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Wish You Were Here: A Guide To Ebertfest 2010
by Peter Sobczynski

A look at the treats to be had at the 12th annual Ebertfest, including some unsung gems, a couple that are sung, two of the best films ever made and the title selected by the host as the greatest cinematic work of the 2000's. (Shockingly, it is not "Resident Evil.")

Ever since the unofficial kickoff date for the annual summer movie derby was moved back from Memorial Day to the first weekend in May (largely as the result of the unexpected success of the disaster epic “Deep Impact” in that slot back in 1998), the last weekend of April has become a cinematic graveyard of titles being dumped at the last minute before the rush of summer blockbusters that often makes the grey days of early January seem positively fecund with possibility by comparison. (Without giving anything away, I assure you that after one look at “The Back-Up Plan,” many people will find themselves mentally reevaluating “Gigli” and realizing that it doesn’t seem that bad in retrospect.) To make matters worse, the summer season that follows looks to be one of the least inspiring in recent memory--outside of “Toy Story 3“ and the chance to see Angelina Jolie in ass-kicking mode, is there anything out there that people are genuinely looking forward to seeing? And yet, for one group in cineastes, the last weekend in April is a time for celebration because it marks another edition, the 12th, of Roger Ebert’s increasingly popular Ebertfest (formerly known as the Overlooked Film Festival), a five-day celebration that brings together both a diverse collection of 13 films from all over the world to Urbana, Illinois and the confines of the majestic Virginia Theatre and an equally eclectic array of filmmakers, actors, critics and scholars to talk about them at post-film Q&A’s and panel discussions.

Below is a list of the films that will be playing, the guests currently scheduled to attend and some brief thoughts on the titles that I have already seen. Although festival passes sold out months ago, tickets for some of the individual screenings may still be available. If you can’t make it, many of the films are currently available on DVD and the panel discussions and Q&A’s are scheduled to be streamed live on the festival website. To check on ticket availability or any changes to the program, you should immediately proceed to the official festival website at www.ebertfest.com



4/21

PINK FLOYD THE WALL: This year’s festival starts off with a bang--literally--with Alan Parker’s eye-popping, jaw-dropping and eardrum-shattering 1982 visualization of the landmark concept album from the famed British rock group that takes viewers on a guided tour of the tormented psyche of a emotionally withdrawn rock star (a pre-Live Aid Bob Geldolf, then best-known as the leader of the Boomtown Rats, one of the numerous British punk bands that came into being, ironically, as a response to the perceived excesses of bands like Pink Floyd) suffering from too little love, too many drugs and an inability to connect with anyone despite his wealth and fame. Although the film was produced at the time when music videos were just beginning to break into the mainstream thanks to the arrival of MTV, the film is not simply a group of videos haphazardly strung together--it is a work as powerful, profound and thought-provoking as any straightforward film thanks combination of Roger Waters penetrating lyrics, Gerald Scarfe’s haunting animations and Parker’s go-for-broke directorial approach. While it may not exactly be fun to watch at times, it is an exhilarating work of pure cinema and to see it on the big screen, especially here in what is said to be the only remaining 70mm print in existence, is something that every true film fan should experience at least once. (7:00 PM)


YOU THE LIVING: There are very few films that could possibly follow “Pink Floyd The Wall” without getting completely blown away in the process but the festival has managed to find one just as outrageous and fascinating to complete what will no doubt go down as one of the most wonderfully strange opening nights in film festival history. The 2007 film from Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson is a comedy, more or less, consisting of maybe 50 or so vignettes involving depressed people going through the motions of their depressing existences and while many of these moments are absolutely hilarious, to attempt to describe them to you would be an exercise in futility--like Monty Python, Andersson specializes in the kind of humor that is formally unique and frequently hilarious but which doesn’t translate well when you try to describe it to someone. All I am going to say is that unless you have seen Andersson’s other films, such as previous Ebertfest selection “Song from the Second Floor,” you have never seen a film quite like this one and if you have, you know exactly what to expect--the unexpected. After the screening, co-star Jessika Lundberg and assistant director Johan Carlsson will participate in what is sure to be an interesting Q&A. (10:00 PM)


4/22

MUNYURANGABO: This 2007 feature from Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung is the one film on this year’s slate that I have yet to see, so I am unable to offer any sort of critical assessment. All I know about it is that it deals with the 1994 Rwanda genocide and its aftermath through the story of a young boy who returns home after a three-year absence accompanied by another kid who counts a machete among his few possessions and that to judge from the rapturous reviews that it received upon its release, I probably made a mistake by never getting around to see it until now. Chung and co-producers Sam Anderson and Jenny Lund will be on hand to discuss the film afterwards. (12:00 PM)


