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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE RAILWAY MAN, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, THE UNKOWN KNOWN & HATESHIP LOVESHIP!!!

Published at: April 18, 2014, 7:50 p.m. CST by Capone

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…


THE RAILWAY MAN
When I found out that British serviceman Eric Lomax worked worked on the same Japanese rail line while he was a prisoner of war during World War II that the soldiers in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI did, I was intrigued. But this version of the POW experience is not filled with whistling and conspiring against ones captors. No, director Jonathan Teplitzky's THE RAILWAY MAN (based on Lomax's autobiography) is about surviving in the face of some truly brutal treatment and dealing with the resulting demons for the rest of one's life.

The film actually opens with the much older Lomax (played with a quiet dignity by Colin Firth), a train enthusiast who meets the lovely divorcee Patti (Nicole Kidman). He dazzles her with his knowledge of schedules and the landmarks surrounding the various stations throughout the countryside, and she still finds something charming about the reserved and socially awkward gentleman. But not long after they get married, Lomax begins exhibiting severe symptoms of PTSD, as if he's reliving his horrifying captivity all over again. He even begins to shows signs of being a danger to himself and Patti, and she turns to one of her husband's only friends from that period, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who reluctantly fills her in on the pure torture they went through in Japan, mostly at the hands of the interpreter Nagase (played in flashbacks by Tanroh Ishida).

By pure chance, Lomax discovers that Nagase is still alive back in Japan (and played by the great Hiroyuki Sanada from SUNSHINE, THE WOLVERINE 47 RONIN) acting as a tour guide. Naturally, Lomax heads back to the place of his torment—to do what, we're not exactly sure. Without giving away too many details about events from the past or present, I will say that THE RAILWAY MAN gives us some of Firth's finest pure dramatic acting, certainly more impressive than his work in THE KING'S SPEECH and more devastating a portrayal than he gave in A SINGLE MAN.

War Horse's Jeremy Irvine plays Lomax as a young soldier going through the torture, and his transformation is even more dramatic than what Firth brings to the film. I'll admit, I had no idea how this encounter was going to play out, or if Lomax would even have the courage to see it through. Director Teplitzky wisely doesn't seem to care if major characters vanish from the film for stretches of time, if that's in fact what happened in real life. I know this may sound obvious, but often the temptation is to add things here and there for dramatic impact, which is certainly not required in this sometimes unbearably tense work.

THE RAILWAY MAN moves at its own speed—nothing is rushed and nothing needs to be. None of the actors are reaching for big moments; they simply arrive at them and allow the circumstances to spill over them and onto us, and our hearts collectively break. It's a quietly impactful movie that shows us a side of war not often portrayed, stripped of the glory, leaving only the shame. The film almost dares you to leave the screening unchanged; good luck with that.


ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Vampires are played-out fictional creatures that nearly all forms of artistic expression have exhausted of dramatic and entertainment value. But thankfully nobody told writer-director Jim Jarmusch this while he was conceiving of the centuries old married vampires Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), who are so deeply in love they can't even live together all the time. What Jarmusch has done with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is considered what life would truly be like for these blood-thirsty beings, and how they would exist in a way where they were never caught or even noticed. And then he imagines what sort of force would completely destroy their comfortable existence. The answer, it turns out, is family.

Adam lives in the most desolate, hallowed out place in Detroit. He's a famous rock musician, but nobody knows what he looks like or where he lives. He has a blood supplier who works at a blood bank because killing humans would call attention and the bodies would pile up quick. Eve resides in Tangier with her friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who just happens to be the man that Shakespeare conspiracy followers believe wrote all or most of the Bard's works. Eve is a collector of knowledge, who senses that Adam is growing depressed and she makes the journey to Detroit (on the red-eye, naturally) to comfort him.

Watching Hiddleston and Swinton move together is like watching a finely choreographed dance with two soulmates gliding in and out of each other's space. Even their personal style tells us so much about them. She looks like a wild animal draped in ancient garb the makes her look like a god of nature, while he dresses like David Bowie would never have the guts to, even at his boldest. He is surrounded by vintage guitars and other musical artifacts and recording equipment, procured for him by his promoter, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is truly the only normal person in the film.

Every detail of ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is perfectly tailored and designed, from the hair, makeup and dress to the elaborate production design of Adam's home, the dwellings where Eve visits Marlowe and other beautifully dressed locations. Jarmusch leaves nothing to chance, and why should he? These characters have had hundreds of years to decorate themselves and their homes. Adam and Eve are the epitome of cool without trying to be overly slick or in any way menacing. Again, their intention is not to stand out. Of course, all of that falls apart when Eve's wild-child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up in Detroit shortly after Eve does for a little family visit that turns into her wreaking havoc on everything she comes into contract with. She's a holy terror that forces all things to fall apart or necessarily be destroyed. Sounds tragic, I know, but it's also kind of fun.

In fact, there's a wonderfully wicked sense of humor running through ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE that is essential to getting through some of the deadly serious moments. Eve tries to downplay Adam's depression by reminding him that he's gone through this cycle before and somehow ended up missing the Middle Ages. Jarmusch also lovingly adds a few details to the vampire list of tricks by giving Eve the ability to touch any object and be able to time stamp its creation.

