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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 +++1/2 Very Good +++ Good ++ 1/2 Average ++ Fair +1/2 Poor + Worst

NEW RELEASES GOD SAID, 'HA!' (PG-13) Director: Julia Sweeney. With Julia Sweeney. (87 min.) +++ A sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing monologue about the joys and trials of ordinary life, centering on Sweeney's experiences with her all-too- typical family, and bouts with serious illness that challenged her and her brother at the same time. Based on her one-person stage production.

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MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (PG-13) Director: Luis Mandoki. With Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn, Paul Newman, Illeana Douglas, John Savage, Robbie Coltrane. (130 min.) ++ A recently divorced woman finds a romantic letter in a bottle washed ashore, tracks down the man who wrote it, and falls hesitantly in love with him despite their shared wariness about affection and commitment. The cast and the scenery are equally attractive, but the story is so sentimental that even soap-opera buffs may feel it eventually outwears its welcome. Sex/Nudity: One bedroom scene. Violence: 1 bar brawl. Profanity: 13 instances. Drugs: 4 scenes of drinking, 1 with cigar smoking.

MY FAVORITE MARTIAN (PG) Director: Donald Petrie. With Jeff Daniels, Christopher Lloyd, Daryl Hannah, Wallace Shawn, Elizabeth Hurley, Christine Ebersole, Ray Walston. (93 min.) + A visitor from Mars becomes the unwanted houseguest of a TV producer with romantic problems. Daniels and Lloyd have strong comic talents, but the screenplay gives them little funny to say or do, and the filmmaking is a classic case of digitized effects driving out humor and imagination. Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes of sexual innuendo. Violence: 6 slapstick scenes. Profanity: 6 expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes with cigarettes, 1 with wine.

PEEPING TOM (R) Director: Michael Powell. With Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer. (109 min.) +++ Revival of the controversial 1960 thriller about a mentally deranged photographer who makes movies of women in the act of murdering them. Powell's film was greeted with derision and disgust when it was first released, perhaps because its grim theme was unexpected from the codirector of favorites like "The Red Shoes" and "Stairway to Heaven," but it is now justly recognized as a classic of its disturbing kind, treating its material with a restraint, seriousness, and compassion that many of today's filmmakers could learn from. Brought back to theaters by Martin Scorsese, one of its most thoughtful admirers.

PSYCHO (NOT RATED) Director: Alfred Hitchcock. With Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, Simon Oakland, John McIntire. (109 min.) ++++ Revival of the 1960 thriller that set new standards for unpredictable plot twists, ingenious camera work and editing, and the ability to get under the audience's skin in ways that few movies have ever equaled. Also impressive is the superb acting by Leigh as a woman on the run, Perkins as the personable young man who takes her in, and Balsam as the detective trying to track her down. The movie's surface is brilliantly entertaining, and its deeper levels are intricately embroidered with fascinating variations on themes that preoccupied Hitchcock throughout his extraordinary career.

SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE (PG-13) Director: Mark Tarlov. With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean Patrick Flanery, Patricia Clarkson, Dylan Baker, Christopher Durang, Larry Gilliard Jr., Betty Buckley. (100 min.) ++ An uninspired chef bewitches a love-skeptical man when her emotions become the "magic" in her recipes. While the combination of movie romance and culinary craft can be rewarding, this movie mixes its ingredients too carelessly to provide much onscreen enchantment, and elements of magic that may appeal to young viewers don't blend well with underlying issues of sexual fantasy. By Laura Danese

CURRENTLY IN RELEASE ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE (R) Director: Larry Clark. With James Woods, Vincent Kartheiser, Melanie Griffith. (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.

CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (PG) Director: Majid Majidi. With Mohammad Amir Naji, Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi. (88 min.) +++ Burdened by the poverty of his family, a young boy in Tehran dreams of winning a prize in a local race so he won't have to share a single pair of shoes with his sister. This modestly produced family drama has all the poignancy and humor associated with today's vibrant Iranian film industry. Sex/Nudity/Violence/Profanity/Drugs: None.

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DRY CLEANING (NOT RATED) Director: Anne Fontaine. With Miou-Miou, Charles Berling, Stanislas Merhar. (97 min.) ++ French drama about a middle-class couple who meets a young man working as a female impersonator in a nightclub act, offers him a conventional job in their dry-cleaning business, and enters a growing web of tensions and rivalries. Capably acted, sexually candid, ultimately insubstantial. Also known as "Nettoyage sec."

FANTASTIC PLANET (PG) Director: Ren Laloux. With voices of Jennifer Drake, Sylvie Lenoir, Jean Topart, Jean Valmont. (71 min.) +++ Reissue of a 1973 animated feature, presented with its original French soundtrack for the first time in US theaters. Set on an exotic world inhabited by humanoids of wildly different sizes, the fantasy reflects the interest of director Laloux and designer Roland Topor in surrealistic art. It's too strange and disorienting to be appropriate for younger children since it deals with adult themes.

THE GENERAL (R) Director: John Boorman. With Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley. (129 min.) +++ Hard-hitting crime drama based on the real-life rivalry between a crafty Irish criminal and a policeman determined to end his crooked career. Gleeson gives a strikingly original performance as the mischievous felon; still, the picture's silky black-and-white cinematography is its most eye-catching asset. Sex/Nudity: One instance of a man reported to be committing incest with his daughter. Violence: 22 scenes including rock throwing, armed robberies, and shootings. Profanity: 113 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs: 12 instances of smoking, 2 of drinking.

