Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Joss Whedon's SXSW 2013 triumph MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Sofia Coppola's THE BLING RING, AUGUSTINE, and the doc FAR OUT ISN'T ENOUGH!!!
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…
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
I'm a Shakespeare nut, plain and simple. Since the mid-1990s, I'm been a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and have never missed a production in nearly 20 years. I don't just watch, I collect Shakespeare film adaptations, and I love that a lot of the available performances done for British television over the decades are finally coming out on DVD; there's pretty much no version I won't watch. I have no idea of Joss Whedon plans on making more of the Bard's works into films in this effective guerilla style or not, but not since Kenneth Branagh's 1989 HENRY V have I felt the potential for Shakespeare opening up to a mass audience than I do with Whedon's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. That's not because it's some sort of masterpiece; it is not. But Whedon's inherent knowledge of which passages and scenes of Shakespeare's masterfully told love story will play for plain-speaking audiences is impressive.
Some think that adapting a work of Shakespeare simply involves taking a black marker and crossing out what doesn't work or is too complicated. It is true that to change the words would be almost sacrilegious, but there is something to adapting that involves a certain amount of knowledge of writing for the masses, which was always Shakespeare's target audience. Whedon's target is intelligent folks who still appreciate the simple pleasures of entertainment that involves humor (sometimes of a low variety) and core emotions ranging from joy to rage.
All of this is prominently featured in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and while the film doesn't scream out that it's a Whedon presentation (aside from its cast of almost entirely actors who have worked with the filmmaker in film or TV), his crowd will likely eat this film up. But more importantly, so will just about anyone else who enjoys watching actors tear into good writing and the chance to exercise their acting muscles in ways they rarely get to.
I'm not a full-fledged Whedon-ite, but I've seen some of his television work and all of his films. Simply shooting at his home, in black and white, using actors who are all friends, the results are mixed but mostly positive. While the main story is about a young couple, Claudio (Fran Kranz from CABIN IN THE WOODS) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), attempting to get married while others (primarily Sean Maher's Don John) seek to ruin their happiness, the more interesting relationship exists between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), two verbal sparring partners who others playfully conspire to have fall in love, which they once were before a falling out.
Over the years, I have grown to really admire Acker's ability to turn on a dime from sweet and caring to outright vicious (her run on the most recent season of "Person of Interest" was magnificent), but she absolutely dominates the emotional landscape of this film, even when the focus isn't on her. Being in love makes her a kind of vulnerable she does not enjoy, but she can't help herself as Benedick turns on the charm.
Also on hand for the proceedings is THE AVENGERS' Clark Gregg as the governor of Messina, at whose home these events take place; Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, fresh from a victorious battle; and Nathan Fillion as the police investigator looking into the plot to ruin the reputation of young Hero. He's really only in two or three scenes, but Fillion is by far the funniest and most accessible thing in the film.
Even in its grimmest moments, Whedon manages to keep things light and easy to follow. Even the songs in the film (most taken from Shakespeare's own verses in the play) are catchy new-agey compositions that make you want to crawl into this story, grab a glass of wine, and watch the beautiful people move around you. For a black-and-white work, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a remarkably warm and inviting film that dares you not to feel like a guest at the story's many gatherings and festivities. Not every actor can recite Shakespeare as well as the others, but that doesn't seem to matter here. No one embarrasses themselves, and the performances are universally loose and spirited.
As if often the case with any Shakespeare adaptation in any medium, sometimes the actors over-gesture or laugh to much to make the point clear that a line is meant to be funny or poignant, and Whedon allows this sometimes a little too much. But it's certainly not enough to discredit the production. The worst crime the film commits is when its casual approach borders on slightly dull and too laid back, but again, nothing unforgivable. Considering Whedon essentially used MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as a palate cleanser between AVENGERS movies, here's hoping that the need to downscale his work and mind between blockbusters continues and that his love of Shakespeare or other classic writers runs deep enough to try something like this again.
