Friday, April 30, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)


Ladies and gentlemen, step right this way! Come inside and cast your eyes on the twisted creation of a surgical mastermind, if you dare! But first, I should warn you that what you will see is not for the faint of heart or those with moral objections to the marvel of this ultramodern medical procedure! However, for those with iron constitutions and open minds, prepare to gasp at the horrific ingenuity that is THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE)!

The lure of danger, of watching something too intense for most viewers, is the irresistible melody of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE'S siren song. I confess that it snagged my curiosity, and I'm not especially fond of gorehound movies. The notoriety of writer-director Tom Six's film is such that when I received the offer of a screener for review, I decided I had to see for myself.

The wisp of a story finds American friends Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) on vacation in Germany. When their car breaks down while driving through a forest at night, they venture out to find help. The young women stumble upon the secluded home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who invites them inside and agrees to call for assistance.

Of course, the creepy doctor has no intention of letting them out of his lair. He drops roofies in their drinks, and when Lindsay and Jenny come to, they find themselves strapped to gurneys and hooked up to IVs. Their waking nightmare has just begun.

Dr. Heiter explains why he has these women and a man restrained in his basement operating room. Having worked as a preeminent surgeon in separating conjoined twins, he now wishes to fulfill his dream of making the human centipede. (He's already succeeded at doing this with his dogs.)

In the most disturbing use of an overhead projector presentation outside of get-rich-quick seminars, Dr. Heiter lays out what is entailed in bringing the human centipede into existence. Essentially, the plan is to sever each person's knee ligaments and connect the gastric systems of his test subjects by sewing them mouth to anus.

The operation is delayed when the abducted man is found not to be a tissue match with Lindsay and Jenny, but it isn't long before Dr. Heiter captures a Japanese man whose genetic qualities make him ideal for this evil scheme.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is sufficiently disgusting, although I'll wager that what one imagines based on the description is far worse than what is actually depicted. The HOSTEL films, two of many potential examples, are certainly more graphic. The doctor is briefly witnessed at work with his scalpel, but Six avoids showing the extent of the surgery.

How thankful you are for the lack of explicitness depends on your appetite for gore, although surely the target audience wants more than Six serves. Therein lies the problem. Like a carnival barker, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE entices the adventurous with the promise of a repulsive display that begs to be seen but fails in its delivery of gory one-upmanship.

Without a doubt this is an unpleasant film, but the most shocking thing about THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is how boring it is. The scenario is inherently immune to surprises. Once Dr. Heiter has made his fantasy a reality, what's left? There's barely any text, let alone the semblance of subtext. Six asks us to consider how terrible it might be in the victim's situation. Yeah, it would be pretty terrible. And the point is...?

The clinically detached tone and static style attempt to elicit psychological horror, but the one-dimensional performances shatter the illusion. Rather than being frightened, I felt bad for the actors and the humiliation they must have endured during production.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a repellent film, but that's exactly the condemnation it needs to advance its reputation as a transgressive work. Being disreputable is the film's only distinguishing characteristic, even if in this case its offenses have been overhyped to Barnum-esque proportions.

Grade: F

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Closing day

The last day of Ebertfest tends to be a little more low key. Since the festival attracts a significant number of out-of-town attendees, some choose to head home rather than fit in one more movie. Late nights are a given, so weariness may be setting in even for those not staying up most of the night writing like yours truly. Perhaps this is why the festival's closing day has traditionally featured a musical or music-related film. There's less heavy lifting for a taxed system when music is the focus.

While there is a decent amount of music in the documentary SONG SUNG BLUE, the focus falls on the relationship of Mike and Claire Sardina, otherwise known as the Milwaukee lounge act Lightning & Thunder. Lightning sings Neil Diamond songs and plays up his resemblance to him, but he doesn't appear to be an impersonator. His wife, Thunder, specializes in Patsy Cline songs. The film claims that the duo was very popular--local TV news reports indicate they were well-known in town at least--and the couple has high hopes that bigger opportunities may await in Las Vegas.

Those dreams are scuttled when a car runs off the road and hits Thunder while she's in her front yard. She loses part of a leg. Financial struggles and other health problems hit the Sardinas hard, but they soldier on and keep performing as the act is their primary source of income.

While SONG SUNG BLUE went over extremely well with the Ebertfest audience, I confess that I wasn't similarly enthusiastic. Maybe it's because I didn't have any foreknowledge of these singers and thus wasn't already predisposed to be enchanted by them.

Part of the problem is that director Greg Kohs lets others tell us how great Lightning & Thunder are, but I never felt like I saw the magic that is supposedly in their act. From how he's crafted the film and what he expressed on stage, it is clear that Kohs feels passionately about this family. He's not holding them up for ridicule whatsoever. Could his closeness to them have been a hindrance in making the doc? In the post-film Q&A he mentioned one shoot in which he was actively involved as a roadie, yet what he thought was a thrilling experience didn't translate on the tape he showed his wife. To me that describes the film as a whole.

