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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…

When 18-year-old Colin Warner was arrested for murder in 1980, I’m guessing he believed the truth—and a lack of credible witnesses—would set him free. But the type of shoddy defense that being poor in American gets you, along with a rabid DA eager for a conviction, resulted in Warner going to prison for 21 years before finally being freed thanks to the tireless efforts of his best friend, Carl King, who went through his own struggles and missteps to secure Warner’s release. This is the true story told in CROWN HEIGHTS, from writer-director Matt Ruskin, and while we’d like to believe this type of story of wrongful conviction is extraordinary, we are told during the end titles that, in fact, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people are likely innocent, just waiting for the right people to take their case through the long and twisted road to freedom.

The ever-present Lakeith Stanfield (GET OUT, “Atlanta,” SHORT TERM 12) plays the West Indian native Warner, who is wrongfully identified by scared, underage witnesses, and his attitude during the early stages of this harrowing process is one of disbelief more than anger. King (played by ex-NFL superstar-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha, who also has a production credit on the film) goes above and beyond friendship to secure a good appeals lawyer for Warner, even getting fleeced by at least one attorney. He risks the stability of his own marriage to help free his friend, becomes a legal courier for the express purpose of meeting competent lawyers, and eventually recruits William and Shirley Robedee (Bill Camp and Sarah Goldberg), who immediately see mountains of reasons the original case should have been thrown out.

Ruskin’s approach to the material can be dry and rushed at times, but Stanfield’s open-faced desperation is remarkable and stirring as he once again transforms himself, as he does again and again in role after role. Not to sell Asomugha short; his portrayal of King is so remarkable that he exudes compassion and faith in his friend every time he’s on screen. He even re-introduces Warner to his future wife, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who visits Warner and falls in love (and even manages to have his children while he’s in prison). The Antoinette character is mostly underwritten, but she provides a voice of stability in the work that helps smooth out the occasional emotion upheaval.

CROWN HEIGHTS isn’t just a movie about a wronged man seeking justice; it’s about a community in New York (one of many, I’m sure) that is maligned and otherwise wronged on a regular basis. Ruskin’s use of locations (some of them, the actual Crown Heights streets where the events took place) adds an element of authenticity to the mix. Add to that Stanfield’s defiantly measured performance (a scene that depicts Warner’s first appearance before a parole board is especially devastating), and CROWN HEIGHTS can often be quite effective. It’s not a film without deep flaws in the storytelling devices, but it’s one that wears is passion on its sleeve without shame, and I applaud that from time to time.

I’m still not entirely sure why writer-director-actor Lake Bell (who last helmed the appealing IN A WORLD…) chose the making of a documentary about marriage as the framework for her second film, I DO…UNTIL I DON’T, but any movie that features Dolly Wells as a conniving doc filmmaker has a little something going for it. Much like her previous film, Bell attempts to mix light comedy with a vaguely serious statement on a subject close to her heart—in this case the useful nature of marriage in a period in history where people live to be 80 or 90 years old a lot more often. It certainly does make saying “Till death do us part” in your 30s seem a lot more like a life sentence in the eyes of Vivian (Wells), an award winning filmmaker who is recruiting couples in Vero Beach, Florida, for her latest project. Specifically, she’s seeking couples who seem to be on the verge of breaking up.

Bell and Ed Helms plays Alice and Noah, a fairly vanilla couple with a tinge of boredom and routine creeping in as they eye becoming parents after 10 years of marriage. Amber Heard plays Fanny, Alice’s hippie sister, married to Zander (Wyatt Cenac), both of whom claim to be in an “open” marriage. Finally, there is Cybil and Harvey (Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser), as the couple most likely to implode in front of Vivian’s camera. The spark is sadly lacking in their coupling, and it’s been replaced by bitterness and back biting.

As a showcase for some talented and eclectic actors, I DO… functions fairly well. But as a place for insightful thoughts and feelings about the complexities of marriage, it comes up short. The film’s bigger crime is that the dialogue doesn’t resemble actual human speech. Every line sounds like a declarative statement from pamphlet presenting a cautionary tale about marriages gone sour and the further instruction on how to fix them. Rather than give us conversations between two living, breathing people, Bell lathers on silly anecdotes meant to pass for life experiences, and the results are riddled with clichés and jokes that fall flat.

