Sunday, April 25, 2010

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.

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