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 – A Separation

A SeparationA Separation was definitely my favorite film of the entire festival and also instantly became one of my favorite films of all time. Michael Barker, from Sony Pictures Classic, introduced the film as “the perfect film” and it absolutely is. There is not a single scene that I would have removed and the actors were incredibly true to life. I had not seen it beforehand, but I will definitely be seeing it again.

On the surface, A Separation is a film about a couple going through a divorce. The film opens with Simin and Nader in front of a judge discussing why they should be allowed to get divorced. She wants to leave Iran, he needs to stay to take care of his ailing elderly father and is concerned about their preteen daughter’s education. Simin helps hire a caretaker for Nader’s father, and a series of events causes the woman to have a miscarriage, but she blames this on Nader (I don’t want to get into specifics about the events leading up to this, for spoiler reasons).

The best thing about A Separation is that it keeps us guessing. We do not know the full truth, we watch as it unravels. The relationships between characters are so incredibly heartfelt that even the most flawed characters, we are all flawed in some way, become personal. Incredible script, incredible performances and a fantastic ending, A Separation is simply amazing. Even in writing this I wish I could be watching it again right now.

For the Q&A session, Michael Barker came back out along with Paul Cox (On Borrowed Time) and one of Roger’s far flung correspondents, Omer Mozaffar. Omer spoke of some cultural significance and offered some insight into things that would go right over the heads of people not deeply familiar with Persian and Muslim customs. I truly hope that the home release has some special features detailing some of the things he spoke of, it was very enlightening. Paul Cox also had a terrific line that I’m going to paraphrase, “this entire film was shot on a budget that is definitely less than the cocaine budget on a Hollywood film”. He’s probably right, and that is a frightening thing to think about. If A Separation is what can come out of Iran, I need to see more.

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

[Update]

Movie One Hundred Ninety Eight

After getting a chance to revisit A Separation on a small screen, the film was less of a surprise but had more of an impact. Let me explain. A Separation is a film that is crafted in such a way that the viewer does not know all the details of plot. Those details are carefully laid out as the film progresses and each seemingly minuscule detail forms a hugely moving setting for each of the characters in some way. While the details of the plot were not a surprise a second time through the film, seeing the way the film is crafted gives me a tremendous appreciation for A Separation. The editing and writing is done in such a precise fashion that it’s nothing short of remarkable that the film works at all, let alone works as well as it does. Details are implied, but not explained until later but this is not confusing, it’s revelatory.

If you haven’t seen A Separation yet, I really can’t say it enough – Go see this movie. It is a perfectly crafted film with the kinds of touching human relationships that Hollywood can’t seem to produce anymore.

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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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Ebertfest Day Two – Kinyarwanda

KinyarwandaKinyarwanda starts with an explanation of what Kinyarwanda means; the native language of Rwanda spoken by its natives. It is a nod to the unity of the people, despite the atmosphere there.

Kinyarwanda follows several story lines during the Rwandan genocide between warring factions, Tutsi and Hutu. The tone is not entirely bleak, there  are several charming moments, notably a small boy that misunderstands that men looking for “guns and cockroaches” are not looking for a VHS tape of an action movie and actual cockroaches living in a cupboard. Where the film does suffer, however, is that the 4 or 5 story lines are intertwining and overlapping without a consistent timeline. The film seems to go back and forth in time with no regard for telling the audience. It muddles the plot that would be otherwise enjoyable.

The film itself is powerful and the actors are quite on form. Movies like Hotel Rwanda got the genocide exposed to audiences, but perhaps were partially sensationalized, if that’s the correct term, whereas Kinyarwanda focuses more on the people during this trying time. Before the movie, the writer/director, Alrick Brown, introduced the film and asked us to try to forget any preconceived notions we had of Rwanda, its people, and the genocide. I think this helps Kinyarwanda tell its own tale but it does not give us too detailed a background of what is happening in the nation. But the film is touching and shows an interesting perspective of people rising above these horrors.

I give it 3 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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Ebertfest Day Two – Big Fan

Big FanTo kick things off for Day Two of Ebertfest, we were treated to Big Fan. Big Fan is a movie about a New York Giants superfan, Paul (Patton Owalt) that spends his life obsessing with the Giants. He spends his free time, as well as some time at work, writing diatribes to call-in sports shows at one in the morning. His life changes forever when he finally meets his hero, Giants player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). His life changes even more when Bishop beats him within an inch of his life.

Paul is by most accounts, a total loser. He lives with his mom, works as an attendent in a parking garage, and has no aspirations beyond rooting for the Giants. His indifference to what his family wants for him is partially what makes him an interesting character. While it’s easy to judge him and write him off as a loser, Paul is truly happy with his choices in life. Even for those of us that have a small interest in sports will find relatable things in Paul’s lifestyle and his behaviors.

Big Fan is a movie about sports at its core, but it is quite removed from being a “sports movie”. One can literally have no knowledge of the sport of football and still understand nearly everything in this film. In fact, during the Q&A session with writer/director Robert Siegel, he admitted that Oswalt himself has an embarrassingly little amount of sports knowledge, yet nails the role.

Speaking of the Q&A session, it was one of the best at Ebertfest so far. Siegel was genuinely funny and frank about his movie and it was a delight to hear from him and his thoughts. It’s an absolute shame that Patton Oswalt, whom was scheduled to be here this week, was unable to attend, Siegel more than made up for his absence with his charm. While it wasn’t a technical discussion, it was informative and introspective to the process of this movie and others.

I give it 4 radio sports show call-ins 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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Ebertfest Day One – Phunny Business + The Truth About Beauty and Blogs

Continuing my coverage from Ebertfest 2012, the remainder of the first day of Ebertfest 2012 brought us a short film from a talented young woman and a fantastic documentary about a comedy club from Chicago.

First up, The Truth About Beauty and Blogs. This was a short film written by Kelechi Ezie, who also starred in it. It follows a young fashion blogger as her real life relationship crumbles. It was actually pretty funny and there is obviously a huge talent in Kelechi. I truly hope we see more from her soon. Kelechi also was on a discussion panel, but more on that in a bit.

Phunny BusinessTo finish off the evening, we had Phunny Business: A Black Comedy. Phunny Business details the rise and fall of the prominently African American comedy club, All Jokes Aside, throughout the 90s. It’s very rare for a documentary to be funny, but Phunny Business is legitimately funny, both the clips and the documentary itself. We see the early beginnings of such comedians as Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and many many more. As a Chicago native, I’m almost ashamed to say I had never heard of All Jokes Aside until last night. While the club is no more, I’m very glad that its legacy will live on in this film. I highly recommend seeing Phunny Business if you can. I’m a huge fan of documentaries and this is truly one of the better ones I’ve seen.

For the panel after the film, hosted by Chaz Ebert herself, Kelechi was brought back on stage, as well as documentarian John Davies, All Jokes Aside club owner, Raymond Lambert, and comedian Ali LeRoi. We got insights into the making of both films as well as hearing about John Davies’ stint working with Siskel and Ebert many years ago. Ali LeRoi was especially entertaining. While perhaps not as technically informative as the panel for Joe Versus the Volcano, it was very entertaining.

I give The Truth About Beauty and Blogs 3 out 5.

I give Phunny Business 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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