Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE IMMIGRANT, IDA, FED UP, and the restored QUEEN MARGOT!!!
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…
History can leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling, or it can leave us cold and distanced from events we'd rather forget. The latest from director and co-writer James Gray, THE IMMIGRANT, features a past that is a bit of both for its characters. The film itself carries with it a warm, faded-newspaper tone that makes the story both firmly set in the past but also one that its participants are trying to forget. Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan play sisters Ewa and Magda, on a ship from Poland, disembarking at Ellis Island eager for their new life to begin. Before being given their papers to go into New York, Magda is diagnosed to TB and told she must stay in the infirmary for six months, after which she will either be allowed into the country or sent back to Poland.
Devastated by this turn of events, Ewa turns to a "travelers' aide" named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who seems like he wants to help her, giving her a place to stay and a job as a seamstress for his variety show (a.k.a. burlesque show). He makes it clear that if she can make enough money, he can get her sister out with no questions, which naturally leads to her joining up with the show as a performer. Before long, the true nature of her job reveals itself as a front for a prostitution ring run by Bruno, who seems unnaturally obsessed with Ewa, even claiming that he loves her.
The Immigrant is a tale of woe and misery, but it's also a film that has a real eye for period, both in its production design, its language, even the way the characters speak. Ewa's struggle is really brought to life by Cotillard's harrowing performance, and Phoenix slips from warm and caring mentor to strong-handed pimp so easily, it's slightly terrifying. One of the few bright notes in this tale is the late-film entrance of Bruno's estranged cousin, the magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who also falls for Ewa and promises her a life away from the stage and the whoring. Ewa spends much of the film torn between wanting to escape and knowing that if she flees, she'll never see her sister again. The film can be rough at times, but it's always a fascinating journey.
Gray (TWO LOVERS, WE OWN THE NIGHT) and co-writer Ric Menello are telling a fairly straight-forward love-triangle story, but it's the details and strong performances that bring it to life. I think Renner is the real surprise here as the sweetheart of a charmer who reveals himself to be something a bit more complicated by the end of the film. Cotillard spends a great deal of the film looking like she's in perpetual shock, which may be what she's going for, but it's sometimes difficult to understand Ewa's state of mind as a result. She's still very good here, but we've seen her do better.
THE IMMIGRANT was nearly buried by The Weinstein Company after a limited release last week; the Chicago release was only announced a few days ago, and I'm glad people will get a chance to see it on the big screen because the production design and period sets on display are magnificent and quite stunning. And with a cast like this, without a weak link in the bunch, you'd hardly get the full impact of the total film watching it at home. This is no feel-good movie, but not all of them have to be; it is a story filled with hope, even amid the weighty material that surround it. It's a lovely, moving experience giving us an alternate view of how the United States once treated its newest residents.
The first film I watched in the 2014 was a controversial Polish film called AFTERMATH, about a pair of brothers who uncovered a long-buried part of their hometown's past during World War II that the rest of the country would rather have kept secret. In the latest work from the great Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (MY SUMMER OF LOVE) comes IDA, the story of a young nun on the verge of taking her final vows, who also makes a similar discovery about the place she comes from. The resulting film is quite different from AFTERMATH but no less troubling and significant.
Shot in crisp, gorgeous black and white and framed to make every shot look like it could be hung on the wall of a museum, IDA involves 18-year-old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), raised in a convent circa 1960s Poland, who is told by her mother superior that she must travel to meet her only living relative before taking her final vows. Annoyed by the request, Anna visits her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), an influential judge and party member, who drinks too much and seems to take home random men every night. After begrudgingly letting Anna into her home, she floors the young nun-to-be with the revelation that Anna's real name is Ida, she's actually of Jewish descent, and that her parents were murdered during the war, during Nazi occupation.
After warming up to each other, the unlikely pair travel the countryside to find Ida's parents' house and perhaps where they are buried. Despite the elegant look of the film, IDA is a straight-forward tale told without visual or written flourishes. There are long stretches with no dialogue, but a portrait of wartime Poland emerges that is ugly and shameful. The film's biggest revelations are given no more weight than the smaller, less significant ones, and the result is a quiet, intimate experience that opens up a world of pain for both women. Ida is crushed by new information, while Wanda is devastated by memories long buried in years of drinking and heartless sex. But somehow this unlikely duo establish a balance and help console each other.
It's clear that Poland is still trying to process and fully uncover a certain, awful part of its past, but a work like IDA helps put these revelations in some kind of perspective, although its clear that a great deal of healing is still happening. Director Pyawlikowski makes purely artistic choices with his camera that truly impressed me, with each sequence being more beautiful and haunting than the one before. He often will position his camera at his subjects in such a way that their heads are at the bottom of the frame, with empty sky or trees above them. The reason for this is open to interpretation but it feels like the filmmaker is leaving room for his characters' inner thoughts, or he's telling us that only a portion of their true lives has been opened up to us as of yet. It's a remarkable work, one of the finest I've seen this year, and it's well worth seeking out.
