Sheila Florance, Gosia Dobrowolska, Chris Haywood

The strength of this slender Australian movie lies not in its story of a feisty septuagenarian but in Florance's portrayal of the woman, whose cancer-ridden body is beginning to betray her at every turn, though her imagination and spirit are unbowed. "My mind is as alert as ever, sharpened by a sense of imminent separation," Florance (Golden Braid) tells her aggravating son (Haywood). "It's my body that's a bit shaky." She lives in a warren of rooms, kept company by her cat, Sam, her bird, Jesus, a call-in radio program and the ministrations of a visiting nurse (the charming Dobrowolska) who—much to Florance's delight—uses the flat for trysts with her married lover. Her days are filled by walks with aging contemporaries, face-offs with her avaricious landlord and what she refers to as geriatric field trips. Screenwriter-director Paul Cox (Cactus), who conceived A Woman's Tale as a tribute to the 75-year-old Florance, weaves into the plot real episodes from the celebrated Australian actress's life—such as the death of an infant daughter during the Battle of Britain. That Florance lost her fight with cancer soon after the movie's Australian premiere in September adds poignancy to the story. Though the movie is weakened by the numbing repetitiveness of its life-is-beautiful theme, including the obvious juxtaposition of scenes celebrating life with those portending death, such lapses do nothing to undermine Florance's gallant performance. (PG-13)

Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Dana Delaney

This featherweight comedy centers on Martin, an architect, trying to regroup after his girlfriend, Delaney, says no to marriage and to the house he designed and built for her to seal the deal. He hopes a night with Hawn, a wacky waitress, will provide a quick cure. No such luck. A liar of Pinocchioan proportions, she sets up housekeeping in the cozy abode and sashays around town announcing she is his new wife. Initially, Martin is outraged, ordering Hawn out of his house and out of his life. Then he relents, calculating that the situation may help him win Delaney's hand. The usual course of events in movies like House-sitter is for a zany woman (or man) to teach a stiff-necked man (or woman) the fine and funny art of cutting loose. In this case, though, Martin seems fairly impulsive from the start. After all, didn't he design—and sink all his money into—a house for a girl whose affections had always been a bit soft? So it makes little sense that Delaney, on hearing stories of Martin's wild adventures with Hawn, would look more fondly at her old boyfriend. More to the point, Martin and Hawn seem sufficiently similar in temperament that the conflicts created by first-time screenwriter Mark Stein are spurious. Nor is there a catalyst for Martin's swift about-face when he finally realizes that Hawn is the woman for him.

The beguiling Hawn looks great, and Delaney is winning even in the knee socks she is forced to wear in almost every scene. But it is the minor characters who deserve particular notice: playwright Christopher Durang as a pastor called in to arbitrate Hawn and Martin's "marital" tiffs and Laurel (Hook) Cronin as a bag lady Hawn recruits to play her mother—and who gets caught in the maternal masquerade. "Don't keep shutting me out," she moans to Hawn, barricaded in the bedroom, "like someone you met on the street." (PG)

Christopher Reid, Alysia Rogers Christopher Martin

Though it is a class act in title only, this mistaken-identity comedy is vigorous, playful and relatively inoffensive. Reid and Martin—respectively Kid 'N Play, the rappers who starred in the two House Party movies—are high school students whose records get switched so that Reid, the brains of the outfit (as well as the hair—he's the one with the corn silo 'do), has to act like a delinquent while Martin is suddenly burdened with having to act marginally civilized and intelligent ("That Shakespeare is some heavy stuff"). Neither director Randall (thirtysomething) Miller nor screenwriters John Semper and Cynthia Friedlob come up with anything very surprising from this premise. The funniest sequences involve a dialogue between Reid and Martin that gets some wordplay fun out of the black English uses of the words "def" (for "admirable") and "stupid" (also "admirable"). Abbott and Costello themselves couldn't have handled the "What!? Are you deaf?" lines better.

Outside of the convincingly thuggish Lamont Johnson and romantic interests Rogers and Karyn Parsons, though, the peripheral characters are not only mostly white but colorless. Lamest of the lame is MTV wimpmeister Pauly (Encino Man) Shore who, as a dance emcee, delivers a limp monologue that depends on his referring to women's breasts as "cones."

Miller does set a final showdown between Reid and Johnson in a show-business wax museum, which allows the boys to mistake a Pat Sajak figure for Chuck Woolery.

There is a dutiful, gleeless tone here even when things are at their most frenetic, so nobody's sides will be made to ache by this film. It's like a harmlessly diverting Saturday-morning cartoon, with the expletives undeleted and the violence producing real blood and bruises. (PG-13)

Colm Feore, Rip Torn

Attention, those whose idea of a good time is watching the inmates of an insane asylum play cricket while being cheered on by poet Walt Whitman! This is the movie for all five of you. Beautiful Dreamers, a Canadian film that marks the feature directing debut of John Kent Harrison, is a well-intentioned costume drama that plays like one of those Masterpiece Theatre parodies Dan Aykroyd used to introduce on Saturday Night Live.

Inspired by a true story, Dreamers tells about the fun-filled summer of 1880, when Dr. Maurice Bucke, a reform-minded physician running the London (Ont.) Asylum for the Insane, invited Whitman to Canada to consult at his asylum. Whitman, who refers to his own brother as mentally "jumbled," loosens things up not only around the bin, encouraging Bucke to use love and recreational therapy with the patients rather than restraint and drugs, but on the Bucke homefront as well. Although Bucke's repressed wife is at first appalled by the boisterous Whitman—he eats asparagus with his hands and sings opera in the bathtub—she soon reads Leaves of Grass and gets in touch with her sexual self, merrily joining her hubby and Walt as they skinny-dip in a pond. Onscreen, this is all as excruciatingly embarrassing and simpleminded as it sounds.

Rip (Extreme Prejudice) Torn hams it up outrageously as Whitman, but he at least is fun; Feore, a nebbishy Canadian actor, plays Bucke as if there's already a halo atop his head; and Wendel Meldrum, another Canadian, as Mrs. Bucke, eerily resembles Mary Steenburgen in both looks and sexually skittish style. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Kaufmann,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen.