Film

The Revenant, Anomalisa, The Forest, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Diablo, Drone, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Western & The Mask

THE REVENANT

TCR-Steve-at-the-Movies-v3I suppose if you walk into The Revenant thinking director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is pretentious about being an artist and a creative force in the universe, then yes, you might interpret his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Birdman as a metaphor for the artist struggling against man- and nature-made elements to make the best possible art possible. Yes, you could see it that way, or you could be a normal person and watch it for exactly what it is: a flat-out stunning piece of filmmaking that embraces as much realism as possible, while placing the audience in the midst of a singularly punishing experience that one man attempts to survive and seek revenge on those who sought to end his life.

Based on true events (and the novel by Michael Punke), The Revenant tells the tale of fur trapper/tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DeCaprio) who is part of a pelt-gathering expedition run by Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Having close ties to the Native American tribes in the area (having adopted a young native boy years earlier) has made Glass an expert tracker, so while out on a hunt, he senses that something is not quite right, and a second later, arrows begin to fly and hunters begin to die. Not knowing much about this story and going only by what I’d seen in the trailers, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how much the Native American experience is featured in this film. The particular tribe on display is out searching for the kidnapped daughter of one of its members, and as a result, they don’t react well when they stumble upon a group of white men killing off animals for only their pelts.

Having their numbers whittled down and another attack imminent, the trappers decide to hide their pelts and make a run back to the nearest white settlement as the winter snow and cold really begin to settle in across these unnamed corners of the American wilderness. (I believe the location is meant to be somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, but it was shot in three different countries since the production took seven months and had to go where the snow was.) One particularly defiant man, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), doesn’t like the idea of leaving behind his only source of income, but agrees to head back with the others after a great deal of shouting and arm waving. Many have been tempted to label Fitzgerald the villain of this piece, but he’s something much more dangerous—a selfish coward. He has no regard for anyone’s life but his own, and flinches at the idea of helping an injured man if it means slowing him down in any way.

Case in point, while out on a scouting patrol, Glass carelessly finds himself between a bear and its cubs, and by the time he realizes it, it’s too late and the bear is ripping into him with teeth and claws, in a prolonged and nasty sequence that you have to see to believe. During the course of watching The Revenant, there were about four or five times where I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing on screen. Sometimes these were moments of profound beauty—courtesy of two-time Oscar winner for cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life, and other recent Terrence Malick works, including the upcoming Knight of Cups). Other times, they were brilliantly masked technical feats, and then there’s a bear mauling a man, twice, so brutally that his skin is hanging from his body in places.

Not wanting to slow up the group any more than necessary but not wanting to leave the still-breathing Glass alone, Henry offers to pay two men to stay behind with Glass until he dies and to give him a proper burial. Unfortunately for Glass, one of those two men is Fitzgerald, who opts to kill Glass’s protective son and bury Glass alive, thinking he’s on the brink of death, so who cares? The other man is Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), a much younger trapper who is terrified for his life at the idea of defying Fitzgerald, and reluctantly goes along with his plan. But somehow Glass survives, manages to get on his feet and begins the longest walk of his life back to the settlement to find Fitzgerald and kill him. Poulter’s work is less flashy than the two others, but he does fine work here serving as the voice of reason and the eyes of the audience.

The second half of the roughly 155-minute film is primarily about Glass’s journey, and we experience every painful step right along with him. He stumbles upon more Native Americans, unsavory white men, animals, cold and snow, and there are times when DiCaprio is reduced to a drooling, growling shell of a man, fueled by nothing more than pure rage and ripping into raw meat or fish with his teeth. It’s an unprecedented performance, entirely void of vanity, and in the end, it becomes an exercise in survival and the cold comfort of revenge.

Hardy as Fitzgerald is nearly as interesting, as the native Texan and one-time friend to Glass, who betrays him so completely that it’s difficult for us to find something in the character with which to empathize. Hardy continues to be a bit on the mumbly side, but he still manages to find the emotional core of this man, which is that without the money from this job, his life is effectively meaningless.

