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

AMERICAN BUFFALO (R)

* Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz play a small-time crook and a junk-shop owner who plan to rob a coin collector with help from a youngster in their neighborhood. Although the movie is less powerful than some stage productions of David Mamet's drama, his staccato screenplay etches a ferocious portrait of human possibilities gone astray, and depicts the sad results that occur when talking becomes a substitute for thinking. Contains extremely foul language. Directed by Michael Corrente. P V

BIG NIGHT (R)

* A struggling Italian restaurant is the main setting for this poignant comedy about two brothers whose financial problems overlap with romantic woes and a touch of family rivalry. Stanley Tucci wrote the screenplay with Joseph Tropiano and directed the picture with Campbell Scott. He also leads the talented cast, which includes Isabella Rossellini and Ian Holm. Contains a great deal of foul language. P V S

CAUGHT (R)

* A young drifter moves into the household of a New York fish merchant, has an affair with his attractive wife, and earns the hatred of their son, a failed entertainer steeped in rage and jealousy. The story's human drama is realistic and often touching until an unconvincing conclusion weakens its effect. Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso star. Contains graphic sex and foul language. S P V N

CURDLED (R)

* Pitch-dark comedy about a young Latin woman who takes a job with a service that cleans up after violent crimes. The action oscillates between wry humor and grotesque, bloodthirsty scenes that show the touch of gore-master Quentin Tarantino, who served as executive producer. William Baldwin and Angela Jones star. Written and directed by Reb Braddock. V P

DADETOWN (Not rated)

** A fiction film made to resemble a PBS-type documentary, this timely drama traces the tensions that arise in a small town when a large, impersonal corporation sets up its headquarters just as a decades-old local company faces cutbacks and layoffs. Imitation documentaries are among the hardest of films to pull off, and this is a reasonably well-crafted specimen of the breed. Directed by the late Russ Hexter. P V

ENTERTAINING ANGELS: THE DOROTHY DAY STORY (PG-13)

** Fact-based story of a progressive newspaper reporter who made her Roman Catholic faith the basis for a lifetime of helping the poor and advocating social reforms. The story embraces many excellent values, but the acting and directing are often stagey and unconvincing. The cast includes Moira Kelly, Martin Sheen, Lenny Von Dohlen, and Brian Keith. Directed by Michael Rhodes. S V P

EXTREME MEASURES (R)

* A young physician stumbles on a conspiracy to conduct dangerous medical research by kidnapping homeless people and subjecting them to damaging experiments. The action is gripping and the story raises important issues about medical ethics in a high-tech society. Gene Hackman is in excellent form, and Hugh Grant does the most finely tuned acting of his career to date. The film contains grisly medical scenes, though. Directed by Michael Apted from Tony Gilroy's screenplay, which loses some plausibility in the last few scenes. V P

LAST MAN STANDING (R)

* Bruce Willis plays a stranger who gets involved with a bootlegging war between two rival gangs. What promises to be a hard-hitting crime melodrama degenerates into a repetitious round of bone-crunching violence, and why is Willis's gun always twice as loud as anybody else's? Directed by Walter Hill from his own screenplay, based on Akira Kurosawa's far superior "Yojimbo." V P S

THE LEOPARD SON (G)

**** The life and adventures of a young leopard growing up in the Tanzanian wilderness. The film is stunningly photographed by director Hugo van Lawick, but is burdened by a simplistic narration that frames animal life in strictly human terms. John Gielgud is the narrator. V

LIFE OF OHARU (Not rated)

**** Re-issue of Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece about a young woman who has many varied experiences after she's exiled from her native village for falling in love with a man of lower rank. First released in 1952, the Japanese drama exemplifies Mizoguchi's deep thoughtfulness about moral issues and his compassionate concern with women in a profoundly patriarchal society. It's also a wonderful display of his visual artistry, telling the story through a seamless series of superbly graceful shots.

PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (Not rated)

* Documentary about the prosecution of two teenagers charged with killing three Arkansas third-graders, paying particular attention to media coverage of the event, including the making of this film. Contains a remarkable amount of revealing information about everything from small-town crime to American opinions on the criminal-justice system and the attitudes fostered by evangelical religion. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO. Contains grisly photos and descriptions of a horrible crime. V P N

SURVIVING PICASSO (R)

** Pablo Picasso's work combined intellectual rigor with emotional richness, and James Ivory's glowingly filmed drama captures the tempestuous energy of his talent along with the powerful charisma of his personality. By focusing on his relationship with a long-term lover in the years after World War II, it also captures his weakness for domineering behaviors that exemplified male chauvinism in its most obnoxious forms. Anthony Hopkins plays Picasso in one of his most vivid performances. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. N S P

2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY (R)

* A murder scheme goes wildly wrong, affecting a motley cast of characters including the killer, his bumbling henchman, a suicidal filmmaker, a compassionate nurse, a high-strung executive, and his long-suffering assistant, all of whom converge on a single Southern California house. The story has some laughs along with over-the-top violence and vulgarity. The cast includes James Spader, Danny Aiello, Marsha Mason, Glenne Headly, Jeff Daniels, Paul Mazursky, and Eric Stoltz. Directed by John Herzfeld. S V N

