Archive for the 'festivals' Category

Ebertfest, days four and five

My belated round-up of the last two days of Ebertfest…

On Saturday, I missed the matinee showing of I Capture the Castle (2003). I haven’t previously made any effort to see this film, which is based on one of my favorite novels of all time. I have such specific visions of the characters and setting that I’m pretty wary of messing with them (which is of course the eternal dilemma with the movie adaptations of beloved books). However, this film is streaming on Netflix, so I will give it a chance soon, if only in the interest of Ebertfest completeness.

The next showing on Saturday was the documentary Vincent: A Life in Color (2008). I wrote a review of this film over at MacGuffin—check it out there.

The third screening of Saturday was the Michelle Monaghan film Trucker (2008). I pretty much adore Michelle Monaghan, and her performance is the main reason for anyone to see this film. She plays Diane, a female trucker, who is forced to look after the 11-year-old son she left a decade ago when his father is sick with cancer. While there is nothing especially groundbreaking or unpredictable about the film, it is solid, and has a few particularly nice scenes between Monaghan and the actor who plays her son, Jimmy Bennett (who is a serious find in the realm of kid actors).

The writer/director James Mottern and Monaghan spoke about the film afterward. While I thought the film was good and I completely understand Monaghan’s enthusiasm over having had the chance to play a conflicted, complex woman whose main concern has nothing to do with nabbing a husband, I think both Roger Ebert and the filmmakers overestimated the power of the film. I was disappointed in the inevitable track taken with Diane, wherein she must change her natural tendencies in order to be the good, maternal woman. I think they could have let her face her responsibilities without some moments that, to me, felt overly judgmental about Diane’s desire to be sexual or apprehension about being responsible for a child. Nonetheless, Monaghan is captivating in the role and the film is worth seeing.

Saturday concluded with a screening of the Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke film Barfly (1987). I was very surprised by this film, which follows a couple of career drunks over the course of several days. This is no Leaving Las Vegas: it’s an odd, funny, contemporary comedy; gothic and seedy, yet bright and clever. The screenplay, by Charles Bukowski, consists of little but one clever exchange of dialogue after another, interrupted here or there for someone to kick the crap out of someone else. It’s exceedingly entertaining. Director Barbet Schroeder fought his way through the pesky ash cloud to come for the screening, after which he told numerous anecdotes about the making of the film (including confirming the infamous tale that he threatened to cut off his own finger if he couldn’t get financing).

On Sunday, the festival concluded with the documentary Song Sung Blue (2008). I also reviewed this film in the same post on MacGuffin I linked to above (clickety!).

Ebertfest was quite an experience, one I hope to repeat sometime. Friends, who wants to come along?

Ebertfest, day three

Three fantastic movies today.

1. Departures (2008)

The great film writer David Bordwell summed up the appeal of this Japanese film very well in his introduction to the screening. It is not afraid to be emotional, to really try to reach the audience’s emotions, without a shield of irony. In doing this, it also uses a kind of genuine, gentle humor that is refreshing in comparison to so many cynical contemporary films.

Bordwell’s brief summary was perfect. This is a film that appealed to me as a human being. It is the story of Daigo, a thirty-something cello player, who moves with his web designer wife, Mika, back to his childhood house when his orchestra dissolves and he decides to give up the cello. They live in the house his mother left him, Mika smiling like a trooper all the way. Daigo answers a vague job ad, and before he can talk himself out of it, finds himself being hired to work with a man who performs ceremonial rites at funerals.

From there, we have a beautiful story about how various people face death, and how Daigo in particular comes to face everything his life has become—what he has lost along the way, and what lovely things he’s gained. The movie mentions the concept of fate several times, and the plot itself does seem fated—perhaps to the point of predictability in spots, but this is never to the film’s detriment. Every moment that occurs, even when one might see it coming, is so desired by the viewer, so cathartic, that any coincidence or lack of surprise is more than forgiven (which is not to say that there aren’t some very surprising moments as well).

