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Capone's Art-House Round-Up, with A QUIET PASSION, OBIT., and PARIS CAN WAIT!!!

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 more delicate works you’re likely to see about such a strong personality, writer-director Terence Davies’ (THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE LONG DAY CLOSES, DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES) moving A QUIET PASSION captures the angst-ridden world of Emily Dickinson, the poet and reasoned thinker, whose work never received proper recognition during her lifetime. Anchored by an exceptional performance by Cynthia Nixon (as Dickinson in her adult years), the movie takes a unique perspective to the poet’s life by painting her as a woman who seems desperate for outside human contact but actively rejects it throughout her life.

The film opens with Dickinson as a teenager (played by Emma Bell), effectively being ejected from religious schooling because she is unconvinced of God’s existence, although to call her an atheist doesn’t quite fit her either. Upon returning home among her parents—the stoic Edward (Keith Carradine) and sickly mother (Joanna Bacon)—Emily becomes something of a recluse, refusing gentlemen interested in paying her a social call and retreating into the world of words, which both comfort her and underscore her fears and pain. She is kept company by her far more outgoing sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and later her constant companion Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey, played a fictionalized version of a real person who Emily barely knew in real life). And it’s within this relationship that Emily found the courage to defy the world, even if the world (especially publishers) treated her writing poorly since she was a woman.

A QUIET PASSION doesn’t follow conventional narrative wisdom, instead opting to portray very specific moments and people in Dickinson’s life that helped define her. Her mother’s illness and eventual death; her brother Austin’s (Duncan Duff) affair with a married woman; and her wavering feelings about the church (versus her powerful feelings about spirituality outside of a house of worship). Working with director of photography Florian Hoffmeister, Davies’ shot compositions are extraordinary; the framing is a work of art that deliberately opens up Dickinson’s writing and life in ways that don’t quite illustrate her poems but certainly provide them with the necessary visual backdrop.

While paying close attention to Dickinson’s poetry, he’s equally interested in the dynamic and interactions within the family, both in terms of their mannerisms and their closeness. Carradine is quite good as the patriarch, surrounded by mostly women and knowing full well the tide is turning in America as far as gender roles. We’re also treated to the occasional poetry reading (courtesy of a Nixon voiceover), and she tends to read Dickinson’s works with a blend of sentimental and amusement. It’s the perfect mixture for this wonderfully unexpected film that isn’t nearly as pent up and stiff as many period costume dramas. Dickinson’s writing wasn’t like that, nor should a film about her be. A QUIET PASSION is a lovely exercise in tone, visual perfection and stellar performances.

As strange as it sounds, the new Vanessa Gould (BETWEEN THE FOLDS) directed film about obituary writers at The New York Times is a genuine treat that celebrates inventive writing, investigative journalism, and a level of compassion that most human beings are called upon to tap into every single day at the office. Gould and her subjects focus on the often quick turnaround times that most obit writers are forced to perform under, sometimes finding out about an important death in the middle of the day and having to have it ready for their editor just a few hours later. But in that time, they must immerse themselves in a stranger’s life so completely that they become a temporary expert in every facet of their existence.

OBIT. shows such well-regarded writers as Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox and William McDonald calling the families of people deemed worthy enough to received more extended write-ups in the obituary section of the paper. If it’s someone especially well known, they will throw a couple of initial paragraphs on the internet and flesh it out as the day goes on. But more often than not, the subject did one extraordinary thing in their life and has likely been forgotten for it, so this obituary is their last chance to regain something of a legacy. It’s an immense responsibility that this team of writers don’t take lightly.

The film is filled with humor (gallows and otherwise) as the writers talk about sometimes stumbling upon subject’s most interesting moments. And is often the case, they typically only have 700-1000 words to encapsulate a person’s entire life. Anyone who thinks this job is simply about listing name, age, cause of death and survivors clearly has no idea what these people do or how the obituary pages function.

One of the most fascinating elements of OBIT. involves touring the clip morgue, which appears to be a yellowing mess of papers and file cabinet drawers, but those who oversee and maintain its contents know where just about everything is—unless it it filed incorrectly and forever lost in the infinite void. It’s also remarkable to watch how the entire team (along with other Times writers) pull together when a famous figures in politics, sports or entertainment die (the scramble when Michael Jackson passed is a major sequence in the movie).

By the end of OBIT., you feel like you’ve spent a few days shadowing these remarkable writers—most of whom have other jobs at the newspaper or interests that also involve writing—capturing the pressure of deadlines, the struggle to convince others of the importance of their subject, and even the heartbreak when they make a mistake and are forced to make a correction. Weber makes a simple mistake that we (unknowingly) see him make early in the film, and it’s clear he is devastated by it when the error is caught.

In many ways, director Gould is mirroring her subjects’ experiences. She spends a relatively short amount of time with these writers and finds a way to capture their essence in the few short, tightly edited minutes of her film. In the end, you wonder if your life’s accomplishments would get you such an expertly written obituary. If so, you certainly hope it’s written by people who care as much about their work as these folks.

It’s an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless. At age 81, writer-director Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis Ford Coppola) has made her first film, PARIS CAN WAIT, a dalliance of a movie that finds a well-to-do woman named Anne (Diane Lane) taking a driving trip from Cannes to Paris with an associate of her husband Michael (Alec Baldwin). Sounds harmless enough until, the dashing associate, Jacques (Arnaud Viard), starts making detour after detour through the French countryside to introduce this passionate American woman to the hidden corners of French living and eating.

PARIS CAN WAIT is a glorious travelogue movie that is elegantly photographed, and it could certainly be fuel for the travel-porn set who can actually afford this type of vacation. What should have been a day trip ends up becoming several days on end, with each new day bringing the pair to another exotic and/or quaint new location with better food and wine than the last. Jacques is also quite the tour guide, with information about each region, an intimate knowledge of the restaurants and other attractions, and a healthy dose of French philosophy to go with the journey. And it should come as no surprise that he knows how to turn on the charm to temp Anne to sleep with him, as if not doing so might be considered an insult to his French sensibilities.

There is nothing to this frothy mixture blend of travel fantasy, fine eating and polite conversation. There are hints that Anne is less than satisfied with the attention given her by her film producer husband, but nothing so terrible that she’d risk her marriage. The freedom afforded her by taking the drive at all seems to energize her to a degree and make her realize she doesn’t need her husband’s attention and company to enjoy her days, but beyond that, PARIS CAN WAIT doesn’t offer much in the way of life lessons or inspiration. If you like looking at pretty landscapes and gourmet food, you’ll be in heaven here. Otherwise, the movie feels like a an adventure film for the idle rich, and you’ll leave it thinking “Must be nice.”

-- Steve Prokopy
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