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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE SPECTACULAR NOW and LOVELACE!!!

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…

This film, the latest from director James Ponsoldt, has been getting so much acclaim on the festival circuit since it premiered at the beginning of the year at Sundance that a backlash began before its release schedule kicked in last week. That's a sure sign that it must be seen before it is judged. As strange as it may seem, part of the reason Ponsoldt's movies work so well is that it's clear he loves his characters. I'm sure a lot of directors are quite fond of the people in their films as well, but Ponsoldt cares so much about his characters that he puts them through hell just to see them come out stronger and better people on the other side.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a case in point, one of the single best coming-of-age stories since a trenchcoat-wearing John Cusack lifted a boom box over his head, hoping to win over a girl with Peter Gabriel music. What a chump! In fact, I don't think it's an accident that the lead character here, Sutter Keely (played with the perfect mix of smarm and charm by Miles Teller), has many of the fast-talking, wise-beyond-his-years qualities that Cusack often displayed in his early films.

Working from a smart script from Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (who co-wrote (500) DAYS OF SUMMER), Polsoldt doesn't jump right into his story. Instead, he lets us spend time with high school senior Sutter, his wildly overprotective mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, here to reinforce the Cameron Crowe connection), his ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), and his married older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). These people aren't just place fillers used to shape our opinions of Sutter; they exist as living, breathing characters with issues and flaws of their own and interesting stories that we get to explore during the course of the film.

But upon meeting the bookish, slightly naive Aimee Finecky (the radiant-without-makeup Shailene Woodley), Sutter's life is changed and he starts to have real feelings for her. If this were simply a story about two young adults falling in love, I wouldn't be here praising it quite so passionately. What you begin to notice as the film goes on is that Sutter is always carrying a giant soda cup with him everywhere he goes. And before long we realize that said cup is filled with some type of alcohol. Ponsoldt almost sneaks the theme of alcoholism into THE SPECTACULAR NOW. He wants you to see it but not focus on it, unlike his previous films, OFF THE BLACK and SMASHED, which look at the topic more square in the eyes.

What makes the film all the more tragic is that Sutter is so down on himself that he feels the need to bring others down with him, and before long he's got Aimee drinking right along with him. Nothing in THE SPECTACULAR NOW plays out how you think it will. For a film with such a simple story, there are a great number of subtle elements at work. Aimee lets her perfect grades slip a bit, but she doesn't spiral the way Sutter does. He's probably the smartest kid at his school, but his issues with drinking and an absentee dad are contributing to a general sense of malaise. He could be a straight-A student, but he doesn't care. Any bouts of sadness experienced by Aimee happen because she loves Sutter so much that it kills her to see him struggle. A long overdue trip to see his father (the usually likable Kyle Chandler, whose character you will not like) changes everything for the young couple, in more ways than one.

Ponsoldt never forgets that Sutter and Aimee tread the fine line between kids and adults. There's a love scene between them that is both perfectly awkward and quietly romantic. Teller and Woodley mesh so beautifully together that you can't help but want to see where this couple ends up in five or 10 years. Their natural spark adds a light touch to the proceeds, and as a result, there's a great deal of knowing humor throughout. The film's conclusion offers no easy answers about their future, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that both of them will be okay, regardless of their prospects as a couple.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW caps an unprecedented summer of wonderful coming-of-age movies, which includes THE WAY, WAY BACK and THE KINGS OF SUMMER. My only complaint was that none of these films focused on this type of story from a female perspective (sorry THE TO-DO LIST, but you were kind of dumb), but maybe next summer, we'll be lucky enough to see the other side of this equation. This movie comes the closest to capturing the tumultuous, swirling trappings of male and female youth, and I hope Ponsoldt isn't quite done exploring such stories because he's one of the best doing so right now.

As much as this is a more or less straight-forward biopic of one of the all-time most important stars in adult film, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who co-helmed HOWL) and writer Andy Belling have attempted (and succeeded) at doing something a little different. The first half or so of LOVELACE shows us a rather glorified version of Linda Lovelace's life growing up with strict parents (an almost unrecognizable Sharon Stone as Dorothy Boreman and Robert Patrick as John) and entry into the world of porn with the help of her loving husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Linda (captured faithfully by Amanda Seyfried) is portrayed as a woman who loved all types of sex, and while she was nervous about her first starring role in DEEP THROAT, she was also quite eager to enter this new phase of her career.

