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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in PHILOMENA, CONCUSSION and CONTRACTED!!!

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…

Actor and PHILOMENA co-writer Steve Coogan has convinced me that a road trip with an elderly woman would be the most fun a man in his 40s could possibly have, especially if the woman in question is Judi Dench playing a Irish woman and devout Catholic who had decided to go in search of the son she gave birth to in a convent when she was a teenager 50 years earlier and whom the nuns gave away for adoption to American parents without telling her. Yes, that would be an adventure.

Even if this sounds like the last film you'd want to see because it sounds potentially schmaltzy or overly sentimental, consider the participation of Coogan, who co-wrote the film with famed TV dramatic writer Jeff Pope, and is one of the UK's funniest human beings thanks in large part to his cynical characters and natural gift for approximate looking down at those he deems lesser than him. He pulls that off in his creations better than just about another other actor, comedic or otherwise, and that sums up Martin Sixsmith, a real-life former BBC reporter who worked for the government for a while before being used as a scapegoat for a small-scale scandal. This was his state of mind when he was approached at a party with the story of Philomena Lee (Dench), a human interest story tailor made for the tabloids--evil nuns, baby snatched away, young women working as slaves in the convent laundry, and a tale bound to either end very happy or very sad.

And so this unlikely pair end up traveling to the convent in Ireland, over to America, and eventually back to Ireland in search of this man who Philomena (also very much a real person) has dreamt about for decades, worrying he was homeless or dead or obese (she only worries about this last one when she discovers he's been living in America). But the story is as hilarious as it is maddening and moving. Coogan is interested in entertaining you in equal measure to teaching his audience about this particular national shame. He peppers in humor that rings true coming from either Philomena or Martin in reaction to the other's knowledge or lack there of. And the pair form a protective bond to one another that goes beyond the story. Martin is about outrage and confrontation; Philomena just wants to find her son and forgive those who took him away and kept his whereabout a secret with fabricated stories of lost records.

There are quite a few shocks and turns in the search that I certainly was unaware of, so PHILOMENA becomes an unexpected mystery to be solved as well. Laughing through tears and crying through laughter is the territory that director Stephen Frears (THE QUEEN, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, HIGH FIDELITY) exists most comfortably within. Although his last couple of features have been less than worthy of his talents, PHILOMENA is a perfect story for this exceptional filmmaker to maneuver us through and make us feel like we have a stake in the outcome. There are quite a few excellent films coming out this week and in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, but few of them match the compact perfectness of PHILOMENA in terms of tone, acting and that fully satisfied feeling you'll have as you leave the theater on your way tell everyone you love to go see it. Trust me on this one.

The only thing I didn't like about the new indie drama CONCUSSION, from first-time feature writer-director Stacie Passon, is how it begins. The films opens with 40-something Abby being rushed to the hospital after her young son accidentally hits her in the head with a baseball. Played by the always-great Robin Weigert (THE SESSIONS, "Deadwood," "Sons of Anarchy"), Abby is a seemingly happily married lesbian mother of two who makes a decent living flipping condos/apartments, while her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) is a divorce attorney representing high-end clients. They're as much a part of their community as any straight couple around, they know all the other parents at their children's school, and do all of things suburban couples do.

What bugs me about the opening of the films isn't the concussion itself, but what it apparently triggers in Abby. It somehow releases some pent-up sexual desire in her that makes her realize that she is substantially under-serviced in her relationship. Abby works out like a fiend and is clearly proud that she's kept herself fit and appealing, triggering nothing in Kate. On a whim, she hires a female prostitute and has a horrible, somewhat demeaning experience. But instead of swearing off such encounters as a result, she tells her business partner and friend Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), and he recommends a much better service, the use of which opens up Abby even more to the idea of random sexual encounters with pre-screened partners.

Before long Abby decides to switch roles and become the sexual service provider and work for Justin's girlfriend (known only as "the girl"), having sex with exclusively women, only after she vets them over coffee. The experience seems to open up Abby's mind and release a great deal of her pent-up frustration with her own marriage. The scenario gets a bit more complicated when a woman hires her whose kids go to the same school as Abby's. Her name is Samantha (Maggie Siff, also of "Sons of Anarchy"), a married woman who seems to have a healthy relationship with her husband who adores her. The sessions with Samantha are clearly the ones Abby is most passionate about (she had a crush on Sam long before they met), and this further underscores the friction in Abby's marriage.