The film and its director, Yojiro Takita, received a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience. There may have been a few dry eyes in the house, but not many. If there was anyone there who didn’t like the film, they didn’t dare admit it. The best comment I heard was a simple one from a middle-aged woman, said with all sincerity: “I needed that movie.”

2. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

We were running behind, and the quick turnaround from the deliberate and poignant tone of Departures to the avant garde mania of this silent film provided me with a little bit of whiplash and a lot of needed energy. Dziga Vertov made a hell of a movie, showing “a day in the life” of Russia, made up of (mostly) documentary footage, but in practice playing out nothing like a documentary.

This is a film where the editing becomes the point of the thing, rather than a tool to get to the point. We see scene after scene of daily parts of life, some modified to go faster, slower; to be shown split-screen; to add a dash of stop motion animation or a double exposure edit. It’s a 68-minute montage of images, and it is extremely fun to to watch. It is all I can do not to describe it as a “wild ride” (see how I cheated there?).

The film was accompanied by a live original score from the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man band with which I may now be a little obsessed. The Q&A after the screening revealed that they wrote it while consulting original notes that Vertov wrote about what he wanted for the music, which is mind-blowingly cool. Their score was perfect in how it enhanced and even commented on everything that happened on the screen. Overall, just a great experience.

3. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Watching this film in a theater packed with 1500+ other people was quite a different experience than the first time, by myself. I was startled when people were laughing! I don’t remember laughing! But it’s amazing how others’ reactions can help you see something new in a film. There is humor there that I didn’t relate to before.

I think this movie is brilliant, and that watching it is a deep experience. I found so many more valuable things in this second viewing that I look forward to a third. However, I can see how someone would find it pretentious or hard to relate to. The reaction in the theater was quite enthusiastic for Charlie Kaufman himself when the Q&A began, but a little more mixed right after the film ended. I find it a film I want to sit silently contemplating for a bit, but many people seemed eager to chat about anything else.

Roger Ebert named Synecdoche, New York his best film of the decade, and a touching moment occurred during the Q&A, when Chaz Ebert read aloud a question from Roger to the panel. He had written that he’d discovered the film at a time when he was spending a lot of time thinking about life and death, and he wanted the panel to speak their thoughts on the handling of those themes. Charlie Kaufman gave Ebert his sincere thanks for his words, and did his best to answer.

Ebertfest, day two

Well, after traveling overnight Tuesday and staying up late for the movies on Wednesday, I was exhausted today. As a result, I intentionally skipped out on the first movie of the day (Munyurangabo, since added to the number one slot on my Netflix Instant queue, to be watched as Ebertfest homework upon my return home). I not-so-intentionally ended up also not making it to the second film of the day, The New Age, which is unfortunate because I was rather curious to see Judy Davis and Peter Weller in the film, and I heard that it went over very well at the screening. Alas, it is not on Netflix, but I feel hopeful that Scarecrow Video can help me catch up with that one as well next week.

So, well-rested again and ready to seize the late afternoon, I ventured out to watch the first part of the NFL draft and to down a couple of drinks before the evening’s screening of Apocalypse Now Redux. The drinks were necessary. I don’t do war movies unless I have a very, very good reason to (for example, The Hurt Locker/Kathryn Bigelow). I am the person who has never been able to make herself watch Saving Private Ryan. I am a disappointment to my mother for my avoidance of Band of Brothers. I once had a breakdown in high school after watching Galipoli in history class and then being expected to take an essay test on The Red Badge of Courage immediately afterward in English class. Older war movies that came before “realistic battle scenes” became necessary are sometimes okay—The Big Parade and The Bridge on the River Kwai are on my top 100 list—but anything past the 1960s is difficult. I had never seen Apocalypse Now, Redux or original. I was not looking forward to it.

I survived. However, I can tell you with confidence that I will never watch that movie again. Read lots and lots about it, yes. Rewatch, no.

