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'Ladies in Lavender' and 'Mysterious Skin'

Ladies in Lavender

Writ. & dir. Charles Dance; feat. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Daniel Bruhl, Miriam Margolyes, David Warner (PG-13)

In 1936, a handsome young stranger who washes up on the beach beneath the cottage of two white-haired sisters is like nothing else in Cornwall. Ursula (Dench) and Janet (Smith) Widdington set about nursing Andrea Marowski (Bruhl) back to health and teaching him to speak English. The fact that he is Polish arouses suspicions in their isolated village of fishermen and farmers. The fact that he is a superb violinist arouses the interest of a beautiful painter, whose brother is a renowned musician and who herself arouses the amorous interests of the foppish local doctor (Warner). Giddy Ursula develops a crone's crush on Andrea and a fierce determination to keep him for herself. Tended to by a saucy housekeeper named Dorcas (Margolyes), the two spirited old sisters discover new dimensions to their sibling bonds.

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Dame you! Judi Dench and Maggie Smith engage in golden-years sibling rivalry when a handsome Polish violinist washes ashore in Cornwall just prior to World War II.

Despite a silly title that has more to do with alliteration than local horticulture, Ladies in Lavender is an affecting look at autumnal passion and the birth of artistic ambition. Joshua Bell's fiddling brilliance provides Bruhl with the illusion of virtuosity and the film with an exquisite sound track. Unlike raucous summer entertainments aimed at adolescent audiences impatient with subtleties, this delicate character study is so understated that it leaves a viewer ravenous for basic information: Just how did Andrea come to be washed up in Cornwall? Is it possible that Ursula never fell in love before? What will become of everyone after the imminent war begins? Based on a short story by William J. Locke, actor Charles Dance's fetching directorial debut evokes life in a provincial corner of England for two women who had resigned themselves to knitting and puttering before chancing upon a gift from the sea.

- Steven G. Kellman


Mysterious Skin

Dir. Gregg Araki; writ. Araki, Scott Heim (novel); feat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage, Jeff Licon (NC-17)

Filmmaker Gregg Araki makes a living being "provocative." Arriving on the film scene in the '90s alongside Todd Haynes - in what was dubbed the New Queer Cinema - he was the more in-your-face of the two, less willing to supress his anger when dealing with subjects like AIDS.

His newest film is no less confrontational, dealing with such happy subjects as child molestation and prostitution. Few conservative viewers would be able to sit through a half hour of it, but even the ultra-tolerant may take issue with some of what Araki shows. In one particularly repellent scene, for instance, a young boy launches bottle rockets from a mentally retarded child's mouth - and then tries to calm the injured child down with an unsolicited sex act.

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Mysterious Skin's disturbed young protagonists hide similar secret histories, but in director Gregg Araki's hands, misery eats company for lunch.

That disturbed child grows up to be a hustler; the film's other protagonist becomes obsessed with the idea that he was abducted by aliens in his youth. He wasn't, and it doesn't take much imagination to guess what secret memory his mind is hiding from him. The two young men are linked by similar events they've handled very differently.

It's very hard to say what effect Mysterious Skin wants to have on the viewer. It is sordid and sad and has little on its mind but sex. Its characters aren't especially pleasant people to know, and their misfortunes don't add much to our understanding of the world. But Araki has made another movie that will be thoroughly rejected by mainstream audiences, so his place as the New Queer Cinema's bad boy remains secure.

- John DeFore


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