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JULY 13, 1998: 

The Land Girls

The British homefront during World War II has inspired some fine movies, from Mrs. Miniver to Hope and Glory; The Land Girls is not one of them. Director David Leland has softened since his audacious Wish You Were Here (1987), and his new film about a trio of young London women from disparate backgrounds working on a struggling farm lacks edge and originality. Catherine McCormack is bland as the naive bourgeoise providing the obligatory, purplish voiceover narrative, and Rachel Weisz is plucky as the virginal upper-class twit; only Anna Friel as the working woman/slut offers some depth, passion, and interest. The trio battle and bond in a family manor that looks alternately lush and torpid; it's all like Cold Comfort Farm without the arch comedy. With few exceptions -- distantly observed air raids and the shocking crash of a German fighter in a field -- the war takes second place to their mildly resolved class conflicts and misadventures in finding husbands. Aspiring to be bittersweet, it's merely sweet; The Land Girls would have done better had it shunned airy stereotypes and stuck closer to the soil.

-- Peter Keough

Passion in the Desert

Following the release of Cousin Bette and this offsetting drama, it would appear that Honoré de Balzac has replaced Jane Austen as cinema's literary darling of the moment. Set in the late 1790s, Passion in the Desert explores the strange romantic entanglement between a Napoleonic officer stranded in the Egyptian desert and a female leopard -- yes, a leopard. Ben Daniels (Beautiful Thing) is striking as the blue-eyed Frenchman, and his feline co-star radiates with equal on-screen magnetism.

Despite the film's constrained plot, which doesn't move beyond the man-beast codependency, and occasional bouts of silliness (be it the erotic scenes of paw play or Daniels flying into a jealous fit when a he-cat comes calling to their little oasis), first-time director Lavinia Currie sustains a mesmerizing rhythm. As a visual stylist, Currie -- with the aid of her accomplished cinematographer, Andrei Rodionov (Orlando) -- captures the desert's delirious vastness with a piercing brilliance comparable to that of The Sheltering Sky or Walkabout. But as a storyteller, she reduces the spiritual intensity of Balzac's novella to a preposterously literal definition of "pussy whipped."

-- Tom Meek


From the old house covered in vines to the 12 little girls in two straight lines, director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl, Woo) remains true to the droll details of Ludwig Bemelmans's classic picture books. The casting is inspired, too: newcomer Hatty Jones makes a sunny, insouciant Madeline, and dimpled Frances McDormand plays wimpled Miss Clavel with spunk.

Shot on location in Paris, the film cobbles together four Bemelmans favorites to allow Madeline beaucoup adventures. Still, not everything falls into place as neatly as that familiar queue of straw-hatted schoolgirls. The patchwork plot has a harried, episodic feel, and some of the gags lack the European flavor of the original works. Most amusing are Madeline's run-ins with a funky wheel of cheese and the bratty son of a Spanish ambassador (Kristian De La Osa, a brooding, pre-pubescent Brando). In all, Mayer may have found her girl in Jones, but the film's clunky structure is one fix even our courageous heroine can't undo.

-- Alicia Potter

Dear Jesse

If you thought former governor Weld had it tough with Senator Jesse Helms, think again. This poignant but amateurish documentary tartly chronicles the longtime senator's vehement perpetuation of prejudice. Director Tim Kirkman explores Helms's mystique by scrutinizing some strangely similar demographics: Kirkman and Helms grew up in the same small town in North Carolina, both attended Wingate College for one year, and both are obsessed with homosexuality -- Helms because he's a right-wing hatemonger, Kirkman because he's gay.

Kirkman's amiable Roger & Me approach takes on its subject with wit and verve, but at times the camera meanders off as the filmmaker tries to illuminate irrelevant details from his own personal life. The most pointed moments come from Jesse himself, on air and cultivating homophobia, and from Kirkman's interviews with persons who have had dealings with the senator. In a letter of condolence to a mother who lost her son to AIDS, Helms proselytizes the Bible's condemnation of homosexuals and tells her that her son "played Russian roulette with his sexuality." That says it all.

-- Tom Meek

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