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OCTOBER SKY

OCTOBER SKY(A-2, PG) is the underdog Rocky story in a slightly different context. A kid named Homer wants to be a rocket scientist. (It's the 1950's in West Virginia coal country, and Wernher von Braun is leading the American comeback against the Soviet lead in space.)

The boy's father is practical. The only kids in this town who "get out" do so on a football scholarship. Homer's brother can play, but he can't. So Dad plans on Homer working his way up in the mines to take his job as supervisor (and union foe). The film, based on Homer Hickam's autobiography, describes how the kid follows his dream.

Sky is inspirational: Fathers sometimes can't get past seeing the world as it has always been and passing on their disillusionment to their children. Plus, ambition is to be cherished. Homer (newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal) and his nerdy pals cheerfully blast all the youth movie cliches—they're good students, and their only rebellion is against the defeatism of being rural and poor.

Tennessee substitutes for West Virginia. The locales and comic efforts at rocket-launching are nicely used. But writer Lewis Colick and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) have stuffed the material into such trite Hollywood form that even major climaxes are predictable and milked for obvious emotions. Laura Dern is low-key as the dedicated teacher, and Chris Cooper is terrific as the grouchy dad who loves his son but has difficulty telling him. Uplifting for youth and adults.

THE LAST DAYS

THE LAST DAYS (PG-13): This new Holocaust documentary is the latest in a grim but artful procession that began in the 1950's (Resnais's poetic masterpiece Night and Fog) and never ceases to shock. As the generation that survived Nazi persecution passes into history, they testify with new urgency so posterity will remember.

James Moll's Oscar-winning film deals with the Jews of Hungary, the last to be transported to the death camps in a hasty frenzy by Nazis facing certain defeat in the war. It was, a historian says, as if they were determined not to lose their war against the Jews.

Five survivors, now Americans, talk for the camera. Their memories come to life in historic footage, treasured family photos and movies. They travel to the camps with their children and grandchildren; their stories are unforgettably heartbreaking. Two women return to their villages and homes and talk to the neighbors they left behind. Renee Firestone recalls being 19 when she saved her bathing suit because the SS gave her family a few minutes to take what was precious to them.

The film offers horrifying evidence of the dead and brutalized. It touches on the huge questions, including the mystery of the apparent silence of God. But seeing these families today we realize the film is also a celebration of life and divine mercy.

Perhaps the uneasiest moment is with the neighbors: Many had jeered the Jews (and soon "inherited" their property) as they were herded out carrying suitcases that would be piled by the thousands at Auschwitz.

The neighbors are sympathetic now and worried. (Will these Americans want their property back?) With unintended irony one person says of the Holocaust, "I have seen it only in the movies." Recommended for mature viewers.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (A-3, PG-13) is intended to be a gorgeous, tragic love story. Based on Nicholas Sparks's best-seller, Message is basically a seashore version of the Heathcliff tale: A man is so attached to his deceased love that he can no longer find happiness.

That big love occurred before the movie started and it's just assumed, not explained in any adult way. Instead, for two hours we suffer and agonize in hope the guy will find a new love.

Robin Wright Penn is the spunky researcher for The Chicago Tribune who finds the bottled message on a beach and is deeply moved by its expression of the kind of "love everyone wants." She tracks the brooding widower (Kevin Costner), who is a boat designer-builder on the Carolina Outer Banks, a locale that makes for much dreamy beach-walking and picturesque sailing.

Paul Newman livens things up as the wry and outspoken father who wants his son to live in the present. Despite moments of reconciliation the film is more about pain and foolishness than joy and hope. Like You've Got Mail, Message is quaint, since it idealizes the old-fashioned romantic power of letters. Problem sexual situations; for adults, but not especially recommended.

THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN

THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN (A-3, PG-13) is an intriguing new take on several eternal themes in literature. One is mother love, another is the returned captive. In this gripping adaptation of the Jacqueline Mitchard novel, a young suburban matron (Michelle Pfeiffer) loses her three-year-old son in a crowded Chicago hotel lobby. Nine years later he's discovered living a few blocks away, and the struggle begins to rebuild the family.

