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-

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