Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards

Perhaps someday the world will come to appreciate Paul Verhoeven's previous movie, the box-office disaster Showgirls, for the sick classic it is. For now, at least, the director can expect audiences to swarm to Starship Troopers, his very brutal, very funny science-fiction fantasy about giant, unswattable insects. It's the best summer movie of the fall.

Your average spider, secure in the engineering of his web, would scoff at Troopers' few, feeble strands of plot. Far off in the future an alien horde called the Arachnids lob an asteroid across the galaxy and destroy Buenos Aires (which looks very much like a modern American mall, cavernous and plastic). Dispatched to do battle on the bugs' cluster of desert planets, a fleet of young warriors wind up fodder for the enemies' pincers and mandibles.

These computer-animated insects come in a handful of species. One looks like a cricket crossbred with a John Deere plow. Another is an elephantine, ironclad, fire-belching flea. By contrast, the warriors, led by the likes of Van Dien and Richards, are laughably bland and square-jawed, a master race of teenagers as envisioned by Aaron Spelling. (The cast is sprinkled with veterans of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210.) I assume their cartoonishness is a joke. Right, Mr. Verhoeven?

The battles are stunningly violent, with human limbs flying left and right, but the editing is so crisp (and the humans so disposable), these scenes are not much more upsetting than watching a sous chef dice cabbage. (R)

Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott

Bonham Carter's career has been so associated with period pieces (A Room with a View, Howard's End), it has been easy to mistake her for mere set decoration, a beautiful curio. This dark, brooding adaptation of the Henry James masterpiece establishes her as an actress of fiercely concentrated emotional power. Here she plays a penniless young woman dependent on a rich aunt and feverishly in love with an equally poor journalist (Roache). Marry him, the aunt warns her, and suffer the financial consequences. Bonham Carter, unwilling to chose between passion for Roache and the plush comforts of wealth, smolders—both with fury over her predicament and lust for Roache.

A potential solution arrives when she forms a friendship with an American heiress (Elliott), who conveniently enough is not only charmingly naive but fatally ill. Bonham Carter urges Roache to woo his way into the heiress's affection. Who knows? Perhaps once Elliott has sunk into the grave, he'll be rewarded in her will. From this scenario grows a menage that, in classic Jamesian fashion, is suffocatingly, neurotically intense. Imagine what the author would have done with My Best Friend's Wedding!

As the other two-thirds of this morbid triangle, Roache and Elliott are each perfectly fine. But in the path of Bonham Carter's all-consuming fury, they're reduced to cinders. Hers really is a remarkable performance. (R)

Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski

As leading actors go, Snipes is one of the best—handsome, virile, comfortable before the camera regardless of the role. And Kinski, who enjoyed a brief run as an international sex symbol in the '80s, turns out to have become even more attractive with a few years added on. She has acquired a little polish, as well as an air of mystery—no more than a light perfume but mystery nonetheless. All of which means that when they embark on a fling in One Night Stand, they make a very sensual couple.

The stand in question commences when Snipes, an L.A. commercial director on a brief visit to New York City, makes eye contact across a cafe with Kinski. Her career isn't apparent. Dressed in black and rapidly speaking French to a group of men in good business attire, she could be in negotiations to be the new Lancôme spokes-model. The rings of their orbits draw nearer and nearer: After an ink stain spoils his shirt, she allows him to use her apartment to change. When he misses his flight out, he buys tickets for a concert, knowing she'll be there. They try to look pensive listening to a Beethoven string quartet but fidget with anticipation. The first third of the movie, in short, is a long, luxurious tease.

After the stand, unfortunately, comes the fall. Having entertained us with the dance of the seven veils, director Mike Figgis, whose last movie was the overrated Leaving Las Vegas, parts the final curtain and reveals...an earnest, arty, not very original movie about a midlife crisis. Back with his shallow wife, who drives a Land Rover the color of raspberry sherbet, Snipes realizes that, after the excitement with Kinski, his life is stale and empty. Grappling with despair, he shoots a bleakly pretty Armani ad. Then he returns to New York, where his old friend, a gay choreographer (Robert Downey Jr.), is dying of AIDS. Downey gives an anguished, masochistic performance, but the character exists largely as a plot device to help Snipes resolve his crisis. If it's chic-but-depressed you want, see The Ice Storm. (R)

Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNicol

American audiences know Atkinson chiefly from his small, scene-stealing role in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He was the minister so nervous he could barely pronounce a couple man and wife. For his first starring role, Atkinson has turned to a popular, all-but-silent character he created in 1989 for a BBC series (which has since aired here on PBS). Mr. Bean is a snivelling, trouble-prone and oddly loathsome man-child. He looks like Pee-wee Herman with a hangover and five o'clock shadow.

