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MUSIC OF THE HEART

Susan Granger’s review of “MUSIC OF THE HEART” (Miramax Films)

Can Wes Craven, creator of slasher/horror movies from Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream, score in another genre? Yes! Working with an intelligent screenplay by Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon), Craven goes for a different kind of gut emotion in this timely, true story violin instructor Roberta Guaspari, the mother of two young boys, who was abandoned when her Naval officer husband ran off with another woman. Forced into asserting her independence to survive, she cleverly badgers an East Harlem principal into hiring her as a substitute music teacher, despite the protests of the tenured faculty and the wariness of the inner-city parents. Fervently believing in discipline, dignity, and commitment, Roberta Guaspari struggles to teach classical violin to disorderly, often resistant students, building self-esteem and changing their lives in remarkable ways. And her crusade leads all the way to Carnegie Hall, where violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and Mark O’Connor join in Fiddlefest, along with the children of Guaspari’s actual East Harlem violin program. If the story sounds familiar, it was the basis of a 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary, Small Wonders. Meryl Streep delivers a polished, virtuoso performance that could earn her another well-deserved Oscar nomination, while Angela Bassett, Gloria Estefan, and Aidan Quinn deliver strong support. Estefan performs the title song with teen sensation ‘N Sync, and the sound track talent includes Jennifer Lopez, C Note, Macy Gray, and Julio Iglesias Jr.. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Music of the Heart is an exhilarating, uplifting 8. Like Mr. Holland’s Opus, it’s sentimental and emotionally manipulative but there’s an audience for this kind of heart-warming film that everyone in the family can enjoy.

08

THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

Susan Granger’s review of “THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL” (Warner Bros.)

What’s scary about this picture is how many people went to see it last weekend, proving two things: 1) you can’t beat good timing, and 2) when you have a creepy dud on your hands, don’t let people know it’s coming – that’s why critics were not permitted to view this film before it opened. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) plays a nasty amusement-park tycoon who invites four supposed strangers to help celebrate his wife’s birthday in the notorious Vanacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, promising “terror, humiliation, perhaps even murder.” He obviously detest her as much as she loathes him. Rush is made-up to resemble Vincent Price, the star of William Castle’s campy 1958 version, including the pencil-thin mustache. His character is even named Price, in case you missed the point. Anyway, this eccentric host offers each of his jittery guests $1,000,000 at daybreak – if they can survive the night. Directed by William Malone from a screenplay by Dick Beebe, based on a story by Robb White, there’s little horror and zero originality. The villainous Vanacutt was a demented doctor who performed hideous experimental surgery without anesthesia until, once night, the inmates rebelled, igniting a fire that destroyed the place – so we’re told. Of course, the ghosts still run rampant, causing death and destruction. Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Brigitte Wilson, Peter Gallagher, and Chris Kattan look as though they fervently wished they were elsewhere. Heh! Heh! Heh! So did I. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The House on Haunted Hill is a ghoulish, wretched 1. But the only thing frightening about it is the waste of talent. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was ridiculous, this is far worse.

01

POKEMON

Susan Granger’s review of “POKEMON” (Warner Bros.)

Pokemon is more of a worldwide phenomenon than a movie. Its name is short for “pocket monsters.” These creatures are stored in spheres carried by human trainers who free them for friendly combat whenever they’re challenged by trainers of other Pokemon. The merchandising madness began in 1996 as a Nintendo video game in Japan and became an animated TV cartoon. There was a quick bout with infamy when its editing techniques were said to prompt seizures in children but that problem has been corrected. Pokemon next appeared in card form, the collectable, swapable baseball variety, featuring more than 150 characters. Card trading so distracted children that many schools have banned it; as a consequences, its popularity has soared. Pokemon: The First Movie begins with a 22-minute short called “Pikachu’s Vacation.” Then comes “Mew Strikes Back.” Mew is a tiny, adorable Pokemon but then comes Mew/Two, a bio-engineered mutation, who escapes from the lab where he was created, bitterly vowing to take revenge on the human scientists who enslaved him. He heads a super race of Pokemons who have declared war against the original Pokemons and their human friends. There’s non-stop fighting until, finally, the human hero, named Ash Ketchum, sacrifices himself to save Pikachu, his chubby yellow Pokemon, a gesture that causes Mew/Two to re-think his assertion that humans and Pokemons cannot exist in harmony. Written by Takeshi Shudo, based on characters by Satoshi Tajiri, and directed by Kunihiko Yuyama, Pokemon is contradictory in that it preaches the futility of fighting while presenting non-stop violence. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Pokemon is a frenzied 5 – but kids love it. Don’t underestimate the tsunami of Pokemon Power.

