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Capone Art-House Round-Up with the Oscar-nominated A SEPARATION, Tilda Swinton in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS, and TOMBOY!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

I'm not big on vocalizing my predictions for awards, especially the Oscars, but I don't see any way this gripping and powerful film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi won't win the Best Foreign Language prize this year. A SEPARATION is a film about so many things, but in the end I think it's about how poorly human beings are at communicating their true feelings before things get out of hand. In the case of this movie, things like pride, religion, government red tap, class structure, gender, and so many other intangibles stand in the way of a communication among the film's small number of characters, and what results is a terrible happening that may be an accident or a crime.

The film opens with a married couple breaking up because the wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran while the husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) feels compelled to stay out of loyalty to his Alzheimer-stricken father, who can no longer take care of himself. Their teen daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director's highly capable daughter) is caught in the middle, but seems to side with staying with dad in hopes that her decision will force the mother to stay. With no one home during the day to take care of the elderly father, Nader is forced to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after him. But Razieh is a deeply religious woman who doesn't believe being alone in the house with a strange man is proper, especially when caring for the old man requires her to help clean him up after he wets the bed. Her phone call to a religious leader to make sure seeing the old man naked during cleanup is okay is actually kind of amusing.

But one day, Nader returns home to find his father on the floor tied to his bed, badly bruised from a fall and Razieh nowhere to be found, the two get into a yelling match that leads to her getting pushed out of the door, and this is where the disconnect begins. Razieh falls down the stairs of the apartment building and ends up having a miscarriage. Was she pushed or did she faint? There is evidence to support either theory (director Farhadi wisely doesn't show the fall). Also, did Nader know Razieh was pregnant? The answer to that question could be the difference between this being classified as an accident versus murder by the standards of Iranian law. This film offers no easy answers to any of the questions it raises.

The incident opens the film up and turns it into an examination of the way the law treats the more religious members of contemporary Iranian society versus those citizens that choose to live more modern lives, and it doesn't take long for us to realize the the "separation" being looked at here is not between the divorcing couple, but within Iranian society. There are no villains in this story and nearly everyone at some point lies to protect themselves or someone else.

A SEPARATION may sound dry and unengaging, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's a masterful bit of storytelling with an array of interesting and complex characters. There isn't a false or unearned emotion in the film, and the weight of some of the more difficult moments is hard on the soul but so worth experiencing. This was the last films I watched in 2011, and there's a reason it ended up in my Best of the Year list; it wipes the slate clean and sets the bar higher for dramas made around the world, especially in America. If you miss this film (assuming you get a chance to see it), I think you officially don't care about acting, writing or directing. By all means, go watch RED TAILS again.

I'm going to keep this brief, because honestly, I haven't thought about this movie much since I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival last October. I don't really mind that director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay (RATCATCHER, MORVERN CALLAR) takes what could have been a thoughtful examination of what causes a teenager to snap and shoot up his school into an artsy horror movie. I love Ramsay's work and style, and I bet under different circumstances, she could make that kind of story work. But WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN almost completely failed for me as both a drama or a horror story about an evil seed who is beyond redemption from the second he's born.

The trouble for me started with young actor Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin, the son of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly). The kid shows signs of bad behavior from the get-go, and there's nothing dimensional about the way the character is written or played. The film's only real bright spot is Swinton, who is note perfect as the anxiety-ridden mother who wants answers from her boy both before and after his crimes. She wonders if her parenting was at fault, but we all know it wasn't because the kid was born that way, so where's the drama exactly? The problem with WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is that Ramsay directs the film like it's about a kid into which bad thoughts came late in life, but we know that isn't the case.

The film's single greatest scene occurs when Swinton is confronted by the mother of one of the kids Kevin killed. Actually, it's not a confrontation; the woman hauls off and slaps Eva, and Eva has no reaction other than to take it and look the woman straight in the eyes to receive her punishment. It's an intense scene that is played beautifully by Swinton. The trouble is, that kind of "you should be ashamed" scene doens't make sense in an abstract horror movie; it just doesn't fit. So little about this movie fits. Ramsay overloads the screen with flashes of red; she tells the story in a non-linear fashion that attempts to hide Kevin's deed for as long as possible, but we all know what happened almost from the beginning.

