Capone's Art-House Round-Up with CHRISTINE, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ELLE, and RAISING BERTIE!!!
Published at: Nov. 18, 2016, 8:01 p.m. CST by Capone
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…
CHRISTINE In the weeks leading up to President Nixon resigning in 1974, a local news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, took her news station’s latest mission statement (to lead with blood and guts) to heart by shooting herself in the head on live television. The event made the national newscasts that night, and then like all things caught in a news cycle, it quickly faded as audiences moved on to the next story. Based on the life of Christine Chubbuck and directed by Antonio Campos (AFTERSCHOOL, SIMON KILLER), CHRISTINE is the devastatingly detailed account of a person in the quiet throes of depression, trying with all her might to hold it back by throwing herself into the work she cared so much about.
As portrayed by Rebecca Hall (who, in a just and fair world, should get an Oscar nomination for her performance here), Chubbuck was a perfectionist to a fault. She fretted about every frame of footage, her voiceover, and the copy that she read to introduce her package pieces on community events and personalities. She wanted to do more serious work, but was happy to be working alongside such respected on-air personalities like George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchor, and even Steve (Tim Simons of “Veep”) the weatherman. But as the station (and news in general) began leaning in the direction of sensationalism, she and station manager Michael (Tracy Letts) butted heads on more than a few occasions.
Director Campos, working from a screenplay by Craig Shilowich, takes us through typical days in Chubbuck’s life, most of which involves work, but also leaves time for volunteer work at a local children’s hospital ward and spending tense time with her hippie mother (J. Smith-Cameron) who lives with her. Christine is a bundle of anxiety, so much so that you can almost hear her teeth grinding when she’s particularly intense about something. When we meet her, she’s been experiencing on-and-off stomach pains that turn out to be a cyst on one of her ovaries, the very thought of which sends her into an emotional tailspin, and Rebecca Hall perfectly captures a person in that headspace attempting to keep it together on the outside. Her eyes say it all, and they can get scary in an instant.
Bits of information almost sneak out about her life before Sarasota. Her mother mentions something about her slipping into one of her “moods” like she did back in Boston, where Chubbuck previously worked. When George takes her to a type of group therapy session, she reveals to a total stranger so many details about her life in a game of “Yes, but…” that you almost want her to talk slower so we can process the information. The film never dwells in one situation for too long; neither does it feel rushed. Director Campos gives Chubbuck’s final days the respect they deserve and doesn’t honor her memory by turning her flaws into spectacle—something she fought against and, some would say, gave her life to avoid.
CHRISTINE captures the period and the mood of the country quite faithfully, without getting lost in ’70s kitch. But nothing about the film quite prepared me for the depth of the compassion and pain that Rebecca Hall brings to her role. Even when she was trying to relax and be social, she never truly dropped her reporter’s voice and sense of professionalism, which may have been a source of her downfall. CHRISTINE is as revealing as it is tragic, and Campos and his team turn her story into a symptom of greater issues in the country rather than simply a singular event. This is a truly magnificent work.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS After his impressive directing debut A SINGLE MAN in 2009, fashion designer Tom Ford’s long awaited return as writer-director, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, shows that Ford is not afraid of a complicated, nebulous narrative that still manages to look stunning, especially in the costuming department. Based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, the film’s narrative device involves art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receiving the galleys of a new book written by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in years.
Susan is vaguely unhappy with both her life and her new marriage to womanizer Hutton (Armie Hammer, looking more handsome than any man has a right to), so the book’s arrival (and it’s dedication to her) seems like a bright spot. She begins to read it and discovers that it’s a story about a husband (also played by Gyllenhaal, this version bearded), his wife (Adams lookalike Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) who are collectively kidnapped by a bunch of Texas rednecks, led by a truly terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Before long, the husband is abandoned in the middle of the desert. He manages to make his way to civilization, and before long, Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, rocking a cowboy hat) is on the case.
The book’s brutal plot has a genuine impact on Susan’s psyche, and she finds herself remembering back to the earliest days of her first marriage, meeting Edward in grad school in New York, where she was studying art and he was a struggling writer. And eventually, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS settles into a nice rhythm of moving between the present-day Susan, Susan with Edward, and the nasty little tale unspooling in the novel. Susan undoubtedly sees something familiar in the writing, but it’s never made clear if this story is based on real events, so perhaps it’s simply the vividness of Edward’s writing that is startling her. Even if the three stories are not directly connected, the juxtaposition seems to amplify the emotions in all three, and the end result is something quite stirring and unsettling.
A parade of familiar faces populate the two versions of Susan’s life, including characters played by Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, and, in a devastating scene between Susan and her mother, Laura Linney appears in the flashbacks as the matriarch, so disappointed in her daughter’s choice in a husband, primarily because he’s broke. Susan ignores her mother’s advice, but she also seems aware on some level that her words have infected her heart and mind to the point where it will impact the marriage down the line.
