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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.”

07

CROUPIER

Susan Granger’s review of “CROUPIER” (Shooting Gallery Films/Loews Cineplex series)

This compelling crime caper by British director Mike Hodges is what low-budget, independent film-making is all about. Back in the ’70s, Mike Hodges did the critically acclaimed “Get Carter,” starring Michael Caine, and this is in the same vein. It’s based on a script by Paul Mayersberg, who years ago wrote one of my all-time favorites sci-fi films, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, a frustrated, aspiring novelist whose father (Nicholas Ball) gets him an interview for a job as a croupier at the Golden Lion Casino in London. And why not? He has the hand of a conjurer – or an experienced card player. Reluctantly, he takes the job at “the house of addiction,” philosophizing, “You have to make a choice in life: be a gambler or a croupier – and live with your decision.” And Jack is coldly obsessed with watching people lose since, after all, a good customer is a consistent loser. One of the most intriguing losers is a beautiful gambler (ER’s Alex Kingston) from South Africa with whom he has an affair, deceiving his lover (Gina McKee), a store detective who believes Jack’s high-tension job has made him into a miserable zombie. He also becomes involved with a fellow croupier (Kate Hardie). “I’m not an enigma,” Jack explains. “I’m a contradiction.” Jack’s ultimate aim is to become totally detached (i.e.: “The croupier had reached his goal – he no longer heard the sound of the ball.”). Jack’s behind-the-scenes casino adventures and the various scams are intriguing but his hackneyed internal monologues about the book he’s writing soon become tedious. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Croupier” is a clever, stylish, cynical 7. “Gambling,” we’re told, “is about not facing reality, not counting the odds.” But, ah, the con artists!

07

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

OUT OF TIME

Susan Granger’s review of “OUT OF TIME” (Showtime TV)

I’m usually impressed by Showtime’s made-for-television movies but this family-oriented updating of the Rip Van Winkle legend is just dull. The story begins in 1980 in the tiny town of Suttersville, Oregon, where Jack Epson (James McDaniel) is married to Annie (Mel Harris) and they have a ten year-old daughter (Brittany Moldowan). Jack’s a dreamer, a romantic who is lured into the woods by magical spirit guides who have been monitoring the uneasy balance between nature and development for 250 years. As a political activist and deeply caring man, Jack’s been chosen to be their mortal spokesman to save Suttersville from itself. The spirit guides entice him to drink from a mysterious spring so he sleeps for 20 years. When he awakens, he returns to the disturbing, high-tech world of 2000. His family believes he deserted them, and his daughter (Karen H. Holness) has a ten year-old of her own now; it’s this boy (Neil Denis) who helps Jack understand not only what’s befallen him but what he must do to prove his worth. The villain is a real-estate developer (John Novak) who is secretly planning to build a condominium complex on a pristine mountain. Co-written and directed by Ernest Thompson (“On Golden Pond”), it’s filled with stilted, flowery platitudes and sappy, contrived emotions. In a peculiar nod to political correctness, Jack and Annie are a mixed-racial couple, as are the grown daughter and her beau, yet this fact is never acknowledged, as if it presented no conflict to anyone in rural America in 1980 nor in the present. On the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge, “Out of Time” is a slow-paced, forgettable 4 with an admirable, if heavy-handed, environmentalist message about the questionable advances of progress.

04

CHICKEN RUN

Susan Granger’s review of “CHICKEN RUN” (DreamWorks)

What a clever concept! Do you remember “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen? It’s a W.W.II adventure in which Allied POW’s devise a way out of a Nazi prison camp. Now a similar idea has become an imaginative claymation comedy, the first full-length feature from British-based Aardman animation, the Oscar-winning team behind the popular Wallace & Gromit shorts. “Chicken Run” follows a group of rebellious chickens imprisoned at Tweedy’s Egg Farm who are determined to break out before they meet “fowl” play and end up as pot pies. Trapped behind barbed wire and yearning for freedom, the feisty hen Ginger and her cohorts are terrorized by menacing, hard-boiled Mrs. Tweedy, who firmly believes, “Chickens are the most stupid creatures on the planet. They don’t plot; they don’t scheme; they don’t organize.” Until – one day – Rocky the Rooster, a brash, American “lone free ranger,” lands in the Yorkshire chicken coop. He’s on the lam from a circus and, if they agree to hide him, he promises to teach the entire flock to fly, despite the obvious aerodynamic deficiencies inherent in the plump chicken anatomy. “That Yank’s not to be trusted” warns the old R.A.F. rooster named Fowler. Eventually, the scrambling hens hatch an exciting, if desperate, alternative scheme – with a little help from two profiteering rats. Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson and Jane Horrocks head the voice cast and, instead of computer-generated images, the visual effects are created by stop-motion animation using clay and silicon models, set in a stylized universe. Aardman calls it “live action in miniature.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Chicken Run” is a bright, sunny-side up 9. Good gravy! It’s a double-yolk’d chicken delight for the whole family!

09

FANTASIA 2000

Susan Granger’s review of “FANTASIA 2000″ (Disney)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s spell still works. The Disney company’s crown jewel sparkles again. Shown for four months at 76 IMAX theaters in the United States, Latin America, Canada, and Asia, it’s now available on 35 mm in local theaters. When Walt Disney released his bold, animated concert film back in 1940, he envisioned an annual updating but, for 60 years, that hasn’t happened. Now, using traditional animation and computer-generated effects, there are seven new segments, along with the original Mickey Mouse Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the music is by the Chicago Symphony conducted by James Levine. Each chapter is introduced by celebrities: Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Penn & Teller. The first features abstract butterflies dancing to Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5.” Another, set to Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” follows a baby whale trapped inside an iceberg, separated from its mother and the rest of the pod. There’s a 1930s New York City tribute to the caricatures of Al Hirshfeld, complete with NINA, his daughter’s name, hidden in the drawings, set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Daisy and Donald Duck march into Noah’s Ark to Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” moves to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Second Piano Concerto,” as a one-legged soldier rescues a ballerina from an evil Jack-in-the-box. Camille Saint-Saens’s “Carnival of the Animals” pairs a rebellious pink flamingo with a yo-yo. And the finale is a mythical ode to the cycle of life moving to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fantasia 2000″ is a splashy, swirling 8. It’s a joyous celebration of the art of animation

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