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JANUARY 24, 2000: 

The Third Miracle

They're the hottest couple on the screen right now, and the unlikeliest. Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris), troubled priest, and Roxane (Anne Heche), troubled daughter of a dead woman poised for sainthood, crackle with unstated lust from their first scene together, when she looks into his eyes and says, "Is this where I'm supposed to say you don't look like a priest?" Had director Agnieszka Holland brought some of that pizzazz to the rest of the movie, or drawn on the inspiration that propelled her Europa Europa and The Secret Garden, The Third Miracle might well have been miraculous.

Sometimes it is. In the opening scene, Holland is in familiar territory. A battered town in Slovakia in 1944 is rocked by Allied bombs, a little girl prays to a statue of the Virgin, and a wounded German soldier looks up to the sky and certain death. His face changes -- something extraordinary has happened.

Thirty-five years later in Chicago, something extraordinary happens again: a statue of the Virgin weeps blood and a deceased local woman is prayed to as the source of the miracle. "Postulator" Frank Shore, himself a wreck after a previous "successful" investigation, is called in to debunk it. But Helen's credentials prove irreproachable. Moreover, Frank has fallen in love with her apostate daughter Roxane. Faith demands that Frank plead Helen's case for sainthood, but love insists he ditch it all for Roxane.

Do miracles exist? Do they indicate an all-powerful God of benevolent design or an imbecile who plays games? These puzzles pale before the more urgent question of why Frank and Roxane don't drop the mumbo-jumbo and just get it on. Although Holland has some tricks up her sleeve -- that third miracle, for example -- this is a case where the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.

-- Peter Keough


Supernova

If imitation really is the sincerest flattery, then the makers of every hit futuristic/deep-space movie must be painfully flattered by director Thomas Lee's latest offering to the genre. Instead of HAL, the ship computer turned killer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Supernova has Sweetie, whose human qualities serve only to make her a more enthusiastic chess player. Alien's kick-ass heroine, Ripley, is revived in not-so-kick-ass Officer Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett, who made the mistake of picking this as her "branch out" movie). And Peter Facinelli's alien-infected Carl Larson sports the steady sneer and regenerative abilities that are common to sci-fi antagonists, including the second Terminator.

By relying on gimmicks borrowed from its obvious influences, Supernova dispenses with imaginative storylines and character development to make room for big special effects and gratuitous sex scenes. From the moment co-pilot Nick Vanzant (James Spader), a loner ex-drug addict (as with many other details in the film, we never find out why this is important), boards the rescue vessel Nightingale saying he likes deep space "because it's quiet," the film plunges into comfortable formula: crew answers distress signal, suspicious stranger comes aboard, crew members turn against one another, etc. etc. The title's phenomenon never actually makes an appearance, but it does threaten to consume Earth and obliterate life as we know it. We can only hope that won't provide an excuse for a sequel.

-- Jumana Farouky


Play It to the Bone

Writer/director Ron Shelton has forged a virtuoso career out of the sports movie. In Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump he deconstructed bush-league athletics with intrepid wit, but in this boxing parody, as in his golf movie, Tin Cup, Shelton swings wildly.

Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas play aging, never-was boxers and best friends who get a last-chance opportunity for a title shot. The hitch is, they have to face each other first (filling a bizarre, last-second undercard vacancy) -- which means they have to make it from LA to Vegas by nightfall. The welling machismo tension is further heightened by the presence of a common former lover (a miscast Lolita Davidovich), who's in tow for the trip, and the unearthed secret that Banderas's pugilist has taken a walk on the wild side.

The premise is titillating, but Play It to the Bone morphs into a turgid road movie as the trio career through the desert, beating their chests, reliving the past, and contemplating their futures. Harrelson and Banderas put their charismatic best foot forward, and when the fisticuffs finally do go off, there are flashes of Shelton's old brilliance, but besides that, the only bright spot here is Lucy Liu (of Ally McBeal fame) as the sultry, self-serving hitcher with a loose cannon of a mouth.

-- Tom Meek


Perfect Blue

The most transgressive film in town, appropriately confined to midnights at the Coolidge Corner, is Satoshi Kon's animated erotic thriller Perfect Blue, which oozes blood and violence and includes problematic rape sequences. But the movie is pretty exciting, imaginatively drawn stuff, an often startlingly effective terror ride in which poor pop idol Mima "Kitty" Kirigoe is put through the ringer time and again after she leaves her cozy teen singing group and "graduates" to acting before the cameras in a deeply sexual murder mystery. As happens in these kind of paranoid, deranged tales, nightmare and reality, dreaming dreadful things and living them, jumble together. Are people really being stabbed to death? Is our "Kitty" the killer? Or is it a ghostly doppelgänger who looks like Kitty, with a fixed cutesy smile and a Snow White dress? Roger Corman, a fan, has said of Perfect Blue, "If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they'd make a picture like this." This Japanese anime is dubbed superbly into English with, I'm glad to report, no movie stars supplying their honey voices.

-- Gerald Peary


Angela's Ashes

The Irish have made the most of their misery, transforming it into music, literature, and wit. And bestsellers, as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, a memoir of growing up desperately poor during the '30s and '40s in Limerick, testifies. It's a litany of woes that would be unbearable if not for the author's lyrical style, his flair for irony and absurdity, and his balming bit of sentiment.

These are qualities that do not always translate well into film, however, as the much anticipated screen adaptation of Angela's Ashes proves. Directed by Alan Parker, whose The Commitments captured modern-day Dublin with grit and verve, this Ireland of a darker day is given a nostalgic, picturesque gloss. The squalor, bitterness, and pain prove very photogenic. Cinematography passes for style, and McCourt's grim childhood becomes a cinematic coffee-table book of bittersweet anecdotes.

There are some powerful moments. The death of McCourt's infant sister while the family were still trying their luck in the USA stings, as does the hypocritical injustice of the smug Catholic charities and their mean-spirited lack of generosity when the family relocate to Ireland. Frank's schoolday run-ins with severe masters crack with savage whimsy, and the inevitable weakness of his charming, alcoholic father, played by an otherwise colorless Robert Carlyle, evokes both pathos and fury.

Maybe it's in the performances that the film is most disappointing -- even the talented Emily Watson as the benighted, indomitable Angela of the title makes no big impression, and the succession of young actors who play Frank at various incarnations have striking faces but are otherwise unmemorable. Often when the places of childhood are revisited years later, they seem smaller than expected, and such is the case with McCourt's memories when reduced to film.

-- Peter Keough


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