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Freeze Frames: The Monitor Movie Guide
Here are the week's reviews of both the latest releases and current films, rated according to the key below (''o'' for forget it). The capsule reviews are by Monitor film critic David Sterritt; the one liners from a panel of at lease three other Monitor reviewers. Movies containing violence (V), sexual situations (S), nudity (N), and profanity (P) are noted.
o Forget it
* Only if it's free
** Maybe a matinee
*** Worth full price
**** Wait in line
BARB WIRE (R)
o The heroine is as tough as her name, flashing gracefully arched fingernails as she twists the throttle on her mean-looking motorcycle in a future America turned inside-out by civil war. Some will find this campy fun. Others will wish Ms. Wire would go back to the comic books that spawned her. David Hogan directed the numbingly violent action. Pamela Anderson Lee and Temuera Morrison head the cast. S V N P
*** Leisurely tale of the relationship between a troubled prep-school student and a somewhat mysterious young woman he rescues after a horseback-riding accident. Winona Ryder and Lucas Haas are quietly convincing as the main characters. Written and directed by Stacy Cochran, who has grown considerably as a filmmaker since her debut movie, the suburban satire "Her New Gun." S V P
COLD COMFORT FARM (PG)
**** A prim young Londoner takes up residence on her family's ancestral farm, inhabited by a conglomeration of oddballs and presided over by a cranky old matriarch who hasn't ventured from her bedroom in decades. John Schlesinger's rollicking version of Stella Gibbons's novel is acted with the highest of spirits by Kate Beckinsale, Joanna Lumley, Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, Freddie Jones, and many others. Malcolm Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the brightly filmed British production. P V
DEAD MAN (R)
**** Johnny Depp plays an accountant named William Blake who wanders through the Old West with an Indian friend named Nobody. Wounded by gunfire, Blake dodges three hired killers who want to finish him off. Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed this mystical western, which gains much of its resonance from Robby Mller's rich cinematography and Neil Young's moody music. Contains a few moments of jarringly explicit sex and violence meant to debunk simplistic myths about the values held by frontier society. S V N P
THE GREAT WHITE HYPE (R)
** A greedy boxing promoter decides to boost his fortune by finding a white opponent for the current African-American champ. The movie aims sharp satirical jabs at racial exploitation in contemporary sports. Much of the humor is more crude than cutting, though. Reginald Hudlin directed the impressive cast, which includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, Jamie Foxx, Cheech Marin, Peter Berg, and Jon Lovitz. S V P N
* A technological glitch in the viewer-counting system rockets a public-television network to first place in the ratings, ringing alarm bells at a commercial network that'll do anything to regain its leading position. Flat acting and filmmaking undercut the promising subject of the comedy, which was written and directed by Robert Wuhl, who also plays the main role. Others on hand include Rod Taylor and Dina Merrill. S V N P
THE PALLBEARER (PG-13)
*** Odd circumstances lead to a young man giving the eulogy at the funeral of a fellow student he can't remember having known. Afterward he finds himself involved with two very different women: the mother of the deceased "friend" and an acquaintance he's adored since high school. This ironic comedy-drama is like a milder version of "The Graduate," with David Schwimmer working hard to equal Dustin Hoffman's star-making performance. The story leads its characters to morally dubious situations, but the outcome reaffirms traditional values. Directed by Matt Reeves with a mostly gentle touch. S P V
SOMEONE ELSE'S AMERICA (Not rated)
*** Ethnic diversity receives a rousing, good-humored celebration in this understated comedy-drama about two ordinary men, from Spain and former Yugoslavia respectively, seeking slightly better lives in one of Brooklyn's crowded working-class neighborhoods. Tom Conti and Miki Manojlovic are just right as the heroes of the modest but moving yarn. Directed by Goran Paskaljevic. S N V P
** A handsome scientist spends half his time studying tornadoes from a front-row seat, the other half wobbling between his about-to-be-divorced wife and his new girlfriend. Audiences may howl at the hackneyed plot and dialogue, but you won't hear them over the Dolby sound effects assulting your eardrums at a gazillion decibels. Directed by Jan de Bont, who made "Speed" last year and will reach escape velocity soon if he keeps accelerating at this pace. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt head the windblown cast. People living in real tornado zones may not be amused by the thriller's exploitative attitude. V P
