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Freeze Frames: The Monitor Movie Guide

Here are the week's reviews of both the latest releases and current films, rated according to the key below (''o'' for forget it). The capsule reviews are by Monitor film critic David Sterritt; the one liners from a panel of at least three other Monitor reviewers. Movies containing violence (V), sexual situations (S), nudity (N), and profanity (P) are noted.

o Forget it

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* Only if it's free

** Maybe a matinee

*** Worth full price

**** Wait in line

New Releases


*** The classic tale of two intertwined love affairs: one between a married woman and a handsome military officer, which brings tragedy to all concerned, and another between a ditzy princess and a thoughtful but insecure aristocrat. Much gets eliminated when a 1,000-page epic is squeezed into less than two hours of screen time, but filmmaker Bernard Rose has adapted Leo Tolstoy's timeless masterpiece with skill and understanding, capturing a tumultuous array of human emotions against a backdrop of imperial elegance that recalls the golden age of historical movies. Sophie Marceau is a radiant Anna and Alfred Molina is perfect as Levin, the character closest to Tolstoy himself. V S N

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*** Lively animated feature about a cat who leaves the Midwest for Hollywood, dreaming of success in silver-screen musicals. There he runs afoul of a bratty star who doesn't like animals, but learns that while dreams don't come true easily, cleverness and perseverance pay off in the long run. The picture has energy to spare, but children won't get the movie-buff references that provide much of its humor. Mark Dindal directed. Voices include Scott Bakula, Natalie Cole, Jasmine Guy, George Kennedy, Hal Holbrook, Rene Auberjonois, Kathy Najimi, and Don Knotts. V


*** Young and not-so-young adults spin a complex web of relationships as they cope with emotional and sexual tensions in a Midwestern suburb. Jeff Lipsky's first feature is more honest than penetrating, but deserves praise for earnestly exploring a wide range of ideas and feelings. S N P


** A member of the Irish Republican Army comes to New York and moves into the home of an Irish-American police officer, who doesn't know the guest is planning a deal to buy heavy weaponry for his organization. Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford have good chemistry, and the story takes a few interesting turns. The dramatic situations aren't intense or knotty enough to match the moral issues behind them, however. Treat Williams, Ruben Blades, and Simon Jones head the supporting cast. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. V P S

** Disturbing, fine acting, unrealistic.

GRAY'S ANATOMY (Not rated)

*** Spalding Gray delivers one of the monologues that have become his trademark, this time putting a typically comic spin on his effort to cure an anxiety-causing illness. Inventively directed by Steven Soderbergh, although some will take offense at Gray's irreverence toward everything from sex to religion, not to mention his vivid descriptions of unpleasant physical conditions. P


** Class conflicts mix with romantic yearnings as two brothers from a broken home play out love-hate relationships with members of a wealthy Midwestern family. The drama is long on 1950s atmosphere and complicated feelings, short on emotional depth and real psychological insight. It also contains enough sex and nudity to make it questionable for some moviegoers who might otherwise respond to its nostalgic moods and varied performances. Pat O'Connor directed. S N V P


** Randy comedy about sexual shenanigans among a group of Australian university students with various orientations. Directed by Emma-Kate Croghan, a promising newcomer. S N V P


*** Set in rural Mongolia, this beautifully filmed drama traces the experiences of a man and woman who grow up in the same household, separate when he travels to the city for his education, then reunite after their lives have moved onto very different pathways. The movie is less profound than director Xie Fei's earlier masterpiece, "The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls," but it glows with the eye-filling images and warm-hearted acting that distinguish Chinese cinema at its best, and shows special sensitivity to the challenges facing women in a tradition-bound land starting to feel the pressures of growth and modernization. P V


** He's more of a trickster than his nickname would suggest, but he's ultimately on the right side in an action-packed conflict between a nasty Russian schemer and a gifted American scientist who thinks she's discovered a phenomenal new energy source. Val Kilmer is fun as the mercurial hero, and Elisabeth Shue would be great as the physicist if the movie didn't have her waste so much time making googoo-eyes at her handsome new boyfriend. And will someone tell Hollywood the cold war is over? Relations between Russia and the US are confused enough without suspicion-mongering pictures like this. Directed by Phillip Noyce. S V P

TROMEO & JULIET (Not rated)

* Troma, a low-budget production company specializing in over-the-top sleaze, jumps on the Shakespeare bandwagon with this deliberately brainless update of the classic play about ill-starred lovers. The result is a tragedy in every sense of the term, but it might steer some youngsters toward the original. Directed by Michael J. Herz. S V N

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* A young couple gets involved with a group of bizarre people who find erotic pleasure in automobile crashes. The original novel, written by J.G. Ballard in 1973, is a cautionary tale suggesting that new forms of amorality may flourish in today's highly technologized world. David Cronenberg's movie is a chilly meditation on this theme, carrying some cinematic interest but surprisingly dull given the story's outrageous subject. James Spader and Holly Hunter head the cast. Contains much explicit and perverse sex and violence. S N V P

* Gory, perverted, appalling.


