Susan Granger’s review of “LIBERTY HEIGHTS” (Warner Bros.)
Filmmaker Barry Levinson says: “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” And this expertly crafted coming-of-age tale is Levinson’s fourth semi-autobiographical film set in Baltimore – like “Diner,” “Tin Men,” and “Avalon.” Focusing on the changing times of the mid-1950s, it tackles the provocative issues of race, religion and class distinction. A wry and enormously touching remembrance, it spans exactly one year in the life of an insular, middle-class Jewish family. With segregation coming to an end, they struggle with the poignant dilemmas evoked by ethnic diversity. One son finds himself attracted to a young black woman whose family is as appalled by their friendship as is his own, while the other son is dazzled by a luminous blue-eyed, blonde gentile who wields a magic wand, offering him a tantalizing glimpse into a lifestyle that’s a marked contrast to everything he’s ever known. Each boy pursues his passion with a manic edge that’s filled with pathos and amusement. Plus, there’s the traumatic upheaval caused by their father’s involvement in staging an illegal lottery that draws the attention of the F.B.I.. Headed by Joe Mantegna, the superb ensemble cast features Adrien Brody and Bebe Neuwirth, along with Justin Chambers, Vincent Guastaferro, Orlando Jones, David Krumholz, and Kiersten Warren. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Liberty Heights” is an evocative, nostalgic 8. It’s funny, feisty, and full of life, as laughter and tears mix and mingle, characterizing the human condition that Barry Levinson captures so deftly. Don’t miss it – and take your parents.
Susan Granger’s review of “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” (MGM/UA)
When you go to a James Bond film, you’re looking for escapist fantasy – and that’s what you get in this 19th installment in the long-running, most successful film franchise in cinema history. Directed by Michael Apted, the adventure begins with a sensational, action-packed opening sequence in Bilbao, Spain, where Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is attacked by a sexy sniper, setting the plot into motion. Bond’s mission, this time, is to find the notorious international terrorist (Robert Carlyle) responsible for the death of a British oil tycoon in an explosion in M16 headquarters. This formidable villain has a bullet lodged in his brain, rendering him unable to feel pain. To track him down, Bond is assigned as a bodyguard for the tycoon’s beautiful daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), who is building an oil pipeline through some of the most dangerous territory on the globe. And his only ally in remote Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea is a nuclear weapons expert, Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), whose name leads to one of the funniest last lines of a movie in years. Suave Pierce Brosnan embodies 007, delving into the emotional depth of his relationships, and Denise Richards is amusingly absurd as a scantily clad rocket scientist. Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q, with amazing high-tech gadgets, including a speed-boat and BMW, and John Cleese is introduced as R, his inept assistant. Judi Dench is back as M with Samantha Bond as Moneypenny. “Orbis non sufficit,” Latin for “The world is not enough,” is the Bond family motto (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969). For James Bond fans, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The World Is Not Enough is a spectacular, fun-filled 10, packed with all the excitement you expect – and more. It’s a jaw-dropper, so buckle up for a wild ride!
Susan Granger’s review of “LIGHT IT UP” (20th Century-Fox)
There’s this neglected high school in Queens, New York, where a favorite teacher is suspended. In protest, six students barricade themselves inside the school, reluctantly taking a police officer (Forest Whitaker) hostage after he’s accidentally shot. And the simplistic, clichŽ-ridden story predictably evolves. But there’s a difference. After Columbine and other school shootings, this is a surprisingly effective civics lesson about the dangers of stereotyping. The six students are disparate personalities. There’s the sensitive graffiti artist (Robert Ri’chard) and the school’s star basketball player (R&B singer Usher Raymond), along with a purple-haired, pregnant wise-cracker (Sara Gilbert), a sardonic wheeler-dealer (Clifton Collins Jr.), a angry gang member (rap musician Fredro Starr) with an itchy trigger finger and a brainy beauty (Rosario Dawson) who tries to rationalize the impending chaos. Written and directed by Craig Bolotin, it was supposedly “inspired” by “The Breakfast Club,” even casting Judd Nelson as the caring, sensitive teacher. Vanessa L. Williams is the hostage negotiator, and Glenn Turman is the school’s beleaguered principal. The “Stop Racism!” signs that pop up among the crowd of spectators, along with the students’ demands – the windows fixed, more textbooks, and a Career Day – deliver the message of the danger of repressed rage. However, there’s little excuse for dialogue like one student’s observation: “There was a quiet riot in all of us” or another’s self- description: “a chalk-mark waiting to happen.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Light It Up” is an irresponsible but well-intentioned 4. It’s a flawed but plausible hostage thriller, another R-rated movie aimed at teens.
Susan Granger’s review of “SLEEPY HOLLOW” (Paramount Pictures)
Tim Burton fans are gonna relish this fantasy horror story, especially the creepy beginning. It’s 1799 on a misty road near the small village of Sleepy Hollow in New York’s Hudson River Valley when a coach carrying the region’s richest man (Martin Landau) is attacked by a mysterious Headless Horseman wielding a deadly sword. Whoosh! Off goes his head! Then the killer strikes again. Each time, the victim is decapitated. Understandably, the insular Dutch locals are upset, many convinced that they’re being haunted by the demonic spirit of a Revolutionary War mercenary (Christopher Walken) who died in the West Woods, a place where no one dares go. Then an inquisitive, if squeamish, new constable, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) appears, sent to track down the murderer. He scoffs at the idea of a supernatural being, focusing his forensic attention on hunky Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien) but soon learns that, perhaps, there are vengeful supernatural forces at work. In the meantime, he falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci – in a blonde wig), the bewitching daughter of his landlords (Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson). While the first few Horseman attacks are scary – thanks to stuntman Ray Park – it soon becomes evident that all the women are witches and a crazed serial killer is on the loose. Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker revises Washington Irving’s classic ghost story, concluding with a millennial flourish, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s sepia-toned cinematography is impressive. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Sleepy Hollow is a grim, gruesome 6 – a belated Halloween treat with more style than substance. Be warned: nearly everyone’s head rolls and the brutal beheadings are graphic and violent – not suitable for young children.
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’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.
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.
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’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.
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.