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  • John Sayles gives the viewer a two-second break at the end of every scene in this small, perfectly-acted film. The conversations slow or stop, the action halts, sometimes the screen goes blank. The viewer has a chance to appreciate the scene, think about what just happened, savor the moment. Not every pause happens after something significant -- or was that scene important? Everyone who watches this movie will appreciate something else, I think.

    "Passion Fish" is so detailed that there is a wealth of emotional content for the audience. Watch for Alfre Woodard's excitement when she is reunited with her daughter. Was that tiny squeal in her voice just good acting or did we just witness the manifestation of a mother's spontaneous, overwhelming love that happened to take place in front of a rolling camera? And what about the hilarious monologue a soap-opera actress speaks when she related the worst role she ever played, the victim of alien medical experiments in a low-budget sci-fi picture? It has nothing to do with the plot of "Passion Fish," or does it? Maybe it tells of the indignities we all go through to achieve success, love, self-respect.

    Can you tell that I really liked this movie?
  • It's regularly noted that director John Sayles is a master at creating detailed characters; this film (like especially his earlier MATEWAN) proves his genius at capturing the oft-overlooked variety of American life: dialects, and the smallest (but most meaningful) moments of work, anger, tragedy, or sweetness. This skill was surely refined during his earlier years as a novelist, and - in maturity - makes his work (and this film in particular) far more human and gimmick-free than Amer-indie contemporaries like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch.

    I first saw this when it was released, and was very impressed (it was the first Sayles film I'd seen), and after a much-belated second viewing, I'd say it's one of the great American films of the 90s. Sayles' feel for detail shows continually - the small, but continual bits of personal history revealed about all of the characters throughout; the intricacy of even incidental encounters (an afternoon of zydeco music, or the COOLEY HIGH reference that slips quickly between Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard) is stunning.

    Evoking Robert Flaherty's LOUISIANA STORY, the boat-trip-to-Misere scene is particularly memorable, with well-deployed Cajun lore blending with very memorable cinematography (courtesy Roger Deakins, cinematographer for FARGO, KUNDUN, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION & SID AND NANCY, among other recent classics) to create one of the most unforgettable moments of Sayles' career.

    As most of the primary characters are either outsiders, or are returning after long absences, the common problem of show-biz fake accents is avoided nicely - Sayles (and Deakins) manage to capture an image of rural Louisiana that is enveloping and authentic, while never forgetting the reality that accents will vary widely even in local areas. Thus the fact that many characters refuse to lay on the drawl - even as many others in the film nail the sound of rural Louisiana perfectly - only makes PASSION FISH stronger.

