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

DANCING AT LUGHNASA (PG)

Director: Pat O Connor. With Meryl Streep. Michael Gambon, Sophie Thompson, Kathy Burke, Catherine McCormack, Brid Brennan, Rhys Ifans. (94 min.)

+++ Likable, low-key version of Brian Friel's play about five rural Irish sisters and a slightly mad brother who symbolizes the change that overtakes even the simplest of lives. Not surprisingly, Streep makes the strongest impression, wielding an Irish brogue as expressively as the many other accents she's mastered during her versatile career.

I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (PG)

Director: Arlene Sanford. With Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jessica Biel, Gary Cole, Adam LaVorgna. (90 min.)

+ Stranded in California as the holiday draws near, a young New Yorker tries to win back his angry girlfriend, defeat a rival for her affection, and reach home by Christmas Eve without a penny in the pocket of the Santa Claus suit he is wearing. This occasionally vulgar comedy falls awfully flat most of the time, but there are a couple of amusing moments during a side trip to what the dialogue describes as "a fake Bavarian village in the middle of nowhere."

MEET JOE BLACK (R)

Director: Martin Brest. With Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden. (174 min.)

++ "Touched by an Angel" meets "Wall Street" in this long, sometimes labored fantasy depicting Death as a handsome young man who takes a vacation to explore the everyday world and romance the daughter of a wealthy executive. Brest deserves credit for letting the story unfold at a thoughtful pace, but the drama falls apart in the last half-hour, gushing with exaggerated emotions and abandoning its fairy-tale premises for an unconvincing feel-good finale.

WELCOME TO WOOP WOOP (R)

Director: Stephan Elliott. With Jonathon Schaech, Rod Taylor, Susie Porter, Dee Smart, Richard Moir, Maggie Kirkpatrick, Paul Mercurio, Rachel Griffiths, Barry Humphries, Tina Louise. (96 min.)

+ Rambunctious comedy about an American con artist who escapes his enemies by scurrying to the Australian outback, only to be trapped in unwanted marriage with a new girlfriend who's as crude as the scruffy little town she lives in. Elliott showed uncommon originality in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," but this time his approach seems less boldly inventive than cheaply meretricious. A few clips from the classic "South Pacific" provide the only real fun.

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.

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.

++++ Nostalgic, real life, solid acting.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes of nudity, 3 implied bedroom scenes. Violence: None. Profanity: Minimal. Drugs: 21 scenes of drinking, smoking and drugs.

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.

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.

Sex/Nudity: 8 instances. Violence: 19 instances. Profanity: 3 mild expressions. Drugs: 1 instance of drinking.

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.

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.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: some slapstick. Profanity: Mild. Drugs: Smoking and drinking.

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.

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.

++ Hollywood slick, slow, predictable.

Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes - including nudity. Violence: 20 scenes. Profanity: 33 obscenities. Drugs: 7 scenes involving alcohol and cigarettes.

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 never-ending 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.

Sex/Nudity: 25 instances, many graphic. Violence: None. Profanity: 56 strong expressions. Drugs: 3 instances of drinking and smoking.

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 Pop - 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.

++ Flamboyant, fragmented, glamorous.

Sex/Nudity: 19 instances, some graphic, homosexual. Violence: 2 instances. Profanity: 44 expressions. Drugs: More than 20 instance of drinking, drugs, smoking.

THE WATERBOY (PG-13)

Director: Frank Coraci. With Adam Sandler, Kathy Bates, Jerry Reed, Henry Winkler, Fairuza Balk. (140 min.)

++ Sandler plays a lovable but dimwitted Louisiana-bayou water boy who is sheltered by his overprotective mama and picked on by the football team - that is, until he unleashes his hidden talent for tackling quarterbacks and 300-pound linemen. If you're a Sandler fan, "The Waterboy" is what you want: a deluge of funny, inane jokes. However, if you despised "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison," save your dough. By John Christian Hoyle

++ Juvenile, absurd, good for a laugh.

Sex/Nudity: None Violence: 38 scenes of cartoonish violence. Profanity: 34 vulgarities. Drugs: 8 scenes of cigarette smoking, drinking, and drugs.

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, 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.

OUT ON VIDEO

(In stores Nov. 17)

CAN'T HARDLY WAIT (PG-13)

Director: Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan. With Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ethan Embry, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Seth Green, Jenna Elfman. (98 min.)

+ This formula teen flick has engaging performances and a few laughs as high school seniors sort out their lives at a graduation party-cum-binge. It's not suitable for the teenage audience it targets. By M.K. Terrell

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (R)

Director: Terry Gilliam. With Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Ellen Barkin, Cameron Diaz, Penn Jillette. (118 min.)

++ Hyperactive screen version of Hunter S. Thompson's deadpan book about a journalist and an attorney peering through a drug-induced haze at the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

++ Dark, depraved, out of control.

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