determined to wreak revenge on the Union Army and its Southern sympathizers, eventually joining William Quantrill who led a notorious 1863 raid into Lawrence, Kansas. Their cohorts include their leader James Caviezel, courtly Simon Baker, his former slave Jeffrey Wright, and vicious Jonathan Rhys Meyers. They meet up with this pretty war widow – that’s Jewel – who, predictably, complicates their lives when they seek winter shelter in a hillside dugout. Despite the meticulous historical accuracy in the screenplay by producer/writer James Schamus, adapted from Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, there’s an emotional detachment, as though Ang Lee were examining the morals and mores of the disillusioned Confederacy in this time and place in the same way he delved into the sexually promiscuous ’70s in a Connecticut suburb in The Ice Storm. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Ride With the Devil is a chaotic, faltering, floundering 5. But Ang Lee almost redeems himself with an eloquent, profoundly touching scene in which Maguire reads aloud a stolen letter from a mother to a Union soldier.

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ANGELA’S ASHES

Susan Granger’s review of “ANGELA’S ASHES” (Paramount Pictures)

Whereas a novel is written to be appreciated for its language and literary integrity, a movie is a visual medium. Most often, the books that make the best films are those with clear narratives and focused stories. In Angela’s Ashes, author Frank McCourt put the entire story inside the mind of a character and focus solely on that character’s inner world – what he is thinking, feeling, remembering. While filmmaker Alan Parker has dealt with the Irish before in The Commitments, he now, working with writer Laura Jones, meticulously evokes McCourt’s saga of poverty, pain, ignorance, and the death of three children. But their anecdotal screenplay fails to capture the Irish-American writer’s lilting wit and emotional poetry. The story begins in 1935 in Brooklyn as the titular Angela (Emily Watson) falls apart when her baby daughter dies, and the family, consisting of her irresponsible, alcoholic wastrel of a husband (Robert Carlyle), Frank and his brothers, goes back to Limerick, Ireland. As McCourt noted in his opening paragraph, that was a big mistake. Life in the miserable, wet, filthy Roden Lane slum – painstakingly recreated by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland and captured by cinematographer Michael Seresin – is awful, and, at school, Frank’s teachers are either religious or nationalistic fanatics. It isn’t until he’s a teenager, working as a mailman, that life begins to hold possibilities, particularly the promise of returning, alone, to America. Three actors – Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, and Michael Legge – play Frank as the resilient boy-to-man who bravely copes with his dysfunctional family and rises above his terrifying travails. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Angela’s Ashes is a respectful but depressing, grim 7, giving one a greater appreciation of America as the land of hope and promise.

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MANSFIELD PARK

Susan Granger’s review of “MANSFIELD PARK” (Miramax Films)

In this provocative, revisionist adaptation of Jane Austen’s third novel, Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema gives her 19th century heroine, Fanny Price, much of Austen’s own confidant, creative personality. Incorporating material from Austen’s early journals and letters, Rozema recreates Fanny (Frances O’Connor) as a poor relation who is sent from Portsmouth to the magnificent mansion called Mansfield Park to live in emotional exile with her pompous uncle, starchy aunts, and privileged cousins. Her favorite cousin is the brooding Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) who is destined to be a humble clergyman, much to the chagrin of the outspoken, ambitious young woman (Embeth Davidtz) who wants to marry him. Always made to feel inferior within the genteel, rigidly conventional British class system, she is considered more than a servant but less than an equal companion. Nevertheless, meek Fanny becomes an adept and witty writer who is courted by a charming, handsome rake (Allesandro Nivola) whom she does not trust. Australian actress Frances O’Connor does a splendid job as the plucky heroine and her complex performance is matched by playwright Harold Pinter, as her autocratic uncle, and Lindsay Duncan in dual roles – as both Fanny’s desperate, impoverished mother and wealthy, opium-addicted aunt. Admittedly, Patricia Rozema’s script tackles too many social issues, including the dark brutality of slavery on the Caribbean island of Antigua, an exploitive endeavor which supports this segment of England’s landed gentry. And Rozema’s willfully manipulative, pro-feminist characters seem far ahead of their time. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Mansfield Park is a sensual, cinematic 7. It’s a period drama that should appeal, primarily, to the art-house crowd.

