Susan Granger’s review of “THE NEXT BEST THING” (Paramount Pictures)

Madonna’s fans will be lining up to see The Material Girl tackle this timely, thoughtful dramatic comedy, directed by John Schlesinger. What they don’t realize is that America’s first openly gay leading man, Rupert Everett, steals the show, just the way he did in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Madonna and Everett play best friends. They’re both bright, unconventional and impulsive – with lousy taste in choosing lovers. One evening, after a few too many drinks, they wind up in bed together – and, soon afterwards, she discovers she’s pregnant. Eager for motherhood, she offers Everett a choice: he can either stay uninvolved, be the baby’s “uncle,” or assume the role of father. He opts for fatherhood, so they decide to live together and raise their son (Matthew Stumpf). Theirs may not be the perfect family – but it’s the next best thing. Everett proves to be an ideal father, putting the child’s interests first and foremost, refusing to develop other attachments in his life. Their good-natured, non-traditional arrangement works superbly for several years – until Madonna meets the man of her dreams (Benjamin Bratt) and ends up in a nasty fight for custody of the boy. That’s when Thomas Ropelewski’s character-driven script gets serious. Keep in mind, this is not a controversy about homosexuality. It’s about significant human emotions, ties that bind, and commitment. Unfortunately, Bratt’s underdeveloped role is less sympathetic, particularly since the audience has formed a compelling attachment to Everett, making the courtroom scenes anticlimactic. And don’t miss Madonna’s rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie over the final credits. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Next Best Thing is a thoroughly enjoyable, enigmatic 8 – asking: What is a father? What is a family?



Susan Granger’s review of “THE CIDER HOUSE RULES” (Miramax Films)

Adapted by John Irving from his own best-seller, this is the extraordinary story of one boy’s journey into maturity in the 1940s. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) grew up in a sheltered existence at an orphange in St. Clouds, Maine, under the kindly, paternal care ofether-addicted Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) who, each night, after reading a chapter from Charles Dickens, bid the wistful, unwanted boys a poignant “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” As Larch’s favorite, Homer learns a lot about performing safe, if illegal, abortions but less about right and wrong. Which is why he decides to explore the outside world, hitching a ride with a young woman (Charlize Theron) and her fiancŽ (Paul Rudd), an Air Force pilot. Taking a job as an apple picker, he joins a black migrant worker crew, headed by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter (Erykah Badu). Director Lasse Hallstrom is sensitively and affectionately in tune with Irving’s off-beat, idiosyncratic characters, eliciting substantial, Oscar-caliber performances as Homer copes with a crisis of conscience involving abortion, medical ethics and racial prejudice. Wide-eyed and impressionable, Tobey Maguire is delicately convincing, particularly as he’s dazzled by luminous Charlize Theron. Michael Caine not only masters the elusive accent but captures the fierce intensity and enormously touching vulnerability of Larch. And edgy Delroy Lindo is tender yet terrifying, never hitting a false note. The fable-like quality is greatly enhanced by Oliver Stapleton’s vivid, impressionistic photography. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Cider House Rules is a haunting 10. Mixing quirky humor, menace, and pathos, it’s an emotionally uplifting experience – one of the best pictures of the year.




Susan Granger’s review of “THE GREEN MILE” (Warner Bros.)

Remember The Green Mile. You’ll hear it a lot at the Academy Awards next March. This film has Oscar written all over it. Based on Stephen King’s best-seller, it’s set on Death Row in a Southern prison in 1935. The title refers to the stretch of lime-colored linoleum from the cell block to the electric chair. Tom Hanks plays the head guard who recalls, in flashback, his poignant, mystical friendship with an unusual prisoner, a black man with a mysterious, supernatural gift. This massive, seven-foot tall inmate, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, was convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls, yet his naive nature and gentle demeanor not only raise questions about his guilt but also about the inexplicable nature of miracles. As in every fable, there has to be a villain. In this case, there are two: Doug Hutchison, as Hanks’ sadistic subordinate, and Sam Rockwell, as a vicious serial killer. And there are three executions. The second is so boldly horrifying that the words like gruesome and gory seem trivial. But there’s also humor and, in a very visceral sense, the audience participates every step of the way. Writer-director Frank Darabont’s casting is meticulous. Hanks and Duncan, in particular, deliver extraordinary performances, along with James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, and Patricia Clarkson. Nothing is perfect – the bookending device used at the beginning and end is weak – but who cares? Perhaps the biggest advantage of making a great film like this is knowing what not to worry about. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Green Mile is a compelling, powerful 10. Nothing can prepare you for the suspenseful grip this haunting story holds – and the chilling gamble that must be taken. An absolute masterpiece, it’s one of the best movies of the year.



