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: Sundance: 5 festival documentary favorites

** Maybe a matinee

*** Worth full price

**** Wait in line

New Releases

ANACONDA (PG-13)

*** Coil up with a tub of popcorn, get a stranglehold on your soda - this is a creepy, action-packed boat ride down a jungle river with lots of huge snakes dropping by for man-sized snacks. Filmmakers in search of tribal footage let an anaconda hunter (Jon Voight) slither into their midst, and the trouble begins. Not for the squeamish or those in a cerebral mood, but the film packs many thrills. P V By Katherine Dillin

** Gripping, predictable, a no-brainer.

CHASING AMY (R)

** A young man discovers his new girlfriend is a lesbian. The filmmaking technique of writer-director Kevin Smith has matured since the raunchy "Clerks," his popular debut movie; but although his dialogue is often witty, he still relies on blunt sexual humor to get his point across. S P V By Chas Sabatine

** Vulgar, original, probing.

8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG (R)

*A hit man chases a medical student who accidentally picked up the grisly package he was delivering to a mob chief. Joe Pesci is funny as the bumbling crook, and David Spade has a few amusing moments. The rest is so stupid you'll wish you'd brought a duffel bag of your own. Written and directed by Tom Schulman. V P S

GRIND (Not rated)

*** Romantic rivalry complicates the relationship of two brothers who want to build better lives than the underpaid mediocrity they inherited from their father. The story and characters don't get beyond fashionable "suburban chic," but filmmaker Chris Kentis captures a surprising amount of working-class truth through his imaginative, understated approach. Billy Crudup and Adrienne Shelley star. V P S

GROSSE POINTE BLANK (R)

*** John Cusak plays a hit man who returns to his hometown for his 10-year high school reunion. Along the way he rekindles an old romantic flame and dodges a few attacks on his life. This clever and original movie is like a John Hughes comedy for the '90s, with a jukebox of a soundtrack that plays one great song after another. People who don't really want to attend their own reunions should consider seeing this movie instead. Contains several violent scenes. V P By Chas Sabatine

*** Unconventional, hilarious, quirky.

THE HOTEL MANOR INN (Not rated)

*Investigating a possible murder case, a TV reporter moves into a one-time insane asylum being converted to a resort hotel. John Randolph has a couple of convincing scenes as the hotel's feisty old manager, but most of Wayne Chesler's dark comedy is dull, contrived, and hopelessly unconvincing. V S P

KISSED (Not rated)

*A young woman develops an erotic fascination with death. Lynne Stopkewich's highly unconventional drama gets only one star not because it's poorly made - quite the contrary - but because most moviegoers will find the subject repellent no matter how it's treated. Molly Parker stars. Contains a great deal of explicit sexual deviance. S V P N

MURDER AT 1600 (R)

** A homicide cop tries to find out who murdered a young woman after a sexual rendezvous in the White House, and gets temporarily stymied when government insiders block his path. Wesley Snipes is terrific as the hero. Diane Lane and Alan Alda back him up as a Secret Service agent and a White House operative, respectively. Dwight Little directed. V P S N

PARADISE ROAD (R)

** Held under horrific conditions in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, a diverse group of women form a "vocal orchestra" and elevate their spirits through the inspiring power of great music. The story has charming and uplifting moments as well as strong performances by an impressive cast. Moviegoers interested in the film's music may be put off by its scenes of harrowing and explicit violence, though. Glenn Close and Frances McDormand star. V N P

SCHIZOPOLIS (Not rated)

*Wildly eccentric comedy about a self-help speechwriter, a dentist who could be his twin, and the woman they both love. Written and directed by Steven Soderbergh of "sex, lies, and videotape" fame. This time he deserves an A for audacity, an F for everything else. S N P V

Currently in Release

ANNA KARENINA (PG-13)

*** The classic tale of two intertwined love affairs: one between a married woman and a handsome military officer, which brings tragedy to all concerned, and another between a ditzy princess and a thoughtful but insecure aristocrat. Much gets eliminated when a 1,000-page epic is squeezed into less than two hours of screen time, but filmmaker Bernard Rose has adapted Leo Tolstoy's timeless masterpiece with skill and understanding, capturing a tumultuous array of human emotions against a backdrop of imperial elegance that recalls the golden age of historical movies. Sophie Marceau is a radiant Anna and Alfred Molina is perfect as Levin, the character closest to Tolstoy himself. V S N

