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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with ANIMAL KINGDOM, MAO'S LAST DANCER, Chekhov's THE DUEL, and BEHIND THE BURLY Q!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses 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…
ANIMAL KINGDOM Going too deep into the plot of this latest in a mini-wave of Australian-produced crime dramas to hit our shores would be missing the point. The crimes themselves and whether the criminals are caught or not isn't really the point. While watching ANIMAL KINGDOM, from establish writer and first-time director David Michod, what you are actually witnessing are animals trapped in a corner, still very much wanting to get out alive and more than willing to sacrifice one of their own to take their escape. For its first half hour or so, the film cleverly maneuvers its way around a criminal family--three brothers and one of their best friends, one of whom is being pursued by a faction of rouge detectives who would prefer to blast him dead than arrest him and deal with the paperwork. There's a particular, unbelievable scene that makes that abundantly clear. But into this hornet's nest arrives the brother's young nephew J (James Frecheville), who finds his mother dead of an overdose at the beginning of the film, and gets immediately sucked into the toxic mess that is his extended family. While it appears his grandmother, Smurf (the devilish Jacki Weaver) is looking out for the boy, the film's third act does a shockingly unexpected job of setting the record straight on who rules this collection of miscreants. The true shining light in J's life--his one hope for salvation and survival--is a detective named Nathan (Guy Pearce), who may be the only decent guy in ANIMAL KINGDOM. But even Nathan wants something from J that he may not be capable of delivering. ANIMAL KINGDOM isn't so much about twist and turns (although it certainly has its share), but it's more about how these characters react to unspeakable pressure in a world that is rotten to the core with deceit and corruption. Much like the other exceptional Australian crime drama of late, THE SQUARE (which actually features some of the same actors), this film creeps into your brain, dirties it up a bit, and dares you to come in and clean up the mess. The stakes seems higher, both with the film's story and with the nature of the film itself. Watching ANIMAL KINGDOM felt like I was discovering a truly great writer-director in Michod, who has a bunch of great movies in him just itching to get out. I hope I'm right because his first out of the gate is a staggering accomplishment. Find this movie near you and let the worshipping begin.
MAO'S LAST DANCER The latest film from director Bruce Beresford (DRIVING MISS DAISY, TENDER MERCIES, BREAKER MORANT) is this strange and largely effective work about a small corner of the world's dance world that became the focal point of American-Chinese relations for a short, tense period. MAO'S LAST DANCER is the true life story of Li Cunxin (played as an adult by newcomer Chi Cao), who was taken from his peasant home as a child (Joan Chen plays his mother) and put into an elite ballet school where he eventually became the nation's top male dancer. When a group of visiting American dancers and company leaders visits China to guest teach, the head of the Houston Ballet Theater, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), is impressed with Li's talent, and eventually he is able to arrange for Li to make it to Houston to perform under his guidance. MAO'S LAST DANCER does a decent job capturing Li's torn allegiance between his Communist teachings and American freedoms that tempt him on a daily basis, as does one particular American girl Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), a fellow dancer who Li falls in love with and decides he wants to defect to America to marry. His planned defection sets off a firestorm of activity on both sides of the political spectrum. Kyle MacLachlan plays Li's immigration lawyer. And while many films might have ended when Li's defection drama is resolved, this movie wisely shows us the price he and his family back home pay for his actions. And while the inherent drama that Li's story gives the movie, the film's most impressive and breathtaking moments are the handful of beautifully choreographed (by the renowned Graeme Murphy) dance numbers. Since Chi Cao is a talented dancer in real life (for the Birmingham Royal Ballet) and his acting isn't half bad either, he does a wonderful job in the tastefully staged recitals. They are the highlight of MAO'S LAST DANCER, and I can't imagine ballet enthusiasts not getting a huge thrill seeing these numbers on the big screen. There are a few corny moments in the film, and Greenwood's portrayal of the obviously gay Stevenson borders on comedic sometimes (which is not to say it's not 100 percent accurate), I was largely on board with this historical document that deals with the severe cost of living out your dream.
ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL I'm not as familiar with ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL as I am some of his other works, but all of the elements are there: angsty men pining over women they love or don't love, class struggles, substance abuse, death or the threat of death, and a setting that screams isolation. Russian director Dover Kosashvili (Late Marriage) has assembled a cast of lesser-known (at least by name) British actors to lead the charge into his adaptation of THE DUEL, and the results are rather splendid. The success of this tale rests largely on the shoulders of Andrew Scott's maddening portrayal of Laevsky, a drunken loafer of a man whom his friends are rather protective of, although they are forgetting why as the days pass. The film's secret weapon is Fiona Glascott as Nadia, a luscious woman, married to a dying older man and having affairs in every direction with every layer of the social strata. Tossed into the mix are family members, military types, scientists, and acquaintances, all of whom have an opinion on the couple individually and as a pair. All things lead up to a pistol duel between Laevsky and the zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a man who takes it upon himself not to fight for his or another's honor, but simply in the name of common decency, which he believes Laevsky stands against. From an adaptation by Mary Bing, director Kosashvili provides a simple but still rich and delicious staging of the work. There isn't a false note among the cast members. No one overplays their part, and yet there's still the slightest sense of playing to the back rows so as not to lose the feeling of the stage. Like much Chekhov, THE DUEL is front loaded with narcissists that we love to hate, and there's plenty of humor to keep us from choking on the pomposity. I enjoyed the experience of watching this translation so much that I'd like to see the director continue to do more Chekhov, in the same way Kenneth Brannagh attempted to make filmed version of every Shakespeare play. Either way, I can't wait to see what Kosashvili does next, because this film certainly opens up the possibilities in fascinating way.
BEHIND THE BURLY Q This playful and extremely thorough documentary from director Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Chicago-native Robert) covers the Golden Age of burlesque and gives the most detailed account of the era and the practice that I've ever seen. Naturally, the bulk of the film is devoted to the beauties that took off most or all of their clothes as part of their often-complex routines, but Zemeckis doesn't let us forget the countless musicians, comedians (including Abbott and Costello), and behind-the-scenes participants who made up an entire day's entertainment. There are countless interviews with one-time performers, and every once and a while a name pops out that I recognize, such as Blaze Starr, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, or Tempest Storm. It's actually kind of remarkable how many of these great artists are still around and were willing to go on camera (although Blaze only did phone interviews). What also floored me was the bevy of archival photos and footage that was available, every bit of which enhances this previously dark, but highly popular, corner of American entertainment. BEHIND THE BURLY Q is a celebration of natural bodies and curves, as one would expect. But it's also a great showcase for artistry, choreography, unforgettable costumes, and freakish talent (how do they get those tassles to twirl in opposite directions?) There are grudges between performers that continue to this day, there are tales of mobsters in New York, Chicago, and other towns that would make you nervous but also might surprise you (the gangsters would not let the dancers go home with customers). But more than anything, I loved the stories from the ladies, who still have a sparkle in their eye when they remember a time when they were celebrities in certain circles and were making more money than they could count. Weirdly enough, one of the best storytellers in the film is Alan Alda, whose father worked the burlesque circuit (not as a performer, obviously) and who as practically raised backstage at certain burlesque joints. Not all of the stories are happy ones, and Zemeckis certainly doesn't shy away from the downside of the business or the fall of certain performers. The stories she unveils in her fantastic documentary is complete, honest, and downright provocative at times.
-- Capone Follow Me On Twitter

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