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

THE MASK OF ZORRO (PG-13)

Director: Martin Campbell. With Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Maury Chaykin Stuart Wilson, Matt Letscher. (136 min.)

++ The legendary freedom-fighter of 19th-century California trains a young bandit to carry on his struggle against a former Spanish governor who has already wrecked Zorro's family and now wants to create an independent nation on the backs of its ruthlessly exploited people. This is proudly old-fashioned entertainment in every respect except its often excessive violence. The heroes are as dashing as can be, and Zeta-Jones definitely has a promising Hollywood future.

++1/2 Spirited, classic hero-villain tale, fun.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Several dozen scenes of high-intensity sword-fighting and brawls resulting in deaths, some explosions. Profanity: A few mild expressions. Drugs: 5 scenes of social drinking and smoking, 2 scenes of drunkenness.

THE SILVER SCREEN: COLOR ME LAVENDER (NOT RATED)

Director: Mark Rappaport. With Dan Butler and clips of Walter Brennan and other classic movie stars. (101 min.)

+++ The gifted director of "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" and "From the Diaries of Jean Seberg" assembled this revealing look at the devious ways in which Hollywood winked, peeked, and indirectly glanced at homosexuality in countless pictures of bygone decades, but hardly ever faced up to the social, cultural, or psychological issues raised by the subject.

SMALL SOLDIERS (PG-13)

Director: Joe Dante. With Kirsten Dunst, Grergory Smith, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman, Kevin Dunn, Denis Leary, and voices of Frank Langella, Tommy Lee Jones, Christina Ricci. (101 min.)

++ Two groups of ridiculously high-tech action figures - soldiers with more muscles than brains and barbarians looking for their homeland - get into a furious war in a sleepy Midwestern town, thanks to a high-schooler who installs them in his dad's toy store. The teenage characters are bland and the cartoonish violence is surprisingly strong at times, but the picture erupts into Dante's patented lunacy - he directed "Explorers" and "Gremlins" years ago - just often enough to keep things interesting.

++ Cynical, ballistic, violent.

Sex/Nudity/Drugs: None. Violence: Numerous scenes of fighting between toy action-figures, bloodless but strong hints of ugliness. Profanity: Several strong expressions.

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (R)

Directors: Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly. With Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott, Lee Evans, Lin Shaye, Jeffrey Tambor, W. Earl Brown. (120 min.)

++ Still hopelessly in love with a high school heartthrob he hardly knew, a New England yuppie tracks her down to Miami, then competes for her affection with various new rivals, including the private eye he hired to locate her. This comedy is as down-and-dirty as you'd expect from the Farrelly team, who launched their career with "Dumb and Dumber" and "Kingpin," but more than one sequence manages to be hilarious on its own outrageously crass terms.

Sex/Nudity: A few brief scenes of nudity. Violence: Mostly slapstick, nothing graphic. Profanity: A number of fairly strong expressions. Drugs: Lots of beer-drinking and suggestion of drug use.

Currently in Release

ARMAGEDDON (PG-13)

Director: Michael Bay. With Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Will Patton, Ben Affleck, Peter Stormare, Keith David, Steve Buscemi. (144 min.)

+ Rowdy astronauts rocket to an asteroid that's speeding toward Earth, hoping they can blow it up before a catastrophic collision. Everything about the first half-hour is so outrageously crude that you may hope the asteroid lands on the theater where you're watching the movie. Things improve once the heroes arrive in outer space, where the special effects are reasonably imaginative, but the story's emotions remain forced and artificial to the unsurprising end.

++ Corny, wild space ride, video-game-ish.

Sex/Nudity: One scene of nearly nude dancing, some sexual innuendo and kissing. Violence: 3 scenes involving guns and/or fistfights, many high-action scenes with explosions, 3 scenes of massive destruction. Profanity: 49, mostly mild, expressions. Drugs: 5 instances of drinking in bars

CARLA'S SONG (NOT RATED)

Director: Ken Loach. With Robert Carlyle, Oyanka Cabezas, Scott Glenn. (127 min.)

