May 2012 posts
Ebertfest often saves the best for second to last—and this year’s fest built a pretty solid Saturday to uphold that tradition. Up first was the engrossing Higher Ground, the assured and critically praised directorial debut from actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed), a crowd-pleasing spiritual journey tale marred only by some hamfisted (or perhaps we should say dogfisted) symbolism in the final moments and an unfortunate case of BIG SERIOUS MUSIC-itis. In the following Q&A, writer Carolyn S. Briggs—who adapted the screenplay from her very personal memoir “This Dark World”—was refreshingly pragmatic about an altogether different journey, her book making it onto the movie screen. When asked by an audience member about the closeness of the adaptation, Briggs smiled, saying of a dramatic scene in which her character’s baby ends up in an terrifyingly unusual place during a late night hippie bus crash that spurs her and her husband’s spiritual journey, “Sometimes you gotta lie your way to the truth—let me just say there was never a baby in a cooler.” Read more »
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2011/IN THEATERS) Are you over 50 and looking for the opposite of The Avengers and Men in Black III? If so, this indie flick may be for you during this long holiday weekend. Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), the movie is a classic British ensemble flick, featuring wonderful acting from a group of real notables, with the added bonus of terrific scenery (the film was shot primarily in Jaipur, India). As the movie opens, we are individually introduced to seven British retirees, all of whom find themselves heading to India and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” which advertises itself as an affordable retirement location for “the elderly and beautiful.” Evelyn (Judi Dench) is a widow whose husband left her with surprise debts. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a barrister and judge who has decided to leave his work behind and return to the India of his youth. Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are forced to retire in Jaipur because they have invested their life-savings in their daughter’s unsuccessful company and now can no longer afford to remain in Britain. Norman (Ronald Pickup) is an elderly gentleman seeking one last fling. Madge (Celia Imrie) is similarly looking for a rich adventurer, while Muriel (Maggie Smith) has been sent to India for a cheap hip replacement. All arrive at the hotel to meet their enthusiastic host Sonny (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) who has seriously “over-sold” his hotel with photo-shopped brochures but also has enthusiasm and dreams for his “outsourced retirement” concept. Needless to say, these seven and their individual and joint interactions and reactions to India itself form the basis for the rest of the movie, which is more than enjoyable, if a little predictable. I particularly liked Tom Wilkinson’s storyline which involves a childhood romance (but maybe not the kind you’re expecting) and of course both Bill Nighy and Judi Dench are fabulous in their roles as ex-pats who fall in love with Jaipur. My friend’s favorite character in the film was Maggie Smith, who starts as the grumpiest of all (and perhaps the most racist) and yet finds transformation by the end.
BERNIE (2011/IN THEATERS) This truly funny little film from Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation) is a pleasure for so many reasons. First and best is a cracker jack performance (finally!) from Jack Black as Bernie Tiede, the assistant funeral home director in small-town Carthage, Texas, who truly loves his fellow man and treats all the local widows like queens. He charms the town’s nastiest widow, Marjorie Nugent—played perfectly by Shirley MacLaine–and next thing you know they are together, traveling to exotic locations and living it up. Soon Marjorie is dominating poor Bernie’s life and, not to give anything away, he ends up shooting her in the back four times. That’s when the plot thickens and we are introduced to the local D.A. Danny Black, played hilariously by Matthew McConaughey. This movie is hard to characterize….call it a black comedy with touches of a Christopher Guest “mockumentary” (though the interviews are all real as are the final shots). It’s based on a true story, reported in a1998 Texas Monthly article entitled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.” That article was penned by Skip Hollandsworth (who shares the screenplay credit with director Richard Linklater) and it drew quite a lot of attention. No wonder! But really the less you know about the movie before you head into the theater, the more you will enjoy it IMHO so don’t read too much. Just head to the theater as soon as possible, or add this to your NetFlix or download list. It’s in limited release, so you may need to hurry.
