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

o Forget it

* Only if it's free

** Maybe a matinee

*** Worth full price

**** Wait in line

New Releases

THE BEAUTICIAN AND THE BEAST (PG)

** A brassy young woman (Fran Drescher) moves from the beauty shops of New York to the castle of an Eastern European dictator (Timothy Dalton) who thinks she'd be a well-educated tutor for his children. She teaches him how to bring himself and his country into the modern world. The fable is silly, sentimental, and sometimes snide, but despite all this it offers more sly chuckles than its frivolous title might suggest. Ken Kwapis directed. P

DANTE'S PEAK (PG-13)

*A volcano blows its top near a Pacific Northwest town, and a handsome volcanologist spends the rest of the movie trying to escort the lovely mayor, her adorable children, and their feisty grandma to safety. The story is predictable and the dialogue is utterly inane, but the high-tech effects deliver the sort of thrills that disaster-film connoisseurs expect. V P

JOHNS (R)

** Almost everyone is named John in this streetwise tale of male hustlers scrambling for physical and emotional sustenance on mean Los Angeles streets. Some scenes develop a fair amount of raw power, but the movie as a whole doesn't add up to much. Lukas Haas and David Arquette star, and Scott Silver directed his own screenplay. Contains explicit sexual activity and other unsavory material. S V P N

PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS (R)

*** During the war in Chechnya, two Russian soldiers are captured by a Chechen householder who wants to use them in a deal to get his own son back from captivity. The hostages develop a complicated bond with each other and the Muslim peasants who are holding them. Based on a simple but insightful story written 150 years ago by Leo Tolstoy, and still effective in its updated version. Sergei Bodrov directed the Russian production. V P

SHADOW CONSPIRACY (R)

*A government worker and a journalist uncover an inside scheme to kill the president and prevent his progressive policies from becoming reality. The plot is incredibly stupid, but this may be the first time a hero uses a bundle of party balloons to squelch the deadly fire of a high-tech superweapon. Charlie Sheen, Donald Sutherland, and Linda Hamilton head the good cast, with Gore Vidal in an amusing cameo as a politician. Directed by George P. Cosmatos, whose filmmaking skills are not improving over the years. V P

SUBURBIA (R)

** A strip-mall parking lot is the main setting for Richard Linklater's drama about a motley crew of generation Xers who hang around, talk about whatever pops into their heads, and dream of when their lives will take a turn for the better, preferably with no effort on their parts. The picture often rambles as aimlessly as its characters, but its vivid depiction of alienation and self-destructiveness among suburban youth has much cautionary value. Written by Eric Bogosian. S V P

TWO TIMES FIFTY YEARS OF FRENCH CINEMA (Not rated)

*** Asked by the British Film Institute for a contribution to its series on the first century of cinema, French directors Anne-Marie Miville and Jean-Luc Godard rejected snappy film clips and sentimental memories in favor of an introspective dialogue. Godard and movie star Michel Piccoli ruminate on the nature of cinema as artistic expression, commercial exploitation, and testing ground for memory itself.

WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (R)

*** The quirky, sometimes hilarious tale of a Broadway wannabe staging a community-theater production to celebrate the 150th birthday of a small Missouri town. Christopher Guest directed the picture, co-wrote the mischievous screenplay with Eugene Levy, and plays the leading role. The humor is uneven and sometimes crude, but much of the mock-documentary is surprising and amusing. P

Currently in Release

ALBINO ALLIGATOR (R)

*A crime goes haywire, stranding the crooks and several hostages in a low-grade saloon surrounded by the police. The nasty, sometimes violent story was written by Christian Forte, a newcomer who is clearly under Quentin Tarantino's unpleasant spell, and directed by Kevin Spacey, an unusually gifted actor who doesn't yet show any special talent for filmmaking. Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway, and Gary Sinise head the cast. V P

ANGEL BABY (Not rated)

** Two psychiatric patients fall in love, marry, and encounter much difficulty while trying to realize their wistful dream of a normal middle-class life. John Lynch and Jacqueline McKenzie give winning performances, but Michael Rymer's filmmaking is less imaginative than the emotionally charged subject he explores. S N V P

BEVERLY HILLS NINJA (PG-13)

