Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Redford

The inspirations for this romantic drama from Disney's Touchstone Pictures was the short, messy life of NBC newscaster Jessica Savitch, who died in a freak car accident 30 miles outside Philadelphia in 1983. But as John Gregory Dunne (who wrote the script with his wife, Joan Didion) recently explained to Esquire, "Disney wasn't going to make a movie about a lesbian who drank and took drugs." So instead we have this mountain of meringue.

Pfeiffer, an ambitious but inexperienced reporter, snags an entry-level job at a Miami station, where she finds the mentor she needs in a news director (Redford). A onetime network journalist who covered the White House and wasn't afraid to ask Nixon and Bush the tough questions—think Sam Donaldson with great hair—Redford guides Pfeiffer's soaring career while his own wanes. His problem is that he can't, he won't, stop battling mealymouthed corporate yes-men.

As this pillar of integrity, Redford gives a smooth performance—plush, by his standard. Pfeiffer gradually disappears into a cloud of noble suffering, much closer to Barbara Walters than to poor Savitch. She and Redford certainly make an attractive couple, but she showed more sexual chemistry with Jack Nicholson in Wolf. And he was a wolf! What does that tell you? (PG-13)

Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Pullman, Joan Cusack

For her first movie, sitcom star DeGeneres has picked a vehicle in which the comedy—what little of it there is—has been parceled out to Pullman and Cusack, both playing crazies. The sane person sandwiched in between, she ends up with nada. This shows modesty on her part, or foolishness, or both.

DeGeneres plays a talk show talent booker who falls in love with Pullman, a rich, romantic bachelor whose only apparent flaw is the execrable verse he likes to recite after sex. Soon enough, she learns that he's obsessively romantic, willing to break his pinkie as proof of devotion. Pullman, whose eyes have a dangerous glint, does this creepo stuff with oleaginous ease. Having met DeGeneres's parents, he describes them, with poisonously sweet condescension, as "pleasant...wonderful...and funny in a special way."

On the other hand, Cusack, as his jealous ex-girlfriend—who once tried to assassinate Stevie Nicks—is beyond demented. With her hair pulled up so tight her face is narrowed into a knot of pain, squawking her lines out of the side of her mouth, she is, well, wonderful...funny in a special way.

DeGeneres has been given some good lines, but her performance consists mostly of smiling uncomfortably. (PG-13)

Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, George Cole, Michael Gambon

Revisionist and oh-so-politically correct, this horror film tells the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of Jekyll's innocent young Irish housemaid. Talk about being way beside the point. This is like telling Sense and Sensibility from the viewpoint of Colonel Brandon.

Roberts, glammed down but still the hottest thing to hit the scullery since Kim Novak played Moll Flanders, is the title character. Malkovich, all aflutter with twitches and poses, as usual, is the good-bad doctor. Adapting Valerie Martin's 1990 novel, screenwriter Christopher Hampton perverts Robert Louis Stevenson's meditation on evil into a routine romance. The question no longer is how depraved Jekyll has become but how hunky.

All the anguishing is seen from the knuckle-gnawing viewpoint of Roberts, whose capricious accent is more Georgia drawl than Irish brogue. Hampton also dwells on the relatively trivial travails of Roberts' tortured inner world. She has nightmares about her abused childhood. (Alcoholic daddy Gambon once locked her in a closet with a bag of rats.) Cole, Jekyll's officious butler, browbeats her mercilessly. She's afraid of the live eels the cook has in the kitchen.

While Roberts and Malkovich generate some sexual tension, it ultimately fizzles, and director Stephen Frears shows only one transformation scene. Too bad that what is supposed to be a stunning climax only reminds one of The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. (R)

Documentary produced, written and directed by Jon Blair

Meip Gies, a matronly Dutch citizen in her mid-80s, is an unlikely movie star, but neither Greta Garbo nor Ingrid Bergman ever held a screen as firmly as Gies does in this often heartbreaking documentary.

A native Austrian who helped protect the Franks as they hid in their attic—and who salvaged Anne's diary—Gies is one of a series of aging and articulate friends and relatives of the Franks whom Blair interviews. Intertwined are old stills and archival footage, including film of Anne herself, accidentally captured on celluloid by a wedding photographer while Anne was looking out a window in 1941. Even Anne's father, Otto, who survived the camps (he died in 1980), appears in interviews conducted during the '70s.

There are no real revelations, though Blair is not afraid to suggest that Anne was not always a sweetheart. Witnesses remember her as often impudent and driven by a need for attention. But she remains the sympathetic focal point of a real drama that continues to be irresistibly moving. (PG)

>Hugh O'Conor

IT HAS TO BE HUGH

BACK IN 1989, MY LEFT FOOT HELPED Hugh O'Conor's career get off on the right one. Though Daniel Day-Lewis snared an Oscar for his portrayal of cerebral palsy-stricken Christy Brown, The New York Times was equally impressed with then-13-year-old O'Conor's portrait of the artist as a younger man. The Irish teen, it said, had "created a performance that most mature actors can only hope for." Immediately, O'Conor received several film offers—most of which he turned down to focus on finishing high school.

Now a drama student at Dublin's Trinity College, O'Conor is again collecting raves—for The Young Poisoner's Handbook. The 20-year-old O'Conor plays schoolboy psycho Graham Young, who in the 1960s and '70s poisoned family members and others with a toxic metallic element called thallium. Director Benjamin Ross cast him in the role because he was moved by the actor's Footwork.

O'Conor started building his résumé early. At age 9, two years after his concert-pianist father enrolled him in drama classes, O'Conor appeared in Lamb, opposite Liam Neeson. "I learned a lot from Liam," he says. O'Conor got the role in Foot after director Jim Sheridan saw him play Martin Sheen's younger self in 1988's Da.

The actor, whose last major movie was 1993's The Three Musketeers, is sufficiently pleased with Poisoner—"the thing post-My Left Foot I'm most happy with"—to be reteaming with Ross on the 18th-century epic he's writing. Until then, O'Conor, who lives with his family and has a girlfriend he won't discuss, will immerse himself in his studies. And if Poisoner piques Hollywood's interest? "Sure!" O'Conor says. "I wouldn't mind doing a movie over there—or five!"

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak.