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Indie Flicks: An unusual discovery

Published June 30, 2005

Ladies in Lavender (PG-13) (102 min.) - Regret, heartbreak, melancholy and an exceedingly genteel way of life are on the rather plainly set table in Ladies in Lavender, a period charmer bolstered by the fine performances of two Dames of British cinema - Judi Dench as spinster Ursula, and Maggie Smith as her sister Janet, a rather haughty widow.

It's the late 1930s, and the elderly siblings, as set in their ways and reliant on each other as an old married couple, together discover a handsome young man, Andrea (Daniel Bruhl), washed up on a shore near their modest home in Cornwall, England. He's nursed back to health by the two women, who treat their rare find as an exquisite prized possession, the object of one sister's long dormant yearnings for tenderness and affection.

Andrea, as it turns out, is a Polish-born man with a great, previously undiscovered artistic talent, which attracts the attention of Olga, a pretty Russian woman (Natascha McElhone). Her apparent affections for Andrea kindle jealousy in Ursula and Janet, and foster resentment in the heart of a local doctor (David Warner). This material might have turned sappy and sentimental in lesser hands, but Charles Dance, a veteran actor (Gosford Park) making his directorial debut, elicits tough, smart work from Dench and Smith, who turn in the dramatic equivalent of an affecting extended duet. A-

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent

A cultural contradiction

Saving Face (R) (91 min.) - It's easy to describe Alice Wu's filmmaking debut as My Big Fat Chinese Wedding, with a wry heroine bucking traditions transported to the United States from abroad, colorful ethnic characters and, of course, nuptials.

However, Saving Face is an edgier comedy, with Wil (Michelle Krusiec) enjoying her first lesbian romance, and she isn't the bride. That would be her divorced mother (Joan Chen), who's pregnant and won't reveal the father's identity. They are women raised in a culture expecting certain matrimonial paths that neither wants to follow. Wu packs her movie with jokes, yet each one is tinged with sadness, as Wil and her mother wonder how much happiness must be compromised to remain loyal to their roots.

Wil is an accomplished surgeon with a bright future when she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), the daughter of a hospital administrator. It's an immediate attraction, but unless Wil makes a total commitment, Vivian may slip away. Every romantic comedy needs a threat to living happily ever after, and Wu cleverly fashions this one.

Ma has little room to complain about her daughter's personal life since hers is also raising eyebrows, which makes her consider Wil's situation in a more sympathetic way.

Saving Face is a smile movie, as opposed to a laugh-out-loud farce, and that restraint is one of Wu's best attributes as a filmmaker. The performances are solid, with Krusiec and Lynn Chen displaying the kind of chemistry that Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell failed so miserably to show in Bewitched. There's nothing revolutionary about Saving Face except its placement in theaters during the summer season, making it a simple, sweet palate cleanser for audiences soured on Hollywood hype. B

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 09:43:07]

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