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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with BRIGSBY BEAR, STEP, and POP AYE!!!

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…

A surprise hit at Sundance earlier this year, BRIGSBY BEAR comes courtesy of the creators of a recent crop of digital shorts that have been running on “Saturday Night Live,” which are decidedly different than the musically oriented, Lonely Island-produced shorts from years past. The feature is the product of writers Kyle Mooney (also an SNL cast member) and childhood pal Kevin Costello, as well as director Dave McCary, who also directed the SNL shorts, and it begins with a children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a sci-fi adventure with a rich mythology that seems almost tailor made for a young man named James (Mooney). As soon as he watches a new episode on VHS tape, he hops on his computer and talks to a few regulars that visit chatrooms about the show, where they share theories about what they’ve just seen and guess where the episodes might take them next.

James than visits or eats with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), during which he also talks about Brigsby Bear. It might also help to mention that this portion of the story takes place in an elaborate, fully-stocked underground bunker, where James’s parents say they must all stay put since the fallout above has rendered the surface unlivable. I don’t want to spoil too many things about this weirdly magical tale, but things in James’s world change, and he finds out Ted and April have been lying to him about a great deal. Not coincidentally, new episodes of “Brigsby Bear” stop arriving, and in his new life on the surface, James makes new friends and decides he wants to finish the Brigsby Bear story himself using all of the original show’s props and costumes.

BRIGSBY BEAR is about a lot of things, and it’s perfectly written in a way that everyone who sees it will pull different meanings from its construct. But the message that jumped out at me was about the new nature of fandom. How there are many out in the world who believe a series or movie must somehow serve them, or that they have any type of sway over plot points or character development. What’s worse, some creations (especially ones on television) listen and respond to such comments, in the spirit of fan service, and make changes as a result. In the case of this film, the fan becomes the creator, but for James, he needs the experience to snap him back into the real world and continue maturing as an adult, something he’s been for quite some time.

What happens in the process of making the final “Brigsby Bear” is that those who help him realize his dream become his first set of friends, something that hopefully will have a lasting impact in his rapidly expanding worldview. BRIGSBY BEAR is populated with a diverse range of actors, including Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Michaela Watkins, and even Lonely Island member Andy Samberg (actually the group serve as producers on the film), many even playing against type bringing yet another level of discovery to the process.

Considering how often the SNL shorts are about awkward behavior and detailed observations about a particular type of ’90s family television, I was genuinely shocked to acknowledge how layered and smart BRIGSBY BEAR gets at times. There are plenty of laughs. But at a certain point, we realize how much James’s mind and understanding is in need of repair work, and that realization grounds what comes next. In addition to solid writing, Mooney’s take on James is consistently strong and promising for possible roles outside of pure comedy. I hope audiences embrace the curious and strange vibe of the film, if only so Mooney and McCary can embark on future big-screen adventures together. This one’s a keeper and even one worth seeing more than once in an effort to peel back the layers of James and his extended childhood.

While one documentary currently in theaters (AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL) may make you feel terrible about the direction in which the world is headed (although it certainly has its moments of hope), director-producer Amanda Lipitz’s STEP seems custom built to make you stand up and cheer, both for the Baltimore step team at the center of the film and for the individual high school-age girls who make up the team and their sometimes surprising achievements during their time on the team. For those who don’t know, stepping is a form of dance, heavy on the percussive as both hands and feet combine to turn the body into its own musical instrument. Quite often, spoken word is also incorporated, and the practice is so popular, there are competitions in high school across the country.

In the case of one particular all-girl, all-African American charter school in a part of Baltimore that has seen its fair share of trouble, teachers, administrators, coaches and counselors work with students and their parents to use step as a means of confidence building, teaching what it is to work with others to achieve perfection, and strengthen leadership skills. It just so happens that at the newly formed Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, the goal is 100 percent college acceptance by every member of the graduating class; and the class that Lipitz (who got her start as a Broadway producer, which she still does) profiles members of is the first graduating class, so the pressure from an academic standpoint is as intense as the team’s goal to win the state stepping finals.

