Freeze Frames: The Monitor Movie Guide

Movies containing violence (V), sexual situations (S), nudity (N), and profanity (P) are noted. Ratings and comments by the panel (end of review) reflect the sometimes diverse views of at least three other viewers. Look for more guidance in our full reviews

o Forget It

+ Poor

++ Fair

+++ Good

++++ Excellent

New Releases

CONTACT (PG)

+++ Slowly paced science-fiction drama about an idealistic astronomer who detects a message from outer space with blueprints for a one-person spacecraft, and eventually sets out on a voyage guided by some superior intelligence. Meanwhile, an offbeat theologian becomes her lover, and they have an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between science and religion. Jodie Foster is excellent as the astronomer, and the screenplay (based on a Carl Sagan novel) is more thoughtful than most. But its discussions don't go very deep, and moviegoers with strong religious values may wonder why it ultimately comes down for humanism over spirituality. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. S V P

++++ Intelligent, smartly directed, exhilarating.

FOUR LITTLE GIRLS (Not rated)

++++ Spike Lee's nonfiction account of a racially motivated 1963 bombing that killed four African-American girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church. The film's approach is highly instructive, deeply moving, and geared to deploring the racism that breeds violence rather than reactivating old hatreds. V

George of the Jungle

++ Pesky poachers and talking monkeys romp through this jungle romance between a fainting heiress, played by Leslie Mann, and the title character (Brendan Fraser). The plot can be guessed within the first three minutes, and the humor is uncreative and often crude. The heroine, however, is endearing in her quirkiness. Alcohol is imbibed by jungle beasts as well as people, and there are some violent, though cartoonlike, fight scenes. V By Laura Lipscomb

MRS. BROWN (PG)

+++ Judi Dench gives a rich and riveting performance as Queen Victoria in this colorful drama about the aging monarch's loving friendship with a feisty Scot horseman. Billy Connolly is equally good as the unconventional companion, and filmmaker John Madden keeps the action moving at a rattling good clip. V P

NOTHING TO LOSE (R)

++ Convinced that his wife and boss are both cheating on him, a white yuppie burns all his bridges and embarks on a life of crime with a black holdup artist. Steve Oedekerk's dark comedy swings between the genuinely amusing and the simply silly, but the acting by Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence is often uproarious. S V P

OPERATION CONDOR (PG-13)

++ "Raiders of the Lost Ark" meets "Police Squad" as action star Jackie Chan tracks down a treasure left over from World War II, dogged by sinister villains and sidetracked by spectacular stunts every step of the way. The adventure is perky and colorful, but takes an unfortunate pleasure in ethnic stereotypes and violence aimed at women. Chan directed. Contains sexual innuendo and nudity. V N

A SIMPLE WISH (PG)

+ A little girl asks her "male fairy godmother" to help her father win a part in a Broadway play, and gets mixed up with wicked witches and other strange folks. The story is too trifling and uneven to be salvaged by occasional funny gags and likable performances from Martin Short and Mara Wilson. Michael Ritchie, once the razor-sharp satirist of "Smile" and "Semi-Tough," directed. V

THIS WORLD, THEN THE FIREWORKS (R)

+ Already engaged in an incestuous relationship, a brother and sister get involved in other illegal activities aimed at improving their position in life. Based on a story by hard-boiled crime specialist Jim Thompson, the movie is long on flashiness and perilously short on substance. Billy Zane, Gina Gershon, and Rue McClanahan star. Michael Oblowitz directed. S N V P

Currently in Release

BATMAN & ROBIN (PG-13)

++ The superheroes battle coldhearted Mr. Freeze and venomous Poison Ivy, with help from Batgirl and the high-tech toys dangling from their overloaded utility belts. George Clooney looks great in a cape, but this fourth installment in the series has invested so much capital in razzle-dazzle special effects that it hardly matters whose head is under the pointy-eared helmet. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Chris O'Donnell, and Alicia Silverstone join in the movie's video-game spirit. Joel Schumacher directed. Contains a great deal of action-movie violence. V

++ Shallow, good costumes; the plot put me to sleep.

BLISS (R)

+ A controversial sex therapist helps a young married couple find relief from maladjustment and repressed memories of an abused childhood. Lance Young's drama takes a compassionate approach to troubling problems that have received needed attention in recent years, but the movie is so superficially written and directed that much of it plays like a commercial for trendy psychobabble. Terence Stamp brings a certain conviction to the therapist character, and Sheryl Lee gives her strongest performance to date as the inwardly tormented wife. Contains a great deal of very explicit sex. S N P V

CON AIR (R)

+ A decent-hearted inmate headed for parole finds himself stuck on a plane taken over by evil, violent criminals on their way to a new maximum-security prison. The movie sends two mean-spirited messages. One is that bad criminals are no better than animals and should be treated accordingly. The other is that hatred, mayhem, and destruction are rip-roaring ingredients for summer entertainment. Simon West directed the action-glutted story. Nicolas Cage, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi are among the few performers who emerge with a shred of dignity at the end. P V

++ Absurd, simplistic, embarrassingly bad.

