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
BEAUTIFUL THING (R)
* A young black woman who's obsessed with Mama Cass and a white teenager who's discovering a gay identity are the main characters of Hettie Macdonald's modest comedy-drama about life in an English working-class neighborhood. S V P
* Two women, a former convict and a gangster's girlfriend, team up for a criminal job and a love affair. Larry and Andy Wachowski directed this lurid, sexually explicit thriller. S V P N
THE CHAMBER (R)
* A young attorney takes on the defense of his grandfather, a bigoted murderer facing the gas chamber, hoping to stop the execution by any means necessary. Gene Hackman gives a powerful performance as the killer, and the storytelling is often gripping. But the film contains much extremely offensive language and gratuitous depictions of violence, some of it aimed at helpless children, not needed to get the plot across. Also featuring Chris O'Donnell and Faye Dunaway. James Foley directed. V P
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (R)
* A bright young engineer and a grizzled adventurer battle a mysterious menace in the African wilderness. The story has promise, but it's so macho there's hardly a female face to be found, and too many scenes are drowned in excessively gory violence. Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas star. Stephen Hopkins directed. V
*** Wild, riveting, beautifully filmed, contains violent hunting scenes.
**** Reissue of George Stevens's much-loved 1956 epic about a quarter of a century in the lives of a Texas cattle rancher and his steadily growing family. Elizabeth Taylor is lovely and gifted, Rock Hudson shows a little more personality than usual, and James Dean manages to steal every single scene he's in. V
THE GRASS HARP (PG)
*** The adventures of a boy raised in the South by his highly eccentric aunts and their feisty maid. Much of the action is likable and good-natured, especially when the main characters take to living in a tree. But director Charles Matthau doesn't give it the warmth and energy that make Truman Capote's original novel and play so compelling. Starring the director's father, Walter Matthau, along with Edward Furlong, Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, and Nell Carter. P
*** Bright young scientist Richard Feynman falls in love, marries, and cares for his increasingly ill spouse while developing his expertise in physics and working on the Los Alamos nuclear project in the 1940s. Directed by Matthew Broderick, who earns credit for taking on a real-life hero involved with interesting real-world issues. But he exercises poor judgment by reducing his material to ordinary domestic drama and barely acknowledging the profound moral issues raised by Feynman's actual career. Broderick and Patricia Arquette star. S P
L5: FIRST CITY IN SPACE (Not rated)
**** A seven-year-old girl grows up in a humanly made city between the Earth and the moon, and looks on as her father singlehandedly solves a water-supply problem that threatens the community's existence. The story is short and simplistic, but the Imax 3-D visual effects are astonishing. Tony Myers supervised the production and Allan Kroeker directed the live-action material.
THE LINE KING: THE AL HIRSCHFELD STORY (Not rated)
*** A delightful journey through the life and work of Al Hirschfeld, the legendary show-business caricaturist. A huge assortment of stars and fellow artists comment on his unique contribution to several decades of American culture, and the nostalgia is nicely tempered with intelligence and wit. Directed by Susan W. Dreyfoos. N
THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (R)
* Fast-talking private eye Samuel L. Jackson helps amnesiac Geena Davis uncover her past as a government assassin and fight her way through a vicious battle with enemies on every side. The suspense sequences are straight from the standard Hollywood blueprint, and the movie as a whole is so sloppily assembled that it's almost incoherent at times. Directed by mayhem specialist Renny Harlin. S V P
LOOKING FOR RICHARD (PG-13)
** Al Pacino's inventive movie alternates scenes from Shakespeare's darkly dramatic "Richard III" with amusing real-life material about the challenge of making Shakespeare plays alive and fresh for contemporary audiences. The cast includes Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, Aidan Quinn, and Estelle Parsons, and documentary scenes feature James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Kline, and John Gielgud, among others. Contains violence and vulgar language, though. V P
**** A closeup look at the world of insects, using cinematic tools that multiply the sizes of very small creatures until they fill the wide screen, showing a color and variety that are nothing short of amazing. Vividly directed by French filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou.
THE PROPRIETOR (R)
* Friendship develops between a young American writer and an aging woman whose lively spirit is troubled by memories of her European past. The story is sometimes ragged and uneven, but the screenplay by Jean-Marie Besset and George Trow explores interesting angles of the social, cultural, and political mixing that characterizes the contemporary world. French actress Jeanne Moreau, still one of the screen's most lovable icons, heads a varied cast including Sam Waterston, Sean Young, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Austin Pendleton, and Josh Hamilton. Energetically directed by Ismail Merchant. S P
SMALL WONDERS (G)
**** A dedicated New Yorker named Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras helps change the lives of inner-city children by teaching them to play the violin and helping them showcase their achievements at Carnegie Hall. Allan Miller directed this richly musical documentary, which features Isaac Stern and many other tuneful talents, professional and otherwise.
THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH (Not rated)
** Marcello Mastroianni plays the main character, whose identity shifts among different forms - a millionaire working as a servant, a husband who never returns from a simple errand, and so forth - all based on myths drawn from modern city life. The surprising story was directed by Raul Ruiz, one of today's most innovative filmmakers. P V
*** Reissue of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece about a retired detective (James Stewart) who falls in love with a mysterious woman (Kim Novak) while trying to discover what ghostly force is driving her toward suicide. First released in 1958, this is the most profound work by one of world cinema's greatest artists, skillfully restored to its original big-screen splendor. V
Currently in Release
AMERICAN BUFFALO (R)
* Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz play a small-time crook and a junk-shop owner who plan to rob a coin collector with help from a youngster in their neighborhood. Although the movie is less powerful than some stage productions of David Mamet's drama, his staccato screenplay etches a ferocious portrait of human possibilities gone astray, and depicts the sad results that occur when talking becomes a substitute for thinking. Contains extremely foul language. Directed by Michael Corrente. P V
* Jean-Michel Basquiat was a young black painter who became a protege of pop artist Andy Warhol, captivated the celebrity scene with his offbeat work, and tragically died young from drug abuse. Written and directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a gifted painter, this is one of the rare art-world movies that succeeds as both human drama and visual artistry. The acting is also excellent, with Jeffrey Wright imaginatively supported by Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, and David Bowie as Warhol. But it contains vulgar language and drug use. P V S
*** Moving, depressing, believable acting.
BIG NIGHT (R)
* A struggling Italian restaurant is the main setting for this poignant comedy about two brothers whose financial problems overlap with romantic woes and a touch of family rivalry. Stanley Tucci wrote the screenplay with Joseph Tropiano and directed the picture with Campbell Scott. He also leads the talented cast, which includes Isabella Rossellini and Ian Holm. Contains a great deal of foul language. P V S
BROTHER OF SLEEP (R)
* The mysterious tale of a young, prodigiously gifted musician whose artistic talents and passionate nature lead to complex, often stormy relationships with the people close to him. The story is imaginatively filmed but often teeters under the weight of its heavily romantic ambitions. Joseph Vilsmaier directed the German production. S N P V
* A young drifter moves into the household of a New York fish merchant, has an affair with his attractive wife, and earns the hatred of their son, a failed entertainer steeped in rage and jealousy. The story's human drama is realistic and often touching until an unconvincing conclusion weakens its effect. Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso star. Contains graphic sex and foul language. S P V N
* Pitch-dark comedy about a young Latin woman who takes a job with a service that cleans up after violent crimes. The action oscillates between wry humor and grotesque, bloodthirsty scenes that show the touch of gore-master Quentin Tarantino, who served as executive producer. William Baldwin and Angela Jones star. Written and directed by Reb Braddock. V P
** Bloody, voyeuristic, satire.
DADETOWN (Not rated)
** A fiction film made to resemble a PBS-type documentary, this timely drama traces the tensions that arise in a small town when a large, impersonal corporation sets up its headquarters just as a decades-old local company faces cutbacks and layoffs. Imitation documentaries are among the hardest of films to pull off, and this is a reasonably well-crafted specimen of the breed. Directed by the late Russ Hexter. P V
*** Gwyneth Paltrow is enchanting as a self-confident young woman who decides to wile away her time by playing matchmaker for a friend whose romantic life would fare much better without interference. Directed by Douglas McGrath from his own screenplay, based on the same richly ironic Jane Austen novel that inspired "Clueless," the gorgeously filmed comedy features good supporting performances by Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson.
**** Genteel, sprightly, romantic.
EXTREME MEASURES (R)
* A young physician stumbles on a conspiracy to conduct dangerous medical research by kidnapping homeless people and subjecting them to damaging experiments. The action is gripping and the story raises important issues about medical ethics in a high-tech society. Gene Hackman is in excellent form, and Hugh Grant does the most finely tuned acting of his career to date. The film contains grisly medical scenes, though. Directed by Michael Apted from Tony Gilroy's screenplay, which loses some plausibility in the last few scenes. V P
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (PG)
*** Infuriated when their husbands leave them for younger companions, three middle-aged women band together for revenge. The dialogue is often silly but Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn deliver it with enough crackerjack energy to keep audiences laughing. Also features Maggie Smith, Bronson Pinchot, Dan Hedaya, and Marcia Gay Harden. Hugh Wilson directed. P
*** Hilarious, stereotypical, caustic.
FLY AWAY HOME (PG)
*** While coping with family problems, a teenage girl hatches a bunch of goose eggs for fun, then realizes her new pets won't know how to migrate south for the winter unless someone shows them the way - an ideal job for her and her father, an inventor who loves tinkering with lightweight aircraft. Nature specialist Carroll Ballard directed this eye-dazzling family film, which has superb airborne cinematography to compensate for some soggy spots in the story. Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin star. V P
