THE 15TH ANNUAL ROGER EBERT’S FILM FESTIVAL (DAYS 1-3) Champaign, IL / April 17-21, 2013
The Virginia Theatre
Arriving so soon (a mere 13 days) after the festival’s founder and namesake Roger Ebert’s death from cancer, the 15th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (aka Ebertfest) could very well have been a week-long memorial service. Luckily, the Man’s wife and fest host Chaz Ebert set the tone immediately to the contrary—this was not going to be a week of mourning, but a celebration of her “boyfriend”’s generous spirit and contagious love for the art of cinema. After a short remembrance from Chaz—taking a handheld mike downstage “like Oprah”—she announced an unusual event that Roger himself specifically masterminded, inviting a choral group from the University to lead the crowd in a rousing sing-along version of “Those Were the Days,” with cinema-centric lyrics modified by Ebert*, followed by this short clip from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. After this oddly touching presentation, Chaz said, “Well. That Roger,” shook her head and moved on.
The opening night feature, Terrence Malick’s gorgeous 1978 fractured poetic narrative Days of Heaven, was a rapturous experience on the Virginia Theatre’s enormous screen, and accompanied by one of that film’s photographers (and the man to whom Ebert dedicated this year’s fest), world-renowned Oscar-winning Director of Photography Haskell Wexler. Spry 91-year-old Wexler was game for an insightful Q&A, warmly recalling director Malick as “a weird guy” who didn’t really direct on set, uh, verbally, and explaining why he didn’t get the film’s Director of Photography credit, instead settling for an end title Additional Photography credit: Haskell was brought on board well into an overbudget and behind schedule production, mostly due to the slow pace of the film’s original (and credited) cinematographer, Nestor Almendros. While there was quite a kerfuffle at the time as the two photographers fought for the DoP credit, the two are friendly now, and although Wexler still contends that his footage comprises well over half of the film, he generously cedes full credit of the film’s look to Almendros. Wexler also made a few hundred film nerds very happy with the story of how they created the film’s iconic scene of swarms of locusts rising up from the fields–apparently they dropped coffee beans from a helicopter and ran the footage in reverse.
Day Two opened with Ebert fave and Ebertfest regular Paul Cox’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh, minus the director, whose ongoing health problems prevented him from accompanying the film as scheduled. While not necessarily a fan of Cox the director, the auteur’s work as an actor really connects. His part as a priest in the short film that immediately preceded Vincent, Sophie Kohn’s gorgeously sad To Music, was perfect. The man has depth and charm, for sure—just ask all of those white-haired ladies at his previous Ebefest visits. The little old ladies understand.
Next up was writer/director/actor Patrick Wang’s debut feature, In the Family, the story of a gay man’s struggle to retain custody of the son he’d been raising with his newly deceased partner. Wang uses long, unhurried takes that allow these characters to reveal themselves in what sometimes feels like real time, a technique that serves his solid leading cast well. It’s what happens before the plot’s custody battle deus ex machina kicks in that really worked for me. The story of this couple raising their child, including the flashbacks that show step by step how they got together, resonates. Once the custody battle starts, you know exactly what’s going to happen, except that it’s going to take you another 90 minutes or so to get there. I lost patience midway through the 3rd act’s 35 minute deposition scene featuring a cartoonishly evil lawyer. Wang’s protagonist is charming and utterly likable, basically THE NICEST MAN EVER, and delivers his dialog with the innocence and down home charm of a deeply Tennessean Jimmy Stewart. (Not his real accent, we learned in the Q&A, which made the performance feel a bit caricature.) But making him such a flawless, jesus-like character, taking every lick with gentle good humor, just feels fake. Hell, I’m from the Midwest and have never met such an innocent soul. Give that boy some balls or bad breath or something. Regardless, it’s got a very necessary and easy to digest message for people who might be uncomfortable with the idea of gay parents. It’s very definitely a message movie. (Although many intelligent reviewers are saying exactly the opposite. Hm.) We were definitely in the minority on this one, though—festgoers, including some of our fave reviewers ever, were calling this one a masterpiece. Go figure.