On a side note, I'm curious how many of Lightning & Thunder's fans had ironic appreciation for them or enjoyed the kitsch value. That seems like a big unspoken factor, but it's never clear why (or how) popular they were.

Like ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL, SONG SUNG BLUE has the underdogs climbing uphill to achieve their goals and often coming up short. The difference between the films is instructive. The members of Anvil may seem like they have their heads in the clouds, but there's also reason to believe that they could be one break away from realizing some of their aspirations. With Lightning & Thunder it's much harder to envision what they do leading to something greater.

After the film Thunder took to the Virginia Theatre's stage for three songs and roused many people to get up and dance to Patsy Cline and ABBA. While I hate to sound like a grouch/jerk/killjoy/you-name-it, this mini-concert confirmed the doubts I had from the film. I don't begrudge her from continuing to put on shows; I just don't see and hear what's so special.


I'll wrap my coverage of the 12th Ebertfest (and my 10th) with an entry that includes stray observations and thoughts that haven't made it into my other daily reports. But for now, it's time to leave Champaign-Urbana.

Ebertfest 2010: Day 4

Seasoned Ebertfest attendees know that lining up early outside the Virginia Theatre before the day's first film is critical to obtaining the seat you want. Problem is, this crowd has plenty of early birds, so showing up forty minutes before the doors open likely means that the line has snaked down Randolph and onto University. Since I've been up to 3 a.m. every night of the festival, this is not to my advantage. Luckily, I've mostly been able to sit where I prefer, albeit with a little help. Remember how I mentioned friendships formed in my pre-Ebertfest entry? There's the secret.

Since all of the films are shown in a single location, the festival excels at making connections between attendees. For instance, I vote in The Muriel Awards but have never met fellow voter Jim Emerson (or most of the others, for that matter). In a fine example of 21st century communication technology, I was able to give him a heads-up via Twitter that I might be searching him out. Vadim Rizov isn't at Ebertfest but saw my tweet and recommended tracking down Ali Arikan, who is present. Ali replied with his location after one of the films. A jammed stairway and an outburst of rain put the kibosh on meeting up then, but I was eventually able to catch up with Jim and Ali and be introduced to Matt Zoller Seitz, one of Ali's fellow writers at The House Next Door.

It's not just passholders who form new relationships at Ebertfest. Ramin Bahrani and Werner Herzog met at a previous festival and have since collaborated on the excellent short PLASTIC BAG. It must be a thrill for Roger Ebert to see how his festival brings together people whose work he admires and leads to exciting new projects such as this. While PLASTIC BAG wasn't officially announced on the schedule, Ebert found room for the short before one of the day's films.

As for the regular program, BBC production I CAPTURE THE CASTLE played in the festival slot that has normally been reserved for a free children's matinee. As far as I can tell Saturday's first space in the schedule still served that purpose without being billed as such. While anyone operating under the assumption that this selection is a family film, they're basically correct, although one shot of a topless Tara Fitzgerald isn't what one expects in this kind of fare. (Apparently this is the lone reason for the otherwise innocuous film receiving an R rating.)

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE deals with a family in which the father is mentally unstable, and his two girls are naïve to the ways of the world, especially those pertaining to romance. Set in the mid-1930s, the British gals are intrigued by the two American brothers whose family owns the castle that this eccentric lot calls home. Proposals are wished for, hearts are broken, and so on and so forth.

Rooted in the tradition of quality, this coming-of-age period romance delivers the hats and heartaches one expects. It's all professionally done and throws a slight curve at the ending, but the focus and character motivations are so scattered that big plot developments are lacking in dramatic impact.

Romola Garai does solid work here as the younger daughter. I'm interested in comparing her character in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE with her eponymous role in Francois Ozon's ANGEL, but the hour is late and it's been far too long since I saw her outstanding performance in the latter.

Ebert likes to have some local flavor in the festival. Judging by the reactions, he found a winner in the documentary VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR. Vincent P. Falk may be Chicago's unique individual, but he is the kind of character many cities have.

Vincent wears brightly colored suits and puts on what he calls "fashion shows" for boat tours. From the bridge he waves at the people below and does a shuffle, spin moves, and coat twirling to put a smile on people's faces. (While this is done for the benefit of the boat tours, it seems Vincent will do his routine just about anywhere if he's moved to do so.) Since a local television station does its morning news broadcasts in front of a glass window, Vincent gets some airtime by standing in the background in those unmistakably loud clothes.

The first question that comes to mind is what is wrong with this guy or what is his deal? Going purely by his appearance, from the squinty eyes to the garish suits and uncommon behavior, one's initial impression is that he may have some mental problems or deep, dark issues. I like the fact that director Jennifer Burns lets the people she interviews state their reservations about this strange guy they see in public. They are amused by him, but they are also uncertain how to process his atypical conduct.

