Capone Art-House Round-Up with WORDS AND PICTURES, AGE OF UPRISING, BURT'S BUZZ and EXPOSED!!!
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…
WORDS AND PICTURES
I suppose as someone who uses words as a tool for my work, I should be encouraging of films that deal directly with the teaching and use of words to smart kids. In theory, I suppose I am, but the new film from director Fred Schepisi (ROXANNE, SIX DEGRESS OF SEPARATION) sometimes makes it difficult to support a work that underscores the importance of competent writing in the age of social media and pure visual stimulation. WORDS AND PICTURES certainly has its heart (supplied by screenwriter Gerald DiPego) in the right place in a story in which English and art students at a fictional New England prep school have a debate about which is more important in the world: writing or art.
The young students are divided into factions led by two broken human beings who also happen to be teachers: on the side of words, we have Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), an alcoholic and published poet who has lost his creative spark and is rightfully fearful of being fired; on the side of pictures, there's famed abstract painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), whose chronic case of rheumatoid arthritis has forced her to mentally and physically figure out a new way to paint, since small brushes are no longer her friend. Marcus is clearly in love with teaching as well as putting out a student-written literature magazine, which the school wants to shut down. Dina is resentful that she's had to resort to teaching art to make up for the income she's losing from not painting. Naturally, there's a spark of romance between them that does not follow the path of your typical romantic-comedy.
There's no getting around the fact that Owen and Binoche are two of the best working today, and while the material here may be somewhat lighter weight than we're used to seeing them tackle (Binoche in particular), there's more to WORDS AND PICTURES than exists on its surface. Jack says and does some truly awful things in this film—to his estranged son, to his students, to complete strangers and even to Dina—when he's drunk, which is often. Jack is racing to a finish that only he sees with both the bottle and his job, and it's an interesting portrait in a self-destructive man who can't seem to live without teaching or booze. Dina's is a more complicated battle, because her illness (and the resulting bitterness) is still new to her, and her capacity to process what she's lost is still in flux, leading to a few vulnerable moments and total meltdowns.
The parts of WORDS AND PICTURES that I tended to dislike were the students, whose lives are so privileged that it's tough to take their war seriously, even if their teachers do. A pointless subplot about a male student fixating on and sexually harassing an Asian female student takes up far too much time, and its connections to the themes of the film are tenuous at best. And Jack's attempt to improve his image at school and in the community leads to predictable results that culminate in a restaurant scene that is just embarrassingly obvious in its execution from an acting and directing standpoint.
Still, Owen and Binoche help elevate the material just enough to keep the whole thing from being a complete disaster, and the messy way both characters live their lives and find a way to get deeper into the other's head is quite sincere and moving, even if it self-destructs just as things are getting good. Things wrap up just a bit too neatly for my tastes, which is not to say that all loose ends are dealt with. In many of his films, director Schepisi deals directly with the way in which people interact with each other, and rarely in a conventional way. I may not always like his movies, but I like that fact that he's still plugging away at them and trying out new ways to make us love and hate his characters. Words and Pictures is not the best of his work, but it's a curious and sometimes compelling examination nonetheless.
AGE OF UPRISING: THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS
Stories of the rich shitting on the poor are practically as old as human existence and anything resembling a class system. But the versions of this tale that seem to stick with us are the ones where the underclass rise up and seek justice and equality, even if it is for a brief moment in time. Very often such an uprising ultimately fails, but the desire for fair treatment does not go unnoticed by the upper classes. One such story was written by Heinrich von Kleist in the early 1800s about a 16th century German (although the film is in French) horse trader and family man named Michael Kohlhaas, who was probably more middle class than poor, but he still lived under laws of society that made him a second-class citizen.
In AGE OF UPRISING, Kohlhaas (played by the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is treated unjustly by a feudal lord and has two of his best horses taken by this entitled man and his henchman. When Kohlhaas is eventually told to come pick up his horses, they have clearly been mistreated and beaten, and he demands from the lord that they be returned in the shape they were taken (he refuses money in exchange for the horses). When Kohlhaas' wife (Delphine Chuillot) goes to speak to the territory's Princess (Roxane Duran), she is returned to Kohlhaas nearly dead, and it is made clear that he should just take his horses because he has no case against the lord. Enraged to the point of near insanity, Kohlhaas begins to raise a peasant army made up of common folk who have been wronged by those in higher societal positions, and they soon start terrorizing the territory.
It's unlikely you'll approve of Kohlhaas' methods, but that doesn't make this story any less compelling and heartbreaking as we know at a certain point that Kohlhaas doesn't want simple justice; he's seeking vengeance, while his little girl Lisbeth (Mélusine Mayance) watches his actions with a mixture of horror and curiosity. Director Arnaud des Pallière (who directed ADIEU and co-wrote this screenplay with Christelle Berthevas) is interested in capturing the ambiguity of the Kohlhaas situation rather than passing judgement on a man that has often been referred to as a radical or fanatic.
