BOXING HELENA watches as Julian Sands kidnaps...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOXING HELENA watches as Julian Sands kidnaps and then dismembers Sherilyn Fenn. The troubling thing about the film is that it sympathizes with Sands, not Fenn, who is viewed as deserving what she gets. The movie has the glossy patina of soft-core porn, primarily because it is soft-core porn. **. R.

CALENDAR GIRL follows Jason Priestly and some other boys as they travel to L.A. in 1962 to meet the queen, Marilyn Monroe. PG-13. Not screened for critics.

FATHER HOOD is a completely misconceived comedy-drama in which Patrick Swayze plays an abusive punk who kidnaps his kids and leads cops on a merry chase across the Southwest. The point is that he grows as he gets to know his children and is ultimately redeemed by their love. But it's impossible to watch in the beginning as he exposes them to grotesque danger over and over; even when he improves, it's crummy. *. PG-13.

THE FIRM "fixes" the ending of John Grisham's best seller, but I believe it was better off broken. Tom Cruise plays an ambitious first-year associate at a Memphis law firm who learns that his ultimate employer is the Mafia and he's in deeper than he wants to be. The thrust of the movie follows his self-extraction campaign, but it becomes so complicated one loses contact and sympathy with it. Excellent supporting cast but Cruise doesn't show any new moves. ** 1/2 . R.

THE FUGITIVE is sleek, well-machined and coherently re-imagined from its origins in cheesy '60s TV. Harrison Ford plays the unjustly condemned Richard Kimble, who must find the true killer of his wife even while being chased by a U.S. marshal (Tommy Lee Jones). Both Jones and Ford are great, but it's really Jones' bounding charisma that makes the movie work. Very well done commercial fare. ***. PG-13.

HARD TARGET marks the American debut of the dynamic Chinese director John Woo. Woo is saddled with the dreary Jean-Claude Van Damme and a silly story about big-game hunters going after the homeless, but the action set pieces are titanic and mind-blowing. It's a $20-million game of "Can you top this?" and Woo always does! ***. R.

HEART AND SOULS means to beat the tears out of you if it has to die trying, and it does -- die trying, that is. One of those non-denominational miracle movies, it follows four souls stuck in the ether surrounding Robert Downey Jr. as he grows to manhood. It turns out he and only he can live out their lives for them, but they don't learn this until almost too late. Of the four, two are wondrous: Charles Grodin and Alfre Woodard. The others grow tiresome, but not as tiresome as the show-offy Downey. ** 1/2 . PG-13.

IN THE LINE OF FIRE is a terrific thriller that features a cat-and-mouse game between Secret Service pro Clint Eastwood and assassin John Malkovich. Eastwood has never been better as old Frank Horrigan, who failed in Dallas and cannot fail again. Meanwhile, Malkovich offers a slimy, clever, brutal but somehow poignant portrait of a man who feels betrayed by the agency that created him -- the CIA. Made with Secret Service cooperation, the film boasts authenticity among its many virtues. *** 1/2 . R.

JURASSIC PARK is high-voltage popular filmmaking at its most cruelly efficient. Steven Spielberg streamlines (and improves) Michael Crichton's best-seller about a billionaire who pops for the genetic engineering necessary to clone dinosaurs, in order to turn a Costa Rican island into the ultimate theme park for the adoring millions. Unfortunately the dinosaurs remembered to bring their teeth, so instead of posing for the tourists, they eat them. The bland cast -- Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum -- is a little better than OK and the movie does take a while to get in gear, but once the biting begins, it becomes a truly scary. ***. PG-13.

KALIFORNIA is an ambitious film noir about two intellectuals who are fascinated, in the abstract, with serial killers. Then they meet one in the flesh, and it's not quite so fascinating. Brad Pitt plays Early Grayce, scum and murderer, with highly developed manipulative skills and no hesitations whatsoever; Juliette Lewis his pitiful girlfriend. David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes are the unlucky intellectuals. They get the ride of their lives, but the audience doesn't. ** R.