I guess what troubles me—although not enough to discourage anyone from seeing the film—is that we could, if we choose to, decide that Abby's change of behavior and attitude about fidelity might not be the result of a blow to the head. Her seemingly slow, incremental shifts into the life of a high-priced sex worker are far more poignant and fascinating if they seem organic and inevitable because she's a smart, passionate woman who wants a lover in her bedroom and not just a roommate. Deciding they are more the result of minor brain damage seems like a cop-out. It may be a small point, but it's one that keeps CONCUSSION from being all it can be as a thinking person's examination of sexual behavior. One element of the film I did like is that all of Abby's trysts occur in a condo she's rehabbing, and the more the unit seems put together and nearing completion, the more she seems clear on what she wants out of her life, especially her marriage.

We certainly can anticipate some of the more dramatic moments the longer Abby keeps seeing clients, and then comes the realization that she'll eventually have to sell the condo. CONCUSSION is not a film that dwells too much on the sex part of Abby's work; it's more about the conversations before and after, and we soon come to see her as more of a sexual surrogate for these women of all ages to explore their fantasies or, in one case, to have their first sexual experience, with a woman or at all.

Weigert is such a stellar actor that she sell me as just about any character, but as written by director Passon, Abby is a completely realized character, and I say that even thought there are huge parts of her past and present life that we know nothing about. Enough clues are given to this gifted performer for her to fill in the blanks completely and perfectly. CONCUSSION isn't purely a gay story, but it certain opens up the possibilities of what one can be. It's just a great exploration of an unsatisfied life that still has the potential to be redeemed; I'm sure many of us can identify.

People get particularly squeamish at body horror. Don't believe me. Just ask lovers of David Cronenberg's works why the magnificent director isn't more famous and respected. Perhaps, he wouldn't have it any other way, but it's still a shame. When filmmakers turn our bodies into the instrument of horror, there are some folks that think that somehow crosses the line into a type of scare film that ought not to be shown in polite company. A few years ago, a little film called TEETH came out that turned the myth of vagina dentata into a reality; the film was a clever take on the folk legend and a cautionary tale against taking advantage of trusting young women.

Today we have CONTRACTED, a take on promiscuous or otherwise reckless sex. I saw someone recently say the film is about "slut shaming" and an offense to women. But it seemed pretty clear to me that this film wasn't specifically saying women were prone to the particularly nasty STD that ravages Samantha's (Najarra Townsend) body over the course of three days. Samantha is being stood up for the umpteeth time by her lesbian lover, Nikki (Katie Stegeman), and she gets loaded at a party, only to end up sleeping with a mysterious man (whose face is cleverly kept from camera by tricks of focus). Almost immediately, she starts showing signs of some pretty gross disease coursing through her body. She gets rashes, she goes pale, her eyes get bloodshot and hazy; and in the days to follow, her fingernails start and teeth start to fall off/out.

While this is happening, she's attempting to patch things up with Nikki, fend off advances from both a female and male friends, convince her mother (Caroline Williams) she isn't back on drugs, and work a waitressing job, which seems to be going great until fingernails start landing up in salads. Because Samantha is selfish and afraid of appearing unappealing, she hides her condition as long as she can, running the very real possibility of infecting everyone she comes into contact with. At one point, she even lets the male friend have sex with her with grotesque results.

What we find out by the end is that writer-director Eric England (MADISON COUNTY, ROADSIDE) has given us a clever twist on a familiar genre, while turning Samantha's disastrous life into a metaphor (and not a morality tale about sleeping with strangers or being a lesbian) for self-centered behavior. If the girl had stayed away from others as her doctor instructed, things wouldn't have turned so horrific by the end... sort of. I feel fairly confident England wasn't trying to attach any deeper meaning to his fun little scare movie, but instead was looking for a way to combine sex and horror in an unusual way. It's a one-note premise to be sure, but England is smart enough not to wear out his welcome by keeping CONTRACTED to a running time of less than 80 minutes.

The film is mildly sexy, wildly nasty and a great deal of midnight movie-style fun for those who see a great number of horror films per year and want something slightly more original. CONTRACTED isn't reinventing the wheel with new ideas, but creator England is at least trying to deliver an experience that you'll remember for being a cut above the dozens of indie horror offerings that land in our lives every month.

-- Steve Prokopy
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