Movie Guide

Big Bad Love (R)

Director: Arliss Howard. With Howard, Debra Winger, Paul Le Mat, Angie Dickinson. (111 min.)

Sterritt *** See review, page 15.

Domestic Violence (Not rated)

Director: Frederick Wiseman. With residents of Tampa, Fla. (196 min.)

Sterritt **** In the 32nd film of his extraordinary career, Wiseman continues his practice of probing social institutions via cinema-verite documentary, allowing crisply captured images and sounds to speak for themselves without commentary. Here he travels with police to scenes of domestic violence, visits a shelter for battered women, and sits in on education and discussion sessions. Ingeniously structured as a long day's journey from morning until dead of night, the results are illuminating, harrowing, and riveting.

Dragonfly (PG-13)

Director: Tom Shadyac. With Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates, Joe Morton. (100 min.)

Sterritt ** See review, page 15.

Maryam (Not rated)

Director: Ramin Serry. With Mariam Parris, David Ackert, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Shaun Toub. (87 min.)

Sterritt ** The place is New Jersey, and the title character is a teen girl whose Iranian-American parents take in a politically cantankerous Iranian relative just before Iran's new Islamic government sparks the 1979 hostage crisis. This modestly produced drama isn't acted or directed with much flair, but it shows a welcome awareness of the complex links between personal and political impulses.

Monsoon Wedding (R)

Director: Mira Nair. With Naseeruddin Shah, Roshan Seth, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty. (111 min.)

Sterritt *** See review, page 15.

Umberto D. (Not rated)

Director: Vittorio De Sica. With Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Alberto Albani Barbieri, Ileana Simova. (91 min.)

Sterritt **** The credo of Italy's fabled neorealist movement was that movies rooted in real, unadorned experience carry more dramatic impact than studio concoctions can dream of, and this 1952 masterpiece exemplifies that argument brilliantly. The title character is an aging man who needs a few lire to pay his rent; the story follows him and his little dog down the streets and sidewalks of postwar Rome as he tries to replenish his empty pockets. That's all. And you'll never forget it. In Italian with English subtitles.

Birthday Girl (R)

Director: Jez Butterworth. With: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel. (93 min.)

Staff ** It must have taken Nicole Kidman months to learn this script. For her role as Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride, the actress spends half the movie speaking Russian. Arriving in England, Nadia is met by her intended, John, a lonely bore of a banker wanting to spice up his life. Nadia isn't all she seems; John finds his British reserve punctured as his life spirals out of control. The movie, alas, isn't as lively as Kidman's performance. A quirkier sensibility and fleshed-out plot are missing. By Stephen Humphries

Staff **1/2 Odd, forgettable, edgy, lots of plot twists, ultimately shallow.

Sex/Nudity: 10 scenes. Violence: 17 scenes. Profanity: 19 expression, 10 of which are mild. Drugs: At least 16 scenes of smoking and drinking.

Black Hawk Down (R)

Director: Ridley Scott. With Josh Hartnett, Sam Shepard, Tom Sizemore. (148 min.)

Sterritt * The fact-based story focuses on US troops sent to Mogadishu in 1993 to disable a powerful Somali warlord by kidnapping high lieutenants who've helped him rule by terror. Their obstacles include aggressive enemy soldiers and hostile civilians, and the nightmare grows worse when two helicopters are shot down, sparking a hard-fought battle to rescue crash survivors. The screenplay lauds the resolute spirits of the troops. But the nature of warfare merits more thoughtful examination at this time. Since the filmmakers offer no insights, their motives must be to sensationalize war's horrors and capitalize on its thrills. We deserve better.

Staff *** Gut-wrenching, extremely violent, savage, lacks content, well directed.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: Most of film is violent with 45 scenes, many gory. Profanity: 22 instances. Drugs: 10 scenes.

Collateral Damage (R)

Director: Andrew Davis. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Francesca Neri, John Leguizamo, Cliff Curtis. (110 min.)

Sterritt * Schwarzenegger strikes again, this time as a firefighter who embarks on a vendetta against Colombian terrorists, hunting them in their country and in Washington after his wife and child are killed in a Los Angeles bombing. The film paints a strikingly hostile portrait of its Latin American characters and some of its mayhem is vicious, even by the debased standards of today's action-movie genre.

