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Nobody wins the lottery in Dancing at Lughnasa, the season’s feel-bad Irish movie. Living in County Donegal in 1936, the five Mundy sisters have little and are about to lose much of it. Upright Kate (Meryl Streep) may be fired from her position as a schoolteacher, perhaps the most prestigious job a woman could have in ’30s Ireland. Passionate Christina (Catherine McCormack) prepares to see charming, unreliable Welsh lover Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), the father of her 8-year-old son Michael (Darrell Johnston), depart for the Spanish Civil War. Simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson) may yield her innocence to a married man. And all five sisters—the other two are Maggie (Kathy Burke) and Agnes (Brid Brennan)—are about to forfeit the status that comes from having a brother who’s an overseas missionary.

Director Pat O’Connor intersperses the opening credits with shots of African dancers, presaging the return of Father Jack Mundy (Michael Gambon) to his hometown of Ballybeg. (The journey from Uganda to Ireland is charted musically by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan.) Jack has been sent home because he’s gone native, and he’s so befuddled that he doesn’t even realize he’s in disgrace. The family’s expert in propriety, Kate, quickly discerns what the others do not: that Jack is finished as a priest, and that the repercussions for the sisters will be more severe than those for Christina’s bearing an illegitimate child.

Adapted (and condensed) from Brian Friel’s play by Frank McGuinness, Dancing at Lughnasa recounts dramatic but discreet change. Friel’s original script crossed Chekhov’s Three Sisters with his own memories of his mothers and his aunts, and although the film is less leisurely, it is equally averse to psychological flare-ups and dramatic breakthroughs. The best scenes are simple ones, like the epiphany Kate has while watching Christina dance—she sees her own regrets in her sister’s joy—or the walk shared by Jack and Gerry in which the younger man explains that the Catholic Church opposes the Spanish Republican cause. “They’re for Franco?” muses Jack. “They would be.”

Although the film’s style is discursive, all the central conflicts are neatly interwoven with the themes of religion and repression. Jack’s enthusiasm for African beliefs and rituals parallels the community’s partly submerged Celtic heritage, expressed in the celebration of Lughnasa. (The first of the two Irish harvest festivals, Lughnasa was dedicated to the sun god Lugh, whose name survives in the words Lunasa, the Gaelic name for August, and leprechaun.) When the loutish Danny Bradley (Lorcan Cranitch) takes Rose to a Lughnasa dance, he awakens the strict-Catholic Mundys’ fear of both sex and paganism. Still, Dancing at Lughnasa is not exactly The Last Wave, another film that opposes effete Christianity with vibrant heathenism; this movie’s apocalypse is quiet.

O’Connor, whose previous credits include A Month in the Country and Circle of Friends, is a committed but sometimes clumsy director. Dancing at Lughnasa never develops a distinctive style, its locations are often merely picturesque, and the voice-over (by Gerard McSorley as the grown-up Michael, Friel’s alter ego) adds nothing to the story’s shape. Such stumbles would be crucial if narrative were central to the film’s impact, but it’s not. Instead, this is a collection of luminous moments, deftly rendered by a cast so assured and unified that the overexposed Streep almost succeeds in integrating herself into it.

In his nostalgia, Friel has depicted these sisters as both more noble and more powerless than now seems likely. The film is better capable of imagining the men, with their knowledge and acceptance of the outside world, than it is of conjuring the insular Mundy sisters. Still, the actresses’ depiction of the five sisters’ fierce bond is far more powerful than the contrived sentiments of competing “chick flicks” like You’ve Got Mail and Stepmom. Dancing at Lughnasa balances drama and serendipity, emotions and ideas, with a grace the competition can hardly imagine.

Violence and drugs in African-American ghettos may seem like intractable problems, but Down in the Delta offers a simple prescription: Take the boy out of the city, and you’ll take the city out of the boy. The film-directing debut of poet, playwright, and actress Maya Angelou, this is a workmanlike, didactic effort partially redeemed by strong performances.

Upright, churchgoing Rosa Lynn Sinclair (Mary Alice) presides over the Chicago apartment also occupied by her two grandchildren, earnest Thomas (Mpho Koaho) and autistic Tracy (Kulani Hassen), and their unemployed mother Loretta (Alfre Woodard), who’s easily tempted into local gin joints and crack houses. Although she’s estranged from her brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman Jr.), Rosa decides she must call him and ask a favor: She wants him to accept Loretta and her children as guests in his Mississippi home for the summer.

