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TOY STORY 2

Susan Granger’s review of “TOY STORY 2″ (Walt Disney Pictures)

Among our many blessings this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for the astonishing, fun-filled Toy Story 2, the best animated comedy sequel ever made. This magical, incredibly inventive mix of action and humor continues, right where it left off, with the gang ready to play in Andy’s bedroom. Only, when Andy goes off to Cowboy Camp, Woody gets left behind and is kidnapped by the greedy owner of Al’s Toy Barn. It seems Woody’s a highly valuable collectible from a 1950s TV show called Woody’s Roundup. At Al’s place, Woody meets another family from his illustrious past – Jessie, the cowgirl; Bullseye, the horse; and Stinky Pete, the Prospector. But, back in Andy’s house, Buzz Lightyear has recruited Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex and Hamm for a rescue mission. Can his pals find Woody before Andy comes home? And, will Woody want to come back to Andy’s bedroom now that he’s discovered he’s a prized museum piece?

The original Toy Story was an international sensation, the third highest grossing animated film of all time – behind The Lion King and Aladdin. Originally planned as a direct-to-video release, this adventurous sequel reunites the same creative team, including Pixar’s John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, along with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger and Annie Potts. New voices are Wayne Knight, Kelsey Grammer and Joan Cusack, plus Little Mermaid Jodi Benson as Barbie. Composer Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is reprised, along with new songs “Woody’s Roundup” and “When She Loved Me,” sung by Sarah McLachlan On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Toy Story 2 is another knockout 10. Don’t miss it – or, as Buzz Lightyear would say: “To infinity and beyond!”

Susan Granger rates this movie 10 out of 10

BICENTENNIAL MAN

Susan Granger’s review of “BICENTENNIAL MAN” (Touchstone Pictures)

The last time director Chris Columbus teamed with Robin Willliams they came up with Mrs. Doubtfire but, if you’re expecting this to be a slapstick kids’ flick, think again. Adapted from a short story by Isaac Asimov, it chronicles the life of a NDR-114 robot who begins as a household appliance in 2005, created “to perform menial tasks: cooking, cleaning, making household repairs, playing with or supervising children.” Dubbed Andrew by the youngest of the family’s children (deep-dimpled Hallie Kate Eisenberg) who cannot pronounce “android,” he soon begins to show creativity, curiosity, and compassion, confounding his manufacturer and launching a 200-year quest to discover his humanity. Nicholas Kazan’s thoughtful screenplay cleverly explores the technology of artificial intelligence as it integrates with human behavior but, since it follows a family for several generations with only Andrew as a connective, it involves too many characters, several with literary-allusion names like Galatea and Portia. Plus, there’s a constant awareness that underneath the plastic prosthesis, there’s comical Robin Williams, desperately itching to emerge. Sam Neill scores as Andrew’s original owner, as does Oliver Platt as a bio-tech designer who becomes Andrew’s friend. It’s interesting that, just like Woody in Toy Story 2, Andrew makes a choice between pristine immortality and the inexplicable vagaries of humanity but, unlike that magical fantasy, children under 10 will quickly be bored or depressed by the insipid depth of this 2-hour, 13-minute saga. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Bicentennial Man powers up to a surprisingly serious, existential 7, as a poignant parable of what it means to be human.

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ANNA AND THE KING

Susan Granger’s review of “ANNA AND THE KING” (20th Century-Fox)

If you’ve been heard to mutter, “They don’t make movies like they used to…” then this sentimental, spectacularly beautiful historical epic is for you. In this fourth film version of Margaret Landon’s fanciful story of Anna Leonowens, the strong-willed, recently widowed schoolteacher who travels to Siam in 1862 with her young son (Tom Felton) to educate the King’s 58 children in Western customs, Jodie Foster delivers a magnificent performance, combining intelligence with compassion, dignity with vulnerability. Equally impressive is Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat as imposing King Mongkut, the proud monarch who is amazed when a stubborn, impertinent, English schoolmarm has the temerity to consider herself his equal. Anna has Victorian preconceptions of primitive Siam while the King, in turn, has his own disdainful preconceptions of Western civilization. Meanwhile, the ominous threat of an invasion by neighboring Burma, perhaps aided by the British, hangs over their obviously growing affection for one another in this exotic, extravagant, romantic pastiche. Director Andy Tennant (Ever After) and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion), shooting in Malaysia, emphasize the lavish, breathtaking opulence and stately splendor, conceived by production designer Luciana Arrighi, perhaps to the extreme. That may be the result of the plodding, bland script by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes which dulls the sharpness of the underlying culture clash of racial, political and sexual tensions, relying instead on a weak, simplistic subplot involving treason. Nevertheless, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Anna and the King is a sumptuous 9, proving that the traditional Hollywood formulas can still concoct gratifying entertainment.

