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The Monitor Movie Guide

Reviews in this weekly guide are written by Monitor critic David Sterritt (the first set of '+' marks in each review) unless otherwise noted. Ratings and comments by the Monitor staff panel (the second set of '+' marks in each review) reflect the sometimes diverse views of at least three other viewers. Information on violence, drugs, sex/nudity, and profanity is compiled by the panel.

++++ Excellent

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+++1/2 Very Good

+++ Good

++ 1/2 Average

++ Fair

+1/2 Poor

+ Worst

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American History X (R)

Director: Tony Kaye. With Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach. (118 min.)

+ A high school boy follows in the footsteps of his big brother, an ardent neo-Nazi just back in the neighborhood after serving a prison term for a violently racist crime. The movie's subject is topical and important, but the filmmakers handle it with such ham-fisted insensitivity that the results are just about worthless. Norton's high-energy acting is the only element that saves the picture from being a total loss.

Living Out Loud (R)

Director: Richard LaGravenese. With Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah, Rachel Leigh Cook, Richard Schiff. (102 min.)

++ Overwhelmed by loneliness after her husband dumps her, a wealthy New Yorker strikes up an unlikely friendship with the elevator operator in her apartment building, himself still grieving over the recent death of his daughter. Hunter and DeVito turn in affecting performances, but the movie steers a wobbly course between comedy and melodrama, never quite deciding which niche it wants to fall into.

Vampires (R)

Director: John Carpenter. With James Woods, Sheryl Lee, Daniel Baldwin, Thomas Ian Griffith, Tim Guinee, Maximilian Schell. (104 min.)

+ A dedicated vampire-hunter battles a centuries-old monster, helped by a Roman Catholic priest and a prostitute who may be the vampire's latest victim. Carpenter gives the tale many stylish touches, and Woods contributes his usual intensity. None of this compensates for the picture's incredibly high nastiness quotient, though, as scene after scene oozes with misogyny, homophobia, and antireligious sentiment.

Sex/Nudity: 3 sexual situations, 2 scenes with nudity. Violence: At least 58 instances. Profanity: 90 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 10 scenes with cigarettes, cigars, and/or alcohol.

Currently in Release

The Alarmist (R)

Director: Evan Dunsky. With Stanley Tucci, Kate Capshaw, David Arquette, Mary McCormack, Ryan Reynolds. (93 min.)

++ A young man learns hard lessons about life and love while working for a burglar-alarm company with a sleazy boss and a shady history. This dark comedy takes a couple of surprising turns, but doesn't provide much in the way of laughs or thrills.

Antz (PG)

Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson. With voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Dan Akroyd, Sylvester Stallone, Jane Curtin. (83 min.)

+++ Depressed by the monotony of his ant-colony life, a worker ant trades places with a soldier ant so he can see a princess he's fallen in love with, and finds himself battling a military insect with evil plans. There's plenty of action in this computer-animated comedy, but it's no match for "Toy Story" in humor and originality.

++1/2 Clever, amusing, overambitious.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: A few battle scenes and a bar brawl. Profanity: 3 very mild expressions. Drugs: 1 bar scene.

Apt Pupil (R)

Director: Bryan Singer. With Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davison, Elias Koteas, David Schwimmer. (113 min.)

++ A smart but troubled 16-year-old uncovers the Nazi past of an elderly neighbor, and blackmails the old man into mentoring the boy's own ambitions to become a thuggish, even murderous manipulator. The subject is timely, given the sad resilience of neo-Nazi ideas, but this sensationalistic tale doesn't delve very far into the issues it raises. Singer's filmmaking is far less imaginative than in "The Usual Suspects," his previous picture.

++ Intense, grim, study in insanity.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of implied sex, 1 scene of backside nudity in locker room. Violence: 5 vicious scenes, plus descriptions of Holocaust horrors. Profanity: 44 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 15 scenes involving usually heavy use of cigarettes and alcohol.

Beloved (R)

Director: Jonathan Demme. With Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise. (172 min.)