CONTEMPT (Not rated)

++++ Reissue of Jean-Luc Godard's legendary 1963 drama about a French screenwriter who takes a job adapting "The Odyssey" for a crass Hollywood producer, then loses the respect of his wife, who feels he has lowered his standards of loyalty and integrity. Godard's exquisitely graceful style is enhanced by expressive performances from Michel Piccoli as the writer, Brigitte Bardot as his spouse, Jack Palance as the producer, and the great German director Fritz Lang as himself. Contains some nudity. N V

DREAM WITH THE FISHES (R)

+ Very dark comedy-drama about two young men, one fatally ill and the other suicidally depressed, who become friends and have various rowdy adventures. Parts of the movie focusing on drugs and wanderlust seem like throwbacks to the '60s, but most of the story is more self-indulgent than sociological. Written and directed by Finn Taylor. S N V P

FACE/OFF (R)

++ A personally troubled FBI agent (John Travolta) tries to thwart an evil criminal (Nicolas Cage) by assuming his face and identity, and the crook strikes back by assuming the cop's face and identity in return. Action-movie director John Woo has built a thriving career with stories about men who develop complex relationships even though they're on opposite sides of the law. This is the ultimate Woo movie, but while his fans will enjoy every minute, others will find it too long, repetitive, and violent. Gina Gershon and Joan Allen head the supporting cast. V P S

++ Silly, extremely violent, hackneyed.

FOR EVER MOZART (Not rated)

++++ A filmmaker agrees to produce a classic play in Sarajevo, but when the Bosnian war arrives he switches to a movie project that runs into a new set of difficulties. Jean-Luc Godard wrote and directed this French production, which sees war as a symbol of modern greediness and materialism, and cries out for a rebirth of art to heal society by guiding it toward more humane values. The intricate, puzzlelike story contains some violence and sexuality. V P S N

FOR ROSEANNA (PG-13)

+ Roseanna's health is uncertain, and her greatest wish is to be buried with her family in the churchyard of her Italian village. But there's only one vacant plot left, so her loving husband embarks on a campaign to keep everyone else in town alive until she's laid to rest there. Paul Weiland directed this pitch-dark comedy from Saul Turteltaub's screenplay, which is too uneven and contrived to be saved by lively performances from Jean Reno and Mercedes Ruehl. S V P

GABBEH (Not rated)

+++ A gabbeh is an Iranian carpet with symbolic weavings that reflect the lives of its makers. This stunningly beautiful Iranian drama uses a gabbeh to introduce the tale of a young woman who falls in love with a mysterious horseman, then waits for years while her father continually postpones his permission for their marriage. Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the feistiest and most energetic of today's gifted Iranian filmmakers. V

GUANTANAMERA (Not rated)

+++ A funeral procession traveling through the countryside is the background for this dramatic comedy about life, love, and bureaucracy in Cuba today. The story is slight, but the acting has great conviction, and the movie's underlying humanity shines brightly through the sometimes sad or suggestive details. Directed by Juan Carlos Tabio and the late Toms Gutirrez Alea, the most brilliant filmmaker Cuba has yet produced. S N V P

HERCULES (G)

++ After being stolen from his parents as a baby, the superstrong Greek god battles a villain named Hades, discovers his Olympian origins, and finds time to romance a damsel in distress. The cartooning is lively, as always in feature-length animations from the Walt Disney studio, and the voice-performances by James Woods and Danny DeVito are lots of fun. Alan Menken's pop songs are closer to second-rate Motown than the first-rate gospel style they aim for, though, and the filmmakers flatten every element of the story to fit standardized Disney formulas. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Contains scary and violent scenes that may be much too intense for young children. V

+++ Hip, fun, entertaining.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (PG-13)

++ Humans tangle with dinosaurs on a remote island and then in a southern California city. Steven Spielberg's blockbuster whips up superficial sorts of excitement, and unlike the original "Jurassic Park," the picture looks tacky around the edges. Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, and Richard Attenborough head the hard-working cast. Contains action-movie violence that may be too intense for young viewers. V P

+++ Plotless, great special effects, suspenseful.

Love! Valour! Compassion! (R)

+++ This movie version of Terence McNally's Broadway play of the same name successfully unveils the loves, fears, and hopes of a group of gay men over the course of a summer. There are endearing and powerful moments which thankfully overshadow the occasional clichd passages. But the movie contains coarse language, full-frontal male nudity, and homosexual love and sex scenes. S P N V By Jackie Northam

+++ Sentimental, humorous, melancholic.

