Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow

Doing time on death row has long paid off for actors. Look at James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! and, most recently, Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. Now Stone is the one counting her last hours, and she makes them count impressively. Playing a woman who has spent 12 years awaiting execution for a double murder in this fictional movie, Stone gives a heartfelt and subdued performance. If she never quite convinces us that she physically inhabits this woman—is hair gel really available on death row?—she certainly connects emotionally with her character. Watch especially for a moving reconciliation scene Stone has with her estranged brother, and one in which she breaks down after receiving a last-minute—but perhaps only temporary—reprieve from lethal injection.

Aside from Stone, Last Dance is one of those movies you keep wishing was better. Blame timing. Any death-row picture coming out so soon on the ankle-cuffed heels of the transcendent Dead Man Walking would suffer by comparison. But the primary problem is that Last Dance, though capably directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), is less about Stone, whose character at the start has already owned up to her crimes, than it is about Morrow. He plays a rich wastrel who redeems himself and his past as a screwup lawyer when, assigned to review her case, he befriends Stone and makes a fervent last-ditch effort to have her sentence commuted to life imprisonment. This mildewed character and Morrow's shlumpy performance combine to make a partner unworthy of Stone's Last Dance. (R)

Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Connelly

This cops-and-crooks drama is slick and glibly entertaining, but hardly original. From Chinatown comes its setting—retro Los Angeles—and its tone of hip cynicism. The Untouchables provides the idea of an elite group of lawmen headed by a martinet. And from the '92-'93 CBS series The Hat Squad emerges the basic notion of using as inspiration for this romanticized crime story the actual '50s L.A. police unit whose members chose to wear fedoras and tailored suits.

Nolte is the unit's tough-guy leader; Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and the volatile Palminteri are members of his squad. The plot motivation is the murder of Higher Learning's Connelly, which leads Nolte to John Malkovich, an Army general involved in atomic-weapons testing, and his security officer Treat Williams. Griffith—doing her best acting to date—plays Nolte's betrayed but loyal wife. Novelist Pete Dexter (Paris Trout) wrote the script, which is more literary than authentic (Nolte talks ponderously about violence being "an integral part" of his job and debates Hemingway with Griffith). But the real allure of the film, which is directed by New Zealander Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors), is production designer Richard Sylbert's picturesque re-creation of the era—from the regally lumbering '49 Buick convertible Nolte and his men drive to Griffith herself, who has always looked like a 1954 cover of LIFE. Sometimes it's fun to have more style than substance. (R)

Damon Wayans, Dan Aykroyd, Daniel Stern

The flimsy pretext for this feckless basketball comedy is the primitive zeal of many Boston Celtics fans. The film is set during the 1994-95 season, the last in which the Celtics played their home games at the quaintly run-down Boston Garden. Aykroyd and Stern are rabid Celtic partisans who kidnap Wayans, the ego-consumed star of the Utah Jazz, the team the Celtics face in the NBA finals. Beyond the basic joke of turning adult fans into wild-eyed buffoons, there is little wit in Celtic Pride. And the basketball itself is amateurish. Writer Judd Apatow and director Tom DeCerchio succumb to the Hollywood weakness of treating the dunk as basketball's quintessential play. For lovers of the sport, the least competitive, least artful NBA game would be more entertaining. (PG-13)

>The Box Office

DAMES AT SEA?

IN THE PAST FOUR MONTHS, WHAT amounted to a fleet of movies helmed by female stars floated into view, sails unfurled, and promptly sank to the bottom of the box office. Geena Davis's pirate adventure Cutthroat Island earned back a pitiable $11 million of its $92 million cost, and became one of the major fiascos in movie history. Sandra Bullock's romance-caper Two If by Sea and Julia Roberts's horror-romance Mary Reilly fled theaters in humiliating haste. Faithful, Cher's first starring vehicle in six years, is now struggling at multiplexes. And Demi Moore followed up last year's disaster, The Scarlet Letter, with The Juror (costarring Alec Baldwin), and audiences, for the most part, stayed home.

Do these failures mean that women are the weaker sex at the box office? Actually, no. The 1995 ledger, after all, shows that Bullock single-handedly made hits out of The Net and While You Were Sleeping. Michelle Pfeiffer's Dangerous Minds, which many expected to bomb last summer, grossed $85 million. And Disney's Pocahontas, which starred a womanly cartoon, brought in $140 million.

And it's not as if female stars won't have the chance to redeem themselves in the coming months. Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn just finished shooting The First Wives' Club, a comedy about women of a certain age who plot revenge on their ex-husbands. Madonna is at work on Evita. First up, June 28, is the likely smash hit Striptease, a Demi Moore thriller-comedy, for which she was paid a record (for a woman) $12.5 million. As for those female-driven flops that have marred what has otherwise been a record first quarter at the box office, Sidney Ganis, worldwide marketing president for Columbia TriStar, which distributed Reilly, says, "Those films were just not good enough."

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Ralph Novak.