The Monitor Movie Guide

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Reviews in this weekly guide are written by Monitor critic David Sterritt (the first set of '+' marks in each review) unless otherwise noted. Ratings and comments by the Monitor staff panel (the second set of '+' marks in each review) reflect the sometimes diverse views of at least three other viewers. Information on violence, drugs, sex/nudity, and profanity is compiled by the panel.

++++ Excellent

+++1/2 Very Good

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

+++ Good

++ 1/2 Average

++ Fair

+1/2 Poor

+ Worst

New Releases

CHARACTER (NOT RATED)

Director: Mike van Diem. With Jan Decleir, Fedja van Hut, Betty Schuurman. (117 min.)

+++ Winner of the Oscar as best foreign-language film, this Dutch drama focuses on a young man struggling for personal and professional success in Rotterdam of the 1920s while waging an emotional war against his distant, domineering father. The movie steers a steady course between realistic drama and Kafkaesque delirium, handling both skillfully.

JAMES ELLROY: DEMON DOG OF AMERICAN CRIME FICTION (NOT RATED)

Director: Reinhard Jud. With James Ellroy, Phil Tintner. (90 min.)

+++ Energetic documentary about the popular author of "L.A. Confidential" and other books. He talks with the pungent, punchy tone that surges through scruffy novels like "Because the Night" and "Killer on the Road," but his monologues reveal much about contemporary American life. Contains explicit views of real-life crime.

GENEALOGIES OF A CRIME (NOT RATED)

Director: Raoul Ruiz. With Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, Melvil Poupaud. (113 min.)

+++ Fact-based tale of a turn-of-the-century psychologist, her violent young nephew, and a lawyer who defends the boy when he grows up. French superstars Deneuve and Piccoli give delicious performances in this eccentric drama, which regains much of the humor that Ruiz's movies have sidestepped in recent years.

GREASE (PG)

Director: Randal Kleiser. With John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing. (110 min)

++ Twentieth-anniversary reissue of the popular but utterly unmemorable musical about teenage life in the '50s era.

MR. NICE GUY (PG-13)

Director: Sammo Hung. With Jackie Chan, Richard Norton, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick, Miki Lee, Karen McLymont (113 min.)

+++ Jackie Chan is more Fred Astaire than Bruce Lee; his dance-like combat and goofy humor make this film entertaining. A minimal plot involving stolen cocaine is the excuse for nonstop chase sequences, paced like a Road Runner cartoon choreographed by Twyla Tharp. An overblown ending is the only real downside. By James Turner

Sex/Nudity: Accidental breast grope. Violence: Long chase and fighting scenes; some cartoon-like violence. Profanity: Minimal Drugs: Social drinking.

THE NEWTON BOYS (PG-13)

Director: Richard Linklater. With Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dwight Yoakam. (121 min.)

++ Meandering yarn based on the real-life exploits of a gang that robbed an enormous number of banks between 1919 and 1924. The cast is full of likable faces, but the story rings few interesting changes on its familiar genre.

A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES (R)

Director: Boaz Yakin. With Rene Zellweger, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn Fitzgerald, Allen Payne, Julianna Margulies. (120 min.)

++ An orthodox Jewish woman comes into conflict with her devout husband by longing for more independence than their highly traditional community is prepared to allow. The drama etches an intermittently sharp portrait of a subculture caught between a rich religious legacy and a changing contemporary world, but it's marred by digressions and touches of unneeded sensationalism.

THE PROPOSITION (R)

Director: Lesli Linka Glatter. With Kenneth Branagh, Madeleine Stowe, William Hurt. (114 min.)

++ In upper-crust Boston of the 1930s, an infertile husband hires a young man to impregnate his wife, a successful author who's convinced this arrangement will deepen rather than damage their happy marriage. Narrated by a Roman Catholic priest with his own ethical dilemmas to face, the movie treats moral issues with welcome seriousness until it bogs down in melodrama and emotionalism in the second half.

PUBLIC HOUSING (NOT RATED)

Director: Frederick Wiseman. With residents of the Ida B. Wells housing development in Chicago. (195 min.)

