The Monitor Movie Guide

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

+++ Good

++ 1/2 Average

++ Fair

+1/2 Poor

+ Worst

New Releases

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (R)

Director: Terry Gilliam. With Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Ellen Barkin, Cameron Diaz, Penn Jillette, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Lyle Lovett. (118 min.)

++ Hyperactive screen version of Hunter S. Thompson's deadpan book about a journalist and an attorney peering through a drug-induced haze at the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Gilliam's visual style has never been more energetic or inventive, and nobody could be attracted to dope after this portrait of drug abuse as a hallucinatory quagmire. But many will be grossed out beyond endurance by the picture's nonstop barrage of explosive excesses.

GODZILLA (PG-13)

Director: Roland Emmerich. With Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitllio, Jean Reno, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria. (139 min.)

+ One gargantuan bad egg and 200 fertile ones. That's what Godzilla lays. The oversized iguana's new look is impressive - pumped, menacing, and nasty as a New York cabbie. But the dialogue is dumb ('zilla has the best lines, "arrrrrggh" and "maaroarrr"), New York is waterlogged, and Godzilla isn't on screen enough. Save your seven bucks and visit the Big Apple's other green giant, Lady Liberty. By John Hoyle

++ Inane, teen-pleaser, overhyped.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Godzilla and family destroy New York amid military assaults, bombings, and several gobbled people. Profanity: 41 obscenities, mostly mild. Drugs: 3 scenes with cigarettes, 1 with liquor.

TOKYO FIST (NOT RATED)

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto. With Shinya Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Koji Tsukamoto. (90 min.)

++ A jealous salesman develops his boxing skills to compete with a prizefighting friend who's captivated his straying girlfriend. There's more punch than depth to this sometimes violent Japanese drama, but it has intensity to spare.

Currently in Release

ARTEMISIA (R)

Director: Agns Merlet. With Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki Manojlovic. (96 min.)

+++ Fact-based story of a Renaissance artist who sparked cultural controversy by breaking a taboo against women painting nude figures, and entered a personal scandal when she became the lover of her highly respected mentor. Merlet's lively style blends painterly images with brisk cinematic movement. Contains extensive nudity and sex.

THE BIG HIT (R)

Director: Che-Kirk Wong. With Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, Christina Applegate. (93 min.)

++ Wahlberg plays a comically polite hit man who finds trouble when coworkers turn against him. Alternating between comedy and violent action, the movie is senseless and often unbelievable. The choreography and special effects are interesting, though. By Mariah Gardner

+ Vulgar, tasteless, funky.

Sex/Nudity: Sexual innuendo, backside nudity. Violence: About 55 instances - shootouts, car crashes, assassinations, explosions, attempted rape, heavy on gore. Profanity: 163 vulgarities and profanities, often harsh. Drugs: 10 scenes with drinking or cigar smoking.

BULWORTH (R)

Director: Warren Beatty. With Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Don Cheadle, Jack Warden, Isaiah Washington, Paul Sorvino. (100 min.)

++ Driven literally nuts by the repetitious drudgery of campaigning, a senator starts speaking his real, irreverent thoughts about class, race, and other sore points of American life. Beatty's political satire is wildly uneven, but a few episodes are witty and trenchant enough to make the broad, hyperactive scenes worth sitting through. Contains a good deal of deliberately offensive language.

++ Ridiculous, liberal, refreshing.

Sex/Nudity: Sexual innuendo, 1 instance of sex. No nudity. Violence: 4 instances - none graphic. Profanity: 168 vulgarities, mostly vile. Drugs: 23 scenes featuring either liquor, cigarettes, marijuana, or cocaine.

CHINESE BOX (R)

Director: Wayne Wang. With Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades. (99 min.)

++ A gravely ill British journalist observes the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule while cultivating complex relationships with two very different Asian women. The screenplay is as ambitious and multilayered as its subject, but filmmaker Wang doesn't achieve either the artful insights of his "Chan Is Missing" or the audience-pleasing drama of "The Joy Luck Club."

Sex/Nudity: Several scenes implying sexual situations, 1 brief scene of topless dancers. Violence: A beating, a suicide, some gore in a butcher's shop. Profanity: 28 obscenities - mostly harsh. Drugs: Characters often drink excessively.

