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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Oscar-nominee OMAR, KIDS FOR CASH and the 3-D IMAX STALINGRAD!!!

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…

Think you're all caught up on seeing as many of the Oscar nominees as you can before Sunday's award ceremonies. Let's sneak one more in before you check off your ballot and lose you money. Getting into theaters in select markets this weekend just under the wire is OMAR, the first-ever Best Foreign Language nominee from Palestine and director Hany Abu-Assad (PARADISE NOW). It's a truly tense little thriller about three young men who are best friends and have been self-training to become freedom fighters/terrorists for Palestine. We see them prep for a sniper mission to kill Israeli soldiers, and eventually one of them carries out the act.

We see this gripping story through the eyes of Omar (Adam Bakri), a baker who slips over the separation wall in the Occupied Territories to visit his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubany), who happens to be the sister of one of the other boys, Tarek (Eyad Hourani). The third boy Amjad (Samer Bisharat), who was the actual shooter, is also in love with Nadja, but her heart clearly belongs to Omar. The police eventually arrest Omar and torture him and threaten to hurt Nadja as well if he doesn't tell them where Tarek is; the police mistakenly think Tarek is the shooter, since he's the leader of their little group, and Omar agrees to turn Tarek over if they leave him and Nadja alone.

At this point Omar is playing both sides, immediately telling Tarek upon his release that the police want him for the shooting. Along with Amjad, the group plots to lure the police, led by a wonderfully manipulative handler (Waleed F. Zuaiter), to a spot and ambush them, but a rat inside their organization alerts the cops to the double-cross, and all hell breaks loose. And that's only about the halfway point of the film. Omar is loaded with double- and triple-crosses, questionable loyalty for miles, and a love story that goes through the ringer when rumors start that Omar is a traitor to Palestine. Not only must Omar get out from under the thumb of the Israelis, but he must clear his name with his own people and keep the heart of Nadja, who seems to be slipping away into the arms of Amjad.

OMAR is certainly a skillfully constructed work that deserves to be seen, but its nomination seems strange, since I can think of a half-dozen better qualifying films that should have been in the list of five instead of this one. Still, there's a one-two punch of a climax in the film that will leave you feeling like you got kicked squarely in the gut. And those scenes alone elevate the film from good to exceptional. There are a few strange moments when we find ourselves rooting for Omar not to get caught, but empathy is a strange thing sometimes, and the love story certainly makes it easier for us to want to see him get out from under everyone's influence and live his life with his lady. Using familiar cinematic devices, OMAR creates some strange heroes and villains, but it's a hugely compelling work well worth your time.

This sickening documentary about one example of the corruption and twisted ways people manipulate the judicial system, KIDS FOR CASH is a profile of juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella, who was elected to his seat in a small town in Pennsylvania in the wake of the Columbine shootings, when the nation became especially scared of its children. Not quite understanding the simple truth that you should never elect a judge with a personality, the folks in Luzerne County elected Ciavarella pretty much for his zero-tolerance policy when it comes to crime in schools committed by kids. And it just so happened that a new independent juvenile facility had opened in the community, and Judge Ciavarella was more than happy to toss kids as young as 12 into this kiddie jail until they were 18, essentially destroying their childhood, and more than likely their adult lives as well.

Film producer and first-time director Robert May opens KIDS FOR CASH with a title card with a declaration that 193 countries ratified the UN's "Convention on the Rights of the Child," with the US being one of only three nations not to sign (the other two being Somalia and South Sudan). I'd like to think the US didn't sign for the age-old reason that Americans don't like being told what to do by other nations, but it may speak to a much darker truth.

As a nation, the government does not truly have the best interest of the child in mind when making decisions that will impact their lives forever. In the case of Judge Ciavarella, when enough parents got up in arms about jamming so many children into jail for minor infractions, a local reporter uncovered a money trail that appeared to indicate the judge made money off the building and filling of said juvenile detention center, along with some of his rich buddies.

May cleverly edits the film to go back and forth between the testimony of previously jailed kids (some of whom are in their 20s now) and the timeline of the corruption scandal being revealed by the media and other investigators, holding back certain high-impact dramatic moments until precisely the right moment. A sequence involving an angry mother screaming point blank in Ciavarella's face outside the courtroom where his trial is taking place is particularly hard hitting and shocking in what she reveals in her tyrade.

