The Mild Bunch

We can't be sure who'll pull the trigger, but we know that Big Boy will be shot. The way Frears and Green have winnowed down the subplots, the climactic twist comes as no surprise. And the actors don't have the wiggle room to hit on revelations of their own. Harrelson at least lives up to the role of an irresistible life force; he energizes the film with his unsettling point-counterpoint of physical menace and skewed humor. But Crudup, so charismatic in Robert Towne's neglected Without Limits -- which failed even to receive a St. Louis release -- turns into a mope; he's only wonderful here when the whole sorry mess is behind him. Elliott looks promising as Jim Ed Love but gets stranded in a single slimy smile. It's as if he's posing for a rogue's gallery.

Lee Marvin once told Evans that he didn't understand why Peckinpah kept buying the rights to The Hi-Lo Country when he'd already stolen the novel for an hourlong TV road comedy called The Losers. When Evans countered that all Peckinpah had filched was a farcical coon hunt, Marvin replied, "That's the best part of the book." The coon hunt doesn't make it into the film. This movie is wrongheadedly severe. When Pete sums it up and says he'll always remember the good times, you can't remember any.

Opens Jan. 29 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir

Last year's murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming should spur renewed interest in this first-rate documentary about a similar hate crime that took place on New Year's Eve 1993 in a small Nebraska town. Teena Brandon, a striking-looking 20-year-old woman with a history of check-kiting, was brutally executed, along with two of her friends. The murders occurred just after she was exposed as passing as a man, and raped and beaten on Christmas Day. According to Teena's many girlfriends, "Brandon Teena," as she was known, was a "good kisser who knew how to treat a woman." Such skills inflamed the jealousy of local male rivals. This may sound like the stuff of trash television, but filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir have created something far too provocative for Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer to handle in the form of safe, theatricalized shocks. This is the real deal. Recounting Brandon's story through interviews with her friends, relatives and even her murderers, the filmmakers -- without hectoring or finger-pointing of any kind -- underscore the extreme danger incurred by those who stray from assigned gender roles. Especially revealing are interviews with a local sheriff, whose fascination with Brandon's real gender took precedence over the filing of rape charges. Anyone in doubt regarding the need for hate-crimes legislation is encouraged to see this film.

Plays at 7 p.m. Jan. 29-31 at Webster University.
-- David Ehrenstein

Directed by Robert Iscove

There's nothing wrong with this flimsy teen romantic comedy that couldn't be cured with telekinesis and a bucket of pig's blood. Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as a smart, sensitive heartthrob at a swank LA high school. He socially rehabilitates a misfit art student (Rachael Leigh Cook) first to win a bet, then to win her love. Jodi Lyn O'Keefe plays the bubble-headed golden girl who sets the plot in motion when she dumps Prinze for a gross, obstreperous "star" of MTV's The Real World (Matthew Lillard). Despite its sprinkling of goofy-vicious gags, the movie aims to recall My Fair Lady more than it does Carrie, down to a jarringly choreographed prom scene that tries (and fails) to make us feel as if we could dance all night.

Director Robert Iscove and writer R. Lee Fleming Jr. work everything out way too cleanly and wholesomely. Cook and Prinze don't just fall in love -- they also teach each other crucial life lessons. Under his influence she "opens up"; once she does she becomes a top contender both for prom queen and an art scholarship. Under her influence he realizes that he doesn't have to have "all the answers." Of course, you may wonder whether Prinze's confusion is all to the good. A fistful of Ivy League acceptances molder unanswered in his drawer; he may wind up like the guy in the FedEx commercial who becomes a swimming-pool cleaner because he never received the letter welcoming him to Harvard. (Cook's character's father is a swimming-pool cleaner, too.) Cook's "Geeky Girl" says she feels like "Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, except for that whole hooker thing." Apart from the occasional funny line, the movie spins down like a failed pilot for the WB network.

Opens Jan. 29.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Sidney Lumet

In this remake -- oddly uncredited -- of the 1980 urban folktale written and directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands, Sharon Stone takes over the title role, a tough-talking New York City moll struggling to protect a 6-year-old boy (Jean-Luke Figueroa) from the gangsters who've massacred his family. The material is only a notch or two away from Damon Runyon, but it has its appeal, and the first half of the movie plays more compellingly than you might expect. Stone showed some real chops in The Mighty (alongside Rowlands) last year, and she does heartfelt work here as well. Figueroa is surprisingly vigorous and funny; he seems like a real kid, and Stone doesn't have to strain in a vacuum to create a sense that they've become friends.

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