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In Short

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It tidies up Babe Ruth’s more disreputable adventures and gives him a heart of gold besides. Yet on its own genially sweet terms, The Babe is charming — it’s a PG-rated, fairy-tale ”Raging Bull.” The movie understands the rich comedy of Ruth’s appeal, the fact that the grandest athlete of the 20th century was, in one sense, barely an athlete at all. He was, instead, a kind of carnival showman, a big, soft, dumpling-shaped guy who knew how to perform one trick of genius, and who did it over and over. As Babe, an untamed man- child who’s all appetite, John Goodman inspires extraordinary empathy. B+ BASIC INSTINCT (R) Beneath its heavy- breathing fripperies, Paul Verhoeven’s thriller is a muddle of Hitchcockian red herrings and standard cop-thriller ballistics. Michael Douglas plays a jaded cop and Sharon Stone is a bisexual ice princess who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. B-

BEETHOVEN (PG) In case you missed the trailer for Beethoven, it appears, virtually intact, 20 minutes into the movie. As Paul Shaffer performs his rockin’-white-bread version of ”Roll Over Beethoven,” we see family man Charles Grodin confronting the horrors of life with a Saint Bernard. And that’s about it for the money gags. D

CITY OF JOY (PG-13) Patrick Swayze plays a frustrated American surgeon who volunteers his services at an impoverished clinic in Calcutta, becoming a kind of Preppie Teresa. Director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) visualizes the city’s packed-to-the-gills squalor with mesmerizing flair. Beneath the riveting surface details, though, a wish-fulfillment melodrama is dying to get out. Long on atmosphere and short on the neorealist drama it promises, City of Joy immerses us in a landscape of unimaginable cruelty and then says, ”Hey, if we just tried, we could solve this poverty thing!” B-

THE CUTTING EDGE (PG) Shamelessly watchable romantic schlock for the Sassy set: It’s as gooey and synthetic as the ”topping” they squirt on your popcorn at multiplexes, and if you’re over 15 you won’t want to admit to your friends you actually sat through it. B-

DEEP COVER (R) Stylish and impassioned, but a mess. The movie follows the slow descent of an idealistic black officer (Larry Fishburne) who is tapped by the DEA to go undercover as a drug dealer. Director Bill Duke is out to blend the commercial, gut-wrenching pleasures of an inner-city shoot-’em-up with the complex moral rage that marked such black-cinema touchstones as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. His film succeeds, to a degree, as a stylized fever dream, yet it unfolds in such a jagged, pell-mell fashion that you have to stop and get your bearings in almost every scene. B-

HOWARDS END (PG) The latest E.M. Forster adaptation from the team of James Ivory (director), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenwriter), and Ismail Merchant (producer) is a glorious success-witty, dark, profound. Yet it is also supremely elusive. The dream cast includes Anthony Hopkins as the rich, diffident Henry; Vanessa Redgrave as the dreamy matriarch Ruth; Helena Bonham Carter as Helen, who attempts-with tragic results-to better the life of a poor clerk (Sam West); and Emma Thompson as the radiant and kindly Margaret, whose face is like a kaleidoscope of emotion. A

MY COUSIN VINNY (R) A lumbering, amiably stupido fish-out-of-water farce that hits moments of crude lunacy. Vinny (Joe Pesci), an East Coast Italian street tough, shows up in Wahzoo City, Ala., to defend his collegiate cousin on a bogus murder charge. C+

THE PLAYER (R) Robert Altman’s gleefully close-to-the-bone satirical thriller about Hollywood in the age of high concept. The movie centers on Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a hot young production executive who has been receiving threatening postcards from an enraged screenwriter. Altman serves up a lip- smacking insider’s tour of the new Hollywood, a place where movies have been reduced to pure packaging. Yet the second Griffin attempts to track down his mysterious adversary, his whole life seems to turn into a movie-and a | pungent, oddly thrilling one. Beneath its sardonic surface, The Player is a loose-limbed comic meditation on what’s real and what’s not. A

THE POWER OF ONE (PG-13) The title is meant to refer to the strength of a South Africa in which whites and blacks join forces to overcome oppression. Yet you don’t have to read very far between the lines to see that this story of a British orphan named P.K., who is played by three different actors at ages 7, 12, and 18, is really about the power of one crusading white boy-a boy so blond, handsome, and possessed of higher purpose he could practically be a poster child for the Hitler Youth. D

STEPHEN KING’S SLEEPWALKERS (R) Charles (Brian Krause) looks like the hunk next door. Beware, though. He and his weirdly young-and-seductive mother (Alice Krige) are ”sleepwalkers”-incestuous, catlike demons who feast on the life force of beautiful virgins. This Stephen King thriller is a microwaved hash of slasher-movie thrills and werewolf-movie metaphysics. On the plus side, there are some state-of-the-art transformation effects-if only Lon Chaney Jr. could have enjoyed the benefits of morphing!-as well as an amusing turn by Krige as the Sexiest Mom Alive. C-

STRAIGHT TALK (PG) As a failed dance-school instructor who becomes talk-radio psychologist ”Dr. Shirlee,” Dolly Parton is reduced to the sum of her trademarks: cleavage, dimples, heels, the occasional down-home homily. The film introduces a tired gimmick-Shirlee, with her countrified common sense, has more smarts than any o’ them gosh-darned city slickers-and then barely even exploits it. D

THUNDERHEART (R) Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), a slick young FBI agent who is one- quarter Sioux, is asked to investigate a homicide on an Indian reservation. Hokey and laborious, this leftover 1970s conspiracy thriller wants to expose the ragtag poverty and injustice of modern Indian life, yet it reduces Native American culture to a patronizing melange of peace pipes, mysticism, and inscrutable elders. Graham Greene plays a wily tribal cop with impish humor, pursing his lips and dropping brute ironies like a Native American Joe Mantegna. C

WAYNE’S WORLD (PG-13) Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) exist in a happy myopic daze: Whatever happens to them, they experience it as if they were watching it on television. As a movie, Wayne’s World isn’t much more than an amiable goof, but it’s carried along by the flaked-out exuberance of its two stars. B

WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP (R) In the early scenes, writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) dives into the motor-mouthed world of neighborhood pickup basketball with exhilarating showmanship. The movie is about the partnership of two roundball hustlers: Sid (Wesley Snipes), who’s all speed and wizardry and bullying flash, and Billy (Woody Harrelson), a mild-looking white guy who turns out to be every bit the slick shooter Sid is. There’s some amusingly daft racial banter, but Sid and Billy don’t really develop as characters. B-

WHITE SANDS (R) A dud. Willem Dafoe stars as a small-town New Mexico sheriff who discovers a corpse-and a briefcase containing $500,000-and takes the dead man’s place to see where the money leads. Swathed in layers of chic, swirling ”visuals,” White Sands turns into a series of plot twists so abstract and monotonous that the movie, in the end, is about nothing more than its own wheel-spinning convolutions. As a suave arms salesman, Mickey Rourke has become a painfully hammy icon of sleaze: the undead Method Actor. C-