As the legend of DEEP THROAT grew, she got to meet (and sleep with) celebrities, such as Hugh Hefner (played not all-that-convincingly by James Franco), and she was interviewed by both the underground and mainstream media as the centerpiece of what many believed was the first pro-feminist adult film.

And then the film takes us back to where it started because most of what we've seen so far is either complete bullshit or only half the truth. You see, Lovelace wrote two important books in her lifetime. One was called "Inside Linda Lovelace," which most agree was ghost written by Traynor, whose personality bears more than a passing resemblance to Eric Roberts' portrayal of Dorothy Stratton's husband Paul Snider in STAR 80 (in fact, to drive the comparison home, Roberts makes a cameo in LOVELACE). This book is an oversexed, glossy version of Lovelace's life story that points her as a nympho princess, wildly in love with her husband.

But the other book she wrote six years later was called "Ordeal," and it was the true story of that time in her life, when she claims she was forced into making adult movies, sold into prostitution by Traynor to pay off his huge debts, and physically and emotionally abused by him, including times when he would threaten her with a gun. His behavior pushed her to leave the industry before her career even took off, and she began an anti-pornography campaign almost immediately. Lovelace manages to tell both version of Lovelace's story and allows us to figure out which is more honest. And the directors tell the story without getting ridiculously graphic about Lovelace's particular talent in DEEP THROAT; it's actually kind of funny how they handle it.

I got a kick out of watching the period re-creations of the shooting of DEEP THROAT, sometimes shooting scene-for-scene reinactments. Hank Azaria plays director Gerry Damiano, with Bobby Cannavale as producer Butchie Peraino and Chris Noth as "financier" Anthony Romano, representing the mob interests who took nearly all of the film's profits. Debi Mazar is on hand as Lovelace's co-star Dolly Sharp, while Adam Brody does a remarkable job mimicking the voice and look of the late Harry Reems. There's a great sequence when Lovelace is required to cry in a scene with Reems that is so funny because she's such a terrible actor, but her crying seems so authentic that it throws everyone.

The cavalcade of familiar faces continues with Juno Temple as teenage Linda's best friend Patsy, Chloe Sevigny as a reporter questioning the exploitation factor of porn, and Wes Bentley as the photographer who captured Lovelace's carefree spirit and an open-armed posse that landed on the DEEP THROAT poster. The subject matter is handled tastefully, although Traynor's treatment of Lovelace is so awful at times, that's tough to maintain.

Sporting a heavy Bronx accent, Seyfriend's version of Linda is low on self-confidence, and that makes her an easy target and easily persuaded into some tasteless situations. LOVELACE politely skips over some of the truly offensive loops that she did prior to DEEP THROAT, and that's probably just as well. There's enough degradation for several films here. There isn't much psychological depth to the early version of Linda, but as she gets a little older and a lot wiser, she begins to stand up for herself and becomes a smart enough person to get out of a terrible situation.

For those of you who have seen Woody Allen's latest, BLUE JASMINE or the recently wrapped AMC series "The Killing," you will be shocked to see how different Sarsgaard can be from role to role. But Traynor might be a new low in terms of character traits. There's nothing good about this guy; he put the "man" in manipulator.

Sometimes a film with casts as recognizable as this can feel like a star parade, but having this many familiar faces certainly helped keep a whole lot of characters straight in my mind. The whole time I was watching LOVELACE, I kept wondering if the real Linda would think this was a fair and accurate portrayal of her distressing life. Would it discourage young women from entering the world of adult film? In the end, I couldn't come up with a decisive answer, but it certainly takes any hint of glamor right off this line of work. There goes my Plan B, I guess.

I don't say this often, but I actually wish the film had been a big longer and explored some other aspects of Linda's life that weren't so tawdry, especially during her second marriage. As it stands, LOVELACE is an acceptable biography that skims the surface most of the time, but finds gold when it digs a little deeper.

-- Steve Prokopy
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