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On the Screen

HHHH:Excellent

HHH:Good

HH:Average

H:Poor

HHH1/2 Antonia's Line

A magnificently open-hearted feminist vision of a way the world could be if men were not always struggling to dominate it. This epic magical-realist story begins just after World War II and culminates the day after tomorrow. It's not some matriarchal never-never land, however - the roses in this paradise still hold thorns. As the seasons turn over, friends and lovers grow older and die, and those who are left behind have to mix some sadness with their satisfaction. But its vision is inspired, and it plants hope in our hearts that what has had to be separated in the past can be brought together again. -Stephen Brophy. Kendall Square.

HHH1/2 The Birdcage

The American version of the French farce La Cage aux Folles succeeds on many levels, thanks in part to the ebullient performances of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Armand (Williams) is the owner and musical director of a nightclub in Miami's South Beach section, while his lover Albert (Lane) is the diva-in-drag who's the star performer at the club. The trouble starts when Armand's son (Dan Futterman) starts courting the daughter of a conservative U.S. Senator (Gene Hackman) whose election platform is steeped in "moral order" and "family values." By the time the film reaches its climactic, comic showdown between the two families, the message of "family" and the characters' foibles are so skillfully exploited that one overlooks the expected degrees of slapstick, even when resorting to gay stereotypes. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May have struck the appropriate comic and social chords for this film to be a witty, beguiling, and relevant film. -Scott C. Deskin. Sony Cheri.

HHHH The Celluloid Closet

The Celluloid Closet unclosets queers in the American cinema, starting with an eerily provocative little clip filmed 100 years ago in the studios of Thomas Edison. To the sound of a silent violin we see two men dancing, very obviously at affectionate ease with each other. Until recently, it's been mostly downhill in film depictions of lesbians and gays. Based on the groundbreaking book of the same name by the late Vito Russo, this documentary features clips from various representative movies, talking head shots with famous actors and directors, and a voice-over narration by Lily Tomlin. The movie relentlessly aims to ingratiate itself, and is firmly situated in the assimilationist mainstream of gay politics ("we're just the same as everybody else, except for what we do in bed"). Still, there are many pleasures to be had from watching the clips under discussion, and it's great to hear Harvey Fierstein speak up in defense of "sissies." -SB. Kendall Square.

HHHH Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, addresses the death penalty issue unflinchingly and comprehensively. It follows convicted killer Matthew Poncelet (Penn) from the murders, through his several appeals, and finally to his execution in excruciating detail, escorted by his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon). Don't look to this movie for much action, adventure, or excitement. This emotionally brutal film challenges you to think about the issues surrounding the death penalty. You'll walk away from the theater with a profound sense of the tragedy that any murder is, whether it is committed by a person or by the government. And you will leave with a bitter sense of pity both for the original victims and the convicts on death row. -Audrey Wu. Sony Nickelodeon.

HH1/2 Executive Decision

Muslim terrorists hijack a passenger plane en route to Washington and demand money and the release of their spiritual leader. But the pentagon soon learns the real plan: to crash the plane, loaded with a deadly nerve toxin, into the capitol, instantly killing himself and the rest of the passengers and sending a deadly plume of gas over much of the eastern seaboard. Enter Kurt Russell and Steven Segal, who must sneak aboard the plan to defuse the bomb. Although the ending is never in question, Executive Decision keeps us hooked from one climax to the next with surprising efficiency. -Yaron Koren. Sony Cheri.

HH1/2 Faithful

It's Margaret's (Cher) 20th wedding anniversary and her husband has hired a hitman to kill her. Tony (Chazz Palminteri) is to break into the couple's home, tie her up, and wait for a phone call from the husband telling Tony he is far enough away to have an alibi. This leaves Tony and Margaret an hour to sit around and talk about their lives, which they both easily do. Overall, Faithful is mildly funny but unoriginal. There are several twists at the end that try to keep it from being predictable, but it feels as if the writers were trying too hard to give us a surprise ending. -DVR. Sony Copley.

HHH Fargo

Joel and Ethan Coen revisit familiar territory, both personal and professional, in this tale of crime in the heartland. Set in the wintry Minnesota landscape from which the two brothers escaped a few years ago, this story of a kidnapping plot gone bad retreads the success of the Coen's first movie, Blood Simple. This revisiting is underlined by the casting of Frances McDormand, Blood Simple's femme fatale, but in a very different role - a pregnant police chief with more brains, determination, and grit, not to mention moral sense, than anyone else in the movie. -SB. Sony Nickelodeon.

HHHH Leaving Las Vegas

This sometimes-harrowing, often-redemptive look at a relationship between a destructive alcoholic (Nicholas Cage) and a prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) could be a spiritual antidote to the excesses of Showgirls. Cage is a newly-fired screenwriter whose vices have torn apart his family and led him to Las Vegas, where he resolves to drink himself to death. Shue falls in love with him for his lack of pretense, and both embark on a journey of love and self-revelation. Director Mike Figgis completely redeems himself for the pathetic Mr. Jones; here, he paints the characters with warm, natural emotions and uses the garish backdrop of the Vegas Strip (where even the golden arches of McDonald's are adorned with a multitude of flashing lights). The soundtrack of soulful contemporary songs by Sting, Don Henley, and other performers is hypnotic and artfully used. It's definitely worthwhile and uplifting for those who can take it. -SCD. Sony Copley.

HHH1/2 Sense and Sensibility

Director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet) and screenwriter-actress Emma Thompson present one of the newest Jane Austen adaptations this year. Despite the similarities to BBC television's Pride and Prejudice, the film is a treat to watch. Thompson plays Elinor, the older, more sensible sister of the family, while Kate Winslet plays Marianne, her younger, more passionate sister. When struck by the loss of their father, the family must look to its daughters to seek out prospective husbands; through their trials and misfortunes (including liaisons with prospective suitors Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman), the family stands together and never forsakes its honor. The dialogue and ruminations on sexual impropriety may seem quaint by today's standards, but Thompson's screenplay does justice to 18th-century romance and chivalry. -SCD. Sony Harvard Square.