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Secretary: Of Human Bondage

Film Society engages in role-playing

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You win some, you lose some. At least that's how this month's Charlotte Film Society schedule should be assessed, especially when compared to the strong slate they usually serve up to the city's art-house market. This month, though, there's only one title that's worth its marquee billing, and even this one's only for specialized audiences who don't mind a little BDSM in their love stories. (Movies begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 704-414-2355 for details.)

Perhaps it's a fear of the far right, or a wariness of the ratings board, or simply a knee-jerk reaction to the nation's deep-seated puritanism. Whatever the reason, most American movies are only too happy to present sex as the most vanilla of human functions, suitable only for missionaries and their positions. But like Punch-Drunk Love, another offbeat love story from last year, director Steven Shainberg's Secretary (*** out of four) recognizes that different people require different modes of expression, even ones that aren't generally condoned by society at large. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, this adaptation (by Erin Cressida Wilson) of Mary Gaitskill's short story centers on Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman with low self-esteem who has spent most of her life practicing self-abuse (she has a nasty habit of cutting herself). She lands her first adult job as secretary to E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a twitchy disciplinarian who, remarkably, turns out to be just the person she needs in her life. Grey slowly introduces Lee to the world of S&M, and this in turn leads her to blossom as a person, shuck her self-destructive tendencies and discover an outlet for all her pent-up emotions. An honest and nonjudgmental movie about the unorthodox ways that lonely people often connect in an increasingly disconnected world, Secretary works largely because of Gyllenhaal, who delivers a performance of breathtaking range.

You might recognize character actor Raymond J. Barry from supporting roles in Dead Man Walking and Born On the Fourth of July, but you've never seen him step to the forefront in such an imposing manner as he does in Interview With the Assassin (**). Barry stars as Walter Ohlinger, a former Marine who confides to his neighbor, an unemployed cameraman (Dylan Haggerty), that he was the second gunman at Dealey Plaza on that November day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Gruff, steely-eyed, and convinced that his co-conspirators are trailing him wherever he goes, Barry delivers a performance that is utterly frightening in its ordinariness -- there's something especially unnerving about the moment when he calmly insists that it was his shot, not Lee Harvey Oswald's, that killed the President. But beyond Barry's ice-cold performance, there's little to recommend this picture from first-time writer-director Neil Burger, which establishes its high-concept premise yet never spins it out in a gripping fashion. Instead, Interview With the Assassin plays like an amateur recreation of the excellent Warren Beatty vehicle The Parallax View, a Watergate-era piece of paranoia that even today has the ability to propagate sweaty palms.

The consensus on the Korean import The Way Home (**) when it debuted stateside last November was that it was "heartwarming," "charming" and "loving," leading me to believe that the scribes who used those words must have the temperament of Josef Mengele. The plot concerns itself with a city-raised 7-year-old boy (Seung-Ho Yoo) who's sent to live with his mute 75-year-old grandmother (Eul-Boon Kim) out in the country for a few weeks. Odious beyond imagination, the brat spends a full 80 minutes of the movie's 90-minute running time shoving his physically frail grandma, breaking her few household items, refusing to help her carry heavy items, and calling her "stupid" and "retard" at every opportunity. Of course, he has an unconvincing change of heart in the final few minutes -- enough time to dupe many viewers into thinking they've seen a movie they can describe to their friends as "heartwarming," "charming" and "loving." Still, all manner of movie characters can be tolerated as long as they or their situations are interesting enough, but The Way Home is about as carefully (and calculatedly) constructed as any Hollywood formula flick -- had this exact picture come from, say, 20th Century Fox with Haley Joel Osment and Angela Lansbury in the leads, it would be mercilessly denigrated rather than given the Film Society treatment.

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