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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE BEGUILED, THE BIG SICK, THE ORNITHOLOGIST, and the restored MAURICE!!!

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…

I’m not going to get into another discussion about how frustrating it is when a filmmaker remakes a well-regarded film, and then all people do after they watch it is compare it to the previous work. Presumably a filmmaker like Sofia Coppola (who also wrote the adaptation), saw the 1971 Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood film (or more likely read Thomas Cullinan’s novel) and saw an opportunity to tell this Civil War-set story in a way that had not been done prior. She’s not just tracing over the original with a new cast. Coppola (THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, LOST IN TRANSLATION, THE BLING RING) has spotted a way she can change the emphasis while remaining faithful to the source material, and the result is a tense, electric, riveting work anchored by some of the finest performances I’ve seen all year.

The 1971 version of THE BEGUILED is one of my absolute favorite Eastwood films because it came at time when he rarely played vulnerable. And while for most of the film, he dominates every scene, he’s still injured to the point where he needs the assistance of a group of women occupying a Southern girls’ boarding school that has seen better days. Siegel’s movie is an exercise in control, seduction and temptation, most of which is supplied by Eastwood’s Northern soldier who has been severely injured. But in Coppola’s take on the material, Corp. McBurney (Colin Farrell, using his real-life Irish brogue appropriately since many immigrants were paid to take the place of rich men on the battlefield) is more of a gateway drug for these women and girls.

Whereas Eastwood provided the male gaze from which the story was told originally, Coppola’s THE BEGUILED is more about the women, and how McBurney’s presence in their school triggers dreams and desires (not all of them sexual, but some) within a few that they had long since pushed aside when the war between the states began. Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the head of the school, who seems the most aware of the true dangers of having a man, any man, in their presence. But she’s also a good Christian woman who agrees that the best course of action when the Corp. lands just outside of their fence is to heal his wounds and then turn him over the Southern forces. As she gets to talking to McBurney, she sees his potential as both a handy person to have around the property, an intellectual equal, and a good conversationalist.

Farrell’s work here should not be undervalued. He makes subtle adjustments to his personality with each new woman or girl he comes into contact with. For example, with the girl who found him in the first place, the young Amy (Oona Laurence from PETE’S DRAGON), he appeals to her as a friend and confidante. But with the older Edwina (a transcendent Kirsten Dunst), he spots in her both longing and frustration for a different life. She makes the mistake of letting him know that she dreams of leaving the school—and likely the South—for a better life elsewhere, and he urges her to think of him as her ticket to exactly that life. In many ways, Edwina is the centerpiece of the film and the character with the deepest arc as her emotions are run ragged by both the Corporal and the other women.

After playing a host of more sensitive characters in recent works, it’s fun to see Elle Fanning take a crack at a more traditional dangerous woman character. Her Alicia more overtly throws herself at McBurney, not necessarily because she’s attracted to him but because she’s bored and looking for a little excitement. She’s either doesn’t see or doesn’t care about the dangers associated with stirring things up among the women in the school.

Although the film is set during the Civil War, the events inside the walls of the dilapidated estate feel as removed from the battles outside as you can imagine, even though there’s a constant, faint rumbling from faraway cannons. The curtains throughout the house are always drawn, even during the day, creating haunting lighting opportunities for Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (who recently lensed Wong Kar-Wai’s THE GRANDMASTER), taking full advantage of a great deal of candle and natural lighting, adding an extra layer of eerie to this Gothic tale.

Certainly the idea of a having a group of laced-up, frustrated women all quietly fighting over which one gets the full attention of a handsomely rough soldier is the stuff of many a bodice-ripping romance novel, but Coppola (who won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year) doesn’t let us off that easy. This version of THE BEGUILED is about turning the tables and making the women just a little bit more aware than this would-be playboy. Enough of them have his number to thwart him before any real damage is done, and if you know this story at all, you know a couple things about how they deal with his deceit and treachery.

THE BEGUILED is smart, subtle, quiet and, above all, remarkable in its patience and pacing. The slow unveiling of how life in this fragile place will be maintained is both clever and brutal—two more words that accurately describe the movie. It’s also proof that Coppola is getting bolder and better with each new work, with a fierce devotion to not repeating herself in terms of subject or tone. This is one of the finest works of the year so far, and I highly urge you to make room for it before the big movies swallow it up.

