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APRIL 6, 1998: 


The Hudlin brothers have done much to bring African-American film into the mainstream by making it as mediocre as standard Hollywood fare. Ride, their latest production, has aspirations but settles for being an amiable teen comedy like the Hudlins' House Party movies. The film is a mild satire of the hip-hop business, full of insider cameos and broad stereotypes -- a womanizing record label executive, an imperious video director, and a bunch of Harlem-based teenage rappers who (the script assures us) have little talent. (It's hard to tell, since there's surprisingly little music in the film.) There's also a green assistant director, Leta (Melissa De Sousa), an apparent stand-in for Ride writer/director Millicent Shelton, who must chaperone the rappers from New York to Miami on a rickety bus.

Helping Leta is the earnest, community do-gooder Poppa (Malik Yoba), and their tentative romance is juggled with many other soap-operatic subplots. Yet the filmmakers can't be bothered to follow through with any of these except as set-ups for jokes and insults. Even the least demanding teen viewers may feel cheated by the absence of the sex and violence implied by Ride's R rating; except for the constant profanity, the kids might as well be spending 90 minutes chuckling at sit-coms on the WB.

-- Gary Susman

Niagara Niagara

Niagara Niagara is a hybrid of two already cliché'd subgenres: the lovers-on-the-run thriller (from Bonnie and Clyde to Natural Born Killers) and the young-obsessive-compulsives-in-love romance (Benny & Joon, Angel Baby). Henry Thomas, in the stringy-haired sensitive-misfit role Johnny Depp is now too old for, falls for Robin Tunney, a woman whose repertoire of tics and emotional outbursts (Tourette's syndrome makes her blurt obscenities, and she occasionally lashes out in violence) is exacerbated by her diet of pills and whiskey. The couple meet-cute while boosting tchotchkes at a hardware store; later, when they've graduated to armed robbery, she orders him to quit shoplifting because "it's not classy."

Neither is the film, though director Bob Gosse and screenwriter Matthew Weiss think they're being subtle by leaving possibly exculpatory details about the pair's childhoods implied but not spelled out. Still, they manage to romanticize both violent crime and mental illness. Tunney earned an award at 1997's Venice Film Festival for her performance, but by the time she has her climactic fit in the toy aisle at a department store, you'll feel relieved that you no longer have to spend time with her.

-- Gary Susman

Barney's Great Adventure

Something must be seriously wrong with me because I didn't hate the new Barney movie. It's a lot less grating than the TV series, and the preschool-friendly antics actually had me giggling more than once. Three children spending a week at their grandparents' farm conjure up Barney and discover a magical giant egg. When they lose the egg, they spend the rest of the film chasing it through colorful, wacky scenes packed with music and dancing.

Whereas the children on the TV show are painfully precocious, the three in Barney's Great Adventure are well-behaved, even likable. Little boys might reject the plot for its squeaky-clean positivity, but frequent audience participation and sing-alongs should keep most tots engaged and entertained. There's not much to excite parents here -- Barney still talks down to the kids and lacks the multiple levels that made Sesame Street so brilliant -- but they won't be nauseated, either. Plus, Barney taught me lots about teamwork, using my imagination, and making the best out of a bad situation (like being assigned to review this film).

-- Dan Tobin

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

For a film about the founder of Objectivism, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is not very objective. Less a documentary than a 145-minute panegyric to the author/philosopher, the movie plays as a long testament to the triumph of Ayn Rand's will. Writer/director Michael Paxton tries to illustrate the artist's ideas, to portray her sense of life. Unfortunately, only half a picture emerges. There are lots of interviews with friends and admirers but none with critics. Opposition to her ideas is blamed on the prejudices of liberals and Communists. Questionable actions by Ms. Rand, such as testifying as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee and writing a pamphlet against Communist screenwriting, are brushed over. The best parts of the documentary are excerpts of television interviews with Ms. Rand: the author comes across as a provocative thinker who was eager to address criticism. Too bad Paxton didn't take a similar attitude in this documentary.

-- Nicholas Patterson

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