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

AMISTAD (R)

++ A group of abducted Africans mutiny against the slave traders shipping them into bondage, wind up in a Connecticut jail, and fight for freedom with help from a black abolitionist and a former president. Steven Spielberg's historical drama is more stilted and didactic than its fascinating subject deserves, gathering great emotional force only in a harrowing scene depicting the Holocaust-like suffering of slave-ship captives. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, and Djimon Hounsou. V S N P

+++ Gripping, moving, powerful.

THE APOSTLE (Not rated)

++++ Robert Duvall wrote, directed, and stars in this riveting tale of a religiously devout but humanly flawed preacher, who flees from Texas to Louisiana after a violent incident sparked by his wife's infidelity and another minister's move to oust him from his church. Avoiding the clichs and condescension that characterize many films on religious figures, the movie is at once a compelling drama and a thoughtful look at faith-related issues on personal, social, and cultural levels. V P

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (R)

++ A writer flip-flops between reality and illusion on a complicated day when his former wife won't let him take their son to a college ceremony in his honor. Woody Allen wrote and directed this inventive comedy, which has some good laughs but a very nasty edge. Allen also heads the wonderful cast including Judy Davis, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Julie Kavner, Billy Crystal, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Elisabeth Shue, and Stanley Tucci. Contains brief but graphic sex and explosively foul language. S N P V

GOOD WILL HUNTING (R)

++ A brilliant but aimless young man develops a complex relationship with a psychotherapist who's never gotten over his wife's untimely death. Matt Damon and Robin Williams give touching performances, but Gus Van Sant's filmmaking is surprisingly ordinary. Although he dedicates the picture to the memories of Beat Generation authors Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, it's hard to think of a movie that's less true to their anarchic spirits. P S V

HUGO POOL (R)

+ A friendly swimming-pool cleaner copes with her eccentric friends and relatives while falling in love with a disabled young man. Offbeat filmmaker Robert Downey sidesteps his usual hipster impulses to tell a relatively conventional tale, but the results are drab and unconvincing. Alyssa Milano heads an interesting cast including Sean Penn, Malcolm McDowell, Cathy Moriarty, and Robert Downey Jr. S N V P

KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER (Not rated)

++ A 14th-century Norwegian girl leaves her troubled family for a convent, then falls in love with a knight who tempts her away from the quiet life she longs for. Norwegian star Liv Ullmann directed this slowly paced saga, which never builds much dramatic impact despite earnest performances and appealing cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist. V S

LA RENCONTRE (Not rated)

+++ This unique work by the respected French director Alain Cavalier chronicles a couple's loving relationship through a series of shots depicting the most common objects in their lives, accompanied by a running commentary from the lovers about the memories and experiences summoned up by the images. Photographed with a video camera, the picture makes up in spontaneity and intimacy what it lacks in visual polish and narrative drive. N

Lilies (Not Rated)

+ Artful cinematography offers little relief from a plot saturated with tangled and unhappy relationships, revenge, and murder. Prison inmates stage a play for a bishop coming to hear the confession of a convicted murderer. The play serves as confessor with some morbid and imaginative twists - all based on a homosexual relationship. Contains an erotic, nude homosexual scene and several acts of violence and murder. P V S N By Debra Jones

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (Not rated)

+++ Reissue of Jean Eustache's ambitious and influential 1973 drama. It probes the attitudes of French men and women toward love, sex, and promiscuity through the story of a self-centered intellectual who strays from his middle-class girlfriend to pursue a nurse with unconventional ideas about relationships. Jean-Pierre Leaud gives one of the most memorable performances in his remarkable career. S N P

OFFICE KILLER (Not rated)

++ A lonely office worker loses what little sanity she ever had and starts populating her home with the bodies of murdered colleagues. Cindy Sherman's first film explores the issues of illusion, artifice, and social conditioning that inform her deservedly acclaimed work as a photographer, but she hasn't yet mastered the visual and rhythmic challenges that make cinema a very different art form. Carol Kane and Jean Tripplehorn star. V P

SCREAM 2 (R)

++ "What's your favorite scary movie?" Evidently, it was last year's sleeper hit "Scream," which pulled in more than $100 million. So it's not surprising that screenwriter Kevin Williamson cranked out another script just in time for the holidays. It's two years later on a college campus, and tabloid television reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) has written a book ("Stab") about the events in the first film. Williamson doesn't give many clues as to who the new murderer is, so he keeps you guessing until the very end. There are multiple murders and two gory scenes, but if you love getting scared, then you'll enjoy this thrill ride. Neve Campbell, Jada Pinkett, and Laurie Metcalf also star. Directed by Wes Craven. V P S By Lisa Leigh Parney

++ Frightening, exhilarating, clever.

