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And damn the audience. Chuck Russell’s would-be supernatural thriller, a kind of gender-altered reversal of “The Omen,” proves an unholy brew of generic gothic gloom, outmoded religious iconography, sadistic violence, bad theology, pseudo-mystical twaddle, “Star Wars” themes, New Agey angel-myth and urban angst. The resultant, thoroughly unpalatable mishmash is ludicrous from the standpoint of both fundamental Christian belief and the most elementary narrative logic; the movie’s so bad that if you’re a practicing Catholic, you’ll probably feel the need for absolution immediately after seeing it.

Coming distinctly late in the slew of apocalyptic flicks that attended the supposed turn of the millennium, “Bless the Child” easily lives down to such benighted predecessors as “Fallen,” “Stigmata” and “End of Days.” The idiotic story centers on a miracle child, young Cody (Holliston Coleman), who’s left with her childless aunt Maggie (Kim Basinger) only days after birth by her druggie mom Jenna (Angela Bettis). Six years later, Cody’s been diagnosed as mildly autistic, but her real problem is that she was born under the second appearance of the Star of Bethlehem (!) and is endowed with special powers for good. These include the ability to spin plates around telekinetically and even to revivify dead pigeons (a power which, in New York, seems of quite dubious value).

Of course, Cody is not to be left alone. She’s stalked by a Satanic cult, led by smooth but nasty Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), who runs a self-help movement as a blind while systematically tracking down kids born the same day as she and, when they turn out not to be “the chosen one” of God, simply eliminating them. When Cody is finally kidnapped by Stark, whose intention is apparently to turn her to “The Dark Side” of the Force or something, the attempt to retrieve her brings Maggie, a singularly stupid though well-intentioned woman, into cahoots with John Travis (Jimmy Smits), a remarkably inept FBI agent who’s investigating the series of child abductions, certain that they involve the occult (he’s an ex-seminarian, you see, and knows about such things).

We won’t go into the further ramifications of the plot, save to note that they introduce a variety of cliched characters, including a punky ex-cult member (Christina Ricci), a bevy of nuns dressed as though they were caught in a 1950s time warp (doesn’t anybody in Hollywood realize that Catholic sisters abandoned such garb after Vatican II?), a nanny (played by Dimitra Arlys) who would put Mrs. Danvers to shame, a (presumed) guardian angel who appears in various guises to assist our heroes, and a defrocked Jesuit named Grissom who pontificates blearily about how the Roma church, in its frenzy for modernization (what world is he living in?), will no longer recognize the existence of True Evil. (It’s a role which would once have been played with lip-smacking relish by Donald Pleasence.) There are also periodic spasms of cheesy F/X, including poorly-executed flocks of computer-generated rodents, demonic gargoyles and shining heavenly apparitions who intrude upon the action, without point or explanation, from time to time.

This hodgepodge couldn’t have been salvaged by the most expert handling, but the execution here is pallid at best. Russell tries hard to generate some “Se7en”-style atmosphere, emulating the burnished, seedy appearance of David Fincher’s picture almost slavishly, but the result just looks murky and washed-out. There’s a throbbing score by Christopher Young which goes so far as to employ vocal chants reminiscent of those intoned in Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winner music for “The Omen,” but it has little impact. As for the acting, it’s pretty much embarrassing across the board. Basinger’s stilted, mannequin-like performance isn’t out of place in a potboiler like this, but along with her similarly wooden turn in “I Dreamed of Africa” earlier this year, it reinforces the notion that her work in “L.A. Confidential” was a fluke, the result of being led by a director (Curtis Hanson) who shaped every nuace with much the same sort of care that Hitchcock lavished upon Kim Novak’s efforts in “Vertigo.” Smits is strangely subdued here, but Sewell glowers and snarls histrionically as Stark; he overdoes things particularly in a semi-blasphemous rooftop scene with young Coleman which might be titled “The Last Temptation of Cody.” Still, this kind of Darth Vader-like villainy works much better with a black facemask and heavy breathing apparatus than with a trenhcoat and perfectly-shaved visage. Holm looks deeply pained during his brief appearance as the pompous Grissom, and his discomfiture isn’t entirely explicable by reason of the fact that the character is wheelchair-bound and obviously unwell.

