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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…

Apparently being a crowd-pleasing film is a problem for some, and it is for me too when a work panders and manipulates with no shame. But PATTI CAKE$, feature film debut from writer-director-composer-songwriter Geremy Jasper, earns its underdog status as well as its reputation on the festival circuit as being a movie that lifts people up on the strength of its catchy tunes and its and winning lead performance from Australian-born actress Danielle Macdonald who plays Patti, a Jersey girl with aspirations of being the world’s next great hip-hop artist with a little help from an unlikely support team.

While it’s true that PATTI CAKE$ owes a certain debt to Eminem’s 8 Mile (I’ve heard Patti referred to as “Feminem”), the film also borrows a bit from Bruce Springsteen biography, as a musician who is desperate to escape her small and small-minded New Jersey town, but after achieving certain artistic dreams, they realize that home is where those closest to you live. Director Jasper even uses a rare, only recently released Springsteen River album outtake under the opening credits to underscore the connection. Patti is overweight and has been teased so much during her 20-plus years of life that she barely acknowledges the insults as they come hurdling toward her from the usual suspects—many of whom are people she likely went to high school with, none of whom left their dead-end town.

In fact, Patti’s confidence levels as a rapper are pretty high, even during her first spontaneous entry into a rap battle with a local MC, and it should come as no surprise that the only person on the planet who attempts to make her feel less than talented is her mother Barb (played by comedy cabaret singer Bridget Everett, showing genuine talent as a dramatic actor). In her own mind, Barb almost made it as a rock singer in the ’80s, but an unplanned pregnancy ended that, which puts an extra layer of guilt and resentment between daughter and mother. Today, Barb is a drunk who frequents the karaoke bar where her daughter bartends.

Patti’s rock is her sickly, wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), who was probably a bad mother to Barb but is trying out unconditional love on Patti. Other members of Patti’s squad include her long-time friend and on-stage sideman Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and eventually a shy punk-rock outcast who calls himself “Basterd” (Mamoudou Athie), who end up allowing Patti and Hareesh to record her first demos and mixtape on his equipment using his beats (they even sample Nana for their first recording). The sequence showing Patti piecing together her first track (a hummable little ditty called “PBNJ”) is actually quite exhilarating because it feels like the first time her dream is showing signs of life.

There are lessons in PATTI CAKE$ about tempering your expectations, meeting your heroes, and accepting encouragement from the unlikeliest of people (a cameo by MC Lyte comes at just the right moment), but the odds are that someone along Patti’s journey, you’re submit fully to how uplifting and infectious the tunes are and how inspirational her story is, even if you can’t really relate to her life in any way.

The film is for anyone who has wanted something that seems impossible to everyone but the dreamer. If you are, by nature, a cynical person, then maybe this isn’t for you. The film is meant to be a fantasy to a large degree, except the negativity and cruelty that surround Patti hit home like something very real. There’s an energy and passion to both the film and the character that is undeniable and will slip into your head and heart like a funky beat. If you think this film isn’t for you, then I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s probably the best reason to see it.

With their most recent two features, DADDY LONGLEGS and HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, the brotherly directing team of Ben and Joshua Safdie have engaged in something they’ve referred to as hybrid filmmaking—mixing veteran actor with first-timers, and sometimes even blurring the line between fiction and documentary in depicting the lives of people who live on the periphery of the world, those who rarely have films made about them. In GOOD TIME, the Safdies have paired with a known-quantity actor for the first time (in this case, Robert Pattinson) and the results are exhilarating as they take us on an terrifying overnight journey with lowlife Connie Nikas in a quest to free his brother from police custody.

From a script be Joshua Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, Good Time begins tells the story of brothers Connie and Nick (played by Ben Safdie), the former has just been let out of jail while the other is apparently deaf and easy confused especially when he’s not with his caretaker brother. The film opens with a social worker of some kind interviewing Nick about his life. The questions are simple and non-threatening, but Nick (shot in an unnervingly tight close up) is clearly searching for a way out of the situation, despite the fact that he can leave anytime. Connie bursts in on the session and pulls Nick out, but almost immediately the two start plotting a bank robbery so they can get enough money to get out of New York City and go somewhere less stressful. It’s an empty fantasy and their scheme is half baked at best. Connie is a career criminal, but not a bad guy. He genuinely cares about his brother, but it’s also clear he will use and abuse every other relationship in his life to get what he needs at any given moment.

