Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report # 5: Final Perspective

All things must pass. And it is with the same melancholia that began this year’s Ebertfest that I say goodbye to it once again. Driving home from Champaign was like leaving a good friend.

This year’s program of movies was like a series of gifts that are given only by a good friend who knows you well. Which gift was my favorite? Was it the lush words of Shakespeare, preserved uncut in Kenneth Branagh’s visually lush 70mm version of “Hamlet”? Or could it have been Steve Buscemi’s endless acting gifts on display in Tom DiCillo’s “Delirious”? Perhaps it was the lush poetry of lust in Sally Potter’s utterly original “Yes”. Or the gifts of love above all obstacles in Joseph Greco’s portrait of a family surviving schizophrenia in “Canvas”. Maybe it was the subtly beautiful landscapes and life in Jeff Nichols’ first film “Shotgun Stories”. Or the silent depths of “Underworld” given vital life through the music of the Alloy Orchestra. Possibly the quirky realities of the extraordinary life of a man who doesn’t quite fit in his surroundings in the documentary “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”. Or it might have been the oddly layered presentation of a life lived just as oddly in Paul Schrader’s masterpiece “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”.

It is entirely possible the best part of Ebertfest 10 was the surprisingly fresh and original musical “Romance & Cigarettes” about adultery in modern day New Jersey. John Turtoro’s splendidly funny and surprisingly touching movie about a blue collar man living with his wife and four grown daughters who is caught in a fling with a sexpot mistress brings to mind the original title of Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. “Romance & Cigarettes” is a perfect example of why a film festival devoted to overlooked films is necessary.

There is no good reason why so few people have ever seen or even heard of this vital masterpiece in which regular everyday people occasionally break out into song. The film utilizes pop songs from the past few decades to explore the emotional depths of these people whom we all know. The effect of this seemingly strange premise is also surprisingly familiar. It gave me the feeling of those moments in life when something reminds me of a song and I start singing it in my head. These people just let it out to hilarious effect. Just picture James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano of HBO’s “The Sopranos”) dancing in the streets with garbage men and utility workers while singing a lover’s lament; or Christopher Walken crooning “Delilah” to a fantasy recreation of murderous revenge against a cheating lover. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a good time.

But then the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is like a gem buried in the sands of the desert, only to be uncovered by an unexpected gust of wind. Perhaps the polar opposite of the histrionics of a movie like “Romance & Cigarettes”, “The Band’s Visit” is a subtle, human comedy that—in its own way—is just as funny as a musical with dancing garbage men. It follows an Egyptian policemen’s band that gets on the wrong bus during a commissioned trip to Israel and ends up in a town that is devoid of almost anything.

Considered a frontrunner for a foreign language Academy Award nomination last year, the movie was sadly disqualified because too much of the dialogue was in English. When you have characters from Egypt and characters from Israel, they’re going to have to find a common language. The real language they find is empathy. The Israelis have “no culture” in their small town. The police band exists only to provide culture. But here they are in a situation where they are all just people. The town has no hotel, so the band members must bunk with a couple of the residents. Some welcome something different, others are more resistant. But the band members find some common ground with some of the locals who seem so different at first. There isn’t a mean bone in this film.

Bill Forsyth’s “Housekeeping” on the other hand, while not an overbearing or heavy story in any way, shows how our society resists different lifestyles. The story follows two sisters growing up in the 1950s. When their mother commits suicide they come under the care of their aunt, an oddball who operates under her own set of rules. One sister is embarrassed by her aunt’s behavior, while the other is attracted to the freedom of mind exhibited by her elder.

The movie breaks it own rules of what is expected by not providing some sort of structure of life lessons to be learned from this strange relative, but merely observes how the quiet mining town in which this family lives can’t find a way to accept the notion that some people are just different. I had a little trouble with this one because there were some issues of safety that are skirted around by the filmmakers. Some of the aunt’s actions clearly place herself, her nieces, and potentially other people in danger; but this is never fully faced by the filmmakers in the story they have designed. Their story has the freedom with which we should all approach something like the magic of movies, but as a way of life I fear there is a degree of respect to our surroundings that merits just a little bit of conformity.

“The Cell” is a visual masterpiece that launched the feature film career of director Tarsem Singh, whose next film “The Fall” is due out in the next couple of weeks. I have described it as like “The Silence of the Lambs” on a massive hallucinogenic trip. It is a crime thriller, a mystery, a sci-fi flick, and a visual cocktail. While there is perhaps a little too much chewed off here for Singh to fully pull off, the parts he gets right are the ones that are the most revolutionary.

The story involves a new procedure which allows a psychologist, played by Jennifer Lopez, to enter into the thoughts of her patient through virtual reality technology. When the FBI catches a sociopathic killer who serendipitously falls into a coma, the psychologist must enter his mind to find the location of his final victim before the trap he has set for her springs. While the crime thriller story is effective and ingenious in its setup, it feels not quite fully fleshed out. But this is to allow the filmmakers time to spend in the psyche of the killer, which is a world of amazing visuals with lavish sets and outrageous costumes. The journey inside the mind is a trip that won’t likely be forgotten by any of the film’s viewers.

But maybe the best part of Ebertfest isn’t the films at all. Perhaps it is the environment of being at a gathering of film enthusiasts who each bring a unique and passionate perspective on the films watched there. I was lucky enough to have a short chat with Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune and fill-in host for Roger Ebert in the balcony for the show “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper”. Having met Richard Roeper just a few days prior, this completed my “At the Movies” set for this year.