There’s a line of dialogue near the beginning of “Bless The Child” which pretty much sums the movie up. Cody is frightened by a rat in a mound of trash in the gutter while she and her aunt are walking home one night (an unlikely sight in the post-Giuliani metropolis), and Maggie tries to comfort her. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “It’s only garbage, honey.” How very true.


The sap might not be streaming down the trees of Central Park in the innumerable scenes set there in Joan Chen’s slick but hollow sudser about a May-September romance between a middle-aged, woman-chasing restaurateur and a 22-year old girl doomed by illness (who just happens to be the daughter of one of his old flames), but it’s practically encrusted on the screens of auditoriums showing this monumental piece of treacle. Chen made a deeply affecting debut feature, the astonishingly assured “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” in 1998, but she’s stumbled badly with her first big-studio effort. Not a single moment of “Autumn in New York” rings remotely true, nor even one line of dialogue even slightly real, and it lurches from one Big Moment to the next so clumsily that one gets the feeling that large chunks of narrative were lopped out at the last moment (though that hardly seems cause for distress, given the quality of what remains). At once crushingly trite and oppressively maudlin, the picture has echoes old chestnuts like “Dark Victory” (1939) but utterly lacks the soapoperatic energy that enlivened such classic pieces of schmaltzy claptrap; instead, it’s just a dismal dirge.

One might have expected Julia Roberts to have teamed up with Richard Gere once more in a lugubrious weepie that could easily have been titled “Pretty Dying Woman,” but she probably passed either because she’s been down the terminally-ill lover route before (in 1991’s dreadful Joel Schumacher opus “Dying Young”) or because she quickly realized that although it’s the distaff partner who’s got heart trouble, the narrative is really centered on the guy. And so we watch Gere, that most self-absorbed of actors (if the myth of Narcissus is ever brought to the screen, he’s a cinch for the lead), overemoting balefully for some ninety minutes as an overaged Peter Pan who finally gains maturity by falling for a gal he can’t hold onto (his character, Will, even makes contact with the Daughter He Never Knew in the course of the narrative, showing how much he’s grown emotionally). Gere is supposed to be irresistible as a fellow whose flippancy turns first to woozy ardor and then to profound grief, but what he oozes here is hardly charm; even at the close, when he’s going crazy over his lover’s deteriorating condition, his pain seems to be all about himself rather than her, and in both his initial smugness and later distress he comes across as quite insufferable. Winona Ryder’s performance as perky, pitiful Charlotte is no less corrupt. She plays the character as though the poor girl were mentally impaired, alternately scrunching up her face embarrassingly to suggest naivete and beaming bug-eyed at the glitzy events to which Will escorts her as though she had never been out in public before–except, of course, for those moments when she overexerts herself and suddenly gets all weak and trembly. (Toward the close, of course, she takes to bed as Will summons a Supersurgeon, played by J.K. Simmons, the shrink from “Law and Order,” to save her. The incapacitation may not provide any relief to Charlotte but at least saves viewers from any more of her scrunchy faces.) The picture is pretty much a two-character affair, so the supporting players don’t have any great opportunity to make their mark; but Anthony LaPaglia gets a few smiles as Will’s sourpuss maitre d’, and Elaine Stritch is certainly noticeable–though hardly in a positive way–as Charlotte’s besotted grandmother. Jill Hennessy, another “Law and Order” player, appears as Will’s long-forgotten daughter, and Mary Beth Hurt shows up in a couple of brief scenes as Charlotte’s physician, but neither does anything beyond looking sad, which they do professionally enough.

One shouldn’t blame the actors too much, though. The material given them is so clearly subpar, and Chen’s direction so solemn and flaccid, that they never had a chance. Mushy and mawkish, with its hamfistedness accentuated by Changwei Gu’s prettified cinematography and Gabriel Yared’s gooey score (far too heavy on the harps), “Autumn in New York” is, in the final analysis, a failed tearjerker at whose denouement there probably won’t be a wet eye in the house. During one of their interminable outdoor chats in the picture, poor Charlotte remarks to Will that for the first time she can actually smell a recent rainfall. The odor emanating from the screen, however, will surely strike viewers as redolent of something far more pungent. By opening the flick in early August, MGM has merely insured that it will have vanished from theatres long before the coming of its titular season.