Crosscutting between his seasonal performances and life story, VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR peels back a fairly interesting tale involving the orphanage, legal blindness, high aptitude for computer work, and a love of public performance. Vincent defies many of the assumptions we might make about him while passing him in the street or seeing him on television.

Director Jennifer Burns and editor Christine Gilliland let their subject shine, but I'll reiterate that I think it's important that they allow people to voice their hesitations about Vincent. For a film that is clearly fond of the man, it would be easy to push the idea of accepting him without question, but in reality I think most of us would go out of our way to avoid getting too close.

The Ebertfest audience was very appreciative when Vincent came on stage after the film and gave a demonstration of his spin moves and such. I liked the film for what it is, but I think it faces an uphill battle for attention outside of Chicago.

Am I crazy or does it seem like regional American cinema has waned in the past decade? James Mottern's TRUCKER isn't a throwback to 1990s Amerindies, yet it feels like it comes from the same place.

Michelle Monaghan stars as a truck driver who willingly let her ex-husband have custody of their son and doesn't know what to do with the boy when she is forced to take care of him for an unknown amount of time ten years later. Monaghan's Diane is tough and decidedly non-maternal. She admits as much. The circumstances may require that she make alterations to those qualities, but any changes won't occur like flipping a switch.

Monaghan, who was so terrific in the action-comedy KISS KISS BANG BANG, shows a flair for drama with her textured performance in TRUCKER. I particularly liked how Diane isn't the nurturing mother--and doesn't want to be--yet slowly resigns herself to the situation she's in. It's an instinctive performance that doesn't have showy scenes, which is what makes this seriously conflicted woman feel like a real person.

TRUCKER is a film of many small virtues. Mottern's writing understands that a lot of backstory isn't essential, so he keeps the film nice and lean. He isn't trying to take Diane from A to Z in 90 minutes but from A to B, which is usually how people adapt. Mottern trusts his lead actress to communicate the most important information in ways other than explicative dialogue.

Mottern and Monaghan were present for the post-film Q&A and made it worth sticking around rather than rushing out to get some much-needed food. The most interesting tidbit to me is that Monaghan insisted that to play this part she needed to earn her commercial driving license, which she did. When she's seen driving a big rig in the film, she's really doing it. Monaghan's comfort in operating the truck does read on the screen.

The night's last film was BARFLY. I'm not well-versed in the writings of Charles Bukowski, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Barbet Schroeder's 1987 film has so many laughs. I was expecting another downbeat film about drunks. Instead BARFLY is unusually funny and direct about alcoholics. The film portrays these folks with great warmth but doesn't glamorize their behavior, which seems to have crept into some Bukowski appreciation.

As Henry, Mickey Rourke delivers a dynamic performance in which he carries himself like the king of the gutter. He's immensely likable throughout his self-destructive actions, which is probably due in large part to the sensitivity he invests in this lout.

The clock reads 3:15 a.m., and I'm running seriously low on fuel. So, I'm going to call an end to this recap.

-BARFLY: B+/77

Ebertfest wraps on April 25th with SONG SUNG BLUE. I'll file my report from the final day within a day or two of returning home.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Day 3

In my eagerness to post my Ebertfest 2010: Day 2 report, I overlooked the fact that the panel discussions started at 9:00 a.m., not 9:30. So I was a little late rolling into the Illini Union for the first topic: "Do Film Students Really Need to Know Much About Classic Films?" Populating the panel were a couple film students and some professors, including Ebertfest regular David Bordwell.

The consensus opinion seemed to be that rigid adherence to the canon is not beneficial or instructive. Considering how expansive the canon is these days, I don't know that it is this oppressive, inflexible list. Still, I think it's a mistake to avoid some of the landmarks--*cough* CITIZEN KANE *cough*--just because their statuses as the all-time greats have been cemented for such a long time. Younger viewers may balk at them, in part out of contrarianism, but I think it's important to have a foundation in the classics because their fingerprints continue to be all over what we see today.

The second panel featured Roger Ebert's "far-flung correspondents". On his blog and Twitter, Ebert has championed several film bloggers based in locations all around the globe. He extended that generosity by inviting them to the festival and having them participate in the panels and post-film Q&As. Ebert's medical problems in recent years have forced him to take a reduced role in those areas, but in showing up to introduce these guests and staying for the discussion, he emphasized how glad he is to have these people here.

The correspondents talked about their home countries and the film cultures there. While it was interesting to hear their stories, I took off early in the hope of getting over to the Virginia Theatre for a decent spot in line. It didn't happen, even with the rainy morning.
The day's film schedule kicked off with the Oscar-winning DEPARTURES (OKURIBITO). I was, and remain, disappointed that it beat THE CLASS (ENTRE LES MURS)--which I still contend is a better film--but DEPARTURES proved to be a good film, and one that went over exceptionally well with this audience.

