Hollywood's fondness for fantasy points to moviegoers' enjoyment of stories that blur the boundaries between reality and illusion. Many independent pictures share this interest, including two new dramas focusing on the lives of characters as they actually are, and as they might have been if events had taken different turns.
The Hanging Garden arrives today on American screens after winning four Genie awards - the Canadian equivalent of Oscars - as well as the Audience Award at last year's Toronto filmfest. It centers on a young gay man returning to his rural home after a decade of living in very different surroundings.
Once an overweight and unhappy child, he is now a successful and attractive adult. But he vividly remembers his discontented past, and additional memories are sparked by interactions with family members who haven't matured as much as he has during the past 10 years.
His recollections and fantasies contribute much of the movie's content - sometimes happily, as when he recalls his childhood's contented moments, and sometimes disturbingly, as when he's haunted by a vision of his own corpse hanging from a tree in his father's garden.
Thom Fitzgerald, who wrote and directed the picture, describes it as "both a slice-of-life drama and a surrealist fantasy," meant to show that "even the most ordinary lives also operate on a poetic level." His experiments with time-jumping and memory-sketching aren't always smooth, but few recent movies do a better job of blending the visible world around us with the invisible world we carry around in our imaginations. Chris Leavins, Kerry Fox, and Sarah Polley star.
Sliding Doors takes its cue from the longstanding idea that a tiny event can have huge consequences if it occurs at the right moment in a person's life.
The heroine is a young Londoner who heads for home after a terrible day at the office. As she hurries to pass through the sliding doors of a subway car, the movie splits in two, alternating for the next 90 minutes between alternate versions of her story. In one, she hops into the subway and returns home to find her boyfriend cheating on her. In the other, she's spared the sight of his infidelity, but hits a different series of problems that have their own strong impact.
"Sliding Doors" is amiably acted by Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine, John Lynch as her sneaky boyfriend, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as her romantic rival. Their efforts are weakened, though, by Peter Howitt's uninspired filmmaking. The basic concept is fine - who hasn't wondered how life might have turned out under slightly different circumstances? - but this is worked out in sadly unoriginal terms.
"Sliding Doors" begins as a novel treatment of a thought-provoking idea. It winds up spinning two uninteresting tales for the price of one.
* Both films have R ratings and contain sex, violence, and vulgar language.