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SUPERSTAR

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

Once again, Hollywood delves into the deep files of “Saturday Night Live” for a story idea, so no one should be very surprised when it turns out to be like an extended TV skit. Molly Shannon reprises her SNL role of gawky parochial school-girl Mary Katherine Gallagher, easily recognized by her red hairband, thick horn-rimmed glasses, too-short plaid skirt, sensible white underpants, and armpit-sniffing nervous tic. All Mary Katherine wants in life is a kiss, a real bona fide Hollywood-style kiss. She works at a video store as a “rewind girl,” so she’s keenly aware of the open-mouthed passion that true love can inspire. But her prospects look decidedly grim until she enters a “Let’s Beat Venereal Disease Talent Contest,” sponsored by Catholic Teen Magazine, lured by the grand prize of a free trip to TinselTown, where she’s sure her dreams will come true. The object of her affection is SNL’s Will Ferrell, who not only plays the most popular boy and best dancer at St. Monica’s High School but also a jiggy Jesus. Unfortunately, in director Bruce McCullough’s close-ups, thirtysomethings Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell look their age – and they’ve left their teenage years far behind. After playing the character for six years on SNL, Molly Shannon explains the appeal of Mary Katherine this way: “I think people identify with her adolescent struggles because she’s hopeful. It’s not like she’s just a loser that’s not going to succeed, but she has hope and she’s a fighter. She gets hurt and put down but she never lets that defeat her. She just keeps going after what she wants. She’s a character with a lot of heart and passion.” Nevertheless, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Superstar” is an awkward, dopey 3. Mary Katherine’s best suited for the small screen, so wait for the video.

03

THE LIMEY

Susan Granger’s review of “THE LIMEY” (Artisan Entertainment)

With “sex, lies & videotape,””Out of Sight” and now “The Limey,” film-maker Steven Soderberg has become the master of the lighter, gentler film noir. Charismatic Terence Stamp (who should have received an Oscar for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) stars as a tough Englishman named Wilson who flies from London to Los Angeles to find out who was really responsible for the death of his daughter Jenny. With the help of Luiz Guzman, who had sent him a clipping about the car crash “accident” which took her life, he tracks down a sleek, sleazy pop music producer, played by Peter Fonda, who had been Jenny’s lover. He learns even more about what happened from Lesley Ann Warren, Jenny’s acting teacher, and finds himself emeshed in Fonda’s drug-running operation. Determined to savor his revenge, the Cockney-speaking ex-con fantasizes about drawing a gun and shooting Fonda on the spot but decides to torture the cowardly culprit a bit before killing him. Besides, first he has to eliminate Fonda’s smirking chief of security, Barry Newman, and his hired goons. Steven Soderberg’s stylish use of recurring flashbacks and memories is compelling. It’s as if you’re seeing the story unfold through Stamp’s clear blue eyes. Curiously, both Stamp and Fonda seem to be doing parodies of their ’60s screen personas, and the amazingly “youthful” shots of Stamp were adroitly lifted from Ken Loach’s “Poor Cow” (1967) in which Stamp also played a character named Wilson. The weakness lies with Lem Dobbs’ laconic script that has loopholes you could drive a truck through, particularly in a segment involving federal agents. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Limey” is a mysterious, dynamic 9. It’s a cool, restrained revenge thriller for the art house crowd.

09

FIGHT CLUB

Susan Granger’s review of “FIGHT CLUB” (20th Century-Fox)

First rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. So, right away, I’m in trouble with this bleak, profoundly disturbing, testosterone-laden contemporary study of emasculation and insanity. Edward Norton is the nameless narrator. He’s a bored, bitter, yuppie insomniac with no family or close friends. For company, he joins cancer and other disease-support groups, while Brad Pitt is Tyler Durden, a devious, charismatic anarchist who challenges him, taunting “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” He introduces Norton to the raw, animalistic instinct for survival. When their bare-fist brawls outside a bar attract cheering crowds, they create an underground network of secret, private clubs where self-destructive, disillusioned professionals can seek solace from despair by pummeling each other to smithereens. “This is your life,” Durden says, “and it’s ending one day at a time.” Soon Durden becomes a subversive cult hero, a grungy messiah for the sado-masochists of an emotionally-dead generation suffering from the onslaught of consumerism and technology. And Helena Bonham Carter is the funny, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, self-help junkie who comes between the two men. Adapted for the screen by Jim Uhls from Chuck Palahniuk’s gritty best-seller and directed by David Fincher (“Seven”), it’s a fast-paced, stylized man’s movie, exploring the psychology of violence, complete with a sub-plot involving bath soap made from human body fat from a liposuction clinic. Both Norton and Pitt deliver knockout performances, relishing the wry, cruel nihilist humor. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fight Club” is an insidious, cynical, savage 8. But it’s socially irresponsible and repellent in its graphic depictions of extreme violence and brutality.

08

THE BEST MAN

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

Remember Taye Diggs, the actor who played Angela Bassett’s lover in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”? Enough people were so impressed with him that he’s got a romantic comedy of his own. Diggs plays a Chicago-based fledgling novelist whose upcoming book, “Unfinished Business,” about his college experiences, has his friends buzzing, particularly regarding the steamy sections revolving around who-slept-with-whom. It’s already been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and an advance copy is doing the rounds prior to the upcoming marriage of a New York Giants running back, Morris Chestnut, and his longtime girl-friend, Monica Calhoun. It’s a celebratory weekend in New York that will reunite the successful African-American college crowd once again as they face some of life’s major dilemmas. Diggs is trying to dodge making a marital commitment to his current girlfriend, Sanaa Lathan, primarily because a sexy, ambitious TV producer, Nia Long, is, as one of his buddies comments, “the best girlfriend you never had,” while laid-back Harold Perrineau seems to be firmly attached to domineering Melissa De Sousa, whom everyone knows is wrong for him, and Terrence Howard continues to be a perennial bachelor as well as a perennial student. Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee, a cousin of Spike Lee whose company produced the film, quickly demonstrates that film-making talent runs in the family, having genuine good fun with the universality of intimate male/female relationships, at least from the male perspective. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Best Man” is an amusing, energetic 7 – and stick around for the credits. Like “The Blair Witch Project,” the hype for this date movie began on the Internet, building anticipation for a whalloping opening weekend.

07

CRAZY IN ALABAMA

Susan Granger’s review of “CRAZY IN ALABAMA” (Columbia Pictures)

Before he came to the United States. Antonio Banderas was a star in Pedro Almodovar’s sex comedies in Spain. So it’s not surprising that Banderas’s first directorial effort reflects Amodovar’s style of directing, beginning with the opening credits which are similar to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Dark Habits,” and continuing with an amalgam of wacky whimsy and genuine emotion throughout the narrative. Written by Mark Childress, the film attempts to interweave two stories, set in 1965. One chronicles the Civil Rights awakening of a young Southern boy called Peejoe (Lucas Black), who lives in a funeral home with his mortician uncle, and the second revolves around his zany, flamboyant Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith, Banderas’s real-life wife). As the tale begins, Aunt Lucille decapitates her abusive husband, puts his head in a hatbox, and sets off to pursue her dream of a show biz career in Hollywood – just as Peejoe sees the sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday) kill a black boy during a protest at a segregated municipal swimming pool. Will Peejoe tell the truth to the authorities – or cover up the crime? That’s his moral dilemma. And will Lucille be convicted of murder? All the various story elements come together in a big court-room finale, dominated by the gavel of an eccentric judge (Rod Steiger). The problem is that the shrill, farcical humor of Aunt Lucille distracts from the intimate drama of the teenager’s coming to terms with bigotry and racial prejudice in his own hometown. And one simply cannot ignore Melanie Griffith’s incongruous jet-black wig and scarlet, collagen-infused lips. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Crazy in Alabama” is a fanciful if uneven 5, offering a few lively moments of clever insight.

