FREEZE FRAMES

A weekly update of film releases

* CLIFFHANGER - Sylvester Stallone pursues a passel of bad guys across one mountaintop after another. There's a visceral charge to the high-altitude chase scenes, but the thriller ultimately falls flat, even on its own limited terms. This is partly because of a perfunctory love-and-loyalty subplot, centering on the hero's rivalry with another mountaineer, and partly because of the story's incredibly weak psychology, full of dithering about guilt feelings and the need for he-men to prove their he-manliness b y conquering their fears. But most offensive are the movie's explosions of brutal violence, dished out by everything from automatic rifles to mountain boots. How insecure today's filmmakers must be if they don't trust high adventure on awesome peaks to entertain their audience, but feel impelled to charge up the action with bloodspurts and bonecrunching. Renny Harlin directed. In the cast, Michael Rooker has some effective moments, but John Lithgow steals the show as the chief villain. (Rated R) * THE MUSIC OF CHANCE - A decent but disillusioned man meets a professional gambler and finds himself involved in a bizarre poker game with two eccentric millionaires. When he and his partner gamble away everything they possess, they become indentured servants, unable to leave the rich men's estate until they work off their debt by completing a strange architectural project. Based on a novel by Paul Auster, the movie seems oddly self-conscious in its eagerness to be surprising and occasionally shocking; and

its stylized visual approach works against the sense of detailed realism that characterizes much of the screenplay. The film is certainly original, though, and boasts engaging performances by Mandy Patinkin and James Spader, among others. Directed by documentarist Philip Haas in his feature-film debut. (Rated R)

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