Capone's Art-House Round-Up with OBVIOUS CHILD, SUPERMENSCH, NIGHT MOVES, THE GRAND SEDUCTION, and THE SIGNAL!!!
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…
In what is clearly a film in contention for one of my favorite of 2014 (it's certainly near the top of the list at mid-year), writer-director Gillian Robespierre's OBVIOUS CHILD is a work that manages to be both darkly funny and quietly devastating thanks in large part to a take-no-prisoners performance from "SNL" vet Jenny Slate as stand-up comic Donna Stern. In the span of about 24 hours (I believe on Valentine's Day no less), Donna is dumped, fired and knocked up by a complete stranger named Max (Jake Lacy), a nice enough guy but perhaps not quite ready to jump in the deep end of Donna's messy life.
Without any big moral or political debate, Donna decides she doesn't want to have this baby or be pregnant at all and makes an appointment for an abortion. To be clear, Donna's decision to terminate her pregnancy is the point of this film; it's what happens around her once she makes that choice that is wholly believable and often quite funny. No one here is making fun of abortion (okay, there might be on really hilarious joke that crosses a line, but if you get offended by anything Donna says at that point in the film, you clearly slept through everything that came before). The truth is that this random hook-up with Max starts to look like a promising relationship, and the debate becomes whether Donna should tell this new guy or not. Donna's conversations with her best friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and fellow comic Joey (Gabe Liedman) are priceless as both truth conduits and sources of raw, unfiltered comedy.
There's a sequence where Donna and Max are in the waiting room just before her procedure, and what they are saying to each other begs the question: can a relationship in the making withstand this type of opening chapter? It's a fair and poignant question that may or may not be answered. Slate has been so good in featured roles in everything from "Parks & Recreation" to "House of Lies" to "Kroll Show," but nothing had quite prepared me for the levels of honesty and unbridled humor, especially in one stand-up routine done completely drunk that turns into a gigantic pity party. But it's her final routine on stage, the night before the abortion, that will floor you with its naked and sweet confession-like quality. I hope at the end of year, some editor somewhere is reducing that routine into Slate's award-show clip. OBVIOUS CHILD allows a struggling young woman's soul to be put on full display without having the world step on it and squash it. It's a terrific film.
SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON
Yes, this is a love letter from first-time feature director Mike Meyers (Wayne's World, Austin Powers) to his close friend, musical agent, film producer and celebrity chef promoter Shep Gordon. But there are very few times in SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON that it feels like Meyers is sugarcoating the life of this man who has lived and worked in the shadow of his famous clients and friends.
SUPERMENSCH doesn't just cover Gordon's professional life; it also dips a bit into his personal life as a ladies' man (he dated Sharon Stone in her absolute prime), sometimes husband, and champion of a few not-so-well-off friends (his Groucho Marx stories are as inspiring as they are heartbreaking). The Alice Cooper stories are worth the price of admission, but there are so many terrific tales of making the deal, making sure his people got paid, and legendary falling outs that the film almost feels too short when it's over. A parade of famous faces get in front of the camera, both in archival footage and new interviews done by Meyers (Cooper, Michael Douglas, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sylvester Stallone and even Tom Arnold). And those are just the people who were interviewed. Hearing Gordon's tales of mingling with Hendrix, Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd and the like are like traveling into a time machine that takes you to another planet as well as another time.
As far as Gordon's personal life, SUPERMENSCH digs into his Buddhist beliefs, friendship with the Dalai Lama, his brief marriages and longing for a family, his love of cooking, and of course, his decades of being the consummate ladies' man, especially during his music-managing days. Meyers keeps things light, except when he decides to pry a little bit at a time into Gordon's past with an cruel mother and passive father. In the end, it's a complete, moving profile of a man who has made it his life's work to make sure his clients get all that they need and want. It's a great deal of fun, filled with fantastic stories of decadence and revival.
Sure, the new film from director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt (OLD JOY, WENDY AND LUCY, MEEK's CUTOFF, all of which were co-written with her writing partner Jon Raymond, as was this one) features an overwhelmingly tense sequence involving three environmental terrorists bombing a hydroelectric dam in Oregon as a form of protest, but that's really only the beginning of things going from good to great in this story. Because once the damage is done—and the three discover that a camper was killed in the subsequent flooding—is when the tension and paranoia begin to creep in, and we discover that guilt and fear impact everyone in different ways.
In a truly coiled and tense performance, Jesse Eisenberg plays the reclusive Josh, who plots the bombing (which happens off camera, as if to underscore the meaninglessness of the act as it relates to this story), along with a female counterpart in a different commune, Dena (Dakota Fanning). They recruit Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former military man and acquaintance of Josh's, who happens to know how to rig this explosive device. And as much as the planning and execution of the actual bombing isn't the most important thing in NIGHT MOVES, Reichardt still manages to front-load the movie with so much suspense, you almost want to leave the room until it's gone.
But once the camper's death is discovered, Dena begins to let the guilt get the best of her, and she mentions to Harmon that she's considering turning herself in. Naturally, the boys don't like this idea because she could draw a clear path from her to them with the authorities. And what follows is a beautifully paced, perfectly realized descent into the madness that is trying to figure out what other people are thinking. Eisenberg's Josh has an almost constant look of angst and fear that seems to rub off on those around him; while Dena develops a strange rash as the result of unbearable stress. Harmon becomes just a voice on the phone, feeding Josh's paranoia like a devil on his shoudler.
