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 least 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
BREAKING THE WAVES (R)
** Not long after she begins a happy married life, a deeply religious woman's new husband becomes severely disabled and asks her to start relationships with other men. Lars von Trier's drama poses complicated moral questions, leaving the audience to decide whether the wife is engaging in noble self-sacrifice or allowing unhealthy impulses to rule and ruin her life. Unfortunately, the film is more successful at setting up ethical conundrums than at profitably exploring them. Robby Mller did the striking cinematography, using the unusual combination of wide-screen format and hand-held camera work. V S N P
THE ENGLISH PATIENT (R)
** Badly wounded in World War II, a pilot recovers under the care of a sensitive nurse while remembering his wartime experiences and his earlier involvement with another woman. Told through persuasive performances and stunning camera work, the sweeping story shows how pressures of war may shake up conventional notions of loyalty, integrity, and even identity itself. But the film doesn't gather the emotional momentum that would make it compelling as well as impressive. Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, and Kristin Scott Thomas head the cast. Directed by Anthony Minghella. S V N P
THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES (PG-13)
* A male professor asks a female professor to join him in a platonic relationship so they can enjoy companion-ship while concentrating on their work, but she finds herself falling totally in love with him. The story might have been entertaining if the characters and their motivations made a speck of sense. Directed by Barbra Streisand, whose main priority appears to be making herself as lovable and beautiful as movie magic allows. Jeff Bridges, Lauren Bacall, George Segal, and Pierce Brosnan trudge obediently in her glamorous wake. S P
*** Romantic, funny, clever one-liners.
SET IT OFF (R)
** Angry at society for a variety of reasons, four young African-American women decide an influx of cash would solve all their problems, and they set out to pull off a bank robbery. The energetic story makes a case against crime by showing how each escapade has an outcome less happy than the last. In the end, though, the movie shows less interest in teaching lessons than in exploiting the box-office appeal of violent action. Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, and Vivica A. Fox head the talented cast. Directed by F. Gary Gray. V P S
*** The fact-based story of a brilliant pianist whose musical gifts are offset by mental and emotional problems, made more severe by conflicts with his father, who never recovered from seeing the Holocaust destroy his family. The movie benefits from an involving story, sparkling music, vivid performances, and an avoidance of easy clichs about music's power to solve every problem in time for a happy ending. Scott Hicks directed the Australian production. P V
SLING BLADE (R)
*** A mentally slow man is released from a "nervous hospital" in Arkansas years after he killed his mother and her lover, who shocked him with their immoral behavior. The story has many unsavory elements including some strongly suggested violence, but most of the picture focuses on positive elements such as the hero's capacities for friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Directed with skill and compassion by Billy Bob Thornton, who also plays the protagonist. V P
SPACE JAM (PG)
** The owner of an outer-space theme park kidnaps Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters, and they enlist Michael Jordan to help them in a basketball match that will free them if they win. The movie's mixture of animation and live action is fun, but don't expect the surprising story or thoughtful theme of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which set the standard for this sort of romp. Bill Murray, Wayne Knight, Theresa Randle, and the voice of Danny DeVito round out the cast. Directed by Joe Pytka. V P
** Disappointing, unoriginal, formulaic.
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (PG-13)
** The crew of the Enterprise travels backward in time, staves off hostile invaders, and protects an eccentric inventor while he perfects the new warp-speed device that will transform life on Earth and make star-trek adventures possible. The action is carefully calculated to captivate a wide audience while allowing hard-core trekkies to savor nuances of plot and personality. Moviegoers with only a casual interest in this series won't find much that's new or different, though. Jonathan Frakes directed. V P
A TRUE AMERICAN (Not rated)
* The conscience of a government employee is tested when he finds himself connected with a coverup involving toxic waste and dangerously tainted agricultural products. The film discusses urgently important topics, linking international-trade issues with simmering racial tensions inside the American power structure. Unfortunately, the acting and filmmaking are sadly weak throughout the movie, which was written and directed by Paul Roberts on a shoestring budget. V P S
UP/DOWN/FRAGILE (Not rated)
*** Jacques Rivette, a founding member of France's historic New Wave movement and still one of Europe's greatest filmmakers, pays an amiable tribute to Hollywood musicals in this laid-back romance about three very different women whose paths cross in various Parisian locations. The movie's real concerns are time, identity, and the slippery path between reality and illusion. Spectators not in an intellectual mood can simply settle back and enjoy the song-and-dance routines. V
THE WAR AT HOME (R)
* A household is deeply shaken when one of its members, a Vietnam veteran still suffering from traumatic memories of the war, succumbs to mental strain as his family prepares a Thanksgiving celebration. The story wants to expose the shallowness of middle-class American society for refusing to face the harsh consequences of an unjust war, but its purpose is undermined by stagy dialogue and pacing so slow that dramatic tension dribbles away long before the end. Directed by Emilio Estevez, who also plays the troubled vet. The director's real-life father, Martin Sheen, plays the main character's dad. Kathy Bates and Kimberly Williams are very convincing as the women of the story. Written by James Duff, based on his stage play. P V
Currently in Release
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.
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 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.
DEAR GOD (PG)
** A wave of divine intervention hits Los Angeles when a con man takes a job at a post office in lieu of jail and starts answering God's mail. Although long on cuteness and catchy songs, this fluffy comedy is short on substance, despite the efforts of charmer Greg Kinnear in the lead. Directed by Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman"); also starring Tim Conway and Laurie Metcalf. By Kim Campbell P V
** Feel-good movie, upbeat, funny.
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.
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
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.
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. P V S
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.
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
*** Intensely horrifying, gripping, gut-wrenching.
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
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.
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
* 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
* 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
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
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
*** Clever, feisty, creative replay of a classic.
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 Grard Depardieu. P V