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

THE BIG CHILL (R)

Director: Lawrence Kasdan. With Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams. (105 min.)

++ Reissue of the popular 1983 comedy-drama about a group of '60s friends who get together for an '80s funeral, learning from the reunion how time and circumstances have wrought unexpected changes in their lives. The film gave boosts to several star careers, but it's rarely as clever or revealing as it thinks it is.

THE CRUISE (NOT RATED)

Director: Bennett Miller. With Timothy "Speed" Levitch. (76 min.)

+++ Funny, fascinating documentary about a New York City tour guide who sees his occupation as a mercurial metaphor for life itself. The movie is at once a portrait of a great city, a penetrating character study, and an existential rumination on the human condition, all in less time than it takes the average Hollywood picture to set up its big chase scene.

ELIZABETH (R)

Director: Shekhar Kapur. With Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston, Kathy Burke, John Gielgud, Fanny Ardant. (124 min.)

+++ Pungent bio-pic about the famous queen and the tumultuous times in which she lived. Acted and directed with great energy and imagination, it may be too explicit in its depictions of sex and mayhem for moviegoers accustomed to more old-fashioned historical epics.

GODS AND MONSTERS (NOT RATED)

Director: Bill Condon. With Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes. (105 min.)

+++ A fictionalized portrait of Hollywood director James Whale near the end of his life, as he reminisces about the long-ago fame he earned for pictures like "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man," and indulges homosexual fantasies about the unartistic young man who mows his lawn. Although the film doesn't probe Whale's personality as deeply as it might, the acting is excellent and movie buffs will enjoy its behind-the-scenes references and nostalgic film clips.

LENNY BRUCE: SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH (NOT RATED)

Director: Robert B. Weide. With Lenny Bruce, Nat Hentoff, Sally Marr, Honey Bruce, Steve Allen, Robert De Niro. (94 min.)

+++ A thoughtful look at a true American tragedy, showing how a gifted humorist was thrown into an ultimately fatal decline by a combination of his own self-destructive urges and the repressiveness of American society in the supposedly swinging '60s. A must-see for people seriously interested in moral, ethical, and legal aspects of modern popular culture.

THE SIEGE (R)

Director: Edward Zwick. With Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, Tony Shalhoub, Sami Bouajila, David Proval. (109 min.)

++ Struggling to stop a blitz of terrorist attacks on American targets, a dedicated FBI agent spars with a slippery CIA operative, and then with a tough-skinned military commander who takes control when New York is placed under martial law and Arab-Americans are herded into internment camps. The story is an odd mixture of preachiness and paranoia, but the stars provide sizzling performances and the action moves at a lively clip.

UNMADE BEDS (NOT RATED)

Director: Nicholas Barker. With Aimee Kopp, Michael Russo. (100 min.)

+++ Four ordinary New Yorkers play characters like themselves in this sometimes hilarious docu-fiction about the neverending quest for companionship and contentment, directed by Barker with methods that filmmakers Jean Rouch and Robert Duvall have also explored over the years. A fair amount of less-than-admirable behavior is displayed, but the end result is poignant, compassionate, and within the narrow limits it sets itself - almost anthropological in the crispness of its vision.

VELVET GOLDMINE (R)

Director: Todd Haynes. With Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Emily Woof, Michael Feast, Eddie Izzard. (117 min.)

+++ An explosively vivid look at the "glam rock" scene of the 1970s, when rockers like David Bowie and Iggy Popp - represented here by fictionalized counterparts - explored controversial new territories of rock-music creativity, gender ambiguity, and sexual candor. The narrative framework seems hokey at times drawn from "Citizen Kane;" it centers on a reporter tracing the history of an enigmatic rock star but the music and camera work are dazzling, and the story has solid sociological insights into a fascinating pop-culture period.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (G)

Director: Victor Fleming. With Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick. (101 min.)

++++ Reissue of the 1939 classic about a girl who's whisked by a whirlwind from black-and-white Kansas to the color-drenched land of Oz, where she makes new friends and learns valuable lessons about life. They don't make 'em like this anymore!

