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

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

** Maybe a matinee

*** Worth full price

**** Wait in line

New Releases

BLOOD AND WINE (R)

** A wine merchant engineers a burglary because he's tired of being broke, and the operation goes haywire, bringing tragedy to his family and himself. Jack Nicholson turns in a hard-working performance, but the sleaze-filled story never comes emotionally or dramatically together. Directed by Bob Rafelson. S V P N

** Brutally violent, shallow, convoluted.

CYCLO (Not rated)

** The difficult life of a Vietnamese taxi-bike driver becomes even harder when his pedicab is stolen by mobsters, and crime is his only means of erasing the debt this lowers on him. Vietnamese filmmaker Hung Tran Anh, best known for the Oscar-nominated drama "The Scent of Green Papayas," directed this colorful, violent, less-than-involving sociological thriller. V P S

THE DAYTRIPPERS (Not rated)

*** Worried that her husband might be philandering on her, a suburban woman packs her mother, father, sister, and future brother-in-law into the car, and they head for the city to find out what's really going on. The slender story gains humor and warmth from excellent acting by Hope Davis, Anne Meara, Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott, Liev Schreiber, and others. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Greg Mottola. P S V

DONNIE BRASCO (R)

*** A young FBI agent infiltrates a Mafia family by becoming the protg of an aging hoodlum, jeopardizing his safety and alienating his wife in the process. This sort of story has been told many times before, but thoughtful performances by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp make it more engrossing than expected. Directed by Mike Newell, who's known mainly for lighter fare like "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Contains some very strong violence. S V P

*** Intense, gruesome, strong characters.

THE EIGHTH DAY (Not rated)

** French star Daniel Auteuil plays an uptight executive who embarks on an unlikely journey with a mentally slow man as his companion. The movie deserves credit for its compassionate approach to a subject most filmmakers steer away from, but it eventually cops out with a manipulative ending that's more superficial than insightful. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, who explored somewhat similar terrain in "Toto the Hero," a more exciting and original adventure. S P V N

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (PG)

*** The best of the "Star Wars" trilogy is a trifle darker and more thoughtful than the other installments. It develops real mythic power in the escalating conflict between Luke Skywalker, the budding Jedi knight, and Darth Vader, the enigmatic supervillain now revealed as our hero's secret father. The upgraded "special edition" is almost identical to the 1980 original, but if a movie isn't broken, why fix it? Irvin Kershner directed for executive producer George Lucas. V

**** Explosive, superb, action-packed.

GENTLEMEN DON'T EAT POETS (R)

*They don't watch silly movies like this, either. Sting plays a new butler who brings uproarious instability to the eccentric household of a British aristocrat (Alan Bates) and his motley group of friends and relatives. Patrick McGrath directed the dank and dour comedy from his own screenplay - a blend of the scatterbrained, the sensational, and occasionally the sick. S N V P

KAMA SUTRA: A TALE OF LOVE (Not rated)

** Rivalry simmers for years between an aristocrat and her beautiful servant, who wind up competing for the attention of a handsome ruler. Mira Nair's sensuous drama decks out a trite and predictable tale with exquisite colors, textures, and music. Contains a number of heavily erotic sequences. S N V P

PRIVATE PARTS (R)

*The life and times of radio personality Howard Stern, who has turned a flair for vulgarity and sensationalism into superstar status and a zillion-dollar career. Some scenes paint a convincing portrait of Stern as a witty opponent of stuffiness, prudery, and hypocrisy. Others mix gross-out humor with nasty doses of racism, sexism, and homophobia that reveal a dark side to Stern's professional personality. Stern and his co-host, Robin Quivers, play themselves. Directed by Betty Thomas. S V N P

LE SAMOURAI (Not rated)

**** Reissue of Jean-Pierre Melville's classic psychological thriller about a Paris gangster (Alain Delon) who pursues his grisly trade in a state of existential loneliness that transforms the entire city into a dark reflection of the icy alienation that grips his life. Filmed in 1967, but originally released to American theaters in a trimmed and dubbed edition. The restored version shows the full glory of Henry Deca's astonishingly atmospheric cinematography. V

SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW (R)

*The setting is wintry Copenhagen, and the heroine is a lonely woman from Greenland who uncovers a sinister conspiracy while investigating the death of a little Inuit boy who'd become her only friend. The movie is gorgeously filmed and contains some fascinating lore about life in northern climes. But the plot is both tritely predictable and ridiculously far-fetched, and director Bille August lets the acting slide into stereotypes and clichs. Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, and Vanessa Redgrave are among the performers who deliver less than their best. V S N P

Currently in Release

ABSOLUTE POWER (R)

** A jewel thief witnesses the killing of a woman by Secret Service agents during a tryst with the president, then runs from federal and local authorities while figuring out a way to blow the whistle yet retain his own safety. Clint Eastwood's thriller is wildly cynical in its view of government power. It's also surprisingly complex in its treatment of the unlikely hero, a lonely old criminal whose moral code is higher than that of the authorities in some respects. Eastwood directed from William Goldman's uneven, sometimes implausible screenplay. Gene Hackman, Judy Davis, Ed Harris, and E.G. Marshall head the supporting cast. S V N P

*** Intense, unexpectedly good, disappointing finish.

THE BEAUTICIAN AND THE BEAST (PG)

** A brassy 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

*** Fun, predictable, plot not plausible.

BOOTY CALL (R)

** With a name like "Booty Call," you know you're in for an adolescent comedy about, what else? Sex. When two buddies, Rushon and Bunz go out on a double date (one of the girls' names is Lysterine), they find themselves on a safe-sex mission in search of condoms. With the exception of a few laughs - including a hysterical footsie scene and another that involves Saran Wrap - this one's a no-brainer. Heavy sexual content and an endless amount of profanity. V S N P By Lisa Leigh Parney

