Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Day 3

The two academic panels that commenced day three of the 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival couldn't have been more apropos for my film critic self. The discussions, titled Movies & Everyday Life and Film Criticism & the Internet, would seem to get to the fundamentals of what I do: thinking about the movies (and seeing them) on a regular basis and writing about them online.

The broadly titled first panel was less about how movies might be incorporated into one's daily life--something I'd propose is increasingly common due to the features and clips available for immediate access online--and more about how films reflect ordinary people and if general audiences are willing to see them. This seems to be a recurring topic for debate at Ebertfest. Much of the talk was familiar to me, especially the dragged out audience comments/questions that needed to be kept in check by Robert's Rules of Order, but it was interesting to hear Ramin Bahrani's thoughts because he's someone who thinks deeply about these issues and can articulate himself well.

(Frozen River actress Misty Upham)

The film criticism discussion suffered from having ten people on the panel. With all those highly opionated people and a broad subject, keeping focus and letting everyone get their say was a challenge. Presumably all of the critics on the panel make a living writing about films, but the current state of the profession suggests to me that for most it is a labor of love and will only become more of a hobbyist's pursuit as newspaper positions are eliminated and paying gigs dry up even more.

(Festival director Nate Kohn, Begging Naked director Karen Gehres, festival blogger Lisa Rosman)

The screening side of the festival's day kicked off with another documentary. It's arguable that everything shown at Ebertfest to this point has been a doc of a sort. Even the lone fiction narrative shown so far, Chop Shop, incorporated a naturalistic style meant to evoke real experiences, and Frozen River, screened later in the day, also possessed a feel for documentary truth. Usually the festival isn't so singleminded, so I wonder if it was purposeful this year.

For nine years Begging Naked director Karen Gehres interviewed her friend Elise Bainbridge Hill to tell her story. The unvarnished look at this woman's life reveals that she ran away from home to New York City at the age of fifteen and quickly became a prostitute and heroin addict. Eventually she cleaned up and made a home in the tight space of a converted air shaft of an apartment building. This was also where she worked on her art, whether painting or making jewelry.

At 30 Hill reentered the sex industry as a stripper in Times Square, but NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani was working on clearing out those businesses. She was eventually left without a job. Her mental condition detiorated, she was evicted, and moved into Central Park where she now lives.

Begging Naked is an unvarnished documentary with great sympathy for and dedication to the person at the center of it. Clearly the film could not have been made without the close relationship between the filmmaker and her subject, but that intimacy breeds an incompleteness in this woman's story. The film feels a lot of righteous anger at how Giuliani's cleaning up of 42nd Street left her friend unemployed and how Hill's eviction pushed her into a deeper set of problems, although it's unclear from the information provided whether the eviction was justified.

My main issue with Begging Naked is one that is far too common with documentaries. Enchanted with the subject, the filmmaker sets up the story but doesn't have enough material to shape it into an arc. Thus the film gets stuck in a loop repeating the same information. In this case that means seeing over the course of years that Hill is living in Central Park and still doing her art. It's fine to a point, but without Hill's scandalous background, I don't know what makes this an exceptional individual story or what the film has to say about homelessness and mental illness in general.

(The Alloy Orchestra's set-up)

Now for something completely different... The Alloy Orchestra's accompaniment of a silent movie is almost an annual occurrence at Ebertfest. It's one of my favorite parts of the festival, perhaps because this is the one time during the year I can experience it, perhaps because they're awfully good at what they do. Their score for The Last Command was more melodic than their typically percussive music, but it was a wonderful complement to the action on screen.

This year the trio wrote and played a score for Josef von Sternberg's 1928 melodrama about a Russian general who led the czar's armies but fled the country when the revolutionists overthrew imperial rule. In The Last Command the once-powerful Grand Duke (Emil Jannings) is now one of many scrabbling for work as an extra in Hollywood films.

It's a vibrant, beautifully crafted film that I feel like I'd have more to say about with the proper time outside of festival fever. Rather than slop together some poorly supported thoughts, I'd rather share some of great intertitles written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who went on to write some other Hollywood picture. I didn't scribble these down until the movie concluded, but I think I remembered these pretty closely:

-"You are my prisoner of war...and my prisoner of love." (The general says this to a female revolutionist who improbably reciprocates his feelings of affection.)