++++ Nostalgic, adventurous, enduring classic.

Sex/Nudity, Profanity, Drugs: None. Violence: A fairy-tale wicked witch threatens Dorothy and her friends, and at one point uses her flying-monkey army to kidnap them. But it's all very mild.

Currently in Release

AMERICAN HISTORY X (R)

Director: Tony Kaye. With Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould, Stacy Keach. (118 min.)

+ A high school boy follows in the footsteps of his big brother, an ardent neo-Nazi just back in the neighborhood after serving a prison term for a violently racist crime. The movie's subject is topical and important, but the filmmakers handle it with such ham-fisted insensitivity that the results are just about worthless. Norton's high-energy acting is the only element that saves the picture from being a total loss.

Sex/Nudity: 4 sexual situations, 2 graphic. Violence: 12 brutal scenes. Profanity: at least 365 vulgarities. Drugs: 2 scenes of drinking, 4 of cigarette smoking.

APT PUPIL (R)

Director: Bryan Singer. With Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davison, Elias Koteas, David Schwimmer. (113 min.)

++ A smart but troubled 16-year-old uncovers the Nazi past of an elderly neighbor, and blackmails the old man into mentoring the boy's own ambitions to become a thuggish, even murderous manipulator. The subject is timely, given the sad resilience of neo-Nazi ideas, but this sensationalistic tale doesn't delve very far into the issues it raises. Singer's filmmaking is far less imaginative than in "The Usual Suspects," his previous picture.

++ Intense, grim, study in insanity.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of implied sex, 1 scene of backside nudity in locker room. Violence: 5 vicious scenes, plus descriptions of Holocaust horrors. Profanity:: 44 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 15 scenes involving usually heavy use of cigarettes and alcohol.

BELOVED (R)

Director: Jonathan Demme. With Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise. (172 min.)

++ Shortly after the Civil War, a former slave visits an old friend in Ohio and discovers that her household is literally haunted by the legacy of slavery and a violent family secret from her past. The movie's subject is resonant and important, but glossy Hollywood treatment robs Toni Morrison's scorching novel of its urgency and immediacy. Aside from searingly violent images, it's more picturesque than compelling.

++1/2 Wrenching, spooky, overlong.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes of nudity, 3 implied bedroom scenes. Violence: At least 7 violent and bloody scenes. Profanity: Minimal. Drugs: 1 scene of drinking.

THE CELEBRATION (R)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg. With Henning Moritzen, Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen. (100 min.)

+++ A wealthy patriarch throws a party to celebrate his 60th birthday, but things go sour when long-submerged rivalries, jealousies, and hostilities surface among guests. This pitch-dark comedy has much to say about the seamy underside of human relationships, showing that family values are more complex than pop-culture slogans would have us believe.

Sex/Nudity: 2 sexual situations, one explicit. Violence: 8 scenes. Profanity: 39 vulgarities. Drugs: some scenes of cigarette smoking, wine drinking thought the movie.

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (PG-13)

Director: Roberto Benigni. With Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Giustino Durano. (122 min.)

++ In the late 1930s, an Italian man finds his household in peril because of his Jewish background. He determines to protect his little boy from physical and psychological harm, even when they're sent to a brutal concentration camp. This prizewinning Italian comedy has good intentions, but its exaggerated celebration of quick-witted improvisation ultimately trivializes the human and historical horrors evoked by the story.

LIVING OUT LOUD (R)

Director: Richard LaGravenese. With Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah, Rachel Leigh Cook. (102 min.)

++ Overwhelmed by loneliness after her husband dumps her, a wealthy New Yorker strikes up an unlikely friendship with the elevator operator in her apartment building, himself still grieving over the recent death of his daughter. Hunter and DeVito turn in affecting performances, but the movie steers a wobbly course between comedy and melodrama, never quite deciding which niche it wants to fall into.

PLEASANTVILLE (PG-13)

Director: Gary Ross. With Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Don Knotts, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh. (116 min.)