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IN THE COMPANY OF SPIES

Susan Granger’s review of “IN THE COMPANY OF SPIES” (SHOWTIME TV)

On Sunday night (Oct. 24) at 8 PM, Showtime TV presents an original espionage thriller that revolves around the CIA in this contemporary era of increased openness and accountability. Tom Berenger stars as a retired operative who angrily resigned five years ago from his position as head of the East Asian division and has since opened a Thai restaurant in Washington, D.C… He’s brought back into action by his former boss, Ron Silver, to save a colleague who has been captured by the North Korean authorities. Korean Internal Security (KIS) knows the suspected agent possesses valuable knowledge of a covert operation but they don’t know its nature, nor does the CIA. Berenger’s assignment is to find out what the spy knows and to try to save his life. As the story unfolds, a small team of American spies, whose remarkable talents combine the newest technological techniques with old-fashioned infiltration work, reveals that, indeed, something sinister and critical is brewing in North Korea, something that could conceivably threaten the United States. The believable story portrays today’s CIA in a realistic light, which helped the producers become the first film-makers to receive true access to the operational world of the Agency, filming some of the scenes at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But its really the meticulously developed, character-driven script by Roger Towne (“The Natural”), expertly directed by Tim Matheson, that makes this presentation so compelling. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “In the Company of Spies” is a compelling, suspenseful 8. This made-for-TV spy saga is as good or better than any you’ll see at local movie theaters.

Susan Granger rates this movie 8 out of 10


      

STIFF UPPER LIPS

Susan Granger’s review of “STIFF UPPER LIPS” (Cowboy Booking International)

This parody of stuffy, austere, Edwardian-era costume dramas is almost as formulaic as the Merchant-Ivory genre it satirizes. In 1908 England, upper class inbreeding is definitely weakening the gene pool. The story revolves around Edward (Samuel West) who takes a fellow Cambridge undergrad, Cedric (Robert Portal) home to “Ivory’s End” to meet his tightly-corseted sister Emily (Georgina Cates), hoping it might be a suitable match. But Emily takes an instant dislike to Cedric who, in turn, has “strange feelings” for Edward. So Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales) plans a diverting trip abroad, hoping that the exotic sights might inspire romance. That happens, of course, except not the way anyone plans when Emily leaps the line of class separation and falls in love with her lusty luggage-bearer (Sean Pertwee), declaring, “I want my sexual awakening, and I want it now!” Screenwriters Paul Simpkin and Gary Sinyor, augmented by Mr. Sinyor’s direction, spoof the steadfast British tradition of straight-backed, stoic acceptance of duty to class, school, and country – in that order. Their mocking, socially observant visual humor is amusing but not as clever as it could and should be. The primary problem lies with the fatal flaw of winking at the audience. Parody should be played absolutely straight, full out, with total conviction, rather than a smug, self-knowing smirk. Only Peter Ustinov, as a cranky, eccentric Indian tea plantation owner, and Frank Finlay, as the genteel family’s aging butler, achieve their poker-faced comedy objectives. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Stiff Upper Lips” is a flimsy 4. I’d advise waiting for the video and using it as a counter-culture antidote to a Merchant-Ivory film festival.

