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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE ROVER and AI WEIWEI: THE FAKE CASE!!!

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…

In the opening title card of THE ROVER, the latest film from Australian director and co-writer David Michôd (ANIMAL KINGDOM), we are informed that the story we are about to watch is set "10 years after the collapse," and it's the word "collapse" that I fixated on. When a dystopian world is created by war or disease or some other sweeping terror, it's not called a "collapse." No "collapse" is reserved for governments or economies (often both), and it seems a much more possible way for the world to end—not with a bang or series of bangs, but in a slow, grueling, exhausting rot that results from human beings simply resorting to their primal instincts for self preservation. So the world of THE ROVER is not that of MAD MAX; it's something much more recognizable.

When we first meet Eric (a grizzled Guy Pearce), he's simply driving through the Outback, charged with a purpose we don't know yet. He stops briefly for a meal (restaurants and stores still exist, but not like we know them exactly), and during his brief time in the establishment, a horrific car crash happens right outside that he somehow doesn't hear or see. When he comes outside, his car is gone and there's a half-dead man in the street. At its core, THE ROVER is about a man trying to retrieve his vehicle, and there must be something in it we can't see because when he gets ahold of another car to chase down them that stole from him, he insists on getting his old car back, accepting no substitutions.

Eric snatches up the left-behind man, Rey (Robert Pattinson, sporting a thick and highly believable trashy Southern accent) to track down the thieves (one of whom is Rey's brother) and get his car back. Along the way, the two men stop frequently, kill more frequently and ask question of strangers about whether a carload of assholes has passed through. Rey thinks he knows where they're going, but Eric's (and our) confidence in him is not strong.

Pearce has played variations on the brooding loner before, and as Eric, he has explosive, unpredictable moments that are absolutely shocking in their ferocity. But the real surprise here is Pattinson, who has certain improved since the TWILIGHT films petered out. He's given a real opportunity with The Rover to dig his fangs into the best role he's ever been given, and he responds in kind with his finest performance to date.

With each pause in the pursuit, we learn a little more about the way this new, stripped-down society works and about these two men, each with a secret agenda that they don't want the other to know about. The mystery grows more interesting as the tension level increases exponentially. Michôd is not in a hurry to push through his story, but complaints about the pacing are totally unfounded. God forbid, we get to know these maniacs a little better before they find a new way to get into trouble.

Something resembling a bond forms between the two men, but when Rey gets his hands on a gun and accidentally shoots an innocent, he becomes a liability to the success of Eric's mission and a twitchy, trigger-happy freak for us to glue our eyes to and never look away. THE ROVER has an atmosphere that is both dry and dusty, and sticky with a foul sweat that seems to make everyone and everything simultaneously glisten and appear grimy—a shower will be required after viewing.

For those who have already grown tired of the way most summer releases blaze through plot and character development like so many lines on the highway during a high-speed chase, allow THE ROVER to take you through its paces at something more akin to a brisk walk. It's an exceptionally well acted work, with enough intrigue and nasty undertones to keep it interesting and suspenseful.

Although this film is from a different director, AI WEIWEI: THE FAKE CASE is undeniably a sequel to Alison Klyaman's 2012 documentary AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, about the famed and outspoken Chinese artist and political figure who has used social media and his art to speak out against the oppressive government and police force in China. At the end of NEVER SORRY, we see Ai get detailed for nearly three months, have his house and street put under severe surveillance, and basically get scared into silence. But as THE FAKE CASE opens, we see his silence is short lived, and although he has been forbidden to give interviews or speak out against the government, it's clear Ai takes great pleasure in finding loopholes or just flat out defying his captors.

Danish director Andreas Johnsen has as much access as Klayman did, but maintains more of a professional distance from his subject, unlike Klayman who was clearly a long-time friend as well as a filmmaker. The version of Ai Weiwei we see in this new film is tired due to high blood pressure (he often falls asleep in the middle of the day—sometimes in the middle of a conversation), aggravated by anxiety at his new situation, which includes a year on probation and house arrest, as well as a hefty fine for a trumped-up tax evasion charge.

But the remarkable part of this time in Ai's life is that he still finds time to make subversive art, such as the eerie six-part re-creation of his 81 days of solitary confinement and daily interrogations. Ai makes it clear he has nothing to hide and maintains that it is, in fact, the government that is doing all the hiding. But the sad fact is that something about this entire experience has taken a piece out of Ai Weiwei. Still, just when he seems far more content to be at home and play with his new son and let the injustice in the world pass him by, something inspires or enrages him, and the old Ai is back making trouble and challenging authority eye to eye.

Johnsen's film is a perfect testament to a noble and powerful spirit that isn't afraid to do what is right, but that doesn't mean he's blind to what is scary around him. There are many moments in which Ai seems torn between protecting his family and working to win freedom in his homeland. But the good news is, there are signs in AI WEIWEI: THE FAKE CASE that both might be possible at the same time, and that there is a small army of followers that might be willing to take up his cause either with him or after him. The movie is inspiring and a continuing chapter in the life of a man who never let us forget that it is the ordinary person who makes the most change; not the sanctioned political mouthpieces and other elected officials. It's a bit rough around the edges, but the messages are undeniable.

-- Steve Prokopy
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