++ A likable Scottish bus driver befriends a Nicaraguan immigrant and later accompanies her to her native country, where her brother has endured great pain and suffering for his political actions and beliefs. The story is marred by overstatement and emotionalism, but Loach's commitment to socially and politically alert filmmaking is clear in every scene.

COUSIN BETTE (R)

Director: Des McAnuff. With Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, Kelly MacDonald, Aden Young. (112 min.)

++ Rivalry, romance, and family intrigue in Paris of 1846. The movie is handsome, but there's little life to the dramatic scenes, and the comic bits are even flatter. Until now McAnuff has been a stage director, and his stagey approach makes this modern-day movie seem less edgy and contemporary than the great 19th-century novel by Honor de Balzac.

DR. DOLITTLE (PG-13)

Director: Betty Thomas. With Eddie Murphy, Ossie Davis, Oliver Platt, Peter Boyle. (86 min.)

+ New version of the old story about a man whose conversations with animals lead to consternation among his human friends. The animals are cute and Murphy gives a lively performance, but as with his remake of "The Nutty Professor," the original is still the best. Contains a great deal of vulgar dialogue and scatological humor.

++1/2 Lighthearted, droll, fun.

Sex/Nudity: One brief scene of backside nudity. Violence: None. Profanity: About 10, mostly mild, expressions. Drugs: A monkey gets drunk.

GONE WITH THE WIND (NOT RATED)

Director: Victor Fleming. With Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell. (222 min.)

++++ Reissue of the 1939 classic about the troubled romance of a headstrong teenager and a handsome adventurer amid the turmoil of the Civil War and the end of an era in the land of gracious plantations, Southern hospitality, and unrepentant slavery. The 1998 rerelease brings back the movie's original height-to-width ratio and restores its Technicolor hues.

++++ Monumental, romantic, moving.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: No graphic violence; some face-slapping and tense moments of conflict. Profanity: 1 expression. Drugs: A few scenes of drinking to excess.

HOME BEFORE DARK (NOT RATED)

Director: Maureen Foley. With Stephanie Castellarin, Katharine Ross, Patricia Kalember, Brian Delate, Helen Lloyd Breed. (110 min.)

++ An 11-year-old girl copes with a mentally unstable mother and a dad who's not ready for single parenthood. Foley makes a solid filmmaking debut in this modest but sensitive drama about a Massachusetts family during the JFK era.

LETHAL WEAPON 4 (R)

Director: Richard Donner. With Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Renee Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li. (127 min.)

++ As fans of this series know, the lethal weapons aren't the guns the guys carry, but the guys themselves - two LA cops whose pursuit of wrongdoers often causes more damage than the wrongdoers. Gibson and Glover haven't lost their crowd-pleasing chemistry, and the story's manic violence is partly balanced by glimpses of antigun posters at the police station. The movie has homophobic touches, though, and with so many Asian characters, some viewers may wonder why every single one is portrayed as either a hapless victim or a wicked villain.

++ Explosive, gratuitous violence, plotless.

Sex/Nudity: Sexual innuendo, nothing graphic. Violence: About 75 instances. The film was a vehicle for violent action sequences. Profanity: Over 110 expressions, most highly offensive. Drugs: About 6 scenes of drinking and/or smoking.

MADELINE (PG)

Director: Daisy von Scherler Mayer. With Hatty Jones, Frances McDormand, Nigel Hawthorne, Stphane Audrane. (90 min.)

+++ Young children will enjoy this colorful tale of a little girl who tries to save her beloved boarding school from being shut down by the wealthy old coot who owns it; there's also a subplot about a naughty neighbor who gets kidnapped by his tutor. Based on the classic children's books by Ludwig Bemelmans.

++++ Witty, sweet, charming.

Sex/Nudity/Violence/Drugs: None. Profanity: One French swearword.

OUT OF SIGHT (R)

Director: Steven Soderbergh. With George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson. (121 min.)

++ A tough-minded policewoman develops a weak spot for a longtime bank robber on the lam after a jailbreak. The screenplay serves up the quirky dialogue and ironic twists associated with author Elmore Leonard, who wrote the original novel, but much of the action seems more like warmed-over Quentin Tarantino than first-rate Steven Soderbergh.

+++ Amusing, involving, sexy.