    Overall this is a tale of growth and friendship that moves with the speed and emotions of life - none of it feels fake or forced, and though slow-to-start (another strength, though only seen as one by the film's end), PASSION FISH quietly develops into something unique and great. At every moment where this could've degenerated into movie-of-the-week sap, Sayles instead elegantly and confidently steers the film into DeSica (or Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck) territory: there's not a sour note to be seen here.
  • hcrethar16 July 2000
    John Sayles is a truly brilliant filmmaker. This film combines great story writing with precise interpersonal direction. Both Mary McDonnel and Alfre Woodard deliver characters who develop clearly throughout the story. Mr. Sayles' depiction of Cajun culture as it crosses with Yankee cultures is really quite impressive. Although the screenplay leans towards sentimentality, it never becomes trite as so many interpersonal dramas have a tendency to do. Sayle's scathing commentary on the self-centeredness of mainstream American culture through his depiction of people associated with daytime drama while avoiding any negative commentary on southern culture is refreshing and a pleasure to watch.
  • ejwells1 September 2003
    Writer/Director John Sayles' 1992 outing tells the tale of a soap opera star (Mary McDonell), who's been in a car accident, and is now wheelchair bound, and her unlikely friendship with her live-in nurse (Alfre Woodard). Excellent supporting roles from the great David Strathairn (A Sayles fave, star of Limbo), Vondie Curtis-Hall (who went on to direct Gridlock'd), and Angela Bassett. I gotta say this. Sayles always writes believable characters, and his dialogue is amongst the best in filmdom. I knew my wife would like this, which was my main motivation for renting it. I'd seen it before, but had forgotten just how good it is. McDonell garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role in this largely overlooked gem. 4 (of 5) stars on this one.
  • howiewins20 December 2000
    John Sayles is one of the finest film makers around, and "Passion Fish" ranks as his most human, funny, and provoking film. Fueled by tremendous performances by the always reliable Mary McDonnell and the extraordinary Alfre Woodard, "Passion Fish" takes a slow, easy pace through the Louisiana bayous and through difficult adjustments with life. David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis Hall, are McDonnell and Woodard's love interests, respectively, and add wonderful colors of both subtle and flamboyant hues. We find ourselves laughing at McDonnell's crude humor as paralyzed soap opera actress May Alice, especially in an amusing segment in which she drives away a number of interestingly characteristic nurses. Then, May Alice meets Woodard's Chantelle, a Chicago woman looking to rectify her own life. Their friendship is stunning, the ride is a pure joy. "Passion Fish" is a quiet film, and meant for those who enjoy those voyages through life with patience, humor, and camaraderie through the most difficult of circumstances, ultimately finding the true gifts of life.
  • yamapajama-226 October 1999
    I love this movie as much today as I did when I first viewed it. The performances by the actors were wonderful, the soundtrack is really fantastic, and John Sayles' script was funny and thought provoking. I loved the whole May Alice-Rennie angle, the May Alice-Chantelle, and the Chantelle-Sugar story lines, all woven together masterfully. One of the things I love best about John Sayles' movies is his ability to add supporting characters in such a fun and useful way. And he chooses REAL actors for those parts (note Angela Bassett). I thought he really captured the feel of bayou land, LA. and friction? boy! was there ever friction!
  • This film surprised me a lot. I liked it very much. It was well-written, acted, and worth watching Mary McDonnell who received her second Oscar nomination for this performance. Alfre Woodard should be nominated for best supporting actress. I was surprised to find two equally challenging roles for women in an almost extinct era. The relationship between the two women grows slowly. It is nice to see friendship between these two very different characters. May Alice becomes a likable person after awhile. Angela Bassett has a small role as her friend from New York City. David Straitharn plays an old flame who has since married and remain local in the Louisiana swamps of their hometown. It's a great story overall with characters that you grow to like over the time we spend with them.
  • In this current era of moviemaking, it's rare than an idea as soft, as pure as Passion Fish, will be given an opportunity to be made. Thankfully John Sayles has the ability to circumvent the ‘by-committee' filmmaking which would have ultimately turned this wonderful little film into God know's what.

    Mary McDonnell will never be better-she is brilliant, than in her portrayal of May-Alice Culhane (for which she was Oscar-nominated), the once-on-top Soap Opera star to whom tragedy has taken the use of her legs, and forced a re-evaluation of her life.

    Alfre Woodard, as the hired home-care worker/nurse Chantelle provides the perfect complement as both these women find more of themselves through each other, then they might ever have found otherwise. Again, Ms. Woodard has rarely disappointed.

    The early montage of health-care applicants is clever and funny. And John Sayles always is able to find brilliance in his supporting cast: notably Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, and David Strathairn, as well as a small role early in the career of Angela Bassett.

    Sayles' script was also nominated for an Academy Award.
  • I have only caught up with two of Sayles' directorial works "Limbo" and "Passion Fish". Though the subjects of the two films are quite dissimilar, Sayles penchant for building interesting character profiles is unmistakable in both. Both films have an interesting screenplay, developing anecdotes that seem to be strung together like beads on a necklace. In "Passion Fish", a somewhat successful actress watches TV soaps and makes comments. Zoom out of the situation and you realize that situation itself is close to a TV soap opera. Now directors like Robert Altman and Paul Mazursky have done similar themes with considerable success. European cinema (Claude Sautet for one) has numerous examples of what Sayles did in the US a decade before in Europe. Yet Sayles like Mazursky ("An Unmarried Woman","Harry and Tonto", etc.) is able to instill humor and pathos into his celluloid essays with considerable felicity.

