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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with David Gordon Green's SXSW 2014 hit JOE, DOM HEMINGWAY, and CHEAP THRILLS!!!

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…

Moving closer to the type of films he began his career making but with a knowing maturity that only a person making movies for 15 years could have, director David Gordon Green (GEORGE WASHINGTON, SNOW ANGLES, PRINCE AVALANCHE) gives us JOE, based on the novel by Larry Brown, which focuses on a smalltown man with anger issues trying to live a peaceful life in rural America. The film exemplifies what Green is capable of as a director of both big-name actors (in this case Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom) and first-time actors, including the remarkable Gary Poulter as Wade, the abusive, alcoholic father of young Gary (Tye Sheridan of MUD and THE TREE OF LIFE).

Joe tries to live his life simply and drama-free; unfortunately in the places he frequents, there are men and women who don't share his peace-loving ways, and they sometimes mess with him and unleash a brutality that few want to see twice. Sometimes he goes off on police officers and gets tossed into jail for a spell. A fully bearded Cage brings a quiet anger to Joe, who can be quite gentle and kind, but also shows daily signs of emotional numbness in his heart. But when young Gary comes to him looking for work poisoning trees for loggers to eventually cut down, Joe sees something in the kid he thinks is worth trusting and protecting. Eventually, Joe becomes the closest thing Gary will likely ever have to a mentor, teaching him about the importance of work, how to get a hooker to like you, drinking and defending yourself against bullies, including the boy's father.

I've seen Joe twice so far, and Cage's work in it might be the best he's ever done. It certainly feels like the culmination of a career that still has a long way to go. We see elements of humor, seriousness, and classic Cage flip-out moments that you might start laughing at first, until you see where those moments end up. Then you place the best version of Cage in at David Gordon Green movie, packed with characters portrayed by folks who have never acted before, and the result is a living, breathing work of excellence. Watching Cage get so angry at being in a house with a chicken running around loose is fantastic; but the way he deals with going in a house with a dog in it that doesn't like him is nasty business.

The scenes with Cage and Sheridan are a perfect slice of backwoods heaven, as Joe get drunk and opens up about his life while dispensing a few pearls of wisdom to the young man, who grows increasingly defiant with each encounter with his god-awful father. An Austin-based street performer, Poulter passed away just after shooting this film, but I left the film feeling fortunate to have gotten to see him work in any setting. He plays the worst kind of asshole there is, and we still find ways of feeling for the old coot.

The closest thing Joe finds to an actual villain is Ronnie Gene Blevins' portrayal of Willie-Russell, a ornery cuss with scars across his face (put there by Joe) who is seeking revenge in the nastiest way possible. The first time we meet him, he's shooting at Joe with a shotgun, which he later claims was a simple scare tactic. Mission: accomplished. The confrontations between these two men play out like a classic Western, edging ever closer to the inevitable showdown. The whole film plays a bit like a dirty-behind-the-ears version of SHANE, complete with a town bar, whorehouse, general store and a few colorful locals.

JOE is a film rough around the edges, but still so perfectly composed and realized that even the most improvised scene feels polished and real. Watching Cage maneuver through this landscape in a film that is more about time and place than plot is like seeing a seasoned actor throw away what he thinks he knows about acting and trying on a new skin and new method for an exercise in authenticity. Maybe that's always been Cage's way of working, but it feels like watching an actor reborn, and it's as exciting and perfect as just about anything I've seen in recent months.

Sometimes a good movie can be made great by a strong performance, and other times the performance feels more like an actor releasing bits of nasty energy at us and daring us to keep watching. Welcome to DOM HEMINGWAY, as portrayed by the unlikely Jude Law as a man released from 12 years in prison like he was shot out of a cannon and right into a pile of booze, drugs and women of ill repute. He's barely out five minutes when he's already looking for easy money with his one-time criminal partner Dickie (Richard E. Grant of WITHNAIL AND I, and on recent episodes of HBO's "Girls").

