BOSTON — 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 RELAESES AT FIRST SIGHT (PG-13) Director: Irwin Winkler. With Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Nathan Lane, Bruce Davison, Steven Weber. (124 min.) ++ A blind masseur falls in love with a young architect, regains his sight through a new surgical procedure, and experiences vision for a limited time before losing it again. The movie takes fascinating material and transforms it into routine soap opera, complete with heavy-handed dialogue and corny music. Its constructive aspects would reach a larger audience if they were handled with more subtlety and skill. Based on a story by the popular science writer Oliver Sacks, MD. Sex/Nudity: 5 mild instances. Violence: None. Profanity: 29 mild expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes of social drinking. DR. AKAGI (NOT RATED) Director: Shohei Imamura. With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Keiko Matsuzaka, Juro Kara, Masanori Sera, Jacques Gamblin. (128 min.) +++ Set in the last days of World War II, this energetic comedy-drama focuses on the adventures of an aging Japanese physician and the varied string of acquaintances he gathers while pursuing his profession. Some portions of the story are disappointingly conventional when measured against Imamura's frequently daring past. Still, the picture takes unexpected twists before it's over. IN DREAMS (R) Director: Neil Jordan. With Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Rea, Paul Guilfoyle. (112 min.) +++ After her young daughter is murdered by a mysterious madman, a clairvoyant woman realizes he's paying her sinister visits in her sleeping and waking thoughts. This imaginatively directed thriller delivers all the gore a horror fan could want, although others may watch much of it through their fingers. Bening is harrowingly real as the tormented heroine, and the screenplay raises trenchant questions about psychiatric experts who think they know more than their patients. Sex/Nudity: 1 scene. Violence: 17 scenes of weird, twisted violence. Profanity: 27 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs: 4 scenes with cigarettes. MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (NOT RATED) Director: Franois Truffaut. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Nelly Borgeaud, Michel Bouquet, Marcel Berbert. (123 min.) ++++ When it first arrived on American screens in 1969, shortened by 13 minutes from its original French version, this moody comedy-thriller seemed like a minor work by a major filmmaker. Seen a few decades later with the missing minutes restored, it leaps from the screen as an exhilarating New Wave romp, spiced with an effervescent wit that balances its insightful glimpses into surprisingly dark corners of human nature. Belmondo is brilliant as a well-to-do farmer transplanted to a South African island, and Deneuve is dazzling as his beautiful mail-order bride. Movie buffs will have fun spotting the picture's homages to bygone classics. (Originally called "La Sirne du Mississippi.") VARSITY BLUES (R) Director: Brian Robbins. With James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Scott Caan, Ron Lester, Richard Lineback, Tonie Perensky. (106 min.) + High school football players hustle for good times on the athletic field and in the local saloon, dogged by parental pressures and the fanaticism of their win-at-any-cost coach. The story is mildly entertaining in its hackneyed way, but there's no excusing the picture's exploitative treatment of almost all the female characters. Sex/Nudity: 9 instances. Violence: 2 mild instances. Profanity: 112 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 11 scenes involving alcohol and drunkenness; 2 scenes with cigarettes. WINSTANLEY (NOT RATED) Directors: Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo. With Miles Halliwell, David Bramley, Phil Oliver, Alison Halliwell. (95 min) +++ Historical drama about 17th-century religious activist Gerrard Winstanley and his group of nonviolent share-the-land radicals, known as the Diggers, who drew renewed interest from adventurous social and political thinkers around 1975, when this low-budget production was made. Cinematically uneven but consistently fascinating in its ideas and its language, much of it drawn directly from Winstanley's own writing. CURRENTLY IN RELEASE AFFLICTION (R) Director: Paul Schrader. With Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, James Coburn, Mary Beth Hurt. (115 min.) +++ Closely following Russell Banks's richly textured novel, this dark-toned drama traces a series of emotionally wrenching events in the life of a New Hampshire policeman whose family problems range from spats with his former wife to intermittent rage against his alcoholic father. Nolte gives one of his most fully realized performances, Coburn makes an amazingly powerful comeback, and Schrader's filmmaking has never been more expressive or assured. CENTRAL STATION (R) Director: Walter Salles. With Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira, Marilia Pera, Othon Bastos (115 min.) +++ A feisty Brazilian widow meets a little boy with no home, takes him under her wing, and helps him find elusive family members deep in the country's interior. The performances are engaging, and the views of rural Brazil are captivating, making the film a solid audience-pleaser even though its story seems familiar and sentimental. +++1/2 Compassionate, moving, thought-provoking. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 2 mild instances. Profanity: 24 expressions. Drugs: A couple instances of drinking. A CIVIL ACTION (PG-13) Director: Steven Zaillian. With John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, Kathleen Quinlan, William H. Macy, Dan Hadaya, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow. (113 min.) +++ A self-centered attorney takes on a case involving claims of illness caused by toxic waste and finds himself making great personal and professional sacrifices as he becomes increasingly committed to righting the insidious wrongs uncovered by his investigations. Splendid acting and a taut screenplay make the fact-based tale highly involving until its abrupt, underdeveloped ending. +++ Compelling, intense, solid acting. Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 8 expressions. Drugs: 11 scenes with alcohol and/or cigarettes. 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. Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 15 mild expressions. Drugs: 8 scenes of cigarette smoking. DOWN IN THE DELTA (PG-13) Director: Maya Angelou. With Alfre Woodard, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes, Esther Rolle, Al Freeman Jr. (110 min.) +++ Long celebrated as a poet, Angelou makes her movie-directing debut with this casually told but emotionally engaging story of an African-American woman who takes her drug-abusing daughter and endangered grandchildren from Chicago to Mississippi so they can connect with their Southern roots. The picture makes up in dramatic warmth what it lacks in technical finesse. +++ Uplifting, raw, life-affirming. Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 5 mild expressions. Drugs: 14 scenes of cocaine, smoking pot, and drinking alcohol. THE FACULTY (R) Director: Robert Rodriguez. With Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett, Famke Jannsen, Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek, Usher Raymond, Jon Stewart. (102 min.) + Teenagers discover their school has been taken over by aliens from outer space, or someplace like that, and use the products of a local drug dealer to knock them dead. The cast is attractive, the story is trite unless you haven't seen "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" even once, and the special effects are anything but special. ++ Creepy, alienesque, heart-pounding. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 21 violent scenes. Profanity: 108 expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes with cigarettes, 2 with alcohol, 5 with drug use. HILARY AND JACKIE (R) Director: Anand Tucker. With Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths, Charles Dance, David Morrissey. (121 min.) +++ Handsomely filmed drama based on the real-life relationship between Jacqueline du Pr, a cellist who became one of the world's most acclaimed musicians, and her sister, who traded in her musical talent for domestic life. The acting is splendid, the family issues are sensitively explored, and the treatment of Jackie's illness and untimely death is tactful though explicit. HURLYBURLY (R) Director: Anthony Drazan. With Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, Chazz Palminteri, Anna Paquin. (122 min.) +++ The gifted cast acts up a storm in this deliberately ill-mannered tragicomedy about a group of rowdy Hollywood men and the miserably treated women in their lives. The characters are so rude and crude that civilized moviegoers may head quickly for the exit, but the picture's anthropological interest gains morbid energy from its furious pace and dizzying dialogue, adapted by David Rabe from his successful Broadway play of 1984. u1/2 Self-centered, excessive, satirical. Sex/Nudity: 5 instances of sex; one instance of backside nudity, 3 instances of sexual innuendo. Violence: 7 instances of pushing, slapping, one person thrown from a moving car. Profanity: 177 expressions, usually harsh. Drugs: Virtually nonstop use of pot, cocaine, alcohol, and cigarettes. LITTLE VOICE (R) Director: Mark Herman. With Jane Horrocks, Michael Caine, Brenda Blethyn, Ewan McGregor. (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. +++1/2 Upbeat, hilarious, stunning performances by the two female leads. Sex/Nudity: 1 instance of semi-nudity, 3 scenes of implied sex. Violence: 1 scene of fistfighting. Profanity: 93 expressions. Drugs: 13 instances of cigarette smoking and 8 scenes with alcohol. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (R) Director: John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush. (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. ++++ Finally, a literate movie; passionate, abundantly witty. Sex/Nudity: 5 sex scenes, several with waist-up nudity; plus a few references to promiscuity. Violence: 6 instances of violence ranging from comical to an offstage killing. Profanity: 3 expressions. Drugs: 3 instances of drinking. THE THIN RED LINE (R) Director: Terrence Malick. With Sean Penn, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Gary Oldman, John C. Reilly, John Savage, John Cusack, George Clooney. (166 min.) +++ American soldiers battle elusive enemies in this sweeping adaptation of James Jones's thoughtful World War II novel about the Guadalcanal campaign. Although the story seems disjointed at times, no other war movie has tried so valiantly to convey not only the suffering of combat but the awful fissures it leaves between humanity's ideal oneness with itself and the world we live in. Flawed but fascinating. +++ Intense, violent, poetic. Sex/Nudity: 1 bedroom scene with no nudity; 3 scenes of partially nude natives or soldiers bathing. Violence: Gunfire, beatings, dismemberment; combat violence throughout. Profanity: 59 expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes of alcohol; 26 with smoking. THE THIRD MAN (NOT RATED) Director: Carol Reed. With Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Bernard Lee, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer. (100 min.) ++++ Revival of the brilliant 1949 thriller about an American writer who visits Vienna to join an old friend and gets caught up in a mystery as perplexing as the social transformations of postwar Europe itself. Welles gives one of his greatest performances as the enigmatic Harry Lime, and his presence in the picture clearly influenced Reed's directing style, which also benefits from Graham Greene's literate screenplay and Anton Karas's unforgettable zither score. OUT ON VIDEO THE TRUMAN SHOW (PG) Director: Peter Weir. With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Natasha McElhone, Noah Emmerich. (107 min.) ++++ Smart, funny, thought-provoking comedy about a painfully ordinary man who gradually learns he's the unwitting star of a real-life TV show. +++ Original, bittersweet, clever. COMING SOON ... (In stores Jan. 19) RETURN TO PARADISE (R) Director: Joseph Ruben. With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad (109 min.) ++ Two years after a vacation in Malaysia, two young Americans learn that a friend was arrested for drug dealing right after their departure and will be executed unless they return to the country for a lengthy prison term. +++ Captivating, stark, finely crafted. SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS (R) Director: Tamara Jenkins. With Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, David Krumholtz. (91 min.) +++ The tacky side of the 90210 zip code is spotlighted in this sardonic comedy about a teenage girl coping with adolescent uncertainties plus an eccentric family that can't hold onto the bottom rung of the bourgeoisie. A memorable debut from filmmaker Jenkins. ++1/2 Offbeat, lightweight, humorous.