MacNicol, curator of a new Los Angeles museum, wants a British art expert on hand for the unveiling of the museum's latest, biggest acquisition, "Whistler's Mother." London's National Gallery is only too happy to oblige: This will be the perfect opportunity to unload the museum's worst security guard, who knows nothing about Whistler but who happens to be Bean. Arriving in L.A., Bean gets into various sorts of mischief involving barf bags, blow driers, frozen turkeys, virtual-reality rides, hospital equipment and one or both of his nostrils. So many pratfalls, and for what? A couple of chuckles. Bean, in fact, is funniest in the rare instance when he mutters a line in his odd, sepulchral voice. Describing Whistler's painting, he says of its famous subject: "She was a mad old cow." (PG-13)

Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Steve Coogan

Jones, formerly of the Monty Python troupe, wrote and directed this adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic about the adventures of Mssrs. Mole (Coogan), Rat (Idle) and Badger (Nicol Williamson) in the sun-dappled British countryside. Jones, who himself plays Mr. Toad with a lick of pale green paint across his face, starts things off nicely. With its gentle pace and Edwardian costumes (supplemented as necessary with whiskers, furry ears and tails), Willows suggests an animal fable as told by Merchant-Ivory. But then a league of weasels (led by Anthony Sher) start their takeover of the land. By the time they've bulldozed Mole's hole, assumed control of Toad's ancestral hall, built a dog-food factory and started threatening the riverbank animals with extermination, the movie has become a repulsive parable about Nazis. Why not do Winnie-the-Pooh as the story of Winston Churchill? (PG)

Fabrice Luchini

Busy Beaumarchais! When he isn't scribbling revisions for The Marriage of Figaro, the 1784 play that fanned French revolutionary fervor and served as an inspiration for Mozart's opera, he's dueling nobility, dallying with actresses, preening in court and sometimes rotting in jail (his enemies are as busy as he). He even crosses the Channel to carry out a spy mission for Louis XV The role calls for panache. But the film's star, Fabrice Luchini, a familiar face in European films and a dependably good actor, has no more brio than a Maytag repairman. This flouncy, insipid costume epic was directed by Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folks). (No rating)

John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Alda, Mia Kirshner, Blythe Danner

When the two main characters first meet in Mad City, a competent but never compelling satirical drama, neither man is overly happy about his employment situation. Hoffman plays a veteran TV news reporter marking time at a backwater local station while plotting his return to the network ranks. Travolta's character, a bloke blessed with more heart than brains, just wishes he had a job.

Travolta has recently been laid off from his position as a museum guard. He returns to the museum intending only to persuade its director (Danner) to rehire him. Maybe bringing along his shotgun isn't such a good idea. Ditto for then accidentally shooting a fellow guard and taking hostage a group of school kids. Hoffman, coincidentally at the museum when Travolta arrives, jumps on the working stiff-gone-wacko story, cynically manipulating Travolta both to stretch out the story and maximize his own airtime.

Mad City, as directed by Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing and Music Box), is a more clever and entertaining film than its gun-toting ads on TV would suggest. But it is also extremely familiar stuff. Movies about how the press ruthlessly exploits individuals and stories to boost ratings or circulation have been around almost since talkies made their tinny debut. Remember The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Ace in the Hole, Dog Day Afternoon and, more recently, Hero (also starring Hoffman) and Natural Born Killers, all of which covered much of the same territory?

The movie's main pleasure comes from watching Hoffman and Travolta, two of today's most effective stars, play off each other. The adenoidal Hoffman does a more sarcastic, sad-sack version of his Carl Bernstein from 21 years ago in All the President's Men, while Travolta once again demonstrates that when it comes to playing dim but decent guys, he's your man. Among the supporting players, Alda is spot on as a smug network anchor, as is Danner in portraying the patrician museum director. (R)

>Jennifer Beals

FLASH FORWARD

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, JENNIFER BEALS was the teenager every girl wanted to be. In artfully torn T-shirts and leggings, the 18-year-old starlet danced across suburban movie screens in Flashdance. Today, at 33 and casually chic in a silk blouse and classic slacks, Beals laughs off the trend she launched, admitting that she hasn't watched the disco-era hit since its 1983 premiere—apart from the clip in this year's comedy The Full Monty.

Beals is back on the screen in director Ross Marks's Twilight of the Golds, in which she plays a woman who discovers from genetic tests that her unborn son will be gay. It's the type of cerebral role that suits the actress, who graduated from Yale in 1987. Beals shrugs off suggestions that she was a Flash in the pan. "I'm not able to play the Hollywood chess game," she says. Rather than go for the lead role or the commercial hit, Beals says she has always followed the part or the director she prefers. At 22, she followed director Alexandre Rockwell to the altar; their 1996 divorce was amicable—except over custody of their ER tapes. Director Quentin Tarantino came to their rescue with the reminder, "Guys, I can get you more tapes!" Beals has a new man in her life—his identity is secret—and an upcoming role in director Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco. When not working, she loves to hike near her Malibu home or curl up with a novel. "My life is pretty sedate now," she says.

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Todd Gold.