Richard Gere, Bai Ling

What with the arrival in the U.S. of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in the first such state visit in more than a decade, the release of this thriller about injustice in China is astutely timed. China continues to feel political heat for human-rights abuses (Amnesty International reported that two men were executed last year for stealing badminton racquets and ballpoint pens), and Gere himself has campaigned to free Tibet from China's rule. However, whatever its diplomatic (or box office) intentions, Red Corner demonstrates why we have a UN instead of a Cineplex-of-nations.

Gere, a communications attorney on the cusp of closing a major international television broadcast deal in Beijing, celebrates by spending the night with a fashion model. When she's stabbed to death in his hotel room, Gere, charged with murder, quickly learns not to expect leniency, let alone logic, from China's legal code. Even his court-appointed lawyer (Ling, in a sharp performance) advises him to plead guilty. Better to be sent off and "rehabilitated," she argues, than sentenced to death by a jury that will never believe him innocent.

Just as great a challenge will be for audiences to accept Red Corner's increasingly stupid plot twists. The film climaxes with a bit of defense grandstanding that wouldn't be permitted even on our own The People's Court, Ed Koch presiding. (R)

Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover

FBI agent Quaid, scowling stonily, is on the trail of a serial killer who, in the latest diabolical twist in a long-running game of cat-and-mouse, has kidnapped his son. Taut premise, flabby movie. While Quaid examines bloody clues of the madman's latest spree in Amarillo, Texas, Glover, a gruffly amiable mystery man heading out of town in a white Caddy, picks up Jared Leto, a scruffily charming mystery man hitchhiking to Utah. The two halves of this action-suspense tale eventually do meet up, but even then Switchback never really coheres. Writer-director Jeb Stuart studs the plot with everything from dishonest small-town politics to a literal cliff hanger in the Rockies. Why not make one movie at a time? (R)

Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Jurnee Smollet

In the exuberant party scene that opens this intoxicatingly vivid movie, all of the major characters are introduced. There's Dr. Baptiste (Jackson), described by one party guest as "the best colored doctor in Louisiana"; his regal wife (Whitfield), on whom Baptiste cheats despite his genuine love for her; his three children, ages 14, 10 and 9; and his sister (Morgan, in an astonishingly vital performance), a psychic who can foresee everything but the fact that each of her husbands—she has had three so far—will die young.

Over the course of one steamy summer in what seems to be the late '50s, the members of the proud, well-off Baptiste clan hurt each other as only those who love one another can. Mistakes are made, misunderstandings occur, and someone is fatally shot. All of which weighs particularly heavily on the doctor's middle child (Smollet, a gifted young actress), the film's narrator. She learns the hard way that there's great truth to the words of her aunt: "No one lives this life without feeling pain."

Eve's Bayou, a remarkable debut film by director-screenwriter Kasi Lemmons, is so assured in the handling of its characters and settings that these people and their bayou will haunt you long after you see the movie. The cast, which includes Diahann Carroll in a small role as a fortuneteller who reads cat bones, is exceptional, with Jackson and Morgan taking highest honors. (R)

Documentary

The latest oddball delight from director Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) starts out comparing the lives of four men who are obsessed by their work: lion tamer Dave Hoover, topiary gardener George Mendonca, robot designer Rodney Brooks and nature photographer Ray Mendez, an expert on the naked mole rat. This odd African mammal resembles a gopher sculpted from beeswax and lives, termite-style, in a subterranean hive. It's not likely to develop into the pet hamster of the next millennium. The movie dizzily crosscuts from subject to subject—scientists, computers, lions, shrubs clipped in the shape of animals—until everything begins to spin together into a tantalizing blur. Morris doesn't seem to be trying to reach any real conclusions here. He's woolgathering. But that ability to just let the mind go, as this dandy little documentary proves, is merely one more marvel in a world of wonders. (PG)

James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Anne Bancroft, Albert Brooks

Anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital, tried to get a simple explanation from a doctor or had a screaming go-round with an insurance-company drone will find at least one scene in Critical Care that tickles their humerus. Unfortunately, while scene by scene and line by line this would-be savage satire scores points at the expense of today's medical and insurance communities, it fails to rise up from its gurney and truly soar. With buffoonish characters and a lackluster plot in which Spader portrays a doctor caught between two sisters (a sexy Sedgwick and a frumpy, Bibletoting Margo Martindale) feuding over whether to approve a life-sustaining procedure on their seemingly terminally ill father, Critical Care fails to build much emotional suspense over the fate of its doctor hero, much less the suffering of the near-corpses in the intensive care unit. The capable cast, including Brooks as a once eminent doctor turned wheezy drunk and the always intriguing Mirren as a compassionate nurse, tear into this material as if it were better than it is, while Sidney Lumet (Night Falls on Manhattan) directs with his usual efficient, if heavy-handed, touch. (R)

>John Hodge

THE SCRIPT DOCTOR IS IN

THERE'S A PART OF JOHN HODGE THAT dreads cocktail parties. He's not antisocial; he just balks when people ask what he does for a living. "If I am writing at the time, I say I am a screenwriter," says Hodge, 33, who has scored amazing success with his first three films: 1994's Shallow Grave, Trainspotting in 1996 and, now, A Life Less Ordinary, starring Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. "If I am practicing medicine at the time, I say I am a doctor." He has considered simplifying things (his life included) by dropping medicine. Easier said than done. "If my day job was working in a steel mill," he says, "I probably wouldn't be so enthusiastic about it."

To medicine born—his parents were both doctors in Glasgow—Hodge began indulging a notion "to try some writing" between shifts at Edinburgh's Eastern General Hospital, where he worked as an internist after earning his medical degree in 1987. The result was Shallow Grave, a grisly hit about flatmates who find their new roomie dead with a satchel of money. "Even if I hadn't made another movie, I would've been quite content," he says. But for Hodge, who lives in London with his hospital pharmacist wife, Lucy, success called—as did producer Andrew Macdonald, director Danny Boyle and McGregor, his partners on all three films. As with medicine, filmmaking is a collaborative effort. "If you want personal vision," he says, "write a novel."

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Bryan Alexander.