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

* Poor

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

** Fair

*** Good

**** Excellent

New Releases

BREAKDOWN (R)

*** Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan play a couple who run into trouble when their car breaks down on an empty stretch of desert road. The not-so-original story is a cross between "The Vanishing" and "Frantic" with a bit of "Duel" thrown in. It starts slowly, but builds to a spectacular climax with hearty sound effects and deftly directed stunts. V P By Chas Sabatine

BROKEN ENGLISH (NC-17)

** After fleeing war-torn Croatia and settling in New Zealand with her family, a young woman falls in love with a man of the Maori minority, enraging her traditionally minded father. Gregor Nicholas's drama paints a vivid portrait of multicultural conflict in a community that has received little attention from media in other parts of the world. Rade Serbedzija, known for "The Saint" and "Before the Rain," heads the solid cast. The film earns its rating mostly with one explicit sex scene. S N V P

A CHEF IN LOVE (PG-13)

** A rare manuscript teaches a man about the life of his father, a French chef who moved to the Georgian Republic in the early 1920s and was quickly swept up by romantic and political intrigue. French comedian Pierre Richard heads a lively cast, but Nana Djordjadze's dramatic comedy is held down by the limitations of its screenplay, which seems to regard cooking as an all-purpose metaphor for just about everything in life. S V P

COLOR OF A BRISK AND LEAPING DAY (Not rated)

** A young Chinese-American man works to revive a narrow-gauge railroad in danger of extinction, convinced that America's past and future are welded together by this undervalued industry. Directed by Christopher Mnch with the same flair for streamlined filmmaking he showed in "The Hours and Times," although the new movie is less crisp and engrossing. The cast includes Henry Gibson and Michael Stipe. S V

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (R)

**** A famous intellectual, his intelligent daughter, and her somewhat out-of-place husband narrate their experiences in an unnamed country where two of them fall into disfavor with the government for showing too much social compassion, while the third struggles to understand his role in the family and political structures that surround him. Wallace Shawn's brilliant drama has been directed by David Hare as a minimalist movie that delivers an extraordinary punch even though it's played entirely by performers sitting around a table. Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser are excellent, and Mike Nichols is even better in his first on-screen role. Haunting, gripping, utterly unpredictable. Contains some dialogue related to sex and violence. P

DIARY OF A SEDUCER (Not rated)

** This dark, mildly amusing French comedy takes its title from a novel by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard - a book that affects the lives of a literature teacher and his students as they pass it around among themselves. Chiara Mastroianni and the great Jean-Pierre Laud are featured along with Danile Dubroux, who also wrote and directed the tale. S V P

FEMALE PERVERSIONS (R)

** On the eve of her appointment to a judgeship, a lawyer temporarily shelves her ambitions to help her sister, a bright but unstable young woman in trouble with the police. The movie's title refers not just to sexual deviance but to the "perversion" of conforming with social norms that steer women toward secondary roles in politics and culture. Based on Louise J. Kaplan's respected book. The cast includes Amy Madigan and Karen Sillas, and the extraordinary Tilda Swinton as the attorney. Directed by Susan Streitfeld, who wrote the screenplay with Julie Hebert. Contains some explicit sexual activity. Loses a star for sensationalistic title. S N V P

FLAMENCO (Not rated)

**** A magnificent feast of flamenco music and dance, performed by one towering artist after another. Directed by Carlos Saura, one of Spain's most distinguished filmmakers, and photographed by Vittorio Storaro, one of the world's most gifted cinematographers.

HOLLOW REED (Not rated)

** An abused child gets caught in a custody battle between his feuding parents in this British production, which asks whether two gay men are suitable for raising a young boy. Samuel Bould is brilliant as the child, but Martin Donovan's clearly American mannerisms make him somewhat out of place as the gay English father. Angela Pope's directing is often slow and clunky, although she handles sensitive situations with the delicacy they need. S N V P By Chas Sabatine

IRMA VEP (Not rated)

**** An actress known mainly for action-adventure roles travels from Hong Kong to Paris, where she's been asked to star in the remake of a silent-film classic for a burned-out director who has only the foggiest notion of what he hopes to accomplish. Maggie Cheung, a real-life Hong Kong movie star, plays herself in this continually amusing and inventive comedy. Directed by Olivier Assayas, one of France's most gifted young filmmakers. S V P

NOTHING PERSONAL (Not rated)

** Two old friends, a Protestant and a Roman Catholic, confront personal and political challenges brought by their opposing positions in a struggle between rival Irish militias during the mid-1970s. John Lynch, James Frain, and Michael Gambon star in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's drama, which develops impressive power before a disappointingly unoriginal climax. V S N P

ROMY AND MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION (R)

** Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play bubbleheaded social misfits trying to show they've made something of their lives at their 10th high school reunion. This offbeat, light-as-fluff comedy covers ground similar to the superior "Grosse Pointe Blank," but approaches the material from an eccentric Valley Girl perspective. Quick wit, quirky acting, and stylish camera work make it like pretty funny, y'know? P S By Chas Sabatine

** Upbeat, hilarious, uneven.

SHILOH (PG)

*** A boy hides a mistreated dog from its hard-boiled owner and hopes the incident won't be discovered by his parents, who share his regard for animals but disapprove of lying and secrecy. Dale Rosenbloom's family film takes a sophisticated view of the moral issues it raises, recognizing that "doing the right thing" is difficult when you're caught between two right things to do. Blake Heron, Scott Wilson, Michael Moriarty, Ann Dowd, Bonnie Bartlett, and Rod Steiger head the cast. Based on the award-winning children's book by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. V

WARRIORS OF VIRTUE (PG)

* Taunted by bullies, a boy is magically transported to a faraway realm where good and evil are locked in a deadly battle that could be decided by knowledge contained in a mysterious book. The action is colorful but extremely violent, and the screenplay steals so much from earlier movies that Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi should sue for royalties. Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Ronny Yu. V P

Currently in Release

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.

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

*** Great costumes, authentic period piece, opulent.

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.

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. 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 nonstop 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.

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

* Boring, not funny, ridiculous.

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.

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. 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

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

*** Worthwhile, fast-paced, good plot twists.

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

** Powerful, inspiring, overwrought.

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. 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.

VOLCANO (PG-13)

** Tommy Lee Jones saves the day when lava starts flowing in Los Angeles. Nipping at the heels of the less-exciting "Dante's Peak," this disaster film has action from the get-go; but its awesome special effects hide a laughably corny plot, and for a picture about terror from the depths, its characters are ridiculously shallow. Mick Jackson directed. V P By Chas Sabatine

** Tense, terrifying, destructive.

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