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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with James Gandolfini in ENOUGH SAID, BLUE CAPRICE and COMPUTER CHESS!!!

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…

It goes without saying that the death of James Gandolfini leaves a hole in the acting world that will never quite be filled. But after you see Gandolfini's performance in his next-to-last film role, as Albert in writer-director Nicole Holofcener's ENOUGH SAID, I think you'll feel that deficit just a little bit more than you already do. The performance Gandolfini delivers here is understated, charming, funny and occasionally fragile, as he plays a man who has been devastated by a bad marriage and is tentatively dipping his toe back in the dating pond.

If you can believe it, ENOUGH SAID is also significant because it marks Julia Louis Dreyfus' first film role since Woody Allen's 1997 work DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. After several TV series and a few animated works, she slips right back into film acting to play Eva, a masseuse who has been divorced for a while as well, attempting to raise a college-bound teenager and wondering how she's going to fill her days once her daughter has left.

At the same party where she meets Albert and agrees to go out with him, she also meets a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener), who just happens to be searching for a masseuse and the two arrange a session. I don't think I'm telling you anything the trailer doesn't reveal, but suffice it to say it turns out that Eva's two new friends have a history, and not a pleasant one at that. But Eva is so eager to keep Marianne as a friend and Albert as a love interest that she hides the discovery, only telling best friend Sarah and her husband (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone).

While ENOUGH SAID maintains a fairly light and breezy tone, there are some serious issues at play here concerning honesty, empty nesters, compatibility and listening too much to what other people say about the person you might be interested in. Without realizing it, Marianne is poisoning Eva and Albert's relationship; all of the things she loathed about Albert's behavior, Marianne starts to notice and get annoyed by as well. Holofcener (PLEASE GIVE, FRIENDS WITH MONEY, LOVELY & AMAZING) has a sweet spot for observing and conveying human behavior when it comes to abrasive familial bonds and the nature of friendship, both of which are on full display in this work.

Both sets of divorced parents end the film sending their kids off to college, and the scenes are so emotionally charged that it almost feels like the hidden secondary reason made the film in the first place. When Eva's ex-husband says to Eva at the airport after they say goodbye to their daughter, "We made a good person," good luck keeping the tears back during that moment.

But in the end, ENOUGH SAID comes down to wanting to see Eva and Albert overcome certain obstacles and find a way to make it work; it's rough going, but I don't really think there's any doubt where the road leads for them. Holofcener isn't trying to shock or surprise us with this story; she's attempting for a level of emotional honesty and a bit of levity, and on those terms, she whole-heartedly succeeds. Plus, Gandolfini and Dreyfus have such glorious chemistry, even when they aren't getting along, that we laugh through their pain. It's a beautifully cathartic experience through and through.

This first-time feature from director Alexandre Moors is a small film about a very big subject, the series of shootings (killing 10) credited to the "Beltway sniper" in October 2002 in and around Washington D.C. And while BLUE CAPRICE does address the shootings themselves, the bulk of the film is about the relationship between John Allen Muhammad (played by Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond of "The Wire") and the strange, slow process that led Lee to perform the shooting at John's behest. The film wonders how one bitter, paranoid older man could plant the kinds of ideas into the head of a timid younger one that would cause him to commit cold-blooded, dispassionate murder.

Written by Ronnie Porto, BLUE CAPRICE relies a great deal on the effective use of its fluid camera (by cinematographer Brian O'Carroll), muted lighting and uncomplicated score to convey the tortured and conflicted thoughts going in in Lee's head as he leans on this father figure after his mother abandons him in his native Jamaica and John finds him there while the older man is on vacation. There is always an uneasy tension between them, as John pushes the boundaries between control and flat-out brainwashing. He fills the younger man's head with thoughts of government conspiracies and ways of committing mass murders without getting caught (keeping the victims random is the key in his eyes).

The way Porto and Moors structure the film makes the killings themselves almost an afterthought, and as cold as that sounds, it actually emphasizes how Malvo in particular was transformed into a monster, rather than assuming that he was always one. There's a reason John was executed, while Lee was given a half-dozen consecutive life sentences. Putting in brief but memorable supporting performances are the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams and Leo Fitzpatrick, particularly good as a weapons dealer.

There's a detached element to Moors' directing style that fits so perfectly with the material, that the tension rises so gradually, you almost don't notice it until it's devouring you. I'm not sure you'll learn much about the nature of present-day mass murderers from Malvo and Muhammed. If anything, I learned that no two of these people are the same, nor do they act for the same reasons—not even the ones who work together. BLUE CAPRICE is a calculated and powerful work about the fragile nature of the human mind in times of crisis and desperation, and its built on two fearless performances from Washington and Richmond.

I missed this film at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, so by the time I sat down to watch COMPUTER CHESS recently, I'd forgotten anything I may have known about it back in March. As the film started, it was clear from the quality of the black-and-white images that it was shot on vintage analog video cameras, so I at first assumed it was a documentary about a weekend competition among some of the earliest examples of computer chess programs. With a small number of computer geniuses (circa the early 1980s), the computers play each other, with the winner playing an actual chess master in a kind of exhibition match.

And I won't lie, for quite some time, the illusion of this being a doc is easy to maintain. But then things start to get weird and paranoid and occasionally silly, and then I started to recognize faces in the cast. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski (FUNNY HA HA, MUTUAL APPRECIATION, BEESWAX) has manufactured something of a masterpiece in time and place, using the technology of the time to simulate a period film about the first-generation of this new breed of nerds. He doesn't make fun of them or make jokes at their expense. Instead he shows us a side of early geekdom in the form of programmers, complete with bad haircuts, worse clothes, oversized glasses, but all completely historically accurate. Nothing here in term of the attention to period detail is exaggerated.

A couple of the performers really stood out for me, including Wiley Wiggins (yes, that kid from DAZED AND CONFUSED) as Beuscher, an angry programmer whose machine refuses to work right as the games begin. Myles Paige plays Papageorge, an independent programmer (as in, not affiliated with a particular university), who comes across like a bit of a shyster. And then there's the appropriately mousy Robin Schwartz playing the one female programmer of the bunch (and the first ever at this competition).

Despite a few more surreal moments tossed to make this process seem almost mystical, as if these enormous computers have minds of their own, Bujalski tends to stick to keeping this as realistic as possible, a goal helped by the slightly washed-out, specter-ish quality of video. If a ghostly figure suddenly moved across the screen, it would not only scared the crap out of me, but it would have seemed completely appropriate within this picture quality. And the filmmakers has matched the drab quality of the visuals with a nondescript hotel setting and unforgiving clothing styles.

It's kind of remarkable to think how much in the world today, including to some degree the very machine I'm typing on now, was dependent on men and women like the ones depicted in this film. And to hear them say the words "artificial intelligence" seems like they are saying them for the first time aloud or at least in public. There's a barely containable glee on their faces when they contemplate the possibility of designing a thinking machine, and we begin to wonder if any of these people had a hand in any major discovery down the road. Much like the pioneers he is depicting in COMPUTER CHESS, Bujalski has a true gift for invention and creativity. It's one thing to tell this story docudrama style; it's quite another to use the video technology of the time to increase the authenticity. This is a great little discovery.

-- Steve Prokopy
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