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FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

The Wind in the Willows

Making a non-animated version of Kenneth Grahame's beloved children's classic seemed a dodgy idea to start with; casting the Monty Python troupers as Rat, Mole, Badger, Toad, etc. looks almost like cruelty to animals. This Terry Jones-directed adaptation is a study in frustration: the troupe put in a sincere, loving effort, but, inevitably, inappropriate silliness and cynicism break out. Eric Idle, with his cricket sweater and passion for picnics on the river, stands out as Rat, and Jones himself is an appropriately frivolous jodhpured Toad, but Steve Coogan's whiny Mole wears out his welcome in a hurry, and Nicol Williamson's Badger is stern but not subtle. A hilarious John Cleese is wasted in the tiny part of Toad's attorney, who delivers a passionate indictment of his client ("It's the best defense that can be made, my Lord"). Nobody's as cute as the original Ernest Shepherd illustrations.

The story is pretty much all Toad's motor-car misadventures; you'll find no mention of Rat's "Wayfarers All" reverie, the fieldmice's Christmas at Mole End, or the baby-otter search that leads Mole and Rat to the ineffable revelation of "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (one of the high points in all of English literature). Instead there's a protracted battle on the train, 007-style, and an interminable sequence at the end when our heroes are menaced with the weasels' dog-food grinder. Grahame wrote a children's book about animals that's smart enough for adults; this version barely seems smart enough for children. It'll please Python fans, but admirers of the original and other adults should tread warily.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

The Borrowers

Little in Peter Hewitt's brief career as a director -- including Bill and Ted's Bogus Adventure and Wild Palms -- could have forecast this stylishly affectionate film adaptation of the popular children's books. Here Hewitt skillfully cradles Mary Norton's robust material in an opulent, surreal urban landscape that is pleasingly a strange, but seamless concoction of industrial England and 1950s Americana.

The Borrowers are a "little people" who garner sustenance by pilfering odds and ends from their larger and unwary human hosts -- referred to as (human) "beans." Pod Clock (Jim Broadbent donning a red afro) and his Lilliputian family, uneventfully reside under the floorboards of a bean's suburban home, until a profiteering real-estate tycoon (John Goodman at his dastardly best) usurps the abode and earmarks it for demolition. Since this is a children's tale, the adults prove ineffectual at the point of crisis, so it's up to the beans' wide-eyed son, Pete (Bradley Pierce), and the Clock youngsters, Arrietty (a nubile Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton), to save their families' common interest. The script by Gavin Scott and John Kamps doesn't quite capture the book's imaginatively deep texture, but the solid performances and Hewitt's craftsmanship make The Borrowers worthy of a family outing.

-- Tom Meek

O amor natural

Poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was popular in his native Brazil, but not until his death, in 1987, did fans get a chance to read his erotic works. Here, Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann presents elderly men and women reading these poems aloud and discussing their thoughts on love and sex. The readers, randomly approached by Honigmann on the street, are refreshingly candid, relating details of their own sex lives with hilarious gusto and honesty. Watching two old women on a bus read an ode to anal sex has a certain shocking thrill, though the subtitles create a What's Up Tiger Lily? feeling of misplaced dubbing. An 86-year-old man boasts of the many women he's sampled during his "wild life"; a comparably aged woman describes her fantasies about violent sex, none of "that soft crap."

As these oldsters admire Drummond's poetry and revel in their own memories, it becomes clear that their love of sex hasn't withered with age. It's just changed. The "wild life" man now lives off his memories; another octogenarian offers to prove to Honigmann -- first-hand -- that he still knows his way around the bedroom. Drummond's works serve as the framework for Honigmann to explore human sexuality and aging. In the end we learn that a lust for life and a life of lust go hand in hand, no matter how old we grow.

-- Dan Tobin

Hurricane Streets

Call Hurricane Streets, which took home the director and audience awards at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, Kids with a conscience. Writer/director Morgan J. Freeman (not the actor) tenderly brings us into the life of Marcus (Brendan Sexton III), an adolescent petty thief with a mother in jail, no father, and a group of multiracial pals rapidly heading down the wrong road. Marcus is a lovable, charismatic teenager struggling with bottled-up emotions and escapist dreams of leaving New York City for his birthplace, New Mexico, where he naively imagines a trouble-free existence. Then he meets the sweet Melena (Isidra Vega), who challenges him to face his demons and, in a somewhat simplistic plot line, save her from a cruelly overprotective father.

