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RANDOM HEARTS

Susan Granger’s review of “RANDOM HEARTS” (Columbia Pictures)

How would you react to your mate’s adultery? And how much more agonizing would it be if your spouse’s accidental death prevented you from asking the agonizing question: Why? That’s the premise of Sydney Pollack’s romantic drama, adapted from Warren Adler’s novel by Darryl Ponicsan with a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke. And the concept is intriguing. Harrison Ford plays a detective in the Internal Affairs Division of the Washington, D.C. police department and Kristin Scott Thomas is a well-bred New Hampshire congresswoman running for re-election. They’re strangers until his wife and her husband are killed in a plane crash and it’s discovered that the deceased were lovers, secretly traveling as “Mr. and Mrs.” to a tryst in Miami. Grief-stricken, the survivors are thrown together as they attempt to come to terms with their mutual betrayal. He’s masochistically determined to investigate every sordid detail, while she’s deep into denial. “Sooner or later, everybody knows everything,” he informs her. And that scandal is what terrifies her. Then abruptly, inexplicably, they desperately start groping each other. Inevitably, they’re soon in bed, as if the answers to the emotional questions they’re struggling to understand were hidden beneath the sheets. Looking scruffy, wearing an ear stud and sporting the world’s worst haircut, Harrison Ford is sincere, earnest and stoic, while Kristin Scott Thomas’s chilly demeanor fails to ignite this restrained, ultimately dull, rebound romance – even though Sydney Pollack delivers a strong performance as a media strategist. And there’s a forgettable subplot involving gunplay with two corrupt cops. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Random Hearts” is a well-crafted but emotionally distant 5. Let’s put it this way – it’s not exactly a date movie.

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MYSTERY, ALASKA

Susan Granger’s review of “MYSTERY, ALASKA” (Hollywood Pictures)

Just because he just won two Emmys for “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” doesn’t mean David E. Kelley can score every time. This story revolves around a publicity stunt that pits the world-famous New York Rangers in a televised exhibition game against a hometown team from Mystery, Alaska, population 633. The genesis for the face-off is a “Sports Illustrated” article, written by a former native, Hank Azaria, that explores the rural legend of a small Alaskan town where, for generations, young men aspire to nothing more than being on the local ice hockey team. It’s a place where people are so obsessed with the sport that they leave the streets frozen for skating. And the comedy comes from a culture clash between the media hype and the rugged Alaskan eccentrics. Burt Reynolds plays the stuffy town judge and hockey coach. Russell Crowe is the sheriff and, at 34, a 13-year veteran of the team, while Ryan Northcott is a high-school whiz who threatens Crowe’s prestigious position. Directed by Jay Roach (“Austin Powers”), it’s like “Northern Exposure” meets “The Longest Yard,” although too much time is spent on superficial strained marriages and father-son relationships. Colm Meaney, Mary McCormack, Michael Buie, Michael McKean, Ron Eldard, Judith Ivey, and Lolita Davidovich embody colorful characters who add to the predictable melodrama as Little Richard sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Mike Myers broadcasts the game. There’s lots going on but little depth. If you’re looking for a really good hockey movie, rent the video of George Roy Hill’s “Slapshot,” which was filmed in the mid-’70s at Yale. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mystery, Alaska” slides in with a chilly 5. The puck stops here.

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The Story of Us

Susan Granger’s review of “The Story of Us” (Universal Pictures)

