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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Susan Granger’s review of “MUSIC OF THE HEART” (Miramax Films)
Can Wes Craven, creator of slasher/horror movies from Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream, score in another genre? Yes! Working with an intelligent screenplay by Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon), Craven goes for a different kind of gut emotion in this timely, true story violin instructor Roberta Guaspari, the mother of two young boys, who was abandoned when her Naval officer husband ran off with another woman. Forced into asserting her independence to survive, she cleverly badgers an East Harlem principal into hiring her as a substitute music teacher, despite the protests of the tenured faculty and the wariness of the inner-city parents. Fervently believing in discipline, dignity, and commitment, Roberta Guaspari struggles to teach classical violin to disorderly, often resistant students, building self-esteem and changing their lives in remarkable ways. And her crusade leads all the way to Carnegie Hall, where violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and Mark O’Connor join in Fiddlefest, along with the children of Guaspari’s actual East Harlem violin program. If the story sounds familiar, it was the basis of a 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary, Small Wonders. Meryl Streep delivers a polished, virtuoso performance that could earn her another well-deserved Oscar nomination, while Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan, and Aidan Quinn deliver strong support. Estefan performs the title song with teen sensation ‘N Sync, and the sound track talent includes Jennifer Lopez, C Note, Macy Gray, and Julio Iglesias Jr.. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Music of the Heart is an exhilarating, uplifting 8. Like Mr. Holland’s Opus, it’s sentimental and emotionally manipulative but there’s an audience for this kind of heart-warming film that everyone in the family can enjoy.
Susan Granger’s review of “THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL” (Warner Bros.)
What’s scary about this picture is how many people went to see it last weekend, proving two things: 1) you can’t beat good timing, and 2) when you have a creepy dud on your hands, don’t let people know it’s coming – that’s why critics were not permitted to view this film before it opened. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) plays a nasty amusement-park tycoon who invites four supposed strangers to help celebrate his wife’s birthday in the notorious Vanacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, promising “terror, humiliation, perhaps even murder.” He obviously detest her as much as she loathes him. Rush is made-up to resemble Vincent Price, the star of William Castle’s campy 1958 version, including the pencil-thin mustache. His character is even named Price, in case you missed the point. Anyway, this eccentric host offers each of his jittery guests $1,000,000 at daybreak – if they can survive the night. Directed by William Malone from a screenplay by Dick Beebe, based on a story by Robb White, there’s little horror and zero originality. The villainous Vanacutt was a demented doctor who performed hideous experimental surgery without anesthesia until, once night, the inmates rebelled, igniting a fire that destroyed the place – so we’re told. Of course, the ghosts still run rampant, causing death and destruction. Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Brigitte Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Chris Kattan look as though they fervently wished they were elsewhere. Heh! Heh! Heh! So did I. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The House on Haunted Hill is a ghoulish, wretched 1. But the only thing frightening about it is the waste of talent. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was ridiculous, this is far worse.
Susan Granger’s review of “POKEMON” (Warner Bros.)
Pokemon is more of a worldwide phenomenon than a movie. Its name is short for “pocket monsters.” These creatures are stored in spheres carried by human trainers who free them for friendly combat whenever they’re challenged by trainers of other Pokemon. The merchandising madness began in 1996 as a Nintendo video game in Japan and became an animated TV cartoon. There was a quick bout with infamy when its editing techniques were said to prompt seizures in children but that problem has been corrected. Pokemon next appeared in card form, the collectable, swapable baseball variety, featuring more than 150 characters. Card trading so distracted children that many schools have banned it; as a consequences, its popularity has soared. Pokemon: The First Movie begins with a 22-minute short called “Pikachu’s Vacation.” Then comes “Mew Strikes Back.” Mew is a tiny, adorable Pokemon but then comes Mew/Two, a bio-engineered mutation, who escapes from the lab where he was created, bitterly vowing to take revenge on the human scientists who enslaved him. He heads a super race of Pokemons who have declared war against the original Pokemons and their human friends. There’s non-stop fighting until, finally, the human hero, named Ash Ketchum, sacrifices himself to save Pikachu, his chubby yellow Pokemon, a gesture that causes Mew/Two to re-think his assertion that humans and Pokemons cannot exist in harmony. Written by Takeshi Shudo, based on characters by Satoshi Tajiri, and directed by Kunihiko Yuyama, Pokemon is contradictory in that it preaches the futility of fighting while presenting non-stop violence. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Pokemon is a frenzied 5 – but kids love it. Don’t underestimate the tsunami of Pokemon Power.
Susan Granger’s review of “DREAMING OF JOSEPH LEES” (Fox Searchlight Films)
This Gothic tale of romantic obsession revolves around a young woman named Eva, played by Samantha Morton (“Under the Skin”), who is preoccupied with her second cousin. Eva lives with her teenage sister (Lauren Richardson) and stern, elderly father (Frank Finlay) in the rural English county of Somerset. She works as a clerk but fantasizes about Joseph Lees – that’s Rupert Graves – who has been the unrequited object of her affection since childhood. When her precocious little sister discovers her secret, she plots to get the two together. The fact that the handsome ex-soldier, now a geologist, has lost his leg in a quarry accident in Italy only increases Eva’s fervent fascination. And she’s hardly deterred by the ardent pursuit of a dull local pig farmer, Harry Flyte (Lee Ross), with whom she moves in, which is an inexplicably daring and rebellious move, considering it’s the late 1950s. Her explanation is that she doesn’t want to “make the same mistake” that her divorced parents did. Finally, Joseph Lees actually appears – at a family wedding – and, predictably, real trouble begins. There’s an immediate physical attraction, pure lust, which is soon consummated – much to Harry’s distress. At this point, Harry’s suicidal depression abruptly becomes the dramatic focus, resulting in Eva’s distraught soul-searching. Screenwriter Catherine Linstrum and director Eric Styles concentrate on Eva’s sensuality and character development, leaving Joseph Lees as somewhat of an enigma and ignoring large plot loopholes. In addition, Harry is such a clumsy, unappealing rival that there’s no tension. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dreaming of Joseph Lees” is a confused, conflicted 4. It’s a murky melodrama about emotional repression that remains strange and shallow.