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

LITTLE VOICE (R)

Director: Mark Herman. With Jane Horrocks, Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent. (99 min.)

+++ A shy young woman with a gift for movie-star impersonations wants a quiet life but can't escape the pushy plans of her loud-mouthed mother and a sleazy entrepreneur who wants to capitalize on her talent. The movie is often as raucous and seedy as its less-attractive characters, but it gains power from inventive acting and poignant touches in the screenplay.

SHATTERED IMAGE (NOT RATED)

Director: Raul Ruiz. With William Baldwin, Anne Parillaud, Graham Greene, Lisanne Falk, Bulle Ogier. (103 min.)

+++ A young woman oscillates between two lives, one as a troubled newlywed and the other as a man-hating assassin, uncertain which is reality and which is a recurring dream, or whether there's any way of determining the difference. Ruiz gives the impishly inventive tale enough twists, turns, and surrealistic surprises to fill a dozen ordinary movies. Photographed by the gifted Robby Muller.

A SIMPLE PLAN (R)

Director: Sam Raimi. With Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole. (115 min.)

+++ Two brothers face a moral crisis when they stumble on a cache of apparently illicit money and decide to keep it instead of calling the authorities and turning it in. Sensitive performances and intelligent storytelling keep the sometimes-violent tale involving from start to finish, marking a giant step for director Raimi, previously known for action stories and over-the-top fantasies.

CURRENTLY IN RELEASE

BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (G)

Director: George Miller. With Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell, Mickey Rooney, Mary Stein, E.G. Daily. (95 min.)

+++ In his second screen adventure, the talking pig goes to a big city for a sheep-herding convention, landing in a strange new home populated by performing monkeys, singing cats, friendly dogs, and a weird old entertainer. The movie is crammed with wildly imaginative sights and sounds, but parents should be strongly warned that it's not for young children, or anyone else likely to be unsettled by bizarre, often violent, sometimes nightmarish images. Proceed with caution.

++ 1/2 Dark, scary, cute.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 3 scary violent scenes, 5 slapstick. Profanity: 1 vulgarity. Drugs: None.

A BUG'S LIFE (G)

Director: John Lasseter. With Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Phyllis Diller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Madeleine Kahn, Denis Leary, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde Pierce, Alex Rocco, John Ratzenberger, Edie McClurg, Roddy McDowall. (86 min.)

+++ A feisty ant decides to challenge the bullying grasshoppers who live off his colony, but when he visits the big city to recruit a warrior gang for the battle he comes back with a beat-up circus troupe that's desperate for any audience it can find. The story is amusing and the animation is first-rate, but there's less sparkling originality than in "Toy Story," the previous collaboration between Disney and the inventive Pixar people.

++++ Stunning, captivating, funny.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 17 mild, cartoon bug battles. Profanity: None. Drugs: 1 instance of bugs drinking intoxicating dew drops.

CELEBRITY (R)

Director: Woody Allen. With Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Melanie Griffith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Michael Lerner, Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, Charlize Theron, Hank Azaria. (113 min.)

++ A journalist drifts away from his marriage while cultivating acquaintances with various celebrities who cross his path for professional and personal reasons. The idea of a Woody Allen movie about fame is enticing, given the complexities of his real-life media image, but a meandering screenplay and uninspired acting make this one of his thinnest, tinniest films.

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.

+++ Eccentric, inspirational, intellectual.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence/Drugs: None. Profanity: 15 mild expressions.

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 career.

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 old-fashioned historical epics.

+++ Majestic, complex, bloody.

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

ENEMY OF THE STATE (R)

Director: Tony Scott. With Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Regina King, Loren Dean, Lisa Bonet, Jake Busey, Gabriel Byrne, Barry Pepper. (128 min.)

++ After a congressman is murdered, a piece of deadly evidence comes into the hands of an easygoing lawyer who doesn't even know he has it, and can't imagine why a rogue security agent has mustered all the high-tech power of the US government to track him down and ruin his life. The movie itself has plenty of high-tech power, spinning out action so explosive you'll hardly notice how preposterous the story is or how cardboard-thin the characters are.

++1/2 Herky-jerky cinematography, far-fetched, provocative.

Sex/Nudity: 2 suggestive scenes involving such things as scantily clad women in a lingerie shop but no sex scenes. Violence: 23 instances of violence with gunfire. chase scenes. Profanity: 96 oaths and often harsh vulgarities. Drugs: 5 scenes with alcohol, one with cigarettes.

HOME FRIES (PG-13)

Director: Dean Parisot. With Drew Barrymore, Catherine O' Hara, Jake Busey, Luke Wilson,Shelley Duvall. (105 min.)

++ An unexplained corpse, a pregnant fast-food waitress, and two feuding brothers are among the characters of this very dark, fitfully amusing comedy. Barrymore and Busey walk away with the acting honors, but no aspect of the picture is more than mildly entertaining.

