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?

No comments:

Post a Comment