** As coarse, vulgar, adolescent action comedies go, "Beverly Hills Ninja" comes across as relatively tame - less profanity, less violence, less sex than typical for this "Naked Gun" wannabe. An Anglo baby, washed up on a remote shore in Japan, is raised by Ninja warrior monks, goes on a "divinely" ordained quest to save a beautiful and helpless damsel, and thwarts international counterfeiters. The dulcet and baby-faced Chris Farley - the most improbable Ninja concoctable by Hollywood, as everybody's successor to John Candy - takes the edge off anything. Cain of "Kung Fu" meets "Saturday Night Live" in Beverly Hills. N P S V By Jim Bencivenga

** Goofy fun, adolescent, endearing performance by Farley.

BREAKING THE WAVES (R)

** Not long after she begins a happy married life, a deeply religious woman's new husband becomes severely disabled and asks her to start relationships with other men. Lars von Trier's drama poses complicated moral questions, leaving the audience to decide whether the wife is engaging in noble self-sacrifice or allowing unhealthy impulses to rule and ruin her life. Unfortunately, the film is more successful at setting up ethical conundrums than at profitably exploring them. Robby Muller did the striking cinematography, using the unusual combination of wide-screen format and hand-held camera work. V S N P

*** Jarring, eerie, a movie that isn't easily forgotten.

THE CRUCIBLE (PG-13)

*** Arthur Miller's classic drama about the 17th-century witch hunts in Salem, Mass., touched off when a group of girls are caught having a wild party, blame the devil for their crimes, and bolster their defense by accusing local women of consorting with the forces of evil. Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, and Paul Scofield head the cast. Effectively if unexcitingly directed by Nicholas Hytner. V S N

*** Emotional, powerful, an important film to see.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (R)

** Badly wounded in World War II, a pilot recovers under the care of a sensitive nurse while remembering his wartime experiences and his earlier involvement with another woman. Told through persuasive performances and stunning camera work, the sweeping story shows how pressures of war may shake up conventional notions of loyalty, integrity, and even identity itself. But the film doesn't gather the emotional momentum that would make it compelling as well as impressive. Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, and Kristin Scott Thomas head the cast. Directed by Anthony Minghella. S V N P

*** Profound, engaging, beautiful cinematography.

THE EVENING STAR (PG-13)

** The sequel to "Terms of Endearment" is at least as sentimental as its predecessor, but it still has an attention-grabbing heroine: the eccentric Aurora Greenway, now 15 years older and possibly a bit wiser now that she's raised her grandchildren after her daughter's death. Like any self-respecting soap opera, the film alternates between sexual relationships (usually extramarital) and illnesses (usually fatal) on its way to a bittersweet ending. In the cast, Shirley MacLaine and Juliette Lewis make the strongest impressions. Miranda Richardson, Jack Nicholson, and Donald Moffat are also on hand. Written and directed by Robert Harling. S N V P

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (R)

*** Making his first musical, Woody Allen focuses on a lovelorn author and a wealthy Manhattan family whose members have a variety of interrelated adventures. The story and style are as catchy and carefree as any in Allen's career. But skeptics will observe that his view of human nature remains narrow and shallow beneath its beguiling surfaces. Allen stars along with Drew Barrymore, Alan Alda, Tim Roth, and Julia Roberts, and Goldie Hawn. P S

*** Creative, quirky, engaging.

EVITA (PG)

** The life and times of Eva Pern, who rose from back-country squalor to fame and fortune as the wife of Argentine leader Juan Pern, told entirely through songs and stylized dramatic scenes. The movie takes no particular stance on the controversies surrounding its heroine, seen by some as a self-serving egomaniac and others as a tireless champion of the poor. Nor can much insight be gleaned from Madonna's energetic but oddly impersonal performance. Alan Parker directed this adaptation of the stage hit by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas whip up a little charisma as the dictator and a man-in-the-street narrator. S V

*** Breathtaking, both Madonna and Banderas give good performances; music is great, but too loud at times.

FARMER & CHASE (Not rated)

*Determined to shake off his small-time status for once in his crooked life, an aging thief teams up with his son for a high-risk bank robbery. Ben Gazzara manages to give a mostly heartfelt performance in surroundings that are generally unworthy of his talent. Written and directed by Michael Seitzman. V P S

