Capone's Art-House Round-Up with the SXSW 2013 hit MUD, ARTHUR NEWMAN, RENOIR, and VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN!!!
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…
Opening to not nearly enough fanfare in many cities is writer-director Jeff Nichols' follow up to TAKE SHELTER about a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his impressive streak of great performances for the last couple of years), who is befriended by two boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, two of the most authentic child performers I've seen in quite a while) on a small island in the Mississippi River. The boys are drawn to the island when they find a small boat in a tree, the victim of one hurricane or another, but they negotiate with this stranger after they hear his story about killing a man in Texas and searching for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman who loves him and just happens to be waiting for him in town at a motel.
Also waiting for him in town are bounty hunters (led by Joe Don Baker), but Mud is able to get a small amount of assistance from friends in town, including a ridiculous buddy played by Michael Shannon (star of Nichols' last two films, including the wonderful Shotgun Stories) and Sam Shepard as Blankenship—not exactly a father, but certainly the closest thing Mud has. Witherspoon seems to impress me the most when she dials it back a bit, and I'm not sure she's ever been more so than in Mud.
Much of the joy from watching MUD comes from never being able to take your eyes of McConaughey—not because he's good looking, but because it's like watching a coiled snake that you aren't sure is poisonous or not. He rarely lets us know what he's about to do, whether it be something kind or something terrifying. Much like the film, Mud the man is unpredictable and we are drawn into this fascinating story by some terrific performances, including Sheridan, who also appeared in Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE. The film essentially belongs to Sheridan, who has a subplot about trying to court a slightly older girl at his school and getting shot down. Naturally, Mud has a few things to say on the subject.
Nichols has pieced together a gorgeously shot third feature, with one of the most intriguing actors working today at its center, and I'm genuinely concerned that few people will take a chance on it. It doesn't have the end-of-days overtones of TAKE SHELTER, but that doesn't make certain sequences any less scary or the movie any less impressive. This is a classic Southern tale of friendship, justice, romance and vengeance, with a dab of the bizarre and dangerous. Let MUD wash over you and take control of your brain for a couple of precious hours.
When a film is both a moving curiosity and a frustrating character study, by the time it's over, usually the frustrating wins out. Such is the case of ARTHUR NEWMAN, the story of Wallace Avery (Colin Firth), a boring man with a boring job, a son and ex-wife that aren't fond of him (mostly for being boring), and a girlfriend Mina (Anne Heche) who barely tolerates him. When we meet Wallace, he appears to be getting his affairs in order to stage a suicide, but it soon becomes clear that he's staging clues that would lead investigators to suspect one (by walking into the ocean). He is, in fact, running away from his life and adopting that of Arthur Newman, a fictional former golf pro heading down to Louisiana to teach rich guys how to play better at an exclusive country club.
Early on his journey, he runs into the very drunk Mike (short for Michaela and played by the always-interesting Emily Blunt) as she is being dragged off by cops after attempting to steal a man's car. But Arthur recognizes in her a lost soul, as well as someone who is trying to escape their real identity. Naturally, these two unstable creatures take a road trip together and grow to really care about one another in the process.
We don't get the sense that Mike is really attracted to Arthur. But at one point, they break into the home of a recently married elderly couple, and the role playing begins, suddenly turning Mike into a new bride in heat and Arthur into her shy husband. Written by Becky Johnson and directed by Dante Ariola, ARTHUR NEWMAN also explores what Wallace has left in his wake as his bitter son and Mina bond over their mixed bag of memories about the man.
Soon, Mike and Arthur start breaking into people's empty homes at every stop of their route to his golf trainer job, and at each location they pretend to be the people that live there, trying on their clothes, assuming their accents and eating their food. And of course having the kind of sex they believe the owners would have, all in an attempt to put as much distance between these new versions of themselves and their lives left behind. Not surprisingly, things don't go particularly well for the pair as their present petty crimes come into contact with their past lives. Mike has a history of mental illness in her family, and Arthur has people who still care about him and hope he's alive.