Instead of the usual vows, perhaps the marriage ceremony should include the question: “Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” Because that’s what intrigued filmmaker Rob Reiner to wonder: Can any couple with two kids survive together for 15 years? Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a suburban dad-and-mom whose constant quarrels have made them decide on a trial separation while their kids are in summer camp. As they fumble through the nitty-gritty of living apart, flashbacks reveal what abrasive episodes led up to their edgy estrangement. Basically, she’s a crossword-puzzle creator who’s a highly organized, compulsive perfectionist while he’s a laid-back, playful writer who flourishes in an unstructured existence. (One is tempted to interpret Willis’ obviously raw hurt as a spillover from his real-life divorce from Demi Moore.) Writers Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson re-visit bittersweet marital territory that’s been explored many times before, stressing that any successful relationship is a work-in-progress. One winces for the obvious hair pieces and/or transplants Willis feels compelled to wear, while Pfeiffer is so breathtakingly beautiful that her efforts to be a plain housewife are pathetic. And when Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, and Red Buttons pop up as the in-laws, you’re acutely aware that these are aging stars playing cameos. Nevertheless, Reiner’s slickly inventive direction and the sheer charm and likeability of Willis and Pfeiffer prevail, set to the tune of Eric Clapton’s guitar strumming “I’m Sorry.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Story of Us” is a shaky, sentimental 6. It’s “When Harry Met Sally” – 15 years later – with “best friend” Rita Wilson outrageously attempting to update the orgasm-in-a-deli scene.

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THREE TO TANGO

Susan Granger’s review of “THREE TO TANGO” (Warner Bros.)

The producers of this mildly amusing, off-beat romantic comedy obviously thought that if they paired popular Matthew Perry from TV’s “Friends” with Neve Campbell from TV’s “Party of Five” and “Scream,” adding Dylan McDermott and Oliver Platt for substance, they’d have a hit – wrong! Matthew Perry plays an ambitious, idealistic, if clumsy young architect who has just been chosen by businessman Dylan McDermott to compete for the design of a multi-million dollar Chicago cultural center. The slimy tycoon also tells Perry he’ll get preferential consideration if he’ll spy on his mistress, Neve Campbell, assuming that Perry is a homosexual, like his openly gay partner, played by Oliver Platt. Predictably, Perry falls for Campbell, who also thinks he’s gay, particularly when he’s honored as Gay Professional of the Year. What will he do? Will he continue to lie to hold on to the job opportunity of a lifetime and a warm but frustrating friendship with the girl he loves or come out of the closet and admit he’s secretly straight? You guess. I’ll give you a hint, though. Screenwriter Rodney Vaccaro’s own bizarre experience inspired the story. While he was working as creative director of a large advertising agency, he fell in love with his boss’s mistress. A series of what he describes as “sexual errors” led to Vaccaro eventually marrying her and co-writing this script with Aline Brosh McKenna. But, despite superficial similarities, this is no “The Apartment” or even “In and Out,” perhaps because of Damon Santostefano’s light-hearted direction which makes it feel like a TV sit-com. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Three to Tango” is a frenetic, formulaic, flimsy 4, satirizing sexual stereotypes with the catchline: “You’ve made a big gay bed, and now you must slumber gayly in it!”

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BOYS DON’T CRY

Susan Granger’s review of “BOYS DON’T CRY” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

First-time writer/director Kimberly Peirce was so appalled when she read a newspaper account of how and why 21 year-old Teena Brandon was shot dead with two friends in a farmhouse just outside Falls City, Nebraska, back in 1994, that she was determined to bring this true story to the screen. Teena Brandon – a.k.a. Brandon Teena – so desperately desired to be a boy that she posed as one. She “strapped and packed” by flattening her breasts beneath surgical bandages and inserting socks into the crotch of her jeans. Not only did she get away with the pathetic masquerade but, amazingly, she seduced several young women who, when they questioned her sexual identity, were told that she was a hermaphrodite. Brandon adamantly insisted that she was not a lesbian, explaining that she was really a boy trapped in a girl’s body and often spoke of plans to have a sex change operation. Actress Hilary Swank (TV’s ” Beverly Hills 90210″) delivers an incredibly believable performance as the troubled “pretty-boy” Brandon with Chloe Sevigny as the gullible girl who adores her. The problem is that all of the characters are essentially repugnant for one reason or another, so it’s difficult to relate to any of them. (Giving a toddler beer to drink is hardly an endearing quality.) Plus, there’s a gratuitously violently brutal rape scene in which two local boys (Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III) take their revenge on the deceitful “dyke” – and that, in particular, is distasteful and difficult to watch. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a pathetic, sad 4. It’s a tragic, depressing tale of prejudice and hatred.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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