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Movie blues: which to choose?

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

SO MANY movies. So little time.

Five films open today at area theaters. This is a perfect weekend to escape chores, work and summer doldrums to the chilly, popcorn-scented darkness of a movie house.

How to choose one from this crop? Which to see first?

Can't do it by the stars alone. Today, critic Lou Cedrone bestows two stars each on four of the films (and the fifth goes unrated because it's a restored classic).

Maybe a particular genre appeals to you.

One movie roars into town with motorcycle cowboys as rebel-saviors. Two mysteries tempt with suspense. The comedy features a master of disguises. And the restored classic -- a musical -- is dated but much loved.

They're all pretty good bets, Lou says, beginning with the film-noir mystery "Dead Again." If you're looking for farce, "True Identity" is worth a see. So is "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man," despite its obvious promotions. If the tunes "Ol' Man River" and "Fish Gotta Swim" make you sentimental, paddle over to the Senator for the restored 1951 "Showboat" (see Page D3). Here are Lou's reviews:

'Dead Again"

** A woman, convinced that she has lived before, is certain that she was murdered in her previous life.

CAST: Kenneth Branagh, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Hanna Schygulla, Emma Thompson

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

RATING: R (language, violence)

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

A synopsis of "Dead Again" makes it sound as though the movi is going to work itself into a hole and never dig itself out.

Actually, it does, with more than a little wit, a -- of humor and great style.

"Dead Again" means to echo the Alfred Hitchcock films and some of those done by Brian De Palma when he was imitating Hitchcock.

Actually, the film is closer to Hitchcock than it is to De Palma, and this is said with more than a hint of approval. "Dead Again" has its share of violence, but all this is done with commendable restraint. This is definitely not a film that hopes to emulate the "Nightmare on Elm Street" school.

Toward close, the new movie does bring "Fatal Attraction" to mind, but its ending is far more satisfying, largely because we have been prepared for it.

Kenneth Branagh stars. He also directed. Branagh, 30, is the young man who won an Academy Award nomination for his work in "Henry V," a film he also directed.

In the new movie, Branagh is Mike Church, an American private eye thrown into the company of a mute young woman who is positive that she has lived before as a pianist who was murdered by her husband, a composer.

The composer dies for the crime, but it isn't long before we suspect that the wrong man may have been executed.

Who did do it? Well, the suspects are many, and they include a refugee woman and her young son.

"Dead Again" flashes back -- in black and white -- to 1948, the time of the murder. When it returns to the present, the film is in color, a handy device that helps us keep all this straight.

Branagh is completely at ease as the American private eye. His accent is quite good. Emma Thompson is bewitching as the woman who thinks she has lived and died before. Derek Jacobi is an antiques dealer who offers to help solve the mystery. Campbell Scott is a mysterious young man who claims to know the woman and Hanna Schygulla is the refugee woman who had loved the man accused of killing his wife.

Andy Garcia, speaking with an accent, is the reporter who covered the murder trial. He doesn't have that much to do, but he does have one terrific scene in which the very obvious message is "give up smoking."

"Dead Again" is a more-than-serviceable mixture of mystery, comedy and surprise. Go along with it, and you are likely to enjoy it.

"Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man"

** Two bikers, friends, stage a heist that pits them against crime lord.

CAST: Mickey Rourke, Don Johnson, Giancarlo Esposito, Vanessa Williams, Tom Sizemore:

DIRECTOR: Simon Wincer

RATING: R (nudity, violence, language)

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

Hollywood is apparently very fond of "Butch Cassidy and th Sundance Kid," the 1969 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. They can't seem to leave it alone. Only a few months ago, we had "Thelma & Louise," a female version of that legend. Now, there's "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man."

The film is quite good. At start, it moves leisurely, but in time it develops a nice cadence, dropping more than a few laughs along the way.

Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson are the title characters, and of course, neither Harley Davidson nor Marlboro could hope for better advertising than this.

The promotion is blatant. Both men smoke throughout the film, which is set five years in the future.

According to this film, men on cycles will still be smoking and wearing earrings five years down the road. They will also be as aimless as some members of the present generation. They don't know the word commitment.

"Harley Davidson" is also a buy-American film. In once scene, Marlboro (Johnson) shoots his Kawasaki to death. Do you need a clearer message than that?

"Harley Davidson" takes place in Los Angeles. Harley (Rourke) is a leather-clad biker who plays Robin Hood when he gets off his cycle. He is the champion of the poor and the downtrodden. So is Marlboro; it is he who suggests that both men rob a bank to get the money that will help a good buddy keep his bar open.

The heist is ingeniously staged, and this is where the movie goes comic book. After the two men and their friends inactivate the armored truck and take what they want, they are approached by five men who are all wearing the same protective uniforms, the kind worn by the bad men in Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider." If this isn't comic book enough, it is when the "good" guys fire at the bad guys, aiming everywhere but at their heads.

