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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE JOURNEY, THE B-SIDE, THE SEA, and LOST IN PARIS!!!

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 learned something new while watching director Nick (KILLING BONO) Hamm’s THE JOURNEY: there’s poetic license and then there’s “This story images that journey.” In other words, this isn’t what happened, but it’s what writer Colin Bateman thinks about when he closes his eyes and imagines an overly simplified, slightly sitcom-ish version of the events that led the St. Andrews Agreement that finally brought peace to Northern Ireland in 2006. I suspect that even if the negotiations that brought about that peace were as dry as a bone and completely lacking any form of drama, it still would have been more interesting than this weirdly paced, strangely toned alternative history.

The one thing I can’t fault the film for is the cast. Fresh off his performance as a real-life, equally unlikeable Holocaust denier in Denial last year, Timothy Spall plays staunch British loyalist Rev. Ian Paisley, who often spoke against Ireland having any voice in UK politics. With a booming voice and a mouthful of oversized teeth, both of which make him sound a great deal like the late Angus Scrimm, Spall is set up to be the immovable wall of a politician who only sees the IRA as terrorists rather than soldiers in a civil war. Colm Meaney plays the recently departed Martin McGuinness, the representative of Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA), who seems all too aware that no amount of group discussion is going to solve this problem. So when both parties arrive at St. Andrews in Scotland, thinks seem doomed from the start.

But a few key players (including McGuinness) have a few tricks up their sleeves. When Paisley asks if he may leave the negotiations early on the first day to attend his 50th wedding anniversary party, McGuinness insists that they follow the letter of the rules of the gathering stating that one member of the opposing side must travel if a member of the other side leaves the conference. And this sets up a long limo ride to the airport with just McGuinness and Paisley alone in the back, or so they think.

Obviously, there’s a driver, and his name is Jack (Freddie Highmore, from “Bates Motel”), and it turns out he’s a bit of a talker, and he begins chatting up his silent riders, which in turn sparks the two politicians to begin conversing with each other. What these two enemies don’t realize is that there are cameras in the car, capturing their every move and sending the images to a team of MI5 agents, led by supervisor Harry Patterson (one of the final on-screen performances of John Hurt), as well as leaders from both sides of this conflict, including then Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (Ian Beattie), all of whom seem keenly aware that the only possible chance of a peace accord is if these two men reach an agreement during this car ride.

Now let me make this perfectly clear: the idea of having Spall and Meaney in a car talking for 90 minutes sounds fine by me, no matter the subject matter. But having them play the architects of the peace to end The Troubles in Northern Ireland sounds positively riveting. But the conversation in THE JOURNEY is a fiction, as is a strange blown tire they have on the road to the airport that leaves them stranded at an ancient church talking quite heatedly about the bombing at Enniskillen during a remembrance day parade (during the course of the movie, they also broach the subjects of hunger strikes and Bloody Sunday, as you might expect). And while I adore the idea of hearing these two fine actor go at each other nearly to blows, so much of their conversation feels like a history lesson mixed with conspiracy theories and fairy tales.

Far worse are the reactions of the team waiting back at St. Andrews, practically fist bumping and high fiving each other every time the monitors show the two men getting along and the talks progress. And as you might expect (if you know history), the two men did reach an understanding, whether it happened in that car or not, I don’t know. But director Hamm’s account, even if it’s 100 percent accurate (which it isn’t) feel written not lived. The fact that the two men became friends, co-workers, and were frequently referred to as “The Chuckle Brothers” in real life (according to a closing title card) doesn’t alter the artificiality of THE JOURNEY, and no amount of fine acting can change that. I can certainly see audience members on both sides of this struggle being offended by this telling of these events. I had no horse in this race, and even I felt oddly disloyal watching—not to one side or the other, but to the truth.

The latest work from master documentarian Errol Morris (THE THIN BLUE LINE, THE FOG OF WAR) is meant to mark the end of an era of sorts. Specifically, it’s the end of the career of photographer Elsa Dorfman, who from 1965 until 2016 took portraits of everyone from her immediate family to those on the forefront of the beat poet movement, including her great friend Allen Ginsberg. But in 1980, Dorfman, who had always been a fan of Polaroid cameras, discovered the company’s 20×24 camera that took mini-poster-sized images with a remarkable amount of detail and clarity. She began to take thousands of photos using this format in her Cambridge, Mass., studio, and THE B-SIDE provides a wonderful account of her life and career that is as delicate as the paper on which her photos are printed.

The film’s title comes from her practice of always taking two images of her paying clients—the one the subjects choose is the A-Side, while the reject (which she keeps) is the B-Side, and is quite often the image she prefers for whatever flaw the client may have seen in it. Director Morris foregoes the usually style of having his subject speak directly to a monitor with his face on it, making it far easier to Dorfman to riffle through box after oversized box of photos, carefully packed away, many of which she hasn’t laid eyes on in decades.

Her subjects have included musicians like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jonathan Richman, as well as local Harvard elite, whom she befriended over the years. THE B-SIDE feels like an intimate viewing reception, as the subject tells story after story as she moves through each image. She also recalls the shameless and heartbreaking way that Polaroid was sold to a company that had no interest in continuing to make its landmark film stock or cameras, and she knew that her days using them were limited. She saw it as her mission to capture something essential about each subject, even if they were paying customers, and as we flip through hundreds of different images, we suss out little bits of information about the subjects, even if the image is simply a very expensive family portrait, with a sea of smiling faces.

Dorfman is open and self-reflexive about her work, her access to and interactions with this colony of esteemed writers, and her relationship with her husband and son, who were some of her favorite portrait subjects. The film doesn’t linger more than it needs to (the running time is under 80 minutes), and it feels like a slightly smaller-scale, less-probing version of what Morris does best. But it’s Dorfman’s work that is the real focal point of THE B-SIDE, and there’s enough of that featured here to form a complete portrait of a gifted, introspective artist.

