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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with COMPLIANCE, FOR A GOOD TIME CALL…, LITTLE WHITE LIES, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, THE AWAKENING, and OSLO AUGUST 31ST!!!

Published at: Aug. 31, 2012, 11:42 a.m. CST by Capone

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…


COMPLIANCE
When 2012 is in the history books, one film is going to stand out as being the most divisive, upsetting and unsettling of the year's offerings. And while some may argue about the exploitative nature of works like the excellent KILLER JOE, I don't think there will be more discussion/arguing surrounding any movie more than COMPLIANCE, writer-director Craig Zobel's devastating story about how easy human nature and behavior can be twisted in the name of amusement.

For those of you familiar with the Milgram experiments conducted not too long after World War II, the basic foundation for Zobel's story is laid out there. Something in many human beings' mental blueprint responds to authority in a certain way, even if the only sign of a authority is a lab coat, a uniform, or a man on the phone telling them he's a police officer.

Based on true events (variations on this story are reported to have happened about 70 times in recent years), COMPLIANCE is set in a smalltown fast food restaurant managed by Sandra (the great Ann Dowd), a middle-aged woman who has just had to deal with the loss of thousands of dollars in food because one of her employees left the freezer door partially open. So when she gets a call from a man claiming to be a "Officer Daniels," she's already on her toes about her regional manager coming down on her.

The officer tells her that a young female employee was caught on camera taking money out of a customer's purse; he says the customer is there in the station with him and that security cameras caught the crime, and officers will be there shortly. He asks her to hold Becky (Dreama Walker) in the back offices, search her belongings and pockets, and eventually he requests that Sandra strip search the young woman.

What follows is a carefully, patiently executed series of convincing threats, requests and demands of Sandra and a few other employees that escalate into more and more deplorable actions. Keep in mind, the guy on the phone can't see what is happening, so the question is left open as to what he's getting out of this other than an ever-increasing sense of power. Zobel waits until about half way through the movie to reveal visually that the cop is fake (we figure this out pretty early on).

Daniels is voiced/played by Pat Healy (THE INNKEEPERS), and he's an easy candidate for the best movie villain of 2012. The guy on the phone has the lingo and speech patterns of a police officer down; he's aware that ordinary people who don't have regular dealings with the police pick up most of what they know about these situations from television, and they respond accordingly. Healy uses charm, humor along with scare tactics to get what he needs from his victims, and he makes it all happen with just the sound of his voice.

What I think people are going to have the hardest time with isn't the unbelievability of Compliance's story (although I'm sure many will leave thinking they would never be so gullible as to fall for a trick like this one), it's the disturbing thought that maybe they would go along with these requests without question. Does that make them a bad person? I guess that's the lingering question, and it's going to haunt you for weeks after you see this film. I can't remember a film that forced some many unpleasant ideas into my head, but that I was still grateful that I saw it. Many great films pose questions about life, but few pose questions about your life the way COMPLIANCE does. It's a raw and personal film that examines one of the most primal violations of trust between two human beings.

The performances are across the board fantastic, especially Dowd as a woman probably a little bitter that she working this job at her age, surrounded by younger, more adventurous people than she is. She cares more about the crowds of people at the register and her spoiled food than she does about the young woman being abused just a few feet from where burgers and fries are being made. It's sickening, but it's also tough to blame her entirely. COMPLIANCE asks far more questions about human nature than it answers, but it asks all the right questions and forces the audience to look at themselves in a light they will not comfortable with. As both a gripping story and a jumping off point for great conversation, this is one of the most essential works of the year.


FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…
What you might think is a cutesy story about two woman who engage in the phone sex business turns out to be that plus the story of how a female friendship develops. I'm not sure either story is particularly convincing in FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…, but it's occasionally fun going through the motions. The film is the brainchild of star Lauren Anne Miller) and her co-writer Katie Anne Naylon (the lead character are not coincidentally named Lauren and Katie), the latter of whom actually did do phone sex in college to make money. The version of Katie in the film is played by the always-funny Ari Graynor, and the two meet in college, make a horrible first impression, and part as enemies.

Cut to years later in New York City. Lauren's longtime boyfriend has ended things, and she is in desperate need of an apartment. Her friend (Justin Long) hooks her up with (big surprise) Katie, and the two make a go at it as roommates. But Lauren is somewhat horrified to discover that Katie is a phone sex worker until she discovers the money that can be made doing it. What bothered me about the tone of the films is that, despite all of the very graphic and descriptive calls, everyone in the film treats the sex talk like it's the first time they've ever heard, used or thought of these words. Rather than make them commonplace, they call attention to the dirtiness of it in an attempt to make us laugh, but instead it just feels juvenile.