THE BLING RING
Writer-director Sofia Coppola is fascinated by all manner and every angle of celebrity. With LOST IN TRANSLATION, the focus was on the emptiness and isolation that even the biggest stars feel; with MARIE ANTOINETTE it was about being thrust into the limelight; the actor in Somewhere was a selfish prick made to care again by being forced to actually spend time with his teen daughter. But THE BLING RING might be Coppola's most in-the-moment examination of star culture, as she immerses us in the lives of the lives of five of the most shallow people you will ever meet who broke into the homes of celebrities. They did this partly to steel high-end clothing and accessories, but of equal importance was to simply say they did it, to step into these celebrities' shoe closets and party rooms. And not surprisingly, they told all their friends and got caught eventually.
THE BLING RING isn't about these teens evading the police and the investigation that leads to their capture. It's about the mindset of someone who would stalk a celebrity online so they can figure out when they won't be home, and then go to their ill-secured Hollywood home just to grab a piece of their lives. At first, what they stole was stuff that wouldn't be noticed missing right away—hidden cash, a small piece of jewelry, singular items that were special without being insanely valuable or irreplaceable. The burglaries are almost comic in their sloppiness; they're smart enough to know to avoid obviously placed security cameras, but dumb enough to blab to their friends. In some cases, they even bring friends with them on their excursions.
The kids all seem to come from fairly well-off homes, most of which are devoid of any real parental presence. Although Rebecca (newcomer Katie Chang) is the ringleader, we learn the most of the thought process and celebrity worship from Nicki (Emma Watson), who actually does have a mother (Leslie Mann) who is just as depth-free as she is. They seem to only go to clubs to see who they can spot and tweet about. In one scene, they actually see Paris Hilton, an actual multiple-time victim of these kids, and Kirsten Dunst being observed and discussed in a club.
If you really listen to what these little criminals are talking about, it may make your head numb. For them, it isn't about the money; it's about the fame and the perks and outfits that go with that fame. Their getting caught makes them famous, and they love putting on a show for the cameras. Nicki's remorseful speech she gives about learning her lesson is magnificent bullshit from Watson, who is absolutely killing it this month between this film and her extended cameo in THIS IS THE END.
I fear there are some who might mistake THE BLING RING's shallow characters for being a shallow film, and it's an easy mistake to make. And while it's absolutely true that a movie like SPRING BREAKERS captured a similar empty existence in a much better, more artistically perfect way. Both films do dead-on attempts to mirror the brain power of their subjects and capture their spirit. These LA kids (who also include newcomers Israel Broussard, Claire Julien and Taissa Farmiga, Vera's sister) aren't interested in partying all the time and throwing their bodies to the wolves (well, most of them aren't), and as a result their ideas of fun might seem less dangerous and thrilling.
I tend to like Coppola's work best when she gets in the heads of her subjects, but when there's so little to grab onto, the film feels a little less significant. Based on a very recent true story, which was documented in the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales, THE BLING RING made me feel old and out of touch with today's youth culture, and that's okay because I am and I am. But I don't mind not completely identifying with these characters; they fascinate me the same way animals in the zoo do. I don't want to play with them, but I'll watch them fling poo at each other because it amuses me.
I just returned from a press junket for a big upcoming film loaded with foreign journalists who could easily trade places with some of these kids, so I'm aware that in some peripheral way, I exist in the culture on display here. I look at THE BLING RING as a cautionary tale about smart people leading empty lives. I hope I'm never brought face to face with creatures like this, but if I do, I hope I'm smart enough to avoid trying to identify with them or play their silly game. I'm probably doomed.
I think it can be agreed upon that one of modern medicine's worst moments (and there are many) is the diagnosis known as "hysteria," and the fact that it was used as a catch-all for nearly all emotionally and psychologically based conditions suffered by women, particularly during the 19th century. The way certain neurologists looked at things was that if you had a vagina, you ran the risk of being some kind of crazy. The subject was dealt with rather amusingly in the recent release HYSTERIA, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and now the French drama AUGUSTINE tells a far darker story set in Belle Epoque-era Paris about ground-breaking doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (the always intense Vincent Lindon) and seizure-prone, 19-year-old kitchen maid Augustine (singer/actress Soko, giving an unbelievably physical and emotionally draining performance).