Pattinson delivers a sunken-eyed, shell-shocked performance, with bursts of violence and hints of a true con-artist in the making. He sweet talks his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to give him money for his brother’s parole after he’s caught for the bank job, but when her credit card is declined at the bail bonds place, he vanishes. He also turns on the charm to get what he needs from 16-year-old Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), whose house he has managed to talk his way into to hide his injured and bandaged brother, who he’s just broken out of custody from a local hospital. But the sequence that gave me chills in when he breaks into an amusement park to find some hidden cash and gets busted by the black security guard (Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi). He manages to knock out the guard and change clothes with him just as the police arrive. They see a white security officer and a subdued black suspect, and they barely ask a question about what happened, as Connie uses racial profiling to his advantage.

GOOD TIME is filled with keenly observed details like that in every scene. Moving from heist movie to jailbreak thriller to chase film, the Safdies downplay the typical Hollywood way of presenting these genres for a lower-key approach that still finds quieter ways of building tension, giving us the thrill of pursuit, and even delivering a few well-earned laughs. A large component in ratcheting up the anxiety levels is a pulsating, gritty score from experimental composer Oneohtrix Point Never (real name: Daniel Lopatin), who also did the music for PARTISAN and THE BLING RING.

The elements perfectly collide to create a visual and aural blend of muted neon colors, violence, passion, and confusion, with a musical backdrop that reminded me of everything from a fading heartbeat to an asthmatic piped through AutoTune. GOOD TIME is a ride who stops and end are unknown, ever-changing, and surreal beyond words at times. Anchored by a career-best performance by Pattinson, it’s an unforgettable work that will rattle you in all the best ways.

This review won’t take long because I’m guessing you already know if you want to see this. If you’ve seen the extraordinarily funny and clever collaborations between comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (THE TRIP, THE TRIP TO ITALY) then you have a pretty solid idea what THE TRIP TO SPAIN is all about. Wonderfully prepared food that looks so good that it might make you angry you can’t sample it; impressions of famous actors that are so spot-on at times it feels like the two actors are jousting to see who does them better; and updates on their careers that make Brydon look like the luckiest guy in the world and Coogan to be on the verge of failure (probably the most fictitious element of the entire series).

With the actors playing barely veiled versions of themselves, the series feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the success of the “articles” they’ve written about their culinary road trips fueling another magazine to hire them to take another trip. These films seem almost too easy. With Spain, there does seem to be a bit more about Coogan’s career than usual. He won’t stop bringing up the fact that he got two Oscar nominations for PHILOMENA (for writing and best picture) since the last trip, and while he assumes that should have resulted in offers for more work pouring in, in fact, his agent appears to be dumping him and the latest script that he’s turned in is about to be rewritten by someone else. Meanwhile, Brydon’s getting offers left and right, some of which would likely hurt Coogan to such a degree, he doesn’t even tell him.

But that’s all fiction (well, most of it). The core joy of the series remains intact. Joining the party are the boys’ renditions of David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, Ian McKellen, and Roger Moore (so much Moore, in fact, that it feels like a tribute to the late James Bond actor). And if you think they’ve left their dueling Michael Caines back in England, you are sadly mistaken. THE TRIP TO SPAIN does take on an interesting quality that is brought up more than once as Coogan and Brydon assume the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (literally, when they are asked to pose in costume for a photoshoot to accompany the article).

This series works on a great many levels, but the moments I always enjoy are catching the two men turning in for the night, rehashing the day with a significant other (Rob is a new father, so he Skypes with his infant son), while Coogan is dealing with career catastrophes and the impending meet up with his now 20-year-old son. On the surface, these movies are about food, picturesque scenery, and jokes, but for many of us (the actors, certainly), they are about the passage of time, with both men having recently turned 50, and one or two of those watching the films right around that age as well.

As fans of the films probably know, these roughly two-hour films are cut down from corresponding six-part miniseries that aired on British television, but Winterbottom knows how to make them work in both formats, and I hope that just because we’ve reached that magical number 3 that all franchises aim for doesn’t mean this series is done. I need a new TRIP film every few years just to remind myself I’m still alive and that there are places in the world I have yet to visit and delicacies I have yet to consume. I guess what I’m saying is, I need these films and their creators like I need oxygen, and if you’ve been keeping up, then you probably feel the same.

Outside of his work on the two AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies, Marc Webb has made some very good movies over the years, as well as a fistful of great music videos. Beginning with (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and including GIFTED from earlier this year, Webb has a breezy sensibility that never allows a serious subject to become overbearingly so or a lightweight moment to float away from lack of substance. He’s a master of the even keel when it comes to tone, which may be somewhat limiting with more complicated material, including his latest work, THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK. But the biggest thing this movie has going against it is writer Allan Loeb, who somehow continues to get work as a screenwriter despite penning some of the worst films in the last 10 years, including THE SWITCH, THE DILEMMA, ROCK OF AGES, JUST GO WITH IT, COLLATERAL BEAUTY, and THE SPACE BETWEEN US.

