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: 'The Godfather': 10 behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the classic films

+++ Good

++ 1/2 Average

++ Fair

+1/2 Poor

+ Worst

New Releases

FIRELIGHT (R)

Director: William Nicholson. With Sophie Marceau, Stephen Dillane, Kevin Anderson, Lia Williams, Dominique Belcourt, Joss Ackland. (103 min.)

++ Needing money to settle her father's debts, a young woman agrees to bear a child for a wealthy man whose wife is an invalid, then tracks down the little girl years later and takes a job as her governess. The story is compassionate and humane, but many scenes are trite or unbelievable, and the movie is drenched in corny music that detracts from the emotions it's supposed to enhance.

LA SENTINELLE (NOT RATED)

Director: Arnaud Desplechins. With Emmanuel Salinger, Thibault de Montalembert, Valerie Dreville, Bruno Todeschini. (150 min.)

+++ After a train journey during the height of the cold war, a European student finds a shrunken head inexplicably placed into his luggage and encounters a series of sociopolitical enigmas as he tries to unravel this mystery. Although it loses some of its punch as its secrets are revealed, this 1992 drama placed Desplechins on the cinematic map as a thoughtful French filmmaker whose style is a saVy blend of the cool, the calculated, and the paradoxical.

Currently in Release

THE AVENGERS (PG-13)

Director: Jeremiah Chechik. With Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent. (90 min.)

+This dull spinoff of the 1960s TV series has a spectacular cast but little energy and no ideas, 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. (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.

DUD Stomach-turning, torturous, idiotic, blood-soaked.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of suggested sex. Violence: 22 very violent, blood-drenched scenes. Profanity: 68 oaths and obscenities, often harsh. Drugs: 9 scenes with smoking, one with alcohol.

BRAZIL (R)

Director: Terry Gilliam. With Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin. (131 min.)

++++ Revival of Gilliam's great 1985 fantasy about an imaginative man lusting for freedom in an insanely bureaucratized society. Pryce gives his most memorable performance as the ill-starred hero, and De Niro is brilliant as a guerrilla air-conditioner repairman. But the movie's main asset is its astonishing visual style, one part Monty Python extravaganza and one part sheer cinematic delirium.

THE CHAMBERMAID ON THE TITANIC (NOT RATED)

Director: J.J. Bigas Luna. With Romane Bohringer, Aitana Snchez Gijn, Didier Bezace, Aldo Maccione. (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.

+++ Original, interesting plot, should be rated "R."

Sex/Nudity: Seven sexual situations. Violence: Five brief and mild scenes. Profanity: 24 oaths and obscenities. Drugs: 4 scenes with drinking, 8 with smoking.

DANCE WITH ME (PG)

Director: Randa Haines. With Vanessa L. Williams, Chayanne, Kris Kristofferson. (126 min.)

++1/2 Dancing is supposed to be fun, a teacher reminds an arguing dance team, and the dancing is what's fun in this picture. A young Cuban (Chayanne) comes to the United States as a dance-studio handyman in search of his family. Turns out he dances, too. Intrusive editing sometimes detracts from the musical sequences, and the dramatic scenes tend to drag. But great dancing, upbeat music, and a likable multiethnic cast make it worth watching. By M.K. Terrell

+++ Energetic, romantic, well-danced.

Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 1 expression in Spanish. Drugs: 5 instances of drinking.

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 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.

54 (R)

Director: Mark Christopher. With Mike Myers, Ryan Phillippe, Neve Campbell, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward. (90 min.)

DUD Myers plays the late Steve Rubell, Studio 54's real-life co-owner in the 1970s, who turns an innocent young man, Shane O'Shea (Phillipe), into a desirable young stud. It's been reported that first-time feature director Christopher toned the film down for Miramax, but he watered it down so much that he forgot to include a plot, lively disco music and dancing, and believable characters. And what about the groovy '70s fashion? That's missing too. Contains strong language, heavy drug use, and sex and nudity. By Lisa Leigh Parney

++ Graphic, weak plot, not for kids.

Sex/Nudity: Several scenes of nudity and sex; homosexual undertone. Violence: None. Profanity: Several dozen harsh expressions. Drugs: 65 instances of drugs and alcohol.

HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK (R)

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King. (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.

+++ Warm, funny, refreshing.

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.

A MERRY WAR (NOT RATED)

Director: Robert Bierman. With Richard E. Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Wadham. (101 min.)

+++ Entertaining adaptation of George Orwell's amusing novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," about a young poet who declares war on money and sticks to his guns even when the ugliness of poverty draws uncomfortably near. The filmmaking is smooth and the acting is excellent, but the picture shares the novel's weakness of a flabby final scene.

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 and artificial as the relationships between the characters.

+++ Down-to-earth, contemporary, romantic.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of implied sex. Violence: None. Profanity: 19 expressions, mostly mild. Drugs: Some social drinking and smoking, the main character drinks and smokes to relieve boredom.

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.)

+++ Extremely violent World War II drama focuses on an Army captain ordered to penetrate dangerous territory and rescue a private. 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.

+++ 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. (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 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.

++1/2 Offbeat, lightweight, humorous.

Sex/Nudity: Four scenes with nudity, one scene of implied sex. Violence: 2 instances of stabbing a man's thigh with a fork. Profanity: 50 somewhat-mild expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes including cigarette smoking, drug overdose, and selling pot.

UN AIR DE FAMILLE (NOT RATED)

Director: Cdric Klapisch. With Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agns Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Darroussin. (107 min.)

+++ "Family Resemblances" is the English-language title of this insightful, often hilarious visit with a group of relatives whose customary Friday get-together turns into an emotional free-for-all. Klapisch, also known for his 1995 comedy "When the Cat's Away," confirms his reputation as one of Europe's most engaging young filmmakers.

+++ Funny, entertaining, too long.

Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 20 expressions. Drugs: Social drinking.

WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE (R)

Director: Gregory Nava. With Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox, Lela Rochon, Little Richard (120 min.)

++ The story of pop singer, bigamist, and drug abuser Frankie Lymon as seen through the eyes of his three widows. Many of the comic and dramatic scenes are wildly off-kilter, but the doo-wop music packs a nostalgic wallop and Little Richard shows up occasionally to blow the movie wide open.

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, deception, and betrayal. The results have a grim fascination, but as with LaBute's earlier "In the Company of Men," the movie is a lot nastier than necessary.

Sex/Nudity: 13 instances of sex enacted, depicted on stage, fantasized, or explicitly described; also constant talk about sex. Violence: Discussion of homosexual rape and sex used for revenge; man beats violently on locked bathroom door. Profanity: 133 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs: Social drinking; cigarette smoking.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores Sept. 8)

PRIMARY COLORS (R)

(Drama)

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.

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

WILD THINGS (R)

(Suspense)

Director: James McNaughton. With Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon, Bill Murray. (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.

++ Steamy, predictable, unusual.

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