Capone's Art-House Round-Up with ISLAND OF LEMURS, NYMPHOMANIAC, VOL. 2, ANITA and FINDING VIVIAN MAIER!!!
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…
ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR
What's curious and rather bold of ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR is that it embraces the science of evolution right from the get-go, but declaring that lemurs may be the animal most closely linked to humans. Through the almost too-obvious choice of Morgan Freeman as narrator and some truly gorgeous photography, director David Douglas (FIRES OF KUWAIT, WOLVES, STRAIGHT UP: HELICOPTERS IN ACTION) introduces us to the many varieties of lemurs living off the coast of Africa and how man's expansion is endangering their very existence.
The film's primary human character is Dr. Patricia C. Wright, whose spent decades studying and attempting to protect these fascinating creatures that exhibit advanced behaviors that I simply wasn't aware the possessed. She narrates a portion of the film as well, but she comes across like a pre-school teacher communicating with kids who have barely learned to form sentences. I fell like when you're primary purpose is to get across the severity of the potential demise of a population of animal, you should maintain a more serious, less sing-songy tone. Maybe that's just me.
I'm also a little dubious of the title of the film incorporating the name "Madagascar" into it, thus probably confusing many children who love the IMADAGASCAR films. Any kid coming into this film will probably still get a kick out of the real thing, but as exotic as these animals are, they're no King Julian with a Sacha Baron Cohen-supplied voice. But that has nothing to do with the film and more to do with marketing.
What's here is good stuff, although with IMAX prices these days, I'm not sure such a short film is worth it any longer. However, I should add that shot-in-IMAX films are some of the few 3-D efforts worth paying extra for. So your enjoyment of ISLAND OF LEMURS really depends on how much you dig science, unbearable levels of cuteness, discussion of evolution, and lemurs. If you rank these things high, seek out this short at an IMAX screen near you.
NYMPHOMANIC, VOL. 2
It's seem like only yesterday (actually it was two weeks ago) that I was waxing poetic about the latest from Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, the superb NYMPHOMANIC, VOL. 1. Just to be clear, the two NYMPHOMANIC films (VOLUME 2 arrives today in many cities) are meant to be seen as a single film; dividing them just made sense. And I believe the complete film actually runs close to an hour longer than the sum of its parts.
I made the point with my discussion of the first half that, despite countless warning about explicit sex in a "mainstream feature film," the first volume works best as a consideration of a woman who uses constant sex as a means to make her remember she's even alive and has some value. VOLUME 2 is a bit trickier, as it moves its focus from the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) to the one telling her story in flashback (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a self-proclaimed asexual man ( Stellan Skarsgård) who has rescued her after a severe beating.
It's odd that Von Trier has saved his perverse, dark humor for the part of the story that is less about mostly harmless casual sex to a woman attempting to have a serious relationship (with her on-again/off-again lover Jerome, played by Shia Labeouf), which of course leads to two things: any sensation in her vagina disappears, and she becomes obsessed with an S&M expert (Jamie Bell), who whips her ass with a riding cross so severely that her sexual sensations return. I guess that's his version of "Take 2 aspirin, and call me when you can sit down again."
Whereas the material in VOLUME 1 wasn't about shock or testing the limits of taste, the same cannot be said about the second half of the NYMPHOMANIC. I think at this point, I'm past being shocked, so that isn't the problem with VOLUME 2. The bigger issue has more to do with Von Trier cheapening himself, lowering the very standards that he set with part one. The quality of the storytelling is still strong and the images continue to be both stark and lovely. But a sequence in which two men are arguing in a language that she doesn't understand about how they are going to have sex with her at the same time while their fully erect penises are flopping around front and center feels obvious, even if it is one of the funniest things Von Trier has ever filmed.
What VOLUME 2 lacks in personal insight and growth, it makes up for slightly in plot. I liked the brief relationship Joe has with a young woman played by Mia Goth, and a sequence in which Joe gets a job as a debt collector working for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe) is solid, if only because these two have a proven adversarial type of chemistry (as they did in Von Trier's ANTICHRIST). She uses her intimate knowledge of men's desires to do her job more effectively, and it leads to an especially violent encounter that links the flashbacks with the present. This back half of NYMPHOMANIAC is a bit more hit and miss than the opening portion, but it still packs an emotional punch, even if it leaves us feeling a bit cold at times. That's the nature of Von Trier's work as a whole—the heart slips through the thin layer of ice that each character wears, and it almost always results in something unexpected, even brilliant every once and a while.
I was just out of college, working for "American Lawyer" magazine in New York City, which was in the process of launching its cable channel Court TV at the time. The channel was going to be the first to air live courtroom proceedings in the their entirety, and had been on the air about three months when the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings took place. I don't honestly remember if Court TV aired those proceedings or not, but nearly every co-worker in the office was watching them on televisions throughout the floor. It was the first time I'd ever watched such hearings, and I knew even then that they were unlike any others, as they thrust the practice, definition and provability of workplace sexual harassment claims into the American spotlight like never before.
