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
BESIEGED (R) Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. With David Thewlis, Thandie Newton. (92 min.) +++ After fleeing her violence-torn homeland, an African woman goes to work for an eccentric English composer in Rome, developing a complex and increasingly affectionate relationship with him. Inventive acting and imaginative filmmaking transform what might have been a minor variation on Bertoluccis notorious Last Tango in Paris into an offbeat fantasia thats romantic, whimsical, and unsettling by turns.
THE LOVE LETTER (R) Director: Peter Chan. With Kate Capshaw, Blythe Danner, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck, Gloria Stuart. (90 min.) ++ Capshaw stars as a bookstore owner who discovers an anonymous love letter and suddenly finds herself entangled in a love triangle with a college boy (Everett Scott) and a lifelong admirer (Selleck). Capshaws best friend, played by Degeneres, also finds the letter and thinks its written for her too. Soon a wedge is driven between them because each woman thinks the poetic letter was meant for her. Its a solid effort from director Chan (his first American movie), but the story suffers from a weak screenplay and an uninspiring ending. By Lisa Leigh Parney
THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (NOT RATED) Director: Wojciech Has. With Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Joanna Jedryka, Aleksandr Fogiel, Barbara Kraftowna. (180 min.) +++ Reissue of a minor classic of Polish cinema from 1965, restored to its full length. Stories grow out of other stories, rather like bamboo shoots, during the frequently dreamlike experiences of an 18th-century military officer who enters a series of fantastic adventures after finding a mysterious old book. In Polish with subtitles.
STAR WARS: EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE (PG) Director: George Lucas. With Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Pernilla August, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Terence Stamp, Ian McDiarmid, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz. (132 min.) +++ The series heads into its second trilogy as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi meet a boy named Anakin Skywalker on the desert world Tatooine during a dispute between the minor planet Naboo and a powerful trade federation. The computer-driven effects are impressive, but the adventure is hampered by a flat screenplay, dull acting, and just a hint as to why the dark side of the Force will eventually transform cute little Anakin into the evil Darth Vader. +++ Thrilling visuals, earnest, action-packed. Sex/Nudity/Profanity/Drugs: None. Violence: Many scenes of bloodless combat.
THE THIRD MAN (NOT RATED) Director: Carol Reed. With Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard. (104 min.) ++++ Reissue of the 1949 classic in a full-length version 11 minutes longer than the edition previously seen in American theaters. Cotten is wickedly good as a hack writer visiting Vienna immediately after World War II, and Welles gives his most popular performance as a childhood friend gone desperately bad. Welles also influenced Reeds brilliantly baroque filmmaking style and contributed some memorable dialogue that you wont find in Graham Greenes entertaining novel. And dont forget the music by Anton Karas, one of the most haunting scores in movie history.
CURRENTLY IN RELEASE AFTER LIFE (NOT RATED) Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda. With Oda Erika, Arata, Naito Taketoshi, Tani Kei, Naito Takashi. (118 min.) +++ The setting of this gentle Japanese allegory is a homely old building where newly deceased people are asked to choose their most valued memory, which is then preserved by being filmed on a movie set. The premise seems strained at first, but the fantasy builds delicate emotional power as it explores the lives and wishes of its ghostly movie producers as well as the people theyre trying to serve. In Japanese with subtitles.
ELECTION (R) Director: Alexander Payne. With Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell. Delaney Driscoll. (104 min.) ++ The director of Citizen Ruth strikes again with this pitch-dark satire about a high-school election, three contrasting candidates, and a teacher with very divided loyalties. Many moviegoers will find its rough sexual humor unnecessary, unjustified, and offensive. Others may consider this the perfect teen comedy for the Clinton era, saVy and cynical about the adolescent version of modern politics. Either way, Broderick and Witherspoon give perfectly matched performances at the head of a first-rate cast. +++1/2 Hilarious, satirical, sharp characters. Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of sex (one extramarital), a girl performs oral sex, and many instances of innuendo. Violence: Main character gets stung on his eyelid by a bee. Profanity: 35 expressions. Drugs: 6 instances of social drinking and/or smoking pot.
ENTRAPMENT (PG-13) Director: Jon Amiel. With Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Will Patton, Ving Rhames, Maury Chaykin, Kevin McNally. (105 min.) ++ Romance and intrigue mingle as an insurance-company investigator crosses the path of a master thief who specializes in stealing priceless art. As usual in caper movies, the characters are duplicitous, and circumstances are rarely what they seem. The movies main charm comes from Connerys smooth acting, but Zeta- Jones also makes an appealing impression. ++1/2 Lacks suspense, weak dialogue, exciting techno-feats. Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes of nudity. Violence: 3 instances. Profanity: 17 expressions. Drugs: 1 instance of drug use, 4 of alcohol.
THE KING OF MASKS (NOT RATED) Director: Wu Tianming. With Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-Ying, Zhang Riuyang, Zhao Zhigang. (101 min.) +++ Dwelling in a rigidly traditional society that values youth over age and males over females, an old Chinese entertainer and a homeless little girl become unlikely partners in the quest for a reasonably contented life. The story becomes slow and repetitive during its long middle section, but the acting is expressive, and some of the cinematography is dazzling. In Mandarin, with subtitles.
