Susan Granger’s review of “TEACHING MRS. TINGLE” (Dimension/Miramax Films)
Filmed under the title “Killing Mrs. Tingle,” this demented teen comedy is about high-school students who kidnap and torture their nasty history teacher. But, after shooting incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April, the title was quickly changed. Kevin Williamson wrote the screenplay before “Scream” and long before TV’s “Dawson’s Creek,” but he couldn’t sell it until he became famous. Now he’s using it to make his directing debut. The plot revolves around a bitchy, sarcastic, sadistic schoolmarm (flamboyant Helen Mirren) who terrifies everyone, even the principal (Michael McKean) – whom she pointedly rebukes for his alcoholism problem. Her students’ anger boils over when Mrs. Tingle unfairly thwarts a college scholarship for her most ambitious, over-achieving student (Katie Holmes) by accusing the girl of stealing a copy of the final history exam. The theft was actually arranged by another student (Marisa Coughlan) and her boy-friend (Barry Watson). When the trio go to the teacher’s house in hopes of clarifying the situation, they’re mocked by terrible Mrs. Tingle (think of Margaret Hamilton as the cruel, cackling Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz”) and the confrontation gets out of hand. Mrs. Tingle winds up tied to the headboard of her Victorian bed as the enraged students make macabre mayhem. Will they kill her or won’t they? Obviously not – since this is a PG-13 movie – and clever Mrs. Tingle can outwit the dumb, childish clods with mind games even when she’s in bondage, but that’s still no excuse for plodding caricatures rather than sympathetic characters. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” is a tedious, tawdry 1. There’s simply nothing amusing about this mean-spirited glorification of violent revenge.
Susan Granger’s review of “THE SIXTH SENSE” (Touchstone Pictures)
It’s very important that you be in your seat for the beginning of this psychological thriller and stay all the way through to the end to comprehend the nuances of the twisting plot. Bruce Willis plays a renown child psychologist who is emotionally torn between spending time with his lovely wife (Olivia Williams) and helping desperately needy eight year-old named Cole (Haley Joel Osment), who is haunted by dark visions that terrify him. He sees dead people, restless spirits. These eerie ghosts appear everywhere – at home, at school, on the street – and they reach out, trying to communicate. Often they actually wound him. Cole lives with his stressed-out single mother (Toni Collette), who is empathetic, but he is terrified to tell her his secret, to reveal his unexplainable paranormal powers. Then Willis comes on the scene. Slowly, the young boy opens up to him. A trust develops, as the psychologist wrestles with how the fragile child can cope with the harrowing, unresolved problems that surround him. Philadelphia-based, 28 year-old writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (“Wide Awake”) and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (“The Silence of the Lambs”) create an intriguing, elliptical visual style, building a melancholy aura of suspense and creating a tense, slowly building menace. Combining his spiritual and mystical Indian roots with his American upbringing, Shyamalan achieves a subdued, provocative balance between what’s real and what’s imagined. Bruce Willis drives the story with a strong, poignant performance but it’s Haley Joel Osment whose talent is an amazement. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Sixth Sense” is an ominous, unsettling, subtle 9. Only after the film’s chilling conclusion will you be able to fit the pieces of this ingenious supernatural puzzle together.
Susan Granger’s review of “BOWFINGER” (Universal Pictures)
Are you in the mood to laugh? ‘Cause you gotta be when you see this spoof of the movie industry in which Steve Martin plays Robert “Bobby” Bowfinger, a down-and-out director who’s crazy about a script, “Chubby Rain,” about tiny aliens who ride raindrops down to Earth. Problem is: the only way to get the movie made is to get a bankable A-list star – which he cannot afford. Illustrating his frustration, there’s a hilarious scene in which Robert Downey Jr. is a prominent producer, “a player,” whom he spots at a restaurant. So Bowfinger decides to stalk TinselTown’s hottest actor, Kit Ramsey – that’s Eddie Murphy, and surreptitiously capture him on celluloid, editing the surreptitious footage into his low-budget ($2,814) movie. The angry, already paranoid Ramsey goes nuts when he finds himself interacting with Christine Baranski and other actors from “Rain” who accost him, reciting their lines. Seeking tranquillity, Ramsey retreats to a posh haven called MindHead, run by manipulative Terence Stamp. Is this a riff on certain stars’ devotion to Scientology? When he was writing the screenplay, Steve Martin originally envisioned a wimpy, spiritual actor, “a Keanu Reeves type,” but adapted him into a black action star with Murphy’s help. Directed by Frank Oz, Martin’s elegant goofiness blends with Murphy’s hip cynicism and the result is a deliriously outrageous combination. Plus, Murphy plays another role as his nerdy stunt double/errandboy. And, if you think Heather Graham’s ambitious ingenue-who-runs-off-with-a-lesbian role resembles Anne Heche, you’re not alone. Martin dated Heche for several years before she jilted him for Ellen DeGeneres. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bowfinger” is an amusing, inventive, entertaining 8. It’s a funny, funny satire that skewers Hollywood.
