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Column Fri Dec 06 2013

Out of the Furnace, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Bettie Page Reveals All, I Am Divine & The Ghosts in Our Machine

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Out of the Furnace

If you're like me, then you live day to day thinking to yourself, "There just aren't enough truly grim movies in the world." Well, you're prayers have been answered thanks to Out of the Furnace, a new film from director and co-writer (with Brad Ingelsby) Scott Cooper, the former actor now director who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart a few years back. Grim isn't necessarily meant to be a bad word under the right circumstances, but this film is so relentlessly gloomy, dark (as in dimly lit) and full-tilt bitter that it's tough not to feel smothered by its misery. A handful of substantially strong performances save the film from sinking entirely into a dour tar pit, but in so many scenes it feels like Cooper simply lost control of his actors, turning several exchanges between actors into several rounds of thespian boxing.

I loved the opening of the film more than just about anything else in the movie, and it features my favorite actor with a Southern twang (who isn't Matthew McConaughey), Woody Harrelson, playing Harlan DeGroat, who has a scene at a drive-in movie that establishes him as the film's resident pitbull. And then we don't see him again for a while, but we don't forget he's coming back, and we're always nervous about how exactly that's going to happen.

Set in a steel town around Pittsburgh, Out of the Furnace concerns factory worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his trouble-maker brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), on leave from the military when we first meet him. We get a sense that Rodney's time in the armed services (he's just returned from Iraq) was an alternative to jail. Rodney seems like the more easy going of the two, until he isn't. To make a little money while on leave and perhaps to vent a little of his war-time rage, Rodney allows a local bar owner (Willem Dafoe) to book him a bare-knuckle boxing match, which he is meant to throw. But after taking a couple of solid hits to the face, the anger takes over and he pummels his opponent, losing his handlers some serious cash. Without missing a beat, Russell meets with Dafoe and agrees to pay off the debt, clearly establishing him as the brother that takes care of the family messes.

Almost as soon as he does this for this brother, something happens that lands Russell in jail for however many years. In the interim, he has lost his girlfriend (Zöe Saldana) to the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has only gotten into more trouble, including getting Dafoe to arrange for a major fight with (Ta-da!) Harrelson's DeGroat in New Jersey, despite Dafoe begging him not to do it because he knows it will end badly. And not long after the fight, Rodney goes missing, sending Russell on a mission to set things straight once again. It's funny how Cooper manages to make things seem low key even when they clearly aren't. There's a beautiful, post-breakup conversation between Bale and Saldana that is quiet but no less emotionally brutal for being so. The power of that sequence is not conveyed through raised voices; it's done on the faces and whispered words of the actors saying goodbye. It's a moment of closure that paves the way for several other scenes deeper into the film.

From a brief casual, tense exchange between Bale and Harrelson early in the movie, all roads lead to a showdown between the two men, which happens so fast in an unsatisfying manner that you'll probably wonder, "Is that it?" I get Cooper's impulse to maintain a tone, but if a dialed-back atmosphere is the norm in Out of the Furnace, you have to give a little something more when a moment is clearly meant to pop a little beyond the status quo. Seriously, this film is nearly drowning in bleakness. There's a dying father (who naturally dies while Russell is in prison, increasing his flinty demeanor), and a ragged uncle (Sam Shepard) who takes Russell deer hunting, which naturally does nothing to cheer anybody up.

Out of the Furnace's best feature include Harrelson at his most cold and menacing, and you can't take your eyes off of him, because you know if you do, he'll probably stab you. And Bale holds his own, but even with his dead-on western-Pennsylvania accent, he seem out of his element. He's at his best in the hands of a strong director, and Cooper can't handle the firepower just yet. If you like steely blue and arctic gray, the look of this film should be right up your alley. The film's only bursts of color happen when there's the occasional splash of blood or molten steel being poured. That should tell you something. It's a tough call because I wouldn't miss performances like these from Bale and Harrelson under any circumstances, but the film is largely an obvious, ham-handed mess meant to feel like an exercise in subtlety; on that front, it's an absolute failure, and for that reason I can't quite bring myself to recommend it.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

Every few years, a documentary chronicling and cataloging the thoughts and words of big thinker and political activist Noam Chomsky makes its way to a select few art houses around the country, with titles such as Rebel Without a Pause, Manufacturing Consent, Public Enemy, Power and Terror, Distorted Morality, and the list goes on. Plus, he's interviewed for practically every documentary about government, global issues, communication, etc. The man is not only readymade to comment, philosophize and hypothesize about an endless list of topics, but in most cases, he makes his complex ideas fairly easy to understand. I'm not sure I could pass a test on most of things he talks about, but I usually feel a tiny bit smarter coming out the other side.