No easy happy resolutions are possible in this nightmarish case of nature vs. nurture, no matter how intense the love of the Italian-American Catholic parents. The boy has goodwill toward them but no memory of them. He is deeply attached to the Greek-American culture and father who innocently raised him. (It resembles cases of switched babies, or of children historically captured in raids or wars, as in John Ford's classic The Searchers, in which the child is taken by Indians.)

Veteran director Ulu Grosbard's last film was the much-praised Georgia (1995), and he also made True Confessions, one of the better Catholic movies of the 1980's. In this film he captures the essence of the dilemma in a moving welcome-home scene: The boy asks if he can do a Greek, rather than Italian, dance.

Audiences may be dissatisfied with the overly neat plot resolution. But the family dynamics are unnervingly true, and the complexity is adult and honest. It's a conflict without villains, in which all the afflicted characters (including the sadly neglected older son, played with great teenage angst by Jonathan Jackson) are sympathetic.

This devoted mom will go down as one of Pfeiffer's signature roles, with dramatic challenges all over the place, including the growing hysteria as the child is lost, the long months of depression, the panicked mix of hope and disbelief as she recognizes him years later, the desperate arguments with her husband (superbly played by Treat Williams) over what to do, the ultimate hard decisions and reconciliations. An affecting family film with strong male and female appeal; recommended for mature viewers.

RESURRECTION

RESURRECTION (ABC): This is a made-for-TV remake of the 1980 Ellen Burstyn movie. The story of an ordinary woman astonished to discover she has the power to heal after surviving a near-death experience is an odd duck for 1999 TV prime time. It is about miracles, which it sees as inexplicable interventions by the divine in human life.

The original was movingly ambiguous about the supernatural and provocative enough to make most lists of all-time best religious movies. Alas, the new film, despite a fine performance by Dana Delany, was given neither the time (chopped up by commercials) nor the depth to make much impact.

It was also juiced by some dumb melodrama—a doc holds a gun on a colleague to get a serum for his mother—and confusing apparitions.

But the key ideas survived—the awe of it, the mystery of why certain people are chosen, the terrible burden of having the power. The Burstyn/Delany character keeps her feet on the ground. She knows that sometimes her power doesn't work, but she tries.

She surprisingly and touchingly gives up her life to cure what suffering she can. (We see her working, unobtrusively, among the sick poor in Africa.) "If God wants to do something," she says matter-of-factly, "he'll do it."

THIS DEPARTING CENTURY

THIS DEPARTING CENTURY saw the invention and development of technically near-perfect movies, radio, television, complex music recording and computers, none of which existed even in the dreams of ordinary people 100 years ago. I can't say my field didn't exist before the 20th century: Books, newspapers, magazines and the stage had created a popular culture that hinted broadly of what was coming.

But it's odd when someone asks me to identify the century's major moment in television. I have to say, "Its invention, of course."

Incredibly enough, in their book The Year 1000, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger remind us that the last time the millennium turned, slavery and King Ethelred the Unready ruled an England under Viking attack. It's true that TV has changed the world's intellectual and (probably) spiritual environment. But life is not as bad as it was in Ethelred's day.

SAINTS ON THE NET

SAINTS ON THE NET: God is making inroads on the Internet. There is a Patron Saint Index (www.catholic-forum.com/saints/indexsnt.htm) where you can find out the patron saint of the day and the patron of lots of other categories (countries, diseases) or activities in which you may be interested. The basic database is an alphabetical list of more than 800 saints. (I haven't counted them or checked all their credentials.)

I was shocked to find a St. Arnold under Austria—St. Arnulf of Metz, actually, who was born in 580, resigned as a bishop at 46 and retired to a hermitage where he died at age 60. As a patron, he "takes care of" millers, brewers and finding lost articles.

The section on St. Anthony is impressive. It includes a profile, a photo of a sculpture of him, a collection of prayers and a litany, and quotes attributed to him.

This personal Web site was created by Terry H. Jones, 40, who is married with five kids and manages a 911 center in rural Kentucky. He started collecting prayers and found that many were addressed to "Saint Somebody, Patron of Something," so he got onto the saints. A convert, Terry says he's still learning about "the big extended family" into which he was baptized.

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