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

CAREER GIRLS (R)

+++ Two women get together for the first time since they graduated from college six years earlier, and spend a weekend in London, where they run into various old acquaintances. Mike Leigh's dark comedy features strong acting by Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman and paints a vivid portrait of working women in London today. The plot meanders out of control, though, almost getting lost in a string of coincidences so odd that even the characters start wondering what's going on. P S

CONSPIRACY THEORY (R)

+++ Convinced that modern America is crawling with conspiracies, an eccentric taxi driver teams with a government official to fight some very real enemies who want to kill him. Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts contribute major star power to the uneven tale, but it never becomes as convincing as a real conspiracy theory should. Contains some very nasty violence. V P

+++ Fast-paced, intriguing, predictable.

COP LAND (R)

+++ The setting is a town across the river from Manhattan, where police officers raise their kids away from big-city hazards. Sylvester Stallone plays the local sheriff, a melancholy loser who gradually realizes that his neighbors are up to their badges in conspiracy and corruption. James Mangold follows up the promise of his excellent "Heavy" with this smartly written, superbly acted melodrama. Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta round out the cast. Contains hard-hitting violence and much foul language. V P N

EVENT HORIZON (R)

++ Astronauts explore a spooky rocketship that entered a terrifying new dimension by "folding space" with a portable black hole. The settings and visual effects are imaginatively done, but the dialogue is silly and the plot is a mish-mash, with echoes of everything from the "Aliens" movies to Michael Crichton's novel "Sphere," which pushes similar buttons a little more intelligently. Laurence Fishburne and Kathleen Quinlan head the cast. Paul Anderson directed. Contains violence, nudity, and much vulgar language. V N P

FREE WILLY 3: THE RESCUE (PG)

++ A slow beginning eventually leads to a collision between a whaling crew operating illegally and a group of whale protectors. Their clashing viewpoints are dramatized by the whaling captain's young son, who turns against his family's commercial whaling tradition. Willy is there, too, defeating his enemies through love. Despite its plodding pace, some will appreciate this film's beauty and sentiment. V By Tom Dillin

+++ Scenic, captivating, loving.

HAMSUN (Not rated)

+++ Max von Sydow plays Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature and then became a Nazi sympathizer, based on misguided notions of what Hitler's evil empire was all about. The real Hamsun was a gifted author who knew how to chronicle the lives of flesh-and-blood characters in clear, vigorous prose. The movie gives some insight into how his politics could stray so outrageously, but it would be more compelling if Swedish director Jan Troell approached the high level of Hamsun's own artistic imagination. V P

MON HOMME (Not rated)

++ The emotionally complex story of a prostitute and a homeless man who becomes her lover, procurer, and abuser. Expressively acted, and directed with strong visual imagination by French filmmaker Bertrand Blier, although he still hasn't exorcised the male-chauvinist leanings that mar many of his pictures. Contains very explicit sex, in keeping with its candid story. S N V P

PAPERBACK ROMANCE (R)

+++ The heroine is a disabled woman who writes lurid novels for a living; her new boyfriend is a jewel dealer whose business connections are suspiciously vague. Delicious acting by Gia Carides and Anthony LaPaglia is the strongest suit of this bright-eyed Australian comedy, which is marred by some over-the-top physical gags and surprisingly explicit sex scenes that seem out of sync with the rest of the picture. S N V P

SPAWN (PG-13)

++ A murdered government agent agrees to help the forces of darkness so he can return to the world and see his family again, sparking a huge battle of good against evil. The adventure is impossibly vulgar and violent, although the special effects are impressive, and John Leguizamo plays a clownlike villain with an astonishing energy that recalls the late John Belushi at times. Michael Jai White, Martin Sheen, and the great Nicol Williamson round out the cast. Directed by Mark A.Z. Dipp. V P S N

o Brooding, sophomoric, scatological.

