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Confined to Quarters
by Chris Dashiell

THE APPLE is, as they say, based on a true story. In Tehran, twin girls were kept locked in their house for most of their young lives by their blind mother and fundamentalist father. By the time the girls were 11, the neighbors were outraged enough to sign a petition requesting that the government do something about it. The city responded, mandating that the girls no longer be locked inside, and sent a social worker to help enforce the decision.

The story caught the eye of 17-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf, the daughter of the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. She co-wrote a loose scenario with her father, and then, in just eleven days, directed The Apple. What makes this dramatization especially remarkable is that she asked the actual people to play themselves in the movie - and they agreed.

The girls, Azizeh and Massoumeh, are totally lacking in social skills, as one would imagine. They don't know many words and have trouble speaking distinctly. Their walking has a strange, herky-jerky motion. At the same time they are incredibly sweet-tempered, friendly, even mischievous. The father does nothing but make excuses - the mother is blind so the girls can't be watched properly, boys might touch them which would disgrace him as a father, girls are only good for staying home anyway. The mother completely covers her face so that the camera never shows her, and she talks in a low mumble. The female social worker who arrives on the scene has no pity for either parent. When she finds that the father is still locking the girls in, she has them released and orders them to go out and play on the quiet neighborhood street. She then locks the father in and won't give him the key back. The girls proceed on a little adventure into the outside world, having encounters with other children that are very funny and revealing.

The director has learned a lot from her father. This film has a similar improvised feel, the same deft weaving of artifice with real life, as A Moment of Innocence and other Makhmalbaf films. The title metaphor has to do with reaching out for something more in life. I can't help thinking of the Garden of Eden and the gaining of knowledge as well, although I'm not sure if Islamic tradition gives the original fruit the same connotation. Of course, one can't help but wonder how much the presence of a camera influences the tone of the reenactment. What I saw, though, was a very natural, human, compassionate portrait of a family, with wide-ranging social implications for an Iranian society divided between the modern world and old attitudes. The Apple puts it all there in front of you with great directness, and a certain grace, and it lets you make up your own mind.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is another tale of female confinement by the daughter of a famous director. Sofia Coppola has adapted the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, giving it a dreamlike visual lustre. The photography (Edward Lachman) is really beautiful, and Coppola shows a flair for reproducing the queasy, self-conscious experiences of adolescence. This is a 1970s of the mind, in which the tackiness of the surroundings is transformed into magic by the active imaginations of young people to whom every little event takes on an ultimate significance.

The center of all this is magic is, of course, the five sisters of the title. Blonde and strangely alluring, they are mysteries to the neighborhood boys, whose musings are embodied in the voice-over narration (by Giovanni Ribisi). Their circumstances are prosaic enough - tightly controlled by their strict mother and befuddled father (Kathleen Turner and James Woods), their lack of availability, and the fact that the youngest daughter kills herself, turn them into symbols of unapproachable feminine desire for the boys. Coppola focuses on one sister, the rebellious, flirtatious Lux. Kirsten Dunst gives certainly the most striking performance of the picture - sensuous, almost amoral, and yet at crucial moments, touchingly naive. Her best scenes are with the high school hunk (Josh Hartner) who becomes Lux's boyfriend. The other sisters are much less defined.

The movie has interesting elements. I wish they added up to a satisfying, or even an intriguing, whole. My main problem is with the device of the neighborhood boys who narrate the picture and try to comprehend the girls story, but never can. I didn't believe in these boys as people. There is something too earnest and over-explanatory about the narration itself. And the film seems to ask us to accept the boys' voyeuristic fascination as understandable in itself. We see them actually reading the dead sister's diary, spying on the girls with a telescope and so forth. This is all presented as a given, as normal in some way, and consequently it felt like a contrivance to me. Probably this was a vital element of the book. For this point of view to work on film, I think it needed to be translated into visual terms, for the oddity of the boys' obsession to be shown to us rather than explained in a voice-over. The Virgin Suicides turns out to be less than the sum of its parts, but it's still an auspicious first effort from Coppola.