Using only natural light in every scene, Iñárritu (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark L. Smith) and Lubezki compose one magnificent, haunting shot after another. Sometimes they opt for considerably longer, unbroken takes, but it’s no gimmick this time around (as it was in Birdman). They do it so that the power of each scene is uninterrupted. Cutting away might break the tension, thus destroying the flow of a given scene. But that rarely happens here.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying Glass makes it to the outpost, because that isn’t the end of the film and his road to revenge is just beginning. Still, everything that follows his return from the brink of death seems a bit anticlimactic compared to the endurance test that Glass has been through up to this point. Icy rivers, snow to the waist, fierce winds, not to mention the living, breathing dangers along the way (a horse leap over the side of a cliff will make your heart say hello to your throat)—all seem to conspire against Glass. And those earlier moments in the film, when his survival is far from assured, are by far the most compelling.

The Revenant is just a damn good movie, plain and simple. It uses special effects to make things appear like they aren’t using effects at all, and for the most part, Iñárritu and his team succeed. The landscapes captured here are both beautiful and ominous, as if they are places never meant to escape from. Some are shrouded in fog that is scarier than any horror film. These were times when nature was simultaneously respected far more and far less than today. As you might have deduced from the title, the film is about man seemingly coming back from the dead, which is somewhat ironic since most of those involved are making some of the finest works of their quite vital careers. As is often the case, I can’t wait to see what they’re all doing next. If you don’t have nightmares about dying of frostbite, you should enjoy this one quite a bit.

To read my exclusive interview with The Revenant star Will Poulter, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

ANOMALISA

Someday girl, I don’t know when,
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
—Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run”

Someone come, come my someone
Take the clouds from my eyes, my one
I know that sometime soon
One day, we’ll walk in the sun
—Bruce Hornsby, “Walk in the Sun”

I want to be the one to walk in the sun
—Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (written by Robert Hazard)

What is it about walking in the sun that made these songwriters believe that doing so was the ultimate embodiment of freedom and ideal happiness? Does it have to do with the promise of a new day? Or perhaps it’s not the walking or the sunlight that makes it perfect; maybe it’s what happened the night before that makes walking in the sun the following morning seem like the perfect time to reflect upon some glorious personal realization or triumph.

Such is the case in Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated new film from writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman (working with Duke Johnson), in which the character of Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) sings a lovely, slightly melancholy version of the Cyndi Lauper song to her would-be lover Michael (David Thewlis). He is so moved by the experience that he takes her in his arms. And the next morning, in one of the few glimpses of sunlight in the film, Lisa is genuinely happy—not because she’s just had sex for the first time in years, but because she believes this man sees her for who she really is, which in the world of Anomalisa is saying a great deal.

Like most films by Kaufman, the debate among viewers will not be about whether they enjoyed the film or not. The discussion will be about the deeper themes and meaning of this deeply moving and mildly disturbing work that traces 24 hours in the world of Michael Stone, author and motivational speaker on the topic of improving customer service. This is among the film’s many ironies, since Michael doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of other human beings, including his wife and child in Los Angeles. When we meet Michael, he’s on a flight to Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service at a conference the next morning. For the first 20 minutes of so, nothing remarkable happens in the story. Kaufman and Johnson are smart enough to let the audience take in everything in this remarkably realistic-looking world of posable puppets and small sets. It will likely take you about that long to also realize that every other character in the film has the same face (different hairstyles, body types, and clothes, but the same exact face) and voice, provided by the great Tom Noonan, whose only real vocal variations are low (for men) and high (for women).

The surface story of Anomalisa isn’t really the point, although to ignore it completely in favor of the underlying, more troubling, idea that something is deeply wrong with Michael’s mind, would be a mistake. And while very little in the story is spelled out, it becomes clear that all of the characters have the same face because to Michael, everyone is the same—equally memorable, or more to the point, equally forgettable.

It just so happens that one of the few people Michael had a connection with in his life still lives in Cincinnati, and he calls her up and the two meet in the hotel bar. They have a heated conversation, rehashing why he ended their relationship, with her still clearly bearing emotional scars from the event and he not quite being able to put into words what went wrong. Still, there is something in what Michael manages to get out that paints a rough sketch of his worldview and his gut-wrenching belief that he doesn’t know what he wants out of life or love.