In this gentle film, director Yôjirô Takita examines the work of Japan's encoffiners. These individuals prepare corpses for being placed in coffins and conduct the ritual in front of the departed's family and friends.

The entry point into this world is Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his orchestra job and doesn't exactly know what he's getting into when he accept a want ad seeking help in departures. The character mentions that his grandparents died when he was young, his mother's funeral occurred while he was out of the country, and his father has been out of his life since he was little. Daigo has never seen a dead body, and he's not sure he's cut out for this work.

DEPARTURES is a sentimental film about how the living cope with the loss of their loved ones and have their pain eased through the ceremony that encoffiners perform, but it's not a soppy one. The film is serious and earnest, but those qualities are never burdensome or false. It's sort of shocking to see a film that treats its subject, this one in particular, directly and softly. Perhaps the film cheats by having the deceased mostly consisting of those who have died many years before their time--these are "pretty" bodies, for lack of a better way of putting it--but some concessions have to be made to the audience. I certainly wouldn't want to watch a film in which these men attend to highly decayed corpses, and I bet you wouldn't either.

As unpleasant as this may all sound, the film is respectful and matter of fact about what encoffiners do. The comfort that the ritual gives to the surviving family also translates to the audience. Takita also finds spots for humor, such as the encoffiner instructional video, to deflate any discomfort viewers may feel about a subject that many don't want to reflect upon.

The Alloy Orchestra are regulars at Ebertfest. Typically their accompaniment of a silent movie is among each festival's best moments. This year they played along to Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (CHELOVEK S KINO-APPARATOM). The three-man band's scores favor percussion, which is a perfect match for a film that often looks at the industrial and technological marvels of its day.

MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA has the organizing principle of a day in a Russian city, but this film can be seen and enjoyed context-free. It's montage, montage, montage done with such vigor and imagination that this 81-year-old film still feels fresh and exciting. The superimpositions, quick cutting, and meta qualities are mind-blowing in their imaginative use. A woman blinking her eyes is crosscut with the opening and closing of blinds. Vertov often shows his man with the movie camera in a stylistic choice that rolls the making-of material into the film proper.

Vertov's dazzling display of technique is pretty compelling. Married with The Alloy Orchestra's live accompaniment, the film is lifted to transcendent heights. If this isn't the most kinetic film ever made--it charges out of the gate and picks up speed crossing the finish line--it has to be up there among the adrenaline shots of pure cinema. That the musicians can keep up with the frenetic pace and enhance the experience of watching MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is a credit to their considerable talents.

The last film of the third day was SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, which Ebert is proclaiming to be the best film of the '00s. I liked the film when I saw it during its intial release in 2008, but I was also overwhelmed by the ambition and challenges it contains.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK writer-director Charlie Kaufman penned the screenplays for mindbenders BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. (Those three previous films all landed on my year-end Top 10 lists.) This film, his first in the director's chair, again takes place in a strange world that looks a lot like ours yet behaves differently.

It's important to make note of the person behind SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK because it's best understood as a piece of Kaufman's reflexive body of work. Kaufman takes a scenario to its most absurd limits and aggressively deconstructs it in search of the primary level of truth.

At heart SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is about examining the shattered pieces of a broken relationship and trying to find where it all went wrong. In typically Kaufman-esque fashion, here it means years of staging and re-staging mundane conversations and arguments in hopes of divining shards of revelation.

The word synecdoche means to substitute the general for the specific and vice versa. The film can be understood as the main character's failed marriage viewed through the filter of all his relationships, which he pores over with obsessive, writerly focus while missing the broader picture.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK'S tone is too mournful to call it a comedy, or what I associate with the term, yet funny elements are sprinkled throughout the film as it folds upon itself. Despite the metaphorical clouds that hover over Philip Seymour Hoffman as the playwright Caden Cotard, hope endures that the sun will emerge.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is an audacious and uncompromising film, which in non-criticspeak means it requires a lot of patience and an open mind. It sounds trite to condense the film into a statement that all anyone needs is love, but that's the simple thesis buried under this mountain of philosophizing.

Having now seen the film a second time, I find that it opens up and is revealed to be simpler than it appears to be. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK lets loose a steady roar of neuroses--loneliness, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear of disease, fear of death, fear of missed chances--but Kaufman shares these things not to wallow in them but to convey that we all have the same things banging around in our brains. The beautifully sustained final twenty or so minutes were enough to make me want to lay down and absorb all that this film has to offer.

