Agnes Browne (15) General release
The story is set decades ago in a working-class area of an Irish city, and the central character is a decent, resilient woman struggling to fend for herself and her large young family. That outline might suggest Angela's Ashes, which has been brought to the screen by Alan Parker with realism, humanity and a welcome degree of understatement - qualities which are not evident in Anjelica Huston's simplistic and sentimental film, Agnes Browne, a thick slice of screen Oirishness based on Brendan O'Carroll's novel, The Mammy.
Set in what is purportedly Dublin in 1967, it features Huston herself in a quite appealing performance as Agnes Browne, a hard-working woman left to care for her seven children, aged from two to 14 years, after the death of her husband. To pay for his funeral, she borrows from an unscrupulous, coldhearted money-lender (Ray Winstone), a cardboard villain diluted from Dickens, and she supports herself and her family by selling fruit and vegetables on Market Street, which is modelled on Moore Street. Through all life's tribulations, Agnes never looks remotely weather-beaten for such a busy woman who works outdoors and has to care for such a large brood, and her consistent radiance surely defines her as the role model to whom all street traders ought to aspire.
Agnes is encouraged to look on the bright side of her life by her firm friend and neighbouring trader, Marion (Marion O'Dwyer), and the film is at its most persuasive in etching the close bond between the two women and in the warmth generated by the two actresses in their scenes together, with O'Dwyer making a belated but notable cinema debut.
There is the possibility of a new love in Agnes's life when she meets a Frenchman who, getting the jump on Cuisine de France by several decades, has opened a French bakery in Dublin. He is blandly played by Arno Chevrier, who took over the role at short notice when Gerard Depardieu, the original choice, had a motorcycle accident - just as Huston herself stepped into the leading role when Rosie O'Donnell - who, perish the thought, was to have played Agnes - had to drop out two weeks before pre-production began.
This trite movie is suffused with an enforced jollity and a Rare Ould Times phoniness that's exemplified by Paddy Moloney's so-wistful score and the shots of little girls doing their jigs and reels in the street to the accompaniment of whiskery musicians. Much more grating, however, is O'Carroll's char acteristically crude humour, which is jarring in the context.
Those attempts at comedy derive from mispronouncing "ejaculate" as "evacuate" and "orgasm" as "organism". Or take the scene when Marion goes for a driving lesson and Agnes accompanies her. When the instructor gesticulates for the car window to be opened, Agnes uproariously asks, "Does he want a wank?" And when the instructor tells them his surname is O'Toole, the two women are convulsed with laughter. Now you know what to expect.
End of Days (18) General release
Steeped in millennial angst, Peter Hyams's action blockbuster opens on a thunderous score over what looks like sleeves from New Age CDs by Enigma. A prologue set in 1979 chronicles the birth of a baby girl who is baptised with the blood of a huge snake, and the concern of the Vatican that the girl be protected. The movie then cuts to the very near future - to the three days in the runup to the last night of 1999 - as it sets up the ultimate battle between good and evil. The forces of good are embodied in Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzengger), an ex-cop who, like almost every other ex-cop in movies these days, is unshaven, alcoholic and disillusioned; in Cane's case he has been permanently traumatised by the murder of his wife and daughter.
Evil is represented by no less a figure than Satan, who takes the human form of an investment banker played by Gabriel Byrne. The Irish actor wisely eschews histrionics and plays Satan with the swaggering insouciance and head-on determination of somebody utterly convinced of their supremacy. As Manhattan is swept up in NY2K hysteria, director Hyams pumps up the action as Cane, despite a crashing hangover, shows he still has the stamina to pursue a sniper while he (Cane) is suspended from a helicopter. Over in the Vatican, pressure is mounting to prevent the 1979 baby, now a 20-year-old woman played by Robin Tunney, from being impregnated with the anti-Christ by Satan in the hour before the new millennium arrives.
The movie features some eye-popping special effects - and ear-popping use of sound - as it plays out its set-pieces with panache, but like the recent James Bond movie, it squanders its potential through its attachment to a convoluted narrative and by its inability to resist inane wisecracking in the most serious moments. Altogether more interesting is the movie's ultimate rejection of violence as a solution and what this tells us about what we may expect to see - and more specifically, not see - on our screens in the early 21st century.
Ratcatcher (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin
Following two short films which received prizes at Cannes, the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay makes a distinctive feature film debut with Ratcatcher, a resolutely grim comingof-age tale set in Glasgow during the 1970s at the time of a protracted refuse collection strike.
This dispassionately observed and clearly well-intentioned picture of an impoverished Glasgow family centres on the dreams and sexual awakening of a 12-year-old (William Eadie) who's riddled with guilt over his role in the horseplay that led to another boy's drowning. He feels alienated from his drunken, adulterous father, and he becomes intrigued by the half-completed house he discovers on a bus trip to a rural area which soon will become part of the city's suburbs.
Rather over-praised by the British press, Ratcatcher is too self-consciously indebted to the much superior socialist cinema of Ken Loach and too inconsequential in its plotting as a memory film to achieve any lingering arresting effect. Nevertheless, it is indelibly marked by Ramsay's visual flair, and there is enough evidence of her vivid cinematic sense to hold out a good deal of promise for her work in years to come.
October Sky (PG) Screen at D'Olier Street, Dublin
Based on the autobiographical book, Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam Jr, a recently retired NASA engineer, October Sky is set in the small, West Virginia mining town of Coalwood in 1957 where the teenage Homer and his three closest high school friends are fascinated by the progress of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik. Encouraged by an idealistic teacher (Laura Dern), the boys build miniature rockets as their entry in a competition for young scientists. However, their scheme incurs the wrath of local police, who blame them for starting a forest fire - and brings Homer into conflict with his stern miner father (Chris Cooper).
Attractively photographed and made with a keen eye for period detail, October Sky has a rather mundane air to it; and it's all too conventionally structured by screenwriter Lewis Colick and routinely directed by Joe Johnston, the Oscar-winning special effects wizard who directed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. At the heart of his new film is a likeable performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who brings a bright, natural quality to the role of Homer.