This isn't a case of me wishing this were a different movie. I just wish Ramsay had made her style and her story match a little better so that the atmosphere made sense. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN was one of the bigger disappointments I experienced last year. If you're like me and need to see everything Swinton does, at least you won't be let down by her work. That's the best thing I can say about this film.

Much like Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY, this week's ALBERT NOBBS is an example of a great performance stuck in a not-so-great film. But in all fairness to the Glenn Close vehicle, ALBERT NOBBS is a much better movie that the Margaret Thatcher biopic. Set in 19th century Ireland in a crumbling but still upper-crust hotel, the film centers on one Mr. Nobbs, who is in fact a woman disguised as a man in order to work as the head servant at the establishment. Nobbs is the epitome of good taste, reserved manners, and hidden dreams of one day opening his own small shop with the money he has stashed away under the floorboards of his small quarters above the hotel.

Nobbs unexpectedly falls in love with a young maid (Mia Wasikowska of JANE EYRE) working at the hotel, and although Nobbs doesn't notice it, she's bit common as she dates the hotel handyman (Aaron Johnson of KICK-ASS), who entices the maid to squeeze some money out of Nobbs for the pleasure of her company. But much of the film is less dramatic than those scenes. Large sections of ALBERT NOBBS are devoted to showing his daily trials and tribulations. His routine is disturbed when the woman running the hotel asks Nobbs to share his room for a night with a visiting man hired to paint several room in the hotel. Although it may be clear what secret this man has, I'm not going to spoil it here, but it elevates the film in many ways when we discover it.

I also like the sequences where we simply see Nobbs do his meticulous work--cleaning, straightening, being the perfect host to the dignitaries that stayed at the hotel. There's a nice moment between Nobbs and an aristocrat played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, where it's clear the the rich playboy is impressed with Nobbs' ability to anticipate his every need at a dinner. Director Rodrigo Garcia (MOTHER AND CHILD, THINGS YOU CAN TELL JUST BY LOOKING AT HER, NINE LIVES, and the HBO series "In Treatment") is an expert at looking for such small moments in action and conversation and building characters around them.

Based on a short story by John Banville, the screenplay was co-wrtiten by Close who has been trying to get this story filmed for more than 10 years, and good for her for finally getting this difficult tale of self-denial made. I only wish the film didn't feel like it was pandering to the audience with the trite love story. There were very few moments in ALBERT NOBBS that I couldn't predict, and after a while the film becomes tiresome despite Close's extraordinary work. The movie is delicate and lovely as a visual exercise, but as an emotional one, it left me somewhat empty. 'Tis a pity she's a bore.

If I had seen this elegantly awkward and beautifully realized work last year, it would have easily cracked my top 30 at least. The second film from French writer-director Celine Sciamma (WATER LILIES), TOMBOY is the small and painful coming-of-age/identity story of 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran), the daughter of a couple (Mathieu Demy and Sophie Cattani) who have recently moved to a new community in the summer before Laure and her younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana) begin school. Laure is a shy girl with short-cropped hair, always dressed in tank tops and basketball shorts, so it's no surprise in her first encounter with some of the local children on summer break that she is mistaken for a boy. Without much thought, she renames herself Mikael, and the countdown begins until someone in her life shatters the secret and young Laure's world.

Much of TOMBOY is actually light-hearted and fun as the boys in the group adopt Mikael as one of their own, although Laure must find ways to pass as a boy when she plays shirts vs. skins soccer (she hasn't really developed yet, so this isn't much of an issue), or puts on a Speedo to go swimming. Laure is a clever girl who finds ways of passing easily. In fact, no one actually discovers her secret until a fight with another boy (a fight Laure wins, by the way) pushes a parent to complain to Laure's mother. Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the movie is the beyond-sweet relationship that forms between Mikael and the more mature girl in the group, Lisa (Jeanne Disson); the film's greatest tension arises from wondering what Lisa's reaction will be to the inevitable discovery.