Currently in Release

AIR BUD (PG)

++ Amiable family comedy about a lonely boy, an unlovable clown played by Michael Jeter, and a basketball-shooting dog played by the year's most photogenic golden retriever. Wholesome fun, although several scenes longer than it needs to be. Directed by Charles Martin Smith.

AIR FORCE ONE (R)

++ Terrorists hijack the president's plane, threatening to kill hostages until a tyrant is released in the former Soviet Union, and everyone pitches in to beat the villains and preserve American honor. There's plenty of action, and Harrison Ford certainly puts the chief back in chief executive. But the movie wastes a good opportunity to look at important questions, such as who's responsible for American policy when the president is busy killing terrorists. Glenn Close is good as the vice president (!) and Gary Oldman is better as the head bad guy. V P

++ Fast-paced, silly, flawed.

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 is more thoughtful than most. But its discussions don't go very deep, and moviegoers with strong religious values may wonder why it comes down for humanism over spirituality. S V P

++++ Intelligent, smartly directed, exhilarating.

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. N V

FACE/OFF (R)

++ A personally troubled FBI agent (John Travolta) tries to thwart an evil criminal (Nicolas Cage) by assuming his face and identity. 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 violence and sexuality. V P S N

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

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 most energetic of today's Iranian filmmakers. V

++ Exotic, educational, colorful.

George of the Jungle (PG)

++ 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 is predictable, 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

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 produced. S N V P

+++ Insightful, clever, amusing.

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.

IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (R)

++ Smarting from romantic humiliations, two insensitive yuppies decide to woo a vulnerable woman by flattering and pampering her, then dump her as revenge on her entire gender. Although the plot is as repulsive as its main characters, the movie is far from gratuitous in its scathing portrayal of me-generation selfishness and insensitivity. Written and directed by newcomer Neil LaBute. P V S

++ Provocative, compelling, disturbing.

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. 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 cartoonish violence in the "Ghostbusters" tradition. V P

+++ Original, clever, witty.

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 Scots 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

+++ Poignant, witty, historically illuminating.

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 in love with her. P S V

+++ Funny, touching, uplifting.

NOTHING TO LOSE (R)

++ Convinced that his wife and boss are both cheating on him, a white yuppie burns 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

++ Sophomoric, lighthearted, unrealistic.

ONE EIGHT SEVEN (R)

++ Samuel L. Jackson plays a science teacher faced with the challenge of bringing civilized values to indifferent and sometimes dangerous troublemakers in an inner-city high school. Kevin Reynolds's drama has plenty of energy and hard-hitting power. But its melodramatic elements - including sympathy for vigilante violence - are so overdone that one suspects the filmmakers care less about outlining a social problem than stirring up the audience's vengeful instincts. A more responsible treatment would turn its focus from individual heroics to explanations of how the educational system reached this deplorable condition, and how political action might change it for the better. V P N S

++ Depressing, eye-opening, a little slow.

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

+++ Tiring, amazing stunts, good action.

PICTURE PERFECT (PG-13)

+++ Jennifer Aniston plays a young advertising exec who must prove to her boss that she is a stable and dedicated worker, so she turns a near stranger (Jay Mohr) into her fianc. In the process, she attracts a co-worker (Kevin Bacon) who only likes unavailable women. V S P By Lisa Leigh Parney

+++ Romantic, lighthearted, funny.

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. 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

++ Erotic, bizarre, visually stunning.

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; little Victoire Thivisol gives a remarkable performance in the title role. V

SHall we dance? (PG)

+++ A Japanese businessman takes a departure from his routine and enters a ballroom-dance class, his interest initially piqued by an attractive instructor. His wife encourages him to pursue a new activity but suspects him of infidelity and hires a detective. Viewers are led into a revealing glimpse of the ballroom-dance competition circuit as well as Japanese society in the 1990s. P By Leigh Montgomery

+++ Powerful, touching, exquisite.

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. 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

+++ Captivating, mysterious, gorgeous cinematography.

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