COLD COMFORT FARM (Not rated, probably PG-13) (99 min.) _ Tired of stuffy British period pieces where characters look and act like porcelain figurines? This highly entertaining twist on the genre from director John Schlesinger may be your cup of cloudy tea.
Sophisticated Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) is orphaned and in need of another family branch to flit upon in 1930s England. She's an aspiring author, who hopes to write a better book than Jane Austen's Persuasion by age 53. An invitation from her gloomy kin at Cold Comfort Farm seems too much inspiration to decline, but she's shocked at their grimy work ethic and romantic repression. Like Austen's Emma, Flora decides the best thing she could do is give everyone the benefit of her advice, trying to pull the clan scratching and twitching into the 20th century.
Schlesinger and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury certainly cut her work out for Flora. The most normal residents of Cold Comfort Farm are eccentric, and the looniest are flat-out bizarre. The reclusive matriarch keeps muttering about seeing "something nasty" in the toolshed, a blustering minister (the superb Ian McKellan) preaches to his Church of Quivering Brethren, which hilariously lives up to its name. Oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell) swaggers on the sidelines, as unwilling as anyone else to change his family's backward ways.
Schlesinger moves these comical proceedings at a spritely pace, and each performer makes an odd impression. Cold Comfort Farm was reportedly penned by novelist Stellla Gibbons as a parody of D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Austen's work, although familiarity with those authors isn't a necessity. Without resorting to cheap shots or pig-trough humor, Schlesinger has shaped his finest film in years, a comic gem that shouldn't be missed. Opens today at Tampa Theatre. A
THE CELLULOID CLOSET (Not rated, probably R) (102 min.) _ Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take a more scholarly approach to Hollywood's depiction of homosexuality than Mark Rappaport did with his docu-comedy Rock Hudson's Home Movies. Whether or not you choose insight over cheeky fun will determine your taste for the former.
The Celluloid Closet is comprised of dozens of interviews and film clips to demonstrate the self-loathing drama or insulting comedy that portrayed gay lifestyles in the past. Stars such as Tom Hanks defend their choices to tackle homosexual roles, with some unsettling degree of sainthood for doing it. Most of the clips simply inform us that same-sex affection was shown or hinted as long ago as Thomas Edison's experiments. Good research and nostalgic moments, but more likely to be embraced as a solid research project than banner of gay pride. Opens today at Beach Theater. B
JANE EYRE (PG) (110 min.) _ Charlotte Bronte's Gothic romance gets another turn, in the wake of recent run of Jane Austen's novels-to-screen. The result is a handsomely mounted production with solid performances that leaves us curiously uninvolved, probably due to the simplicity and familiarity of the story. William Hurt displays fine command of a British accent as Edward Rochester, the aloof master of Thornfield manor, whose darkest secret resides in the attic. Into this gloomy environment comes Jane Eyre (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her independent spirit.
Gainsbourg has the sort of presence Hollywood keeps trying to tell us that Julia Ormond possesses, but the restrictions of the role, according to Bronte's era, don't allow her much dramatic expanse. Oscar winner Anna Paquin (The Piano) makes a terrific comeback, however, as young Jane. Fans of the novel or these actors should be pleased. Held over at Beach Theater. B
REACH FOR THE SKY (Not rated, probably G) (92 min.) _ Just in time for the Olympics comes this inspirational tale of a young gymnast who longs to be a champion. Part of the KidsLife Summer Movie Series at Tampa Theatre. Shows Saturday only at 1 p.m.
ANTONIA'S LINE (Not rated, probably R) (105 min.)_ Marlene Gorris's Academy Award-winning film rates as one of the most audience-friendly imports to reach our shore in recent years, with more than its share of cinematic whimsy and quietly epic sweep. In Dutch with English subtitles. Held over at Beach Theater. A
INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (Not rated, probably R) (105 min.) _ The first (mostly) live-action film from the Quay brothers, best known for their bizarre animation works. This one focuses on a man who attends a run-down boarding school for servants-in-training and tumbles into a mystery worthy of Kafka. Monday only at 6:30 p.m. at Tampa Theatre. P.S.: Film buffs at Titanic Anatomy Inc. will screen several of the Quay's animated films for free after Institute Benjamenta at 807 N Franklin St., one block north of Tampa Theatre.
ANTARCTICA (Not rated, probably G) (43 min.) _ Need a fascinating way to cool off this summer? Check out the latest IMAX offering at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, where the air conditioning and the massive, cool-inspiring visuals of our most barren continent await. Antarctica makes its history lessons exciting to the eye, as in a 10,000-square-foot scan of a cabin abandoned by Robert Scott's ill-fated exploration crew. Not much here to test MOSIMAX's elaborate sound system, since the subject is fairly silent. Your eyes get more than their share, though. Continues through Dec. 19. A _ STEVE PERSALL