Results tagged “ebertfest 2011” from The Other Glass

I had never heard of a poetry slam: it's performing self-penned poetry as a competitive sport. Louder Than a Bomb is a city-wide Chicago poetry slam for high school students that was created after and partly in response to 9/11. The movie Louder Than a Bomb follows the fortunes of four teams the filmmakers, Jon Siskel (Gene Siskel's nephew) and Greg Jacobs picked out of dozens they encountered in doing their research. The kids work incredibly hard at the language and performing style they use to tell their stories, and unlike many competitions even the losers attend all the bouts to be around the people and experience what they do. I am notoriously tone-deaf to poetry but the language and performing passion on display here are breathtaking.


Some random thoughts about this year's festival:

- In about 1995 I went to an open day at the MIT Media Lab, at which people talked enthusiastically about the ability new technology was granting them to pull together a crew in the morning and just roll. A little later, a Hollywood producer challenged the audience to toss out some good ideas, No one spoke, and I think the producer went away satisfied that his industry was safe from the wave of amateurs. No more: easily half the movies at this festival were produced on very small budgets; at least two were the work of only two people working at home; at least two were first features. Granted that Ebert is well-known for championing films that might otherwise die of obscurity (the number of filmmakers who come to his festival and thank him for early support that made their careers), I sense that the promise of 15 years ago is bearing fruit.

- Copyright is still hampering these efforts. The biggest expense facing the couple who made My Dog Tulip was the $100,000 the estate of JR Acklerley demanded for the rights to the book. The filmmaker was astonished: the book was hardly known any more, and who else was interested in it? The makers of 45365 can't afford to release their movie commercially because they can't afford to clear the estimated $30,000 to clear the music. This situation benefits no one. In a reasonable world, the filmmakers could perhaps work a deal where they paid over time as they sold DVD copies or the film made money. But in this world, Hollywood has engaged in "creative accounting" for so long that no one trusts anyone who makes a movie not to make a fortune and never pay up. A system of mechanicals for music use in movies similar to that which applies to recordings would help 45365, It's hard to know what could help the makers of film based on old, obscure books since from the rights holder's point of view there's the opportunity cost of tying the book to one team. Granting non-exclusive options might be an interesting approach but the big-budget guys will demand exclusivity.

- Ebert is building a very interesting future for what was once just a career for himself. The festival, the roster of young filmmakers he showcased this week and the young critics he's recruited for the new TV Show, Roger Ebert Presents, will, I think, build a community that will outlive him. It's a fine effort and a fine way of using his considerable influence.

- The Virginia Theater is the finest place to view a movie and spoils you for almost all other theaters. The huge screen, the perfect focus, sound, and projection, and, during the festival, the best-behaved full house all make the experience extra-special. Movie theaters have self-destructed in the last couple of decades by slicing themselves up, putting the screen at the wrong angle, and setting the projectors to auto. They need to come to Champaign-Urbana to see how it's done.


Short cuts. Four movies yesterday.

Sometime in the 1960s, a retired schoolteacher in Sweden decided to join a program set up to sponsor the education of children in Kenya. Hilde Back was herself originally German, a Holocaust survivor who was granted German residence in 1940. People in Sweden helped her, she explains in A Small Act (2010), and so she thought it was only right to help by sending up to $15 a month to pay for a Kenyan child's passage through secondary school. That child was Chris Mburu, and he went on to go to university and Harvard Law School, and now works on human rights and ending genocide for the UN. Somewhere around 1979, he and his sponsor lost track of each other. In 2003, grateful for the life her generosity had granted him and convinced that an ignorant populace is one that can be exploited and pushed to violence and conflict, he decided to set up a foundation to do what the Swedish sponsorship scheme had. He named it the Hilde Back Foundation. And then set about looking for his benefactor.

The film is a multi-layered story that begins with this search and their reunion and then moves on to follow the fortunes of three top primary school students from Mburu's home village and their struggles to compete for the few scholarships the foundation could afford to offer in its first year. (Then it was ten; since the success of the movie, there are 160 this year, 200 next.)

The filmmaker, Jennifer Arnold, noted that she began work on the documentary during the Bush administration, when it seemed particularly hopeless to her that a single person could have any impact or effect any meaningful change. When she came across this story, she realized it showed the opposite: that what starts as a small act can spread like waves in a pool to change the lives of many, many people.

