Susan Granger’s review of “THE WOOD” (Paramount Pictures)
“The Wood” refers to Inglewood, California, where three friends reminisce about their 13-year friendship on the day when one is about to get married. The story opens as Omar Epps explains, directly into the camera, that his pal, the groom, has turned up missing. Epps and Richard T. Jones are sent to find Taye Diggs, who is drunk at the home of an old girl-friend, overcome with pre-nuptial jitters. As the boyz drive around, trying to sober up Diggs so he can take his wedding vows, they pass various locales around the ‘Wood and recall memories from their shared adolescence. That’s the simple, somewhat contrived plot and the three actors deliver solid performances. First-time writer-director 25 year-old Rick Famuyiwa evokes a remarkably fresh pop ’80s nostalgia, complete with a spinning vinyl record and finger-snapping music. Until now, most African-American films have fallen into one of four categories: “booty” pictures, violent “hood” chronicles, female-oriented comedy/dramas, or serious ghetto stories, aimed at an older audience. This movie is different in that it delves into the honest camaraderie, as well as the various comic aspects of puberty, and its appeal should extend beyond the boundaries of the African-American community. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Wood” is an amusing, appealing 5. In a summer of coming-of-age films, comparisons are inevitable but – while much of the narrative involves a trio of young guys trying to get laid – “The Wood” has little of the gross, vulgar humor of “American Pie.” Instead, it opts for good-natured charm, poignancy and sentimentality.
“STARGATE” (Showtime TV) review by Susan Granger
Sci-fi fans alert: if you were blown away by the ancient and alien magic of “Stargate” (1994), tune in Showtime TV on Friday nights for the new, original “Stargate SG-1,” which takes up where the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin movie ended, following the exploits of a military team that travels to other worlds instantaneously through a mysterious portal known as a stargate. Think of space travel and combat integrated with intellectual detective work, or “The Outer Limits” combined with “Sliders.” As the expedition leader, Richard Dean Anderson (“MacGuyver”) is no Kurt Russell but he makes up in competence and an acerbic comic cynicism what he lacks in charisma. Nor is Michael Shanks any James Spader, as the eccentric Egyptologist, but he’s joined by Amanda Topping, as a no-nonsense astrophysicist. There will be 44 of these supernatural action/adventures initially in this expensive new series with each episode running about $1.3 million and filmed in Vancouver. Some of the snake-headed aliens are quite grotesque and, since Showtime has wisely slotted this new series at 10 PM, there is occasional nudity and some horror elements, definitely not aimed at a juvenile audience.
“12 ANGRY MEN” (Showtime- Aug. 17 premiere) review by Susan Granger
The most compelling drama you’re likely to see this weekend will be the premiere of a new version of “12 Angry Men” at 9 PM on Sunday on Showtime Television. This tense, powerful courtroom drama features a stellar cast including Jack Lemmon, Courtney B. Vance, George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Tony Danza, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Hume Cronyn. Based on Reginald Rose’s 1957 screenplay, updated to 1997 with a racially-mixed cast, the story revolves around 12 men on a jury who have been charged by the judge to deliver a verdict on what appears to be an open-and-shut, first-degree murder case involving a New York City youth whom eye-witnesses have fingered for killing his father. But one soft-spoken juror believes the young Latino might be innocent of the crime and his “reasonable doubt” prevents him from declaring “guilty as charged.” Thus begins an exhilarating war of words and actions that will not only reveal each juror for the man he is but will determine the fate of the accused. Director William Friedkin keeps the tension taut in the hot, sweltering jury room where the air-conditioning doesn’t function – and kudos to him for not giving in to “political correctness” and turning it into “12 Angry People,” which would have changed the tone of the testosterone-driven concept. This classic American drama, which ranks up there with “Death of a Salesman” and “Streetcar Named Desire,” has been done many times but never better than this. And it speaks to the sad state of big-budget feature films and network programming that only cable television is willing to risk this kind of intimate, character-driven material.
