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Pennies From Heaven

Flick Chick

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People who didn't get enough Catholicism from media coverage of the Pope's funeral might want to check out Millions. The British film, opening this weekend at the Roxy in Burlington, begins as a clever, slightly irreverent examination of faith, but winds up with the kind of sentimental religiosity recently witnessed in Rome. It's quite a departure for director Danny Boyle, best known for his darkly humorous stories depicting human degradation: the murderous roommates of Shallow Grave, the Scottish junkies of Trainspotting and the flesh-eating zombies of 28 Days Later.

In contrast, Millions has a sunny disposition. The primary source of that cheerfulness is 7-year-old Damian Cunningham, portrayed by freckle-faced Alex Etel. Thanks to his astonishing knowledge of beatified early Christians, the youngster chats comfortably with various saints who periodically materialize at the cardboard box playhouse he's constructed in a field near some railroad tracks.

There's delightful wit in visitations from the likes of Dorothy of Caesarea, martyred in 311 AD, and Clare of Assisi, whose holy qualities are undiminished by the fact that she's a chain smoker in heaven. Cinematographer Anthony Tod Mantle and production designer Mark Tildesley have concocted these mystical sequences with movie magic probably made possible by the advent of computer-generated imagery.

Damian invariably asks the wisecracking spectral figures if they've seen "Saint Maureen," his dead mother. This is a kid trying to make sense of the family tragedy that has left his father Ronnie (James Nesbitt, the lead actor in Bloody Sunday) desperate for a return to normality. The surviving Cunninghams, including Damian's older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), have moved into a suburban Liverpool housing development to start over.

When an enormous satchel of money apparently falls from the sky at his feet, Damian believes it's a sign from God to help poor people, much the way Saint Roch did back in medieval times. In the 21st century, though, he decides his best bet is to take homeless people out for meals at the local Pizza Hut.

Anthony is dubious about any spiritual source for the £265,000 and would like to buy a few earthly luxuries. He's as keen on video games as his brother is on divine intervention.

But the loot will only be valuable for another two weeks, when the country is scheduled to switch to euros -- an idea as fanciful as Damian's visions of saints since in real life the United Kingdom retains its original currency. The brothers don't dare attempt an exchange because a bank teller would surely wonder what they're doing with so much moola. So a frenzy of spending on good works and material goods appears to be the only sensible option.

These plans are complicated by two problems: Damian's substantial donation to a charity for destitute Africans raises eyebrows, and a thug comes looking for the bag of stolen money he tossed from a train as it passed the cardboard playhouse.

"I thought it was a miracle," says the disillusioned Damian, "but it was just robbed."

Despite the film's phantasmagorical premise, most of the performances are thankfully quite natural. McGibbon and especially Etel are inspired casting choices, effectively combining vulnerability with moxie. The sole exception is Daisy Donovan as a gung-ho fundraiser who becomes a romantic prospect for Ronnie the widower and a potential surrogate mom for his sons. Subtlety is not her strong suit.

Millions starts going to hell the moment she struts into the frame. All hope for salvation is lost during pivotal scenes at a school nativity pageant, as the ascetic Saint Nicholas of Myra gives way to consumer-minded Santa Claus and a mangerful of mushy Christmas tidings.

Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People) allow the schmaltz to overwhelm what starts out as a bittersweet tale of how a child's vivid imagination and reality can intersect. Moreover, the character-driven script suddenly descends into the chaos of a conventional comedic action-adventure genre.

Anyone not seduced by the Vatican's cinematic costume drama and the call for instant canonization of John Paul II may find this often-innovative motion picture disappointing. On the other hand, the politically incorrect sight gag of Saint Clare puffing on a "ciggie" almost makes Millions worth the devilish ticket price in pounds, euros or dollars.

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