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MARCH 29, 1999: 

Doug's First Movie

Here's something Hollywood needs to learn: kids can recognize tired conventions too. They want to see imaginative films just as much as adults -- maybe more, given their limber and surreal little minds. Doug's 1st Movie (a spinoff from the ABC Saturday-morning animated series Disney's Doug) doesn't offer much for adults or pre-schoolers. Doug Funnie is a 12-year-old twerpy Everykid who spends his time bouncing around town with his sidekick Skeeter, counting down the hours to the Valentine's Day dance and dreaming about his date, Patti Mayonnaise. After making friends with the local lake monster, Doug and Skeeter find themselves battling the city's water pollution and the evil industrialist responsible.

Aside from a few vivid Doug fantasy sequences, there's not much original here in the way of storytelling, dialogue, or animation. You can guess whether good prevails, and whether Doug makes the "right choice" between winning Patti or saving the monster. Even a kindergartener could answer that. The more important question is: will this be Doug's last movie?

-- Sarah Curtis

The King and I

I saw Yul Brynner as the King of Siam back in the '50s. I made it through Rudolf Nureyev's portrayal at the Wang Center in the '80s. I watched Hayley Mills's Anna flounce about in her (Victorian) underwear in the '90s. So I didn't think anything about Morgan Creek's new animated version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1951 Broadway musical could surprise me -- but I wasn't prepared for all the things R&H "forgot" to put in. Like the Kralahome (voice of Ian Richardson), an evil royal adviser/magician who wants arriving British schoolteacher Anna (Miranda Richardson) to report the King of Siam (Martin Vidnovic) as a "barbarian" so the Brits will kick him out and the Kralahome can step in. Or the cute animals: a mischievous monkey, a regal black panther, and a pair of adorable rare white elephants.

Morgan Creek has also come up with a few plot "improvements." The Crown Prince (Allen Hong) is now an adolescent, and it's he who falls in forbidden love with Burmese slave Tuptim (Armi Abalos Arabe). After they run away, the King sees the error of his ways, and, when Tuptim falls into a raging river thanks to the Kralahome's black magic, he comes to the rescue in his own invention, a hot-air balloon.

This is all entertaining and lots of fun but doesn't have much to do with the original poignant story. The animation is Saturday-morning quality (the figures keep "ghosting," and the facial expressions are not exactly Disney-sophisticated); the renditions of R&H's music are only so-so. Worse, "We Kiss in the Shadows" is relegated to the end credits, and "Something Wonderful," Lady Thiang, and the entire "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sequence are conspicuous by their absence. For kids, three stars; for adults, just one.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

The Farm: Angola, USA

Somewhere there may be prisoners getting coddled, but not at the Louisiana maximum-security state penitentiary known as "The Farm." As filmmakers Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack point out in their eloquent, poetic, Oscar-nominated documentary The Farm: Angola, USA, 85 percent of those imprisoned there will never leave (perhaps more ominously, 77 percent of those imprisoned the year the film was shot were black).

The odds for the six inmates portrayed here don't look much better, and the suggestion is that though crime rates have plummeted, the penal system has mushroomed into a draconian monster out of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. In a parole hearing out of To Kill a Mockingbird, an inmate who has served 20 years of a 100-year rape sentence presents convincing evidence that the victims lied and weren't even attacked. He steps outside and the good-old-boy board members (one of them an African-American) contemptuously dismiss his plea.

Whether these are representative or model prisoners is unclear, but even a confessed killer on death row for 12 years seems to have paid his debt, rehabilitated himself, and then some. As one of the lifers, an old-timer dying of cancer, points out, there is life even in Angola, and the stoicism, faith, and good will these men seem to have achieved in their punishment is a reproach to those who take for granted their freedom.

-- Peter Keough

Steam: The Turkish Bath

One of film's underappreciated virtues is its ability to evoke the immanence of places and things -- something that Ferzan Ozpetek's Steam: The Turkish Bath does with exquisite poignance. The misty light over the Bosporus, the texture of a damp wall, the pathos of a dead woman's dusty relics all provide this seductive fable of the exhilaration of change and the ineluctability of fate with the jolt of a vaguely recalled epiphany.

Hot-shot Rome designer Francesco (Italian film legend Vittorio Gassman's son Alessandro, resembling a sensitive Ben Affleck) chafes at having to leave his tight schedule and prickly relationship with wife and partner Marta (dark and lanky Francesca d'Aloja) to travel to Istanbul to sell a property willed to him by his estranged Aunt Anita. Once there, he's intrigued to find his inheritance is a derelict steam bath, or hamam, and is further drawn in by the family overseeing it -- including the nubile Füsun (Basak Koklukaya) and, especially, her boyish brother Mehmet (Mehmet Gunsur).

As Francesco restores the bath and reads his aunt's letters about how the city and the hamam transformed her life, his own life alters with strange desires and a stranger's memories. In the background lies the threat of a basilisk-eyed entrepreneur who wants to raze the place to build a soulless development, and the caressing vapors of this tantalizing new world slowly form into a climax of Borgesian irony. Startling in its originality and imaginativeness, Steam is an unexpected treasure.

-- Peter Keough


Antonia Bird must be hungry for flack from Catholics: Priest, her 1994 film about a gay cleric, earned howls of protests, and her new Ravenous shows no signs of her being penitent. She's muted the religious and gay themes in this fusion of Night of the Living Dead and Interview with the Vampire by way of Dances with Wolves, but under the guise of a standard slasher flick they curdle all the more exuberantly. The result is neither flesh nor fowl -- it won't satisfy the appetites of horror fans or art-film aficionados -- but is worth seeing, if only for its moments of twisted inspiration, an uncanny soundtrack by Michael Nyman and Blur's Damon Albarn, and a lip-smacking performance by Robert Carlyle.

Carlyle plays Colqhoun, a bearded scarecrow found near-frozen by the six flakes manning an Army outpost in the Sierra Nevada in 1847. He has a terrible Donner Party tale to tell of escape from snowbound pioneers turned cannibalistic, and when he leads a rescue party back to the vulval cave where it all happened, he has a nasty surprise in store for them. In fact, it could be nastier and more surprising, and though Guy Pearce as an officer with a few skeletons in his closet adds an edge of madness and homoerotic intrigue, all the brooding about the eucharist and western expansion proves a teasing garnish on a disappointing entree.

-- Peter Keough

Lights From Afar

Looking for a truly independent filmmaker who's not just out to land a major-distributor deal? Helga Reidemeister is your gal. Her documentary Lights from Afar (Lichter aus dem Hintergrund) follows the fortunes of photographer and former East Berliner Robert Paris as he tries to make his way in the reunited city. First, though, we pan along endless Berlin construction sites; then we hear someone complaining that foreigners get all the construction work, and we learn that "people have lost something, love and respect for each other, because everybody is after more power, more money." Robert complains that Berliners aren't asked about what gets built. He hardly sees his friends because they're out chasing money. His family and friends, all artists of some sort, lament that nothing is done for the benefit of real Berliners. His friend Petra sums it up: "There are so many shitty parasites around."

There's some truth to the complaint that Berlin is becoming a commercial jungle, but instead of placing these interviews in the financial and historical context of German reunification, Reidemeister simply intersperses long stretches of dark, arty city scenes. Eventually Robert goes out to India and takes pictures; for 16 blessed minutes there's no kvetching, just visuals and the soundtrack (which sounds like Sonny Sharrock picking up a trombone and trying to cover Philip Glass). Then he's back and talking about Düsseldorf or Dortmund, but the truth is he could be unhappy anywhere. Catch this one now -- it's not going to get picked up by Miramax.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

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