The Michigan Daily - Weekend etc. - March 4, 1993- Page 3
Something smells about this 'Fish'
by Megan Abbott
When John Sayles makes one of his "political"
movies, they usually resonate with extraordinary
power. His portrait of a coal miner's strike,
"Matewan," or his operatic study of urban decay,
Written and directed by John Sayles; with Mary
McDonnell, Alfre Woodard and David Strathairn.
"City of Hope," both challenged audiences and
demanded answers. But for both films, Sayles was
criticized for heavy-handed ideology - in other
words, for having an opinion, or a point to make.
However, Sayles' films are deeply important in that
they create aspace for the political in an industry that
likes to forget that politics matter.
When Sayles steps off the soap box, the results
are middling. Often, politics play a small part, as in
"Eight Men Out" (about the Black Sox scandal) or
his ground-breaking ensemble picture, "The Return
of the Secaucus 7," Sayles finds an intriguing blend
of entertainment and import. Unfortunately, Sayles'
one major non-indie film, the 1983 "Baby, It's You,"
was mercilessly hacked by the studio. Not that
Sayles can't play by the rules. His screenwriter-for-
hire works, such as "The Howling," reflect his
ability to sell himself to fund his own projects.
This is why it is deeply unfortunate that Sayles'
latest work, his closest-to-mainstream effort in years,
neglects his instinctual feel for politically-fueled
work or even his sense of individual or idiosyncratic
style, in favor of near-melodrama.
"Passion Fish" is the story of May-Alice (Mary
McDonnell), a soap opera star who is rendered
paraplegic by a car accident. Unable to adjust, she
returns to her Louisiana family home to drown in
wine and bad TV.
What "Passion Fish" turns on is the entrance of
Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a live-in nurse with a
Past. The two don't become soul mates immediately
(they never do in these sorts of movies), but it isn't
difficult to see where things are going. However,
Sayles is an artful filmmaker, and he masks the
predictability of the story behind a mesmerizing
atmosphere of Bayou legend and superstition. It's
only when the film ends that you realize you've seen
it all before - a unique experience for a Sayles
The Oscar-nominated performance of Mary
McDonnell makes up for much of the film's lack of
originality. She never loses her tart sarcasm, and
there's something in her voice, as it swings from flat
rhythms to Louisiana sweet-drawl, that is truly en-
chanting. But the crime is that Alfre Woodard failed
to pick up any Academy recognition for her quiet
strength as Chantelle. The more we peer into
Chantelle's life, the more we see the profound and
lingering pain of her spirit. It is to Woodward's
eternal credit that we never doubt her character's
troubled state, nor her ability to survive.
Supporting performances by Sayles' regular
David Strathairn ("Eight Men Out," "Sneakers")
and Vondie Curtis-Hall provide excellentwallpaper-
ing for what is essentially a women's show. And the
fact that this is a true exploration of two women is not
unimportant and not unrefreshing. But stories of
overcoming great physical trauma often fall into
predictable patterns and Sayles can't seem to over-
come them. The scenes of McDonnell and the wine,
and the run-ins between the two women as Chantelle
tries to shake May-Alice from her cycle of self-pity,
work only as retreads. Sayles can do so much better.
There are moments of true transcendence. One
deliciously funny scene involves May-Alice's soap
opera cohorts coming to visit. Sheila Kelly of "L. A.
Law" provides a dizzying rendition of a woman
who's seen one too many Tennessee Williams' plays.
Unfortunately, one can't help but see "Passion Fish"
not only as a noble failure, but also as a missed
A sensitively-renderedmovieaboutwomen strug-
gling with their lives, and enduring, is a rarity. It
deserves a more evolved plot to match the perfor-
mances and the honeyed atmosphere. Sayles is at his
best when he has a point to prove. This is a story with
much room for a stance or two, on father/daughter
relationships, on women with each other. It just
seems Sayles left his politics at home, when a honed
ideology could have fueled his movie beyond the
PASSION FISH is playing at Showcase.
Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard dream of being in a better movie.
Searching for a 'Dogfight'
by Alison Levy
Movie budgets reach high into the
millions, and sometimes, the result is an
expensive piece of trash thatplaysat the
dollar theater for a week and then goes
straight to video, where they crowd the
shelves and asphyxiate the finer films.
One exception to this rule is Nancy
Savoca's "Dogfight." While it enjoyed
neither a wide nor a long release, it is
definitely an entertaining find.
The film centers around Private
Eddie Birdsall (RiverPhoenix), ayoung
Marine in San Francisco on his last
leave before heading off to Vietnam.
For fun,Eddie's friends (who call them-
selves the four B's) and the rest of the
Marines stage a contest. They rent a
place for a party and the object is to
bring the ugliest girl you can possibly
find. The Marine with the most unat-
tractive date wins. Their endeavors start
comically, but Eddie has no luck until
he runs into Rose (Lili Taylor), a young
woman working ather mother's restau-
rant. Plain, but sweet, Rose eagerly
accepts Eddie's invitation for the first
date she's ever had. The story could
simply be just another boring turn on
your garden-variety ugly swan story,
but outstanding performances by Tay-
lor ("Say Anything") and Phoenix
("Sneakers"), plus Savoca's understated
direction, make thisavideo gem worthy
of digging out from under all the gar-
Taylor'sRose is unbelievable. When
she is first introduced, her pudgy body,
soft crackly voice and obvious lack of
experience at talking with men makes
her seem laughable and vulnerable, but
it is her eagerness and goodness that
make her so endearing. The scene in
which she squeezes in and out of fifty
different dresses to get ready for the
When [Rose] is first
introduced, her pudgy
body, soft crackly voice
and obvious lack of
experience at talking
with men makes her
seem laughable and
vulnerable, but it is her
goodness that make her
dogfight is positively heartbreaking.
Even while Eddie obviously wants to
fool around with her, she is semi-blind
to it all and suggests they play musical
bingo, thus shouting her innocence. She
is almost unbearably nice and tries so
hard. Upon learning about the cruel
contest, she does not undergo the ex-
pected swan metamorphosis. Instead,
her backbone shows through. Rose may
not have confidence in herself as a
femme fatale, but as a person, she com-
mands respect and dignity for herself as
well as others. The final touch is her
small butpowerful sarcastic streak. Tay-
lor is absolutely amazing at making
Rose come alive, while displaying the
multi-facets of her character.
In turn, Phoenix does a marvelous
job of walking the tightrope between
revealing his character's depth and still
keeping him the stereotypical Marine
his friends think he is. A little exposi-
tional background in his family life
goes a long way in making him some-
what likable. But it's the little things he
does, like trying to keep Rose away
from the party, or taking her to a nice
restaurant for dinner when he can't af-
ford to eat himself, or listening to her
sing that present him as caring and
The direction, handled by Savoca
("True Love"), is very simple and unob-
trusive. She lets the story unfold and
direct the camera itself, instead of using
innovative shots and camera movement.
While the plot is allowed to unfold in
long shots, the overall pace of the film
moves along nicely, leaving the audi-
ence hungry for more.
River Phoenix has only improved since his early days as a starlet.
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