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PITCH BLACK

Susan Granger’s review of “PITCH BLACK” (USA Films):

A disabled spacecraft crash-lands on a harsh desert planet at the beginning of this tedious sci-fi disaster. Among the grungy survivors are the female pilot (Radha Mitchell), a Muslim priest (Keith David), a prissy antiquities dealer (Lewis Fitzgerald), a convicted killer with huge muscles and surgically-enhanced laser vision (Vin Diesel) and the bounty hunter (Cole Hauser) who is bringing him to justice. Squabbling, they’re all vying for leadership power – until they’re terrorized by armies of voracious, carnivorous, nocturnal creatures who are fiendishly determined to devour them. Australian writer/director David Twohy (The Arrival), working with writers Jim and Ken Wheat, lifts elements from the Alien films, among others, and treacherous, pterodactyl-like creatures from Godzilla. The formulaic dialogue is all their own and there’s little tension in the episodic plot which involves a solar eclipse. The only commendable originality is in the stylish lighting, utilizing various filters, and cinematography, drawing on several types of film stock which complement the strange, ominous planet with its intense heat from three different suns and bizarre desert landscape. However, on a parched, cloudless planet supposedly devoid of all water, a sudden downpour which drenches the hapless survivors is one of the most obvious discordant occurrences which is never explained. And if Vin Diesel’s voice sounds familiar, you might recall that he did the title character in The Iron Giant. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Pitch Black is a dismal 1 – a noisy, nightmarish waste of time and money, the producers’ and yours.

01

HANGING UP

Susan Granger’s review of “HANGING UP” (Columbia Pictures)

No doubt, Columbia Pictures and the producers wanted this to be a baby-boomers’ version of The First Wives Club; i.e.: a wise, witty chick’s flick about three blonde, beautiful sisters coping with their sibling rivalry while dealing with their philandering old father who’s suffered a minor stroke. But something went wrong from the script to the screen. What’s left is an overdose of cheery cute. Meg Ryan’s perky as ever as the sensible middle sister, a party planner whose motto is “No surprises.” Which puts her in direct conflict with Walter Matthau, her charming, curmudgeonly dad who not only drinks too much but loves to surprise women by pinching their posteriors. Diane Keaton’s the hip, super-successful, self-involved older sister, while Lisa Kudrow’s the youngest, a ditsy, semi-successful TV actress on one of those daytime hospital dramas. Adapted by Delia Ephron from her 1995 novel, co-scripted by sister Nora Ephron, and directed by Diane Keaton, its title comes from the family’s addiction to cell phones which are annoying enough in real life but become unbearable on the screen. Delia Ephron reveals, “I live half my life in the real world and half on the telephone” – and that clichŽ-filled, whiny jabbering is the premise of the story. There’s also some metaphysical connection between hanging up the phone and disconnecting yourself from your problems. But the movie is uneven in pace and tone. Sometimes it’s goofy, concentrating on quirky, if banal, verbal sibling encounters; at other times, it goes for pathos – what with dad’s dying. Predictably, ultimately, there’s reconciliation and redemption. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Hanging Up is a flimsy, floundering 4. Be thankful you don’t share the phone gene in this family’s DNA – nor their frenzied phoniness.

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ELMO IN GROUCHLAND

Susan Granger’s review of “ELMO IN GROUCHLAND” (Columbia Pictures)

