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.

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