Currently in Release

ALASKA (PG)

*** Two youngsters trek through the Alaskan wilderness in search of their father, whose plane has crashed, and run into trouble with unscrupulous poachers during their journey. The adventure is colorful, suspenseful, and entertaining, and Charlton Heston plays one of the bad guys with the kind of masterful movie-star presence that Hollywood rarely comes up with anymore. Some animal scenes might be upsetting for young children. Directed by Fraser Heston. V

*** Adventurous, exciting, beautiful scenery.

AVENTURERA (Not rated)

*** Reissue of a flamboyant Mexican melodrama about a young woman who leaves her unhappy family for life as an unwilling prostitute and then as a singing star in nightclubs. Directed by Alberto Gout in 1949, this "musical tragedy" treats its unsavory material with relative taste and restraint despite its amusingly excessive style. V

AMERICAN STRAYS (R)

* A homicidal vacuum-cleaner salesman, a killer for hire, and a destitute dad are among the seedy characters of Michael Covert's lurid comedy-drama. It fulfills the dire prediction that Quentin Tarantino's vicious "Reservoir Dogs" would spawn imitators with all of its offensiveness and none of its cinematic talent. John Savage, Jennifer Tilly, Carol Kane, and Eric Roberts are among the wasted performers. S V P

BASQUIAT (R)

* Jean-Michel Basquiat was a young black painter who became a protg of pop artist Andy Warhol, captivated the celebrity scene with his offbeat work, and tragically died young from drug abuse. Written and directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a gifted painter, this is one of the rare art-world movies that succeeds as both human drama and visual artistry. The acting is also excellent, with Jeffrey Wright imaginatively supported by Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, and David Bowie as Warhol. But it contains vulgar language and drug use. P V S

*** Moving, depressing, believable acting.

BOGUS (PG)

uuu A young orphan makes friends with an imaginary Frenchman, who brightens his days and helps him come to terms with his new stepmom. The story is wholesome, but the movie has many more dull stretches than one would expect from veteran filmmaker Norman Jewison and a cast led by Whoopi Goldberg and Gerard Depardieu. V

BROTHER OF SLEEP (R)

* The mysterious tale of a young, prodigiously gifted musician whose artistic talents and passionate nature lead to complex, often stormy relationships with the people close to him. The story is imaginatively filmed but often teeters under the weight of its heavily romantic ambitions. Joseph Vilsmaier directed the German production. S N P V

EMMA (PG)

*** Gwyneth Paltrow is enchanting as a self-confident young woman who decides to wile away her time by playing matchmaker for a friend whose romantic life would fare much better without interference. Directed by Douglas McGrath from his own screenplay, based on the same richly ironic Jane Austen novel that inspired "Clueless," the gorgeously filmed comedy features good supporting performances by Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson.

**** Genteel, sprightly, romantic.

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (PG)

*** Infuriated when their husbands leave them for younger companions, three middle-aged women band together for revenge. The dialogue is often silly but Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn deliver it with enough crackerjack energy to keep audiences laughing. Also features Maggie Smith, Bronson Pinchot, Dan Hedaya, and Marcia Gay Harden. Hugh Wilson directed. P

*** Hilarious, stereotypical, caustic.

FLIRT (Not rated)

* A simple story, about young people caught in an uncertain romantic situation, is repeated three times with different characters in different settings. Hal Hartley's innovative comedy-drama is more ambitious than successful, but it deserves credit for trying something genuinely unusual. V N P

FLY AWAY HOME (PG)

*** While coping with family problems, a teenage girl hatches a bunch of goose eggs for fun, then realizes her new pets won't know how to migrate south for the winter unless someone shows them the way - an ideal job for her and her father, an inventor who loves tinkering with lightweight aircraft. Nature specialist Carroll Ballard directed this eye-dazzling family film, which has superb airborne cinematography to compensate for some soggy spots in the story. Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin star. V P

**** Uplifting, heartwarming, adventurous.

FOXFIRE (R)

* Unhappy with their boring lives in a small-minded community, several high school girls form an angry gang under the leadership of a new friend with a powerful but enigmatic personality. The screenwriters have borrowed the basic plot but not the disturbing political implications of Joyce Carol Oates's propulsive novel "Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang," pushing the film toward well-crafted exploitation rather than thought-provoking commentary on American sexism. Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter. V N P

GIRLS TOWN (R)

* Three ethnically diverse high school girls are shocked into a new awareness of violence and sexism when their best friend commits suicide after being raped. The screen-play was derived from long sessions of improvised acting, and some scenes are more like acting-class workshops than fully developed dramatic episodes. But the material is powerful and most of the performances are excellent. Lili Taylor heads the cast. Directed by Jim McKay. V P

THE GREEN HOUSE (Not rated)

** After his son is executed by the Nazis despite a willingness to cooperate with them, an old Frenchman shields his little granddaughter from the truth. He tells her she's a Resistance fighter and makes up "missions" for her to carry out. Philippe de Broca's comedy takes on social importance by dealing with issues of Nazi-French collaboration, but there's something distasteful about its whimsical treatment of life-and-death themes. V P