Sex/Nudity: 2 instances innuendo. Violence: 16 scenes. Profanity: 33 expressions, including 21 mild. Drugs: At least 4 scenes with drinking and smoking.

Crossroads (PG-13)

Director: Tamra Davis. With Britney Spears, Dan Aykroyd, Zoe Saldana, Taryn Manning, Anson Mount. (92 min.)

Staff * Britney and her pals take off from a Georgia town on a road trip, in a convertible driven by a musician with an ambiguous past. To top it off, one girl is pregnant. Britney's on a quest to visit her estranged mom; the others plan to compete in a music contest in California. Between blasting pop tunes and singing at the top of their lungs, serious issues emerge: date rape, love, teen sex, and parental abandonment. But only superficial dialogue on these topics occurs. Still, it's not quite as lewd as other teen flicks, and Britney fans will enjoy. The ending, like the rest of the film, is boilerplate. And the singing and acting seem as manufactured as the glossy magazines Britney's picture often appears in. By Stephanie Cook

Sex/Nudity: 13 scenes, including innuendo, suggestive dancing, implied sex. Violence: 4 scenes. Profanity: 7 expressions. Drugs: 4 scenes drinking.

Gosford Park (R)

Director: Robert Altman. With Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance. (137 min.)

Sterritt **** Altman visits England for the first time in this peek at the British class system about 70 years ago, focusing on masters and servants at a rural estate during a shooting-party weekend roiled by a murder. This is familiar territory if you recall BBC miniseries "Upstairs Downstairs," but this great US filmmaker gives it new twists with an incisively satirical approach.

Staff **1/2 Too many characters, predictable, well-composed, witty, suspenseful.

Sex/Nudity: 5 scenes with implied sex. Violence: 2 scenes. Profanity: 7 harsh expressions. Drugs: 34 scenes with smoking, 14 with drinking.

I Am Sam (PG-13)

Director: Jessie Nelson. With Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laura Dern. (124 min.)

Sterritt * Penn's bravura performance is the only reason to watch this wildly sentimental comedy-drama about a mentally retarded man trying to regain custody of his daughter after social workers decide she needs a better home. The film means well, but scenes get clobbered by sappy screenwriting.

Staff **1/2 Creaky, mostly well-acted, trite.

Sex/Nudity: 3 scenes implied sex. Violence: None. Profanity: 8 expressions. Drugs: 1 scene with drinking.

In the Bedroom (R)

Director: Todd Field. With Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei. (138 min.)

Sterritt *** A town doctor and his wife aren't sure how to take their college-age son's romance with an unhappily married woman. The climax suggests drastic measures may be needed in drastic circumstances and that the lines between "moral" and "immoral" people may be more slender than we'd like to believe. The acting is mostly excellent.

Staff *** Humanistic, dark, absorbing.

Sex/Nudity: 8 scenes, mostly innuendo. Violence: 7 scenes, 1 graphic. Profanity: 20 expressions. Drugs: 12 scenes with drinking or smoking.

Iris (R)

Director: Richard Eyre. With Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Eleanor Bron. (90 min.)

Sterritt *** In alternating scenes, Winslet and Dench play novelist Iris Murdoch at two very different periods in her life. Some episodes show her early years as a writer, when she flirted with everyone in sight and decided to marry fellow author John Bayley; others paint a sad portrait of the mental and physical decline that eventually burdened her. Dench and Winslet give strong and creative performances, and Broadbent is positively brilliant as old Bayley, reconfirming his status as one of the greatest actors anywhere.

Sex/Nudity: 1 sex scene. Violence: None. Drugs: At least 8 scenes with smoking, drinking.

John Q (PG-13)

Director: Nick Cassavetes. With Denzel Washington, Anne Heche, Robert Duvall. (116 min.)

Sterritt ** John is a working-class guy whose boy needs life-saving surgery not covered by his insurance. After failing to raise enough cash, and getting no sympathy from the hospital's financial office, he becomes a vigilante dad. The early scenes persuasively etch John's fatherly love and raise crucial questions about the US healthcare system. Things start to go wrong when he pulls a gun on a cardiac surgeon, and they go very wrong when Capra-esque crowds gather outside the emergency room to cheer him on. It's grimly fascinating to watch fine actors wrestle with the increasingly awful screenplay. It's just plain grim to think that such hokey stuff was directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose father John waged a lifelong campaign for emotional realism in film.