CITY OF ANGELS (PG-13)

Director: Brad Silberling. With Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Dennis Franz. (112 min.)

++ In love with a beautiful heart surgeon, an angel decides to "fall" into mortality so he can experience human love. Many will welcome the movie's interest in spirituality, but some may wonder why it's couched in a celebration of sensual pleasures ranging from sex to cigarette smoking. Based on Wim Wenders's more insightful German film "Wings of Desire."

+++ Life-affirming, thoughtful, pensive.

Sex/Nudity: Fairly explicit sex scene, a sensuous bath scene, and one character is shown nude from behind while running into the ocean. Violence: One mugging scene. Profanity: 13, mostly mild. Drugs: 6 instances of smoking, drinking.

DEEP IMPACT (PG-13)

Director: Mimi Leder. With Robert Duvall, Ta Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman. (123 min.)

++ An enormous comet hurtles toward a collision with Earth, and Americans scramble to preserve their way of life by either diverting it from its course or squirreling away a random sample of the population in giant caves where they'll wait out the disastrous effects of the crash. Some scenes are preachy or predictable, but overall this is a worthy addition to a trusty genre that includes such minor classics as "When Worlds Collide."

+++ Moving, hopeful, spectacular.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: One explosion, a kidnapping, and natural disasters. Profanity: 34 obscenities - mostly mild. Drugs: 9 scenes of drinking.

THE HANGING GARDEN (NOT RATED)

Director: Thom Fitzgerald. With Chris Leavins, Kerry Fox, Sarah Polley. (91 min.)

+++ Unpredictable, sometimes dreamlike drama about a young gay man visiting his family and remembering his years as a shy, ungainly child. Good acting and a surprising story raise this offbeat tale a cut above the average

HE GOT GAME (R)

Director: Spike Lee. With Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, John Turturro, Lonette McKee, Ned Beatty. (128 min.)

+++ A father is offered early release from prison if he can persuade his son, a gifted basketball player, to attend the local college instead of signing with one of the high-powered institutions that are tempting him with offers of money, sex, and sin. Combining elements of family drama, religious fable, and sports adventure, Lee's flawed but fascinating movie is sometimes brilliant and never dull. Contains brief but explicit sex and drug abuse.

+++ Powerful, lurid, ambitious.

Sex/Nudity: 8 sexual situations - some extremely graphic; brief nudity. Violence: 7 instances of violence, one involving an accidental murder. Profanity: 102 vulgarities; often harsh and generally crude dialogue. Drugs: 5 instances of drinking, one scene with a drunk man.

THE HORSE WHISPERER (PG-13)

Director: Robert Redford. With Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Sam Neill. (164 min.)

++ A sensitive cowboy helps a girl, her mother, and her horse overcome the psychological effects of a terrible riding accident. Redford the director makes sure that Redford the actor is favored by as many adoring close-ups as possible, and even his fans may find this too much of a good thing. But solid acting and gorgeous Montana landscapes lend class to what might have been a garden-variety soap opera.

+++1/2 Stunning scenery, touching, uplifting.

Sex/Nudity: One very sensual dance scene. Violence: 2 scenes: an extremely graphic riding accident and an episode with a crazed horse. Profanity: 11 instances, mostly mild. Drugs: 3 scenes with alcohol.

LAWN DOGS (NOT RATED)

Director: John Duigan. With Sam Rockwell, Mischa Barton, Kathleen Quinlan, Christopher McDonald. (100 min.)

++ Neighbors leap to fearful conclusions when a young worker strikes up an unexpected friendship with a 10-year-old girl in a class-conscious Southern suburb. Capably acted and directed, although less imaginative than its unconventional main characters might lead one to expect.

LES MISRABLES (PG-13)

Director: Bille August. With Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes, Uma Thurman. (140 min.)

+++ Handsomely produced adaptation of Victor Hugo's stirring novel about a decades-long duel between a rehabilitated convict and a police inspector who cares more about law and order than justice and redemption. Neeson and Rush give emotionally rich portrayals of the main characters, and August's proudly classical filmmaking keeps the dramatic energy high even when the secondary performances sag in the story's second half. The screenplay by Rafael Yglesias focuses on moral issues with a seriousness and insistence that illuminate current social-issue debates as well as the history of Hugo's own time.

