Sunday, April 30, 2017

2017 Roger Ebert's Film Festival recap

I would prefer to attend Ebertfest in its entirety, which I did from 2001 until I started taking classes toward a Master’s degree in 2016, but being at most of it is certainly better than not being able to go. For the 2017 edition of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival I only missed opening night, which was aggravating insofar as HAIR counts among the six of this year’s twelve features I hadn’t already seen. Comme ci, comme ça.

I’ve been reviewing new films regularly since 1997, so the longer I’ve been coming to Ebertfest, the more likely it is that I’ve seen a substantial portion of what screens at the event. Still, with the number of films being made these days, it stands to reason that fewer of the smaller ones that pepper the Ebertfest schedule--the documentaries and indie features that get modest or meager theatrical releases--will have passed before my eyes. So, unlike many of the folks filling the seats at the Virginia Theatre trusting in what’s been curated for them, I’m ordinarily familiar with about half of the lineup. In that regard, I tend to divide the festival picks into three groups: films to reconsider, films I’ve been meaning to catch up with, and films to discover.

Among those in the reconsideration category were HYSTERIA, THE HANDMAIDEN, ELLE, PLEASANTVILLE, BEING THERE, and DE-LOVELY.  I'd seen ELLE and THE HANDMAIDEN within the last seven months, so I was most interested in observing how the Ebertfest crowd, which tends to be older, would react to these provocative films than in reassessing them.  Paul Verhoeven and Park Chan-wook are filmmakers who delight in shocking viewers, but as far as I could tell, the audiences at these screenings were willing to go to the dark and lurid places they were being taken.  I liked both about the same as I did on initial viewing, although ELLE played more as a redemption story, just a very twisted one, than I noticed before.  I've seen the great French actress Isabelle Huppert at a screening before, but it was no less fun to see her politely shoot down audience theories and questions that would make the work and her process easier to explain.

HYSTERIA, a historical comedy about the invention of the vibrator, demonstrated the benefit of seeing a funny film with a large crowd.  I like the movie but don't know that my opinion moved any on it this time, but it played better in a huge room consistently filled with laughter.  With ease of access to films virtually anywhere you want, I think that theatrical experience is less valued by the average moviegoer today, but this screening, and Ebertfest overall, show why seeing films on the big screen mattes, even for a "small" movie that is often characterized as something that can wait to be seen at home.

If I were to dig up my 1998 Top 10 list, I'm pretty sure PLEASANTVILLE was on it toward the bottom half.  I may not have seen it since it was in theaters, and this revisit was a nice reminder of a film with a clever concept that may works even if it might be a tad too earnest.  BEING THERE, on the other hand, made much more sense to me than when I saw it from a grocery-store rented VHS tape as an early teen.  That it represents to some degree the political reality that we're living in continues to lend potency to the film's humor.  As for DE-LOVELY, a second go-round with it didn't change my opinion of a nice-looking but not terribly compelling biopic.

Those with the potential for discovery included the documentaries THEY CALL US MONSTERS, MIND/GAME: THE UNQUIET JOURNEY OF CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW, and NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VISION OF YOU.  I wouldn't characterize even the best of the bunch as a previously unknown gem, but the Norman Lear profile was as lively and pointed as the 94-year-old subject in his post-film participation in the Q&A.  Lear has been celebrated for a long time, but one thing this festival does well is shine the spotlight on people who have drifted out of it.  Donald O'Connor's 2003 Ebertfest appearance will probably be hard for the event to top, but the opportunity to see and hear an industry legend like Lear can be as valuable to attendees as the film that brought him there.  Norman Lear's son Ben was at Ebertfest as director of THEY CALL US MONSTERS, a documentary about juvenile offenders that feels like three films in one, none exactly satisfactory.  MIND/GAME focuses on a basketball star's difficulties and plays more like a TV special, which doesn't make it bad, just not the sort of thing I'd devote one of the few Ebertfest slots to.  (Of course, it's not my festival to program.)