Susan Granger’s review of “Safe House” on Showtime TV (premiere on 1/24/99)
Quite often, particularly this time of year, the best new “movies” are those made-for-TV, and this character-driven action-adventure is one of them. Patrick Stewart (Jean Luc-Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) plays Mace, a retired government official, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who believes a retired Admiral, now a Presidential candidate, is trying to kill him because he’s the last remaining member of an elite, “dirty tricks, hit squad” of the Pentagon. As a result of his suspicions, Mace has become a paranoid recluse living in an impenetrable home in Los Angeles. To protect himself, he’s surrounded by the ultimate in state-of-the-art weaponry and hi-tech surveillance equipment. And to keep himself mentally and physically alert, he deliberately stages terrifying “drills” with his poolman. Realizing that the keen mind of this once-elegant and refined gentleman is deteriorating, his daughter hires a perpetually perky, professional in-home caregiver (Kimberly Williams) to look after her father and insists that he regularly visit a psychiatrist (Hector Elizondo) who specializes in gerontology. Initially resentful of the young woman, Mace slowly warms to her but, when he mistakenly shoots at a neighbor’s car, he realizes that he’s soon going to be “put away” in a locked-care facility. In a race against time, Mace thinks he’s prepared for what happens next…but is he? Writer/director Eric Steven Stahl has concocted a highly imaginative, edge-of-your-seat thriller. On the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge, “Safe House” is a suspenseful 7. Don’t miss the premiere on Sunday night, January 24, at 8 PM on Showtime TV.
Susan Granger’s review of “ROCKY MARCIANO” on SHOWTIME TV
On Saturday, May 15, the 8 P.M.debut of a new “Rocky Marciano” movie is part of a boxing theme night which will include the classic films “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” plus a live boxing match. Jon Favreau stars as Rocky, the only world heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated in the history of the sport. Set in the summer of 1969, a few days before his 46th birthday, the story begins with the fighter on a promotional tour, demanding cash, not checks, for each personal appearance, and phoning home to his wife (Penelope Ann Miller). It then flashes back to his childhood in the blue-collar town of Brockton, Mass., where, as Rocco Marchegiano, he learned the value of saving money from his immigrant father (George C. Scott) who worked in a shoe factory. Vowing never to make shoes, young Rocky, as he was called, realized the incredible power he packed in his right arm. A devoted fan of Joe Louis (Duane Davis), he decided to become a boxer but, without formal training, he lost many fights before he finally won a big one – after he turned pro. Boxing was his ticket out of Brockton when his raw talent was recognized by two corrupt “managers” (Judd Hirsch, Tony Lo Bianco). Rocky never lost a professional fight. He quit the ring in 1956 and, unlike many boxing greats, he stayed retired. So, without a comeback to dramatize, the film highlights two pivotal fights: one in which he seriously injured an opponent and his match against Joe Louis. Actor Jon Favreau tries hard to capture the underdog appeal of this not-very-colorful icon and the supporting cast is superb. So, on the Granger Made-for-TV Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rocky Marciano” punches a creditable 6, but it doesn’t pack a wallop.
