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This Week's New Releases

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Hairspray

dir. Adam Shankman

Written and directed in 1988 by trash auteur John Waters, Hairspray has proven a much deeper well of inspiration than anyone could've imagined. The year 2003 brought the stage adaptation, which transformed Waters's quirky charmer into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Now the movie and the musical are followed by the movie musical, completing an adaptive hat trick so unexpected it must make its peerlessly pervy creator wake up smiling.

John Waters's Hairspray was a revelation. After two decades spent horrifying all comers with shamelessly filthy independent films, Waters tried something new with his first studio film, a PG-rated musical comedy set in the early '60s and tracking the blossoming of Tracy Turnblad, an effervescent girl of size who achieves her dreams of dancing stardom and finds her calling as a segregation-busting teen leader. The result was a near-perfect film, rendered in a skewed but miraculously harmonious style and imbued with a freaky sweetness that was irresistible.

Plenty of folks felt similar love for the Broadway musical, which turned Tracy's tale into a singing, dancing extravaganza, and the leap back to the cinema seemed somehow natural. Tragically, two major misfortunes hobble the readaptation. One is John Travolta, hideously miscast as Tracy's mother, Edna. This is drag as your dad would do it, if your dad were developmentally disabled, wedged in a state-of-the-art fat suit, and drunk on Robitussin. Between the mincing and constantly mutating accent, I found Travolta unwatchable. (And I've seen Battlefield Earth all the way through.)

Equally problematic is the new film's klutziness with the old film's elegantly handled themes of racial prejudice and the fight for integration. The original Hairspray found Tracy sating her teenage need for rebellion by challenging racial barriers; the new Hairspray suggests that a fat white girl from Baltimore single-handedly dreamed up the civil rights movement. "We've done enough dancing," says movie-musical Tracy. "Now it's time to march!" The words land like gospel on her grateful audience of darkies, who gamely play along. You don't have to. DAVID SCHMADER

Goya's Ghosts

dir. Milos Forman

It is easy to credit the roughness and brutality of Goya's brushstrokes to an artist's stormy temperament, or to the comparatively harsh conditions of Goya's life in late-18th- and early-19th-century Spain—which included illnesses that left him deaf and crushed by headaches. But with the film Goya's Ghosts, Oscar-winning director Milos Forman paints another, and equally credible, portrait. This is an artist whose unseemly works seethe with hatred, poisoned by the rampant, ruthless spiritual and political hypocrisy that surrounds him.

We begin the fictionalized account with the church. The Inquisition is underway (and who wouldn't want to make a movie about the sex-and-ritual-and-violence-drenched Inquisition? It was practically made for cinema!) and Forman delivers as malevolent an Inquisition as can be. But the Czech director savages equally the French revolutionaries that later dethrone the fearful, lusty-eyed priests. It's familiar territory for Forman, having depicted the terror of institutions (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) and the imagined inner lives of canonized artists (Amadeus). Instead of training the camera on a victim or a genius this time, Goya's Ghosts is preoccupied with one pure hypocrite: Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem).

Brother Lorenzo begins the movie as a liberal Spanish priest who nonetheless enacts the often-cruel will of the church. Lorenzo also exploits Inés (Natalie Portman), the unjustly imprisoned daughter of a Spanish merchant. In an ironic torture scene involving Lorenzo and Inés's father, Lorenzo is humiliated. He's driven from the church. He flees for France, and when he rides back into Spain triumphant and sartorially splendid, he's a soldier of the French Revolution. Lorenzo is god and monster, priest and rake, torturer and tortured. It's the role of a lifetime for Bardem, and he's electric. He's almost having too much fun.

If you're wondering how all this involves Goya, it's only tangentially. It's great to see his terrific images scroll by on the big screen, and one particularly beautiful sequence is an eloquent portrayal of his printing process as a dance. But Goya (Stellan Skarsgård, solid if a little stolid) mostly watches the interlocking fates of Inés and Lorenzo, with minimal interference besides the scenes he stirs to life on paper. JEN GRAVES

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

dir. Taggart Siegel

These days, it's hard to walk down the street without a documentary breaking out. Gratifying as it is to see the form thriving after years in the PBS doldrums, it's getting increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the... other stuff. (Chaff?) Fortunately, the Slamdance winner The Real Dirt on Farmer John would be a compelling film in any era. Despite an occasional tendency to ramble on and hold forth, it stands as a worthwhile tale of down-home alternative Americana.