++++ One of documentary film's greatest giants turns his lens on the many troubles and occasional triumphs of the poor folks inhabiting a well-known housing project. The results are riveting, startling, compassionate, indelible.

THE SADNESS OF SEX (NOT RATED)

Director: Rupert Wainwright. With Barry Yourgrau, Richard Bulley, Eugene Oleksiuk, Barbara Baumann, Fielding Horan, Buddy Brennan. (96 min.)

+ Yourgrau is a rising young writer, but his onstage storytelling about life and love isn't enough to sustain this feature-length movie, despite the music and animation that embellish his monologues.

WILD THINGS (R)

Director: James McNaughton. With Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon, Bill Murray, Daphne Rubin Vega, Theresa Russell, Robert Wagner. (113 min.)

++ Little is what it seems in this tricky thriller about a Florida guidance counselor charged with raping the daughter of a former girlfriend. Contains extremely graphic sex and many twists that are unpredictable but not very compelling.

Sex/Nudity: Sex is central theme in this movie. Scenes include full-frontal male nudity and several sex scenes with nudity. Violence: Graphic violence, including several fights and shootings. Profanity: Excessive profanity. Drugs: Five scenes of high school drinking and drug use.

++ Steamy, predictable, unusual.

Currently in Release

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (R)

Director: Joel Coen. With Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro. (117 min.)

+++ Hired to deliver a ransom in a kidnapping scheme, two bowling-league buddies decide to abscond with the money themselves, landing themselves in a heap of complicated trouble. There are many delirious laughs in the Coen brothers' sprawling crime-comedy, but the heroes - a dope-smoking relic of the '60s and a gun-toting Vietnam vet - aren't exactly role models, and beware of some outbursts of violence and other scruffy material.

+++1/2 Hilarious, quirky, colorful.

Sex/Nudity: Brief nudity. Violence: Fistfighting with some biting. Profanity: Many expletives, including one four-letter obscenity repeated more than 100 times. Drugs: Constant drinking and smoking marijuana.

EVEREST (IMAX, NOT RATED)

Director: David Breashears. With Robert Schauer, Araceli Segarra, Ed Viesturs, Sumiyo Tsuzuki. (50 min.)

++++ "Just plain breathtaking." That's how an adviser to the producers of "Everest" accurately describes the 80-foot-IMAX screen movie portraying a 1996 climb up the world's tallest peak. The story is told through the personal lives of the climbers, and though the dangers are made clear, the film doesn't become gruesome. Much is made of the task of lugging a 42-pound IMAX camera up the 29,028-foot peak. It provides panoramic views of dramatic beauty, as well as a sampling of the grueling step-by-step climb. Some of the more dramatic shots are taken the easy way - from a helicopter. By David Francis

FIREWORKS (HANA-BI) (NOT RATED)

Director: Takeshi Kitano. With "Beat" Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi. (103 min.)

+++ Kitano is a hugely popular Japanese comedy star, but his numerous movies have tended more toward action and dramatic themes. In this prizewinning drama, he plays a well-meaning but impulsively violent policeman who tries to retreat from his dangerous urban environment with his seriously ill wife. Although it doesn't always live up to its ambitions, the film provides an offbeat portrait of universally relevant human issues.

LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (PG-13)

Director: Richard Kwietniowski. With John Hurt, Jason Priestley, Fiona Loewi, Sheila Hancock. (93 min.)

++++ An aging widower strays into the wrong movie at a multiplex, becomes transfixed by the youthful charm of a third-rate actor (Jason Priestley) he sees, and makes a pilgrimage from London to Long Island, New York, in hope of meeting the object of his dreams. Hurt gives an astonishingly sensitive and funny performance as the bedazzled intellectual, and first-time filmmaker Kwietniowski unfolds the story with an unfailing blend of humor and compassion.

++1/2 Funny, uneven, homosexual overtones.

Sex/Nudity: Implied, not shown. Violence: None. Profanity: None. Drugs: Brief drinking.

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (PG-13)

Director: Randall Wallace. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gabriel Byrne. (132 min.)

+++1/2 Musketeer revolutionaries in 1662 Paris plot to replace an arrogant king with his forgotten twin brother, who was condemned to life in an iron mask. Chivalry and camaraderie are dominating themes in this powerful, exciting drama. Although DiCaprio is effective as both brothers, the superb supporting cast lends the story's most touching moments. By Mariah Gardner

+++ Lively, stylish, great story line.

