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HIGH FIDELITY

Susan Granger’s review of “HIGH FIDELITY” (Touchstone Pictures)

In this romantic comedy, John Cusack plays a self-confessed music junkie who owns Championship Vinyl, a dilapidated record store in downtown Chicago. Having just been dumped by his girl-friend (delectable Danish actress Iben Hjejle), he spends his days playing verbal trivia games with his two moronic employees (Todd Louiso, Jack Black), who share his encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and the music scene, and most nights morbidly picking at the scab of his emotional misery. In the form of an into-the-camera confessional, he chronicles the failed relationships that repeated his first rejection at age 14 in junior high school. “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” he muses, organizing his record collection, not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically, so he has to remember the connections. While he considers himself unlucky in love, his ex’s include Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter and Lisa Bonet. Joan Cusack plays his pal while Tim Robbins is hilarious as a rival suitor. Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, it’s been cleverly adapted by D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack, who worked together on Grosse Pointe Blank, plus Scott Rosenberg and perceptively directed by Stephen Frears, who makes Cusack into a self-reflecting Everyman who wonders if he’ll ever find true love. With his ingratiating charm and impeccable timing, Cusack is not only likable but believable. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, High-Fidelity is an honest, funny, ironic 8. Striking a timely, contemporary note, it’s a “must see” for anyone who wants to know the truth about young men – and their obsession with music.

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ROAD TO EL DORADO

Susan Granger’s review of “ROAD TO EL DORADO” (DreamWorks)

Like the classic Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road movies, this family comedy chronicles the misadventures of two bumbling, somewhat inept con-artists whose enthusiastic camaraderie is as much fun as the excitement they encounter. The story begins in 1519 in Spain, where Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) win a map to El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold, and inadvertently become stowaways on the ship of the Spanish explorer Cortes. With the help of Ativo, a clever war horse, they escape and stumble into idyllic El Dorado, where they’re proclaimed as gods. Only a smart, sexy schemer named Chel (Rosie Perez) sees through their ruse. “I want in on the scam so I can get out,” she declares – and they agree. But, as the evil High Priest (Armand Assante) plots to grab power from the Chief (Edward James Olmos), Cortes and his army are marching on the city. That’s when Tulio and Miguel have their ingenuity and friendship truly tested. Road to El Dorado is the first major studio animated feature of the new millennium – following the trail of Antz and Prince of Egypt. The joke-filled script is character-driven with Tulio as the cynical realist and Miguel as the romantic idealist; and the lush visuals – combining traditional and computer techniques – are exquisite, drawing extensively from the Mayan culture of the Yucatan. The music is catchy and the lyrics clever in the six original songs written by Tim Rice and Elton John, who does the vocals – except when Kline and Branagh croon the witty, comedic “It’s Tough to be a God.” And there’s definitely a PG-rated moment when the bantering rogues skinny-dip in the hot-springs. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Road to El Dorado is a fast-paced, raucous 8 – great fun for spirited adventurers of all ages.

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WHATEVER IT TAKES

Susan Granger’s review of “WHATEVER IT TAKES” (Columbia Pictures)

Screenwriter Mark Schwahn updates “Cyrano de Bergerac” in this stereotypical teenybopper comedy that’s so stupid, crass, even misogynistic, that it’s insulting to the vulnerable audience for whom it’s intended. And, for his cast, director David Raynr has recruited TV stars whose generic personas can barely fill the big screen. Shane West of “Once and Again” plays a nerdy, sensitive Gilmore High School senior who lends his poetic ability to the hunky jock – that’s James Franco (“Freaks and Geeks”) – who’s smitten with West’s next-door neighbor, Marla Sokoloff (“The Practice”). In turn, Franco helps West score with his cousin, the bra-less, bodacious Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (“Nash Bridges”). And, of course, the senior prom’s just around the corner. What’s inevitable is that West will realize that his true soul-mate is his best-friend Sokoloff and vice versa but it takes 92 excruciating minutes to get there. Not that I don’t like teen comedies – but let’s go back to the John Hughes’ “Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” genre, where at least the actors had some charm. The only attempt at cleverness comes when the accordion-playing West does a riff on Tom Cruise’s “Risky Business” lip-sync, dressed in boxer shorts and a cowboy hat. Then there’s Julia Sweeney, as West’s mother/school nurse, delivering a guaranteed giggle with a safe-sex demonstration. And as an alum of Beverly Hills High School, I was surprised to see that its famous hydraulically retractable dance-floor over the Olympic-sized swimming pool is still in good working order, as shown in the perverse “Titanic Dreams” prom finale. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Whatever It Takes” flunks with a 3. Well, duh!