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER and VARIETÉ are the best fits for films I’ve been meaning to catch up with, although neither were exactly on my radar and both are now on it.  Of all of the films at Ebertfest, I was perhaps most interested in seeing Charles Burnett's 1990 drama.  The festival dropped "overlooked" from its name years ago, but this film fits what I still think of as its mission: to bring attention to movies that didn't get the credit they deserved at the time and may be harder to see.  Burnett's excellent TV movie NIGHTJOHN would have been a terrific alternative pick.  Unfortunately for me, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER played at a perilous late afternoon time during which I struggled to stay awake after rolling into Champaign, Illinois around 1:30 a.m. and having to put up with a noisy hotel neighbor.  I faced a similar challenge with keeping my eyes open at the screening of VARIETÉ, which filled the almost annual spot provided to a silent film accompanied by Alloy Orchestra.

I may have been a little cooler on this year's lineup overall--and wished I'd been more awake at my two most eagerly anticipated films--but Ebertfest remains a highly enjoyable festival and is certainly worth the trip for those in the Midwest who don't have access to the films that play here or events that bring out the filmmakers.  I look forward to returning for its twentieth year in 2018.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Little Prince

THE LITTLE PRINCE (Mark Osborne, 2015)

The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) in THE LITTLE PRINCE is being groomed by her Mother (Rachel McAdams) to be a striver in a dog-eat-dog world. She bombs the entrance interview to get into the prestigious Werth Academie, but a move into the right house within its district and a meticulous and demanding summer schedule of preparatory work are anticipated to launch her on the path to success. While other kids might balk at a summer of intense studying while a parent is away at work, the Little Girl naturally takes to it.

Her focus is tested when she meets the old man who lives next door. The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) gets her attention to wander with the creaky, old plane he’s trying to repair and stories of his desert encounter years ago with the Little Prince (Riley Osborne), a boy who lives on an asteroid. The Little Girl and the Aviator’s friendship lead her to searching for the Little Prince when the old man grows ill and becomes unable to look for him.

THE LITTLE PRINCE adapts Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella of the same name and puts the book within a contemporary story, thus using it as a leaping off point for expansion. The framing device has practical reasons because without it there likely isn’t enough source material to mold into a feature film. There’s creative justification too, as the things de Saint-Exupéry bemoaned in 1943 have surely increased in today’s world. If he was worried about child-like wonder being stamped out on the path to adulthood, he probably would not be heartened by the emphasis on practicality in education and the culture today.

This reworking of THE LITTLE PRINCE complements the original’s concerns about how the process of growing up can result in the loss of curiosity and lack of appreciation for intangible pleasures with values hard to quantify in a market-driven society. Parental insecurities about their child’s future and the desire to optimize time to increase marketability and competitiveness are rightfully significant. Still, maligning play and contemplation, or treating them as goods only if they have discretely applicable ends, undermines development of the whole child.

THE LITTLE PRINCE employs two styles: three-dimensional computer animation for the contemporary portions and stop-motion watercolors for memories of the Little Prince. Scenes rendered in the newer method impress with their sleekness while the older style contains warmth and personality, qualities that often leak out when seeking to conform to look like every other CGI-animated film now. The standardized perfection of the contemporary scenes are not artless, but to a degree they represent what the film wishes to resist, namely efficiency prized over wonder. There can be beauty in both. In using different styles, THE LITTLE PRINCE integrate the practical and the dreamy as a guide to remembering how they feed one another.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 20, 2017


GIFTED (Marc Webb, 2017)

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is trying to do the best for his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in GIFTED, but he faces a major challenge in deciding how to raise this precocious first grader. Frank saw how his brilliant sister Diane--Mary’s mother--was not granted the chance by their mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) to have a typical life. As Mary is under his care, he feels a responsibility to his sister and exceptionally bright niece to provide her with a normal upbringing around regular kids.