Yes, it sounds like the kind of story Hollywood might produce as a feel-good tale. But a) it's actually true; and b) it was put together by two people in a garage who, with very little budget (a recurring theme at this year's festival), shot two weeks in Europe and three months in Kenya through the election and subsequent conflict.

The director, Oliver Schmidts, says that the terrible denial and fear of AIDS that has the community in Life, Above All afraid even to say its name was more characteristic of the Mbeki years in South Africa. The 13-year-old actress (now 14 and a half) who played the lead role, Keaobaka Makanyane, said that she and her friends were very well educated about HIV/AIDS. In the country where denial, ostracism, whispers, and echoes of Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" are common, the girl with the courage to speak truth is taking an enormous risk.

There were a lot of classical and poetry references I missed in Leaves of Grass, but this was the most fun of the movies we've seen since My Dog Tulip, and the writer/director/actor Tim Blake-Nelson was the most articulate and erudite of all the guests in describing the way the many references were like echoed colors in abstract art. Don't let that deter you: this is quite a romp whose end is only predictable because of the principle that no one who leaves the small American town they grew up in to reinvent themselves in a better (possibly more ordered) life and achieves great success by doing so, who is then forced to go back for a quick, unwanted visit - ever manages to leave. But the journey that gets this character there is full of many bizarre turns. Who knew that death by crossbow was a thing in Oklahoma?

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is in fact much more true of women - partly because they do a lot more of the cooking. I blame the prawns for this romantic tragedy in grand Italian style. If 45365 is folk music, I Am Love is opera.


Ebertfest 2011 - Friday


Every small town is small in its own way. Inspired by Roger Ebert's review of Hoop Dreams, the brothers Turner (Bill and Ross) began documenting everything they could in their home town, Sidney, Ohio, zip code 45365.

We see moments collected over a seven-month period. A guy whose cable isn't working calls a cop, who with infinite patience suggests they call the cable company; later the same - or perhaps another - cop promises the man he's just arrested that he'll send someone by their house to tell his wife what's happened. A couple individually and nervously practice their vows while putting on their wedding clothes. A mother berates her son about the $50 missing from her purse. The high school football team prepares for the season and then the game. There is an election: the local judge records his endorsement tagline for his ads; campaigners go door to door and discuss with residents where to put their posters. A pair of older men discuss what to do about a bunch of bats and then fall to talking about the use of guano for growing marijuana. "You ever try it?" one asks, and then looks at the camera with a grin.

That's actually one of only two moments in the film where anyone seemed conscious of the camera. There is trick-or-treating. A car makes circles in pristine parking lot snow. A young father reads a book about ducks to his toddler. "Daddy duck," she says, pointing. And then, making a connection, snuggles into his arms. "Hi, Daddy." A cop talks about the lack of parenting skills that leads to a cycle of arrests: he's now arresting the children of the 25 to 30-year-old adults he was arresting ten to 15 years ago when he came to town. "For the same crimes," he adds. The brothers culled all these moments out of 500 hours of footage over a year of editing that saw them toss the narrative structure they first thought of and focus instead on the collection of clips Bill Turner assembled into a folder labeled "Things I like".

We never find out who won the game.

In folk music circles there are always arguments about what makes a new song a folk song. One thing is a connection to a specific place and way of life; another is a focus on the lives of others. 45365 is a folk movie.

Unfortunately, unless you can get a Netflix subscription so you can watch it streaming, you can't see this movie commercially: the brothers can't afford the $30,000 they estimate it would take to clear the rights to the music they've captured and used. "It's a black market movie." Even more like folk music, then.

I have a particular discomfort with fiction about real people, historical or living. This extends as far as biopics, and it definitely includes Me and Orson Welles (2008), in which a 17-year-old kid (Zac Efron) gets drafted to play Lucius in Welles' famous 1937 production of Julius Caesar, the moment at which Welles became a star. The Welles in this movie is a tyrannical megalomaniac with a habit of bedding the actresses. How much of this is a fair portrayal is unclear: the movie is based on a novel. In the post-screening panel, the director, Richard Linklater, said that the kid was based on a real person, Arthur Anderson, who was 14 when he appeared in Caesar, and who went on to have a lengthy (and continuing) radio career. He did not, like the kid in the movie, get fired: he played his role for the run of the show.