While the phone sex part of the story isn't really that intriguing, it's also not the whole movie. As the pair continue to work together as Katie teaches Lauren the intricacies of the job, they start to become best friends, who try and help each other out with their respective relationships: Katie with a new boyfriend (Mark Webber) and Lauren, whose ex returns in sincere apology mode.

There's an awkwardness that arises when Lauren tells Katie she loves her, and Katie can't quite say it back, which almost made me believe we were entered the realm of psuedo-gay cinema, but I don't think that's the intention. Director Jamie Travis handles these friendship scenes gracefully enough that it's clear that Lauren is more about acknowledging the new level of their friendship; she just does so in the most awkward manner imaginable, and that to me was very funny.

Miller is married to Seth Rogen, so don't be surprised by a few choice cameos in the film, mainly from guest callers. Aside from being attractive, Miller has a nice appeal as a comic actor. Staying away from the pixie type she could probably get away with, instead she approaches humor with a level of intelligence mixed with prim and proper demeanor that makes a sex scene near the beginning of the movie so difficult to watch. While Graynor's appeal is more effortless and her comedy skills simply radiate off of her organically. Even when the jokes aren't working, Miller and Graynor manage to make us smile just by being naturally likable.

I can see groups of women comfortable in their own sexual skin (I keep my sexual skin in my basement under lock and key) probably digging the hell out of FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…. The characters are charming, but I struggled to find it funny, shocking or compelling most of the time. I'm calling this one a mixed review.


LITTLE WHITE LIES
Even if the press notes didn't draw the parallels, they're pretty clear. LITTLE WHITE LIES, the latest work from the great French writer-director Guillaume Canet (TELL NO ONE), bares a striking resemblance to THE BIG CHILL and other ensemble pieces featuring a group of friends who have known each other for years getting together under strained circumstances only to discover they aren't as young and fearless as they once were. In THE BIG CHILL, the reason for the gathering was a funeral; in LITTLE WHITE LIES, the vacation the group takes is an annual one but one of their ranks, Ludo (Jean Dujardin of THE ARTIST), has been in a horrible motorcycle accident that has left him near death. Since it looks as though Antoine will recover, the group selfishly decides to go on their trip to the beachfront vacation home of Max (Fancois Cluzet of THE INTOUCHABLES).

Although he may not have been before the accident, Ludo's dilemma calls him out as the focal point of the group, instigating bad behavior (the first time we see him, he's snorting coke in a club bathroom) and generally living a reckless life of a much younger man. Among his friends are ex-girlfriend Marie (Marion Cotillard of LA VIE EN ROSE and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), best friend Eric (Gilles Lellouche, MESRINE) and Vincent (Benoît Magimel of THE PIANO TEACHER), along with many other fine French superstars. Throw in a dozen great classic pop and rock songs (all American or British), and you've got a mid-life crisis worthy of this cast and director.

With the underlying tension derived from Ludo's tainting the entire trip, the friends talk and drink and go out on boats and eventually start to vent about their lives, the false nature of some of their friendships, previous heartbreaks, and getting too old. With lesser actors, this material might have sounded flat and been less convincing, but this cast is simply too strong to resist. Cluzet is especially strong as the rich and controlling host, who seems to resent that his friends are sucking up his food and wine, even though he invited them there to do just that. He is made to explain his behavior and general superior attitude by Jean-Louis (first-time actor Joel Dupuch), a local fisherman who takes care of Max's boat and is as much a part of this group as any of the Paris-dwelling friends.

The title LITTLE WHITE LIES refers to the lies we tell ourselves and each other as we get older. We say something doesn't bother us when it does, we say we haven't been hurt by someone's careless actions when we have. And the film represents that moment when the lies stop working and the truth pours in like so much ocean water rushing in through a hole in a boat. The film runs about 2.5 hours, and I realize under normal circumstances, that may be asking a lot, but something about this story just flows so effortlessly that I hardly noticed the time passing. The movie is often quite painful and emotionally draining, but the performances are so rich and full of life that you'll feel like you're getting a crash course in the best the French acting world has to offer. See it with someone you're close to.


SLEEPWALK WITH ME
Comedian Mike Birbiglia's debut as a feature director-writer-lead actor is SLEEPWALK WITH ME, based on his one-man show, which chronicles his early years as a comic suffering from a chronic sleepwalking disorder that occasionally endangers his life and the lives of those around him. The story deals with stress that comes from his condition, as well as his limp act and a fading relationship, all of which he discovers are interconnected. Although Birbiglia has cleverly renamed his character Mike Pandamiglio, but changing the names doesn't protect the innocent or guilty.

In this version of his story, Mike was a bartender who wanted to be a stand-up comic. His parents (James Rebhron and Carol Kane) don't support his idea, but his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) does, which of course explains why Mike's interest in continuing their relationship is fading. It will become clear after a few minutes that the character of Mike may be one you might not like, but at least you'll understand him and his troubles. In his narration, he has to remind us at times that we're supposed to look upon him as the protagonist.