Phillips was the most eager person I met during the festival when it came to talking about watching the movies. The Virginia Theater is one of the few classic theater houses left in the country where there is a mezzanine level and a vast balcony as well. I always feel claustrophobic in the mezzanine of the theater, so I watch all the films from the balcony. I had noticed Phillips up there for a couple of screenings as well, while most of Roger’s guests watch from the mezzanine. When he said “Hello” to me in the lobby, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask him about his solo outings in the balcony.

While he didn’t commit to preferring the balcony, he expressed an eagerness to experience film in every way he could. And the way he watched the movies from several different places in the theater struck me as a good metaphor for what the festival was really about. It isn’t just about seeing some of Roger’s personal favorite films or even witnessing overlooked films, genres and formats. This film festival—with its wide ranging subject matter and guests from every different spectrum of the industry—was about finding different perspectives on film, comparing and contrasting them, and appreciating this medium of magic to its utmost. It is an honor for me to try to pass on what film means to me to my readers, and to help create a deeper meaning to others for it.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #4: What It Takes to Change a Critic’s Mind

What does it take to change a critic’s mind? In this case, nothing more than a second screening. Well, that may be over-simplifying the case a bit.

The truth is I change my opinion on movies all the time. I’m constantly rehashing my thoughts on films. Did I really like it that much? Did I givie it too much credit? Not enough? Is there a reason I’m the only person who seems to like it? Or hate it? Was I too harsh? Did I just want to like it that much? Is everybody else out there crazy?

More often than not, I stick with my original thoughts on a film. Most adjustments in my opinion are fairly minor. I gave it a half-star too much, or some such thing. Rarely do I change my fundamental feeling on a movie. When I saw Roger Ebert’s opinion of “Superman Returns” was so much lower than mine, I checked the movie out again and confirmed that I did still very much love the “man as deity” parable it offers. Of course, just by admitting that I loved “Superman Returns” destroys any of my credibility with many readers.

My negative assesment of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” when it was intially released in 2003 was not questionable to me or in regards to popular opinion, but here was Ebert praising it with a three-star review. Well, three stars aren’t the highest of praise. But when he picked it for his family matinee feature for the 10th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, well obviously it had grown on him even more after five years. Perhaps, I had been hasty to join the masses.

“Hulk” was one screening I was looking forward to a great deal at Ebertfest this year, because I wanted the opportunity to reassess my opinion. Now that Ebert had apparently raised his opinion above his initial thoughts, I had to question my own. And Ang Lee would be present to talk about the film as well. A wonderful situation for a new look at the movie had presented itself.

When Lee walked onto the stage of the majestic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill. Saturday morning to introduce his film to a capacity crowd, much of the audience erupted like a rock star had walked out. This is because Lee is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Lee seemed humbled by his reception saying, “It’s great to be back here where I saw ‘Rambo II’.” Laughter from all in the theater. The stage was set for a screening with a receptive audience.

What I found upon my second thearical screening of Lee’s “Hulk” was at once the same movie I had seen before and also a totally new one. The first noticeable difference was the pristine print Universal had sent and the perfect projection by the Ebertfest crack team of projectionists James Bond and Steve Krauss. Presentation goes farther than most people would realize when it comes to enjoying a movie.

My intial rejection of “Hulk” was not quite for the same reasons as most people. I did not mind the fact that this comic book adaptation was so talky and introspective and less action oriented than the average superhero flick. I grew up reading comics and “talky and introspective” would describe most of the best of them. My problem was that most of the action in it seemed unmotivated by the script as if it were forced upon a movie that didn’t want it.

There is a section of the movie where Hulk is attacked by the military endlessly to no effect. Originally I thought this was gratuitous since after the first barage it was obvious that nothing they threw at him would hurt him. In fact, it only made him stronger. After six years of a war that has been messured and justified through non-victories, it seems as if Lee tapped into a key point about world military aggression.

During the panel discussion following the film, Lee revealed that the production had originally approached the U.S. Military for the use of their equipment for the filming. He said they we’re very excited about being involved. The only problem they had with the script was that they wanted the Army to win. What?! The Army can’t win in a battle with the Hulk. “Who’s going to want to see the movie if Hulk can’t beat the Army?” Lee said. Lee went on to say that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to have early screenings of the movie for the troops in Iraq. “I don’t think this movie will boost morale there,” Lee announced to more laughter.

No, the movie is certainly not uplifting. It is about the male need for aggression and the secondary emotion of anger that men tend to fall back upon rather than facing the issues which cause it. There is a great deal of repression used in the character of Bruce Banner in the storyline. He doesn’t even realize his father is alive until David Banner reveals himself to his son. The intermingling of memory repression and military aggression is something Lee said the world audience had picked up on, but American audiences did not. “There’s some repression right there,” he said.

But it is this father-son relationship that is the key to the movie’s themes and purpose. Along with the very disfunctional Banners, there is the eaqually disfunctional relationship between the Banner’s nemesis General Ross and his daughter and love interest of Bruce’s Betty Ross. Lee gave some insight into the inspiration of this father-son aggression when he described his relationship with his own father as a rough one. “Our father always wants us to be the Hulk instead of ourself,” he said.

But I didn’t need Lee’s insights into the film to form my new opinion of it. Even before the film was over I was thinking to myself, “Man, Ang Lee really has some issues.” Lee said the shoot was a relief to him in two ways. First, is that he had all the money he needed for the fist time in his directing career. He said that unlike many directors who complain about the studio involvement in a big budget picture, he found the financial situation quite freeing. Secondly, Lee confirmed to the audience that indeed ILM had used him for all the motion capture work for the Hulk. “I was the Hulk. That was my face. I got in the suit and jumped around. It was kind of theraputic.”