Kaufman has resisted requests to explain the film in more concrete terms, and he continued that stance in tonight's post-film Q&A. He still had plenty of interesting and funny things to say about his movie, and I think he's correct in ducking attempts to lay out what the film means. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK was likened to a Rohrschach test, which is an apt comparison. The film isn't a puzzle to be solved but a mirror that shows something different depending on when we look at it and what state of mind we're in at the time.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Day 2

The second day of Ebertfest 2010 commenced with a panel discussion that, no matter the title, boiled down to a familiar topic at this annual event's panel discussions: the current environment for making small and mid-level films and getting them in front of audiences. In other words, the topic stays the same, but the people on the panel change.

In short, nobody has a cure-all for the problematic state of financing and exhibition when it comes to making anything but genre and event pictures, but it's totally unfair to expect that any of the filmmakers or the lone critic at the front of the room would reveal the solution this morning. The industry as a whole hasn't figured it out.

One panelist mentioned that there are more available screens now than ever, yet there remains little to no room for films without splashy, pre-sold qualities or a ton of money behind them. In baseball parlance, very few studios want to hit doubles anymore. It's home runs or nothing.

One other item of interest to emerge is that Charlie Kaufman, who is here with SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, mentioned that he's working on creating a fake superhero as the subject of his next writing/directing gig.

Onto the films...

First off, I wasn't wild about the first two films of the day. Plenty of people in attendance seemed to enjoy them, so don't let me rain on everyone's parade, even though that's what I'm about to do. Yes, each person is entitled to his opinion, but with the festival being curated by the country's preeminent film critic, it can feel like I'm being a little pissy in going against the grain. There's no willful contrarianism at play here, just my reaction to what I'm seeing. (Based on the introduction of the second film, it sounds like Gene Siskel would have my back.)

Although written and directed by American filmmakers, MUNYURANGABO is set in Rwanda and uses local non-professionals to bring it to life. The title is the full name of one of the two young men traveling to complete a job that we come to find out involves killing a man. Ngabo's father was murdered during the genocide, and he wants to avenge his parent's death.

The journey of Ngabo and his best friend Sangwa takes a detour to the home of Sangwa's parents. This is his first time back in three years, and his family warmly welcomes his return, for the most part. Sangwa's father is suspicious of Ngabo, who belongs to a different ethnic tribe. Violence between the Hutu and Tutsi is still fresh in everyone's memories, so this cross-tribal friendship is seen with skeptical eyes.

Director Lee Isaac Chung has certainly crafted an authentic feeling film in MUNYURANGABO, and I can appreciate the great pains he and his collaborators take to make it seem like a work of art representative of the country and continent rather than an object that imposes an outsider's, specifically a Westerner's, perspective. The film's unforced naturalism is both it's strongest asset and biggest weakness, at least to this viewer.

The simple, repetitive dialogue is almost always descriptive of what we are seeing or have seen. This may be anthropologically accurate, but it can be a real grind as the film unfolds in long takes that do little to advance the action. On a dramatic level MUNYURANGABO can be a slog to get through, although I'll hedge my criticisms with the acknowledgement that this type of film may fall in a blind spot for me.

There are festival films like this that swap entertainment value for intense realism, which make them somewhat bulletproof because they appear Important. I'm not questioning the intent or the skill in assembling this film. In this instance it just does very little for me.

Writer-director Michael Tolkin's 1994 film THE NEW AGE followed. Talk about cinematic culture shock. We go from poor Rwandans using mud to repair the walls of their homes to well-off Californians who think it's tragic that they must start selling paintings when financial hardships hit.

Peter Weller and Judy Davis play a couple who are looking for answers in life but struggle to find them. Whether they seek solutions in New Age spirituality or entrepreneurial efforts, their quest to feel alive is stymied at every turn.

THE NEW AGE is intended as a dark comedy, and Tolkin does get in some good jabs at the hucksterism inherent in spiritual and business gurus. This is a film teeming with ideas but one that can't quite get a handle on any of them. THE NEW AGE seems like a classic case of a writer not knowing how to edit himself and thus producing a final work that possesses some merit but is ultimately too jumbled.

Of note in THE NEW AGE is Samuel L. Jackson briefly appearing in an energy infusing scene, the likes of which have come to define what we expect from him. His small, funny turn as a telemarketing manager jolts the film out of its stupor. If only there had been more moments like his pep talk to a circle of phone jockeys.

Speaking of overstuffed, day two was capped with Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX. Plenty has been said about the film, all of it likely to be better reasoned and argued than I can achieve at 2:30 a.m., so I'll keep it short.

Yes, the addition of the French plantation sequence can be problematic, although it does some important mirroring of an early scene and contains discussion that deserves inclusion. Whether one's crazy about the changes or not, there's no doubt that Coppola's direction is nothing short of dazzling. The practical effects, particularly during the taking of the beach, remind how sometimes there's nothing better than the real thing. The limitless abilities of CGI could not achieve the same result.

APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX is a hallucination that lasts nearly three and a half hours. I'd seen this version once before but was still astonished at what was before my eyes. Rarely is ambition and spectacle and craftsmanship fulfilled on such a high level.


