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

AMAZON (NOT RATED)

Director: Kieth Merrill. With Linda Hunt as narrator, Mark Plotkin, Sydney Possuelo, Adrian Villanueva. (40 min.)

+++ This Academy Award nominated IMAX film beautifully captures the Amazon - from the lush rain forests to the basin's mixture of exotic wildlife including jaguars and pink dolphins. Dr. Mark Plotkin, an American ethnobotonist who is trying to make science more accessible, brings us along on his journey to the lavish Amazon river basin as he meets up with Indian shamans - medicine men who use Amazon plant life for healing. One of the things we learn is that 1 out of every 4 plants on Earth can be found in the Amazon basin. However, you might leave the theater with more questions than answers about Plotkin's discoveries. By Lisa Leigh Parney

ANTZ (PG)

Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson. With voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Dan Aykroyd, Sylvestor Stallone, Jane Curtin. (83 min.)

+++ Depressed by the monotony of his ant-colony life, a worker ant trades places with a soldier ant so he can see a princess he's fallen in love with, and finds himself battling a military insect with evil plans. There's plenty of action in this computer-animated comedy, but it's no match for "Toy Story" in humor and originality.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: A few battle scenes and a bar brawl. Profanity: 3 very mild expressions. Drugs: 1 bar scene/ants drinking "beer."

THE BICYCLE THIEF (NOT RATED)

Director Vittorio De Sica. With Lamberto Maggiorani, Lianella Carell, Enzo Staiola, Gino Saltamarenda. (90 min.)

++++ Revival of the brilliant 1948 drama about a poor man whose livelihood is threatened when someone steals his bicycle, sending him and his little son on a desperate and heartrending search. This classic of Italian neorealism won an Oscar in 1948, and age hasn't dimmed its international appeal.

THE IMPOSTERS (R)

Director: Stanley Tucci. With Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Lili Taylor, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Billy Connelly, Allison Janney, Tony Shahloub, Hope Davis, Teagle Bougere, Dana Ivey. (102 min.)

++ A pair of down-and-out actors become stowaways on a 1930s ocean liner, where they meet a gallery of mismatched characters ranging from a theatrical rival and a macho sportsman to a friendly ship attendant and a melancholy entertainer. Tucci strives for the knockabout hilarity of a Laurel and Hardy comedy, but rarely hits that ambitious mark.

LA SPARATION (NOT RATED)

Director: Christian Vincent. With Isabelle Huppert, Daniel Auteuil, Jrme Deschamps, Karin Viard. (88 min.)

++++ Sensitively filmed drama about a marriage that's slowly and sadly coming apart, superbly acted by two of France's most luminous stars. Thoughtful and compassionate from beginning to end.

PERMANENT MIDNIGHT (R)

Director: David Veloz. With Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley, Maria Bello, Janeane Garofalo, Lourdes Benedicto. (85 min.)

++1/2 Jerry Stahl earned $5,000 a week writing sitcoms in the 1980s - notably ALF - while trying to maintain his $6,000 a week drug habit. Stiller's remarkable performance takes us into Stahl's real-life nightmare. The film loses impact by having the reformed addict tell his harrowing story in flashbacks, and by omitting the rehab process altogether, but it's a welcome statement against drugs. By M.K. Terrell

++1/2 Unsettling, chilling, intense.

Sex/Nudity: 6 scenes of implied sex. Violence: None. Profanity: 90 expressions, mostly strong.. Drugs: Social drinking and smoking; 13 instances of illegal drug use.

RONIN (R)

Director: John Frankenheimer. With Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgrd, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Lonsdale, Sean Bean. (121 min.)

+++ A group of outlaws tries to intercept a mysterious package with various combinations of guile and violence. Stories don't get more international than this one, which uses competition between Irish and Russian conspirators to rework a Japanese legend in French Riviera settings. Frankenheimer doesn't recapture the magic he once created in movies like "The Manchurian Candidate," but he does cook up an effective thriller in the "French Connection" vein.

Currently in Release

CLAY PIGEONS (R)

Director: David Dobkin. With Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Scott Wilson, Georgina Cates. (104 min.)

++ Already caught in a mess of legal and romantic problems, a young Montana man meets an aggressive new friend who turns out to be nothing but trouble. The story picks up some interest after an early string of wildly sensationalistic events, and much of the acting is energetically good. But the filmmakers have seen "Fargo" and "Red Rock West" about a dozen times too often, and moviegoers familiar with those pictures will find this adventure eerily familiar.

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.

+++ 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.

LOLITA (R)

Director: Adrian Lyne. With Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella. (137 min.)

+++ The melancholy tale of a middle-aged European man enmeshed in a love affair with an underage American girl. Vladimir Nabokov's novel helped open society's eyes to the evils of pedophilia in the 1950s, and this pensive adaptation renews the warning for a later generation.

++1/2 Well-acted, lurid, disturbing.

Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes of nudity and sex; a half-dozen suggestive scenes of legs rubbing up against each other. Violence: 8 scenes of violence including harsh face-slapping, rough sex, bloody shooting, shoving, and a violent shake on the floor. Profanity: 3 expressions. Drugs: 2 scenes of drinking, several scenes of cigarette smoking, 1 scene with a pipe; main character gives wife sleeping pills.

MONUMENT AVE. (R)

Director: Ted Demme. With Billy Crudup, Denis Leary, Colm Meany, Martin Sheen, Jeanne Tripplehorn. (90 min.)

++ Returning to his closely knit Irish-American neighborhood after a jail term, a young man touches off a series of violent incidents that test the loyalty of his companions to a local crime boss and one another. The story has some chillingly suspenseful episodes, although it's marred by overfamiliar themes and a weakness for dialogue scenes that resemble acting exercises more than real life.

ONE TRUE THING (R)

Director: Carl Franklin. With Meryl Streep, Rene Zellweger, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott, Nicky Katt. (120 min.)

+++ A young woman leaves her big-city career to help with a family crisis in the college town where she grew up. There she gets caught in the crossfire between her seriously ill mother and brilliant but self-involved father, and in the turmoil stirred up by reawakened memories of her own complicated past. Heartfelt acting and imaginative filmmaking transform a soap-opera story into an affecting screen experience.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 2 brief scenes of arguing. Profanity: 27 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs: Some cigar smoking and social drinking; main character is on painkillers through most of the movie.

PECKER (R)

Director: John Waters. With Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Mink Stole, Mary Kay Place, Martha Plimpton, Patricia Hearst, Bess Armstrong. (87 min.)

+++ Dark comedy about a young Baltimore photographer who takes candid shots of his family and friends and shares in their embarrassment when the Manhattan art world discovers his work. Waters fills the movie with his usual touches of outrageously bad taste, but beneath the sophomoric shocks his story has a serious message about self-absorbed artists who care more about their own careers than the privacy of the people around them.

Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes with male strippers and another of female nudity. Violence: None. Profanity: 44 strong expressions. Drugs: Several instances of social drinking.

RUSH HOUR (R)

Director: Brett Ratner. With Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Tom Wilkinson, Elizabeth Pea, Julie Hsu. (108 min.)

+++ Action-packed comedy about the kidnapping of a young Chinese girl from her politically influential father. Chan and Tucker pair up in Los Angeles to save the girl from death and an incompetent FBI investigative team. The fast-talking Tucker and quick-kicking Chan are a surprisingly good team that manages to deliver a stylish and fun combination of highly choreographed action and comedy. By Ari Denison

++1/2 Witty, clunky, action-packed.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Several scenes of choreographed kung fu and cartoonish violence. Profanity: Some harsh profanity. Drugs: One scene of marijuana; social drinking.

SHADRACH (PG-13)

Director: Susanna Styron. With Harvey Keitel, Andie MacDowell, Scott Terra. (100 min.)

+++ Devastated by poverty during the Depression years, a farming family in Virginia faces a hard decision when a 99-year-old former slave walks onto its land and asks to be buried there after his death, even though the law forbids such private arrangements and there's no money for a dignified alternative. The rambling story builds less dramatic power than one might wish, but the acting is solid and the movie's heart is in the right place.

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: 4 instances of physical violence. Profanity: 19 expressions, usually mild. Drugs: 5 scenes with smoking.

A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES (R)

Director: James Ivory. With Kris Kristofferson, Leelee Sobieski, Barbara Hershey, Jesse Bradford, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Virginie Ledoyen, Jane Birkin. (120 min.)

++++ Three episodes in the life of a novelist's family as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, first in Paris and then in a New England town where the household moves as a result of the father's declining health. No recent movie is more creatively directed, paints a more deeply felt portrait of family feelings, or handles such emotionally complex issues as friendship and adoption with more insight. The very loose plot has been adapted by Merchant Ivory from an autobiographical novel by the daughter of novelist James Jones, who apparently indulged in more drinking, four-letter language, and frank sexual discussions than some moviegoers will approve.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 1 brief fist fight. Profanity: 44 strong expressions. Drugs: Teenagers smoking; social drinking.

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. 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.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores Oct. 6)

LOST IN SPACE (PG-13)

(Action/adventure)

Director: Stephen Hopkins. With William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Mimi Rogers. (125 min.)

++ High-tech version of the '60s television series about a family whose intergalactic mission goes astray when a nasty stowaway sabotages their spaceship.

++1/2 Eye-candy, formulaic, silly but fun.

A PERFECT MURDER (R)

(Mystery/suspense)

Director: Andrew Davis. With Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen. (105 min.)

++ Twists and turns multiply like mad after a greedy husband decides to kill his wife and hires her deceitful lover to do the job.

++1/2 Intense, stylish, chilling.

THE SPANISH PRISONER (PG)

(Mystery/suspense)

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

++++ 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.

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

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