The panel host, co-President of Sony Pictures Classics, Michael Barker said that “Hulk” was one of the few comic book movies that he thought would withstand the test of time, and after a second viewing I’m inclined to agree. It isn’t a flawless movie. The Josh Lucas character is extraneous and only serves to add unecessary minutes to the film’s long running time and distracts from the powerful psychological themes of the story. But for the greater part my mind is changed. Thank you, Roger.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #3: Movie Round-up

There are so many people to talk to about film at Ebertfest that surprisingly the films themselves often get pushed to the side. I’ve sequestered myself away to a particular corner in the Virginia Theater this year with a lovely woman—an adjunct professor at the University—with her father and mother who come each year for her birthday, which usually falls during the festival. Happy Birthday, Nancy. We’ve talked about many subjects ranging from East Coast vs. the Midwest, our children, professional theater, and other film festivals we’d like to go to. And with my misadventures in sociability, a great schedule of films have now gone by that just must be discussed.

Tom DiCillo’s “Delirious” opened the Thursday slate of films. Starring Steve Buscemi as a damaged paparazzo, this movie is exactly what this film festival was created for. Yesterday I described it as “a movie about photographers forcing their way into the personal lives of stars with their invasive tactics.” But this is not really true. It is described by its director as a love story between two men. Not a romantic love story, but one about friendship. Yes, guys can love each other without being gay. There are several men in my life I love.

But DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion”, “The Real Blonde”) was reluctant to describe his film in any way, because that only serves to confuse or even replace the experience of the film itself. That experience is why Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is a necessary event. This was a film that went through distribution hell, possibly because description really destroys it. It is a funny, deep, and emotional exploration of what forms us, why we feed off celebrity and what is friendship and love. But even right there, I’ve lost the escense of the film. You should see it! Perhaps that is were it should be left. You won’t be disappointed no matter what genres you like. It comes out on DVD on May 6.

Sally Potter’s “Yes” is another movie that defies any conventional genre labeling. Film scholar Eric Pierson described the process of selling scripts as sort of a game that pitch artists play where they compare one movie to another. “Transformers” meets “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, or “The Godfather” meets “American Pie”. I pray no one ever uses those examples to describe a movie. Well, this simply cannot be done with the films of Sally Potter. Not even within her own filmography.

“Yes” will most likely be the most “difficult” film of the festival. Joan Allen is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who meets a Middle Eastern man working as a chef in London. He was a surgeon in his homeland, but says he is happier cutting meat to eat. But here’s that uncategorizable part. He says this in iambic pantameter, the same poetic verse used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. All the dialogue in the film is written this way. There are times when it sounds natural (as this meter is very close to the way most people speak anyway), and there are times when the poetry of the characters’ words is quite obvious.

The film is shot in a very metered and measured way as well. Potter utilizes still frames, slow motion and often less frames per second than are required to keep the images fluid. The entire experience is quite abstract and a good example of film being used as a non-traditional art form. There is even a recurring theme of cleaning ladies acting as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action of the main characters. This devise is effective in keeping some levity to the themes of the film, which range from emotional abuse to thoelogical attacks and world politics. “Yes” is a most unique film experience that can often only be found at a festival of this calibur.

“Canvas” has been the most moving picture screened so far this year. It is a semi-autobiographical movie by writer-director Joseph Greco, who grew up in Florida with a mother diagnosed with shcitzophrenia. Joe Pantoliano plays the father to Devon Gearhart’s 10-year old Chris, who struggles against the stigma of having a “crazy” mother. Marcia Gay Hardin is the mother in what has been hailed by several experts as the best portrayal of a schitzophrenic in a movie.

This is a tough one. It is hard to watch the cruelty of other people against this family, which must deal with that on top of the incredibly difficult task of dealing with the disease itself. During the panel discussion following the movie the good intentions of all three characters was mentioned. “They are all trying to do what is right in an unfair situation,” Greco said. It takes them a while to get together on doing the right thing, but it is a good lesson in perseverence. This would be an excellent family movie that could teach an entire family at once about the danger of stigma upon such cases of mental illness.

Every year there is one film that just stands out from the pack. This year that film is Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories”. There is this trend each year from Roger and festival director Nate Kohn to pick one movie that contains a uniquely midwestern or southern atmosphere. These movies are more life studies than character studies. They capture an honest everyday American spirit that can only be found in the Midwest and the South. And they are all excellent. Some past films of this type include, “Tully”, “George Washington”, “Come Early Morning”, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”, “Kwik Stop”, and “American Movie”.

These are movies about everyday people, whose everyday life is as difficult as the greatest Greek tragic hero. And their stories are about the way they pull themselves through their lives. Not necessarily wanting more or better, but living with their burdens, living through their burdens. “Shotgun Stories” tells the tale of three brothers who find themselves in a family feud with their estranged father’s second family after he passes away. It shows how conflict escaltes without the contrivance of undue aggression. There is much more to be said about this film that I will reserve for a full-length review sometime next week. The movie is currently in limited release and is due out on DVD on July 1.

One of the features of Ebertfest that I’ve missed deeply in the past four years is their silent movie program. While silents are fairly readily avaiable on DVD and TCM these days, the thrill of seeing one at Ebertfest comes from the live accompaniment provided by The Alloy Orchestra. The Alloy consists of musicians Terry Donahue, Roger Miller and Ken Winokur. Their instruments consist of such obscure tools as accordion, musical saw and something they like to refer to as “junk percussion.” I believe they used a kitchen sink one year. Needless to say, these are no silent film score traditionalists.