*** Visual wow! Comical thriller, lame plot.
UNDER THE DOMIM TREE (Not rated)
*** Affecting story of girls growing up during the 1950s in an Israeli boarding school for youngsters cut off from their families by the Holocaust and its horrors. Eli Cohen directed the Israeli production from a screenplay he wrote with Eyal Sher and Gila Almagor, based on Almagor's own experiences. P V N
Currently in Release
AUGUST (Not rated)
*** Anthony Hopkins makes his movie-directing debut with this adaptation of Chekhov's classic play "Uncle Vanya." He also plays the key role of a middle-aged man whose modest life on a country estate is disrupted by a visit from its absentee owner and his attractive American wife. While the film is more sturdy than inspired, good-looking cinematography and Hopkins's own music score provide an appealing background for sensitive performances by a well-chosen cast. P V
THE BIRDCAGE (R)
*** Armand and Albert are homosexual, but Armand's son wants to marry the daughter of a conservative senator, so they agree to "act straight" for a while. Based on the popular French movie "La Cage aux Folles," the fast-moving comedy was directed by Mike Nichols from Elaine May's screenplay. Robin Williams and Gene Hackman head the well-chosen cast. Contains a great deal of material about homosexuality. P N
*** Hilarious, frenetic, and touching, but stereotyped and superficial in its treatment of both homosexuals and conservatives.
BUTTERFLY KISS (Not rated)
* Amanda Plummer is even more weirded-out than usual as a serial killer wandering through England with her sadly befuddled girlfriend. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Contains much explicit sex and violence. S N V P
THE CRAFT (R)
* "Carrie" was scary back in the '70s, but this '90s fantasy raises the ante to a whole quartet of high-school girls with witchlike powers. The first half is admirably restrained, but the later scenes are a hackneyed hodge-podge of fright-movie clichs. Andrew Fleming directed. P V
DEAD MAN WALKING (R)
*** Fact-based story of a Roman Catholic nun who befriends a convicted murderer, helping him appeal his sentence and prepare for the death penalty that awaits him if their efforts fail. Although it's often preachy and self-conscious, Tim Robbins's drama is socially courage- ous in its critical dissection of capital punishment, and deeply moving in its insistence on the fundamental humanity of its characters. Superbly acted by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn; vividly photographed by Roger Deakins. Contains reenactments of a harsh crime. V P
**** Profound, humane, thought-provoking.
EXECUTIVE DECISION (R)
*** There's nerve gas on the plane with a big bomb attached, and disaster looms if Kurt Russell and company don't outwit the terrorists who planted it. The movie wants to be an airborne "Speed," and director Stuart Baird stirs up some terrific suspense scenes. Some of the violence is nasty and unnecessary, though. V P
*** Tense, occasionally brutal, tip-top formula.
A FAMILY THING (PG-13)
*** A man who's always considered himself an ordinary white Southerner learns that his biological mother was a black woman, and he leaves rural Arkansas for crowded Chicago to meet a black half-brother he never knew he had. The story is thin, but the film has rich emotions and a highly constructive moral sense, showing how racial divisions crumble once people recognize their artificiality. It's a pleasure to see Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones sharing the screen, proving yet again that they're among the world's greatest movie actors. Richard Pearce directed. P V N
*** Touching, superbly acted, simplistic.
** Strapped for cash, a small-time businessman arranges for his wife to be kidnapped to get the ransom. Directed by Joel Coen and produced by Ethan Coen, the pitch-dark comedy has good acting by William H. Macy as the devious husband and Frances MacDormand as the pregnant policewoman who cracks the case. Contains explicit sex and grotesquely exaggerated violence. S V P