TOMBOY lives and breathes thanks to Heran's hypnotizing performance. She isn't playing this role as a budding young lesbian, although if that's where her story takes us, I think it would make for an excellent continuation of her tale. Instead, she plays this like a person playing the role of a lifetime. You can't take your eyes off her, as her masculine and feminine traits seem to subtly shift before our eyes. Or maybe they never change, and she simply embodies both so effortlessly that the lines are completely blurred. But I was fascinated and drawn in by the way Laure/Mikael interacted with her friends, her parents, and especially the adoring relationship she shares with her sister, who is the only other person to know Laure's secret. TOMBOY is a remarkable film that finds the power in quiet moments and lets its story unfold with a natural ease that is both disarming and sheer perfection. There's not a false note in the film, and that's incredibly rare these days.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 27, 2012, 12:20 p.m. CST

    A SEPARATION is great

    by Stifler's Mom

    and deserves a bigger release.

  • Jan. 27, 2012, 12:32 p.m. CST


    by Mr.Macphisto

  • Jan. 27, 2012, 12:40 p.m. CST

    I mean Knowles

    by Mr.Macphisto

    Not my Penis.

  • Jan. 27, 2012, 1:48 p.m. CST

    2 things bothered me about A Separation (spoilers)

    by Mel

    1. the actual separation is never explained. Why the hell is she leaving? I mean, she wants the dude to come with her...but why can't she stay? Its never explained! 2. when the housekeeper gets hit by a car. It just seemed like that was thrown in so you think maybe the kid died another way. I dont like when movies do that. It wasn't necessary. What the dude did to her shouldnt have caused a miscarriage anyway. Why do we need to know about another possibility? Are we that stupid?

  • Where's the football team to take down a skinny nerd shooting arrows? And who the hell was giving him all that target practice? It's not like he seemed to be in a hurry. Did the students just run back and forth like a shooting gallery for him?

  • Jan. 27, 2012, 2:04 p.m. CST


    by MainMan2001

    You are way off on we need to talk about Kevin. One of the best movies of the year. It's pure cinema. It's amazing. Go see it now everyone.

  • The wife wanted to leave Iran to give her daughter more options and, since the emigration papers had a time limit, it became an urgent issue and required *a separation* to potentially give her custody of the daughter. --- The car injury wasn't thrown in — you're sort of wondering what's about to happen when the housekeeper sees the man with Alzheimer's disease heading into traffic. That's just left unresolved until her confession to her husband. The housekeeper was obviously not well before the door push or car incident, so it may not have been either of those things which caused the miscarriage. In the end, its cause is left open, as would befit a lower class pregnant woman trying to make ends meet by cleaning homes.

  • Jan. 28, 2012, 5:55 a.m. CST

    Exactly right re: Kevin

    by Paul Macadom

    If this film was any more dramatically inert it would self implode. The acclaim staggers me - some people are just so undiscerning.

  • We all wonder about when influence begins on children and how small an action can affect them negatively, how much love we should show them, where we should set boundaries. And breaking your child's arm is certainly something that will affect him. It's fine if you don't care for the film, but the movie is definitely not saying it was as simple as he was just a bad seed.

  • Jan. 29, 2012, 3:58 a.m. CST


    by Paul Macadom

    Ridiculous. Huge amounts of babies are unwanted, they don't go bow and arrowing people. Totally simplistic interpretation. She had doubts when he was a cluster of cells, which leads directly to him stuffing hamsters down garbage disposals, bleaching his sisters eyes, and shooting up a school? Right. The kid was evil before she broke his arm. Did you miss the part where he was snapping crayons? Or vandalising the decor? That's the problem with this stinker. Tilda Swinton tries to give a nuanced performance - her character fluctuates between moments of genuinely trying to love this kid, to moments of passive aggressive hate. This would be compelling if the kid she was acting against similarly showed a range of emotions or any psychological depth at all. It felt like the two characters were in different films: Tilda was exploring whether nature or nurture has the most impact; Kevin was the antichrist. If you saw more to it than that, then you brought it with you. The film didn't dramatise anything remotely plausible or thought provoking, nor did it engage with any issues in a meaningful way.