VSex/Nudity: The king beds female subjects; one scene with male nudity (from the rear). Violence: Swordplay and musketry, but with little gore. Profanity: Two mildly crude expressions. Drugs: Four scenes involving alcohol.

MEAN STREETS (R)

Director: Martin Scorsese. With Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Amy Robinson, David Carradine. (110 min.)

++++ Revival of the scruffy but indelible 1973 portrait of small-time Manhattan hoods that launched Scorsese's career as the most important American filmmaker of our time. The acting and filmmaking are often brilliant, but beware of a great deal of unabashed violence and vulgarity.

MRS. DALLOWAY (PG-13)

Director: Marleen Gorris. With Vanessa Redgrave, Rupert Graves, Michael Kitchen, Alan Cox. (97 min.)

+++ A few years after World War I, a well-heeled London woman prepares for a party she's giving, encounters a long-ago suitor who's returned from India, and hears of a tragedy affecting a shellshocked veteran whose image has been haunting her. Redgrave is almost too radiant as the title character of Virginia Woolf's virtuosically written novel.

+++1/2 Charming, engaging, insightful.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Only implied - man commits suicide by jumping out of a window. Profanity: None. Drugs: Social drinking.

PRIMARY COLORS (R)

Director: Mike Nichols. With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates. (140 min.)

+++ Smart, colorful adaptation of the 1996 novel about a Southern governor whose presidential campaign is dogged by one sexual rumor, allegation, and scandal after another. Travolta and Thompson are excellent as the candidate and his wife; Lester makes a sensational debut as an African-American aide; and Elaine May's screenplay paints a vivid portrait of the hero who's also an utterly sincere "people person" determined to help the little folks ignored by business-as-usual politicians.

+++ Thought-provoking, well-acted, too long.

Sex/Nudity: No nudity, but there are sex jokes, one brief lesbian kiss, and it's implied that the main character sleeps around. Violence: One suicide and a couple of slaps on the face. Profanity: More than 60 expletives. Drugs: Some social drinking .

TITANIC (PG-13)

Director: James Cameron. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Bill Paxton, Kathy Bates. (197 min.)

+++ 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.

++++ Awesome epic, riveting, tragic.

Sex/Nudity: Brief, fairly explicit sex. Nude woman sketched by artist. Violence: One suicide. Suffering, fighting as ship sinks; gunfire wounds two people. Profanity: Several dozen four-letter words. Drugs: Frequent scenes (27) of drinking and/or smoking.

TWILIGHT (R)

Director: Robert Benton. With Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing. (96 min.)

+++ An aging private eye investigates a long-ago murder case that may involve two of his longtime friends, including an ailing millionaire who has virtually taken him into his family. The vintage detective-movie plot takes on extra interest from Benton's visual style, tinged with sad nostalgia for the vanished past, and from superb acting by a uniformly excellent cast.

++1/2 Well-acted, engrossing, suspenseful.

Sex/Nudity: A bedroom after-sex scene. Violence: Several bloody murders using handguns. Profanity: Frequent use of profanity. Drugs: A half-dozen scenes involving cigarettes and alcohol.

Out On Video

(In stores March 31)

BEAN (PG-13)

(Comedy)

+++ Director: Mel Smith. With Rowan Atkinson, John Mills, Peter Capaldi, June Brown, Peter Egan, Burt Reynolds. (90 min.)

+ Juvenile, vulgar, moronic.

FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (PG)

(Drama)

+++ Director: Charles Sturridge. With Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl II, Paul McGann, Phoebe Nicholls. (99 min.)

+++ Heartwarming, intricate, marvelous fairy effects.

MORTAL COMBAT: ANNIHILATION (PG-13)

(Action/Adventure)

Director: John R. Leonetti. With Robin Shou, Talisa Soto, James Remar, Sandra Hess. (91 min.)

U-TURN (R)

(Drama)

++ Director: Oliver Stone. With Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight. (125 min.)

+ Perversely pessimistic, grossly violent, horrifying.

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