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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Lorene Scafaria's SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, Todd Solondz's DARK HORSE, and Ethan Hawke in THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH!!!

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 sure if this new romantic-dramedy had the desired effect on me that writer-director Lorene Scafaria (screenwriter of NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST) intended, but that didn't stop me from being endlessly charmed by its gentle, moving moments as well as its weirdly off-kilter humor provided by the likes of Rob Corddrey, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller and the downright reprehensible Patton Oswalt. But at its core, SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD asks very real questions about what we would do and who we would do it with if we found out the earth had only a few weeks of existence left.

The film opens with Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife sitting in their car, heading home, and hearing the news of a 70-mile-wide asteroid hurtling toward earth. As if broken out of a trance, the wife simple unbuckles her seatbelt and exits the car, never to be seen again. Dodge is left devastated, still going through his daily routines at home and his office job. Coming home to his apartment one day, he runs into Penny (Keira Knightley, performing about as free and loose and lovely as I've ever seen her), whose significant other has also just abandoned her and left her with only her endless supply of vinyl LPs to keep her company.

As one might expect, the pair decide that they both have a few things they'd like to find closure with before they die, he with his first love in high school, and she with her family overseas in England. But what happens to them on their odyssey is often unexpected and extremely emotional as the reality of their time-limited situation presses down on them. Scafaria does a really beautiful job never letting things get too heavy or too silly. But perhaps most importantly, she presents this series of moments in the final weeks of Dodge and Penny's lives is such a way that it forces us to contemplate what our chosen path would be under similar circumstances. And she does so in a way that is actually quite empowering, even in the face of certain death.

I don't think there's ever really a question whether Dodge and Penny get into some desperate romantic entanglement. The most interesting and unpredictable aspects of SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is what they do with the power that new love fortifies them with. For those of you who tend to avoid films that bum you out, don't worry so much about that. This isn't a movie that leaves you in the dumps; it's a quietly uplifting experience that allows you to care about its characters and their journey.

Writer-director Todd Solondz (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, HAPPINESS) has always been a acquired taste, but his latest work, DARK HORSE, is actually a little more palatable than many of his films, which all exist in a morally hazy world where we are often asked to sympathize with or even love some truly depraved characters. The resident unlovable in DARK HORSE is Abe (Jordan Gelber), a mid-30s schlub of man living with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, worth the price of admission alone), working for his father, collecting action figures and other toys, and generally avoiding any responsibilities around the home or office. He's also a highly abrasive asshole that would rather yell and complain than actually discuss.

As the film opens, Abe is at a wedding seated next to Miranda (Selma Blair, playing a version of her character in STORYTELLING), who seems half in a coma (we find out later she's power-dosing her meds) but somehow musters up just enough enthusiasm to give Abe hope that he has a shot at dating her. When they do finally go out, they have an so-so time, with him doing most of the talking, and he is noticeably more agreeable than at any other time in the film, so much so that at the end of the date he asks Miranda to marry him.

DARK HORSE presents us with a character who seems somewhat aware of his own shortcomings, and lack of ambition and social skills, but who still manages to muster an unearned pomposity that seems to be the fuel that feeds him. For reason even he is unsure of, the cougar-ish office secretary (Donna Murphy) throws herself at him and actually seems to be stalking him at times, and he so confused that someone actually finds him worth this level of attention that he's never sure quite how to respond.

Even if Abe never really changed that much during the course of the story, he'd still be interesting with his completely resentful way of talking to everyone around her (except Miranda). It's impossible to anticipate just where the film will take Abe as he's asked to deal with revelations concerning Miranda's health, extreme layers of guilt he didn't know he possessed, and the ever-present sibling rivalry between him and brother Richard (Justin Bartha), a successful doctor and clearly the parents' child of preference.

At times we aren't sure if what we're seeing is real or a product of Abe's warped mind; sometimes, I'm convinced it's a combination of the two. And this is Solondz's stomping ground, the place he positively owns as a filmmaker. Sometimes it is more important to understand a lead character than to like him or her, and Solondz excels at this type of storytelling. This may feel like a minor work from Solondz, but it's still a solid effort from a director who isn't satisfied until his audience is some level of uneasy.

There are few actors who play writers more convincingly than Ethan Hawke, but even he has his limits. In particular, THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH exists in a surreal plain of the writer's mind. In it, Hawke plays Tom Ricks, an American author who had one moderately successful book published several years earlier and then went off the deep end in some fashion when his wife left and took their young daughter with her to Paris to escape him. We meet Hawke as he's arriving in Paris to try and see his child, but his wife calls the police the minute he shows up, and he goes on the run, hopping a bus to the end of the line and promptly falling asleep. When he awakes, his suitcase and all his money are gone.

He wanders into a bar looking for a room on credit, and the friendly owner lets him stay and even offers him a job, which involves sitting in an isolated, soundproof room for several hours, two nights a week, with a closed-circuit monitor and a code to buzz people in the front door who say the correct code word. When he's not playing security guard (and working on his new book, in theory), he manages to get entangled with two women: one the Polish barmaid (Joanna Kulig, recently seen in ELLES) and an older, sophisticated widow (Kristen Scott Thomas) with literary connections that intrigue him.

As his story progresses, things get less and less certain about what is real and what isn't. Or is someone trying to make him doubt his reality? The film unravels like a novel, and for a while I thought we might find out at the end that Tom's story was actually the one he was writing (much like the plot twist in SWIMMING POOL). Polish director Pawel Pawlikoski (MY SUMMER OF LOVE) has great skill at creating works with thick inviting atmospheres, and THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH is no exception. Still, the film is a bit uneven and unnecessarily complicated, so much so that it almost feels like the filmmaker lost track of where he was going to take Tom and simply threw up his hands in frustration.

In the film's final act, there's a murder that Tom appears to have been framed for, but nothing is that simple here, and the unsatisfying ending may be too disappointing for me to recommend what is good about the work. The performances are compelling and handle the weight of the cerebral material, but they can only support so much. There are so many better movies out there that unless you are a hot-blooded fan of Hawke or Thomas, you can probably skip this one.

-- Steve Prokopy
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