ARTHUR NEWMAN does fall apart somewhat in its final act as its message become a little too obvious and the resolution goes a little hazy. Firth and Blunt are a good off-kilter pairing, but by the end of the film, I just wanted them to get on with their lives in satisfying ways, either together or apart. The film isn't terrible, but by the end it feels like it loitering on the screen, despite the solid acting. I can't quite recommend it, but for fans of either actor, it might be worth a look if you're a completist like me.
The most surprising thing about writer-director Gilles Bourdos' examination of the final era (circa 1915 on the French Riviera) in the life of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played with appropriate decrepitude by Michel Bouquet) is that Renoir isn't just about the painter. It's also about his sons, in particular the middle child Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who went on to become a filmmaker of some note with his groundbreaking works RULES OF THE GAME and GRAND ILLUSION. We see Jean as he's visiting his 74-year-old father, recovering after being injured during World War I, and while their relationship is often contentious, Jean cannot help but be inspired and motivated to try a form of art once the war is over that is different from his father's accomplishments.
RENOIR begins as a lovely young woman named Andree (Christa Theret) arrives at the Renoir home to become the painter's latest (and last) model. While she doesn't take over the estate from its occupants (including Renoir's youngest son and various housekeeping and cooking staff), she does inject some much needed energy into the environment. Apparently she had been selected as a model by the recently departed Mrs. Renoir, so her arrival is something of a surprise and it sparks overwhelming memories in everyone. But she turns out to be the perfect addition to the household as both a model and a force of good. When Jean arrives, it doesn't take long for her to first see her nude and then fall in love with her somewhat brash mannerisms.
RENOIR portrays the painter as the classic father who does nothing but criticize those around him—especially his children—but he thinks he's helping them learn and grow, which apparently means more to him than them liking him. Andree doesn't respond as well to his outbursts and reacts in kind, which is exactly what he needs to shut him down. As the film goes on, Renoir becomes more sickly, and the film transitions into more of a look at Jean's wartime experience, which led to his some of his finest works as a director.
Much like Renoir's paintings, the film has a lush, warm hue to it, and I won't lie, Theret looks great in various stages of undress (although I loved it when Andree complained that Renoir always painted her too fat). Last Thanksgiving, I spent a day in Philadelphia just to go to the Barnes Foundation (the subject of the great doc THE ART OF THE STEAL), which features the largest collection of Renoir's paintings in the world (nearly 200), so my exposure to his wonderful works was fresh in my mind when I saw RENOIR, the film. The film spends a fair amount of time showing us and explaining his style and brushstroke technique, and I found it fascinating stuff. The film may come across as more of a prestige piece to some, but I found it a bittersweet look into an artist's final days, and another artist's early days.
VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN
Chile's submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was this angst-ridden account of the life of Violeta Parra, a singer, guitarist and artist who seemed to make a living being miserable. And I don't say that in the a bad way. Her music (performed beautifully by actress Francisca Gavilan) cut to the heart of every heartbreak or political injustice she sung about. Her devotion to the oppressed and poor knew no bounds, and although she had the potential and means to live comfortably during her career (she died in 1967), she often barely scraped by herself.
Directed by Andres Wood, VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN is based on Parra's son and a television interview she gave (which is re-created here as something of a narration), and both give us a wonderful look into this complicated woman, who lived by emotions and threw away much for love. She was the first Chilean to have artwork hang in the Louvre, and she was an impassioned defender of indigenous peoples around the world. Gavilan utterly loses herself in this performance, so much so that I'm not sure I can ever see her in any other part from this point forward.
Parra fell into deep pits of depression when a man left her, especially when her relationship with Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre collapsed. And it's so frustrating to watch the way this strong, creative woman threw her life away more than once because of a stupid man. But she was also a faithful member of Chile's Communist Party, and when she spoke on behalf of workers or the poor, all signs of self doubt vanished.
Wood's direction keeps things as gritty and realistic as Parra's own existence. She thought she was an ugly woman that no man should want to be with, but in fact, except for a few small scars on her face, she was a passionate, beautiful woman (Gavilan is a dead ringer for her) with low self-esteem, which resulted in her suicide at age 49. VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN is a simple film about a complex woman and a creative force that brought much pride to her nation and found new ways to sing the songs of lost love.
-- Steve Prokopy
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