++ Shortly after the Civil War, a former slave visits an old friend in Ohio and discovers that her household is literally haunted by the legacy of slavery and a violent family secret from her past. The movie's subject is resonant and important, but glossy Hollywood treatment robs Toni Morrison's scorching novel of its urgency and immediacy. Aside from some searingly violent images, it's often more picturesque than compelling.

++1/2 Wrenching, spooky, overlong.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes of nudity, 3 implied bedroom scenes. Violence: At least 7 violent and bloody scenes. Profanity: Minimal. Drugs: 1 scene of drinking.

Bride of Chucky (R)

Director: Ronny Yu. With Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Nick Stabile, Katherine Heigl, John Ritter. (95 min.)

DUD To avoid a ridiculous plot, absurd characters, and wasting time, keep tickets to this movie away from all human beings. To think this comic-horror movie had prequels produces shudders. A doll named Chucky containing the soul of a dead murderer comes back to life to wreak more havoc, and yes, this time he may well find his soulmate. By Katherine Dillin

Sex/Nudity: 5 sexual situations. Violence: 24 gruesome scenes. Profanity: 65 vulgarities. Drugs: 10 scenes of cigarette smoking, 2 of alcohol.

The Celebration (R)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg. With Henning Moritzen, Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen. (100 min.)

+++ A wealthy patriarch throws a party to celebrate his 60th birthday, but things go sour when long-submerged rivalries, jealousies, and hostilities surface among guests. This pitch-dark comedy has much to say about the seamy underside of human relationships, showing that family values are more complex than pop-culture slogans would have us believe.

Destiny (Not rated)

Director: Youssef Chahine. With Nour El Cherif, Laila Eloui, Mahmoud Hmeida, Safia El Emary. (135 min.)

++ Chahine is widely hailed as Egypt's greatest filmmaker, and none of his movies has earned more international acclaim than this lavishly produced epic about efforts by the 12th-century philosopher Averroes to preserve the heritage of ancient Greece despite Muslim and Christian opposition. While the subject is fascinating, the picture's style is often stilted and stagy, closer to the old-fashioned Hollywood approach of Cecil B. DeMille than to a sophisticated perspective that might do justice to the story's complexities.

Happiness (Not rated)

Director: Todd Solondz. With Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson, Elizabeth Ashley, Jon Lovitz, Jared Harris, Ben Gazzara. (134 min.)

+++ Solondz follows up his sardonic "Welcome to the Dollhouse" with this tragicomic look at a well-groomed suburb populated by lonely singles, peevish senior citizens, and an anguished adolescent who discovers that his highly respected father is a secret pedophile. The movie's intentions are as serious and thoughtful as its content is timely and sometimes horrifying. For adventurous viewers only.

Life Is Beautiful (PG-13)

Director: Roberto Benigni. With Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano. (122 min.)

++ In the late 1930s, an Italian man finds his household in peril because of his Jewish background. He determines to protect his little boy from physical and psychological harm, even when they're sent to a brutal concentration camp. This prizewinning Italian comedy has good intentions, but its exaggerated celebration of quick-witted improvisation ultimately trivializes the human and historical horrors evoked by the story.

Love Is the Devil (Not rated)

Director: John Maybury. With Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton. (91 min.)

+++ A brutally frank portrait of the great English painter Francis Bacon, focusing on the

relationship he developed with a culturally

deprived male lover as his success skyrocketed. Maybury's screenplay recalls the respected movie "Prick Up Your Ears," which tackled a somewhat similar subject, but his

visual style is very fresh, underscoring the pungency of Jacobi's brilliant acting. Be warned that the picture is heavy on sex and violence, and Bacon's admirers will be disappointed that his actual art is almost entirely absent from the screen.

The Mighty (PG-13)

Director: Peter Chelsom. With Sharon Stone, Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton, Gillian Anderson. (107 min.)

+++ Friendship blooms between two kids - one big and slow, the other tiny and smart - who pool their talents in an effort to better their lives and make the real world a little closer to the fantasy realm that occupies their dreams. Likable performances and a good-hearted attitude help the movie dodge the simplistic sentimentality that occasionally threatens to drag it down.

