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Capone's Art House Round-Up with the Oscar-nominated THE GATEKEEPERS, Herzog's HAPPY PEOPLE, and FUTURE WEATHER!!!

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…

Absolutely critical viewing for insight into the tumultuous situation in Israel, the Oscar-nominated documentary THE GATEKEEPERS feels less like homework and more like a rare peak behind the scenes of some of the regions most important and devastating moments in the last 50 years, events that not only shape the two-state area but the rest of the free world. Director Dror Moreh (SHARON) was somehow able to get the five previous heads of the Isreali secret service, Shin Bet, as well as the then-current head of the intelligence and security organization to discuss quite openly what the nation's war on terror—both from external and internal forces—and how various prime ministers conducted themselves in these circumstances.

In addition to the surprisingly unanimous call for peace talks with the Palestinians, these men show an especially emotional side to themselves when discussing their worst failures on the job, including when leaders they are sworn to protect are assassinated. Hearing these incredibly smart men reveal their complex thoughts reminds us that they are only human, and as prone to mistakes as the rest of us.

Director Moreh, who conducted all of the interviews, seems more than willing to paint a less than flattering face on a portion of the Jewish population of his homeland and assign equal blame for the conflict to both sides. He lets none of his subjects off the hook for shortcomings, bad decisions and outright acts of brutality, most memorably the Bus 300 affair, which resulted in two suspected terrorists being executed on the spot by order of the Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom, who talks for the first time about the incident. It's a harrowing, deeply confessional moment that's tough to shake.

The great news about this year's Best Documentary Oscar nominees is that they're all superb films, but a couple of them—HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, THE INVISIBLE WAR, and THE GATEKEEPERS—are also significant pieces of filmmaking whose importance and legacy will last well beyond awards season. But THE GATEKEEPERS is almost as much an historical event as the events portrayed (and sometimes recreated using archival photo and films) in it.

For about the last 15 years, director Werner Herzog has given us an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documentaries. Beginning with LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY and continuing with MY BEST FIEND, THE WHITE DIAMOND, GRIZZLY MAN, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, INTO THE ABYSS, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, up to his latest work HAPPY PEOPLE, Herzog has covered a variety of subject, yet somehow all of his docs seem to have a common theme of people living under extreme conditions. As with Happy People and Encounters at the End of the World, sometimes the extremes have to do with climate.

Along with his co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, Herzog introduces us to a small village of Bakhtia in Siberia, a place filled with woodsmen, fur trappers and the support system to keep such a lifestyle possible. This is a place that spends a great deal of the year frozen over with snow on top of that, and yet every day of the year is spent preparing for the next hunting season (mostly for sables for fur coats). Herzog and Vasyukov (who I'm guessing speaks Russian) spend an entire year with these self-sufficient folks who must build everything they use and stock up for the harsh winters when no supplies are available. They stockpile wood, smoked fish and other food and supplies that they'll need, while the hunters spend the off season building new traps, canoes, and series of huts in the woods where they store supplies for their hunting rounds.

The only modern conveniences they allow themselves are chainsaws and snowmobiles. But so much of what they do is done by hand. If you think your work is tough, try what these people do for about 10 minutes. Along the journey of a year, we learn about what these hunters do from going stir crazy from isolation (all of them have at least one companion dog) and we learn about a life with almost no modern conveniences or government. There's something deeply inspiring and a bit terrifying about watching these villagers learn the patterns of nature, from the currents, flood patterns, migration of various animals, when ice begins to form on the waterways. They also work with tools whose design dates back hundreds of years.

Like all of his other docs, HAPPY PEOPLE is narrated by Herzog, whose droll German accent reminds us of a wise old philosopher asking the deeper questions associated with the images he's providing us. (Herzog's musing about a suicidal penguin in Encounters was the perfect counterpoint to the then-popular MARCH OF THE PENGUINS.) In this film, he is clearly in awe of these craftsmen who can build a small, well-insulated structure in a couple of hours just using a single axe and the trees and growth in the surrounding few yards.

Herzog never misses the opportunity to notice the absurd either, such as a politician visiting the community as a campaign stop, and even putting on a song-and-dance show for the locals, who couldn't care less. Less weighty than some of his recent work, HAPPY PEOPLE nevertheless profiles a culture and its traditions that are slowly dying. No one really says this, but the signs are all there. But rather than mourn openly, Herzog and his subjects honor the awe-inspiring life on display. As much as I love Herzog's feature film work, I genuinely look forward to see what his next subject will be for each new documentary (apparently it will be about hate crimes in America), and this is another fine one from him.

There's a strange phenomenon that happens to some teenagers as they get older. They come to the terrifying realization that there's a world surrounding them full of problems that are so much bigger than them that they start to feel overwhelmed and desperate to do something to help some small portion of the ills that plague us. So while many of their friends concern themselves with trivial, selfish pursuits, these kids often grow depressed at the scope of the feelings they have about a world in peril.

I have rarely seen this condition so accurately portrayed than it is in first-time feature writer-director Jenny Deller's FUTURE WEATHER, about 13-year-old girl Lauduree (or Ree, played with a delicate, fragile sensibility by newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine), who becomes obsessed with global warming. The film is about controlling one's environment, and while Ree seems to be rapidly losing control of her personal surroundings—her ridiculous mother (Marin Ireland) abandons her in their trailer in Southern Illinois to pursue her dream of being a Hollywood make-up artist—she is intent on running science experiments about how to improve air quality.

With $50 to her name, Ree tries to live alone in secret, but it doesn't take long for her alcoholic grandmother Greta (the great Amy Madigan) to figure out what's going on, and she brings the girl into her home nearby. Greta has an abundance of her own issues to deal with, including a long-distance boyfriend (William Sadler) scared of commitment but who has no problem stopping by every few weeks or months for some precious fooling-around time. Greta is considering uprooting her life to move to Florida to be closer to the boyfriend, but it seems more like desperation than a sound life plan.

Ree's only role model is Ms. Markovi (Lili Taylor), a supportive teacher that Ree sees as a mother figure. She even has a misguided idea that the woman might let her move in with her and her husband, since she has no kids. Haney-Jardine is a remarkable find, on par with seeing Jennifer Lawrence in WINTER'S BONE and immediately knowing that, if she stays away from the typical film roles designated for young actors, she'll have a bright future in acting.

Director Deller isn't trying to make a movie about a teenager making global warming her big cause. There aren't big lectures about the environment, just a few choice statements by Ree that occasionally make her sound more like a raving conspiracy theorist. Her interest in global warming is meant to be a positive influence in her life, but when it turns into an obsession which, along with her abandonment issues, causes her to talk in her sleep, I'm pretty sure we're supposed to see that in a negative light.

Ree is a girl who feels things too much, and while there are far too few people like that in the world, at her age, it can be a unsettling existence. FUTURE WEATHER is a strong, confident debut effort from both Deller and her young lead. I believe the greatest compliment you can pay a filmmaker or actor is by wanting to see what they do next, and that's exactly my sentiment after watching this solid work.

-- Steve Prokopy
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