    What makes "Passion Fish" tick? At a very obvious level there is a remarkable performance by Mary MacDonnell. You need to be a stage actress to have done justice to the demanding role of a paraplegic--perhaps Billie Whitelaw or Anne Bancroft or Joanne Woodward would have fared as well as Mary. Much of Mary's acting is limited to voice modulation and restricted body movements.

    Two other performers stand out: Alfre Woodard and David Strathairn. I have watched Strathairn perform in other movies but he is just superb when working for Sayles.

    "Passion Fish" like "Limbo" has a strong musical selection. Sayles, like Michael Mann and Peter Weir, has a good ear for music and sound editing. Yet "Limbo" outclasses "Passion Fish" by a mile in this department, thanks mainly to the song sung by lead actress herself.

    Finally the film "Passion Fish" survives on a strong screenplay and above average direction. The screenplay is loaded with social comments expressed in a documentary style: comments on a "business manager" who never appears, race relationships, religion ("she took to it after the second child.."), etc. The film expects us to follow the obvious childhood sweethearts-meet-again route but interestingly does not.

    This is the stamp of Sayles--a filmmaker who makes a sudden twist towards the end that makes all what preceded look better than it did. He did this in "Limbo" with aplomb, but "Passion fish" seems to anticipate the more accomplished storytelling of "Limbo"--the dark swamp metaphor of "Passion Fish" seems to be heralding the cloudy sky of "Limbo". One thing is certain--Sayles is an important screenplay writer comparable to David Mamet and Terrence Malick. As a director one could argue that his work is not new in style ("Limbo" harks back to "The Oxbow Incident") yet he cannot be dismissed--his work stands out amongst contemporary American movies, especially independent cinema.
  • I finally bought this film because I kept renting it. The slow pace is just right, never boring, and puts one endearing and individual character after another before us. Sugar is one of my favorites. David Straitharn is a brilliant actor and his characterization of Rennie has not one false note. I have lived in South Louisiana for 30 years and this movie made the area another character; the sense of place is flawless. The two leading ladies never upstage either each other or any of the other actors; this movie is a true ensemble piece. All of this keeps me coming back to this very redemptive film, a real work of art. Particularly well done is the contrast between the artificial world of New York theater, and the real world of ordinary people facing very difficult problems. The viewer is deliberately made comfortable in that real world, with no sense of being patronized. This reviewer gave up a professional theater career for "the real world", and I am very glad to see a film that doesn't just tell the truth but shows it in every nuance, in every note of music, and in the wonderful pauses between scenes. May-Alice gives me a jolt of hope and humor every time I see this film. Bravo.
  • For people dealing with a sudden life change, this portrayal is eloquent. Not only is every facet of human adaptability explored, but common hurdles in major adjustments seethe. The casting was perfect, the perspective well-rounded, and the satire in the writing was classic. Both women were so comfortable in their roles that everything they did seemed natural. David Strathairn was equally good. The music was impossible for sitting still, and the overall feeling when it ended was a warmth hard to find.

    This is a movie easily warranting recommendation as an exemplar for audiences facing a rough road. The outrage of starting over and sacrificing is beautifully shown by both women. The adjustments they are both making together are formidable, and as they clench down on where they find themselves, your admiration for how they handle the grim circumstances steadily grows.
  • Passion Fish (1992)

    I wish I could like John Sayles films more. They want to be so important and serious, about exceptional people in normal working America. Characters are dying to be felt for and understood, and the turns of events are poignant in simple ways we can relate to.

    So it is with Passion Fish, with a couple changes. For the first long part of the movie the main character, an ex-soap opera star recently made paraplegic, is completely unlikable. But eventually we come to appreciate her attitude, and other characters arrive, namely a nurse who can stick it out with her.

    So if all this sounds good, it is. But the writing is a little off, a little wrong, all the way through. Occasionally it's just a strain (I laughed out loud a couple times at it, not with it). There's not problem with the subjects and what they do, but what they say, a hair off key from what such real people would say. Or that's the sense you get.