05

DREAMING OF JOSEPH LEES

Susan Granger’s review of “DREAMING OF JOSEPH LEES” (Fox Searchlight Films)

This Gothic tale of romantic obsession revolves around a young woman named Eva, played by Samantha Morton (“Under the Skin”), who is preoccupied with her second cousin. Eva lives with her teenage sister (Lauren Richardson) and stern, elderly father (Frank Finlay) in the rural English county of Somerset. She works as a clerk but fantasizes about Joseph Lees – that’s Rupert Graves – who has been the unrequited object of her affection since childhood. When her precocious little sister discovers her secret, she plots to get the two together. The fact that the handsome ex-soldier, now a geologist, has lost his leg in a quarry accident in Italy only increases Eva’s fervent fascination. And she’s hardly deterred by the ardent pursuit of a dull local pig farmer, Harry Flyte (Lee Ross), with whom she moves in, which is an inexplicably daring and rebellious move, considering it’s the late 1950s. Her explanation is that she doesn’t want to “make the same mistake” that her divorced parents did. Finally, Joseph Lees actually appears – at a family wedding – and, predictably, real trouble begins. There’s an immediate physical attraction, pure lust, which is soon consummated – much to Harry’s distress. At this point, Harry’s suicidal depression abruptly becomes the dramatic focus, resulting in Eva’s distraught soul-searching. Screenwriter Catherine Linstrum and director Eric Styles concentrate on Eva’s sensuality and character development, leaving Joseph Lees as somewhat of an enigma and ignoring large plot loopholes. In addition, Harry is such a clumsy, unappealing rival that there’s no tension. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dreaming of Joseph Lees” is a confused, conflicted 4. It’s a murky melodrama about emotional repression that remains strange and shallow.

04

THE BACHELOR

Susan Granger’s review of “THE BACHELOR” (New Line Cinema)

There have been a number wedding-theme’d comedies like “Runaway Bride” and “The Best Man” but this is the weakest of the group. Chris O’Donnell plays a billiards heir who realizes that it’s time to give up his beloved bachelor status and make a commitment to the photographer, Renee Zellweger (“Jerry Maguire”), whom he’s been dating for three years. But when the moment to propose occurs, O’Donnell lamely grins at her, offering an engagement ring, saying, “You win.” Offended by his ambivalence and obvious insincerity, she leaves him flat. Shortly thereafter, he discovers he will lose his grandfather’s (Peter Ustinov) $100 million fortune if he’s not married by the age of 30 – which is less than 24 hours away. So, following the advice of the family attorney (Ed Asner) and stock broker (Hal Holbrook), he desperately arranges for a priest (James Cromwell) to wait in the limousine, ready to perform a quickie ceremony, while he rides around San Francisco looking for a bride. Mariah Carey, Brooke Shields, and Jennifer Esposito pop up in cameos as his former girlfriends. His buddy (Artie Lange) spills the dilemma to the newspaper which results in a climactic stampede of 1,000 wannabe brides clad in white gowns. “It’s like Larry King’s living room!” Lange quips. The screenplay by Steve Cohen was adapted from Buster Keaton’s “Second Chances” (1925) with a nod to “Brewster’s Millions” (1945) in which an ordinary guy had to spend $1 million in a month in order to receive a major inheritance. And director Gary Sinyor (“Stiff Upper Lips”) must be an ardent fan of over-acting. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Bachelor” is a totally predictable, pre-feminist 4 until, finally, the bland “hero” realizes the non-materialistic merits of matrimony.