TITANIC (PG-13)

+++ The great ship's legendary voyage, as recalled by an elderly woman who fell in love with a young scamp and rejected her pompous fianc in the hours before the awful iceberg struck. The first half drags a bit, but the adventure scenes are exciting and the visual effects are as dazzling as Hollywood's most advanced technology can make them. Focusing as much on time and memory as on danger and disaster, it's an epic with a heart. James Cameron directed his own screenplay. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are the likable stars. S N V P

TOMORROW NEVER DIES (PG-13)

++ James Bond chases a megalomanical media mogul with help from a Chinese sidekick, lots of high-tech gadgets, and a screenplay that allows him to fend off all-but-certain death without so much as mussing his hair. Pierce Brosnan wisecracks his way through the starring role with more aplomb than credibility. Michelle Yeoh and Judi Dench shore up the supporting cast. Roger Spottiswoode directed. V S P

WILL IT SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS? (Not rated)

+++ At once deeply touching and surprisingly unsentimental, this no-frills French drama portrays a hard-working Frenchwoman who runs a good-sized farm with help from her seven illegitimate children and occasional visits from their father; he lives elsewhere with his wife and regards this home-away-from-home as more of a management chore than a full-fledged family. Written and directed with skill and sincerity by Sandrine Veysset, a hugely talented newcomer. P

Currently in Release

ALIEN RESURRECTION (R)

++ Deep in outer space, a woman, an android, and various smugglers and scientists battle terrifying monsters unwittingly spawned from the woman's own body. Heavy on violence and special effects, light on everything else. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who recaptures the surreal look of Jeunet & Caro movies like "The City of Lost Children" for a little while, then submits to the demands of the hugely profitable "Alien" franchise. Series regular Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder head the hard-working cast. V P N

+ Overdone, gross, gooey.

ANASTASIA (G)

+++ A young princess escapes death in the Russian Revolution, grows up in an orphanage without knowing her royal origin, then meets a con artist who enlists her to impersonate herself so he can collect a big reward. This lavishly produced animation makes imaginative use of familiar formulas, filling the screen with handsome images accompanied by sprightly songs and lively voice-performances from Meg Ryan as the heroine, John Cusack as her shady friend, Christopher Lloyd as the demonic Rasputin, and Angela Lansbury as a royal grandmother who's seen so many false Anastasias she can't bear the thought of another. Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Contains scenes of violence and menace that may be too intense for very young viewers. V

+++ Captivating, clever, lovely animation.

BANG (Not rated)

+ After a jolting encounter with a male-chauvinist movie producer, an Asian-American actress steals a police officer's uniform and cruises Los Angeles looking for ways to exercise the temporary power it gives her. Written and directed by a filmmaker called Ash, the picture is more excitable than coherent but generates fleeting power in some scenes. V P S N

BUGIS STREET: THE MOVIE (Not rated)

+ A teenage girl takes a job in a Singapore brothel populated by transvestites. The picture is clumsily written and directed, but it pokes interesting holes in Singapore's image as a highly controlled and moralistic city. Directed by the Taiwanese filmmaker Yonfan. S N V P

A COUCH IN NEW YORK (Not rated)

++ William Hurt and Juliette Binoche play a Manhattan psychoanalyst and a Parisian gadabout who swap apartments, then get involved in each other's lives. The story is a trifle and the comic rhythms are skewed, but Belgian director Chantal Akerman provides some glowing images along the way. A minor work by a major filmmaker. P

FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (PG)

+++ Two girls snap a photo of fairies in their family's English garden, sparking different responses from interested parties, including the author Arthur Conan Doyle, who believes in supernatural beings, and the magician Harry Houdini, who takes a skeptical view of such matters. Charles Sturridge's fantasy is slow and complicated for very young viewers, but others will enjoy its wholesome story and detailed depiction of the World War I era, not to mention the fairyland scenes, which are truly magical.

+++ Heartwarming, intricate, marvelous fairy effects.