HIGHWAY OF HEARTACHE (Not rated)

o Cartoonish comedy about an unhappy homemaker who shoots her spouse and hits the road to become a country-music star. Gregory Wild directed the racist, sexist, misogynistic mess. S V P N

JACK (PG-13)

** Jack is diagnosed with an illness that causes him to mature at quadruple the normal rate, and his parents aren't sure how to handle a four-year-old boy in a full-grown body. Don't be misled by the idea of Robin Williams as a cuddly child-man. The movie takes several turns into sexual and scatological humor, and much of the story is haunted by loneliness, anxiety, and death. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, best known for the "Godfather" films. V P S

** Humorous, uninspired, sad.

KANSAS CITY (R)

* Two interrelated stories set in Kansas City during the 1930s jazz age. In one, a white man botches his plan to rob a black tourist and enters the clutches of a threatening gangster. In the other, his wife kidnaps the spouse of a presidential adviser, hoping the powerful man's influence can save her husband. Robert Altman's film works less effectively as a drama than as an atmospheric visit to a bygone era, but there's lively music along with punchy acting by Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Miranda Richardson. V P

KIDS OF SURVIVAL: THE ART AND LIFE OF TIM ROLLINS AND K.O.S. (Not rated)

*** Well-crafted documentary about a dedicated inner-city schoolteacher who helps disadvantaged high-school students develop their artistic talents and display their collaborative works at major museums and galleries. Always engrossing and sometimes inspiring. Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine. P

SHE'S THE ONE (R)

* Comedy about the increasingly strained relationship between two brothers with overlapping marital and romantic problems. Written by, directed by, and starring Edward Burns, who makes little improvement over the glib superficiality of "The Brothers McMullen," his previous picture. P V

*** Funny, relationship-oriented, recycled.

SMALL FACES (R)

* The setting is Glasgow in the late '60s, and the main characters are three young brothers who get into various tangles with friends, relatives, and members of a dangerous gang that both tempts and terrifies the youngest member of the family. The drama wanders a bit during its first half but develops real emotional power near the end. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon. V P N

THE SPITFIRE GRILL (PG-13)

** Just released from prison, a young woman moves into a small New England community, takes a job at a modest restaurant, and puts together a new life that helps uplift many of the people around her. The story's traditional moral values are refreshing to encounter in today's movie atmosphere, but the film would be more effective if it seemed less calculated and sentimental. P V

**** Thoughtful, endearing, optimistic.

STONEWALL (R)

* The time is 1969, shortly before a police raid on a New York bar gave new force to the movement for gay civil rights; the main characters are homosexual men coping with various personal and romantic problems. The late Nigel Finch directed the drama, which would be more involving if it did a better job of integrating its fictional stories with the political issues raised by the Stonewall incident itself. V S P

A TIME TO KILL (R)

* A white attorney defends a black worker on trial in a Mississippi town for killing the men who abducted and raped his young daughter. There's strong acting by Matthew McConaughey as the lawyer, Samuel L. Jackson as the defendant, and Sandra Bullock as a law student eager to help, among others. But the drama's attack on racism would be more persuasive if it rejected vigilante justice and recognized that hatred and violence of all kinds must be condemned if evils like bigotry are ever to be eradicated. Directed by Joel Schumacher and based on John Grisham's popular novel. V S P

*** Riveting, unsettling, surprisingly witty.

TIN CUP (R)

* Kevin Costner plays a golf pro who's loaded with talent but hasn't got a disciplined bone in his body. Can he clean up his act and win the US Open, thereby impressing the psychologist he's fallen in love with and putting her present boyfriend - a conceited golf star - in his place? Ron Shelton's romantic comedy has no more visual excitement than a televised golf tournament, but the climax is truly surprising, and there's solid acting by Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. P S N V

*** Exciting sports scenes, romantic, witty, excessive alcohol.

THE TRIGGER EFFECT (R)

* Power and telephone lines go haywire and so do the people caught in the disaster, fleeing town or barricading themselves in their homes and buying guns to shoot anyone who seems too threatening. A couple of effective suspense scenes can't outweigh the silliness and senselessness of the overall story. Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue star. Written and directed by David Koepp. V P S

** Intense, thought-provoking, disturbing, reveals powerful insight into human nature.

A VERY BRADY SEQUEL (PG-13)

** The lovable Brady family is still stuck in a 1970s time warp, oblivious to the changing world around them. They're easy prey for a crook who tries to con them by pretending to be Mrs. Brady's first husband, lost at sea years ago. The comedy has some mischievous laughs, but it's less original than the first Brady movie and relies on a considerable amount of sexual innuendo about the teenagers of the family. V P

** Funny, groovy, farcical, tired.

THE WIFE (Not rated)

*** A long, sometimes-crazy evening with two psychotherapists and a troubled couple that's dropped in for dinner. All the characters are a few degrees out-of-kilter, but filmmaker Tom Noonan digs into their personalities with the same insight, humor, and compassion he showed in his previous picture, the excellent "What Happened Was ..." Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Karen Young, and the multitalented Noonan provide the splendid performances. P

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