Susan Granger’s review of “SEA PEOPLE” (Showtime TV Family Movie)
On Sunday night, June 20th, at 9 P.M., Showtime presents this enchanting, original, made-for-TV movie, starring Fairfield’s own Hume Cronyn as a spry, old codger who’s not what he appears to be. 14 year-old Amanda (Tegan Moss) is a bit of a loner who lives with her family in a small coastal town in Nova Scotia. She trains as a long-distance swimmer and dreams of swimming the English Channel, like her heroine Gertrude Ederle. When the town’s main source of employment, the local cannery, closes, her father has to seek work in a town a hundred miles away. Feeling abandoned and hurt, she suddenly witnesses an elderly man (Cronyn) jumping off an inlet bridge. Attempting to save him, she dives into the bitterly cold water, only to be gruffly brushed off by the wiry man who calmly and quite competently swims to shore. Introducing himself as John MacRae, he takes the thoroughly chilled Amanda to his home to warm up and meet his wife (Joan Gregson). After visiting with the couple, Amanda becomes convinced that they are not human. They drink seaweed tea, eat algae, and sleep in giant tanks filled with icy salt water. They even refer to her and her family as “land people.” Could they possibly be related to the mermaids she’s heard about in stories? She even quizzes a school friend (Shawn Roberts) whose grandfather was supposedly rescued by a mermaid. As their friendship deepens, the MacRaes reveal their mysterious and magical relationship to the sea. And when John becomes ill, Amanda embarks on a quest of desperate ingenuity to save him. This is an unusually charming fable, a real winner that I highly recommend for family viewing. It will be repeated on 6/29 at 7:15 P.M., 7/3 at 4:45 P.M., 7/9 at 8 A.M. & 6:15 P.M., 7/19 at 6:15 P.M. and 7/25 at 4:35 P.M.
Susan Granger’s review of “FELICIA’S JOURNEY” (Artisan Entertainment)
In 1997, Canadian writer/director Atom Egoyan made an incredible splash with his wildly unconventional The Sweet Hereafter, but this new thriller, while superbly crafted, is neither as compelling nor original. But that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy. Adapted from William Trevor’s novel, it follows the insidious story of Felicia, a good-hearted, pregnant Irish country girl (Elaine Cassidy), who goes to England to search for the child’s father (Peter McDonald) and is befriended by Joseph Hilditch, a seemingly gentle and smiling caterer (Bob Hoskins) who works for a factory in industrial Birmingham. While the laborers would obviously prefer simple British fare, the portly Hilditch diligently concocts elaborate recipes on his antique appliances while watching old video-taped cooking programs hosted by his glamorous French mother (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s real-life wife). Aside from his psychotic mother complex, which rivals that of Psycho’s Norman Bates, Hilditch has courtly, Old World manners and lives in what appears to be the family mansion – which makes one immediately suspect that he’s a dangerous serial killer with corpses in the back yard. Not the trusting young Felicia, however. She’s grateful for the “help” he solicitously offers. Problem is: there’s no mystery. Egoyan gives away the sinister secret so early in the story that we’re just left there, sitting in our seats watching with dread as the tapestry unravels. And it’s much more conventional than the quirky Atom Egoyan fare in The Adjuster and Exotica. The scenes stretch on too long and the repetitive flashbacks defuse the tension. Nevertheless, Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa) delivers yet another dead-on characterization, one that he describes as “a cross between Jack the Ripper and Winnie the Pooh.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Felicia’s Journey is a stylish if shallow 7. It’s a bizarre, macabre trip.
Susan Granger’s review of “UNIVERSAL SOLDIER : THE RETURN” (TriStar)
When critics are banned from a movie in advance of its opening, you know there’s a problem – in this case, more than one. Back in 1992, “Universal Soldier” introduced hunky Jean-Claude Van Damme as Luc Deveraux, a Unisol, the recycled corpse of a soldier killed in Vietnam whose military motto is “Dying to Serve.” At the story’s end, Luc was just beginning to perceive human feelings and comprehend emotions. In this sequel, he’s developed into a “normal” human being – a bit stronger with bigger muscles and certainly a better fighter. Now, Luc’s a widower with a pre-teen daughter (Karis Paige Bryant). He serves as a technical expert on a new government project preparing a stronger breed of soldier that is more sophisticated, agile, and intelligent. All goes well until the soldiers’ supercomputer, in the human form of Michael Jai White, develops a maniacal mind of its own. Then it’s the Self-Evolving Thought Helix (acronym SETH) against Luc, whose only allies are Heidi Schanz, a tough-as-nails TV reporter, and Kiana Tom (ESPN fitness guru) as his training buddy. So what happens when the Muscles from Brussels faces off against an entire army of Unisols programmed to kill, kill, kill? Guess. Pow! Bam! Jab! Zap! Some of the plot absurdities include a pit stop at a sleazy strip club, the only place where they can find an Internet connection to access a secret code. Directed by Mic Rodgers, a former stunt coordinator, Jean-Claude’s acting technique has not improved noticeably, nor has his enunciation. At one point, he cautions his cohorts not to “peas damoff” – which translates to “piss them off,” but it takes a few moments to comprehend. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Universal Soldier: The Return” is a action-packed, homicidal 3 – aimed at diehard kickboxing fans.