Susan Granger’s review of A STIR OF ECHOES (Artisan Entertainment)
If you enjoyed “The Sixth Sense,” you’re gonna want to see this supernatural thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a Chicago telephone lineman who discovers horror lurking under his own roof after he’s hypnotized by his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) at a neighborhood party. At first, Bacon’s skeptical. He doesn’t believe in mental games, nor in ghosts. But when he hears his five year-old son (Zachary David Cope) casually say, “Does it hurt to be dead?” to an unseen apparition, he knows something’s wrong. Then he “sees” a deathly pale, terrified teenage girl who “disappeared” months earlier; she’s a vision, not real, but how did this tortured soul get on his living-room sofa? And who will believe him? Certainly not his just-pregnant wife (Kathryn Erbe), who finds his bizarre behavior and obsession with spooky, otherworldly things quite disturbing. Not even his defensive sister-in-law, who insists she only planted an innocent post-hypnotic suggestion into his subconscious. Based on a 1958 novel by Richard Matheson (“Somewhere in Time,” “What Dreams May Come”), screenwriter/director David Koepp cleverly builds the suspense slowly, through character development not carnage, keeping the action low-key and quite plausible. But many clues are revealed too early, and it’s quite reminiscent of Bacon’s earlier film, “Flatliners,” along with “The Amityville Horror,” even “The Shining.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Stir of Echoes” is a creepy 7. It’s an eerie, intriguing early Fall chiller.
Susan Granger’s review of “GUINEVERE’ (Miramax Films)
What do you do when you’re 20 years old, the youngest in a wealthy San Francisco family of over-achieving attorneys, and you’ve just been accepted at Harvard Law School? If you’re awkward, insecure and confused like Harper Stone, played by Sarah Polley (“The Sweet Hereafter”), you run off with a passionate photographer more than twice your age. Especially if he’s a carefree, charming, ruggedly attractive Irish bohemian like Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”). But Harper’s not the first naive young girl he’s seduced. No, there are a bevy of “Guineveres,” as he dubs them. But this is not the usual May-September romance in which the worldly guy boosts his sagging ego by recapturing his youth with an inexperienced girl – despite what Harper’s urbane mother (Jean Smart) says in a scathing, devastating, accusatory encounter. Instead, it offers a sensitive insight into what the nubile girl gets out of such a rite-of-passage relationship – things like self-confidence, knowledge, and experience, even if the mentor’s an alcoholic. Writer Audrey Wells (“The Truth about Cats and Dogs”) makes her directing debut with this $2.6 million independent feature that juxtaposes the formal elegance of snobbish Pacific Heights with the impoverished yet exuberant existence of the grungy inner city with its scruffy intellectual and artistic community. While it’s hard to take an aspiring photographer-who-never-takes-a-picture seriously, the conclusion, which contrives to reunite the Guineveres, seems too fanciful and out of context. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Guinevere” is a fresh, vibrant and engaging 8, commanding attention from start to finish.
Susan Granger’s review of “MUMFORD” (Touchstone Pictures)
What does it take to be a good psychologist? How can you get people to confide their fantasies, dreams, and frustrations in order to alleviate the pain of the human condition? Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan believes that listening, really listening is the most important skill – and that’s the premise for his intelligent, amusing new comedy. Loren Dean (“Billy Bathgate”) stars as Dr. Mumford, a young psychologist who opens a practice in a small, picturesque town, coincidentally named Mumford, and discovers his unorthodox form of therapy has amazing, unexpected results with an odd assortment of quirky locals. There’s a young divorcee suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Hope Davis), a pulp-fiction obsessed pharmacist (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a frustrated housewife (Mary McDonnell) who’s become addicted to mail-order shopping, her workaholic husband (Ted Danson), a fashion-preoccupied teen (Zooey Deschanel), Mumford’s outspoken landlady (Alfre Woodard) who runs the local cafe, and a lonely billionaire (Jason Lee), the monarch of modems, who zips around on a skateboard. While they respond to his empathy and frankness, no one realizes that mysterious, unconventional Dr. Mumford has the biggest secret of all – except maybe a suspicious attorney (Martin Short) and the two other therapists in town (David Paymer, Jane Adams). Like “The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and “Grand Canyon,” this is an excellent ensemble effort, which is a credit to Kasden’s talent for casting. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Mumford” is a fantastical, intriguing 8, proving that love comes in many disguises.
Susan Granger’s review of “BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS” (Buena Vista Pictures)
Writer/director Alan Rudolph has attempted to make a deep, dark comedy out of Kurt Vonnegut’s satiric ’70s fable – and has failed to such an extent that it’s an embarrassment for all concerned. Bruce Willis plays a suicidal car dealer, Dwayne Hoover, a minor celebrity in Midland City since his commercials seem to play non-stop on local television. His pill-popping wife (Barbara Hershey) is clinically depressed, and his gay son (Lukas Haas) is an aspiring lounge singer. Is that why Dwayne thinks he’s losing his mind? We’re not really sure. Meanwhile, his devoted secretary (Glenne Headley) doubles as his hot-to-trot mistress and his sales manager (Nick Nolte) is a troubled transvestite. (Nick’s legs do look sensational in sheer black stockings!) Plus there’s a pollution scandal. In the midst of this muddled mess, the town decides to honor a mumbling, misunderstood pulpy science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney) at its first arts festival. “Midland City is ready for a renaissance, and you shall be our Leonardo,” gushes his sponsor. Predictably, when Dwayne Hoover meets Kilgore Trout (Kurt Vonnegut’s alter ego), he discovers the meaning of life and achieves some kind of bewildering redemption. Appropriately, the ’50s ballad “Stranger in Paradise” is an integral part of the soundtrack, repeatedly underscoring the bizarre caricatures and surreal situation. Like Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Alan Rudolph’s attempt to dramatize Vonnegut’s zany ’60s protest fantasy seems distorted and woefully out of date. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Breakfast of Champions” is a crude, crass, incoherent 2. Flaky, tasteless breakfasts like this could lead to indigestion!
