Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Lance Henriksen, Russell Crowe, Gary Sinise, Leonardo DiCaprio

It's a tribute to the movie star charisma of Hackman and Stone that this convoluted, pretentious feminist western grabs and holds attention as well as it does, even though among the plausible alternate titles for it would be The Specialist West.

Chronically clueless director Sam Raimi (1990's Darkman), whose idea of wit is graphic violence and gore, squanders a lot of the best moments of Simon Moore's screenplay about a lone woman who enters a fast-gun tournament in a desolate Arizona town.

Stone is the woman, Hackman the town's villainous boss and Crowe and Henriksen two tournament competitors. DiCaprio is not only Hackman's supposed son but a would-be top gun and a darling of the town's ubiquitous gaggle of whores.

Predictably, Stone is not just a new-comer on the shoot-out circuit; she is on a mission. Also predictably, her mission is yet another cinematic exposition of that questionable phenomenon, repressed memory. This enables Raimi to indulge in lots of hazy flashbacks in which Sinise appears as Stone's father.

A more interesting subplot involves Crowe, Hackman's former henchman, who has been dragooned into the tournament even though he has found religion and forsworn violence.

But Raimi is obsessed with playing Sergio Leone, which leaves Stone trying to look steely and grim, Eastwood fashion, in countless close-ups (to the tune of a twangy guitar). She's so obviously working at it ("Now how would I look if I had just shot someone?") that she's fun to watch, and Hackman is intriguing, too, seemingly amused at the extent of his own evil.

Crowe, an Australian star, suggests more complexities than Moore or Raimi allow him. And DiCaprio—frail, pale and often looking prettier than Stone—may be positioned to become Hollywood's favorite leading boy, but as a hardened young killer he's about as threatening as Opie. It's especially risible to see DiCaprio hitting on Stone, who is nearly old enough to be his mother. Raimi, it would seem, lacked the clout or imagination to remedy the miscasting. (R)

Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow

At last, you're thinking, a periodontal fright flick! No such luck. It's just another horrific construction from director John Carpenter.

Neill, an insurance investigator, is dispatched to find a missing novelist (Prochnow), whose phenomenally popular horror books seem to be having an unsettling psychotic effect on the population at large. Neill and Prochnow's editor (Julie Carmen, in a performance so laughably flat it trickles into deadpan) track the author to a surreal New England town peopled, so to speak, by characters from his stomach-turning books: Chuckie-doll-headed children; a mutating innkeeper; drooling, ectoplasmic creatures, etc. What with the special effects, quick, near-subliminal editing and shrieking bursts of noise, Madness does manage to get under the skin. It's hard to remain indifferent to a little old lady cleaving her husband with an axe while red tentacles blossom from her abdomen. But Carpenter is also trying for slightly more sophisticated head games here. Is Neill actually suffering a cataclysmic nervous breakdown? Certainly there's nothing ooky-spookier than that. (If you want a case of genuine psychosis, go see Heavenly Creatures.) But Neill, an understated performer whose expressive range lies somewhere between skeptical and sour, undercuts the scariness because he never really seems to be in danger of losing his faculties. (R)

Documentary

Prosperous couples who don't want to engage in the frontline skirmishes of child-rearing often hire nannies for the job. This sometimes moving if rather stiff and attenuated documentary chronicles the lives and times of two nannies and the post-World War II families who employed them.

A native of Baden, Germany, Martha Kneifel spent some 30 years in the New York City area overseeing the upbringing of the five Johnstone children (including Jyll, the film's producer-director). Martha was a diminutive enforcer whose Teutonic training fostered an emphasis on hygiene and firm discipline above all else. "She wasn't the sort of person who'd give you a peck on the cheek," observes the now elderly Mr. Johnstone, who, like his Junior League-absorbed wife and the other parents in the film, seems sufficiently remote from his offspring to warrant therapeutic intervention. Ethel Edwards, a capellini-thin black woman from South Carolina, who tended the six Ettinger children of New York and Connecticut (among them Barbara, the film's coproducer) and still lives with Mrs. Ettinger, was as warm and loving as Ethel was chilly. (It is one of the documentary's weaknesses that it is so schematic.) Martha and Ethel, alternately narrated by Jyll John-stone and Barbara Ettinger, is most successful in the portrait it paints of the two principals. Using still photographs and archival footage, the filmmakers give a rich, detailed accounting of Martha and Ethel before their days as family retainers. Best and most affecting are the images of the sentimental journeys Johnstone takes with Martha to Germany and Ettinger with Ethel to South Carolina. Where the documentary fails, unfortunately, is in giving much sense of how Martha's gimlet-eyed rigidity and Ethel's cozy affection shaped and influenced the children in their care. (G)

Johnny Brennan, Kamal, Alan Arkin

This stupifyingly pea-brained comedy is custom-tailored to the talents (a generous word choice) of its beefy stars, Brennan and Kamal, two New Yorkers who were employed as a construction worker and a cook, respectively, before acquiring modest fame in 1993 with the release of an album containing their prank phone calls. They are still dialing. Brennan specializes in foul-mouthed abusive tirades; Kamal does foreign accents. This is all that they do, though the movie concocts a limp plot in which the two try to hustle a group of Mafia thugs headed by Arkin, an actor who deserves better. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Leah Rozen.