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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…

A great companion piece to the recently released Netflix doc series FIVE CAME BACK, about American filmmakers’ role during World War II, THEIR FINEST takes a look at how the British film industry kept busy during the worst of the London Blitz, just prior to the American involvement in the conflict. The film focuses on Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who goes in for a job interview at the Ministry of Information and ends up becoming a “slop” screenwriter assigned to punch up and make seem real any female dialogue for propaganda films that are produced to boost the morale of those left behind.

Most of the people working behind and in front of the camera on these films are men who were unable to serve as well as women, which made the determination of these creative types all the more powerful and resolute. Cole was no exception to this, taking inspiration from a story she hears about twin sisters who took their drunken father’s fishing boat out during Dunkirk to rescue evacuating sailors stranded in the English Channel. Looking for a film to appeal to women, the Ministry goes with the story, which goes through radical changes before (even during) production, to the point where the original story is somewhat lost for the sake of a more cinematic story. The film’s producer, Buckley (Sam Claflin, from ME BEFORE YOU, and the last two HUNGER GAMES movies), pushes Cole to be a better writer and more economic storyteller, and the two seem drawn to each other as peers working under intense condition sometimes do.

Working from a lively script by Gaby Chiappe (adapting the Lissa Evans novel), the exceptional cast is rounded out by Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, one of the film’s lead actors, best known for a role he played many years earlier and too old to serve on the battlefield. At first, it feels as if Ambrose is only there for comic relief (his fragile ego makes him easy to bruise but also easy to manipulate), but his dedication to acting proves to be a source of resiliency on the production. Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory play Hilliard’s managers to amusing effect. Also on hand are Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War, Richard E. Grant as the head of the film’s production company, and Jack Huston as Cole’s artist “husband” (they aren’t actually married but pretend to be), who finds her working upsetting, but it’s also the only thing bringing in money to their rundown apartment.

An 11th-hour addition to both THEIR FINEST and the film being made is Jake Lacy (OBVIOUS CHILD, “The Office”) as an American war hero brought in once the Americans enter the war, and the film now has the possibility of playing in the United States. His scenes primarily involve him being a terrible actor, and the production finds many very amusing ways of working around that, including assigning Hilliard as an acting coach.

Although not a telling of a specific real-life film production, it’s easy to believe that much of Their Finest is based on incidents that actually happened. Director Lone Scherfig (AN EDUCATION, ONE DAY) uses this wartime plot to show that, even in the worst of times, everyone wants to give notes on a film script. More reflective of today’s culture, the film also never misses the chance to show just how ill-treated and underpaid women were, even when they were doing the same work men did before the war broke out. There’s an almost chilling conversation early in the film where Cole is told that there’s no way her salary could be equal to a man doing the same job, nor will she get screen credit. Although she’s clearly stunned by this declaration, she says nothing, which is undoubtedly historically accurate.

The moving relationship that develops between Cole and Hilliard is one of mutual nurturing. She writes a beautiful part for him, and he makes certain her contribution to the finished film doesn’t go unrecognized. The more predictable brewing love story between Cole and Buckley probably isn’t necessary, but it’s always nice when the best-looking people in the cast stand next to each other a lot. I actually got a real change out of this surprisingly modern story that quite often resembles a movie made in the 1940s. Arterton has a classic charm and beauty to her that makes her presence in a period film seem just as natural as her debuting a Bond girl. In its own right, THEIR FINEST shines a succinct, pleasant spotlight on a small portion of the British war effort that I’ve never seen told before, and it’s as fascinating as it is funny and entertaining.

Celebrated French director François Ozon (THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, SWIMMING POOL, UNDER THE SAND) turns his attention briefly away from France, toward a small German town in post-World War I Germany, focusing on a family deeply entrenched in grief. Beautifully shot in black and white, FRANTZ focuses on an older couple Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and wife Magda (Marie Gruber), whose son Frantz was killed by the French during the war. His body was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield in France, but there is a small marker at the church near their home. The Hoffmeisters live with Frantz’s fiancé, Anna (Paula Beer, who won an award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance), who is so overwhelmed with grief that she visits his grave often and had no idea where her life is going next.