    And the filming is adequate without being magical, or emphatic, or whatever it is that great movies pull off. The camera-work, the editing, the clunky addition of sounds, it's all a little crude, as if it didn't matter that it was just functional and used a few cheap devices (like a little montage sequence with snippets dissolving one into another like a sentimental ad). In fact, it has a television quality even though Sayles has never done t.v. as far as I know.

    If you are really into content, though, and real people with real problems, none of this will matter as much. And the compensations include gritty acting, which makes the most of the dialog. If this lack of style is your style, you'll like it. If you want formal intentions of any kind you might think it's slow and unartful.
  • The kudos here go to David Strathairn (a wonderful, overlooked performer in "Matewan," "L.A. Confidential" and numerous other films). He comes the closest I've seen on film to an actual Cajun, from the accent down to details such as the white shrimp boots. When will this actor get the Oscar he deserves (as Jim Broadbent finally did this year)?
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Passion Fish, showcases its 2 principal characters' (May-Alice and Chantelle) hopefulness and hopelessness in a light which I had never realized previously. Where May-Alice relapses into a daze of misery and alcohol-induced mist of self-centeredness, Chantelle struggles alone towards her self-rehabilitation - two unlikely individuals who are connected at a very obvious level, by the conflict of their motivations for existence but at a deeper plane, related not by conflict but by identification of a shared identity.

    Named after a Cajun superstition about finding love, the movie opens with a close-up of May-Alice's eyes as she lays on a hospital bed, victim of a freak accident and now, very mean-tempered inheritor of a crippled body. Her soap acting rendered futile and raging at the seeming dithering uselessness of all hospice personnel in uniform (nurses, physical therapists, doctors, psychiatrists), May-Alice moves back to the family home by a Louisiana bayou in a clear attempt at drinking herself into oblivion. Bound to a wheelchair and perennially in front of the television with a wine bottle as an unshakeable appendage, she has an attendant nurse in the form of a feisty black nurse (Chantelle – who takes up this work for far more substantial reasons than what initially appear.

    May-Alice's curmudgeonly self-indulgence in wine and TV collide with the blunt denials and admonitions of Chantelle, with decidedly un-"nursey" approaches. This conflict of wills between two strong and set women lies at the heart of this film; a conflict which does not get manifested in typical conventionally hoarse and piquant scenes. What interested me immensely are the numerous tiny battles which emerge in the course of this war of wills – a tug here, a pull there followed by a push. Several times in the movie, I expected the dam of unresolved and unsatisfied emotions to burst into a torrent of screams and the inevitable firing of the nurse. It never came.

    Passion Fish intensely resists the easy transition of such a story into a likely tale of maudlin sentimentalism and spiritual upliftment. When I think of it, the movie is less of a motif for human tragedy or that of people who have suffered mentally or physically coming out of the ordeal as veritable angels.

    Then there is the Louisiana landscape and the comic portraits of an assortment of Alice-May's visitors, and a repressed but tender romance which materializes with an old acquaintance. To the back of the house, there are verdant and soothing wetlands teeming with herons, alligators and snakes while towards the front, the track which leads to it is dusty and decidedly un-photogenic with what I can only presume to be factories, pumping affluents into this seemingly serene lake. This two-tinged sepia is present everywhere in the movie. This many-layered portrayal of a story of two women is marked by engaging performances all-round and a screenplay which does not veer into the realm of the tear-jerker.

    One more thing, I love the "I didn't ask for the anal probe" monologue for its intensity and the sheer range of emotions it seeks to explore – from thrill to determination to anticipation to frustration to dismay and finally, resignation.
  • You can write the best scripts, pronounce their promise with great dialogues, but without direction, you will never extract lifelike realism, sensibility and made those qualities accessible in superb performance presented here.

    This movie has it all. One of the things I treasure the most and mind you, I know I keep repeating myself again and again - that be a great atmosphere. Atmosphere in this movie is ravishing. Locations are not overused for any other purpose but to remain the stage of this charming story.