Far less engaging or amusing that IN A WORLD…, I DO… does end stronger than it has any right to, and it’s nice to see that, as Bell’s real-life experience seemed to make a pro-marriage turn as well, so does her film. But this is a subject ripe for some genuine teeth to rip into the constructs of marriage and see where the flaws and weaknesses are. Instead, her conclusion seems to be “It’s worked this long; there must be something useful about it.” Not exactly hard-hitting commentary, is it? Assuming Bell gets another film off the ground anytime soon, I think that will be the truest sign of where her directing career is headed. If she lands another softball like this, then I won’t eagerly await what comes after; but if she can address an actual interpersonal construct with some vigor, she might be onto something. Time will tell.

Some sequels are a natural extension of what has come before. Others are an exercise in assembling nearly all of the cast from the previous film and finding ways to cram them all in a new movie whether it feels right or not. The 2011 GOON worked in so many ways—as a raunchy comedy, a sports film, and an observational piece about the Canadian obsession with hockey, the rougher the better. But GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS feels like retreading the first film as an over-the-top comedy that does a great disservice to its beloved thuggish heroes. Still the passion project of actor Jay Baruchel (who again co-wrote the screenplay and directs the film), this time around the scary parts of sports life rear their ugly heads.

Thanks to an NHL lockout, the original members of the Halifax Highlanders are back together and back in the spotlight, although not doing nearly as well as they were several years ago. Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is now team coach, but is challenged both physically and mentally by an absolute death machine opponent on the ice, Anders Cain (an impressively nasty Wyatt Russell), who just happens to be the son of the Highlanders owner (Callum Keith Rennie). Anders beats the bejesus out of Doug, landing him the hospital and effectively ending his hockey career. To shore up the team, the owner brings Anders on as team captain, and the team is ready to mutiny against the asshole on skates, who effectively ignores them all during games and is a one-man scoring machine. While the team does win more games, morale is at an all-time low.

While in recovery, Doug gets a desk job to satisfy his wife Eva’s (Alison Pill) worries about getting hit again. But he sneaks out at night to train to punch left handed (his right arm’s injury never heals right) from his former foe Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), a fellow retired enforcer who is now making money in what are essentially on-ice boxing matches with other former hockey players. Quite a few other familiar faces pop up, including Eva’s best friend Mary (Elisha Cuthbert), Doug’s disgusting cousin Pat (Baruchel), the Highlanders coach Ronnie (Kim Coates), and even a sportscaster gone rogue, played by T.J. Miller, who provides a few amusing lines here and there, but zero sustained, knowing laughs like the first film provided.

In fact, most of the funniest lines are throwaway comments, some of which barely register unless you’re actually listening carefully. The bigger jokes often fall flat, and while there is a certain amount of comedy in players just tearing into each other playfully or pranking each other or the other team, so much of it feels familiar and doesn’t land. My bigger problems are with the characterization of Doug, who is a terrible husband, lying to his wife about training again, forgetting the most important thing: she’s a cool wife and would work with him to compromise because she’d understand how miserable he was working a desk job. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t give their own team enough credit for carrying slightly heavier emotional weight through this film, and that’s a shame because Seann William Scott has occasionally proven himself capable of doing just that in his career.

I’m sure those who worship the first film will find more to like in LAST OF THE ENFORCERS than I did, but after six years, it felt anticlimactic to be met with little more than broadly drawn heroes and villains, a barely acknowledged relationship drama, and several characters in search of moments to pop their heads in and crack wise. Baruchel’s passion is still present and appreciated, but he’s capable of so much more, especially as a first-time feature director. He shoots, but he doesn’t quite score.

A little gem of a suspense thriller is being given a limited release this week from director/co-writer Dan Glaser. Although the story is much different than the currently in release WIND RIVER, VALLEY OF BONES shares one very simple concept in common with that film: even if you win, you lose because you’re still stuck living where you live. In the cast of BONES, the location is the relentless badlands of North Dakota where paleontologist Anna (Autumn Reeser) has been searching for a big find, to the point of obsession and largely ignoring her 10-year-old son Ezekiel (Mason Mahay), who would like very much to be a part of her life.

