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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…

The most I can say about this follow up to the surprise 2011 hit THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTELis that it takes place a few months after the first and it's essentially more of the same. Relationships that were in a good place at the end of the first film are a little better off in this one. Everyone is slowly finding their place in India as far as latter-year careers go. And watching great actors do very little is still infinitely more interesting than most things in the world.

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL's biggest misstep is thinking that any of us really care about the exploits of hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel, also seen in CHAPPIE this week) and his upcoming wedding to the lovely Sunaina (Tina Desai), whom he immediately believes is preparing to cheat on him, making him even more obnoxious. I truly hate his character with every fiber of my being in this film. And every minute director John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and the first MARIGOLD HOTEL film) devotes to him is torture; sadly that's a great deal of the proceedings.

But my heart and soul healed in small doses thanks to the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle and Celia Imrie, all of whom return not simply to play spirited, feisty elders, but to actually bring a little substance to this light-as-air affair. These films are not meant to be deeply examined, but they do offer us an idealized version of retirement and starting life anew at an advanced age, and there's something sweet and promising about that. And yes, I'm sure there's a case to be made that there's something horribly misleading about that as well, but I'll leave that up to someone else to make that argument.

Added to the mix this time around are new arrivals played by Richard Gere and Tamsin Greig, both of whom arrive on the same day (not together) and immediately get involved in the business of the hotel, whether they want to or not. It turns out Sonny is looking to partner with a chain hotel (represented by the calming force of David Strathairn) that is looking to expand into India, invest money in the MARIGOLD HOTEL and help Sonny open up a second location (thus the title). Nothing too challenging or worthy of much contemplation, but it keeps things moving along. Some of the drama seems to go along with the greying territory, while other times it seems manufactured, and pretty much another involving Sonny is guaranteed tedium. Take that for what it's, but my guess is that if you enjoyed the first film, this one offers no major deviations from the formula, and you'll probably have your jolly socks knocked right off.

Much of the pre-release attention to David Cronenberg's latest, MAPS TO THE STARS, has been on Julianne Moore's spot-on performance as frazzled, middle-aged actress Havana Segrand, who is in the running for one of those rare roles that only come around a couple of times a year to women of a certain age. And there's no getting around the fact that her work here is at least equal to what she won an Oscar for in STILL ALICE, a far inferior film overall, comparatively speaking. Most of her life revolves around doing things she believes younger women do—working out constantly, sleeping with younger men, etc. She also lives in the long shadow of her late mother, a screen queen (Sarah Gadon) whom Havana has the chance to play in the film.

But a great deal of her world is confused when she hires a new personal assistant named Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a withdrawn but motivated young woman with burn scars on her arms (she wears long gloves always) and part of her face. Much of the film is an exercise is watching these two very different women maneuver around each other in a strange power dance that reveals a great deal of ugliness about them both.

It turns out Agatha is the daughter of famous self-help guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and mother Cristina (Olivia Williams), who has been managing their young son Benjie's (Evan Bird) booming acting career and personal life (he's already been in and out of rehab at age 13). Agatha has just been released from a mental hospital, and her family is unaware of her return to town, each having very different reactions to discovering this. Agatha's only real friend is limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), but his Hollywood aspirations make him susceptible to manipulation and betrayal. Everyone in MAPS TO THE STARS is as likely to be played as they are to play someone else; it's all they can do to keep from dying of boredom.

Working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg has absolutely mastered the absurd drama of desperation to permeates so much of the movie industry. This is not a black comedy, as you might have been led to believe; it's a gross emotional drama with a great deal worthy of laughter. There's also an underlying story about Agatha trying to redeem herself in the eyes of her disturbingly judgmental parents and her only slightly more forgiving brother, which will seem strange when you see what a monster Benjie can be. But Agatha's story drives what little plot there is forward, and gives the film its one thread of warmth that it so desperately needs.

Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries who arose from the field of horror films, Cronenberg has displayed the markings of a true film artist. He doesn't simply rely on his actors to reveal the soul of his work; he uses every tool available to him as a visual creator to capture a tone and atmosphere that reveals the inner depths of his characters. You often walk out of his films not just having watched these people, but having bathed in their world. It's an eerie, often uncomfortable feeling, and Cronenberg would have it no other way. MAPS TO THE STARS is one of his most satisfying and captivating works, but it's also unnerving and will make your sense of morality feel violated... in a good way.