** Raunchy, crass, bedroom humor.

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 Mller 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 ENGLISH PATIENT (R)

** Badly wounded in World War II, a pilot attempts to recover 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.

FOOLS RUSH IN (PG-13)

*A yuppie from New York spends a night with a Latina from Las Vegas, marries her when she announces she's pregnant, and then faces the huge differences in their habits, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Andy Tennant's featherweight comedy is clearly pitched at the date-movie crowd, and couples may enjoy it if they can get past the picture's simplistic ethnic stereotypes and its willingness to wish away every real-life family problem the characters will surely face after the feel-good finale. Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek star. S V P

*** Funny, heartwarming, entertaining.

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 Gerard Depardieu, are pretty much wasted. S N V

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

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

*** Moving, endearing, film does good job of weaving in Czechoslovakian context.

LOST HIGHWAY (R)

** The elusiveness of identity is the theme of David Lynch's latest excursion into the world of pitch-dark dreams and delusions, which begins when a man is convicted of a savage crime he never would have dreamed of committing. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette star, with Balthazar Getty and Robert Blake in other key roles. The film actually deserves four stars for its imaginative style and astonishing suspense, zero stars for its shameless exploitation of violent shocks and loveless sensuality. Contains moments of over-the-top sex and violence in Lynch's patented "Blue Velvet" mode. S V N P

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 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

**** Culturally informative, powerful, captivating.

ROSEWOOD (R)

*** In a segregated Florida community during the 1920s, a white woman falsely says a black fugitive has beaten her, touching off a rampage by bigoted whites that takes a horrifying toll in death and destruction. The fact-based story is so riveting and revealing that the filmmakers needn't have used melodramatic formulas to boost its impact. But even with its flaws, the movie carries strong messages about the hurtfulness of hate, bias, and conceptions of "manhood" based on power and domination. Ving Rhames and Jon Voight head the excellent cast. Directed by African-American filmmaker John Singleton, of "Boyz N the Hood" fame. S V P N

**** Educational, disturbing, haunting.

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 beautifully performed.

Sling Blade (R)

*** A mentally slow man is released from a "nervous hospital" in Arkansas years after he killed his mother and her lover, who shocked him with their immoral behavior. The story has many unsavory elements including some strongly suggested violence, but most of the picture focuses on positive elements such as the hero's capacities for friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Directed with skill and compassion by Billy Bob Thorton, who also plays the protagonist. V P

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.

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

** Bleak, heavy, well-acted.

THAT DARN CAT (R)

*** In this 1965 Disney remake, teenage girl Patty (Christina Ricci) finds adventure and excitement in a sleepy Massachusetts town when her cat, D.C., discovers a kidnapped woman being held hostage. Patty then teams up with an inexperienced and incompetent FBI agent (Doug E. Doug), and largely through the aid of the cat, they are able to save the day. The outlandish side characters of the town - which include Michael McKean from "Laverne and Shirley" and John Ratzenberger from "Cheers" - provide laughs and add color. Children between the ages of 6 and 10 will enjoy this film. By Laurie Wilson

** Uninspired, creative, original was better.

TOUCH (R)

** Unwanted fame comes to a young social worker with an ability to heal the sick; among those hoping to exploit him are a money-minded promoter, a sensationalistic talk-show host, and a religious fanatic determined to restore traditionalism in his church. Elmore Leonard's novel satirizes our media-driven society while showing real respect for religious activity motivated by piety and humility rather than greed and ambition. The movie adaptation reflects filmmaker Paul Schrader's longtime interest in religious ideas, but it spends more energy depicting tacky commercialism and self-centered zealotry than exploring the deeper implications of Leonard's story. Bridget Fonda, Skeet Ulrich, Tom Arnold, and Christopher Walken head the cast. S V N P

*Anti-Catholic, cute, a farce.

UNHOOK THE STARS (R)

*Lonely after her family members disperse in different directions, an aging woman helps care for a neighbor's child, and the experience helps her take new initiatives in her own life. Gena Rowlands is wonderful as always in the leading role, clearly enjoying the opportunity to act in the first movie directed by Nick Cassavetes, her son. But the picture as a whole seems calculated and predictable, diminishing the impact of its able performances. Also featuring Marisa Tomei and Grard Depardieu.

** Touching, slow, uneven.

VEGAS VACATION (PG)

O\ The Griswalds drive to Las Vegas "because half the fun is getting there," but the fun never begins in this disappointing sequel to the "Vacation" slapstick comedies starring Chevy Chase. The family "falls apart" as they seek separate immoral entertainment. Dad (Chase) can't get through breakfast without sneaking away to lose more dough; Mom (Beverly D'Angelo) is pursued by Wayne Newton; son Rusty buys a fake ID and wins cars; and Sis is lured into "exotic" dancing. After incredulously winning back tens of thousands in lost money, they drive home in four brand-new vehicles. S By Jewel Becker Simmons

O\ Boring, cheap, unrealistic finish.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (PG)

*** Nonfiction account of Muhammad Ali's famous 1974 prizefight with George Foreman in Zaire, dubbed "the rumble in the jungle" and credited with making Ali a leading figure in American sports. Fascinating footage goes beyond the boxing ring to document Ali's brilliance as a public personality, with outspoken views on everything from race and religion to politics and the Vietnam War. Shot at the time of the bout, and edited years later into final form. Spike Lee and Norman Mailer are among several interested parties who comment on the material from a '90s perspective; musical performances by James Brown and B.B. King are also included. V N P

*** Awe-inspiring, stimulating, honest.

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