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Friday, Aug 18, 2006


No one explores the seemingly uninteresting nooks and crannies of the US quite like director John Sayles. One of the veteran indie director’s signatures is the intriguing way in which he singles out region-specific communities, documenting life in small towns the world over. It is a formula that has worked for the auteur for years and this gimmick yields a high payoff that remains timely and fresh, but often a tad macho. In 1992’s Passion Fish, Sayles tries a more feminine approach and proves again that he can still speak volumes with a simple, straight-forward character-driven piece accompanied by an amazing natural setting (the geographic location this time out is the sometimes treacherous, lush bayou and swamp country of Louisiana; photographed with love). The parish in question plays out like any other aspect of the film and Sayles incorporates the mythology of his characters into that of the land. We get to see the interaction between “Cajun” and “Yankee”, healthy and disabled, and man and woman.


The film follows two women: May-Alice and Chantal (Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard) are from wildly opposite ends of the socio-economic scales. Mary-Alice is a bitchy, self-involved soap opera actress passed her prime who is randomly hit by a taxicab and rendered paraplegic. She is an acidly bitter character: drinking to calm her pain and acting like a maniacal shrew to anyone who gets close enough for her to yell at (A hilarious montage shows a series of home care workers in various states of craziness being dispatched by the lady of the house, in fits of hysterical self-destructiveness). The sequence brings us to Chantal, a former nurse who comes to take care of May-Alice. She badly needs the job and puts up with the rebellious, reprehensible behavior of her employer every day out of sheer desperation. Chantal’s story is every bit as intriguing as May-Alice’s: she is a former drug user trying to regain custody of her daughter.


The pairing is lyrical, though each performer’s style couldn’t be any more different. They play off of one another to hilarious, moving effect; each bringing in a wicked sense of humor along with their open hearts. The transition from a starchy employer/employee relationship into a cautiously friendly one is then matched by something much more interesting: they become dependant on one another, creating palpable honesty and an intimacy as actors and as their characters. McDonnell has some awesome moments: her alcoholic rants, her bitterness over being paralyzed, and her challenging scenes of physical rehabilitation all play out with equal ease. In the less flashy part, Woodard’s calm, casual demeanor and her guarded mind are what make Chantal so engrossing. Even with her very sad past, Woodard never overplays or gets overly-sentimental. Chantal makes it clear she is not a victim and is perfectly in control. It is a rare treat to be able to see two richly-drawn female characters such as these unfold at the leisurely pace they do.


Passion Fish is an elegant and simple tale that is only highlighted by Sayles’ vivid writing techniques: we get to know the land and its inhabitants again through their pain, as they retreat to the soothing country to heal. This is a constant theme throughout Sayles’ body of work, but here the ladies endow their story with a sweetness that is missing from the director’s other more tense, masculine films. The film is a more modern throwback to the “woman’s picture” era when movies about the fairer sex overcoming life’s obstacles were actually box-office successes and celebrated by the masses. Though Sayles is operating, ironically, in the world of “soap operas”, he thankfully spares us the schmaltz and high drama, preferring to remain ardently true to his characters - two women dealt a bad hand coping the best way they know how: by relying on the kindness of strangers.


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Friday, Aug 11, 2006


Michael Tolkin’s amazing The Rapture is a work of powerful ideas. It challenges the stance of traditional religious belief as it questions the concept of the contemporary lifestyle. It attempts to illustrate the epic ideas in the Final Days while it keeps its story in the personal, not the ephemeral realm. It takes events of cataclysmic scope and boils them down to a select story of individual endurance. With it’s seemingly simple chronicle of a sinner – in this case, a sexually adventurous Information operator named Sharon – adrift in a world of one night stands and self-serving sin The Rapture asks you to identify with and sit in judgment of a beleaguered soul in development. It also has you wondering to yourself if you could withstand the same verdict as well. It then takes the mandatory leap of faith, moving its lead along until she, too, is faced with ultimate blessing, eternal damnation or something far, far worse.


As a film, it contains acting performances from Mimi Rodgers (as the suddenly spiritual Sharon) and David Duchovny (as her lover and future spouse) of subtle power and unusual invention. And as a writer/director, Tolkin never talks down to or up at his audience. he doesn’t expect you to know the Christian concepts inherent in the storyline, but does provide hot button frames of reference (sexual cynicism, disgruntled employees on killing sprees, child endangerment) as a way to make the inhuman tests within religious conviction seem comprehensible. At its core, The Rapture is one woman’s journey to personal enlightenment, a post-modern pilgrim’s progress through the basic tenets of devotion. But there is a deeper, more depressing notion to what this movie has to say. Beyond all the prophecy and puzzles, in between the testimonials and the tribulations, The Rapture seems to be asking two competing questions: Is God really worth it, and more shockingly, are you worth it to God?