Sex/Nudity: Some sexual situations, mostly implied. Violence: About 5 instances. 1 stabbing, 1 implied murder; some shooting. Profanity: Heavy dose of obscenities. Drugs: Some social drinking and references to marijuana use.

PASSION IN THE DESERT (PG-13)

Director: Lavinia Currier. With Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli. (93 min.)

+++ Lost in the burning sands of Egypt, a French soldier is adopted by a lonely leopard who becomes his protector, companion, and friend. The story is engrossing, and Piccoli's brief appearance reaffirms his position as one of the world's finest actors.

Sex/Nudity: Some nudity, mostly discreet. Main character removes clothes to live like a leopard, 1 brief scene of full frontal nudity. Violence: Numerous scenes of gore; amputations, hunting and killing of animals, a graphic fight scene, and a suicide. Profanity: None. Drugs: None.

PI (R)

Director: Darren Aronofsky. With Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, Pamela Hart, Ajay Naidu, Joanne Gordon, Stephen Pearlman. (85 min.)

+++ A computer wizard with emotional problems has an unexpected encounter with a Jewish mystic who's looking for a spiritual formula encrypted in the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This intellectual allegory would carry more punch if it didn't slip into melodrama so often, but it marks Aronofsky as an exceptionally promising new filmmaker.

SMOKE SIGNALS (PG-13)

Director: Chris Eyre. With Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Tantoo Cardinal, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard. (89 min.)

++ Two young native Americans leave their economically and emotionally depressed reservation in search of heightened awareness regarding their personal and ethnic histories. The movie makes up in sincerity and goodwill what it lacks in originality and style.

+++ Poignant, wry, original.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 5 instances, none graphic. Profanity: 17 expressions, mostly mild. Drugs: One character has a drinking problem.

TALK TO ME (NOT RATED)

Director: George Esguerra. With Cheryl Clifford, Peter Welch, George Esguerra. (87 min.)

++ A lonely woman meets an attractive man through a phone-sex hookup in this mostly lightweight comedy, which eventually acknowledges the real dangers of long-distance sensual relationships. Contains a graphic phone-sex scene.

THE X-FILES (PG-13)

Director: Rob Bowman. With David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Martin Landau, Blythe Danner. (105 min.)

+++ Investigating a terrorist bombing, FBI agents Mulder and Scully pursue answers to deeper questions about alien colonizers and governmental schemers; but it's not deep enough to place this action-adventure fantasy into the league of truly imaginative science-fiction classics like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Screenwriter Chris Carter mines the same trove of ideas that underpins his hugely popular TV series.

+++ Well-crafted, brutal, some gaps in logic.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: About 10 scenes of brutal violence - maulings, explosions, and shootings. Multiple scenes involving unsavory aliens. Profanity: 10 profanities, mostly mild. Drugs: 1 scene of drinking, 4 scenes of smoking, and 1 drug injection.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores July 21)

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (R)

(Drama)

Director: Alfonso Cuarn. With Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper. (122 min.)

+ This updated version of Charles Dickens's novel changes the Pip character from an English marsh-dweller to a Florida artist who moves to New York after an unknown benefactor takes an interest in his welfare.

++1/2 Visually powerful, lightweight, creative interpretation.

KISSING A FOOL (R)

(Comedy)

Director: Doug Ellin. With David Schwimmer, Mili Avital, Jason Lee, Bonnie Hunt. (94 min.)

++ David Schwimmer plays a ladies' man who tests his fiance's loyalty by setting her up with his best pal.

+++ Lively, well-crafted, refreshing.

KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE (PG-13)

(Comedy)

Director: Todd Holland. With Richard Dreyfuss, Jenna Elfman, Natasha Lyonne, Stephen D. Root. (94 min.)

DUD An anthropologist gets his children to pose as New Guinea natives so he can impress his colleagues with video footage of a "lost tribe."

U.S. MARSHALS (R)

(Action/adventure)

Director: Stuart Baird. With Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Snipes, Robert Downey Jr. (133 min.)

+++ The team of marshals from "The Fugitive" are out to catch another escaped killer. This time, the convict may have been set up by the government.

+++ Suspenseful, explosive, surprising.

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