John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito

Ironically this playful, thoroughly entertaining spoof of Hollywood moviemaking stems from the more bitter (though equally entertaining) novel by Elmore Leonard. The famous crime writer, apparently disgusted by the mediocre movies Hollywood has made from his previous novels (1988's Glitz, '85's Stick), had the ingenious notion to compare the capricious, dishonorable nature of organized crime to the movie business. In this adaptation, Travolta is a movie-obsessed enforcer for a Miami loan shark. He tracks a delinquent client, David Paymer, to Las Vegas and then to Los Angeles.

Once there he breaks into the house of Russo, a B-movie star who is sleeping with her longtime producer Hackman. Travolta, employing the same intimidation techniques he used in the loan shark business, convinces Hackman to make a movie of his pursuit of Paymer. On the periphery of this budding moguldom are Delroy Lindo, a thuggish drug dealer who has invested money in another Hackman production; James Gandolfini, as a stuntman who doubles as Lindo's muscle; and Dennis Farina, a Miami gangster with a grudge against Travolta. DeVito is a pretentious, Method-style star (and Russo's ex-husband).

Director Barry Sonnenfeld weaves all these threads into a consistently witty whole, aided mightily by the canny Hackman, slyly unscrupulous and manipulative, and the unexpectedly funny Russo, who blithely plays a frowsy actress known mostly for her ability to scream.

More biting a satire than Robert Altman's The Player and more consistently funny, this movie is the best revenge Leonard could hope for. (R)

David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, Chazz Palminteri

This convoluted, sex-obsessed mystery will make sense only to those willing to concede the all-time world femme fatale title to Fiorentino, and even they will wish there were footnotes instead of credits at the end of the film. (Almost the whole cast swarms onscreen more or less to resolve the questions of who has been using Fiorentino to sexually blackmail prominent Northern Californians and who has escalated the business into murder.)

Since this film was written by Joe Eszterhas, the one-man Michelin guide to sexual excess, Fiorentino is a high-octane sex machine whose love-making proclivities are peculiar enough to make her partners vulnerable to blackmail. Her affairs also enrage her jealous husband, Palminteri, a successful defense lawyer. Most of the film is consumed by the conflicted relationships between Fiorentino, her husband and their old mutual friend Caruso (apparently Fiorentino's ex-lover), who is also a district attorney investigating the murders inspired by Fiorentino's friskiness.

Neither Eszterhas nor director William Friedkin seems overly concerned with clarifying the plot, which also involves Richard Crenna as a none-too-scrupulous governor, Michael Biehn as a querulous cop and model Angie Everhart as a hooker who is a potential murder witness. Real-life San Francisco cop Kenny King competently plays Caruso's D.A. partner.

The climactic scene, which takes place in the darkened Palminteri-Fiorentino home, leaves an unsatisfying feeling.

To look on the bright side, this movie makes more sense and is less offensive than Eszterhas's other current film Showgirls. But then that could be said of Debbie Does Dallas too.

Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Sophie Thompson

Some years back, a publisher of paperback romances began an imprint called Second Chance at Love, featuring once-bruised heroines giving love another go. Aside from its superior prose and fewer throbbing body parts, Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, first published in 1818, would fit right in.

Her heroine, the well-born Anne Elliot (Root), had at age 19 broken her engagement to a young naval officer (Hinds) after being persuaded by family and friends that he had "nothing but himself to recommend him." Now, eight years later, he has returned a successful and wealthy man. How Anne persuades herself, and eventually him, that she was wrong the first time around and that they should rendezvous with Cupid again is at the heart of Austen's story.

As witty as Austen's better-known novels, Persuasion is also a more mature, reflective work. Director Roger Michell and writer Nick Dear have adapted the book into an amusing and touching, if modest (the rooms all look underfurnished) film. As Anne, Root convincingly changes from wallflower to radiant rose, while Redgrave (brother of Vanessa and Lynn) and Thompson wring the full comic potential out of their roles as, respectively, Anne's vain father and hypochondriacal sister.

If you've never read Jane Austen, this movie is a swell introduction. If you're already a fan, it's like visiting old friends and discovering that they are still as good company as you remembered. (PG)

>The Phantom of the Movies

SCARY STUFF

WITH HALLOWEEN ON THE HORIZON, our thoughts turn to scary movies. This is what sets us apart from Joe Kane, 47, who covers the B-movie beat for the New York Daily News (under the byline Phantom of the Movies) and also publishes VideoScope, a magazine for low-budget-movie fans. Kane is always immersed in creepy films, watching "at least 10 minutes of 20 movies a week," ones with titles like Frankenhooker and Deeply Disturbed.

Is this a healthy time for sick movies?

The B-movie horror genre is very healthy. Some 150 new titles are produced each year, many for as little as $4,000. This doesn't mean they're bad. Producers can't afford special effects so they have to be more inventive. Clean, Shaven is absolutely terrifying.

What are the hot trends in horror flicks?

Having someone's brains sucked out is always popular, along with piercing by sharp objects. Weapons are tending toward mundane household objects. In Shallow Grave they use knives, kitchen lamps, whatever's lying around.

Who is the villain of the '90s?

The serial killer. In both B-movies and big-budget films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, the killers are often smarter than the authority figures. This really disturbs people.

What would you rent for Halloween?

Psycho and The Exorcist are classics. My all-time favorite is Carnival of Souls. It was made in 1962. It's cheap but very scary.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen.