Dead Man Walking. Sean Penn gives an amazing performance as a death-row inmate in this Tim Robbins film. The movie is based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who befriended a convicted killer bound for a lethal injection. The nun slogs through a moral minefield as she visits the prison, the victim's families, and the family of the condemned man, trying to figure out what she's doing hanging around with a low-life. Susan Sarandon does a fine job as Sister Helen, but it's Penn who really steals the show with his restrained, charismatic portrayal of the convict--it's almost weird how good he is as the hate-filled, anti-social Poncelet. The rest of the story sometimes drifts into sentimentality or preachiness, but whenever Penn is on-screen, everything clicks.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE PART II. A squeaky-clean peek at the stress of fatherhood, with Steve Martin doing double-duty as the expectant father and the expectant grandfather. Something about Steve Martin is just so damn likable; even watching him run through idiotic gags barely worthy of a sitcom is mildly pleasant. Still, his performance here is awfully safe. In fact, everything about this movie reeks of safety and suburbia, from the family's nice middle-class house to the nice middle-class plot. Father of the Bride Part II is a remake of the 1951 film Father's Little Dividend, and retains traces of a stereotyped, 1950s' kind of birth anxiety. Remember when fathers fainted in the waiting room? Haven't we grown up just a little bit since then?

Nadja. Chain-smoking vampires and disaffected grunge kids get together at last in this stylistically daring but conceptually weak flick. Director Michael Almereyda mixes black and white film with grainy pixelvision footage (shot with a toy camera) in an exuberant, low-budget vision of what it means to be undead. Fans of cheap filmmaking will love spotting the occasional microphone taking a dip into the frame and noting the complete lack of a special effects budget. Nadja tries to make fun of the whole vampire genre and occasionally succeeds. Unfortunately, it also falls prey to the same predictability and pretentiousness it seeks to mock. Elina Lowensohn is lovely as the sultry bloodlapper Nadja, but her lines are so over-the-top insipid that by the end, you'll want to drive a stake through her heart.

OTHELLO. In spite of what you're about to read, go see this film. It is, after all, an ambitious and faithfully rendered version of the Shakespearean play, along the same lines as Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing--updated for your Big Studio viewing pleasure. This is not the dry, unintelligible Shakespeare you remember from high school. Skillful direction by Oliver Parker keeps the plot rolling, and Kenneth Branagh adds a dark, comic flare to the cunning, manipulative Iago. On the other hand, Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob, while visually stunning as Othello and Desdemona, are so earnest in their acting that all passion withers and dies in the making. While some scenes capitalize on the advantages of film (such as those scenes shot on location in Venice, and a truly inspired collage sequence foreshadowing Othello's madness), Othello is the cinematic equivalent of using a condom: You know you're enjoying theatre, you just can't feel it.

Sabrina. Everyone is filthy rich and everything is beautiful in this light, breezy remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder film. Through a combination of sets remarkably true to the original and an updated, expanded plot, the new Sabrina achieves that sparkly Hollywood feeling that's so thoroughly enjoyable and deliciously empty. Though those who remember Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart from 1954 may have some trouble accepting Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford this time around, they do surprising well negotiating their way through a plot that involves a young girl falling in love with a man old enough to be her father. The weirdness of this only heightens the guilty pleasures of a silken ride through pure Hollywood Fantasyland.

Sense and Sensibility. Is this ever a costume drama! Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and practically every other British actor you can think of romp thorough the country in funny clothes in this clever adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about impoverished girls hunting for husbands. Of the recent crop of movies about Britons in by-gone eras falling in love out-of-doors, this is by far the best. The script (by Emma Thompson) is witty and well-paced; the crisp, brisk direction by Ang Lee (who made, most recently, Eat Drink Man Woman) keeps the slow-paced lives of the 19th century from ever becoming boring. This movie deals with Love and Romance like they made it in the old days--big, sweeping and stormy.

12 Monkeys. A dark, elliptical thriller about a prisoner sent back in time from a bleak and authoritarian future. Bruce Willis turns in a convincing performance as the time-traveler Cole, a man seduced by the past he's supposed to be studying. Of course, when he arrives in 1996 and mentions he's from the future, he's thrown in the loony bin and left to rot. There he meets fellow crazy man Brad Pitt and fetching psychiatrist Madeline Stowe. Director Terry Gilliam presents an unsettling, quasi SM view of a future world dripping with rubber and chains, and the present doesn't look much better. The result is a gripping, pessimistic story of both the arrogance and fragility of human society.

Two if by Sea. Possibly the most painful romantic comedy of the year, for those who don't find falling down, outlandish wardrobe changes, clichéd lines and faux east-coast accents the least bit charming or amusing. We hereby dub Sandra Bullock the Goldie Hawn of the '90s: just a smidgen smarter, tougher and more sophisticated than her predecessor, but apparently destined to make "Sandra Bullock movies." This time around, she tries to play the honest-but-scheming girlfriend of a sometimes-repentant petty thief (Denis Leary). The plot involves a band of bumbling thieves, a black FBI agent named O'Malley (yes, this is supposed to be funny), a grand art heist and a bunch of people pretending to be something they're not (stay tuned for the Big Lesson at the end). Along the way, we get to see Bullock looking cute during a high speed chase, Bullock looking cute in baggy clothes, Bullock looking cute while arguing with her boyfriend, Bullock looking cute while being swept off her feet by someone tall, dark and handsome, and...well, you get the picture. Sandra, baby...wake up and spit out the bubble-gum before it's too late!

Waiting to Exhale. The story of four African-American women looking for Mr. Right and finding, for the most part, Mr. Already Married. This movie starts out with some gleeful, man-bashing humor, then tapers out into sentimental overkill. Though the story is ostensibly about women learning to feel complete by themselves, the movie is actually obsessed with men, man-hunting, looking pretty for men, and how great it is to have a man around, if you're a woman. Angela Bassett gets stuck playing a completely unsympathetic character, while Whitney Huston is saddled with the role of the boring good girl. Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon are quite good though, and this movie gets extra bonus points for portraying affluent, African-American women in Arizona.

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