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THE NINTH GATE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE NINTH GATE” (Artisan)

Problem is: when Roman Polanski directs and Johnny Depp stars, you expect more than you get in this grim, third-rate horror mystery. Returning to his Rosemary’s Baby roots, Roman Polanski helms this thriller, casting Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous antique book dealer who is hired by a wealthy New York publisher, Frank Langella, who has just acquired a rare 17th century Venetian text called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows. Langella is a demonologist who believes that this tome, along with another two, are manuals of satanic invocation. Legend has it that if the engravings in the books are assembled properly, Lucifer will be released from Hell. Depp’s assignment is to locate the other two volumes in France and Portugal and to ascertain their authenticity. Interesting concept. Only what comes next makes little sense. Depp goes to Europe and develops what he terms a “growing obsession” with his mission. Predictably, there’s a femme fatale, Lena Olin, along with Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigneur, who serves as Depp’s mysterious guardian. Based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, it’s been adapted for the screen by Enrique Urbizu, John Brownjohn, and the director who make the quest remarkably incoherent and quite lacking in suspense. Cinematographer Darius Khondji does remarkably sinister camera work, and production designer Dean Tavoularis creates a convincing replica of Manhattan since Polanski, who is considered a fugitive, could not film in the United States. Curiously, if you saw Eyes Wide Shut, you may find the secret sect of robed society people interested in the occult vaguely familiar. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Ninth Gate is a blithering baroque 4. Scary? No. Silly? Yes.

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NORIEGA: GOD’S FAVORITE

Susan Granger’s review of “NORIEGA: GOD’S FAVORITE” (Showtime TV)

On Sunday night, April 2nd, at 8 p.m., Showtime premieres a made-for-television character study of the final years of Panamanian General Manuel “Tony” Noriega’s reign. Bob Hoskins stars as the cunning and clever, yet desperate and dangerous dictator – and the resemblance is eerie. And Hoskins is talented enough to embody all the contradictions of Noriega’s character, a man who believed in voodoo and claimed to be a Buddhist yet kept Hitler’s picture next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose heroes included Moammar Kadafi and Mother Teresa, who tortured and killed people yet refused to eat meat because he opposed the slaughter of animals. Born out of wedlock, he was abandoned by his mother when he was just five, forced to fend for himself on the streets of Panama. Convinced that he was God’s favorite and blessed with manic energy, Noriega not only survived but succeeded in acquiring more power than anyone else in his country. Scarred and pock-marked, he was an ugly strongman who suffered under the tyranny of beautiful women. Written by journalist Lawrence Wright and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, this is a speculative biography, since it deals with events no outsider ever witnessed, examining the complications under the volatile surface, bypassing the headlines and the stereotypes. Certainly Noriega is a despicable thug, yet he’s wickedly intriguing, not unlike other Central American dictators who consider themselves victims of U.S. foreign policy. On the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Noriega is an enigmatic 8. And the real Noriega is still in prison outside Miami, serving a 40-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, and cocaine-smuggling. But he’s up for parole this year and – with his government influence – who knows?

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GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI

Susan Granger’s review of “GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI” (Artisan)

Writer/director/producer Jim Jarmusch re-imagines the gangster picture as a quirky cross-culture fusion of Eastern philosophy, hip-hop music, urban darkness, and movie iconography. He focuses on Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), an assassin who is obsessed by the noble precepts of the 18th century warrior text, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, applying them to his work as a contract killer. In the samurai tradition, Ghost Dog has pledged his loyalty to one master (John Tormey), a small-time New Jersey mobster who once saved his life, with whom he now communicates only by carrier pigeons. He’s a loner whose only human contact is with a French-speaking ice-cream vendor (Isaach DeBankole) and a curious little girl (Camille Winbush) he meets in a park. The deliberately slow-paced, character-driven plot involves a great deal of brutal violence, stemming from vengeance, jealousy, and countless double-crosses, climaxing in a blood-drenched finale. Curiously, Ghost Dog doesn’t speak a line of dialogue until 45 minutes into the film. The blasting musical soundtrack by Wu Tang Clan’s RZA underscores both the hit-man’s zen-like qualities and the lurking menace of his allegorical environment. Jarmusch says he built his characters from his experience living in New York’s Little Italy, where he witnessed the death of an old Mafia order. In fact, he maintains, some of the actors came from that world: “They’re gentlemen to me, but they’ve also killed people.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an offbeat, thought-provoking 6. While it’s not a film to enjoy, it’s one adventurous movie-goers may appreciate.

