Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE BOOK THIEF, Alex Gibney's THE ARMSTRONG LIE and Barbara Kopple's RUNNING FROM CRAZY!!!
Published at: Nov. 15, 2013, 3:31 p.m. CST by Capone
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…
THE BOOK THIEF Good intentions and popular source material can be a dangerous and risky combination. It's so clear as you watch the film adaptation of the hit Markus Zusak novel THE BOOK THIEF why this material is such a hit with young and old alike, and it took little effort to see how this story would succeed on the page. But as a film in the hands of director Brian Percival (a regular director on the "Downton Abbey" television series), drama is lost to boatloads of overly sentimental writing and certain performers playing things too broadly.
I was actually a fan of the gentlemanly voice of Death (Roger Allam) acting as our narrator; it was just a strange enough idea to work, and he delivers certain bits of startling news that shake up the proceedings in the right ways. The World War II timeframe gives us the story of a young German girl named Liesel (relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse), whose parents are killed and is adopted by provincial couple Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Hans is not getting a lot of work as a painter, partly because he refuses to join the Nazi party—this is our first clue that he's a good German, I suppose. Our second clue is that the family takes in a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose parents apparently knew Hans and Rosa at some point in the past and was told to come find them if he made it to their village.
To be clear, THE BOOK THIEF is not a Holocaust film; it's primarily a film about finding large and small ways of subverting authority and being heroic. The stolen books of the title refers partly to banned books that Liesel steals after she sees many of them being burned one night. More than anything, the film focuses on Germans turning in other Germans, and young Liesel deciding the right moment to stand up to the Nazis to help friends. Nélisse is a remarkable screen presence but her character has a bit too much fire to be believable under these oppressive conditions. Rush is simply playing things too simple and nice—not that people like that don't exist in the real world, but setting him up as a living saint for this young girl to bond with borders on cutesy. While Emily Watson is the sour-puss mother, who we soon find out is actually a teddy bear at heart.
The biggest problem with THE BOOK THIEF is its use of Nazis as a device. They aren't real people, and maybe some don't want us to consider them as such. But if you really want us to fear an enemy, make us see the human being before it turns nasty. The film uses prolonged shots of the Nazi flag and men in Nazi uniforms more as an emotional trigger than an actual plotting device, as if the mere sight of these things will enrage us or make us scared for our heroes. But for even the slightly sophisticated moviegoer those old tricks don't cut it any longer. The filmmakers act as if we're just supposed to know what the Nazis did to make them so hated in the world, but especially with young adults (the clear target of the book and, to a degree, the movie), I don't think you can assume that any longer.
I like the idea of THE BOOK THIEF far more than the execution. Another reason for the title is that Liesel swipes books from the local mayor's wife, who finds out and eventually gives the girl books to sneak out and bring back when she's done. There is more heart in the scenes between those two characters, who speak very few words to each other, than there is in the rest of the film simply because there's an exchange of heartfelt ideas between the two. The film could have used about a dozen more moments like that. That being said, the movie's final scene, set amongst the bombed-out buildings that were once Liesel's village, is quite shocking and heartbreaking, and the mere fact that is impacted me as much as it did means that at least some of what the filmmakers were attempting to achieve emotionally got through. Some did, yes, but not much.
I think I'd like to meet someone who genuinely loves this movie, because I think if I did, I'd be staring into the face of a person I have absolutely nothing in common with, and that's alright. There's just something about THE BOOK THIEF that feels disingenuous and manipulative to the nth degree. I didn't hate the experience of watching it, but I wasn't especially moved by its life lessons either, only its horrific conclusion.
THE ARMSTRONG LIE Bob Seger said it best: "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." I'm guessing master documentarian Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, and earlier this year WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS). Back in 2009, Gibney was hired to chronicle what was meant to be the attempted comeback to the Tour de France of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had been surrounded by accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven consecutive tours a few years earlier. The return was meant to be proof positive that Armstrong could win the contest (or at least place in the top three) while having his every move watched and documented by cameras and medical experts alike.
To this day, Armstrong said he stayed clean during that race (he placed third), but soon thereafter, he admitted to doping just as major, irrefutable evidence was about the surface confirming he had been using. The bottom line, as Gibney's narration points out, is that if Armstrong hadn't been so insistent on clearing his name, he probably would have gotten away with it. So why did he do it?
More importantly than the question of why did he cheat is, why did he make the lie too big to contain? And that's the angle that Gibney deftly explores in THE ARMSTRONG LIE, an examination of perhaps the biggest sports scandal since the White Sox threw the World Series, and Armstrong's admission may have been bigger because of the sheer number of fans and supporters who stood by him and looked to him for inspiration as a cancer survivor. But Gibney seems equally curious about Armstrong the vindictive man, who would go inconceivably out of his way to personally hurt and damage those who threatened to expose the lie. The petty behavior, the character assassinations that he unleashed will make you forget about the doping and concentrate on hating Armstrong the person, instead of the athlete.
