Ebertfest Wrap-Up

Eberfest Golden ThumbWith Eberfest nearly a week behind me, I have finally found the time to finish my blogs about the experience. I had never been to Ebertfest before, despite it only being a two and a half hour drive from me. I can safely say I will be coming back for the foreseeable future. I had never even visited the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana before, so I was going into this experience completely blind. The town itself was fairly small, but the university is so large that it makes the town feel sprawling. It’s not quite suburban feeling, but it’s not quite rural either.

Everyone we met during the fest was incredibly nice. In general, the crowd was older, which was a bit surprising to us. With such a large university a short walk away, we were expecting a college crowd, but it was more of a faculty crowd. I think this led to a more civilized experience, though. We were able to get in, save our seats (something that is thankfully standard practice) and talk to people around us with ease.

The one major downside to the whole week was the weather, unfortunately. In Chicago, we are used to weather that radically changes daily and April weather can be 90 degrees or 40 degrees and both would see normal even if they occurred in the same week. We were met with cold, wind, and rain, unfortunately. Waiting in line outside for over an hour in 50 degree rainy weather is no fun at all.

Watching three movies a day and being in a theater for over 12 hours a day was not nearly as exhausting as it may seem, but I was beat at the end. The only movie we skipped was Terri, which I had already watched…But we skipped it to go see Casablanca down the road on the big screen, so I would say we made the right choice. Luckily, all the Q&A sessions are streaming online, so while we didn’t get to experience it live, we were able to experience it.

If I had to count my regrets, they would be few. I only wish I had been a bit more prepared with food and drink. One can only have so much junk theater food before going crazy, and every day after the 2nd movie was wrapping up around 6 or 6:30, we were ravenously hungry. I also wish I had mingled a bit more, I didn’t physically meet as many people as I would have liked, including some of the other panelists and critics.

The films:

All in all, it was a magnificent experience. It makes me want to try other film festivals, but a part of me knows there was something magical about this one. I will patiently count down the days until next year. Thank you Roger and Chaz, and everyone else involved in making something like this become reality.

And thank you all for reading along with me. I have several other blogs to post to catch up on, including the April recap, so bear with me!

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Ebertfest Day Five – Citizen Kane

Citizen KaneIf you enjoy watching movies even a little bit, then Citizen Kane is required viewing as far as I’m concerned. I would hope that everyone in attendance for the last viewing of Ebertfest had seen the film at least once because we viewed the film with Roger Ebert’s commentary playing over.

Citizen Kane is known as the best movie ever made and I will not debate this (mostly because I agree) but I will say that even after seeing the film at least half a dozen times, Roger Ebert’s commentary blew my mind the first time I listened to it. It is an incredibly detailed commentary of the film and unless you are experienced in critical film analysis it will probably blow your mind.

Ideally, we would have watched the film in its entirety and then immediately watched the commentary because Roger’s track is so packed that I don’t think a single line of film dialogue makes its way in. Regardless of this, the commentary is so enlightening that you don’t need a deep knowledge of the film to appreciate it. In fact, during the Q&A session, Roger sent up a note that he apologized for the woman in the lobby demanding her money back for someone talking over the film the whole time, apparently she didn’t get the memo.

If you own Citizen Kane, and you should, I would urge you to check out this commentary on your own. If you have four hours to spare sometime, watch the movie then stretch, get a drink, and put on the commentary. I did this as soon as the 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray came out and was blown away then too.

As a way to close out Ebertfest, I cannot even imagine anything more perfect. To hear Roger’s voice again was emotional for me, and when Chaz Ebert came back on stage, she was in tears. Luckily Roger recorded commentary tracks like this before he lost his voice in 2006 because they are incredible. To bring his voice back to the Virginia Theater for Ebertfest was fantastic.

As for Citizen Kane…

I give it 5 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

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Ebertfest Day Four – Take Shelter

Take ShelterTake Shelter is a film I waited to see once I knew it would be at Ebertfest and I’m so glad my first experience with it was on the big screen. We were joined by writer/director, Jeff Nichols, and actor, Michael Shannon for easily my favorite Q&A session of the entire festival.

Take Shelter is a hard film to describe. In presenting the film, Jeff Nichols said that it is very much a snapshot of the state of the United States economically which took me by surprise at first. After watching it, I very much agree.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young, deaf daughter live in a blue collar town in Ohio. Curtis works at a quarry, or something like that, and Samantha sells pillows at flea markets to make ends meet. The film begins with Curtis having a dream where there is a storm rolling in and the rain is thick, like motor oil. His dreams get more and more bizarre, and he takes them as being prophetic. We soon learn that his family has a history of mental illness, so we are left wondering what is really happening.