JERRY SPRINGER: RINGMASTER (R)

Director: Neil Abramson. With Jerry Springer, Jaime Pressly, Michael Dudikoff, Molly Hagan, Jai White. (95 min.)

DUD I'll keep it short. Crude. Trashy. Lewd. Foul. Smutty. Waste of film. Waste of time. These are a few choice words that come to mind which describe this awful tale of a trailer-park love triangle that airs their dirty laundry on Jerry's TV talk show. Note to Mr. Ringmaster: Leave the movie making to Oprah. By John Christian Hoyle

THE LAST EMPEROR (NOT RATED)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Victor Wong, Ryuichi Sakamoto. (219 min.)

++++ The sweeping saga of China's modern history as seen through the eyes of the country's last monarch, who begins his odyssey in the venerable Forbidden City and ends it in the chaotic throes of Mao Zedong's cultural revolution. The epic won nine Academy Awards when first released in 1987. Bertolucci reedited it for this "director's cut" version, and restored 40 minutes of footage trimmed from the original. The result is majestic in every way, vibrantly acted and filmed to perfection by Vittorio Storaro, arguably the world's greatest cinematographer.

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.

MEET JOE BLACK (R)

Director: Martin Brest. With Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Claire Forlani, Jake Weber, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeffrey Tambor, David S. Howard. (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.

+++ Romantic, beautiful, not insidious.

Sex/Nudity: one lengthy sex scene. Violence: 1 car accident. Profanity: 29 expressions. Drugs: 5 instance of social drinking.

THE RUGRATS MOVIE (G)

Directors: Norton Virgien, Igor Kovalyov. With E.G. Daily, Kath Soucie, Whoopie Goldberg, David Spade. (87 min.)

++ A new baby enters the Pickles family, sparking jealousy in his big brother and danger for his friends when they load the newcomer into a wagon and lose their way in the woods. The animation is rough around the edges, and the sometimes vulgar jokes lack the wit of a good "Simpsons" episode, but fans of the TV series will be pleased.

++ Hyper-active, family oriented, cutesy.

Sex/Nudity/Drugs/Profanity: None. Violence: 2 crashes, but no one gets hurt.

SAVIOR (R)

Director: Peter Antonijevic. With Dennis Quaid, Nastassja Kinski, Stellan Skarsgrd, Sergej Trifunovic, Matasa Ninkovic. (120 min.)

+++ Driven to despair by the geopolitical violence of today's turbulent world, an American becomes a mercenary fighter in Bosnia. There, he encounters ever-higher levels of brutality but also finds a chance for redemption when he's forced to care for the newborn baby of a woman who's been traumatized beyond endurance by the horrors around her. Although the story doesn't always ring emotionally true, the acting is vigorous and a message of hope eventually glimmers through the frequently horrifying carnage.

SUE (NOT RATED)

Director: Amos Kollek. With Anna Thompson, Tahnee Welch, Matthew Powers, Tracee Ross, Robert Kya Hill, John Ventimiglia, Austin Pendleton. (91 min.)

++ A young New Yorker drifts into depression while navigating through the day-to-day challenges of finding a job, paying the rent, and dodging at least some of the men who want to take advantage of her open nature. Thompson's acting has an interesting mixture of toughness and vulnerability, and might be truly impressive if the screenplay gave her more meaningful material to work with.

UNMADE BEDS (NOT RATED)

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

+++ Four 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.

WAKING NED DEVINE (PG)

Director: Kirk Jones. With Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch. (91 min.)

++ A lottery prize is about to go unclaimed because its owner has died, so residents of his little Irish village decide to cover up his demise and pocket the money themselves. The tale has touches of winning humor, but it's too illogical and sentimental to deserve a box-office jackpot.

OUT ON VIDEO

THE MASK OF ZORRO (PG-13)

Director: Martin Campbell. With Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Maury Chaykin, Stuart Wilson, Matt Letscher. (136 min.)

++ The legendary freedom-fighter of 19th-century California trains a young bandit to carry on his struggle against a former Spanish governor who has already wrecked Zorro's family and now wants to create an independent nation on the backs of its ruthlessly exploited people.

++1/2 Spirited, classic hero-villain tale, fun.

COMING SOON ...

(In stores Dec. 15)

LETHAL WEAPON 4 (R)

Director: Richard Donner. With Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Renee Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li. (127 min.)

++ As fans of this series know, the lethal weapons aren't the guns the guys carry, but the guys themselves - two L.A. cops whose pursuit of wrongdoers often causes more damage than the wrongdoers.

++ Explosive, gratuitous violence, plotless.

(In stores Dec. 29)

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. ++ Style without substance, disjointed, surreal.

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