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Ebertfest Blog: Entry 5--Emotional Rescues

by Peter Sobczynski

A local boy made very good and a great filmmaker who has been in a self-imposed exile for nearly a decade were the big hits at the fourth day of Ebertfest 2008. University of Illinois graduate Ang Lee returned to his alma mater and “the theater where I saw ‘Rambo II’” to present his wildly underrated “Hulk” and Bill Forsyth, the acclaimed Scottish director who hasn’t made a film since 1999, reunited with actress Christine Lahti for the first time in 21 years to present their 1987 collaboration “Housekeeping.” Audiences were also charmed with the tale of an unexpectedly endearing culture clash involving Egyptians and Israelis and chilled with an extra-creepy look into the mind of an exceptionally twisted serial killer.

When “Hulk,” Ang Lee’s big-budget screen version of the long-running Marvel Comics franchise character, debuted under an avalanche of hype in the summer of 2003, it was largely shunned by most critics, who couldn’t understand why the man who gave audiences such sophisticated dramas as “Sense & Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” would stoop to making a comic book movie largely aimed at teenagers, and roundly jeered by audiences who were upset that the film didn’t provide the kind of obvious kinetic thrills seen in the likes of “Spider Man” or “Daredevil”--after a huge opening weekend, the box-office quickly trailed off as audiences abandoned it for the likes of the sequels to “Charlie’s Angels” and “Bad Boys” and it went down in the collective memory as a major bomb. The problem, as it turns out, was a simple one. Instead of simply making a run-of-the-mill comic-book movie, Lee had the nerve and audacity to make a film that served as another exploration of some of his favorite themes--parent-child conflicts and the notion of emotional repression and the ways that people find to release the tensions that they cannot otherwise deal with. As a result, those expecting a typical summertime popcorn epic were aghast to discover that they were sitting through an Ang Lee film, the kind more attuned to art houses than multiplexes, while more sophisticated viewers assumed that it was empty-headed junk and skipped it altogether.

Personally, I have always considered “Hulk” to be one of the best of the big-budget comic adaptations to emerge during the blockbuster era (that list would also include “Superman,” the Tim Burton “Batman” movies, “Batman Begins,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Popeye”) and so it was thrilling to not only see it again on the big screen at the Virginia Theater, but to see it with an audience that actually responded to its audaciousness instead of being offended by its willingness to offer viewers something new, such as the unusual split-screen visual style that offered a brilliant approximation of the sensation of reading the panels of a comic strip, instead of the same old junky and meaningless eye candy. It was even more thrilling to see the modest and self-effacing Lee on stage after the screening talking with Sony Pictures Classics head Michael Barker. He discussed his reasons for why he chose to do such an odd-sounding project (he said that it was inspired in part by his own conflicts with his father and took it so personally that it was he who got into the motion-control suit to perform the movements and facial expressions of Hulk that were later transformed into CGI) and candidly talked about its less-than-enthusiastic response (though it was clear that he was gratified to see it with a full house of people who actually got it). He also talked about his career as a whole--while there was a question about “Brokeback Mountain” and Heath Ledger (he said that he cast Ledger in his role because he would carry the entire movie and cast Jake Gyllenhaal in his because he would steal it) but the show-stopping moment came when he described how he chose to make the acerbic 1997 drama “The Ice Storm” as a “Fuck You” response to his warmer and friendlier films like “The Wedding Banquet” and “Sense and Sensibility.” As he put it, “A lady would come up to me and say ‘I just loved Sense and Sensibility’ and I’d just want to punch her in the face.”