Soon after the three arrive in the South, Earl takes them to church, where the choir sings “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Mississippi, it’s thus established, is the Promised Land. Free of drugs, drink, and guns, it’s a place of tradition, family, and community, unlike cold, rootless Chicago. (Ironically, both the Chicago and the Mississippi scenes were shot in Ontario.) Loretta and Thomas finally meet men who take responsibility for supporting and nurturing their families: Earl runs a restaurant and cares attentively for his wife, Annie (Esther Rolle), who has Alzheimer’s; his son, Will (Wesley Snipes), is an Atlanta lawyer with an intact nuclear family (although his light-skinned wife is portrayed as catty). The Sinclairs’ warm Mississippi home serves as part Betty Ford Clinic, part Lourdes: Loretta abandons drugs and alcohol without a twinge of distress, and even autistic Tracy starts to emerge from her psychological shell.

This city = bad, country = good thesis is one of America’s elemental, Jeffersonian myths, so Myron Goble’s script is no revelation. Neither is the plot’s second development, a Capraesque subplot about the closing of a local chicken-processing plant and Loretta’s plan to enlist Earl and Will to save the community’s jobs. More specific to the African-American experience is the third narrative thread, about an ancestor who, during the Civil War, claimed a family heirloom. The last subplot, unfortunately, is advanced in a series of flashbacks that don’t look nearly as haunted as is evidently intended.

It’s most obvious during those clunky flashbacks, but Down in the Delta has all the style of a TV movie, which is in fact the speciality of several of the film’s producers. Freeman, Woodard, Alice, Snipes, and the other performers make the proceedings watchable, but the script offers only the sort of easy uplift that doesn’t really solve anyone’s problems.

As 2,000-pound-gorilla jokes go, Mighty Joe Young is at least fairly brisk. Adapted from the 1949 flick of the same name by undistinguished director Ron Underwood (City Slickers) and scripters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, this is the story of 15-foot-high Joe, a gorilla whose bulk has something to do with recessive genes, and his friend Jill Young (Charlize Theron). Actually, she’s more sibling than friend: Joe and Jill’s mothers were both killed the same night by poachers, and ever since, Jill has served as the gorilla’s big sister, playing hide-and-seek with the frolicsome giant and keeping him hidden from the outsiders who might exploit him.

This relationship eliminates any sexual subcurrents from what is meant to be a kiddie movie; the two protagonists share the same last name, after all, and Jill maternally soothes the overgrown mama’s boy with the Afro-pop lullaby her mother used to sing to her. Theron may play a sexpot on the cover of the latest Vanity Fair, but Jill says she’s never been on a date. (Apparently, she doesn’t recognize Joe as the world’s biggest virile but immature boyfriend.)

In the original, Joe ended up in a nightclub act. In the ’90s version, the gorilla is discovered by well-meaning naturalist Gregg (Bill Paxton), who convinces Jill that Joe will be safe only in a California wildlife refuge. Joe doesn’t have to perform, but he is meant to charm the refuge’s big donors at a fundraising bash. Just before he’s unveiled, however, the gorilla is riled by the poacher (Rade Sherbedgia) who killed Joe and Jill’s mothers; the villain has come to L.A. to take revenge on the super-sized primate, who bit off two of his fingers that fateful night, by taking him back to Africa and cutting him up for parts. Instead, Joe breaks free and—not unreasonably—trashes Hollywood on his way to Santa Monica, where he proves his good nature to the riot police and other onlookers with an act of bravery.

Created by costume and animatronics expert Rick Baker, Joe is at least as compelling a character as Jill, and substantially more interesting than Gregg, the villains, the refuge bureaucrats, or the movie’s dopey native hustler (played, in a triumph of racial sensitivity, by Indian actor Naveen Andrews). James Horner’s Afro-chorales are in the Hans Zimmer (The Power of One, Lion King) style, but most everything else seems more ’40s than ’90s. Fittingly, one of the guests at the wildlife-refuge fundraiser where Joe goes amok is stop-action pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who assisted on the original Mighty Joe Young before going on to create such as ’50s and ’60s adventures as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. This movie has some of the Harryhausen spirit, which is to say that it will probably seem altogether too innocent for its intended audience. CP