Staff ** Manipulative, bad dialogue, well-paced.

Sex/Nudity: 1 instance innuendo. Violence: 8 scenes. Profanity: 31 expressions, some harsh. Drugs: 2 scenes smoking.

Monster's Ball (R)

Director: Marc Forster. With Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry. (108 min)

Sterritt *** Thornton plays a Southern death-row guard whose father and son share the same profession. His life changes when he falls in love with the widow of a criminal he executed. Performances are superb and the screenplay focuses on engrossing issues like racism, capital punishment, and the ways tragedy can intrude on ordinary lives. Its insights wane when the love story kicks in.

Staff *** Redemptive, intense, well-acted, unnecessarily explicit sex scenes.

Sex/Nudity: 4 sex scenes. Violence: 11 scenes. Profanity: 26 expressions, many harsh Drugs: 12 scenes.

Much Ado About Something (Not rated)

Director: Michael Rubbo. With Rubbo, Mark Rylance, John Michell. (93 min.)

Sterritt *** And you thought William Shakespeare wrote his own plays? This entertaining documentary makes a lively argument that his comedies, tragedies, romances, histories - and yes, the sonnets - were really penned by Christopher Marlowe, who allegedly faked his own murder at age 29 and high-tailed it for Italy, smuggling his plays back to England under an assumed moniker. All right, it's a far-fetched theory. But it's fun to think about, and Rubbo's collection of quibbling scholars provides a colorful account of the pros, and cons, and imponderables of the debate. Will the real Bard of Avon please stand up?

Return to Never Land (G)

Director: Robin Budd. With voices of Harriet Owen, Blayne Weaver, Corey Burton, Jeff Bennett. (72 min.)

Sterritt *** It's taken Walt Disney Pictures almost half a century to follow up "Peter Pan," but fans of the 1953 animated classic will find familiar faces in this sequel, which follows Wendy's daughter on her adventure with Captain Hook, magical Tinkerbell, the Pirates and Lost Boys, and Peter himself. The story lacks the freshness of the original film - and whose idea was it to replace the ominously ticking crocodile with a funny-looking octopus? Kids will enjoy its action and humor, though. And in the age of "Monsters, Inc." it's refreshing to see a cartoon that looks like one rather than a conglomeration of computer bits and bytes.

Sex/Nudity: none. Violence: 16 scenes cartoonish violence. Profanity: None. Drugs: None.

Rollerball (PG-13)

Director: John McTiernan. With: Chris Klein, Jean Reno, LL Cool J. (99 min.)

Staff *1/2 Jonathan is the best player in the world's most dangerous game, a confusing mix of skates, motorcycles, balls, and fireworks. Even players don't understand it. You'll be better off if you don't try to understand this chopped-up remake; just rock 'n' roll with its driving score and flashy camerawork. LL Cool J as Jonathan's buddy and Reno as a franchise owner who'd kill his star to boost ratings, are watchable, but why not just rent the '75 original? By M.K. Terrell

Sex/Nudity: 7 instances, mostly innuendo. Violence: 24 scenes. Profanity: 33 expressions. Drugs: 15 scenes.

Storytelling (R)

Director: Todd Solondz. With John Goodman, Heather Matarazzo, Paul Giamatti, Selma Blair. (90 min.)

Sterritt *** The maker of "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse" tells two tales in this outrageous comedy-drama. The first, "Fiction," probes the psychosexual tensions between a disabled student, his fickle girlfriend, and their creative-writing teacher. The second, "Nonfiction," follows the exploits of a wannabe filmmaker who decides to shoot a documentary on a pallid teenage boy. Solondz is a thoughtful writer-director; he's also a canny provocateur who loves to spark debate

Staff **1/2 tedious, dark, cynical, eerie.

Sex/Nudity: 7 scenes. Profanity: 50 expressions. Drugs: 5 scenes drinking or smoking, 3 with drugs.

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