Freeze Frames

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 lease three other Monitor reviewers. Movies containing violence (V), sexual situations (S), nudity (N), and profanity (P) are noted.

o Forget it

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

* Only if it's free

** Maybe a matinee

*** Worth full price

**** Wait in line

New Releases

The Arrival (PG-13)

** Screenwriter David Twohy ("The Fugitive," "Waterworld") makes his directorial debut with this visitors-from-Outer-Space film that seems like a half-baked episode of TV's "The X-Files." Charlie Sheen plays a researcher who stumbles onto a visit by extraterrestrials and a conspiracy led by bad guy Ron Silver to cover it up. Consider this a warm-up for the mega-budget, similarly themed blockbuster "Independence Day" next month. V P By Frank Scheck

BLUSH (Not rated)

* After the new Communist government cracks down on their illegal trade, two Chinese prostitutes turn their lives in fresh directions, but remain linked by romantic attachments and memories of their shared past. Directed by Li Shaohong, this historical drama is varied and ambitious, but suffers from uninspired acting and a wooden visual style. S V P

HEAVY (Not rated)

** Victor didn't worry much about his weight until an attractive young woman came to work at his mother's diner, sparking new emotions that his limited experience hasn't taught him how to handle. Written and directed with uncommon sensitivity by James Mangold, a strikingly talented newcomer. Superbly acted by a well-chosen cast including Pruitt Taylor Vince as the title character, Shelley Winters as his mom, Deborah Harry as the diner's other employee, and Liv Tyler as the new face in town. S P

KASPAR HAUSER (Not rated)

* Energetic drama about events in an 18th-century German town where a young man mysteriously appeared after being raised in a dungeon, then set free to make his way in a world he could barely comprehend. Written and directed by Peter Sehr, who sees the episode as part of a clandestine scheme to manipulate the royal succession. Andr Eisermann's strong performance as the title character appears to have been influenced by Bruno S.'s unusual acting in Werner Herzog's classic film on the Hauser legend. Contains sex and violence. V S N

THE PHANTOM (PG)

*** Billy Zane scampers between New York City and an exotic jungle, scavenging for magic skulls also coveted by all sorts of bad guys. Superman bends steel with his bare hands and Batman has amazing tools, and next to them the Phantom's mere pistols look kind of old-fashioned. At least the dialogue packs an occasional campy laugh, and while there's some nasty violence the picture is a bit more restrained than much of its mid-'90s competition. Based on the inexplicably popular comic strip. V

THE ROCK (R)

* A loony general hijacks a pile of poison-gas missiles and stashes them on Alcatraz, threatening to wipe out San Francisco if the government doesn't meet his demands. Can a mild-mannered toxicologist and an eccentric Alcatraz veteran stop him before it's too late? Learning the answer means sitting through more than two hours of violence, vulgarity, and all-around excess, served up with high-tech trimmings by director Michael Bay. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery star. Contains a great deal of mayhem and foul language as well as a brief sex scene. V P S

SGT. KABUKIMAN N.Y.P.D. (Not rated)

o Gross-out comedy about an urban cop who fights crime with help from an ancient Japanese spirit. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz directed the Troma production, which isn't smart or savvy enough to compensate for its racist, sexist, and antihomosexual overtones. S N V P

TWO DEATHS (Not rated)

o While revolution rages in a Romanian city, several men hold an impassioned conversation that exposes many of the social and personal dysfunctions leading to war, exploitation, and other ills. Michael Gambon and Sonia Braga lead the cast. Vigorously directed by Nicolas Roeg. Contains sexuality and some graphic views of wartime carnage. S V N P

Currently in Release

BARB WIRE (R)

o The heroine is as tough as her name, flashing gracefully arched fingernails as she twists the throttle on her mean-looking motorcycle in a future America turned inside-out by civil war. Some will find this campy fun. Others will wish Ms. Wire would go back to the comic books that spawned her. David Hogan directed the numbingly violent action. Pamela Anderson Lee and Temuera Morrison head the cast. S V N P

BOYS (PG-13)

*** Leisurely tale of the relationship between a troubled prep-school student and a somewhat mysterious young woman he rescues after a horseback-riding accident. Winona Ryder and Lucas Haas are quietly convincing as the main characters. Written and directed by Stacy Cochran, who has grown considerably as a filmmaker since her debut movie, the suburban satire "Her New Gun." S V P