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NEXT FRIDAY

Susan Granger’s review of “NEXT FRIDAY” (New Line Cinema)

Writer/rapper/actor Ice Cube’s Friday was a surprise hit back in 1995, so it should not come as a shock that there’s a sequel, aimed directly at the same young, hip, urban audience. Along with serving as producer, Ice Cube reprises his role as Craig, a young man who was trying to survive on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. Now, he’s moved from the city to the suburbs only to discover that his troubles came right along with him. They’re personified by Debo, played by Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr., a massive bully who wound up in prison in the original story. Debo’s escaped from the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail and wants payback – which is why Craig’s father (John Witherspoon) suggests that he hang out in Rancho Cucamonga with his Lotto-winning uncle (Don “DC” Curry) and trophy-wife aunt (Kym E. Whitley), much to the consternation of other friends, relatives, and Hispanic gangster neighbors. Chris Tucker’s manic character of Craig’s pal Smokey has supposedly “gone into rehab” but, obviously, Tucker’s gone on to bigger and better things. Most of the vulgar dialogue is unprintable and the crude, chaotic humor centers on bathroom functions. What could have been an amusing Beverly Hillbillies riff is ineptly directed by first-timer Steve Carr, whose background is in disjointed music videos – and it shows. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Next Friday is a coarse, cheesy, repetitive 3. It’s loud, lame slapstick silliness.

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SUPERNOVA

Susan Granger’s review of “SUPERNOVA” (M.G.M release)

The behind-the-scenes story is far more interesting than this mundane sci-fi thriller which should disappear as quickly as it popped into our local theaters without previous critics’ screenings. It seems Walter Hill (48 Hours, Aliens) abandoned the project more than a year ago, using a pseudonym, Thomas Lee, as titular director. And rumor has it that Francis Ford Coppola did the final assemblage but he is not officially mentioned anywhere in the film credits either. The story, written without a cohesive structure by David Campbell Wilson, revolves around the search and rescue patrol of a medical ship and its six-member crew in the 22nd century. When their vessel, the Nightingale 229, answers an emergency distress signal from an abandoned mining colony on a rogue moon in a distant galaxy, the crew soon finds itself in danger from the mysteriously charismatic young man, Peter Facinelli, whom they rescue, the alien artifact he smuggled aboard, and the gravitational pull of a giant, imploding star about to go supernova, creating the most massive explosion in the universe. Robert Forster is the Captain of the deep-space ambulance but he’s killed off quickly, allowing James Spader, his First Officer, to take the helm, along with Angela Bassett, as Chief Medical Officer. Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Wilson Cruz complete the crew – along with their trusty computer named Sweetie. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Supernova is a sputtering, pointless 3. Something went terribly wrong – and not in outer space.

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TITUS

Susan Granger’s review of “TITUS” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Julie Taymor, who received both critical and popular acclaim for her Broadway version of Disney’s The Lion King, makes her film debut with a curious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, one of the Bard’s least successful plays. It’s a graphic, grisly, gruesome orgy of vengeance, revolving around Titus, a proud but aging Roman general, played by Anthony Hopkins, who returns home in triumph circa. 400 A.D. after conquering the Goths to crown the new Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming). His prized gift to the new ruler is Tamora (Jessica Lange), Queen of the Goths, whom the depraved Saturninus impetuously marries – after being scorned by Titus’s only daughter (Laura Fraser). Along with her secret lover, a villainous Moor (Harry Lennix), and her two punkster sons (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Rhys), the furious Tamara then schemes to wreak a crafty revenge on Titus and his family for the ritual death of her oldest son at Titus’ hands. Cinematically, Taymor idiosyncratically links this historical epic of political intrigue with the 20th century by incorporating a contemporary lad (Osheen Jones) playing with toy soldiers. Working with production designer Dante Ferretti, costumer Milena Canonero and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, the inventive Taymor sets out a defiant, dizzying visual feast, crowned by a repulsive, cannibalistic banquet that could have been created by Hannibal Lechter – and it’s impressively scored by Elliot Goldenthal. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Titus is a perversely stylistic, surreal 6. It’s a bold, bizarre bloodbath, giving us only fleeting glimpses of the tragic characters who – in later Shakespearean plays – evolve into King Lear, Lady Macbeth, and Iago.

