Friday, April 27, 2012

Ebertfest 2012: Day 2

Group identification played a major role in the second day of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  The films examined who one casts one’s lot with (BIG FAN and KINYARWANDA) and what it is like to lack a larger body to be a part of (TERRI).

This was my third time seeing BIG FAN--the first theatrically, for what it’s worth--so I’ll direct you to my review rather than rehash what I wrote a couple years ago.  I will add that Michael Rapaport does a note-perfect turn as the main character’s sports talk radio nemesis.  The irony is that Rapaport’s character and the protagonist might get along like gangbusters if it weren’t for the fact that they root for rival football teams.
Steve Prokopy, Christy Lemire, and Big Fan writer-director Robert Siegel
Such irrational enmity looks dumb to outsiders.  Speaking as a sports fan, it can seem stupid from the inside too, yet I completely understand it, even if I won’t excuse it.  I don’t get as intense as the people in BIG FAN do about their rivalries, but as a Cincinnati Bengals fan, I cannot root for the Cleveland Browns or Pittsburgh Steelers.  Not only do I want to see my chosen team succeed, but I also want to see those particular competitors thoroughly fail.  This goes back practically to the beginning of my fandom.  The Browns haven’t even been much of a threat for ages, but I still desire to see them lose all the time.

David Bordwell, Darren Dean, Ishmael Ntihabose, Deatra Harris, and Kinyarwanda  writer-director Alrick Brown
Shifting from the silly tribalism of sports fans, KINYARWANDA looks at group conflict with much greater consequences.  Writer-director Alrick Brown explores the clash between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi classes and the genocide that resulted.  Brown sketches the story in multiple scenarios that at first seem disconnected but eventually connect in an appeal for forgiveness and healing.

The handsome cinematography and strong sense of passion on the part of the filmmakers make KINYARWANDA a film I wish I could say that I liked more than I did.  It’s a good-looking movie seeking to discover fresh angles on An Important Subject.  In the post-film Q&A Brown came across as thoughtful in his processes and in his aims, but in this instance I think he talks a better game than what made it onto the screen.

KINYARWANDA borrows the worst storytelling impulses of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The vignettes are arranged nonlinearly, but the narrative strategy leads to no greater purpose.  The structure Brown has chosen creates mild confusion that wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t shuffled the chronology.  More importantly, the film lacks momentum with its cubist observation of genocide.  In an attempt to make something epic, he’s tied together many scenes that, while inspired by true events, translate as sincere but banal anecdotes.
Terri star Jacob Wysocki, Christy Lemire, and director Azazel Jacobs
Group identification is missing entirely for the title character in TERRI, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Terri (Jacob Wysocki) seems perfectly comfortable with himself, but life isn’t going to be easy for an obese teenager who wears pajamas to school.  He lives with and cares for his sick uncle (Creed Bratton) and appears to have no friends.

Terri’s tardiness and unconventional dress eventually catches the attention of the assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly).  The administrator goes over the top to seem simpatico with Terri, but his genuine intentions to help can seem false or condescending when Terri realizes that he’s receiving the same treatment that special needs and misfit classmates get.

Wysocki is terrific at creating a unique character who is sensitive, empathetic, unusual, and self-assured, perhaps to a problematic degree.With no one to look out for him, Terri has found what works to get him through each day, although it also means he may be boxing himself into a corner that he won’t be able to get out of.  Wysocki doesn’t play Terri as a weird kid but as a vulnerable one who could use some friends and confidants.

All those descriptions apply to Reilly as Mr. Fitzgerald too.  He’s a total hoot as a school employee trying to pal up to at-risk students.  At first he seems like a hopelessly out-of-touch adult trying to act with it to get through to the kids.  By the end he’s shown to be as susceptible to being the butt of jokes as the students he wants to help, yet his ease in who he is and desire not to let it hold him back truly does make him a good role model and mentor.

As is part of the challenge in coming of age, the difficulty is being able to see beyond oneself or one’s circumstances.  Everything can feel like the biggest deal in the world.  TERRI uses tunnel vision to build these places and times to elicit those teenage feelings.   The strange charm in this funny and heart-rending film comes in how director Azazel Jacobs constructs the hermetic worlds of school, home, and, in the film’s longest and most pivotal scene, one evening of hanging out.

Unlike other festivals, where attendees are scattered around town, Ebertfest builds a community and can feel more like a family reunion.  One of the new traditions is for a group to go out for drinks and karaoke at a nearby bar.  While I haven’t dared to rock the mic either year, it’s been fun to hang out with friends and new acquaintances in this setting.  Moviegoing can be seen as a lone pursuit--and sometimes it is--but for five days in April in this environment it isn’t.


-Patton Oswalt was supposed to attend Ebertfest and host a screening of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.  His schedule ended up preventing him from coming, although he promised to clear the room to be in Champaign-Urbana next year.

-One improvement made for this year’s Ebertfest: the passes don’t have the sharp edges that they have in years past.  When wearing them in the whipping wind--or even when crossing one’s arms--it always seemed like the passes had the potential to do some slicing.

Big Fan (Robert Siegel, 2009): B-/62
Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown, 2011): C/46
Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011): B/71

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