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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with GLORIA, 24 EXPOSURES, IF YOU BUILD IT, and HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK!!!

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…

A winner for Best Actress at last year's Berlin Film Festival and Chile's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, GLORIA essentially boils down to one powerhouse performance from Paulina Garcia that covers everything from passionate to desperate and all points in between. The character of Gloria is a long-divorced middle-aged woman who can still shake it on the dancefloor of social clubs for single older adults. She wears slightly oversized glasses that seem designed to hide a core beauty, but when she meets a man she likes, she often doesn't hesitate to sleep with him. It's not that Gloria refuses to acknowledge her age; she simply doesn't let it become an excuse to stay at home or stop dating.

One night at a club, Gloria meet an even older man, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who appears to share her qualities of a full heart and desire in finding a companion at this stage in life. He's a more recent divorcée, with attachments still to his ex-wife and two helplessly inept grown daughters, a reality that causes more friction than Gloria might be able to handle. They can't deny their attraction, but he also makes her feel less than on a couple of key occasions. Of course, at her son's birthday party, Gloria and her ex-husband get loaded and a little handsy and a lot personal, which doesn't exactly make Rodolfo comfortable either.

GLORIA isn't about a good woman done wrong, not exactly. Gloria has plenty of flaws to go along with her lust for life. Her existence is made just a bit more lonely by the fact that her two grown children essentially endure, rather than value, her. The complexity of both the characters and the performances is critical to the success of the film as both a profile of loneliness and a drama about desperate people. Garcia's precise attention to detail makes Gloria completely believable as an object of desire as well as an older woman trying to never embarrass herself by pretending to be younger than she is. It's an extraordinary character study.

This murder mystery combined with a fetish photographer's search for artistic relevance is about the furthest thing from what most people consider writer-director Joe Swanberg's (DRINKING BUDDIES, HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS) specialty known as "mumblecore." At the core of mumblecore is conversation and a bit of erotic frankness, and there's still plenty of both of those to go around in 24 EXPOSURES, Swanberg love letter to sleazy '80s thrillers, blended with a freewheeling sense of openness when it comes to sexual expression.

Billy (played by YOU'RE NEXT director and occasional actor in Swanberg's movies, Adam Wingard) is a photographer who specializes in elaborately staged death photos, usually involving scantily clad or partially nude women. In his images, the women appear to have been murdered, which makes the police suspicious when one of Billy's models shows up dead shortly after a shoot. Billy seems strangely detached from the incident, probably because he's fixated on a new model, Callie (Sophia Takal), whom his girlfriend Rebecca (Helen Rogers) has already invited into their bed for a threesome. Naturally, Billy is a scumbag of the highest order and takes advantage of Rebecca's open-mindedness by bedding models when she's out of town.

The most interesting character in the film is police detective Michael (YOU'RE NEXT writer Simon Barrett), who is trying to wrap his brain and moral compass around this new world that Billy inhabits. Michael is a socially awkward man who sees new opportunities in Billy's world, and he seems to lose sight of the fact that there's a murder investigation going on. In fact, the film's big reveal of who the killer is deliberately the least interesting aspect of 24 EXPOSURES.

As I have been with his other acting roles, I wasn't thrilled with Wingard's performance, which comes across as true amateur-hour stuff. Swanberg sometimes uses first-time or untested actors in his films, but here the performance is noticeably poor, and the film suffers in small ways because of it. Barrett, on the other hand, is quite good as the moody, introverted cop, and he adds a layer of innocence to the proceedings.

But the real reason to check out 24 EXPOSURES is the debate at its center concerning the dividing line between art and exploitation—a conversation I'm sure Swanberg has been at the center of with several of his explicit works. But the filmmaker isn't making excuses for what he does, nor is he letting himself off the hook just because he's the man with the camera. It's a fascinating discussion (usually between Wingard and Barrett), and a great example of the director turning the proverbial camera on himself. The film is more plot driven than anything Swanberg has made before, and I think he handles the storytelling admirably. The final film is bloody fun, darkly humorous, and begins a ethical conversation worth having.

This documentary has such a good heart and centers on such genuinely kind people that you may get community service credit just for watching it (checking with my parole officer now). From Patrick Creadon, the director of the Will Shortz documentary WORDPLAY and I.O.U.S.A., comes IF YOU BUILD IT the often heartbreaking story of designer Emily Pilloton and architect boyfriend Matt Miller. The pair left cushy corporate jobs in 2010 for the rural surroundings of Bertie County, North Carolina to create and teach something called Studio H, a design-build class at the local high school that would be more than just a shop class but a way for the students to build something to improve the community.