04

THE BONE COLLECTOR

Susan Granger’s review of “THE BONE COLLECTOR” (Universal Pictures)

This is yet another urban thriller about a sadistic serial killer. Denzel Washington plays a bedridden, suicidal, quadriplegic forensics expert and best-selling author who teams up with a former fashion model-turned-rookie cop, Angelina Jolie, to capture an imaginative murderer with a penchant for cryptic clues. And each killing is uniquely horrific, just like in “Seven.” Inexplicably, the NYPD uses Washington’s SoHo loft as a base of operations while Jolie acts as his eyes and ears, exploring the grisly crime scenes, describing them to him, and following his instructions precisely. “You’ve got to saw her hands off at the wrist line! I’ve got to have those cuffs for prints!” he barks into her cell phone from his motorized bed. As his devoted nurse, Queen Latifah imbues the role with a special sassy quality, while the stereotypical supporting characters include Ed O’Neill, Mike McGlone, Luis Guzman, and Michael Rooker as Washington’s former boss. Utilizing Jeremy Iacone’s clichŽ-ridden, uneven screenplay, adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Deaver, director Philip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger,” “Patriot Games”) cleverly keeps the cinematic tension taut as the hapless victims are buried alive, scalded by steam or devoured by rats. But the final confrontation between the immobilized Washington – using “one finger, two shoulders, and a head” – and the deranged killer is utterly preposterous. Angelina Jolie is woefully unconvincing, particularly when she’s crying, and her pouting lips have been so puffed up with some kind of silicone concoction that they look ludicrous. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Bone Collector” is a dopey, diabolical 6. It’s basically a grisly, gruesome whodunnit.

06

DOGMA

Susan Granger’s review of “DOGMA” (Lion’s Gate Films)

A holy war has been waged over this crude, controversial Kevin Smith satire of Catholicism. Financed and developed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, it was sold to Lion’s Gate after William Donohue’s Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights filed protests with Disney CEO Michael Eisner. The Catholic League previously led a boycott of Disney over Priest, a 1995 Miramax release which depicted a gay priest. Yet, despite all the fuss, Dogma is a surprisingly dull parable. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play fallen angels who have been sent to everlasting exile in Wisconsin. Using a loophole in Catholic doctrine, they know a way to get back into heaven but their re-entry would negate all existence – at least that’s what abortion clinic worker Linda Fiorentino is told as her help is enlisted by an angel (Alan Rickman). She’s befriended by the black 13th Apostle (Chris Rock) and a spunky stripper-muse (Salma Hayek), while being pursued by an exiled muse (Jason Lee). She encounters a zealous Cardinal (George Carlin), who’s promoting “a buddy Christ”, and discovers God is a woman (Alanis Morissette). So what? Among the long, boring interludes is some particularly repugnant chicanery with an excrement monster. Affleck and Damon are genial dudes but Fiorentino mopes, smirks or snarls, showing no emotional or vocal range. Kevin Smith’s cult fans who enjoyed Clerks and Chasing Amy may be the only audience for this feeble comic fantasy which is too heavy on moralizing and too light on laughter. Smith’s message – that dogmatism is bad, that no one religion is better than any other – is delivered with a thud. The sophomoric jokes basically bomb. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Dogma is an uninspired, trifling, muddled 2. It’s a dud.

02

THE INSIDER

Susan Granger’s review of “THE INSIDER” (Touchstone)

