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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…

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most provocative filmmakers working today, but you might not realize it because her films also happen to be works of art worthy of a great deal of contemplation. Her previous feature, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, was a bold, stunning feminist vampire story, made all the more intriguing by having it set in Iran. But her latest, the grungy, ragged THE BAD BATCH, is more of an endurance test as it mines the possibilities of a society without rules, occupied by society’s outcasts and undesirables.

Although we presume the story is set in the far future, there are probably those in power right now who would love to have the nation’s unwanted rounded up and thrown behind a giant fence in a central Texas desert. We’re never actually told what one has to do to be tossed into one of these hell-on-earth locations, but you can bet the resulting collection of humans are not happy to be there—with each pocket of existence finding a way to stay alive. The film opens with a young woman named Arden (Suki Waterhouse) being declared a member of the “Bad Batch” and tossed on the wrong side of the fence, where she is soon knocked out and dragged to some camp, where she soon has an arm and leg sawed off and her wounds brutally cauterized. She soon discovers that she’s been captured by a group that had chosen cannibalism as a means of survival, and they want to keep her alive as long as possible to get the most out of her various edible body parts.

Shockingly enough, she escapes to another, seemingly more civilized group run by The Dream (a mustachioed Keanu Reeves), who treats his extended family like they’re part of a non-stop Burning Man experience, which its has pluses and minuses. We learn bits and pieces about Arlen’s life, and it turns out that she is likely in this hellhole part of Texas because she kept bad company more than she herself belongs there. She just wants to hang out and enjoy good company, something that is in short supply around these parts.

Major portions of THE BAD BATCH are like a terrifying fever dream, occupied by the likes of Giovanni Ribisi as The Screamer, a crazy man in The Dream’s camp; Diego Luna; and an unrecognizable, unspeaking Jim Carrey as a hermit that wanders the desert and always seems to stumble upon people just when they need saving the most. The scariest character in the film is simply called Miami Man (Jason Momoa, soon to be DC’s Aquaman), the leader of the cannibals, who is looking to get payback for someone dear to him being killed and someone else being kidnapped.

THE BAD BATCH doesn’t seem in a particular hurry to get from one place to another, which doesn’t mean it’s slow, especially since each new place seems stranger and more demented than the last. A known film buff, Amirpour is clearly pulling tone from Sergio Leone Westerns, the MAD MAX movies (mostly the early ones), and distressingly, even a bit of Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES. I’m not entirely certain that the filmmaker wants us to have an enjoyable time watching her film, and that’s certainly her call. As disturbing as the movie is at times, it never ceases to be a fascinating journey into darkness, punctuated by moments of almost comic absurdity, particularly with regards to Reeves’ character, who is clearly less strong leader and most cult figurehead.

The ultimate goal of Amirpour might be to simply find a home for Arden, as well as a new family unit for her to be a part of and exist in relative safety. That’s a tall order for a person living in this place, but Waterhouse’s two-limbed heroine ended up growing on me and finding unusual ways to be charming enough that I started to root for her success. THE BAD BATCH will not sit well with everyone, and it’s not designed to. But it’s refreshing in a summer movie season that seems agonizingly designed to please everyone all the time to watch a film that simply doesn’t give a fuck, coupled with an open-throated dare to spend any amount of time with the people in this story. Good luck. And if you make it until the end, I think you’ll be pleased with where you end up.

You’ve likely never seen a story before like the one told in director Aisling (THE DAISY CHAIN) Walsh’s MAUDIE, even though this particular one springs forth from real life, which is consistently more interesting than predictable old fiction. The film concerns Maud Lewis (played by the always flawless Sally Hawkins from HAPPY-GO-LUCKY and BLUE JASMINE), a Nova Scotian woman who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from a young age, causing her to live a life hunched over with arms and hands misshapen and in a great deal of pain. But Maud was not one to complain even while she was being treated horribly by her elderly Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and conniving brother Charlie (Zachary Bennett), who finds a way to cut her out of her share of the family inheritance. She grows tired of being treated like an animals, so she leaves the house and decides to seek work, with no actual prospects or skills to speak of.

MAUDIE isn’t about a woman with a disability; it’s about a woman in her early 30s seeking independence for the first time in her life. In fact, when you see photos of the real Maud at the end of the film, you realize just how much her physical limitations could have easily stopped her from even leaving the familiarity of home. But eventually she finds a posting at the local store for a housekeeper for the local fish monger, Everett (Ethan Hawke with a voice so gravely, it sounds like he’s been gargling wet sand), who is so socially inept that he makes the shy Maud seem downright chatty. The scene where they meet (you couldn’t really call it a job interview) is so wonderfully awkward that they move around each other as if they might self-destruct if they good too close. It’s not exactly a meet-cute, but few things about this eventual romance are traditional.