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DOWN TO YOU

Susan Granger’s review of “DOWN TO YOU” (Miramax Films)

More and more movies are being made for a target audience – and this bland romantic comedy is aimed at an under-20 demographic, particularly teenage girls. Rated PG-13, it’s about a young couple experiencing the thrill, along with the trials and tribulations, of their first love. Freddie Prinze Jr. (She’s All That) plays Al, a genial New York City college student aiming for a career as a world-class chef, like his celebrated father, while Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You) is Imogen, a talented art student who steals his heart. Early in the plot, he brings her a cake. “This is sacred,” Al says about cooking. “Cake is my world,” Imogen purrs. But the path of true love never runs smooth, particularly in this clichŽ-ridden, one-dimensional soap-opera, written and directed by Kris Isacsson. A silly sub-plot revolves around Al’s kooky room-mate (Zak Orth), a cynical, aspiring film-maker, being pursued by a seductive porn starlet (Selma Blair) who used to study chemistry at M.I.T. Plus there’s a guy named Jim Morrison (Ashton Kutcher) who’s predictably obsessed with this rock-star namesake. But there’s no real dramatic thrust. Henry Winkler and Lucie Arnaz do their professional best as Al’s parents who dream of the day when their son can work with his dad, known as Chef Ray, on television; their high-concept show would have the pair storming, like cops, into unsuspecting people’s homes and making dinner for them. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Down to You is a cutesy, shallow, formulaic 3. Maybe it will work better on video.

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THE TIGGER MOVIE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE TIGGER MOVIE” (Walt Disney Pictures)

Though it’s destined to have a much longer run on the video shelf than in theaters, this fun-filled, full-length animated feature follows in the wake of Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), adapted from the classic A.A. Milne books. Who doesn’t love Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga, Roo and – in this case – the ever-exuberant Tigger? Written and directed by Jun Falkenstein, based on a story by Eddie Guzelian, it revolves around Tigger’s need to find his “gigantically, stripedy” family tree. Voiced by Jim Cummings, Tigger hunts boisterously throughout the Hundred Acre Wood, looking for other Tiggers. But, as he has so often said himself, “The very most wonderful thing about tiggers is that I’m the only one!” What Tigger concludes, of course, is that family isn’t just about sharing blood and similar physical features. It’s about giving and receiving love from those around you – providing a good lesson for eager, open young minds. The narration by John Hurt sounds wonderfully, authentically British and the animation is not only inventive but amusing. Art director Toby Bluth has chosen line drawings that hark back to the original E.H. Shepard artwork. The colors, the light, and the shading all reflect the Hundred Acre Wood – a real place that one can still visit outside of London. While nothing that will go down in the annals of musical history, the six new songs by Robert and Richard Sherman (Mary Poppins, Jungle Book) are pleasantly tuneful and one, at least, is a terrific tongue-twister. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Tigger is a toddler’s 7 – it’s a cuddly cartoon.

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SNOW DAY

Susan Granger’s review of “SNOW DAY” (Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon)

What kid hasn’t listened to the radio for that oft-anticipated but rarely realized announcement: “Schools are closed. It’s a snow day!”? After a groan from the grown-ups, the fun begins. But how to spend a lovely snow day? For the Brandstons of Syracuse, there are many possibilities. Dad (Chevy Chase) is a TV meteorologist, actually the wacky weatherman who predicted that an unexpected blizzard would hit the area. Mom (Jean Smart) is attached to her cellphone, working on a business deal in Beijing. So 15 year-old Hal (Mark Webber) is free to pursue the perfect girl of his dreams (Emmanuelle Chiqui), who has never acknowledged his existence, while taking for granted the genial companionship of his best friend (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek). Hal’s 10 year-old sister (Zena Grey) has a bigger ambition: she’s seriously determined to defeat the demonic Snowplowman (Chris Elliott), a suburban Darth Vader in a ten-ton truck who haunts the kids’ snow days. He has a pet crow, his rig’s called Clementine, and legend has it that he makes chains for his tires from the braces of kids he’s run over. And Hal’s brother (Connor Matheus), the terrible toddler, just wants to go outside and play. Writers Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi and director Chris Koch deliver slippery slapstick sketches with only a few slushy moments. Yeah, there are flatulence jokes but they get big laughs from the smallfry audience. And the adults snicker when they recognize punker Iggy Pop as the ice rink DJ, playing old Al Martino records. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Snow Day is a flaky 5 – silly, wintry fun for the kids and not too bad for their parents either.

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