The Monitor Movie Guide

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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 DRY CLEANING (NOT RATED) Director: Anne Fontaine. With Miou-Miou, Charles Berling, Stanislas Merhar. (97 min.) ++ French drama about a middle-class couple who meets a young man working as a female impersonator in a nightclub act, offers him a conventional job in their dry-cleaning business, and enters a growing web of tensions and rivalries. Capably acted, sexually candid, ultimately insubstantial. Also known as "Nettoyage sec."

FANTASTIC PLANET (PG) Director: Ren Laloux. With voices of Jennifer Drake, Sylvie Lenoir, Jean Topart, Jean Valmont. (71 min.) +++ Reissue of a 1973 animated feature, presented with its original French soundtrack for the first time in US theaters. Set on an exotic world inhabited by humanoids of wildly different sizes, the fantasy reflects the interest of director Laloux and designer Roland Topor in surrealistic art. It's too strange and disorienting to be appropriate for younger children since it deals with adult themes.

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THE LAST DAYS (NOT RATED) Director: James Moll. With Tom Lantos, Irene Zisblatt, Rene Firestone, Alice Lok Cahana, Bill Basch. (86 min.) +++ This first-person account of suffering and survival among Hungarian victims of the Holocaust contains much stirring and revealing material, although the conventionality of its style diminishes the freshness and urgency of its content to a degree. Steven Spielberg is credited as executive producer.

PAYBACK (R) Director: Brian Helgeland. Mel Gibson, Deborah Kara Unger, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, William Devane, Bill Duke, Maria Bello, Gregg Henry. (105 min.) + An interesting cast is wasted in this misanthropic thriller about a criminal bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former partner. Mayhem is expected in this sort of story, but the filmmakers add torture and sadomasochism into the bargain, and it's hard to remember a mainstream movie that aims so much gleeful violence at its female characters. It's enough to make viewers rethink Gibson's penchant for suffering in "Braveheart" and other pictures. ++ Lots of 'attitude,' no redeeming qualities, cold-blooded. Sex/Nudity: Four scenes with generally sadistic sexual situations. Violence: 21 scenes involving violence (beatings, torture, gunshots, explosions, kidnapping). Profanity: 81 expressions. Drugs: 34 scenes with cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, and/or hard drugs.

PIZZICATA (NOT RATED) Director: Edoardo Winspeare. With Cosimo Cinieri, Fabio Frascaro, Chiara Torelli, Anna Dimitri, Ines d'Ambrosio, Paolo Massafra, Lamberto Probo. (93 min.) +++ A peasant family shelters an Italian-American pilot shot down near an isolated Italian village during World War II, sparking jealousy and suspicion when he falls in love with a young woman of the household. This quietly realistic drama is spiced with energetic music and moments of expressive camera work, compensating for some unpersuasive acting and dull spots in the story.

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." Sex/Nudity: 1 scene of nude women on posters. Violence: 5 scenes that include rock throwing, fistfights, and a BB gun. Profanity: 26 expressions. Drugs: 5 scenes of drinking, 15 of smoking cigarettes.

Currently in Release ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE (R) Director: Larry Clark. With James Woods, Vincent Kartheiser, Melanie Griffith. (101 min.) ++ An experienced thug invites a drug-abusing teenager to become his protg, leading to a violent crime spree. Clark's first movie since the controversial "Kids" manages to be jarringly naturalistic and flagrantly melodramatic at the same time, bursting with explicit horrors that sound a loud alarm over antisocial elements in America's heartland.

AT FIRST SIGHT (PG-13) Director: Irwin Winkler. With Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Nathan Lane, 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 science writer Oliver Sacks, MD. +++ Touching, unsentimental, refreshing ending. Sex/Nudity: 5 mild instances. Violence: 1 mild scene. Profanity: 29 mild expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes of drinking.

CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (PG) Director: Majid Majidi. With Mohammad Amir Naji, Mir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi. (88 min.) +++ Burdened by the poverty of his family, a young boy in Tehran dreams of winning a prize in a local race so he won't have to share a single pair of shoes with his sister. This modestly produced family drama has all the poignancy and humor associated with today's vibrant Iranian film industry.

THE GENERAL (R) Director: John Boorman. With Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley. (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.

GLORIA (R) Director: Sidney Lumet. With Sharon Stone, Jean-Luke Figueroa, Jeremy Northam, George C. Scott. (119 min.) + Stone plays Gloria, an aging, tough-as-nails New Yorker who's bitter because she took the rap for her thug boyfriend and served prison time. She finds new meaning in her life when she decides to mother a seven-year-old boy whose family has been brutally murdered. Stone seems uncomfortable on screen, her Bronx accent is annoying, and the supporting cast needs to invest in acting lessons. By John Christian Hoyle Sex/Nudity: Some sexual innuendo and 1 instance of backside male nudity. Violence: 9 instances of shootings and beatings. Profanity: 104 instances, mostly strong. Drugs: 1 scene of wine drinking.

