Thursday, April 21, 2016

2016 Roger Ebert's Film Festival recap

Having started classes toward a Master of Business Administration degree, it was necessary for me to miss opening night and the first full day of the 2016 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. This was no small sacrifice for me, as I have attended every film at Ebertfest since 2001 and really enjoy the experience of being at it as part of each year at the movies.

As it turned out, I had already seen the first four films to play at the Virginia Theatre this year. Even though I yearned to be there, at least my familiarity with what was being shown meant that I didn’t need to feel like I was missing out. It would have been fun to see CRIMSON PEAK and THE THIRD MAN on the massive Virginia screen. I was less conflicted about missing GRANDMA and NORTHFORK, neither which I liked when watching them during their original runs, although I wouldn’t have minded revisiting the latter. Ebertfest has provided the space for reassessing films--some of which I did come around on after a second viewing--and as NORTHFORK was one Ebert championed, this would have been as good of a place and time as any to do so.

Ebertfest has a vibe akin to summer camp. Returning every mid-April provides the chance to reconnect with people you met there and may not have seen since the previous fest. That happens at other film festivals, but unlike the frenzied pace maintained in racing to one of multiple simultaneous options across a few square miles of a major metropolitan area, as with the Toronto International Film Festival, Ebertfest moves comparatively slowly, with screenings occurring at a common time and location for all in attendance in Champaign, Illinois. This allows for a relatively unhurried pace, aside from the free-for-all when the doors first open and passholders scramble to acquire their preferred seats for the day’s slate. I love the largeness and urgency of TIFF, but Ebertfest’s more deliberate state of being has its benefits. Attendees may be watching twelve feature films in five days, which would qualify as cinematic gorging for most people, yet here there is more time to digest them than the typical festival grants. The downtime between films is more likely to breed conversations among attendees and build the sense of community that clings to this festival.

As a longtime visitor to Ebertfest, I’ve wondered if the festival will be able to sustain itself without its namesake. Although my observations are anecdotal, I noticed that Ebert himself tended to be the biggest attraction regardless of what directors or actors were guests. Based on casual interactions with other passholders, his curation of and seal of approval for the selected films seemed to be of the utmost importance to those who bought passes and tickets. The crowds aren’t what they were when the festival was selling out passes quickly after going on-sale, but attendance appears to have stabilized to a healthy number that can support the annual event while not requiring one to be extraordinarily quick to ensure admission.

Ebert leaves a body of work that could easily serve as a guide to program a few decades worth of festivals. Co-founder and host Chaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn have always been involved with picking the films, so the task now falling to them, plus any directions left to them, is not as big of a shift in process as it might seem. Still, the difficult decisions surround what to play at the festival, especially if pass and ticket purchasers are accustomed to them having the critic’s endorsement. By my count, Ebert saw four of the films in this year’s line-up, with the two silent entries being ones he possibly screened during his life. At worst that’s a quarter of the selections; at best it’s half. Is that sufficient?

Clearly there has been a conscious choice for Ebertfest not to lock itself into being a purely repertory festival. Personally, I would prefer Ebert’s voice were a bit more prominent in the films chosen for this year. Assuming that rights issues aren’t a problem, it would be great if his old, pertinent TV reviews could play after each screening. Doing so would enhance the sense of his presence even in his physical absence. (It was a nice bonus when done this year.) Nevertheless, I also think they’re right not to keep the festival limited to films he reviewed or saw during his lifetime. If anyone has a right to surmise what new films he might have liked, it’s the two people in position to do so. Bringing in new films and talents keeps Ebertfest as an evolving thing rather than a museum piece, a quality that I intuit is important for this particular festival. Ebertfest has welcomed emerging filmmakers and critics rather than limiting those guests to a narrow group from one generation. If that is part of its mission, then it stands to reason that new films must play a significant role.

The highlights in this year’s line-up were BLOW OUT screened in a magnificent 35mm print and discussed in a post-film Q&A with star Nancy Allen; L’INHUMAINE with accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra; and EVE’S BAYOU with director Kasi Lemmons in attendance. At least where I live, Brian De Palma’s films tend to be harder to come by in revival screenings than other filmmakers of his generation, so seeing BLOW OUT like this was a treat. The Alloy Orchestra is an annual highlight of Ebertfest, and this year was no different. EVE’S BAYOU epitomizes the kind of film Ebertfest does well in showcasing. Ebert was a notable supporter of it, which makes it a good pick, but more importantly, it’s a film that may have slipped off the radar of cinephiles in the nineteen years since its debut. “Overlooked” was plucked out of the festival’s name many years ago because of its amorphous definition, but I think “overlooked” remains a valuable quality in what shows here. In a film culture increasingly driven by whatever’s newest, with canon titles getting the greatest attention for old films, there’s worth in shining the light on yesterday’s well-regarded films that have slipped through the cracks somewhat.