*** Whacked-out, bizarre, funny, great camera work, but violence erupts out of nowhere.
O Macho pop defends precocious daughter against psycho boyfriend. Dull, dirty, dismal, derivative. S V P
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (R)
** With his wife and new baby in tow, a young man sets out to find the parents who gave him up for adoption years ago, but his search runs into one zigzag after another. Directed by David O. Russell, whose earlier "Spanking the Monkey" was more original. Ben Stiller leads a cast that includes Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, and Lily Tomlin in supporting roles. Be warned that the comedy includes a great deal of verbally and visually explicit sexual humor. S P V
** Zany, crass, dumb plot.
HOMEWARD BOUND II: LOST IN SAN FRANCISCO (G)
** Two dogs and a cat have an adventurous outing in the Bay Area after their family loses them during a vacation. The story is lively enough, but kids will know these talkative pets are strictly from Hollywood. Directed by David R. Ellis. Contains some vulgar humor. V
*** Funny, sassy, good lines from the cat.
* Tension simmers in a rural household inhabited by a lonely woman, her rebellious daughter, and a badly disturbed young man working as a hired hand while he decides what to do with his life. Solid performances by veteran Blythe Danner and Sheryl Lee, who played Laura Palmer in the "Twin Peaks" series, aren't enough to make the overcooked tale click. Directed by newcomer Ross Marks from Mark Medoff's screenplay. V S P N
I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (Not rated)
** Fictionalized look at the life and times of Valerie Solanas, who wounded the controversial pop artist in a 1968 assault prompted by her unstable personality and infatuation with an aggressive brand of guerrilla feminism. Buoyed by Lili Taylor's explosive acting, the movie paints a vivid portrait of Warhol's eccentric universe without stinting on lurid details and outrageous behaviors. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Mary Harron. S V N P
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (PG)
*** James is an orphan living with two horrible aunts, but his life takes a magical turn when a giant peach springs up in his backyard, populated with insects who launch it on an adventurous ocean voyage. Told through both animation and live action, the fantasy is almost too inventive for its own good, filling the screen with unsettling pictures and situations that could be much too scary for young viewers. The noisy soundtrack features voice-only performances by Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Jane Leeves. Directed by Henry Selick, who made "The Nightmare Before Christmas." V
**** Far-out fun, wildly creative, action-packed.
JANE EYRE (PG)
*** Smartly acted, handsomely filmed adaptation of Charlotte Bront's classic coming-of-age tale about a spirited young woman who becomes a governess for a wealthy man with a handsome face, a dour demeanor, and a family secret locked away in the attic. Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt acquit themselves well in the leading roles, and smaller parts are superbly handled by a roster of first-rate British talents, including Joan Plowright, John Wood, and Billie Whitelaw. Anna Paquin portrays the young Jane. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. V
**** Elegant, faithful, enriching.
LAST DANCE (R)
*** Sharon Stone gives her most mature performance to date in this sometimes thoughtful, sometimes melodramatic story of a woman sentenced to death for a horrible crime that she committed in a drug-induced daze and now profoundly regrets. Rob Morrow plays a young bureaucrat who befriends her and tries to have her sentence commuted. Directed by Bruce Beresford. V P
MADAME BUTTERFLY (Not rated)
*** Elegantly filmed adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's great opera about a Japanese teenager who's wooed, wedded, and abandoned by a thoughtless American sailor in the late 19th century. The singers include Ying Huang as the title character, Richard Troxell as her faithless husband, and Richard Cowan as the American consul who tries to help them both. James Conlon conducts the Orchestre de Paris and the Radio France chorus. Frdric Mitterand directed the French production. V
MA SAISON PRFRE (Not rated)
** An adult brother and sister are reunited when their mother becomes ill, and their strained relationship goes through complicated changes. The respected Andr Techin directed this moody French drama with his usual combination of strong technique, emotional distance, and sexual frankness. Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil star. The title translates as "My Favorite Season." S N P
MRS. WINTERBOURNE (PG-13)
*** Mistaken identity allows a down-and-out young mother and her newborn baby to move in with a wealthy family, masquerading as relatives and hoping the secret won't be discovered. The comedy is appealing as Hollywood's umpteenth variation on the Cinderella story, but think about its patrician views of upper-class privilege and you might find it too simplistic for comfort. Ricki Lake and Shirley MacLaine head the amiable cast. V P