-"The woman belongs to me. She goes with the coat." (Uttered by a soldier who has taken the general's coat.)

-"And so the backwash of a tortured nation carries another extra to Hollywood." (How's that for describing the general's path from military leadership to one of many Russians in a stack of headshots.)

-"Is that beard supposed to be Russian? It looks like an ad for cough drops." (Hair and makeup people in Hollywood just don't get any respect, do they?)

A happy surprise was that Guy Maddin, whose My Winnipeg screened on day two, joined the post-film discussion on stage. This kind of movie is clearly something near and dear to him, so it was fun to listen to him expound on it.

(WGN's Dean Richards, Frozen River director Courtney Hunt, Misty Upham, and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker)

During the post-film discussion for Frozen River director Courtney Hunt joked that there would not be a TV series based on the film. There would not be weekly episodes built upon whoever climbed into and out of the trunk of Ray's car. The thing is that having seen the film a second time, the parallels to AMC television series Breaking Bad were apparent.

Like Breaking Bad's cancer-stricken science teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) joining up with his burnout former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) to cook and sell meth, Melissa Leo's Ray and Misty Upham's Lila are unlikely partners in smuggling illegals into the United States through Mohawk territory. Both sets of characters are involved in the criminal enterprise out of desperation to survive and provide for their families. They all are largely unconcerned about the ramifications of their actions as long as they get paid. Walt and Ray have a set point they're trying to reach where they get out. Of course, things don't work out how any of them plan, and the suspense comes from identifying with and rooting on main characters doing despicable things in the name of their family's best interest.

Leo and Upham's performances are critical to the success of Frozen River. Seeing Upham in person at the festival presents startling proof of how she deglamorized herself to transform into the character. It would be easy to write off the film's achievement due to powerhouse acting alone, but Hunt's attentive direction and concise and detailed screenplay announces that she's one to watch as much as her lead actresses.

(Grades: The Last Command and Frozen River: B+; Begging Naked: C)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Day 2

(Morning panel discussion at the Illini Union Pine Lounge)

While nearly all of the 1600 seats in the Virginia Theatre are usually filled for each screening, a smaller group turns out for the morning panel discussions held on campus at the University of Illinois. Most of the seats are taken, but the numbers simply don't compare.

The lone Thursday panel was titled Movie Making & Distribution in Times of Turmoil. The panelists, pictured above, were Warner Home Video vice-president Ronnee Sass, Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh, Begging Naked director Karen Gehres, Trouble the Water co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, Sita Sings the Blues director Nina Paley, My Winnipeg director Guy Maddin, and moderator and festival director Nate Kohn. The discussion produced interesting comments from time to time, but since most of the panelists were either first-time feature directors or, in Wadleigh's case, no longer working in the system, perspective on the topic seemed fairly limited.

Having a distributor certainly helps in getting a movie seen, but a better topic might have probed the problem of finding viewers even when a film has distribution. Arthouse theaters have fallen victim to the same kind of model that bigger films have where an opening weekend splash is essential. In the case of these smallers films it's even more important because those first couple days determine if they'll stick in the theaters for another week. With limited promotion, it's an uphill battle for these kinds of movies to stay long enough to reach moviegoers through word of mouth.

(Time Out Chicago film critic Hank Sartin, Guy Maddin, and Ramin Bahrani)

Over at the Virginia Theatre the day began with Maddin's My Winnipeg. I'd seen the film before, although I had found myself in a bit of a fog during that screening. Watching this remembrance of his Canadian hometown I again found myself being lulled into a dream-like state. Maybe there's something in the movie to inspire such haziness. The film itself plays out like an uninhibited lucid dream that gets stuck in loops like the Winnipeg trains that never allow escape from town, and the repetition of words in Maddin's narration seems like a willful attempt to hypnotize.

Maddin's surreal pastiche doesn't resemble what is conventionally thought of as a documentary, yet it would seem that My Winnipeg is factual in spirit and has more basis in truth than I expected. For instance, If Day, in which a fake Nazi invasion of Manitoba was staged to drum up support for the Allies and sell war bonds really happened and wasn't some comedic conceit Maddin dreamed up.