GLORIA (R) Director: Sidney Lumet. With Sharon Stone, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, George C. Scott. (119 min.) + Stone plays Gloria, an aging, tough-as-nails New Yorker who's bitter because she took the rap for her thug boyfriend and served prison time. She finds new meaning in her life when she decides to mother a seven-year-old boy whose family has been brutally murdered. Stone seems uncomfortable on screen, her Bronx accent is annoying, and the supporting cast needs to invest in acting lessons. By John Christian Hoyle Sex/Nudity: Some sexual innuendo and 1 instance of backside male nudity. Violence: 9 instances of shootings and beatings. Profanity: 104 instances, mostly strong. Drugs: 1 scene of wine drinking.

MY NAME IS JOE (NOT RATED) Director: Ken Loach. With Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, Davie McKay. (105 min.) +++ A social worker starts a complex romantic relationship with a recovering alcoholic who's eager to start a constructive new life but apprehensive about the challenges he knows he'll face. Loach is one of the world's most deeply humanistic and politically alert filmmakers, and this expertly acted drama finds him close to his top form.

PAYBACK (R) Director: Brian Helgeland. With Mel Gibson, Deborah Kara Unger, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, William Devane, Bill Duke, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry. (105 min.) + An interesting cast is wasted in this misanthropic thriller about a criminal bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former partner. Mayhem is expected in this sort of story, but the filmmakers add torture and sadomasochism into the bargain, and it's hard to remember a mainstream movie that aims so much gleeful violence at its female characters. It's enough to make viewers rethink Gibson's penchant for suffering in "Braveheart" and other pictures. ++ Lots of 'attitude,' energetic, cold-blooded. Sex/Nudity: Four scenes with generally sadistic sexual situations. Violence: 21 scenes involving violence (beatings, torture, gunshots, explosions, kidnapping). Profanity: 81 expressions. Drugs: 34 scenes with cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, and/or hard drugs.

PIZZICATA (NOT RATED) Director: Edoardo Winspeare. With Cosimo Cinieri, Fabio Frascaro, Chiara Torelli, Anna Dimitri, Ines d'Ambrosio, Paolo Massafra, Lamberto Probo. (93 min.) +++ A peasant family shelters an Italian-American pilot shot down near an isolated Italian village during World War II, sparking jealousy and suspicion when he falls in love with a young woman of the household. This quietly realistic drama is spiced with energetic music and moments of expressive camera work, compensating for some unpersuasive acting and dull spots in the story.

RUSHMORE (R) 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." +++1/2 Extremely funny, irreverent, wildly original. 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 scenes of drinking, 15 of smoking cigarettes.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (R) Director: John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth. (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. ++++ Finally, a literate movie; passionate, abundantly witty. Sex/Nudity: 5 sex scenes, several with waist-up nudity; plus a few references to promiscuity. Violence: 6 instances of violence ranging from comical to an off- screen killing. Profanity: 3 expressions. Drugs: 3 instances of drinking.

SHE'S ALL THAT (PG-13) Director: Robert Iscove. With Freddie Prinze Jr., Kieran Culkin, Jodi Lyn O' Keefe, Anna Paquin, Rachel Leigh Cook, Usher Raymond, Kevin Pollack. (96 min.) ++ The most popular boy in school bets that he can turn an art-class dork into the prom queen, then finds himself (surprise!) captivated by her hidden charms. This teenage "Pygmalion" is predictable and a bit gawky, and some won't like its flashes of gross-out humor. The cast is appealing, though, and there are a few hilarious jokes tucked in around the edges of the plot. ++ Superficial, silly, cute. Sex/Nudity: 2 mild scenes. Violence: A few scenes of shoving and harassment. Profanity: 49 expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes with teenage drinking, a few scenes with teenage smoking.

THE 24 HOUR WOMAN (R) Director: Nancy Savoca. With Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patti LuPone, Wendell Pierce. (95 min.) +++ Eager for the joys of motherhood, a TV producer combines the personal with the professional by making her pregnancy a part of her show, then runs into difficulty juggling her many responsibilities. The movie is rough around the edges, and the ending doesn't resolve the questions raised. But it's bursting with energy and commitment, reflecting Savoca's dedication to exploring women's lives.

OUT ON VIDEO Rounders (R) Director: John Dahl. With Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich. (120 min.) ++ The hero is an on-and-off law student with a passion for poker, and an honest streak that keeps him from cheating. The acting is solid, but the story builds less drama and suspense than its high-stakes subject might lead you to expect. ++1/2 Seamy, intense, sobering.

ANTZ (PG) Director: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson. Voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Danny Glover. (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. 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.

COMING SOON ... (In stores Feb. 16) SNAKE EYES (R) Director: Brian De Palma. With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino. (99 min.) +++ Cage gives a wildly extroverted performance as an Atlantic City cop who stumbles onto an assassination scheme that forces him to reassess his loyalties even as he chases the villains. The movie is weaker as a suspense yarn than as an exercise in style, filling the screen with intricate camera choreography. +1/2 Disappointing, hyperactive, uneven.

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