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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…

I’m genuinely shocked and more than a little troubled that a film as near perfect and genuinely original and effective as THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is getting such pathetic distribution in actual theaters where audiences would eat this movie up (no pun intended). Director Colm McCarthy has done a remarkable job capturing a specific tone of creeping dread that syncs up perfectly with the global threat in the story that you want to share the film with all your friends who adore new voices in horror who actually seem to know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to try new things as part of their process.

The set up for THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS may sound familiar. It’s not exactly a zombie movie in the classic sense of the films of George Romero or “The Walking Dead”. It falls more squarely in the “infection” category of films like 28 DAYS LATER…, where a bite or any exchange of bodily fluids with an infected person sends a fungus to your brain that turns its victim into a raging and biting shell of a human. At the point that we enter this world, the “Hungries” have more or less taken over everything. A small group of military types live on a protected base with a handful of children, who seem sweet and innocent but are treated like the worst kind of criminal by the base commander, Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine).

The children are taken to class everyday where they are taught what appear to be the usual type of lessons by a sympathetic teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who sees such goodness in her students, especially the eager and curious Melanie (a remarkable performance by newcomer Sennia Nanua), who clearly wishes to obey all the rules and impress her teacher with her intelligence and eagerness to learn more. The fourth primary player in this setting is Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), who sees this particular group of children as the key to ridding humanity of this infection once and for all.

Working from the wildly popular novel by Mike Carey (who also adapted the screenplay), the film isn’t eager to give us all the information we crave all at once. Much like the Hungries of the story, we’re given bits to feast on until the almost overwhelming nature of the truth and scope of the problem is revealed. It turns out the children were born infected (they literally chewed their way out of their mothers’ wombs) years earlier and have somehow managed to maintain their humanity and cognitive abilities, unlike their adult counterparts. But they are still very much flesh eaters, and if they catch a whiff of something living, they lose their minds (a type of hand sanitizer seems to keep the smell off the base personnel).

Much of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS doesn’t concern itself with the battle to keep this last pocket of humanity alive; it’s more about the struggle between the teacher and the scientist to define whether Melanie is a human being or a destructive force. Melanie goes out of her way to behave safely around the people around her, especially when the infected breach the base, and the small band of protectors have to escape and seek a new place to hide and find more survivors. There are individual moments in the movie that are so scary and tense, you want to scream just to break the tension, including an insane tip-toeing through a pack of “sleeping” Hungries (apparently they enter a coma-like standing state until a smell or noise wakes them). Because Melanie is already infected, the Hungries aren’t interested in her, so she becomes the group’s most valuable weapon.

At various points in the journey, the filmmakers want even the audience to be conflicted about Melanie’s true nature and objectives. Once the end goal of the invading fungus is made clear, the issue of her purpose is all the more blurred. Is she simply mimicking good behavior to earn the trust of her captors? Or is she a good kid fighting for acceptance in a world that is understandably distrustful of her “kind”? The parallels to today’s conflicted ideas of “dangerous outsiders” are pretty obvious, and McCarthy (a veteran British television director of such series as “Peaky Blinders,” “Doctor Who,” and “Sherlock”) and Carey don’t shy away from using familiar language and situations to both make their commentary clear as well as make the scares all the more reality based.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is an extraordinary work that is both terrifying as a horror film and deeply effective as a very human story. It just might be a bit tough to find at a theater near you. If you’re able, try to make an day of it this weekend and go see the film at the theater with your friends. You won’t regret it.

The set up might seem like it’s from a family-friendly film from a major Hollywood studio that wants to counter-program against so many movies aimed at dog lovers. But Turkish-born director Ceyda Torun’s exceptional, almost otherworldly, documentary KEDI details the very real and quite unique living situation in Istanbul where humans and cats live in a kind of ecosystem in which they take care of each other’s basic needs and somehow make existing in the world an easier task. Although truth be told, it seems fairly clear that the cats run the place, and the humans are lovingly tolerated by them.

Just to be clear, Istanbul is not a place where many people keep cats as pets—there are a few, but those folks are barely acknowledged in the film. Instead, thousands of cats roam the streets of this ancient city, having originally been brought in in massive numbers to deal with the rat problems during the early years of the Ottoman Empire. Although the people of Istanbul don’t “own” the cats, it seems that many citizens unofficially adopt one or many, always have some type of food for them, and supply the cats with ample amounts of petting, attention, and perhaps a place to rest or live. In return, according to unnamed interviewed residents, the cats provide a type of therapeutic vibe, just by being cute, smart, and possessing heightened personalities that (again, according to the folks interviewed) dogs simply don’t have.

More than one person to whom Torun speaks to mentions that the cats serve a spiritual purpose. One man likens the time spent with his particular feline to the comfort he experiences holding his prayer beads. At another point in the movie, someone says that dogs think humans are gods, but cats don’t; they see us as middlemen for God, because they know better.