FIERCE CREATURES (PG-13)

*** A quaint British zoo falls into the hands of a conglomerate run by an unscrupulous Australian tycoon. The zoo's new manager, played by John Cleese of "Monty Python" fame - who also co-wrote and co-produced - must try to save it from extinction. Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, Cleese's cohorts from the surprise 1980s hit comedy "A Fish Called Wanda," along with a menagerie of cute and cuddly animals, try to help. Unfortunately, the moments of comic genius are sprinkled too sparsely among the dead stretches. Kline stands out in the dual roles of the heartless tycoon and his playboy son. S By Greg Lamb.

** Sporadically funny, weak, boring.

HAMLET (PG-13)

*** The most ambitious screen version of Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy, shown in a dazzling big-screen format and featuring an all-star cast. Kenneth Branagh's acting and directing are equally immodest, but he keeps the action hopping at a lively pace. Most noteworthy in supporting roles are Derek Jacobi as the king, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, the wonderful Julie Christie as Gertrude, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. Other familiar faces, from Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon to Charlton Heston and Grard Depardieu, are pretty much wasted. S N V

**** Riveting, exquisite, well-directed.

IN LOVE AND WAR (PG-13)

*The on-and-off love affair of young Ernest Hemingway and a slightly older nurse, who helps him recover from World War I injuries and must then decide whether to marry him or an Italian doctor she admires. Once again director Richard Attenborough has taken a potentially fascinating biographical topic and reduced it to a mostly dull drama. The wartime sequences gain a certain amount of power from the sheer seriousness of their subject, but much of the movie is drenched in a lazy emotionalism that the real Hemingway - who valued no-nonsense economy above all else - would have detested. Chris O'Donnell and Sandra Bullock star. V S N P

** Overly emotional, unconvincing, picturesque.

JERRY MAGUIRE (R)

** An athletics agent tries to start his own company after losing his job, and learns a lot about human decency from a family-loving football player who stays loyal to him. The movie takes a refreshing stance in favor of family life, but the repetitious story moves erratically and runs on too long. Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. are fine as the agent and client, and Rene Zellweger is better yet as the hero's new girlfriend. Contains foul language and a very explicit sex scene. S P V N

*** Laugh-out-loud humor, action-oriented, gives viewer a window into the sports business.

KOLYA (PG-13)

*** Not long before the fall of the Soviet bloc and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a middle-aged Czech musician agrees to a marriage of convenience with a Russian woman, then finds himself caring for her five-year-old son after she unexpectedly leaves the country. This thoughtful comedy-drama demonstrates how difficult it is to draw lines between the personal and political in the rapidly changing modern world. Directed by Jan Sverak from a screenplay by his father, Zdenek Sverak, who plays the leading role. N S P

METRO (R)

** A police-force hostage negotiator trains a new partner, romances his girlfriend, and duels with a psychopath who develops a personal hatred for him. He solves the latter problem with lots of violence and very little negotiation, which is odd for a person with his professional training but all too predictable for a big-budget action picture. Eddie Murphy is solid as the hero. The action is repetitious and much more vicious than it should be, though, given the picture's supposed interest in verbal bargaining as an alternative to trigger-happy mayhem. Thomas Carter directed. V P N

** Dramatic, violent, predictable.

MOTHER (PG-13)

*** Wondering where his life took a wrong emotional turn, a twice-divorced writer moves back in with his mother and finds her personality just as inscrutable as his own. Albert Brooks has devoted his career to exploring the American psyche in comic terms, and while this installment in his ongoing chronicle is less engrossing than "Real Life" or the great "Lost in America," it makes many mischievous points about middle-class folkways, mores, and idiosyncrasies. Debbie Reynolds is terrific as the mother. Contains a bit of very raunchy dialogue. S P

** Good-hearted, slow, unexciting.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (R)

*** The story of a real-life pornographer who turned a sleazy magazine into a publishing empire. One of his many battles involved the leader of the Moral Majority organization, who sued the trash-peddler over a vicious parody but lost the case in a unanimous Supreme Court opinion written by one of the most conservative justices. Milos Forman's drama is full of outrageous material that will offend liberals and conservatives alike, but it's positioned on the cutting edge of contemporary debates about free speech, feminism, and the effects of mass media on modern society. Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love play the title character and his drug-addicted wife. S V N P

*Raunchy, maudlin, superficial.