One day, she finds fresh flowers on the grave and later that day, someone rings their bell but no one is there when they answer. She discovers there is a Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) staying at the local inn near her. When she finally confronts him at the grave site, he confesses to having been great friends with Frantz before the war, and that he came to Germany to meet the family Frantz talked so much about. He dines with them, raising the ire of many of the locals, most of whom lost sons in the war and hate anyone French. To add to the scandal Adrien’s visit has caused, Anna has received an unwanted marriage proposal from a local weasel, Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), who gets jealous at how happy she seems around this handsome young man, who also plays violin like Frantz did.

One of the loveliest aspect to Ozon’s movie (which he co-wrote with Philippe Piazzo and is based on the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch-directed film BROKEN LULLABY) is the sparing but important use of color, which only seems to occur when people onscreen are experiencing joy (which is infrequently at best). When Anna (on piano) and Adrien play together in the Hoffmeister’s living room, the parents are washed over with memories of their son, and the screen suddenly shows us their home in color for the only time. Also, all of the flashbacks of Frantz and Adrien hanging out in Paris are in color. And as soon as the moment passes, the black-and-white sadness slams back into place.

Naturally, things with Adrien are not all that they seem, and he eventually confesses the true nature of his relationship with Frantz to Anna, who wisely realizes that telling the truth to Frantz’s parents would ruin them, and she opts to lie to them about Adrien when he heads back to Germany suddenly. But the film’s final act is its most curious and mysterious, as Anna heads to France for the first time in her life, in search of Adrien, whom she has now fallen in love with. What she finds further deepens the film, but also opens up Anna’s small world as she takes in various locations in and around Paris looking for Adrien but also retracing some of the places Frantz visited in his younger days, allowing her to feel closer to him and the places he loved, and in turn making her fall in love with France as well.

When Anna finally finds Adrien, there’s an awkward visit at his mother’s near-palatial home and with a kind but wise woman named Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing). FRANTZ is about the journey out of mourning, and that as strange as such a road might be, it’s the one that needs to be taken. The stark and sorrowful cinematography by Pascal Marti truly sets the tone of every moment and gives the movie a timeless quality. Not surprisingly, Beer’s performance is layered and quite extraordinary as she comes to terms with the way her life might go forward if she doesn’t rise up from her depression and find someone or something to help her love again. It’s a quietly devastating work that follows an unpredictable and touching path that teaches us a great deal about grieving and learning to live again.

I will never fully understand films that contribute to the deification of golf or other sports. In certain books but especially in cinema, golf is treated as if its players must channel other-worldly forces in order to make a ball land near or go in a hole. Indeed, maybe that’s what some players feel, but boy, does it seem silly when you’re watching it on the big screen. That being said, TOMMY’S HONOUR celebrates actual achievements and innovations to the way the game was not only played but also organized, where the best players weren’t just low-paid pawns of wagering aristocrats but were elevated to genuine sports heroes.

As you may have guessed, I don’t give a lick about golf. However, I do appreciate an interesting story, and the tale of real-life Scottish groundskeepers “Old” Tom (Peter Mullan) and “Young” Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden, mostly recently in A UNITED KINGDOM) is a fascinating one. They were both fine players in their own right and were often paired in doubles matches, playing for the exceedingly rich Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), who paid them a pittance of what he won from their efforts. When Tommy’s notoriety made him the most sought after golfer for competitions, he turned the tables on the rich, demanding that he get all the money and paying Boothby a small fee for setting up the matches. It was the first of many changes and inventions the young Morris brought to the game.

Watching the downright primitive nature of the games at the time (rough terrains, overgrown vegetation, spectators practically on top of the players) is actually a hoot, especially when you consider how much these factors didn’t seem to impact play. Director Jason Connery (son of Sean Connery) takes full advantage of the picturesque landscapes that surround Scotland’s finest courses and the quaint towns that surround and service them, and where father and son Morris spent a great deal of their time away from home.

TOMMY’S HONOUR also delves into the son’s personal life, in particular his courtship of the slightly older Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond, of THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), who has a few secrets of her own that threaten to destroy the relationship and her reputation in the town where they live (mind you, this takes place in the late 1860s and early 1870s). But Young Tommy is deeply in love, and despite his parents insistence that Meg’s scandalous reputation is reason enough to break things off, he refuses and marries her quickly.

