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Sweet and Low

Eternity and spankings this week in the movies.

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Then I first read Tuck Everlasting, oh, about 20 years ago, I think I missed the point. A thoughtful children's novel that meditates on the big issues of life and death, Tuck asks, Is life worth living forever? As a child unfamiliar with illness or dying, I was so afraid of the abstract concept of mortality that I couldn't imagine not wanting to live forever. Watching the film version of Tuck as an adult in the 21st century (I don't think the 1980s was the best decade for a young person to learn life lessons), I was able to look back and see that many of my perceptions about life and its beautiful "finity" had their genesis in my response to this book.

Winnie Foster (Gilmore Girl Alexis Bledel) is a proper turn-of-the-20th-century young lady with stern parents and a very conventional, corseted life. One day, while taking a forbidden walk in the nearby woods, she stumbles upon the mysterious Tuck family charming and strange, wise and static all at once. They have a secret they are willing to protect at any cost, but it's love at first sight for Winnie and 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson, brother of Dawson's Creek-er Joshua), so they include Winnie in their lives and their secret: Jesse's not 17. More like 104. The family and their horse drank from an enchanted spring some 87 years ago, ensuring eternal life for all of them. They keep to themselves to avoid suspicion from small-minded townsfolk who may wonder why they don't age like the rest of them. Who wouldn't kill for the secret? Enter Ben Kingsley as the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit, who's on to the Tucks and is searching for their secret spring. Things get tough for Winnie and the Tucks as their fountain of youth becomes endangered, and Winnie is faced with a choice: Life and love eternal with Jesse? Or nature's course replete with illness, loss, and death?

Mostly faithful to the 1975 Natalie Babbitt novel, Tuck Everlasting is the welcome return of the good, old-fashioned Walt Disney family drama. Remember Old Yeller and Pollyanna and all of those wonderful "historical" films from your youth? And your parents' youth? Tuck Everlasting fits snugly into the canon. Beautifully filmed, with a haunting and mystical Celtic score by William Ross, the film looks good, sounds good, and is handsomely acted by its Oscar-pedigreed cast members (and its not-so pedigreed cast members). William Hurt and Sissy Spacek are warm and honest as the everlasting Tucks. Hurt, in particular, makes the most of some obligatory nuggets of folksy wisdom like "Don't be afraid of death. Be afraid of the unlived life." Ben Kingsley excellently vilifies himself without the requisite period-melodrama ham that would have so tempted a Tim Curry or Geoffrey Rush. As Winnie's parents, Amy Irving (Spacek's surviving Carrie co-star) and Victor Garber (the sensitive ship-designer in Titanic and Daddy Warbucks in TV's Annie) paint with shades of dour and strict in, surprisingly, three dimensions.

Leading lady Alexis Bledel makes a fine transition to the big screen. Subtle and passionate, she carries the film and its Big Ideas with believable youth and wonderment never showing too much scripted maturity or self-awareness. She discovers as we discover. And this is a challenge in a story that asks its audience (mostly pre-teen girls, I predict) to ask important, painful questions from a deceptively difficult children's fantasy. Fortunately, Bledel is paired with the charismatic Jackson, whose portrait of eternal youth is aided by a striking beauty so pure and wholesome it would put shame to milk. At 104, I'm sure he still gets carded.

Purists will allege that the movie oversimplifies by emphasizing cheesy romance over the awe and splendor of Winnie's coming-of-age amidst extraordinary, fantastical circumstances and that's true. I say, Pooh pooh, purists. This is a gorgeous, well-acted film that young people should see.

When death is in every headline, how excellent that a film deals so sensitively and respectfully with an issue so difficult for children of any age to discuss, much less see. Bo List

A big hit at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, director Steven Shainberg's Secretary is an erotic fairy tale, though not the kind you're likely to find on Cinemax late at night. It's a richly designed, luxuriously stylized tale of two people unhappy, self-mutilating Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal of Donnie Darko) and her complement, obsessive-compulsive lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) who find contentment in a dominant/submissive relationship. In other words, it's a love story, with nary a shred of ironic detachment.

Secretary is basically a two-person film. Other bit characters show up in Lee's orbit: Stephen McHattie as her alcoholic, abusive father; Lesley Ann Warren as her overprotective mother; and Jeremy Davies (lending the film some second-hand kink through his work in the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey) as sad-sack suitor Peter. But Secretary is basically an elegant, tentative pas de deux between Gyllenhaal and Spader as they negotiate their way around the ineffable mysteries of desire, warily pursuing happiness in a sexual and emotional construct that flirts with taboo. If someone as transgressive as David Lynch had directed a romance as emotionally delicate as, say, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, Secretary might be the result.

Spader has traveled in this territory before, of course, most notably in David Cronenberg's brilliant Crash, though the sexual subculture here is a lot more common and believable than that film's world of car-crash fetishists. Spader's performance is reserved his Edward a man (initially) ashamed of his desires even as he indulges in them. But however much the audience may want to recoil at Edward's dominant place in this office power play, Spader imbues his character with a steadfast moral center by underplaying moments of startling generosity. Noticing the needles and iodine with which Lee secretly abuses herself after a particularly stressful call from Dad, Edward brings her into his office to confront her. "What's going on with the sewing kit and the band-aids?" he asks. Then, when she demurs, he verbalizes her situation in a way that perhaps Lee has never really comprehended before, explaining that by cutting herself she brings the pain inside to the surface and finds comfort in watching the pain heal. "You will never, ever cut yourself again. That's over," Edward says. And Gyllenhaal's mini-symphony of facial expression recognition, gratitude, emancipation is but one of many grace notes.

If you haven't figured it out already, this is not Sweet Home Alabama. Many viewers may find the subject matter distasteful especially since the aforementioned relationship breakthrough leads to harder stuff, like a good, stiff spanking in response to a few (perhaps intentional) typos and some may want to judge the sexual lives of these characters. But Maggie Gyllenhaal won't let that happen. Like Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, except in a far lighter manner (this is a very funny film), Gyllenhaal carries the film through its most precarious moments. The look of satisfaction Gyllenhaal gives Lee when she has a carrot in her mouth and a saddle on her back or when she's crawling down the hall on all fours, a memo between her teeth, has nothing to do with sexual manipulation or titillation. It's real and true and demands believability. Her confidence emboldened by her relationship with Edward, Gyllenhaal's Lee comes off as something like a sexpot Janeane Garofalo brainy, charming, bringing deadpan flair to her vanilla lovemaking scene with Peter ("Did I hurt you?" Peter asks, worryingly. "No," Lee sighs with languid disappointment) and screwball grace to a lovably silly laundromat courtship scene. This would be a star-making performance similar to Diane Keaton's in Annie Hall if the movie itself weren't too outré to find a vast audience (and these days, Annie Hall itself might be too outré to find a mainstream audience).

With two such great performances amid such daring material, there's a lot of pressure on Shainberg to not let his actors and script down, and he doesn't. He gives the initial meeting of Lee and Edward a striking fairy-tale quality, the raincoat-clad Lee entering Edward's office like Little Red (or Blue, in this case) Riding Hood into the Wolf's lair. And his thoughtful, judicious use of nudity (its late appearance used only as a symbol of a comfort Lee's never had before) is a master stroke that establishes the film as anything but the prurient investigation of sexual taboo that some reactionaries are liable to brand it. n

Chris Herrington

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