The class lasts a year (so yes, they had to work over the hot North Carolina summer), but after spending months learning the basics of design-build and creating larger and larger projects, the class of 10 juniors designed and constructed a permanent building to house a farmers' market for their community. Not surprisingly, that's only the end goal; the journey is what either makes you stronger or destroys you. Emily and Matt experience a little of both.

The recurring point that the couple make is that they aren't here to be outsiders trying to do some charity work for a struggling community that was in the midst of a major economic downturn and still recovering from hurricanes, including one that came through while they were there. They wanted to move there permanently. The project was being funded exclusively from grant money, with only the teachers' salaries being paid for by the school itself, but only a few months in, budget cuts forced the school board to cut Emily and Matt's pay, so they were essentially living on credit and goodwill.

But they stayed on in the town, and the results were undeniable. Even the most resistant of the students came around and became solid workers, with a few showing a real gift for the design work. The students' parents were thrilled; and most of the townspeople seemed to take to Emily and Matt. But those pesky school board members never quite bought what they were selling, and it's crushing to see such a lack of support for education that directly benefits a community in full-blown recession.

Director Creadon does a fantastic job giving us the big and small pictures of these folks. The economic struggle on display in IF YOU BUILD IT is happening in tens of thousands of towns in America, and the teaching of practical skills that can not only be useful where you live but also possibly help get you into a college and a good-paying job is more valuable than words can say. But the film is careful not to paint this couple as saints. In fact, some of the their outbursts—at the kids, each other, the world—are the emotional highlights of the movie. How could they not get angry? You will for sure. This is not a film with a mission beyond hoping someone thinks twice about killing a program like this before it has a chance to do some real good.

Most importantly, IF YOU BUILD IT gives us a snapshot into the evolving lives of the Studio H students, and how they have been impacted by this class. Not surprisingly, no one left unchanged. It's a moving examination of how screwed up our priorities as a nation have become, and how a group charged with the well being of children failed miserably. There's little doubt you'll be shaken and angered by the film, but also be given a ray of hope that good people exist who are willing to take on the system in tiny but important ways.

It's a tough sell, I know. But the latest work from Oscar-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger (the PARADISE LOST trilogy, SOME KIND OF MONSTER and WHITEY, which just played at Sundance) attempts to show us the United States' recent financial crisis, beginning in 2008, from the perspective of the then-Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, who is interviewed extensively for this doc. In fact, the only new interviews in all of HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK are with Paulson and his wife of 40 years, Wendy, which makes for a riveting and complex portrait of a man under extraordinary pressure and a situation that might have led to the collapse of life as we know it.

A former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Paulson is painted by many as Mr. Bailout, and understandably so. He and his team convinced Congress, President Bush and soon-to-be President Obama to commit to almost $1 trillion in capital to save many of the leading financial instructions in the country. And then he had the unenviable task of convincing the banks—all of them—to take the money as loans that were eventually paid back with interest. To hear him walk through one bank failure after another will make your brain ache, but equally gripping is to hear about how he and his wife weathered the insurmountable pressure that that period had on their marriage. I'm certainly not equating the two in terms of importance, but strictly in terms of the drama created in the narrative of this film.

Paulson has a gift for storytelling and making some of the most complicated issues of the time make some degree of sense. He makes no apologies for what he did, but he does admit when one idea or another to fix the problems doesn't work. He also makes it clear that while he was willing to do what was needed to keep the "too big to fail" banks afloat, he found the questionable practices that put them on the brink to be reprehensible. He even explains why he didn't push to have certain bankers brought up on criminal charges—he felt that stabilizing the economy was job one, and that going after these men would have sent things in a tailspin again.

Perhaps the scariest moments of HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK is when Paulson admits that some of the fixes they instituted for the banks back in 2008 essentially set them up to fail again, making the world seem like some horrible waiting game today, as things slowly get better. Paulson doesn't instill much hope in our future, but he does seem to feel that it's not too late to make changes to stop another major collapse. This film is the first truly terrifying horror film of 2014, but it has also some captivating details that are critical to understanding recent history.

-- Steve Prokopy
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