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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with PARKLAND, MUSCLE SHOALS, BAD MILO! and INFORMANT!!!

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…

This is a strange little nugget that feels like outtakes and extended scenes from Oliver Stone's JFK. Not that PARKLAND is interesting enough to include conspiracy theories and such, but it is a faithful recreation of many of the events leading up to and immediately after President Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The title refers to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was taken and pronounced dead (and eerily enough, so was his presumed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, two days later), and the film's intent seems to be to show us the microcosm of people in and around Dallas at the time who had to deal with the repercussions of this national trauma.

Perhaps more of a footnote to JFK, PARKLAND's first third is actually quite extraordinary as it attempts to recreate the nightmare in the hospital as Kennedy is brought in, along with Jackie Kennedy and a massive security detail that did little but get in the way. The extended sequence is bloody, graphic, loud and exhausting. Among those in the fray were Nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden), Dr. Charles Carrico (Zac Efron), and Dr. Malcom Perry (Colin Hanks). Hovering around the action are the Dallas head of the Secret Service Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) and other agents (Mark Duplass, Tom Welling). The last person called in is Father Oscar Huber (Jackie Earle Haley). With all of these famous faces, it may seem like less of a series drama and more "Night of 100 Stars," but actually being able to identify these actors made it a lot easier to keep track of who was who as the number of characters grew.

Perhaps the film's best work (not surprisingly) belongs to Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm footage of the assassination remains one of the most gruesome bits of footage available in the world. And it's fascinating to watch this account of how the footage was handled, processed and screened in the days after it was shot. The re-creation of the first screening of the material is powerful stuff thanks to Giamatti's performance.

More creepy than informative is the coverage given to the family of Oswald, including his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) and ridiculous mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver), who had to deal with the consequences of suddenly having the most hated name in America. I will admit the difficulty the family had finding a place to bury Lee made me feel for them, but every word out of Marguerite's mouth is so hateful, you get over it quickly.

One familiar name from JFK that comes up in PARKLAND is that of James Hosty (Ron Livingston), a local FBI agent who actually had contact with Oswald not long before the shooting. In fact, Oswald walked right into the FBI offices, making Hosty an unpopular man in the bureau. There's nothing offensively wrong with PARKLAND as a whole; in fact, there are some individual moments that work nicely. But first-time feature writer-director Peter Landesman seems more interested in turning these stories into short history lessons and less into small human dramas borne of a larger event. Certainly, as an acting exercise, the film has a few powerful moments. As mentioned, Giamatti goes well beyond what is on the page and gives us a sensitive Zapruder, who is so shaken by what he filmed that his life never quite got back to normal after the assassination.

Thankfully, the faces of the dead president, the first lady, vice president Johnson, and a few other key historical figures are rarely seen straight-on enough that you can tell whether the unknown actors playing them look the parts. But once you get past the opening hospital sequence, there's little in PARKLAND to whole heartedly recommend beyond the ever-reliable Giamatti. The film just exists on the screen with little purpose or significance. The attention to detail might draw some people in, and I certainly appreciated it, but it's not enough to sustain this slight work.

It almost seems like an embarrassment of riches to have to such fine documentaries in one year about legendary recording studios. Early this year saw the release of Dave Grohl's SOUND CITY, which profiled the famed Van Nuys, California, studio best known for its Neve mixing board and being the perfect place to capture a particular type of drum sound. And now we have MUSCLE SHOALS, a work more about the small Alabama community that became a hub for recording classic soul and rock classics in one of the town's many studios. But in all fairness, the idea of turning Muscle Shoals into a place where both black and white musicians (often playing together) could gather to record began at FAME Studios and its owner and founder, producer Rick Hall.

Honestly, this documentary could have just been a series of still photos of the artists who recorded there and clips of their music, and it still would have been a decent film. Thankfully, first-time feature director Greg "Freddy" Camalier has more patience and talent than that. Hall pieced together an all-white house band to offer artists the opportunity to have a band waiting for them at the studio, and by doing that, he created what is known as the Muscle Shoals sound, which can be heard in early recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin (who recorded much of her "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" album either at the studios or with the musicians who resided there), Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Etta James, Clarence Carter and many others.

Hall is a great storyteller, and not only does he relay tales of the music royalty that recorded with him but he spins stories about great family tragedy that he was forced to overcome as a youngster. The fact that he was able to achieve so much success after life trying so hard to bring him down is borderline miraculous. But FAME suffered a great loss as well, when the band left FAME to form their own studio, soon to be known as Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and open for business just in time for a wave of British rockers to arrive to capture the community's raw, earthy, funky vibe. The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, and later Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Staple Singers and a little-known band called Lynryd Skynyrd—the list never ends. At one of the two main studios, Southern rock was born and the Osmonds' fame was sealed.

New interviews with people who recorded in the region—Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Franklin, Pickett, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Cliff—join the likes of Bono, who seems just around because he loves the Muscle Shoals sound. When you think of the list of classic songs recorded in the area, your mind is rightfully blown. The fact that the backbone of so many great R&B hits of the time were performed by a bunch of white guys should melt a few brains a well. While some may find the side-stories about Hall's family unnecessary, the film doesn't carry nearly as much of a sense of significance without them. And watching Hall go through one of his perfection-driven recording sessions is fascinating stuff.

I have high expectations for music docs in particular. I want them to educate me on musicians and music trends that I know nothing about or to convince me that the artist being discussed is worth making an entire doc about. MUSCLE SHOALS meets and exceeds those expectations and delivers a film that forever seals the place in music history that this region holds. You're going to sing along, want to own the soundtrack, and wish the film was twice as long so you could hear twice as much of the phenomenal music.