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ILLUMINATA

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

After “Shakespeare in Love,” this sumptuously presented but overly long story of behind-the-scenes actors pales in comparison. But you have to credit it as a labor of love by John Turturro, who co-wrote, directed, and acted in it. Set amid a flamboyant turn-of-the-century New York repertory company, it revolves around a failing resident playwright, John Turturro, whose claim to fame is his marriage to the troupe’s leading lady, played by Katherine Borowitz, Turturro’s real-life wife. The playwright yearns to shelve the heavy-handed melodramas of the period as he aspires to a more naturalistic style of theater, but no one believes in him. “Illuminata” is both the title of a play-within-the-movie and what he eventually calls his wife after they survive treachery, back-biting, and intrigue – not to mention the on-stage death of the leading man mid-performance on opening night. Susan Sarandon is glorious as the promiscuous, aging diva who glances at a young actress and murmurs, “That is how I shall look years from now. I’m beginning to be able to play ingenues.” But Christopher Walken steals the picture as a smug, gay critic – think Oscar Wilde – who relishes the cruelty he liberally dishes out, and Bill Irwin is amusing as the wretchedly reluctant object of his affections. Their characterizations are particularly bawdy. Beverly D’Angelo, Ben Gazzara, and the late Donal McCann complete the supporting cast, along with Turturro’s son and cousin. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Illuminata” is an art-house 6, exploring the durability of love with enough dramatic lulls to catch a quick snooze.

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JAKOB THE LIAR

Susan Granger’s review of “JAKOB THE LIAR” (Columbia Pictures)

I suspect that if “Life is Beautiful” had not won last year’s Oscar, this Holocaust film would be more appreciated. Unfortunately, the similarities are superficially apparent – revolving around a whimsical, imprisoned Jew who keeps hope alive and shields a small child amidst the Nazi atrocities. In this adaptation of Jurek Becker’s 1969 best-seller by French writer/director Peter Kassovitz, Robin Williams plays Jakob, the latke (pancake) maker, who lives in a Polish ghetto. He’s a widower who gets caught, allegedly after curfew, and sent to Gestapo headquarters where he overhears a radio bulletin indicating that Russian forces are advancing on Warsaw. Cautiously making his way home, he encounters a ten year-old girl (Hannah Taylor Gordon), an Anne Frank look-alike, whose parents were taken to a concentration camp and, sympathetically, shelters her. The next morning, Jakob is so excited about the war news that he confides it to one friend who tells another, who tells another, who tells another. Soon the gritty ghetto is humming, and the assumption is that Jakob has a forbidden radio on which he heard the broadcast. Suddenly Jakob becomes a celebrity, a reluctant hero because of his wishful thinking. “My crowning achievement: latkes and lies,” he moans. But it’s this dark joke, a sunny day, and a hopeful rumor that helped a few doomed Jews survive in 1944. Despite an awkward, indulgent screenplay, Robin Williams delivers a solid, restrained characterization, supported by Liev Schreiber, Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Bob Balaban. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jakob the Liar” is a serio-comic 7. Curious side-note: Kassovitz sent the script to Robin Williams because he thought Williams was Jewish. He isn’t, but he found the concept intriguing.

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THE APARTMENT COMPLEX

Susan Granger’s review of “THE APARTMENT COMPLEX” (SHOWTIME TV)

On Sunday, October 31, at 8 PM on Showtime TV, horror maestro Tobe Hooper presents a quirky, psychological mystery, “The Apartment Complex,” starring Chad Lowe as a young grad student who has just moved from the Midwest to study psychology at UCLA. Broke and living out of his car, he’s hired by Jon Polito, as the malevolent Dr. Caligari, to manage the Wonder View Apartments in Hollywood in exchange for rent, despite warnings from Obba Babatunde, playing a homeless philosopher who lurks on the front curb. Inspired more by Stephen King than Frank Lloyd Wright, there’s something very strange about the Wonder View Apartments. Certainly the tenants are an oddball assortment of neurotics and psychotics, ideal specimens for a master thesis on abnormal psychology. There’s Faye Masterson, a haunted-looking beauty with her hot-tempered, insanely jealous boyfriend, Patrick Warburton; Amanda Plummer, an over-sexed psychic; Tyra Banks and Gina Mari, stunt actresses who dabble in martial arts; R. Lee Ermey, a paranoid, reclusive ex-government agent; creepy twins Jimmy and David Schuelke; and Charles Martin Smith as the agoraphobic with a dark, terrible secret. The horror starts when Lowe discovers a dead body in the murky swimming pool. Detectives Ron Canada and Miguel Sandoval figure he’s their only suspect, tormenting and bullying him as other strange events plague the tenants. All the psycho-babble he’s been learning in grad school comes in handy as the wise-beyond-his-years student begins doling out free therapy as he zeros in on the real killer. On the Granger Made-for-Television Gauge, “The Apartment Complex” is a sinister 6. It’s Halloween hell in exchange for free rent.