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Friday, Aug 4, 2006


In his second certifiable masterpiece, John Waters decides to take on the growing cult of public personality by marrying his fixation with classic Hollywood trash (ala Douglas Sirk) with the increasing public fascination with true crime. The result is a movie that masquerades as a melodrama, but actually becomes a truly twisted gem. In this oddball homage to the kitchen sink saga, Dawn Davenport is a juvenile delinquent, who runs away from home on Christmas. She is picked up and raped by a mechanic named Earl, and ends up giving birth to a daughter, Taffy. Living life as a petty thief, Dawn meets a hairdresser named Gator and they marry over the objection of his fag hag Aunt Ida. Gator works at The Lipstick Beauty Salon, run by Donna and Donald Dasher. They instantly see Dawn as their next big “discovery,” They have a twisted concept that crime is “beautiful” and want this eager gal to be their outlaw model. Thus begins a felonious spree that leads Dawn to a decisive day in court.


Female Trouble is Waters first real “film” in every one of the traditional senses. Told in episodic fashion (complete with tacky title cards), it proved that this otherwise underground king of bad taste could work within the confines of the traditional narrative form. Before, his films always had the kind of clothes-hanger plots made famous by porno and exploitation. But Female Trouble relies on its story for its momentum as well as its merriment. Without the rise up and flame out of our heroine, we’d never experience many of the movie’s most hilarious ideals.


This is also the first time when Waters’ main muse, Divine, came into her own as an actress. Before, she was simply sheer shock value, a big blousy man in Elizabeth Taylor tatters hoping to overwhelm the audience with her audacity. Here, Divine is Dawn Davenport. Her exchanges with daughter Taffy (the always amazing Mink Stole) are priceless, and when Divine does a derivation of her infamous stage act for the film—involving a trampoline, contemptible claims, and lots and lots of fish tossing—we feel it is part of Dawn’s demented nature. The entire subplot involving Gator and his overbearing Aunt seals the deal. Edith Massey’s pro-gay rants are out of this world, and she delivers them with such good-natured cheer that you want her nephew to ‘switch’ just to make her happy. Combined with Waters’ own private peculiarities, Female Trouble becomes an outsider opus that deserves mainstream popularity.


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Wednesday, Aug 2, 2006


Before you ask, this is not the wishy-washy adaptation of the time-spanning novel Possession starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, it is thankfully as far away from a Gwyneth Paltrow movie as possible.  But, if you are intent on seeing a romance, this version could work in a slightly perverted way. Of course, your idea of romance must include alien seduction, bouts of incomprehensible screaming and a lot of brutal killing.


Directed with a slimy mix of David Cronenberg’s gut-spilling style and Brian De Palma obsession, Andrzej Zulawski’s version of Possession piles on an atmosphere of anxiety and gruesome horror and adds a decidedly European sensibility to the mix. It is a film that highlights the tragic underpinnings of obsession, exposes sexual panic and stands by its characters, unafraid to show their flaws. The film is not easy to explain. The narrative can get very confusing and sometimes downright nonsensical. Yet is also remains compelling and intriguing. Beginning with what seems like a commonplace break-up of a marriage, the films sets out to answer a simple question: why has the woman left?


The film begins as a mystery of sorts, with the two leads acting out what seems to be a domestic drama. Isabelle Adjani plays Helen/Anna. Turns out, there are several good reasons for to leave her marriage to Sam Neill: first and foremost, she has a more commanding lover. One is the woman we meet at the beginning of the story, the other her son’s schoolteacher. Anna is a huge wreck. She’s spending time in a strange place with someone equally strange, but keeps re-appearing at home, usually to throw some sort of hysterical fits or to grind her own hamburger. What she is doing and why she is so messed up is one of the film’s most interesting premises: her secret is guarded wholly.


Then the story really gets twisty. Is Adjani a murderess? Is she a scientist? It’s all very unclear but incredibly fun to watch. The denouement involves, without totally spoiling any surprises, clones, a wormy alien-like being, the couple’s young son, explicit murder, the cops and the dark and shadowy corners of Berlin.  The rest of the film is part obsession thriller, part horror film. The lead performers manage to draw in the viewer, despite given quite little to work with, Neill, who I have never really gravitated towards as a performer, has never been better: he seems born to play the shadowy creep. Both he and Adjani keep the air of mystery and madness palpable and ground all of the sick little theatrics that abound. The creature effects were done by Carlo Rambaldi, who also did the first Alien and they are indeed horrific. There is a lot of blood in this movie!


Adjani must have been a physical wreck shooting this film as it requires her to maintain a highly strung, hysterical demeanor almost throughout the film’s entirety (For her work in Possession Adjani won a Caesar and also Best Actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival). She has a metaphysical scene of miscarriage/possession in a Berlin U-Bahn station that is stunning. It is one of the most physically challenging scenes I have seen an actor perform. It is so carefully choreographed and staged, it’s almost like she’s a puppet. It’s freaky and weird and upsetting. Adjani has an affinity for exposing the sexuality and carnality in all of her creations. She makes sex a big part of her character’s motivations. Danger and violence also seem to be something that infuses the actresses’ work as well: all of her characters seem to face complicated mental and physical challenges. Another thing that impressed me was how great she was while speaking English, which usually can be a downfall for a foreign-born actress. Adjani gives everything to the character and it’s just fascinating to watch, no matter how confusing the film may or may not be for you.


-Matt Mazur


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