Dom was in jail because he didn't squeal on his then-boss Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir of A BETTER LIFE, MACHETE KILLS, and FX's "The Bridge"), who has made quite a bundle while Dom was away, and now Dom has come to collect his cut plus interest. After a series of unfortunate events (mostly because of hard partying followed by driving), Dom's money is stolen by Fontaine's girlfriend, Paolina (Romanian actress Madalina Ghenea), likely never to be seen again. When he returns home, he's broke and desperate. He attempts to reconnect with his now-grown estranged daughter ("Game of Thrones'" Emilia Clake), who is now married and has a child, but she has no use for him nor desire to allow this animal into her life, an attitude that drives Dom even deeper into depression.

When all is said and one, DOM HEMINGWAY is all about attitude and keeping things moving so that you don't notice how little plot there is. I don't need an elaborate story to hold my interest, and certainly with a powerhouse performance like Law gives here, plot can go to hell for all I care. He's exuding an energy and raw power that almost defies description. Even when he dials it back so as not to fuck up a deal he's working on, you can see the lightning bolts in his eyes and the steam coming out of his ears.

Dom begins the film as the worst kind of human being, but it's impossible not to watch every move he makes. But there does come a point where he realizes that if he doesn't change, he'll likely die alone and soon. It's then that we realize that Dom does possess a sincerity, which he aims directly at his daughter and her family. DOM HEMINGWAY is one of those rare films where having the central character be almost a caricature of a small-time gangster isn't a negative, especially since by the film's end, he's become more recognizable as a human being than at any point during the rest of the story. Director Richard Shepard (THE MATADOR, THE HUNTING PARTY) does a remarkable job pulling together this work and making it part drug-fueled "Alice In Wonderland," part fractured family drama. And the finished film is stronger than the sum of its parts. Don't be afraid to take a hit.

The hardest moments in the new one-upmanship dark comedy CHEAP THRILLS happen right at the beginning. They don't involve blood or sex or an increasing amount of money changing hands as bets are made and won or lost. No, the first scenes in the film show Craig (the remarkable Pat Healy from COMPLIANCE, and most recently in this week's DRAFT DAY and last week's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER) has to explain to his wife that he lost his job just as they are on the verge of getting tossed out of their home. Those initial scenes of desperation stay with us for the entire film, and make every insane action that follows make sense in the worst kind of way.

If CHEAP THRILLS had simply been about of bunch of douchebag frat boys daring each other to do stupid stuff, it wouldn't be half the film that it is in the hands of writer-turned-director E.L. Katz, working from a script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga. But it's Craig's agonizing about keeping a roof over his family's head that drives him to the local bar, where he runs into old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two commiserate about their lives (neither is swimming in cash). But things begin to get strange and life-altering when they are approached by Colin (David Koechner), an apparently cash-rich man, and his cool, collected wife Violet (Healy's INNKEEPERS partner Sara Paxton).

Colin begins making small wagers with the two old friends, pitting them against each other in harmless bar games about chugging drinks or getting phone numbers from women in the bar. But when they move the party to Colin and Violet's home, the wagers get more substantial, as do the stakes, and it doesn't take long for things to cross multiple lines that can't be uncrossed, none of which I will reveal here. But it's a remarkable thing to experience tension build the way director Katz makes it happen in CHEAP THRILLS. All the while, we start to realize who among Colin and Violet is really in charge. He makes all of bets, but she watches this makeshift competition without blinking. And she seems like a woman who gets bored easily, while Colin is a man eager to please his young, pretty wife.

The dares also bring out the worst in the two men, once friends, but whose differences and reasons for not being close anymore come out quickly when money is on the line. Koechner is extraordinary and shows a new-found range here as the ringmaster (again, not always the guy actually in charge, just the face of the operation), while Paxton plays it cool and mysterious just long enough for us to know she's a troublemaker. CHEAP THRILLS is such a taut, messy experience, it's difficult to imagine you aren't going to come out the other side a little disturbed, not by specific images but by attitudes and human nature as a whole. This is a strong, striking work that I'm guessing and hoping people will re-examine for years to come.

-- Steve Prokopy
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