CATS DON'T DANCE (G)

*** Lively animated feature about a cat who leaves the Midwest for Hollywood, dreaming of success in silver-screen musicals. There he runs afoul of a bratty star who doesn't like animals, but learns that while dreams don't come true easily, cleverness and perseverance pay off in the long run. The picture has energy to spare, but children won't get the movie-buff references that provide much of its humor. Mark Dindal directed. Voices include Scott Bakula, Natalie Cole, Jasmine Guy, George Kennedy, Hal Holbrook, Rene Auberjonois, Kathy Najimi, and Don Knotts. V

CHILDHOOD'S END (Not rated)

*** Young and not-so-young adults spin a complex web of relationships as they cope with emotional and sexual tensions in a Midwestern suburb. Jeff Lipsky's first feature is more honest than penetrating, but deserves praise for earnestly exploring a wide range of ideas and feelings. S N P

CRASH (NC-17)

*A young couple gets involved with a group of bizarre people who find erotic pleasure in automobile crashes. The original novel, written by J.G. Ballard in 1973, is a cautionary tale suggesting that new forms of amorality may flourish in today's highly technologized world. David Cronenberg's movie is a chilly meditation on this theme, carrying some cinematic interest but surprisingly dull given the story's outrageous subject. James Spader and Holly Hunter head the cast. Contains much explicit and perverse sex and violence. S N V P

*Gory, perverted, appalling.

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

*** Smart, funny, real.

THE DEVIL'S OWN (R)

** A member of the Irish Republican Army comes to New York and moves into the home of an Irish-American police officer, who doesn't know the guest is planning a deal to buy heavy weaponry for his organization. Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford have good chemistry, and the story takes a few interesting turns. The dramatic situations aren't intense or knotty enough to match the moral issues behind them, however. Treat Williams, Ruben Blades, and Simon Jones head the supporting cast. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. V P S

** Disturbing, fine acting, unrealistic.

DOUBLE TEAM (R)

*Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, the Chicago Bulls player with rainbow-hued hair, make an unlikely team in this frenetic flick. Get ready for non-stop gunfire, karate battles, snarling tigers, impossible derring-do, and more explosions than the Fourth of July. The preposterous plot serves only as a backdrop for Rodman's camera mugging and Van Damme's impressive physical prowess. V P By John Dillin

*Fast-moving, silly, absurdly violent.

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 similar terrain in "Toto the Hero," a more exciting and original adventure. S P V N

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

THE GRADUATE (PG)

**** Reissue of the classic 1967 comedy about a recent college grad who drifts into an affair with an older woman, then falls goofily in love with her daughter and scrambles to escape the traps he's fallen into. Dustin Hoffman gives the inspired performance that launched his movie career, and director Mike Nichols shows a gift for social satire that has never glistened quite so brightly since. Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross head the marvelous supporting cast. Simon & Garfunkel spice up the soundtrack with "The Sound of Silence" and other hits. N P V

*** Provocative, sophisticated for its time, great music.

GRAY'S ANATOMY (Not rated)

*** Spalding Gray delivers one of the monologues that have become his trademark, this time putting a typically comic spin on his effort to cure an anxiety-causing illness. Inventively directed by Steven Soderbergh, although some will take offense at Gray's irreverence toward everything from sex to religion, not to mention his vivid descriptions of unpleasant physical conditions. P

INVENTING THE ABBOTTS (R)

** Class conflicts mix with romantic yearnings as two brothers from a broken home play out love-hate relationships with members of a wealthy Midwestern family. The drama is long on 1950s atmosphere and complicated feelings, short on emotional depth and real psychological insight. It also contains enough sex and nudity to make it questionable for some moviegoers who might otherwise respond to its nostalgic moods and varied performances. Pat O'Connor directed. S N V P

** Quiet, slow, too long.

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

** Romantic, exotic, sensual.

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. N S P

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

LIAR LIAR (PG-13)

** An overzealous lawyer hits personal and professional trouble when his little boy makes a birthday wish that his dad won't be able to lie for the next 24 hours. Jim Carrey proves that he's the most inspired clown in movies today, but parents should be warned that much of the picture's humor is extremely rude and crude. S V P