After this disastrous encounter, Michael stumbles out into the night drunk, looking for a present to bring back to his ungrateful young son. It’s at this point in the story where a spoiler warning might be warranted, only because there are several theories about the reliability of Michael as narrator. One school of thought is that we take the events as they happen, without question. But there’s another option: that everything that happens from this point on is imagined by Michael. Both theories are valid and have evidence to back them up. And both interpretations strengthen my original point that, as with all of Kaufman’s works (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confession of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and Synecdoche, New York), reality is subjective and worthy of constantly being called into question. Kaufman’s writings are about making the real world more of an option, rather than the only choice.

And don’t think I mean that just because this film is an animated story that it doesn’t resemble or feel very real and human; it absolutely does most of the time. But there are glimpses of insanity, instances where Michael’s face literally falls off, revealing the machinations of his puppet self. He quickly fixes the problem, but we’ve been deliberately taken out of the moment and been reminded that these creatures are being controlled, perhaps mirroring exactly what Michael is feeling.

At his lowest point of the night, Michael hears a voice that does not belong to Noonan; he hears a distinct difference and races out of his room to find the source. After pounding on enough doors in his hallway, he finds Lisa, who is shy, timid and wears her hair over her right eye to cover a noticeable scar just above it. She lacks confidence in herself and her quirky charms, to say nothing of how she views her own outward appearance and desirability. And all of these unique qualities draw Michael to her even more. He’s mesmerized by her voice, mostly because it’s different than all others, and he sees her as the great hope in saving his mundane existence. And of course, given Michael’s deep-seated issues with connection, she could never truly save him.

As in most Kaufman films, there are clues that the section of the film with Lisa is entirely in Michael’s head, and that only makes the film more intriguing. However you gauge the film, bringing in your own biases and background, it’s still incredibly thought provoking and holds up to multiple viewings quite nicely, due in large part to the movie’s wicked sense of humor. Kaufman began his career as a comedy writer, and he never fails to deliver laughs in some of the most unexpected places, often times wedging them in between very quiet and serious moments.

There are also multiple ways to view Michael Stone. He’s an insufferable asshole who cheats on his wife without a second thought and uses women because he thinks it will somehow right his mind. Or he’s a hopeless romantic, in love with love, and therefore doomed to repeat the same mistakes with each new woman he finds appealing. If you believe the theory that Michael’s encounter with Lisa is imagined, then the final shot of her driving off (instead of walking) into the sun is nothing more than a delusional Michael believing that he touched someone so profoundly that she’s a better person after one night of passion with him. Been there.

Anomalisa is yet another beautifully realized glimpse into how Charlie Kaufman’s mind works, how he sees the world in its skewed and sublime framework. It’s a romance, a paranoid thriller, a psychological character study, and a peek into the way men’s minds function (or don’t). A film using manipulated puppets becomes one of the most living, breathing screen efforts in recent memory, and I could watch it dozens of times and still find new things to love or be frustrated by. Either way, I don’t care. It’s interesting and will spark discussions with each new viewing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Anomalisa writer-director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

THE FOREST

I would never imply that it’s easy to make a horror film (or any film, for that matter) but when you set your story in what is literally one of the most haunting locations on the face of the earth, it might make the most sense to let the surroundings do the work for you. I’ve been fascinated with the 13-square-mile area at the northwest base of Japan’s Mount Fuji known as Aokigahara for years. Whenever some article lists the creepiest places in the world, Aokigahara (also known as the Sea of Trees, but better known as the Suicide Forest) always lands somewhere near the top.

Even if you ignore the legends about wandering, angry spirits and random, inhuman screaming coming from parts unknown in the forest, Aokigahara is a terrifying prospect during the light of day. The trees are so tightly packed together that very little sunlight gets to the surface, adding an eerie quality to everything. But for reasons not quite understood, people travel from all over the country (even the world) to kill themselves in these woods, usually by hanging. There’s a sanctioned path running through the woods that no one ever stays on, and with more than 100-plus bodies found in this forest every year, the odds are strong that if you wander into the dense trees, you’ll find a body or perhaps someone contemplating suicide.

There are certain visual cues that The Forest gets right. There is colored tape strewn from tree to tree—some use it to mark their way in case they change their minds and want to get back to the path; others use it as a way for people to find their dead body. Every tape path leads to a different story—some with happy endings, some not. The other common find in the forest are people in tents, camping. The belief is that a tent is a sign that the person is unsure of whether suicide is the answer, and they are taking the time to contemplate their being in Aokigahara. Both the tape and tents figure prominently in The Forest, a sapling of a horror film from first-time feature director Jason Zada.

