Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Day 3

Film festivals tend to be exhausting experiences. The lack of sleep, programming choices that often favor emotionally taxing films, and eating out of convenience contribute to festivals putting attendees through the wringer. It's too much of a good thing on a daily basis. Obviously there could be worse problems to have.

This year's Ebertfest may have presented challenges on the sleep front, but I've noticed that the collective tone of the films screened so far is much lighter. I don't know if this was a conscious choice or it just happened to work out this way, but I appreciate not feeling like I've been pummeled film after film.

Ebertfest has a Midwestern sensibility about it, and that often carries over to some of the selected films. Movies and filmmakers with Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, or Illinois connections have typically found a welcome home at this festival. The documentary 45365 does not showcase the Land of Lincoln, nor are the co-directing brothers from there. The setting is two states to the east in Sidney, Ohio, yet this impressionist examination of the filmmakers' hometown could also reflect any small American city.

(45365 co-directors Turner Ross and Bill Ross)

I grew up about forty miles from Sidney and surely set foot in the city at some point, even if nothing specific comes to mind. (Probably I was there for something related to my family's grain elevator business.) Sidney High School was and is in the same athletic conference as my high school. While Sidney isn't a bustling metropolis, its population of approximately 20,000 is a good bit larger than the 600-700 people who resided in my hometown. I've not lived in that area since the summer after my sophomore year of college, but having been away may have merely increased my interest in seeing 45365.

I explain this because my connection to the part of the region depicted means I'm likely looking at the film differently than most who encounter it. Do I recognize anywhere or anyone? How accurately does this resemble my memories and observations of the area? Does it feel like home? Clearly it is difficult for me to approach the film in an objective manner.

Parts of the film feel very familiar to me. The old farmer talking in the barn and the old women sitting around a table seem exactly like people I knew growing up, primarily because of their voices, expressions, and reactions. Until I went to college, I didn't consider myself to have an accent, yet I'm aware there is a Midwestern twang in my voice that I share with some of these people. (My ears are even accustomed to those who mumble through thicker accents in the film.) Identifying with people and characters we see in movies is part of the cinema's pleasures, but it's kind of disorienting to feel like I am being shown on screen, even if there's not really any one person in the film that corresponds to who I think I am.

45365 is a movie of small observations rather than big moments. The background reaction of a frustrated barber who is thwarted in cutting the hair of a talkative customer, a truck doing donuts in a snowy strip mall parking lot, and the men keeping a heavy rainfall from caving in a performance tent say plenty about the people who live and work in this place. Enough of these accumulate to make this a worthwhile film, even if my concerns about the repetitions and shapelessness still remain after this, my second time seeing it.

(Ali Arikan, Me and Orson Welles director Richard Linklater, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)

A sense of community is important in 45365 and at Ebertfest, so it is fitting that Richard Linklater has a film included among this year's selections. Watching ME AND ORSON WELLES it occurred to me that the characters in his films often are searching for an idealized corner of the world to call their own.

The protagonist in this film, a supremely confident 17-year-old who snatches a part in Orson Welles' and the Mercury Theatre's production of JULIUS CAESAR, may not at first seem to have much in common with the bright misfits and outcasts that populate Linklater's films. Gradually we come to see that he too has a specific idea of where he wants to and thinks he belongs, how his conception of this place clashes with reality, and how he's able to synthesize his vision and experience into a hopeful mindset. As in much of the director's work, the character and the film stake out firm philosophical ground.

The takeaway, though, is Christian McKay's outstanding performance as Welles. The danger in a role based on someone with such a strong and well-known personality is to lapse into an impersonation. The audience doesn't see a person or a character but someone doing Welles. McKay inhabits the part from the first time we see him bellowing among his company that he vanishes into the character. In being an unknown actor it may be easier for him to do so, but he does remarkable work in playing the range of being intimidating, tender, funny, generous, and cruel.

World building is usually talked about in terms of superhero movies, but it merits mention in ME AND ORSON WELLES. The seductive bubble of the theater and the entertainment industry blocks out the rest of the world. It becomes easy to understand how someone like Zac Efron as the main character Richard could get swept up in the thrill of being part of this insular environment and lose sight of everything else. Welles' play turned out to be a landmark event, as we are well aware, but the characters don't know it. Linklater treats this period in a contemporary manner, as though the fate of the 1937 production is being discovered as the story unfolds. This stylistic choice makes an enormous difference in the film feeling organic and vibrant rather than as though it's being recounted out of a musty history book.