BTW: The interviews with the locals include actual locals and are really some of my favorite parts of the film. Worth seeing just to hear those accents J
Having kept a low profile thus far due to a recent fall, Roger Ebert started day 3 with a brief and very welcome onstage appearance to read (via his laptop’s soothing, otherworldly voice) the introduction he had written for his good friend Paul Cox, who was in attendance (heck, the whole festival was dedicated to him) to accompany the 2011 feature documentary by David Bradbury about Cox’s recent health struggles, On Borrowed Time. After only a minute or two standing at the podium, Ebert had to step down and content himself with sitting next to his wife and fest host, Chaz Ebert, who finished reading his introduction. Read more »
DARK SHADOWS (2012/IN THEATERS) Word has it that Johnny Depp grew up watching the cult TV series/soap opera “Dark Shadows” which ran from 1966-71 in the after-school slot on ABC. Depp yearned to be Barnabas Collins–the vampire of the piece–and since Tim Burton was also a fan, it made perfect sense to tackle “Dark Shadows” as their 8th movie collaboration. The film gets off to a great start, with classic Tim Burton story-telling and visuals which introduce us to young Barnabas, leaving Liverpool in the company of his parents and heading to Maine where his industrious father creates an entire town named for the family fishing business and also builds a magnificent mansion. All seems to be going well until Barnabas rejects the advances of young Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) who is actually a witch. She curses the entire family, turning Barnabas into a vampire and leading his love Josette (Bella Heathcote) to throw herself into the sea. Credits roll and the film cuts to 1972, accompanied by the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” (perfect!) where workmen mistakenly “rescue” Barnabas from his buried coffin where he has waited for 200 years. A series of “stranger from another planet” jokes from Depp get the ball rolling (my favorite involves the familiar MacDonald’s arches of the day) and soon Barnabas has reconnected with his oddball family (or what remains of them) in the now dilapidated mansion. He finds a ready partner in Elizabeth Collins (a terrific Michelle Pfeiffer) and a Josette look-alike in the newly hired tutor Victoria (Heathcote). He also finds Angelique who has created her own fishing business and now runs the town. Let’s stop with the plot right here and just add that it is standard fare leading up to an over-produced ending. However, on the way we have quite a bit of fun—well, at least for the first two thirds of the film which strikes a campy stance and delivers a couple of laugh-out-loud moments helped by excellent placement of period artifacts. Fans of the actual TV series say the movie captures much of what they loved; unfortunately, everyone seems to agree that the picture loses its way toward the end and becomes just routine. Too bad. Still worth catching, if for no other reason than to admire Johnny Depp’s Barnabas. All those years of waiting paid off for both!
BTW: Keep you eye out for Jackie Earle Haley as the family’s 1970’s caretaker and
appearances from both Christopher Lee and Alice Cooper.
NOTE: The film is dedicated to Dan Curtis who created the original series and was a true Tim Burton-style innovator of his day. Interesting that Jonathan Frid, who was Barnabas in the TV series, died just a few weeks ago.
While everyone was disappointed that comedian-turned-actor Patton Oswalt had to last-minute cancel his multiple scheduled Ebertfest appearances—per fest host Chaz Ebert, weather trouble on the NYC set of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty required reshoots that kept the actor on set—Oswalt sent/posted an extremely lengthy message of apology that resulted in an admiring tweet from Roger Ebert himself, describing the apology as “Transcendently graceful,“ and saying of the actor, “This is a very nice man.” It was with this development, all warm and fuzzy feelings decidedly intact, that Ebertfest Day Two audiences generously embraced Oswalt’s dark 2009 indie drama Big Fan, the story of Paul, a loner New York Giants fanatic (the kind that spends his shifts in a mostly deserted parking garage painstakingly creating the detailed scripts he uses when calling into his favorite late night sports talk radio show) who is left hospitalized and somewhat broken after a chance encounter with one of his football heroes turns slightly (though innocently) stalker-ish, and then into a brutal assault. In his first leading role, Oswalt is a revelation as Paul, creating a deeply sympathetic character that is at the same time growing darkly, and possibly violently, unmoored. In the revealing Q & A following the screening, Big Fan director Robert Siegel (also known for writing Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar nominated The Wrestler, as well as being a former editor-in-chief of satirical newspaper The Onion) said that he was for the most part unable to take advantage of Oswalt’s natural talent for improv due to the actor’s extreme lack of sports specific knowledge. And when he did get some great topic-appropriate improv, he often had to tell the sharply intelligent Oswald “dial it back a little” and dumb up his dialogue a bit. Siegel also mentioned that he didn’t audition Oswalt for the role, hiring the untested dramatic actor on “a hunch” that he could pull off this seriously dark dramatic role. As for Big Fan’s muted, grainy look and feel, Siegel said it was mostly inspired by ‘70s films like Saturday Night Fever, and he admitted a soft spot for actresses from the same decade like Karen Black and Marcia Jean Kurtz—he cast the latter in the crucial role of Oswalt’s nonplussed mother. Read more »