*** Romantic, implausible, charming.
MULHOLLAND FALLS (R)
* Four muscular cops enforce the law on their own nasty terms in Los Angeles during the 1950s, but meet their match when a murder leads them to a scandal involving nuclear experiments and cold-war secrecy. The picture appears to be partly inspired by the 1955 classic "Kiss Me Deadly," but is far less biting and original despite the efforts of a hard-working cast that includes Nick Nolte, Chris Penn, John Malkovich, and Melanie Griffith. Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori, whose earlier "Once Were Warriors" coaxed more credibility from the sledgehammer style he favors. V P S N
** Well-acted, flawed, somber, bloody, salacious.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (PG-13)
*** A demented scientist forces a man and his robot friends to watch an old Hollywood movie, which they greet with a nonstop torrent of jokes, gags, and smart-alecky remarks. The picture they're heckling is a shorten-ed version of "This Island Earth," an entertaining 1955 fantasy that deserves more respect than the MST3K folks give it. But some of their wisecracks are funny, and the show is short enough to pass pretty painlessly. Jim Mallon directed the satire, which is identical to the award-winning TV series that spawned it. P V
NELLY & MONSIEUR ARNAUD (Not rated)
*** At a difficult time in her life, a young woman takes a job typing the memoirs of a professional man much older than herself. They develop a complicated friendship that touches emotional chords deeper than either of them expected. Directed with taste and precision by Claude Sautet, the French drama also benefits from sensitive acting by Emmanuelle Bart, perhaps the most luminous actress in European film today, and Michel Serrault, a veteran star whose many credits include the original "Diabolique" and "La Cage aux Folles." P
PRIMAL FEAR (R)
* A hard-nosed attorney defends a nervous young man accused of a vicious crime. The violent story is long on nastiness, short on credibility. Richard Gere provides the star power but Edward Norton gives the best performance. Gregory Hoblit directed. V S N P
uu Grisly, graphic, edgy.
THE QUEST (PG-13)
* Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme makes his movie-directing debut with this bone-cruncher about an American vying for the grand prize in a Tibetan fighting contest some 70 years ago. Also on hand is Roger Moore, giving a one-note portrayal of a British aristocrat. There are a few catchy sequences and the scenery is lovely, but most of the adventure is aimed squarely at the video-game set.
SUNSET PARK (R)
uu Rhea Perlman plays the white female coach of a black male basketball team at an inner-city high school. Like every scrappy coach in the history of movies, she gets involved in the personal lives of her players while boosting their morale for the big game at the climax. Although a few scenes develop a little human interest, most of the way it's one clich after another. Steve Gomer directed. P V
*** fairly realistic, hopeful, unpredictable
THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS & DOGS (PG-13)
*** Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman make a bright-eyed comedy team in this romance about a handsome photographer who falls in love with the voice of a radio veterinarian and the face of an air-headed model, mistakenly thinking they're the same ideal woman. Directed by comedy specialist Michael Lehmann. Contains a fairly explicit phone-sex scene. S P V
*** Fun, warm, charming and innocuous.
2 FRIENDS (Not rated)
*** The first feature film directed by Jane Campion, who went on to make popular dramas like "Sweetie" and "The Piano," etches the friendship between two teenage Australian girls with skill, sensitivity, and compassion. Also noteworthy is Helen Garner's screenplay, which borrows an idea from Harold Pinter and unfolds its slender but resonant story in reverse order, starting with the conclusion and then moving steadily backward in time. Produced in 1986 for Australian television.
WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE BEST OF AARDMAN ANIMATION (NOT RATED)
*** A collection of British cartoons. The grand finale, "A Close Shave," won an Academy Award for best animated short with its amusing story of a rather dull inventor and his dog tracking down a flock of kidnapped sheep. Other entries include a hilarious interview session with zoo animals and a sharp satire of children's TV shows that contain too much violence. In all, uneven but lively. Directed by Nick Park and others. V