While I would prefer not to miss any days of Ebertfest, doing that this year permitted me to appreciate the respite it can be from everything else. Coming at the end of an academic term when I’ve been overwhelmed with homework, not to mention the day job, a few days of Ebertfest reminded that the movies can be an edifying escape.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Defending Your Life

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991)

Having been struck head-on by a bus after going left of center in his new car, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) comes to in a place that looks a lot like the western United States but is not on Earth. In DEFENDING YOUR LIFE the Los Angeles advertising man learns that he is dead and has been brought to Judgment City for a four-day review of his life. As all of his life has been recorded, the trial-like setting will feature the prosecution and defense presenting footage of his actions in an attempt to prove to two judges what motivated his actions. If he is determined to have lived with courage, he will proceed to whatever comes next in the universe’s design. If Daniel is found to have lived in fear, he will be returned to Earth to try again.

Daniel is a neurotic sort, so naturally this process, which his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) insists is not a trial, makes him anxious. He can’t fully enjoy what Judgment City has to offer, from the chance to discover one’s past lives to the ability to eat all you want without gaining weight, because he wonders how his life will be assessed. Daniel is somewhat able to take his mind off of this whole ordeal when he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman of the same approximate earthly age. He finds himself quickly falling in love with her, yet he resists to a degree because of his expectation that she will be moving forward while he will be sent back to Earth.

Perhaps the cleverest and funniest conceit of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that Daniel has no firmer grasp on how things are supposed to work in Judgment City than any of us do in our mortal lives. He can look for meaning in his surroundings, but without understanding how the place works, it’s all conjecture. Daniel is just as insecure in this way station, worrying about how the number of days being reviewed in his case and the modesty of his accommodations might be indicative of the verdict that awaits him. For this short period he is in a spot where fear should not be a factor, yet it continues to drive his choices and outlook. To make matters worse, everyone assures him that he doesn’t need to fret about anything. As writer, director, and star, Brooks taps into the nagging feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t, especially when they appear unconcerned.

Brooks has fun with the idea of a bureaucratic layover on the spiritual plane. Waiting room coffee table books are all photographs from God’s eye view, even of Judgment City. While the deceased are taken to places that resemble where they are from, there’s something amusing in the thought that mundane urban and suburban architecture would be soothing for souls in transition. Brooks also humorously envisions that even in death one can be made to feel small. Daniel has to sit through a blooper reel of his pratfalls and mistakes. Bob pokes fun at humans like for the low percentage of their brains they utilize compared to Judgment City’s residents like him. Insecurity, it seems, is something to be overcome to progress in the eternal.

While Brooks’ character has a nervous energy about him, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE provides a warm, funny space to consider larger questions of existence. Brooks challenges the notion that courageous and fearful behavior are clear cut from one another. Rather, what can appear cowardly may be a sign of internal strength and what seems brave may just be a survival instinct. Streep bestows a peaceful air upon Julia, who lived less fearfully than Daniel, yet even she is not wholly free of hang-ups. Typically an exploration of self doubt would wrap with a skeptical or ironic tone, but Brooks finds a way to conclude DEFENDING YOUR LIFE that feels hopeful and honest without betraying the protagonist’s cautious nature.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Knight of Cups

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick, 2015)

KNIGHT OF CUPS follows Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter lost in the wilderness of Hollywood and all of the temptations it has to offer. Writer-director Terrence Malick compares Rick’s experience with a story about a father who sends his son west to retrieve a pearl, except the boy forgets his mission as he is seduced by what this new land puts before him. Success has brought money and an unending flow of beautiful women to Rick, but it has separated him from his wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and brought tension between him and his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). Like Rick, who is referred to in the title, every significant character is given a chapter named after their corresponding tarot card. Each segment looks at how each person affects the wandering dreamer.