A small quibble with the film is its title. While Ciavarella did become known as the "Kids for Cash" judge, he actually wasn't ever tried for that particular crime—accepting money for each kid he sent to the juvenile center. But the moniker stuck, and thus the title of the film stands in all of its compelling and erroneous glory. Perhaps the film's most impressive get is an interview with Judge Ciavarella, who seems more than willing to walk through the micro-avenues of his case and deny what he can and avoid what he can't deny outright. There is the briefest of moments when you actually start to see how much the accusations are tearing him down, but then we hear more stories from the kids whose lives he ruined, and that all vanishes.

KIDS FOR CASH is one of those great documentaries that hits all the right anger buttons, and serves up a healthy dose of the bad guys getting caught outright (whether they pay the price in court, I won't spoil). But in the end, no amount of justice or jail time can make up for the stories from these kids that we hear, nor will they bring back the lost years or undo the damage done from being thrown in jail, barely old enough to be called a teenager. It's a cutting and substantial work from director Robert May, and you can hope that he follow up in five or 10 years to see where these young people are, and whether they pulled their lives back together after this mess.

Wait, what? There's a 3-D, IMAX, Russian-made, loud-as-hell, epic-in-length telling of the World War II's Battle of Stalingrad, which claimed the lives of more than 1.2 million? You're damn right, and it was one of the biggest grossing films in Russian history last year. I'm not making light of this massive event with unimaginable casualties, but the film STALINGARD isn't going for realism as much as a thunder-and-lightning version of events told from the perspective of a small group of Russian soldiers holding off a much larger group of German soldiers from a bombed out building at the heart of the city.

It's a brash and exciting ride, but it's also a bit of a mess with a lot of unnecessary storylines that feel like (and are) fat in need of trimming. Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the film are its bookends, which takes place in wake of the post-tsunami/earthquake rubble of Fukushima, Japan, where Russian rescue workers are attempting to get five trapped German children from the rubble. One of the Russians begins telling the children the story of the Russian soldiers in Stalingrad, and the film takes off from there—maybe not the best story for calming down these kids, whose oxygen supply is low already.

I'll admit, it was a little tough keeping track of all of the soldiers' names on both the Russian and German sides, although I did recognize the Russian leader Capt. Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) and one of the German leaders, Kapitan Kan (Tomas Krechmann), whose biggest contribution to the film is sleeping with a Russian prostitute (Mariya Smolnikova), who would rather spit in his face than service him (she does both, in the end). The only other major female character in this male-heavy work is Masha (Yanina Studilina), a slightly insane but inspiring figure who seems to represent the heart and spirit of Mother Russia. If the nation was still making propaganda films, I'd almost believe director Fedor Bondarchuk (himself a famous Russian actor) was placed in this movie to represent exactly that.

Where STALINGARD lacks in character development or sensibility, it makes up for in pure fireworks. Since I'm pretty sure the only chance you'll have to see this film in a theater is on an IMAX screen, the accompanying powerhouse sound system is guaranteed to blast your eardrums into oblivion. Every gunshot, mortar round, grenade, tank fire and air support attack is loud as holy fuck. And when your ears aren't bleeding, you'll be treated to a lovely and moving score by composer Angelo Badalamenti. The sum total of all of these elements bombarding you during the course of over two hours is more than a little overwhelming, but I'm fairly certain that was director Bondarchuk's intent — to approximate the constant, howling experience of being under relentless attack.

As much as the film attempts to make each major character his or her own representative entity, the result is a parade of cliché-ridden folks who seem interchangeable in the end with a few exceptions. The surprisingly sympathetic approach to Krechmann's character doesn't quite work either. His emotional instability doesn't make us empathize with him as much as it makes us think he's getting what he deserves. The fact the he falls in love with the prostitute doesn't score points with an audience either; instead, he just looks like a dummy.

I was excited to see STALINGARD, if only as a novelty. And I was curious what type of film does well in distant lands. And now I know. If you're a fan of war movies, you could do worse, but odds are, you could do a whole lot better without much effort. It's a beautiful-looking film, but it also looks somewhat artificial, almost too perfectly flattened, except for a few key structures needed to wage war. In the end, it's not exactly something worth recommending, but it's a fascinating curiosity that probably wouldn't work as well watching at home.

-- Steve Prokopy
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