Lest you think that KEDI is all about humans’ reactions to cats, most of the film is devoted to simply following around a select few felines—some friendly, some standoffish, some psychotic—on their day-to-day journeys. Many adult cats have kittens to take care of and defend, while others are scavengers or tiny con artists who elicit sympathy from passing people or patrons in restaurants for food. The sole purpose of the many cafes in Istanbul seems to be to provide scraps for cats underfoot.

A large percentage of the film is shot down low to the ground, following each animal from its perspective. Cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann & Alp Korfali do extraordinary work following the cats (via what I can only assume are tiny Steadicams), who thankfully never seem in a terrible hurry to get anywhere, but are capable of squeezing into impossibly small spaces or making leaps from one small ledge to another that no human acrobat would dare.

And while we watch these sleek, elegant creatures, we begin to notice consistent behaviors among them all, from their stature and poise to the economic way they maneuver through a crowd, always keeping their tails tucked or close to their body to avoid being trampled. You’ll also grow to love the sound of excessive purring; it’s pretty much the soundtrack to this piece. Time spent with each cat is like a micro-story of survival, resourcefulness, humor, and tolerance on both sides of the equation. The more time we spend with them, the more fascinating and curious they become.

So where is the drama in KEDI? In the film’s final act, we learn that Istanbul is a rapidly growing city, where tall buildings are springing up like weeds, and entire sections of the city are suddenly being made crowded by urban sprawl, squeezing out cats from long-held shelter. It is also worth noting that this film was was made before Syrian refugees started migrating to Turkish shores in early 2016. Between the influx of new buildings and new people, Istanbul is a very different place than it was when the film’s images were shot. It’s almost impossible to watch this movie without trying to visualize the city in its current state.

It seems clear that the purpose of KEDI is not to simply parade cute, cuddly, affectionate cats in front of cameras and have Turkish residents tell us how special they are. There are low-level messages of tolerance and kindness being conveyed, but it’s almost impossible to accept that this balance has been struck anywhere on earth. In every shot, there’s a cat at some corner of the frame, living its life, and finding the means to co-exist with a society that has embraced it. Both parties make it look so easy, which of course means it isn’t. If it were, everybody would be doing it.

This odd, dark romantic-comedy is really just an excuse to watch Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, “Mozart in the Jungle”) act up a storm in a story that gives him an excuse to go through every emotion in the book in both Spanish and English. In YOU’RE KILLING ME SUSANA, he plays Eligio, a Mexican actor best known for commercials and telenovelas, married to would-be writer Susana (Verónica Echegui), who is tired of him coming home late drunk and constant flirting with every woman he comes in contact with. One morning, Eligio wakes up to find his wife gone and most of her clothes missing. At first he thinks she’s missing, but the police quickly reclassify her absence as abandonment, something he cannot understand.

None of her family or friends know where Susana has gone, but he eventually tracks her down at a writers’ workshop in Iowa, of all places, where she has received a coveted scholarship to finish her first novel. She has no real excuse why she simply left and didn’t tell Eligio where she was going, or why she’s already started up a love affair with a Polish poet (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) also at the workshop. But her reaction to his caveman-like behavior when he finally does track her down seems to tell us all we need to know about his priorities—he’s more upset about her sleeping with another man than whatever the reasons might be that she left him in the first place.

Adapting the novel from José Agustín, director Roberto Sneider (2008’s TEAR THIS HEART OUT) and co-screenwriter Luis Cámara have fashioned a clever, sexy, and explosive personal drama peppered with a few keen observations about how Eligio sees middle America and how residents of Iowa see him. Eligio soon wins his wife’s heart back and decides to support her writing by staying with her in Iowa while she completes her education. He quickly gets familiar with the local culture and women, in particular, a woman named Irene (Ashley Hinshaw), who seems captivated by his exotic charm, especially in a sea of white-bread boys. Eligio’s fidelity issues will clearly always be an issue, and before long, Susana leaves him again in exactly the manner as she did the first time, this time to Chicago. And the chase continues.

YOU’RE KILLING ME SUSANA feels a bit scattered and unfocused as a message film about the right and wrong way to love somebody. Even so, García Bernal just floats through the movie, making it look easy to be so well liked by so many. And it’s his special brand of irresistibility that pushes the movie through to the end, even if it’s somewhat unclear what the moral of the story is meant to be. The culture-clash aspect to the plot is often very amusing and revealing, while the jealous husband routine put on by Eligio at certain points seems forced and unnatural. He’s at his best when he’s broken and hurt, and by the end of the film, he’s figured out (to a certain degree) how to be a better person, even if that doesn’t mean being a better husband just yet.

As a character, Susana is somewhat underwritten—somewhat ironic since she’s a novelist—but Echegui does an admirable job filling in a bit of the empty spaces in her character. At her core, Susana feels alone in her marriage and reacts the only way she knows how. It’s just icing on the cake that turning the tables on her cheating husband drives him insane. I don’t get many opportunities to watch García Bernal act, so YOU’RE KILLING ME SUSANA feels like a stroll through an acting class that he’s teaching. It’s not entirely fulfilling, but it’s a nice greatest hits collection, and I’ll take it.

