April 2012 posts
While Ebertfest 2012 started out with a disappointing announcement—one of this year’s big name guests, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, cancelled his fest appearances only minutes before opening night remarks by producer/co-host Chaz Ebert—the capacity crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm in Champaign, Illinois’ gloriously shabby chic Virginia Theatre was in no way diminished.
While SML wasn’t initially super excited about revisiting opening night feature Joe Versus the Volcano, the quirky fantasy was enthusiastically received, and won our hearts with its surreal staging, quirky, absurd dialogue, and top notch comic performances–Tom Hanks, his mullet wig, and Meg Ryan, a comedy knockout playing three very different and well defined characters. In the following Q&A with Joe Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt, when panelist Christy Lemire mentioned that Goldblatt’s most recent works were Julie & Julia and The Help, the people sitting behind SML cried out, “Wow!” and “Oh my God!” for altogether different reasons than had SML upon discovering this info weeks before.
A comedic short film preceded the next feature, entertaining internet personality spoof The Truth About Beauty & Blogs, amounts to a fun homemade actor’s reel, which is pretty much what it was, according to very smartly dressed writer/co-producer/actor Kelechie Ezie in the Q&A.
Closing out opening night was Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, a laugh a minute, but often too slick by half documentary about entrepreneur Raymond Lambert’s famous Chicago comedy club All Jokes Aside, a spectacular crossroads of black comedy partly responsible for helping launch heavyweights like Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer. While there are plenty of laughs throughout, the onscreen narration by subject/writer/producer Lambert felt forced and oversold, and exactly like the talking heads in today’s crop of “unscripted” reality shows. The result felt self-aggrandizing and a little phony. But luckily, with so many interesting, funny interviews and consistently hilarious clips from the club’s early ’90s heyday, this can only be a very minor complaint.
In the following Q&A, director John Davies told a funny story about when he worked as a Production Assistant for “Sneak Previews” back in its early public television days and once rewrote part of an Ebert review while transcribing it for the teleprompter. When Ebert reached the new lines he called over Davies and gave him a few stern words, followed by the christening of a new nickname: Functional Illiterate.
Stay tuned for recaps of Days 2 through 5, featuring the Alloy Orchestra, momentary eye contact with Doug Benson of “Doug Loves Movies,” and an all-strings version of “Smooth Criminal”!
MARLEY (2012) It’s no coincidence that this fabulous documentary on the life and music of Bob Marley was released on “Smoke Out” day—last Friday, April 20. Marley has been memorialized in a haze of marijuana smoke, with his dreadlocks and big smile. Whether you’re a devoted fan or just a casual listener to Marley’s music, I predict you’ll be completely swept away by this documentary which presents the complete story of his short but full life—he died on May 11, 1981 at only 36 from cancer. The film almost didn’t get made—Martin Scorsese was on board to give Marley the same treatment he had given to Bob Dylan in “No Direction Home” (and later to George Harrison in HBO’s “Living in the Material World”) but had to leave the project in 2008 for other commitments. Jonathan Demme was tapped next but according to reports left amid disagreements with various people leaving the whole documentary dead in the water as of August 2009. Finally, and with rights to the music heading toward expiration, Marley’s son Ziggy turned to director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) who took over and was given a free hand to blend together the videos and photographs amassed by Marley’s family over many years. Macdonald has combined these with loads of interviews, lots of visuals and plenty of Bob Marley’s fabulous music in the background to create a moving and detailed portrayal of this legendary singer/philosopher. Marley, as we learn, grew up very poor, born to a white father who was 60 and a young Jamaican mother who was only 16. His father certainly never acknowledged him and he was treated as an outcast as a youth because he was bi-racial. Nonetheless, he turned to music early on and was determined to be somebody. The documentary shows us the early formation of the Wailers and their move to create their own label, their rise to fame, the eventual fallout with Peter Tosh and others, and the enormous success they achieved. Also in the film, we learn more about the Rastafarian faith that Marley embraced as a young man and which shaped his music–his spiritual outlook on life and the world. He wanted to make a difference and wow, what a difference he has made. We also learn of his personal life–rich and free wheeling – he had 11 children with 7 different women, all of whom are still loyal to him. I especially loved the closing shots which feature “One Love” and “Stand Up” being sung today all over the world. Fantastic. Don’t miss this one.