With the mindset of America’s economic turmoil over the last 5 years, it’s very easy to connect some dots to certain things in the film. Even without having that seed planted, you can easily side with Curtis as he worries about the future. While Curtis’ dreams are extreme, they are easy to relate to in most ways.

During the dream sequences, the entire theater of 1600 people was holding their breath. After reality picked back up there was always an audible sigh because the dreams are incredibly tense, verging on a horror movie. In fact, Jeff Nichols would go on to say that The Shining was one of Take Shelter’s main influences. I cannot recommend this movie enough and it likely rewards multiple viewings. In fact, as soon as the lights came up, I got on my phone and ordered a copy of the Blu-Ray on Amazon.

As for the Q&A session, it’s very hard to do justice in describing it. Jeff Nichols is new to directing, but I truly believe he is the next Christopher/Jonathan Nolan wrapped into one. He has huge potential, and I am going to be tracking down his first film, Shotgun Stories, very soon. Michael Shannon, who is one of my favorite actors currently working, was surprisingly profound and funny. If there is one Q&A session that you stream, please let it be this one (the link is below), but be warned there will be spoilers if you haven’t seen the film yet.

After the Q&A session, we stuck around to try and meet Michael Shannon…and we did! Please ignore my half-smile (I’m on the left) and Julian’s look like he just woke up. I guess we were both so excited that we couldn’t control our facial expressions.

Us with Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon is a very nice guy considering there were about two dozen of us following him around trying to get pictures with him and the poor guy was just trying to leave…But I regret nothing.

As for Take Shelter

I give it 5 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

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Ebertfest Day Four – Patang

PatangPatang, which means “kite” in Hindi, I believe,  is possibly the most divisive film shown during Ebertfest this year. It’s an Indian film, made by a young Chicagoan named Prashant Bhargava, that has dazzling visuals but left many people (at least that I overheard) say “what was the point?”.

When Patang first started rolling the projection framing was totally wrong, like the picture had been zoomed. After about 5 minutes of movie, where the subtitles were cut off completely, Prashant came back on stage briefly, rapped for us (literally), then explained that the film was shot in a unique aspect ratio, 2:1, so he understood the issues. We then restarted the movie, to everyone’s delight.

Aside from the aspect ratio, Patang is visually stunning film. It is wildly colorful and is broken up by unique handheld sections which are from the point of view of one of the main characters. The plot itself is where other festival goers seemed to lose interest. A rich man and his daughter come back to their home town of Ahmedabad for the traditional kite festival where there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of kites being flown. As the film unravels we learn more about the family and some of their struggles. There are several messages hidden in the film, but I do not wish to spoil it.

I can see why people would be quick to write Patang off, but that is not fair to the material. The story of family is strong here and there is a fresh new filmmaking voice in Prashant. It may not have a tightly focused narrative and it doesn’t wrap everything in a bow at the end, but that is life. We are viewing this family’s life for only a few days out of the year, we are not meant to know everything that has happened or will happen to them, it’s a snapshot in time.

The use of non-actors really helps sell Patang, too. The characters are all believable and while I’ve never traveled to India, I would be surprised to find a more realistic portrayal. If nothing else, Patang is a unique film and that is what small festivals like Ebertfest are for. Even those that left the theater nonplussed by it have seen a film that few others have seen, and very few will likely even get the chance to see.

Unfortunately, I did not stick around for the Q&A session, which apparently had a stage full of people. If you’re interested, it is available for streaming in the links below. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the pronunciation is similar to puh-tah-ng.

I give it 4 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

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Ebertfest Day Four – Higher Ground

Higher GroundTo kick off the last full day of Ebertfest, we began with Higher Ground. Contrary to what the title may lead you to believe, Higher Ground is not a teenage stoner comedy, it’s actually based on the memoir of the same title by Carolyn Briggs. Carolyn also came to speak with us about the process of the novel, some artistic liberties the movie took, and her story in general.

Higher Ground is, at its most basic, the story of a woman growing up. Corine (Vera Farmiga, who also directed the feature)  finds religion and tries so desperately to make religion fit in her life but she is left feeling empty despite her truly best efforts. She gets married and starts a family at a very young age (the teenage Corinne is actually played by Vera Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa) and joins, what could easily be described as a Christian cult. Religion and Jesus takes such a large portion of her life but ultimately for all the love and time she gives she gets little in return.

