Susan Granger’s review of “THE RED VIOLIN” (Lions Gate Films)
Francois Girard’s stirring, sumptuous epic follows the turbulent, if convoluted, journey of a legendary violin, famous for its perfect acoustics and unusual reddish hue. Up for auction in Canada, the stringed instrument has traveled around the globe for more than 300 years when an American expert (Samuel L. Jackson) is summoned to authenticate its worth. Created by a 17th century Italian, Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), as a legacy of love for his unborn son, the violin becomes an embodiment of his grief when his beloved wife Anna (Irene Grazioli) and child die in childbirth. Mysteriously, a Tarot-card reader has predicted a long, nomadic, adventure-packed life for Anna, coupling her fate to the future “life” of the Red Violin. As the intriguing story evolves, the spell of the violin seems to bewitch the lives of its various owners. It travels to monastic Austria, where it goes to a six year-old child prodigy. In England, it falls into the decadent hands of a Byronic musician (Jason Flemyng) who uses it in his flamboyant courtship of a volatile novelist (Greta Scacchi). From there, it’s brought to Shanghai, where it winds up as a treasured artifact in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Finally, Chinese authorities send it to the auction hall in modern-day Montreal, where eager bidders, descendants and friends of the people it has touched, are obsessed with acquiring the instrument. The mystery, of course, is who will wind up with this fabled masterpiece? Although the pace and quality of the sprawling flashback episodes differ greatly, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Red Violin” is an exquisite, captivating 9. It’s a sweeping, cinematic symphony, a unique combination of classical and contemporary, both in music and imagery.
Susan Granger’s review of “SUMMER OF SAM” (Buena Vista/Touchstone)
The perennial question facing film-makers has always been: Should movies try to influence their audience – using morality stories, fables, fantasies, etc. – or should movies simply, often boldly, reflect the society of their time? Spike Lee chooses the latter. There’s no doubt that the anger and violence, stupidity and intolerance that he depicts are real. But do you really want to spend a sluggish two hours with these unpleasant, unsavory characters? Set in the sweltering summer of ’77, when the Son of Sam psychopath, David Berkowitz, went on his bloody killing spree in the Bronx, the story revolves around two couples who are long-time friends. Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo are into disco, while Jennifer Esposito and Adrien Brody are punk rockers. Each has his/her own sexually explicit problems (mostly drug-connected) but, collectively, they’re spooked as they’re swept into the gruesome details of Berkowitz’s indiscriminate slaughter. And Ben Gazzara scores as the local crime kingpin who is determined to protect his neighborhood. Problem is: there’s no bond between the moronic characters and the audience. Is it the one-dimensional roles in the episodic screenplay by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, and Spike Lee? Perhaps. But, as a director, Lee seems out of his element with these idiosyncratic Italian-Bronx characters and keeps us utterly detached. And, as an actor, Lee delivers a wretched performance as a TV newscaster overemphasizing each line. While this film is visually stylish and vigorous with pertinent historical imagery, it is, as Jimmy Breslin says, just one of eight million stories of the naked city – and quite a racist one at that. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Summer of Sam” is a bleak, brutal, repellent 3. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Susan Granger’s review of “ARLINGTON ROAD” (Sony Pictures/Screen Gems Release)
This contemporary thriller stars Jeff Bridges as a college professor whose FBI-agent wife was killed in a botched raid on an alleged right-wing cult. The film was scheduled to open in May, shortly after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. With its tagline, “Fear thy neighbor,” its release was understandably postponed. The theme revolves around how everyday appearances can be deceiving. This concept is personified by a seemingly normal, all-American couple – Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack – who move with their three children into a suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Gradually, Bridges, who teaches a course in terrorism, senses something suspicious about them. Is he just paranoid or are they part of a lethal, para-military conspiracy? “There’s no gratuitous violence,” Bridges says, “but it does deal with a violent subject, with militia groups – and how some people express unhappiness toward the government and their own lives. Certainly, I would hope it doesn’t lead to copycat crimes. However, it’s a tough subject: whether the arts reflect society or lead society. I don’t know if we want to put restrictions on creativity, but, at the same time, we certainly do not want to inspire people to do violence.” Writer Ehren Kruger and director Mark Pellington are obviously manipulative as they explore this volatile subject with a stylish scenario that leads to a grim, uncompromising, over-the-top conclusion. Both Cusack and Robbins seem to relish their intriguing, intimidating roles with an evil glee, and Jeff Bridges delivers a solid performance as the tormented widower who becomes a pawn in their plot to dismantle American society. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Arlington Road” is a sinister, scary 6, making you skeptical about anyone’s safety. It delivers a chilling shiver on a hot summer’s night.
