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DEATH OF A SOLDIER -- Australia no longer has capital punishment, but that doesn't stop the nation's filmmakers from shedding useful light on the subject in pictures like `` `Breaker' Morant'' and this new release. The screenplay is based on the true story of a psychotic American soldier who murdered three women while stationed in Australia during World War II and was evidently railroaded to the gallows for public-relations purposes despite his obvious insanity. A gripping portrayal of the killer by Reb Brown makes up for uneven acting by James Coburn and ragged directing by Phillipe Mora. (Rated R) FOREST OF BLISS -- The documentary form takes on a unique sense of emotional drama and cinematic poetry in Robert Gardner's visionary portrait of Benares, India, focusing on religious rites and everyday living habits at a cremation site on the Ganges River. Some images related to death and poverty are harrowing to Western eyes, but the treatment of potentially devastating material is generally as tactful as it is revealing. (Not rated)

SHORT CIRCUIT -- No movie with Austin Pendleton can be all bad, but this one makes a game try. The hero is a robot that takes on human traits, including feelings, after a lightning storm scrambles its circuits. The villain is a military man who wants to destroy the cute little thing. There's one amusing moment, when a trio of automatons does a brief Three Stooges routine. Otherwise it's all flat jokes, tired chases, and a vain attempt by Pendleton to transcend the awful performances around him. (Rated PG)

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SWEET LIBERTY -- Alan Alda wrote, directed, and stars in this comedy about a history professor whose scholarly novel on the American Revolution is being turned into a lowbrow movie by a bunch of hack Hollywood filmmakers. Michael Caine is just right as the leading man of the film-within-a-film, and Lillian Gish has a few good moments as the hero's dotty mother. Alda's character is so relentlessly likable he wears you down, though, and the story loses its way in a thicket of half-baked subplots. (Rated PG) RATINGS: Films with ratings other than G may contain varying degrees of vulgar language, nudity, sex, and violence.

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