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DROWNING MONA

Susan Granger’s review of “DROWNING MONA” (Destination Films)

In this comedic whodunit, Bette Midler plays a despicable, foul-mouthed woman whom any number of people had both a desire and a motive to murder. So, when her yellow Yugo has a problem negotiating a curve and ends up plunging off a cliff into a lake near her hometown of Verplanck in New York’s Hudson Valley, the chief of police (Danny DeVito) suspects foul play. Indeed, he discovers her brake lines were cut. But who is the culprit? Is it her long-suffering, battered husband (William Fichtner)? What about her belligerent, moronic, one-handed son (Marcus Thomas) or his handsome business partner (Casey Affleck), whom happens to be engaged to the police chief’s daughter (Neve Campbell). Or could it be the town’s most promiscuous waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis)? Other suspects include the local auto mechanic (Kathleen Wilhoite) who specializes in Yugos, a cop who scolded Mona for speeding (Peter Dobson), and a snoopy neighbor (Tracey Walter). Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld and director Nick Gomez shamelessly pilfer Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry and Murder on the Orient Express, tossing in plot twists and nasty red herrings which tend to fall flat in the midst of the tasteless mess that should have been a wacky farce. Whodunit? Who cares? On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Drowning Mona is a floundering 4. And Bette Midler played this type of odious oddball once before – remember Ruthless People?

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THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY

Susan Granger’s review of “THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY” (Paramount Pictures)

“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” says Matt Damon as the chameleon-like Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s creepy, star-studded thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Tom Ripley’s a leech, an amoral outsider, obsessed with the hedonistic la dolce vida of Dickie Greenleaf, a charming rogue, brilliantly played by Jude Law, whom he’s sent to bring home from Italy: “You’re the brother I never had. I’m the brother you never had.” Frustrated, Ripley not only covets Dickie’s privileged lifestyle, he wants to be Dickie, so much that his brutal killer instincts take over. Ripley’s so diabolically clever, so adept at imitation and fabrication that he fools everyone except Dickie’s girl-friend – that’s Gwyneth Paltrow, a bland Grace Kelly clone, which is quite appropriate since the story’s set in the ’50s, when social distinction and class status meant everything to this detached group of people. Also involved in this spellbinding, sexually ambiguous, melodramatic intrigue are Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Dickie’s snotty, suspicious friend, and Cate Blanchett, as a rebellious socialite who believes Tom’s ruse. (I’m curious: what if Blanchett had exchanged roles with Paltrow?) After The English Patient, Anthony Minghella does not disappoint with this visual portrait of a pathological liar. John Seale’s cinematography is stunning – from the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean to the twisting, cobbled alleys of Italy, particularly the eerie final shot in which a mirrored Ripley is reflected in a subtle myriad of distorted identities. Gabriel Yared’s music, primarily period jazz, truly complements the story. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a complex, provocative, potent 10. It’s frightening yet fascinating.

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MAGNOLIA

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

As a follow-up to the porn movie scene of Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson examines the emotional effects of physical and spiritual cancer in this manic, rambling tale of dying fathers and their pathetic children in the rootless ’90s. In what is basically an ensemble movie, set in a single, very long day in California’s San Fernando Valley and not unlike Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Jason Robards provides the connective tissue as an irascible television producer with terminal cancer and a grieving, guilt-stricken trophy wife (Julianne Moore). He begs his male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to find his long-lost son so he can make amends. Played with fervor by Tom Cruise, the son’s now a charismatic sex evangelist, motivational guru and host of a TV info-mercial, teaching “Seduce and Destroy.” Strutting and swaggering, he goads his male audience into sexual exploits. In a somewhat parallel story, Philip Baker Hall, the guilty host of a popular TV show, called “What Do Kids Know?” and married to Melinda Dillon, is also ailing, as his estranged, coke-snorting daughter (Melora Walters) becomes involved with a good-natured cop (John C. Reilly). One of the current Quiz contestants (Jeremy Blackman) is desperate for attention, while a former Quiz Kid (William H. Macy) watches his life disintegrate in a bar. Three hours, ten minutes is a long time to keep an audience involved in 10 characters, connected by chance and coincidence, even with Robert Elswit’s inventive cinematography and Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” song interwoven into the fabric of the convoluted, overly talky narrative. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Magnolia is a cacophonous, kinetic, audacious 7 with a bizarre, illogical, climactic conclusion related to the Bible, Exodus 8:2.

07

TUMBLEWEEDS

Susan Granger’s review of “TUMBLEWEEDS” (Fine Line Films)

Why see Tumbleweeds? One very compelling reason: Janet McTeer, who’s been dubbed “the next Meryl Streep.” The plot, involving a flighty, narcissistic mother and profane, outspoken adolescent daughter who hop in a car and head for a new life in California, sounds like Anywhere But Here, but this affable, low-budget comedy is far more focused, character-driven, and less artificial than the Susan Sarandon/Natalie Portman star vehicle in which the supporting players seemed like cardboard cut-outs. Besides, there’s Janet McTeer, a remarkable, highly respected British actress who won Broadway’s Tony several years ago as Nora in a revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The Amazonian McTeer plays a working class woman from North Carolina who drags her smart-aleck teenage daughter (Kimberly J. Brown) through her many abusive, failed relationships, finally trying to settle down in Starlight Beach, a quiet seaside town near San Diego, and find happiness with a long-haul trucker (Gavin O’Connor) who’s contemptuously referred to as “the future ex-husband.” There have been four previous ex-husbands. Directed and co-written by Gavin O’Connor, the story is loosely based on the relationship between screenwriter Angela Shelton (O’Connor’s ex-wife) and her own strong-willed, free-spirited mother. And the tone of the film is curiously reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Twitchy supporting actor Michael J. Pollard makes a brief but memorable appearance, looking not much older than he did in Bonnie and Clyde, back in 1967. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Tumbleweeds is a rueful but significant 7, because of Janet McTeer’s complex, funny, multi-faceted performance which includes an impeccable Southern accent.