    Relationship between May-Alice and Chantelle has relaxed and profound feeling about finer things of life. Shear simplicity of this approach is risky for mass audience, but for the connoisseur of finer realism, it is a pure joy.

    One thing is for certain: If you can't detect those virtues, you will at least fulfill your boredom early in the movie and look elsewhere. Preparation of actors is excellent from beginning toward the end. To tell you the truth, nitpicking wont do you any good here, because I really can't find anything wrong with this movie. I would simply, again and again, soak the lifelike presence of the main characters and enjoy this movie.

    My utmost respect goes to John Sayles for outstanding results with Passion Fish.
  • John Sayles never disappoints as a director, and "Passion Fish" affirms that. After a car accident paralyzes soap opera star May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), she returns to her childhood home in Louisiana, bitter about everything. After rejecting several caretakers, she befriends Chantelle (Alfre Woodard, happy birthday!). From there, we see how their lives and experiences help them form a bond.

    I know that it sounds like the average Hollywood crap, but remember, this is John Sayles so he knows how to do it right. The title refers to a legend told to May by local man Rennie (David Strathairn). The legend is likely to blow your mind. With zydeco music to keep things going, this is definitely a movie that I recommend. Also starring Vondie Curtis-Hall and Angela Bassett.
  • John Sayles works so independently of the Hollywood mainstream and follows his own voice so meticulously that he often leaves his fans just a little short-changed with each successive work. As brilliant a filmmaker as he remains, every one of his films has its own shortcomings that leave it in the "near-perfect" category. In a way it feels as though he purposely leaves something unnecessary in each time out. For this reason among others, Sayles' films are an acquired taste. His 1992 film "Passion Fish" struts along at a very self-assured, yet slow paced gait, much like the population of its Southern Gothic location.

    The main focus of the film is put on two women, one who returns to the place she left to dwell upon her current challenges and another who comes there for refuge from her troubles elsewhere. The women's paths intersect at a precarious point in their lives, leading to some very interesting results. Mary McDonnell stars as May-Alice, a feisty, soap actress forced into early retirement by a car accident. It's a challenging role and she brings a certain bravado that hasn't been shown by her previously. Alfre Woodard gives a highly nuanced performance as the nurse who has been hired to help the reluctant May-Alice.

    Like in many of Sayles' films, given his immense prowess as a writer, the true pleasure comes not from watching the main storyline but the local and supporting flavor chewing up scenery throughout. One such gem involves an outdoor luncheon with McDonnell's character attempting to keep her composure and a tactful face with two Southern Belle types she hates. It's moments like this that add texture to Sayles' films, but also tend to keep them loosely edited and occasionally overwrought.
  • It was my turn to pick the film and I picked this one because I like John Sayles and David Strathairn movies. Lone Star, Matewan, and Limbo are some that I really liked. After the first 10 minutes, I thought it was just another chick flick. My wife was going to owe me one. I hung in there and got caught up in the story. It's a 7 but I gave it an 8 since I liked the critter scenes. (Note to continuity people: Rennie's bass turned into a catfish when he opened it up for the passion fish).
  • kevin c19 January 2003
    This film could have been made in Hollywood with a similar cast and similar setting, and it would have been awful.

    But in the hand's of Sayles it's another gem. All his usual characteristics are there in a slow, well-written story. Not overly sentimental, despite the feel-good ending. This is good stuff.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I discovered this film a few years ago and since then it has become a firm favourite; its a very easy film to watch and in quiet times I find myself going back to watch this.

    The plot focuses on May-Alice Culhane a successful soap-opera who is struck in New York leaving her without the ability to walk. This event prompts her to leave her high flying life in New York, to return to the area she grew up in. Here, she faces an identity crisis having lost her freedom and her career. The film explores May-Alice's experience of such a loss the emotional trauma is brilliantly portrayed by Mary McDonnell and her nomination for this film is well deserved.