05

AMERICAN BEAUTY

Susan Granger’s review of “AMERICAN BEAUTY” (DreamWorks Pictures)

This surprisingly dramatic black comedy goes for the jugular as it examines with bruising intensity two dysfunctional families in American suburbia. Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects”) stars as a cynical advertising exec who hates his job and resents his controlling wife, played by Annette Bening. She’s a fiercely ambitious, high-strung perfectionist, intoxicated with success, as she passionately devotes herself to selling real estate and tending her rose garden. Thora Birch is their daughter – and she loathes them. In fact, the film opens with videotape footage of the teenager complaining about her father, wishing someone would kill him. Early on, we discover someone does. Spacey will be dead within the year – at least that’s what he tells us. Who? How? When? Why? That’s what’s eventually revealed on the screen. It’s a classic suspense device – and it works. Meanwhile, Spacey’s lusting after his daughter’s flirtatious high school chum (Mena Suvari) and Bening’s bedding a realtor (Peter Gallagher), as Birch becomes involved with the “psycho next door” (Wes Bentley), who is – in turn – terrorized by his stern, abusive father (Chris Cooper). In this satiric, sophisticated social commentary, first-time screenwriter Alan Ball and first-time film director Sam Mendes (Broadway’s “Cabaret,” “The Blue Room”) cinematically capture the hilarious, hedonistic, and heartbreaking desperation of a marital mid-life crisis and struggle in depth with the ironic definition of beauty. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Beauty” is an amazing, powerfully disturbing 10, as it skewers the ’90s. Let’s talk Oscar nominations – this is one of the best pictures of the year!

10

THE STRAIGHT STORY

Susan Granger’s review of “THE STRAIGHT STORY” (Buena Vista Pictures)

This delicately wrought, true story of Alvin Straight, a man on a mission, is a marked departure for film-maker David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “The Elephant Man”), and charismatic Richard Farnsworth’s poignant performance has definite Oscar potential. The story revolves around a stubborn 73 year-old – that’s Farnsworth – who travels 260 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his ailing brother and patch up a quarrel. What makes his odyssey unique is his mode of transport: a ’66 John Deere lawnmower. With his own health failing, Alvin can’t see well enough to drive and refuses to let anyone take him, even though he must hobble with two canes. So, despite the protests of his speech-impaired daughter (Sissy Spacek) and his cronies who consider him crazy, Alvin rigs up a small trailer behind his lawnmower, packs up his gear, and putts along the highway at 5 m.p.h. for six weeks. En route, he encounters some kindly folk and spreads his simple brand of homespun wisdom. He counsels a pregnant teenage runaway about the strength of family ties, recalls to yuppie bikers how “the worst part of being old is remembering when you were young,” negotiates engine repairs with quirky twin mechanics, and commiserates with a fellow veteran about his guilt of being a sniper during World War II. Screenwriters John Roach & Mary Sweeney and director David Lynch show taste, discipline, and restraint in this heartwarming, if slow-paced, geriatric “road picture,” while cinematographer Freddie Francis hauntingly captures the dramatic skies-and-plains vistas of America’s autumnal heartland. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Straight Story” is an unforgettable 9. A delight from start to bittersweet fade-out, this subdued, lyrical, mature film is a treasure.

