"Houseguest" (PG, 1 hour, 49 minutes)

Just be yourself and accept others is the useful message aimed at young audiences in this paper-thin comedy, but fans 8 and up of likable actor-comic Sinbad will get spoonfuls of his silly routines along with their medicine.

He plays Kevin, a loser fleeing the clutches of a couple of loan sharks through Pittsburgh's airport. When he overhears Gary (Phil Hartman) talking about a friend he's supposed to meet whom he hasn't seen in 25 years, he spots a chance to evade his pursuers and immediately takes on the role of the long-lost buddy. The comedy (such as it is) comes from Sinbad's figuring out who he's supposed to be -- an oral surgeon and wine connoisseur. Along the way, he saves Gary's marriage and counsels his two kids. What a guy! Harmless stuff, but with a dreary comedy-by-committee feel that may bother older viewers.

"Safe Passage" (PG-13, 1 hour, 38 minutes)

What drama there is to chew on turns to mush in this dreary, flashback-driven flick, too claustrophobic and sentimental for kids. (A few cusswords and a frank discussion of passion earn the rating.)

With news crews hovering on the lawn, a family waits anxiously for word of their son, a Marine peacekeeper in the Sinai who might be among the victims in a terrorist bombing. The mother, Mag (Susan Sarandon), who has nurtured seven boys and a feisty husband quite successfully, battles with conflicting desires: a cloying Earth Mother urge to protect her brood forever, and a yen to create an independent life for herself.

Vague intimations of serious problems among parents and kids all turn to nothing. The title should have been "Oh Well, Never Mind."

"Higher Learning" (R, 2 hours, 7 minutes)

Much greater than the sum of its often stereotyped parts (every white male a dweeb), John Singleton's gutsy morality tale of college life will grab the undivided attention of older teens. Strong profanity, realistic violence and explicit sexual situations aim "Higher Learning" at mature high schoolers.

It follows the lives of three freshmen at fictional Columbus University: Malik (Omar Epps), an African-American on a track scholarship; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a naive Orange County deb; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), a loner from Idaho faced for the first time with folks of all races. Malik has academic problems and a vague sense of white racism. Kristen experiences date rape and questions her sexual orientation, alternating between a male and female lover. Remy falls in with neo-Nazi skinheads. Singleton tries to show where all the racial and gender sniping on campuses could lead if carried to its ultimate conclusion: violence, just as in the real world. It's a daring, even sensational approach.

"Cobb" (R, 2 hours, 8 minutes)

Lots of blather and precious little baseball fuel this tear-a-passion-to-tatters one-man show of a movie. "Cobb" may attract, then repel, older teens curious about Tommy Lee Jones' star turn as Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who spent a career batting well over .300 and a life batting zero. The Ty Cobb shown here was profane, drunk, viciously racist, physically and verbally abusive, and vivid about his bodily functions; hence the R rating.

Based on two books by sportswriter Al Stump (Ty's Boswell), the movie follows an angry, dying Cobb and the perpetually astounded Stump (Robert Wuhl) on a binge of drinking, driving and dictation, culminating in a Hall of Fame dinner. Tommy Lee Jones is bigger than life as Cobb but, alas, everyone around him languishes in his shadow. Stagy, turgid and hollow.

"Immortal Beloved" (R, 2 hours, 3 minutes)

For mature teens fascinated by the artistic life, this often silly melodrama still has a few transcendent moments in which the genius of Ludwig van Beethoven (Gary Oldman) and his music become one. The rest is soap opera: Who was the "immortal beloved" named in a letter found after the composer's death in 1827? As his loyal secretary, Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), interviews Ludwig's former lovers, the answer becomes less and less important than the music. There are sexual situations, nudity and a graphic portrayal of a consumptive coughing up blood.

Beyond the ratings game

Fine for the youngest on up:

"The Pagemaster," G (Humor defuses chills on animated trip through children's lit).

"The Swan Princess," G (Sweet old-style fairy tale. Evil magician may briefly scare tots).

Fine for kids 6 and up:

"Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book," PG (Fights, animal attacks, hissing snake, injured bear. Thrilling; too much for some).

"Richie Rich," PG (Rich kid foils evil accountant, makes friends. Witty; occasional vulgarisms).

Fine for kids 8 and up:

"Little Women," PG (Sisters grow up in 1860s New England. Beth's famous death may cause extra upset. Lovely film).

Fitting for 13s:

"I.Q.," PG (Einstein's niece meets car mechanic; relative happiness ensues. Smart, funny, dash of physics; lost on pre-teens).

"Dumb and Dumber," PG-13 (Laxatives in cocktails, tongues on cold metal, money in box office. Bare bums, some profanity).

"Street Fighter," PG-13 (Maniacal dictator overthrown by martial-arts types; video game violence; occasional profanity).

R's etc.:

"Vanya on 42nd Street," PG (Great Chekhov will inspire artistic teens).

"Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," R (Dorothy Parker's one-liners, miserable life. Suicide attempt, explicit sex, profanity. Mature teen readers).

"Ready to Wear," R (Altman cuts up couturiers; nudity, sexual situations, profanity. Dull for teens).

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