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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with AT MIDDLETON, 2 AUTUMNS, 3 WINTERS, and all 15 Oscar-nominated Shorts!!!

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…

Some films get by on the strength of the performances from their actors and some squeak by on charm alone. From first-time director and co-writer Adam Rodgers, AT MIDDLETON is a odd duck of an tale about George (Andy Garcia) and his son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) going to visit the campus of Middleton College, a potential school Conrad is considering attending. George clearly sees the trip as an opportunity to bond with his son, but Conrad has already started drifting away and is easily talked into hanging out with Audrey (Taissa Farmiga)—visiting with her mother Edith (Vera Farmiga, her real-life sister)—on the guided tour. This leaves George and Edith adrift, so they decide to bail on the sanctioned tour and skip around the school grounds on their own, perhaps recapturing a bit of their lost youth in the process.

I'm not sure everyone who watches AT MIDDLETON will agree, but Edith's eratic behavior and noticeable mood swings led me to believe she was unhinged in a way that goes way beyond quirky. When she and George stumble into an acting class, the teacher asks them to step on stage and improvise a break-up scene between a married couple. The results are rather nerve-shattering (for us and them) and provides the emotional highlight of the film, but the devastating things that Edith says are clearly either words she's gone over in her head hundreds of times or perhaps even said to her husband at one point. Both adult characters are still married, but that doesn't stop them from going through the early stages of falling for each other—he's attracted to her vulnerability (that's healthy) and she to his strength.

Meanwhile, the kids seem less dreamy eyed about each other, but they seem to be getting along. Audrey has her heart set on convincing a prestigious linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt) to be her mentor, even though he has a policy against taking on freshmen, while Conrad is a bit undecided about whether this school is for him and what he might do there. He runs into a middle-aged DJ (Peter Riegert) for the campus radio station, and naturally he's wise beyond his Hawaiian shirt and full of obtuse advice.

AT MIDDLETON is wildly uneven both as a narrative and a character study. Garcia and the older Farmiga are so busy trying to look like they're behaving kooky and spontaneous that it all feels very staged, and their kids barely register as fully realized people. Both Farmigas (Farmigi?) fare better than their male counterparts, but that isn't saying much. One sequence where the parents get high with a college couple in their dorm room is like every bad attempt to approximate stoned behavior mashed into one, and the result is embarrassing for everyone in a three-mile radius. The funniest moments come from characters who pop in and out so fast into the lives of one or more characters that they barely register before they vanish forever.

The film is a rare misstep for Vera Farmiga and an all-too-frequent one for Garcia, whose career choices of late (outside of the Ocean's movies) are beyond questionable. The one bright spot in the film is Taissa Farmiga, whose character shows a bit more backbone than she has given us in any previous roles, including two seasons of "American Horror Story." Audrey is headstrong to a fault, and when she doesn't get what she wants, she's literally at a loss for words. In the end, AT MIDDLETON reveals itself to be a pretentiousness work with characters that have so much, it makes them sad. When I find the time, I'll cry for them.

This is an odd bird, made all the more so by the fact that its four leading characters all take turns narrating the film, often to the camera, and yet I feel like we only scratch the surface of their personalities and what makes this tick and function the way they do. From relatively new French director Sébastien Betbeder (Nights with Theodore) is this chaotic love story about former art student Arman (Vincent Macaigne), who goes out jogging one day in an effort to finally improve himself in some way, when he runs into Amélie (Maud Wyler), whom he's taken with instantly before she jogs off, seemingly forever. After repeated attempt to run into her again, he actually next sees her when she's nearly raped in an alleyway by a couple of thugs, who proceed to stab Arman, landing him in the hospital with Amélie watching over him.

Naturally, the two start to date, and the rest of 2 AUTUMNS, 3 WINTERS (the duration of the film) follows the peaks and valleys of their relationship, as you would expect. Other than the constant turning to talk to the audience, the film's structure bares some similarities to About Last Night... (the original film, not the new remake), as it brings the couple's friends, former significant others and family members into the picture, and we get to see how everyone reacts to everyone else's quirks and eccentricities. The film is often funny, sometimes tragic, but rarely does it seem insightful or educational, as it barely pulls back the curtain to show us the twisted workings of this relationship.

Betbeder drops in a couple bizarre cultural references to really make us wonder why the French find certain things so significant. An extended discussion about how great Judd Apatow's Funny People is went right over my head. For such a fairly lightweight piece, I was surprised how often I felt that the film's uniquely French qualities were lost on me, and I say that as someone that devours French cinema like it was yummy escargot. 2 AUTUMNS, 3 WINTERS has a few funny and probing moments, but the digressions and sometimes contemptible characters often put me off to the primary story of this young, struggling couple that seem hopelessly driven to each other. I was rooting for them to survive as a unit, but the structure of the film kept making me care less and less if they actually made it.