Family friend and neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) warns Frank not to enroll Mary in the nearby public school, fearing that doing so will draw attention to them. Sure enough, Mary quickly dazzles her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) with her math proficiency and gets in trouble for being mouthy and assertive. The principal recognizes that Mary will not be challenged at their school and offers to set her up with a scholarship to a private academy, which Frank rejects. His actions lead to his mother learning where they are and what is happening. Spotting the opportunity for Mary to complete the rigorous work that Diane didn’t, Evelyn sues Frank for custody.

GIFTED weighs whether it is more neglectful for an uncommonly talented child to be brought up with the rewards and pressures of being a presumed genius or to be unchallenged intellectually but allowed to grow up with what passes for normalcy. Are Evelyn’s ambitious intentions worse than Frank’s desire to trade academic opportunities for an ordinary life, or is limiting a child’s potential worse because of a philosophical difference of opinions? The problem is that director Marc Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn have set up a false choice. Mary doesn’t have to subjected to crunching numbers and reading books every waking hour, nor must she be relegated to classes that don’t test and expand her abilities so she can be a Girl Scout and have friends.

The filmmakers know this, of course, yet have chosen a binary view of the circumstances for dramatic convenience. A better film would have struggled over finding the proper balance rather than casting the situation in either/or terms. GIFTED puts a heavy finger on the scales to favor Frank by having him face off with a woman so singularly obsessed with having her daughter’s work be completed that she will consign her granddaughter to the same restrictive formative experience without a second thought. For Evelyn this custody battle is about professional achievement through reflected glory and nothing else, so audience sympathies will naturally be directed to Frank instead.

It may be more satisfying to have a clear villain to root against in GIFTED, but Frank’s complex feelings and motivations are sufficient for taking a deeper look at the difficulties of raising a preternaturally smart child. Evans does nice work expressing the uncertainty and exhaustion that come with the territory. Roberta’s forewarnings suggest that he might even have wanted things to come to this because he’s tired of hiding in plain sight with Mary and isn’t sure he can bear the burdens that are only going to increase. GIFTED works best when it focuses on how Frank and Mary relate and how they have been getting by to this point. The fundamental aspects of their lives are demanding enough that they don’t need to be tugged upon by writerly conventions to make them more substantial.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Personal Shopper

PERSONAL SHOPPER (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) makes a living selecting clothes and accessories for her wealthy celebrity client Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) in PERSONAL SHOPPER, but she draws little fulfillment from the work. She’s surrounded by all this luxury but cannot partake of it. Additionally, she still mourns the death of her twin brother Lewis with whom she shares a heart abnormality. The brother and sister also claim to have the gift of being mediums. They made a pact that whoever died first would contact the other sibling from the beyond.

Maureen stays at Lewis’s house waiting for a sign from him but receives nothing that she interprets as definitive proof. One night she has contact with a ghost, but who it is and what it wants is hard for her to determine. She then begins receiving texts from an unknown entity, possibly Lewis but perhaps another spirit or someone living. As Maureen communicates with whoever is on the other end, she becomes more distressed about the life she has put on hold to resolve whether her brother can still talk to her.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas often uses PERSONAL SHOPPER’s widescreen frame to capture Maureen alone in large spaces, conveying the character’s freedom of movement and absence of direct contact. This is a visual reflection of the modern experience, the virtual ability to go anywhere yet remain disconnected from anyone. Maureen could be interacting with the dead, the living, or her own thoughts feeding delusions brought on by grief and isolation. She travels from Paris to London and back trapped within what’s going on in her head and the sometimes hostile text conversation with her unknown correspondent. This tense and lengthy passage in which most of the action is sending and awaiting SMS responses strongly depicts the experience of falling down an electronic rabbit hole of online activity to the elimination of anything outside the bubble.

Stewart’s remarkable performance is fueled by her detachment. It’s as though she’s there and not there, which aligns with Maureen being physically present and mentally afar. When she acts impulsively, such as secretly trying on Kyra’s clothes when she is expressly forbidden from doing so, it’s as though an invisible woman has materialized all of a sudden. The character is someone who makes an effort not to be seen, so to reveal herself is as shocking as anything. Stewart also says a lot about Maureen in the small movements of her thumbs as she texts, letting a quiver of them express more than a monologue.

