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 EMPEROR'S SHADOW (Not rated)

Director: Zhou Xiaowen. With Ge You, Jiang Wen, Xu Qing. (123 min.)

+++ Set in ancient China, this sweeping epic centers on an ambitious monarch who slaughters huge numbers of people in an effort to create a unified nation, but meets his match in an uncooperative musician who balks at composing an anthem for his court. Although the frequently violent story is anything but subtle, it packs a tremendous visual and dramatic punch.

THE GENERAL (R)

Director: John Boorman. With Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Angeline Ball. (129 min.)

+++ Hard-hitting crime drama based on the real-life rivalry between a crafty Irish criminal and a policeman determined to end his crooked career. Gleeson gives a strikingly original performance as the mischievous felon. Still, the picture's silky black-and-white cinematography is its most eye-catching asset.

HI-LIFE (Not rated)

Director: Roger Hedden. With Campbell Scott, Eric Stoltz, Daryl Hannah, Katrin Cartlidge, Charles Durning, Moira Kelly, Peter Riegert. (86 min.)

++ Confusion reigns as a young Bostonian canvasses his acquaintances for money to help a friend with an embarrassing problem. The cast is impressive and the camera work is colorful, but the frequently scruffy story is too insubstantial to stay in memory for long.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (PG)

Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells. With Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart. (93 min.)

+++ Feature-length animation about Moses' early life, from his arrival in the Egyptian court as a baby to his leadership of the Hebrews out of bondage. The dramatically drawn images and entertaining voice-performances make this a good tool for learning a bit of Old Testament history. The filmmakers are more interested in spinning an entertaining yarn than probing the spiritual dimensions of their important subject, though.

YOU'VE GOT MAIL (PG)

Director: Nora Ephron. With Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Parker Posey, Dave Chappelle, Steve Zahn, Jean Stapleton, Greg Kinnear. (120 min.)

++ Romance blooms on the Internet between the manager of a cozy little bookshop and a wheeler-dealer who wants to replace it with a profit-hungry superstore. Hanks and Ryan are as appealing as ever, and Ephron's fashion-conscious camera gives the action a slickly attractive sheen. But the story would be tighter and snappier if it didn't spend so much energy endorsing products and extolling the virtues of big-money conglomerates over the old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit.

Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 8 expressions. Drugs: 1 scene of social drinking.

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

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. (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.

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.

+++ Sweet love story, rowdy, funny.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 5 instances of violence. chase scenes. Profanity: 26 mild vulgarities. Drugs: 2 scenes with alcohol, a few scenes with cigarettes.

JACK FROST (PG)

Director: Troy Miller. With Michael Keaton, Kelly Preston, Joseph Cross, Mark Addy. (96 min.)

++ Killed in a car crash on Christmas Eve, a rock musician returns to life as a snowman to be with his young son again. The story is rarely as touching or funny as it wants to be, but children may enjoy the family and fantasy elements.

Sex/Nudity/Drugs: None. Violence: 2 snowball fights. Profanity: 23 mild expressions.

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.

PORT DJEMA (Not rated)

Director: Eric Heumann. With Jean-Yves Dubois, Nathalie Boutefeu, Frederic Pierrot, Claire Wauthion, Edouard Montoute, Christophe Odent. (95 min.)

+++ A physician travels from Paris to a war-torn East African country on a compassionate mission, searching for a child that one of his humanitarian colleagues tried to rescue from danger before meeting an untimely death. Already respected as an important French producer, Heumann makes a striking directorial debut in this superbly controlled drama, which builds a spellbinding atmosphere of mystery and menace before a reverse-twist finale that would be equally at home in a Hollywood thriller or a Michelangelo Antonioni psychodrama.

PSYCHO (R)

Director: Gus Van Sant. With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall. (109 min.)

++ A step-by-step remake of Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant 1960 thriller about a mad killer, a lonely motel, and a woman on the run from her ordinary life. Some glimmerings of Hitchcock's magic shine through the imitative haze, but Vaughn doesn't have a fraction of Anthony Perkins's weird magnetism in the central role, and one can't help wondering what the point of the project is supposed to be.