I've always got the impression that as kind and patient as he often is in conversation, he also doesn't suffers fools lightly. I believe that theory is proven correct in the wildly entertaining new film from innovative, visionary filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for which he won a writing Oscar; Be Kind Rewind) in the new film Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? Subtitled "An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky," the film features the results of several conversations between Gondry and Chomsky about a variety of topics — language, learning, emotions, perception and other subjects dealing with the meaning and practice of life. With Gondry's thick French accent, things can get a little unclear, but the filmmaker has remedied that issue (to a degree) by taking Chomsky's enlightening words and animating them in a simple but understandable fashion. When Chomsky uses a metaphor (as he often does), Gondry wants to show us.

Since it appears Gondry did most of the animation himself, this project took several years (it appears that the entirely of Gondry's The Green Hornet was made during the course of this project), and the director even says that time was of the essence because he wanted to finish the film and show it to Chomsky before the elder (Chomsky turns 85 on Dec. 7) passes away. It's a fascinating exercise that works to lay out the philosopher's ideas about how babies learn language and what words represent what objects in the world. There's a fascinating discussion about how infants learn that a drawing of a dog, for example, is a representation of a dog in the real world. The film is especially amusing when Gondry's broken English results in his ideas or questions not coming through quite right, and Chomsky pouncing on him about not getting what he's saying.

Perhaps most touching is listen to Chomsky discuss the devastating loss of his wife fairly recently (they'd been together since they were teenagers), a subject he's hesitant to discuss, but does so in a more general way about a broad discussion of death and the possibility of the afterlife (he doesn't believe such a thing exists, but he understands why some people need to). The film feels like its only scratching the surface of Chomsky's thoughts; then again, any conversation with him would probably feel that way. What's featured in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, however, is not so much about answering the universe's greatest mysteries, but more about gathering enough information to ask the right questions to even begin to understand. Good luck with that, puny human. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Bettie Page Reveals All

It's unlikely that pin-up model Bettie Page ever considered herself a feminist role model, but labels such as that are usually given to those who deserve them by other people. And to many, Page was the first to erase the stigma of nude and fetish modeling by simply having a confidence in her means of expression and a look in her eye that said, "I am not ashamed of my body or my profession." She somehow managed to be beautiful by simply having the confidence to be naked without being crude or overly sexual. Being in total control of one's body and sexual liberation were hallmarks of feminism in Page's '50s hey-day, and they remain so today.

Director Mark Mori's Bettie Page Reveals All's greatest accomplishment is allowing the late Page to tell her own story, thanks to a lengthy biographical interview given 10 years before she died in 2008 at the age of 85. Her telling of her own life story serves as the narration of the film, and reveals that among her various accomplishments, being a great homespun storyteller was right at the top. She is candid about the ups and downs of her life, her sexual history and desires, her failed marriages and her bouts with mental illness.

Additional interviews with the likes of Hugh Hefner, Dita Von Teese and various models who were clearly inspired by Page's look also make the film a wonderful document of the period. The most impressive aspect of the film may be the sheer volume of photos and short films of Page, likely the greatest number ever collected in a single place.

Page and her photography bosses and clients attempted to keep things tasteful — and succeeded for the most part — but she still had to testify before Congress and face indecency charges on a regular basis. Even if you don't accept her role as a feminist icon, there's no getting around the fact that her life and times were as fascinating as they were tragic, as glamorous as the were messy. Bettie Page Reveals All is a captivating, provocative way to show how Page's image and influence are as powerful today as they've ever been. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

I Am Divine

Much has been written and set to documentary about the filmmaker John Waters, and you can't tell Waters' complete history without diving headfirst into his collaborations with actor/actress Divine (real name: Harris Glenn Milstead), who starred in nearly all of Waters' early works, including Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and her true breakthrough, the original Hairspray. But a proper account of Divine's life (especially pre-Waters existence) has never been done until now. Director Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story) has pieced together a biography story that is as heartwarming as Divine was in real life.