This year’s selection was from later in the silent era, the 1927 gangster flick “Underworld”. It follows a criminal who takes a street vagrant on as his right hand man, but when the former vagrant and the boss’s girl fall in love, revenge is called for. “Underworld” exemplifies the maturity the silents had experienced by the time the talkies came. While the talkies destroyed for a time some of the refined technique that had been developed in silent filmmaking, the reliance on dialogue cards and psychological pathos in this film suggests that sound was an inevitable necessity to go where films were heading as an art form.

After seven films, Ebertfest served its first standing ovation this year to the documentary feature “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”. This doc tells the amazing story of Wisconsin farmer John Peterson, whose life was made to be put on film and shown at a place like Ebertfest. Farmer John is a perfect documentary subject because he is so unique. He is a quirky man with a penchant for wearing boas, clown costumes and dresses while he farms. The son of a line of farmers, he lost most of his family farm to creditors in the ‘70s and because of the strange hippie culture he attracted to his farm was ostricised from his community, being accused by neighbors of worshipping Satan. Then he got on an organic farming kick and became one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms to serve the Chicago area, and his fortunes turned around.

This documentary lines right up with some of the festival’s past documentary entires in the way it shows us eccentric characters applying their own philosophies to how life should be lived. Both the good and the bad in John’s life is lead by his eccentricities and those of the people who surround him. And although his life is depicted as desperate at times, his story is rarely depressing and very humorous. Best of all the movie highlights the benefits of community based farms and agriculture, which offer a better way to grow food and protect the land which we harvest.

Although I said “Shotgun Stories” was the best film of the festival so far, I wrote it before I saw Paul Schrader’s remarkable film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”. Schrader has constructed perhaps the strangest bio-pic made in his film about renowned Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The movie is strange, but it must be to match the life of this peculiar artist. For most of his life Mishima was considered Japan’s greatest author, a life which he famously ended in 1970 by commiting ritual suicide after taking a general of the North Army garrison hostage with his own private army in protest of the country’s abandonment of the Bushido Code.

Schrader’s film is nothing short of a thing of beauty that sees Mishima’s life broken into chapters utilizing different film styles and theatrical adaptations of three of his novels to tell the many facets that made up this remarkable man’s life. With production design by Eiko Ishioka (who also designed costumes for the festival selection “The Cell”), this movie is a stunning example of film as an all-encompassing art form. Schrader has called it his favorite film of his own, all though he declined to do so during the panel discussion following its screening. It would be easy to see why, since it is such a unique and majestic work. Schrader was also quite pleased to pass on the news that Criterion would be releasing a newly restored DVD version of the film in June.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #2: I’m Better in Print

The difficult thing about the Roger Ebert Film Festival is that everyone involved is so passionate about films that little time is ever allotted for anything else. Back in the festival’s early days Ebert screened 14 films over the five day period. That’s a pretty heavy load, escpecially considering that inbetween each screening he hosted a panel discussion with various filmmakers and experts involved in the films screened. This left little time for certain human needs such as the expulsion of waste or the consumption of nutritious foods, like hot dogs and nachos.

When Ebert made the big change to improve his diet, he cut the festival schedule down to 12 films, allowing the audience opportunity to hear the wisdom of the guests and properly sustain their diets. (Just for the record, I’m wolfing down a healthy Taco Bell Chili Cheese Burrito as I write this.) When Chaz Ebert welcomed the audience at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign this afternoon, she mentioned how difficult it is for Roger to contain the festival to a mere 12 films. That explains why the festival is back up to 14 this year, 13 feature-lengths and one short.

As a blogger, I am interested in everything that goes on at the festival. This is probably the only festival where one can be in on everything. That also means I would like to speak with some of the festival guests. This is not an easy thing to do with the small amount of free time people have to take care of their bodily functions between screenings. I also suffer from this strange urge to watch all the movies from the balcony of the vast Virginia Thteare with most of the VIPs sitting below me on the mezzanine level. By the time I get downstairs all the stars have already scattered.

But today, after the first screening of “Delirious”—Tom DiCillo’s 2006 film about a paparazzo played by Steve Buscemi—I was making my way back through the lobby with a fresh pen to take notes and there was Rufus Sewell (of “Dark City” and “The Illusionist”) standing there talking to us regular Joes. Well, I ran up to get my camera and was still shocked that he was still in the lobby talking to people and posing for pictures. There was a bit of irony to be found in the fact that we had just watched a movie about photographers forcing their way into the personal lives of stars with their invasive tactics.

Anyway, I snapped a couple of flicks from a candid point of view while he spoke with other festival goers. They all came out horribly except for one in which Sewell himself came out horribly. I won’t subject the poor fellow to the posting of an unflattering picture on some annonmous blogger’s site. I could have reached out to talk to him, but he seemed to be wanting out of there after having spent a good twenty minutes talking to the fans. I could see he had friends waiting and didn’t want to further impose on his time. This is my great weakness as a journalist, too much sympathy for the subject. Sewell claimed on the panel discussion for Wednesday’s feature “Hamlet” that he was not involved in any projects at the moment, so maybe I’ll catch up to him later in the week.

No sooner had I cursed myself for my inaction than I spotted Richard Roeper, of the show “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper”, speaking to some people in the corner of the lobby. Well, gosh darn it! I wasn’t gonna let another one slip by me.