Opening with its title character taking a nice big bite of dirt, the film covers the turbulent life of writer/performance artist/free spirit John Peterson, who was entrusted with running his beloved Illinois family farm until suspected homosexual tendencies and rumors of satanic hayrides forced him to sell off the land piece by piece.

Director Taggart Siegel certainly doesn't hold back on his subject's eccentricities, and when Peterson tills the fields in a tutu or dons matching bee costumes with his emo girlfriend, it's tough not to feel a sympathy pang or two for his stodgy neighbors. But these scenes are balanced with emotionally raw home movies that let us watch him tenderly interacting with friends and family through the years, particularly with his elderly ball-of-fire mother. (As with other found-footage films, the pops and crackles of the older clips hold a story of their own.) The director's clear kinship with his subject occasionally leads to pacing problems—for every moment of genuine, unexpected life (as when one of Peterson's assistants muses on how the plumpness of the organic veggies made her feel less body conscious), there're maybe two bits of Peterson waxing affectedly poetic—but it's difficult not to look back at his courage in the face of hardship and shake your head in admiration. ANDREW WRIGHT

Lady Chatterley

dir. Pascale Ferran

It's not uncommon for a film's impression to deepen almost magically upon second viewing. And so it was for me with Lady Chatterley, Pascale Ferran's Frenchified D. H. Lawrence adaptation, which I admired without much enthusiasm the first time and found completely wonderful the second. Maybe you have to be in a certain mood to fully commit to Ferran's unhurried pace, the silence and stillness of the affair between Constance (Marina Hands), a wealthy housewife, and Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), her partially paralyzed husband's gamekeeper. Once you're in the film's hold, though, you'll be awestruck by how bold and fresh it feels.

Though the film's English setting and names are preserved, the characters speak en français (Parkin becomes therefore Par-keen). But it's Lady Chatterley's cool-headedness about sex that is its most distinctive, and quintessentially French, quality. Rather than bosom heaving and bodice ripping, we get six very different, carefully choreographed lovemaking scenes that chart the evolution of a romance from its fumbling beginnings to an intimacy that transcends class consciousness. Ferran pulls off the all-too-rare trick of making these scenes the key to our understanding of the lovers' bond; Lady Chatterley is a vivid illustration of the power of sexual intimacy to change how we look at ourselves, as well as the person we're in bed with.

The first time I saw the movie, I found myself wishing for a bit of the emphasis, the poetic juice that Jane Campion or Terrence Malick might have brought to the material. The second time, I was lulled by the gentleness of the film, and struck by how closely Ferran observes her characters, as well as how modern and subtle her insights are (listen for Parkin's high-pitched moans during sex as a hint of the surprising gender dynamics of this relationship). Lady Chatterley is a damn good movie, and good movies deserve to be seen at least twice. JON FROSCH

June and July

dir. Brady Hall

This local film, by half of the directing team that brought you such exuberantly low-rent freak-outs as Polterchrist and Benny, Marty, and Jerkbeast, represents a sober turn toward psychological drama.

Underachieving twentysomethings June (Bernadette Cuvalo) and July (Nathan Williams) are fraternal twins, and as July tells us in an ominously reverent voiceover, they are “about as close as twins can be.” Thankfully—and surprisingly, given writer-director Brady Hall’s pedigree—this doesn’t entail incest, although the leering town thug likes to suggest as much.

Cute, composed June is a cashier at an art-supply shop, and gawky July works at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. (Most of the film’s locations are in and around Georgetown.) The twins share the house left to them by their recently deceased mother, but only June has to contend with a more problematic inheritance: She was born with their mother’s superhuman strength and imperviousness to injury. If July is jealous, he doesn’t show it. He’s satisfied with his small life—watching his pet turtles, kicking troublemakers out of the thrift store, and shooting his sister in the gut for laughs. June, meanwhile, is secretly making plans to escape their small town and move to New York City.

June and July won the top prize at the Local Sightings festival at Northwest Film Forum last fall, and if that sounds like a tallest-midget award—well, fair enough. There are plenty of problems with the film (which is technically unfinished), including hazy sound, awkward acting, and an incremental introduction to June’s condition that feels nervous instead of subtle. But the comic-book conceit has a serious psychological dimension, and in a marketplace crowded with shaggy “mumblecore” realism, the plot is refreshing and ambitious. ANNIE WAGNER

 

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