A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (Not rated)

*** The greatest living American filmmaker conducts a four-hour guided tour through the byways of film history that have mattered most in his own life and career, with attention to everything from sociopolitical importance to sheer entertainment value. Colorful, informative, fun. Written and directed by Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson for the "Century of Cinema" series produced by the British Film Institute. P

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (PG-13)

**** Jane Campion directed this adaptation of Henry James's richly textured novel, about a young woman who jeopardizes her bright future by marrying a self-absorbed man despite signs that he regards her as just one more addition to his collection of beautiful things. Nicole Kidman plays the heroine with panache, ably supported by John Malkovich and the remarkable Barbara Hershey. Laura Jones wrote the energetic screenplay. S V

*** Visually stunning, mysterious, authentic Henry James.

PREFONTAINE (PG-13)

*The life story of Steve Prefontaine, a talented three-miler who set many records, reached for Olympic greatness, and helped amateur athletes gain more control over their careers before his untimely death. Prefontaine is a fascinating hero, but his experiences become a string of sports-movie clichs in the hands of filmmaker Steve James, who co-directed "Hoop Dreams," a 1994 documentary that met its goals more successfully. The acting ranges from adequate (Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey) to awful (Lindsay Crouse and everyone else). P V

THE RELIC (R)

*A monster is terrorizing Chicago's natural-history museum. Can the local evolutionary biologist save the day without mussing her makeup, or is the supernatural too much for a scientist to handle? Penelope Ann Miller is more cuddly than convincing as the heroine, and it's a pity to see pros like Linda Hunt and James Whitmore slogging through such silliness. Contains a great deal of over-the-top mayhem. V P

** Gory, intense, suspenseful.

Secrets and Lies (R)

**** Looking for the biological mother who gave her up for adoption, a middle-class black Englishwoman is surprised to discover that her mom is poor, uneducated, and white. Mike Leigh's sensitive comedy-drama is superbly acted but contains much vulgar language, and some moviegoers may be troubled by its treatment of extramarital sex and promiscuity. P

*** Sensitive, realistic, life-affirming.

SHINE (PG-13)

*** The fact-based story of a brilliant pianist whose musical gifts are offset by mental and emotional problems, made more severe by conflicts with his father, who never recovered from seeing the Holocaust destroy his family. The movie benefits from an involving story and sparkling music, and it avoids easy clichs about music's power to solve every problem in time for a happy ending. Scott Hicks directed the Australian production. P V

*** Tragic, moving, music is stirring and beautifully performed.

STAR WARS (PG)

*** Heroic rebels battle an oppressive empire, and the Force is with them all the way. George Lucas's legendary 1977 science-fiction epic still packs an entertaining punch with its blend of old-movie formulas, new-age philosophies, and video-game visuals. A small amount of new material, added for the 20th-anniversary reissue, is fun to look for but doesn't make much difference to the story or its impact. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher head the cast. V

**** Awesome, out of this world, great special effects, inspiring.

TROUBLESOME CREEK: A MIDWESTERN (Not rated)

*** This highly entertaining nonfiction movie chronicles an Iowa family's decision to make drastic changes in its living arrangements to stave off bankruptcy and keep its beloved farmland from going to strangers. Made with wit, intelligence, and clear-eyed understanding of the pressures exerted on family values by business and corporate interests. Lovingly directed by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher.

**** Heartwarming, intimate, optimistic.

ULYSSES' GAZE (Not rated)

*** A filmmaker undertakes an epic East European journey in search of a piece of legendary celluloid from cinema's earliest days. Directed by the great Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, this hugely ambitious drama is at once a political parable, a psychological study, a far-traveling road movie, and a tribute to the modern-day resonance of bygone motion-picture myths. Its impact is diminished by a rambling structure and weakly written dialogue, though. Harvey Keitel leads the international cast, and Eleni Karaindrou composed the atmospheric music. S N V P

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