(Anath White, Only You director Norman Jewison, and Olivia Collette)

Rounding out the day was Norman Jewison's 1994 romantic comedy ONLY YOU. Although recently engaged, Marisa Tomei's Faith impulsively leaves Pittsburgh for Venice when she learns that the man she thinks she is destined to marry is traveling there. A ouija board and a fortune teller told an 11-year-old Faith that her soul mate was named Damon Bradley. Now 25 and less than two weeks from her wedding day, the prospect of meeting this long-imagined lover, whose existence she knows of only through a phone call for her fiancé, is irresistible. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, he appears in the form of Robert Downey Jr. as a shoe salesman from Boston.

ONLY YOU is a standard issue romantic comedy that is both a throwback and very much of the mid-'90s. In comparison to a lot of what is produced in the genre today, it shows signs of being made with a formal rigorousness and seriousness of purpose that these films don't often receive. Longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist worked on ONLY YOU, and the screenplay isn't larded with a bunch of pointless subplots.

Perhaps the theory I'm going to propose won't stand up to the data or the light of day, but my gut feeling at this late point in the night is that this particular type of light entertainment is rarely made by veteran directors anymore. They've become the domain of inexperienced or undistinguished filmmakers and are thus susceptible to reductive treatment of the story and characters.

For example, whereas many of the current romantic comedy protagonists frequently behave like idiotic children, the leads in ONLY YOU still act like adults. Faith is being irrational, but one or two minor instances aside, she still comports herself like a grown woman rather than a socially inept kid who has trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The film wants to embrace the grand romantic fantasy, but it doesn't enable the sort of foolishness that Faith is engaging in. Sure, everything works out for her, but it comes down firmly on the side of making one's own destiny rather than chucking everything based on unrealistic notions of destiny.

Tomei gives an appealing performance, even if seems like she's still revved up in MY COUSIN VINNY mode, as if it was to be her permanent screen persona. She's well-matched with Downey Jr., who is nimble with the comedy in a thin role. The Italian cities and landscapes provide gorgeous backdrops. While the plot in this type of film is usually predictable, screenwriter Diane Drake drops a couple unexpected but well integrated twists into the mix.

The big surprise is Bonnie Hunt as Faith's sister-in-law and sounding board while the two of them are in Italy. It's a classic supporting character role played in a warm and funny way that makes one long for the major breakthrough that has never come for the comedic actress. With her Chicago roots, I'm a little surprised she isn't at the festival. Her fantastic performance in ONLY YOU reminds me of the gem of a romantic comedy RETURN TO ME that she directed, wrote, and acted in. That would be a good one for a future Ebertfest (hint, hint).

Day 3 grades:

-45365: B-
-Me and Orson Welles: B+
-Only You: B-

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: The social network

I intend to get around to writing about the three films that played on day 2 of Ebertfest, but that will have to wait until another day. A night out on the town with several of the attending film critics and far flung correspondents and a few of the filmmakers gobbled up the time I would have otherwise spent alone in the hotel room writing until in the wee hours of the morning. Which sounds more fun to you?

That delay may have been for the best as I'd already seen UMBERTO D, MY DOG TULIP, and TINY FURNITURE theatrically. I watched the latter two within the last six months and wasn't crazy about either one. My opinions remain unchanged, although I'll ease up a smidgen on my rather harsh original assessment of MY DOG TULIP. I still could do with a lot less of the emphasis on the dog's excretory functions, but I didn't find this content as intensely distasteful as I did during my first viewing.

I mentioned earlier that the festival is about more than the movies; it's about the community of people who come together for the event. Keeping true to my word to interact more with those I met at last year's festival and those I've become familiar with via social media, I headed out with the group of critics and filmmakers for karaoke night at a Champaign bar.

But first, before leaving the Virginia Theatre I was able to have a conversation with NATURAL SELECTION star Rachael Harris, who attended the same small liberal arts college I did. That was a pleasant surprise, but it is also the sort of thing that this festival permits more easily. Granted, it didn't hurt that the polo shirt I was wearing had the school's name on it, which she and her director spotted as soon as I joined the group ready to head out for some Champaign nightlife. (And yes, I was truthful when asked if I'd seen her film the previous night and what I thought.) Although I had an in, by and large the filmmakers mingle with the festivalgoers and do so happily.