There are several nice touches that prove how much fun the director had creating these characters, and it makes a significant difference. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a fluid, stylish blend of old-school Gothic wonder and hipster flair that Jarmusch seems almost destined to have made. And I don't know how any fan of the celebratory weirdness that both Hiddleston and especially Swinton bring to anything they do could turn this one down.


THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
At one point during the searing documentary THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, director Errol Morris lays out a series of fictional events that begins in the Reagan Administration in which the film's subject, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, eventually becomes president. The timeline is actually close to reality, with just one major change that involves Rumsfeld, and not the elder George Bush, being appointed the head of the CIA. Rumsfeld contemplates the idea of being president and agrees in part that things might have turned out that way for him. It's a harrowing moment in a film filled with them.

You can look up Rumsfeld's career online if you so desire; there's no need for me to detail it here. But what is fascinating about him as an interview subject is that it's clear that the wheels are always turning. He considers not only every answer, but also why Morris is asking the question in the first place. Sometimes before he answers, he goes after the filmmaker about the nature of the question, asking him to qualify it. This phenomenon is especially notable when Rumsfeld is being grilled about getting into the war in Iraq.

Through liberal use of archival footage—I found the press briefings Rumsfeld gave during the war especially infuriating—we begin to develop a picture of Rumsfeld as not so much a member of the inner circle on the war but as a ringleader for the circus of scared reporters afraid to ask the toughest questions when his answers clearly make no sense.

Some might be tempted to compare THE UNKNOWN KNOWN with Morris' award-winning offering THE FOG OF WAR about Robert McNamara, but the two films are quite different, with McNamara admitting to a series of bad decisions, while Rumsfeld refuses to acknowledge so many years of active deception and lies. He still believes he has a legacy to protect, or perhaps he's been telling the lies for so long, he's started to believe them. The shit-eating grin on his face seems to bear that out.

But Rumsfeld is also a great man to listen to and an engaging storyteller when he wants to be. Listening to him talk about meeting his wife for the first time is quite charming, and he was certainly in the foreground when major historical events were unfolding. I was captivated listening to him recite some of his own memos (known by many as his "snowflakes" due to their abundance and the fact that no two were the same) that seems to rewrite history almost as fast as it was being written. The more I got to know Rumsfeld, the less I understood what he was made of. He somehow manages to become more of a curiosity after watching THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, and that makes the film as entertaining as it is frustrating.


HATESHIP LOVESHIP
In a film that has been dancing around the festival and limited-release circuit since last year's Toronto Film Festival, director Liza (Return) Johnson's latest is a bittersweet but surprisingly hopeful story of the heart, based on Alice Munro's short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" (adapted by Mark Poirier). HATESHIP LOVESHIP follows the quiet life of Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig, in a nicely understated performance), a caretaker who is hired by an Iowa widower (Nick Nolte) to help take care of his jaded granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father Ken (Guy Pearce) left her to live with his father-in-law while he attempts to build a life for himself in Chicago running a broken-down motel.

After Johanna receives a thank-you note from Ken for looking out for his daughter, she decides to write back a quick note, which is intercepted by Sabitha and her friend, and they take on the role of Ken writing letters and emails to Johanna that quickly turn into seduction exchanges, including an invitation to come to Chicago to move in with him. With a set up like that, you'd expect the eventual reveal would send Johanna into a tailspin, since she comes across as a woman who has never been in love and certain never been pursued so persistently by a man (she's meant to be plain, the one trick Wiig can't quite pull off). Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn when Johanna arrives to find a drug-addicted Ken, sick and barely functioning. When he tells her he doesn't even own a computer to send this romantic emails, rather than leave, she takes it upon herself to take care of this struggling man, cleaning his apartment, and getting the motel into shape.

His life having fallen apart after his wife died, Ken clearly hasn't had this kind of attention and care in quite some time, and his life has become a series of failures, bad company and even worse decisions. Johanna represents a caring that he so desperately is missing from his life, and has made his daughter both miss him and despise what he has become. HATESHIP LOVESHIP is a bit clunky and obvious at times, but I will admit, it surprised me more than once with the plot turns it makes. I also enjoyed watching the gradual reveals we get about Johanna's life prior to joining this family. We know from an opening scene that she took care of an elderly woman for many years, but she seems to be just one of those people that is happiest taking care of others, whether they're old or simply in dire need of fixing.

Having floored us with her work in the Coen Brothers remake of TRUE GRIT, Steinfeld has struggled to find her groove as an actor again in sub-par films like ENDER'S GAME, 3 DAYS TO KILL, and a recent version of ROMEO AND JULIET. But playing a fairly normal, angsty teen with a hint of rebellion, she seems to have hit upon a strength in her abilities, which allows Sabitha to subtly change and mature as the story goes on and her father grows up. HATESHIP LOVESHIP is primarily worth checking out if you're curious about Wiig's range as an actor. Outside of that, it's a sweet, harmless but largely unremarkable family drama, sprinkled with weird comedic touches, that amounts to a pleasant enough moviegoing experience and nothing more.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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