BTW: The film is in limited release, but is also available on iTunes and Facebook.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011/IN THEATERS) You might find yourself dreaming of Sushi, or better yet, heading off to get some after watching this wonderful documentary featuring 85 year old sushi master Jiro Ono (and his sons). Jiro has earned 3 Michelin stars for his tiny Sushi restaurant located in a subway stop in Tokyo and is completely devoted to perfection in his chosen field. During the movie, we learn much about him, above all his love of sushi and his dedication to the high standards he sets for every bite he serves and for all those who work with him. Rising every morning at 5:00 a.m., and often not home until 10:00 p.m. when he was younger, Jiro personally smells, tastes and supervises his small 10-seat domain. Diners must book ahead by as much as a year to get a seat. You will be amazed at the complexities of fish preparation (as well as rice and everything else) for perfect sushi–for example, massaging an octopus for a full 45 minutes to increase its “softness.” Wow…now we understand why good sushi is so expensive! Jiro emphasizes the need for an unrelenting search for perfection, and has passed this devotion on to his sons who have been trained to take over the business. In particular the film presents an inspiring portrait of Jiro’s oldest son Yoshikazu, now 50 and the eventual heir, who really runs much of the restaurant while working for his father. Yoshikazu exemplifies the traditions of Japan and the devotion of the oldest son to those traditions. Asked if he wanted to get into the Sushi restaurant business, he replies, “well, not really” but of course, there was no alternative and he is as passionate and quietly devoted as his father. This is the feature film debut of director David Gelb who uses exquisite music to underly his thoughtful and elegant meditation on work, family, and the art of perfection. Catch it on DVD if you miss it in theaters, and enjoy!
Anybody who has exchanged more than a sentence or two with me recently has surely gotten an earful of excitement regarding the upcoming release of DisneyNature’s latest natural world doc, Chimpanzee, which follows a 3-year-old chimp named Oscar (well, named by the filmmakers) as he is orphaned in the jungle and eventually adopted and raised by a grown male chimp, which is apparently some rare shit in the jungle. Watch the trailer HERE and try not to cry. In DisneyNature’s consistently exceptional output (including 2007′s Earth, 2009′s Oceans, and 2011′s African Cats) the filmmakers don’t pull any emotional punches to keep from upsetting the kids–the life or death, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten realities of the wild are very much in the forefront of these harrowing adventures, but they very rarely veer into animal torture porn territory. Unlike say, National Geographic Society Films, which regularly produces phenomenal natural history docs as well, but can be a bit more ruthless about showing the audience the worst possible image they would ever hope to see…and then continue showing it until the viewer is left drained and emotionally exhausted. There’s a particular scene in NGSF’s The Last Lions that is the saddest, most heartbreaking depiction of animal suffering I’ve ever seen–and the scene’s final “money shot” is lingered on just a bit too much. (I cannot go into specifics without making Kimberly cry FOREVER.) It is brutally honest. Well, brutal, anyway. NG is also known for creating narratives out of a random collection of footage, like in their also excellent, harrowing 2007 Arctic Tale, where you are introduced to walrus and polar bear families, following them over the first year of raising new babies. (YES THEY ARE BABIES, PEOPLE.) It isn’t till the end credits that the filmmakers admit that, yes, this was actually just a collection of several different animals, and the footage was just masterfully shaped into a story. But, it’s SO well done, and its super ecofriendly message is SO wonderfully pushy, that it’s difficult for me to fault them for some creative editing.
So this is a must-see, particularly if you need the type of good, cleansing cry that only an orphaned animal with big glassy eyes can bring. Tickets sold in the first week (April 20 through 26) benefit the Jane Goodall Institute, which is one of our favorite institutes. (Goodall is also the subject of an excellent 2010 documentary, Jane’s Journey, which features some captivating stories about raising a small child in Gombe around a bunch of sexually mature chimpanzees. Spoiler alert: The child doesn’t like it!)
MIRROR MIRROR (2012/IN THEATERS) Directed by Tarsem Singh, this year’s first retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is beautiful to look at, but sadly lacking in anything else. The able cast includes Julia Roberts as the Wicked Queen, Lily Collins (that’s Phil Colllin’s daughter, mind you!) as Snow White, Armie Hammer as the Prince, Nathan Lane as the Queen’s right hand man Brighton, and features a short appearance by Sean Bean as the King. In this film, the seven dwarves seem to be having more fun than the rest of the characters—they’re cast as bandits who wear “slinky” legs that allow them to appear as giants and jump about. Sporting new names like Napoleon, Half Pint and Grimm (no Dopey in this movie), the seven are played by familiar dwarf faces including Jordan Prentice (In Bruges), Mark Povinelli (Water for Elephants) and Danny Woodburn (Death to Smoochy). In fact, the dwarfs were my favorite part of the film because they were lively while the rest of the movie felt strangely flat and slow. Was it the screenplay? The pacing? Many scenes felt like a theatrical stage-play, with characters either sitting (Roberts on her throne, for example) or standing (Armie Hammer minus his shirt and pants) while delivering lines that just simply fell flat. Even Nathan Lane couldn’t make us laugh. A shame, because each of these actors is very appealing and the film should have been much more fun. If you go, enjoy the sets and costumes—they are absolutely gorgeous–and be sure to stay for the Bollywood ending. It is truly the highlight of the film and makes you wish that Singh had aimed for that tone throughout the entire flick.
BTW: Critics and audiences are evenly split on this film—Rotten Tomatoes puts it at 49% from Critics and 53% from Audiences. Here’s hoping this summer’s Snow White and the Huntsman with Kristen Stewart as Snow, Charlize Theron as a very deadly Queen, and Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman delivers more. Standees for this next version are already up in the theater for you to view as you’re leaving Mirror Mirror!