Best as I can tell, critic Ali Arikan is the unofficial social chair. Wrapped in a cape-like blanket, he led the pack to a local bar that was quickly overrun with us Ebertfest attendees. The chances of me getting in front of everyone to belt out a number were slim to none, but what a blast it was to be in the mix to cheer on IFC's Matt Singer get things started with his smooth Michael McDonald-like stylings, Harris tackle Salt-N-Pepa, and Roger Ebert's wife Chaz perform "Superfreak".

Ebertfest is a celebration of movies and their power to unify. A memorable night such as this, which brought together thirty or forty people from the festival and a few locals who happened to be at the bar, is as much in the spirit of the event as sitting down to watch the films. For those who don't understand the tweets and reports buzzing about a university town film festival whose purpose isn't to find the next hot thing in cinema, a couple hours tonight at Bentley's would have cleared it all up.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Opening Night

(Chaz and Roger Ebert)

The vintage marquee in front of the Virginia Theatre is no longer there, but otherwise things seemed to be the same as usual at Roger Ebert's Film Festival. Anticipation was high to get things underway, and what better start can you ask for than seeing one of the all-time greats, METROPOLIS, and a live score performed by The Alloy Orchestra. I believe this is the first repeat film at Ebertfest, as it and the band were here for the fourth festival in 2002.

Of course, the easy justification for bringing it back are the restored scenes that make this version as close to an original full cut as is likely to be seen. I believe I've seen three different cuts of the film, with this being my second encounter with this so-called complete METROPOLIS.

Plenty has been written about Fritz Lang's 1927 film, and all of it is going to sound more studied than whatever I type out here at almost 2 a.m. Instead, permit me to rave briefly about this movie. It boasts unbelievably audacious filmmaking. The sets! The setpieces! The sustained climax that must be at least forty minutes long! Basically everything from the "Furioso" title card on is an action avalanche on a ridiculous scale. The restored version makes a lot more narrative sense. The Alloy's live score was a real treat to hear again. The only bad thing about their performance is that we don't have it to look forward to yet in this year's festival.

(Michael Phillips with Natural Selection's writer/director Robbie Pickering and actress Rachael Harris)

Opening Night's second film was the late addition NATURAL SELECTION. After seeing and admiring it at this year's South by Southwest, where it won the jury and audience awards for narrative feature, Ebert found extra room for it.

Rachael Harris stars as Linda, whose marriage of 25 years has been abstinent for nearly the entire duration. Since she is unable to conceive, her husband's religious beliefs compel him to avoid having sex with her purely for pleasure. When Linda is called to see him at the hospital after he passes out while making what turns out to be his regular contribution to a fertility clinic, she feels more than a little betrayed. She was oblivious to how he'd been channeling all of that pent-up energy.

Linda's husband asks that she find the children created from his donations, which eventually leads this frumpy Texas Christian to the Florida dwelling of Raymond (Matt O'Leary), a junkie and escaped convict. She desperately wants to bring this biological son back to her husband. Their misadventures on the road home comprise the majority of the film.

NATURAL SELECTION got off on the wrong foot with me, enough so that it never recovered. Much of the early humor comes from mocking devout conversatives--or an exceptionally rare type of fundamentalist--and there's nothing especially funny about these cheap shots. (In a similar manner, CEDAR RAPIDS got off to a very shaky start with its sneering attitude toward professed Christians while not demonstrating any tangible understanding of those who identify in such a way.)

I didn't find the characters to be particularly credible, especially when they're together. A pivotal scene in a dark restaurant finds Linda and Raymond exchanging painful secrets. The sequence is well-acted, but not for a second did I buy that these two people would connect in this manner. The shortcoming is in the writing rather than the performances. Harris handles the shifts between serious and jokey tones with aplomb. The derision toward whatever beliefs her character holds--something that's never clarified yet ought to be--is in writer-director Robbie Pickering's managing of the material, not her acting.

The loneliest time in a crowded movie theater is when practically everyone is laughing except you, and was I ever feeling it during this film. When you're not enjoying something, it's easy to turn to nitpicking something to death. (I'd point to the unfailing tracking sense that one character possesses.) To its credit, NATURAL SELECTION displays some visual adroitness and eventually settles into a decent storytelling groove. Lose the caricatured character constructions, though.

