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Capone's Art-House Round-Up for Mike Leigh's ANOTHER YEAR, THE ILLUSIONIST, and the award-winning doc MARWENCOL!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of 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…

Writer-director Mike Leigh (HIGH HOPES, SECRETS & LIES, VERA DRAKE, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY) is as difficult to categorize as a filmmaker as his films are to categorize in a genre, so let's not try to, OK? All you need to know about Leigh, his movies, and the incredible actors he consistently gathers to work with him is that together they have created some of the greatest character studies in modern film history. And sometimes, Leigh can create a fully realized character with a single scene.

I challenge you to watch the opening scene in Leigh's latest work, ANOTHER YEAR. It's an interview between the film's female lead, a medical counselor played by Ruth Sheen, and a woman I might describe as the most pent-up, angry, miserable woman I've ever seen in any movie, played beautifully by Imelda Staunton. The scene is meant to establish the patience that Sheen's Gerri exercises every day at work, but your eyes never leave Staunton, seething under her permanent dark gray cloud. It's an incredible sequence, and Staunton's answers (and non-answers) to Sheen's questions tell you everything you need to know about her in about five minutes. You never see the character again, and you probably won't want to, but you'll never forget that woman.

While ANOTHER YEAR may, on the surface, appear to be about a year in the life of Gerri and her geologist husband Tom (the always-great Jim Broadbent), broken up across four segments taking place in each of the four seasons, the most interesting elements of the film are those around this happy couple. This is not a film about the cracks that exist in the most seemingly perfect marriage. No, this couple is precisely in tune thanks to their mutual love of home-cooked meals, gardening, and inviting friends over for dinner parties. But it's their friend Mary (Leslie Manville) who your eyes are helplessly drawn to every second she's on screen. And by the end of the film, your heart will become an open wound on her behalf.

Mary is a force of nature, the kind that blows into town, knocking over trees and unfortified buildings. She is by no means a bad person. In fact, at first, her whirlwind life and crazy stories about work or buying a new car or trying to meet men are quite funny. But as the film progresses, and Mary drinks her way through future meals, she almost accidentally falls for Tom and Gerri's grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman). In her slightly desperate fantasy world, she sees them dating soon, until the following season, when Joe brings home his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). You can literally see the light die in Mary's eyes when the very sweet Katie enters the home. This moment coupled with an awkward encounter between Mary and a rather sickening old chum of Tom's puts Mary is a dark place. And that's only about the halfway point of the film, which goes into some touching moments as well as some lonely, sad places.

ANOTHER YEAR marks the passing of time not for the happy middle-aged couple at its center, but for their pensive friend who sees her life turning a corner. Her youthful clothes and spirit suddenly feel pathetic on her. Mary has heard her whole life that you're only as old as you feel, and this is the year where she feels exceptionally old. What Manville pulls off here is nothing short of extraordinary; it's one of the single greatest performances of the year (technically, last year). Leigh rightfully has complete confidence in his actors' abilities to inhabit these loving and warm characters, who must strip away their polite nature at times and strip down to their raw emotional selves. It's a painful process to watch sometimes, but so worth the journey. For those counting, ANOTHER YEAR landed at the number 15 spot on my Best of 2010 list and for good reason. Do not miss.

Having just experienced the work of French film genius Jacques Tati at the recent revival of his film MON ONCLE, my tastes were more than ready to embrace the animated adaptation of one of his unproduced screenplays, THE ILLUSIONIST--a gentle, melancholy, often spirited work from director Sylvain Chomet (THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE). The story centers on an aging magician (who looks suspiciously like Tati), who has been using the same bag of tricks for decades and drawing fewer and fewer crowds in the cities he can travel to that still have venues willing to book him. Along his journeys, he meets the young woman named Alice, whom he takes under his wing and looks our for. And while the magician is quite protective of Alice, life (and a handsome young man) intervenes.

Knowing that Tati wrote this story as a tribute to the father-daughter relationship should come as no surprise. In fact, it enhances to story. The hand-drawn animation is superb, and the detailed recreations of some of Europe's most beautiful cities is astonishing. I was equally moved by the tale of a fading artist, whose craft is no longer appreciated by the modern world. I can image sometimes those who produce hand-drawn animation might feel the same way sometimes. It's impossible to capture or recreate the true visual magic of Tati in an animated work, but as its own work of art, THE ILLUSIONIST is a stunning, elegant achievement that might not resemble the animated works coming out of the studio system, but it shows a remarkable level of skill and beauty that any animator would look at with wonder.

I knew when I saw that director Jeff Malmberg's spellbinding documentary MARWENCOL won the best doc award at SXSW last year that I'd made a horrible mistake by missing it. Every so often the title would pop up on my radar at some festival or another, taking another prize from a jury or audience. But I deliberately ignored all of the synopsis of what the film was about; sometimes, it's OK to do that with films--go into them completely ignorant to their story. It's the purest form of discovery in my line of work. What I was met with upon watching the film was the tale of a mild-mannered man named Mark Hogancamp, a one-time illustrator and full-time alcoholic who was savagely beaten by a group of men outside a bar where he'd been getting drunk. As a result of the attack, Mark's memory and most of his motor skills were erased and had to be relearned. His memories never returned, so all he has are photos and records of his life before the fight.

In a strange form of self-therapy (he attended more routine therapy as well), Mark began creating the most epic worlds you can imagine using G.I. Joes, Barbie dolls, and his skills as a carpenter and photographer to tell elaborate stories using characters he'd imagined. Most of his set up take place during World War II in the fictional Belgian town of Marwencol, where Mark meticulously poses his dolls, takes photographs of them, and goes on to the next moment in the scene. The resulting images tell a story as vibrantly as any comic book or storyboard, and listening to Mark spin his yarns is to hear a man still not fully recovered from the brutality that was forced upon him. His self esteem barely exists, and his ability to connect with women is a daily struggle. But the version of himself in Marwencol is a heroic (non-drinking) soldier who has a way with the ladies and a plan to defeat the bullying enemies.

Mark's photographs captured the attention of New York galleries that wish to showcase his work. The result is a tense few weeks leading up to the opening, with the largely anti-social Hogancamp revealing something else about himself that not only explains what sparked the beating but also what Mark does to relieve the tension in his life. There's no denying that Hogancamp is a true artist. His wartime re-creations are moving and life like, bordering on haunting. They speak to the violence and sexual frustrations that plague Mark everyday, and MARWENCOL is an unforgettable portrait that never drifts into sentimentality. There is, simply put, no other story quite like that of Mark Hogancamp, and this film captures his life and ability to overcome with a plain-spoken, easily communicated method. MARWENCOL is as devastating as it is divine. Prepare to be wowed and moved.

-- Capone
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