Malick continues to push his style to greater abstraction in KNIGHT OF CUPS. This film may show the limits of its utility. Malick employs a thin line of narrative for hanging his meditations in voiceover about the pursuit of God and love and alienation from it amid a world that distracts from the eternal by making beauty and novelty easily accessible to stave off boredom. Characters are heard on the soundtrack before they’ve been introduced and often sound the same, so it can be difficult to parse whose thoughts we’re hearing, although Malick may be more interested in the totality of the statements than assigning any to particular voices. The technique is freeing in that it allows the viewer to float along with the experience and confounding when trying to understand specifically what Malick is saying. For better or worse, the actors are symbols, even more than in his previous film.

After THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, how much one is willing to submit to the ride probably depends on one’s tolerance for Malick’s mystical poetry. The film unspools like a waking illusion, with Rick hazily roaming through the dream factory rich in material things and impoverished spiritually. It helps that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing imagery of manmade opulence holds interest even if one loses the threads of philosophy and theology that hold KNIGHT OF CUPS together. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film in which the camera swoops among the people and tilts upward as if in worship and humility.

Christian or faith-based cinema tends to be narrowly defined to the kind of pat homiletics in stuff like MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN. Certainly those very straightforward types of films are more accessible on an aesthetic level than the sound and image pastiche Malick favors, but both are searching for something higher. KNIGHT OF CUPS dwells in the sinful entertainment capital to understand how one can be led astray and might be led out. If there can be multiple denominations within the predominant western religion, why can’t there be different ways for art to contemplate the nature of the divine too?

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Miracles from Heaven

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN (Patricia Riggen, 2016)

In MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN the Beam family appears to have as close to a perfect life in their spacious ranch house in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson) feel blessed to have three daughters and an ever-expanding number of dogs, although mom may not be thrilled every time a new one is brought home. Kevin has opened a big veterinary clinic. Christy worries a little that they might have overextended themselves in launching the business, but she and her family are regular churchgoers with faith that God will see them through whatever may come.

Christy finds that faith tested when middle daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers) becomes sick and seems to be getting worse despite medical professionals assuring her and her husband that there’s nothing seriously wrong. When Anna is finally diagnosed correctly with an intestinal disorder, the news could not be more disheartening. The condition is incurable and does not permit Anna to eat. Christy is distraught, finding her only comfort in the hope that a Boston specialist will take Anna as a patient and be able to alleviate her considerable pain.

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN treads lightly as a story of tested faith, but it allows Christy to have the space to turn away from the church in a manner that makes sense even for believers. The strain of her daughter’s struggle, the lack of hope, and the cruel judgment of others as to her piety and how a deficiency in it might be responsible for the situation provide sufficient reasons for Christy to turn away from religion. Because this film’s purpose is to witness, MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN is careful to avoid Christy rejecting God outright but instead has her distance herself from a higher power, like putting something in storage that she does not have use for currently. God is there if she needs it, especially when she doesn’t think He can or will intervene.

While MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN makes room for that doubt, it is saddled with the narrative and filmmaking problems endemic to faith-based films, particularly those grounded in evangelical Protestantism. Primarily this is a matter of message above all. Randy Brown’s adaptation of Christy Beam’s real-life account of what happened to her daughter has two clear purposes. It is to assure those who are born again that their faith is the one true way, and it is to welcome non-believers to the light without being too Jesus-y. The first intention shows in doctors broadly dismissing Christy’s protests that something serious is wrong with Anna because, after all, they are the experts. This gets complicated when one doctor is a comfort to Christy and Anna, but the film reminds that he’s no match for God. It also comes across in the sense of superiority over a father who doesn’t his sick daughter tainted with that God stuff. In the film’s view prayer is like a wish slot machine that you just have to keep pumping enough quarters into until you hit the jackpot.

It’s no surprise that MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN plays best when it’s taking it easy on the sermonizing and merely letting the characters inhabit the stressful circumstances. The middle portion with Christy and Anna in Boston succeeds best because focuses on a parent and a child coping with hard things. A better film would have looked closer at the financial problems this medical predicament would put them in, especially when it just pays lip service to their stretched bank account mentioned early on. Although Anna’s illness is an emotional drain on the rest of the family, the film deals with them with a token scene or two. Perhaps most distressing is how MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN seeks to glorify God in on Anna’s unexplainable healing without fully appreciating the smaller kindnesses she and Christy received throughout the trying times. The message may be to open one’s eyes to how God is reflected in the words and deeds of others, but the film prefers something showier.

Grade: C-