I approached the man at what seemed to be a convenient end to the conversation he was having. Then like some star-struck fool I start babbling some sort of introduction to myself. “I’m a critic too,” I heard myself say. I might as well have called myself a mental patient. Roeper was gracious and said it was nice to meet me. Then I said something about how he had maintained the high standards of Gene Siskel when he took his place by Ebert’s side on the show. Except what came out of my mouth was more like “You Siskel Good with Roger!” He was very flattered, but seemed to be trying to leave.

Now might be a good time to just show you what the voice in my head was saying during the entire encounter. “Oh, man. You got to talk to him. Just try to sound normal. But he looks like he’s trying to get somewhere. Maybe you should just let him go. But you gotta get a picture, man! Wait, what did you just say to him? ‘You Good Siskel with Roger!’? What the …? Oh, he’s leaving. He looks like he has to go to the bathroom. Damnit man, give the poor guy his dignity back. Did he just look with disdain at my New York Giants hat? Has he got a problem with the current World Champions of American football? Wha’ he stiw sore about his Bears’ wast Super Bowl appeawance? Awwww. What?! Just get the picture, man!”

Now, to some this may sound like a simple case of being star-struck. But this is not that case with me. I don’t get star-struck. I really couldn’t care less if someone’s a star or not. They’re just people. And that is certainly the case here at Ebertfest, where everyone seems to be friends; no matter how many seconds ago they met. No, my problem is that I get people-struck. Anyone who knows me should know what I’m talking about. Me no do the talking to people thing so well. That’s why I’m a writer and an actor. As a writer I can chose all the right words (or at least the ones I think are right) before I let anyone see them. As an actor the script is already written for me.

But I had to get the picture. And despite my social ineptitude, I even handed my camera to a complete stranger and demanded she take a picture of me and the man I am now calling my friend whether he knows it or not, Richard Roeper. I even managed to hand the guy my card and say, “I know you must get a lot of these, but if you’re bored sometime, you should check out my blog.” Because that’s what I really did it for, the blog. Hell, if it weren’t for the blog I would have just walked right past the poor sap and gone back to hide in my balcony like the proper hermit I am.

This was for you, my readers. I hope it gave you a thrill to see me with a film critic many of you won’t recognize. Sorry, Richard, but that’s probably true. I force this blog on a lot of people who just aren’t as enthusiastic about film as me. But at least I try to make it fun for them. That’s how I’m better in print.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #1: A Melancholy Pleasure

It has been 10 years since the first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. In that time, the gathering of filmgoers to descend on the majestic Virginia Theater near the flagship campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana has grown from a modest gathering of a couple thousand entusiastic cineastes to the expected 25,000 attendees this year. It draws guests from around the globe, including filmmakers from the films screened during the festival and many industry insiders who attend out of their love for great movies and Roger Ebert himself.

It was with great disappointment that I learned Tuesday evening that Roger would not be attending the opening night film of the festival on Wednesday. The venerated film critic announced in his journal at the Chicago Sun Times website that he and his doctors had come to the hard decision that he should stay in the hospital and rest after hip surgery a week ago due to a fall he suffered in Florida while undergoing therapy to prepare him for the festival. The fall occurred after nearly two years of medical complications for the Pulitzer-Prize winning critic that began with a necessary surgery due to salivary cancer. “A broken hip adds to my tour of medical adventures. My current plan is to take it easy, obey the doctor’s orders, and start writing reviews again,” Ebert said in his blog.

But the show must go on, and Ebert’s wife Chaz was on hand to herald in the 10th anniversary of the critic’s popular film festival. “I am an Ebert, but I am no Roger,” she said, speaking to a near capacity crowd at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, where all the screenings for the five day festival take place. “Ebertfest without Roger is a bit ‘melancholy,’” she added, using her husband’s own word to describe his abcense. The word—I’m sure—was chosen quite carefully, as it also describes well the hero of the festival’s opening night selection in Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour uncut 70mm version of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”.

After instructing the audience to send all the positive energy they got from watching these wonderful movies to Roger so that he might get well enough to make an appearance before festival’s end, Chaz welcomed the evening’s special guests, actor’s Timothy Spall and Rufus Sewell from the cast of “Hamlet”. She then mentioned another great loss for Roger Ebert’s Film Festival and film festivals in general, the passing of film enthusiast and great friend to many, Dusty Cohl. Cohl died in January of liver cancer. Cohl was probably best known as co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival, now the premeire North American film festival for launching most of the films that are considered for the many awards and accolades given out each year. He also helped launch the Floating Film Festival and Roger Ebert’s annual festival. Although the man was only a face this writer had seen around at previous years’ of this festival, there was a palpable sense from the audience that had both known and simply benefitted from the man’s efforts that he would be sorely missed.

But any morning was brief as Chaz introduced film historian David Bordwell. Bordwell first called for a mass vocalization of the audience’s well-wishing for Ebert. “Get well Roger!” the crowd chanted twice in unison. Then Bordwell introduced the evening’s film with an enthusiam that may have even matched Ebert’s passion for the ambitious movie. Taking about the glorious crystal clear image of the 70mm format in which director and star Branagh chose to film the melancholy Dane’s tale, Bordwell said of the picture quality, “Don’t even talk to me about DV. Pixels. You can see pixels. We’re talking molecules here!”

