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Kinky Angels, comical Midwinter's Tale open at Kendall

THIS WEEK AT THE KENDALL

Kendall Square Theatre.

One Kendall Square, Cambridge.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

After a sojourn in the Amazon and a shipwreck on the way home, the young naturalist William takes up residence at a rural estate in England. He is the guest of the lord of the manor, formerly a man of God who has now become a follower of Darwin. But he excites the class antipathy of the estate's heir, especially as he begins to court the young man's sister.

Such is the situation of Angels and Insects, opening today at the Kendall Square Theatre. Set up to take a fall are the aristocrats of the story. I'm no fan of aristocracies based on birth or wealth, but the values of this tale are so primly middle-class that the upper-class characters become underdogs, and I felt my sympathies go unwillingly towards them. You see, the aristocrats are sexual transgressors, and although the taboo they break in this story is nearly impossible to defend, it carries the burden of representing all such violations against a narrowly defined sexual morality.

The movie is as sumptuously presented as any Merchant-Ivory costume production, but is decidedly more kinky, its passion more more smolderingly. As a curious note, Mark Rylance who plays the young naturalist, gave us as credible, if histrionic Hamlet at the American Repertory Theatre a few seasons ago. Angels and Insects is lovely to watch, and an intelligent incitement to thought, but its closet conservatism ultimately scuttles it.

In A Midwinter's Tale, Kenneth Branagh shows that he still has a surprise or two in him. After giving us two dreadful movies in a row (Peter's Friends and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), Branagh presents an entertaining and enjoyable meditation on theater life. The movie (titled In the Bleak Midwinter at the Boston Film Festival) follows the travails of a group of misfit actors who come together to put on a production of Hamlet in a drafty church during the Christmas season.

Everyone associated with this Hamlet, except maybe the director's agent (airily portrayed by Joan Collins), is in dire need of long-term therapy. Still, the collection of strangers becomes a sort of dysfunctional family that uses the play to work things out. Much of the story is hysterically funny, and the mawkish moments are kept to a minimum. This would make a great double bill with Last Summer at the Hamptons, which is also currently playing at the Kendall.

Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead is another crime story filled with male criminals who have strong feelings for each other. They hug and hold each other a lot, and spend more time worrying about their butts than any comparable crew since Pulp Fiction. But Scott Rosenberg (Beautiful Girls), the hotshot heterosexual screenwriter who created these guys, wants us to be sure that his cool criminals aren't a bunch of queers. From the first dialog, every opportunity for a disgusting homosexual reference is taken.

In this world women are at best adornments (Gabrielle Anwar) or little lost waifs (Fairuza Balk) who have to be saved from themselves. Within the logic of the story, most of the killing seems pretty pointless and at times becomes repellently ugly. Director Gary Fleder puts this all together with more interesting visual flair than it deserves. And the roles, while not very sensible, give the actors lots of room to show their chops. Treat Williams is especially entertaining as the most psychotic of the crew.

Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead includes some meditations on the meaning of death that could provoke productive thought if the senselessness and offensiveness of the rest of the package didn't get much in the way. This is ultimately a disappointing movie because it's clear that it could have been much better.