Liesel Matthews, Liam Cunningham

Girls who grow up reading—and adoring—Frances Hodgson Burnett generally have fierce loyalties about her oeuvre. They are passionate about A Little Princess and have no truck with The Secret Garden, or they venerate The Secret Garden and shrug off A Little Princess. Those who regard valiant "princess" Sara Crewe as a kindred spirit and were hoping for something more authentic than the 1939 Shirley Temple version of the children's classic will be gnashing their teeth to nubs at this new adaptation. It's Annie by way of Isabel Allende.

Matthews is a fanciful little girl living in India at the start of World War I with her adoring widower father (Cunningham). But when Cunningham, an army captain, is called to battle he decides to deposit his daughter at the New York City boarding school his late wife attended. Matthews is exasperated by the rigidity of the headmistress (Eleanor Bron) and lonely for her father, but quickly wins over the other students with her good fellowship and her ability to conjure marvelous bedtime stories. Matthews's inner resources are put to the test when she is told that her father has died in battle, leaving her penniless—and dependent on Bron. The movie takes pointless liberties with Burnett's story in period (1914 rather than the late 1800s), setting (New York rather than London), characters, dialogue, plot twists and theme, in the process obliterating the novel's Victorian charm. What is left is a sometimes mystical tale of identically dressed girls skittering down corridors and scheming against a comic-strip martinet. (G)

Kadeem Hardison, Marcus Chong

What are the obligations of a moviemaker dealing with a historical subject? Should fact be allowed to stick out its big, unshined shoe and trip up those values we vaguely define as "entertainment"? Are pop culture and narrative truth bound to be at each other's throats, if they do indeed possess throats?

Shut up, you.

Mario Van Peebles, working from a script by his father, Melvin, directed this docudrama about the controversial career of the Black Panthers, the revolutionary group that started in Oakland, Calif., in the '60s. The story, unwisely, takes two tacks. One involves a fictional character, a Vietnam vet (Hardison) who joins the Panthers and, at the request of leader Huey Newton (Chong), poses as a police informant. The other consists of largely flattering, two-dimensional portraits of the Panther power players, including Newton, Eldridge Cleaver (Anthony Griffith) and Bobby Seale (Courtney B. Vance).

Historical or not, this is a lot of material to cram into 2 hours. Ultimately the narrative stress is too great, and Panther breaks down. Its concluding minutes include a murdered French poodle, an exploding warehouse and, just before the credits roll, a solemn statement about the drug problem. (R)

Nikita Mikhalkov, Nadia Mikhalkov

At the start of this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film it's easy to suspect that the projectionist has mixed up the reels. In the opening scene, a man empties a gun of bullets and then squeezes the trigger while pointing the muzzle at his head. In quick succession, soldiers in tanks storm a wheat field, a flustered woman downs medical potions, and an attractive husband, wife and child bathe together in a hothouse sauna. Who are these people?

Hang in there, because the answers become painfully clear. For this is Russia in 1936, the start of Stalin's great terror, when a few words of denunciation were enough to send someone away forever. After its initial scenes, Burnt by the Sun settles into what appears to be Chekhov territory, with several generations of a bourgeois family gathering at their summer home. They picnic, sing and recall the good times before the revolution, and they do all this under the protectorship of a family member by marriage, Colonel Kotov (Mikhalkov), a hero of 1917 who still truly believes. Into their midst comes Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), the ex-lover of Kotov's young wife (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), who has been mysteriously absent for about 10 years and isn't volunteering why he has come back.

Much of this film is comically elegiac, depicting swimming trips that are disrupted by the civil defense volunteers, who insist on putting gas masks on the bathing-suited masses, and lazy afternoons spent making love. But each scene has a sense of underlying menace. When the movie comes to its tragic end, all that has preceded it takes on a deeper meaning, and the sadness grows. (R)

Armin Mueller-Stahl, Olivia d'Abo

Mueller-Stahl is a courtly widower living out some very quiet sunset years in a Brooklyn apartment. He makes a daily note in his journal about what to wear the next day. He stands by the window at night and plays his violin. And he does everything he can to avoid having to talk to his garrulous old neighbor (Maureen Stapleton, who has one great head of hair). This lonely placidity is interrupted by d'Abo, who lives upstairs with a thuggy, abusive boyfriend. Very gingerly, Mueller-Stahl offers his protection to this battered young woman, who is rude, foul-mouthed and usually hunched over in a filthy leather coat. But she, also gingerly, responds to his decency.

The best that can be said about The Last Good Time, the third feature directed by actor Bob Balaban, is that the acting is all good. D'Abo, still perhaps best known as Karen Arnold on TV's The Wonder Years, is especially touching. Considering how little her character is given to say, the performance is a small miracle of economy. Other than that, the movie feels tiny tiny tiny, underlit and emotionally remote. (Not Rated)

Chuck Norris, Reno the dog

Except for an unhappy coincidence in timing—the villains are white supremacists who bomb public buildings—this is an innocuously entertaining Norris action film, with a standard ration of punch-ups, a relatively tasteful, if uninspired, script and a few neat surprises thanks to Reno, a shaggily likable French briard that plays an explosive-and drug-sniffing K-9 corpsdog given to San Diego cop Norris as a partner.

Norris has become a comfortable actor who effectively kids himself and who doesn't mind being upstaged by children and animals. (PG-13)

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