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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with the Oscar-nominated AJAMI, Oscar Shorts, and John Amiel's CREATION!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses around America this week or at least expanding to more theaters (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Enjoy…
AJAMI Considering how many films I see in a given year, it always stuns me when the Academy Award nominations are released, and somehow there are only one or two titles in the Best Foreign Language Film category that I've actually seen--in this year's case, THE WHITE RIBBON from Germany, which will likely win if more recent awards shows are any indication. By the time the Oscars are given out, I'll have seen three of the nominations in that category, and all three are equally worthy of being nominated. The Israeli entry, AJAMI, shook me to the core and gave me one of the clearest pictures I've seen yet on film of just how incendiary and near-impossible to resolve the situation in Tel Aviv, a part of the world where three religions--Jews, Christians and Muslims--have been attempting to live as neighbors for decades. Through a series of five interconnecting stories featuring characters at every level of society, from young men and women simply working to survive to police officers to refugees, AJAMI (named after a Jaffa neighborhood) paints a portrait of violence, desperation, and fear. This is a place where every death must be paid back with another death, and somehow this brutal cycle passes for justice. Directors-writers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani do a remarkable job showing us certain key events from different perspective, each one more tragic and heartbreaking than the next. But they manage to do so without pointing fingers or judging even the most unforgivable actions. And while AJAMI deals with some of the less-than-reputable aspects of living in Tel Aviv, most of the key characters are good people trapped in catastrophic circumstances not of their making. Much like some of the better works coming out of Brazil and Mexico in the last 10 years, there's nothing false or melodramatic about the stories being told in AJAMI; the storytelling is clear and manageable despite the many timelines, characters, and plots. This is as good an example of powerful and poignant storytelling as you'll see all year.
OSCAR SHORTS Clearly, this is a good week for Oscar-nominated works getting theatrical releases. As they have for a few years now, the nominees for Live Action and Animated Short Film are being packaged as separate programs and released to theaters just prior to the Oscar telecast. Sometimes actually seeing the nominees will taint your brain and make you vote for your favorite in your Oscar pool rather than who likely win for political reasons, but it's probably the only time in a given year where you'll bother to see this many shorts in one sitting, so just go. Every one of these entries is good work--maybe not the best I saw in 2009, but still highly enjoyable. Of the Live Action nominees, my favorite by far is MIRACLE FISH from Australia. The less said about it's shocking plot the better, but it begins with an outcast little boy who comes to school on his birthday, is relentlessly teased by fellow students, hides out and falls asleep in the nurses office, and wakes up to an empty school giving him what he thinks is free reign to roam the halls and eat all the vending machine candy he can steal. Sounds harmless enough, but the payoff is like a kick straight to the gut. The entire program is worth seeing just to get to this one. Coming in a close second is the Irish-Russian co-production THE DOOR, which shows the aftermath of what is clearly meant to be a Chernobyl-like disaster from the point of view of a family being evacuated from their home. The family has no idea what is happening or where they are supposed to go, but when the young couple's little girl begins showing signs of radiation sickness, the reasons don't really matter. The title refers to the girl's father attempting to give her death some dignity by giving her something resembling an honorable funeral. It's almost too terrible and hopeless to watch. I also liked INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA from Sweden, about a man still living at home with his parents who dreams of becoming a famous magician and falls in love with the new neighbor lady in the process of achieving his dream. The Indian/U.S. co-production KAVI is well acted, but it feels like it was sponsored by some human's rights organization. And while its message about entire families being help essentially as slaves in Indian work camps (in this case a brick-making factory) is one that needs to be broadcast from the rooftops, the film's obvious agenda undercuts the inherent drama of the story. The most bizarre of the group is the U.S-Denmark effort, THE NEW TENANTS, which features several familiar faces (including Vincent D'Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan) is this silly story about a couple of guys that move into the apartment of a recently deceased man and are visited by a succession of increasingly weird and aggressive neighbors each looking for something left behind by the late tenant. The script by famed Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen certainly has a few laughs in it, but I have to believe there were better shorts out there than his enjoyable but disposable work. Laughs also seem to be the driving force behind many of this year's animated shorts, which features the long-awaited return to Aardman Animation's Wallace and Gromit in A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH, directed by Nick Park, who has already won a whopping four Oscars in this category over the years. This adventure features Wallace falling in love with a psychotic bread company heiress. GRANNY O'GRIMM'S SLEEPING BEAUTY is an amusing CGI story of a grandmother telling a warped version of the classic story to her granddaughter, injecting message of ageism. The Lady and the Reaper from Spain features a struggle between Death and a persistent doctor for the life of an elderly woman. And FRENCH ROAST is about a man in a cafe who can't pay his bill and comes up with creative ways to delay his leaving the establishment. The last three are certain all quality works with a few laughs, but they don't really carry the weight or originality that I'd expect to see in this category. Not that a Wallace and Gromit film is original either, but at least there's a fully realized plot to contend with, and certainly the inventions those two come up with are unique and blazingly funny. My favorite in this category is LOGORAMA (I believe from France), which has to be seen to be believed. Set in a world in which every building, vehicle, person, object is some type of logo, the film is a classic cops and criminals scenario, but the cops look an awful lot like the Michelin Man and the gun-wielding baddies bares a striking resemblance to foul-mouthed Ronald McDonald. By the end of the film, the world has become a Roland Emmerich-style disaster movie with logo-constructed skyline and landscapes crumbling down. The subtext is brilliant, and the film is fantastic. You must seek out LOGORAMA by any means. The creativity at work here is mind boggling. Now as soon as someone packages the Documentary Shorts nominees, I'll feel like the shorts categories are sufficiently covered. In the meantime, do your duty as a responsible and well-informed movie lover and seek out these two shorts programs.
CREATION Somewhere in this movie about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma is a great story, but you're going to have to search through miles of extraneous material to get to it in the unnecessarily bloated CREATION, from director John Amiel (SOMMERSBY; COPYCAT). Paul Bettany is quite good as the oft-sickly Darwin who is all-too aware that if he actually pulls together his thoughts and theories on evolution that he would be effectively killing God using science as a weapon. For most scientists, this isn't a problem, but Darwin was not only raised in a religious household, but his wife (Bettany's real wife Jennifer Connelly) is also among the faithful and is caught squarely in the middle of these torn allegiances as much as her husband. But when their eldest daughter becomes terminally ill, Darwin withdraws from his religious roots and turns his attentions to "On the Origin of Species." The greatest shortcoming of CREATION is that it devotes too much time to subplots, in particular an excessive number of scenes showing Darwin getting treatments for his various ailments. While the scenes are at times horrific, they don't really add anything to the main stories about the scientist's research or his family relationships. CREATION is far from a total failure. Darwin's meetings with other scientists and admirers, including those played by Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam, are really exciting and amusing as they pick apart Darwin's findings and push him to publish and shake the foundation of religion to its core. Martha West plays young Annie Darwin, and the scenes of her being tutored on evolution by her father are exceptional. The two have a wonderfully believable father-daughter chemistry that could have saved this movie were it not for one too many fever-dream sequences. Once the book is published, much of the story's inherent drama simply evaporates, and what we're left with is a couple simply agreeing to disagree. Fascinating! Maybe that's exactly what happened, but that doesn't make it any more exciting to watch. I'll give CREATION credit where it's due. It's a gorgeous movie to look upon and the performances are all great, but somewhere along the line, Amiel gets lost in his own visual style and he sinks the movie's best dramatic moments. It's a close call, but CREATION doesn't quite evolve into anything worth traveling to go see.
-- Capone therealcapone@aintitcoolmail.com Follow Me On Twitter



Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 19, 2010, 7:12 a.m. CST

    Let the evolution debate begin....

    by Wordage

    Cute the nuts. But yeah...that movie does look boring.

  • Feb. 19, 2010, 7:13 a.m. CST

    *Cue

    by Wordage

  • Feb. 19, 2010, 7:26 a.m. CST

    Evolution is my Religion Christian bumfucks

    by Pizziola

    Take that. Also, where can a person view these Oscar shorts, youtube??

  • Feb. 19, 2010, 7:45 a.m. CST

    Does Ajami...

    by JayLenoTookMyJob

    ...Cover the Israelis gradually herding the Arabs and Christians into smaller and smaller walled concentration camps under worse and worse conditions? No? Of course not.

  • Feb. 20, 2010, 6:47 p.m. CST

    thats

    by soma_with_the_paintbox

    too bad to hear that Creation is bloated and tiring. I was really looking forward to it

  • Feb. 21, 2010, 8:04 a.m. CST

    Too bad about Creation

    by readyoufool

    I was hoping they would focus on a more interesting side of the whole story. It may very well have shaken the foundations of the religious organizations at the time, but it SHOULDN'T have. I guarantee you that the places that had their faith destroyed are the same ones that kept their parishioners in the dark and asked for nothing but blind faith and money. Anyone who was actually able to read the Bible intelligently would realize that Evolution was not necessarily incompatible with the Bible or even more specifically the Creation story in Genesis. Even C.S. Lewis agrees with me. So to find out it's going to focus on the "killing God" side of things is a bit of a let down. I'd much rather hear how it rocked the foundations of science or see how he came to his conclusions.

  • Feb. 21, 2010, 8:12 a.m. CST

    cs lewis reference

    by readyoufool

    just to back up my point. Here's a tiny excerpt from a letter lewis wrote to a friend. They were discussing Evolution and Christianity at that point and this was after the point that Lewis had converted. "I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true." The page I got that from is here http://tinyurl.com/yg6qv9s . The rest of the page is pretty good. But it backs up my point that even the great Christian Apologist CS Lewis did not think Evolution was incompatible with Christianity.

  • Feb. 21, 2010, 9:19 p.m. CST

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