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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with GO FOR SISTERS, THE PUNK SINGER and WHITE REINDEER!!!

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…

Even a lesser John Sayles movie is better than 90 percent of what I see in a given year, so imagine how excited I get when one of his truly great films find its way to theaters these days. He remains the king and forefather of independent cinema, even as he makes his money doing script doctoring/polishing/rewrites for Hollywood. He has dipped in and out of the public consciousness for decades and has never lost his ability to research and know the subjects of his films—be they modern or period pieces—so completely that we feel we've stepped into another time and place when we watch his works. He never fails to satisfy as a storyteller, and that's why I'll never get tired of watching and re-watching his movies.

His latest is GO FOR SISTERS, a harrowing tale about LA parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who must enlist the help of one of her charges, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), an old friend who was recently released from prison. Bernice needs the ex-con's help in locating her son, who is now a murder suspect apparently hiding south of the border. The pair enlist the help of Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos, in fine form), a disgraced ex-LA cop who knows his way around the criminal underbelly and police corruption of Tijuana and Mexicali—and shockingly enough, there's quite a lot of both. Suarez is also slowly going blind thanks to an eye disease, so his usefulness is questionable at best, but that also means he's working twice as hard to prove himself.

Sayles values authenticity above all else, although never "instead of" everything else, and Go For Sisters feels lived in and quite real. Fontayne is committed to leading a straight-and-narrow path after a life of drugs and other forms of bad living. Bernice is committed to finding out what has happened to her son, and she's well aware that his crossing the border into Mexico means there's a good chance he's dead.

In a conventional Hollywood version of this story, there would be shootouts, a high body count and broadly written villains for our heroes to defeat. But in a Sayles movie, he centers on characters who are thrown together by chance and spend a great deal of the film feeling each other out and forming an alliance based on both trust and need. The film still has a place for drug dealers, human traffickers and other seedy characters, but it uses them to serve a fantastic, morally complicated tale. Each character is motivated to do what they do for both obvious and private reasons, and one of the most remarkable things that Sayles does so well is give us a sense that these people were living, breathing beings before this particular adventure started.

GO FOR SISTERS is a film of small and slightly bigger moments. Sayles isn't trying to bowl you over with sweeping scenes of drama or action. He wants you to care about these characters and their mission; a success or failure in their lives will feel like one in yours, if he does his job correctly, which he usually does. There are moments loaded with tension, but it's a manageable kind. And in the end, you'll likely wish you could spend more time with these people after the credits start to role; you'll miss them; and you'll want to know where they are in five or ten years. That's the mark of a great filmmaker, and Sayles pulls that off pretty much with every single film he's ever made. But this one is his best in more than a decade, and that is cause for true film lovers to celebrate.

There's little debate that musician Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the groundbreaking punk band Bikini Kill (and later Le Tigre and Julie Ruin) had feminism at the forefront of her mind when she entered the Olympia, WA music scene in the early 1990s. From her band's music and her policy about allowing women to step to the front of her concerts and not be slam-danced into oblivion, to her role as a contributor to the Riot Grrl 'zine and eventual movement, Hanna was on the front lines of ramping up feminist causes in the punk rock scene.

Director Sini Anderson's debut feature, THE PUNK SINGER, fills in the recent gap in Hanna's recent life, when she dropped out of music, many thought, because she had nothing more to add to the conversation after 15 years of talking. Turns out many of the reasons for her leaving music were even a mystery to Hanna, who was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for so long that her recovery was prolonged and painful.

The film is not a public service announcement about the illness, but more a means for Hanna to say that the feminist cause is still a worthy and righteous one that she still very much believes in even if she can't always be on the front lines any longer. Watching her rage hard at Bikini Kill concerts in vintage footage makes for a stark contrast to more recent footage of her barely able to gather the energy to get out of bed, even with the help of husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.

Director Anderson deals head on with what some perceived as contradictions in Hanna's early stage persona, often wearing revealing outfits, writing "SLUT" across her exposed stomach, or dancing provocatively (it also didn't help that the music press never let up on the fact that she used to be an exotic dancer). But was this behavior any less about taking control of her image and sexual expression than what Bettie Page did? Hanna was certainly more aware of her methods, and her means were different, but the impact on feminist music in particular and the cultural scene in general is still being felt. Included in the mix of THE PUNK SINGER are interviews with powerful musicians like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Joan Jett, who all fortify Hanna's status as a major voice in rock—feminist or otherwise.

At its core, THE PUNK SINGER isn't about a movement; it's about a person who is both strong and fragile at times. The inspiration for the film is a deep-seeded and far-reaching human being worthy of this type of attention.

One of the strangest, darkest holiday comedies you'll likely to ever come across is writer-director Zach Clark's WHITE REINDEER, which involves a young successful couple (he's a television weatherman; she's a real estate agent) on the verge of changing their living situation for the better when he gets a job in Hawaii, a place they've always wanted to live. Just as they start to plan their move, husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) is killed, leaving wife Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) to grieve alone, since her friends and family are terrible at consoling her.

When one of Jeff's co-workers comes to visit Suzanne shortly after the funeral, he reveals that not only did he and Jeff go to strip clubs often but also that Jeff had been having an affair with a stripper named Autumn (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) for several months. This revelation sends Suzanne spiraling down into a depression hole that borders on a complete meltdown. But rather than lay in bed and do nothing, she experiments with ways that might make her feel better, including getting involved in the swinger lifestyle of a neighbor couple (Joe Swanberg and Lydia Hyslop), excessively shopping online, and trying to become friends with Autumn the stripper (real name Fantasia) and her party girl fellow exotic dancers.

The friendship with Autumn is the heartbeat of the film, as Suzanne attempts to find out what Jeff was all about as a sexual being. The film establishes early on that the couple had a healthy sexual appetite for one another, which makes this affair seem all the more confusing to Suzanne, who simply wants to find out if she was lacking in some area of pleasing her husband. It may sound sad and desperate, but Hollyman makes us understand what she's after, even if getting an answer will probably make her more depressed and the information can't ever be used.

WHITE REINDEER's humor is a bit on the pedestrian side. The kinky neighbor couple hiding behind the straight-laced facade has been done to death for decades, and done better. And the side story of Suzanne's fellow real estate agents pushing her to sell the house through them so they can get the commission is just plain lame. But when the film dives into Suzanne's deepest fears and insecurities about her marriage, through her new friendship with her husband's lover, it works rather elegantly as a means of digging into all of our fears about keeping a relationship fresh and interesting. I was genuinely curious to see what she discovered (if anything) out of all of this painful investigation.

The fact that the story is set during the month leading up to Christmas, coupled with Suzanne making every effort to maintain a sense of artificial cheeriness, turns the film even more dark and melancholy. In many ways, WHITE REINDEER is a masterful exercise is walking the fine line between freakishly humorous and oppressively grim, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's a film with a deliberately fractured tone that reflects its lead character's state of mind perfectly. Don't be afraid to laugh at inappropriate times (which is most of the time) or feel the most sympathy for Suzanne when she's engaging is the most outrageous behavior. That's the point of this mischievous little film.

-- Steve Prokopy
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