03

THE SKULLS

Susan Granger’s review of “THE SKULLS” (Universal Pictures)

Having lived in New Haven for many years, I often wondered when Hollywood would capture the suspense and influence inherent in influential, century-old secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones. Obviously, screenwriter John Pogue (a Yale dropout) and director Ron Cohen sensed the intrigue but they’ve failed to capture the drama in this bland, formulaic, heavy-handed dud. Joshua Jackson (TV’s “Dawson’s Creek”) plays a pre-law student at a prestigious Ivy League university only identified as “Y” but with tell-tale blue-and-white colors on its crew jerseys. Being from a working-class background, at first he’s thrilled when he’s tapped by the powerful Skulls, primarily because, as a member, he’ll get pre-acceptance to law school, along with tuition, plus several other enticing amenities that money can buy – like $20,000 in his depleted bank account and a new car. But after his best buddy and room-mate (Hill Harper) is killed while delving into the Skulls’ malevolent little secrets for the college newspaper, he begins to have second-thoughts – which are aided and abetted by his intended blue-blood girl-friend (Leslie Bibb). If you remember that President George Bush was a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones, along with his son George W., you’ll catch the nasty innuendoes about a father-son team hierarchy – only here, it’s a prominent judge (Craig T. Nelson) who’s aiming at the Supreme Court while his weasly son (Paul Walker) is up to no good on campus. And William Peterson does what looks like a President Clinton imitation. The grisly, garish initiation rites are straight out of the coffins in a Gothic horror novel. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Skulls” is a silly, brainless 1. Numskulls is more like it – so don’t even bother renting the eventual video.

01

HERE ON EARTH

Susan Granger’s review of “HERE ON EARTH” (20th Century-Fox)

Teenybopper alert: this picture is made just for you. Forget about the rest of us. We’ve seen it before in “Love Story,” but you haven’t so, here goes. Leelee Sobieski is a feisty waitress from the wrong side of the tracks. Josh Hartnett is her townie boy-friend, and Chris Klein is a cocky, Princeton-bound, Boston-bred prep-school kid who takes his shiny new Mercedes out for a drive in rural Massachusetts. A dangerous car race brings their lives together when it results in the destruction of a local diner called Mabel’s Table, owned by Sobieski’s mom (Annette O’Toole). In fitting punishment, Klein and Hartnett are forced to rebuild the family-run restaurant as community service during the summer. That involves snobby Klein boarding with Hartnett’s working-class family and falling for Sobieski. But that’s a minor trauma compared with the tragedy that happens later – when Sobieski discovers that her old track injury to her knee has developed into cancer. After “Eyes Wide Shut,” TV’s “Joan of Arc,” and “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” Leelee Sobieski basks in the teenage mainstream, while amiable Chris Klein goes sulky and serious after “American Pie” and “Election.” They do their best with the material they’re given. It’s just too bad that Michael Seitzman’s soap-opera script is so lame, Mark Piznarski’s direction so slow-paced and prosaic, and Andrea Morricone’s score so schmaltzy. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Here on Earth” is a pubescent, tear-jerking 4. The title comes from poet Robert Frost’s musings about the beautiful Berkshire woods where the lovers discover “a little bit of heaven, here on earth.”