Look, I never tell you to go see something or not; I give recommendations, tell you what I liked, etc. But it's not my job to say "Go see this." All I'm required to do is tell you if I liked something or not; the rest is up to you. With that being said, this month or so leading up to the Academy Awards is really the only time every year many cities are given a shot at checking out the Oscar-nominated shorts programs in the categories of Live Action, Animated and Documentary. For the first time ever, I've actually gotten a chance to see all 15 nominated shorts (the only reason I didn't before is that two or three are usually not available as part of the package deal given to critics for review). But this year, everybody got their acts together, and I'm here to tell you there isn't a lame category in the bunch. Whichever one(s) you select, you're going to see some great stuff; even the weaker individual selections are very good. In some cities, the separate programs are being shown at different theaters (the Doc Shorts have been broken into two separate programs due to their length), so do a little digging and then do a lot of watching.

In the past, since sometimes the Animated program can run on the short side, the distributor supplements the nominees with a couple of other shorts that were in contention or previous year's winners/nominees. I'm not sure that's the case this year, since the total nominee's program is fairly lengthy and really strong. It includes the Disney short that played before FROZEN, GET A HORSE!, starring Mickey Mouse, an amazing tribute to the original Mickey shorts, done in hand-drawn, black-and-white animation that transforms into, well, I don't want to ruin the surprise if you haven't seen it.

Also included in the Animation selection is FERAL, featuring a boy raised in the woods by wolves who is brought back to civilization in an attempt to make him a normal child again; POSSESSIONS, a stunning Japanese work in which a 18th century tinkerer stumbles upon a haunted shrine in the woods during a storm, but rather than get scared, he finds ways to improve the spirits' surroundings; ROOM ON A BROOM features a bevy of famous (mostly British) voice actor (and is narrated by Simon Pegg) and is based on the much-loved children's story about a friendly witch trying to get all of her animal friends on her broom; and my personal favorite MR. HUBLOT, a Luxembourg-France co-production about a world where the people and everything around them are composed to varying degrees of mechanical parts. The title character's is a reserved worker bee, who takes in a robot dog that disrupts his life but wins his heart; it's a great, inventive, beautifully rendered work.

Perhaps the weakest of the three program by just a smidge is the Live Action nominees, but there are still come great ones among them. Finland's DO I HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING? kind of makes you wonder how bad the other potential nominees were, not because it's terrible; it's just so damn ordinary. Faring slight better are HELIUM from Denmark, about a hospital janitor befriending a dying child in the hospital; it's dripping with sentimentality, but it's undeniably a sweet story. THAT WASN'T ME from Spain tells the story of an African child and Spanish woman that has a bit of hurried drama to it, but doesn't really amount to much. My personal favorite is the beyond-tense French entry JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING, which feels like the best scene out of bigger film and concerns a woman attempting to escape her abusive husband with her two kids; this is pure edge-of-your-seat stuff and the acting is superb. But undoubtedly the fan favorite of this bunch will be THE VOORMAN PROBLEM from the UK, starring Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, "Sherlock") as a psychiatrist brought in to examine a mental patient (Tom Hollander) who claims he is a god. I'll say no more, but if you have any friends or family in Belgium, you may be compelled to call them after watching this. It's terrific.

The Documentary shorts are by far the most compelling overall, no more so than director Edgar Barens' PRISON TERMINAL: THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL (which will debut on HBO March 31), about an elderly war hero living out the final weeks of his life in prison due to a life sentence received decades ago; the story begins there, but it's just as much about the makeshift hospice unit and care givers at the prison that help these dying patients move on peacefully. The film is desperately sad and incredibly moving.

The film is joined in the category by THE LADY IN NUMBER 6, about a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor who was a famous concert pianist in her youth and still plays in her small London apartment every day. Her story and words of wisdom will make you, as the saying goes, laugh and cry. KARMA HAS NO WALLS is set in Yemen's capital, with a population that had more guns than people; the film centers on the movement to have the long-sitting leader step down finally. The more curious of the bunch is FACING FEAR from the United States about a former neo-Nazi skinhead, who once nearly beat a gay man to death in a L.A. parking lot, who quite by coincidence meets this man again and becomes friends with him through a long process of forgiveness. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring but least consequential of the Doc shorts is CAVEDIGGER, about a New Mexico artist who digs massive, manmade caves in the sides of small sandstone cliffs using only hand tools (no electric ones). It may sound ridiculous, but when you see these epic, stunning creations (which take him years sometimes), you'll understand and appreciate the method to his madness.

This nation's aversion to short films is shocking and confusing. The gems you can discover are endless, especially among this year's crop of short film Oscar nominees. Seek them out, do a little research and see which ones you might find the most interesting. But here's a clue: they're all varying degrees of great.

-- Steve Prokopy
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