* A psychopathic hoodlum runs away with the loot after a successful burglary, and a hate-filled partner spends the rest of the movie tracking him down for a nasty revenge. Harvey Keitel lends a degree of professional panache to the cast, which also includes Stephen Dorff and Timothy Hutton; but in the end John Irvin's thriller is just another caper picture, with more hard-hitting violence than it needs to say the few things on its mind. V P S N

** Brutal, gloomy, deadly.


*** Worried that her husband might be philandering on her, a suburban woman packs her mother, father, sister, and future brother-in-law into the car, and they head for the city to find out what's really going on. The slender story gains humor and warmth from excellent acting by Hope Davis, Anne Meara, Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott, Liev Schreiber, and others. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Greg Mottola. P S V

*** Smart, funny, real.


*** A young FBI agent infiltrates a Mafia family by becoming the protg of an aging hoodlum, jeopardizing his safety and alienating his wife in the process. This sort of story has been told many times before, but thoughtful performances by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp make it more engrossing than expected. Directed by Mike Newell, who's known mainly for lighter fare like "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Contains some very strong violence. S V P

*** Intense, gruesome, strong characters.

THE EIGHTH DAY (Not rated)

** French star Daniel Auteuil plays an uptight executive who embarks on an unlikely journey with a mentally slow man as his companion. The movie deserves credit for its compassionate approach to a subject most filmmakers steer away from, but it eventually cops out with a manipulative ending that's more superficial than insightful. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, who explored similar terrain in "Toto the Hero," a more exciting and original adventure. S P V N


*** The best of the "Star Wars" trilogy is a trifle darker and more thoughtful than the other installments. It develops real mythic power in the escalating conflict between Luke Skywalker, the budding Jedi knight, and Darth Vader, the enigmatic supervillain now revealed as our hero's secret father. The upgraded "special edition" is almost identical to the 1980 original, but if a movie isn't broken, why fix it? V

**** Explosive, superb, action-packed.


* They don't watch silly movies like this, either. Sting plays a new butler who brings uproarious instability to the eccentric household of a British aristocrat (Alan Bates) and his motley group of friends and relatives. Patrick McGrath directed the dank and dour comedy from his own screenplay - a blend of the scatterbrained, the sensational, and occasionally the sick. S N V P


**** Reissue of the classic 1967 comedy about a recent college grad who drifts into an affair with an older woman, then falls goofily in love with her daughter and scrambles to escape the traps he's fallen into. Dustin Hoffman gives the inspired performance that launched his movie career, and director Mike Nichols shows a gift for social satire that has never glistened quite so brightly since. Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross head the marvelous supporting cast. Simon & Garfunkel spice up the soundtrack with "The Sound of Silence" and other hits. N P V


*** The most ambitious screen version of Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy, shown in a dazzling big-screen format and featuring an all-star cast. Kenneth Branagh's acting and directing are equally immodest, but he keeps the action hopping at a lively pace. Most noteworthy in supporting roles are Derek Jacobi as the king, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, the wonderful Julie Christie as Gertrude, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. Other familiar faces, from Robin Williams to Charlton Heston are pretty much wasted. S N V

**** Riveting, exquisite, well-directed.

Jungle 2 Jungle (PG)

*** A simple and lighthearted film for children, which parents can watch without being bored. Tim Allen plays a father who discovers that he has a son by his estranged wife (Jo-Beth Williams), a doctor living with an Indian tribe. The son, who has been raised in the jungle, accompanies Allen back to New York City on a quest to get fire from the Statue of Liberty. What ensues is a series of adventures that bring father and son closer together. Martin Short and Lolita Davidovich also star in the film. By Sharon Johnson-Cramer

*** Family-oriented, funny, simple.


** Rivalry simmers for years between an aristocrat and her beautiful servant, who wind up competing for the attention of a handsome ruler. Mira Nair's sensuous drama decks out a trite and predictable tale with exquisite colors, textures, and music. Contains a number of heavily erotic sequences. S N V P

** Romantic, exotic, sensual.


*** Not long before the fall of the Soviet bloc and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a middle-aged Czech musician agrees to a marriage of convenience with a Russian woman, then finds himself caring for her five-year-old son after she unexpectedly leaves the country. This thoughtful comedy-drama demonstrates how difficult it is to draw lines between the personal and political in the rapidly changing modern world. N S P

