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
BREATHING ROOM (R)
* That's what the discontented lovers need while they figure out whether to stay together or take off to separate lives. Likable performances can't compensate for the hackneyed plot and corny dialogue that dog Jon Sherman's comedy from start to finish. S V P
THE FUNERAL (R)
** The killing of a small-time gangster spurs his Italian-American family to bloody revenge. Abel Ferrara's movies are often prone to excesses like the highly explicit sex and "Godfather"-type violence on display here, but the melodrama has serious ideas about subjects as complex as the struggle between free will and evil impulses in a changing society. Christopher Walken, Isabella Rossellini, Chris Penn, and Annabella Sciorra head the cast. Ken Kelsch's moody cinematography deserves an Oscar and then some. S V N P
THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS (R)
** Reissue of Vittorio De Sica's radiantly filmed story about a wealthy Jewish family that sees its comfortable life about to be swallowed by the Holocaust and its horrors. Hailed in 1971 as a triumphant comeback for Italy's popular "neorealist" movement, the Academy Award-winning drama looks beautiful but mannered on its 25th anniversary, wrapping its cry against fascism in a haze of nostalgia for class privileges of yore. Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger star. N
MAD DOG TIME (R)
* Rivalry, jealousy, and mayhem erupt when a crazy criminal returns to his old haunts after a stint in a mental institution. Larry Bishop's pitch-dark comedy has a few moments of imaginative storytelling, but most of the way it's a sad waste of a celebrity-studded cast including Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Ellen Barkin, Diane Lane, Richard Dreyfuss, and Burt Reynolds, plus cameos by Richard Pryor, Michael J. Pollard, and Joey Bishop, the filmmaker's father. S V P N
MERCY (Not rated)
*** Gripping melodrama about a young black woman who engineers the kidnapping of a child in order to spite a rich white executive who seduced and abandoned her. Engrossing and well acted, although the ending is weak and the little-girl character isn't convincingly developed. Directed by Richard Shepard. P V S
MOTHER NIGHT (R)
*** Nick Nolte gives the most thoughtful and moving performance of his career as an American author recruited by the US government for a double-agent job that calls on him to subvert the Nazi cause by appearing to support it faithfully. Based on Kurt Vonnegut's inventive novel, Keith Gordon's drama explores complex ethical issues with quick intelligence and wry humor. Contains nudity and sexuality. S N V
*** Powerful, stirring, thought-provoking.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (NOT RATED)
**** Reissue of Alfred Hitchcock's rollicking 1959 thriller with Cary Grant as an advertising executive on the run from spies and G-men with a gorgeous double agent by his side. Eva Marie Saint and Leo G. Carroll head the stellar supporting cast. V
** Mel Gibson plays a wealthy businessman whose nine-year-old son is kidnapped by a rogue cop who's less interested in lining his pockets than humbling what he sees as an arrogant aristocrat. Gary Sinise is chilling as the villain, and the screenplay by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon shows some interest in class hostility and other social issues, although this doesn't extend far enough to allow the women of the story a chance to shine in their male-dominated surroundings. Contains much hard-hitting violence, including views of the suffering endured by the young kidnap victim. Ron Howard directed. V P
ROMEO & JULIET (PG-13)
*** William Shakespeare's enduring story of a boy and girl who fall in love despite a bitter feud between their families. Moving the action to a modern American city, the hyperactive movie seems goofy and gimmicky at first, but it acquires real power when the cinematography settles down enough for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes to do some excellent acting, helped by a superb supporting cast. Directed by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, who made the irresistible "Strictly Ballroom." Contains a good deal of raucous violence, though. V S P