*** Energetic, hilarious, Carrey at his best.

LOVE & OTHER CATASTROPHES (R)

** Randy comedy about sexual shenanigans among a group of Australian university students with various orientations. Directed by Emma-Kate Croghan, a promising newcomer. S N V P

LOVE JONES (R)

*** A woman pursues her photography career while coping with romantic dilemmas involving her one-time fianc, not the most reliable person around, and a young poet she just met, who's a little too pushy for comfort. The story is thin, but it's fun to spend time with more likable African-American characters than most Hollywood movies ever put under the spotlight. Larenz Tate and Nia Long star in the comedy, which was written and directed by Theodore Witcher. Contains explicit sexual situations and language. S P N

** Hip, sexy, strong cinematography.

MANDELA (Not rated)

*** A nonfiction look at the tumultuous life and history-making career of Nelson Mandela, touching on a wide range of issues that have influenced South Africa during the past several decades. Gives a colorful overview of a complex and fascinating subject, although there are many areas where more careful and detailed treatment would have been appropriate. Directed by Jo Menell and Angus Gibson. V

A MONGOLIAN TALE (Not rated)

*** Set in rural Mongolia, this beautifully filmed drama traces the experiences of a man and woman who grow up in the same household, separate when he travels to the city for his education, then reunite after their lives have moved onto very different pathways. The movie is less profound than director Xie Fei's earlier masterpiece, "The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls," but it glows with the eye-filling images and warm-hearted acting that distinguish Chinese cinema at its best, and shows special sensitivity to the challenges facing women in a tradition-bound land starting to feel the pressures of growth and modernization. P V

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

** Hilarious, juvenile, insightful.

THE QUIET ROOM (PG)

*** This sensitive, imaginative drama is told from the perspective of a little girl whose parents' constant arguing has made her decide to stop talking. Few movies have paid more sincere attention to the fact that children are full-fledged human beings with complicated inner lives; and few have depicted childhood with such skillful avoidance of simplistic or sentimental notions. Written and directed by Australia-based filmmaker Rolf de Heer.

RETURN OF THE JEDI (PG)

*** Reissue of the concluding 1983 chapter in George Lucas's celebrated "Star Wars" trilogy, with Han Solo and Princess Leia helping Luke Skywalker reclaim his father from the dark side of the Force. Less original than the first "Star Wars" and less resonant than "The Empire Strikes Back," but packed with fast-paced action and downright cuddly Ewoks. It stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford plus Billy Dee Williams and the great Alec Guiness. V

*** Futuristic, inventive, fantastic but slow.

THE SAINT (PG-13)

** He's more of a trickster than his nickname would suggest, but he's ultimately on the right side in an action-packed conflict between a nasty Russian schemer and a gifted American scientist who thinks she's discovered a phenomenal new energy source. Val Kilmer is fun as the mercurial hero, and Elisabeth Shue would be great as the physicist if the movie didn't have her waste so much time making googoo-eyes at her handsome new boyfriend. And will someone tell Hollywood the cold war is over? Relations between Russia and the US are confused enough without suspicion-mongering pictures like this. Directed by Phillip Noyce. S V P

** Unoriginal, gripping, suspenseful.

SELENA (PG)

** The life of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the hugely popular Latina singer, from her beginnings in a family pop group to her tragic death at an early age. The dialogue swings between platitudes and clichs, but the acting is lively and the music will set even lazy toes tapping. Directed by Gregory Nava. V P

*** Sweet, inspirational, celebrates innocence.

THE SIXTH MAN (PG-13)

** A simple and humorous film for viewers of all ages. The movie is an amusing tale of how the ghost of a recently deceased college basketball player assists his team in reaching the Final Four. Marlon Wayans heads the cast of this comedy. Contains cameo appearances by college coaches Dean Smith (UNC) and Bruiser Flint (UMass) as well as an appearance by the loquacious basketball announcer Dick Vitale. V P By Tom Balcom

TROMEO & JULIET (Not rated)

*Troma, a low-budget production company specializing in over-the-top sleaze, jumps on the Shakespeare bandwagon with this deliberately brainless update of the classic play about ill-starred lovers. The result is a tragedy in every sense of the term, but it might steer some youngsters toward the original. S V N

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