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U-571

Susan Granger’s review of “U-571″ (Universal Pictures)

Brace yourself, the first popcorn picture of the season has arrived! “U-571″ has everything you could want in an action-adventure. Set against the backdrop of World War II, when Hitler launched a devastating U-boat assault against the Eastern seaboard of the United States, it revolves around a daring mission to capture an Enigma machine, a top-secret Nazi radio coding device. But the crux of the story involves a young executive officer, played by Matthew McConaughey, who proves his leadership ability in a crisis situation when his submarine crew is deployed to answer the distress call of a stranded German U-boat. Their assignment is to masquerade as a resupply ship and, wearing German uniforms, board the damaged vessel and seize its Enigma encrypting device. “Get the damned trophy and get the hell outta there,” orders the captain. But everything that can go wrong does, as the cleverly constructed script poses several dilemmas and one complication after another. Directed and co-written by Jonathan Mostow (“Breakdown”), it’s a taut, exciting tale of historical fiction, a composite of actual events, not revisionist history, which an important point which is made clear in the closing credits. Matthew McConaughey shows remarkable emotional dimension, ably supported by Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton, David Keith, Jack Noseworthy, Erik Palladino, Tom Guiry and Jon Bon Jovi. And cinematographer Oliver Wood captures the claustrophobic emotional stress of being in the path of deadly torpedoes and depth charges and, even more terrifying, the helpless, eerie silence of expectation. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “U-571″ is an action-packed, explosive 8. If you’re into ferociously suspenseful, high-tension thrillers: go, go, go!

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THE COLOR OF PARADISE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE COLOR OF PARADISE” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven,” about two children who share the same well-worn pair of sneakers, received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film last year, yet it never had a national release. However, this new entry by the Iranian film-maker is being exhibited nationally. Mohsen Ramezani stars as Mohammed, a blind eight year-old, who senses that his presence hinders the courtship by his widowed father (Hossein Mahjub), a poor coal worker, of a much younger new bride (Masoomeh Zeinti) with a bountiful dowry. Not that the child is alone. He has a grandmother and two sisters who try to cheer his spirits – and he spends much of the year at a special school for the handicapped in Tehran. But the primal frustration and emotional conflict eventually explode – on both sides. As a side note: the child actor Mohsen Ramezani is also sightless. Which is particularly poignant since Majid Majidi’s seductively pastoral cinematic world is splashed with vibrant color as well as the sounds of nature. But it’s what he touches and hears that makes Mohsen recognize the message of a woodpecker, “read” the stones at the bottom of a mountain creek, and respond to the rustle of leaves to discover that a baby bird has fallen from its nest – right into the danger of a cat. And you realize the lonely boy’s innate courage when he carefully climbs the tree with the chick in his pocket to place it back in its nest. Along with “Children of Heaven,” “The White Balloon,” and “Taste of Cherry,” “The Color of Paradise” is a touching, memorable contemporary Iranian film that focuses on imagery of the simple, quiet faith and poignant innocence of children. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Color of Paradise” is a haunting, heart-breaking 9. It’s in Farsi with English subtitles.

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KEEPING THE FAITH

Susan Granger’s review of “KEEPING THE FAITH” (Touchstone Pictures)

Cleverly timed for the Passover and Easter season, this is an amusing comedy about “The God Squad,” two pious but unconventional young men of religion, directed by actor Edward Norton, who is usually associated with meaty dramas like “Primal Fear,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “American History X” and “Fight Club.” Norton also plays Father Brian Kilkenny Finn – a Roman Catholic priest. Brian’s best friend since childhood is now a Jewish rabbi named Jake Schram, played by Ben Stiller. They’re living near one another on New York’s Upper West Side when Anna Reilly, a young woman whom they grew up with returns to the city on business. That’s Jenna Elfman of “EDTV” and “Dharma & Greg.” So, instead of one of the old jokes that begins, “A priest and a rabbi and a woman walk into a bar and….,” this plot ignites when a priest and a rabbi both care deeply for the same woman. And this is no ordinary woman. She’s a high-powered, cell phone-addicted workaholic who firmly believes that with her help God could have created the world in just three days, not seven. But she’s certainly not the “nice Jewish girl” whom the synagogue elders had envisioned for their rabbi. And what about the priest’s vow of celibacy? The supporting cast is terrific: Anne Bancroft as Jake’s mother, Eli Wallach as an open-minded rabbi, and Milos Forman as a compassionate priest. It’s just too bad that first-time director Norton didn’t call “cut” more often when actor Norton’s scenes went on too long and that Stuart Blumberg’s utterly predictable script gets a bit verbose, but on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Keeping the Faith” is a frothy, feel-good 7. In an age of cynicism, it’s an amiable, old-fashioned romantic comedy, a light-hearted date movie.