Among the various topics Assayas touches upon, grief is the most potent and pertinent. Maureen has been badly rattled by her brother’s death, and it informs her very being from moment to moment. Whether one believes in her gift or not, what matters is that she does. Her ability to commune with the dead worsens her emotional struggle. Just like the expensive things she handles for others but does not possess, she has access to the spiritual plane but the frustration of unclear messages being received. Although her dilemma occurs within a ghost story, Maureen’s situation is not much different than a religious believer searching for the voice of God but unable to decipher what is thought to be heard.

Grade: A-

Friday, April 07, 2017


RAW (GRAVE) (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Justine (Garance Marillier) grew up in a vegetarian household, and she fully intends to maintain her principles when she begins veterinary school in RAW. Animals are for assisting, not eating. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has been going to the school, but rather than provide full cover for her inexperienced sibling, she insists that Justine learn to deal with the hazing that the older students dole out. Justine is willing to put up with most of the demands, like how to dress or address her senior peers. She draws a line, though, when asked to consume raw rabbit liver.

Assuming Alexia refused to take part in the ritual, she calls upon her for support. Instead Alexia eats some and then forces one of the organs into her mouth. Justine has a bad reaction, breaking out all over in a rash. This first taste of meat will not be her last, as she finds herself craving it in spite of how she was raised. Having erased one taboo, Justine finds herself wanting the truly forbidden, human flesh.

Writer-director Julia Ducournau applies the art horror treatment to an otherwise familiar coming of age story. RAW is about a young adult on her own for the first time and who experiments with the freedom that comes when there are no watchful eyes. Justine’s turn from herbivore to cannibalistic carnivore is just an exaggerated version of the sheltered kid who goes to college and engages in all manner of reckless acts because mom and dad aren’t nearby. RAW’s provocations aren’t reactionary means for a moralizing end but disturbing and, at times, darkly funny observations of the wildness that can come with independence.

Ducournau depicts the gore like an anthropologist might nonjudgmentally write about a custom that is revolting to her native culture or as a naturalist might consider a predator . The matter-of-fact quality to the violence lends more potency to it and queasily charges scenes of Justine wolfing down shawarma and gnawing on a raw salmon fillet. The ferocity of her appetite and how she tries to mitigate it make up the internal struggle she needs to resolve.

Marillier presents Justine as a meek and disciplined person who hasn’t questioned the world. She knows the rules and abides by them, so facing a fundamental conflict between her guideline and the group’s norm casts everything in a new light. Marillier doesn’t cut an intimidating presence, yet in discovering her taste for people, she builds uninhibited danger into the mere way she looks at someone. Not knowing what you are capable of until you try can be a good thing. In RAW it’s also the scariest thing to learn about oneself.

Grade: B

Thursday, April 06, 2017

T2 Trainspotting

T2 TRAINSPOTTING (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Twenty years after stealing money from his friends in TRAINSPOTTING and absconding to Amsterdam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh, Scotland. The death of his mother in T2 TRAINSPOTTING brings Mark home after such a long time gone, but he decides to revisit his old pals while he’s back in town. The intervening years have not treated them well. Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) continues to struggle regularly with a heroin addiction. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) has switched up the drug that has him hooked these days, and he indulges in it in the time between running a failing pub and blackmailing the men he entraps with the help of Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), a Bulgarian woman who sees herself as more business partner than girlfriend. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a long-term prison sentence, which is to Mark’s benefit until the volatile Scot escapes. Despite what he says, Mark’s life isn’t substantially better than theirs.

Although Mark provides restitution to Simon for what he took two decades ago, Simon still smarts at the betrayal. He intends to gain his revenge by rekindling his friendship with Mark, teaming up on a business venture, and then ruin him. Mark’s reunion with Spud resulted in saving him from killing himself. Now Mark hopes to supplant his friend’s harmful addiction with a healthier one. Meanwhile, Begbie returns to his old ways and looks forward to having his son join him in his illegal pursuits.

