These movies arrive on video store shelves this week.
*CHILDREN OF HEAVEN
(PG, 1999, 83 minutes, Miramax)
Iranian director Majid Majidi creates an effective homage to Vittorio De Sica's 1948 "The Bicycle Thief" in this neo-neorealist tale of an impoverished Iranian schoolboy and his struggle to replace a pair of lost shoes. In the lead role of Ali, doe-eyed Amir Farrokh Hashemian gives a moving and unaffected performance as a wise innocent coping with great adversity. Majidi's understated and poetic handling of the theme of personal sacrifice evokes the irony of the famous O. Henry story "The Gift of the Magi." Contains nothing objectionable.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
(PG-13, 1999, 118 minutes, October Films)
In Robert Altman's southern gothic-flavored movie, the death of an old dowager (Patricia Neal) leads to a comedy of blunders, including the wrongful arrest of her employee Willis (Charles S. Dutton) for murder. Only the old lady's conniving niece Camille (Glenn Close), aided by her dumbly obedient sister Cora (Julianne Moore), can assert Willis's innocence. This may not go down as Robert Altman's most memorable movie. But it's a pleasant affair, whose greatest assets are its unhurried, benevolent atmosphere and the quiet, gem-like moments that occur among its characters. In the style that has served him for decades, Altman introduces the actors to this indolent world, then lets them sort things out in time for the ending. It's a simple formula but it works fine, even in the sleepiest of situations. Contains the depiction of a violent act and sensuality. -- Desson Howe
(R, 1999, 110 minutes, New Line)
It's rewarding to watch Asian action star Chow Yun-Fat finally make headway here. His English is still wooden, but the charisma needs no translation. He's an undercover detective in New York City's Asian Gang Unit, who's surprised to be partnered with Danny Wallace (Mark Wahlberg), a rookie who seems too green and white to be infiltrating Chinatown. The story gets bogged down in predictable sentimentality, but the teamwork between the stars is there; and director James Foley creates some jarringly entertaining set pieces. Contains violence, obscenity, nudity and drug use. -- Desson Howe
FORCES OF NATURE
(PG-13, 1999, 106 minutes, Dreamworks)
Transportation snafus force Ben Affleck to find alternative ways to make his Georgia wedding on time. When he teams with newfound travel partner, Sandra Bullock, he finds his nuptial intentions in danger of derailment too. The movie, directed by Bronwen Hughes from Marc Lawrence's screenplay, has flickerings of originality, but not enough to raise this romantic caper to memorable heights. Both performers are personable and occasionally amusing, but not particularly explosive. Ultimately, "Forces of Nature" is more of a cute lull than a passionate storm. Contains sexual situations.
-- Desson Howe
*GOD SAID, `HA!'
(PG-13, 1999, 85 minutes, Miramax)
Comedian Julia Sweeney's tragicomic meditation on sickness, loneliness and weird relatives, based on her one-woman play of the same name, is an engaging visit with a modest, self-effacing, often amusing soul. Sweeney, a former "Saturday Night Live" performer, spins great anecdotes, as she recounts her experiences playing den mother to a dying brother, who moved in with her, and as retrogressive daughter to her parents, who also moved in. The surprise is not that Sweeney is funnier than you'd expect. It's the grace she exudes, that aura of newfound perspective because of those experiences. She's a real person caught in the vivid, amusing light of her own self-scrutiny. Contains risque material.
-- Desson Howe
*THE PRINCE OF EGYPT
(PG, 1999, 99 minutes, Dreamworks)
The idea of a children's cartoon based on the Old Testament book of Exodus is definitely a bit strange, but the execution and animation is actually quite striking. Some artistic license has been taken with the story of Moses (the voice of Val Kilmer) and the emancipation of the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, but by and large the drama of the ancient biblical saga is retained. Such fidelity to the original story -- the basis of faith for millions of people -- is commendable, but the graphic depiction of slavery, death and the plagues wrought by a wrathful God can make for intense viewing for very young audiences. Contains intense but generally bloodless biblical scenes including a pillar of fire, plagues, pestilence, slavery, whipping, murder, infanticide and the corpse of a young boy.
-- Michael O'Sullivan