BUTTERFLY KISS (Not rated)

* Amanda Plummer is even more weirded-out than usual as a serial killer wandering through England with her sadly befuddled girlfriend. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Contains much explicit sex and violence. S N V P

COLD COMFORT FARM (PG)

**** A prim young Londoner takes up residence on her family's ancestral farm, inhabited by a conglomeration of oddballs and presided over by a cranky old matriarch who hasn't ventured from her bedroom in decades. John Schlesinger's rollicking version of Stella Gibbons's novel is acted with the highest of spirits by Kate Beckinsale, Joanna Lumley, Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, Freddie Jones, and many others. Malcolm Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the brightly filmed British production. P V

THE CRAFT (R)

* "Carrie" was scary back in the '70s, but this '90s fantasy raises the ante to a whole quartet of high-school girls with witchlike powers. The first half is restrained, but the later scenes are a hackneyed hodge-podge of fright-movie cliches. Andrew Fleming directed. P V

DEAD MAN (R)

** Johnny Depp plays an accountant named William Blake who wanders through the Old West with an Indian friend named Nobody. Wounded by gunfire, Blake dodges three hired killers who want to finish him off. Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed this mystical western, which gains much of its resonance from Robby Mller's rich black-and-white cinematography and Neil Young's moody music. Contains a few moments of jarringly explicit sex and violence meant to debunk simplistic myths about the values held by frontier society. S V N P

* Nihilistic, gruesome, amoral, puzzling, twisted humor, but unconventional and poetically filmed.

DRAGONHEART (PG-13)

** Dennis Quaid gets top billing as a medieval dragon slayer, but the main attraction is Draco himself, a nasty-looking critter who's really an overgrown Muppet with a friendly disposition. His abilities include fighting, flying, and synchronizing his lips with Sean Connery's off-screen voice. David Thewlis plays the villain, a dangerous despot whose survival is magically linked with Draco's life. Rob Cohen's movie has flashes of wit, but there's little substance to the story, and Draco's charms are surrounded by too much graphic violence. V P S

*** Whimsical, fantastic, noble.

EDDIE (PG-13)

** An ordinary fan becomes coach of a pro basketball team and gets to whip the players into shape while saving the franchise from the machinations of its greedy owner. The comedy is silly and sometimes vulgar, but sports enthusiasts and Whoopi Goldberg aficionados should enjoy it. Directed by Steve Rash and colorfully filmed by Victor Kemper. Contains vulgar language and a brief sexual encounter. P S

A FAMILY THING (PG-13)

*** A man who's always considered himself an ordinary white Southerner learns that his biological mother was a black woman, and he leaves rural Arkansas for crowded Chicago to meet a black half-brother he never knew he had. The story is thin, but the film has rich emotions and a highly constructive moral sense, showing how racial divisions crumble once people recognize their artificiality. It's a pleasure to see Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones sharing the screen, proving yet again that they're among the world's greatest movie actors. Richard Pearce directed. P V N

*** Touching, superbly acted, simplistic.

FARGO (R)

** Strapped for cash, a small-time businessman arranges for his wife to be kidnapped to get the ransom. Directed by Joel Coen and produced by Ethan Coen, the pitch-dark comedy has good acting by William H. Macy as the devious husband and Frances MacDormand as the pregnant policewoman who cracks the case. Contains explicit sex and grotesque violence. S V P

*** Whacked-out, bizarre, funny, great camera work, but violence erupts out of nowhere.

FLIPPER (PG)

** A boy and his dolphin, and the crusty old uncle who loves them both. The scenery is great, and the story is often cute, even if it borrows liberally from "Free Willy" as well as Flipper's old TV series. But some fishing scenes may be upsetting for children. Elijah Wood and Paul Hogan star. Written and directed by Alan Shapiro. V P

*** Squeaky clean, family fare; Flipper is a big ham.

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (R)

** With his wife and new baby in tow, a young man sets out to find the parents who gave him up for adoption years ago, but his search runs into one zigzag after another. Directed by David O. Russell, whose earlier "Spanking the Monkey" was more original. Ben Stiller leads a cast that includes Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, and Lily Tomlin in supporting roles. Be warned that the comedy includes a great deal of verbally and visually explicit sexual humor. S P V