But even the father is too complex to be a mere villain. All of Freeman's characters are needy humans looking for and capable of giving love. The kids are fighting (and often failing) to find their places in an imperfect world; the adults are just trying to protect what little they've got. And where the film could easily have collapsed into melodrama, Freeman saves it with a suspenseful (if somewhat unbelievable) conclusion and a cool, in-touch sense of humor. When one of Marcus's gang rips off an MC Hammer CD, he's mocked for making such a poor selection.

-- Mark Bazer

Carla's Song

It used to be that for those who found the prickly social criticism of Mike Leigh's movies too chirpy, there was always Ken Loach. With such uncompromising films as Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, and Ladybird, Ladybird, Loach confronted the injustice and pathos of British lower-class life with compassion, complexity, and not much in the way of happy endings. Lately, though, he's expanded his territory beyond the dismay and brimming humanity of the grim burgs of the British Isles for other times and places, and the move has softened his lacerating edge and aching ambiguity into sloganeering.

Such was the case in his foray into the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom, and it's a weakness in his charming but ultimately misconceived Carla's Song. Robert Carlyle, in between roles in Trainspotting and The Full Monty, plays George, a Glasgow busdriver with a soft touch and a rebellious streak. Among the impoverished passengers he gives a break to is Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a beautiful Nicaraguan refugee from the ongoing contra wars who earns her living dancing in the street. Moved as much by her exotic allure as by concern for her welfare, he finds her a place to live, nurses her back to health after a suicide attempt, and learns the reason for her despair -- her boyfriend Antonio (Richard Loza) was captured by the contras and probably killed.

Although he loves Carla, George magnaminously urges her to go back and find Antonio -- he even accompanies her. Released from the gritty accents and gray details of Glasgow, the film dissipates into a bit of a screed, with Carla and Scott Glenn as a mystery American named Bradley providing much of the speechifying. It's earnest but unfortunate -- Carla's Song might been more genuinely tuneful had the pair remained behind to take on the Glasgow public-transport bureaucracy rather than the CIA.

-- Peter Keough

Blues Brothers 2000

I figured I'd hate Blues Brothers 2000 as much as I disliked The Blues Brothers. Not only was that 1980 flick unfunny (John Belushi was too jacked on drugs at the time to do more than grunt and grimace), but it reduced one of the most powerful legacies of African-American culture to a caricature -- those goddamned fedoras and sunglasses.

But Blues Brothers 2000 is a modern shocker: a musical-comedy that actually works. The visual humor's not bad at all, including a car crash that's a parody of Hollywood action-movie excess (and the first Blues Brothers picture). Dan Aykroyd, thinned down and back as Elwood Blues, does a solid deadpan turn and delivers some first-rate one-liners. John Goodman's an aptly lumpen replacement for Belushi, and outsings Aykroyd, for what that's worth. The plot's thin. Elwood gets out of prison, where he's been since the last film's destructive finale, and determines to put the band back together. He promptly crosses the Russian mob, an orphan kid (J. Evan Bonifant) gets thrown into the mix, and Elwood mightily pisses off his half-brother Cable (Joe Morton), who's now a tough cop bent on putting him back behind bars.

The film really cooks when its great blues and soul performers are on screen. There's B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, the late Junior Wells (resplendent in a bright yellow suit with matching derby), Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite, Dr. John, Jimmy Vaughan, Koko Taylor, Erykah Badu, Lonnie Brooks, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Sam Moore, and others doing their thing in top form. Even the soundtrack tunes (with Paul Butterfield and other Chicago and Delta blues favorites) are terrific. Aykroyd's "Cheaper To Keep Her" is tuneless and badly dubbed and Jonny Lang's quick vocal turn (he grimaces as if he were getting a painful rectal exam) limps along. Otherwise, this movie's heart is its musical soul.

-- Ted Drozdowski

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