In the last couple of years, there have been a fair number of films that have impressively and respectfully dealt with the subjects of grief and loss—more specifically, they deal with the very different ways that we all do both when we lose someone close to us. From MANCHESTER BY THE SEA to even something as traumatic as last month’s IT COMES AT NIGHT, this sub-genre in the dramatic realm gives us a sense that grieving is both the most personal thing we can do, while also being a shared experience, in that it’s something we all go through at some point in our lives.

In his feature debut THE SEA, director Stephen Brown digs deeper than most to show us the inner workings and mechanisms of grief, and how experiencing loss as a child impacts the way we deal with grief as an adult—perhaps even propelling us back into childish behaviors. Based on John Banville’s novel (who also adapted it), this 2013 film (which is just now making its way stateside) stars the ever-reliable Ciarán Hinds as art historian Max Morden, who is returning to an isolated seaside resort where he and his working-class family spent their summers, after the recent loss of his wife Anna (Sinéad Cusack). The location is the site of some of Max’s best and worst memories as both a child and adult, and even his adult daughter (Ruth Bradley) doesn’t quite understand why he’s picked this place to retreat into. Perhaps it’s one of the only places on earth where he feels he has permission to be his true, emotional self.

Jumping back and forth from the present, to his childhood memories of 1955, and to glimpses of the last few days with Anna, THE SEA shows us Max at his extremes—from a curious boy (played by Matthew Dillon) to a much older man who has rediscovered the love he has for his wife only once she is stricken with a fatal illness. As a boy, he befriends twins his age, Chloe (Missy Keating) and the mute Myles (Padhraig Parkinson), as well as their parents Carlo (Rufus Sewell) and Connie Grace (a radiant Natascha McElhone), upon whom Max develops a slight crush. The twins are looked after my a mysterious younger nanny named Rose (Bonnie Wright), who is a great observer (and judger) of everyone else’s behavior and consistently has a tough time keeping the children in line. The family is playful, open, and everything Max’s poor family is not, and he loves every second being with the seemingly model Grace family.

The reason Max is remembering this particular summer are a mystery (that doesn’t take long to solve). The resort’s current caretaker is Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and it’s sole regular resident is the elderly, eccentric gent Blunden (Karl Johnson). Aided with excessive drinking, the present-day Max allows his mind to be flooded with thoughts of his first love, as well as what will likely be his last, and to him the two seem to meet in the middle, confirming his nihilistic belief that everything he cares about suffers and dies in his presence. Director Brown has made a bold choice making his first film one that moves between and links the past and present in ways that also seek to find common elements of the two in a surprisingly complex and sophisticated manner.

Often seen as one of the world’s finest character actors, Hinds pours heart and soul into this performance, and the results are devastating. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than watching him sink to his greatest possible depths is witnessing him in the early stages of pulling himself back out, with the help of the very memories that drove him into the darkness to begin with. While perhaps not your typical summer movie programming choice, THE SEA strikes several very authentic and adult chords, and might make for some solid counter-programming if you’d like a quieter, less frenzied time at the movies.

In the last 12 years or so, the married Brussels, Belgian filmmaking and performing couple Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon have been making some of the strangest and funniest comedies around, with such films as THE ICEBERG, THE FAIRY, and RUMBA. A bizarre mix of silent comedy-style sight gags, cartoonish behavior, and metaphorically naked emotions, their work is clearly inspired by comedies of a bygone era that still play incredibly to modern audiences (the works of Jacques Tati immediately come to mind). Their latest, LOST IN PARIS, would have been a sweet love story mixed with a fish-out-of-water tale in the hands of any other director. But with Abel and Gordon, it’s a visual joy set amongst some of the most famous landmarks Paris has to offer.

The film opens with a flashback of a woman named Martha telling her young niece Fiona that she’s moving to Paris from their home in the tundras of Canada. Years later, Fiona (now played by Gordon) gets a letter from her aunt (played by the legendary Emmanuelle Riva, who passed away in January) urging her to come visit her and save her from people who want to put her in an assisted-living facility. Fiona straps on her backpack and head to France, but by the time she arrives, Martha has already gone into hiding from the social worker ready to remove her from her home. After taking a tumble in the Seine while trying to have someone take her photo with the Eiffel Tower in the background, Fiona is left with no money, passport or provisions of any kind, and she ends up at the Canadian embassy looking for any help (including assistance from a handsome mountie working for the embassy).

Also intertwined with Fiona and Martha’s dramas is a homeless man named Dom (Abel) who happen to both salvage Fiona’s backpack and help Martha hide from the authorities. The film eventually devolves into a series of misunderstandings and absurd moments (including a great tango sequence with Fiona and Dom, who have just met at that point). Fiona is wonderfully gawky and awkward while Dom is bendy and might be bordering on mentally ill, but knows the city so well that he’s a valuable asset to both women, who don’t end up actually connecting until damn near the end of the film.

Every moment and sequence in LOST IN PARIS is beautifully staged and choreographed perfectly for maximum laughs and even inspired, heartfelt drama. Abel and Gordon are the type of filmmakers whose work is addictive. If this is your first exposure to their work, you’ll want to go back and see their previous films just to see what led them to this breathtaking place. Some of the material might feel a bit broad, but they pair always find the means to bring things back to more solid ground. There’s a rhythm to their work that is so noticeable, you can almost feel it in your extremities. Sometimes filmmakers forget that cinema is a uniquely visual medium, and a movie like LOST IN PARIS is an essential reminder of the power of the frame.

-- Steve Prokopy
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