Everett hires Maud conditionally, but she has no idea what to do and not do in terms of cleaning or cooking, and just when he’s on the verge of firing her, she makes the first of many stands for her being given a real chance to prove herself. One thing that Maud does have a talent for is painting, despite having to hold her brushes unconventionally with her twisted fingers. At first she simply draws little pictures around the windows, then on the walls, then on pretty much any flat surface in Everett’s house, which he doesn’t seem to mind, despite his one-room cabin having nothing artistic in it at all. The painting resemble that of a child but with genuine composition and an eye for capturing the essence of the simply things that Maud see out the window.

While she’s developing her style, the pair begin to fall in love. They share a bed from the day she starts working for him, but one day he simply tries to hop on top of her, which she seems okay with but still makes the request that before he tries anything like that, they ought to be married. And so they get married, simple as that. The unassuming nature of both performances is the key to MAUDIE working so well. I’ve seen both of these fine actors in many roles over the years, but I’ve never seen them try anything like this before. As quiet and mumbly as Maud can be, Hawkins makes certain her declarations are clear, while Hawke imbues Everett with an animalistic quality that shouldn’t be as appealing as it ends up feeling by the time we’re deep into their relationship.

Kari Matchett plays Sandra, a customer who gets fish delivered from Everett. She’s not a local but she owns a vacation home in the area, and when she comes to complain about a missed delivery, she sees Maud’s paintings and wants to by several of them, bringing money into the household quicker than it ever has before. Sandra’s promoting of Maud’s work in the area suddenly turns their little shack into a tourist destination and center of a great deal of press coverage, as a sort of local oddity. And although they never move out, they start making a great deal of money with Maud churning out paintings while Everett keeps track of the funds. It become a real and fulfilling partnership, and although he doesn’t pretend to be any kind of art expert, he also doesn’t mind that Maud becomes the primary bread winner.

I loved the scenes between Maud and Sandra. At one point, Maud moves out after a big argument and stays with Sandra, seeing her patron’s home for the first time and getting an eyeful of how the other half lives. They couldn’t be two more different people, but they have a connection rooting in what is beautiful in the world and valuing Maud contribution to that beauty. Both Maud’s abusive aunt and devious brother come back after she’s become a success, but even those moments don’t play out quite how you’d think, as Maud has gained a confidence to deal with opportunists that is defiant and impressive.

Walsh takes full advantage of Nova Scotia’s combination of isolated living and picturesque landscapes, and the result is a film that feels so far removed from the real world that you almost resent it when cars pass by their home. MAUDIE is a remarkable and utterly unique film that I still can’t believe someone actually made, but much like Maud’s paintings, someone (in this case, writer Sherry White) saw a quality in her story that they recognized as worthy of attention, admiration, and beauty.

This is a classic example of a host of talented people missing the mark because the resulting film places its emphasis on the least interesting characters. THE EXCEPTION is the curious World War II dramatic thriller set in The Netherlands, where the exiled German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) is living out what will likely be his final years with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer) and a group of Nazi bodyguards to protect him from Allied forces. HIs new bodyguard is a military man Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), who has survived a nasty time at the front and is brought in because there are whisperings of a British spy in the area who might harm the Kaiser. Brandt almost immediately falls for Mieke (Lily James), a local woman working at the residence as a servant.

The initial drama in the film centers on their relationship, which is complicated when she admits that she’s Jewish and he claims not to care, even dangling marriage as a possibility. But when word reaches them that one of Hitler’s most trusted men, Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), the head of the SS, will be visiting Wilhelm, things take a fairly obvious turn and get more complicated for everyone. The truth is that Plummer’s performance is so wonderfully loopy that anytime he’s not on screen, the movie feels empty and predictable. Plummer plays the Kaiser as though he might be losing his grip on reality, as he and his wife are desperate to return to Germany and reclaim the crown, or that he’s incapable of keeping his emotions in check and threatens to have their monthly allowance from Germany cut off or reduced. But there are other times when the actor makes us believe that Wilhelm is behaving erratic intentionally to throw people off and underestimate him.

Based on the novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd (adapted by Simon Burke), THE EXCEPTION is the feature debut from well-regarded stage director David Leveaux, who just recently mounted a 50th anniversary staging of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Old Vic. And while Leveaux is talented enough to know when to let his actors piece together a performance that is wholly unexpected, he doesn’t quite know how to keep our interest in this rather conventional star-crossed lovers scenario, even with the added intrigue that one of the couple might be using the other.

