Movies that contain violence, sexual situations, nudity, and profanity are denoted V, S, N, and P respectively. Evaluations do not constitute a Monitor endorsement. Further guidance is supplied by full reviews on the Arts pages. EVALUATION SYMBOLS David Sterritt Staff Panel Meaning O\ O\ Don't bother u q Poor uu qq Fair uuu qqq Good uuuu qqqq Excellent 7 1 Half rating point New Releases BOYS ON THE SIDE uu Three women start on a cross-country trip, hoping for a better life in a new place: a gay singer, a businesswoman with AIDS, and a hustler who's just killed her abusive boyfriend. The movie tries to outdo "Thelma and Louise" by upping the number of heroines, but it lacks the moral seriousness to tackle its sensitive material. Herbert Ross directed. Whoopi Goldberg, Geena Davis, and Drew Barrymore star. (R) N P V S qqq Hilarious, heavy on social issues, tragic. LE COLONEL CHABERT uuu A survivor of the Napoleonic wars, thought to have died in battle, seeks support from his wife, now married to an ambitious social climber. Sensitively directed by Yves Angelo and superbly acted by Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, plus a top-notch supporting cast. The only weak element is the screenplay, less coherent and concentrated than the Balzac novella it's based on. (Not Rated) S N V DEATH AND THE MAIDEN uuu In a Latin American country after the fall of a dictatorship, a woman accuses a stranger of having tortured her when she was a political prisoner. The movie's fascination comes partly from uncertainty as to whether the woman's charges are correct. On a deeper level, her violent behavior raises troubling questions. Based on Ariel Dorfman's play, and capably directed by Roman Polanski. (R) N V P IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS uu Tracking down a horror-novel author who's mysteriously vanished, an investigator enters a real-life nightmare straight from the pages of the missing writer's books. John Carpenter's thriller is too clever for its own good, swamping its potential thrills in self-conscious tricks, twists, and special effects. (R) P V THE QUICK AND THE DEAD uuu A vengeful woman takes on a sadistic sheriff who keeps order by staging nonstop shootouts in the town square. Sam Raimi's western parodies the western genre with energy and affection. Contains a great deal of violence, but done in a cartoonish way that diminishes its impact. (R) V P N THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH uu After moving in with her grandparents on Ireland's western coast, a little girl hears local myths and legends that take on living importance in her life. While the story has many ingredients for first-class family entertainment, it would be more successful if filmmaker John Sayles had a keener eye for this sort of material, which strays far from his usual social realism. (Not Rated) N SHALLOW GRAVE uu Three rascally roommates grab some cash that drops accidentally into their laps, then find themselves pursued by nasty mobsters. This pitch-black comedy is less lurid than its title, but director Danny Boyle ultimately fritters away his psychologically rich story in a horror-flick finale. (R) N S V P STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE uuu In contemporary Cuba, a Castro loyalist strikes up an acquaintance with a gay artist to gather evidence of his moral decadence, but grows to understand and respect his many good qualities. Directed by legendary Cuban filmmaker Toms Gutirrez Alea in collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio, the movie is tame in style but has lively performances and a tolerant spirit. (R) S N P Currently in Release BAD COMPANY u A renegade CIA agent goes to work for a private company specializing in bribery and blackmail. The steady stream of betrayals would be monotonous even if the filmmaking weren't so heavy on its feet. Directed by Damian Harris. (R) V S N P BEFORE SUNRISE uuu Romantic comedy about a young American and a French student who meet on a European train and decide to spend a spontaneous day together. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are attractive stars, but what's most appealing about the picture is the value it puts on sharing ideas and feelings through language. Directed by Richard Linklater. (R) P qqq1 Engaging, talky, believable. DISCLOSURE uuu A man struggles to save his career after being sexually harassed by his new boss, who happens to be an old girlfriend of his. The movie's social attitudes are ridiculous, suggesting that powerful women pose dangers their male counterparts would never dream of. The story is told with great gusto by director Barry Levinson, though, making it fun to sit through despite its many failings. (R) S N P qqq Intriguing, suspenseful, topical. DUMB & DUMBER u And how. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels play a couple of losers who get into stupid scrapes. The pointless plot and scatological humor are to be expected; more surprising are the nasty undertones of the story, which seems to think friendship and betrayal are two sides of the same coin. Peter Farrelly directed. (PG-13) V N P q Third-grade bathroom humor, senseless, offensive. HIGHER LEARNING uuu A multifaceted look at college race relations, focusing on three students: a white woman whose social awareness is raised after a date-rape incident; a black man who resents unspoken racism; and a white man who's recruited by a skinhead gang. The film treats realistic subjects in a stylized way, putting its main energy into exploring ideas rather than building emotional power. Written and directed by John Singleton. (R) V S N P qq1 