Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton

Featured attraction

Look heavenward, young writer, if you're trying to find inspiration for that screenplay. This season, clearly the big movie money has been in the stars. Deep Impact, about a humongous comet headed straight for Earth, came out in May. Now Armageddon, about a giant asteroid aimed this way, is opening. Is there really any difference between the two? You betcha. The even more calculatedly commercial Armageddon may have virtually the same plot as Impact, but it has been tricked up with a louder soundtrack, more and snazzier special effects and—this last actually is an improvement—a swaggering, got-to-love-him Bruce Willis.

Just as a crew of astronauts were blasted into space to blow up the comet in Impact, so Willis and several motley pals are rocketed up to do the same here. Why these guys? They are expert deep-core oil drillers, and their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to land on the asteroid, drill deep into its middle, stuff a big bomb down the hole and then vamoose but fast. "The United States government just asked us to save the world," Willis tells his buds. "Anyone want to say no?"

Not for a minute do you actually believe a word of this shamelessly manipulative nonsense, but there is an undeniable appeal to just sitting there and letting the movie's lustrous stars, shiny hardware, tough-guy talk and pulsating soundtrack wash over you. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay (who together made 1996's similarly hyperdriven The Rock) are slick Hollywood operators who know exactly what they're doing: Armageddon's heart beats strongly, but it's pumping adrenaline rather than blood.

Willis is at his strutting best in Armageddon, though one suspects he could do this role in his sleep. Affleck, as Willis's equally cocky protégé, demonstrates that he has the right stuff to play an action hero, but Tyler, cast as Willis's daughter and Affleck's honeybunch, gets lost in all the machismo. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Polished but hollow action thriller proves where there's a Willis, there's a way

Frances McDormand, Hatty Jones

Madeline's scary appendicitis attack is here. So is her threatened spill into the Seine. Ditto her chase after that flyaway, bad hat of hers. But the plaster cracks that form a rabbit on the hospital ceiling are missing.

Much like a greatest hits collection, this live-action film version of the adventures of the mischievous, titular Parisian schoolgirl dips and skips its way through four of author Ludwig Bemelmans's six Madeline books. While inclusive, this approach makes for a meandering, episodic film that, although it may keep young viewers involved, will have adults dozing. Or, as Madeline herself might say, "Pooh, pooh."

The movie's thin plot sets two major tasks for Madeline: She must prevent a crotchety old nobleman (Nigel Hawthorne) from selling the building in which Madeline and her schoolmates live and attend classes, and she has to try to foil the kidnapping of Pepito, the son of the Spanish ambassador, who lives next door. Jones, the 9-year-old English newcomer who plays Madeline, is cute and shows spunk; not much else is required of her here. As Miss Clavel, the school's principal, McDormand brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings. (PG)

Bottom Line: Good try, but something is not quite right

Adam Beach, Evan Adams

The current flurry in independent filmmaking is bringing all kinds of new voices to the screen. This is good—anything to balance the Pulp Fiction wannabes and whining twentysomething dramas. So haul out the welcome mat for Smoke Signals, a promising road movie that bills itself as the first feature film written and directed by Native Americans.

Screenwriter Sherman Alexie and first-time director Chris Eyre follow two young Indians, Victor (Beach) and Thomas (Adams), as they leave Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation and head for Arizona to pick up the ashes of Victor's dead father. "Without blowing Smoke, it's fair to say the movie is both funny and affecting and offers solid performances by its two leads. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Tagging along for this ride pays off

Marcello Mastroianni

Combining a light Continental polish with a simple, self-effacing dignity, Mastroianni could move with the elegance of a true star while seeming as real, as ordinary as the next man. His performance in this, his last movie before his death in 1996, doesn't rank with the big ones (La Dolce Vita, 8½), but it's a touching souvenir. He plays a director returning to his native Portugal to make a movie. Traveling with a small entourage, including an actor (Jean-Yves Gautier), he stops and reminisces at spots he recognizes from childhood.

Gautier also has roots to explore. He seeks out an ancient aunt in the remote village that was once the home of his late father, who, while still a teenager, left for France and never returned. This old woman, weathered by decades of a joyless, hard existence, at first doesn't understand how this urbane foreigner can possibly be a relation. But slowly she accepts him, and they talk with spare but moving eloquence of the terrible distances of geography, time and death. (No rating)

Bottom Line: Touching finale for a veteran star

>OUT OF SIGHT George Clooney does his best movie work yet in a smart, grown-up thriller based on an Elmore Leonard novel. The ER hunk plays a bank robber only too happy to have a sexy cop (sultry Jennifer Lopez) chasing him. (R)

GONE WITH THE WIND If you've never seen this über-epic in all its big-screen, Technicolor glory, grab the rare chance while it's still in theaters. (G)

DR. DOLITTLE The jokes are juvenile in this Eddie Murphy comedy, but the laughs keep coming. Lewd guinea pigs? Flatulent rats? Hey, we're there. (PG-13)

>Harry Shearer

Cutup When L.A.'s Museum of Television and Radio asked Harry Shearer to laud Dan Rather at a May fete, the comedian was flabbergasted. "I almost never get invited to dinners honoring people I make fun of," says Shearer, known for his impersonations of media heavyweights on his weekly syndicated radio show. He was even more shocked when Rather thanked him.

That was before Shearer, 54, played smarmy newsmen in Godzilla and The Truman Show—a lot of screen time for a guy known mostly for providing the voice of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns. Next up for Shearer, who played bassist Derek Smalls in 1984's This Is Spinal Tap, is the July 10 animated film Small Soldiers.

Shearer, who debuted at 7 on Jack Benny's radio show, is unimpressed with his latest fame. At 13, he played an Eddie Haskell-type character in the pilot for Leave It to Beaver but then quit showbiz for "a serious life" that included graduating from UCLA. Married to Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen, Shearer loves his radio gig: "It's just between me and the audience. It's sort of ideal."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Deanna Kizis.