Parody, parody, parody. That's the dominant mode of AMERICAN PSYCHO, Mary Harron's take (co-written with Guinevere Turner) on the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel. The film takes the elements of serial killer and slasher films, along with action thrillers and criminal case studies, and subverts them in the interests of satire. The real target is the American male ego, circa 1986 or so, with all the narcissism and obnoxious sense of entitlement we've been forced to know so well. The main figure is a grotesque shell named Patrick Bateman, a total creature of status whose petty life is like a pressure cooker attempting to contain the impulse to murder. The smartest thing about this picture is the casting of Christian Bale in the title role. His performance is deliciously extravagant, frightening even when funniest, a perfect fit for this cartoon zombie of Wall Street. The opening bit, with Bateman reciting his laborious morning ritual, is hilarious. There are also some inspired riffs on crappy 80s music (Huey Lewis and Phil Collins), performed while the psycho is getting ready to off his victims. Bale works so hard that it's a shame the movie can't do more with its premise. The fault, I think, is with the source. Ellis's book has one basic idea - the underbelly of the yuppie high-roller lifestyle as sexual sadism. He just states the idea over and over without developing it. Harron has taken the material and given it a more feminist slant. She eschews the novel's graphic torture sequences (and how could she not, without coddling the very desires she intends to satirize?) in favor of a more fantasy-like approach. She emphasizes the "total loser" aspect of the main character to spice up the comic tone. But since there are no reversals and no deepening of the theme, she's trapped in Ellis's maze and can't go anywhere. The second half of the film just ups the ante with more bloodshed, more violent fantasy, but the point has already been made. (Also, Chloe Sevigny is wasted in a meek secretary role, which is a sort of crime in itself.)

I give American Psycho points for trying. It has something on its mind, no mean feat nowadays, and Bale is amazing. But if you want to see a satire that knows how to go all the way and then some, I recommend renting David Fincher's Fight Club instead.

Not every movie has to be adventurous, groundbreaking, a stylistic advance. With the right touch, a genre picture can yield rewards.

LOVE & BASKETBALL, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is a romance. The story is girl finds boy, girl loses boy, etc. There are contrivances which are typical of formula fiction. The girl and boy live right next to each other. A marital crisis in the boy's family is concocted so as to cause a conflict in the central relationship, while adding some ancillary drama. There are big scenes between daughter and mother, father and son - the latter includes a speech by father which induces a tear to trickle from the boy's eye. It's all rather middlebrow and even predictable at times. But within its form, and partly because of some striking differences in content - it actually works if you give it a chance.

One of the differences is that the two lovers are also basketball players, and Prince-Bythewood is good at showing the intensity of their love for the game, the competitiveness and the pitfalls of college ball. (The story covers a couple decades, and the director wittily divides the film into four quarters.) Another is that Monica, the main character, is quite believable as a person who is determined to play while pushing aside all the resistance and the messages from outside about how she is unfeminine. But the biggest reason why Love & Basketball works is that Monica is played by Sanaa Lathan. I have no idea who Sanaa Lathan is, but judging from this movie I think she should be a star. She is completely convincing as a jock, as a woman who can be vulnerable and insecure, as a woman in love who won't compromise her dream for the sake of love. Lathan has expressiveness, toughness, sensitivity, beauty. She takes the role and transforms her into a living human being. Omar Epps plays the love interest. I say he's the love interest because this is definitely a woman-centered story (another refreshing difference), but his character does have his own storyline and Epps does quite well, especially in the charming rapport he establishes with Lathan. Prince-Bythewood also doesn't compromise when it comes to respect for Monica's ambition, so the lovers don't betray themselves by finding each other. (The attitude towards sex is mature as well - this is the only movie I can recall where a man pauses in the middle of love-making to put on a condom.) The film could have been tauter, there's some overacting by Debbi Morgan, the brief appearance of Tyra Banks as a rival tends to burst the fictional dream. I could go on pointing out flaws, but for all the movie's schmaltz I only wish that mainstream commercial cinema in general had half its heart.

If you've been paying attention, you will have noticed that all four films reviewed here are directed by women. Now, I don't want to get too excited or try to make what is still a dismal state of affairs seem brighter than it is. But I'm sure you can forgive me if the fact that I was able to go to four films directed by women in a couple of weeks time causes me to - even ever so slightly - feel hopeful.

Chris Dashiell



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