04

PRICE OF GLORY

Susan Granger’s review of “PRICE OF GLORY” (New Line Cinema)

Jimmy Smits has a lot riding on this picture; it’s the movie for which he killed off his character in TV’s “NYPD Blue.” Written by sports columnist Phil Berger and directed by Carlos Avila, who developed the concept at the Sundance Institute, it’s the story of a Mexican immigrant, Arturo Ortega (Smits), a pushy retired boxer who is trying to instill the prizefighting spirit in his three sons, Sonny (Jon Seda), Jimmy (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Johnny (Ernesto Hernandez). Like Don Corleone and his three sons in “The Godfather,” it’s a cultural heritage saga – with boxing being the primary way for Latinos to break out of the Arizona barrio. The film opens with the ill-fated match that dashed Arturo’s dreams of being a champion in the late ’70s. Then there are glimpses of the boys growing up, being trained to be boxers, so the scene is set for the primary drama, which takes place in the present. According to Arturo’s plans, two of his sons will fight; the third will go to college. Only things don’t always go as planned. Jimmy Smits captures the universality of the well-intentioned but ill-advised father-figure (“Everything I’ve ever done is for you boys!”) with Maria Del Mar as a persuasive counter-balance as the mother. In melodramatic, clichŽ-ridden characterizations, Clifton Collins Jr. is cocky and rebellious, while Ernesto Hernandez is obedient and eager-to-please. But it’s Golden Gloves alum Jon Seda (TV’s “Homicide”) who delivers the knockout performance as a man whose dreams extend far beyond the ring. In supporting roles, Ron Perlman is a ruthless promoter with Paul Rodriguez as a greedy insider. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Price of Glory” is a solemn, sweat-stained 6. Essentially, it’s an old-fashioned, tough-love family drama set within the realm of boxing.

06

TOPSY-TURVY

Susan Granger’s review of “TOPSY-TURVY” (USA Films)

When the New York Film Critics voted it as Best Film of 1999, this unconventional, music-laden biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan by Mike Leigh took on a surprising, new status. By definition, the term “topsy-turvy” means inverted or confused, both of which apply to the life and times of Britain’s operetta maestros William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who worked together from 1871 to 1896, concocting delights like H.M.S. Pinafore, The Gondoliers and The Pirates of Penzance. The story, covering 14 months in the mid-1880s, finds the ailing, aristocratic composer Sullivan (Allan Corduner) deeply discontented with his collaboration with the somewhat boorish librettist Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) after the tepid reception of their Princess Ida. Depressed and despondent, Sullivan decides to turn his attention from “light” to “serious” opera, much to Gilbert’s dismay, not to mention the chagrin of the manager (Ron Cook) of the Savoy Theater. That is – until Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) takes him to a Japanese exhibition in London which sparks a fanciful idea – namely The Mikado, which became one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest hits. Then the rest of the film concentrates on the meticulous preparation of this witty, new operetta – focusing on the rehearsals, primarily on the prickly, temperamental actors (Timothy Spall, Martin Savage, Kevin McKidd, Shirley Henderson). Leigh’s pacing, unfortunately, is uneven. There’s a middle section with tepid musical numbers from The Sorcerer that gets quite tedious. And the including of some risque nudity seems gratuitous, earning an R-rating when the content should have been suitable for teenagers. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Topsy-Turvy is a deftly performed, frothy, delightful 8, particularly for Gilbert & Sullivan fans.

08

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Susan Granger’s review of “EYE OF THE BEHOLDER” (Destination Films)