That's fair enough: the real person's name was not used for the movie. What I find more difficult is the casual way that Sonja (Claire Danes) assumes that Welles has the right to demand a sexual relationship at his convenience (the Welles character has a pregnant wife and is already sleeping with at least a couple of the actresses in the show). Granted, attitudes about sexual harassment were different then, but requiring the favors of his ambitious non-actress employee ("He'll introduce me to David O. Selznick," she explains) makes him much sleazier. Which is fair enough if that's actually true; but not if it's inaccurate. It's the uncertainty that I dislike so much about the use of historical figures in fiction: I feel obliged to go do as much research as the authors did to make sure I remember the facts and not the fantasy.


I have liked so many of the films, both high-profile and lesser lights, that Norman Jewison has made in his varied career - most especially ...And Justice for All and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, but also Agnes of God, Best Friends, and Moonstruck. Only You, which I saw for the first time tonight, is one I missed. There are many good things in it, most notably Robert Downey's character's intensity and machinations and Bonnie Hunt's character, who gets all the best lines ("If I had this dress, I'd give it to someone," she says, seeing Tomei's prospective mother-in-law's wedding dress). There is only just the slightest hint of stereotyping of Italians in the ending (which I think was unavoidable, as it was needed for bookending; Jewison had been living in - and, he said in the panel afterwards, was in love with - Italy at the time). I guess it's just me, but I hate those oft-repeated scene of everyone on-screen clapping when the lead couple finally come together. This one is mercifully short.

Is Only You a "chick flick" (as offensive as that term is), the panelists asked? Jewison calls it a romantic fantasy that has the kind of innocence that the movies he directed with Doris Day (yes, his career is long enough to include The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers). I think one reason the movie ought to appeal equally to both genders is that once Downey's character appears to grasp hold of the situation the plotting has the twists and turns of a mystery novel.

One of the people I met here this week said that Hollywood should be prohibited from making romantic comedies for ten years until they remember how to do it. There's a lot to be said for this: I'm hard pressed to think of a good romantic comedy produced in the last ten years. Jewison is old enough to remember how the good ones are done; he says we forgive Downey's character his deceptions because we know he's in love with the girl. I think also that the complications that beset Peter as a result of his own muddled attempts to hold onto the best thing that's ever happened to him help us root for him to win out in the end (even though we know this is a Hollywood movie, and he is the star who has to win). The desire for romance and passion, one of the audience members said, is equally true of both males and females in this movie.


Ebertfest 2011 - Thursday


In her current book, Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby writes about the plight of the poor and old in America: as she says, the largely invisible poor and old. The eponymous hero of Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D isn't entirely invisible. When we first see him, he is sneaking food to his dog at a center providing free meals and trying to sell a fine-quality watch to fellow elderly diners. A retired and dignified former civil servant with a 30-year career behind him, he puts on a good show, but everyone he knows shies away from the desperation they can smell as he bargains over selling his possessions to pay his landlady's bill and finds that he can't quite bring himself to beg on the streets. His ally in trying to survive his landlady's ever-increasing determination to throw him out is the maid, Maria, who is pregnant by a soldier - the one from Florence, or maybe the one from Naples. She secretly loans him a thermometer and visits him when he summons an ambulance and asks to be taken to the hospital. She even promises to take care of his dog.

He has belongings but no space he can really call his own. His landlady rents out his room for 1,000 lira an hour to adulterous couples while he's out, and even Maria strolls in without knocking to wave to her soldier out the window.

But the post-movie panel was all about the dog, Flike (as the subtitles spelled it), Umberto's constant companion is both his comfort and his trap: he can't trust anyone else to care for Flike, everywhere he needs to go refuses to let the dog in, he can't give the dog away, and, in the film's most overtly dramatic sequence, the dog won't let him commit suicide. Like Linda at the end of Natural Selection, he closes out the film with a moment of snatched happiness despite being doomed.

My Dog Tulip (2009), on the other hand, is based on a memoir written by the English author J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer) about the 15 happiest years of his life, the years in which he was possessed by an Alsatian named Tulip. The movie is beautifully hand-drawn and painted by dog owners Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (Paul spent the panel discussion after Umberto D explaining that Umberto and his dog looked so wrong together that he couldn't get emotionally involved in the film). It is also both a warm and funny story (think a British, dignified version of , if Marley were a girl and his owner deeply concerned to make sure he married and reproduced) and a wicked commentary on English middle-class attitudes. And these persist: you could easily remake the movie and set it in modern-day Britain, replacing Tulip with a child.

