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

AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER (G)

Director: Richard Martin. Gregory Harrison, Kevin Zegers, Cynthia Stevenson, Nora Dunn, Perry Anzilotti. (93 min.)

++ The sequel to last year's "Air Bud" brings back Josh, a junior high-schooler and Buddy, his basketball-playing golden retriever. This time they're going out for football. The film is fun but it struggles to balance three different story lines: Josh trying to deal with his father's death and the new man in his mother's life; a dog teaching a team that heart matters more than talent and size; and two bumbling animal nappers' antics. By M.K. Terrell

++ Clean, contemporary, a tad slow.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: A few scenes of humorous slapstick violence. Profanity: None. Drugs: None.

THE AVENGERS (PG-13)

Director: Jeremiah Chechik. With Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Eileen Atkins, Fiona Shaw, Eddie Izzard, John Wood, Patrick MacNee. (90 min.)

+This dull spinoff of the 1960s television series has a spectacular cast but little energy and no ideas at all, squandering its resources on an idiotic story about government agents chasing a villain who wants to control the world's weather. At least the original TV show broke some ground by allowing the Emma Peel character to become one of pop culture's most liberated women; the wan movie version fails to come up with anything of comparable worth for the '90s.

++ Style without substance, disjointed, surreal.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: A lot of bloodless, cartoonish shootings and explosions. Profanity: 2 expressions. Drugs: 7 scenes with cigarettes, some social drinking.

THE BIRDS (NOT RATED)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. With "Tippi" Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. (120 min.)

++++ Revival of the 1963 suspense classic about a California town besieged by inexplicable attacks of deadly birds. Hedren's performance is one of the weakest Hitchcock ever allowed, but the movie's split-second editing, brilliant special effects, and utterly original story elements are still top-of-the-line stuff for open-minded moviegoers.

BLADE (R)

Director: Stephen Norrington. With Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Traci Lords, N'Bushe Wright, Udo Keir, Donal Logue. (120 min.)

++ Ferociously violent thriller about a sort-of-vampire who fends off his evil impulses with an exotic serum so he can track down full-fledged vampires, including a wicked young monster who wants to wipe out the human race. Lots of energy and special effects, little else for grown-up movie fans.

THE EEL (NOT RATED)

Director: Shohei Imamura. With Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu. (117 min.)

+++ Released from prison after a bloody crime, a disillusioned man strikes up close relationships with a pet eel, which becomes his closest confidant, and a suicidal woman, who suffers as much as he does from a lack of human warmth. This dark comedy-drama has enough unpredictable swings of mood, story, and characterization to place it with the most original works by one of Japan's most deservedly praised directors. Contains graphic sex and violence.

NEXT STOP WONDERLAND (R)

Director: Brad Anderson. With Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Gelfant, Jose Zuniga, Lyn Vaus, Robert Klein, Victor Argo, Arnie Reisman. (94 min.)

++ A young woman tries to convince herself that contented solitude is preferable to the unenticing men who dog her trail, but can't stop wondering if a really nice guy will ever come her way. The movie gains a few points for its colorfully filmed Boston background and bright bossa-nova music. But it's filmed in a fake-spontaneous style that's as stale, trite, and artificial as the relationships between the characters.

YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS (R)

Director: Neil LaBute. With Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Aaron Eckhart, Nastassja Kinski, Jason Patric. (100 min.)

++ Six young urbanites turn their personal relationships into a complicated web of friendship, romance, rivalry, deception, and betrayal, which LaBute appears to believe is normal behavior for the Generation X crowd. The results have a grim fascination, but as with his earlier "In the Company of Men," the movie is often a lot nastier than necessary to make its cautionary points.

Currently in Release

THE CHAMBERMAID ON THE TITANIC (NOT RATED)

Director: Bigas Luna. With Romane Bohringer, Aitana Sanchz Gijn, Olivier Martinez, Didier Bezace. (96 min.)