The story opens with Sara Price (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones” and the two Mockingjay films) getting a call that her twin sister Jess, who works as a teacher in Japan, was last seen several days earlier venturing into the Aokigahara. By the time Sara arrives in Japan, the local authorities believe her sister is long dead, but Sara’s special twin bond with Jess is telling her Jess is still alive and she sets out to find her. Before venturing in herself, Sara meets American travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney of “Chicago Fire”) working on a story about the forest. He just happens to already have a guide in Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), and the three make their way into the woods and off the beaten path.

The film establishes a few rules about what we may see along the way. If you see something strange or scary, it probably is just the spirits messing with you, and you should ignore it. If you enter the woods with sadness in your heart, the spirits will use this against you to push you to kill yourself. Aokigahara is terrifying enough all on its own that adding mythology on top of it doesn’t really make it any scarier. You just point the camera in any direction and fear sets in rather quickly. It’s tough to separate the fact that the filmmakers actually shot in the real location, where people actually have committed suicide by the thousands over the years. Lay over a nicely atmospheric score by Bear McCreary, and this one should be a no-brainer.

But so little in horror is a no-brainer. And director Zada (working from a script by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai) found it necessary to add unnecessary jump scares, flashes of creepy faces in the forest, and what seems like a prerequisite for making a horror film in Japan, a creepy school girl (Rina Takasaki) who wanders the woods and attempts to aid Sara in her search. As predicted, the Aokigahara plays tricks on Sara’s mind. She begins to get paranoid about the company she’s keeping, and after finding a camp site where her sister was for a time, she strays deep into the woods away from her guide, threatening to have the forest swallow her completely. There’s a whole back story in The Forest about how Sara and Jess had to endure the death of their parents when they were kids, none of which pays off as powerfully as simply walking further into those woods. Real life trumps artificial supernatural every time.

Beyond that, The Forest just feels tired and ordinary as a narrative. I’ve seen tourist videos of Aokigahara with more tension and skin-crawling visuals than this movie. And there’s this strange underlying sense that in order for us to find this film scary, we have to be slightly creeped out by Japanese culture, which doesn’t sit right at all.

Unrelated to that, think about this for a second. Sara comes to Japan looking for her Identical twin sister (played by her in flashbacks; the only thing dissimilar between them is their hair color). And she brings a photo of Jess to show people, as in “Have you seen this woman?” instead of, oh I don’t know, pointing to her own face and asking the same question. There’s a moment early on when Jess’s students see Sara and freak out, thinking it’s their teacher come back from the dead, so clearly…you get the point. And in a couple days, that storytelling flaw will be all I remember about The Forest. Go watch the newly dropped trailer for The Conjuring 2; it’s much scarier.

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT

At one point in the new film about the famed art supporter and exhibitor Peggy Guggenheim, artist Marina Abramovic makes the point that patrons are far more important to artists than buyers or exhibitors, since patrons will support you even when you’re making unsalable art, which makes Guggenheim’s contribution to the 20th century art world all the more invaluable. From director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel) comes the indispensable Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a profile of the complicated, often mysterious black sheep of the Guggenheim family who gave many of the great modern artists of her time their first gallery shows in the various venues she ran in London, New York and ultimately the world family Venetian palazzo that remains one of the true destinations for art lovers the world over.

Based in part on her authorized biography as well as hours of recently discovered audio interviews with her official biographer Jacqueline B. Weld, Art Addict places Guggenheim in her proper place as one of the leading discoverers and preachers about modern art by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Willem de Kooning, to name a few. She also organized an exhibition (likely the first in the world) of only female artists. The intricately researched and realized film offers up new and interesting stories about both the art world that Guggenheim inhabited (and was often at the center of) and her often tragic personal life, which included the death of her father when she was quite young.