Naturally Waters is a central figure in this story, but it's the interviews with Glenn's longtime high school girlfriend and his mother (who has since passed away) that are some of the most revealing. The girlfriend clearly loved the man, but when he came to escort her to a costume party dressed as Elizabeth Taylor (quite convincingly, I should add), that she began to have suspicions. The interviews with the likes of Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Musto and Bruce Vilanch are great fun, but it's the less-famous friends who have the best stories of Divine's sex life, young life as a bullied child, and just how much he was rejected by even the transvestite community for being overweight — and not the female ideal they were propagating.

You can't help but be inspired to a degree watching Divine gain success on his own terms, becoming a part of the Studio 54 crowd, and eventually the star of a one-woman musical revue that toured the world. Schwarz has made a film fans will eat up, as we learn such micro-details as the origins of Divine's insane make-up and hairline choices. Not surprisingly, the film's saddest moment comes with Divine's death, on the eve of his filming what was to be a recurring character on the series "Married With Children" (as a male character!). This odd creature was undeniably influential and makes for a natural subject of a really loving documentary. There's a great deal of material I wasn't familiar with, so I Am Divine also serves as a great addition to Waters' film story. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

To read my exclusive interview with I Am Divine director Jeffrey Schwarz, go to (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/65300) Ain't It Cool News.

The Ghosts in Our Machine

I noticed during the end credits of the etherial documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine, a film about the shameful treatment of animals in medical research, slaughterhouses, fashion, zoos and theme parks (with SeaWorld taking another shot this year after Blackfish), that all of the people that appear in the film are referred to as "Human Animals," while all of the animals appearing are not only all given a name credit, but are referred to as "Non-human Animals." If that is something that doesn't result in you rolling your eyes, you might be prone to appreciate what this movie has to offer.

Director Liz Marshall follows acclaimed animal right photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, who travels the world looking for the most shocking examples of animal cruelty in the name of human entertainment, sustenance and medicine for a book project called We Animals. The resulting footage is at times horrific, disgusting, tense (especially when they break into a few factory farms and holding pens for research animals) and quite moving.

The film also tracks McArthur's long and frustrating path to finding a publisher willing to put money up so she can finish her photo book. After one seemingly encouraging visit to a prospective publishing house, McArthur tells a friend that she basically got the same song and dance a few years earlier from the same people.

Where The Ghosts in Our Machine might lose some people (especially those of us who still eat meat, but also those who have pets) is the prolonged but necessary interviews with animal rights activists who believe animals should be treated as equal, sentient creatures with the same rights as humans (so no meat or other animal products and no pets). These folks are of a firm belief that one day in the not too distant future, humans will look back in disgust at the way animals were treated in the same way we look at slavery or the Holocaust. That's a bold leap, and who's to say they might not be right? And baby steps don't seem to be an acceptable speed for many of those interviewed.

When the film sticks to the guerilla-style work done my McCarthur and her co-conspirators, The Ghosts in Our Machine can be a powerful tool, or even a weapon, against overt examples of animal cruelty. Her passion (and director Marshall's) is palpable and necessary to tell this story with such attention to detail and complete respect for the work and the animals in question. There's no way the story of a rescue beagle previously subjected to a barrage of awful testing won't touch the hearts of every single person who sees this film. Or a captive fox who is missing an ear because another fox in the same tiny cage got aggressive and/or hungry. Cows, pigs, monkey, chickens, they're all here. It may sound like an endurance test — and at times it is — but the film gives audiences a great deal to consider, and I think that's all it can ask for.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. Director Liz Marshall will be in attendance for post-screening Q&As after the following screenings: Friday, Dec. 6 at 7:20pm; Saturday, Dec. 7 at 7:20pm; and Sunday, Dec. 8 at 2pm.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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