The Monitor Movie Guide

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 AFTER LIFE (NOT RATED) Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda. With Oda Erika, Arata, Naito Taketoshi, Tani Kei, Naito Takashi, Terajima Susumu, Iseya Yusuke. (118 min.) +++ The setting of this gentle Japanese allegory is a homely old building where newly deceased people are asked to choose their most valued memory, which is then preserved by being filmed on a movie set. The premise seems strained at first, but the fantasy builds delicate emotional power as it explores the lives and wishes of its ghostly "movie producers" as well as the people they're trying to serve. In Japanese with subtitles.

ENDURANCE (G) Director: Leslie Woodhead. With Haile Gebrselassie, Ato Bekele, Shawannes Gebrselassie. (85 min.) + Disappointing documentary about the life and career of Haile Gebrselassie, who went from childhood in a rural Ethiopian family to championship as an Olympic runner. The race-track scenes are effective, but the hero's life is recounted in woodenly acted flashbacks and his athletic triumphs are reduced to a string of inspirational clichs.

LEILA (NOT RATED) Director: Dariush Mehrjui. With Leila Hatami, Ali Mosaffa, Jamileh Sheikhi, Mohammad Reza Sharifinia, Turan Mehrzad, Amir Pievar. (102 min.) ++++ Superb acting and imaginative filmmaking bring emotional depth to this drama about a young Iranian man who's pressured by relatives to take a second wife in order to have children, even though he's thoroughly in love with his present spouse and finds his family life fulfilling exactly the way it is. Exceptional even by the high standards of Iranian film in the 1990s. In Farsi with subtitles.

MY DINNER WITH ANDR (NOT RATED) Director: Louis Malle. With Andr Gregory, Wallace Shawn. (110 min.) ++++ Reissue of Malle's cleverly directed rendition of a long, entertaining conversation between director Gregory and playwright Shawn over a leisurely supper. Some claim the 1982 movie isn't cinematic enough to qualify for greatness, but think of it as a sort of verbal jazz duet and you'll have a fine, freewheeling time.

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI (PG) Director: Franco Zeffirelli. With Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Charlie Lucas, Baird Wallace. (116 min.) ++ A group of colorful, strong-willed English women known in Florence, Italy, as the "Scorpioni" for their biting wit, help guide a young boy born out of wedlock into manhood and a life of art. This coming-of-age tale set on the brink of World War II - which also tells the story of a vanishing quiet city - has everything going for it: a wonderful cast and a beautiful setting, but it lacks both focus and character development. By Lisa Leigh Parney

Currently in Release THE APPLE (NOT RATED) Director: Samira Makhmalbaf. With Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Naderi, Ghorban Ali Naderi, Azizeh Mohamadi, Zahra Saghrisaz. (86 min.) ++++ Fiction and documentary mingle in this Iranian drama based on the real experiences of twin girls who were locked away from the world for 12 years by their parents, whose exaggerated fear of society made them think they were acting in the children's best interests. Makhmalbaf was only 17 when she started work on this project (with the help of her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a renowned filmmaker). Her understanding of all members of the family is one of the movie's most remarkable qualities. +++ Original, moving, insightful. Sex/Nudity/Violence/Profanity/Drugs: None.

ELECTION (R) Director: Alexander Payne. With Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell. Delaney Driscoll, Molly Hagan. (104 min.) ++ The director of "Citizen Ruth" strikes again with this pitch-dark satire about a high-school election, three contrasting candidates, and a teacher with very divided loyalties. Many moviegoers will find its rough sexual humor unnecessary, unjustified, and offensive. Others may consider this the perfect teen comedy for the Clinton era, saVy and cynical about the adolescent version of modern politics. Either way, Broderick and Witherspoon give perfectly matched performances at the head of a first-rate cast. +++1/2 Hilarious, satirical, sharp characters. Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of sex, plus many instances of innuendo. Violence: None. Profanity: 35 expressions. Drugs: 6 instances of social drinking and/or smoking.

