FREEZE FRAMES

THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE - This talky Canadian film raises the fascinating question of whether contemporary self-indulgence signals the impending demise of Western civilization, and then fails to suggest a single interesting answer. You can tell it's an up-to-date movie, because the men cook dinner while the women work out at a health club. The rest of the time they simply gab, mostly about sex, and plunge into a few indulgences of their own. Directed by Denys Arcand. (Rated R) DUST - Stark, sometimes powerful drama about a woman who goes violently mad while living on a South African farm with her taciturn father and a few servants. Marion H"ansel wrote and directed the Belgian-French coproduction. (Not rated) 52 PICK-UP - Businessman battles blackmailers. John Frankenheimer can direct this sort of thriller with his eyes closed, and the action is never dull. But there's something downright vicious about how consistently the most degrading and even sadistic treatment is reserved for women. (Rated R) FROM BEYOND - Send it back. Stuart Gordon, who directed the gruesome ``Re-Animator,'' tones down his style just a tad in this gory, intense science-fiction yarn about a machine that lets people see with their pineal glands as well as their eyes. Humans, it seems, weren't meant to tamper with some things. This picture makes you wonder if cinema is one of them. (Rated R) HALF MOON STREET - Flat, weakly acted melodrama about a scholarly woman who moonlights as a call girl and finds herself mixed up with international intrigue. Directed by Bob Swaim, who fails to recapture the excitement of ``La Balance,'' his debut film. Based on ``Doctor Slaughter,'' a short novel by Paul Theroux that's more pithy as well as more pessimistic, although no masterpiece itself. (Rated R) THE MISSION - Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro play 18th-century Jesuit missionaries in the South American jungle. Because their community provides a haven for refugees from the slave trade, greedy politicians and weak church authorities want to close it down. The heroes vow to defend it, one through faith and the other through violence. The performers have trouble getting their mouths around Robert Bolt's stilted dialogue, and director Roland Joff'e rarely builds any tension or suspense. Despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, moreover, the second-class treatment of the Indian characters is superficial and patronizing. (Rated PG) SOMETHING WILD - A proper businessman joins a wacky but mysterious woman for a spur-of-the-moment fling, and lands in very deep water. Directed by Jonathan Demme, who explored the tacky side of Americana brilliantly in ``Melvin and Howard'' some years ago. He enters similar territory here, but heads steadily for the dark side, until comedy and irony dissolve into searing emotional and physical violence. The action is full of surprises and filmed with great imagination, but the shifts in tone are so disturbing that the movie seems nightmarish at times. (Rated R) RATINGS: Films with ratings other than G may contain varying degrees of vulgar language, nudity, sex, and violence.

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