I have never been religious in even the slightest sense but the story really rang true for me. Religion could very easily be the butt of the joke for the film, but it is not. It is treated with utmost care and while some of the Christian practices were very strange, they are not mocked. I really can’t explain why, but Higher Ground really hit me and it was the last movie I was expecting to even remotely like from the entire festival. Vera Farmiga does such a stunning job both acting and behind the camera, she is such a tremendous talent.

When Carolyn Briggs came back out to talk to the audience she had some funny stories about the screening of Higher Ground. One screening was done for a Christian university, or something of the sort and she was very worried that it would be received negatively since it does involve a woman losing most of her faith. That audience was able to overlook that, it seems, which is a very important thing to note about the film. When asked what box for religion she would check in a survey about herself, she thought for quite some time before saying she would probably just skip the question and leave the box blank. That sums up Higher Ground perfectly. Though it does meander a bit aimlessly a bit, so does life.

I give it 4 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

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Ebertfest Day Three – Wild and Weird (The Alloy Orchestra)

Wild and WeirdI have put off writing about Wild and Weird because I’m not totally sure what exactly to write about. Wild and Weird is a series of short, silent films in which the Alloy Orchestra creates and performs the accompanying soundtrack. The Alloy Orchestra is three men that mostly play percussion instruments, some traditional, some unique. They take great care in their music and, while untraditional, works extremely well with the source material.

For Ebertfest, the Alloy Orchestra did not play their full repertoire, the Wild and Weird DVD contains 14 shorts, I believe we saw 8-10 of them. The shorts were all unique, all different, and all fairly unusual. My favorite was Red Spectre (note this video has no sound) which is hand tinted and had a fitting devilish soundtrack to it.

As a huge huge fan of early silent cinema, the entire show was totally enrapturing. The music completely changes the tone of some films, but it keeps you entertained and at attention. I will be purchasing the Wild and Weird DVD shortly, actually.

Two of the guys from the Alloy Orchestra came back for the Q&A afterwards (the third guy was selling merchandise) and they went over some of their techniques, some of their instruments and their experiences with short films. It was said that films like Hugo have really brought the interest for silent cinema back in demand. YouTube is a haven for many silents, but so many have been destroyed or neglected over the years it’s an absolute shame. The Alloy Orchestra have been at this for over 20 years, long before YouTube, which is totally admirable. I recommend checking them out if you ever get the chance, I do not think you will be disappointed.

While I haven’t seen the DVD…Based on the stuff I saw…

I give it 5 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

Alloy Orchestra: http://www.alloyorchestra.com/
The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL

Ebertfest Day Three – On Borrowed Time

On Borrowed TimeOn Borrowed Time is a documentary, and you may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for documentaries. The interesting thing about this particular documentary is the subject. Paul Cox himself is a prolific filmmaker that is the subject of this documentary because he has been diagnosed with liver cancer and needs a transplant to survive.

If you’re like me, you have never seen a Paul Cox film, or perhaps never even heard of him. Here is his IMDB page to help get acquainted, but knowledge of his films is unnecessary going into On Borrowed Time. The film gives the story of Cox as a human as well as a filmmaker and photographer. He has a terrific eye for spotting beauty. His films are incredibly intimate and personal, shot using many “amateur” actors without makeup, very little script, and realistic situations. The glimpses of the films during this documentary will likely make you want to run out and see his entire catalogue of films.

During most of the film, Cox believes he is dying, and rightly so. He comes incredibly close to the end before getting extremely lucky (on Christmas day, as well) and receives a transplant. He truly believes he has been born again and has a new appreciation for life on top of the beauty he had already been capturing during his lifetime. It’s fantastically uplifting to see and hear Cox in the film.

Cox came back for the Q&A session after the film was shown and spoke about his experiences, his life and his films. In fact, this year, Paul Cox was the dedicatee for Ebertfest. It was remarkable to see his rawest moments on screen and have him discuss them openly with the audience, but it was an incredible, personal session. I urge everyone to seek out a Cox film, not because I think they will be easily liked, but because he seems to be fairly unknown. I will be trying to see at least one of his films before the year ends. On Borrowed Time serves as the perfect backdrop for the life of Paul Cox, even if you don’t know his work.

I give it 4 out of 5.

Some interesting Ebertfest links:

The festival’s main site: http://www.ebertfest.com/
Stream the interview sessions for free: http://ustre.am/JauL
Follow me on Twitter @WatchesMovies

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