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Capone's Art House Round-Up with Michael Apted's 56 UP and the Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts program!!!

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…

56 UP
Familiar to anyone who has seen any entry in director Michael Apted's "UP" documentary series knows the Jesuit theory: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." The original concept was to interview 14 children from various backgrounds and upbringing (although all but one are white, and there are only four females) and quiz them on their hopes and dreams for their future. Some had clear visions that they managed to more or less stick with; others are still drifting and barely making ends meet.

But every seven years, Apted (a researcher on the original "Seven Up" television documentary) has gone back to these people examined where they are in the world at that moment. Some of the subjects dropped out (most of them have since come back, with all but one of the original 14 represented in this latest chapter), most complain in some way about the impact being in this series has had on their lives, but as one subject puts it, they now all seem to have some warped sense of loyalty to Apted and his project.

One subject who has been absent since, I believe, 28 UP is Peter Davies, who makes it clear that he's only returning to promote his band. Apparently he was hounded by the conservative British press for criticizing the Thatcher administration, and dropped out. But he's hardly the first to come back to promote a cause or themselves over the years, and he certainly does a great job of catching us up on the second half of his life so far.

Another nice portion of 56 UP is the combining of scientist/professor Nicholas Hitchon (who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) and Suzanne Dewey, who comes from both a family with money but also a home broken up by divorce around the time of the second film. The two had never appeared on camera together as adults, but apparently they became good friends over the years, and thought they'd try something different. Their comparing and contrasting on the series is remarkably entertaining.

As we're learned from the other films, most of the subjects are dealing with the exact issues the rest of us do from time to time—money, illness, marriage, divorce, religion, and the very real question: "What the hell have I done with my life?" It's actually something of a miracle that none of the subjects have passed away over the years. Audiences seem to worry the most about Neil, a child of some means whose struggle with mental illness and social awkwardness drove him into homelessness for a time. Most remarkably, he's now a local politician with a flair for the work and a dream of becoming a Member of Parliament one day.

One of my favorites has always been Tony, an East End kid who worked briefly as a jockey and went on to run bets at the horse track from bettors to bookies and eventually became a London taxi driver. An admitted adulterer in a previous film, he now cries when he discusses how good his wife has been to him over their long marriage.

One thing that has changed with 56 UP is that Apted feels much more present. Although we never see him on camera, he narrates the film (as he has with most of the films), but we also hear his voice a great deal during the interviews, challenging his subjects about choices and opinions. He calls one person a racist, and he seems somewhat right to do so. I can only imagine what his relationship is like with these folks or what those initial calls are like when it's time to re-assemble the troops. Some seem to be in a perfect state of agony, while others seem more than happy to see Michael.

Needless to say, I hope there are still films left to be made in the series (it's my understanding the Apted has a plan in place in case he can't continue shooting.) There's not really any need to go back and watch all of the other parts before diving into 56 UP; Apted and his team do a great job distilling the previous works into nice recaps and reminding us the high and low points of their existence so far. It's been said before by better people, but watching these films every few years is like catching up with old friends—some are living boring lives, while others are quite content with being extraordinary. I rarely refer to a film as a "must see," but I'll make an exception in this case.

I love that in the last few years, there has been a concerted effort to make all of the Oscar-nominated shorts (animated, live action and documentary) available for public viewing in theaters prior to the Academy Awards on February 24. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that short films are a major part of the process for filmmakers getting noticed in the hopes that they one day might make features films. South African director Neil Blomkamp made several science-fiction-themed shorts before getting tapped by Peter Jackson to make DISTRICT 9; more recently, Andrés Muschietti made a creepy little film called MAMA a couple years back, Guillermo del Toro saw it, and just a couple weeks ago, the feature version of MAMA was the number one movie at the box office.

This year's Oscar-nominated five animated shorts are a great bunch, and the programmers of this year's collection added a few additional, highly accomplished shorts to push the running time to closer to 90 minutes. Two of the shorts may be familiar to some of you already. Originally running before the last Ice Age feature was MAGGIE SIMPSON IN "THE LONGEST DAYCARE," an inspired work that has the youngest Simpson being dropped off at the Ayn Rand School for Tots where she attempts to save the life of a butterfly from a cruel baby with a hammer. The score by Hans Zimmer elevates this dialogue-free offering (come to think of it, I believe all of the nominated shorts are talk-free).

One of my favorites this year is the black-and-white Disney film PAPERMAN (which recently became available online and originally played before WRECK-IT RALPH). It's an unconventional love story that will make environmentalists and other fans of recycling insane, but it's a cute story about a man trying to get a woman's attention by trying to soar dozens of paper airplanes from his office window to her office across the street. A bit of Disney magic makes sure the film has a happy ending, but it's really a fun little work.

One of the most inventive shorts is HEAD OVER HEALS, which, having just seen the trailer for UPSIDE DOWN, reminds me a great deal of that film. It's a stop-motion tale of a couple that share a home, but one of them lives on the floor, while the other lives on the ceiling. They both have their own furniture and living arrangements, while also sharing a few appliances, but they go about their day moving around each other. The metaphor for a couple that only really exists together rather than sharing a life is clear, but his is a clever representation, and the romantic conclusion makes this one a winner.

I was particularly moved by director Minkyu Lee's ADAM AND DOG, which is literally about the first man and the first dog ever on earth and their early bond living in the Garden of Eden as best friends until that pesky Eve showed up. It's actually a beautifully rendered work. The final animated nominee is FRESH GUACAMOLE, a funny, smart stop-motion offering that simply shows us how to make the tasty dip in an unconventional way with equally unusual ingredients.

Rounding out the program are DRIPPED, the story of an art thief that is actually a tribute to cubism and the works of Jackson Pollack; ABIOGENESIS, which gives us an alternative take how life on a planet might have begun; and the sweet fairy tale THE GRUFFALO'S CHILD, featuring voice by Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltraine, Rob Brydon, John Hurt, Shirley Henderson and Tom Wilkinson, featuring a mother squirrel telling her children about the legend of this mysterious creature and its search for the Big Bad Mouse. The creature design reminded me a lot of the drawings in "Where the Wild Things Are," and that's a good thing.

It's a terrific collection, and while actually watching the nominees doesn't necessarily give you an advantage in your Oscar pool, it will open your eyes to some great up-and-coming talent.

-- Steve Prokopy
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