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Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with reviews of three films opening in Chicago (and possibly where you live) soon that you should keep an eye out for amidst the box office giants. These are all movies worthy of your attention and support and perhaps even a road trip. Read on...

In this gripping indie drama, a 16-year-old is hospitalized during a class ski trip after giving birth in a ski lodge restroom to what she claims was a dead premature baby. She also alleges that she had no idea she was pregnant until the event. Accused of murder, young Stephanie ("Joan of Arcadia's" Amber Tamblyn) is forced into several sessions with forensic psychologist Lydie (Tilda Swinton), who is tasked with discovering whether Stephanie is telling the truth. Lydie herself is pregnant and got that way with her husband (Timothy Hutton) just months after having a stillborn birth of her own. She's in a constant state of mild anxiety over both her pregnancy and her crumbling marriage, and in becomes clear after several sessions with Stephanie that she views the solving of this tangled case as the means to solving several crucial issues in her own life. Writer-director Hilary Brougher (who won the Best Screenplay award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival) perfectly weaves these two tales of confused and often scared people into a touching story about honesty and small-town mentality. Every performance is beautifully understated and filled with tension. I've always liked Tamblyn, but she really outdoes herself here as the good-hearted, confused Stephanie, who falls in with an older man and gets pregnant at the same time she loses her virginity. It's about as pathetic a moment as you'd imagine. On the other hand, the supposedly more together Lydie suspects her husband of cheating and clearly does not seem as excited or happy about this second baby as she did the first time she was pregnant. Everyone has theories about why this is, but I don't think anyone (including Lydie) quite understands the depths of her stress and fear. But at the heart of Stephanie Daley is a quiet yet mysterious tale that doesn't give easy answers to its difficult questions, but still manages to be completely satisfying on its road to discovery.
As a rule, most documentaries spend a lot of time being informative, enlightening, while occasionally scaring the crap out of you with statistics and footage that makes you fear for our future, or sometimes current, existence. But it's a rare treat when a doc actually makes you laugh even as it's telling you a fairly heartbreaking tale of a once-prestigious community that is now the living toxic shithole known as the Salton Sea. Okay, shithole might be a strong word. How about this? Ecological disaster area. Once known as the Riviera of California, overflowing with rich tourists and high property values, the Salton Sea is now a dump of a community populated with the finest collection of freak and geeks the world has ever seen. Created thanks to an accident during the rerouting of the Colorado River in 1905, the land-locked sea became a place where celebrities and other elite gathered to vacation in the 1950s. After a series of floods after hurricanes and massive fish deaths that filled the beaches with fish corpses, the location fell out of favor. Narrator John Waters (yes, that John Waters!) adds just the right touch of sarcasm and irony to this bizarre history lesson from co-directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. While I don't think the film is attempting to be an advertisement for people to come live near this toxic sea, it does clearly have a great deal of affection for the residents of this struggling community. And the collection of local characters seems as endless as their optimism that the sea and town will bounce back at some point. One of the strangest times in the area's history occurred fairly recently when then-Congressman Sonny Bono led a one-man crusade in Congress to save the lake. The measure looked well on its way to passing when Bono died in a skiing mishap. Despite his widow's attempts to keep the bill alive (which she did) and the creation of an organization to look into saving the sea, nothing ever came of the effort in the end. At times truly sad, other times disgusting, most times hilarious and even uplifting, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea introduced me to a place and a people I never would have met otherwise, from an insane and drunk Hungarian revolutionary to elderly nudists to a religious man who literally seems to be building a mountain of junk to heaven to a real estate agent that comes across as more of a used car salesman. The film never stops being fascinating and entertaining. It opens this Friday at Facets Multimedia in Chicago and begins playing on the Sundance Channel June 26. Filmmaker Chris Metzler will be at Facets in person for a Q&A after all of the screenings on Friday, June 1 and Saturday, June 2. Go to for showtimes. You should never pass up an opportunity to see a great documentary, and this film is living proof of that. And to show you how much I loved this movie, I'll tell you where it's playing after Chicago. If you have friends in Tucson, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Atlanta, New Orleans, or Vancouver, let them know to keep an eye out for the film in the near (post-Chicago-run) future; this little train wreck is headed their way.
Too often this astonishingly impressive 1967 Russian epic is discussed only in terms of statistics: the five-years-in-the-making film employed about 120,000 extras; in adjusted dollars the film would cost half-a-billion dollars to make (some say closer to $1 billion); it won nearly every Best Foreign Language Film award available at the time (including the Oscar); and its full-length running time is in the neighborhood of seven hours. When it was released in the United States originally, War and Peace (obviously based on the Tolstoy novel) was severely truncated, but now for the first time in North America, this restored 35mm print of the longest-available cut will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in four parts. The film is available on DVD, but trust me when I say, the transfer on that is an embarrassment. Set aside the time, and see it in all its splendor on the big screen. Director Sergei Bondarchuk does a beautiful job striking a balance between the sweeping story of the early-19th Century war between Russia and Napoleon's undefeatable army and the more intimate tale of a woman (the stunning Lyudmila Savelyeva) and the two men who love her (Vyacheslav Tikonov as war hero Prince Andrei and director Bondarchuk as the sheepish aristocrat Pierre). All four parts of this dynamic work feature jaw-droppingly unfathomable scenes of grandeur, such as several massive battle scenes, one elegant ballroom dance sequence, and the tragic evacuation and burning of Moscow recreation that puts Gone with the Wind's burning of Atlanta to shame. The acting is top notch and the screenplay (with healthy doses of state-approved elevating of the working class) is kept simple and easy to navigate despite the immense cast. There's really not much more to say about War and Peace. You are either driven to see it because it's simply one of the most extraordinary and elegant movies ever made, or you're not. There is simply nothing like it, and that alone should put a fire under your ass to reserve your tickets immediately. For showtimes (beginning this Friday), check the Gene Siskel Center's web site. I have no idea whether this theatrical run is leading to an eventual quality version of the DVD finally being released, but my fingers are crossed that it is. This one's a keeper.


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