Susan Granger’s review of “BROKEDOWN PALACE” (20th Century-Fox)
Jonathan Kaplan’s cautionary tale explores the same territory as “Midnight Express” (1978) and “Return to Paradise” (1998), as Americans suspected of drug smuggling wind up in a Third World prison. Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale stars as Ohio teens who tell their parents they’re off to Hawaii when they trek to Bangkok for an 11-day getaway to celebrate their high school graduation. After seeing the usual sights, they sneak into a posh hotel where they pretend to be guests enjoying the swimming pool. But when they invent a room number to sign a bar check, their ruse is discovered. A charming young Australian (Daniel LaPaine) comes to their rescue, paying court to them both. When he invites them to join him in Hong Kong for the weekend, they accept the plane tickets. But when they get to the airport, they’re arrested by armed police who find heroin in their luggage. Thai justice moves quickly, so they’re convicted and sent to a dark, dank, filthy prison to serve 33-year sentences. No one really cares if the Australian may have planted the drugs in their luggage – they’re still guilty of carrying them. And the Thai penal system is riddled with corruption. The girls’ only hope is a mercenary expatriate American lawyer, “Yankee Hank” (Bill Pullman). Writers David Arata and Adam Fields and director Jonathan Kaplan weave a cynical tale and elicit strong performances, particularly from Claire Danes. But it’s curiously similar to a story printed in “Marie Claire” last year about two young women serving sentences on drug-smuggling charges in a Peruvian prison, even to the detail of having cockroaches crawl into the girls’ ears. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Brokedown Palace” is a depressing, disturbing 4. It’s a grim reminder about the danger of gullibility.
Susan Granger’s review of “DETROIT ROCK CITY” (New Line Cinema)
It’s 1978, and four Cleveland teens are trying to crash a KISS concert in Detroit to see their idols after their tickets are burned by a religious fanatic parent who swears that the group’s name is an acronym for “Knights in Satan’s Service” and is a member of M.A.T.M.O.K. (Mothers Against the Music of KISS). Edward Furlong, Giuseppe Andrews, Sam Huntington, and newcomer James De Bello are die-hard KISS fanatics and they’re determined to attend the concert – whether it involves winning front-row center seats in a radio contest, spiking a teacher’s pizza with hallucinogenic mushrooms, stealing a car, selling their bodies, robbing a convenience store, or sneaking by security. Between these escapades, they smoke dope and stop to beat up a car full of disco fans in some half-witted defense of rock ‘n’ roll. While the KISS members are prominently listed as part of the cast and Gene Simmons is a producer, they only appear for a couple of minutes on-stage amid pyrotechnics. But Mrs. Gene Simmons – better known as Playboy bunny Shannon Tweed – does drop in as a romantic interest, along with Natasha Lyonne and Melanie Lynskey. (The latter two are named ‘Christine’ and ‘Beth,’ which are names of KISS songs.) Carl V. Dupre’s screenplay seems to be lifted piecemeal from a myriad of coming-of-age movies and has so many hateful caricatures of Catholicism as to be quite offensive. Vulgar mockery of any religion is not funny. Director Adam Rifkin relishes the tasteless sexism of picturing a cheerleader on a toilet and visiting a male strip club filled with obnoxious women. And do you really want to watch Edward Furlong vomiting? On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Detroit Rock City” is a lame, loud 1 – one of the most feeble pictures of the year so far.