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Great \"Bug\"

Plus sensative \"Away From Her\"

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William Friedkin’s new film “Bug” begins as an ominous rumble of unease and builds to a shriek.  The last 20 minutes are searingly intense: A paranoid personality finds its mate, and they race each other into madness.  For Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” it’s a work of headlong passion.

Its stars, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, achieve a kind of manic intensity that’s frightening not just in itself but because you almost fear for the actors.  They’re working without a net. 

The film is based on a play by Tracy Letts, an actor and playwright at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, that was a hit here and in New York.  In the film, we meet Agnes (Judd), a waitress in a honky-tonk lesbian bar, living in a shabby motel.  Her violent ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), just out on parole, walks back into her life, still violent.  At about the same time, her gay friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins), drags in a stray with haunted eyes.  This is the polite stranger named Peter (Shannon), who says he doesn’t want sex or anything else, is attentive and courteous, and is invited by Agnes to spend the night even though he seems (to us) like the embodiment of menace. 

For Friedkin, the film is a return to form after some disappointments such as “Jade.”  It feels like a young man’s picture, filled with edge and energy.  Some reviews have criticized “Bug” for revealing its origins as a play, since most of it takes place on one set.  But of course it does.  There is nothing here to “open up,” and every reason to create a claustrophobic feel.  Paranoia shuts down into a desperate focus.  It doesn’t spread its wings and fly.  Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use. Three and a half stars – Roger Ebert

Away From Her

“Away From Her” is a sensitive movie about Alzheimer’s that never strains for the Big Weepy Climax, never seems like it might rerun on the Hallmark Channel.  And although it’s about an ugly disease — in this case, forcing a husband to watch his longtime wife get lost inside herself — there are moments of pure beauty and poetry.  Julie Christie, who plays the wife, Fiona, says at one point: “I think the only thing we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.”  Writer/director Sarah Polley has achieved considerable grace in her filmmaking debut.  It’s all the more surprising to realize that she is just 28. 

Christie is already getting Oscar buzz for her role, and it’s warranted.  She doesn’t have just one role.  She illuminates several different stages of Alzheimer’s with pointed observations, confusion, humor, self-consciousness and courage — and yet the acting never shows.  She makes Fiona real.  Anyone who’s watched a loved one disappear will appreciate the challenge of embodying a disease that’s “like a series of circuit breakers in a large house, flipping off one by one.” 

The supporting characters are fleshed-out enough to earn their own movies.  Olympia Dukakis is sardonic and resigned as the wife of Fiona’s new “boyfriend.”  And Kristen Thomson is so believable as a nurse — all sympathetic nods and happy-tacky colorful smocks — that I wondered if she really was a health-care professional hired for authenticity.  Nope, she’s an actress, and it’s a revelation when she’s given a chance to demonstrate that she’s a complicated person, too. 

It’s clear that the Canadian Polley’s actors trust her, and that she’s a natural at drawing meaning from Canada’s snowy landscapes.  Even the lighter scenes were note-perfect.  “Away From Her” marks Polley as an old soul — and a new filmmaker with great things to come.  Rated PG-13 for some strong language. Three and a half stars – Paige Wiser

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