    Overall the film is about coping with trauma and who a person becomes after such an experience. The ending is quite open and that perhaps symbolizes the uncertainty of May-Alice and Chantelle's future.
  • May-Alice Culhane was a successful soap opera star, but a car accident has left her bound to a wheelchair. She returns to her now-empty family home in the bayous of Louisiana which she had eagerly left years before. She drinks heavily and vents her bitterness on the succession of nurses who are hired to take care of her and immediately quit because she is so unbearable.

    I write "more than a chick flick" because that's what you might assume from a film about two women bonding. But that just is not a fair summary, because this is really about character. The plot is thin, but the characters are deep. Even the secondary characters, like Sugar and "Bad News", are interesting. Oh, and the anal probe joke is priceless.

    If there was one big negative, though, it tends to run a bit long at well over two hours. If you don't mind a slow burn, you probably won't mind, because it's an interesting two hours. But for those who like their movies to be 90 minutes and not a second more, this will try your patience.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "The Cajuns have always squeezed the passion fish, some swallow the passion fish, thinking hard of the one they want to be liked off."

    The successful soap star May-Alice Culhane is after a taxi accident a paraplegic, bound to her wheelchair. She returns to her childhood home in Louisiana. To cope with the sudden chock of the totally new situation (like this starts the movie, May-Alice not understanding where she is and what happened. Finally at home in her childhoods home she starts drinking and watching television as the only thing to do. For the ever changing help she is the unbearable 'bitch on wheels'. Until Chantelle enters the scene. We know all about the bitter, white mistress. What she was, what happened to her and how it is now for her. But Chantelle? Parts and bits of the black recovering cocaine addicts background emerges slowly in bits and pieces. When Lucas shows up. When her father with her daughter pays a visit. Her father is the legal guardian for her daughter: "as long I think it is necessary" he tells Chantelle, his daughter. The white mistress and her black servant seem to be far apart: white and black. Two different worlds. But not: they sit in the same boat (shown metaphoric when the movie ends. Chantelle: "We are stuck with each other" and answered by May-Alice: "For the time being." May-Alice is visited twice by her former work, hardly hiding their pity for May-Alice and her black servant. When nothing is left to hide behind the white bitterness and the black stubbornness the afford to pretend is with no meaning. The possibility emerges: not to recognize but to see the other. Each other. Both in need of help. Helping each other. With no-way-out-option. Instead pity: respect. They are assisted by Rennie, the childhood crush, the Cajun handyman (Chantelle mouthes silent to her: "He likes you." And Sugar LeDoux, the local cowboy with children around every corner. He seduces Chantelle with smiling charm and dances with her daughter at the local festivity. Watched by the critical eyes of Chantelles father. Does the cowboy want Chantelles heart he must behave. The womens forced-up respect transforms to friendship. Behind their private disaster as crippled successful soap star and the recovering cocaine addict eds last chance for a job. This job. Both on their way to accept again life. Mirroring each others needs. Both crippled: a white body and a black soul.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "Passion Fish", directed and written by John Sayles, is a sturdy very good watch on the whole. I thought there was obviously a lot of thought that had gone into the lead characters plights and what each were struggling through. However, sometimes knit-picking isn't too fun but must be done, and there were 2 different things that brought the movie down from great to good. One was about a 5 minute diatribe that a side-character blathers about "anal-probes". My wife and I were sitting there watching and both looked at each other saying "wth was that", the editor completely asleep at the wheel. And secondly, the ending sort of fizzled. Correct these 2 inconsistencies, and I think the movie was an 8/10. Great job by leads McDownell and Woodard nonetheless, especially McDownell.
  • A film about a woman struggling to live with herself after a life changing accident. She is paralyzed from the waist down and drinks by the hour. She goes through a slew of nurses at her Louisiana home until she finally comes to terms with one played by Alfre Woodard. The film is supported by strong character moments and superb dialog.

    Overall, it is a beautifully written and well crafted film. John Sayles does an amazing job directing, writing and editing. He extracts memorable performances from Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, and never once shows an unnecessary scene or line.

    Look out for a supporting role from David Straithairn and the subtle yet poignant cinematography that drives the film to its end. (The Louisiana Bayous never looked so good!)
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