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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Woody Allen's TO ROME WITH LOVE, LAST RIDE starring Hugo Weaving, Kirby Dick's INVISIBLE WAR, and PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE!!!

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…

Woody Allen is still a machine, and instead of making just one film set in this stunning, borderline idealized version of Rome, he's made four short films that I'm pretty sure don't connect in any way. And like any film with multiple storylines, each features their own set of characters, you'll likely love certain ones and tolerate the others (none of them are worthy of hating at least).

My two favorite threads in TO ROME WITH LOVE are one involving Alec Baldwin as a celebrated architect revisiting his youthful haunts with young architect (Jesse Eisenberg). What's fascinating is that as the segment goes on, we realize something about Eisenberg's character and the love triangle (with Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig) he's involved in. Baldwin takes on the role as unseen (to everyone but Eisenberg) advisor in a very PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM manner that I liked.

The other enjoyable story stars Allen himself as a former music industry executive who specialized in staging operas, who comes to visit his recently engaged daughter (Alison Pill). Her soon-to-be father-in-law, a mortician (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato), turns out to have an exceptional voice—but only under very specific circumstances, which Allen tries to recreate on stage. It's old-school absurdist Allen, and having him back in the front of the camera provides for some old-school one-liners that had me rolling.

The two other stories didn't quite connect for me in the same way. I appreciated Robert Benigni's low-key performance as an ordinary man who suddenly becomes the most famous man in Rome, but the surreal way the plot plays out seemed obvious, forced and dated. And the scenario involving a stunning Penelope Cruz as a prostitute who gets thrown in with a recently married man's life just falls flat, and I'm not even sure what the moral of that particular story was meant to be. Either way, the thread was kind of unpleasant. But overall, TO ROME WITH LOVE has more to like than dislike, and as a fan of Allen's work in general, I'm just thrilled he didn't take a nose dive after the transcendent MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

The details of this 2009 Australian feature that is just now making its way stateside courtesy of Music Box Films are sketchy, and that's exactly how director Glendyn Ivin wants them. There's a man (Hugo Weaving of THE MATRIX and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogies) and his young son Chook (Tom Russell) on the run from the authorities; there's been a violent act that has resulted in someone getting either seriously hurt or killed, and we're pretty sure Weaving committed the act. He's a sketchy looking guy with a temper and no patience. The two do a fugitive's drive of the outback's least desirable tourist spots, and as they travel, we get small bits and pieces of information about their history, where the boy's mother is, and what exactly transpired that led to the violence that put them on this path.

LAST RIDE is a measured work whose sole propulsive element is a savage performance by Weaving, who character wants so desperately to be a good father that he allows his son to essentially take over and make the decisions for them even if it means him getting captured (obviously, that's not his first choice). Weaving is so invested in this man's struggle that you simply can't take his eyes off him, and you're in a constant state of anxiety about what's going to happen to and between them. LAST RIDE is a film loaded with tension, even at moments I don't think it's meant to be there. Weaving just drags it along with him wherever he goes, and it elevates the film beyond simply telling a story to a place where every scene is fraught with emotional weight.

And I haven't even mentioned how unconventionally gorgeous the movie looks (the director of photography is Greig Fraser, whose exceptional work can be seen in SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN). In its own small way, LAST RIDE is perfect and flawed in the most interesting and unnerving ways, and that's why it rattled me into loving it.

The statistics alone should be enough to keep any woman considering a career in the military to think about another line of work. The one that was most disturbing to me was that a woman in the U.S. military is more likely to be raped by a male soldier than shot by an enemy combatant. What's perhaps even more shocking is example after example of how these women are treated by the investigators and chain of command after the incident(s) in question. This and so much more is the subject of director Kirby (SICK, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, OUTRAGE) Dick's latest documentary INVISIBLE WAR, a film that is guaranteed to make you angrier than you've ever been in your life.

And as horrifying as the statistics may be (16,150 service members sexually assaulted in 2009), the thing that drives this unacceptable epidemic home is the testimony that Dick has compiled, most of which spares no detail or emotionally wrenching moment in the telling. The subjects break our hearts one after another, but the rage emerges when they describe the kind of organized coverup that results in nearly all attackers going free and unpunished. At the time of these incidents, there was no system of justice in place that took the decisions about what cases were investigated and brought to trial out of the hands of people who had a stake in the outcome. Many of the women were accused of adultery (because the rapist was married, not the victim), fraternizing with a superior officer, or conduct unbecoming.

An Audience Award Winner at Sundance this year, INVISIBLE WAR is exactly the kind of public embarrassment required for changes to happen (and they already have since Sundance), but when we see one young former soldier with permanent jaw injury (courtesy of her attacker) get refused medical treatment coverage from the military because she wasn't in service long enough to qualify, that shows us how far things still need to change. As much as I'm sure many of you will avoid this film with every fiber of your being, you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at this movie. If you're going to support the troops, make certain you support these troops as well.

One of the true joys of this year's SXSW Film Festival was the strange and wonderful documentary PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE, about the unavoidable presence of the singer-songwriter-actor-personality-game show contestant-"Love Boat" passenger-talk show guest host Paul Williams, a bizarre little man who could write a hit song with the bets of them ("Evergreen," "Rainbow Connection," "We've Only Just Begun"), and then show up on "The Tonight Show" either as a guest or guest host, and then pop up in a movie like BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES or PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE or SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT or THE MUPPET MOVIE. The man's accomplishments are well documented in history and this movie.

But what makes PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE fascinating as a lover of great music documentaries is that we actually see a process that I've never seen depicted on film before. Clearly a longtime fan, director Stephen Kessler began his desire to make the definitive biopic on Williams only after thinking the man was dead. So when he finally approached Williams, who saw his career take a downturn after the 1970s thanks to a healthy combination of drugs, alcohol and an inflated ego. Although Williams agrees to have Kessler follow him, he is clearly a reluctant subject for the beginning of the movie.

And as the film goes on, we see the gradual process of Williams warming up to the director, and the two slowly but surely become friends. Some might complain that there's too much of the director's voice in the movie, but I don't think it takes away from Williams' story at all. And as a fan, Kessler actually heightens the experience in many way.

It's often moving, sad, thrilling to watch Williams at work and play today. He might only sell a couple hundred seats at a U.S. nightclub, but when he travels to The Philippines, thousands of people come to greet him, and he's clearly in his element. Kessler also does a fine job contextualizing the time in which Williams became popular, perhaps in an effort to explain how this odd-looking, extremely charming guy became a superstar. This is a great look at a real talent.

In Chicago, the film plays for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Paul Williams will be present for a post-screening Q&A at the Saturday, 7:45pm show, with me moderating the discussion. Director Stephen Kessler will be present at the Friday, 8pm and Saturday screenings.

-- Steve Prokopy
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