07

JOE GOULD’S SECRET

Susan Granger’s review of “JOE GOULD’S SECRET” (USA Films)

Actor/director/producer Stanley Tucci (“Big Night,” “The Impostors”) specializes in gentle, cerebral, low-budget films about male friendships and their consequences. This true story by Howard Rodman celebrates the relationship between bohemian Joe Gould, who had a gift of gab, and courtly Joseph Mitchell, who wrote his story in “The New Yorker.” Tucci plays the North Carolina-born Mitchell who specialized in literary portraits of the denizens of New York City in the 1940s, while Ian Holm is disheveled, cantankerous Joe Gould, a homeless Harvard graduate sometimes known as Professor Seagull for his penchant for reciting poetry in seagull cawing. Gould was also the author of “The Oral History of the World,” which he would offer up in return for $2 contributions to “The Joe Gould Fund,” since a man needs whiskey, beer, and cigarettes if he’s going to talk all night. Mitchell made the demented panhandler, a tormented soul, into a Greenwich Village celebrity. Mitchell was a gifted listener and his wife, played by Hope Davis, was a noted photographer. Stanley Tucci composes scenes in the style of the great street photographers of old New York, but this film is not cinematic in scope, relying, instead, on long, talky scenes as opposed to quick cuts. And the titular secret is part of the enigmatic character study, not a mystery. Stanley Tucci delivers a droll, deliberately understated performance, while Ian Holm, not inappropriately, chews the scenery, drawing attention by table-top proclamations like: “In the winter I’m a Buddhist; in the summer, I’m a nudist.” Susan Sarandon and Steve Martin do distracting cameos. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Joe Gould’s Secret” is a rambling, poignant, bittersweet 7, aimed at sedate art house audiences.

07

READY TO RUMBLE

Susan Granger’s review of “READY TO RUMBLE” (Warner Bros.)

Here’s a quiz: Do you really believe that pro wrestlers fight a legitimate bout? Do you consider them “superior athletes, superior men”? Do you feel that women are mindless sex objects who just love to be punched in the face? Are you easily amused by bodily emission humor and scatological jokes? What about leaving your partner with an itchy crotch as a memento of a marriage? If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of the above, you’re the target audience for this lamebrained comedy. David Arquette and Scott Caan play upwardly mobile portable-toilet maintenance workers in Lusk, Wyoming, who worship Jimmy (The King) King of World Championship Wrestling, citing him as “the greatest wrestler of all time.” So when the pudgy King (Oliver Platt), clad in a studded black leather body suit, loses his crown in a bloody double-cross by his sleazy manager, they set out on a quest to return him to what they believe is his rightful throne. Not the Porto-San throne, of course, but that kind of confusion is typical of the on-screen humor penned by Steven Brill and directed with stomping, smackdown overkill by Brian Robbins. And it doesn’t much matter to anyone that, outside the ring, King is a boozing, deadbeat dad who stole his poor parents’ motor home. If you’re into this sport, you’ll recognize Diamond Dallas Page, Bill Goldberg, Bam Bam Bigelow, Konnan, Kidman, Sting, Juventud Guerrero, Disco Inferno Saturn, Sid Vicious. Martin Landau, Joe Pantoliano and Rose McGowan collected salaries as supporting players but don’t bet on mention of this “credit” on their resumes two years from now. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ready to Rumble” is a crude, mind-numbing 3, packed with low blows. It’s about as much fun as a low kick to the groin.

03

WHERE THE HEART IS

Susan Granger’s review of “WHERE THE HEART IS” (20th Century Fox)

Attention, Wal-Mart Shoppers! Princess Amidala’s been sleeping in your store. Well, not exactly, but in this chick’s flick Natalie Portman plays a poor, pregnant 17 year-old named Novalee Nation who moves into an Oklahoma Wal-Mart when her wannabe musician/boyfriend, Willie Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno), abandons her. In the discount chain-store, she finds everything she needs. She sleeps in a sleeping bag on a fake lawn, bathes in the bathroom, and keeps careful record of everything she’s used so she can pay it back some day. And when her daughter, Americus, is born she’s celebrated in the media as “the Wall-Mart Baby.” Intrigued by her celebrity, Novalee’s dysfunctional mother (Sally Field) appears and makes off with some cash. So what’s the girl gonna do? Like the Beatles’ song – she gets a little help from her friends. Like a perpetually pregnant maternity nurse (Ashley Judd), who become her best-friend, and a nurturing surrogate-mother (Stockard Channing). Novalee even finds a fella, a shy, gentle librarian (James Frain), and an empowering career as a photographer. But then Willie Jack resurfaces as country singer Billy Shadow, now the protŽgŽ of a Nashville agent (Joan Cusack). Based on Billie Letts’ 1996 best-seller, adapted for the screen by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, and directed by Matt Williams (TV’s “Roseanne,” “Home Improvement”), this episodic story of love and the meaning of family unfolds in a relentlessly likable, sudsy soap opera style. While Natalie Portman is obviously a sophisticated, refined and talented actress, she’s woefully miscast as raw Southern trash, which is the way her role is described. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Where the Heart Is” is a sweetly banal, schmaltzy 5, just the number that Novalee considers ominous.

05

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.”

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