Then an audience of nearly 1600 people witnessed a film rarely seen and possibly the last of it breed. Branagh’s sprawling adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous work is the only of its kind. Even on stage, most versions of Hamlet undergo some editing of the Bard’s work. In the grand 70mm format, Branagh mirrors Shakespeare’s own all encomasing script, which covers everything from world politics to the inner workings of more than one person’s descent into madness. And the glorious sets and colorful costumes will never look as spectacular as they do on a large screen.

At the end of four hours, at a very late hour, many chose to stay and watch the original review given by Roger and his former foil Gene Siskel on their television show from 1996. It was funny to revisit the harsh takes of their strong opinions on a movie they both loved. I wonder if either would have regretted some of their remarks against the American actors involved in the production if either had been able to be present at that evening’s screening.

Then, with the clock pushing past midnight, the audience had the pleasure of the company of Mr. Sewell and Mr. Spall. Personally, I found a great deal of irony in the fact that Spall had played the character of Rosencrantz in the film, whose only original thought was Shakespeare’s thinly veiled attack against his own critics in an often cut piece of dialogue where he refers to the “little children” who have driven the company of players that visit Elsinore from the city. Now, here was Spall representing the film at the world’s most famous critic’s film festival. I wanted to point this out to the actor during the question and answer period, but couldn’t bring my tired mind to form an actual question out of it.

Both actors proved themselves with much more wit than me at that late hour, sitting through moderated questions in a panel discussion that was eventually openned up to the public for their questions. Sewell (most recently seen as Alexander Hamilton in HBO’s “John Adams” mini-series) fielded questions about his movie “Dark City”, which was shown at the very first Ebertfest and is much loved by Roger. He gave fans a morsel to chew on when he revealed a new, “very different” director’ cut DVD was in the works. And at the urging of Chaz gave us a taste of his “rather good” Elvis impersonation, although there was more to that he was too embarased to reveal. I have a feeling those who went to Steak ‘N Shake (the festival’s official post screening hang out) afterward were treated to the extended edition of Sewell’s Elvis.

Spall (“Enchanted”, “Sweeney Todd”) revealed that he had been diagnosed with luekemia at about the time he filmed “Hamlet”. “It’s quite an honor to represent this film here, after twelve years in remission,” he said.

Both men helped bring a jovial close to an evening that started out in meloncholia and kicked off what promises to be another great week of films here in Champaign. As for me, with a good night’s sleep, I’m ready to tackle four more days of films that promise to be reflective, insightful, fun, and—despite the fact that I will be watching them with thousands of strangers—like the pleasure of watching movies with a bunch of friends.

Monday, April 21, 2008

10,000 B.C. / ** (PG-13)

D’Leh: Steven Strait
Evolet: Camilla Belle
Tic’Tic: Cliff Curtis
Nakudu: Joel Virgel
Warlord: Affif Ben Badra
Ka’Ren: Mo Zinal
Baku: Nathanael Baring
Narrator: Omar Sharif

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser. Running time: 109 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence).

When is an ending a cop out? When it does nothing to serve the greater story. In a typical action picture, it’s OK to force an ending where all the good guys win and all the bad guys lose, because that’s what the audience expects and wants. But once you set it in a different time or introduce fantasy elements, imposing prophecy and the like into the storyline, you open up a bag of rules that require you to stick to your guns and deliver the story with a conviction above mere escapist fare.

Except for “The Patriot”—which actually delivered some of the depth its premise carried—I’ve never liked the films of Roland Emmerich. His problem is that despite a lot of big ideas, at heart he’s merely conventional. In “Independence Day”, he fashioned a Hollywood disaster picture around an alien invasion by a race of aliens with no actual purpose. In “The Day After Tomorrow”—another disaster picture—he tried to comment on the environment but forgot his own purpose, leaving his hero running from abnormally large wolves through the glacier-covered avenues of New York City. And don’t get me started on the waste of time that is “Stargate”, a film that was actually improved upon by Showtime and that guy who played MacGyver.

“10,000 B.C.” tries to pull together an epic out of a story about early man. In prehistoric times, D’Leh (Steven Strait, “The Covenant”) is a young mamouth hunter for his tribe. He is an outcast because his father abandoned the tribe when D’Leh was just a boy. Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis, “Live Free or Die Hard”) is the tribe’s current leader and holder of the white spear, but the time has come for the spear to be passed on to the next generation, putting D’Leh in competition with Ka’Ren (Mo Zinal, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) for the spear.

D’Leh also must live up to the lofty aspirations of a prophecy. Apparently, the days of hunting mammoths have come to an end, and he will be the one to lead his tribe into a new age along with a blue-eyed girl originally from another tribe, Evolet (Camilla Belle, “When a Stranger Calls”). The prophecy speaks of “four-legged demons” that will bring about this change. Once these demons come, they turn out to just be men who kidnap people from various tribes to work as slaves building great temples in the desert. When Evolet is kidnapped, D’Leh, Tic’Tic, and Ka’Ren track these warlords back to their temples to free her and the rest of the slaves.

All of this is narrated in greatly unnecessary detail by film legend Omar Sharif (“Hidalgo”) as if there is some meaning lying underneath this basic tale of survival. Some spectacular special effects sequences involve prehistoric animals like the mamouth, the saber-toothed tiger and some nasty giant birds, but the story is far too centered on the struggle between the lowly tribesmen and the greedy warlords, which amounts to nothing that hasn’t been seen before.

I wanted to see more of this prehistoric world which made the humans seem small and fragile compared to the predators around them. How did early man survive in this harsh wilderness? What did it take to overcome nature’s overcompensations in the predatory size of these beasts those men had to face? How did man survive the severe weather patterns that wiped many of those beasts from existence? This is what a movie called “10,000 B.C.” should be about, not people exploiting each other out of their own greed. Even if that was going on, we get enough of it in movies set in modern times.