One last note for today... While Ebertfest strives to bring guests for all of the films to the festival, the volcanic ash in the skies above Europe has kept high profile invitees such as Walter Murch and, most likely, Bill Nighy from getting here. Supposedly Barbet Schroeder was also going to be unable to get a cross-Atlantic flight, but the latest word is that he will be in Champaign-Urbana for the screening of BARFLY. The guy made a documentary about Idi Amin, so who thinks an Icelandic volcano will stand in his way?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Opening Night

Film festivals are often mad adventures in which one gorges on films and purges sleep. Getting back to my hotel room at 1 a.m. to begin writing this Ebertfest Opening Night recap--and with an eye on a panel discussion I plan to attend at 9:30--means a few things have to go: sleep and a perfectionist's research and editing. Add in that this is 2 a.m. in Ohio and that I just took a muscle relaxant to loosen up my neck from a car accident a couple months ago and, well, this could be interesting. I'm about the last person one would compare to Hunter S. Thompson, so don't expect the rest of this entry to spin off into depraved tales of Champaign-Urbana after hours.

The 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival kicked off with a visit from the Illinois governor to proclaim this Ebertfest Day (or something to that affect). Fine, fine, but get on with it, governor. We have two films to watch.

It's become tradition for the festival to open with a film in 70mm. Tonight's first selection was intended to be projected in that format, but apparently the print was pink. That tint would have been ironically fitting considering that the film was PINK FLOYD THE WALL. Luckily a 35mm print--and a pristine one at that--was obtained in time so that the visual experience wasn't clouded by faded layers of celluloid.

I don't think I've listened to Pink Floyd's concept album since I was in college, if not high school, and I'd not seen director Alan Parker's film until tonight. Classic rock radio has burned several of these songs into my brain, but they take on different associations, not always for the best, in this rock and roll art film.

Bob Geldof acts out the role of Pink, a rocker who has barricaded himself in his hotel room while having a nervous breakdown and overdosing on drugs. The film doesn't so much as follow Pink's storyline as it sifts through whatever Roger Waters vomits up in regard to feelings about his father's death during World War II, the relationship with his mother, his animosity toward the system/the establishment, fascism, violence, the push/pull dynamic between performer and audience, and sex, drugs, rock and roll.

For as meticulously arranged and played as the band's music is, the film is raw and messy in uncovering the pain, horror, and disgust residing beneath the clean sounding surfaces of the songs. The spilled blood, weak flesh, and sexual anxiety are like something out of a teen's nightmarish fantasy (or David Cronenberg's filmography).

PINK FLOYD THE WALL can play like an adolescent's bilious railing against the unfairness of life. That's what makes this primal scream of a film so vivid. Whether it's schoolchildren being put in a meat grinder or Pink's new identity as a fascist leader emerging from a body that looks as though it is encased inside an enormous tumor, the lack of restraint in producing these hideous but striking images is where the material draws its power.

The danger of indulging the rantings of a disaffected youth who thinks he's the only one who ever felt this way is that can seem juvenile. Spare me the moans about the uncaring teachers and crookedness of everybody, junior. There's a reason why the album speaks to those that age from generation to generation and why it seems at least a tad overly melodramatic to me.

One more note about the imagery... The most memorable part to me was when Pink is sitting alone in a clean, empty room and then is pursued by a giant animated snake/dragon. The utilization of space and scale is pretty fantastic.

As for a couple stray observations that don't have much to do with anything, how about Bob Hoskins chowing down on a pineapple sliced in half during "Young Lust"? I also thought it was pretty funny to see a big ad with Mike Schmidt beside the words "Feeling 7Up" while the fascist force beats the scattering fans. Did anyone else think Pink's posture in front of the television was reminiscent of those old Memorex ads?

If that wasn't enough grimness for one night, how about Roy Andersson's YOU, THE LIVING (DU LEVANDE) as a late night cinematic chaser? It's actually a pretty good pairing with THE WALL as both films are populated with people who think that no one can understand the hurt inside of them and despair at what this means for the present and the future.

I put the film on my list of Honorable Mentions for the Best Films of 2009. Here's what I had to say then:
Swedish director Roy Andersson follows up his 2000 surrealist comedy SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (SÅNGER FRÅN ANDRA VÅNINGEN) with more darkly humorous sketches about the dilemmas of human existence. Laughs catch in the throat, although this time a bit more optimism underlies the drollness and Scandinavian emotional coolness. Andersson favors gorgeous, deep focus compositions that establish scenes in which the jokes trickle out in unbroken shots. The meticulous craftsmanship and impeccable timing in YOU, THE LIVING show an artist in full command of his distinctive voice.
On a second go-round the film seems akin to what I remember being a theme in Kurt Vonnegut's writings. Assuming I'm not thinking of someone else or getting this completely wrong, he stressed that life is short, so it's best to be kind to one another during the time we have as it could all end tomorrow.