One unique aspect of THE ARMSTRONG LIE is that when Gibney was documenting the comeback race, he admits that he probably became too friendly with his subject and started to become part of the PR machine that surrounded the event. More a cheerleader than an impartial observer, Gibney fully admits that a professional line became dangerously close to being crossed, one that would have been disastrous to his reputation and career had that original film actually come out (which it was on the verge of doing, under the title THE ROAD BACK).
Perhaps the most remarkable portion of the film is the interview Armstrong gave Gibney immediately after he came clean to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013; Gibney was literally waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on the man he considered a friendly acquaintance. Armstrong looks embarrassed, broken and ready to unload his secrets to someone he might still think would give him some degree of sympathy; it's an incredible, difficult-to-watch piece of footage. Some may quibble with Gibney being in the film at all, but his original documentary (which was torn up to make this film) was an important part of the lie and the revelation of the truth, so it doesn't feel like the filmmaker trying to insert himself into the story.
THE ARMSTRONG LIE is classic Gibney investigative greatness. While the original film was going to include a great deal of discussion on the doping allegations, the filmmakers was going to make it clear that Armstrong to this day has never tested positive of drugs. But with this recut film, the gloves are off, and Gibney talks to former teammates, acquaintances, journalists looking into the allegations—anyone who has a story to tell.
Gibney was smart enough to let the story take him where it needed to and not force it in any one direction. The result is a rare first-hand account from the front row of sports history of one of the most admired and influential athletes in recent memory. Many in sports brush off the label of "role model," but Armstrong embraced it and used it well. His ego and his vindictive spirit are what brought him down, not his lying. Like many of Gibney's films, THE ARMSTRONG LIE is a remarkable tale of someone who thought that their lie was too big to be exposed, and of a person who thought he would get away with it because of that.
RUNNING FROM CRAZY Teetering on the line (but never quite crossing it, thankfully) of self-indulgent, celebrity pretentiousness, RUNNING FROM CRAZY is the frank, sincere and inspirational story of the Hemingway family, which has been plagued through the generations with mental illness and a slew of suicides that would and does make any blood relation nervous. The profile is told through the unfiltered reflections of actor Mariel Hemingway (MANHATTAN, PERSONAL BEST, STAR 80) whose direct contact with her family's issues could be seen all around her, from her supermodel sister Margaux (who committed suicide) and artist sister "Muffet" (real name Joan, who is still alive but mentally troubled) to her alcoholic parents, including father Jack, who lived his whole life in the shadow of his father, the legendary author Ernest Hemingway, also a suicide victim.
Listening to Mariel sift through the emotional wreckage of her family is fascinating stuff, especially when it's accompanied with raw footage from a documentary sister Margaux was making about her parents and sisters, although Mariel ended up not appearing in that footage, nor was she even aware it existed until seeing a cut of this film for the first time. Mariel managed to avoid the severe mental anguish of most of her close family members, but worrying that one day it would strike provided an underlying tension to her life, which ended up making her vulnerable and open to outside influences in both her career and her lengthy marriage to her now ex-husband, who makes an amazingly awkward appearance in the film.
But coming clean about the Hemingway family story is also an exercise for Mariel in relaying previously unheard stories to her two daughters, the actress/model Dree, who rattles her mother with the revelation that she considers Margaux a role model, and burgeoning artist Langley, who admits to struggling with depression herself. The film shows mother and children in separate conversations talk about the family—past and present—as Mariel explains why she waited so long to let them in on the family's secrets.
RUNNING FROM CRAZY also shows Mariel Hemingway's life today, and exploring the ways she has attempted to keep her mind and body in check, trying every diet and spiritual outlet imaginable. Clearly a lifetime of watching others behave out of control had made her a control freak, with a schedule that cannot be broken (or there will be hell to pay) and a diet and exercise regimen that is guaranteed to make you feel old and out of shape no matter how healthy you think you may be.
The film is expertly directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A., SHUT UP AND SING), who is a master at getting her subjects to talk and be more open and honest than they probably are with their therapist. But her skills yield enlightening and wonderful material that goes well beyond the typical reality show manufactured drama that passes for a documentary these days. Mariel Hemingway is shows using the knowledge that she has collected about her troubled family over the years and turning into the spearhead of a cause she is deeply passionate about—suicide prevention. Her continuing message and goal is to remind people that however terrible they feel, they are not alone.
We all think we come from a crazy family in one way or another; RUNNING FROM CRAZY is an case study of one of the most famous families in American history, and even they struggled to stay sane and keep it together. The film is an exposed nerve of emotion, shame, fear and ultimately acceptance. But director Kopple never forgets to keep things interesting, informative and even entertaining. It's a delightful change from much of what I've been seeing lately, and this story is told with admirable clarity and intelligence.