++ Vaughn miscast, don't mess with Hitchcock, better in black and white.

Sex/Nudity: 1 instance, the infamous shower scene. Violence: 2 graphic knife slayings, guy gets whacked with golf club. Profanity: None. Drugs: Man smokes cigar.

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.

++ Hyperactive, family oriented, cutesy.

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

RUSHMORE (R)

Director: Wes Anderson. With Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, Mason Gamble, Brian Cox. (95 min.)

++++ A precocious prep-school student juggles a ridiculous number of extracurricular projects while falling in love with an attractive teacher and sparring with his romantic rival, a sleazy businessman. Anderson fulfills the promise of his inventive "Bottle Rocket" with this quirky, often hilarious comedy, and Murray gives his most uproarious performance since the groundbreaking "Groundhog Day."

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (R)

Director: John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, Simon Callow, Colin Firth. (122 min.)

++ The young playwright fights off writer's block, scrambles for ideas, and falls in love with a would-be actress who wears men's clothing as readily as a character in one of his cross-dressing comedies. This romantic farce has a talented cast and energy to spare, but somehow the ingredients don't burn as brightly as one would expect from such promising ingredients.

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.

+++1/2 Gripping moral tale, intelligent thriller, dark but very well done.

Sex/Nudity: 1 brief instance of nudity. Violence: 6 scenes of fighting and shooting.. Profanity: 99 mostly strong expressions. Drugs: 5 scenes with alcohol.

STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (PG)

Director: Jonathan Frakes. With Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn. (113 min.)

++1/2 The crew of the Enterprise finds itself in a far-off galaxy, defending a small civilization that shuns technology from bad guys who will stop at nothing to conquer the culture and steal its secret. Peppered heavily with humor and laser fights, "Insurrection" also tackles issues this world is still fighting to overcome. Trekkers will be pleased by new characters and stunning special effects. By John Christian Hoyle

+++1/2 Intelligent, uplifting, heroic.

Sex/Nudity/Drugs: None. Violence: 10 explosions and people being zapped. Profanity: 7 mild expressions.

VERY BAD THINGS (R)

Director: Peter Berg. With Jon Favreau, Leland Orser, Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater, Daniel Stern. (101 min.)

1/2 This movie makes segments of "Pulp Fiction" seem tame. A dark comedy about a bachelor party gone awry, it is excessively violent, ghoulish, and gory. "Very Bad Things" is lack-of-taste taken to the extreme. The saving grace is convincing performances by all the actors. Kudos to Stern for his portrayal of a guilt-ridden man. By Katherine Dillin

Sex/Nudity: 1 scene. Violence: 16 gory violent scenes. Profanity: 184 mostly strong expressions. Drugs: 9 instances of tobacco and alcohol use; 1 scene of cocaine use.

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. The tale has touches of winning humor, but it's too illogical and sentimental to deserve a box-office jackpot.

+++ Sweet, charming. funny.

Sex/Nudity: Several scenes of nude elderly men. Violence: None. Profanity: 19 mild expressions. Drugs: 9 instances of social drinking in local pub; 6 scenes with smoking cigarettes and 1 with cigar.

OUT ON VIDEO

AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER (G)

Director: Richard Martin. Gregory Harrison, Kevin Zegers, Cynthia Stevenson, Nora Dunn, Perry Anzilotti. (93 min.)

++ The sequel to last year's "Air Bud" brings back Josh, a junior high-schooler and Buddy, his basketball-playing golden retriever. This time they're going out for football. By M.K. Terrell

++ Clean, contemporary, a tad slow.

HALLOWEEN: H20 (R)

Director: Steve Miner. With Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Adam Arkin, LL Cool J, Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett. (86 min.)

++ Former babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now a headmistress of an isolated boarding school in California who's trying to put serial killer Michael Myers out of her mind. She's divorced, battling a drinking problem, and trying to reconnect with her teenaged son. Meanwhile, the masked maniac is hot on her trail. By Lisa Leigh Parney

++ Fun thrill ride, gory, occasionally funny.

COMING SOON ...

(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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