THE NEW AGE: In this bitterly hilarious social satire from Michael Tolkin, best known for writing “The Player” and directing the apocalyptic drama “The Rapture,” Peter Weller and Judy Davis play an uber-Yuppie couple content with living well beyond their means until they both wind up losing their high-paying jobs at the same time. To keep things together, they try to open their own business (one of those high-priced boutiques where one is expected to buy a $500 belt without hesitation) and begin to follow a series of New Age gurus but only find themselves spiraling further and further down until they are left with nothing. It sounds like a film torn from today’s headlines but, in the most darkly ironic joke in a movie filled with them, it was actually released in 1994 but it feels just as timely today as it did back then. Tolkin’s screenplay is a brilliant dissection of two prime examples of a morally and fiscally bankrupt culture brought down by the very emptiness that they once celebrated and Weller and Davis are both fascinating to watch as two of the least likable characters to ever grace a movie screen. (Additionally, Adam West, of all people, turns in a brief and camp-free performance as Weller’s father that pretty much steals the film.) Tolkin, who sadly hasn’t directed a feature film since this one was released to vast audience indifference, will be on hand for a Q&A. (3:00 PM)


APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX : If you care enough about film to be interested in reading about Ebertfest in the first place, you are presumably familiar enough with Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic, a landmark work of cinema as ground-breaking and influential as any movie ever made, to make a plot description somewhat superfluous. Instead, I will merely point out that the version being screened her is not the original 1979 version that caused a worldwide sensation from the moment it debuted at that year’s Cannes Film Festival after years of hype surrounding its legendarily troubled production, but the 2001 reissue for which Coppola restored four major sequences totaling nearly an extra hour of running time. Although these scenes--extra business with Robert Duvall’s crazed Col. Kilgore and Marlon Brando’s Capt. Kurtz, a detour with the Playboy Playmates seen in an earlier sequence at an orgiastic U.S.O. show and the long-discussed extended French Plantation sequence in which our heroes encounter a French family living in the jungle who represent the days when their country was in charge of Vietnam--are interesting to watch, none of them (with the possible exception of the Brando stuff, which offers some of the film’s most cutting commentary on the war) are particularly necessary (the French Plantation sequence comes perilously close to throwing the entire pace of the film off for good) and probably should have simply been consigned to the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Even with these additions, it is still a masterpiece containing some of the most stunning moments ever captured on film and any opportunity to see it on the big screen (and this is one of those that is best experienced on the biggest screen possible) is not to be missed. To make this screening even more important, the screening will be followed with a discussion with Walter Murch, the legendary editor/sound technician whose other credits include the “Godfather” films, “THX 1138,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “The English Patient” and the restoration of “Touch of Evil.” (8:00 PM)


4/23

DEPARTURES: If I had to pick one film from this year’s lineup that one could easily skip without feeling as though they are going to be missing to much, it would be the 2008 Japanese film that first became known in America when it unexpectedly won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar over such better-known films as “The Class” and “Waltz With Bashir.” The film tells the story of a cellist who loses his job when his orchestra disbands and whose life changes in unexpected ways when he gets a job helping to prepare dead bodies for a spiritually inclined funeral director. It isn’t bad by any means and I can see how its low-key observations about our attitudes towards life and death might strike a chord with many viewers--for me, it is just too low-key for its own good at times and at 130 minutes, it eventually begins to wear out its welcome. Director Yojiro Takita will be on hand to talk about the film afterwards. (1:00 PM)


MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA: If you do take my advice and skip out on “Departures,” make sure you are back in plenty of time for the annual silent film presentation featuring live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, a trio of musicians dedicated to composing and performing new scores to old classics using some of the most intriguing instruments imaginable, including a bedpan. This year’s film is the 1929 surrealistic classic from Russian filmmaker Dziega Vertov that is at once a documentary on a day in the life of the Soviet Union, a documentary on its own making and editing and a document of an audience sitting down to experience the film for themselves. I know that sounds confusing in theory but in practice, it is dazzling to behold and thanks to its groundbreaking rapid-fire editing patterns, it still feels like a living and breathing piece of contemporary art instead of a musty museum piece. Trust me, this movie will make your brain go boom and I mean this in the best possible way. Afterwards, the members of the Alloy Orchestra will take the stage to explain how they developed the score. (4:00 PM)


SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK : Having written some of the most acclaimed screenplays of recent years, such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the always-intriguing Charlie Kaufman made his directorial debut in 2008 with a work so complex and baffling that his previous efforts looked like child’s play by comparison. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director whose life is slowly coming apart--his wife (Catherine Keener) has taken his beloved daughter and abandoned him in order to pursue a career as a painter in Berlin, a new romance with another woman (Samantha Morton) has fallen apart almost before it has properly started and he is suffering from any number of physical maladies. When he becomes the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, he moves his theater company into an airplane hanger-like structure in order to stage a mammoth work in which they are asked to recreate the details of their daily lives--as the years go by and the concept expands, fiction and reality begin to blend in bizarre and unexpected ways. At least I think that it what is going on here--this is one of those films in which it is almost impossible to fully grasp what is going on until you see it at least a second time. This isn’t necessarily a problem--one could say the same thing about “2001” and that hasn’t exactly hurt that film’s reputation over the years--but first-time viewers are liable to come away from it feeling more than a little baffled. I know I was when I saw it for the first time but at the same time, I realized even then that I had experienced an utterly original work and even though I still can’t say that I fully grasp it even after several subsequent viewings, I like to think that I am on the cusp of completely getting it and perhaps this screening will finally put me over the top. Charlie Kaufman is currently scheduled to take part in a post-screening Q&A that may even make the one for “You, the Living” seem staid by comparison. (8:00 PM)