In this based-on-a-true-story tale, Augustine finds herself having to leave the well-to-do household where she is employed after she has an episode that makes her fall to the floor twitching in a way that makes her seem like she's having 10,000 orgasms. With each new attack, a different part of her body becomes paralyzed. Her case is so fascinating to Dr. Charcot that he brings her before groups of colleagues, hypnotizes her into a seizure, and is applauded and given funding to conduct further research. As portrayed by Lindon, the doctor is a cold customer, who barely sees his patients as anything more than pieces of meat. But there is little disguising the fact that the sensual portions of Augustine's seizures are making the doctor view her as something closer to human.
It also becomes clear that Augustine is beginning to have feelings for Charcot because he's the only person in the hellish women's psychiatric hospital who pays any attention to her emotionally immature self. First-time writer-director Alice Winocour is at her best when the sexual tension is boiling over, and as much as this sounds like a bodice-buster, it really isn't. The doctor's feelings for his patient genuinely seem to pain him, even though his relationship with his sweet but concerned wife (Chiara Mastroianni) seems routine at best. Augustine's condition is made harder to diagnose or treat especially since she seems to be going through a flourishing sexual awakening in the doctor's presence. In case you haven't figured it out, there's a whole lot of sex talk in AUGUSTINE, and it's all really twisted up in the inappropriate feelings the two characters are having for each other.
The film is engages us and forces us to think about the mean ways throughout history that men found to dominate and control women. This was also a time when a woman being frustrated by the issue of physical pleasure (or lack thereof) was grounds for a doctor's visit, at the very least. It's fascinating to watch as the doctor-patient relationship shifts how Charcot alters the way he treats her during exams and "performances," sometimes resorting to more cruel behavior when there are others watching. AUGUSTINE primarily exists in a dark and haunting place, with two central performances that are absolutely mesmerizing transitioning into disturbing. Soko (also known as Stéphanie Sokolinski in many of her previous films) is a discovery for me, and I'm eager to see a great deal of her other work. Watching the film almost feels like an intrusion into something so personal that we feel like we should look away at times, but many of the best films are. And this certainly is one of the best ones I've seen lately.
FAR OUT ISN'T ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY
I guess I was reading the wrong children's books when I was a kid, or maybe by the time I was old enough to appreciate the stories and illustrations of the great Tomi Ungerer, his books had been banned from libraries and most other respectable literary establishments. Either way, when one of the biggest fans and cheerleaders of your work is the late, great Maurice Sendak (who is interviewed extensively for this documentary), you know you're doing something right. Directed by Brad Bernstein, FAR OUT ISN'T ENOUGH is the life story of artist, author, activist Ungerer, whose French family managed to survive Nazi-occupied Alsace, where he grew up forced to speak German (he still sports the accent), before moving to America.
Like many artists in the 1950s and early '60s, Ungerer began his artistic career working in advertising before transitioning into a very popular succession of children's books that included titles like Flat Stanley, Crictor, The Three Robbers, Zeralda's Ogre and The Mellops series. Because there was no internet, his fans had no idea that Ungerer was also doing a series of incredibly creative and disturbing anti-Vietnam War posters (trust me, you would recognize the work), as well as a book of hardcore S&M erotica art work. There's no denying that the work is that of a true talent, regardless of the subject, but when it was discovered that the maker of beloved children's books was also doing porn, his books were pulled from libraries and schools immediately and his career was dead.
For many, that's as much of the story as they know, but like so many things, time heals all (or most) wounds, and his resurgence 20-plus years later in children's books continues to this day. The filmmaker makes considerable use of animated version of Ungerer's work to tell his story, and it almost makes you long to see some of these great characters come to life as animated works (some actually were, but I've never seen those films). But the real star of the show is the unfiltered, craggy old man whose every word is pure inappropriate gold. His belief that every child should be traumatized at some point is a classic.
Ungerer is one of those great old curmudgeons that is actually a fascinating and lovable human being with a multipurpose mind that can contemplate so many projects and ideas at once, without being limited to one type of creative outlet. FAR OUT ISN'T ENOUGH captures is subject so perfectly that you'll be inspired to find his work if you've never seen it, and also hopefully reignite passions in others who loved his works as children.
-- Steve Prokopy
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