Borrowing heavily from the book of noir, the film gifts the audience with more of the complete picture than any one character, so quite often we see collisions and conflicts coming where none of the players do. A drug-addicted oil worker named McCoy (Steven Molony) makes the mother of all fossil discoveries—a complete T-Rex that will pull a big price on the collectors market. He tips Anna to the find because he knows she can extract it without destroying it, and she sets out to do just that with the help of her eager son and her late husband’s brother, a mechanic named Nate (Rhys Coiro). Things get further complicated when a drug lord (Mark Margolis from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) shows up, finds out about the bones, and wants them for himself. And before long, the film pits nearly all of the characters against each other in a battle over these damn remains.

Filmmaker Glaser (this is his fourth indie feature) wisely uses not only the plot to inform the characters but the way they use and adjust to their desert surroundings. We get a true sense of the cruel landscape (thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd’s work) and the creatures that exist in it. The search for a lost set of keys, for example, leads to a nasty encounter with a rattlesnake, which turns into a medical emergency for one character. I really liked the way Anna’s obsession with re-establishing her professional reputation drives her to such a point where she ignores her maternal duties. These are not the traits of your typical movie heroes, and to allow her to be this flawed feels like an honest win for the film.

VALLEY OF BONES is thick with a gritty Western atmosphere on top of its noirish flourishes, and I’m pretty sure there is a message or two about the past coming back to haunt us in different ways. The biggest issues with the film is that it runs too short, and it left me wanting a bit more depth from its characters, but the nasty, drawn-out, bloody battle for the bones is an impressive, well-paced series of small set pieces, and the result is downright impressive, tense, and even heartfelt in places. This one took me by surprise, and when that happens, I tend to take notice.

A film so authentic in its portrayal of the slow, painful dissolution of a marriage, France’s AFTER LOVE takes a fly-on-the-wall approach at observing the emotionally destructive dance taking place between Marie (THE ARTIST’s Bérénice Bejo) and Boris (Cédric Kahn, known primarily as a writer-director), with their young twin girls as collateral damage. Director/co-writer Joachim Lafosse (THE WHITE KNIGHTS, OUR CHILDREN) sets his biting drama almost entirely in the confines of the couple’s home, in which the in-debt Boris is forced to live in the living room, making things all the more awkward and frequently confrontational.

Although Marie and Boris fight frequently about who spends what days with the girls (one of whom seems especially rebellious as a result of the overt bad vibes permeating the household), their deepest triggers seems to revolve around the value of the home, which she purchased largely with a family inheritance. But Boris, an architect, claims that his renovations have increased the value of the property and that he deserves an equal share of the profits from the eventual sale. While this subject is often at the center of their most venomous fights, it’s only a jumping-off point to much nastier subjects about her growing up in privilege and his leaching off of her while he spent recklessly (Boris even has goons after him for money owed from an unknown debt, which Marie deals with without being asked).

The strength of AFTER LOVE is in director Lafosse’s observations about the day-to-day family routines, mostly revolving around the girls’ schedules. These things must stay constant even as the rest of their world falls to pieces. And as one might expect, any deviation from the routines is met with aggression and resentment. But being in such close proximity also opens up opportunities for more intimate, pleasant family moments, which only further complicate things when talk turns to what we assume will be an eventual divorce. The film is often an endurance test. How much pain can the filmmakers inflict on this couple? How many times will Boris show up when Marie has company over to ruin the moment by simply refusing to leave?

AFTER LOVE tries (not always succeeding) not to paint anyone as the bad guy, and attempting something resembling a neutral stance elevates the anxiety levels of the entire production. Bejo and Kahn are so good at illustrating shades of cruelty and kindness in their performances that it’s near impossible not to feel the tension and volatility of the situation. The pristine household that serves as the backdrop for this intimate war only makes the entire dynamic seem all the more surreal. This is a home built for a happy family being occupied by barely contained hostility. The film is a stunning acting exercise and a testament to the power that can be derived from a minimalist approach to drama.

Veteran cinematographer-turned-first-time-director Michael Barrett (KISS KISS BANG BANG) and in-demand screenwriter Simon Barrett (YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST, BLAIR WITCH) combine scary forces with TEMPLE, a U.S.-Japanese co-production that pays homage to Japanese horror films, particularly those about ancient demons and terrifying children. In it, three American tourists—Logan Huffman as Christopher, Natalia Warner as Kate, and Brandon Tyler Sklenar as James)—arrive in Japan to seek out a legendary temple hidden in the jungle. They are repeatedly warned against their makeshift adventure, but you know Americans; when do they ever listen? By the time they reach the temple, it’s evening so they decide to spend the night. And as you’d expect, nothing bad happens.

