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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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
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”!
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!)
A surprisingly blustery Champaign, IL, morning started Ebertfest 2011 Day 3 fittingly with the lighter than air 45365, a free-form 2010 doc that takes its name from the zip code of sibling co-directors Bill and Turner Ross’ small Ohio hometown. Eschewing interviews and defined character studies, the first-time directors instead float their cameras voyeuristically from subject to subject, letting the audience glean what they can about the subjects—and in turn, the town—via candid, overheard snippets of conversation. Keep your eyes peeled for the as yet unannounced DVD/BluRay release date—this compelling slice of small-town America is definitely worth a visit…though you wouldn’t want to live there.
Next up was Richard Linklater’s delightfully lighthearted 2009 coming-of-age romp Me & Orson Welles, a mostly fictionalized account of the pre-Citizen Kane titular director’s legendary 1937 modern-dress off Broadway re-staging of “Julius Caesar” as seen through the eyes of a young bit player (played likably here by Zac Efron) who, with no theatrical experience, bluffs his way into a part and under the flamboyant director’s wing. Shining brightest is actor Christian McKay, whose authentic turn as the young Welles feels completely without caricature or artifice–from the voice to the baby-face, McKay is THE definitive Welles. Somebody should use this guy to capture more of Welles’ famously rocky life and career, stat. McKay’s tour-de-force performance alone makes this joyfully crafted comedy worthy of a spot in your Netflix queue, pronto. The laid-back Q&A following the screening touched on how Linklater discovered McKay (the latter was performing in a one man show as a much older and heavier Welles) and how/why the film was shot on location on the Isle of Man (the tiny country’s film bureau’s fiscal incentives, a sweet old theater there fit the bill perfectly). As a fun bonus, Linklater conducted a Welles trivia quiz throughout his Q&A, with special handmade prizes–a few personally redesigned M&OW posters and a few self-burned CDs of a Linklater-approved version of the M&OW soundtrack. Whatta guy. Read more »
After a few short welcoming remarks from a white-scarf-adorned Ebert, via his laptop’s robotic voice, Ebertfest 2011 was officially underway in downtown Champaign, IL’s gorgeous Virginia Theater with one hell of an opening night feature: the beautifully restored and artfully reconstructed original cut of noted German a-hole/genius director Fritz Lang’s magnificent 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis, accompanied by the always amazing Alloy Orchestra. Featuring 30 minutes of previously lost footage found in a Buenos Aires private collection in 2008, this version of Metropolis clocks in at a staggering 150 minutes that manages to delight, unnerve, and downright creep out more than ever. (Check your cable listings for Metropolis Refound, a short doc making the rounds on basic cable detailing this amazing reconstruction.) And while you’re online—stream the reconstructed version of Metropolis in HD on Netflix.) While this version was released in 2010 on DVD/BluRay (and streaming in HD via Netflix), the one thing you won’t get at home is the transcendent experience of the Alloy Orchestra’s genius (and often very loud) original score, a stunning bombast of various synthetic yet naturalistic orchestral strings and organs, weird metal springs that make weirder noises, chimes, low-tuned cello, and, heh, a rain stick. One of the most exciting and entertaining moments these viewers have ever experienced in a theater. Thanks, Eb! Read more »