Obviously, from a craft level, the movie didn’t disappoint. The scale, the action, the set pieces, the music and sound are all as phenomenal as I was led to believe they would be. Certainly the performances are strong, Martin Sheen especially. (Though, I would perhaps argue that for all Sheen does with the role, we don’t really know his character at all. This is a screenplay issue, and perhaps it is intentional. It’s one of the things I’ll be thinking about a lot as I reflect on the film and do a bit of research.) But really, this is not my kind of movie. As much as I can appreciate its “masterpiece” level components, and as curious as I am to know more about the production now that I’ve actually seen it, I will probably never have anything profound to say about it. I’m just relieved to be able to cross it off the list. Done.

I’m expecting tomorrow to be the highlight of Ebertfest for me. None of the three screenings for the day are skippable in the slightest. First, Departures, the Japanese film that won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars. Then, Man with a Movie Camera with live music from the Alloy Orchestra (I LOVE seeing silent movies with live music!). Finally, Synecdoche, New York, which I can’t wait to see again—the movie screams for its details to be scrutinized on a big screen—and with Charlie effing Kaufman in the building for Q&A. Swoon.

Ebertfest, day one

Yesterday was a sunny, warm, lovely day in the uber-cute and noticably litter-free area around the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. Spirits were obviously very high in the line wrapped around the block waiting for the theater to open for Roger Ebert’s first selection for the festival, the rather audacious pick Pink Floyd the Wall.

Before the movie got started, Chaz Ebert gave opening remarks and introduced friend-of-Ebertfest and Associated Press critic Christy Lemire, who in turn introduced surprise guest Governor Pat Quinn. (The locals in the audience seemed quite excited to see him, and who can blame them? He seems like an upstanding guy and it must be nice for them to have a likeable, not-creepy governor.) Gov. Quinn gave a genial, long-winded yet entertaining tribute to Roger Ebert, complete with a plaque to bestow. Ebert said his thank-yous via his computer voice (unfortunately not the one that sounds more like him, just the standard-issue). Standing ovations were performed, yours truly may have teared up a bit, and then we were ready to get started with the Pink Floyd.

I might have preferred to be under the influence of some other sort of substance, but a lack of adequate sleep and high levels of caffeine also seem to have brought about an appropriate mindset for Alan Parker and Roger Waters’s 95-minute crazefest. The scattered depiction of the life of rock star Pink—depressed, possibly going crazy, certainly letting his life deteriorate around him—drew me in easily. The story itself, while needing to be pieced together as the film plays, is basic: Pink’s father is killed in WWII, and his teachers at school are oppressive of his creativity; as an adult he gains fame but can’t make a relationship work, and turns to drugs. He hallucinates about being a fascist leader, and his fans being his followers. This is the basic ‘narrative’, and everything else is an epic music video.

I’m not an active Pink Floyd fan, but the music from this album has obviously become so well-known that my anticipation increased whenever I could sense a familiar burst coming along. The film uses those moments incredibly effectively, marrying the rise and fall of the music to the intensity of the visuals (especially in the famous sequence in which the beleaguered school children finally riot and sing out “We don’t need no education!” as they are marched down a conveyer belt to a meat grinder. Dude, awesome.). I may just need to become a Pink Floyd fan now.

However, it was the visual style more than the music that made me really get into the film. I love this kind of 70s/80s surrealist aesthetic: the colors, the angles, everything. I have a soft spot, too, for well-done intermittent animated sequences (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, for example), and Gerald Scarfe’s work here entwines so well that I can’t imagine the film without it. I’m extremely glad that my first encounter with this film came on the big screen, so that I could fully appreciate all of the detail.

Overall verdict: this is one I will want to buy if a Blu-ray version is released.

Next up was the Swedish film You, The Living. Apparently this is the first time they’d ever shown two films on opening night, and a fair number of people didn’t stay for the second one. Though the late start time of 10:00 must have been a deterent for some, I also heard a few head-shaking comments about just not being up for another movie after the experience of The Wall. I had been wanting to see You, The Living since missing it at SIFF Cinema several months ago, and happily caffeined up again to make it through. Those who left missed out on one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time. For now, I will leave it at that, but I will be writing a full post devoted to this wonderful film as soon as I get the chance. Stay tuned.

Ebertfest day one: successful.


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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