*** Moving, endearing, film does good job of weaving in Czechoslovakian context.


** An overzealous lawyer hits personal and professional trouble when his little boy makes a birthday wish that his dad won't be able to lie for the next 24 hours. Jim Carrey proves that he's the most inspired clown in movies today, but parents should be warned that much of the picture's humor is extremely rude and crude. Tom Shadyac directed. S V P

*** Energetic, hilarious, Carrey at his best.


*** A woman pursues her photography career while coping with romantic dilemmas involving her one-time fiance, not the most reliable person around, and a young poet she just met, who's a little too pushy for comfort. The story is thin, but it's fun to spend time with more likable African-American characters than most Hollywood movies ever put under the spotlight. Larenz Tate and Nia Long star in the comedy, which was written and directed by Theodore Witcher. Contains explicit sexual situations and language. S P N

** Hip, sexy, strong cinematography.

MANDELA (Not rated)

*** A nonfiction look at the tumultuous life and history-making career of Nelson Mandela, touching on a wide range of issues that have influenced South Africa during the past several decades. Gives a colorful overview of a complex and fascinating subject, although there are many areas where more careful and detailed treatment would have been appropriate. Directed by Jo Menell and Angus Gibson. V


* The life and times of radio personality Howard Stern, who has turned a flair for vulgarity and sensationalism into superstar status and a zillion-dollar career. Some scenes paint a convincing portrait of Stern as a witty opponent of stuffiness, prudery, and hypocrisy. Others mix gross-out humor with nasty doses of racism, sexism, and homophobia that reveal a dark side to Stern's professional personality. Stern and his co-host, Robin Quivers, play themselves. Directed by Betty Thomas. S V N P

** Hilarious, juvenile, insightful.


*** This sensitive, imaginative drama is told from the perspective of a little girl whose parents' constant arguing has made her decide to stop talking. Few movies have paid more sincere attention to the fact that children are full-fledged human beings with complicated inner lives; and few have depicted childhood with such skillful avoidance of simplistic or sentimental notions. Written and directed by Australia-based filmmaker Rolf de Heer.


*** Reissue of the concluding 1983 chapter in George Lucas's celebrated "Star Wars" trilogy, with Han Solo and Princess Leia helping Luke Skywalker reclaim his father from the dark side of the Force while defeating the evil Empire that has terrorized the galaxy. Less original than the first "Star Wars" and less resonant than "The Empire Strikes Back," but packed with fast-paced action and downright cuddly Ewoks. It stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford plus Billy Dee Williams and the great Alec Guiness. The supposedly improved "special edition" includes a brief musical number and fancy new shots in final scene. V

*** Futuristic, inventive, fantastic but slow.


*** In a segregated Florida community during the 1920s, a white woman falsely says a black fugitive has beaten her, touching off a rampage by bigoted whites that takes a horrifying toll in death and destruction. The fact-based story is so riveting and revealing that the filmmakers needn't have used melodramatic formulas to boost its impact. But even with its flaws, the movie carries strong messages about the hurtfulness of hate, bias, and conceptions of "manhood" based on power and domination. Ving Rhames and Jon Voight head the excellent cast. S V P N

**** Educational, disturbing, haunting.


** The life of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the hugely popular Latina singer, from her beginnings in a family pop group to her tragic death at an early age. The dialogue swings between platitudes and clichs, but the acting is lively and the music will set even lazy toes tapping. Directed by Gregory Nava. V P

*** Sweet, inspirational, celebrates innocence.


* The setting is wintry Copenhagen, and the heroine is a lonely woman from Greenland who uncovers a sinister conspiracy while investigating the death of a little Inuit boy who'd become her only friend. The movie is gorgeously filmed and contains some fascinating lore about life in northern climes. But the plot is tritely predictable and far-fetched. Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, and Vanessa Redgrave are among the performers who deliver less than their best. V S N P

** Suspenseful, improbable, intriguing mystery.


*** Heroic rebels battle an oppressive empire, and the Force is with them all the way. George Lucas's legendary 1977 science-fiction epic still packs an entertaining punch with its blend of old-movie formulas, new-age philosophies, and video-game visuals. A small amount of new material, added for the 20th-anniversary reissue, is fun to look for but doesn't make much difference to the story or its impact. V

**** Great special effects, inspiring, awesome.


*** The quirky, sometimes hilarious tale of a Broadway wannabe staging a community-theater production to celebrate the 150th birthday of a small Missouri town. Christopher Guest directed the picture, co-wrote the mischievous screenplay with Eugene Levy, and plays the leading role. The humor is uneven and sometimes crude, but much of the mock-documentary is surprising and amusing. P

*** Offbeat, a little bizarre, very funny at times.

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