Susan Granger’s review of “MISSION TO MARS” (Touchstone Pictures)

Every critic has favorites – and one of mine is good science-fiction. Unfortunately, I had high expectations for this adventure/drama, starring Gary Sinese, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Kim Delaney and Tim Robbins. Directed by Brian De Palma, this astronaut saga is so derivative of 2001, Close Encounters, and Apollo 13, not to mention numerous other space odysseys, that the territory it explores seems too familiar to be as truly exciting as the coming attractions trailers lead you to believe. The story begins in 2020, when NASA has successfully landed a team of astronauts on Mars. However, shortly after their arrival, there’s a catastrophic disaster on the red planet and the Mission Commander is the sole survivor. Alerted to the danger by his one cryptic message, a second NASA crew is sent on a hurried six-month journey to rescue him. Once there, mysterious and shocking discoveries await them, including the provocative pseudo-scientific hypothesis that the DNA for life on Earth originated on Mars. But, Houston, there’s a problem. Based on a story by Lowell Cannon with Jim & John Thomas, the heavy-handed screenplay by the Thomases and Graham Yost, is filled with stereotypical characters spewing idiotic, clichŽ-ridden dialogue. On the other hand, the cinematography and special effects are definitely cool, particularly the zero-gravity scenes which resemble ballets in their grace and ease. You forget the actors are hanging on wires, balancing upside-down, spinning, and pushing themselves around. Then there’s the hole in the spaceship that’s filled by soda pop. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Mission to Mars is a middlin’ 5. Granted, it beat Red Planet to the screen, but I still have high hopes for the similarly themed second Mars movie of the season.



Susan Granger’s review of “WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?” (Columbia Pictures)

After The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, even Primary Colors, there’s no question that director Mike Nichols relishes exploring the relationship between the sexes. Which explains why he was drawn to comedian Garry Shandling’s concept of an extraterrestrial who was sent to Earth to impregnate a woman as a part of some sort of universal domination plan. Having this alien come from an advanced civilization of neutered, cloned males with little knowledge of the behavior of the female of the species is a clever concept, ripe for scathing social satire, but its execution misses the mark. In addition to his writing and producing efforts, Shandling stars, utilizing his wry, dead-pan understatement to be an awkward, almost totally passive hero. The primary gimmick revolves around his surgically implanted penis which emits a motorized humming sound when he becomes aroused. The gag is amusing the first time, the second, even the third. After that, it loses its vibe. Posing as a banker in Phoenix, his copulating mission is simple. “I have to have sex right away,” he gasps. “I’m really very horny!” A sleazy co-worker, played by Greg Kinnear, takes him to troll at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where he meets Annette Bening, a neurotic, lovable Earth-chick who is, indeed, easy. “Don’t laugh,” she says, “but I’m working as a real-estate agent” – a line that immediately elicits chuckles as a reminder of her role in American Beauty. Bening’s terrific, while John Goodman, Linda Fiorentino, Camryn Manheim, Janeane Garofalo and Ben Kingsley add to the mix. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, What Planet Are You From? is a droll but silly, superficial 6. I suspect Garry Shandling will have a limited big-screen career as a leading man.



Susan Granger’s review of “ERIN BROCKOVICH” (Universal Pictures)

It’s too bad Erin Brockovich wasn’t released last year because Julia Roberts would be Oscar’s top contender as the smart, struggling, twice-divorced mother of three young children who, without law expertise, defies the odds, takes on and defeats a major public utilities company. Funny, flippant, and feisty, she’s sensational as a Norma Rae-type of heroine. Based on true events, the story revolves around Erin’s discovery of a cover-up involving contaminated water which is causing devastating illnesses in a small California desert community. Infuriated by the deception, she convinces her grumpy, avuncular boss, brilliantly played by Albert Finney, to allow her not only to investigate but to convince the leery local citizenry to join in litigation against Pacific Gas & Electric Co.. “It’s hexavalent chromium, highly toxic, highly carcinogenic,” she explains. “Gets into your DNA, so you pass the trouble along to your kids.” With over 600 plaintiffs, they win $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action suit. Brassy and bold – with the cleavage created by her uplift brassiere always showing – mini-skirted Erin also picks up a boy-friend (Aaron Eckhart), the biker next door, who watches her kids while she tackles the job that earns her respect – for the first time in her life. Written by Susannah Grant and Richard LaGravenese and directed by Steven Soderberg, yeah, it’s sexist and a bit too lengthy – but those are minor quibbles. And if the plot sounds similar to A Civil Action, the difference can be summed up in two words: Julia Roberts. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Erin Brockovich is a feel-good, nifty 9 – the first “must see” movie of the new millennium. And let’s hope voters don’t forget when Academy Award nominations come ’round in 2001.



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.



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.



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!



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.