Much like her autobiography, Confessions Of an Art Addict, the movie also dives into her love life and many affairs with artists and other cultural icons, including Samuel Beckett. Her take on sexual freedom is quite refreshing, humorous and candid, and it seems that nothing was off limits to her prying biographer. The archival footage and photographs are astonishing, and more recent interviews with art and cultural experts place Guggenheim’s influence in the proper context and place of esteem. One of my favorite smaller moments in the film involves Robert De Niro, whose parents were both artists whom Guggenheim displayed at times. If you were lucky enough to have seen the 2014 HBO documentary De Niro made about his father (Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.), the intersection of that story and Guggenheim’s is quite extraordinary.

Director Vreeland also goes into a great deal of detail about particular artists Guggenheim took a liking to (most notably Pollock). The film not only acknowledges that she discovered and supported these artists but makes some attempt to explain what she liked (or didn’t like) in their work. To explore Guggenheim’s life is not just to see an important and powerful woman in the art world; Peggy Guggenheim, in many ways, is the history of 20th century art and what it means to be a true patron. Art Addict is a jaw-dropping trip through a bygone day when cultural and intellectual pursuits were one and the same, and to be a part of that circle was to be at the best party in the world. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

DIABLO

It’s fascinating that both Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins, both stars in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, also have other Western-type films available to watch right now. Russell can be seen in the extraordinarily violent and wonderful Bone Tomahawk (just released to home video), and now Goggins can be found as a particularly nasty instrument of death in Diablo, the second film from director Lawrence Roeck (The Forger). Both Diablo and The Hateful Eight take place a few years after the Civil War, and both were shot in rather picturesque surroundings (Diablo was shot in Alberta, Canada, standing in for the Colorado territory), and that’s about where the similarities end.

Diablo is also a curiosity for admirers of the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, whose son Scott (The Longest Ride) stars here as Jackson, a Civil War veteran with a reputation for killing with impunity during the war, so much so that his enthusiasm for battlefield killing resulted in the accidental death of someone close to him. This event haunts him to such a degree that he has clearly become the victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. But just as eerie, when young Eastwood turns his head a certain way, has just the right amount of scruffy facial hair, grits his teeth just so, and speaks with a slightly raspy voice, the resemblance to his father is uncanny. There are times when you almost think you’re watching a lost Clint Eastwood film, which is both a tribute and totally unfair to Scott. But there you have it.

The film opens with Jackson’s world being blown apart once again. His home and barn are on fire, and his new bride, a Mexican woman named Alexsandra (Camilla Belle), has just been taken by other Mexicans (presumably her family, unhappy with the coupling). As they race off with her to the Mexican border, Jackson barely escapes the encounter with his life, but he immediately hops on his horse in hot pursuit. The film is about Jackson’s journey, his inability to cope with his time in the war, and his struggle to regain the one thing in his life he thinks makes him happy.

Since this is a film about a journey, it is populated with a cast of supporting characters who either assist our young hero or attempt to get in his way with mixed results. After being shot, a small group of Native Americans (led by the great Adam Beach) take him in to heal him An old wartime buddy (Danny Glover) also provides some degree of comfort; and then there’s Ezra (Goggins), a ruthless piece of work who does very little beyond garnering a great deal of pleasure out of watching people die, often at his hands. Something about Jackson’s particular brand of pain intrigues him, so he allows him to live only so he can watch him suffer, physically and mentally.

There are a few plot turns in Diablo (for one, I thought maybe Ezra was meant to represent the devil; turns out, “Diablo” was Jackson’s nickname during the war) that aren’t exactly shocking, but propel the story in a direction that might surprise some. From a screenplay by Carlos De Los Rios, the movie functions best as a psychological study at a time when such considerations didn’t exist in the culture. Anchored by stunning cinematography by the legendary Dean Cundey (fans of early John Carpenter films will know his work), Diablo is a great showcase for Scott Eastwood, who is still coming into his own but continues to improve as an actor and become more dynamic as a movie star. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

DRONE

Although decidedly unbalanced on the subject of the U.S. policy and practice of drone warfare, the new documentary Drone still provided a great deal of thought-provoking material from a great number of sources, some quite unlikely. While the film provides an adequate background on the origins of the use of drones for strategic and “precise” air strikes without putting a single American life at risk, it also gives us a view of several other sides of the issues, including a stark and haunting interview with former drone pilot Brandon Bryant, who is said to have more than 1,600 confirmed kills from his tiny bunker halfway around the world. The burden of such numbers and the full knowledge that not all of those kills were valued targets (many were children) was more than he could handle and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, Drone also centers its camera at those in frequently bombed areas in and around Pakistan and asks serious question about the international legality of such warfare, especially since the presumption is that a person in that region must prove they are innocent rather than the United States proving they are guilty. There are also questions about whether individual drone pilots can be prosecuted for war crimes, given that they don’t have the same protections that the CIA (who gives them their targets) does.

