ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS -- The most audacious musical since ``Pennies From Heaven,'' and a lot more successful. The story takes place in London during the late 1950s, and director Julien Temple starts it with an explosion of stylized action that combines the iconography of the period with the choreographed movement of today's rock videos. Sadly, much of the film doesn't live up to this introduction, bogging down in giggly vulgarity and occasional nasty violence, which punctuate the plot about a teen-age photographer who sells out his principles for money. Still, some of the musical numbers are very exciting, and the film raises still-valid warnings about racism and materialism. (Rated PG-13) 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE -- A lonely cop breaks a narcotics ring and solves the murder of a prostitute while fighting his own alcoholism. Razor-sharp performances play off each other with tense precision under the guidance of director Hal Ashby, who also shows a keen sense of the absurd in a couple of important scenes. Look out for a torrent of four-letter words, though, and an inexcusably nasty attitude toward women. (Rated R)

FEMMES DE PERSONNE -- Ambitious, compassionate, but not very incisive drama about four women and their diverse approaches to life, love, and sexuality. Written and directed by Christopher Frank, a Briton who lives and works in France. (Not rated)

LEGEND -- Synthetic fairy tale about a young hero and heroine caught between the forces of darkness and light, which are embodied by a demon and a pair of unicorns, respectively. The visual effects are relentlessly lavish, but the story is hopelessly trite and the violence is much too harrowing for a tale pitched largely to young viewers. Directed by fantasy specialist Ridley Scott. (Rated PG)

LETTER TO BREZHNEV -- A bored young woman in Liverpool is swept off her feet by a visiting Russian sailor in this likable but very uneven British comedy-drama. Some of the romantic scenes are fetching, others corny and overwritten. Directed by Chris Bernard and written by Frank Clarke, two new Liverpudlian talents. They make some ironic points about Western attitudes toward the Soviet Union, but hammer too hard on ``authentic'' details like street language and dreary small talk by dreary characters. (Rated R)

ROUTINE PLEASURES -- An eccentric, winning documentary that divides its attention between a California model-railroad club and the work of Manny Farber, a painter and writer who has exerted a strong influence on contemporary film criticism. Directed by French 'emigr'e Jean-Pierre Gorin in a personal cin'ema-v'erit'e style that treats itself and its subjects with an equal blend of respect and irreverence. (Not rated)

3 MEN AND A CRADLE -- The heroes are swinging singles until a baby arrives on their doorstep, with a note saying one of them is the daddy. From then on it's diapers and early-morning bottles instead of parties and peccadilloes, but after the shock wears off, they get to like their three-way fatherhood. While the story has few surprises, parts of it are amusing and the performances are convincing. Written and directed by French filmmaker Coline Serreau. (Rated PG-13) RATINGS: Films with ratings other than G may contain varying degrees of vulgar language, nudity, sex, and violence.

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