I marvel at the formal command that Andersson has as a filmmaker. The strong vertical and horizontal lines box in his put-upon characters. The camera, positioned at something akin to a medium wide shot (for lack of a better term) zoomed out all the way, is merciless in its probing examination of these people. Am I not mistaken in seeing that he has most of the poor souls populating his films in a kind of whiteface to make them look more sickly?

The post-film panel came up with plenty of excellent comparisons for describing Andersson's work. Elvis Mitchell likened it to a cross of Gary Larson's THE FAR SIDE comic strips and Ingmar Bergman's work. I would like to propose that although Mike Judge's filmmaking style (or rigor) is the same as Andersson's, he's the closest American director that I think is a kindred spirit.


Tomorrow: a panel (if I can make it), MUNYURANGABO, THE NEW AGE, and APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Prelude to a festival

It's hard for me to believe, but tonight marks the tenth Roger Ebert's Film Festival I will have attended. I've been coming since 2001, when Ebertfest had the word "Overlooked" in its title. The adjective often required contortions to justify its use anyway, so good riddance to it. For instance, how exactly is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY an overlooked film? (Answer: its 70mm format is overlooked.) Overlooked certainly no longer applies to an event that sells out of passes months before the films are even announced.

The focus at Ebertfest is on the films, and rightfully so, but I can't help but feel that it is something more than just an excuse to watch and discuss movies for five days. The festival fosters the sense of being at an annual family reunion, something reinforced by all the familiar faces among the passholders, individual ticket buyers, and special guests. We're all ushered into the old and stately Virginia Theatre to partake of the entertainment that, say, our favorite uncle has chosen especially for us.

The analogy may be a hokey one, but Ebert presides over the event adorned with his name not as the sage atop the mountain but as a congenial host who just so happened to accommodate around 1500 people for the party he's throwing. The filmmakers and other invited guests intermingle with the attendees--this isn't The Celebrities and the hoi polloi--which keeps a relaxed vibe at the festival. Maybe some paparazzi slink about, but I've not seen any. While VIP seating may be saved, there's nothing keeping them from grabbing a spot anywhere they like. There's no red carpet. Instead, you might find John Malkovich behind you in line for coffee at the University of Illinois student union or Robert Forster leading a session in a classroom in the library's basement.

As with any family get-together, the health of an ailing member is a hot topic, and that's been the case with Ebert throughout the years with his well-documented surgeries and recovery. (Aside from that, there was also the year when he broke his arm late one night and showed up for the next day's introduction with his arm in a sling.) He was sorely missed the year he could not attend and was warmly welcomed back the following year.

So yes, there are reacquaintances to be made, but if you're not here, what do you care about the good time everyone here is having? The good news is that this year you can share in it, at least somewhat. The panels and film intros and Q&As will be streamed live here. To the best of my ability I'll be blogging each day of Ebertfest. Tonight will be a killer with the second film starting at 10 p.m. and a panel being held early the next morning, but I'll try to stay on top of everything.

Here's to a great Ebertfest #12.

Friday, April 16, 2010


GREENBERG (Noah Baumbach, 2010)

In the dramedy GREENBERG Ben Stiller’s forty-year-old Roger Greenberg returns to California fresh off of a nervous breakdown and still nurturing his bitterness about pretty much everything. For six weeks Greenberg is to watch over his brother’s house, but doing nothing, save for the occasional carpentry, is his primary goal. He meets up with some old friends and begins a romance of a sort with his brother’s 25-year-old assistant Florence Greta Gerwig, but Greenberg can be so intent on being miserable and dragging others down with him that he’s in danger of pushing everyone away.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most recent films, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, have found humor and pain through the examination of hurt people hurting people. GREENBERG continues that thematic exploration with the study of a prickly and self-sabotaging title character who isn’t a charming rogue but, to put it bluntly, a jerk.

Greenberg feels his life has spun out of control and attempts to bring order to it, whether through rehearsing his behavior, writing complaint letters, or lashing out when he feels others may be hitting a nerve. Stiller often makes Greenberg’s hostility and rants funny, but his strongest work comes in exercising the character’s worst reflexes without trolling for sympathy. The performance requires looking beyond the surface to see a wounded soul who believes he can only feel better by making others miserable.

Florence spots the vulnerability Greenberg obscures with his gruff nature, which is why Gerwig’s performance is key to making the film successful. Florence and Greenberg are kindred spirits searching for the same answers. She just hasn’t reached the moment when disappointment and doubt transform into despair. In inhabiting Florence’s awkward and unguarded optimism, Gerwig lets the character demonstrate another way of dealing with life’s bruises without becoming a redemptive figure.