I remember watching Anita Hill testify before and answer questions from the Senate judiciary committee—14 white men, most of whom had already made up their minds to confirm Thomas—and I have a clear memory of thinking, "That woman would rather be anywhere than where she is right now." Those who believed Hill, made the point that she had nothing to gain from her accusations, told in a poised, unblinking manner by a woman I suspected had never been treated with that level of disrespect before, by Thomas or the committee. The whole affair came across as a group of dirty old men trying to get Hill to be more and more graphic. (It should be noted that the committee chairman was Joe Biden, who wrapped up the hearings without calling a second woman to testify who would have corroborated Hill's claims.)
Naturally, Hill had her detractors, and in the end Thomas cleared the process and remains the most predictable, least credible member of the Supreme Court, maybe ever. But I digress. From Oscar-winning director Freida Mock (MAYA LIN: A STRONG CLEAR VISION) comes the new documentary ANITA, which gives us a clear and unfiltered view of what happened to Hill in the years following her testimony. I'm guessing that if you never believed her, you'll have no interest in seeing this film, so I'll direct my attention to those who did.
When I first saw this film last year as part of a documentary film festival, it had the subtitle "Speaking Truth to Power," which was also the name of Hill's autobiography, and I think that typifies the kind of person she was trying to be in 1991. She didn't come forward to gain anything; she simply wanted the nation to know what kind of person they were about to place in the highest court in the land. She certainly wasn't trying to make it about race; Thomas was the one who drummed up stereotypes and accusations of "high-tech lynching," a phrase that was clearly fed to him by supporters. ANITA does a great job of letting us know where Hill came from before she was exposed to this level of harassment and where she has taken her life for the last 20-plus years, while attempting to help others in similar situations while maintaining an academic career, teaching the law.
Director Mock's greatest strength as a filmmaker for this particular work is access. Hill opens up her life, and we meet her family and friends, and continues to discuss her treatment in an office with Thomas and in the years that followed. The film lays out the controversy and the debate that ensued, as well as the shameful behavior of Oklahoma lawmakers who attempted to get Hill fired from the college where she taught after the hearings ended. Anita is a straight-forward, searing profile of an American shame that has yet to be fully acknowledged or made right, but it also shows the strength of a woman who came out the other side of this outrage still standing upright, with history on her side.
FINDING VIVIAN MAIER
One of the most unbelievable and captivating stories to come out of Chicago in recent memory is the story of the late Vivian Maier, who is now deemed by many to be one of the last century's premiere street photographers. When she died in 2007, several collectors, including a young man named John Maloof, purchased the contents of her storage locker at an auction, and discovered prints, negatives, undeveloped roles of film, audio tapes and home movies belonging to Maier. Being the master organizer that he was (or came to be), Maloof began the long yet rewarding process of scanning in her prints, developing film, and making contact sheets of the negatives to discover some incredible work just waiting to be discovered, which it was by art lovers as soon as Maloof posted online about 200 images from the collection that easily contains tens of thousands of as-yet-unseen images.
When he realized he might have found something special, Maloof made two decisions: to document his discovery and try to find out just who this mysterious photographer was and why she'd gone unnoticed until now. With the help of co-director Charlie Siskel and executive producer (and great comic actor) Jeff Garlin, Maloof has pieced together FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, one of the greatest investigative documentaries in recent memory, partly because Maloof's tenacity is infectious and impressive, but also because what he discovers is at times shocking, amazing and above all, quite revealing.
I won't say too much (although for Chicagoans, some of these revelations have been well documented), but it turns out Maier was a career nanny for several prominent family in Chicago and elsewhere; her "career" as a street photographer began in the 1950s; she seemed to have no use for men or any type of romantic entanglements; and she had a somewhat unhealthy paranoia about the government and nosy people in general.
Most revealing is a brief period of about a year when Maier took a trip around the world, including a visit to a particular town in France where her few remaining relatives still live and give more information about her than Maloof and his team could have hoped for. (She had a French accent that some were convinced was fake.)
A great deal of time is spent attempting to deal with the odd fact that no major museum in the U.S. would display her work or fund Maloof's efforts to develop and print hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. Many theories are given as to why they won't accept her work or even acknowledge her place in the street photography world. But other art experts fully praise her work, which is undeniably beautiful and captures her subjects (often destitute men and women) in perfectly framed and composed shots. FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is the perfect blend of mystery-solving and artistic portrait. But through many interviews with the now-grown children she cared for, the movie also reveals that Maier may have been growing more and more mentally unstable with age, with some even accusing her of being physically abusive (although I have to admit, that particular claim comes from only one person, who clearly has issues of her own).
I truly hope that this documentary opens up a place for Maier's work into the mainstream art world, but more importantly, I'd love for ordinary people (art lover or not) to see her stunning photos and be moved that the person who took them didn't seem to make fame or recognition a priority. She just wanted to capture life, in all of its beauty and sorrow. She probably saw a lot of herself in her subjects, as her handful of self-portraits seemed to reveal. It's a great, entertaining movie, whose inherent drama makes it a cut above other art-themed docs.
-- Steve Prokopy
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