That's all right. It's all very acceptable, given the intentions of the producers.

Things go comically awry in "Harley Davidson" when the "good" guys discover that the "money" they took is really a new drug, one that is directly applied to the eyes. It kills one out of seven users, but that doesn't seem to bother anybody.

The loot, unfortunately, belongs to a bank executive who doubles as a drug lord. He's not satisfied with $500,000 a year. He wants millions more and is getting it when his path crosses with the bikers'.

There is a showdown that takes place in a high-rise office building. There is also a running gag about the boots the Marlboro Man is wearing. His daddy gave them to him, he says. They have sentimental value. Just so we know that this is a "Sundance" redo, the script has the two men jump from a high-rise into a swimming pool.

Rourke, his hair moussed, his earring dangling, fits this role better than most he has done. That is, you don't mind him after a time. Johnson does a little better, but then he has the funnier lines.

"Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man" may represent a new level in movie advertising. Give it a little time to get started.

"True Identity"

** A struggling black actor masquerades as a white man whe hit men try to kill him.

CAST: Lenny Henry, Frank Langella, Charles Lane, Anne-Marie Johnson, Michael McKean, Peggy Lipton

DIRECTOR: Charles Lane

RATING: R (language, violence)

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

"True Identity," based on a skit Andy Breckman did for Eddi Murphy six years ago when Murphy was doing "Saturday Night Live," plays much better than it sounds.

The film, directed by Charles Lane ("Sidewalk Stories"), has Miles Pope (English comic Lenny Henry) discover the identity of the man sitting next to him on a plane. He is Leland Carver who, before he achieved respectability, was a mobster. The name change came with the plastic surgery, after Carver staged his own death.

The crime lord, who thinks the plane is going down, tells all this to Pope, a black actor who is still waiting for his big break. When the plane lands safely, the former mobster, now sorry that he has revealed his true identity, wants the actor dead.

When he orders a couple of hit men to do the deed, the actor goes into a panic. What he needs is a disguise. Fortunately, he has a friend, a make-up expert who turns the actor into a white man. Pope doesn't like it. He'd rather remain black, but he also wants to live.

This grand impersonation creates some truly good laughs, and all through this, the star remains very likable. The whole film, in fact, is likable. Race is an issue, but it is not the main issue. && Breckman does just enough with it.

Frank Langella is a hood posing as a wealthy land owner, a man who is producing the "Othello" in which Pope hopes to land the lead role. All Pope has to do is eliminate James Earl Jones from the competition, and he manages to do that. Jones plays himself in the film. It's a very nice bit.

Michael McKean is a theatrical agent who doesn't know "Hamlet" from "Othello." Peggy Lipton is the wife of Carver. Anne-Marie Johnson is a decorator who helps Pope elude the hit men. Melvin Van Peebles, father of Mario Van Peebles, plays a cabbie who picks up a black man then sees his passenger turn into a white man, thanks to the magic of make-up.

Director Lane, a very young man who looks something like Spike Lee, also appears in the film, as the make-up friend with a liking for huge women. It is difficult to say which is better, his acting or his direction. Both are very good.

NB "True Identity" may be one joke, but it's a pretty good one.

"Defenseless"

** An attorney becomes a suspect in the death of one of he clients.

CAST: Barbara Hershey, Sam Shepard, Mary Beth Hurt, J.T. Walsh, Jay O. Sanders, Sheree North

DIRECTOR: Martin Campbell

RATING: R (nudity, violence, language)

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

"Defenseless" is an admirable but not altogether successfu attempt to add to the film noir genre.

Directed by Martin Campbell, the new movie moves evenly, but there are times when the principals do not behave with intelligence, always a drawback in a film of this sort.

Barbara Hershey plays a criminal attorney involved with a married man. He tells her his marriage is in name only, but we know all about that. A short time after the film begins, the attorney meets a former schoolmate who happens to be married to -- you guessed it, the attorney's new love.

The philanderer is also the lady lawyer's client. She is defending him in a case that involves one of his properties on which porn movies are being made.

Does he know about this? Is he sharing in the profits?

These and other questions are never really answered, and before long, the landowner-lover is murdered, leaving wife, daughter and attorney as suspects.

Hershey is good enough to make us overlook some of the inconsistencies in the plot, and there are a few.

Mary Beth Hurt is the wife, and when the tables are turned, "Defenseless" is almost novel. At other times, the film is just silly.

The attorney, for instance, rides through shady neighborhoods in a convertible. She even parks in these neighborhoods. All right, you could do that when Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame were still making these movies, but today?

"Defenseless" is rich with irregularities, but one thing may be said for it -- it doesn't bore. You may laugh now and then, you may even snigger, but you'll see the movie through and not because you can't guess the identity of the killer.

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