+++ Often enchanting, always entertaining comedy-drama about a laborer who has an overnight fling with a mysterious woman, enthralls his working-class buddies with tales about the experience, and becomes a celebrity through the strength of his hitherto unsuspected storytelling skills. Acted with sparkling enthusiasm by an excellent cast, and directed by Luna with more gentleness and understatement than some of his earlier pictures contain. Includes sexual activity and innuendo.

EVER AFTER (PG-13)

Director: Andy Tennant. With Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Jeanne Moreau. (124 min.)

+++ Prettily filmed retelling of the Cinderella story, complete with mistreated heroine, wicked stepmother, and handsome prince. There's no earthly reason for stretching this often-told tale to more than two hours, but Huston is amusingly tart as the stepmom, and it's hard to resist a movie that substitutes Leonardo da Vinci for the traditional fairy godmother.

+++ Charming, romantic, spunky.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 5 scenes, mostly mild, sometimes cartoonish. Profanity: 2 mild expressions. Drugs: 2 scenes with alcohol.

THE GOVERNESS (R)

Director: Sandra Goldbacher. With Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Harriet Walter, Florence Hoath, Bruce Myers, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (110 min.)

+++ Seeking broader horizons for her life, a young Jewish woman leaves her comfortable London home in the 1840s and becomes governess in the Christian household of an inventor who's trying to perfect the newfangled technology called photography. Driver gives a winning performance in a human-scaled story that mostly avoids romantic clichs and gender stereotypes, although a few of both creep in from time to time.

+++ Moody, sensual, well-acted.

Sex/Nudity: 5 instances of nudity, including full male nudity, a few instances of sex, 1 explicit scene. Violence: None. Profanity: None. Drugs: Wine drinking at meals.

HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK (R)

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King, Michael J. Pagan, Suzzanne Douglas. (125 min.)

++ Vacationing in Jamaica after getting downsized from her executive desk, a 40-year-old woman falls for a 20-year-old man who refuses to be dissuaded by either their age difference or the skepticism of their friends and relatives. Bassett and Diggs are appealing as the slightly odd couple, but the movie rambles on too long and falls back on steamy clichs when the story starts to sag.

+++ Warm, feel-good, sensual.

Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of nudity, 2 scenes of sex. Violence: None. Profanity: 21 expressions. Drugs: 1 cigar smoker, 1 scene with alcohol, drugs discussed in a hospital.

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (NOT RATED)

Director: Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Erskine Sanford. (87 min.)

++++ Revival of the fabled 1948 thriller about a young Irishman who gets mixed up in a weird plot involving a morbid old codger and his gorgeous wife. The story doesn't make much sense, but Welles's filmmaking stands with his most eye-dazzling achievements - the crazy-mirror climax is a classic in itself - even though the studio tampered with it before the original release to render it more "normal."

THE PARENT TRAP (PG)

Director: Nancy Meyers. With Lindsay Lohan, Natasha Richardson, Dennis Quaid, Lisa Ann Walter. (128 min.)

+++ Remake of the popular 1961 comedy about long-separated identical twins who learn of each other's existence at summer camp and decide to get their warring parents back together. Lohan is sparklingly good as the look-alike little girls, and the movie as a whole has enough bounce and energy to overcome a few dull spots and a too-long running time.

+++ Delightful, lighthearted, generic.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 1 fencing scene, not violent. Profanity: None. Drugs: 6 scenes with drinking (1 in which adults permit a child to taste wine); 1 scene with a cigarette.

REGENERATION (NOT RATED)

Director: Gillies MacKinnon. With Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby, Jonny Lee Miller, Stuart Bunce, John Neville. (98 min.)

+++ Sent to a mental asylum as punishment for writing an antiwar poem during World War I, the great "trench poet" Siegfried Sassoon befriends the even greater poet, Wilfred Owen. Both encounter an innovative psychiatrist whose own sanity is threatened by the horrors that assail him not only from the battlefront but from the insensitive treatments practiced at his own hospital.

RETURN TO PARADISE (R)

Director: Joseph Ruben. With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad. (109 min.)