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SWEET AND LOWDOWN

Susan Granger’s review of “SWEET AND LOWDOWN” (Sony Classics)

Vintage jazz aficionados will appreciate Woody Allen’s fanciful mock documentary about a legendary musician of the 1930s, allegedly the second-best jazz guitarist in the world. This totally fictional character, named Emmet Ray and embodied by Sean Penn, is a jaunty, self-absorbed egotist who justifies his aloof, amoral behavior by explaining that he’s an “artist.” Ray lives in awe of his idol, Django Reinhardt, the son of gypsies who lives and plays in France, and brashly admits that loves his guitar more than any woman who ever shared his bed. There are two memorable women with whom the itinerant Ray becomes involved. First, he lives with the long-suffering, worshipful Hattie (superbly played by British actress Samantha Morton), a mute laundress whom he picks up on the Boardwalk on the Jersey shore. Then, he impetuously marries the beautiful, bitchy Blanche (Uma Thurman), a socialite writer searching for inspiration. Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol, and John Waters contribute supporting roles, and famed Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei (Raise the Red Lantern) makes a memorable American film debut. The sensational soundtrack includes I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Limehouse Blues, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Sweet Sue, All of Me, and I’ll See You in My Dreams, tastefully arranged by pianist Dick Hyman – but, curiously, not the title song, written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1925 musical Tip-Toes. There are more than a dozen guitar solos by the real-life Django Reinhardt, lifted from his old recordings, while musician Howard Alden supplies the notes for Sean Penn’s realistic guitar strumming. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Sweet and Lowdown is a genial, light-hearted, rhythm-filled 8, whimsically proving that art imitates life.

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THE WHOLE NINE YARDS

Susan Granger’s review of “THE WHOLE NINE YARDS” (Warner Bros.)

Bruce Willis teams up with Friends Matthew Perry in this formulaic mobster comedy. Willis plays a cool professional hitman who moves incognito into an upscale Montreal suburb, while Perry is his nerdy neighbor, a dentist, who immediately recognizes him as Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski, who squealed on his former employers, the Gogolak crime family of Chicago. “It’s not important that I’ve killed 17 people,” Willis tells the incredulous Perry. “What’s important is how I get along with the people that are still alive.” Soon, the disparate men find they share a common bond: someone’s trying to kill them both. Perry’s shrewish wife, vamped with an outrageous French accent by Rosanna Arquette, complains that her husband is “the only dentist who can’t make money!” She not only wants to kill him so she can collect on his life insurance but she also wants to nab the reward for nailing The Tulip. Enormous Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) ostensibly works as an enforcer for Janni Gogolak (Kevin Pollak), while Amanda Peet is sweetly sympathetic and remarkably helpful as Perry’s dental assistant who has a secret yearning to be a contract killer. Plus there’s Natasha Henstridge, as Willis’ cold, calculating ex-wife, who inexplicably finds the bumbling Perry sexually irresistible. Writer Mitchell Kapner repeatedly capitalizes on a running joke about the Canadian habit of putting mayo on a hamburger, and director Jonathan Lynn does his best to keep the zany, bizarre action moving quickly. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Whole Nine Yards is a ludicrous, lame, farcical 4. Problem is: these are amiable but crude, essentially superficial caricatures, not three-dimensional characters, like Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro in the mob comedy Analyze This.

04

WONDER BOYS

Susan Granger’s review of “WONDER BOYS” (Paramount Pictures):

The pressure’s on Curtis Hanson directing his first picture after the highly acclaimed L.A. Confidential. Adapted by Steve Kloves from Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, the theme here revolves around a middle-aged author who is creatively paralyzed after having published a successful novel seven years ago. Although it is not explained in the movie, a ‘wonder boy’ is someone who has experienced great success early in life and then has to face the fear and insecurity of living up to himself. Michael Douglas plays the cynical, dissolute college professor who cannot finish the manuscript for his next book – which now numbers more than 2,500 single-spaced typewritten pages – as he spends a picaresque “Wordfest” weekend frantically juggling his newly pregnant mistress, a suicidal student, his visiting editor, the corpse of a dead dog, and a fur-trimmed jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Frances McDormand is his romantic interest; she’s the college chancellor who’s married to the head of the English department. Tobey Maguire is a gifted but deeply troubled writing student who catches the eye of Robert Downey, as Douglas’s flamboyant editor from New York. Katie Holmes is a seductive young student with a crush on Douglas, and Rip Torn is successful, self-satisfied pop-culture writer. Set in wintry western Pennsylvania – superbly photographed by Dante Spinotti – it’s a screwball, character-driven story whose eclectic inhabitants are wacky, weird and whimsical. And the memorable soundtrack includes Bob Dylan’s new song, “Things Have Changed.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Wonder Boys is a sly, darkly humorous 7 – aimed at an intelligent, sophisticated audience.

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