Sobering, realistic, disturbing. HOOP DREAMS uuu A team of documentary filmmakers spent years tracking two young basketball players who hoped sports careers might be their ticket out of Chicago's inner city. The movie is a provocative commentary, but the material could have been shaped into a tighter, more cohesive structure. (PG-13) P HOUSEGUEST uu A man running from gangsters poses as the childhood friend of a total stranger, moves into the comfy suburban home of his host, and gets tangled up with sitcom-style family problems. Sinbad and Phil Hartman are fun to watch, and director Randall Miller brings out a crazy energy. (PG) V P IMMORTAL BELOVED uu Who is the mysterious woman to whom Beethoven left his worldly goods? That's what the executor of his will has to discover. Everything about this crazy "biopic" is barely under control, from Gary Oldman's acting to Bernard Rose's directing. The result is fascinating in a creepy sort of way. (R) V S N qq1 Predictable, shallow, but good soundtrack. THE LAST SEDUCTION uuu Theft and betrayal touch off skullduggery in the small town where a big-city seductress is hiding from her vengeful boyfriend. Directed in film-noir style by crime-movie specialist John Dahl, and featuring a high-energy performance by Linda Fiorentino. (R) V S N P q Crass, amoral, depressing. LEGENDS OF THE FALL u The story begins as a family saga in old Montana, but soon turns into a hackneyed tale of rivalry between two brothers who love a beautiful widow. The scenery is pretty, in a calendar-art sort of way, but nothing else is worth the price of admission, including Anthony Hopkins's amazingly weak acting. Directed by Edward Zwick. (R) V S N P qq1 Tear-jerker, melodramatic, beautiful scenery. LITTLE WOMEN uuu Sweetly filmed, sensitively acted retelling of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, plunging us into an idealized American past that's as seductive as it is mythical. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. (PG) qqq1 Poignant, wholesome; death scene is disturbing. THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE uuu Maybe it's family problems, or the stress of losing the American colonies; but whatever the cause, the monarch's mental health has become shaky, and this is of enormous interest to friends and enemies alike. Excellent acting undergirds this historical comedy-drama, directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also supervised the well-received stage production of Alan Bennett's play. (Not Rated) P qqqq Droll, powerful; fine acting by Nigel Hawthorne. MIAMI RHAPSODY uu The adventures of a Miami family, focusing mainly on sex, romance, and marriage. Sarah Jessica Parker and Mia Farrow are ideally matched as a daughter and mother who fall for the same guy, and Paul Mazursky and Antonio Banderas stand out as two of the men in their lives. Written and directed by David Frankel, whose attempt to follow in Woody Allen's footsteps would be more productive if it weren't so slavish. (PG-13) S N P MURDER IN THE FIRST uu Fresh out of law school, a young attorney takes the case of an Alcatraz prisoner who murdered another inmate, arguing that the killer's mind was warped beyond control by the tortures of solitary confinement. Based on real events, the story poses important questions about penology and rehabilitation, but it's too heavy-handed to be very effective. Directed by Marc Rocco. (R) V S N P qqq Grim, unsettling, upbeat ending. NELL uu Jodie Foster plays a young woman who's been raised in almost total isolation. Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson play scientists who try to befriend her, but can't protect her from the world. The movie wants to explore the secrets of a person who evades all categories, but the filmmakers place her in their own categories, transforming their fascinating subject into a very ordinary drama. (PG-13) V N qqq Engrossing, touching; fine work by Jodie Foster. NOBODY'S FOOL uuu Paul Newman does his best acting in years as Sully, a likable loser juggling relationships with friends and relatives who can't figure out why he's still drifting aimlessly through life after passing his 60th birthday. Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis head the strong sup- porting cast. Directed by Robert Benton. (R) V S N P qqq Sad, honest, well-acted. PULP FICTION uuu Four interlocking stories about sex, drugs, violence, and other sensational stuff, tempered with an interest in redemption that suggests filmmaker Quentin Tarantino might be growing up a little. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are terrific as talkative hit men, and Bruce Willis is equally good as a boxer who refuses to throw a fight. Look out for over-the-top scenes of mayhem and brutality, though. (R) V S N P qqq Surprising, wry, gory. QUEEN MARGOT uu Intrigue and bloodshed in the 16th century, starting with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and continuing with hardly a letup. Isabelle Adjani is striking as Marguerite of Valois, but the main attraction is Philippe Rousselot's moody cinematography. Directed by Patrice Chereau, who captures the turbulence if not the epic scale of Alexandre Dumas's sweeping novel. (Not rated) N V S qqq Vivid, bloody, historical soap opera. READY TO WEAR uuu A rangy satire on the international fashion scene, visiting a long list of characters at a crowded Paris exhibition. Although the story is pointless, director Robert Altman retains his status as one of today's most original film artists, turning sketchy material into a series of uneven but often compelling visions. (R) S N P qq Lots of skin, slow-paced, empty-headed.