George Corraface, Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, Rachel Ward

All right, maybe the world isn't flat. But this listless historical epic sure is. Even Brando—as Torquemada, the Inquisition's founding father and confessor to Queen Isabella (Ward)—is meek. If this guy had run the Inquisition, it would have been limited to questionnaires and bake sales. But then, Brando is paying more attention to political correctness than acting these days. Following his credo—take the money and run off at the mouth—he criticized this film for glorifying a man he considers a villain after taking $5 million for a role in which he looms onscreen for barely five minutes.

As for Columbus, Corraface (Impromptu), a Frenchman, plays the explorer as a petulant sort who sways King Ferdinand (Selleck) by threatening to take his west-to-Asia gimmick to France. He never seems to have a sense of how profound his voyage is. Even when his ships finally sail into San Salvador (now the Bahamas), he is merely confused. "This must be one of the Outer Indies," he tells his sailors.

That sort of unconscious humor is typical of the lame script by Mario Puzo, John (Gandhi) Briley and TV writer Cary Bates, from a Puzo story.

Though director John Glen, a veteran of such James Bond films as For Your Eves Only and A View to a Kill, stages sword-lighting scenes, he never overlays the story with any appreciation of the momentous events it involves. There's a built-in sequel to this film—Columbus II: The Capital of Ohio—but we don't have to wait; 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (with Gérard Depardieu) is due this fall. Since you know how the story ends, you can wait for a more artful telling. (PG-13)

Willem Dafoe, Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon

Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, wrote and directed this alienating film about a Manhattan drug-world messenger (Dafoe). Schrader uses mounds of garbage as a visual theme, and his nihilistic world view is hardly conducive to creating interest in what happens to Dafoe, his boss, Sarandon, or Delany, a former girlfriend and fellow junkie who pops back into Dafoe's life.

The acting is erratic. Delany (China Beach) is strikingly ineffective, overstating even such lines as "Uh-huh" and all but shrieking her lines at one point. In a lip-nibbling moment of special angst, Delany even inspires thoughts that she may have been taking evening classes at the Bo Derek Institute of Acting.

Equally unconvincing is Saran don, who as the ruthless leader of the drug ring is plausible only as a flouncy wearer of expensive Armani outfits. Victor Garber, as one of Sarandon's wealthy customers, uses his German accent to sound like a Gestapo officer in a bad World War II movie.

While Dafoe has made a career of looking wasted, and does cynicism better than anyone around, he too is handicapped by his unsympathetic character and Schrader's clumsily unidiomatic script, which has Dafoe using such '60s expressions as "I got bad vibes."

Such suspense as the movie generates has to do with the minimally interesting issue of whether or not Sarandon will finally decide to give up drug pushing and start a cosmetics business.

Schrader does manufacture a violent climax, perhaps to create the illusion that something of consequence has happened. He won't fool anybody who has paid attention. (R)

Documentary

British theoretical physicist—cosmologist Stephen Hawking, 50, is the most famous (although not necessarily the most important) physical scientist since Albert Einstein, partly for his work on the nature of black holes, but more because he wrote A Brief History of Time, a primer on teleological questions ("Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?") that has sold 5.5 million copies. He is even more notable because he has managed to do his work under conditions that have left his body immobilized but his brain and spirit intact. Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), he is confined to a wheelchair, able to communicate only by typing into a computer that synthesizes the human voice.

That mechanical voice, which narrates portions of this peculiar but fascinating documentary, meshes oddly well with Philip Glass' pulsating score. Director Errol (The Thin Blue Line) Morris divides Brief History into a brief biography and a kind of magic-lantern show illustrating Hawking's notions of time and the universe.

The film begins beautifully, with the sort of striking, if slightly baffling, touches that Morris used in The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 documentary about a wrongful murder conviction in Dallas. As Hawking's mother, Isobel, a wiry, red-cheeked woman in her 80s, remembers his birth in 1942, Morris cuts to footage of that era's firebombing of London, as well as to old family portraits. Other incidents from Hawking's early life are summed up with images of a Monopoly board, an oar gliding through green water, a leafless tree against pale winter light.

If anything, there is more mystery in the biographical sections than in the cosmic stuff, which Morris treats almost whimsically. A hen appeal's against a field of stars as Hawking asks, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" A wristwatch floats through a black hole that, for some reason, is gray. A pair of teacups, a pair of dice, tumble through space. Morris even uses clips from Disney's 1979 sci-fi flop, The Black Hole.

You may find yourself getting lost, though, as the discussion of black holes (which may outnumber the stars) gives way to talk of something called imaginary time, and as a series of physicists and other academics (none of them clearly identified) bat around ideas. This much is established: If an astronaut falls through a black hole, he will be restored to the universe in some form, perhaps energy. (A black hole doesn't absorb absolutely everything, like some sort of cornucopia in reverse.) Hawking thinks that the universe, which is now expanding, someday will contract. Hawking, black holes, Errol Morris, this movie: Even if they never make complete sense, they are all enigmatically intriguing phenomena. (Unrated)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Tom Gliatto.