The final act of THE EXCEPTION gets plain-old loopy as the search for the spy continues, the young couple are caught by the princess, and the Kaiser needs to be rushed to the hospital. It feels almost like slapstick, there are so many balls in the air. Still, the film does find time to allow Wilhelm and Mieke to become friends, to the point where he attempts to help her escape the country, and for the Brits intent with the Kaiser to become clearer. James is certainly known for lighter fare recently (“Downton Abbey,” CINDERELLA), but her recent turns in the upcoming BABY DRIVER and in the “War & Peace” miniseries illustrate a more serious-minded actor within her. This film is a step in the right direction, even if the end product doesn’t quite hit the mark.

It didn’t surprise me in the slightest to find out that the Scottish film WHISKY GALORE! was, in fact, a remake of a 1949 Ealing Studios work (which in turn was an adaptation of a novel by Compton Mackenzie). The London-based Ealing had a long and wonderful history is making offbeat, dark comedies, with several of their most popular and noted works coming in the 10 years or so after World War II, including such films as KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, and THE LADYKILLERS (all of which starred Alec Guinness). This remake comes courtesy of director Gillies MacKinnon (HIDEOUS KINKY) and writer Peter McDougall, and still tells the supposedly true story of a remote Scottish island called Todday during WWII.

Although the war never really reached the isle directly, it did in other ways, including a rationing of whisky to its devoutly thirsty population. One day, the local pub owner announced that the whisky has run out, and the town grows collectively grumpy and short tempered. There are other distracting subplots throughout the film, including a couple of love stories involving a pair of sisters, Peggy and Catriona Macroon (Naomi Battrick and Ellie Kendrick, respectively), who are both being wooed by men not eager to confront their overprotective postmaster father (Gregor Fisher from LOVE ACTUALLY). Aside from that, this is a story about an island filled with drunks.

As if God reached down to solve the problem him/herself, a cargo ship headed for the Americas runs into some rocks just off the coast of the Todday, and it just happens to be filled with 50,000 cases of Whisky, just waiting to be salvaged in secret by the locals, who go to great lengths to keep their activities away from the probing eyes of both the local minister and the home guard commander, the inept Capt. Wagget (Eddie Izzard, who is acting in an entirely different movie that consists of nothing but silly walks and overplaying your part like he’s in an episode of “The Benny Hill Show”). Wagget seems eager to catch the villagers with bottles in hand, but they are smart enough to keep the thousands of battles out of sight.

There’s really nothing to WHISKY GALORE!, especially nothing resembling drama. Some of the observations about the locals and their odd ways might amuse audience members, but even that seems like a bit of an easy target. Everyone on the island is more character than person, and after a while I spent more time looking at the lovely scenery and quaint locations than what was actually going on regarding the illegal contraband. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a little disturbing to see how nasty the townspeople got when they couldn’t drink and how greedy they behaved once the amber elixir was in sight once again. Still, the film is meant to be lighthearted, and that’s mostly what it is—a pleasant distraction, a harmless distraction, and low-grade wackiness.

Making the transition from acting to directing is Amber Tamblyn and her feature debut PAINT IT BLACK. Working from a book by Janet Fitch, the movie concerns Josie (Alia Shawkat), a young woman trying to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) while deflecting the overwhelming grief of his mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), a famed concert pianist whose unstable personality may have indirectly contributed to Michael’s death.

Tamblyn shows a confident hand at directing the difficult and emotionally complex material, while drawing out a truly haunting performance by Shawkat, whose character goes through a range of reactions and behaviors as a result of Michael’s death. She turns to his father, Cal (Alfred Molina), who had a bad breakup with Meredith years earlier. And even her best friend Pen (Emily Rios) isn’t much help when Josie tries to escape her pain with excessive partying. But since Meredith blames Josie for her son’s death, the two engage in a strange and often terrible battle of wits to see who can grieve the most.

To send things even deeper into a pit of despair, at one point the pair strike an unstable peace, with Josie moving into Meredith’s spacious home so that Meredith can mother her the way she did her son. PAINT IT BLACK moves from almost comically outrageous to deeply tormented, without feeling unbalanced or tonally schizophrenic.

Tamblyn transitions from one moment to the next in a way that doesn’t feel jarring but still manages to rattle us. She does a strong job of making it clear what each woman is feeling from their unique perspective, attempting to find common ground between them while never missing a chance to exploit their differences to heighten the dramatic impact. This one is all sorts of messed up, but it manages to amount to something substantive in the process.

-- Steve Prokopy
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