But a key piece of advice from a fellow stand-up comic changes everything for Mike. He goes from simply being a guy who tells jokes to a comic who tells funny stories about his life, including his girlfriend (which is why he doesn't every want her to see his show). He cheats on her on the road, meanwhile still trying to deal with this condition that stems from elaborate dreams about winning the Dustbuster Olympics and fighting off wild animals in his bedroom where there are none. The sleepwalking incidents are both funny and troubling, and sometimes we can see exactly where the dreams stem from (hello, Mom and Dad!).

SLEEPWALK WITH ME has several screenwriters credited, including "This American Life's" Ira Glass, whose show Birbiglia has appeared on many times to tell stories. And as Mike narrates his own articulate, often-traumatic story, you almost feel as if you could close your eyes and listen to the movie as an audio book or radio broadcast. SLEEPWALK WITH ME is funny, charming, and front-loaded with universal, anxiety-laden truths about pitting expectations others place on you against simply following one's life ambition.


THE AWAKENING
I thought for sure there was a shot I was going to like this little ghost hunter vs. ghost story. I love the cast, including Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, a woman living circa post-World War I who has written the definitive book on debunking the very idea that ghosts exist, and she's dedicated her life to going wherever spirits are said to reside and prove they do not. THE AWAKENING opens with an seance that is quite scary and apparently conjures the ghost of a poor woman's dead daughter, but soon Florence reveals herself and rips the lid right off the fakery. Her motto seems to be that fear is the only ingredient necessary to believe in ghosts, and since she is without fear (so she says). But then private boys school master Robert Mallory (Dominic West) arrives with tale of what he believes is the genuine article, and Ms. Cathcart decides to take on the case.

Up to this point, as well as when Cathcart arrives at the school and sets up all of her wonderful equipment that will prove the ghost isn't real, I was with THE AWAKENING. She's pretty old school (compared to today), but seeing all of the devices is fascinating stuff. Naturally, the presence in the house defeats her detection and traps, but this doesn't make her any more susceptible to believing this presence is a real ghost. She is assisted by to head of staff Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), who keeps Cathcart's book right next to the bible on her shelf. She's not a believer either, but that doesn't stop her from being creepy in her own right.

I don't think there's ever a doubt that the ghost in the school is real; it's just a matter of getting there and uncovering the secret of why this ghostly school boy is haunting the premises, and it's in this mystery that the movie goes waaaaay of the rails and into the tunnel of far-flung coincidences and bat-shit crazy story twists and turns. Hall is one of my favorite actresses working right now, and even she doesn't seem to be buying into the pretzel twists of this plot. First-time feature director Nick Murphy provides Cathcart with motivation for wanting to both believe and disbelieve in ghosts, and it all seems rather silly and misguided.

And when all is revealed, I'm not even sure it all makes sense. And even assuming it does, I stopped caring long before everything was explained in pages of exposition. The only thing worse than a start-to-finish bad movie is one that starts out so promisingly and the crashes and burns so close to the finish line. THE AWAKENING isn't going to kill anyone's career, but it would have been nice to have another great ghost story story to add to the ranks.


OSLO, AUGUST 31ST
One of the more intriguing and gut-wrenching films in recent memory is from Norway and centers on Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, who bears a striking resemblance to Chris Evans), who opens the film with a failed suicide attempt. He then heads back to the drug rehab facility where he is currently staying to retrieve his day pass and step foot outside the center for the first time in weeks.

The purpose of leaving is to go to a promising graphic design job interview at a magazine, but before he goes for the interview, he goes to visit a couple of friends and family members (and his drug dealer, unfortunately), and after listening to Anders attempt to connect to these people, it becomes clear that he's been planning this tour of his old haunts for a while. Even when these meet ups go well, there's an undercurrent of gloom to the exchanges. We're rooting for this guy to make it, to get this job, to get his girlfriend back, to reconnect with his family. He even meets a new woman on this fateful day, and there's promise in that opportunity as well.

But OSLO, AUGUST 31ST never stops feeling like it's headed to a very specific conclusion, even if you aren't sure what that end might be. It seems fated, pre-destined, and sadly inevitable. Second-time director Joachim Trier intersperses Anders lonesome day with lovely shots of Oslo. The world moves on even if Anders' life has stopped for the day. On the surface, this may seem like a simple account of a man walking through a beautiful city, but so much shifts and is altered by this day, that Anders is not able to return the same. I won't say how things wrap up, but I promise you, it's something you won't soon forget. The film is cropping up slowly across the county, and I highly urge you to see this harrowing masterpiece.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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