I also felt there was far too much English spoken in the movie. I understand having your lead tribe speak English to make their communication that much easier for the audience to follow. But this is not a movie of speeches (although Emmerich does manage to go the “Braveheart” rile-up-the-troops route before film’s end). This is a movie of action. Almost all of the dialogue is uneccesary, especially with the overly helpful narrator. The characters need to communicate with each other, but there is very little information here that needs to be passed on to the audience beyond, “Let’s go get your woman back, D’Leh!” Or, “Holy s@%#! Did you see the size of that bird? Maybe we should run away.”

As for the prophecy, Tic’Tic mentions at one point that a prophecy might come to pass in several different ways. Just by the actions that D’Leh and Evolet take, they are leading their tribe in a new direction. Does the prophecy mean they both will live to an old age, or would it be possible for the prophecy to be true if one of them dies? Tic’Tic’s observation would suggest that either interpretation is possible for the prophecy. Unfortunately, Emmerich seems to believe there is only one way for the prophecy to be interpreted by story’s end. He even reverses the most dramatic event of the finale in order to conform the prophecy to more conventional standards of Hollywood storytelling.

Some may believe Emmerich has just become a whipping boy for critics. Of course, it is hard to blame anyone else when he claims director, writer and producer credits. But I really want his movies to work. Every time I see a new trailer for a Roland Emmerich movie, I think, “Oh, it looks like he finally got it right.” And every time I sit through the actual film I have to cover my eyes and say, “What the hell are you doing?” It is like he has to consult his Hollywood-filmmaking checklist before he finishes. “Good guy?” Check. “Pretty-girl love interest?” Check. “Shabby moral lesson?” Check. “Another potentially good film gone terribly wrong?” Check.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 Preview

Next Wednesday marks the beginning of the 10th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at the historic Virginia Theater. Formerly the Overlooked Film Festival, the occasion has been renamed by organizers to reflect the festival’s true driving force, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. But it is most often refered to simply as Ebertfest. The festival continues its theme this year of highlighting overlooked films, formats, genres and styles—once again opening with a 70mm feature, closing with a musical, and featuring a silent movie, foreign films, undistributed movies, a Saturday Family Matinee, documentaries and just plain good cinema that has been overlooked by the majority of the movie going public for some reason or another.

It also marks my own physical return to the festival after a three-year hiatus. After my first Ebertfest (the festival’s 4th annual) I swore I would never miss another. Well, a baby on the way prevented me from attending the 7th annual; and a dramatic increase in popularity kept me from securing passes for the 8th and 9th annuals. But this year I’m back! And after a spring filled with lukewarm Hollywood fare at the local cinema, a near week’s worth of obscure independent fare with one of the best cinematic audiences in the world is a welcome vacation.

The opening night feature is Kenneth Branagh’s uncut, 4-hour-long version of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”. While four hours of the great Bard’s work isn’t up every filmgoer’s alley, for a former Shakespeare scholar—like myself—it makes for a wonderful night at the movies. Although I have seen Branagh’s version of the meloncholy Dane three times (most recently only a few months ago when it was finally released on DVD), this will be the first time I’ve had the pleasure to witness it in glorious 70mm. You have no idea how crystal clear a film can be until you see it in 70mm, and with the beautiful set design by Tim Harvey and Desmond Crowe, this screening promises to be spectacular.

Then I’ll diasappear into three days of non-stop film including, Tom DiCillo’s even-handed look at the life of a paparazzo starring Steve Buscemi in “Delirious”, Joan Allen’s sexy middle-aged affair with dialogue in iambic pantameter for Sally Potter’s “Yes”, Joe Pantoliano and Marcia Gay Hardin in Joseph Greco’s semi-autobiographical look at schizophrenia “Canvas”, the festival favorite, yet-to-be-released theatrically “Shotgun Stories”, Paul Schrader’s most unusual biopic of the most unusual Japanese nationalist Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) in “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, the multi-award-winning film from Israel “The Band’s Visit”, Bill Forsyth’s portrait of a strange relative as portrayed by Chistine Lahti in “Housekeeping”, and the psychadelic police procedural “The Cell”.

I am particularly excited to see this year’s documentary “The Real Dirt of Farmer John”, about an Illinois farmer who sees much of his family farm fall to creditors only to buy much of it back selling his own brand of organically grown vegetables. His success comes despite his affinity for dressing up like a clown on occasion. I’ll also cherish “Underworld” the silent feature this year with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, a three man band that utilizes everything including the kitchen sink in their percussive arrangements for silent movies. The Alloy Orchestra is what I have missed most about the festival in my absence.

I am not sure how I feel about sitting through this year’s family matinee feature, Ang Lee’s “Hulk”. I was not a fan when it originally ran in theaters, but it seems as if Ebert’s appreciation of the film has only grown since his three-star review in 2003. It’ll be interesting to see if my own appreciation for it changes in the atmosphere of the festival.

Finally, on Sunday the festival’s closing film will be its traditional musical entry, this year the far from traditional musical “Romance & Cigarettes” by writer-director John Turturo. With stars like Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Kate Winslet, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard, and Mandy Moore, it is hard to believe this movie had to be personally distributed by Turturo himself to theaters. But legal shuffling with the financing studios locked this gem out of traditional theatrical distribution. It is available on DVD, but I’ll be glad to be seeing it on the big screen.

