Albert Brooks, Debbie Reynolds

You may have wondered how the abrasively upbeat Debbie Reynolds could have given birth to Carrie Fisher, world-weary actress and author of Postcards from the Edge. The answer can be found in Mother. The 64-year-old star of Singin' in the Rain takes to director-writer Brooks's astringent (and very funny) comedy as if she had spent her life sipping vinegar. Her performance, one of small, precise touches, is among the best of her long career.

The story begins when Brooks, a science-fiction novelist frustrated by his lack of success with women, decides the problem must be Freudian. He moves back in with his widowed mother (Reynolds), a suburban matron not all that eager to have her son back. She follows this morose, middle-aged man about the house with a spidery nervousness. When they venture to the mall, she impulsively tells sales clerks about his divorces. Is this meanness or just thoughtlessness? She is, like all mothers, inscrutable.

The movie arrives at a conclusion that would be sentimental if it were made by anyone other than Brooks, a comedian who wears his self-loathing with the panache of a martyr in a designer hair shirt. Even Mother's sweet moments are venomous. (PG-13)

Shirley MacLaine, Juliette Lewis, Miranda Richardson, Bill Paxton

Audiences who wept for Debra Winger at the end of 1983's Terms of Endearment come to this dumb sequel preconditioned to cry. They know the movie is an exercise in selecting the right character, or characters, and disposing of them in the most lachrymose manner possible. Even the actors, all performing well below standard, seem itching for a death scene as pretty as Winger's. If a pyre were lit, they'd probably all race to hop on.

Trying to camouflage this sentimental morbidity, director Robert Harling, who adapted the screenplay from Larry McMurtry's 1992 novel of the same name, piles on plot. MacLaine reprises her role as the exasperatingly willful Aurora Greenway, who has done a bad job raising her grandchildren. One is in jail, another has an illegitimate child, and the third is Juliette Lewis. Miserable with failure, MacLaine sees a counselor (Paxton) and ends up having a fling with him. She has emotional ups and downs with her maid (Marion Ross). She even has an encounter with Jack Nicholson, her astronaut lover from Terms, who strolls in, charming but aimless, for a few minutes. The story is so diffuse, the audience may be too distracted to cry. (PG-13)

John Travolta, Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, Robert Pastorelli

This movie trashes traditional religion, patronizes the Midwest, squeezes laughs out of a dying dog and a sick old woman, scorns marriage and romance and bashes men gleefully. Yet it buys into the notion that angels might really exist. Go figure.

Travolta, who displays no gift for irony or whimsy, plays an unorthodox angel—a paunchy slob with moth-eaten wings who smokes, hits the bottle and chases women, even as he is on some unspecified angelic assignment in Iowa. Director Nora Ephron fails to make original use of Travolta, looking for laughs by having him perform his Pulp Fiction dance to Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." In fact, most of the script, by Ephron, her sister Delia and others, displays a dearth of ingenuity, grace, wit and taste.

Hurt, the hapless MacDowell and Pastorelli play cynical tabloid reporters hunting down the hapless angel. The venerable Jean Stapleton offers one of the few bright moments as the rambunctious motel owner who discovers Travolta's powers. (PG-13)

Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg

It was not until 1994 that white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Two earlier trials resulted in hung juries. The third prosecution, spearheaded by Jackson, Miss., assistant D.A. Bobby DeLaughter, came after years of prodding by Evers's widow, Myrlie, and investigations by local reporter Jerry Mitchell, who found evidence of jury tampering in the second trial.

This is a powerful story, but it has defeated director Rob Reiner. Ghosts is slow, reverent and hushed—perhaps he thought the safest way to deal with such an imposing subject was first to render it inert. The trial scenes, conversely, are too clipped. Most seriously, Ghosts gives no sense of what Evers was like. We are told only that he was a devoted family man, but even this isn't much more than a dramatic device to explain why DeLaughter, with two daughters, feels morally obliged to take on a controversial case.

Baldwin, as DeLaughter, and Goldberg, as Myrlie Evers, are able to act with much more nuance and depth than the shallow script allows. As Beckwith, James Woods is shockingly off base. The part is smallish, yet Woods delivers a lip-smacking star turn, making Beckwith a wicked but lively old cracker. Woods seems to be having the time of his life. That, can't be what he intended. (PG-13)

>Summer Spectaculars

DISASTERS ON THE HORIZON

"IT'S GOING TO BE A HELLISH SUMMER." That's no Farmer's Almanac prophecy. It's a dire summation from film marketing authority Marvin Antonowsky of the competitive heat that's going to be felt in Hollywood's executive suites as the most expensive year in movie history moves into high gear. Between Feb. 7, when Dante's Peak (a volcano in the Pacific Northwest blows its top; budget: $155 million) hits theaters, and the end of the year, Hollywood will churn out, at the very least, a record 18 special-effects extravaganzas costing from $60 million to more than $150 million each. Among the coming spectaculars: Volcano (this one erupts in L.A.; estimated budget: $70 million); The Flood (May; $65 million); Batman and Robin (June; around $100 million); Titanic (July; up to $200 million); The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (May; $65 million); Speed II: Cruise Control (July; $100 million). Audiences "are going to be battered senseless," says Variety's Leonard Klady, "and we're all going to enjoy it."

The industry, however, is divided on the prospects for the year. As former Fox executive Michael London says, when these movies click, "the payoffs are huge." Or so one would assume, based on last year's Independence Day (cost: $75 million; worldwide box office take: $781 million and counting). Hollywood is hoping that audience enthusiasm for alien attacks and natural disasters will hold. But some say that this year big may not necessarily be better. "There are too many expensive pictures competing at the same time," says Antonowsky. "Somebody's gonna take gas." Con Air (savage felons hijack the plane transporting them to the pen; budget over $60 million) producer Jerry Bruckheimer agrees. All you can do is pile on the special effects, hype till it hurts and, he says, "hope it won't be you."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Jeffrey Wells.