THE EMPTY MIRROR (NOT RATED) Director: Barry Hershey. With Norman Rodway, Camilla Soeberg, Joel Grey, Glenn Shadix, Peter Michael Goetz. (119 min.) +++ An impressionistic visit with the defeated Adolf Hitler as he skulks around his bunker, communes with associates both real and imagined, and has a hallucinatory dialogue with Sigmund Freud, whose psychological insights are closer to the mark than the dictator can tolerate. Parts of the movie threaten to become stagy, but it gains power from the ingenious mix of multimedia ingredients woven around Rodway's strong performance.

ENTRAPMENT (PG-13) Director: Jon Amiel. With Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Will Patton, Ving Rhames, Maury Chaykin, Kevin McNally. (105 min.) ++ Romance and intrigue mingle as an insurance-company investigator crosses the path of a master thief who specializes in stealing priceless art. As usual in caper movies, the characters are duplicitous, and circumstances are rarely what they seem. The movie's main charm comes from Connery's smooth acting, but Zeta- Jones also makes an appealing impression. ++1/2 Lacks suspense, weak dialogue, exciting techno-feats. Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes of nudity. Violence: 3 instances. Profanity: 17 expressions. Drugs: 1 instance of drug use, 4 of alcohol.

THE KING OF MASKS (NOT RATED) Director: Wu Tianming. With Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-Ying, Zhang Riuyang, Zhao Zhigang. (101 min.) +++ Dwelling in a rigidly traditional society that values youth over age and males over females, an old Chinese entertainer and a homeless little girl become unlikely partners in the quest for a reasonably contented life. The story becomes slow and repetitive during its long middle section, but the acting is expressive, and some of the cinematography is dazzling. In Mandarin, with subtitles.

THE MATRIX (R) Directors: The Wachowski Brothers. With Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano. (132 min.) +++ Juiced up with nonstop action and a megadose of special effects, this science-fiction thrill ride begins with the paranoid premise that evil conspirators have all humanity trapped in a web of illusion that perpetuates their control by blinding us to reality. The plot switches gears every time it threatens to run out of energy, which keeps the show as lively as it is preposterous. +++ Original, clever, solid sci-fi. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 11 scenes. Profanity: 48 expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes of smoking and/or drinking.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (PG-13) Director: Michael Hoffman. With Kevin Kline, Michel Pfeiffer, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Sophie Marceau, Stanley Tucci, David Strathairn. (115 min.) ++ The latest adaptation of Shakespeare's romantic comedy isn't exactly the real thing. It trims the text, shifts the action to turn-of-the-century Italy, and douses the soundtrack with opera music but it retains the antic plot about lovers and actors discombobulated by magic spells, and serves up some of the Bard's most popular verse. Often less than spellbinding, the fault lies with uneven performances and Hoffman's reliance on theatrical devices instead of truly cinematic effects.

THE MUMMY (PG-13) Director: Stephen Sommers. With Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Kevin J.O. Connor, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Hyde. (125 min.) ++ High-tech remake of the 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian schemer who launches an evil plot after 20th-century adventurers revive him. The movie is long, bombastic, and violent, but fantasy fans may enjoy its fast- moving energy, and some of the digitized effects are entertainingly hokey. ++1/2 Imaginative, over the top, adventurous. Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 23 instances of gory gun battles and mummy fights. Profanity: 23 mild expressions. Drugs: 5 instances.

OPEN YOUR EYES (R) Director: Alejandro Amenbar. With Eduardo Noriega, Penlope Cruz, Najwa Nimri, Chete Lera. (110 min.) +++ This extremely clever Spanish thriller starts as the romantic story of a young man and his jealous lover, then becomes a tale of physical and emotional trauma, and finally plunges into surreal mystery and science-fiction pyrotechnics. That may sound like a hodgepodge, but Amenbar weaves a smooth-ly flowing tale that's as gripping as it is unpredictable. In Spanish, with subtitles. Sex/Nudity: 3 instances of sex and/or innuendo. Violence: 6 instances. Profanity: 67 expressions. Drugs: 7 scenes with smoking and/ or drinking, 2 with drugs.