+++ Two average 1990s teens find themselves transported to a 1950s-type town right out of a TV sitcom, where values and ideas are as black-and-white as the cinematography. And when they succeed in opening up their neighbors' minds a bit, they touch off a ferocious backlash that reveals the dark side of "family values" clichs. Ross's comedy isn't as inventive as "The Truman Show," which it resembles in some ways, but it explores interesting ideas with nimble humor.

+++ Refreshingly original, technically inventive, fun but meaningful.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes, one fairly explicit. Violence: 3 scenes. Profanity: 16 mild expressions. Drugs: Scenes of smoking.

PRACTICAL MAGIC (PG-13)

Director: Griffin Dunne. With Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn. (105 min.)

+++ The adventures of two modern-day witches, one of whom craves an ordinary life but finds her supernatural powers continually getting in the way. Lively acting, eye-catching cinematography, and funny dialogue lift this fantasy a notch above the average until love-story clichs and horror-movie shocks bog it down in the second half.

++ Uneven, slow, unbewitching.

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene - not graphic. Violence: 8 fairly gruesome scenes (poisoning, bludgeoning, verbal threats of sexual violence). Profanity: 14 mild expressions. Drugs: 10 scenes involving alcohol, cigarettes, or both.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER: THE MOVIE (G)

Director: Bill Kowalchuk. With voices of John Goodman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Debbie Reynolds, Eric Idle, Richard Simmons, Eric Pospisil. (90 min.)

++ Amiable animation about the legendary reindeer, focusing on the small problems posed by his fabled nose and the big problems cooked up by Stormella, a powerful queen with a frosty disposition. Little kids will have great fun, although the action may be too tame for others.

SLAM (NOT RATED)

Director: Marc Levin. With Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone, Beau Sia, Lawrence Wilson. (100 min.)

+++ Busted for a drug deal, an African-American man trades the ghetto for a cell in a tough-as-nails prison, where his passion for poetry turns out to be an unexpected road to security and possible redemption. The picture is ragged around the edges, but the acting is heartfelt and the raplike poetry sessions have astonishing vigor.

Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of brief nudity. Violence: 5 scenes, mostly fistfights. Profanity: More than 300 expressions. Drugs: Smoking and drinking.

SOLDIER (R)

Director: Paul Anderson. With Kurt Russell, Jason Scott Lee, Connie Nielsen, Michael Chiklis, Gary Busey. (99 min.)

++ Stranded on an isolated outpost in deep space, a highly trained super-soldier tries to join a community of ordinary people, and winds up battling a new breed of warriors. Although it's the opposite of deep, this moody science-fiction adventure gains a bit of distinction from Russell's offbeat performance and the melancholy tone it generates.

++1/2 Inventive, macho fun, predictable finish.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 31 instances - scenes of war. Profanity: 9 mild expressions. Drugs: None.

VAMPIRES (R)

Director: John Carpenter. With James Woods, Sheryl Lee, Daniel Baldwin, Thomas Ian Griffith, Tim Guinee. (104 min.)

+ A vampire-hunter battles a centuries-old monster, helped by a Catholic priest and a prostitute. Carpenter gives the tale stylish touches, and Woods contributes his usual intensity. None of this compensates for the picture's high nastiness quotient - scene after scene oozes with misogyny, homophobia, and antireligious sentiment.

Sex/Nudity: 3 sexual situations, 2 scenes with nudity. Violence: At least 58 instances. Profanity: 90 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 10 scenes with cigarettes, cigars, and/or alcohol.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores Nov. 10)

THE HORSE WHISPERER (PG-13)

(Drama)

Director: Robert Redford. With Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Sam Neill. (164 min.)

++ A sensitive cowboy helps a girl, her mother, and her horse overcome the psychological effects of a riding accident.

+++1/2 Stunning scenery, touching, uplifting.

SMALL SOLDIERS (PG-13)

(Action/Adventure)

Director: Joe Dante. With Kirsten Dunst, Gregory 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.

++ Cynical, ballistic, violent.

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