The thin line between documentary and fiction filmmaking continued with Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop. The neorealist filmmaker--or neo-neorealist, as has been suggested since neorealism is most often associated with post-World War II Italian filmmaking--uses nonprofessional actors and captures something akin to documentary stories even though he's meticulous in crafting scripted narratives.

The story focuses on an orphaned brother and sister living at and working in and around a junkyard's auto body shop in Willet's Point, Queens. Particularly in Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, Bahrani demonstrates his strength for dropping the audience into locations both real and foreign, even if in both instances he's exploring worlds that exist in the United States.

The great economic disparity that exists in the country underlies much of the film, and the looming presence of Shea Stadium visible from the garage provides quiet reminders of the multi-millionaire's playground nearby where kids scrape to survive a daily existence. To say that the kids in the film have been discarded like the piles of parts around them is an obvious metaphor, although it's not presented as blatantly or heavyhandedly in the film.

While I may be making Chop Shop sound like run-of-the-mill independent film miserabilism, Bahrani doesn't dwell on the tough conditions or strive to inspire liberal guilt in viewers. He's interested in seeing what these characters' lives are like and uncovering how they may through day after day. In the end the film's siblings have no choice but to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and do what's necessary. In it's own way, that's a kind of hope amid the rust and filth.

(Scott Roberts, Kimberly Rivers Roberts with her daughter, Richard Roeper, Tia Lessin, and Carl Deal)

While the day's two previous films dabble in documentary truth and realism, it was fitting for the day to conclude with traditional doc Trouble the Water. Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her family were stuck in their home when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She used a Hi-8 camera to document the storm and flooding after the levees broke. Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal incorporate this frequently stunning footage into a story about the Roberts and their struggle to recover from the hurricane's devastation. It's the toll of Hurricane Katrina and the government's response (or lack of one) in miniature.

I'd seen Trouble the Water before the festival and mistakenly believed that I had rated it "mixed"/C+. (I actually was lowercase pro/B-.) Maybe it looks a little better to me after seeing a lot of mediocre documentaries in the last month, but Trouble the Water isn't happy to settle for having landed incredible video and spinning into righteous outrage. It tells the story of these people with care and concern. I appreciate the lack of cheap shots that the film takes and the aspirational and inspirational tack the directors find. For as massively frustrating and frightening as the experience must have been, the Roberts and others depicted in the film don't come off as angry people, which they have every right to be.

Ebertfest possesses the feel of a family reunion, and with Trouble the Water the festival was able to welcome co-director Deal, a hometown boy, back to the area. The fest has also featured its share of post-film musical performances over the years, and this film provided the opportunity for another. Kimberly Rivers Roberts is pursuing a career as a hip hop artist. She capped the evening with a two-song performance that had a predominantly gray-haired audience bouncing along. It was kind of a strange scene, but it was a nice, upbeat note on which to wrap the festival's second day.

(Grades: My Winnipeg and Chop Shop: B; Trouble the Water: B-)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Opening Night

(Festival Director Nate Kohn, Chaz Ebert, and Roger Ebert/April 22, 2009)

The 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival welcomed back the man in the event's name. A program on an Apple computer allowed him to deliver some introductory comments. The Urbana, Illinois native's new electronic voice has given him a British accent. Maybe Ebert's just following Madonna's lead. Anyway, it was nice to see him back where he belongs, and the crowd gave him appreciative applause when he appeared on the Virginia Theatre's stage.

The festival kicked off with a screening appropriate for Earth Day: Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace & Music. Honestly, when I saw this title on the list, I wasn't thrilled even though I'd never seen the film before tonight. I like plenty of 1960s music well enough, but my fear was that the movie would be one big self-congratulatory love-in to the flower child generation. Tonight I was further dismayed to discover that we would not be seeing the 184-minute original cut but the longer director's cut. (The festival program lists the running time at 225 minutes. I assume this is the same as the 228-minute director's cut listed on the Internet Movie Database.) Slightly over three hours sounded long enough; verging on four seemed like too much.

