Serious Movie Lover

See You Next Year: Ebertfest 2013 (Days 4-5)

By / Friday, May 3, 2013 / Category: Film Fests / No comments

THE 15th ANNUAL ROGER EBERT’S FILM FESTIVAL (Days 4-5)
Champaign, IL / April 17-21, 2013

Ebertfest Day 4 started at a fever pitch—I mean, where do we go from a (now interwebz famous) 11am dance party led by actess/artist Tilda Swinton?

Nowhere but up, surprisingly enough—Saturday’s stellar lineup was an eclectic mix of genres and tones with something for everybody.

The dance party segued nicely into the sumptuous black and white visual treat of Spanish director Pablo Berger’s silent fairy tale Blancanieves. This Brothers Grimm-inspired tale takes the Snow White story (the title is Spanish for Snow White) in a different direction, casting our heroine as the daughter of a disgraced bullfighter who eventually escapes her wicked stepmother and  joins a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves whilst en route to her own appointment with destiny as a famous matador. Gorgeous and inspired, this Spanish hit is worth your attention. (Now if only it could get a US release…)

New Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s highly entertaining 2012 debut, Kumaré, starts out as a cynical, funny Borat-ish doc, with the director/star posing as an India-born, nonsense spouting guru called Kumaré, mildly exploiting for laughs the gullibility and vulnerability of the people he encounters. While Gandhi’s experiment is an immediate success—YES, with the right fake back story and accent/hair/beard combo, people will buy just about anyone as a guru—Gandhi grows closer than expected to his small group of dedicated hook/line/sinker followers. And, as ridiculous as most of his teachings seem—nonsense about “inner blue lights” and a yoga exercise consisting of windmill air guitar swings, for example—those followers begin achieving positive, joyful results, leaving Gandhi torn and guilty about his long term plan of eventually revealing his true self to them. How he handles it—and how his followers respond—might surprise you. ALSO: To the audience’s delight, Gandhi closed out the following Q&A with a short yoga lesson, in character as Kumaré. (Stream Kumaré at home on Netflix, and then: Ommmm.) 

Up next was the fest’s biggest surprise, this year’s much buzzed about Escape From Tomorrow, an excellent, hilariously absurd comedy that might not ever get a release (besides a few rapturously received Sundance screenings, this was the only other American screening) for mostly the same reason it’s created such a buzz: the film was shot guerilla-style at Disney World, without Disney’s permission. It’s shocking that this scathing indictment of The Happiest Place On Earth hasn’t yet been shut down by The Mouse’s Legal Eagles (TM). Also surprising is that this “guerilla style” movie doesn’t look “guerilla” in the least—shot in gorgeously rendered, razor-sharp black and white in a nod to ’50s sci fi, the visuals are stunning, and were especially a treat on the Virginia Theatre’s enormous screen. The overall tone was a surprise, as well. Having heard only the barest of descriptions of the plot beforehand—a middle-aged family man is fired via phone on the last day of his vacation, then spends the day at Disney World with his unknowing wife and kids in an insanity spiral that mostly revolves around disturbing hallucinations and an obsession with following two French teen Lolitas around the park—I had expected something gritty, dark, amateurish, and possibly something that was more of an interesting story about how-the-heck-was-this-movie-made than being an actual, whole, entertaining movie. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Escape From Tomorrow is a brash comic rollercoaster (wordplay!) that sets up a darkly humorous but relatively traditional premise for 45 minutes or so up the clank-clank-clank hill before turning the picture on its ear as the film suddenly plummets down the other side into a world of laugh-out-loud, ridiculously over-the-top absurdity and totally weird Sci-fi that grows even stranger with every hairpin turn. Film-school weird and juvenile in all the best ways. Though no official trailer exists on the webz, there is this following short production featurette, which includes fun behind-the-scenes stuff. Listen closely to the snippets of Abel Korzeniowski’s original score–it’s crazy good.

The revealing Q&A (masterfully moderated by the director of the subsequent screening, The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt) with first time director Randy Moore, along with the film’s editor and three cast members (including actress Annet Mahendru, who we recognized from FX series The Americans), touched on why the film took its entire two years of postproduction to Korea (much reduced costs, and they didn’t want word of the subject matter to leak out too quickly, something likely to happen had they finished the film in Burbank, CA) and why the film’s budget—raised entirely by Moore’s extended family—blew up from $200,000 to $650,000 (Moore insisted that, unlike most small indie productions, his cast and crew actually be paid). While his film may never see an actual release, Escape From Tomorrow is sure to become a cult bootleg hit, not to mention catapult the filmmakers into a lengthy (non-Disney) film career. Check out the full Q&A here for a fun story of  the crew’s narrow escape from a Disney security dude in a Goofy hat.