Anyone who’s ever had toddlers knows there are certain taboos – like separating a kid from his security blanket. In this latest of the “Sesame Street” movie spin-offs, stemming from the genius of the late Jim Henson, lovable Elmo, the shy, little, red-tufted yarn puppet with an orange nose and eggshell eyes, loses his beloved blue blanket, named Blanket. The story starts as Elmo gets very, very upset when his best friend Zoe wants to hold Blanket. In fact, a tug-of-war breaks out and neither of them sees Telly coming at them on his new roller blades. An accident occurs and Blanket winds up in Oscar’s mysterious trash can – which, in turn, leads him Grouchland, a stinky, yucky place where everyone’s irritable and smiling is forbidden. And there’s a cranky villain in Grouchland.. That’s greedy Huxley, played by Mandy Patinkin. He’s a selfish bully who stamps everything “Mine” and sucks up Blanket with his Hoxocopter and won’t give it back. Moppets will not only love watching but they’re invited to yell, sing and clap along, and that’s about as interactive as cinema can be these days. And the best part – insofar as parents are concerned – is that whenever the going gets tough – like Blanket might rip – Bert and Ernie interrupt the story to reassure viewers that they shouldn’t worry and things will turn out all right. With the Muppeteers, there’s light-hearted humor and good-natured fun which makes for lots of laughs – and Vanessa Williams makes a great Queen of Trash. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Elmo in Grouchland” is a warm, fuzzy 8, teaching pre-schoolers a gentle lesson about sharing.

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HAPPY, TEXAS

Susan Granger’s review of “HAPPY, TEXAS” (Miramax Films)

In the comedy genre of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” this whimsical farce revolves around two convicts – Jeremy Northam (“The Winslow Boy,” “An Ideal Husband”) and Steve Zahn (“Out of Sight”) – who escape from a chain-gang and steal a Winnebago, only to discover that its rightful owners are two gay guys who travel around the country producing children’s beauty pageants. Their only hope of evading the law is to assume these new identities, which is immediately funny since neither crook is exactly in touch with his feminine side. When they arrive in Happy, Texas, Zahn’s job is to coach the pre-teen contestants for the Little Miss Squeezed Pageant – to the delight of supervisor Illeana Douglas – while Northam handles the business end. Their plan is to pocket the contractual $1,000 fee and scram quickly – after robbing the local bank. Only it’s not that easy. Beautiful banker Ally Walker (TV’s “Profiler”) is attracted to Northam – and he to her – but the only way he can be with her and maintain the charade is to pretend to be her sympathetic confidante. And Northam’s in for an even bigger surprise when the tormented sheriff – that’s William H. Macy – has a hankering for him at a gay cowboy bar. Screenwriters Ed Stone, Phil Reeves and writer/director Mark Illsley were obviously inspired by Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” since there are many similarities. Curiously, in this era of Jon-Benet Ramsey’s murder, the jibes are gentle; somewhere, somehow there’s irony buried in juvenile beauty pageants that’s yet to be unearthed. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Happy, Texas” is a snappy, screwball 6. And if you like this, rent the video “Waiting for Guffman,” which is even funnier.

06

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

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

In this action/revenge movie, a clever woman goes after her conniving husband after he frames her for his supposed murder. Ashley Judd stars as the wife and mother who is wrongly imprisoned for killing her husband. While serving her sentence at a Washington State Prison, she discovers that her spouse is, in fact, living with another woman and raising their son. In addition, she’s told by another inmate that she can’t be tried twice for the same crime so, when she gets released, she figures: Why not really murder the two-timing rat? The vigilance of her parole officer, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is her only obstacle. Directed by Bruce Beresford, strong and slender Ashley Judd seems perfectly cast, yet she was not the first choice for this plum part. Jodie Foster was supposed to do it until pregnancy forced her to drop out. Tommy Lee Jones is stalwart, as always, doing the relentless law enforcement officer gig which he perfected during “The Fugitive,” but Bruce Greenwood’s husband part is just too slippery and sleazy. But superficiality is the keynote of the slick, plot-heavy screenplay by David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook. As for the legal question about whether Judd’s character truly has a legal license to kill, the answer is “no.” Under the principle of double jeopardy, a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. But, if the crime was really never committed, then the concept is invalid. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Double Jeopardy” is an angry, violent 4. It’s an implausible, illogical but mildly intriguing thriller.