Just as exciting as the movies I’m going to see are the guests that will be there and are surprisingly available to chat with the general public attending the event. I hope to be able to refer to Joe Pantoliano as Joey Pants by the end of the weekend, as most of his friends do. And I shutter at the possibility of speaking with such great directors as Paul Schrader, Bill Forsyth, Tarsem Singh, and Ang Lee. And while they might not be names a great many people recognize, actors Timothy Spall and Christine Lahti have contributed great bodies of work to their crafts and will no doubt offer insights into the art and business of acting many would value. I’d also welcome the opportunity to speak with Ebert’s lovely wife Chaz once again.

It has been a difficult couple of years for Ebert personally. Due to a bout with salivary cancer he has spent much of the past two years in the hospital. He has undergone several surgeries to restore his speaking voice, which he lost due to complications. None have been successful. He announced last week he would return to writing from his most recent hiatus, which he took in January for another attempt to restore his ability to talk. Despite the fact that the surgery was unsuccessful, he will still be appearing in person at the festival this year and will return to writing movie criticism shortly thereafter. His return to both the festival and film criticism could not be more welcome by more than just this critic.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Nim’s Island / *** (PG)

Nim Rusoe: Abigail Breslin
Alexandra Rover: Jodie Foster
Jack Rusoe/Alex Rover: Gerard Butler

20th Century Fox and Walden Media present a film directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Written by Joseph Kwong & Paula Mazur and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin. Based on the novel by Wendy Orr. Running time: 95 min. Rated PG (for mild adventure action and brief language).

“Nim’s Island” is the story of two females who both need something. One is a 10-year-old girl who lives with her marine biologist father and some clever animals on a secluded island. The other is a writer who lives secluded in her San Fransisco apartment writing novels about a world-renowned adventurer. The girl needs a parental figure after her father becomes lost at sea. The novelist needs to free herself of the fear of… everything. Their lives come together over the course of four days through a series of unlikely but entertaining events. Each finds what they need, but not in the way they expect.

Both lives are fueled by stories. Nim’s begins with the story of her mother, a strange kid’s fantasy about how when she was sailing the seas studying whales a pirate ship came upon her and scared the whale she was watching into swallowing her. This story is narrated by Nim (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and depicted in a children’s book style animation, reflecting the illustrations of Kerry Millard in Wendy Orr’s original book. It is a child’s version of the truth, but since the most of “Nim’s Island” is told from a ten year old’s point of view, no realistic version of her mother’s fate is ever offered. It is the film’s dedication to this child’s-eye view of the world that gives it much of its energy and originality.

Nim’s current story fetish, however, are the adventure stories of Alex Rover, an Indiana-Jones-type figure who continuously finds himself in life-threatening situations. Rover’s adventures are published as if Rover himself has written them as a series of unbelieveable memoirs. Of course, a ten year old will believe any adventures of such a nature, especially Nim, since she lives a fairly adventurous life of her own on her island. Nim sees Rover as a connection to the outside world she has never been a part of. When Nim’s father goes missing, she decides Rover is the only person who can save him.

What Nim doesn’t realize is that Alex Rover is actually Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster, “The Brave One”), the aforementioned neorotic writer who can’t even bring herself to walk out of her apartment far enough to grab the mail. For Alexandra, Rover is an outlet to escape her own world of fear.

It is always interesting to see a well-established actor venture into unexplored territory. Foster is not known for her comedic work and certainly hasn’t strayed far into family-oriented entertainment before. But she’s a good actress and knows how to take risks. Her choices don’t always work here. Her agrophobia is exhibited much more physically than psychologically, and therefore flies way over the top, like when she has to fight herself out of the doorway of her apartment to get in a cab. But you can tell she is having good time acting goofy, and that energy carries her performance into later scenes that require a little more than just physical humor.

Nim’s father is less of a developed character and more of a prop that sets events into motion when he becomes lost at sea, but tough guy Gerard Butler (“300”) does a good job balancing his flightiness with a sesitivity that makes him a good parent. An interesting point is that Butler also portrays Alex Rover in the fantasies Nim imagines while reading his adventures and in Alexandra’s own conversations with her alter ego. This begs the question, why would Nim and Alexandra envision Alexandra’s creation as the exact same man? A vaugue explanation is offered by the end of the film, as both women appear to see Alex as their idea of a perfect man.

“Nim’s Island” never reaches the level of a great family film that appeals to children but also offers a great deal for adults to enjoy. It is aimed exclusively at the juvenile audience, with a mindset posed more toward adventure than logic. There is a sequence involving a cruise ship captain (Michael Carmen, “Quigley Down Under”) who decides Nim’s island—an appearantly uncharted and uninhabited place of unknown dangers—is the perfect place for a shore excursion. I’m not sure why any cruise guests but the most adventurous would want to disembark on this jungle island with a giant volcano in the middle of it. Most of the guests seem to be the types to play things safe and stay aboard for the lunch buffet specials. But the Austrailian cast is able to embue their vacation ideals with the spirit found in one of the great vacation films “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” from the French comedy master Jacques Tati, so the sequence is not a total failure.

I enjoyed the free-spirited nature of this film, although in some ways it seems to be slightly underbaked. But I can see how children will find this to be a memerable experience. I can imagine kids going home and redecorating their tree houses into some sort of science lab where their marine biologist fathers could do their work while they swung from the branches with their imaginary lizard friends, whom they would launch from slingshots at any unwanted cruiseline guests. And thinking about that makes me yearn to dip my finger in the unbaked cookie dough. Wasn’t it always better before it was baked anyway?