Kind of an eh day was saved, however, by day two’s final screening, Richard Linklater’s sweet, sad, and very funny Bernie, the story of a small East Texas town’s nicest undertaker (Jack Black) who murdered it’s meanest old rich lady (Shirley MacLaine). While it was initially disappointing to hear that Black’s flight from L.A. was canceled due to weather, he still managed to be an active part of the screening’s delightful Q&A with Linklater, via phone. Both had warm memories of reliably quirky MacLaine, who told them on set that she had been nightly channeling the dead woman she was portraying. They also laughed about how Black and MacLaine grew into a relationship similar to their characters, with Black following MacLaine everywhere, attending to her every need. A more serious discussion followed, when recalling the two’s trip into a Texas prison to interview the real Bernie, about how poorly the Texas prison system treats their charges, in regards to living conditions, lack of nutritious food, etc. This darkly hilarious gem is currently available for streaming on Netflix (!), so go there and watch it, already. Check the fun Q&A here. And check out my fave scene below.
Like the coffee required to recover from the late night Bernie Q&A, Day Three opened strong and dark with Oslo, August 31st, a masterfully acted, stark in content but visually gorgeous depiction of a day in the life of a struggling, recovering drug addict in Norway’s heterogeneous capital as this beaten down and possibly permanently broken character crosses town, mostly on foot, en route to a dark assignation at his family’s soon-to-be former home. Depressing, yes, but utterly engrossing. Every frame feels genuine here, from an opening thwarted suicide attempt to a pounding late night rave scene that successfully put the Virginia’s powerful subwoofers to the womp womp test. (Also currently streaming on Netflix, so get to it!) In the Q&A, director Joachim Trier discussed his own upbringing in Oslo, and how he got his start there as a top skateboarder producing skateboarding vids.
Completely different stylistically from Trier’s film, yet as desolate and dark in its own way, the next feature, Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, is a bizarre and spectacular take on traditional Kabuki theater, shot entirely (minus one final shot) in sound stages with tear-away sets that open into new scenes and are tied together by the sometimes jarring high-pitched Eastern vocal melodies of traditional Kabuki narration. This adaption of a Japanese folk legend tells the story of a tradition (that might never have existed, said the always interesting film guru David Bordwell in his introductory comments) in which the starving villagers around the mountain of Narayama send their elderly of a certain age to the mountain’s bone-littered, crow-haunted peak to die. While it’s theatrical performances and grand scale artifice might be jarring at first to Western audiences, give it a few minutes and you’ll be hooked.
In her thoughtful introduction to French director Erick Zonca’s explosive Julia, star Tilda Swinton advised the audience to “get buckled in and enjoy the ride”—appropriate advice for first-time viewers of this extremely high tension, pitch black, buzzsaw sharp film. Having only previously seen Julia on DVD, I was knocked out by the experience of this intense, blood-spattered trip on the Virginia’s big screen. The story follows an entertaining/terrifying “alcoholic slut” (Ebert’s words) who becomes embroiled in a kidnapping plot of a young boy that launches multiple double-crosses, leaving a bloody trail all the way from L.A. to a Mexico City. A movie so intense it’ll make your chest hurt. (Ow.) Swinton was as delightful as ever in the following Q&A with Chaz and Festival Director Nate Kohn, talking about how she had always wanted to play an alcoholic in a film that was “as interesting as the alcoholics I knew, who were really fantastic. Literally, full of fantasy,” and how much her 8-year-old male costar was delighted to be repeatedly hog-tied and manhandled during the shoot. When Kohn dryly said, “That just sounds wrong,” Swinton replied, “Nate, it has to start somewhere.” She also shared that the horrifying Mexico City apartment building featured prominently in the film’s 3rd act was not a set—it was an actual residence in use by a large number of people. This caused the crew some problems when they broke the place’s single elevator, having overloaded it with heavy gear, leaving several little old ladies loaded with grocery bags with no place to go. Don’t miss the entertaining Q&A here.
Swinton also talked about her own mobile movie festival that she has taken into many countries, and how at those festivals they would all stand and dance before every screening, and that Ebertfest should do the same. This resulted in a dance party the following morning, before the 11am screening of Blancanieves, with Swinton shaking her moneymaker with the rapturous, packed Virginia Theatre audience to Barry White’s classic “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” Video of the celebration promptly went viral on the interwebs. A heck of a way to start Day Four.
All of the introductions, Q&As, and panels are available for streaming here. This content is also currently being added (in HD!) at the fest’s YouTube page. Stay tuned for our tales of Days Four and Five! Impromptu yoga! Cat flu! Many Subway sandwiches consumed!
*The lyrics to “Those Were the Days” as modified by Roger Ebert:
“Once upon a time there was a theater
Where we used to see a film or two
Remember how we laughed away the hour
And dreamed of all the great things we would do.
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.”