PUSHER (NOT RATED) Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. With Kim Bodnia, Laura Drasbaek, Zlatko Buric, Slavko Labovic. (105 min.) +++ The life and times of a Danish drug dealer in trouble with dangerous colleagues. The action is horrific at times, but it adds up to a vigorous message about the hazards of a criminal life. In Danish, with subtitles.

THIS IS MY FATHER (R) Director: Paul Quinn. With Aidan Quinn, James Caan, John Cusack, Stephen Rea, Donal Donnelly. (120 min.) ++ An impressive cast lends intermittent appeal to the story of an American teacher who visits Ireland to explore his family's troubled emotional roots. The tale is powerful in its understated US scenes, but rambles a bit when it switches to the Irish countryside. Caan does the most memorable acting, and Quinn is also strong in his brother's feature-filmmaking debut.

THREE SEASONS (PG-13) Director: Tony Bui. With Harvey Keitel, Zo Bui, Don Duog, Gnoc Hiep, Manh Cuong. (110 min.) +++ Set in present-day Vietnam, this gently filmed drama tells alternating tales about several characters including a lovestruck worker, a good-hearted prostitute, a little boy who's lost his livelihood, and a former US soldier hunting for a daughter he's never met. Although the movie is stronger on atmosphere than suspense or psychology, its Vietnamese-American director paints a vivid portrait of life in a rapidly changing nation caught between a troubled past and an uncertain future.

THE WINSLOW BOY (G) Director: David Mamet. With Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Gemma Jones, Matthew Pidgeon. (110 min.) ++++ Superbly acted, elegantly filmed adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's classic 1940s drama about an aging Edwardian father who launches a legal fight to clear his son's name after the boy is convicted of a petty crime, with repercussions that affect his family. The subject remains as relevant as ever, touching on still-timely issues like feminist activism and media madness. This is the kind of movie that literate viewers pine for, laced with gracefulness and wit. ++++ Inspiring, compelling, touches the heart. Sex/Nudity/Violence/Profanity: None. Drugs: Several scenes with smoking and social drinking.

XIU XIU: THE SENT-DOWN GIRL (R) Director: Joan Chen. With Lu Lu, Lopsang, Gao Jie, Li Qianqian.(99 min.) +++ During the Cultural Revolution about three decades ago, a Chinese teenager leaves home for an educational experience in the countryside, where she is brutally exploited by men holding power in the region. Chinese authorities have censored this movie, apparently upset at its negative treatment of a disturbing subject, but audiences are likely to find its candor as honest as it is unsettling. In Mandarin, with subtitles.

OUT ON VIDEO ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE (R) Director: Larry Clark. With James Woods, Vincent Kartheiser, Melanie Griffith. (101 min.) ++ An experienced thug invites a drug-abusing teenager to become his protg, leading to a violent crime spree. Clark's first movie since the controversial "Kids" manages to be jarringly naturalistic.

VELVET GOLDMINE (R) Director: Todd Haynes. With Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Toni Collette. (117 min.) +++ An explosively vivid look at the "glam rock" scene of the 1970s, when rockers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop - represented here by fictionalized counterparts - explored controversial new territories of rock-music creativity. ++ Flamboyant, fragmented, glamorous.

COMING SOON ... (In stores May 18)

THE HANGING GARDEN (NOT RATED) Director: Thom Fitzgerald. With Chris Leavins, Kerry Fox, Sarah Polley. (91 min.) +++ Unpredictable, sometimes dreamlike drama about a young gay man visiting his family and remembering his years as a shy, ungainly child. Good acting and a surprising story raise this offbeat tale a cut above the average. (In stores May 25)

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (R) Director: Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies. (160 min.) +++ This extremely violent World War II drama focuses on an Army captain ordered to penetrate dangerous territory and rescue a private whose mother has already lost three sons in combat. +++ Masterpiece, grimly realistic, definitely not for kids.

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