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On the Screen

****: Excellent

***: Good

**: Average

*: Poor

*** Backbeat

As a gratuitous entry for the 30th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the United States, this film may seem a little shallow at first. However, director Iain Softley offers a different perspective on the group's history, at a time when the lads from Liverpool were struggling for recognition in sleazy Hamburg nightclubs. The story focuses on the friendship between art school mates John Lennon (Ian Hart) and the original "fifth Beatle," bassist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), and uses it as a vehicle to explore Sutcliffe as a tortured artist, as well as his burgeoning relationship with German existential photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). It's not the conventional Beatles biopic that you'd expect, as it casts the other group members in the shadows. This may prove especially distressing for some Beatles fans, but Ian Hart's uncanny emulation of Lennon's acerbic wit is the film's saving grace. Of course, there's music, and the re-recorded R&B gems provide an infusion of popular flair. -Scott Deskin. Brattle Theatre, Wednesday, Aug. 17.

*** Fatal Attraction

The first of Glenn Close's famous psycho films, this one is a constant thrill. It begins innocently enough, but quickly slides into a terrifying swirl of insanity and deception. As the adulterous suburban husband, Michael Douglas's motivations are ill-defined, but he recognizes that as well as we do and credibly portrays a man trying not so much to make himself understandable as to make amends for his erratic and treacherous behavior. And the best part is: just when you think things couldn't get any worse, the supremely wicked Close comes up with an even more terrifying act to stand your hair on end. - Ann Ames. LSC, Friday, July 22.

**** The Lion King

Disney's newest animated feature is amazing. The story - a lion cub runs away, fearing that he is responsible for his father's death - is simple enough for children to understand, yet still entertaining for adults. The animation is first-rate, including both computer and traditional hand-drawn graphics mixed to perfection. And, in the tradition of Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast and The Little Mermaid, the music is superb. Finally, the characters of The Lion King are some of the most memorable of all the recent Disney creatures. All-in-all this is one of the best Disney films. - Patrick Mahoney. Loews Copley Place.

*** Speed

Keanu Reeves stars as Los Angeles SWAT team member Jack Traven, who effectively becomes a hero when he incurs the wrath of Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), a mad bomber who seeks to extort money from the city. As with every great action vehicle, there has to be a gimmick: Payne has wired a transit bus with explosives that become armed when the bus exceeds 50 miles per hour, and will detonate if the bus dips below that speed. After that, it's up to Jack, along with a perky damsel on the bus (Sandra Bullock) and Jack's expendable partner Harry (Jeff Daniels), to save the day. If all this sounds rather corny, rest assured that director Jan DeBont (former cinematographer who shot Die Hard) knows his action pictures well, and keeps Speed going at a frenetic pace. The dialogue is patchy and the characters are pretty simplistic, but the real drama is carried by the thrilling stuntwork and explosions. Plus, the New Yorker called Speed the "movie of the year." What more could anyone ask of a no-brainer action film? - SD. Loews Cheri.

**** 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

This film really is what the title says: a series of 32 films, ranging in length from 45 seconds to between 10 and 15 minutes. A brilliant pianist, the eccentric Gould was known for his insightful interpretations of J.S. Bach's work, and this film is full of Bach-like preludes and fugues, some subtle and some bold, but all fascinating. Styles vary as much as length; there are dramatized scenes from Gould's life, interviews with friends and relatives, and avant-garde selections that explore Gould's music in the cinematic art form. Some of these experimental pieces seem aimless, but the joy of sitting in a darkened theater listening to Gould playing Bach or Hindemith is more than enough to sustain these few moments of visual emptiness. This is as thorough an outline of a man's life as can be presented in two hours, and it is cleverly disguised as total fiction. At the end of the film, you will be surprised to find that in addition to having had a wonderful time, you have learned something. - AA. Brattle Theatre, Wednesday, July 20.

** Wolf

The choice to cast Jack Nicholson as a werewolf in this film seems like a reasonable idea. He plays Will Randall, an emotionally restrained editor at a publishing house whose career and marriage are being sabotaged by external forces. Only after he receives a bite from a wolf on a dark New England road does he begin to externalize his animal instincts and take control of his life. He becomes attracted to the company owner's daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer) after learning about the infidelities of his wife (Kate Nelligan) with a power-hungry colleague (James Spader). This material is promising, but in the hands of director Mike Nichols, one can't be sure how to interpret this modern horror fable - as a drama of emotional crises or as light satire. Nichols accomplishes neither. Nicholson is also partly to blame: his outlandish screen persona in previous films tends to negate his portrayal of an emotionally restrained character who gets turned loose. The climactic action sequences nearly qualify as camp humor, sowing further confusion for the audience. Spader has the most to work with in his character, but he can't save this misguided attempt at modern horror. - SD. Loews Cheri.