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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…

Part science fiction, but mostly a coming-of-age story set during a fictional World War III in which a nuclear device is set off somewhere in the UK, HOW I LIVE NOW is the story of Daisy (Saorise Ronan of ATONEMENT, THE LOVELY BONES, HANNA, and probably the upcoming STAR WARS movie), an American teen who is forced by her father to live with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside, where she is miserable because there's nothing to do. Most of her cousins are just children, but then she meets the painfully shy 17-year-old Eddie (George MacKay), who seems to enjoy staring at her. And after a while, Daisy begins to see the benefits of provincial life.

Daisy's aunt (Anna Chancellor) is rarely seen as she is locked away in her office trying to negotiate some sort of peace treaty with an unknown enemy of the nation. When things seem especially bad, she must take her leave of the children and fly to the continent to continue negotiations, but not long after she departs, jets go flying overhead and a massive explosion can be felt and barely seen that knocks out all power and leaves the kids terrified.

Their township is evacuated but the children decide to stick together and hide out and fend for themselves against roaming soldiers intent on collecting them and sending the boys to the military (no matter their age) and the girls god knows where. At one point Daisy and Eddie are separated, and the rest of the film is a harrowing tale of Daisy searching for the boy she barely knows but has nevertheless fallen in love with, perhaps out of desperation for her life.

Based on the Meg Rosoff novel and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, TOUCHING THE VOID, THE EAGLE), HOW I LIVE NOW is a bit of a slow-burn endeavor energized slightly by some solid performances from the younger actors. But many of the dangers that the kids face end up making the film feel like an episode of "Revolution" than anything that justifies making this into a film. The film has a handful of truly violent or otherwise awful moments that warrant its R rating, but even those suffer from being predictable.

The purpose of HOW I LIVE NOW is to show the trajectory of Daisy's journey, from apathetic, selfish teenager to loving, nurturing person who cares about saving the lives of the younger kids while seeking out and rescuing her new love. As far as that story goes, the film succeeds primarily because of Ronan's remarkable ability as an actor to find the bitter core of her character (her mother died when she was born; her father would rather live with his new wife alone than with her) and transform her into someone capable of feeling for the first time. It's not an easy or complete journey, not should it be, but Ronan is a capable performer who saves the film from being a collection of moppets in peril. Not a great film, but a serviceable one.

Thanks to tireless research that uncovered a great deal of previously unseen material, director Bill Siegel (THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND) has assembled a tremendous documentary about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali's painful battle to transition into the Muslim religion under his mentor and hero, Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. The pain Ali experienced as a result of this had nothing to do with becoming a full-fledged Muslim, but rather it was the reaction from the media and public, many of whom refused to call him by his new name.

Things were only amplified when Ali refused to accept his draft notice to serve in Vietnam, instead choosing to a conscientious objector based on religious principles, which resulted in him getting stripped of his championship boxing title, being banned from boxing, and eventually getting a five-year prison term (although he never went to jail). With no money coming in and a new wife and children to take care of, Ali was forced to go on the lecture circuit when he was ill-equipped to do so. Although he was a charismatic talker when doing interviews, as a speaker spouting religious doctrine and hate speech about the white man, his first few engagements were painful.

The most detail-oriented and illuminating portion of THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI has to do with the Supreme Court's hearing of his case. An interview with a former clerk of the Court explains how the judges went from a split vote to a unanimous one using some truly obscure case histories that could easily be thrown out if ever challenged again.

Interviews with the late Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan about Ali's role in the Nation of Islam (even after X's split from Elijah Muhammad) are without a doubt illuminating, but no less so than listening to Ali's brother discussing the old days growing up in Louisville, as well as the first fights that got Ali to his championship title. It is only after seeing those earlier bouts and how lively and engaged Ali was in the ring do you really begin to understanding how much of a loss he suffered by being cut out of boxing.

But you can't really understand Ali without understanding what his faith meant to him, and THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI sheds some light on this period in his life that is perhaps the least documented. Director Bill Siegel makes remarkable use of archival footage—both familiar and unkown—to tell this story about a man used to special treatment because of his celebrity have the tables turned on him, and a government eager to make an example out of someone so well known. It's enough to make you distrust the powers that be. The film is a learning experience interesting enough not to feel like homework.

Loaded at times with a sickening atmosphere and other times with a somewhat hopeful essence, the directing debut from producers (THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS) turned directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, THE MOTEL LIFE is the story of two down-and-out brother living in Reno who still manage to spark a creativity between them that results in some wonderful escapist storytelling and animations to go with it. And while the pair lose themselves in their fiction, their tragic lives spiral out of control after a hit-and-run accident leaves one man dead and the brothers on the run.

Frank (Emile Hirsch, playing the kind of desperate creature he seems to excel at playing) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) are at the center of this strange genre blend of what often feels like a filmed play, with its mostly indoor locations and emphasis on dialogue. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, THE MOTEL LIFE also incorporates elements of modern Westerns and hillbilly noir as the brothers envision a better life for themselves after they strike it rich publishing their stories with accompanying artwork. In search of friendly faces on their escape, the brothers cross paths with family friend Earl (Kris Kristofferson), as well as Frank's ex-girlfriend Annie (Dakota Fanning), a woman who has experienced a great deal of suffering since things with Frank fell apart. It's one of the most haunting performances Fanning has ever given.