The film has a few tremendous supporting performances from the likes of Bruno Ganz as the territory's governor, who attempts to broker a peace with Kohlhaas; Denis Lavant as The Theologist, who converses with Kohlhaas (in some of the film's best moments) about his objectives and methods, to little avail; and David Kross as a preacher, attempting to appeal to Kohlhaas' more God-fearing side. The way the film culminates is almost inevitable and perhaps even for the best, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch it slowly unfold.
AGE OF UPRISING is at times shocking, stirring, and a classic example of the underdog simply wanting what is his and nothing more. It isn't meant to be a rousing endorsement of Kohlhaas' actions, but more an attempt to make us understand why he felt he had to resort to such actions. At the very least, the film will likely spark debate about whether he had other options. It's a compelling, stark and unforgettable work with one of the world's best actors at its center.
Not having ever purchased a single product in the Burt's Bees line, I was still hugely curious about the documentary BURT'S BUZZ, which digs a bit into the life and mindset of its founder, Burt Shavitz, an unapologetic bearded hippie from way back who continues to live the simplest of lives in Maine, living off the land with his dog and not really caring that he was pushed out of his multi-million-dollar all-natural personal care company years ago.
To make sense of a great deal of what we see in the film, you have to understand that Shavitz doesn't really have a stake in the success of the company any longer. His only source of income is from making personal appearances on behalf of the product line that bears his name and likeness. When Burt was transitioning from a guy who sold honey out of his truck to something more of a branded business, his then-girlfriend, Roxanne Quimby, helped out a great deal with the business and marketing aspects of the products, and thus, the two are considered the company's co-founders. But as their relationship soured, Roxanne essentially pushed Burt out, took over the company and in 2007, sold it to The Clorox Company for hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Clorox pays Burt to appear at retail stores and attend corporate events to take photos, sign autographs and shake a few thousand hands around the world.
You might start to feel sorry for Shavitz, but BURT'S BUZZ makes that difficult, because he's clearly not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. If anything, he seems more distraught by the broken relationship with Quimby than anything else about his situation. Director Jody Shapiro (HOW TO START YOUR OWN COUNTRY) follows Shavitz over the course of several weeks as he does everything from handing out free samples at Target's flagship store in Minneapolis to heading to Taiwan, where he and these products are enormously successful, for a motivational talk/interview and other corporate duties. Still, the enthusiastic welcoming party of teenage girls that meets him at the airport in Taiwan seems a bit staged, and no one seems to have much to say to Shavitz past some pleasant greetings. There are more awkward silences in this film than a year's worth of Craig Ferguson episodes.
But it's the backstory—personal and professional—that is most intriguing about BURT'S BUZZ. The conversations about the early years of making his all-natural products are fascinating, right down to the decision to commission a series of label drawings from a local artist, including one of Burt. It's sometimes tough to wrap your brain around the idea that the lone wolf living in a shack with a pot belly stove in this movie is an internationally recognized beekeeper-turned-mogul, but the world has stranger stories than this. If nothing else, the entertaining and informative BURT'S BUZZ is proof positive that there is such think as a template for success.
A bit ragged around the edges and narrow in scope, the documentary EXPOSED is, at its core, a not-so-probing look at eight male and female burlesque performers in the New York City area (apparently the only place in the world with a thriving burlesque scene). And while the performances themselves are great fun or wonderfully original in most cases, the attempts at psychologically profiling each of the performers is a hit-and-miss affair.
Nearly every variety of male and female performer is represented here, and with names like Bunny Love, Rose Wood, Bambi the Mermaid and Dirty Martini, you're bound to find some who intrigue you more than others. I was especially fond of a male freak show performer, Mat Fraser, who has an disability he calls "flipper hands" and often acts as emcee of burlesque events featuring his girlfriend, Julie Atlas Muz. He's one of the few subjects who I feel is given a chance to really give us an idea of what his life was like leading into this line of work. And most importantly, he makes us understand where his confidence and outgoing personality come from.
I was certainly impressed to varying degrees at how knowledgeable many of the performers were about the history of burlesque and loved watching them frequently pay tribute to the old guard during their shows. Director and Chicago native Beth B digs a little into the social, political and sexual roots of her subjects, and while we certainly get an ear- and eyeful of the performers' words and bodies (including one female impersonator who gets breast implant surgery during the course of the film), I still felt like I wasn't getting to know these impressive and bold folks as much as I would have liked to. But fear not: the entertainment portion of the show is reason enough to see EXPOSED, and if you also happen to be a fan of lots of full-frontal male and female nudity, this film might have a touch of both.
-- Steve Prokopy
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