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Ebert’s special seat on Aisle 4.

Saving the best for last, Saturday’s lineup wrapped up with my favorite film of the fest, and definitely a top contender for my Best of 2013 shortlist, The Spectacular Now. Adapted from the National Book Award finalist YA novel by Tim Tharp, this rare, authentic slice of high school life tells the story of two seniors, one an always-buzzed, most popular chucklehead in school, the other a sweet comic book nerd, who fall in varying degrees of love, but not necessarily on purpose. Miles Teller—known for his standout supporting role in 2010′s Rabbit Hole and for being the only entertaining part of the vapid 2011 Footloose remake—is often compared to John Cusack. And though a bit darker in tone, this movie in particular seems to fit comfortably in the same universe as Cusack’s 1989 classic Say Anything. But his take on this functional alcoholic futureless class clown goes deeper and darker than Cusack ever dared as Lloyd Dobbler. Teller’s scenes trying to reconnect with his long lost alcoholic futureless dad (played pitch perfect by Friday Night Lights‘ Coach Taylor—er, Kyle Chandler, playing way against type in a concise performance worthy of All The Supporting Oscars We Can Throw at Him) are authentic and heartbreaking. While so many teen movies focus on the social structure, narrowing characters down to stereotypes that don’t exist in reality, Teller’s co-star Shailene Woodley—a standout in  2011’s Oscar winning The Descendants and soon to be featured as Hanna in the upcoming screen adaption of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars—isn’t stuck playing the nerdy wallflower card here. Sure, she’s not a popular kid, but the popular kids don’t pick on her. She seems to have fewer friends, but by choice—a smart, gentle, generous kid that would rather spend her time reading graphic novels, when she’s not doing her mother’s daily paper route.  As he leads her step by step away from that innocence, as she gradually takes on some of his more destructive habits, later keeping up with his drinking from her own flask, your heart breaks and you have an overwhelming urge to rescue that girl. Some of the best performance you’ll see this year. Damn, this is a good movie. If this thing isn’t vigorously dry humped by Oscar next Feb, I’ma be pissed.

The Spectacular Now Q&A:  Director James Ponsoldt and star Shailene Woodley (photo courtesy Ebertfest.com)

The Spectacular Now Q&A:
Director James Ponsoldt and star Shailene Woodley
(photo courtesy Ebertfest.com)

Star Woodley proved to be a regular gal at the standard Ebertfest purse search for contraband M&M’s. That means a lot to us simple Midwestern folk. In her charming Q&A with director James Ponsoldt (remember that name) she effusively praised Ponsoldt for his delicate touch with actors. When a kind of dumb Q’r made a comment (instead of an actual Q, of course) complaining about how the teen sitcom Woodley also appears in was lacking in teen reality, her very polite response with a smile was, “Maybe it’s because we don’t have James Ponsoldt.” That this was (wonderfully) not a message movie managed to disturb at least one mom in the Q&A, who was scandalized by the character’s lack of redemption in regards to the rampant alcoholism, saying she would never allow her children to see it. Uh, thanks for your question? (Things learned over 4 years of Ebertfest #1. Most of the people offering Q’s are usually I’s. And sometimes A’s.) Check out the delightful Q&A here. And check out The Spectacular Now when it hits theaters this August.

Sign on Aisle 4's door requested personally by Ebert.

Sign on Aisle 4′s door requested personally by Ebert.

While Day 5 at Ebertfest has often been dedicated to a music-related documentary, sometimes featuring a live performance in the following Q&A, their polar opposite choice this year, the quiet and poignant Not Yet Begun to Fight, could not have been a better crowd pleaser.  This documentary about a program that takes freshly broken soldiers in various degrees of serious injury to Montana and teaches them flyfishing as a way to  gain some sense of peace and relief from their stress disorders is inspiring, and inspired filmmaking. The humor of one of the film’s most talkative subjects, Erik Goodge, lightened spirits in the following Q&A, opening with, “I’ve been in a lot of firefights, and I’ve seen a lot of action, but I am very nervous right now.” Check out the full Q&A here.

In her farewell remarks, Chaz Ebert ended much speculation by closing the fest with a few well-received words: “See you next year.”

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