August 23. 2013
Last week was the 15th Annual Ebertfest Film Festival, held at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, IL. I have an unwarranted sense of pride in the fact that I have attended the festival every year since it’s inception, and an honest feeling of loss that this was the first year without Roger. The festival may go on (I certainly hope it does), but there will never again be the presence and energy Roger Ebert brought to his festival. The pride I take in my past attendance is a selfish appreciation for specific gifts Roger generously handed out to his audience, my favorite of which was a conversation with Werner Herzog that seemed to capture the audience and hold us in place until just a couple hours before sunrise. Beyond his love and passion for film, Roger was a gifted writer and a true newspaperman. A dream of having drinks with both Roger Ebert and Mike Royko would be my greatest argument on behalf of the heaven construct.
With homage paid and inspiration stolen, I offer my humble bite-sized reviews of the films screened at this year’s festival…
DAYS OF HEAVEN: According to festival guest and “cinematographer” on this film, Haskel Wexler, Terence Malick is a “weird guy.” He’s stating the obvious at this point, but Malick is also in a weird place. A-List actors want to work with him because he’s branded a genius, so studios throw money at him and give his pictures wide-release. Midwestern housewives buy tickets to the latest George Clooney or Brad Pitt movie, and walk out of the theater (likely before the film’s end) having witnessed a Malick film (and wondering “what the hell was that?”). DAYS OF HEAVEN is early Malick (1978), and tells a traditional story in a more linear narrative than most Terence Malick films. But the seeds are there for what was to come. Malick is a collage artist of cinema. His films are beautiful and poetic, and if an audience can cast aside their false framework of expectations for what they think a movie is, they will find unexpected rewards.
DAYS OF HEAVEN was introduced by a short subject film by Ebert far-flung correspondent (Toronto), Grace Wang, called I REMEMBER. It’s a good pairing, I REMEMBER relies on imagery, tone, and very little dialogue to convey its themes.
VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH: Frequent festival guest (unable to attend this year because of failing health), Paul Cox, made a film about Van Gogh and, as my Uncle Joe suggested, probably somewhere during the filming he said, “Screw it, I’m just going to show slides of the paintings and have John Hurt read the letters.” Because that really was the best possible approach.
VINCENT was introduced by TO MUSIC, a short subject film co-directed by Sophie Kohn, daughter of festival coordinator Nate Kohn. While some would claim “nepotiz!,” the fact is TO MUSIC was one of the best things I saw (and heard) at this year’s festival. It plays to me like a cinematic adaptation of a Jim Harrison story, which is ironic considering all the crappy full-length Hollywood features that have come from Jim Harrison stories, including his own terrible scripts (Legends of the Fall, Wolf, Revenge).
IN THE FAMILY: Roger Ebert has said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” IN THE FAMILY is a three-hour film and worth every minute. Everyone should see it. Everyone should feel its impact, and then think long and hard about who they are and what they offer the world. And while I don’t like to judge anyone by their taste in film, if you have no desire to see IN THE FAMILY, you frankly don’t deserve to live. Just sayin’.
BERNIE: I was not able to attend the screening of BERNIE, so Jack Black and I have something in common.
OSLO, AUGUST 31ST: A Norwegian film about the day in the life of an addict. It’s well made, well acted, and very deliberate in the point it is trying to make (at least I thought so until I heard the audience Q&A after). The director was engaging and interesting, and much more appealing than the character he built this film around.
THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA: A Japanese film from 1958 that tells a folk tale using elements of Kabuki theater. It’s like Logan’s Run in feudal Japan, except you don’t go to Carousel when you are 30, you go up the mountain when you are 70. A much better deal, when you think about it.
JULIA: I really didn’t like this movie. Tilda Swinton seems very gracious and personable in real life, but when she’s on screen she just creeps me out. And somehow I fear Ebertfest is evolving into Tildafest. The horror.
BLANCANIEVES: Anyone who sees this modern silent film from Spain will recall THE ARTIST, and wonder what all the fuss was about. My favorite film from this year’s festival, BLANCANIEVES tells a familiar tale with so many interesting creative twists, you will never think of Snow White again without also thinking of bullfighting.
KUMARE: At the end of KUMARE, we get caught up with the film’s subjects through familiar AMERICAN-GRAFFITI-style text capsules, and one of the subjects is said to have endorsed the message of KUMARE, but questioned the method. I’m of the same mind. It’s a funny film with an important message, but it made me uncomfortable with how the film used the people in its study.
ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW: Anyone who has been to that wretched hive of consumerism and false-fronts in Orlando will appreciate the roasting this film gives Disney, and applaud the subversive tactics taken to film inside the actual park. Anyone who has seen a Guy Maddin film or two, will know just how short of its target this film lands. The judge who reviews the inevitable lawsuit that will stem from this movie has a good chance of being equally as confused as the audience.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW: So someone found the diary I didn’t keep my senior year in high school, and developed it into a script. Hit uncomfortably close to home for me, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’ve already reserved a date with my 15-year-old daughter to see this film when it gets a wide theatrical release (or more likely, becomes available on Apple TV).
NOT YET BEGUN TO FIGHT: This was the Sunday matinee, and I have not attended the Sunday matinee in several years. One, because I’ve usually caught my limit of films by then, and two, because the last Sunday matinee I attended was BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (Roger’s screenwriting credit) with a concert by THE STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK immediately after the screening. Much like THE POLICE breaking up after playing Shea Stadium in 1983, I thought it was never going to get that good again.
- Roger Ebert’s Legacy: Famed Critic’s Ebertfest Film Festival to Push Through in April (eonline.com)
- Days of Ebertfest: The 2013 schedule (blogs.suntimes.com)
- Remembering the Roger I knew (blogs.suntimes.com)
- Film critic Roger Ebert dies at 70 (insidemovies.ew.com)