MEN IN BLACK (PG-13)

+++ You know those people you run across who look, talk, and act like aliens from outer space? They really are aliens from outer space, thinly disguised in human bodies they'll never learn to handle very well. That's the idea behind this hilarious comedy, directed with boisterous wit by Barry Sonnenfeld from Ed Solomon's laugh-a-minute screenplay. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith give uproarious comic performances as government agents ordered to keep New York's monsters in Manhattan, where they'll blend right in with the rest of the confusion. Contains some sexual innuendo and a lot of cartoonish violence in the "Ghostbusters" tradition. V P

+++ Original, clever, witty; strangely comforting and optimistic.

MONDO (Not rated)

+++ As if out of nowhere, a 10-year-old Gypsy shows up on the streets of a Mediterranean city, bringing magic and mystery into the lives of the people he meets until he vanishes as abruptly as he arrived. The slender story is energetically told by director Tony Gatlif, and Ovidiu Balan is very likable as the young hero. V

MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING (PG-13)

+++ When her longtime pal decides to marry someone else, a young woman sets out to snag him for herself. The story is fast and funny, although it takes an unexpectedly dark turn in the second half. Julia Roberts is brighter and spunkier than usual, and Rupert Everett steals the show as the heroine's other best friend, a gay man pretending to be battily in love with her. Directed by P.J. Hogan. P S V

+++ Funny, touching, uplifting.

OUT TO SEA (PG-13)

++ Grumpy old dance instructors. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau play two aging curmudgeons who join a cruise-ship entertainment staff, hoping to sweep rich female passengers right off their feet. The farce has some amusing moments, and the supporting cast includes fine talents like Donald O'Connor, Dyan Cannon, Gloria DeHaven, Hal Linden, Brent Spiner, Rue McClanahan, and Elaine Stritch. Unfortunately, though, crude language and crass attitudes toward women give the glossily produced picture a vulgar undertone that rarely lets up. Directed by Martha Coolidge. P V

+++ Great comical timing, corny, sweet.

THE PILLOW BOOK (Not rated)

++ A young Japanese woman becomes enthralled by the sensual pleasure of having calligraphy written on her skin, and doing the same to other people. Peter Greenaway's unorthodox drama treats the movie screen less as an entertainment device than a postmodern canvas upon which he writes, photographs, and records an intricate multicultural collage. Vivian Wu ("The Last Emperor" and "The Joy Luck Club") stars. Merits four stars for its sumptuous style and originality, but contains explicit sex scenes that will put the film out of bounds for many viewers. S N V P

PONETTE (Not rated)

+++ A four-year-old girl copes with differences between fantasy and reality after her mother is killed in an accident. Jacques Doillon's poignant, precise filmmaking paints a vivid portrait of life as seen through very young eyes, and little Victoire Thivisol gives a remarkable performance in the title role. V

SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (PG-13)

++ A demented computer expert takes control of a luxurious ship, and chaos reigns while a vacationing cop and his feisty fiance try to capture the villain and save the other passengers. It's all idiotic but energetic, directed by Jan De Bont in his usual techno-action style. Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric, and Willem Dafoe star. V P

+ Drawn out, predictable, over-the-top.

TEMPTRESS MOON (R)

+++ Early in this century, a young Chinese boy is tricked into becoming the servant of a decadent family, starting him on a series of intrigues and adventures that go on for many years. Directed by Chen Kaige, celebrated for internationally acclaimed pictures like "Farewell My Concubine" and "Life on a String," the sumptuously filmed drama combines an unpredictable story with lush cinematography by Chris Doyle and lively performances by Chinese superstars Leslie Cheung and Gong Li. S V P

'Til There Was You (Pg-13)

++ Jeanne Tripplehorn plays an attractive lovelorn writer who literally keeps bumping into the handsome architect (Dylan McDermott) she's destined to marry. As McDermott's self-centered, airhead girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker pumps life into the good-hearted, sometimes funny but often plodding plot. S By Jean Hacklander

++ Funny, light, romantic.

ULEE'S GOLD (R)

+++ A reclusive Florida beekeeper must come to terms with the real world when his household is threatened by thugs demanding money that his misguided son stashed away before going to jail. Victor Nunez's family drama benefits greatly from Peter Fonda's best performance in years, and also from Virgil Mirano's superbly atmospheric camera work. Contains some violence, raunchy dialogue, and drug-related scenes. V P S

+++ Engaging, quietly suspenseful, realistic.

UNDERGROUND (Not rated)

+++ A family hides away when war breaks out in Yugoslavia, and every time one of the clan surfaces, a new set of insanities seems to have erupted in the land. Emir Kusterica's pitch-dark comedy is energetic, colorful, and ambitious. It's also repetitious and much too long for what it has to say. S V P N

WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY (Not rated)

+++ Looking for her runaway cat, a shy young woman ventures into Paris and starts developing the first real relationships she's ever allowed herself to have. Cdric Klapisch directed this small, smart, amiable French comedy. S P V

++ Slow, self-indulgent, creative.

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