NIGHT MOVES loses a bit of its quiet intensity toward the end, succumbing instead to more traditional means of dealing with a loose end, but that doesn't really take away from the nerve-shattering morality playground that Reichardt and Raymond have built for their characters and audience.
THE GRAND SEDUCTION
Many years ago, I fell madly in love with the obtuse mind of Canadian actor-writer-director Don McKellar (LAST NIGHT), mainly through his very fun series "Twitch City," but also through man other acting roles in such films as eXistenZ for David Cronenberg, THE RED VIOLIN for François Girard (which the two co-wrote), and EXOTICA for Atom Egoyan. McKellar even had a small part in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. His latest directing effort (from a script by Michael Dowse and Ken Scott) is THE GRAND SEDUCTION, a low-key comedy about a small Newfoundland fishing village (is there any other kind?) that is attempting to seduce a big company into opening a factory in their economically depressed community. The kicker is, the company insists they have a full-time doctor, so the townspeople set the stage for a visiting big-city doctor, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), to want to stay permanently without letting him know of their needs.
Lifelong resident Murray (Brendan Gleeson), who unofficially runs the town (the mayor has run away, so he's a little more official than usual), takes it upon himself to think of ways to fool the doctor into thinking living there would be a great life, doing everything from encouraging a romance between the doctor and a local woman living nearby, telling everyone in the town to show up to his clinic on the same day, lying to the doctor about the town's love for cricket, even leaving money on the ground around his home for him to find, as if he lives in a lucky place. The deception is quite elaborate and often very funny. Not surprisingly, Murray begins to feel guilty about the deception, but with a deadline looming from the company and money to keep up the ruse running out, decisions have to be made, at the risk of hurt feelings.
THE GRAND SEDUCTION reminds me of those British comedies of the 1990s (WAKING NED DEVINE comes to mind), often set in smaller towns and cities, and cranking up the comedy vibe just a little more than necessary. And that is without a doubt firmly in place here. But when you've got Gleeson leading the charge in any film, you don't have to worry too much about anything else. Even Kitsch is surprisingly good here, and aside from his character being perhaps a little too oblivious to some truly blatant manipulation, he plays this man as a great mix of intelligent and lonely—his hometown girlfriend back in the states is being less than communicative and may be cheating on him, which would be good for the town, since that would be one less reason for the good doctor to leave.
There isn't a whole lot here that will make you scream with laughter, but I found myself with a slight grin on my face for most of THE GRAND SEDUCTION. The pretense is just dumb enough to be believable, but the performances sell the gimmick righteously, and the undertones of a small town struggling to stay afloat seem all too authentic. Director McKellar has an affinity for quirky characters under quirky circumstances, and this work certainly qualifies. Did I mention this film is a remake of a French-Canadian work that I never saw called Seducing Doctor Lewis? That probably means as much to you as it does to me.
This is one of those films where each townsperson has a "trait" that distinguishes him, but the only one I want to mention in Simon, Murray's best friend, played by the Gordon Pinsent (the attentive husband to Julie Christie in 2006's AWAY FROM HER), one of Canada's great theater actors, with a small but important line up of film credits as well. He's remarkable here, considering how few lines of diaglogue he's given. The film isn't difficult to predict, but that makes it no less elegant or charming. It's an amusing, lightweight work that still manages to sneak in an emotional and cultural moment or two that packs a fairly substantial punch.
I feel like talking about this film too much ruins what actually works in it, so I'll be brief. THE SIGNAL starts off as a film about three college kids who are also computer wizards—Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp) and Haley (Olivia Cooke). They are on the trail of a master hacker named Nomad, who has hacked into the MIT servers and is clearly aiming for something bigger. Nic and Jonah are so obsessed with finding the guy—they lost important files during the MIT hack—that they track him down to some isolated corner of the dessert to a creepy shack in the middle of nowhere. But once at their destination, something... happens, and no one is quite sure what for quite some time.
Ultimately, Nic wakes up in a private research facility surrounded by scientists and security people (led by Laurence Fishburne, who has a real knack for bringing the voice of authority and sense to just about every role he plays) all in contamination suits telling him that he had alien contact and he may be contagious to some degree. And that just how the story begins.
THE SIGNAL is as much about a creeping mood and atmosphere as it is about plot, so even when the plot goes a little sideways toward the end, there's a real substance to the visual style that carries it through. Mixed into this science-fiction tale is a story about a relationship dissolving as Haley is moving to California for a year to study, which threatens to destroy the relationship she has with a clearly insecure Nic. The stop they make to look for the hacker is part of a road trip to take her from coast to coast, but to drive is also a painful look at a fairly credible 20-something coupling that I found really intriguing and honest.
But once the sci-fi kicks in, the relationship stuff gives way to some really interesting technology contemplations, an unraveling story that reveals its true nature gradually and with a great deal of suspense. This is the second feature from director William Eubank (I never saw his debut, LOVE), and it's a confident work that becomes less so as it speeds toward its rather silly climax. Still, THE SIGNAL is a great-looking film that hopefully heralds a new creative force in the science-fiction arena, and it's certainly worth a look if you consider yourself a connoisseur of the genre, if only to see how the younger set it tackling it. It doesn't quite reach the levels of what more recent works like ANOTHER EARTH of the upcoming I ORIGINS does, but at least it's aiming in that direction.
-- Steve Prokopy
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