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November 23, 2000

"Beyond the Clouds" (1995). This lyrical, poignant, four-episode film from Michelangelo Antonioni finds the master of alienation creating a reverie of love and desire in a warm mood of appreciation, glad to have lived and loved, no matter how transient or elusive the circumstances. Linked by a narrator (John Malkovich) serving as Antonioni's alter ego and revealing further his passion for films and filmmaking, these sections were directed in the manner of Antonioni by Wim Wenders. With an international cast that includes Sophie Marceau, Fanny Ardant, Vincent Perez, Irene Jacob, Jean Reno and Peter Weller, with guest appearances by Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni. Vanguard: no list price; (CC); Unrated: Some sex, nudity, adult themes.

* "Chicken Run" (2000). Nick Park, British master of clay animation and three-time Oscar-winning creator of "Wallace and Gromit," and co-director Peter Lord have put chickens front and center with this gleeful parody of prison and escape movies. A delightful pageant of chicken romance, chicken rescue and chicken intrigue that never loses its priceless stamp of individuality. DreamWorks/Universal: $26.99; DVD: $26.99; (CC); G.

"42 Up" (1999). The sixth installment chronicling the lives of 14 British children representing a cross-section of society finds the group entering middle age while leading productive lives and generally, though cautiously, optimistic about life. The landmark series gets richer as its perspective lengthens, and filmmaker Michael Apted's use of clips from past segments makes uniquely rounded portraits; you also don't have to have seen previous installments to enjoy this one. First Run: no list price; (CC); Unrated: Adult themes, but suitable for mature older children.

"Gladiator" (2000). Director Ridley Scott's latest is a supremely atmospheric film that shrewdly mixes traditional Roman movie elements--like senators in carefully pressed togas and fighters who say, "We who are about to die salute you"--with the latest computer-generated wonders. Intensely masculine actor Russell Crowe, who seems to have the patent on heroic plausibility, is commanding as the heroic gladiator Maximus. But the movie--too long at 2 1/2 hours--is not as nimble outside the arena as inside. With Joaquin Phoenix, as the ruthless young emperor Commodus, Richard Harris, as Marcus Aurelius, Connie Nielson, as Commodus' shrewd sister Lucilla, Djimon Hounsou as the gladiator Juba and, in his last screen role, Oliver Reed plays a former gladiator named Proximo. DreamWorks/Universal: no list price; DVD: $29.99; (CC); R, for intense graphic combat.

"X-Men" (2000). A solid summer entertainment with "The Usual Suspects' " Bryan Singer directing British heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. It doesn't take your breath away, but it's an accomplished piece of work with considerable pulp watchability and a self-referential sense of humor. Fox: $22.98; DVD: $29.98; (CC); PG-13, for sci-fi action violence.

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What's Hot

* Last week's Top 5 VHS rentals:

1. "M:I-2" (2000). Hong Kong action-meister John Woo brings his marvelous visual sense and showy flair to this follow-up to the 1996 blockbuster. Tom Cruise, looking a bit shaggier but still appropriately steely eyed in this new incarnation of special agent Ethan Hunt, is one of "M:I-2's" strongest weapons. With Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton and Ving Rhames. PG-13, for intense sequences of violent action and some sensuality.

2. "The Patriot" (selected theaters). An epic look at America's war for independence that is more serious and skillful than might be expected from the team that gave the world "Independence Day." But the benefits of star Mel Gibson's charisma aside, its attempt to blend a broad canvas with an intimate family story is not completely successful. R for strong war violence.

3. "Frequency" (2000). An effective but overreaching sci-fi thriller directed by Gregory Hoblit ("Primal Fear") that explores what happens in the present if you find a way to redo the past. The story about a police detective (Jim Caviezel) who communicates with his long-dead father (Dennis Quaid) is enjoyable until the greedy final section. PG-13 for intense violence and disturbing images.

4. "Rules of Engagement" (2000). This courtroom-combat drama--directed by veteran William Friedkin and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and an impressive Guy Pearce is a moderately diverting entertainment that raises all kinds of thought-provoking questions it's not really interested in answering. R for scenes of war violence and for language.

5. "Return to Me" (2000). A love story that's as fresh as tomorrow yet honors the traditions of Hollywood's most cherished tear-jerkers. David Duchovny and Minnie Driver star in career-enhancing roles. A triumph for Bonnie Hunt, who directed, co-wrote the script and co-stars as Driver's sister. With Carroll O'Connor in a welcome return to the big screen. PG for language and thematic elements.

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* Last week's Top 5 DVD rentals:

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