4/24

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE: Every year, the festival throws open its doors for a free screening of a family-oriented movie and this year’s selection is a genial 2003 British comedy about a penniless family struggling to survive in a run-down castle while Dad (Bill Nighy), a formerly famous author who hasn’t put pen to paper in twelve years, tries to overcome his writing block. Their lives begin to change when the land they are living on is inherited by a pair of young American brothers (Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas) who soon become involved with the two daughters-the sensible Cassandra (Romola Garai) and the social-climbing Rose (Rose Byrne)--and much romantic whimsy occurs. Although not without its flaws--the plot is a little too predictable at times and at 113 minutes, it begins to run a little too long for its own good--it contains a lot of big laughs (I liked a moment when the family’s stepmother, formerly the father’s muse, learns that he is visiting the mother of the Americans and is upset because, as she puts it, "She’s inspiring him!"), Garai and Byrne are both charming as all get out and the increasingly invaluable Nighy (who is scheduled to appear with the film) proves that, like Christopher Walken, he is one of those unique presences whose mere appearance is enough to make any movie at least slightly more interesting as long as he is on the screen. (11:00 AM)


VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR: Virtually every big city worth its salt has a couple of local denizens who have made themselves semi-famous throughout the area as a result of their somewhat singular behavior. In Chicago, for example, there is Vincent P. Falk, a genuine eccentric who has become a familiar face by appearing at locations like the State Street bridge and greeting onlookers while clad in what seems to be an endless collection of jackets so gaudily colored that even Morris Day himself might deem them a bit too much. Local documentary filmmaker Jennifer Burns decided that there was something intriguing about this character, decided to make a movie about him and hit the mother lode when his personal story--none of which I would dream of revealing to you-- turned out to be just as colorful as his outfits. Having played at a few festivals, this charmer of a film is getting its first major push here before attempting a commercial release. (It is currently scheduled to play at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in early May.) Both Burns and Falk are scheduled to appear with the film. (2:00 PM)


TRUCKER: In this understated 2008 drama from writer-director James Mottern, Michelle Monaghan plays a free-spirited long-haul trucker whose life is thrown into upheaval when she is unexpectedly reunited with the 11-year-old son she abandoned after his birth after his father (Benjamin Bratt) is hospitalized. Initially upset with the prospect of having to care for someone besides herself, the reappearance of her child forces her to reexamine both her past choices and her plans for the future. Under normal circumstances, this might have been the kind of well-meaning but deadly dull drama about people coming to terms with things that might have driven me up the wall a la the wildly overrated “Frozen River” but this one is better than that, partly because Mottern never hit’s the melodrama too hard and partly because of the impressive central performance by Monaghan. If you feel the same way about their efforts that I do, you will be able to thank them for yourself because both are set to appear with the film. (4:30 PM)


BARFLY: Based on a screenplay from literary lion/lush Charles Bukowski and brought to the screen by the equally iconoclastic filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (then best known for the surreal “More” and documentaries on subjects ranging from Koko the talking gorilla, Idi Amin and Bukowski himself), this amazing and utterly unclassifiable work--part comedy, part tragedy, part drama, part horror, part documentary--this 1987 film stars Mickey Rourke (in one of his very best performances to date) as a drunken would-be poet who spends most of his time hanging out in dives and picking fights with the bartenders until he finds himself involved in an odd triangle that includes a fellow lush (Faye Dunaway) who sees him as a kindred spirit and a publisher (Alice Krige) who sees him as a potential talent. Although there isn’t much of a plot to speak of, the film captures the spirit of Bukowski’s work in a way that eludes too many attempts to translate the voice of a distinctive writer into cinematic turns and the volatile performances from Rourke and Dunaway are things to behold. Speaking of volatile, the making of this film has inspired any number of stories that have gone into Hollywood legend, beginning with Schroeder allegedly barging into the offices of Cannon Pictures and threatening to cut off his finger with a power tool if they didn’t finance the production, and Schroeder will hopefully spill many of them during his post-screening discussion. (9:00 PM)


4/25

SONG SUNG BLUE: The festival traditionally closes with a musically-themed selection--past finales have included “Singin In the Rain,” “Say Amen Somebody” and the immortal “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”--and this year’s selection is a surprisingly engrossing 2008 documentary from filmmaker Greg Kohs following the ups and downs in the lives of Mike and Claire Sardina, a Milwaukee couple who made a local name for themselves in the area for covering the songs of Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline under the name of Lightning & Thunder. I realize that this brief description may make it sound either unbearably kitschy or borderline condescending but this film is nothing like that--it is funny without being insulting, touching without being mawkish and it even manages the considerable challenge of making Neil Diamond seem genuinely cool for the first time since “The Last Waltz.” Kohs and Claire Sardina will be attending the screening and I have a sneaky suspicion that if asked, the latter may wind up doing a tune or two for the crowd. (12:00 PM)


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3015
originally posted: 04/20/10 06:36:19
last updated: 04/20/10 07:02:56
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