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
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
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
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].
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.
“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.”
I’ve seen the two films that open Ebertfest tonight, and I’m eager to see each of them again. One is (in this gabber’s opinion) writer-director Terence Malick’s masterpiece, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). Roger’s essay on that film emphasizes the voice that tells its potentially melodramatic story. By “voice,” I don’t simply mean the immortal narration by child actor Linda Manz but also Malick’s sophisticated way of telling his story from both under the skin of the characters and from the margins. I’d call it 21st Century screenwriting if there were contemporary examples as elegant and effortlessly propulsive. (Sorry, UPSTREAM COLOR and TO THE WONDER (Malick’s latest)–not even close.)
The other film showing, I REMEMBER, is a short by my friend Grace Wang, told from under the skin, in the moment. It’s about memory, intimacy and loss. Grace manages to seduce the eye and ear with an assuredness similar to Malick’s on DAYS OF HEAVEN–except in one small apartment rather than any expanse comparable to DAYS’ Texas Panhandle.
Just a random thought: It would be nice if Ebertfest one day programmed a double feature of JAWS (1975) and JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987). Roger Ebert’s reviews for these two films, taken together, give you the breadth of his film writing. He was great at meeting a movie at its own level. He met JAWS* with open arms:
The story, as I guess everyone knows by now, involves a series of attacks on swimmers by a great white shark, the response of the threatened resort island to its loss of tourist business, and, finally, the epic attempt by three men to track the shark and kill it. There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings in such an archetypal story, but Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all. Spielberg is very good, though, at presenting those characters in a way that makes them individuals.
He met JAWS: THE REVENGE with a harpoon:
Since we see so much of the shark in the movie, you’d think they would have built some good ones. They’ve had three earlier pictures for practice. But in some scenes the shark’s skin looks like canvas with acne, and in others all we see is an obviously fake shark head with lots of teeth.
The shark models have so little movement that at times they seem to be supporting themselves on boats, instead of attacking them. Up until the ludicrous final sequence of the movie, the scariest creature in the film is an eel.
Including a movie Roger hated in a festival devoted to films he adored would be kind of perverse, but after you’ve read his hilarious review of J:TR, it’s impossible not to enjoy its horrific awfulness.
Speaking of perverse, this year the fest screens an acclaimed movie that’s about a thrill ride gone horribly, sometimes obscenely, wrong, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW. I’ve been looking forward to this Disneyland-set fantasy-horror film since Far Flung Correspondent Michał Oleszczyk raved about it from Sundance: “Ultimately, the film is about the terror of ubiquitous entertainment.” The critic Anthony Lane once said, of relentless showbiz ploys to keep consumers riveted, “There is nothing so boring in life, let alone in cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time.” I suspect that ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW explores that idea to some extent.
I also suspect that the corporate desperation to constantly thrill the dollars out of you is the only reason something like JAWS: THE REVENGE got made. And thank God it did. We would never have been able to read the following, from Roger:
What happens at the end? Ellen Brody has become convinced that the shark is following her. It wants revenge against her entire family. Her friends pooh-pooh the notion that a shark could identify, follow or even care about one individual human being, but I am willing to grant the point, for the benefit of the plot.
I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn’t want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?
*Also covered in his Great Movies series.