Susan Granger’s review of “BLUE STREAK” (Columbia Pictures)
Martin Lawrence reminds me of Jerry Lewis with his silly antics in this action comedy and of Eddie Murphy with his fast-talking glibness. Lawrence plays a jewel thief who, after spending two years in prison, discovers that the under-construction building in whose air duct he stashed a $20 million diamond is now the 37th L.A. Police Precinct. Undaunted by this ironic stroke of bad luck – and unable to infiltrate the crime unit disguised as a buck-toothed pizza delivery man – the ex-con concocts an outrageous plan to impersonate a cop so that he can gain entrance, locate and retrieve the gem in a matter of hours. But, as fate and the screenwriters would have it, he inadvertently captures an escaping convict (Dave Chappelle). Everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and so it goes… Director Les Mayfield (“Encino Man”) attempts to keep the pace fast but, despite lots of shtick, the necessary energy just isn’t there. He also relies heavily on Martin Lawrence to carry the vehicle as an action hero which is a mistake. There’s lots of action – sound and fury – but it signifies very little. Now, if you’re a real Martin Lawrence fan, devoted to his raw, edgy stand-up comedy, and sympathetic after his recent collapse while jogging, I don’t want to discourage you. It’s just that the plot is predictable and has too many holes in it to suspend disbelief – besides, you’re in on the joke from the beginning. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Blue Streak” is a manic, formulaic 4. I’d advise you to go to a bargain matinee or wait for the video.
Susan Granger’s review of “THREE KINGS” (Warner Brothers)
‘Remember “Catch 22″ and “M*A*S*H*” – those black comedies that captured the surrealist insanity of W.W.II and the Korean War? That’s what David O. Russell attempts in this astute blend of action/adventure, drama, humor, and scathing political commentary. George Clooney stars as a cynical career soldier – an American Special Forces Captain – who’s ready to retire. In March of 1991, he and his cohorts (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) are ready to return home from the Gulf War when they unexpectedly come into possession of a map that indicates the location of a stash of Kuwaiti gold bullion stolen by the Iraqi army. “Saddam stole it from the sheiks,” Clooney says, “and I have no problem stealing it from Saddam.” They take off at dawn, planning to return by noon. But it’s not that easy, particularly with a feisty war correspondent (Nora Dunn) snooping around. There’s chaos, confusion, and carnage – but don’t expect any stupendous battle scenes. Encounters with the “enemy” are primarily skirmishes as Iraqi rebels, encouraged by George Bush’s exhortations to overthrow Saddam Hussein, courageously fight the brutal Republican Guard, only to discover that the politically expedient cease-fire has made the Americans unwilling to offer humanitarian aid to the civilians caught in the turmoil. “We’re fighting Saddam and dying – and you’re stealing gold,” one angry rebel astutely observes, igniting a moral dilemma for the greedy treasure-hunters who are cornered into doing the right thing. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Three Kings” is a suspenseful 8, raising serious questions about the morality of the United States position on military intervention and putting a human face on the atrocities of war.
Susan Granger’s review of “A DOG OF FLANDERS” (Warner Bros.)
Set in the early 19th century in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium known as Flanders, this tale revolves – not around a dog – but a boy. Little Nello (Jesse James/Jeremy James) is an poor orphan who grows up in the care of his kindly grandfather (Jack Warden). Since his mother was an artist and left him her sketchbook, Nello loves to draw. A chance meeting with a noted local artist (Jon Voight) introduces the great Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, as a focus for Nello’s dreams. So where does the dog come in? By the side of the road, Nello finds a large Bouvier des Flanders who was cruelly abused by a peddler and befriends him, naming him Patrasche. Big, black, fluffy Patrasche trots around as Nello’s loyal companion, but the pet is limited to the periphery of the action. Writer/director Kevin Brodie, working with Robert Singer, adapting the novel by Ouida (a.k.a. Marie Louise de la Ramee), comes up with trite dialogue punctuating a contrived yet predictable story. Those familiar with the book will note that the ending has been changed to one much happier. Brought up on a diet of fast-paced television, children will undoubtedly be bored, squirming in their seats along with their parents. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Dog of Flanders” is a slow-paced, dreary 3. “Real happiness comes not with possessions or positions but with people” and “Never underestimate the power of love” are worthwhile sentiments but they’re presented in the dullest framework possible.