Aside from a few bits of news conference footage of President Obama claiming that civilian casualties from drone strikes are minimal, there isn’t really a voice in this film explaining the benefits of drone warfare or addressing the abundant risks. The film digs into the way drone pilots are recruited (play up the video game look of the process to attract young pilots) and even features a rather amusing interview with the head of the company that invented the first modern drone used by the military (he invented the device to help tuna fisherman spot schools of fish and reduce their time at sea, which never caught on). Even he seems a bit put off by the way his invention is being used.

Drone provides a slightly sickening look at how desensitized we as a nation have become to collateral damage, especially when the targets are in the Middle East, and one subject does an excellent job of explaining how this program essentially creates more terrorists than it kills, making this type of war self-perpetuating. Efforts are underway from other nations (addressing the United Nations) to stop this practice, but considering how shrouded in secrecy and a clouded sense of American entitlement the program is, their prospects seem slim for stopping it. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

Rarely has the subject of income inequality been so interesting. For those paying any sort of attention to comedian Russell Brand of late (or perhaps having seen the fantastic documentary about him from last year, Brand: A Second Coming), you might know that the performer has turned his attention to addressing the world’s problems through his web series “The Trews.” And one of the issues that sticks in his craw the deepest is the combination of income inequality and the way the banks of the world not only tanked the global economy but got away with it with no criminal prosecutions.

With The Emperor’s New Clothes, Brand has teamed with the great British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart, The Trip films, The Look of Love) to explore the roots of the hand-in-hand problems (hello, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan). Winterbottom illustrates concrete examples of how the issue is hurting individuals, and takes a stab at offering a few possible solutions. At times, the film feels like a colorful, informative economics lesson; other times, Brand straps on his activist’s cap and goes door to door to the various bank headquarters to speak with their CEOs about whether they think it’s fair that they received massive bonuses or pay hikes while their window washers and janitors live below the poverty line.

Brand and Winterbottom make every effort to strike a balance between taking the issues seriously while still keeping things light and instructive. While the bank visits feel like stunts for the cameras, Brand shines brightest when he’s talking one-on-one with folks from his old working-class neighborhood about their struggles to pay rent, buy food and still leave something for their children. There’s a genuine kindness in his rapport with both adults and children. He uses a group of 100 school children to explain income inequality and what exactly the 1% vs. 99% is all about to them.

If Brand’s lesson feel a bit like he’s dumbing things down for the masses, guess what? But by doing so, it makes a truly baffling situation somewhat clearer, or at least like something we can get our hands around rather than the overwhelming mess that so many feel it is. But because of how famous Brand is in the UK, he can get away with a bit more and not get arrested or considered a rambling lunatic. It’s a fascinating way of making a film that combines some of the more effective elements of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, while still putting a very human face on several troubling developments of the last 35 years.

Brand is certainly not going to appeal to everyone, but he’s used to that. I find him a seriously funny guy, attempting with The Emperor’s New Clothes to break through the indecipherable and make sense of the senseless. The film treads the line between entertainment and activist movie making, and if you take away even a portion of what he and Winterbottom are putting forth, you’ll probably be a tad more informed than you were before and likely a great deal angrier and eager to respond. The film will screen as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series on Saturday, Jan. 9, at 7:45pm, and Thursday, Jan. 14, at 6pm.

WESTERN

When you first start watching the fantastic documentary Western, you might believe for a fleeting moment that you’re watching science fiction. It’s the story of two border towns along the Rio Grande—Eagle Pass in Texas and Piedras Negras in Mexico. In so many ways, these towns need each other to survive and prosper as they have for decades, quite peacefully. Great appreciation festivals are thrown regularly, citizens stroll across an unguarded bridge to visit or do business. Cattle raised in Mexico are inspected by U.S. agents and brought over to Texas for eating. There is no wall, the leadership of both towns work closely together, and most of the citizens speak English and Spanish fluently as part of a relaxed bicultural world. So of course, someone is going to come and fuck it up.