Next up was Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” and while it may not be the best of this year’s selections, there is a very good chance that it may have been the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch. The film tells the story of the misadventures of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, a musical group consisting of eight Egyptian police officers, that occur when their trip to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center is derailed when they board the wrong bus and wind up in an isolated town that, we are informed, not only has no Arab cultural center but “no culture at all” and are forced to spend the night with some locals while waiting for the bus to arrive the next day. Based on this description, you might expect the film to be an overly earnest culture-clash comedy trading on easy jokes and easier sentiment but that is not the film that it turns out to be. Yes, it is funny and often brilliantly so (one sequence, in which one of the officers coaches a shy boy on putting the moves on the girl sitting next to them, is such a masterpiece of comic timing that when it concluded, the audience burst into applause as if it were an especially inspired stage performance) but it also contains moments of sadness and regret that work because the film earns them instead of simply trucking them in to score some cheap sentiment. Best of all, it doesn’t have one of those false happy endings that people often tack onto movies to make audiences feel better even though they don’t make much sense--while the way in which the relationship between the band’s leader (Sason Gabai) and an independent local woman (Ronit Elkabetz, who comes across here as Israel’s answer to Salma Hayek) may or may not resolve itself may be unsatisfying to those looking for the kind of closure provided by an ordinary Hollywood movie, the ending that Kolirin has given us is far more authentic and affecting in the long run. After the screening, Kolirin came to the stage, joined by critic Mary Corliss, film booker Hannah Fisher and the returning Michael Barker to discuss the film and the scandal that erupted when it was disqualified from contending for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar--when the Egyptians and Israelis talk to one another, it is in broken English (complete with subtitles) because it is the only language that they both understand and the foreign-film committee determined that it contained too much English -language dialogue to qualify.

Watching Bill Forsyth’s 1987 film “Housekeeping” for the first time in many years with what may have been the largest audience of any of this year’s films, my emotions were evenly split between delight and depression. Delight because, like all of Forsyth’s other films (including the likes of “Gregory’s Girl,” “Local Hero” and “Comfort and Joy”), the story of a woman(Christine Lahti) who tries to take care of her two nieces (Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill) after the suicide of their mother and whose pronounced eccentricities (she collects newspapers, goes for long rambling walks and hardly seems to notice when the house gets flooded) wind up driving a wedge between the two sisters (one unabashedly loves her while the other grows embarrassed by her oddness) and arouses the suspicion of townspeople who “only want to help,” is an enormously funny and winning human comedy that blends together earthy comedy, magic realism and genuinely touching moments. Delight because of the performances by Lahti as the aunt and from Walker and Burchill as the nieces, three of the most fully developed and nuanced female characters to appear in an English-language film in the 1980s. Delight that the film as a whole had held up so well over the years thanks to the timeless nature of the story and the characters--regardless of the era, there will always be outsiders who march to the beat of a different drummer and there will always be those who can’t understand why those other people just won’t get with the program.
At the same time as those feelings of delight were happening, there was, much like the film itself, a sense of melancholy and depression present as well. Depression over the fact that when the film came out in 1987, it was the victim of a studio regime change and both the film and Christine Lahti’s chances for a much-deserved Oscar were doomed when it was pulled from theaters after a couple of weeks. (That Oscar, by the way, went to Cher for “Moonstruck”) Depression over the fact that, for whatever reason, the film is still not available on DVD in America, a fate that has befallen many of Forsyth’s other films. (The fact that I can get a copy of “The Chipmunks Adventure” on DVD and not “Comfort and Joy” strikes me as a profound injustice.) Most of all, I feel depression over the fact that Forsyth has not directed a film since 1999 and has stated that he has retired from filmmaking to concentrate on writing. Face it, directors who specialize in films as warm, winning, humane and hilarious as Forsyth are a rare breed indeed and to see one sitting on the sidelines, even if it is a voluntary choice, is a profound tragedy for the world of filmmaking. Whatever disenchantment Forsyth feels towards filmmaking, I can only hope that after seeing how the Ebertfest audience responded to him and his work during the film and the lively Q&A that he did with Lahti and moderator Michael Philips, it might inspire him to rethink his position and take up Lahti’s on-stage plea for him to “please make more movies!”

Partly out of mild exhaustion, partly out of a need to get caught up with my writing and partly because I have already seen it before on the big screen, I did duck out on the day’s final screening, a late-night showing of “The Cell,” director Tarsem Singh’s visually flamboyant and dramatically uneven mind-bender about a psychotherapist (Jennifer Lopez) who finds herself literally trapped inside the mind of a comatose serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) that plays at times like the music video for the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion” stretched out to feature length and sprinkled with more body parts. (If anyone reading this did attend the screening, I would love to know how it went and how many members of the older-skewing audience fled the screening once they got a load of the often-grotesque visuals.) Besides, I wanted to get ready for today’s festival closer, a screening of John Turturro’s wonderfully odd blue-collar musical “Romance & Cigarettes”--to my eyes, it is the best of all of this year’s Ebertfest selections and I can’t wait to see how it plays in front of a real audience.

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originally posted: 04/28/08 00:47:34
last updated: 04/28/08 01:50:26
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