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Women sticking to their guns

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It doesn't happen often --- in fact, it's downright uncommon --- but once in a while, I'll become so completely engrossed in a movie, I'll forget I'm watching it in a theater full of people. It happened with Casa de los Babys (opens Friday, October 24, at the Little), the latest flick from eclectic American independent filmmaker John Sayles, which I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival. I only mention the Toronto aspect because the theater Sayles screened Babys in held around 1,000 people and was packed to the gills. But none of the thousand made a peep, so I can only assume they were all just as mesmerized as I was.

          Babys was shot in Acapulco but set in a nameless South American country. (One different than the nameless South American country used as a backdrop in Men With Guns, Sayles explained as he introduced the film.) The story is about six white American women from very different backgrounds who have decided to adopt infants from this particular country, only to find themselves bogged down by a seemingly endless supply of bureaucratic red tape created solely to keep the women pumping money into the local economy for as long as humanly possible.

          So the women sit around and eat and gossip and bitch about how long the adoption process is taking. (I'm sure it's less than nine months, so their complaining seems pretty irrational.) They pair off into different combinations in order to say catty things about each other, especially when it comes to expressing reservations about so-and-so actually deserving a child of their own (and heaven forbid she get hers before I get mine).

          They're actually not quite as unlikable as I've made them sound. Only one is truly a monster (or "la bruja," according to Rita Moreno, who plays the owner of the hotel the women call home), and that would be Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), a super-snooty kleptomaniac who doesn't have anything nice to say about anyone else... ever. The rest all want kids for a myriad of reasons, ranging from inability to conceive (Maggie Gyllenhaal), inability to carry to term (Daryl Hannah), and inability to get along with men long enough to get pregnant (Lili Taylor).

          If you're familiar with writer-director-editor Sayles, you already know there's no way in hell he's going to make a movie about a bunch of women adopting Latino babies without telling the other side of the story. Babys is very much a film about different halves of society that fail to understand each other. This is brilliantly displayed in a heartbreaking scene where Irish transplant Eileen (Susan Lynch, from Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish) and diminutive native hotel maid Asunción (Vanessa Martinez, from his Limbo and Lone Star) unload their regrets about motherhood to each other, even though neither of them understand what the other is saying.

          Asunción is only the tip of the iceberg, as Sayles shows us what might happen to the babies if they don't go home with nice American families, as well as the impact adoption has on young local mothers. He also briefly lays into a couple of different scams that affect the rich (US healthcare) and poor (lottery), but Sayles never really takes sides or attempts to draw any conclusions about the adoption issue before the credits roll. What he does do, however, is elicit a bunch of very strong, memorable performances from eight equally strong, memorable women who never once make it sound like they're reciting Sayles' script.

You can still see the craters The Hired Hand (screens Saturday, October 25, at the Dryden) left in some theaters back when it was originally released in 1971. Peter Fonda's directorial debut, a Western about a man returning home to his family after spending seven years on the road, didn't play well to audiences who equated the genre with the likes of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Instead, Hand featured precious little gunplay, a surprisingly strong female character, and tons of thoughtful, reflective moments.

          Now that Hand has been restored, people are beginning to realize it got a bum rap back in the day. In fact, Hand reminded me a lot of Vincent Gallo's Cannes bomb The Brown Bunny in terms of both its content and its inability to be immediately accessible. Both films are about men traveling across the country (in different directions, however) to see the women they love. Though Fonda's Harry Collings isn't alone when he finally lands on the doorstep of wife Hannah (Verna Bloom, who will be here to introduce the film). In tow is Harry's pal Arch (Warren Oates), who casually asks Hannah why she doesn't have a dog. "Had one, but he ran away," she says, "Never bothered to get another."

          Harry is troubled by rumors about Hannah hiring men to plow her fields --- in both senses of the term --- but is even more disturbed when Hannah freely admits to bedding the men she has occasionally hired to pick up the slack in his absence. And Hannah doesn't budge one bit as she offers her husband the same cold treatment given to the men who came before him.

          Hand, though sporadically dogged by some odd freeze frames and double exposures, is hazily shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, an Oscar winner for Close Encounters. It also features a dreamy Bruce Langhorne score I only wish was available somewhere for purchase.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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