Still, I approached Woodstock with an open mind and found it to be a fairly compelling mix of concert film and event documentary. Woodstock is a refreshing change from contemporary music videos and concert films whose directors and editors try to show off their skills to the detriment of watching the performances. Here, whether it's a single camera's intimate, unbroken take of Canned Heat or the three superimposed screens of Ten Years After, seeing the musicians in action is primary. It's a lot easier to get lost in the performance when the visuals are in service to the content rather than the other way around.

That's not to say the film is stylistically austere. The use of split screen was innovative at the time. The mix of music and spot news storytelling--interviewees include affected locals, concert attendees, and the man cleaning the chemical toilets--give an expansive view of the scope and impact of the concert beyond the typical rock and roll movie. The photography in the film is phenomenal and looked fantastic in the pristine high definition source that was screened. (Of course the sound was fabulous too.)

As with any movie in which music is front and center, how much one enjoys it will color the overall experience. There's a lot of good to great stuff. Jimi Hendrix's concluding set proves every single bit why it and he are legendary. The photography, much of it from a low angle that emphasizes his guitar god status, shows how hard he works on his instrument yet how effortless it seems. The close-up of the frets while he interprets "The Star Spangled Banner" does the heavy lifting of music criticism to understand how the sounds the guitar makes ties in with the unsung lyrics. Santana blazes through its one song. The Who tear through three classics. I know it's sacrilege, but I could have done without the folkies, John Sebastian in particular, and Country Joe and the Fish.

(As an aside, is it me or is Sha Na Na a send-up of 1950s youth culture and older America, or is it supposed to be a loving recreation? The performance in the film makes it look like the former.)

As someone who wasn't born when the summer of love took place, I've sort of had enough of hearing how committed and important the Woodstock generation was/is and blah blah blah blah blah. While the film doesn't lack for idealism or sweeping statements about what this concert meant, I was pleasantly surprised to see that these sentiments are mostly kept in check. It was interesting that the festival audience's only applause for a non-performer came when the Port-o-san cleaner was proud to mention he had a son attending the concert and one serving in Vietnam.

The post-film discussion with director Michael Wadleigh, associate producer Dale Bell, and a member of Sha Na Na ventured more into the territory that I was dreading, but fortunately the film speaks well enough for itself. The most interesting thing to come from the talk was the idea that the film's structure roughly takes the shape of The Canterbury Tales in how it weaves together the different stories and perspectives.

(Grade: Woodstock: Director's Cut: B)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Once more with feeling

In a couple hours I will line up outside the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois for the start of the 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival. As hard as it is for me to believe, it will be the ninth consecutive year I've come to this university town for the five-day event. Nine years! Where has the time gone?

Prior to 2001, the festival's third year and my first visit to it, I had never attended a film festival of any kind. To be sure, Ebertfest is not like what most people think of when the talk turns to film festivals, and those differences might be what make this event a contender for the ideal film festival experience.

There are no studio bidding wars for the scheduled films or even a prize competition among the pictures. You're not forced to choose among scads of conflicting screenings and rush off to different theaters across the city. Every film is shown once at the Virginia to the entire festival audience. The audiovisual presentation is second to none. The relaxed atmosphere probably helps in making the visiting filmmakers more accessible to festivalgoers. While the price has gone up from the $40 pass I bought to see 14 films in 2001, it's still reasonably priced. People aren't coming to see and be seen. (Well, that's not exactly true when bigger stars come to Champaign-Urbana...) All attention and festival talk is focused on the films and the people who make them rather than the marketplace, which is the way it should be.

I was spoiled the first year I came here. Opening night featured 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. Seated within the first five rows of the cavernous theater, I finally made sense of the film. Its stunning images and powerful sound captivated me and the approximately 1600 other people in the room. (Make no mistake, seeing a big movie with that big of an audience has a different effect than watching something on TV home alone.) Keir Dullea was on stage for a post-film discussion with Ebert, and Arthur C. Clarke chimed in from Sri Lanka via telephone. And this was just the first night of the festival.

I was hooked and have come back each year to try and bottle some of the same cinematic magic that I felt. The films screened in 70mm are often revelatory, and the silents accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra typically rank among each year's highlights. Since Ebert curates the festival, the chance of seeing stinkers is significantly lower, although there are some selected films with which I would take exception with the thumbed critic.

