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New Line Home Cinema presents
The Grass Harp (1996)

"You leading citizens ought to behave themselves, otherwise, the whole damn place just falls apart!"
- Sheriff Junius Candle (Joe Don Baker)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: April 20, 2005

Stars: Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Edward Furlong, Nell Carter, Jack Lemmon, Mary Steenburgen
Other Stars: Sean Patrick Flanery, Joe Don Baker, Charles Durning, Roddy McDowall, Grayson Fricke, Scott Wilson, Bonnie Bartlett, Mia Kirshner, Adam Crosby, Doris Roberts, Nora Dunfee, Ray McKinnon, Veronica Lauren, Danny Nelson, Rebecca Koon, Michelle Bauer, Charles Matthau, Alex Van, Emilie Jacobs, Marc McPherson, Elizabeth 'Boo' Gilder, Brad Bulger, Martha M. Elcan, Richie Dye, James Michael McDougal, Rosa Tucker, Jenjer Vick, Margaret Scarborough, Boyd Gaines
Director: Charles Matthau

MPAA Rating: PG for mild language and thematic elements.
Run Time: 01h:46m:54s
Release Date: April 19, 2005
UPC: 794043803628
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BA-A D+

DVD Review

Assembling a star-studded cast, director Charles Matthau's The Grass Harp spins a heartwarming and heart wrenching tale, set during the Depression, based on Truman Capote's 1951 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

Following his mother's death, 11-year-old Collin Fenwick (Edward Furlong) is placed in the care of his two aunts, Verena (Sissy Spacek) and Dolly Talbot (Piper Laurie). Verena is the queen bee in their small southern town, bitter and self-centered, and her only concern is expanding her wealth and control. Her elder sister by contrast is quiet and reserved, preferring to spend time in the kitchen or walking the never-ending fields in search of natural ingredients for her sole possession, the secret elixir she was given by gypsies, while enjoying the company of their house maid, Catherine (Nell Carter), a boisterous woman whose claim to native heritage is held suspect by most. Collin develops a deep affection for Dolly, whose ethereal quality and unusual, but romantic sensibilities help him to deal with his situation and the loss of his loved ones.

Their time together is shattered when Verena shows up at supper with an inspired industrialist (Lemmon) and plans to commercialize Dolly's elixir, which puts the sisters at odds. Tired of Verena's constant oppression, Dolly, Catherine, and Collin retreat to an old tree house in the middle of the woods, causing a major stir in town, but the arrival of an evangelist (Mary Steenburgen) with her hoard of illegitimate offspring will be the final straw that sets their once quiet community in turmoil.

While essentially a coming-of-age film, the story is refreshing in its focus on the three female leads, and on Dolly's influence on Collin through the sequence of events that leads to her own spiritual awakening. It is here that Walter Matthau's character comes to the fore as the would-be suitor, which allows Dolly a chance to finally free herself from her sister's influence, but the male roles take a back seat. Piper Laurie is simply radiant as the soft spoken woman living under the shadow of her sister's overbearing presence, and her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Spacek defines Verena well in a role that goes against the grain of many of her previous works. Furlong holds his own, although isn't really required to stretch much, and Carter is effective as the comic relief in her spunky portrayal of Catherine. While featured prominently on the cover, Matthau, Lemmon, and Steenburgen have lesser, though pivotal parts.

The town's citizens are fairly caricatured and eccentric, including the gossiping town barber (Roddy McDowell), the laxidaisical sheriff (Joe Don Baker), and the reverend (Charles Durning) whose morals don't extend to allowing any competition for his parishioners' offerings. The pacing is fairly relaxed, matching the pastoral settings that form the backdrop for the film, and period detail is plentiful.

The film features more than one reunion in its cast—Laurie and Spacek, who starred as mother and daughter in Brian DePalma's Carrie are reunited; Walter Matthau (whose son directs) and Lemmon, whose past collaborations include The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, appear together on the bill, but their interaction on screen is limited.

Filled with memorable character moments, The Grass Harp delivers fine entertainment, and will have you laughing and crying, leaving you with an uplifting afterimage.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is what I've come to expect from New Line, a well-delivered transfer with excellent color reproduction, natural looking film grain, no visible compression anomalies and a clean, detailed print. No complaints here.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: New Line provides a choice of listening options, including both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround, along with a stereo track. The surround track has a nice presence, with subtle, but effective use of the rear channels. Dialogue is clear and for the most part easy to discern, although there are a few sections that had me reaching for the volume control. The stereo track is less forward, but still suitable. This isn't the kind of film that requires a great deal of directionality in the soundtrack, but it works nicely nonetheless.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring An Awfully big Adventure, Widows' Peak
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: The extras department is limited to the theatrical trailer and previews for An Awfully Big Adventure and Widows' Peak.

The DVD ROM content requires InterActive software to be installed (included), but as these features are inaccessable on a Mac, they cannot be reviewed.

My one beef with the packaging (which has carried over from previous home video releases) is that the cover omits the two central figures in the story—Piper Laurie and Edward Furlong—featuring instead Lemmon, who has a cameo at best, and Steenburgen, who also has a much lesser part.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

The Grass Harp provides a well-executed and heartwarming story, full of humor and emotion. The star-studded ensemble cast are effective, and the production design suits the mood perfectly. Recommended.


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