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* A young attorney takes on the defense of his grandfather, a bigoted murderer facing the gas chamber, hoping to stop the execution by any means necessary. Gene Hackman gives a powerful performance as the killer, and the storytelling is often gripping. But the film contains much extremely offensive language and gratuitous depictions of violence, some of it aimed at helpless children, not needed to get the plot across. Also featuring Chris O'Donnell and Faye Dunaway. James Foley directed. V PSkip to next paragraph
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** Engrossing, thoughtful, predictable.
* Pitch-dark comedy about a young Latin woman who takes a job with a service that cleans up after violent crimes. The action oscillates between wry humor and grotesque, bloodthirsty scenes that show the touch of gore-master Quentin Tarantino, who served as executive producer. William Baldwin and Angela Jones star. Written and directed by Reb Braddock. V P
** Bloody, voyeuristic, satirical.
DADETOWN (Not rated)
** A fiction film made to resemble a PBS-type documentary, this timely drama traces the tensions that arise in a small town when a large, impersonal corporation sets up its headquarters just as a decades-old local company faces cutbacks and layoffs. Imitation documentaries are among the hardest of films to pull off, and this is a reasonably well-crafted specimen of the breed. Directed by the late Russ Hexter. P V
*** Gwyneth Paltrow is enchanting as a self-confident young woman who decides to wile away her time by playing matchmaker for a friend whose romantic life would fare much better without interference. Directed by Douglas McGrath from his own screenplay, based on the same richly ironic Jane Austen novel that inspired "Clueless," the gorgeously filmed comedy features good supporting performances by Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson.
**** Genteel, sprightly, romantic.
EXTREME MEASURES (R)
* A young physician stumbles on a conspiracy to conduct dangerous medical research by kidnapping homeless people and subjecting them to damaging experiments. The action is gripping and the story raises important issues about medical ethics in a high-tech society. Gene Hackman is in excellent form, and Hugh Grant does the most finely tuned acting of his career to date. The film contains grisly medical scenes, though. Directed by Michael Apted from Tony Gilroy's screenplay, which loses some plausibility in the last few scenes. V P
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (PG)
*** Infuriated when their husbands leave them for younger companions, three middle-aged women band together for revenge. The dialogue is often silly but Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn deliver it with enough crackerjack energy to keep audiences laughing. Also features Maggie Smith, Bronson Pinchot, Dan Hedaya, and Marcia Gay Harden. Hugh Wilson directed. P
*** Hilarious, stereotypical, caustic.
FLY AWAY HOME (PG)
*** While coping with family problems, a teenage girl hatches a bunch of goose eggs for fun, then realizes her new pets won't know how to migrate south for the winter unless someone shows them the way - an ideal job for her and her father, an inventor who loves tinkering with lightweight aircraft. Nature specialist Carroll Ballard directed this eye-dazzling family film, which has superb airborne cinematography to compensate for some soggy spots in the story. Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin star. V P
**** Uplifting, heartwarming, adventurous.
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (R)
u A bright young engineer and a grizzled adventurer battle a mysterious menace in the African wilderness. The story has promise, but it's so macho there's hardly a female face to be found, and too many scenes are drowned in excessively gory violence. Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas star. Stephen Hopkins directed. V