It’s strictly surrealistic style over substance in this weird, wannabe psychological thriller about a man’s journey into obsession. Ewan McGregor (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) plays a lonely British intelligence agent, known as The Eye, whose wife has left him, taking their daughter, whom he adored. His current mission is to track a woman – that’s Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy) – who is suspected of blackmailing the son of a prominent official in Washington D.C.. He locates her, plants the kind of sophisticated, high-tech surveillance equipment that would make James Bond drool with envy, and starts his spy mission – only to observe her brutally stab the young man in question to death. Instead of apprehending her, however, The Eye follows her as she subsequently lures more men to their gruesome deaths. He becomes totally obsessed with her, even protecting her from arrest on several occasions. His ludicrous, deranged, stalking behavior is inexplicable and writer/director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) doesn’t give us many clues – except astrology and numerology symbols. Yeah, The Eye’s haunted by his little daughter whose apparition appears often during the first half of the film, pleading “Let her go, Daddy.” But then, even the child-ghost disappears – without an explanation. And The Eye’s only human contact seems to be with a telephone supervisor named Hilary (k.d. lang – also heard on the soundtrack, along with Chrissie Hynde) and a psychiatrist (Genevieve Bujold), who knew Judd ‘way-back-when. And Ashley Judd’s sexy, slashing serial killer is desperately looking for the “Daddy” she never had. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Eye of the Beholder is a moody, murky 4. Incoherent is an operative word. So’s bizarre.

04

SIMPATICO

Susan Granger’s review of “SIMPATICO” (Fine Line Features)

Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, Sharon Stone, and Albert Finney try valiantly but even their compelling performances can’t effectively elevate this somber, slowly paced screen adaptation of Sam Shepard’s 1994 play about friendship and betrayal set against the backdrop of high-stakes horseracing. Written by David Nicholls and Matthew Warchus, a British theatrical director who makes his debut as a screen director, it’s deeply symbolic, filled with bitter, rambling ruminations about corruption. Jeff Bridges plays a multi-millionaire horse-breeder in Lexington, Kentucky, who – in the midst of selling a champion thoroughbred stallion named Simpatico – is interrupted by a phone call from a boozy bar-fly, an old friend, Nick Nolte, who threatens to expose a racetrack scam they pulled when they were young, involving Bridges’ now-dissolute, unhappy wife, Sharon Stone, and Albert Finney, as a former horse-racing commissioner whom they slandered and vilified. Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) emerges as the most likable character, playing a supermarket check-out clerk who serves as an awkward, reluctant intermediary between the overwrought antagonists who share this gritty, guilty secret. There are lots of flashbacks, skillfully integrated by editor Pascquale Buba, in which Liam Waite, Shawn Hatosy and Kimberly Williams play the trio of principals in the ’70s, their ambitious, younger years. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Simpatico is a sly, melancholy, bittersweet 6, revolving around vindication and vengeance.

06

PLAY IT TO THE BONE

Susan Granger’s review of “PLAY IT TO THE BONE” (Touchstone Pictures)

From writer/director Ron Shelton we’ve come to expect good sports movies like Bull Durham (baseball), Tin Cup (golf), and White Men Can’t Jump (basketball) but this flimsy, raunchy story about over-the-hill boxers doesn’t measure up. Woody Harrelson plays a bald, tattooed eccentric who has found Jesus – but hasn’t worked in years. Neither has his rival and best-buddy, Antonio Banderas, who happens to be dating his ex-girl-friend, Lolita Davidovich when, suddenly, they get the chance of a lifetime. It seems two middleweight fighters have canceled and a sleazy promoter (Tom Sizemore) asks them to be the opening card of a Mike Tyson bout at Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel. The job promises big money – $50,000 each – plus a bid for the middleweight championship, but there’s a catch: they have to get there immediately. Fortunately, Davidovich has a grass-green 1972 Olds 442, so they take off from L.A. scrambling through the sizzling desert. Now, right away, one wonders why the hotel didn’t send a jet – or at least plane tickets – but that’s part of the problem if the underwritten script. Besides, half the film is spent on the road trip in which we learn more than we ever wanted to know about the bickering threesome, plus there’s Lucy Liu as a free-spirited hitchhiker. By the way, the title refers to the commitment of not quitting until you’ve achieved your goal. Finally, the fighters get into the ring but, by that time, I was ready to throw in the towel. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Play It To The Bone is a fumbling, flat-footed, formulaic 3, filled with foul language. In one scene, Harrelson says: “Any guy with any gal is a mismatch – we’re just not equipped to go the distance.” Neither is this movie.

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