The heroine of
Tiny Furniture (2010) , Aura (Lena Dunham) does not have many happy moments. She is, like Ben in The Graduate (1967), newly home after graduating from college, and, like Ben, has little idea of what to do next. She studied film theory, and frets that she is not qualified for anything. There is a plan she has been letting slide: she is supposed to move into an apartment with a friend who will shortly be arriving in Manhattan, not a place the uncertain can usually afford to live.

In the meantime, she is living back home, where her successful artist mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), have formed a unit while she was gone and seem to resent her as an interloper. Nothing seems to be going right and, again like Ben, she passively lets other people's desires make choices for her. She meets a couple of dedicatedly exploitative men, takes a badly paid, boring job because a friend makes that an easy path, and waits for her life's path to present itself. By the end of the movie, though she hasn't yet glimpsed that path, she's beginning to find her first stirrings of adulthood. If Jane Austen were alive now and a young filmmaker, this might be the movie she'd make - the detailed miniature painting on ivory is a fitting description.


Ebertfest 2011 - Wednesday


Two movies.

First up, the most recently restored version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) with footage found in Argentina that had been thought lost and live scoring from the Alloy Orchestra. Metropolis has always been on my list of movies to see, but this was my first viewing. From the descriptions of the many ways it's been hacked about, I'm glad I waited. The movie is so complex and multi-layered that it's easy to see how you could excise large chunks of it and come up with vastly different genres of film - Biblical epic, science fiction, romance, action. What's astonishing is to realize that although there have been many significant advances and changes to the technology of film, the art of film has not advanced much at all. Fritz Lang's imagery has been borrowed by all sorts of people for all sorts of films. On this first pass, I found myself noting Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, 1936), Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, 1997), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, 1982), Alex Proyas (Dark City, 1998), Leni Riefenstahl, and various iterations of Frankenstein.

Many others have written about the astonishing quality of the imagery; besides that what really startled me was the quality of the acting - you are never in doubt for a second, just from watching Brigitte Helm's body movements, whether you are watching the real Maria or the machine simulacrum. We tend not to associate silent films with subtly nuanced acting.

I would actually like to see the movie again with the original or close-to-original score. As much as everyone loves the Alloy Orchestra and as perfectly matched as their score seemed to be, I'd like to hear what Lang heard.

Second, a late addition to the festival after Ebert saw it at SXSW: Natural Selection (2011). Bobbie Pickering's first movie tells the story of Linda (Rachael Harris), wife of a devoutly Christian man (John Diehl) who believes 1) that sex is only to be allowed for the purpose of procreation and 2) that Linda is unable to bear children. No matter what her wishes are in the matter, desires for sex must be subsumed into prayer. And then he has a stroke and Linda learns that for the length of their marriage he has been donating sperm at a clinic once a week. Well, you can see the logic: it's for the purpose of procreating. Armed with that revelation and with a request from her husband to locate the result of those donations, a son, Linda sets off on her own road movie, which hits (as Pickering said in the post-screening panel) the usual tropes of road movies: the car is always gone, the oddly assorted pair always visit an assortment of seedy motels and diners.

But the movie is also the story of the other participant in this road trip, a drug dealer who makes one of the grand cinema entrances, falling out of the collecting bag attached to a giant riding lawnmower in a triumphant escape from prison. He is more or less the exact opposite of the husband she's trying to please: young, profane, potent, and angry.

The movie is enormous fun and creates wonderfully detailed characters, and in the face of that it seems churlish to complain about the ending. I'm going to anyway (SPOILER) since it's in part because the characters are so fully realized that I find the ending frustrating. I'm glad that faced with two bad choices Linda takes neither of them. But this only raises the question: what is she going to do now? What kind of life is this woman, who is not shown as having any work experience and whose personal situation could hardly be worse, going to be able to make for herself? All the other characters seem to have their paths marked out for them, sad and rigid though those may be. But the 1970s feminist in me wonders whether this male screenwriter understood quite how much his heroine is going to pay for her glorious moment of birth into freedom. Time for a sequel?