Opening Night grades:


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Pre-fest thoughts

If the sky is gray, hard rain is falling, and tornado warnings are being issued, then it must be time for Ebertfest. For whatever reason--perhaps the fact that it's spring in the Midwest--Roger Ebert's Film Festival is usually accompanied by rain and strong winds. Yes, such weather makes for the less than pleasant experience of getting soaked when lining up to be admitted to the Virginia Theatre, but it sure does make one feel less guilty about spending the better part of five days cooped up watching movies than being outside. (Truthfully, the weather isn't always rotten. Selective memory probably makes it seem like it's all rain, all the time.)

This marks the eleventh time I've driven to Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend the festival. I look forward to seeing the movies, obviously, but I also anticipate the changes to the lovely old theater and the cities. Sometimes I feel like the Harvey Keitel character in SMOKE, who takes the same photograph every day. In my situation, it's snapping what are probably similar shots over a five day stretch year after year.

I can hardly believe that I've been coming to Ebertfest since 2001, nor can I believe how life in general has changed. AAA TripTiks have been put aside for directions printed from the internet, which have been replaced by a GPS. For one year's trip I lugged my desktop along with the intention of blogging from my hotel room and using a free introductory offer on an ISP CD to secure web access over the phone line. (I ended up sitting at a computer in the hotel's lobby well after midnight typing my daily reports.)

The movies are the primary attraction, but the longer I've attended, the more the community around the event been a key reason why I keep wanting to return. It's no accident, I think, that the participatory and communal qualities on EBERT PRESENTS AT THE MOVIES feels like an extension of Ebertfest. The show isn't just two film critics, and Ebertfest isn't only Ebert. The program and the festival provide platforms for multiple voices to be joined in discussing the cinema that we all love. (This was as true of Ebertfest before its namesake became incapable of conducting the post-film talks.) In that spirit, I intend to meet up with more of the critics I've come to know,either by meeting them at this fest or becoming acquainted with them via social media.

What about this year's movies, you ask? I've seen seven of the thirteen and six of the first seven showing, so that defuses some of the excitement for me. (There's also one title I dislike relatively strongly and another I don't have any real interest in seeing again but whatever. I don't want to be a grump about those particular choices.) I'm most looking forward to seeing a film I've seen three times, including once at this very festival. The latest (and longest) cut of METROPOLIS accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra is sure to be a highlight. It was when they played with it here years ago. I'm interested to hear what Richard Linklater has to say when he appears with ME AND ORSON WELLES. Plus, actress Rachael Harris, who's here with NATURAL SELECTION, attended the same college I went to (and where I now work), and the well-shot documentary 45365 covers a town that's near where I grew up.

As usual, you can expect my coverage here every day. I'll be shooting some video as well, although chances are I won't begin to mess with any of that until the festival is over. With that said, let Ebertfest begin.

Monday, April 11, 2011

2011 Cleveland International Film Festival nuggets

My early spring travels included a visit to the Cleveland International Film Festival, which seems
to pack more people in year after year, at least since I've started attending. This year CIFF overtook all of Cleveland Cinemas in Tower City Center, and the crowds continued to pile into the auditoriums. (I read somewhere that one of the days featured more seats filled at the festival than the Cleveland Indians game that was played across the street. Impressive as that is for the fest--and dire for the baseball team--we're not talking about unique attendees but seats filled over the course of the day.)

Anyway, the change in accreditation this year meant a reduced slate for me. While I wasn't ultimately enthusiastic about a lot of what I picked to see, keep in mind that it is a random sample that is not necessarily indicative of the programming's quality. I've had days at this festival before where I've seen five or six films I've liked. I've had others, as this one turned out, where finding a good one was a challenge. There's a luck of the draw involved sometimes. I drew the short one this time around. So it goes.

-WIN/WIN (Jaap van Heusden, 2010) (The Netherlands)

No, this isn't the Thomas McCarthy-directed dramedy with Paul Giamatti as a high school wrestling coach. Rather, it's a Dutch cautionary tale about the corporate world. Oscar Van Rompay plays a stock broker with unparalleled skills when it comes to trading. Of course, this high stakes world turns out to be more pressure-filled and soul-sucking than our guileless hero anticipated. WIN/WIN is a decent enough film, but it hits pretty much every beat you expect it too. More crucially, the drama doesn't really feel like it earns the expected big statement of an ending.

