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Film festival favorites hit town

Perhaps not since Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has the screen offered such a searing portrait of evil flourishing under the guise of matronly concern. Yet here's Sister Bridget, a nun so reprehensible that had she been a real person, one can only imagine God hanging His head in shame and weeping.

In a way, though, Sister Bridget was a real person. The Magdalene Sisters is writer-director Peter Mullan's unflinching account of Ireland's Magdalene laundries, church-sanctioned establishments in which young women accused of "sex sins" were sent to spend time (many of them for the remainder of their lives) working as slaves under the auspices of money-grubbing nuns who enjoyed humiliating their prisoners at every turn. The movie's based on the testimony of scores of former Magdalene inmates, and while its characters are fictionalized, they are all based in whole or in part on actual people involved in this decades-spanning crime against humanity (the movie's set in the 60s, though Magadalene facilities, incredibly, remained open until 1996).

While the movie has enjoyed tremendous success on the film festival circuit (it's been featured at over a dozen fests, including last year's Toronto and Venice gatherings), it's been predictably condemned by the Catholic Church, which obviously doesn't need another scandal added to its plate.

So exactly what sorts of "sex sins" are the young protagonists of The Magdalene Sisters guilty of committing? Demure Patricia (Dorothy Duffy) had a child out of wedlock, an act that immediately ostracized her from her family. Sensible Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was raped by her cousin, who apparently went on to live his life unsullied while his kin was made to pay for his sins. And headstrong Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone)? Why, her crime was simply that she was a lovely lass who liked to flirt with boys. "I've never been with a lad," she truthfully tells Sister Bridget (played with steely resolve by Geraldine McEwan). "But you'd like to, wouldn't you?" replies the nun, as if that alone justified the girl's inhumane treatment.

Often resembling a prison movie in its narrative structure (with the nuns effectively doubling for Nazis), The Magdalene Sisters examines the relationships between its protagonists (not only between the captors and their charges but also between the prisoners themselves) before focusing on the inmates' climactic great escape. Yet what sticks with you the most about this film, past its surface dramatics and superlative performances, is its clarion call to action, its outrage at the immoral activities that are allowed to run unchecked -- and are often even encouraged by governing bodies -- throughout what we keep telling ourselves is a civilized western world order. The Magdalene laundries may have closed seven years ago, but were they still in operation today, it's a good bet the media spotlight generated by this movie's righteous anger would have hastened their demise.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, American Splendor is a misfit movie about a misfit man. Like last year's Adaptation, it draws much of its strength from its ability to play around with the very structure of the motion picture form -- in that regard, it's a near-brilliant movie, even though its thematic content can't hope to keep up with its technical flourishes.American Splendor tells the true-life tale of Harvey Pekar (aptly played with a perpetual scowl by Paul Giamatti), a career file clerk who wrote comics on the side. And not just any comics: Desiring to depict "real life" in a manner that he felt was all but ignored by other printed "toons of the time, he concocted a number of underground comic strips, some of which were illustrated by no less than the legendary R. Crumb.

Yet Pekar never made a living via his literary love, continuing to hold onto his day job at the Cleveland V.A. hospital and striving to find companionship in his personal life. He eventually meets and marries Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), who in her own way is as eccentric as Pekar yet has a firmer handle on the rigors and responsibilities of everyday life.

Directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have come up with an ingenious way to tell this man's story, whiplashing between using movie actors and using the real-life personalities. So in one scene we have Giamatti and Davis as Harvey and Joyce, and yet the very next minute we're seeing Harvey and Joyce as themselves, bickering about each other's flaws. Blurring the line even further, the filmmakers will often toss the whole lot of them in the same frame! The inventiveness extends to the visuals, as parts of the movie are animated and even framed like comic strip panels.

For all its audacity around the edges, though, the movie is rather conventional at its center, and it rarely offers anything more than Teflon pleasures. Unlike Terry Zwigoff's magnificent 1994 documentary Crumb, this film is content to stay on the surface, never digging deep in an attempt to examine the demons that drove Pekar's life. In Zwigoff's film, we were made to understand how, surrounded by a family mired in unmitigated madness, Crumb's life was literally saved by his ability to channel his inner turmoil through his art; here, Pekar more often than not comes across simply as a one-note grouch who liked to draw. It can be argued that for all his import in the underground comics movement, Harvey Pekar was no Crumb. It's even easier to state that for all its many attributes, American Splendor is no Crumb.

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