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.
+++1/2 Very Good
++ 1/2 Average
Director: Paul Schrader. With Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, James Coburn, Mary Beth Hurt. (115 min.)
+++ Closely following Russell Banks's richly textured novel, this dark-toned drama traces a series of emotionally wrenching events in the life of a New Hampshire policeman whose family problems range from spats with his former wife to intermittent rage against his alcoholic father. Nolte gives one of his most fully realized performances, Coburn makes an amazingly powerful comeback, and Schrader's filmmaking has never been more expressive or assured.
ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE (R)
Director: Larry Clark. With James Woods, Vincent Kartheiser, Melanie Griffith, Natasha Gregson Wagner. (101 min.)
++ An experienced thug invites a drug-abusing teenager to become his protg, leading to a violent crime spree. Clark's first movie since the controversial "Kids" manages to be jarringly naturalistic and flagrantly melodramatic at the same time, bursting with explicit horrors that sound a loud alarm over antisocial elements in America's heartland.
THE FACULTY (R)
Director: Robert Rodriguez. With Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett, Famke Jannsen, Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek, Usher Raymond, Jon Stewart. (102 min.)
+ Teenagers discover their school has been taken over by aliens from outer space, or someplace like that, and use the products of a local drug dealer to knock them dead. The cast is attractive, the story is trite unless you haven't seen "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" even once, and the special effects are anything but special.
HILARY AND JACKIE (R)
Director: Anand Tucker. With Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, Charles Dance, David Morrissey. (121 min.)
+++ Handsomely filmed drama based on the real-life relationship between Jacqueline du Pr, a cellist who became one of the world's most acclaimed musicians, and her sister, who traded in her musical talent for domestic life. The acting is splendid, the family issues are sensitively explored, and the treatment of Jackie's illness and untimely death is tactful though explicit.
THE HI-LO COUNTRY (R)
Director: Stephen Frears. With Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Sam Elliott. (114 min.)
++ The friendship of two rowdy young men turns into rivalry when they both become infatuated with a married woman whose morality is as mercurial as the tumbleweed blowing through their New Mexico town. Strong acting and eye-catching camera work can't outweigh the clichs of the hackneyed love-triangle story.
THE MIRROR (Not rated)
Director: Jafar Panahi. With Mina Mohammad-Khani, R. Mojdehi, M. Shirzad, N. Omoumi, T. Samadpour. (95 min.)
++++ One of the most original directors in Iran spins the funny and touching tale of a movie crew's attempt to film a little girl's adventure who gets lost in Tehran on her way home from school. Another quietly imaginative gem from one of the world's most vibrant motion-picture capitals.
Currently in Release
A CIVIL ACTION (PG-13)
Director: Steven Zaillian. With John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, Kathleen Quinlan, William H. Macy, Dan Hadaya, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow. (113 min.)
+++ A self-centered attorney takes on a case involving claims of illness caused by toxic waste, and finds himself making great personal and professional sacrifices as he becomes increasingly committed to righting the insidious wrongs uncovered by his investigations. Splendid acting and a taut screenplay make the fact-based tale highly involving until its abrupt, underdeveloped ending.
DOWN IN THE DELTA (PG-13)
Director: Maya Angelou. With Alfre Woodard, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes, Esther Rolle, Al Freeman Jr. (110 min.)
+++ Long celebrated as a poet, Angelou makes her movie-directing debut with this casually told but emotionally engaging story of an African-American woman who takes her drug-abusing daughter and endangered grandchildren from Chicago to Mississippi so they can connect with their Southern roots. The picture makes up in dramatic warmth what it lacks in technical finesse.
HI-LIFE (Not rated)
Director: Roger Hedden. With Campbell Scott, Eric Stoltz, Daryl Hannah, Katrin Cartlidge, Charles Durning, Moira Kelly, Peter Riegert. (86 min.)
++ Confusion reigns as a young Bostonian canvasses his acquaintances for money to help a friend with an embarrassing problem. The cast is impressive and the camera work is colorful, but the frequently scruffy story is too insubstantial to stay in memory for long.
Director: Anthony Drazan. With Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, Chazz Palminteri, Anna Paquin. (122 min.)
+++ The gifted cast acts up a storm in this deliberately ill-mannered tragicomedy about a group of rowdy Hollywood men and the miserably treated women in their lives. The characters are so rude and crude that civilized moviegoers may head quickly for the exit, but the picture's anthropological interest gains morbid energy from its furious pace and dizzying dialogue, adapted by David Rabe from his successful Broadway play of 1984.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (PG)
Director: Ron Underwood. With Bill Paxton, Charlize Theron, Regina King, Peter Firth, David Paymer. (115 min.)
++ Run-of-the-mill remake of the memorable 1949 adventure about a giant ape that raises a ruckus in an American city after being uprooted from the jungle. Bring back the original Joe or King Kong, the granddaddy of them all - and forget this overcooked '90s imitation!
++1/2 Wholesome, effective gorilla animatronics, good lessons for children.
Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 14 instances, many involving guns. Profanity: 8 mild swears and oaths. Drugs: 2 scenes with cigars, 1 with alcohol.
PATCH ADAMS (PG-13)
Director: Tom Shadyac. With Robin Williams, Monica Potter, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel London. (110 min.)
++ A middle-aged medical student rebels against the dehumanizing methods of his professors, insisting that physicians should treat people rather than illnesses. Williams plays his well-worn role of a lovable eccentric who reforms the system by being spontaneous and wacky. The movie starts with insights about the need for more humane values in health care, then buries them under an avalanche of vulgarities and clichs.