Nowadays returning to Ebertfest is like a reunion at a film festival. There are those who I've become friends with over the years and whose company I get to enjoy for a few days. I was among the younger festivalgoers when I first attended (and still am) since boomers make up an overwhelming percentage of the audience. In that way there's a bit of a Dorian Gray-like experience in coming to the festival. I'll just assume my aging portrait must be squirreled away in the hotel's maintenance room.

In recent years Ebert's health issues have raised concern among those attending the festival--he was unable to attend at all last year--but with his voluminous writing of late and seemingly high spirits, his return should provide a nice lift. The festival has his name on it, and he is obviously part of the attraction for many who show up for five days of movies. Nevertheless, it's the love of films that he possesses and has helped cultivate in those coming to his festival that makes Ebertfest special. I can't wait to feel that buzz of excitement again as I take my spot in the line snaking around the theater.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coming up at the Wexner Center

Want to be among the first to find out what's on the Wexner Center's Film/Video calendar this summer?
The Wexner Center will announce its slate of summer films—both the indoor and outdoor series—next Wednesday, April 15 at 2 PM via streaming video at Film curators Dave Filipi and Chris Stults will announce both the highly anticipated Wex Drive-in Outdoor Film Fest titles and the indoor summer film series. Along with the names of the films, Filipi and Stults will be giving background on the series and taking questions from those viewing the stream via live chat. Information on the films being screened is being kept under wraps until the announcement, but the series are expected to set the “tone” for the summer this year.
Something else to keep an eye on is a June 4 showing of Melvin and Howard as part of A Tribute to Frank Gabrenya. Showing one of the longtime Columbus Dispatch film critic's favorites seems like a fitting way to honor his recently ended career at the paper.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dragonball Evolution


Aside from awareness of the DRAGONBALL name, I come to this particular manga/anime universe completely cold. Even as an outsider I can ascertain that DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION suffers the pitfalls all niche properties want to avoid in their bids to go mainstream. It's too bland and convoluted for new viewers to recognize what all the fuss is about and, I suspect, too simplified and disrespectful of the source material for the fan base. Except for the presence of Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, this shoddy live-action film is no different or bigger than the sort of junk kids plop down to watch on TV after school.

After two thousand years of imprisonment the alien Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) somehow frees himself and begins a search for all seven dragonballs. When united the glowing orbs grant the possessor one true wish. Seeing as Piccolo is an evil warrior, his heart's desire is more along the lines of world annihilation than a pony or a bicycle.

Standing in Piccolo's way is eighteen-year-old orphan Goku (Justin Chatwin). When his Grandpa Gohan (Randall Duk Kim) is murdered by one of Piccolo's minions, Goku follows the old man's dying wish for him to seek Master Roshi (Chow) for help in continuing his martial arts training and finding the dragonballs. If Goku collects them first, he can use their power to defeat the warlord. Also along to assist with the quest are fame-seeking scientist Bulma (Emmy Rossum), who has developed a dragonball locator, and thief Yamcha (Joon Park).

Fantasy films with complicated backstories can get bogged down in mythological minutiae, so it is to DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION'S partial credit that following the origin mumbo jumbo isn't oppressive for newcomers. Unfortunately, the streamlining that makes the film coherent for the uninitiated also removes all traces of personality and depth. This is a boilerplate epic with single trait characters whose plights are hard to get caught up in because Goku and crew come directly from the cardboard cutout factory.

DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION'S basic story is as old as time, so this sturdy construct needs compelling heroes and villains to distinguish itself from others of this ilk. The characters don't evolve but merely complete tasks on a to-do list. For director James Wong and screenwriter Ben Ramsey the least explanation of character accomplishments and motivations is best.

The ungainly dialogue can be easily imagined coming out of cartoon mouths, especially with these actors' voices. Chow emerges unscathed from this dud because some mischief flickers in his eyes throughout the schematic nonsense. Little of DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION is funny, but at least his performance acknowledges the film for what it is: a quick, inexpensive cash-in on a cult series.

The cheap effects and bargain backlot action wouldn't have wowed anyone twenty years ago, let alone today, proving that going from animation to live-action isn't an advancement for DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION.

Grade: D