It's difficult not to get excited about a work that encourages creativity as a means of expression and escaping the painful truth of reality, but Frank and Jerry Lee can only push aside the truth for so long. The reality of Jerry Lee's deteriorating health and Frank's feverish need to find his connection with Annie once again make it impossible for the boys to continue running. As good as Hirsch is here, it's Dorff who steals the show in an almost recognizable performancem during which he rips opens his soul and exposes thoughts so gut-wrenching and dark about family, loyalty and broken dreams that Sam Shepard might take note.

THE MOTEL LIFE is a touch uneven at times, but for a first-time feature, it's surprisingly sure-handed and beautifully rendered by its directors and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov. And if you know what's good for you, you never miss a new film with Emile Hirsch; you probably already missed PRINCE AVALANCHE, and you should be ashamed. Don't make the same mistake twice in one year.

Like any source material that has been done for film or television dozens of times (hello, Mr. Shakespeare), the question of whether one production is any good or not really comes down to the performances and a bit to the directing (you'd have to be an appallingly incompetent director to get many of these much-produced works so wrong that it's noticeable). So when you hear, for example, that there's a new film version of Charles Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS in theaters, in all likelihood your first question is "Who's in it?" possibly followed up with "Who directed it?"

The answer to the second question is a hopeful, since Mike Newell (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, DONNIE BRASCO, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, PRINCE OF PERSIA) is a solid if not especially visually inventive filmmaker who knows how to keep a story moving at a nice clip—even something as dense as GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Using some Harry Potter alumni in supporting roles (Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Robbie Coltrane as lawyer Jaggers, and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch the convict), Newell tells the often-grim story of orphan boy Pip (Jeremy Irvine of WAR HORSE plays the older version), who goes from abject poverty to apprenticeship to inherited wealth very quickly, all the while trying to win the heart of Miss Havisham's ward Estella (Holliday Grainger of "The Tudors"), who has been molded since childhood to frustrate men who are in love with her.

Most of the performances are top notch, although Bonham Carter is basically just adjusting the crazy dial from her work with Tim Burton. Certainly the art direction of the film is impeccable, especially Miss Havisham's crumbling estate, to match her tattered wedding dress. Fiennes is particularly creepy as the criminal with many secrets, to whom the boy Pip pays a kindness of food and means of escape. Less showy and far more interesting are Joe and Mrs. Joe (Jason Flemyng and Polly Walker), Pip's guardians as a boy. The relationship between Joe and Pip is a lasting one that the film treats with the proper amount of significance.

While director Newell isn't breaking tremendous ground here, he is putting forth about as unglamorous a version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS as has ever been attempted. And lest parents think of bringing their kids to expose them to Dickens' work, you may want to reconsider. There are a fair number of truly scary moments and one or two grotesque ones (including one moment where a person graphically catches on fire). If you're one of those filmgoers who is content with watching great actors sink their teeth into familiar characters and stories, this should suit you just fine. The filmmakers aren't simply going through the motions; there's a spirit and enthusiasm for the material that translates to the screen quite nicely.

One of the strangest, sexiest and most interesting films I've seen this year is IL FUTURO, from Chilean writer-director Alicia Scherson (adapted the Roberto Bolaño novel). The story begins in Italy, after a horrific car accident in which the parents of Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) die, leaving the older sister to take care of her younger brother and somehow make enough money to keep their home. Eager to grow up fast and lose his virginity, Tomas makes friends with a couple of shady trainers from his gym, whom he invites to come live in his home.

Not surprisingly after a while, the two trainers scheme to rob an old, blind former bodybuilder whom they've trained with before (a former Mr. Universe and b-movie actor played quite elegantly by Rutger Hauer) and are convinced has a tidy sum of money hidden away in his mansion, which he never leaves. Knowing the hermit (named Maciste) has a taste for young women, the trainers convince Bianca as live bait so she can sleep with Maciste and then canvas his place looking for a safe or other hiding places for cash. But the more time Bianca spends with Maciste—talking about his career, his adventures, his theories on life—the more she starts to develop feelings for the old man who can't even see her.

As the film settles into its routine of Bianca visiting Maciste and coming back night after night with no sighting of a safe, tensions begin to get heated, and IL FUTURO develops a sense of immediacy and sexual energy. It's clear early on in their sexual entanglements that Maciste is a great lover, and Hauer is mesmerizing as the one-time internationally known celebrity who made a series of films as Maciste (clearly modeled on the old Hercules series). As the film began, I was fully prepared to watch an interesting story about two young people trying to survive in a world that makes few accommodations for those ill equipped to do so. But when the plot takes this 90-degree turn into this almost-gothic love story, I was hypnotized by the intensity of the raw emotions at play.

IL FUTURO is a lushly atmospheric work that is fueled by both realistic performances by the younger actors blended seamlessly with Hauer's otherworldly presence. It may sound a bit bizarre on paper, but if you thrive on seeing something like nothing you've seen before, this might be your best bet in quite some time.

-- Steve Prokopy
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