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LAKE PLACID

Susan Granger’s review of “LAKE PLACID” (20th Century-Fox)

Every summer needs its monster movie – think “Jaws” – and this one has the added comedic touch of David E. Kelley, creator of TV’s “Ally McBeal,” “Chicago Hope,” “L.A. Law,” and “The Practice.” Bridget Fonda stars as a paleontologist who is sent from museum in New York City to a tranquil lake in Maine to verify a shard, a supposed fossil, which turns out to be a tooth from a primitive, mysterious predator who has killed a member of the Fish & Game department. That’s where Bill Pullman comes in. He’s the perennially cool Fish & Game Warden. Right away, there’s friction because she’s not only annoyingly phobic about the wilderness but she’s also arrogantly embittered about men and love. Then there’s Oliver Platt, a rich, wacky, world-renown mythology professor, and Brendan Gleeson, the irascible sheriff. These neurotic, off-beat, disparate characters band together to discover what’s devouring not only the wildlife but people – on land and in Black Lake. It turns out to be a 30-foot crocodile that has migrated to New England and been adopted as “a pet who lives in the wild” by a local eccentric, played by Betty White. The elusive reptile is terrifyingly realistic – thanks to the special effects creativity of Stan Winston (“Aliens,” “Jurassic Park”). Producer/writer David E. Kelley and director Steve Miner (sequels 2 & 3 of “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween: H20″) supply enough absurdly inventive satire, derived from the eclectic characters, to keep what could have been a prosaic horror/thriller afloat. But the title is a bit misleading – this has absolutely nothing to do with the summer tourist haven of Lake Placid, New York. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Lake Placid” is a gruesome but surprising 6. It’s a hip, caustic creature-feature with an unexpectedly snappy, comedic bite.

06

MY SON THE FANATIC

Susan Granger’s review of “MY SON THE FANATIC” (Miramax Films)

This is an unconventional love story about a Pakistani immigrant who strays from his wife and the stability of his home when he falls in love with a British prostitute. But what makes it even more compelling is that screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) satirically reverses the conservative, middle-aged father/freedom-loving son rebellion axiom, giving it an unexpected twist. Acclaimed Indian actor Om Puri (“Gandhi,” “City of Joy”) is superb and utterly convincing as a Scotch-drinking, cricket-loving, jazz enthusiast who has spent 25 years driving a taxi in industrial Bradford, England. He is worried about his beloved son (Akbar Kurtha) who has broken his engagement to the Caucasian daughter of a British police detective and is selling off his “capitalist pig” possessions as part of a religious conversion to militant, fundamentalist Islam, with all of its anti-semitic overtones, in order to find personal identity after many years of being made to feel like an outsider. Directed by Udayan Prasad with a cast that includes Rachel Griffiths (Oscar-nominated for “Hilary and Jackie”) and Skellan Skarsgard (“Good Will Hunting”), the film probes universal conflicts, using disparate lives to examine the broad moral themes of love versus duty and happiness versus personal sacrifice – in addition to the racial and cultural problems inherent in assimilation. It gets a bit melodramatic towards the conclusion but, on the whole, it’s quite engaging, pursing the point that “After a certain age, there’s no point in saying ‘No’ to everything.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “My Son the Fanatic” is a bittersweet, compassionate 7. It’s engaging, off-beat art house fare but, for those with auditory problems, it’s often difficult to decipher the North London burr and the Pakistani accent.

07

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Susan Granger’s review of “THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT” (Artisan Entertainment)

On October 21, 1994, three young film-makers hiked into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland to shoot a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. They were never seen or heard from again. One year later, their footage was found. This film is their legacy, we’re told, documenting what happened in the woods. Heather Donahue sets the stage by interviewing residents about the spooky folktale that involves mysterious disappearances and evidence of gruesome torture. Her two male companions, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, trudge along. Terror strikes on the second night when they hear snapping twigs and branches that sound like people circling their tent – and then they find a hank of hair ritualistically tied with blood and human tooth. “I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them,” she says, as the fear builds. While the twisted conclusion is not as horrific as you might expect, it’s ambiguous enough to keep you talking after the show’s over. The story behind this low-budget, counterfeit chiller is: writer-director-editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez hired three actors and sent them into the woods for eight days to improvise the picture. Certain destination points and encounters were scripted, others definitely weren’t. Therefore, the images you see on the screen are often crude and jiggly – due to the hand-held camera. Nevertheless, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Blair Witch Project” is a goose-bumply, spine-tingling, scary 7. This creepy, clever, edge-of-your-seat thriller succeeds because it plays on your imagination, your fear of the dark and the unknown and the unseen, as opposed to showing graphic displays of violence and brutality. What you create in your mind is far more terrifying than anything someone can do with special effects.

07

THE HAUNTING

Susan Granger’s review of “THE HAUNTING” (DreamWorks)

Eugenio Zanetti is the star of this film, no question about it. He’s the production designer who created Hill House, a spectacular Gothic mansion that delivers one helluva performance as an ominous haunted house that captures the imaginations of its guests. Zanetti makes rooms collapse, even fold into themselves, and there’s a demonic bed whose canopy descends with tentacles like an octopus. Paintings, carvings, statues, even curtains come alive. And there’s the slow, ghostly breathing emanating from deep inside. The question is: why would Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Lili Taylor want to play second-fiddle to such an incredible creation that, in fact, makes them seem wooden? Looking terrified and screaming is really all that’s required in David Self’s inane script, based on Shirley Jackson’s scare-classic, “The Haunting of Hill House.” And the stylistic vision of director Jan DeBont (“Speed,” “Twister”) truly revolves around the special effects. As the story begins, Neeson, as a devious psychologist, brings three insomniacs to Hill House, outside Boston, for what he tells them is a sleep disorder study. In fact, he’s designed the experiment to observe the dynamics of fear, explaining: “You don’t tell the rats that they’re actually in a maze.” But his guests do know that, in the 1800s, a satanic textile manufacturer, Hugh Crain, erected this stately “Taj Mahal” for his beloved wife and their eight children, who are all buried nearby. What no one realizes is that Hill House has become Crain’s massive physical embodiment. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Haunting” is a spooky 4, playing tricks with your mind as you munch your popcorn. If you’re curious, director Robert Wise made a far more subtle, restrained version (1963), available on video.

04

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