In this fairly by-the-numbers kidnapping drama, the true value of the film is in the details of the characters and not the kidnapping itself. KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN covers the events surround the November 1983 taking of the beer tycoon Alfred "Freddy" Heineken (Anthony Hopkins), which resulted in the largest-ever ransom paid for an individual (about $17.5 million at the time). But the small group of Dutch friends going through tough financial times is what makes this crime so interesting. They weren't in any way professionals, but it was important to them to appear to be to throw the police off, which succeeded for a time.

Among the five kidnappers were Willem Holleeder (Sam Worthington), Cor Van Hout (Jim Sturgess) and Jan Boellard (Ryan Kwanten), who are each given varying degrees of backstory and family life, making them seem more like stable citizens than thugs, which drives home the film's more modern wish fulfillment fantasies of the poor taking a bit from the rich. The class differences between Heineken and his kidnappers are practically underscored in bright yellow markers by director Daniel Alfredson (who directed the original THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST and THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE), almost distractingly so.

As much as I thought it would be something exciting and different to see Hopkins playing a disheveled rich guy begging for his life in a decidedly pathetic manner, it ended up just feeling icky and unconvincing, since at no time did I actually believe Heineken's life was in danger. Toss in a few car chases that I didn't believe for a second played out like they do in the film, and you've got yourself a whole lot of talented folks stuck in a sub-par crime drama without a lot of thrills, insight or drama worthy of this team.

This is not the first time this story has been told on the big screen (a Dutch production starring Rutger Hauer was also produced a few years ago), but it will most certainly be the last. Since truth is often stranger and more interesting than fiction, perhaps a sweeping documentary about these men and this caper is due to really do this tale justice. As for KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN, you can leave this one chained up in the basement if you'd like.

I won't lie: I've long yearned for a spiritual companion to the wondrous 1999 documentary AMERICAN MOVIE, in which a young man from Wisconsin with big dreams of making a horror film is captured in full production mode while his life is in chaos thanks to a host of friends and family attempting to support his crazy scheme. Some films have come close, but not until I recently laid eyes upon KUNG FU ELLIOT have my dreams felt fulfilled.

Granted, Elliot "White Lightning" Scott is a very different animal than Mark Borchardt. For one, Scott is a guy whose dream is to be an action star, leaving the directing, camera work, producing and pretty much everything else to his frustrated girlfriend Linda. When we meet the pair, they are deep into production on their latest work, BLOOD FLIGHT (a follow up to their previous uber-amateur work THEY KILLED MY CAT), a martial arts epic. A Nova Scotia resident with a fetish for all things Asian, Scott's big dream is to become Canada's first action hero, and when you get a look at his action and fight choreography, you'll see he's well on his way to that never happening. But his enthusiasm and aw-shucks Canadian persona make it easy to be charmed by Scott, which is actually part of the problem.

As co-directors Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman follow Elliot and Linda, we quickly begin to see the cracks in both their relationship and in Scott's entire life story, past and present. He claims to be a multi-year champion Canadian kick boxer, that his first wife died (he even has a "Love Lost" tattoo on his arm, and a host of other tall tales that he somehow thinks add to the deeper recesses of his legend in the making. After being laid off from two jobs because of the economy, he decides to focus entirely on his movie, forcing Linda to pretty much pay for everything. She has aspirations of getting married, which he says he wants to do but makes no real effort to make it happen. It's clear there's a stringing along going on here, and it actually become uncomfortable to watch as the film goes on, especially when Elliot begins dabbling in amateur porn.

He takes what is meant to be a culturally enlightening trip to China at one point, but he seems far more interested in hitting on local women and fighting against monks who train for hours a day in martial arts. One interaction with a real kung-fu master reveals that Scott's fighting skills are subpar, to say the least. And as the film goes on, our impression of Scott goes from lovable loser to scumbag and con artist. There's a nasty confrontation between Elliot and Linda that is so real and brutal that we almost want the cameras turned off, but you can't take your eyes off Scott as a the cornered animals, lashing out at his attackers (which eventually includes the directors) who have caught him in lie after lie. It's a fascinating bit of filmmaking that I won't soon forget.

I've seen a few films about eccentric low-budget filmmakers and their crazy dreams, but I'm not sure if KUNG FU ELLIOT quite falls into that category, nor does it need to. It's its own monster that doesn't feel the need to mock its subjects, even the ones who are worthy of mocking. It's as endlessly amusing and outright hilarious as often as it's emotionally compelling and raw. We see the early stages of production on Scott's follow-up to BLOOD FIGHT, called INTERNATIONAL HERO—a film we'll never see, and that makes me a bit sad. But there are some characters in this film that I'll genuinely miss and wonder how they're doing years from now. Whether you love or hate them, the fact is you'll care about the folks in Kung Fu Elliot, and that's the key to its success as a great documentary.

-- Steve Prokopy
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