From filmmaking brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (Tchoupitoulas), Western tracks the remarkably rapid downfall of this perfect eco-system thanks to the rising threat of drug cartels moving toward Piedras Negras. Surprisingly, it’s the Texans who are quick to point out that the cartels wouldn’t feel the need to encroach on this town were it not for the demand on the American side. But as a result of some truly horrific violence so close to the border, U.S. government orders a wall put up and all stoppage of cattle coming across the bridge (primarily because the government doesn’t feel it’s safe for the inspectors to go over into Mexico to do their jobs).

If there is a “hero” in this film, it would probably be Chad Foster, the then-mayor of Eagle Pass, who was a staple on both sides of the border. He was a problem solver, a diplomat, a good old boy from way back who spoke perfect Spanish, and a promoter of good business relations on this little slice of Tex-Mex paradise. So of course he became an object of derision from both sides. He reads an angry email from a minuteman border patrol member, and he is nearly killed when bullets fly into a diner he’s in. He survives, but his spirit is damaged severely.

That would be a great metaphor for the region—it’s still there, people still exist in their respective nations, but their spirit is being crushed, and Western shows exactly how. There’s a glimmer of hope in the form of a spirited cattleman and single father, struggling to make a living. Even so, it’s a heartbreaking story that every American ought to see. The film will screen as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series today at 6pm, and Thursday, Jan. 14, at 8pm.

THE MASK

I’ll fully admit, the existence of this 1961 Canadian stereoscopic 3-D twisted cross of science-fiction thriller and pure psychotropic horror has escaped me until now, but I’m so glad it has been restored and is being presented in its original format in select theaters.

The Mask comes from director Julian Roffman (The Bloody Brood), but the segments of the film that you’ll remember best come courtesy of master montage creator (and occasional director and editor) Slavko Vorkapich, who has fashioned three whacked-out 3-D sequences that are seen by the lead character every time he puts on an ancient mask, which has already driven others who have worn it to murder others and kill themselves as well. (If rumors are true, Vorkapich may have had very little to do with the sequences in question, since his ideas were all too expensive to produce, but his contract made it necessary to keep his name on the credits. Apparently director Roffman came up with the sequences largely on his own; either way, they rule.)

The main story is a fairly standard-issue murder mystery involving psychiatrist Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), his weirdly forgiving girlfriend Pam (Claudette Nevins), and terrible police lieutenant (Bill Walker), who is seeking the mask, which was stolen by a patient of Barnes’ from the museum where he worked. The patient turned up dead by his own hand, but the mask remains missing. Actually, the patient shipped it to Barnes who is keeping it hidden as he continuously puts it on after being tempted by a mysterious voice from the mask that says “Put the mask on now!” (This is the audience’s cue to temporarily put on their 3-D glasses.)

The 3-D sequences are not only trippy, but they also are surprisingly icky for the time and style of horror in the early 1960s. Eyeballs are popping out of heads and dangling on cheeks, visions of human sacrifices, severed limbs, skeletons and skulls, everything on fire. I’m sure the impact of these moments would be infinitely better on mild hallucinogens, but even stone cold sober, they’re pretty creepy and inventive. The idea of passing on a cursed archeological object is certainly nothing new to the horror genre, but there’s something a bit special about the construction and design of the mask.

The useless subplots involving Pam’s love affair with Dr. Barnes and flirtation with the lieutenant are a pointless distraction and feel too much like filler (the film barely crosses the 80-minute mark). In fact, if you took out the nightmare sequences, you’d have a film ripe for parody on a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode. But the film’s historical value alone almost makes it a must-see production: The Mask was the first Canadian film to be widely distributed in the United States and the only Canadian 3-D feature; it was also the first horror film produced in Canada. It’s rare you get to see a little slice of vintage like this one on the big screen (the restored version premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival), so if this one comes your way, you absolutely should check it out, and be prepared to “Put the mask on!”

The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, Jan. 10, at 3pm, and Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 6pm. Both screenings will be hosted by Bob Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive, which has saved and preserved dozens of vintage stereoscopic motion pictures, most recently this restoration of The Mask.

Categories: Film, Screens

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