Baumbach’s writing and direction of these characters display more of a novelistic touch that can make them tough to like all the time, but the approach produces a deeply felt view of flawed individuals.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fish Tank

FISH TANK (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

FISH TANK'S 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) has a chip on her shoulder and always seems to be itching for a confrontation, whether it's with her family, former friends, or strangers. She takes comfort in hip hop and dancing. She dreams of being a B-girl and practices her moves when alone. When her mother brings home new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), Mia gives him the same attitude she does everyone else. The difference is that Connor shows attention to and respect for her and slowly wins over Mia.

Done in the style known as kitchen sink realism, FISH TANK explores the lower class environment Mia inhabits with an unsparing view. The film's first half is uneventful, but writer-director Andrea Arnold does a fine job depicting the harsh economic and domestic realities Mia must live with. Her mother, who was probably in her mid-teens when she had Mia, acts as though she's still her eldest daughter's age.

Jarvis suggests a softer side to Mia underneath the rough exterior. While Mia is not particularly likable and the grim circumstances don't foretell a happy ending for her, Jarvis' bruised and stubborn performance elicits empathy.

FISH TANK'S second half is much more eventful, fatally so. The film becomes a caricature of arthouse miserabilism, which asserts that the only truths are the ugly ones. The problem isn't that Mia's life gets worse. The natural course of events seems to be leading there. The issue is that the piled up complications become ridiculous and at no greater purpose than to indulge a nihilistic attitude.

Nas' song "Life's a Bitch" accompanies a key scene near the end of FISH TANK and plays over the end credits. Mia has every reason to identify with the lyrics, but the film can't shake that adolescent mindset as it heaps insults upon her.

Grade: C-

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Date Night

DATE NIGHT (Shawn Levy, 2010)

When their seemingly happy friends split up, the Fosters question if their relationship is showing similar signs of strain. Looking to add a little spice into their routine marriage, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) head from New Jersey to the big city in DATE NIGHT. The Fosters arrive too late to get a table at a trendy New York City restaurant, but an emboldened Phil claims the reservation of the Tripplehorns, a couple who don't appear to be at the fine dining establishment.

The date night is going very well until two shady characters ask the Fosters to accompany them to the alley. They believe the Fosters are the Tripplehorns, who took something from someone you don't want to steal from. Thus begins a crazy evening for the suburban parents as they run for their lives.

Carell and Fey make a believable couple who are comfortable with one another yet worry that they've settled into a safe but boring marriage. DATE NIGHT'S undercurrent of quiet panic fleshes out the Fosters more than other comedies attempt to do, and it goes a long way in making them relatable. Unfortunately, DATE NIGHT takes two funny people, puts them in unfunny situations, and has them do and say unfunny things.

The comedy is disappointingly lousy rather than aggressively bad. Carell and Fey give their best effort and salvage occasional scenes. When they pose as a hipster couple to obtain a crucial telephone number, the actors find laughs in looking foolish and behaving with false confidence they've not shown to that point.

Carell and Fey can only do so much with this material. It's telling that some of the ad libs in the outtakes during the credits are funnier than what's in the proper movie. Who needs the lame thriller and action elements when these two performers can be funny themselves?

Grade: D+

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Runaways

THE RUNAWAYS (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

The rise and fall of an all-girl rock band in the mid-'70s gets the big screen treatment in THE RUNAWAYS. Band members range in age from thirteen to sixteen and include Kristin Stewart as guitarist Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie.

At the time the idea of hard rocking girls was not taken seriously, but the group's manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) finds the key to success in emphasizing their jailbait appeal, especially with Cherie. The Runaways get a record deal with Mercury and go on a tour of Japan, but personally and professionally, the girls aren't prepared for the temptations before them.

THE RUNAWAYS doesn't take the traditional biopic route. Rather than checking off all the important events on the band's timeline, the film gets caught up in the rush of youth, rebellion, and rock and roll. It pulses on the energy of surging hormones and living in the moment. That raw, uninhibited feel serves the music and the characters well, but after the buzz wears off, it's easy to see how lacking it all was for those living like this and is for those of us watching a recreation that's about as deep and insightful as a photo shoot.

Fanning brings vulnerability to her role as an underage sex kitten. Stewart carries her character with low key integrity. Both struggle, though, to round out their parts beyond assuming rock star poses. To the contrary, Shannon gustily takes to playing the sleazeball manager. It's a weird, funny, and scary performance that embodies the worst beliefs about people in the entertainment industry.

The Runaways may have gone along with Fowley's design of the band, but undoubtedly they were exploited in the process. It may have been nearly impossible to avoid doing the same in telling their story. Still, it's no accident that THE RUNAWAYS teases and delivers the possibility of young starlets gone wild. The film might be intended as a cautionary tale, but that tends to get lost amid the lurid thrills and tacked-on happy ending.

Grade: C-