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He sees dead holy people: Etel in Millions.

Christmas Comes Early
By Ann Morrow

Millions

Directed by Danny Boyle

In Millions, his tender, imaginative new film, director Danny Boyle leaves behind the grim England and vicious people of his first films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, to alight in a semimagical realm inhabited by a sensitive young boy, Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel), who is preoccupied by the lives of the saints the way some boys are with sports stars. Having recently lost their mother, Damien and his older brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), are moved to a generic new subdivision by their floundering father, Ronnie (the appealing James Nesbitt). Anthony, who is 9 and becoming cynical, milks their mother’s death to advantage, but Damien retreats into the company of the saints, whom he sees in visions and communicates with as matter-of-factly as his new neighbors. These visions are enacted with down-to-earth charm: St. Clare the mystic takes a smoke break in Damien’s cardboard fort; later the boy will come across the Ugandan Martyrs digging for water by the train tracks, and St. Peter will consult with him in his bedroom.

When a large gym bag filled with money is thrown from a train, it drops seemingly from the sky onto Damien’s fort. The hopeful, openhearted boy assumes it’s a gift from God, and that he should use it to do good works with. The more practical Anthony—who estimates their fortune at several hundred thousand pounds—wants to invest it, convincing Damien to keep the money a secret from their father so he won’t have to pay taxes on it. But it’s not easy for Damien to find poor people in his new suburban neighborhood, and he attracts unwanted attention with his largesse. Anthony, frustrated in his attempts to buy property without an adult, spreads some cash, winning friends and influencing schoolmates. A wonderfully Dickensian element is introduced when the robber who stole the money shows up to reclaim it. Other pressures come from the imminent conversion of the British pound to the euro, which will render the boys’ fortune worthless, and the intrusion of Dorothy (Daisy Donavan), a bubbly relief worker for an African charity. It’s also Christmastime, and the school is preparing for its Nativity performance. The star of Bethlehem, however, has already entered Damien’s hemisphere.

Visually and narratively, Millions is sheer joy. Primary colors are punched up, whimsical tableaux are conjured from ordinary materials like Damien’s cardboard constructions, and enchantment arises from everyday sights—such as the policemen in yellow slickers patrolling on bicycles, with their reflector lights moving through the dusk like a glinting constellation. The script, by Frank Boyce (who penned the marvelous 24 Hour Party People) not only gives us the dauntless ardor of Damien (played with radiant innocence by Etel), but other delightful characters such as the all-too-human Mormons who live nearby, and the vivacious Dorothy (Donavan is like a working-class Emma Thompson). When the hapless Ronnie discovers Anthony’s impressive head for business, he responds with admiration, “How did I get you?” Damien and Anthony are so fully realized that audiences won’t notice that the story is being told from the viewpoint of two children.

Instead of corrupting the characters, the money brings them together, as they struggle to do what’s right, both individually and as a family. Not incidentally, the struggle helps Damien and Anthony to come to terms with the death of their mother. Cinematically, the hard-boiled Boyle and the fanciful Boyce are a match made in heaven, and Millions offers a multitude of pleasures.

Long Island: Still Not Scary

The Amityville Horror

Directed by Andrew Douglas

Where’s Bob Vila when you need him? At one point in the mechanical new remake of The Amityville Horror, the house puts the screws to its inhabitants, literally. In the 1979 original—an improbable hit whose best effect was achieved with two red penlights that appeared like demonic eyes—the Lutz family was terrified by nothing more than their own overactive imaginations. In the remake, practically a play-by-play of the first script (based on the sensationalized “true story” by Jay Anson), the power of suggestion is filled out with flashes of onscreen gore and a bit of back-story malarkey. The uninspired tweaking, including an eviscerated thorax, make the latest Horror marginally scarier than the frightless, witless original. (To its detriment, however, it does not have any comic relief comparable to Rod Steiger’s bellowing histrionics as Father Delaney; Steiger was tormented by his efforts to out-ham Richard Burton’s priest in Exorcist II: The Heretic.)

Amityville 2005 starts with a nearly identical, based-on-real-events opening, only with more blood and less lightning. Within the large, Long Island house with top-floor windows that look like eyes, Ronnie DeFeo slaughters his entire family with a shotgun. Fast-forward a year, and the Lutz family—George (Ryan Reynolds), his new wife Kathy (Melissa George), and her three children from a previous marriage—move into the bargain-priced house. Within hours, George starts to deteriorate and Chelsea (Chlöe Grace Moretz), the youngest child, falls under the influence of her sinister invisible friend, Jodie (Isabel Conner). Going on Jodie’s cadaverous face and greasy black hair, she must’ve escaped from an enigmatic Japanese thriller. Utilizing a detail from the DeFeo murders, George becomes abusive to his oldest stepchild, Billie (veteran child actor Jessie James), while Kathy endures everything as passively as any financially dependent 1970s mom (a wittier bit of ’70s nostalgia shows the kids playing the board game Operation).

George, apparently, is being undone by jealousy over Kathy’s deceased first husband, an emotional state that goes nowhere while the much more timely pressure of paying for a six- bedroom, waterfront Colonial is ignored—unless those dark shapes that flit by just out of sight are really unpaid invoices. Shivering in the basement, George grows more morose, the family dog disappears, and the local priest (Philip Baker Hall) runs away in record time. This priest excepted, the story’s Catholic subplot has been excised, and in another act of political correction, the Indian “exposure ground” has been changed to the torture chamber of a sadistic missionary. Instead of mysterious wraiths, the house now channels a Shinacock on a meat hook, a sight that’s a slight improvement over the original’s eyeballing insects.

The leads are wooden but likeable, the director uses old-school scare tactics competently, and fans of the original will probably get a kick out of how the wimpy babysitter has been recast as a hot-bod bad girl. But even those audiences too young to know who James Brolin is may find that Amityville’s ol’ house of flies has become decidedly moth-eaten.

—Ann Morrow


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