Gyllenhaal is rarely bad or unbelievable in any film, but he seems to grab these duel roles with both hands. They aren’t exactly two different characters, but they are men at wildly different times in their lives. As he often is, Shannon’s performance is from another planet, one where questionable Texas accents are used, but it’s alright because he is so completely mesmerizing regardless of the material. At a certain point in the story, Andes puts a challenge to Hastings as if the officer were the devil negotiating for the other man’s soul, even though they’re both the good guys.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s sexy, dangerous, horrific, and will linger with you long after it’s over. Don’t struggle too hard to make sensible connections among the three stories; this film is more about the cumulative energy and foreboding that it generates. Anchored by some of the best performances you’ll see all year and in the hands of one of the most confident directors (which is surprising, since it’s only his second effort), the movie is about ramping up the emotion, bringing it to a searing boil, and releasing the tension (if you’re lucky) in a gasp of relief. I hope Ford doesn’t wait seven years between film again, but if he does, it’s clearly worth it.
ELLE Before the movie even fades in, we hear the sounds of what is clearly a sexual assault, and when the scene itself is finally revealed, the attack is over and the rapist is composing himself before he leaves. After he’s gone, his victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert, the reigning queen of French angst), pulls herself up, straightens herself out, and goes about her evening, which includes a visit from her grown son and drinks with friends. Welcome to the twisted psychological world of ELLE, from director Paul Verhoeven (BLACK BOOK, BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS), in which the lead character seems largely unaffected by her attack, but is still intent on figuring out who her assailant was.
Based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian (adapted by David Birke), ELLE doesn’t qualify as a revenge film because it becomes clear at a certain point that Michele isn’t seeking retribution for her attack. Something about it struck a chord in her largely frozen soul, and she’s interested in recapturing the sensation. Dubbed “rape noir” by some who saw it at its premiere in Cannes, the film becomes part detective story, part examination of what Michele’s life had become prior to the attack that she would react to it so unexpectedly. Huppert has played women like this before in movies about losing the thrill of living, only to have it reignited by an act of violence—self inflicted or at the hands of someone else.
Lest you think ELLE’s conclusion might have something to do with discovering the identity of the rapist, that actually happens at about the halfway mark, and where it goes from there certainly contributes to one of the most controversial films not just of the year, but in recent memory. Driving home the irony of her life, Michele is the head a video game company at which she is constantly driving her programmers and designers to make the violence more realistic and the attacks on female characters more sexual.
And the most shocking part of ELLE is how well it all comes together, not despite its lewd and lascivious nature but because of it. In addition, the film has a dark humor that rips through its heart and makes it all the more compelling and even moving at times. This is director Verhoeven’s sweet spot—part exploitation, part social commentary, and a subtle doses of compassion. This is a film that exists in an amoral setting, and we as witnesses must reject it or adjust our thinking to continue on Michele’s journey with her. She must tour her life and come to the realization that, if the rape were a personal attack (rather than random), there are many men in her world that might want to see harm come to her.
The primary reason ELLE works at all—and it certainly won’t for everyone—is Huppert, who continues a succession of films that illustrate that she will go to any lengths to get a reaction from audiences. Many actors are labelled fearless, but none of them hold a candle to her expressions of pain, sexuality, and psychological upheaval. This is where she exists in one movie after another, never repeating herself, and exposing new areas of the human condition with each new role. In Michele, she portrays a woman determined to regain control of a life that has gotten out of control. To her, this attack was a symptom of her wavering confidence, and she’ll be damned if she doesn’t reclaim it.
The film is provocative, aggressive, insightful and an attempt to get you interesting in someone else’s life for a change. ELLE is a challenge, maybe even a dare, and its contempt for what is normal is palpable and thrilling.
RAISING BERTIE Veteran cinematographer and first-time feature director Margaret Byrne spent six years tracking the lives of three African-American high school students in Bertie County, North Carolina, and the result is RAISING BERTIE, a work that digs deep and examines the factors that go into creating and destroying dreams among rural youth. One of the most compelling and telling facts we’re told around this particular location is that 27 prisons are located within a 100-mile radius of the county, giving you some idea what the establishment thinks of these kids and their prospects, and there are times where the film feels like little more than a struggle to keep these three from landing in jail.
The film opens as hopeful as it could, with all three boys being a part of a specialty education program called The Hive, which features what might be one of the single most hopeful and targeted teaching methods these kids will ever have, with special attention paid to every student and messages of positivity build into the fabric of the program. But when the board of education pulls The Hive’s funding, the three are send back into public schools where there are tossed into crowded classroom and indifferent instructors, and things immediately go badly for our subjects. What is most incredible about this film is that you can actually see it happen before your eyes, as all of the students’ enthusiasm for learning and believing in themselves is erased from their lives.
Each of their lives follows a different path, some less dire than others, but with The Hive’s personal touches gone, everything seem more difficult and less certain. Every person in the film—parents and children—is allowed to express thoughts on how they got where they are and where they’d like things to end up, and director Byrne is there to capture and measure the resulting life. RAISING BERTIE illustrates the institutional shortcomings of the region with very personal stories, and more often than not, it’s a tough experience to view, let alone live.