** Zany, crass, dumb plot.

THE GREAT WHITE HYPE (R)

** A greedy boxing promoter decides to boost his fortune by finding a white opponent for the current African-American champ. The movie aims sharp satirical jabs at racial exploitation in contemporary sports. Much of the humor is more crude than cutting, though. Reginald Hudlin directed the impressive cast, which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, Jamie Foxx, Cheech Marin, Peter Berg, and Jon Lovitz. S V P N

o Base, boring, stereotyped, nasty.

GUIMBA - THE TYRANT (Not rated)

*** The cautionary fable of a selfish king in precolonial Africa who allows shameless favoritism and preoccupations with sex to undermine the power he wields so recklessly. The moral lesson is seriously conveyed but the style of the director, Mali filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko, often fills the screen with festive color, commotion, and comedy. S V P

HEAVEN'S PRISONERS (R)

** Alec Baldwin stars as an ex-cop caught up in a complicated plot involving the fatal crash of a small plane filled with illegal immigrants. The steamy New Orleans atmosphere and the performances of an attractive cast, including Kelly Lynch, Mary Stuart Masterson, Teri Hatcher (of TV's "Lois and Clark") are the main reasons to see this muddled, overlong thriller. Baldwin brings his charisma to the lead role, and Eric Roberts makes a dependably hissable villain. V N P By Frank Scheck

*** Moody, suspenseful, gritty.

HOMAGE (R)

* Tension simmers in a rural household inhabited by a lonely woman, her rebellious daughter, and a disturbed young man working as a hired hand while he decides what to do with his life. Solid performances by veteran Blythe Danner and Sheryl Lee, who played Laura Palmer in the "Twin Peaks" series, aren't enough to make the overcooked tale click. The film is directed by newcomer Ross Marks from Mark Medoff's screenplay. V S P N

THE HORSEMAN ON THE ROOF (R)

** Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez flee a raging epidemic in France during the early 18th century. Fans of old-fashioned epics will enjoy the dashing heroics, but look out for graphic scenes of violence and illness. Directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who honed his historical skills on a sweeping screen version of "Cyrano de Bergerac" a few years ago. Several famous French faces appear in cameo performances. V S N P

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (PG)

*** James is an orphan living with two horrible aunts, but his life takes a magical turn when a giant peach springs up in his backyard, populated with insects who launch it on an adventurous ocean voyage. Told through both animation and live action, the fantasy is almost too inventive for its own good, filling the screen with unsettling pictures and situations that could be much too scary for young viewers. The noisy soundtrack features voice-only performances by Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Jane Leeves. Directed by Henry Selick, who made "The Nightmare Before Christmas." V

**** Far-out fun, wildly creative, action-packed.

JANE EYRE (PG)

*** Smartly acted, handsomely filmed adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's classic coming-of-age tale about a spirited young woman who becomes a governess for a wealthy man with a handsome face, a dour demeanor, and a family secret locked away in the attic. Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt acquit themselves well in the leading roles, and smaller parts are superbly handled by a roster of first-rate British talents, including Joan Plowright, John Wood, and Billie Whitelaw. Anna Paquin portrays the young Jane. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. V

**** Elegant, faithful, enriching.

LAST DANCE (R)

*** Sharon Stone gives her most mature performance to date in this sometimes thoughtful, sometimes melodramatic story of a woman sentenced to death for a horrible crime she committed in a drug-induced daze and now regrets. Rob Morrow plays a young bureaucrat who befriends her and tries to have her sentence commuted. Bruce Beresford directed. V P

MA SAISON PREFEREE (Not rated)

** An adult brother and sister are reunited when their mother becomes ill, and their strained relationship goes through complicated changes. The respected Andre Techine directed this moody French drama with his usual combination of strong technique, emotional distance, and sexual frankness. Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil star. The title translates as "My Favorite Season." S N P

THE MAN BY THE SHORE (Not Rated)

** Political intrigue in Haiti during the 1960s is the subject of Raoul Peck's thoughtful drama, which treats fascinating themes but is too low-key and elliptical to gather much dramatic power. V P