*** Fast-paced, incredibly creative, intense.
THE SECRET AGENT (R)
** Ill-suited to his job as "agent provocateur" for a foreign government, a London shopkeeper botches his assigned task of blowing up a famous observatory, bringing tragedy to his family and others. Christopher Hampton's film conveys the basic plot of Joseph Conrad's sinuous novel but loses the book's sardonic tone and psychological depth. Bob Hoskins, Robin Williams, and Gerard Depardieu play the anarchists, and Patricia Arquette is effective as the main character's beleaguered wife. V S P
A SINGLE GIRL (Not rated)
*** A day in the life of a young French woman who takes a job as housekeeper in a hotel shortly after learning she is pregnant. The movie captures the textures and flavors of everyday Parisian life with uncommon acuteness, thanks to sharp-eyed filmmaking by Benoit Jacquot and fine acting by Virginie Ledoyen and others. Contains a brief moment of extremely graphic sex, meant to convey the shocking surprises that may be faced by a young person confronting the real world for the first time. S N
TREES LOUNGE (R)
*** The gifted young actor Steve Buscemi wrote, directed, and stars in this low-key drama about a working-class man who uses alcohol, drugs, and flirtation as escape routes from his shabby life. At times the movie seems as lackadaisical as its hero, but its purpose is ultimately to expose the futility of the aimless living it depicts, and the acting by Samuel L. Jackson and others is insightful and compassionate. In all, an impressive filmmaking debut. V P
UNHOOK THE STARS (R)
* Lonely after her family members disperse in different directions, an aging woman helps care for a neighbor's child, and the experience helps her take new initiatives in her own life. Gena Rowlands is wonderful as always in the leading role, clearly enjoying the opportunity to act in the first movie directed by Nick Cassavetes, her son. But the picture as a whole seems calculated and predictable, diminishing the impact of its able performances. Also featuring Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu. P V
Currently in Release
THE ASSOCIATE (PG-13)
** Whoopi Goldberg is winning as a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who cooks up a fictitious male partner so traditional business types will take her one-woman firm more seriously. Dianne Wiest and Eli Wallach head a strong supporting cast, but the pace is too stretched-out and the plot is too tricky for the movie's stock to pay maximum dividends. Also contains a surprising amount of nudity and scatological humor. Daniel Petrie directed. S N P V
** Slow, sappy, has its moments.
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
*** Bleak, inconclusive, colorful characters.
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
**** Heartwarming, appetizing, witty.
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
** Engrossing, thoughtful, predictable.
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.
GET ON THE BUS (R)
** A dozen African-Americans head for the Million Man March on a chartered bus. Spike Lee gets surprising comic and dramatic mileage out of a few characters in a limited setting. There is much extremely vulgar language, however, including explicit dialogue about sexual activity. The lively cast includes Ossie Davis, Charles Dutton, Richard Belzer, and Andre Braugher. P V
*** Message-oriented, clever dialogue, funny.
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
* A young man and his cousin fall in love despite their marriages to other people, and encounter much unhappiness in a conservative society that won't tolerate their relationship. The basic plot of Thomas Hardy's great novel "Jude the Obscure" comes through accurately enough, but its sublime irony and sardonic wit apparently got lost in the misty English countryside. Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet star, and Michael Winterbottom directed. Contains explicit sex, animal slaughter, and a horrifying scene of death involving young children. S N V
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 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
* Painfully loud, shallow, stupidly violent.
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
*** Creative, stunning, insightful.
MICHAEL COLLINS (R)
** A bold Irish fighter spearheads rebellion against British rule, and he holds a running argument over the proper form of the struggle with a politician who advocates different means to the same end. Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman give sturdy performances, but Neil Jordan's historically based drama seems oddly cool and distant with regard to its incendiary subject. Contains much foul language and a great deal of killing and other mayhem, some of it extremely graphic. V P
**** Majestic, emotional, engaging.
* Three young men plan a robbery that they mistakenly think will revitalize their aimless lives, and they totally botch the job. Alan Taylor's dark comedy is amusing but unmemorable. Vincent Gallo, William Forsythe, and Adam Trese head the cast. V P
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
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
*** Sensitive, realistic, life-affirming.
* The long, sordid story of four youngsters who get sent to a reform school where they are subjected to terrifying sexual abuse, then grow up and plot a complicated revenge against the guards who were responsible. The excellent cast includes Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Bruno Kirby, and Jason Patric. Barry Levinson's filmmaking style is often imaginative. The story contains horrific scenes of sexual torture as well as sadistic killings and other disturbing material, though. S V P
*** Gripping, emotionally compelling, powerful.
* After being diagnosed with a grave illness, a young man abducts a skilled surgeon and forces him into a long, frantic flight away from the authorities and toward a distant place where he hopes he can be cured. Michael Cimino directed this action-filled chase picture, which tries to add substance with touches of "new age" mysticism but winds up seeming utterly inconsequential all the same. Woody Harrelson, Jon Seda, and Anne Bancroft star. V P S
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
*** A Hopkins triumph, captivating, well-written.
* A struggling actor reaches for success in Hollywood while pining away for a former girlfriend he left in New York. Jon Favreau wrote the screenplay and gives a sharp comic performance as the unhappy hero. The film con- tains foul language and strong sexual innuendo, though. Directed and photographed by Doug Liman. S P V
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.
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 Ral Ruiz, one of today's most innovative filmmakers. P V
TWELFTH NIGHT (PG)
*** William Shakespeare's popular romance spins comic webs about twins separated by a shipwreck, a countess who's sworn off men for seven years, and a power struggle in her household involving several hilariously obnoxious characters. Trevor Nunn's lively interpretation makes the play into a witty meditation on the need to overcome gender stereotypes. Ben Kingsley, Helena Bonham Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, and Imogen Stubbs head the cast. 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
**** Gripping, complex, provocative.