The good news is, THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK is better than all of those films, perhaps because of Webb’s involvement. The story concerns a young, privileged white man in New York City, recently out of college and uncertain what he wants to do next with his life. Callum Turner (GREEN ROOM, ASSASSIN’S CREED) plays Thomas Webb who seems stuck living a life where he pines for his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons from DOPE) who has a boyfriend while barely acknowledging that she and Thomas have a connection when they clearly do. Because he’s perpetually unsatisfied despite having been given everything, Thomas is also unhappy with his controlling publisher father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan), while his odd mother, Judith (Cynthia Nixon), smothers him to the point of exhaustion (on my part; this cliche has been done to death).

Then two things happen in Thomas’s life, almost on top of each other, that change him forever. He finds out that his father is having an affair with younger woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), a freelance book editor who works with Ethan from time to time, and he meets his new neighbor, W.F. Gerald (Jeff Bridges), who seems independently wealthy and loves dishing out sage advice while smoking weed with his new friend. Thomas is the type of person who creates drama in his life so he has something to talk about with the various people in his life, which can be amusing in a film but is usually exceedingly annoying in real life. With this in mind, he confronts Johanna, partly to talk her out of continuing the affair and partly because he find her sexy and alluring. Surprisingly enough, this leads to trouble.

There aren’t a tremendous amount of surprises or even healthy curiosities to ponder when it comes to this film, although the not-random connection between Thomas and W.F. counts as interesting. The strength of the film is in the performances and the direction. Webb is making his version of a Woody Allen movie, without the complexities, and that’s fine with this cast.

If it’s possible to moderately enjoy a film while still finding the lead character self-admiring and utterly clueless then that might be my verdict for THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK. If you think Thomas is full of self-importance at the beginning of the film, just wait until he starts sleeping with one of the most beautiful women on the planet. The film seems specifically geared toward an audience made up of New Yorkers who are convinced that only those that dwell in their city are capable of self-reflection and deep thought.

But as I said, sitting through the movie certainly was not painful or agonizing for me, but I could easily be convinced it might be for some. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I realize, and there are easily a dozen movies I’d rather steer you toward, but this cast may peak the interest of a few curious folks, and I wanted to let you know you’d be in a safe space walking into a theater playing it.

SHOT CALLER is the latest in a long and frustratingly high number of decent films that get buried in suburban theaters because there either aren’t enough screens in the area or the distributor makes the call that the film has limited appeal. But somehow, this film, which stars “Game of Thones’” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (while the HBO series in the midst of the show’s most popular season), was deemed not worthy of dropping on a single screen in downtown Chicago (and I’m guessing most other cities). Coster-Waldau plays a financier named Jacob who is involved in a DUI that causes the death of his best friend and is sentenced to a relatively short amount of time. Jacob is no shady character, but he’s smart and knows how to read a situation and resolve it, which works to his advantage when he figures out that he’s about to get messed with in prison.

He’s forced to align himself with white supremacists in jail, led by an inmate named Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand Shotgun (Jon Bernthal), but when he’s forced to kill in self defense, his sentence is increased considerably and he tells his devoted wife (Lake Bell) to forget him because he knows by the time he gets out, he’ll be a different man that she won’t want anything to do with. Just before he’s released, Jacob (now nicknamed Money) is told he’s going to be part of a major gun-running operation as payback for protection in prison. Naturally, they tell him if he doesn’t cooperate, they’ll take it out on his family, which also includes a teenage son at this point.

Director and former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh (FELON, SNITCH) begins the film with Jacob’s release and moves back and forth between his life of happiness and leisure and his newfound criminal exploits in Southern California, working with some of his former jailhouse buddies and newcomers like Howie (Emory Cohen), who becomes something of a surrogate son to him. The deal places Jacob between two rival gangs, which forces him to call on his skills as a quick thinker and negotiator to keep from getting killed.

One of the reasons SHOT CALLER’s release platform is so frustrating is that the film is a genuinely solid piece of storytelling. I couldn’t swear to its box-office potential (I avoid such discussions like the plague), but people would go see it simply to watch Coster-Waldau try on a different skin—two actually, since we see him play extremely different version of the same man.—from what they see him do on “Game of Thrones,” and it might be his finest film work to date, on top of that. While prison movies and films about criminals are hardly unique, the combination of the two in this way, showing the connection and how one never really leaves prison behind, in an interesting and surprisingly emotional journey for Jacob.

SHOT CALLER is a title you’ll have to seek out if you want to see it on the big screen. I’m not saying the film is worth driving 30 miles out to the southwest burbs to watch, but I certainly enjoyed the different way of telling a tale this dark and violent, while still keeping things grounded in family. It is also noteworthy to mention that you can watch it at home by renting it digitally on major streaming platforms. One way or another, check this one out.

-- Steve Prokopy
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