+++ Moving, beautifully acted, intelligent.

Sex/Nudity: One scene of partial nudity - not explicit. Violence: Two scenes involving hitting, several scenes of shooting and death related to a student uprising, a suicide. Profanity: A single obscenity, some rough language related to prostitution. Drugs: None.

LIFE OF JESUS (NOT RATED)

Director: Bruno Dumont. With David Douche, Genevieve Cottreel, Marjorie Cottreel. (96 min.)

++ The title has no obvious connection with the plot or characters of this drama, about a dull-witted man who gets a crush on an equally ordinary young woman in a stiflingly boring French village. Dumont etches an implicitly critical portrait of a society wasting the minds and talents of its youth, but the movie sometimes seems as downbeat and dehumanized as its protagonists.

QUEST FOR CAMELOT (G)

Director: Frederik Du Chau. With voices of Pierce Brosnan, Gabriel Byrne, Cary Elwes, John Gielgud, Eric Idle, Gary Oldman, Bronson Pinchot, Don Rickles, Jane Seymour, Jaleel White. (90 min.)

+++ A feisty girl and her blind companion embark on a quest to rescue King Arthur's legendary sword from a nasty villain. The tale is full of songs and action; still, it would be more exciting if the Warner Bros. animators came up with new storytelling ideas instead of relying on time-tested Disney formulas.

Sex/Nudity: One reference to French kissing. Violence: Swordplay and fighting. Profanity: None. Drugs: None.

SLIDING DOORS (R)

Director: Peter Howitt. With Gwyneth Paltrow, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn, John Hannah. (105 min.)

+ A woman hurries toward the subway after work, and her story suddenly splits in two, alternating between different versions of what might have happened depending on whether she boarded the train or not. The gimmick behind the screenplay is clever, but the filmmakers don't rise to the challenge they've set themselves, merely spinning two unimaginative stories for the price of one.

+++ Imaginative, surprising, romantic.

Sex/Nudity: 2 mild scenes. Violence: 2 accidents. Profanity: A few mild, mostly British-inspired expressions.Drugs: Several scenes of social drinking.

THE SPANISH PRISONER (PG)

Director: David Mamet. With Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Ricky Jay. (112 min.)

++++ Ingenious thriller about a young inventor who seeks help from an unpredictable new acquaintance when he suspects his company may be pushing him out of the profits from a high-tech formula he's developed. Witty performances and stylized dialogue give Mamet's edgy gamesmanship a sly, refreshing touch.

+++1/2 Intriguing, suspenseful, surprising twists.

Sex/Nudity: Some mild innuendo. Violence: A bloody murder scene, a threat with a gun. Profanity: 3 very mild expressions. Drugs: Smoking and social drinking.

Out on Video

(In stores May 26)

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (R)

(Comedy)

Director: Woody Allen. With Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Mariel Hemingway. (94 min.)

++ A writer flip-flops between reality and illusion on a day when his former wife won't let him take their son to a college ceremony in his honor. The film has some good laughs but a very nasty edge.

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

DESPERATE MEASURES (R)

(Drama)

Director: Barbet Schroeder. With Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia, Marcia Gay Harden, Brian Cox. (100 min.)

+ A policeman (Garcia) persuades a psychotic killer (Keaton) to provide a bone-marrow transplant for his gravely ill son, but the criminal launches an escape plan as soon as he enters the hospital.

FIRESTORM (R)

(Action/adventure)

Director: Dean Semler. With Howie Long, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe, Suzy Amis. (89 min.)

++ Forest firefighters match wits against a brutal killer who's escaped from a Wyoming prison with several accomplices. The storytelling lacks but the high-temperature fire scenes are fun to watch.

++ Ruthless, cruel, a humdrum zinger.

THE RAINMAKER (PG-13)

(Drama)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola. With Matt Damon, Claire Danes, Danny DeVito, Jon Voight. (135 min.)

+++ A novice Tennessee attorney (Damon) takes on a lawsuit against a shady insurance company on behalf of a dying man and his family. The film is based on John Grisham's bestselling novel.

+++ Lively, predictable, entertaining.

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