The movie traces Young Tommy’s rapid ascension in the golf world, even playing against the best from London, but that story is intertwined with personal heartbreak, tragedy, short tempers and more than a few soaring victories. Lowden and Lovibond are positively glowing on screen, as the deeply in love couple that inspire each other through life. But it’s Mullan as the stalwart Old Tom that brings a quiet, subtle strength and compassion to a role that could have been played as simply stoic and flat. He’s got a face that should be carved into the side of a mountain and an onscreen disposition of a wild animal when provoked, and he uses all of that to great effect here.

Written by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, TOMMY’S HONOUR is that rare sports film that fully captures the passion and emotional connection that some players have to their chosen pursuit. Old Tom’s first love was the game; Young Tommy’s was his wife, but loving her made him a better player. And the Morris men made an interesting pair, on and off the links. Perhaps not for everyone, the movie rises above your standard-issue sports outing and moves it into a more cultured and meaningful place. This one may actually surprise you.

In many ways, it doesn’t seem fair to confront a man deep in his 60s about a something he did when he was just 19 years old. But not everyone is William Powell, the notorious, self-proclaimed revolutionary who wrote a handbook called “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a How-To guide to making bombs, silencers, booby traps and other dangerous devices to be the complete thorn in the side of the government. The book’s fans include domestic terrorists such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who carried out the Columbine school shooting massacre back in 1999; and more recently, James Holmes, who is serving life in prison for the 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. These men, and more, have been said have had a copy of the book in their possession or at least have found inspiration from it. Powell himself has written statements condemning its further publication and use, yet there it is for sale on Amazon.

But AMERICAN ANARCHIST is more than just an overview of the book and its disciples. It also contains a lengthy interview with Powell, conducted by director Charlie Siskel (FINDING VIVIAN MAIER), who gently but firmly hammers away at Powell’s initial reasoning for writing the book and why he hasn’t done more in recent years to decry his work. After the book initially faded as a fad in the late 1970s, Powell decided to live a much less high-profile life as a teacher of special needs children, quite often outside of the United States. When the book began to come back into the spotlight, Powell claims he was blissfully unaware that it was being used as a handbook for terrorism around the world, at least until someone sent him a news article stating that one of the Columbine shooters had a well-worn copy in his room.

Director Siskel uses a decidedly bare bones approach to telling Powell’s story and the history of the book. He traces how the book’s notorious past has repeatedly (and perhaps justifiably) reared its head at key points in the author’s life and destroyed job opportunities for him, particularly stateside. But eventually, he did settle down, got married, had a child, and, at the time of the interview about two years ago, was living in a quiet, bohemian town in provincial France. Most of AMERICAN ANARCHIST is simply a camera pointed at Powell, who is clearly confronting these connections between his book and a laundry list of terrible, violent moments in the world for the first time. His answers often don’t come quickly; sometimes he simply doesn’t have a response. In the end, the film is a portrait of a man going through an existential crisis before our eyes; either that, or it’s a beautifully rehearsed performance by Powell (I don’t believe that, but a few of his answers seem a bit too at-the-ready).

Some of the most accusatory questions from Siskel come regarding profits Powell received for the book. He claims his take was only in the tens of thousands, but the publisher says it was more in the hundreds of thousands. He admits being torn by receiving royalty checks for the “Anarchist Cookbook,” but it seems clear that he needed the cash at the time. The film is a fascinating document of a man caught in the web of his own life and decisions. When Siskel is given the opportunity to ask Powell’s wife, Ochan, a few questions, she answers them beautifully, even as her husband seems truly unhappy that the filmmaker has brought her into his line of questioning.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the entire story is that about a year after the primary interview was completed, Powell died unexpectedly in March of last year. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, that does make me feel bad, as if the guilt weighed on him so heavily that he just passed away. Many may see this tormented older man and feel compelled to forgive him for what he wrote, and to find out he’s dead denies the audience that opportunity to a degree. But it’s also a heck of a way to end a movie that is this oppressively heavy with emotion at times. AMERICAN ANARCHIST is a truly fascinating and enlightening work.

