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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with COLUMBUS, VICEROY'S HOUSE, and POLINA!!!

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…

Quite often during my first viewing of first-time writer-director Kogonada’s debut feature COLUMBUS, I found myself transfixed, almost not believing that I was watching a film in which the visual emphasis was on architecture specifically and spacial representation in general.

We not only get elegantly shot moments set among a great number of structures (both interiors and exteriors) in the Indiana town of Columbus, where a great many renowned architects agreed to design and build representations of their work, but we’re treated to intelligent conversations about architecture both from characters who have spent their entire lives immersed in structural design and others young admirers whose fresh perspectives on the subject might make them equally equipped to speak at length on the subject. It’s a fascinating approach to storytelling from a filmmaker who previously was a film critic and video essayist, specializing in particular Asian masters such as Yasujirō Ozu.

The film opens with the collapse of an architecture professor visiting Columbus to give a speech. His son, Jin (played by John Cho), races from his home in South Korea to be at his father’s side in the hospital, where he is in a coma, and ends up stuck in Columbus for an extended stay. Almost inevitably, he runs into a budding young library employee/would-be architecture enthusiast named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson from EDGE OF SEVENTEEN), who has lived in the town her whole life, and, although she desperately would like to leave to study somewhere else, her emotional attachment to her drug-addict mother (Michelle Forbes) holds a tight grip on her.

Jin and Casey have a series of conversations which actually turn into a sweet, mostly innocent friendship that in any other movie might turn romantic. But Kogonada actually cares about what they’re saying (go figure) and refuses to disrupt the sanctity of their bond, which is intimate without being overly saccharine. When they’re apart, their conversations with others carry a closeness that seem far more forced.

Jin meets his father’s colleague (and his former crush) Eleanor (an energetic Parker Posey), while Casey keeps company with a grad student and gifted speaker Gabriel (Rory Culkin), who likely has a thing for her. And while these interactions are entertaining, they don’t carry the emotional weight, or the spacial reverence, of Jin’s time with Casey. She makes him feel a connection to architecture in a way a lifetime with his father never did.

All the while, we’re aware of their surroundings. When outdoors, the buildings in the background are more than a simple backdrop, and we’re always aware that there is life inside these structures and people going about their days. COLUMBUS is a film worth seeing more than once; the first viewing, you’ll take it all in, while further showings allowing time to concentrate on the surroundings and the way that conversations about buildings could just as easily focus on human relationships. It’s a bold effort, both visually and in terms of how much talking Kogonada believes we’re willing to listen to in a movie. But when the writing is this strong and the conversation about something interesting, it’s not as much of an endurance test as you might think.

In the end, COLUMBUS is about what gives a town its meaning and its soul. Some would say the people, but the subjects of this story might tell you its starts with the buildings, which in turn give the citizens a place to work and live, activities that result in enriching our souls if done right. This is one of the year’s most interesting and captivating works.

Clearly a passion project for filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, BRIDE & PREJUDICE), whose family became refugees as a result of the events depicted in this film, VICEROY’S HOUSE gives a fairly balanced account of the arrival to India in 1947 of Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), along with his politically active wife Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” and “Hannibal”). He arrived as the last Viceroy of India, in charge of overseeing the transition of power from the British monarchy to the Indian people, thus giving India full independence. But it’s also a very detailed account of the upheaval and violence that erupted as the powers that be figured out the best way to make this transition work.

The country wasn’t pushing back against the British, who were already committed to getting out; the struggle occurred between the nation’s different religious groups, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikh, whose leaders were divided as to whether keep the nation whole (as Mahatma Gandhi wished) or partition off a section of India for Muslims into a new homeland called Pakistan. I’m guessing you know who won that debate. Shot entirely in India, the sprawling, detailed re-creations of the time and place are extraordinary and lend quite a lot to the potentially dry subject matter, which includes a great deal of heated negotiation, mapmaking, and inner turmoil among the Indian staff at the Viceroy’s residence.

One of the House’s servants is Jeet (Manish Dayal, THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY), a Hindu and former police officer and prison guard who has rekindled a romance with his lost love, a Muslim woman named Aalia (Huma Qureshi). Jeet knew (and loved) her years earlier when he looked out for her father (the late, legendary Om Puri), then a political prisoner. Their relationship provides a microcosm for a nation on the brink of division and civil war. As the final partition agreement is being worked out, tens of millions of people just like them are forced to move out of their communities, resulting in the greatest migration in human history.

VICEROY’S HOUSE is an epic story told quite effectively through the eyes and actions of these few characters. Events are likely simplified, but there are some surprising revelations, particularly regarding the drawing of new borders between India and Pakistan, that will likely twist your gut and chill your heart. Bonneville as Mountbatten is quite good, portraying a man who genuinely wanted what was best for the people of India, perhaps even more than he cared about the legacy left behind by the British.

Director Chadha manages to tell a deeply personal story on an grand scale with humanity and without laying the blame for the conflict on the British or any one religious group (although she certainly would have been within her rights to do so). Thought the last 10 minutes or so of VICEROY’S HOUSE resort to unnecessary theatrics, the rest of the film is a technically flawless account of complex events and a great history lesson as well.

I can only imagine what someone who cares passionately about all forms of dance will think of the new French film POLINA, from co-directors Valérie Müller (LE MONDE DE FRED) and Angelin Preljocaj, a well-known French choreographer, based on the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès. I know very little about the dance world, and I found it an endless source of fascination and artistic inspiration that completely captured the rigorous, frustrating world of professional dancers.

A young Russian girl named Polina (played at age 8 by Veronika Zhovnytska) begins her rigorous training at a school her parents can’t afford. Not wanting to let his only child down, her father Anton (Miglen Mirtchev) finds a way to make it work (a way that comes back to haunt him and the family for years to come). As she gets older, Polina (played in the rest of the film by Anastasia Shevtsova) and her classmates strive to get into the ballet company at The Bolshoi Theater, which she does. Almost immediately, however, she follows her heart to study more modern dance in France under Liria Elsaj, an unconventional choreographer (played masterfully by Juliette Binoche, who does her own dancing).

Liria sees Polina’s raw talent and attempts to break her free from her classical training in order to actually dance with her soul. Polina and her boyfriend (Niels Schneider) land the leads in a new production, but when she is injured, she is replaced by a more natural dancer, a rejection that disheartens her so much she quits the company, leaving her effectively homeless and without direction.

POLINA’s strength is in its authenticity, and the character can’t quite articulate or find the type of dancing she wants to do, sick as she is of being a vessel for someone else’s choreography but not wanting to completely jettison her lifetime of training and perfect form. She gets a job as a waitress in a club and finds a roommate who just happens to be a self-taught dancer named Karl (Jeremie Belingard, a principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet), who encourages self expression and finally shows Polina the version of the dance experience that she’s been longing for.

The movie succeeds as both a story of struggle (both Polina’s and her parents) and as a showcase for some truly extraordinary dance routines—from breathtaking ballet to other-worldly street dancing. We watch Polina, who is an emotionally distant, hardened person from years of Russian training, soften just enough though experience and healthy doses of self-doubt to let passion into her chosen art form. The film is about transformation, which in most people doesn’t occur overnight or as a result of a singular experience. Instead, it’s a gradual, often painful process that POLINA gets exactly, nakedly right. This is as great a film about the arts as you’ll likely see this year.

-- Steve Prokopy
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