Susan Granger’s review of “SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT” (Paramount/Warner release)
“Off to the movies we shall go…Where we learn everything that we know…’Cause the movies teach us what our parents don’t have time to say.” That’s the “Mountain Song,” which begins this rude, raunchy, animated musical, starring Comedy Central’s most corrupted TV third-graders. The cheeky tykes – Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny – bribe a homeless man to take them to an R-rated movie, “Asses of Fire,” starring a foul-mouthed, flatulent Canadian duo. Armed with a scatological vocabulary, which they don’t truly comprehend, the boys start spewing such profanity that their once-peaceful South Park community launches a vindictive anti-smut campaign which grows into a national movement, resulting in the United States declaring war on Canada. In one of the most cynical vignettes, one of the boys has a behavior-modification V-chip implanted, delivering a severe electrical shock each time he utters a bad word. How is the movie different from the TV series? It’s a musical with nasty, dirty parodies of “The Sound of Music” and “Les Miserables” with some inspirational ballads tossed in. Writer/director Trey Parker, along with Matt Stone, Pam Brady, and composer Marc Shaiman have devised a cleverly scathing, if crude, social parable, mocking our fear of and distaste for toilet humor, Satan, and Saddam Hussein, plus making some biting points about censorship, tolerance, and freedom of speech. Celebrity voices include George Clooney, Minnie Driver, Brent Spiner, and Eric Idle. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “South Park” is an obscene, offensive, smutty 7. Warning to parents: this funny, fast-paced, irreverent film pushes the envelope of its R-rating and, while childish, is definitely for adults, not children.
Susan Granger’s review of “AMERICAN PIE” (Universal Pictures)
You don’t need a ouija board to predict that outrageous, adolescent sex comedies will be big box-office. Milder versions like “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” were hot in the ’80s, but the trend, ever since “Something About Mary,” is toward edgy, raw, in-your-face vulgarity. And a slice of “American Pie” is about as raucous, raunchy, and ribald as you can get. Surprisingly, it’s a true teen-sounding movie. The testosterone-driven plot revolves around four insecure high school seniors who make a pact not to be virgins after Prom Night, which is only three weeks away. There’s Jason Biggs, who’s like a young Adam Sandler, gamely agonizing through a hilarious “date” with a Czechoslovakian exchange student that’s accidentally broadcast over the Internet. Thomas Ian Nicholas initiates the “We will get laid!” vow, despite the fact that he’s never gotten past “third base” with his girl-friend. Eddie Kaye Thomas relies on rumors he’s invented about his sexual prowess. And Chris Klein cultivates a corny sensitivity to charm a sweet choir girl. First-time film-makers Chris and Paul Weitz are heavily into gross-out humor, like the “Dumb and Dumber” Farrelly brothers, and Adam Herz’s screenplay is slick, straight-forward funny with zero subtext. Sex itself is described as “warm apple pie.” (Sara Lee is cringing!) Despite the crude jokes about masturbation, penis size, condoms, and various bodily functions, the underlying theme is about losing one’s innocence. “It’s not a space shuttle launch..it’s sex.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “American Pie” is a spicy 6 if you’re a teenager but a stale 4 if you’re old enough to be out of college. Odd, isn’t it, that Hollywood knows that its young target audience will somehow wangle its way into this R-rated movie?
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.
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.
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.
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.