04

RANDOM HEARTS

Susan Granger’s review of “RANDOM HEARTS” (Columbia Pictures)

How would you react to your mate’s adultery? And how much more agonizing would it be if your spouse’s accidental death prevented you from asking the agonizing question: Why? That’s the premise of Sydney Pollack’s romantic drama, adapted from Warren Adler’s novel by Darryl Ponicsan with a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke. And the concept is intriguing. Harrison Ford plays a detective in the Internal Affairs Division of the Washington, D.C. police department and Kristin Scott Thomas is a well-bred New Hampshire congresswoman running for re-election. They’re strangers until his wife and her husband are killed in a plane crash and it’s discovered that the deceased were lovers, secretly traveling as “Mr. and Mrs.” to a tryst in Miami. Grief-stricken, the survivors are thrown together as they attempt to come to terms with their mutual betrayal. He’s masochistically determined to investigate every sordid detail, while she’s deep into denial. “Sooner or later, everybody knows everything,” he informs her. And that scandal is what terrifies her. Then abruptly, inexplicably, they desperately start groping each other. Inevitably, they’re soon in bed, as if the answers to the emotional questions they’re struggling to understand were hidden beneath the sheets. Looking scruffy, wearing an ear stud and sporting the world’s worst haircut, Harrison Ford is sincere, earnest and stoic, while Kristin Scott Thomas’s chilly demeanor fails to ignite this restrained, ultimately dull, rebound romance – even though Sydney Pollack delivers a strong performance as a media strategist. And there’s a forgettable subplot involving gunplay with two corrupt cops. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Random Hearts” is a well-crafted but emotionally distant 5. Let’s put it this way – it’s not exactly a date movie.

05

MYSTERY, ALASKA

Susan Granger’s review of “MYSTERY, ALASKA” (Hollywood Pictures)

Just because he just won two Emmys for “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” doesn’t mean David E. Kelley can score every time. This story revolves around a publicity stunt that pits the world-famous New York Rangers in a televised exhibition game against a hometown team from Mystery, Alaska, population 633. The genesis for the face-off is a “Sports Illustrated” article, written by a former native, Hank Azaria, that explores the rural legend of a small Alaskan town where, for generations, young men aspire to nothing more than being on the local ice hockey team. It’s a place where people are so obsessed with the sport that they leave the streets frozen for skating. And the comedy comes from a culture clash between the media hype and the rugged Alaskan eccentrics. Burt Reynolds plays the stuffy town judge and hockey coach. Russell Crowe is the sheriff and, at 34, a 13-year veteran of the team, while Ryan Northcott is a high-school whiz who threatens Crowe’s prestigious position. Directed by Jay Roach (“Austin Powers”), it’s like “Northern Exposure” meets “The Longest Yard,” although too much time is spent on superficial strained marriages and father-son relationships. Colm Meaney, Mary McCormack, Michael Buie, Michael McKean, Ron Eldard, Judith Ivey, and Lolita Davidovich embody colorful characters who add to the predictable melodrama as Little Richard sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Mike Myers broadcasts the game. There’s lots going on but little depth. If you’re looking for a really good hockey movie, rent the video of George Roy Hill’s “Slapshot,” which was filmed in the mid-’70s at Yale. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mystery, Alaska” slides in with a chilly 5. The puck stops here.

05

The Story of Us

Susan Granger’s review of “The Story of Us” (Universal Pictures)

Instead of the usual vows, perhaps the marriage ceremony should include the question: “Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” Because that’s what intrigued filmmaker Rob Reiner to wonder: Can any couple with two kids survive together for 15 years? Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a suburban dad-and-mom whose constant quarrels have made them decide on a trial separation while their kids are in summer camp. As they fumble through the nitty-gritty of living apart, flashbacks reveal what abrasive episodes led up to their edgy estrangement. Basically, she’s a crossword-puzzle creator who’s a highly organized, compulsive perfectionist while he’s a laid-back, playful writer who flourishes in an unstructured existence. (One is tempted to interpret Willis’ obviously raw hurt as a spillover from his real-life divorce from Demi Moore.) Writers Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson re-visit bittersweet marital territory that’s been explored many times before, stressing that any successful relationship is a work-in-progress. One winces for the obvious hair pieces and/or transplants Willis feels compelled to wear, while Pfeiffer is so breathtakingly beautiful that her efforts to be a plain housewife are pathetic. And when Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, and Red Buttons pop up as the in-laws, you’re acutely aware that these are aging stars playing cameos. Nevertheless, Reiner’s slickly inventive direction and the sheer charm and likeability of Willis and Pfeiffer prevail, set to the tune of Eric Clapton’s guitar strumming “I’m Sorry.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Story of Us” is a shaky, sentimental 6. It’s “When Harry Met Sally” – 15 years later – with “best friend” Rita Wilson outrageously attempting to update the orgasm-in-a-deli scene.