The first thing you notice about the romantic tragicomedy THE BIG SICK is how conventionally it begins. If you don’t know where it’s going—or figure it out from the title—the first act of this movie begins like many “date movies” do. A young stand-up comic, living in Chicago, named Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani from “Silicon Valley”) meets a grad student named Emily (Zoe Kazan, playing a character very much based on Nanjiani’s real-life wife and writing partner Emily V. Gordon), and the two start dating and just generally being very cute together.

Things are made complicated when Kumail neglects to mention that his Pakistani parents have been trying for years to arrange a marriage for him, and while he’s found reasons to reject every candidate that has graced the family home, he also can’t quite commit to the idea of his marrying a non-Pakistani woman, which pushes Emily to end the relationship. And that’s all in the first 30-40 minutes of a two-hour movie (Judd Apatow produced the film, so of course it’s two hours long, but it’s a painless two hours).

Shortly after their breakup, Emily falls ill with an unknown illness, sending her to the hospital where doctors are forced to put her in a medically induced coma to help her body heal, leaving Kumail with the unpleasant task of contacting her parents (whom he’s never met) to alert them and get them to Emily’s side as soon as possible. And with that, THE BIG SICK puts its rom-com framework on hold and becomes a film about the importance of parents in our adult lives, and that by interacting with Emily’s family, Kumail is given some context into the wonderful person she is, and he falls deeper in love with her than ever.

Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry, are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano—a gifted actress with a flair for comedy and a gifted comedian with talent for acting—and they are confused as to Kumail’s presence at the hospital once they arrive since they know that he and Emily had broken up. But since they are from out of town, they end up leaning on Kumail as their advisor about Chicago, and they begin to form a bond that is both organic and incredibly sweet. In particular, Kumail and Terry compare notes on these glorious women, and they both realize they’d be stupid to ever let them go.

Director Michael Showalter (HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS) has a keen sense of when it’s okay to be slightly silly, even in more dramatic moments, and when to keep things solidly in the dramatic realm. And the more familiar you are with Nanjiani as a performer (both in stand-up and film and television), the more impressed you’ll be with the heavy lifting he’s doing as an actor in THE BIG SICK. This is particularly clear during any one of several stand-up routines we see him perform during the course of the film. This is not the confident comedian he is today; this is meant to be early-days Nanjiani, with B-grade material but a sense that there’s something there. We never truly get to see him kill as a comic until the movie’s last scene, and during one particularly brutal sequence, he has a complete shutdown on stage that is so believable, you feel the urge to look away from the screen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Anupam Kher (one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars) and Zenobia Shroff, who play Kumail’s parents. I’ve seen films about families that believe in arranged marriages, but they take what could have been broadly drawn characters and turn them into fully-realized people whose son underestimates them, which may hurt them more than him dating a non-Pakistani woman.

I suppose if you wanted to nitpick THE BIG SICK, you could complain that there’s very little dramatic tension because we know Emily doesn’t die, and I would counter that the film isn’t about whether Emily survives this medical ordeal. It’s about the unusual ways that we strengthen and deepen our connections. Of course, it’s also a comedy, and some of the funniest scenes involve Kumail’s roommates and fellow comics, played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler, each looking for their big break whenever a talent scout comes in, which isn’t often.

THE BIG SICK is rooted in the real story of Nanjiani and Gordon, but it takes enough diversions from the real story to keep the story and its outcome fresh. The film is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, and the entire package is completely entertaining thanks in large part to the eclectic and flawless cast. The movie is a prime example of storytelling winning the day, and I can’t wait to see what Nanjiani and Gordon come up with next, whether it’s close to the truth or complete fiction.

One never quite knows what to expect from the great Portuguese writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues (THE LAST TIME I SAW MEXICO, TO DIE LIKE A MAN), but his latest, THE ORNITHOLOGIST, offers healthy doses of magical realism, biblical interpretation, nature documentary, and queer cinema, all under the umbrella of experimental filmmaker that is still quite accessible, as long as you don’t get too hung up decoding every moment and are capable of finding great joy in letting a film just wash over you.

Paul Hamy plays Fernando, an ornithologist working alone in the remote wilderness of northern Portugal, documenting the endangered black storks and any other birds he might stumble upon in his work. As he’s steering his kayak down a river tracking his stork, he gets taken away by rapids, nearly drowning far off course. He is discovered and revived by two young Chinese women (Han Wen and Chan Suan), who happen to be Catholic pilgrims slightly off course themselves on their way to Santiago de Compostela. They claim to have heard strange, terrifying ritualistic noises in the night, and are convincing that the devil is on their heels, so they force him to sleep outside their tent for the night as some sort of protection. But come the morning, Fernando is tied up only in his underwear because the women still don’t trust him.