Just as the step team’s routine is coming together, the school and community in which it stands is forced to deal with emotional trauma of the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, and they decide to embrace the theme of Black Lives Matter into the program, bringing the practice back to its roots as a tool for protest. The film focuses on three girls in very different situations in terms of their academic status at school and their home lives and level of support they get from parents or other guardian figures in their lives. Perhaps better than any film I’ve seen before about the education process, Step shows the direct connection between parental involvement and grades and college acceptance, and for at least one of these girls, it’s an equation that might not work in her favor.

We see the girls go through the process of applying to colleges and for financial aid should they be accepted, and these moments are given as much weight as the step rehearsal experience. There’s such a variety of types of young women on the team, and it’s uplifting to see them all get along, even when problems and disagreements come to a head. The one student whose journey stuck with me is that of Blessin Giraldo, who balances a mentally unstable home life, a boyfriend, and grades that run the risk of keeping her off the team and, more importantly, not getting into college. But the team and the school’s staff rally around her in hopes of pulling off a handmade miracle.

The trials and tribulations that nearly every person in this movie go through are so extraordinary at times that, if this had been a fiction film, one might criticize it for seeming too unrealistic. Yet, here it is—life in all its unpredictable glory. But Lipitz followed these girls for other projects since they were much younger, so her investment in and access to the toughest parts of their lives only makes us care about them more. And when we do get the step finals, there’s really no telling how much clapping, cheering and praying you’ll do as they perform a precision routine and wait for the results from the judges.

The reason STEP works so well is that you can actually see life paths shifting before you eyes. They put in the work on and off the team, and the results happen. If one girl finds herself sliding back, she doesn’t wallow in self-pity. This is a high school sports movie that puts as much emphasis on academic achievement as it does on what happens on stage, and that’s refreshing after watching such films year after year where sports dominate the conversation. This is also a film about women giving other women a boost in their time of need. These are your real-life cinematic wonder women.

Just to be clear, the title character of this film actually spells and pronounces its name “Popeye,” like the famous, spinach-eating cartoon sailor, but because there’s already a movie called POPEYE, I’m guessing the filmmakers didn’t want there to be any confusion. By the way, the character named Popeye is an elephant, and it takes on a great significance for a middle-aged Thai man whose road through the rest of his life seems all-too predictable.

Marking her feature debut, writer-director Kirsten Tan tells the story of Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), an older but quite successful architect in Bangkok who finds that he’s still well regarded at work but is getting pushed aside for some of his firm’s higher-profile jobs. To make matters worse, his relationship with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul) has been reduced to bitterness and disinterest. By pure chance he stumbles onto the sale of an elephant named Popeye that he knew growing up and he purchases the beautiful creature to do…something with. He’s not quite sure it seems like. But the gesture seems to be the first of many that seem spontaneous, occasionally ill-advised, but ultimately Thana decides to take Popeye back to the farm where they first met, so POP AYE becomes a very different kind of road movie.

Along the way, the pair meet and have encounters with a homeless man with a mysterious past, a kind but tragic trans prostitute, and a pair of police officers who want to bring the elephant in for not being licensed but lose interest in the case when real police work comes their way. Pop Aye has an underlying melancholy to it, but it finds time to be sweet, understated and quite funny, and by the end of the film, a genuine friendship builds between man and animal.

Ultimately, POP AYE could have featured a more conventional animals at its center, but having it be an elephant adds a hint of danger to the equation that makes it all that much more interesting. And because no one in the film seems especially shocked when they see an elephant walking down the street or through a field with or without a caretaker (Popeye does manage to escape a few times), we get used to it pretty quickly as well. This is a gentle, lovely little movie that tells a simple story that doesn’t get bogged down in plot. Both elephant and man feel like fully realized characters, who have lived full lives and found each other again just when they needed it most. I can’t promise you’ll cry, but you’ll find it impossible not to be moved by this one.

-- Steve Prokopy
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