BOSTON — 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.
+++1/2 Very Good
++ 1/2 Average
Director: Vincenzo Natali. With Nicole deBoer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Maurice Dean Wint. (90 min.)
++ Surreal fantasy about a group of strangers who find themselves trapped in a mysterious structure where all the rooms are cube-shaped cages, many of them booby-trapped with deadly dangers. The characters are stereotypes and the psychology is simplistic, but the movie builds an effective sense of claustrophobic menace that thriller fans may enjoy.
Director: John Dahl. With Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Moll, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Martin Landau, Famke Janssen. (120 min.)
++ The hero is an on-and-off law student with a passion for poker, and an honest streak that keeps him from cheating even when he's desperate for money to pay off dangerous debtors. The acting is solid, but the story builds less drama and suspense than its high-stakes subject might lead you to expect.
SIMON BIRCH (PG)
Director: Mark Steven Johnson. With Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn, Dana Ivey, Jan Hooks. (110 min.)
+++ The hero is a very small boy who's convinced his "abnormal" physique is proof of God's particular interest in him, and feels he'll fulfill some special purpose as soon as he can figure out what it's supposed to be. The movie is lively, funny, and endearing until melodramatics and sentimentality take over in the last few scenes.
+++ Tear-jerker, intriguing, literary.
Sex/Nudity: Several adolescent references to female anatomy. Violence: None. Profanity: 19 expressions, usually mild. Drugs: 5 scenes with smoking.
TOUCH OF EVIL (NOT RATED)
Director: Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor. (108 min.)
++++ This explosive 1958 crime drama was altered by its studio to make it more conventional, but now a team of experts has restored it to Welles's own specifications, making it more clear and coherent - if not more exciting and original - than in its previous version. Welles gives one of his boldest performances as a crooked American cop, ably supported by Heston as the Mexican policeman who ferrets out his nasty secrets.
WITHOUT LIMITS (PG-13)
Director: Robert Towne. With Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, Monica Potter, Judith Ivey, Dean Norris. (116 min.)
+++ The story of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, focusing on his feisty individuality and his relationship with a crusty old coach who ends up learning a lesson or two from his student. The athletic scenes are so lively and the main performances are so magnetic that even moviegoers who resist sports-centered pictures may be won over. But while Towne's screenplay carries the worthwhile message that competition is better than conquest, it fails to go a step further and teach that cooperation is best of all.
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.
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.
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 (Phillippe), 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, or 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.
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.
+++ Romantic, Bront-esque, period drama.
Sex/Nudity: 4 brief sex scenes, 2 include partial nudity. Violence: None. Profanity: 9 mild expressions. Drugs: 8 instances of social drinking. .
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.
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.
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, Jos Zuiga, 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.
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.
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.
+ Uninspired, melodramatic, good sound track.
Sex/Nudity: 2 fully nude love scenes, one highly suggestive scene. Violence: 4 scenes of physical fighting. Profanity: 82 expressions. Drugs: 2 hallucinogen scenes, 1 scene of heroin use.
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, 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 a lot nastier than necessary to make its cautionary points.
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. 15)
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.
+++ Life-affirming, thought-provoking, pensive.
DEEP RISING (R)
Director: Stephen Sommers. With Trent Williams, Famke Janssen, Anthony Heald. (110 min.)
+ Assorted adventurers battle sea monsters in the briny deep.
++ Alien-esque, good sense of humor, scary.
HE GOT GAME (R)
Director: Spike Lee. With Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, John Turturro, Lonette McKee. (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.
+++ Gritty, lurid, ambitious.
Director: Jonathan Darby. With Jessica Lange, Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnathon Schaech, Nina Foch. (98 min.)
+ A woman inflicts unconscionable cruelty on her pregnant daughter-in-law attempting to keep her son on the beautiful Virginia farm.