Billy Bob’s Mom Has E.S.P. … Mary Cleere Haran at the Carlyle

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The Gift , superbly directed by Sam Raimi, with a dark and brooding script by veteran screenwriters Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton, is a chilling, suspenseful thriller with supernatural overtones that features a smashing performance by Cate Blanchett as a character with psychic powers, loosely based on Mr. Thornton’s own mother. She is Annie Wilson, a widow with three kids living in a backwoods hamlet in Georgia full of eccentric oddballs right out of the pages of Carson McCullers. Annie is a kindhearted soul who makes ends meet by using her gift for E.S.P. to see into people’s futures. It’s a gift that helps distraught clients like Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), a manic- depressive garage mechanic with suicidal tendencies, and Valerie (Hilary Swank), a poor housewife who suffers savage beatings from her violent redneck husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves). Annie is the closest thing in this backwater wasteland to a shrink, but her gift is regarded by some with fear, prejudice and anger.

When the town slut (Katie Holmes) is murdered, Annie’s psychic powers lead the sheriff to the location of the dead woman’s body and the subsequent arrest, trial and conviction of the crazy, homicidal Donnie. But Annie’s troubles are far from over. Her gift tells her that Donnie was not guilty, and the real killer was somebody else in the town who will stop at nothing to silence her. Was the fiend really the monstrous Donnie, who was cheating on his wife, or Donnie’s jealous wife Valerie? Everyone is a suspect, including the prosecuting attorney (Gary Cole) who had an affair with the dead girl himself. When Annie joins forces with the victim’s clean-cut, respectable schoolteacher fiancé (Greg Kinnear), the nicest guy in town, using her clairvoyant gift to solve the case and uncover the true identity of the killer, her compassion puts her own life at risk and she has to race the clock before she becomes the next body in the lake.

The script seems lightly constructed, but it’s got enough white-knuckle tension to keep you guessing while it builds to a surprising climax of nerve-jangling terror. Everyone in the distinguished cast is against type, and astoundingly good. Greg Kinnear has never shown this much of a stretch, and Keanu Reeves is so scary he makes you wonder why he hasn’t been making horror movies all along. If a good fright is not your idea of an ideal start to the new year, you should still see The Gift for the mesmerizing accuracy, strength and commitment of Cate Blanchett’s supercharged performance. This is a far cry from her Oscar-nominated work in Elizabeth , but she’s as striking and boldly riveting in faded cotton as she was in royal vestments.

For a supernatural murder mystery, The Gift is as logical as it is hair-raising, 10 times more effective than the phony stuff in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable , and a movie that could teach the overrated M. Night Shyamalan a thing or two about real filmmaking.

Mary Cleere Haran at the Carlyle

As the new cabaret season begins, the game of musical chairs continues. First, Barbara Cook fled home base at the Café Carlyle and set up shop at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Now, Mary Cleere Haran has deserted her annual perch at the Algonquin to begin 2001 at the Carlyle. Ah, the divas, bless their pointed little heads. The musically deprived will follow them anywhere. Ms. Haran, who has been away from the microphones much too long, is worth a special trip to 76th and Madison. Her retro songs and nostalgic patter about New York in bygone days blend as perfectly with the Bemelmans murals at the Carlyle as her plunging Harlow gowns. She calls her new act “Sweet and Low Down,” and she’s not kidding.

Although every night is New Year’s Eve at the Carlyle, Mary undulates her way into a crowded room full of noisy people guzzling Veuve Clicquot and waving credit cards, cleverly works her way through all the seasons of love, marriage, parenthood and the rocking chair explored in myriad daunting choruses of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-lovely,” and reduces the inattentive revelers to a hush. From there, it’s her room for the night. Great lyrics can illustrate, magnify, define, reflect and intensify the emotions we all feel but fail to express, and in this act she seems determined to tackle them all in an effort to prove “America’s cultural heritage did not begin with the Eisenhower administration.”

Toned and lovely, with a dance-closer voice that would have made her a big recording star in the gone-forever days of the big band era, Ms. Haran occupies a respected position in the American musical spectrum for her refusal to sing junk and her devotion to keeping alive the songs of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. I admire her for her unshakable faith in true-blue songs you do not hear on the radio, and for the responsibility she obviously feels for turning people on to lyrics while educating a younger generation about old songs, even though some of those songs are so old they’ve grown beards. Those of us who have heard songs like “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” a million times-my ears bear witness-are always pleased by the way she sings them all over again. But most of the material in this show comprises recycled tunes from the early 1920’s, much of it by the Gershwins, penned at about the time when sex was first being discovered by Elinor Glyn. Given my choice-and who is asking, please?-I’d prefer the more sophisticated songs from the 1940’s. When a hip lady with a dreamy voice dredges up a silly ditty like “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” it may suit the feminist sensibility of a late bloomer shaking off the binding ties of an Irish Catholic girlhood, but it’s still a big waste of time and talent.

But why grouse, when everything she does is accomplished with so much style and finesse? From the satiny caress of a ballad like Rodgers and Hart’s “The Blue Room” to the blasé homesickness of Josephine Baker on Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind,” she fuses vocal artistry with the craft of acting on every song. On the humorous “Way Out West on West End Avenue,” she’s a cross between Cass Daley, Judy Canova and Minnie Pearl, and then replaces Marilyn Monroe’s familiar tongue-in-cheek approach to Buddy De Sylva’s suggestive lyrics for “Do It Again” with raw animal sex. Hanging a left to the West Coast, she tackles movie songs, brassily belting out Busby Berkeley golddigger songs from black-and-white Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930’s with a Joan Blondell heart of pure platinum. “A Fine Romance” milks the sarcasm out of Dorothy Fields’ canny lyrics. Meltingly, haltingly and introspectively, “I’m in the Mood for Love” shines a light on the vulnerable side of Ms. Haran’s feline intelligence, while the overdone “S’Wonderful” is creamier than usual, almost conversatonally romantic.

Moving with assurance and poise from passionate chronicler of Broadway lore (“Bojangles of Harlem”) to giddy, bubble-brained Betty Boop flapper (“The Girl Friend”) she builds characters and weaves informational patter through the fabric of her songs like the two-ply threads in a complex carpet sewn by blind Portuguese nuns. An excellent actress and a charming singer with power, intonation, vibrato in all the right places and a stunning presence, Mary Cleere Haran is just what the cynics need for what ails them. This act coincides with the release of her new CD Crazy Rhythm: Manhattan in the 20’s on the Sin-Drome/After 9 label. She is ably assisted on both occasions by the tasteful bass lines of Linc Milliman and by the distinguished pianist-composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, who occasionally joins in on vocal duets. While I long to hear them polish off headier stuff from richer musical periods in the American song book, I can’t think of a better group to have around if the stock market crashes again; they’ve already worked out the songs. They’re at the Café Carlyle through Feb. 17.

Billy Bob’s Mom Has E.S.P. … Mary Cleere Haran at the Carlyle