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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with MY COUSIN RACHEL, MEGAN LEAVEY and FAMILY LIFE!!!

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…

The type of obsessive love story that only makes sense as a period piece, MY COUSIN RACHEL is the tale of Philip (Sam Claflin, most recently seen in THEIR FINEST) whose older male cousin (who also raised him) has recently died, leaving him alone in the world except for the woman whom the cousin had recently married and may very well have been his murderer as well. Philip prepares to confront the woman, named Rachel Ashley (and played by the positively hypnotic Rachel Weisz), but when he meets her, her unassuming ways and exotic looks completely captivate him and before long he is positively smitten with her and ready to turn over all of his worldly possessions, not unlike his cousin nearly did.

Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL, LE WEEK-END, CHAGING LANES), MY COUSIN RACHEL is more than just a story about a young man falling in love for the first time and confusing expensive gifts with actual signs of affection. Michell has constructed a deeply strange mystery in which we are never quite certain whether Rachel is using the young man—and possibly even slowly poisoning him to get to his riches quicker—or if she genuinely cares about him and is attempting to protect him by keeping a certain distance from him while also clearly leading him on.

Iain Glen (“Game of Thrones”) plays Nick Kendall, Philip’s godfather and executor of his estate, who attempts to protect the young man and his fortune, and the lovesick fool is on the verge of potentially losing everything in the heat of the moment. Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), is Philip’s lifelong friend and presumed love interest until Rachel arrives on the scene, casting a spell on unsuspecting Philip. Claflin’s portrayal of an overly emotional (and embarrassingly virginal) target is quite convincing.

But it’s Weisz’s beguiling work that goes beyond captivating to the point where every scene she’s in alternates between her seeming beyond guilty of deliberately corrupting Philip to rob him blind, and her seeming completely harmless and innocent, and Philip seeming overly eager to please her when she has asked for nothing. It’s a twisting, turning emotional journey for everyone involved, including the audience, and even having watched MY COUSIN RACHEL to the bitter end, I’m still not sure I know the truth, which I believe is the point and the best place to land with this work. The movie is stunningly photographed, deftly acted and masterfully structured by Michell, and while Philip’s behavior is sometime frustrating to watch in its gross immaturity, it also rings disappointingly true.

For reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I felt the need to resist this film at first, because on the surface it felt like it was using cheap sentimentality to garner any kind of emotional reaction I might have had to it. Let’s be honest, a film about a military combat dog who saves countless lives in the field sniffing out IEDs and other weapons on the front lines of Iraq is almost too many triggers to set off the tears and warm feelings. But MEGAN LEAVEY turns out to be a film that goes out of its way to steer clear of easy emotional moments and provides a story about two broken personalities that find comfort in each other both on the job and as war-torn veterans after their time of service.

Kate Mara plays Marine Corp. Leavey who has joined the Corps to escape her unhealthy home life living with her mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton). On base, she discovers a K9-training unit led by Gunny Martin (Chicago rapper Common) and asks to be a part of the process. After a few false starts, she is paired with a particularly aggressive dog named Rex, and over the course of many months, she finds a way to both bond with the animal and train him for combat conditions.

When she lands in Iraq with Rex, she meets another dog trainer, Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), who becomes her best friend in the country. He informs her that since women aren’t allowed anywhere near combat, she and Rex will only be allowed to work checkpoints, but even that is dangerous work as she discovers that the local insurgents will often target dogs like Rex, kidnap them, strap a bomb to the animal and send it back to its trainer—a reality that only serves to add yet another layers of tension to the film. But after Rex and Leavey prove themselves, it isn’t long before the two are right there among the troops seeking out and finding IEDs on more than 100 missions.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (who made the fantastic 2013 documentary BLACKFISH) MEGAN LEAVEY isn’t really about a dog in combat; its true focus is on the relationship Rex forms with Leavey, especially after both are injured during an explosion. Before Leavey is sent to a hospital, the two finish their mission like heroes but then are separated while each recovers. Leavey’s injuries are enough that she is taken out of service, but Rex is sent back in and she spends the better part of a year worried to death about him and going through the paperwork to adopt him when his time in the service is up.

The movie tracks her struggle, attempting to work through the complicated bureaucracy that is the military in order to bring Rex home with her. When this seems impossible because of a short-sighted vet who deems Rex un-adoptable, she falls into a deep depression, moves in with her real father (Bradley Whitford), and continues the fight. With a film like this, there’s little doubt how things will turn out, but the filmmakers certainly make us feel every disappointment and setback that Leavey went through in the long process.

Mara has long been something of an under-appreciated commodity as an actor, but she’s a reliable presence in just about everything she’s in. That being said, the performance she gives as Leavey is easily among her finest and most moving, and it makes the movie worth experiencing, although a great deal of it takes place with her in emotional agony. The film is impactful without being flashy or overly polished. It’s rough around the edges, not unlike its subjects. If you’ve already seen that other film about a woman in combat, helmed by an excellent female director, maybe give MEGAN LEAVEY a try as well.

In one of the odder but still quite satisfying films you’re likely to see this year, FAMILY LIFE comes courtesy of high-profile Chilean directors Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson, who combine forces and visions to tell the story of a house-sitter who reinvents himself in hopes that a woman will fall for him, knowing full well the truth will be revealed and in all likelihood his entire fictional life will come crashing down around him. Written by novelist Alejandro Zambra, the movie doesn’t sound nearly as creepy or troubling as you might think. Instead, the 40-ish Martin (Jorge Becker) seems like a much better person in his made-up identity than the drifting slacker cousin of Bruno (Cristián Carvajal), who runs into him just before he and his family leave for an extended vacation and offers him the housesitting gig, much to the concern of his wife Consuelo (Blanca Lewin).

Shortly after moving into the spacious dwelling, Martin somehow allows the family cat to escape and puts up signs all around the neighborhood. During this process, he crosses paths with Pachi (Gabriela Arancibia), a single mother with a young son whose dog has also gone missing. During the course of the movie, we see two sides of Martin existing simultaneously but quite separately. He is flat-out the worst houseguest ever, making a mess almost immediately and otherwise defiling the family’s prized possessions (mostly in ways they’ll never notice, but it’s still gross sometimes). But he’s also playing the part of a recent divorcee, professor, and father, who is still reeling from the breakup.

Although hesitant at first, Pachi is charmed by this quiet, handsome man, and the two start a romantic tryst that goes one for several months and gets quite explicit at times. Much as Martin does, it’s easy for the audience to get lost in the sweetness of the relationship and forget that at least half of it is based on a total lie. Commitments are made, all the while Martin is still actively hiding evidence of whose house he’s really living in—even going so far as to shoo away the cleaning woman, who visits every few weeks.

Without giving away the ending and how Martin does or does not resolve his dilemma, FAMILY LIFE is a fascinating and curious work that magnifies the way all of us misrepresent ourselves a little when we meet someone new and are interested in them. There’s a slow-burn tension to the entire piece that isn’t so much about whether Martin is a danger or not; it’s more about waiting to see how this couple that we’ve grown attached to is going to survive the inevitable revelation. What ends up happening is certainly not what I expected, and that’s all you’re getting out of me. The performances are consistently good, with the two main characters each holding back just a little for much of the film, until it’s quite clear that they have fallen in love and then they pour their hearts out in ways that are both lovely and tragic. Certainly seek this out if you’re looking for a change of pace from the usual relationship story.

-- Steve Prokopy
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