In Conversation with Godfrey Cheshire, Director of “Moving Midway”

In ambling around the Virginia Theater I’ve asked many Ebertfest attendees a simple question: “What has been your favorite movie thus far?” In return, most folks have delivered a simple response: “Moving Midway.” The documentary, directed by critic/filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, is a fascinating examination into a Southern family’s rich and sordid history. After the premiere of his directorial debut in Champaign, Cheshire sat down with me to have a telling conversation about his work, moving away from home, and more.

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Question: What is the best Alloy Orchestra Performance?

Ever year Ebertfest makes it a point to show one silent film accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. This year they brought The Son of the Sheik, in which the eponymous sheik (played by Rudolph Valentino) falls head over heels for an alluring dancer (Vilma Banky). Although it ultimately twists and turns into a riveting revenge story, it’s Alloy that makes this a unique cinematic experience. Continue reading


An Update to the Spit Take Award and “The End of the Tour”

Two years ago RogerEbert.com writer Steven Boone started the “Spit Take” award, which aims to celebrate one Ebertfest guest who made the Virginia Theater burst into laughter. In 2013, the prestigious prize was given to actor Michael Shannon, who brought the house down with a joke about his behind. In continuing this grand tradition, I’m officially awarding the 2015 spit take award to Jason Segel. Continue reading


In Conversation: Héloïse Godet of “Goodbye to Language”

Hailing from Paris, France, actress Héloïse Godet is attending this year’s Ebertfest on behalf of Goodbye to Language, which opened the festival on Wednesday night to a packed Virginia Theater audience. Serving as the de-facto spokesperson for Jean-Luc Godard, the gifted actress was awarded the coveted Golden Thumb by Chaz. Her work in Godard’s latest cinematic experiment is awe-inspiring. Every frame she inhabits radiates with beauty and vulnerability. She exudes these qualities in person too, where she joined me in a candid conversation. Continue reading

"Goodbye to Language" by Jean-Luc Godard

Goodbye to Understanding

This year’s Opening Night film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, is a towering achievement in something. It’s unclear exactly what that “something” is, and perhaps it’s ultimately irrelevant. Godard appears uninterested in providing clear explanations. He thrives on intoxicating 3-D mystery. For 73 minutes, a master in cinema is asking us to stop what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. Put down the brightly-lit screens competing for our attention every second of every day. Forget about the way you’ve watched movies in the past. Disregard basic cinematic grammar. Stop searching for themes and blinding revelations. Just give in, or don’t. Continue reading


Before Ebertfest: A (Brief) Introduction

Dear Readers, Ebertfest attendees, and everyone in between,

Before the festivities kicked off tonight, I wanted to make a brief introduction.

I’m Sam Fragoso, the writer Ebertfest selected to run the blog this year. For the next five days this space will serve as an outlet to reflect, ruminate, and discuss what’s happening inside the Virginia Theater. Hopefully, the movies– and my writings on those movies–will inspire discourse. To put it plainly: comments and conversation are welcome. Continue reading



Friday was the day of painfully cathartic films. Two of them dealt in grunge realism (OSLO, AUGUST 31st and JULIA), one in piercing emotional realism related in dizzying theatrical terms (THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA). Out in the real world, tragedies to rival the movies continued apace.

Saturday was the day of cutting loose. It had rained all week and now the sun was out. Chaz and Tilda Swinton led an all-audience dance, which set a giddy mood. The sight of Professor David Bordwell neck-popping to Barry White is a memory I’ll carry to my grave–as is that of Chaz onstage dancing the way you dance in the living room. Free spirits. “Dancing with Roger!” Tilda shouted while grooving with Chaz.

The films selected for today sustained that giddiness, even as they ventured into deep, dark, disturbing places.

BLANCANIEVES is a magical, morbid and melodramatic antidote to the recent rash of plasticized, trillion-dollar fairy tale movies. Pablo Berger’s radiant persona during the Q&A mirrors the dark glow of his silent/loud film.

KUMARE starts off like a reality TV stunt, punking various New Age acolytes looking for a guru; ends up saying something quite moving about belief, trust, self-perception and self-determination. Did Roger’s selection here anticipate our tireless canonization of him? That would be cool, and quite characteristic of our Movie Savior. All hail.

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW . Well, Damon Packard’s underground classic REFLECTIONS OF EVIL ventured into this thematic turf first, turning the Universal Studios theme park into a nightmare similar to the one that beseiges this film’s Disneyland vacationers. But that was a decade ago, before cinema-quality cameras were small enough to sneak into theme parks. ESCAPE’s guerilla fantasy-horror is as seamless, as feverishly inventive as BLANCANIEVES.

Writer-Director Randy Moore was reserved about criticizing Disney during the Q&A at first, until insistent questions about Disney-as-Satan prompted him to describe the company’s products as a force that invades every home, indoctrinates every child.  He characterized sneaking around in Walt Disney World as a kind of reciprocal home invasion.

Roger once mentioned that TOUCH OF EVIL was a dark and violent film that nevertheless left him feeling happy. Or something like that. I can’t find the quote presently, but here’s a familiar one that gets at why ESCAPE’s intense Freudian horror is so hilarious: “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.”