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (PG-13)

** Espionage expert Tom Cruise cracks a case teeming with trickery, treachery, and twists. Some of the suspense set-pieces are impressive, but the picture would pack a greater wallop if it were stitched together more tightly and consistently. Directed by Brian De Palma in the strictly commercial, by-the-numbers mode he polished in earlier epics like "Scarface" and "Carlito's Way." Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Henry Czerny, Ving Rhames, and Vanessa Redgrave head the supporting cast. Based on the popular '60s television series. V P

** Cloak-and-dagger, snazzy, loud, suspenseful.

THE PALLBEARER (PG-13)

*** Odd circumstances lead to a young man giving the eulogy at the funeral of a fellow student he can't remember having known. Afterward he finds himself involved with two very different women: the mother of the deceased "friend" and an acquaintance he's adored since high school. This ironic comedy-drama is like a milder version of "The Graduate," with David Schwimmer working hard to equal Dustin Hoffman's star-making performance. The story leads its characters to morally dubious situations, but the outcome reaffirms traditional values. Directed by Matt Reeves with a gentle touch. S P V

** Shallow, trendy, tedious, uninspired.

THE QUEST (PG-13)

* Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme makes his movie-directing debut with this bone-cruncher about an American vying for the grand prize in a Tibetan fighting contest some 70 years ago. Also on hand is Roger Moore, giving a one-note portrayal of a British aristocrat. There are a few catchy sequences and the scenery is lovely, but most of the adventure is aimed squarely at the video-game set. V P

** Stunning fight scenes, predictable, empty, colorful.

SPY HARD (PG-13)

** Yet another Leslie Nielson movie parody, targeted this time at James Bond pictures and their spinoffs. Most of the laughs come near the beginning, before Rick Friedberg's klutzy directing becomes annoyingly monotonous. Andy Griffith and Charles Durning lend the satire a bit of class as a supervillain and a spymaster. V P

SUNSET PARK (R)

** Rhea Perlman plays the white female coach of a black male basketball team at an inner-city high school. Like every scrappy coach in the history of movies, she gets involved in the personal lives of her players while boosting their morale for the big game at the climax. Although a few scenes develop human interest, it's mostly one clich after another. Steve Gomer directed. P V

*** Fairly realistic, hopeful, unpredictable.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS & DOGS (PG-13)

*** Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman make a bright-eyed comedy team in this romance about a handsome photographer who falls in love with the voice of a radio veterinarian and the face of an air-headed model, mistakenly thinking they're the same ideal woman. Directed by comedy specialist Michael Lehmann. Contains a fairly explicit phone-sex scene. S P V

*** Warm, lightweight; one disconcerting scene.

TWISTER (PG-13)

** A handsome scientist spends half his time studying tornadoes from a front-row seat, the other half wobbling between his about-to-be-divorced wife and his new girlfriend. Audiences may howl at the hackneyed plot and dialogue, but you won't hear them over the Dolby sound effects assulting your eardrums at a gazillion decibels. Directed by Jan de Bont, who made "Speed" last year and will reach escape velocity soon if he keeps accelerating at this pace. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt head the windblown cast. People living in real tornado zones may not be amused by the thriller's exploitative attitude. V P

*** Visual wow! Comical thriller, lame plot.

WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE BEST OF AARDMAN ANIMATION (NOT RATED)

*** A collection of British cartoons. The grand finale, "A Close Shave," won an Academy Award for best animated short with its amusing story of a rather dull inventor and his dog tracking down a flock of kidnapped sheep. Other entries include a hilarious interview session with zoo animals and a sharp satire of children's TV shows that contain too much violence. In all, uneven but lively. Directed by Nick Park and others. V

*** Action-packed, very British, hilarious.

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (R)

** The heroine is an 11-year-old girl who's not as pretty or popular as the other kids in 7th grade. Todd Solondz's movie begins like a suburban ugly-duckling tale with many comic overtones, but it grows darker as it goes along, evoking dangers that youngsters must be alert to in today's world - from drugs to child abuse - and showing how cruel children can be to one another when grownups aren't around. Moviegoers should be strongly warned that the film contains sexual material and a great deal of extremely foul language spoken by its young cast. P V S

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