++ Two years after a vacation in Malaysia, two young Americans learn that a friend was arrested for drug dealing right after their departure and will be executed unless they return to the country for a lengthy prison term. The story raises challenging moral and legal questions but loses energy in a miscalculated romantic subplot, and only Phoenix manages to give a fully persuasive performance.

+++ Captivating, stark, finely crafted.

Sex/Nudity: 7 scenes with sexual situations, often with partial nudity. Violence: 4 scenes. Profanity: 73 swearwords and oaths. Drugs: 4 scenes with alcohol, 3 with drugs, and 8 with cigarettes.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (R)

Director: Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies. (160 min.)

+++ This extremely violent World War II drama focuses on an Army captain ordered to penetrate dangerous territory and rescue a private whose mother has already lost three sons in combat, even though this places the lives of his other soldiers in jeopardy. The story raises hard moral questions relating to the relative value of human lives and the overwhelming debt that may be felt by those who benefit when others sacrifice. But the movie falls short of excellence because it doesn't so much explore these issues as finesse them in an action-filled climax. Contains horrific mayhem.

+++ Masterpiece, grimly realistic, definitely not for kids.

Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of soldiers talking about women and sex. Violence: 5 sweeping scenes of violence, all of them graphic, war-related, and almost continuous. First and last scenes are at least a half-hour long. Profanity: 79 expletives, usually during battle. Drugs: Medicinal use of morphine, 22 instances of smoking.

SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS (R)

Director: Tamara Jenkins. With Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, David Krumholtz, Kevin Corrigan, Rita Moreno, Carl Reiner. (91 min.)

+++ The tacky side of the 90210 ZIP Code is spotlighted in this sardonic comedy about a teenage girl coping with adolescent uncertainties plus an eccentric family that can't quite hold onto the bottom rung of the bourgeoisie. SaVy performances and an unpredictable story make this a memorable debut for filmmaker Jenkins, a newcomer with a promising future. Contains sex, nudity, and drug use.

SNAKE EYES (R)

Director: Brian De Palma. With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw. (99 min.)

+++ Cage gives a wildly extroverted performance as an Atlantic City cop who stumbles onto an assassination scheme that forces him to reassess his loyalties even as he chases the villains. The movie is weaker as a suspense yarn than as an exercise in style, filling the screen with intricate camera choreography. But it also ponders the serious theme of modern materialism, represented by everything from excesses of the gambling and prizefighting industries to machinations of the military-industrial complex.

u1/2 Disappointing, hyperactive, uneven.

Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes of attempted seduction. Violence: 8 scenes, plus boxing violence. Profanity: 64 expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes with alcohol, 8 with cigarettes.

THE THIEF (R)

Director: Pavel Chukhrai. With Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova. (97 min.)

+++ The setting is the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the main character is a little boy facing the difficult task of growing up with an attractive but dependent mother and her emotionally unstable boyfriend, a Stalinist with a tendency toward mean, sometimes violent behavior. The story is bleak, but the acting is strong and filmmaking vivid.

++1/2 Stark, hopeless, heart-rending.

Sex/Nudity: 4 sexual situations. Violence: 3 scenes, mostly fighting. Profanity: 11 expressions. Drugs: Frequent cigarette smoking and social drinking.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores Aug. 25)

THE LEADING MAN (R)

(Drama)

Director: John Duigan. With Jon Bon Jovi, Anna Galiena, Lambert Wilson, Thandie Newton. (100 min.)

A married playwright falls for an actress, only to find a Hollywood actor enamored of her as well.

THE REAL BLONDE (R)

(Drama)

Director: Tom DiCillo. With Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Daryl Hannah. (105 min.)

++ An out-of-work actor, his girlfriend, a model abused by her lover, and a gay headwaiter are among the many characters of this ambitious but poorly structured comedy-drama.

WOO (R)

(Comedy)

Director: Daisy v.S. Mayer. With Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, LL Cool J. (80 min.)

+A slightly dazed law clerk has an unexpectedly wild first date with a woman who's as eccentric as she is beautiful.

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