In director Jacob Vaughan's horror comedy BAD MILO!, Ken Marino plays Duncan, a timid office worker with a nervous stomach whose boss (Patrick Warburton) is setting him up to take the blame for emptying the company's accounts and those of their clients (I was never quite clear what kind of company they worked for). Duncan's life has never been easy, nor has his digestive tract been stable. His mother (Mary Kay Place) has re-ignited her sex drive thanks to a pompous younger man (Kumail Nanjiani); his father (Stephen Root) abandoned the family when Duncan was young, for reasons unknown); and his loving wife Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) is putting pressure on him about work and having a baby. All of these stressful situations are triggering massive intestinal distress for Duncan, for which he goes to hypnotherapist (Peter Stormare, in full whackjob mode).

It turns out that there's a small monster living in Duncan's body that exits and enters him through his ass, in one painful episode after another. Once his life becomes so stressful, the creature finally is set loose and murders the offender. Duncan does his best to stay calm, so as to keep the demon at bay, and he even tries to befriend it (starting with giving it the name Milo) to stop it from killing folks when it does get out, but that doesn't always work.

I believe BAD MILO! is director Vaughan's second feature, but he's best known for being an editor (his most recent work can be seen in Black Rock). To understand a bit more about the tone of Bad Milo!, please note that filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass are listed as executive producers on the film. While the goal of the film is always laughs, there are also some rather grown-up pressures being dealt with (or not) by Duncan. The film leans pretty heavy on the grotesque (blood and guts and other bodily excretions), and that may put some people off, but since I didn't find the humor all that successful, the gross material was largely what was keeping me afloat.

Not nearly as well known as he should be considering the number of films and series he pops up in and/or writes in a given year, Marino is pretty solid (pun intended) in Bad Milo!. I felt his pain and strain, and he played both perfectly. But those around him seem to all be swinging for the comedy fences here, overplaying, thinking that yelling their lines makes them funnier. But having Marino as the force that binds it all together certainly helps make more of BAD MILO! work than it would have with anybody else in the role.

Its position as a midnight offering seems completely appropriate, and it may require a couple of drinks to find parts of the movie tolerable. But there are a lot of talented people in this film, not doing their best work, granted, but keeping the ship afloat just long enough to tell its story, after which is simply lets out its gas in a slow, silent but deadly leak.

The entire time one watches this documentary profile of social activist-turned-FBI informant Brandon Darby, you can't help but wonder: Why would he submit to these interviews and this level of scrutiny? For someone who paints a picture of himself--with an always-armed home security system, along with a small cache of guns--as a man with a target on his back, putting your face and story of becoming a federal sntich out there seem like he's only enlarging the size of said bullseye. But Darby is, if little else, a complicated man, and the film about him, INFORMANT, from director Jamie Meltzer, is far from a straight-forward biopic.

The first thing an audience must realize about Brandon Darby is that most of the interview footage we see of him in this film was gathered recently, so the subject has had time to formulate his version of how he went from one of the South's best-known social justice activists, who many believed was plotting to take down the government one grass roots effort at a time. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Darby and his fellow Austin-based anarchist Scott Crow came into the area under the banner of the relief organization Common Ground and immediately began fighting against police abuses, government crackdowns on the poor and overall neglect of the largely voiceless residents. As one Ninth Ward resident puts it, "This community would take him back even today; the activist community would probably shoot him."

But for reasons that are still murky at best, as Darby's role in Common Ground lessened, he began to associate with activists that he said wanted to attack the incompetent and ineffective government more directly &mash; through acts of violence and property damage, culminating in staging a surge at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2008. At that point Darby had been working as an informant for the FBI for a while, promising to infiltrate a group that was believed to be plotting a Molotov cocktail attack on the convention and the police protecting it.

Director Meltzer is smart enough to realize that no story in INFORMANT should only be told from Darby's point of view, so he's gathered many of his former Common Ground comrades and others with whom he was an activist for testimonials that often directly contradict Darby's claims. Depending on who rings the most true, Darby could be seen as a professional liar, manipulator, paranoid delusional or sociopath. One thing he will never admit to is being wrong, probably one of his most infuriating traits, no matter whose side you take in this tale. Darby repeatedly says that his primary reason for turning traitor was because he couldn't stand to see people hurt or killed during these acts of domestic terrorism, but that doesn't quite explain the lengths he goes to to see them in custody.

One of the film's most curious artistic decisions is to re-create some of Darby's more pivotal moments, many of which are played out more than once with slight variations, depending on which interview subject is telling the story. In an odd bit of "casting," each re-enactment features Darby playing himself, and let's just say the man isn't the greatest of actors, even when it comes to being Darby.

So back to the original question: Why could Darby allow his story to be told through such high-profile means? The answer may be revealed in the film's final act, during which we discover what happens when a former left-wing activist begins turning in his own kind to the very people he used to consider the enemy. He becomes a hero to a political movement that believes in less government and that America needs to be taken back by Americans. That's right, Brandon Darby has become a quite popular public speaker at Tea Party gatherings, where he teaches members how to use Common Ground-style grass roots efforts &mash; once used to aid under-served communities &mash; to build the party's numbers.

INFORMANT may help bring some focus to the type of charismatic and complex man Darby is, or it may simply confound viewers even more about his actions and motivations. Part confession, part justification, and probably part fiction, the story that Darby weaves won't likely earn him any new admirers outside of the Tea Party, but it is fascinating storytelling, whether you judge him as an ethical or ethically compromised creature.

-- Steve Prokopy
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