He eventually escapes and run into the dark woods, unsure where to go next and with only a fraction of his original gear, and over the course of the next couple of days, he begins to find evidence that there have been pagan rituals happening in the forest. He continues searching for a way out and back home, but symbolic obstacles and distractions keep him from leaving until his journey is complete and his purpose is made clear. One such distraction is the discovery of a small goat farm run by a deaf-mute named Jesus. The two share both an intimate moment and an unfortunate tragedy, but every event in Fernando’s trip seems to be steering him toward something transformative, and if you’re familiar with the story of St. Anthony of Padua, some parts of this story may seem familiar (especially when Fernando has his named changed to Anthony (and without warning, he goes from being played by Hamy to being played by the director).

Rodrigues’s work frequently feels like experimental art rather than traditional narrative filmmaking, but THE ORNITHOLOGIST is a hypnotic and captivating bit of both. In one moment, he seems intent on making it clear that not only is Fernando watching nature but nature is watching him right back (there’s an owl in this film that will likely haunt my dreams for months to come). In another moment, he’s paying tribute to the nearly lost language of Mirandese (spoke only in this part of Portugal), and it all might not make sense but it feels right in the context of this tale.

This film ponders the question: Would we recognize a saint in our midst in this day and age? A few other films in recent history have tackled this question as well, with the answer often being No. But there’s something hopeful and endearing about THE ORNITHOLOGIST, and these are both qualities we ought to celebrate in the world we’re living in.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the mid-1980s to early 1990s films of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant—from THE BOSTONIANS in 1984 to THE REMAINS OF THE DAY in 1993, with choice titles in between, including A ROOM WITH A VIEW, MR. & MRS. BRIDGE, and the recently restored HOWARDS END. Two of these three titles were adapted from the works of E.M. Forster, whose writings were the basis of the lesser-seen 1987 drama MAURICE, probably best known for featuring a very early screen appearance by a fresh-faced and devastatingly charming Hugh Grant.

The novel was written in 1914 but sadly remained unprinted until 1971 for reasons that will be quite clear. The story involves two best friends at Cambridge in the years before World War I—Maurice (James Wilby) and the more sophisticated Clive (Grant), who are inseparable and eventually fall in love, although they agree that getting to physical could be quite dangerous in a time when homosexuality was an illegal and punishable offense. The film follows them across many years, with Clive eventually deciding that being gay was too dangerous after a mutual friend is caught and has his life ruined by the scandal. He puts distance between them only long enough to find a worthy candidate for a wife, and he sincerely tries to resume the friendship with Maurice, with the heartbroken Maurice attempting to reciprocate.

The tragedy of MAURICE is that these two men would clearly be at their happiest together, but societal restrictions and potentially ruined reputations won’t let that happen. Maurice even attempts to seek medical help for his feelings toward men, first from his family physician (Denholm Elliott), who is outraged that Maurice even thinks he might have thoughts “like Oscar Wilde,” then from a hypnotherapist (Ben Kingsley), who believes he can implant suggestions that would make Maurice feel physically ill at the thought of being with a man.

But everything changes when Maurice is staying at Clive’s estate and is approached in the night by rough-around-the-edges servant Alec (Rupert Graves), who has a reputation for sleeping with many of the female servants where he works. At first Maurice fears that Alec is going to blackmail him, and Alec’s emotional instability about the relationship certainly makes it seem like that or some other dangerous scenario is about to play out. But it becomes clear that both have feelings for the other, and now the questions remains: Where can they possibly go from here?

Despite the soft focus and production design fineries that are a part of every Merchant-Ivory film, MAURICE remains a surprisingly honest portrait of the gay experience for men of some influence. More importantly, these men are not portrayed in an insulting way or as victims of the time. They were to a degree, in that they couldn’t live openly, but they found ways to be happy despite the restrictions. The version of the film hitting theaters now is a 4K digital restoration that reveals a great number of beautiful touches to the look of the sets and locations. And it shows us that Hugh Grant’s skin is flawless. Certainly no more or less angst-ridden that other Forster adaptations of the time, MAURICE is a worthy entry among the best Merchant-Ivory had to offer.

-- Steve Prokopy
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