A bit on the dry side and a darling at the recently ended European Union Film Festival, CÉZANNE ET MOI, the latest work from writer-director Danièle Thompson (LA BUCHE, AVENUE MONTAIGNE, JET LAG), is a curious look at the lifelong friendship between painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet). There were times watching this film that I felt genuinely undereducated in both art history and European literature, and so “inside” references to key Cézanne works and pretty much all of Zola’s novels, especially L’ŒUVRE, a barely fictional account of Zola’s troubled relationship with Cézanne, which revealed a great deal about the way one felt about and saw the other. The film bounces around in time for much of the film—from the pair as childhood pals, drawn together by their outside status at school. And although Cézanne came from means, he chose to live a decadent, broke artist’s life, borrowing money from various friends but never really succeeding as an artist until very late in life. On the other hand, Zola was born in Paris to a poor Italian father and French mother. Although he become a successful writer at a fairly young age, he never stopped writing about the proletariat. The pair had few common interests but hung out among other artists and creative types in Paris and seemed to revel in being rebellious and intent on living life with few apologies. This would change. Romantic entanglements often confused their minds and caused them to question their way of living. Zola moved to the country, and his success seemed to make Cézanne envious. Slowly but surely, a wedge formed between them, especially when Zola married Alexandrine (Alice Pol), who used to sleep with Cézanne and pretty much everyone else they knew. The painter eventually countered by marrying his model Hortense (Déborah François), but despite their having a child, that relationship seemed doomed early on.

CÉZANNE ET MOI takes full advantage of some lovely locations, including areas in Provence where the artist actually did work. But without a full working knowledge of the artistic or literary period on display (the film follows the two deep into their sunset years of the late 1800s), I’m afraid I was a bit unsure which characters were important to know and which were simply people passing through their tumultuous lives. Since I’m more familiar with Cézanne’s work, it was easier to follow his stories and associations with other, more recognizable painters of the time, but (as the title implies) the film is primarily told from Zola’s point of view, it left me feeling like I was playing catch up.

Still, the performances are exceptional, especially Gallienne’s Cézanne, who could be among the most wicked and cruel men you’d ever call friend, and never misses an opportunity to put someone down in one breath while asking them for money with the next. But he was much loved by Zola’s family, especially his mother, and this kept him coming back into Zola’s increasingly opulent estate. It’s certainly not a terrible film, but I could easily point you in the direction of 10 better ones to see this weekend. For those of you with refined tastes, you might find something interest here, but I haven’t taken an art history class since 1989, so I was left a bit baffled.

Directed and edited by veteran British documentary editor David Fairhead, this exceedingly thorough, educational, and often quite nerve wracking documentary about NASA’s Houston-based Mission Control goes into a great deal of detail concerning the earliest days of the group that put the first men on the moon and became popularized in such feature films as Apollo 13. MISSION CONTROL: THE UNSUNG HEROES OF APOLLO traces the creation of the U.S. space program, which was kicked into overdrive when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and a few years later, President Kennedy promised American would have a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

Through interviews with former Mission Control engineers and a few astronauts from the Apollo missions (including Jim Lovell and the late Gene Cernan), the film does a great job reminding us that there was no blueprint for putting together a group of people in change of these space missions that began with Mercury and Gemini, before the Apollo landings. So the Houston team had to work to piece together a team, and the stories of NASA hiring pretty much any engineer that walked through the doors are quite funny.

MISSION CONTROL also uses archival audio recordings made during the missions to great effect, especially during the disastrous Apollo 1 fire that resulted in the three-man crew dying on the launch pad, and the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. Director Fairhead also uses a few key special effects to give a sense of what was going on at certain points in many of the individual missions.

Inspired a great deal by the book “Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965–1992” by Rick Houston (one of the film’s producers), MISSION CONTROL is far from a warts-free account of the NASA’s history. There’s a fair amount of discussion of the struggles of the program getting off the ground and recovering from the Apollo 1 incident. There are five or six former mission control personnel interviewed for the film, and it’s clear just how dedicated they were to their work but also susceptible to the grind of the job, although never to the detriment of a mission. Each one becomes a unique and distinct character in this story, and keeps the material from getting too technical or dry. 

Ultimately, these stories serve as an inspiration to current members of Mission Control (a few of whom are also interviewed), which went on to oversee Space Shuttle missions, Skylab’s launch, and so much more. If nothing else, MISSION CONTROL reminds us of a time when space travel wasn’t taken for granted, and those in the air and on the ground were considered not just heroes, but miracle workers.

-- Steve Prokopy
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