Barrett (the writer) is usually quite good at pacing his scares, and since TEMPLE clocks in at less than 80 minutes, I really can’t fault the film for not moving things along. And coming from the photography side of things, Barrett (the director) certainly makes the most of the jungle setting and ancient ruins, especially at night. There is extra intrigue thanks to a passive-aggressive love triangle—James and Kate are a couple; Christopher is her oldest friend who has always held a torch for her—and there’s a chance that at least one of our American friends is mentally unstable, so being in the presence of an unstable spirit world isn’t going to help matters.

As with many Japanese ghost stories, the logic gets a little fuzzy and the dots don’t always connect in a way that feels like a full resolution. But the atmosphere, production design and minimal but effective makeup effects all contribute to a fairly satisfying creep show. The entire story is set inside the framework of an investigation by Japanese authorities talking to a survivor who is so badly injured, we can’t quite tell which one it is until the end, only adding to the mystery and tension. I almost wish TEMPLE had been less of a sketch and more of a fully formed idea, giving the characters more room to develop and the temple’s legends more color and depth. Still, what’s here has a handful of worthy moments of terror and intrigue, and if you’re a horror junkie, it’s a chance to see some truly talented filmmakers stretch their wings in the genre.

The film that is opening in the most theaters this week is actually a 40-year-old masterpiece from writer-director Steven Spielberg. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about this one. You either know it, love it and acknowledge its brilliance, or you’re a crazy person who hates movies. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has always been my favorite Spielberg film. In fact, there are times in my life where it was my favorite film of all time. And as I get older, different portions of the film resonate more.

When I was younger, not surprisingly, the entire film felt like a slow-burn built up to the final 30 minutes of the friendliest alien first contact ever committed to film. But as I got older, I began to focus more on what was happening around lead character Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), particularly to his long-suffering family, who are much more satisfied watching five minutes of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on television or playing mini-golf than going to see Pinocchio on the big screen with him. There’s a disconnect between Roy and his family even before he’s zapped by alien lights and a vision of the Devil’s Tower National Monument is implanted in his brain. We accept that Roy is not in control of his faculties. At the same time, abandoning his family—a hot but disinterested wife (Teri Garr) and three screechy children—might feel like sweet relief at this time in his life.

I always found myself gravitating toward the genuinely understated performance by director Francois Truffaut as project leader Claude Lacombe, who has a look in his eye that always told me that he’s believed in alien life since he was a kid. His perpetually put-upon interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) adds the necessary sense of wonder and disbelief to every scene he’s in. The parallel storylines–Roy being driven to Wyoming, and the scientific team globe trotting in search of further proof that something other-worldly had been borrowing humans across the decades and is now re-introducing them to the populace, sometimes decades later without them having aged–feed our desires to be saved by someone other than ourselves.

Then there is Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning camerawork, John Williams’ sweeping (and quite hummable) score, and Douglas Trumbull’s groundbreaking visual effects that hold up as well today as they did in the same year that Star Wars was released. I could also make a case that young Cary Guffey gives the single greatest performance by a child actor that I’ve ever seen as young abductee Barry; there isn’t a second of precociousness or false joy in his work. At the same time, you feel every ounce of pain and worry suffered by Melinda Dillion as his mother Jillian. The only moment during which I also cry in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is their reunion at the film’s climax.

For those who need to know, the version that is being reissued this week in a 4K presentation is Spielberg’s so-called “Director’s Cut,” which means no pointless Special Edition visit inside the mother ship to end things. Even with a few deleted scenes put back in, there isn’t a wasted moment in this nearly two-and-half-hour cut of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, a film that has somehow matured along with me over the decades. Roy’s emotional journey has gotten more complicated with each new viewing, and I’ve come to accept that his decisions may not have been right, but they were right for him in that moment and that 95 percent of adult decisions exist in a shade of gray. There are many good movies in theaters right now, but there are none as good as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Even if you’ve seen it on the big screen, you haven’t seen it like this.

-- Steve Prokopy
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