**** Uplifting, heartwarming, adventurous.
* Unhappy with their boring lives in a small-minded community, several high school girls form an angry gang under the leadership of a new friend with a powerful but enigmatic personality. The screenwriters have borrowed the basic plot but not the disturbing political implications of Joyce Carol Oates's propulsive novel "Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang," pushing the film toward well-crafted exploitation rather than thought-provoking commentary on American sexism. Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter. V N P
LAST MAN STANDING (R)
* Bruce Willis plays a stranger who gets involved with a bootlegging war between two rival gangs. What promises to be a hard-hitting crime melodrama degenerates into a repetitious round of bone-crunching violence, and why is Willis's gun always twice as loud as anybody else's? Directed by Walter Hill from his own screenplay, based on Akira Kurosawa's far superior "Yojimbo." V P S
THE LEOPARD SON (G)
**** The life and adventures of a young leopard growing up in the Tanzanian wilderness. The film is stunningly photographed by director Hugo van Lawick, but is burdened by a simplistic narration that frames animal life in strictly human terms. John Gielgud is the narrator. V
LIFE OF OHARU (Not rated)
**** Re-issue of Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece about a young woman who has many varied experiences after she's exiled from her native village for falling in love with a man of lower rank. First released in 1952, the Japanese drama exemplifies Mizoguchi's deep thoughtfulness about moral issues and his compassionate concern with women in a profoundly patriarchal society. It's also a wonderful display of his visual artistry, telling the story through a seamless series of superbly graceful shots.
PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (Not rated)
* Documentary about the prosecution of two teenagers charged with killing three Arkansas third-graders, paying particular attention to media coverage of the event, including the making of this film. Contains a remarkable amount of revealing information about everything from small-town crime to American opinions on the criminal-justice system and the attitudes fostered by evangelical religion. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO. Contains grisly photos and descriptions of a horrible crime. V P N
SHE'S THE ONE (R)
* Comedy about the increasingly strained relationship between two brothers with overlapping marital and romantic problems. Written by, directed by, and starring Edward Burns, who makes little improvement over the glib superficiality of "The Brothers McMullen," his previous picture. P V
*** Funny, relationship-oriented, recycled.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL (PG-13)
** Just released from prison, a young woman moves into a small New England community, takes a job at a modest restaurant, and puts together a new life that helps uplift many of the people around her. The story's traditional moral values are refreshing to encounter in today's movie atmosphere, but the film would be more effective if it seemed less calculated and sentimental. P V
**** Thoughtful, endearing, optimistic.
SECRETS & LIES (R)
* Looking for the biological mother who gave her up for adoption, a middle-class black Englishwoman is surprised to discover that her mom is poor, uneducated, and white. Mike Leigh's sensitive comedy-drama is superbly acted but contains much vulgar language, and some moviegoers may be troubled by its treatment of extramarital sex and promiscuity. P
SURVIVING PICASSO (R)
** Pablo Picasso's work combined intellectual rigor with emotional richness, and James Ivory's glowingly filmed drama captures the tempestuous energy of his talent along with the powerful charisma of his personality. By focusing on his relationship with a long-term lover in the years after World War II, it also captures his weakness for domineering behaviors that exemplified male chauvinism in its most obnoxious forms. Anthony Hopkins plays Picasso in one of his most vivid performances. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. N S P
THAT THING YOU DO! (PG)
*** Four young Pennsylvanians start a Beatles-type rock band in the mid-'60s and hope they'll achieve fame with help from a smooth-talking record producer. Tom Hanks makes his directorial debut with this likable comedy, which shows that while pop culture is a business like any other, enthusiasm and high spirits can lead to satisfaction even if major success proves elusive. Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, and Ethan Embry play the leads, helped by Liv Tyler as a long-suffering girlfriend (with little to do in this mostly male story) and Hanks as the recording exec. P
*** Optimistic, fun nostalgia trip, enthusiastic, band's hit single is catchy.
THE TRIGGER EFFECT (R)
* Power and telephone lines go haywire and so do the people caught in the disaster, fleeing town or barricading themselves in their homes and buying guns to shoot anyone who seems too threatening. A couple of effective suspense scenes can't outweigh the silliness and senselessness of the overall story. Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue star. Written and directed by David Koepp. V P S
** Intense, thought-provoking, disturbing, reveals powerful insight into human nature.
2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY (R)
* A murder scheme goes wildly wrong, affecting a motley cast of characters including the killer, his bumbling henchman, a suicidal filmmaker, a compassionate nurse, a high-strung executive, and his long-suffering assistant, all of whom converge on a single Southern California house. The story has some laughs along with over-the-top violence and vulgarity. The cast includes James Spader, Danny Aiello, Marsha Mason, Glenne Headly, Jeff Daniels, and Eric Stoltz. Directed by John Herzfeld. S V N