In TRAINSPOTTING twentysomething junkies Mark and Simon talked about the brief window in life when you have “it” and then “it” is gone. They’re speaking in regard to musicians, actors, and athletes, but they could just as well be referring to their future selves. Their lives were certainly nothing spectacular then, but through the gloom of their unsatisfactory present in T2 TRAINSPOTTING and the fog of nostalgia, that period looks like their heyday. As a young adult Simon believes that everyone accumulates years and can’t hack it anymore. He’s correct in the sense that if you choose to live by such a philosophy, what a drag it is getting old.

So the characters wallow in their self-pity and self-destructiveness, striving to regain what mostly wasn’t so great the first time around. They return to bad habits, make many of the same mistakes, and, incidentally, have their share of good times. In both films director Danny Boyle shows what could attract them to such wasting-away lifestyles and sets their zonked-out bliss to pulsing soundtracks. It doesn’t look like my idea of fun, but Boyle succeeds at showing the attraction even as he offsets it with ample scenes illustrating the high costs.

T2 TRAINSPOTTING isn’t as joyful as its predecessor and appropriately so. However misguided, there’s more romance in youth being careless than middle-aged men behaving the same way. While this lot has often decided poorly, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge place these choices within the context of the economic limitations in their surroundings. It’s not an excuse, but it is a symptom. As Boyle does frequently in T2 TRAINSPOTTING, the thrilling final sequence juxtaposes the past and the present. It also bookends the films with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. While a lot hasn’t changed for the character as the remixed track roars, there are some differences to give hope that maybe the past won’t always be repeated.

Grade: B+

A Monster Calls

A MONSTER CALLS (J.A. Bayona, 2016)

In A MONSTER CALLS Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is old enough to understand that his mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill but doesn’t have sufficient years to deal properly with the emotions her sickness brings. He struggles to sleep at night and is bullied at school during the day, all the time worrying about the welfare of this dearly beloved mom. Conor has no one else he can safely confide in. He is at odds with his grandma (Sigourney Weaver) and is upset with his dad (Toby Kebbell), who has remarried and lives a continent away in Los Angeles.

From his bedroom window the British boy can see in the distance a mighty yew tree in an old church graveyard. One night at 12:07 the tree transforms into a monster that confronts Conor. The Monster (Liam Neeson) tells him that he will visit him at the same time to tell three stories. When the last tale has been told, it will be time for Conor to share his nightmare.

The Monster’s stories of royal deception, medicine versus faith, and an invisible man are sumptuously rendered in watercolor animation but not exactly suited for bedtime. Each challenges Conor with contradictions and unfairness than clear-cut examples of good triumphing over evil. For a boy seeking restored order, these complicated parables do not provide immediate relief. If anything, they reinforce the inequity handed to him and the person he loves most. Yet the Monster is helping Conor through the grieving process and giving him the tools for owning up to the truth that pains him most of all. There’s just no easy solution for guiding him to that point.

Director J.A. Bayona treats this weighty material with Spielbergian flourishes. The fantastical elements in A MONSTER CALLS lift the film above the mostly barren country terrain, not for the purposes of escape but to gain greater perspective. Bayona makes impressive use of scale to convey the emotional difference between something obsessed over in close-up and taken in with a wide view. The film’s interiors can be as dim and suffocating as the mental experience of fixating on a problem.

Like Steven Spielberg, Bayona displays a deft understanding of a child’s point of view in extraordinary circumstances. A MONSTER CALLS doesn’t feel as though an adult’s sensibility is imposed on it. Conor is given the leeway to be vulnerable and lash out, which MacDougall does without sentimentalizing his character. He plays the part with the protective toughness that a kid might naturally develop in the absence of greater support from grown ups. A MONSTER CALLS approaches the ordeal with imagination and empathy to allow the young to manage the worst.

Grade: B+