Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson

In Private Lives, playwright Noel Coward has a character observe, "Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is." One is reminded of Coward's remark when, in The Boxer, spectators break into "Danny Boy" just before a Catholic boxer (Day-Lewis) takes on a Protestant opponent in strife-torn Belfast. "Danny Boy" may be as maudlin a song as was ever written, but it gets to you.

Which is pretty much what one might say about The Boxer, an old-fashioned romantic drama in which Day-Lewis plays a once-promising pug who, having spent 14 years in jail for a botched IRA operation, is trying to make up for lost time both in the ring and with the sweetheart (Watson) he left behind. (She is now married, but her husband, an IRA member as well, is conveniently away in the pokey himself.) Despite its overlay of political intrigue, The Boxer is basically Rocky in Belfast. Oh, it's smarter than Rocky (the first one, not the increasingly abysmal sequels), and Day-Lewis and Watson are far better actors than Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire, but The Boxer is still a movie about winning (or losing) a fight on your own terms, about love everlasting and about not letting anyone push you around.

And darned if it doesn't still work, though probably not as well as director Jim Sheridan and Day-Lewis—who collaborated on the much less conventional films My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father—might have hoped. As for the performances, Day-Lewis is as intense as ever, packing a punch both in and out of the ring. And the luminous Watson, Oscar-nominated last spring for her role as a sacrificing wife in Breaking the Waves, continues to impress. (R)

Nathan Lane, Lee Evans

Lane and Evans play two not-especially-close brothers who inherit a decrepit old house after their eccentric father, a string magnate named Smuntz, sloughs off the mortal coil. When they discover that this ruin is actually the long-forgotten design of an architectural genius, they decide to renovate it and auction it off for millions. But first they must deal with the current tenant: a wily little mouse who, like Macaulay Culkin with whiskers, socks them with one violent booby trap after another.

The rodent, a composite performance of computer animation, animatronic puppetry and more than 60 trained mice, is as cute as he is ingenious (see story, page 66). I also liked the psychokiller cat and the deranged exterminator (Christopher Walken—who else?). But Mouse Hunt has been given an unnecessarily dark, grim look, and the slapstick comedy is defeated by a basic incongruence of scale—two big men whooping and shrieking in the presence of a furry, scampering speck. The Three Stooges probably wouldn't have been all that funny, either, if one of them had been a gerbil or a squirrel. (PG)

Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett

Take a gamble on Oscar and Luanda, a feverishly intense film that will reward viewers. Smart and literary, Oscar and Lucinda is filled with quirky characters and lush visuals.

Oscar (Fiennes, in a jittery, self-conscious performance that works half the time and is just plain annoying the other half) is an awkward young preacher who heads to Australia from England in the late 1800s. Aboard ship, he meets Lucinda (Blanchett, who has the spunk and fierce intelligence of a younger Judy Davis), the wealthy owner of a glass factory in Sydney. This seemingly mismatched pair turn out to be soulmates who share an acknowledged passion for gambling ("We bet there's a God," says Oscar, working on a theological justification for his obsession. "We stake everything on the likelihood of His existence").

They also share an unacknowledged passion for each other, but their Victorian reticence gets them into trouble: Oscar, mistakenly believing that Lucinda loves another, selflessly volunteers for a dangerous trip to the Australian hinterlands to deliver a glass church made by Lucinda's factory for a minister—the man Fiennes supposes is his rival. When was the last time you saw a glittering glass church headed upriver on a wooden raft as the central image in a movie? Oscar and Lucinda is full of such grand surprises.

Directed with a sure touch by Gillian Armstrong (Little Women), Oscar and Lucinda is based on Peter Carey's 1988 prize-winning novel of the same name. (R)

>Gus Van Sant

WILL POWER

GUS VAN SANT WAS FAR from an obvious choice to direct Good Will Hunting, the pet project of actor buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Yet the two trusted Van Sant, known for subversive, sex-and-druggy fare, with their feel-good tale of a young genius. "We knew it wouldn't be a movie by committee," says Affleck. "It wouldn't be watered down. It would be a Gus Van Sant movie."

Van Sant, 45, enjoys Hunting's critical raves, but not speculation he has gone mainstream. "I'm not a conservative person and I haven't changed," says the openly gay director, whose last film was 1995's To Die For. "It's different, not a departure."

Raised in Darien, Conn., Van Sant, who just published a novel called Pink, studied painting and film in college. He found film "more challenging" and put his $25,000 savings into his 1985 feature debut, Mala Noche, following it with 1989's Drugstore Cowboy and 1991's My Own Private Idaho. Known for a laid-back style—"he's like a church mouse, extraordinarily perceptive and quiet," says Damon—Van Sant eschews Hollywood for a Tudor-style home in Portland, Ore. "I'm somewhat naive when I come to L.A. because I'm not living and breathing the business," he says. "But also I'm not neurotic—or at least I'm less neurotic than if I lived in Los Angeles."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Elizabeth Leonard.