James Ponsoldt’s  THE SPECTACULAR NOW, Saturday’s last film, has been compared to the teen dramedies of John Hughes. I didn’t get to catch the whole thing, but from what I saw of it, John Hughes has never written or directed anything so elegantly, compassionately “kitchen sink.”

B, a volunteer at the fest (U of I economics major/future filmmaker), rushed into the Virginia theater’s back room all choked up, warning me that I was missing “a very, very moving film.” I went back into the theater to witness rare wisdom and tenderness. The beauty of its final scenes are all about the sorrows of missing out on all the good that is in your reach [he typed as the Q&A proceeded without him].

The Michael Shannon Spit Take Award

curtainsActor Michael Shannon got the biggest laugh of last year’s Ebertfest at a Q&A for the film TAKE SHELTER. Asked about what similarities between himself and his director, Jeff Nichols, he drew upon to portray a paranoid everyman, he slowly leaned into the mic for a perfect beat of silence and muttered, “We have similar asses.”

If the entire audience had been drinking water at that moment, there’d have been a thousand spit takes.

It’s too early to call the winner of the first annual Michael Shannon Spit Take Award (which is not an actual Eberfest award, just something I made up five minutes ago), but I will predict that cinema muse Tilda Swinton (who presented her film JULIA last night) will defeat director Richard Linklater (who presented his BERNIE Thursday night). Both were warm, funny and laidback, pulling easy laughs out of the crowd. But Tilda’s riff on hog-tying a child actor, aided by fest director Nate Kohn (a master of Shannonesque timing and deadpan delivery himself) brought the house down. Her line, “Nate, it’s got to start somewhere” was screenplay caliber. You can watch her JULIA Q&A here.

These Q&A things can be murder if the subjects take themselves too seriously and don’t embrace spontaneity, real conversation. I have yet to observe that problem at Ebertfest.

Nepotism done right, and van Gogh done justice.

ToMusicgoghSofia Coppola shut up the cynics decisively when her classic film LOST IN TRANSLATION proved she was a world-class director on par with her legendary father, Francis.

College student Sophie Kohn got a film into Ebertfest this year not because her dad Nate is the festival director (though you can’t say it hurt any) but because Roger saw her short film and simply loved it.

Cynical eyes might roll even faster when considering that her film was shot in the scenic south of France, is mostly wordless and features maverick director/friend-of-Ebert Paul Cox as a priest.

As Melissa Merli notes in her local news story, the film, TO MUSIC acquits itself of all charges. Sophie and co-director Feike Santbergen are the real deal. Their short makes a clear and sincere statement about how music can draw us out of our despair, into the light of fellowship. Its super-widescreen frames are precise and packed with details that tell a vast story in mere seconds. The editing helps these shot-canvases course and sing like music, especially when landing upon an astonishingly resonant stray detail.

The feature it was coupled with, VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH, is an explosion of color and movement, set to classical music and van Gogh’s words, letters to his brother Theo read by John Hurt. Paul Cox made the film in 1985, and it timelessly turns the cliche of the starving artist into something like gospel for creative people, eccentrics and visionaries.


American Beauty

InTheFamily3“This film is an evergreen,” said Michael Barker, an unusually soulful movie executive from Sony Pictures Classics. He was speaking to the Ebertfest faithful after a screening of Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY Thursday night. He was right. I was so stunned, moved and inspired after seeing the film, I could hardly speak. Feels like it will stay with me for a lifetime.

Before the film, Barker put it even more perfectly: “This is a film that was made for Ebertfest.” If you want to know the plot, go elsewhere. All I will tell you is that, in a time when it seems as if the entire country is spiraling into chaos and hostility, IN THE FAMILY shows a simple (but not easy) way through and around America’s complex problems. It’s safe to say that M.I.T.-educated Wang is a genius at screenwriting, acting and directing on this, his first film, but this is no cold tower of analysis or style.  Wang offsets a formal rigor that could make Robert Bresson feel like a slob with an appreciation and respect for his characters. The margins of Wang’s frame are the margins of society, where beautiful, terrible things are happening in silence.

Enough of the film critic-speak. I cried a few honest cries during this movie, and was shaken with a feeling so tough to conjure up in modern times, the feeling that we are a family, all of us–a broken, dysfunctional family, true, but a family. We avoid each other on the flimsiest of pretexts, at our peril. Kevin Lee said as much to Wang during the Q&A after the screening, and he could barely hold back the tears while connecting the dots between the film’s storytelling and the social vision Roger had for this festival. Kevin further demonstrated the lesson by acknowledging that it wasn’t a prestigious film festival or publication that first brought this under-appreciated, self-distributed movie to Roger’s attention, but his personal assistant, Carol Iwata. There’s a tough, fiercely loyal character in IN THE FAMILY who reminds me of Carol. Quite a few characters in this film will remind you of good people you know.

The final scene offers hope for the small family it fretted over for three hours, but implicitly, lyrically, for our planetary extended family.  Racism, for one thing, has broken my heart many times over in America, but the final scene of IN THE FAMILY gives us all a way out of this mess. It’s so simple. It seems as if Roger cried out for this movie when he wrote these passages in LIFE ITSELF:

“I began to realize that I had tended to avoid some people because of my instant conclusions about who they were and what they would have to say. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me.”

““I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”