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MICKEY BLUE EYES

Susan Granger’s review of “MICKEY BLUE EYES” (Warner Bros.)

Just imagine you’re a suave, proper British auctioneer who’s madly in love with an exuberant New York schoolteacher you’ve known for only three months, so in love, in fact, that you propose marriage – only to have her burst into tears and run away. That’s what happens to Hugh Grant at the beginning of the story. Jeanne Tripplehorn refuses to marry him because she’s worried about what will happen if he joins her dysfunctional Mafia family. Undaunted, he goes to Little Italy to find her father – that’s James Caan – at his restaurant, “The La Trattoria,” where the song “We Are Family” plays in the background as he meets the wiseguys. Sure enough, before the bumbling Brit knows it, his auction gallery is being used for mob money laundering and the FBI is paying a visit. The scene where the gregarious Caan tries to teach the refined Grant the goombah enunciation of “fuhgeddaboutit” is a gem. One complication leads to another and soon he becomes known as “Mickey Blue Eyes” by all the wrong people. Screenwriters Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuh and director Kelly Makin deliver the humorous, if clich?-ridden set-ups, but what makes the frenzied farce work is Hugh Grant, who seems to have inherited Cary Grant’s ability to maintain an unflappable charm and graceful dignity no matter how humiliating the circumstances. Whether he’s a boyish “Notting Hill” book seller who falls for a movie star or a proper, innocent Englishman who behaves with aplomb when finds himself with a bloody corpse, Grant handles his fish-out-of-water roles with witty, sophisticated charm, adept at both verbal sparring and physical antics. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mickey Blue Eyes” is a funny, funny 8. This engaging romantic comedy is perfectly timed for late summer laughs.

Susan Granger rates this movie 8 out of 10


      

THE MUSE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE MUSE” (USA Films release of an October Films movie)

Sharon Stone is an irresistible comedienne in Albert Brooks’ slightly surreal send-up of the motion picture business. Taking a whiny cue from Woody Allen, Brooks plays a skewed version of himself – a neurotic middle-aged screenwriter, comparing his job with “a eunuch at an orgy – except that the eunuch can, at least, watch, while the screenwriter is not even allowed on the set.” When he receives a Humanitarian Award, he facetiously describes a “humanitarian” to his daughter as “someone who has never won an Oscar.” But when he’s fired by a weaselly studio exec who claims he’s “lost his edge,” even his agent agrees. Desperate to save his career, he consults his successful buddy (Jeff Bridges) who admits he owes everything to a Muse – that’s Sharon Stone. As a daughter of Zeus, she gets people in touch with their creativity. But she’s a pampered muse – demanding a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel ($10,000 a week), limo, and dutiful attendance to her desires. Frantically, Brooks tries to satisfy her capricious whims – as does his wife, earnestly played by Andie MacDowell, whom the Muse encourages to pursue her cookie dream of being the next Mrs. Fields. And it’s funny as Martin Scorese, James Cameron, Rob Reiner, and Wolfgang Puck pay Tiffany tributes to the divine diva. Albert Brooks (“Mother,” “Defending Your Life,” “Lost in America”) is an acute and adept observer of the nutty, ruthless Hollywood scene, skewering its self-absorption and gullibility, but his ironic concept fizzles out as he misses some screwball opportunities with the Muse’s legendary use of the magical power of sex – and his riff on Steven Spielberg falls flat. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Muse” is a droll, satiric 7. It’s wryly amusing, pointing out that people are who you think they are.

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