Michael Mann’s compelling story, adapted by Mann and Eric Roth from Marie Brenner’s 1996 Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” examines the behind-the-scenes drama and maneuverings that led to the media’s exposure of tobacco industry fraud. Whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, former head of research and development at Brown & Williamson, was a corporate officer, the ultimate insider on the skullduggery involved in the business of selling tobacco. His firing comes to the attention of Mike Wallace’s producer, Lowell Bergman, who convinces the reluctant scientist to spill the beans on 60 Minutes, only to have the interview killed by CBS’s corporate lawyer who cites a confidentiality agreement the executive signed with the tobacco company. Three months later, after the Wall Street Journal printed Wigand’s allegations, 60 Minutes aired the segment. So much for fiasco. It’s the Oscar-caliber performances that command attention, primarily the emotional relationship between Russell Crowe, as the conflicted Wigand, and Al Pacino, as the tenacious Bergman. A journalist hasn’t shown this much righteous indignation since All the President’s Men. Christopher Plummer deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod as Wallace, who with Philip Baker Hall, as producer Don Hewitt, come across as cowards, bowing to management on ethics, leaving their source, Wigand, hanging in the wind. The medieval and Middle Eastern music by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke enhances Dante Spinotti’s dark, eerie imagery. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Insider is a tense, trenchantly topical 10. Subsequent to the shocking events dramatized in the film, the tobacco industry settled the lawsuits filed against it by Mississippi and 49 other states for $246 billion.

10

ANYWHERE BUT HERE

Susan Granger’s review of “ANYWHERE BUT HERE” (20th Century-Fox)

In this mother/daughter spin on Thelma and Louise, Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, as Adele and Ann August, respectively, take off from Bay City, Wisconsin, for Beverly Hills, California. They’re on the road in a 1978 Mercedes, heading for what flamboyant Adele envisions as a better life. Ann’s more than reluctant; she’s bitterly rebellious about leaving her small-town friends and family. When they reach the promised land, their first stop is the opulent Beverly Hills Hotel where their financial reality dawns on Ann, if not Adele. In fact, reality plays a minuscule part in any of Adele’s decisions – the most disastrous of which is a one-night stand with a recently-separated dentist whom she meets on the beach. Over a period of two years, mother and daughter adjust to a poverty-plagued life in a series of tacky, sparsely furnished, one-bedroom apartments in the flats of Beverly Hills. Ann is the resourceful realist, making friends and adjusting; Adele, ever the dreamer, just outside Nirvana, looking in, considering an ice cream cone as the solution to every crummy problem. Of course, in the end, Ann realizes how indebted she is to her mother not only for her creative juices but also for her spirit of adventure. Directed by Wayne Wang, Natalie Portman delivers a subtle, nuanced performance as a teenager desperate for normalcy, particularly in contrast to Susan Sarandon’s persistent, over-the-top kookiness. Alvin Sargent’s screen adaptation of Mona Simpson’s novel amounts to little more than a series of vignettes, leaving you emotionally uninvolved. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Anywhere But Here is a touching, sentimental 6. Make no mistake – it’s a woman’s picture. And, if you enjoy it, why not rent last year’s Slums of Beverly Hills, a similar but far edgier comedy?

06

THE OMEGA CODE

Susan Granger’s review of “THE OMEGA CODE” (Providence Entertainment)

Onward, Christian filmmakers! Heavily promoted by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the largest Christian TV organization in the country, this religious thriller is an end-of-the-world suspense story based on the book of Revelation. Written by Stephan Blinn and Hollis Barton, it manages to be a non-violent story about Armageddon, crediting to Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) as “prophecy consultant.” The muddled plot revolves around Casper Van Dien as a Tony Robbins-like motivational speaker who, along with European Union Chairman, played by Michael York, seems to be trying to secure a world peace agreement. Only, a secret Biblical code falls into the wrong hands, putting the world’s future at stake. Not surprisingly, Van Dien will have to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in order to save civilization as we know it. Produced by Matthew Crouch, son of TBN’s president, Paul Crouch, the film is designed to alert Hollywood that there’s an audience for clunky spiritual entertainment. They may be right from a religious perspective but film-making is an art that these zealots have yet to master. Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers) is handsome but unconvincing, as is Catherine Oxenberg as a talk show host. Michael York’s such an obviously sleazy megalomaniac that it’s not credible that he’s a trusted diplomat. Only Michael Ironside emerges with dignity intact. Rob Marcarelli’s direction is flat and unimaginative, the computer graphics are juvenile, and the delusional absurdity includes having Van Dien discover his house is bugged and then verbally discuss his “secret” plans. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, The Omega Code is a timely but ploddingly dull 3. I’d advise you not to pay for this preachy, blatant brain-washing; instead, tune in – free – to TBN.

03