Sex/Nudity: 1 instance. Violence: None shown, but implied. Profanity: 32 expressions, mostly mild. Drugs: None.
THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (PG)
Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells. With Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer. (93 min.)
+++ Feature-length animation about Moses' early life, from his arrival in the Egyptian court as a baby to his leadership of the Hebrews out of bondage. The dramatically drawn images and entertaining voice-performances make this a good tool for learning a bit of Old Testament history. The filmmakers are more interested in spinning an entertaining yarn than probing the spiritual dimensions of their important subject, though.
++ Grim, pretty animation, somewhat preachy.
Sex/Nudity/Profanity/Drugs: None. Violence: 11 scenes that include war, children slaughtered, slaves whipped.
Director: Wes Anderson. With Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, Mason Gamble, Brian Cox. (95 min.)
++++ A precocious prep-school student juggles a ridiculous number of extracurricular projects while falling in love with an attractive teacher and sparring with his romantic rival, a sleazy businessman. Anderson fulfills the promise of his inventive "Bottle Rocket" with this quirky, often hilarious comedy, and Murray gives his most uproarious performance since the groundbreaking "Groundhog Day."
Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of nude women on posters. Violence: 5 scenes that include rock throwing, fistfights, and a BB gun. Profanity: 26 expressions. Drugs: 5 drinking; 15 scenes of smoking cigarettes.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (R)
Director: John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush. (122 min.)
++ The young playwright fights off writer's block, scrambles for ideas, and falls in love with a would-be actress who wears men's clothing as readily as a character in one of his cross-dressing comedies. This romantic farce has a talented cast and energy to spare, but somehow the ingredients don't burn as brightly as one would expect from such promising ingredients.
Director: Chris Columbus. With Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Ed Harris, Jena Malone, Liam Aiken. (124 min.)
++ A divorced woman vies with her former spouse's new fiance for the affection of her young children. The movie is reasonably smart and touching when it deals with the plight of a family on the rocks, but it pushes too many emotional buttons when the ex-wife is diagnosed with a fatal illness that takes over the story. Still, there's some fine acting.
+++ Touching, uplifting, the little boy stole the show!
Sex/Nudity: Verbal references. Violence: None. Profanity: 12 expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes of social drinking; 1 with marijuana.
THE THEORY OF FLIGHT (R)
Director: Paul Greengrass. With Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh, Gemma Jones, Holly Aird. (100 min.)
++ A physically disabled woman strikes up a friendship with an emotionally troubled man, then asks him to help her have a sexual experience before the end of her life. Carter's virtuoso acting isn't enough to make this dramatic comedy as credible and life-affirming as it sincerely wants to be.
THE THIN RED LINE (R)
Director: Terrence Malick. With Sean Penn, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Gary Oldman, John C. Reilly, Elias Koteas, John Savage, John Cusack. (166 min.)
+++ American soldiers battle elusive enemies in this sweeping adaptation of James Jones's thoughtful World War II novel about the Guadalcanal campaign. Although the story seems disjointed at times, no other war movie has tried so valiantly to convey not only the suffering of combat but the awful fissures it rips through humanity's ideal oneness with itself and the world we live in.
WAKING NED DEVINE (PG)
Director: Kirk Jones. With Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch. (91 min.)
++ A lottery prize is about to go unclaimed because its owner has died, so residents of his little Irish village decide to cover up his demise and pocket the money. The tale has touches of winning humor, but it's too illogical and sentimental to deserve a box-office jackpot.
+++ Sweet, charming, funny.
Sex/Nudity: Several scenes of nude elderly men. Violence: None. Profanity: 19 mild expressions. Drugs: 9 instances of social drinking; 6 scenes with smoking cigarettes, 1 with a cigar.
YOU'VE GOT MAIL (PG)
Director: Nora Ephron. With Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Greg Kinnear. (120 min.)
++ Romance blooms on the Internet between the manager of a cozy little bookshop and a wheeler-dealer who wants to replace it with a profit-hungry superstore. Hanks and Ryan are as appealing as ever, and Ephron's fashion-conscious camera gives the action a slickly attractive sheen. But the story would be tighter and snappier if it didn't spend so much energy extolling the virtues of big-money conglomerates over the old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit.
+++ Cute, warm, clean-cut.
Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 8 expressions. Drugs: 1 scene of social drinking.
OUT ON VIDEAO
The Avengers (PG-13)
Director: Jeremiah Chechik. With Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent. (90 min.)
+ This dull spinoff of the 1960s TV series has a spectacular cast but little energy and no ideas, squandering its resources on an idiotic story about government agents chasing a villain who wants to control the world's weather. ++ Style without substance, disjointed, surreal.
Coming Soon ...
(In stores Jan. 5)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (R)
Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King. (125 min.)
uu Vacationing in Jamaica after getting downsized from her executive desk, a 40-year-old woman falls for a 20-year-old man who refuses to be dissuaded by either their age difference or the skepticism of their friends and relatives.
+++ Warm, funny, refreshing.
Out of Sight (R)
Director: Steven Soderbergh. With George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson. (121 min.)
uu A tough-minded policewoman develops a weak spot for a bank robber on the lam after a jailbreak. The screenplay, written by Elmore Leonard, serves up quirky dialogue and ironic twists.
+++ Amusing, involving, sexy.