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 RELEASES Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (PG-13) Director: Jay Roach. With Mike Myers, Heather Graham, Michael York, Elizabeth Hurley, Seth Green, Robert Wagner. (100 min.) ++ The silly secret agent returns in his first sequel, wherein the evil Dr. Evil time-travels to the 60s and steals the mojo that powers our heros sex appeal. The satire is crammed with sexual and scatological humor; some may find this Rabelaisian and refreshing, while others will detect the end of civilization as we know it.
Desert Blue (R) Director: Morgan J. Freeman. With John Heard, Casey Affleck, Christina Ricci, Brendan Sexton III, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Sara Gilbert. (87 min.) ++ A young actress hangs out with like-minded teenagers when she and her professor dad are stranded in a rural California town by a nuclear-hazard scare. Low-key performances and a meandering plot are bolstered by Freemans skill at building a quietly absorbing atmosphere.
The Last Cigarette (Not rated) Directors: Kevin Rafferty, Frank Keraudren. With Henry Waxman, various movie and TV performers, members of the tobacco industry. (82 min.) +++ An engrossing, informative, sometimes hilarious look at the history of tobacco smoking in the mass media, from recent congressional hearings to the kinds of TV ads that arent allowed anymore. Entertainingly assembled, if not very deep or analytical.
The Red Violin (Not rated) Director: Franois Girard. With Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, Don McKellar, Jean-Luc Bideau, Carlo Cecchi, Jason Flemyng, Sylvia Chang. (130 min.) +++ This omnibus-style film traces the fictional history of a superbly crafted violin, and the mystery attached to it, as it passes from 17th-century Italy to China during the Cultural Revolution, with stops in Austria and England along the way. Movies in this genre are often made with more attention to international marketing than first-rate storytelling, but Girard invests each episode of this Canadian production with dramatic credibility and emotional strength. In four languages, with English subtitles when appropriate.
Return With Honor (Not rated) Directors: Freida Lee Mock, Terry Sanders. With Everett Alvarez, Jim Stockdale, Jerry Denton, John McCain, Robbie Risner. (102 min.) +++ Gripping, touching, sometimes warmly humorous documentary about American fliers shot down during the Vietnam war and held as prisoners under conditions that were often too horrifying to be imagined. A lovingly filmed tribute to human resilience.
Trekkies (PG-13) Director: Roger Nygard. With Denise Crosby, members of the Star Trek cast, assorted fans. (85 min.) +++ Call them trekkies or trekkers or just dedicated fans, people committed to the Star Trek way of life are the focus of this quirky, often hilarious documentary. Kirk, Spock, Picard, and the Starship Enterprise will never look the same.
Currently in Release American Hollow (Not rated) Director: Rory Kennedy. With Iree Bowling and members of the Bowling family. (90 min.) +++ Thoughtful documentary about a year in the life of an extended family that has lived for years in the same rural Kentucky area, capturing close-up views of everything from an on-and-off engagement to a sons incarceration for a crime he didnt commit. The movie presents much to learn from, although it would be more persuasive if it probed the filmmakers own relationship with the people theyve intruded on.
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.
Buena Vista Social Club (Not rated) Director: Wim Wenders. With Ry Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Rubn Gonzlez, Compay Segundo. (106 min.) +++ This excursion into Cubas traditional pop-music scene had its start when Cooder decided to record an album in Havana, and one of Germanys most expressive filmmakers decided to make a record of the experience, spotlighting a number of old-time musicians who were rediscovered in the course of this project. Not great cinema, but lots of toe-tapping fun.
The Castle (R) Director: Rob Sitch. With Michael Caton, Anne Tenney, Stephen Curry, Sophie Lee, Anthony Simcoe, Charles (Bud) Tingwell. (85 min.) +++ An ordinary man who loves his home refuses to budge when a government-run airport decides to expand onto his property. He launches a feisty campaign to protect his rights despite a total lack of resources to wage the battle. This often hilarious Australian comedy is touching, smart, and brimming with genuine family values.
Finding North (Not rated) Director: Tanya Wexler. With Wendy Makkena, John Benjamin Hickey. (95 min.) + A romantically inclined woman accompanies an unhappy gay friend on a pilgrimage from New York to Texas so he can visit the childhood home of his recently deceased lover. The movie aims for laughter and emotion but sinks into silliness, sentimentality, and schmaltz.
Instinct (R) Director: Jon Turteltaub. With Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, John Ashton, George Dzundza. (126 min.) ++ Looking like Hannibal Lecter with a beard, Hopkins plays another demented scientist a primate researcher whos killed some African park rangers and Gooding plays an ambitious psychiatrist who wants to learn why he did it. Both stars have high-octane moments, but too many of the storys ideas are borrowed from better pictures. Call it The Silence of the Gorillas. +++ Intriguing concept, thought-provoking, nice acting. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 9 instances, ranging from gun shootings and beatings to face slaps. Profanity: 8 expressions. Drugs: 3 instances.