Providing a genuinely unique, sometimes terrifying, usually hilarious vantage point of the life of a stand-up comic, DYING LAUGHING features dozens of interviews from top American and British comics, walking us through the best and worst moments of their careers on stage and giving us a true sense of how tied to their emotions each set is. From British directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, the film navigates through the thought process of what makes a person want to stand in front of group of strangers and attempt to make them laugh. As one comic points out, they aren’t just an audience; they’re a pissed-off audience daring you to snap them out of their mood. The subject discuss that moment in their lives when they first realized they had the ability to tell jokes and get the desired result, as well as those moments in their careers when the audience responded so poorly, they considered dropping out of the game entirely. The impact of a dozen great sets in a row can be utterly erased by one boo or poisonous heckler, and these men and women remember every detail of a bad set like they suffer from PTSD because of it.

The list of interviewees is long and impressive: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, the late Garry Shandling, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Jerry Lewis, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Jamie Foxx, Dave Attell, Bobby Lee, Gilbert Gottfried, Mike Epps (who has some of the best stories about bombing), and Jim Jefferies. There are a few standouts in terms of who offers the greatest insight, but everyone has vivid and mortifying tales of failure. What’s interesting is that the filmmakers forgo showing us footage of any of the comedians on stage—doing good or bad work. So our impressions of each of their performances comes directly from their abilities as storytellers.

Shot in an eerie black-and-white that only adds to the emotional component of the stories being told, DYING LAUGHING also gives us a wonderfully clear sense of how each of these performers crafts their routine over the course of weeks and months, tests it in from of increasingly larger numbers of people, discards what isn’t working, but occasionally holds onto old jokes that never quite land in the hopes that tweaking it over time (sometimes years) will help it finally land. The process is sometimes agonizing, but the desire to get that wave of laughter sweep across an audience drives these artists like the worst kind of drug addiction.

This is a filmgoing experience that pulls you in and forces you to see comedy in an entirely different light. It certainly reinforces the idea that not everyone is built to be a comedian, even people we know who seem to be naturally funny. There’s a process, a patience, and an outer shell that is both thick and scarred. DYING LAUGHING strikes that delicate balance between being very funny and extraordinarily moving at times.

Believe it or not, this micro-budget, semi-autobiographical comedy about the life of singer-comedian Henry Phillips is actually a sequel to his 2009 collaboration with director Gregori Viens, PUNCHING THE CLOWN, which documented Phillips’ move to Los Angeles after a grueling career of traveling through America’s heartland. That film ended with Phillips being hilariously run out of town after a misunderstanding led a tabloid to label him a neo-Nazi. His new film, PUNCHING HENRY (originally titled AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN), picks up Henry’s story several years later, with him having spent his time since L.A. back on the road playing dive bars, coffee houses, and the occasional casino comedy club.

Thanks to some wheeling and dealing by Henry’s usually inept manager Ellen (Ellen Ratner, returning from the first film), she has gotten his bizarre story in front of big Hollywood producer/director Jay Warren (J.K. Simmons), who wants to turn his downtrodden life into a television series, which would mean Henry would have to return to L.A. Thankfully, one of his oldest musician friends, Jillian (Tig Notaro) has a couch for him to crash on and a wife (Notaro’s real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne) who doesn’t mind the company.

The film alternates between meetings with ridiculous TV executives, who care more about viral video views and social media “likes” than the quality of a show’s content, and a series of mostly disastrous gigs in which Henry is either heckled (something he doesn’t handle well or at all) or just not especially good. His singing and playing are certainly above average, but I didn’t find a lot of what’s on display here to be that funny.

And while Phillips seems to know more famous people who he can get to cameo in his movie, he’s effectively sandwiched them into a story that they have no business being in. Mike Judge shows up as a incompetent tech guy at a comedy gig; the great Jim Jefferies is on hand as one of Henry’s best comedy palls; and Sarah Silverman is featured throughout the film as a podcast host interviewing Henry about his life story (a convenient way to narrate and comment on the film without actually having a narration).

So much of PUNCHING HENRY reminded me of the far better, Mike Birbiglia-directed look at the world of stand-up, SLEEPWALK WITH ME, which oddly enough could have easily been influenced by PUNCHING THE CLOWN. The biggest issues with this film are Phillips himself, who isn’t much of an actor or personality when he’s off stage. He has a great number of funny, inappropriate songs and a handful of funny lines, but little of it adds up to make a complete person that an audience truly cares about. Even in the clearly staged moments when the club audience is laughing at his material, it feels fake and goes against the goal of making us empathize with Phillips.

PUNCHING HENRY just sits there on the screen, supplying us with a few familiar faces of people most of us like and a few more characters who grate our nerves and don’t give us any real sense of who they are. It’s too bad too, because it’s easy to imagine a far funnier and more awkward movie about a gimmick comic. Phillips’ songs are mostly amusing, but neither they nor he are the slam dunks we need to recommend this poorly assembled backstage peek.

-- Steve Prokopy
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