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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with LAND OF MINE, MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI and THE LAST WORD!!!

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…

One of the four films that lost to THE SALESMAN at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film came from Denmark, a positively terrifying post-World War II suspense work called LAND OF MINE. Set immediately after the war, the Danish military took their ex-Nazi German prisoners and forced them to diffuse and remove all of the landmines that they placed from the beaches on the west coast of the country. With only the most basic of training, the prisoners extracted more than 2 million mines, with more than half of them dying in the process. The film follows a group of Germans POWs, many of whom were still teenagers, on this harrowing mission, with the promise of being let go and sent home once their section of the beach is cleared.

Writer-director Martin Zandvliet (A FUNNY MAN, APPLAUSE) has created a balanced portrayal of the way the Germans were treated by their Danish captors, and the hurt and anger felt by the Danish. You’ll spend most of LAND OF MINE on the edge of your seat wondering when the next mine will simply detonate and kill or maim the guy attempting to diffuse it.

LAND OF MINE seems almost built on tension and the promise of heartbreak, as we get to know the German prisoners who face a better-than-average chance of having their world explode. I feel like a great number of the best films of 2016 told previously unknown stories set before a familiar backdrop. HIDDEN FIGURES is an excellent example of this trend. LAND OF MINE certainly falls into that category as well, shedding light on a terrible act of retribution that was approved of (or at least overlooked by) Allied forces. And although it didn’t win the Academy Award earlier this week, the film is probably the most accessible of the five nominees and a true emotional roller coaster.

The last of the Oscar-nominated Best Animated Films titles to be released in the United States is the French work MY LIFE IS A ZUCCHINI, from first-time feature director Claude Barras, working from the beloved novel by Gilles Paris (adapted by the esteemed filmmaker and GIRLHOOD director Céline Sciamma). In what appears to be stop-motion animation, the story centers on a young boy who likes to be called Zucchini and is something of an artist, drawing both those around him and a version of a world he’d like to see. His mother is killed accidentally, and in the ensuing investigation, a police officer named Raymond takes a liking to the boy and decides to personally deliver him to the foster home he’ll be staying at with a handful of colorful kids his age.

While Zucchini attempts to make friends and fit in, he also enjoys time alone with thoughts of his often-drunken mother whom he feared as much as he lived. All of the children at the home have similarly sad—sometimes tragic—stories, which is one of the reasons this otherwise family-friendly work might be a little mature of younger viewers. The kids talk about sex (or at least what they think sex is), and it’s hilarious, but a good deal of MY LIFE IS A ZUCCHINI borders on heartbreaking as each of the children is delivered fresh new blows to their fragile, young hearts. Even when Zucchini forms a sweet crush on a new girl that comes to the home, there are forces in her life that threaten to take her away.

Having debuted in Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival last year, ZUCCHINI dares to take on some fairly heavy subjects, including substance abuse, prostitution, and child abuse, but it does so with delicacy and compassion, showing the survival skills and resiliency of these expressive and intricately crafted characters. It’s an exceptionally heartfelt offering that absolutely illustrates why it—and not something like FINDING DORY—earned its Oscar nomination. Seek this one out.

Judging a film based on a its trailer is something I’m quite vocal about avoiding. I live by the rule that trailers always get it wrong; even when they don’t, they do. They make bad movies look good and good movies look bad more often than not. When I see someone say that they didn’t like a film because, for example, the marketing made it look like a comedy when it was, in fact, more a drama, I respond “Whose fault is it for believing the trailer?” They are certainly more egregious examples of misleading trailers than the one for THE LAST WORD, starring Shirley MacLaine as Harriet, a rich older woman who is retired from the ad agency that she once controlled. Harriet becomes friendly with Anne (Amanda Seyfried), the local newspaper’s young obituary writer who somehow made the worst people she knew sound downright lovable.

The premise of THE LAST WORD is that Harriet hires Anne to research her life, interview dozens of people who know her, and write her obituary in advance so that Harriet can approve it. But because MacLaine seems to specialize in playing abrasive characters in her later years, it turns out Anne can’t find a single person to say anything nice about her. Her ex-husband (Philip Baker Hall) is maybe one of the kinder interviews, while Harriet’s estranged daughter won’t even return Anne’s calls.

So back to the trailer discussion. THE LAST WORD’s trailer paints it as more of a lighthearted romp through a grumpy old lady’s life, but the actual film is a little more emotionally driven and less brash and noisy than you might expect. Harriet’s entire career was spent fighting the sexist, all-male sales team she worked among, so perhaps it shouldn’t be quite as surprising that her demeanor has soured over the years. But instead of simply giving up on her obituary idea, Harriet identifies three or four things that make a great obit and sets out to fulfill some of the criteria.

Among items on the checklist are helping out an underprivileged child (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) and having a feature-worthy hook in her life story (in this case, Harriet takes her ample rock vinyl collection to a local indie radio station and takes over the morning-drive shift, impressing the station manager Robin (Thomas Sadoski), who immediately takes a liking to Anne (because we really needed a love story on top of everything else). And as nuts as it all sounds, a great deal of THE LAST WORD ends up working, primarily because MacLaine is such a nuanced performer and, it turns out, is just as capable of pulling back as she is of going over the top in other films. One of my favorite sequences involves Harriet reuniting with her daughter (the perfectly icy Anne Heche), a moment that does not play out how you think it will—not even close—and it’s a testament to MacLaine’s splendor.

Written by Stuart Ross Fink and directed by Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES) THE LAST WORD has a really terrible ending that is both predictable and trite, but it’s not enough to destroy the goodwill the rest of the film builds up. I’ll admit that the concept of Harriet simply taking a young black girl under her wing as something akin to a publicity stunt is a bit unsettling, but even that takes an unexpected turn that mostly redeems the conceit…mostly. I should add that if you’re thinking this might be a great film to take the grandparents to, please note that this is an R-rated affair, due entirely to language. You could do better this weekend, but you could do a whole lot worse.

-- Steve Prokopy
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