THE MATRIX (R) Directors: The Wachowski Brothers. With Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano. (132 min.) +++ Juiced up with nonstop action and a megadose of special effects, this science-fiction thrill ride begins with the paranoid premise that evil conspirators have all humanity trapped in a web of illusion that perpetuates their control by blinding us to reality. The plot switches gears every time it threatens to run out of energy, which keeps the show as lively as it is preposterous. +++ Original, clever, solid sci-fi. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 11 scenes. Profanity: 48 expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes of smoking and/or drinking.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM (PG-13) Director: Michael Hoffman. With Kevin Kline, Michel Pfeiffer, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Sophie Marceau, Stanley Tucci, David Strathairn. (115 min.) ++ The latest adaptation of Shakespeares romantic comedy isnt exactly the real thing. It trims the text, shifts the action to turn-of-the-century Italy, and douses the soundtrack with opera music but it retains the antic plot about lovers and actors discombobulated by magic spells, and serves up some of the Bards most popular verse. Often less than spellbinding, the fault lies with uneven performances and Hoffmans reliance on theatrical devices instead of truly cinematic effects. ++ Good scenery, no sparks, well costumed. Sex/Nudity: 5 brief instances. Violence: None. Profanity: 3 expressions. Drugs: 5 scenes of drinking.
THE MUMMY (PG-13) Director: Stephen Sommers. With Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Kevin J.O. Connor, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Hyde. (125 min.) ++ High-tech remake of the 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian schemer who launches an evil plot after 20th-century adventurers revive him. The movie is long, bombastic, and violent, but fantasy fans may enjoy its fast- moving energy, and some of the digitized effects are entertainingly hokey. ++1/2 Imaginative, over the top, adventurous. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 23 instances of gory gun battles and mummy fights. Profanity: 23 mild expressions. Drugs: 5 instances.
MY DINNER WITH ANDR (NOT RATED) Director: Louis Malle. With Andr Gregory, Wallace Shawn. (110 min.) ++++ Reissue of Malles cleverly directed rendition of a long, entertaining conversation between director Gregory and playwright Shawn over a leisurely supper. Some claim the 1982 movie isnt cinematic enough to qualify for greatness, but think of it as a sort of verbal jazz duet and youll have a fine, freewheeling time.
PUSHER (NOT RATED) Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. With Kim Bodnia, Laura Drasbaek, Zlatko Buric, Slavko Labovic. (105 min.) +++ The life and times of a Danish drug dealer in trouble with dangerous colleagues. The action is horrific at times, but it adds up to a vigorous message about the hazards of a criminal life. In Danish, with subtitles.
TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (PG) Director: Franco Zeffirelli. With Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Charlie Lucas, Baird Wallace. (116 min.) ++ A group of colorful, strong-willed English women known in Florence, Italy, as the Scorpioni for their biting wit, help guide a young boy born out of wedlock into manhood and a life of art. This coming-of-age tale set on the brink of World War II which also tells the story of a vanishing quiet city has everything going for it: a wonderful cast and a beautiful setting, but it lacks both focus and character development. By Lisa Leigh Parney ++1/2 Amusing, quirky, more choppy than charming. Sex/Nudity: 1 bedroom scene. Violence: 2 scenes. Profanity: 5 expressions. Drugs: 13 instances of smoking and drinking.
THIS IS MY FATHER (R) Director: Paul Quinn. With Aidan Quinn, James Caan, John Cusack, Stephen Rea, Donal Donnelly. (120 min.) ++ An impressive cast lends intermittent appeal to the story of an American teacher who visits Ireland to explore his familys troubled emotional roots. The tale is powerful in its understated US scenes, but rambles a bit when it switches to the Irish countryside. Caan does the most memorable acting, and Quinn is also strong in his brothers feature-filmmaking debut. +++ Gentle, poignant, touching. Sex/Nudity: 1 sex scene, a couple instances of innuendo. Violence: 5 mild scenes. Profanity: 26 expressions. Drugs: 9 instances of smoking and/or drinking.
THE WINSLOW BOY (G) Director: David Mamet. With Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Gemma Jones, Matthew Pidgeon. (110 min.) ++++ Superbly acted, elegantly filmed adaptation of Terrence Rattigans classic 1940s drama about an aging Edwardian father who launches a legal fight to clear his sons name after the boy is convicted of a petty crime, with repercussions that affect his family. The subject remains as relevant as ever, touching on still-timely issues like feminist activism and media madness. This is the kind of movie that literate viewers pine for, laced with gracefulness and wit. ++++ Inspiring, compelling, touches the heart. Sex/Nudity/Violence/Profanity: None. Drugs: Several scenes with smoking and social drinking.
XIU XIU: THE SENT-DOWN GIRL (R) Director: Joan Chen. With Lu Lu, Lopsang, Gao Jie, Li Qianqian. (99 min.) +++ During the Cultural Revolution about three decades ago, a Chinese teenager leaves home for an educational experience in the countryside, where she is brutally exploited by men holding power in the region. Chinese authorities have censored this movie, apparently upset at its negative treatment of a disturbing subject, but audiences are likely to find its candor as honest as it is unsettling. In Mandarin, with subtitles.
OUT ON VIDEO 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 hes 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. ++ Nightmarish, edgy, forgettable.
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
Coming Soon ... (In stores May 25)
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (R) Director: Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies. (160 min.) +++ This extremely violent World War II drama focuses on an Army captain ordered to penetrate dangerous territory and rescue a private whose mother has already lost three sons in combat. +++ Masterpiece, grimly realistic, definitely not for kids.