FLUBBER (PG)

++ Disney's popular comedy "The Absent-Minded Professor" rides again in this remake, centering on a charmingly mad scientist who invents a green goo with antigravity powers and uses it to win a basketball game, save his college from bankruptcy, and regain his exasperated fiance. Robin Williams is no Fred MacMurray, but he plays the hero with his customary energy. Les Mayfield directed. V

+++ Imaginative, goofy, energetic.

THE LITTLE MERMAID (G)

+++ Reissue of the Walt Disney Studio's popular 1989 animation about an independent-minded young mermaid who bargains with a witch to venture on land and woo a prince, hoping eventually to become a full-fledged human. Great fun, especially when the music takes a calypso turn during an undersea song-and-dance number. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. Voices include Jodi Benson, Rene Auberjonois, Pat Carroll, and Buddy Hackett. V

++++ Funny, well-animated, bubbly.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (R)

+++ A young New York journalist visits a Southern city to cover a social event, becoming acquainted with offbeat residents including a transvestite, a voodoo practitioner, and a businessman whose after-hours activities lead to a dramatic murder trial. Kevin Spacey gives a richly nuanced performance as the accused killer, and director Clint Eastwood makes the sometimes sordid story less sensationalistic than it might have seemed in less accomplished hands. John Lee Hancock's screenplay tends to ramble, though, even as it reduces the complexity and ambiguity of John Berendt's nonfiction novel. Contains foul language and frank discussion of sexual matters. V P

+++ Fascinating, lush, authentic Southern flavor.

THE RAINMAKER (PG-13)

+++ A novice Tennessee attorney takes on some emotionally charged cases, including a lawsuit against a shady insurance company on behalf of a dying man and his family. Francis Ford Coppola has directed the legal drama with his usual keen attention to atmosphere and texture, although his adaptation of John Grisham's bestselling novel leaves out connective material that would have made the tale smoother and savvier. Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, and Claire Danes head the solid cast. V P

+++ Lively, predictable, entertaining.

THE SWEET HEREAFTER (R)

++++ Traumatized by a recent schoolbus accident, parents in an isolated town debate whether to organize their anger and grief into a lawsuit filed by a visiting attorney, who is grappling with severe family problems of his own. This poetic and compassionate drama by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan combines the intricate structure of his earlier movies with an emotional power that raises his remarkable career to a whole new level. Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, and Maury Chaykin head the fine cast. A subplot dealing with incest treats that difficult subject with exemplary taste and tact. S V P

THE TANGO LESSON (PG)

+++ Playing herself as the main character, writer-director Sally Potter tells the offbeat tale of a filmmaker who's so frustrated by commercial obstacles to her latest project that she strikes up a relationship with a handsome tango teacher, hoping dance and music will turn her imagination in new directions. Potter breaks many rules of mainstream moviemaking, from using subtitles to centering the story on her own less-than-polished performance. The drama is full of surprises, though, including an unpredictable visual style and a refreshing acknowledgment of religion as an important value for the protagonists. S V P

TAR (Not rated)

++ The tangled story of an African-American policewoman and her high school boyfriend, now an outlaw but still dangerously appealing to her. Goetz Grossman's melodrama is unevenly written and directed, but it breaks into thought-provoking territory with its portrait of the divided loyalties felt by a contemporary black woman making her way through a sadly racist society. V P S N

WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (R)

+++ Covering the siege of Sarajevo with other international journalists, a British reporter is shocked to discover that an orphanage is under bombardment, and he decides to take personal responsibility for one child's safety. Mixing a fact-based story with fictional scenes and documentary footage, Michael Winterbottom's drama probes urgent sociopolitical issues with hard-hitting skill. Woody Harrelson, and Marisa Tomei head the cast. V P

THE WINGS OF THE DOVE (R)

+++ Sensitive adaptation of Henry James's melancholy novel about an illicit affair between an upper-class socialite and a middle-class journalist, which seems headed for a dead end until the man agrees to woo a fatally ill heiress whose fortune will solve their social problems after her death. Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roach play the lovers, supported by Alison Elliott, Elizabeth McGovern, and Charlotte Rampling. Thoughtfully directed by Iain Softely from Hossein Amini's screenplay, which reduces James's intricately structured narrative to feature-film scale. Contains an unerotic nude scene that conveys the sad wages of immoral behavior. S N

+++ Passionate, compelling, not quite Henry James's novel.

Z (PG)

+++ Reissue of Costa-Gavras's intelligent 1969 drama about the real-life assassination of a liberal Greek politician in the mid-'60s. It was disguised as an accident but exposed by a magistrate who refuses to toe the government's political line. Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant star. V P

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