Grade: C+

-IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE (EU CAND VREAU SA FLUIER, FLUIER) (Florin Serban, 2010) (Romania and Sweden)

The Romanian film scene has been one to keep an eye on for awhile, so this was one of my more anticipated titles of the day. The film centers on a teenage boy who is close to completing his sentence at a juvenile detention facility. Due to a family issue, he makes a rash choice before his time is up and creates a whole new set of problems for himself. This quiet, deliberate film is of a piece from what I know of Romanian cinema, but I can't render a verdict on it. Seeing a full day's worth of films can challenge one to stay awak. In this case, it was the early hours needed to drive to Cleveland for a schedule beginning at 9:15 a.m. that was responsible for me taking multiple cat naps during this. Trust me, I wasn't happy about it.

Grade: incomplete (due to sleeping unrelated to the film)

-SPECIAL TREATMENT (SANS QUEUE NI TETE) (Jeanne Labrune, 2010) (France)

The overlapping qualities between prostitution and psychoanalysis are examined in a film that's moderately compelling at best. The most interest derives from Isabelle Huppert as an upscale hooker who specially tailors sessions with clients and their well-endowed wallets to suit their particular needs. Oftentimes this has more to do with talking than sex, not that intimate physical contact isn't in the equation. The character description alone sounds like a good fit for the risk-taking actress, but she can only do so much with a screenplay and direction that tend to make trite connections regarding how these professions tend to the needs of those in pain.

Grade: C

-THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED(Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion, 2010) (United States and Liberia)

How much does religious conversion count for when considering the past? This powerful documentary about a former Liberian militia commander turned Christian minister certainly puts the question to the test. Once known as the fearsome General Butt Naked because of his penchant for leading his soldiers while nude, Joshua Milton Blahyi is a changed man, or so he claims to be. Of course, he also accepts responsibility for the death, many by his own hand, of an estimated 10,000 people. As great as it may be that he's found God, his debts in the universal ledger are probably too steep to ever be paid off in most people's eyes. Yet there he is asking those he's wronged for forgiveness and trying to improve the lives of some of those he once led.

The best thing about THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED is that it leaves you at the end as uncertain about whether this guy is genuine as you were at the start. Part of me is intensely skeptical of Blahyi's words and motives. Yes, we see his victims and some of their family members forgive him, but it certainly seems like such pardons might be granted out of the lingering fear of the man who terrorized them. He's a physically imposing figure, and his pleading for forgiveness can seem too insistent and self-serving. Religion is merely a different weapon for him to manipulate people with. Nevertheles, there are times when it appears that something fundamental has changed in Blahyi and that he is a living example of the faith he professes to hold.

It's a really fascinating film and one that gives the viewer a lot to wrestle with. Of my limited viewing at the festival, this was easily the best.

Grade: B+

-THE HEDGEHOG (LE HERISSON) (Mona Achache, 2009) (France)

This adaptation of the novel THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG feels like it needed the Hollywood awards season once over to get it into fighting shape and make it a better film. (This has the scent of end-of-the-year prestige picture all over it.) Although based on a well-respected book, the dry screenplay and simple construction are at odds with the shocking nature of the plot. 11-year-old Paloma intends to kill herself when she turns twelve in about half a year. Like the protagonist, director Mona Achache handles it all matter of factly, but the rather large leaps the story requires the audience to make are often unconvincing.

Grade: C

-HAYFEVER (FEBBRE DA FIENO) (Laura Luchetti, 2010) (Italy)

Or proof that film festival fare isn't all heady stuff. HAYFEVER is essentially the kind of romantic comedy/drama you'd expect Touchstone to release, except it's in Italian. Put Vanessa Hudgens in the main female role, and it would be virtually indistinguishable from its American counterparts. Even the indie-skewing soundtrack has a calculated commercial quality to it. HAYFEVER isn't written or edited very well, but as slick product that begs for its influences to be spotted (ROMAN HOLIDAY, EMPIRE RECORDS), it is relatively easy to watch. The ending, though, is one of the biggest miscalculations I've seen in a film in some time.

Grade: D+