Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Opening Night

Ed Tracy, David Bordwell, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Spall

Tonight marked the beginning of the 10th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival--"overlooked" has been officially excised from the event's name--but it didn't feel quite the same without his presence on stage at the Virginia Theatre before and after the opening night film. The room felt more subdued. Roger's wife Chaz greeted the audience and left open the possibility that he might make it before all is said and done. I wouldn't bet against him showing up in Champaign-Urbana, but fracturing a hip is serious business. We'll see how things unfold.

Opening night tradition has been the presentation of a film in 70mm, and if I'm being completely honest, as good as the other festival films can be, it's often downhill after the first evening. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PLAYTIME...these are giant films in cinema history, so it's no wonder that everything that follows cannot reach such lofty peaks.

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version of HAMLET--the last movie shot in 65mm, I believe, and the only filmed version without any cuts to Shakespeare's text--received the honor this year. I saw it in early 1997 with intermission and all. That 35mm presentation made an impression on me--it made my top ten for the rudimentary year in review/pilot episode of Now Playing-- but it had nothing on the screening of the pristine print that unspooled at the Virginia.

One of the marvelous things about Branagh's film is how well he communicates everything that is going on. It isn't critical to understand every word or mythological reference; the performances and direction keep the audience in tune with the machinations and mental states of the characters. I read the play in high school and have seen at least two film versions about the Danish prince, but it is after tonight's viewing that I feel like I've scratched the surface a bit more than I ever have before. One could make a career of studying HAMLET. I was pleased to gain greater insight into it than I ever have.

Branagh's performance stands out, obviously. His Hamlet is funnier than the brooding Dane is usually remembered being, and he's also less mad. Rather, Branagh plays him as a man in control of his faculties and putting on the countenance of lunacy to advance his plans.

Richard Briers' Polonius is very funny as well and seems to me to be the great underappreciated performance in the film. Charlton Heston brings gravitas to the Player King. I actually thought Billy Crystal's shtick served the First Gravedigger role well. Robin Williams' hammy Osric doesn't feel right, and the less said about Jack Lemmon's Marcellus, the better.

HAMLET is also a terrific visual film. The great mirrored hall where so much of the action takes place is an outstanding piece of set design, not to mention a camera operator's nightmare. On a technical level the film is a rigorous piece of work, whether it's managing the scope or keeping momentum for one of the longest Hollywood films ever made.

After the film, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's HAMLET review from their syndicated show was projected on-screen. It sounds as though this will be a recurring feature at the festival. It's a nice way of letting Ebert speak, even though he's currently unable to do so.

Timothy Spall, who plays Rosencrantz, and Rufus Sewell, who appears as Fortinbras, were on hand for the post-film Q&A. With the late start and 30-minute intermission, they didn't take to the stage until shortly after midnight, but their hour-long discussion flowed well. I didn't take notes during the Q&A, but one item of potential interest is that Sewell mentioned a director's cut of DARK CITY is forthcoming on DVD.

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