MADE IN AMERICA gets good laughs off the relationship between Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson, who find themselves thrust together by a mistake in a sperm bank 17 years earlier that made him the biological parent of her daughter. This is difficult for her to accept, as she is Afrocentric to the core. The movie wastes too much time in broad slapstick, most of it having to do with runaway vehicles. ** 1/2 . PG-13.

MAN WITHOUT A FACE is not without its quiet joys, though it eventually deflates. Mel Gibson, directing himself without a lot of vanity, plays a former teacher who has suffered a terrible burn and is in self-imposed exile in a Maine resort village. Another troubled soul comes into his orbit, 12-year-old Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl), who badly needs tutorial help. What stirs Gibson to his best work as both actor and director is the beautifully evoked relationship between the damaged man and the sad boy. ** 1/2 . PG-13.

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY is Woody Allen's lightest movie in quite a bit. It feels like a "recovery movie," meant to be amusing and unfettered with true concern. He and Diane Keaton play an upscale West Side couple who begin to wonder if their next door neighbor hasn't murdered his wife. Their investigation leads to farce and, eventually, a murder. It's frothy fun! ***. PG.

METEOR MAN is far from perfect, but it's so good-hearted and enthusiastic and optimistic that it's difficult to dislike. Robert Townsend casts himself as a schoolteacher who gets meteorized one night and wakes up with super powers. There's a lot of fun as this quite normal guy figures out how to fly and dress. But the underlying moral structure of the story is profound: If you want the streets back, you got to take them back. Nobody's giving anything away in urban America. ***. PG.

NEEDFUL THINGS follows up on Stephen King's novel in asking, What happens when the devil opens up an antique shop in a small town? There goes the neighborhood. This particular Beelzebub is Max Von Sydow, who gives gifts and sows the seeds of discord in Castle Rock, Maine. Soon the town is in total meltdown. Somehow, no one in the cast is as amusing as Von Sydow and the movie too quickly trades in psychology for violence. **. R.

ONLY THE STRONG is for only the dumb, and maybe not even them. It reuses an old plot to showcase the martial arts style called "caporeia," derived from Brazilian folk dances. But the fighting always looks more like dancing than combat. So what is this movie implying? Like, Fred Astaire was really tough? What about Rudi Nureyev, I bet he could knock 'em down, too. Mark Dacascos is unoffensive in a prosaic role of a former Green Beret hired to give some inner city kids self-respect by teaching them the new stuff, but the movie never stops being ridiculous. **. PG-13.

ORLANDO is derived from Virginia Woolf's novella, about an English boy who is born in the 17th century and still alive, young and charming, in the 20th except that now he's a she. Vividly made by Sally Potter, it's a romp through literature and the minefield of male-female relationships that is very witty. Tilda Swinton plays Orlando, brilliantly. Unrated.

ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS doesn't seem to advance the reputation of Mel Brooks much. This might have been a very funny movie back in 1975. But now, with "Airplane" and "Naked Gun," it seems so slow and sporadic it drives you crazy. Brooks has about three different jokes which he repeats every . . . 10 minutes. Cary Elwes doesn't really register as Robin, either. **. PG-13.

SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER is a rousing chess movie -- contradiction in terms though that may seem -- that follows a 7-year-old whiz up the ladder. He never does quite become the famous chess master named in the title, but neither does he become as nutty as Bobby. The movie is moored by Joe Mantegna's solid performance as Fred Waitzkin, father of gifted Josh, who learned to adjust and then to shepherd his son's brilliance. Josh is winningly played by Max Pomeranc. ***. PG.

THE SECRET GARDEN offers a rich, new film version of the 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) plays a resentful British orphan who has lost her neglectful parents. Her willful ways unlock the key to her uncle's mysterious mansion. (Steve McKerrow). *** 1/2 . G.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS is the original animated feature cartoon, timeless and wondrous 57 years later. This version has been optically and aurally cleaned and is actually better than the original 1937 release that your grandparents undoubtedly loved. ****. G.

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