THE HI-LO COUNTRY (R) Director: Stephen Frears. With Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, Patricia Arquette, Sam Elliott. (114 min.) ++ The friendship of two rowdy young men turns into rivalry when they both become infatuated with a married woman whose morality is as mercurial as the tumbleweed blowing through their New Mexico town. Strong acting and eye-catching camera work can't outweigh the clichs of the hackneyed love-triangle story. Sex/Nudity: 7 mild instances of implied adultery and sexual innuendo. Violence: 8 mild scenes ranging from horse injuries to fistfights. Profanity: 74 expressions. Drugs: 7 scenes of smoking; 1 instance of tobacco chewing, 14 scenes with alcohol.

MY NAME IS JOE (NOT RATED) Director: Ken Loach. With Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, Davie McKay. (105 min.) +++ A social worker starts a complex romantic relationship with a recovering alcoholic who's eager to start a constructive new life but apprehensive about the challenges he knows he'll face. Loach is one of the world's most deeply humanistic and politically alert filmmakers, and this expertly acted drama finds him close to his top form.

PLAYING BY HEART (R) Director: Willard Carroll. With Gilian Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery. (121 min.) u1/2 Four couples made up of such big names as Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Madeleine Stowe, Gillian Anderson, and Anthony Edwards, must resolve their tortured relationships by coming to terms with death, disease, and emotional barriers. Hardly fun and games. While the previews promise romance, love plays second fiddle to gloomy melodrama. More lightheartedness and fewer grim faces would have been a welcome relief. By Katherine Dillin u1/2 Unenjoyable, miserable, implausible. Sex/Nudity: 7 scenes of implied sex and adultery. Violence: 2 mild instances. Profanity: 41 expressions, mostly harsh. Drugs: 23 scenes with drinking, mostly at bars.

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.

SHE'S ALL THAT (PG-13) Director: Robert Iscove. With Freddie Prinze Jr., Kieran Culkin, Jodi Lyn O' Keefe, Anna Paquin. (96 min.) +++ The most popular boy in school bets that he can turn an art-class dork into the prom queen, then finds himself (surprise!) captivated by her hidden charms. This teenage "Pygmalion" is predictable and a bit gawky, and some won't like its flashes of gross-out humor. The cast is appealing, though, and there are a few hilarious jokes tucked in around the edges of the plot. Sex/Nudity: 2 mild scenes. Violence: A few scenes of shoving and harassment. Profanity: 49 expressions. Drugs: 3 scenes with teenage drinking, a few scenes with teenage smoking.

SIX-STRING SAMURAI (PG-13) Director: Lance Mungia. With Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McGuire, Stephane Gauger, John Sakisian. (81 min.) + Surreal action comedy about a wandering warrior who rescues an endangered orphan and faces off against Death himself as part of a quest to become the post-apocalyptic king of rock 'n' roll. Fantasy fans may enjoy some of the gimmicks, but "The Road Warrior" did much of this better and sooner.

THE THEORY OF FLIGHT (R) Director: Paul Greengrass. With Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh, Gemma Jones. (100 min.) ++ A physically disabled woman strikes up a friendship with an emotionally troubled man, then asks him to help her have a sexual experience before the end of her life. Carter's virtuoso acting isn't enough to make this dramatic comedy as credible and life-affirming as it sincerely wants to be.

THE 24 HOUR WOMAN (R) Director: Nancy Savoca. With Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patti LuPone, Wendell Pierce. (95 min.) +++ Eager for the joys of motherhood, a TV producer combines the personal with the professional by making her pregnancy a part of her show, then runs into difficulty juggling her many responsibilities. The movie is rough around the edges, and the ending doesn't resolve the questions raised. But it's bursting with energy and commitment, reflecting Savoca's dedication to exploring women's lives.

VARSITY BLUES (R) Director: Brian Robbins. With James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Scott Caan, Ron Lester. (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, but there's no excusing the picture's exploitative treatment of almost all the female characters. ++ Predictable, crass, teen flick. Sex/Nudity: 9 scenes of nudity or sex, including mooning, strip bar featuring female biology teacher, and students riding naked in a police car. Violence: 2 mild instances. Profanity: 112 expressions, often harsh. Drugs: 11 scenes involving alcohol and drunkenness; 2 scenes with cigarettes.

OUT ON VIDEO THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (R) Directors: Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly. With Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott. (120 min.) ++ Still hopelessly in love with a high school heartthrob he hardly knew, a New England yuppie tracks her down to Miami. This comedy is as down-and-dirty as you'd expect from the Farrelly team. ++ Gross-out comedy, crass, irreverent.

Coming Soon ... (In stores Feb. 9) ROUNDERS (R) Director: John Dahl. With Matt Damon, Edward Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich. (120 min.) ++ The hero is an on-and-off law student with a passion for poker, and an honest streak that keeps him from cheating. The acting is solid, but the story builds less drama and suspense than its high-stakes subject might lead you to expect. ++1/2 Seamy, intense, sobering.

ANTZ (PG) Director: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson. Voices of Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Danny Glover. (83 min.) +++ Depressed by the monotony of his ant-colony life, a worker ant trades places with a soldier ant so he can see a princess he's fallen in love with. There's plenty of action in this computer-animated comedy, but it's no match for "Toy Story" in humor and originality. ++1/2 Clever, amusing, overambitious.

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