+++ Touching, redeeming, quiet.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 8 scenes with some involving knives and guns. Profanity: 10 mild expressions. Drugs: 2 scenes with alcohol.

One Tough Cop (R)

Director: Bruno Barreto. With Stephen Baldwin, Chris Penn, Gina Gershon, Mike McGlone, Amy Irving. (90 min.)

++ The life and times of a New York City cop whose professional integrity is questioned because of his personal friendship with a mobster. The plot is no more original than Baldwin's acting, which takes all its cues from the Pacino-De Niro school of streetwise intensity. Still, it's filmed with a down-and-dirty naturalism that partly compensates for its predictable twists and lazy use of demeaning stereotypes.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of a couple in bed. Violence: About 14 scenes; fistfighting, shooting, and murders. Profanity: 152 expressions. Drugs: Smoking and drinking throughout.

Pleasantville (PG-13)

Director: Gary Ross. With Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Don Knotts, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh. (116 min.)

+++ Two average 1990s teens find themselves transported to a 1950s-type town right out of a TV sitcom, where values and ideas are as black-and-white as the cinematography. And when they succeed in opening up their neighbors' minds a bit, they touch off a ferocious backlash that reveals the dark side of "family values" clichs. Ross's comedy isn't as inventive as "The Truman Show," which it resembles in some ways, but it explores interesting ideas with nimble humor.

+++ Refreshingly original, technically inventive, fun but meaningful.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes, one fairly explicit. Violence: 3 scenes - punches, a riot. Profanity: 16 mild expressions. Drugs: A few scenes of smoking.

Practical Magic (PG-13)

Director: Griffin Dunne. With Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn. (105 min.)

+++ The adventures of two modern-day witches, one of whom craves an ordinary life but finds her supernatural powers continually getting in the way. Lively acting, eye-catching cinematography, and funny dialogue lift this fantasy a notch above the average until love-story cliches and horror-movie shocks bog it down in the second half.

++ Uneven, slow, unbewitching.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene - not graphic. Violence: 8 fairly gruesome scenes (poisoning, bludgeoning, verbal threats of sexual violence). Profanity: 14 mild expressions. Drugs: 10 scenes involving alcohol, cigarettes, or both.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (G)

Director: Bill Kowalchuk. With voices of John Goodman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Debbie Reynolds, Eric Idle, Richard Simmons, Eric Pospisil. (90 min.)

++ Amiable animation about the legendary reindeer, focusing on the small problems posed by his fabled nose and the big problems cooked up by Stormella, a powerful queen with a frosty disposition. Little kids will have great fun, although the action may be too tame for others.

Slam (Not rated)

Director: Marc Levin. With Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone, Beau Sia, Lawrence Wilson. (100 min.)

+++ Busted for a low-level drug deal, an African-American man trades the ghetto for a cell in a tough-as-nails prison, where his passion for poetry turns out to be an unexpected road to security and possible redemption. The picture is very ragged around the edges, but the acting is explosively heartfelt and the raplike poetry sessions have astonishing vigor.

Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of brief nudity, 1 scene of sex. Violence: 5 scenes, mostly fistfights. Profanity: More than 300 expressions. Drugs: Some smoking and social drinking.

Soldier (R)

Director: Paul Anderson. With Kurt Russell, Jason Scott Lee, Connie Nielsen, Michael Chiklis, Gary Busey. (99 min.)

++ Stranded on an isolated outpost in deep space, a highly trained super-soldier tries to join a community of ordinary people, and winds up battling a new breed of warriors who have replaced outmoded fighters like him in the military system. Although it's the opposite of deep or subtle, this moody science-fiction adventure gains a bit of distinction from Russell's offbeat performance and the melancholy tone it generates.

++1/2 Inventive, macho fun, predictable finish.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 31 instances of violence - explosions, shooting, scenes of war. Profanity: 9 expressions, mostly mild. Drugs: None.

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