06

THREE TO TANGO

Susan Granger’s review of “THREE TO TANGO” (Warner Bros.)

The producers of this mildly amusing, off-beat romantic comedy obviously thought that if they paired popular Matthew Perry from TV’s “Friends” with Neve Campbell from TV’s “Party of Five” and “Scream,” adding Dylan McDermott and Oliver Platt for substance, they’d have a hit – wrong! Matthew Perry plays an ambitious, idealistic, if clumsy young architect who has just been chosen by businessman Dylan McDermott to compete for the design of a multi-million dollar Chicago cultural center. The slimy tycoon also tells Perry he’ll get preferential consideration if he’ll spy on his mistress, Neve Campbell, assuming that Perry is a homosexual, like his openly gay partner, played by Oliver Platt. Predictably, Perry falls for Campbell, who also thinks he’s gay, particularly when he’s honored as Gay Professional of the Year. What will he do? Will he continue to lie to hold on to the job opportunity of a lifetime and a warm but frustrating friendship with the girl he loves or come out of the closet and admit he’s secretly straight? You guess. I’ll give you a hint, though. Screenwriter Rodney Vaccaro’s own bizarre experience inspired the story. While he was working as creative director of a large advertising agency, he fell in love with his boss’s mistress. A series of what he describes as “sexual errors” led to Vaccaro eventually marrying her and co-writing this script with Aline Brosh McKenna. But, despite superficial similarities, this is no “The Apartment” or even “In and Out,” perhaps because of Damon Santostefano’s light-hearted direction which makes it feel like a TV sit-com. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Three to Tango” is a frenetic, formulaic, flimsy 4, satirizing sexual stereotypes with the catchline: “You’ve made a big gay bed, and now you must slumber gayly in it!”

04

BOYS DON’T CRY

Susan Granger’s review of “BOYS DON’T CRY” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

First-time writer/director Kimberly Peirce was so appalled when she read a newspaper account of how and why 21 year-old Teena Brandon was shot dead with two friends in a farmhouse just outside Falls City, Nebraska, back in 1994, that she was determined to bring this true story to the screen. Teena Brandon – a.k.a. Brandon Teena – so desperately desired to be a boy that she posed as one. She “strapped and packed” by flattening her breasts beneath surgical bandages and inserting socks into the crotch of her jeans. Not only did she get away with the pathetic masquerade but, amazingly, she seduced several young women who, when they questioned her sexual identity, were told that she was a hermaphrodite. Brandon adamantly insisted that she was not a lesbian, explaining that she was really a boy trapped in a girl’s body and often spoke of plans to have a sex change operation. Actress Hilary Swank (TV’s ” Beverly Hills 90210″) delivers an incredibly believable performance as the troubled “pretty-boy” Brandon with Chloe Sevigny as the gullible girl who adores her. The problem is that all of the characters are essentially repugnant for one reason or another, so it’s difficult to relate to any of them. (Giving a toddler beer to drink is hardly an endearing quality.) Plus, there’s a gratuitously violently brutal rape scene in which two local boys (Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III) take their revenge on the deceitful “dyke” – and that, in particular, is distasteful and difficult to watch. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a pathetic, sad 4. It’s a tragic, depressing tale of prejudice and hatred.

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