The last half of the '90s were the salad days of American independent cinema. That elusive union of art and commerce could arguably be timelined from 1994's Pulp Fiction to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. Writer-director Todd Solondz made a couple of envelope-pushing pictures during that period and staked his claim as the enfant terrible of indie film. It's now been a decade since his breakthrough piece, 1995's cruel-funny-sad Welcome to the Dollhouse. His new film, Palindromes, finds him as polarizing as ever.
Palindromes isn't really a sequel to Dollhouse, but it is dedicated to the memory of Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener and its main character is Aviva, Dawn's 13-year-old cousin. And Palindromes isn't really about the troubled Aviva so much as the journey that Aviva takes, since Solondz chooses to portray Aviva via eight different actors. Yeah, seeing a new face on our hero at regular intervals certainly pulls you out of the story a bit, but you get used to it.
When Aviva gets pregnant intentionally, her mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion. It is at that point that Aviva, who desperately wanted a baby, runs away from home. She meets up with a pedophile (the remarkable Stephen AdlyGuirgis) who abandons her but she eventually finds temporary shelter with the cheery and pious Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her family of handicapped kids.
Some of Palindromes is tough to stomach, but that's one of Solondz's calling cards (did anyone really want to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman jerking off in Happiness?). The sex is way illegal, and Solondz's attitude toward his characters verges on the vicious. And it was puzzling to see Barkin lick self-adhesive stamps. I'm just saying.
There are two adult actors who portray Aviva, one being a large black woman named Sharon Wilkins and the other being a scrappy white mainstay of independent film named Jennifer Jason Leigh. Both women do an incredible job of conveying the awkwardness of an adolescent girl, but Wilkins is especially heartbreaking. I don't know how he does it, but the trust that Solondz earns from his actors is staggering.
With any luck, the next Virginia Madsen-type career renaissance will happen to Ellen Barkin. Her beady eyes, boxer's nose, and juicy, lopsided pout make for a rare blend of tough and vulnerable, and I don't think most directors have known what to do with her thus far. Barkin's image wouldn't be the first one to spring to mind if I were to picture a suburban mom, but Solondz gets a top-notch performance out of her here. Hopefully other filmmakers can overlook her glamorous, Picasso-worthy puss when casting her in the future and just let her act.
Solondz may be a little cryptic with his intentions, but he is kind enough to tie it all up at the end and explain the film's title with a speech by Dawn Wiener's brother Mark (Matthew Faber) at Aviva's birthday party: "People always end up the way they started out." Even if they don't look the same along the path.
I love Emily Brontë'sWutheringHeights. It's been filmed a number of times, most famously with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in 1939, as well as the more thorough --- but badly miscast --- version with Ralph Fiennes and JulietteBinoche. And there's Luis Buñuel's take on the classic tale, released in 1953 and titled in Spanish as Abismos de Pasion, since it's hard to call a Mexican ranch "Wuthering Heights."
Buñuel's adaptation picks up upon Heathcliff's... I mean Alejandro's return to the childhood home he once shared with foster siblings Catalina and Ricardo. Catalina, his lifelong love, has married Eduardo, the guy next door, and she has nothing better to do than taunt both Eduardo and Alejandro with her impulsivity and indecisiveness. Meanwhile, Eduardo's sister Isabel has fallen hard for the dashing Alejandro, who sees in Isabel an opportunity for revenge on Catalina and Eduardo. Cue swelling music, thunder, lightning, and fervent neck nuzzling.
But it's Buñuel, so it's got to be good. The Spanish master remains relatively faithful to Brontë's template but his Catalina is ultra spiteful and he adds a Catholic angle that the Anglo-centric versions lacked. But his Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) does look just like Olivier. Oh, and he completely changes the ending
Thankfully, however, Buñuel saw fit to include the soliloquy where Alejandro begs the late Catalina to torment him until his own death. It remains one of the most romantic orations in all of literature, no matter what the language.
Palindromes(NR), directed by Todd Solondz, Little Theatres. | WutheringHeights, directed by Luis Buñuel, Sunday, May 15, Dryden Theatre.