Although it's not exactly a secret that products made with sugar and processed sugar are fairly bad for us, the new documentary from director Stephanie Soechtig (who made the doc TAPPED, about the bottled water industry) puts a great deal of the fattening of America in perspective, probably in a way many of us won't want to face up to. Narrated by Katie Couric (a co-producer, along with AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH producer Laurie David), FED UP lays out the decades-long campaign by the food industry to inject addictive, corrosive sugar products into what we eat on a day to day basis, resulting in a shocking health crisis in this country.
The film's most interesting claims, which seem to be backed up by medical and statistical data, are that exercise and better dieting aren't helping to fend off the obesity or diabetes epidemics because everything has sugar in it, even things that are supposed to contain less sugar. The human face FED UP puts on this subject are those of overweight children, who the film says grew up without being a given a chance to eat right, thanks to a combination of aggressive marketing by food companies and terrible ingredients in most foodstuffs. Most of the kids in the film are exercising better than their thinner peers, and it's clear that they are filled with shame and disappointment every minute of their lives.
There is something about Couric's narration that makes FED UP feel a little too much like a feature-length public service announcement, and I suppose that's exactly what it is. But it somehow makes it less likely that the information will sink in it the way it should. That being said, there are aspects of and messages in this film (primarily the ones that aren't narrated by her) that I will carry with me for a long time to come. Since I don't have kids, I had no idea how deeply fast food chains had penetrated some public schools; I had never noticed that on the recommended daily allowance label on every food product we buy that "Sugar" doesn't have a percentage next to it because if it did, it would likely show 200-300 percent higher than the FDA recommends (thank you, sugar lobbyists).
One of the more interesting revelations in the makes regards Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, which began as a call to industry to change the make up of the products to make them healthier. But thanks to a push from the food industry, her campaign now focuses more on exercise as a means of staying fit. At no time does FED UP not know exactly who its target is, and boy do they hate the food industry. So if you're looking for an unbiased point of view on this issue, don't look here. That doesn't make me believe the claims contained in the film any less, but it doesn't exactly make for great journalism either. Although to be fair, a list of companies and food industry associations that would not submit to an interview with the filmmakers is included at the end of the film (that list includes Mrs. Obama). FED UP is a tough movie to watch, but ignore it at your own peril.
QUEEN MARGOT (LA REINE MARGOT)
Twenty years ago, when I first saw Patrice (INTIMACY, THOSE WHO LOVE ME TAKE THE TRAIN) Chereau's epic story of sex, religion and the French class structure, QUEEN MARGOT, I was probably a little too young to fully appreciate the spectacle and deeper historical significance of the Catholic-Protestant clash of the 1600s. I likely focused more on the sickening blood and guts, the lusty French women and the lush production design. I still believe a master's degree in French history would make my understanding of these philosophical battles more complete, but it's still wonderful to see the film restored to its original two-hour and 40-minute glory (the original US distributor, Miramax, cut it back by about 20 minutes) in this 4K restoration.
In the end, digging into the complexities of who hates who the most isn't really important; simply understanding the levels and layers of betrayal and desire are at the core of this costume melodrama. And when you first lay eyes of Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite de Valois (or Margot), all of your cares will be swept away as it is revealed that she has a sexual appetite that guides her politics as well as bedroom activities. Despite her being Catholic, she is forced to marry the Protestant Henri de Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) as a first step toward peace between the warring factions, but we find out that her three brothers (at least one of whom she is sleeping with) are using the wedding as a way to gather their enemies in one place and slaughter them.
Margot is actually in love with a peasant called La Môle (the so-handsome-it-makes-you-angry Vincent Perez), and much of the film involves Margot manipulating the men in her life so that she and her lover may escape France and avoid the conflict altogether. Everything about QUEEN MARGOT (based on the Alexandre Dumas novel) feels heightened, sometimes distractingly so. If I remember the original reviews of this correctly, one of the biggest problems critics had with the film was its visual style, which seems to consist of an abundance of close-ups and handheld camera work that felt like the camera were being blown around by the wind. So imagine that, plus 20 minutes.
But it's the performances that keep the film on track despite the out-of-control visuals. Aside from being lovely, Adjani gives an unforgettable performance as a shrewd manipulator of men, both in and out of bed. But there's also great work by Virna Lisi as Margot's downright awful mother, Catherine. I was also a fan of the dialed-back acting of the actor (I'm not sure of his name) who plays the Royal Poisoner, whose very job title ought to give someone cause to maybe keep an eye on who he handing off potions to.
All roads lead to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, where tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughtered, an event that is recreated in this film on a smaller scale in some of the bloodiest scenes I've seen in the last 20 years. There are things about the film that are all about passion and bloodlust, and then there are moments that are strictly batshit crazy. QUEEN MARGOT is a film that I have a great deal of affection for, but I'm not sure I could go as far as defend it against those who loathe all that it stands for. I completely get that reaction; I just happen to embrace the crazy a little more willingly than some. It's a sumptuous feast for those who love excess, and it also gave us one our earliest glances at a young Asia Argento as Margot's lady in waiting. So there's that.
-- Steve Prokopy
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