09

BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

Susan Granger’s review of “BRINGING OUT THE DEAD” (Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese is one of our most respected auteurs but this hollow melodrama is a major misfire. Marking the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader, it’s an adaptation of Joe Connelly’s novel about the rescues and failures of a New York City paramedic. Nicolas Cage plays a tormented EMS worker on the graveyard shift in Hell’s Kitchen who, in a week of full moons, is so sleep-deprived that he wants nothing more than to be fired. Subsisting on whiskey and cigarettes with an occasional pizza, he’s a hyperactive adrenaline-junkie, spiked by the surreal filth and loathing that surround him and haunted by the face of an underage girl named Rose whom he once failed to rescue. One night, this burnt-out wannabe hero punches life back into the cardiac arrested chest of Mr. Burke, while striking up a relationship with the man’s estranged, ex-junkie daughter, Patricia Arquette (Cage’s real-life wife). As opposed to a plot, the film consists of aimless, loosely connected episodes narrated by Cage, working with a series of wacko partners. There’s John Goodman, who’s resigned to holding on to his sanity amidst the blood, pain, and despair; Tom Sizemore, who’s heavily into violence against the parasites of humanity; and Ving Rhames, who fancies himself infused with the Holy Spirit. The camera technique is tricky, the pace frantic, and the sound track filled with pop music with a thumping bass. The eccentric characters say weird things which may relate to guilt and redemption but that’s not too clear. And there’s a crazy “Isn’t-this-cool?” attitude when you realize that Scorsese voices the ambulance dispatcher. But that’s it. Nothing more. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bringing Out the Dead” is a chaotic, wretched, frenzied 3. It’s so cool, it’s stone cold.

03

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Susan Granger’s review of “BEING JOHN MALKOVICH” (USA Films)

If there’s an award for the boldest, most unconventional and wildly inventive movie of the year, it has to go to “Being John Malkovich,” in which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze blend surrealism with science-fiction and self-parody. John Cusack stars as an out-of-work puppeteer who takes a job as a filing clerk in a New York office building on the 7 1/2 floor, where the rents are low because the ceilings are half the normal height. It’s a great visual gag as workers hunch over, scuttling down the hall. Stuck in an unhappy marriage to an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz with dark, frizzy hair, he becomes infatuated with a co-worker, Catherine Keener, who couldn’t be less interested. At least until he discovers a small door behind a filing cabinet that leads to a tunnel which, inexplicably, sucks him into the brain of actor John Malkovich. Cusack can see through the actor’s eyes and share whatever he’s is feeling – for 15 minutes – until he’s dumped into a ditch on the New Jersey Turnpike. When he shares his discovery with Keener, she immediately sees the potential in selling entrance – $200 per person – to this portal so that others can partake in the sensory and emotional experiences of John Malkovich. They become partners in this commercial venture – until, inevitably, the enigmatic Malkovich discovers how they’ve opened this “metaphysical can of worms.” Plus, there’s a deliriously mad subplot of gender/blender sexual seduction, absurdist supporting gems from Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place, plus witty cameos by Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Being John Malkovich” is a clever, outrageous 10. It’s a film of astonishing and beguiling originality.

10

PRINCESS MONONOKE

Susan Granger’s review of “PRINCESS MONONOKE” (Miramax Films)

Based on Japanese folklore, this captivating environmentalist fable is the tale of a war between the beast gods of the forest and the humans who are encroaching on their pristine territory. Set in the 15th century, a time of feudalism, the characters are desperately grasping to understand and adjust to the coming industrialization and how it will affect the balance of nature. In this English-dubbed version, a young warrior, Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup), is forced to kill a fierce, demonic boar to protect his village. While dying, the evil creature places a mysterious curse on him, signified by a dark, twisting scar on his right arm. Defiant and determined to find a cure, Ashitaka mounts his trusty red elk and travels to the boar’s homeland where he becomes involved in a dispute between Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and her feisty ironworkers and the forest creatures, led by Moro, the Wolf Spirit (Gillian Anderson), and her adopted human daughter, Mononoke (“spirits of things”), called San (Claire Danes). The conclusion is a plea to humans to live harmoniously with the world around us. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese version is one of only two films to ever break $150 million at the Japanese box-office – the other being “Titanic.” The fluid and superbly detailed animation is technically awesome, emotionally powerful, and unbelievably beautiful. I was particularly enchanted by the tiny, ghost-like, head-clicking tree sprites. But – at a lengthy 135 minutes – with scenes of graphic violence and a complex, philosophical storyline to follow, it’s definitely not meant for young children. Heed the PG-13 rating. Basically, it’s art house fare. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Princess Mononoke” is a stunning, spiritual 7 – but it is definitely too much of a good thing.

07