Limbo (R) Director: John Sayles. With Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn, Vanessa Martinez, Casey Siemaszko, Kris Kristofferson. (126 min.) +++ Working to support her alienated teenage daughter through a small-time singing career, a woman meets a new boyfriend with a troubled past, and the three of them enter an unexpected adventure that could have deadly consequences. The movie is less about plot twists than about the struggles of decent people to sustain one another at lifes most trying moments. Sayles takes great storytelling risks to explore this theme; his unusual approach will please some viewers and irritate others. ++1/2 Somewhat unrealistic, severe, depressing. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Nothing graphic, but a dead body is found in the woods and a young girl struggles with suicidal ideas. Profanity: 30 expressions. Drugs: 11 scenes with drinking and/or smoking.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence (R) Director: Mike Figgis. With Julian Sands, Saffron Burrows, Jonathan Rhys- Meyers, Kelly Macdonald, Stefano Dionisi, Rossy De Palma, Femi Ogunbanjo. (101 min.) +++ A modern retelling of the Adam and Eve story frames this extremely offbeat study of the relationships among sexuality, love, possessiveness, hostility, and guilt. The nonlinear story consists of loosely linked fragments, some more effective than others, threaded together in a broodingly poetic way. Contains explicit sexual and scatological material.
The Love Letter (R) Director: Peter Chan. With Kate Capshaw, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Everett Scott, Tom Selleck. (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 ++ Shallow, slightly amusing, ending fizzles. Sex/Nudity: A couple of romps in bed and on the floor, but no nudity. Violence: None. Profanity: 10 expressions. Drugs: 16 instances of drinking and smoking.
Notting Hill (PG-13) Director: Roger Michell. With Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Rhys Ifans, James Dreyfuss, Gina McKee, Tim McInnerny. (124 min.) +++ A world-famous Hollywood star falls inexplicably in love with a bookstore owner in a modest London neighborhood, sparking ups and downs involving a prior boyfriend and a pornography scandal, not to mention their own differences in class and background. Theres some very funny dialogue, but the picture falls apart when it tries to think real thoughts about celebrity, publicity, and the media. Worst weakness: too many love-conquers-all clichs. Strongest asset: Grants dewy eyes and Robertss voluptuous mouth are a romantic-comedy dream team. +++ Charming, refreshing, good date flick. Sex/Nudity/Violence: None. Profanity: 18 expressions. Drugs: 11 instances of smoking and/or social drinking.
Southie (Not rated) Director: John Shea. With Donnie Wahlberg, Rose McGowan, John Shea, James Cummings, Anne Meara, Lawrence Tearney, Steve Koslowski. (92 min.) ++ A young man returns to his Irish-American neighborhood in Boston after a long absence, and runs into challenges posed by family members, a vengeful rival, and an embittered girlfriend. The movie paints a vivid portrait of a time and place, but falls back on familiar formulas that diminish its value as emotional drama and slice-of-life realism. 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. (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: 27 scenes of bloodless combat.
The Thirteenth Floor (R) Director: Josef Rusnak. With Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent DOnofrio. (105 min.) ++ Advanced research into virtual reality leads to intrigue and danger with a time-travel twist. Darkly elegant cinematography helps compensate for awful dialogue (How can you love me? I m not even real.) and lackluster acting. While the storys themes are interesting, theyre explored a lot more dynamically in pictures like The Matrix. Sex/Nudity: 2 instances of mild innuendo. Violence: 6 scenes, some harsh. Profanity: 20 expressions. Drugs: 10 instances of smoking and/or drinking.
OUT ON VIDEO Gods and Monsters (Not rated) Director: Bill Condon. With Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes. (105 min.) +++ A fictionalized portrait of Hollywood director James Whale near the end of his life, as he reminisces about the long-ago fame he earned for pictures like Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. The acting is excellent and movie buffs will enjoy its behind-the-scenes references. +++ Odd, unsettling, provocative.
Coming Soon ... (In stores June 15)
Enemy of the State (R) Director: Tony Scott. With Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Gabriel Byrne. (128 min.) ++ After a congressman is murdered, a piece of deadly evidence comes into the hands of an easygoing lawyer who doesnt even know he has it. The movie has plenty of high-tech power, spinning out action so explosive youll hardly notice how preposterous the story is or how cardboard-thin the characters are. ++1/2 Herky-jerky cinematography, far-fetched, provocative.
The Faculty (R) Director: Robert Rodriguez. With Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett. (102 min.) + Teenagers discover their school has been taken over by aliens and use the products of a local drug dealer to knock them dead. The story is trite unless you havent seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers even once, and the special effects are anything but special. ++ Creepy, alienesque, heart-pounding.
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 cant escape the pushy plans of her loud-mouthed mother and a sleazy entrepreneur. 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.