Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Small Wonder

Delights of "The Borrowers" all in the details.

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  The Borrowers are a race of three- to six-inch-high humans who live beneath the floorboards of the big people that they call "Beans" (as in human beans). The joy of The Borrowers--the movie that documents the adventures of these little people--comes from watching the tiny clan go about their daily business. They dress in clothes made from discarded scraps of fabric, and they go on intense scavenging runs in the Beans' kitchen, from whence they can convert a few pieces of dried pasta into a hearty feast. And for the attentive, The Borrowers offers all sorts of wonderful details in the decoration of the creatures' under-floor dwelling. The Borrowers have made their nest out of lost bank cards, game pieces, and food packaging; one can almost imagine some disgruntled Bean playing a hand of solitaire and wondering what became of his four of clubs.

As long as The Borrowers focuses on the fantastical lifestyle of its title characters (led by the always charismatic actor Jim Broadbent), it's an utter delight. But it doesn't take long for the plot to intervene--a routine, slapsticky affair involving a ruthless developer who wants to knock down the Borrowers' home and put up a block of flats. John Goodman makes a game villain, but by the second time he gets sprayed in the eyes with insecticide (kids, don't try), you'll likely have stopped watching the center of the frame and have started focusing on the more fascinating backgrounds.

Home invasion
Celia Imrie, Flora Newbigin, Jim Broadbent, and Raymond Pickard watching as Bean terror comes from above in The Borrowers

Still, those backgrounds are wonderful, and director Peter Hewitt (who also made the likable Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey) balances the special effects with whimsical set design and an adventurous spirit. The Borrowers is based on a popular series of children's books by Mary Norton; if this installment spawns a sequel, I hope the plot that the filmmakers borrow next time around is as imaginative as the characters that enact it.

--Noel Murray

Tuning out

John Landis' 1980 movie The Blues Brothers was a comedy that rang down the curtain on the '70s. A deadpan parody of car-crash-o-ramas like Cannonball Run, it starred two original Not Ready for Prime Time Players in roles they originated on Saturday Night Live. All the symbols of the decade got run through the irony mill.

So when John Landis and Dan Aykroyd sat down to write Blues Brothers 2000, why did they decide to remake the original, right down to the retread plot? And why did they bring back characters from the original in purely in-joke roles? In short, why didn't they update the franchise, as the millennium-anticipatory title suggests? As it stands, Blues Brothers 2000 is a mule of a movie--a parody of a parody, self-referential, sterile, and almost at a standstill.

I'm probably the target audience for the sequel, since the original still holds a cult appeal for me. (Friends often hear me mutter, "Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips.") All I could get out of BB2K, however, were the terrific musical performances (when unmarred by Aykroyd or John Goodman). During the long, slow progress of the plot, one can amuse oneself by spotting musical legends and praying for their continued health. R&B god Junior Wells looks spectral (and indeed he expired before the film's release), while Sam Moore and Wilson Pickett perform with encouraging liveliness.

The best way to see Blues Brothers 2000 is to stand outside the theater doors reading a good book, then enter whenever you hear music. Suggestion for Landis and Aykroyd: Next time, skip the concept and just film the concert.

--Donna Bowman

Short takes

  • In the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, director Volker Schlöndorff says that there were times when he didn't know whether his new thriller Palmetto was serious or a goof. Here's a third possibility It's the kind of plodding mess you get when a director doesn't know whether he's making a thriller or a parody. A jailbird with old scores to settle, two slutty sirens, a fake kidnapping, and boo-coo bucks--Palmetto's laborious setup parcels out a clich for every year of film-noir history, without the atmosphere, the grimy vision, or the affection for the genre that would snap it awake. As a result, the performers struggle to find the right pitch Investigative reporter Woody Harrelson stumbles around like a Keystone Kop, bad girls Elizabeth Shue and Chloe Sevigny audition unrelentingly for the Showgirls sequel, and girlfriend Gina Gershon gets nothing to do until the last reel, which tosses in missing bodies, mistaken identities, and acid baths.

    Screenwriter E. Max Frye tried a similar mix of screwball irony and suspense 12 years ago in Something Wild, but director Jonathan Demme handled the tone shifts much more deftly than Schlöndorff, whose best film, The Tin Drum, ain't exactly a caper comedy. Palmetto recovers a little after the midway point, when a neat plot twist kicks in (borrowed from the terrific 1948 sleeper The Big Clock) and Harrelson gets to try on a closetful of sick expressions. But characters who are hemmed in by their own stupidity, not the tyranny of fate, aren't capable of raising much interest. There's never a moment when Palmetto escapes the shadow of earlier, better movies: This is film noir without gravity, passion, or inescapable destiny--in short, without the noir.

  • Sphere, patched together by at least two script doctors from a Michael Crichton novel, is the past year's second Solaris rip-off (after Event Horizon) and the fourth movie in recent months to have name actors slogging around murky sets waist-deep in water. Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, and Liev Schreiber play members of a scientific team sent to the ocean floor to examine a sunken spacecraft; when they arrive, they discover a glowing green sphere that can manifest the fears of all who enter. Unfortunately, after some amusingly brisk exposition, director Barry Levinson only manifests the audience's fear of hard-to-see action scenes, cruddy bottom-of-the-bathtub special effects, and woefully misused actors. Leave it to Levinson to sign on somebody as brash and vibrant as Queen Latifah, then to set her in a bulky diving suit awash in killer jellyfish. At least she fares better than Hoffman, who winds up flailing in dishwater with a rubber snake up his pants leg. At more than two hours, Sphere is a half-hour longer than the ridiculous sea-monster thriller Deep Rising; it's also half as much fun.

  • The trailer for The Replacement Killers is a blur of movement, speed, and phosphorescent color that's practically a hymn to unregulated firepower. In the space of its brief popcorn-counter-to-aisle-seat running time, it establishes Asian gun-fu hero Chow Yun-Fat as a mythic dream of a gunslinger; it turns the fetching Mira Sorvino into a pistol-packing femme fatale; and it accelerates a dozen head-snapping stunts into a riptide of kinesthetic overload. The trailer for The Replacement Killers is the boldest, most dynamic two minutes of film I've seen all year. There's no need to see the movie, unless you're curious about the 86 minutes of horseshit the trailer's editor was smart enough to cut.

--Jim Ridley

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