Ebertfest 2013: Day Three

Oslo, August 31It’s late, I’m tired and tomorrow is going to be a long day but I needed to take the time to write about the amazing films we say today at the 15th annual Ebertfest.

Oslo, August 31 is a film I had already seen and already written about, so I won’t dote much more on it. I will say that while I was left gutted the first time I watched it and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another viewing, Oslo, August 31 was still deeply sad but strangely provoking. We were joined by writer/director Joachim Trier and he was an absolute delight to listen to. Clearly very intelligent and thoughtful. Very interested in seeing more work from him, hopefully soon, and be sure to watch the entire interview in the archive link at the bottom of this post.



The Ballad of NarayamaNext, The Ballad of Narayama, a film that has been on my radar since being released by the Criterion Collection (if you don’t know, I’m addicted to buying Criterions). It was also the last entry in Ebert’s Great Movies feature. He made a last minute decision to include this feature and after viewing it, there seems to be a very profound reason for this that I won’t spoil, but I will say it has to do with his age at his passing. Briefly, The Ballad of Narayama is a folk tale of sorts about a struggling village that sends their elders up the mountain to starve while allowing the younger generations to prosper. It sounds morbid, and it is, but this is not an easy decision for all parties involved. The film is decidely Japanese, but not in a way I had ever really seen before. It has a very theatrical stage presence but in possibly the most clever way committed to film. I highly recommend reading Ebert’s Great Movies article on The Ballad of Narayama since it will do the  film much more justice than I. David Bordwell joined us afterwards to speak on the film and offered some of his amazing analysis, which can be seen in the archive link at the bottom of this page.

JuliaClosing off day three was a film I had never heard of, and I presume most (perhaps all) of you have not either, Julia. Starring the illustrious Tilda Swinton, who plays the eponymous protagonist. Though to call her a protagonist is hard since she is a scheming alcoholic that kidnaps a child for ransom and ends up getting in deeper at every turn. It’s almost so complex it seems like a Coen brothers film at times, but the intensity of both Tilda and the other actors in Julia is nothing short of incredible. I strongly urge you to seek this one out, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen. We were also blessed to have Tilda Swinton join us and speak of the film. Admittedly, my exposure to Swinton’s films is spotty but I’ve always been drawn to her work. I can honestly say that her performance here impressed the hell out of me possibly more than anything else I’ve seen from her. Afterwards, we tried staying behind to get a chance for a picture with lovely Tilda, but were unable. Pretty much a huge bummer, but here’s hoping the opportunity arises again. Be sure to watch Tilda’s interview from the archive link below.

Important links:

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Ebertfest 2013: Day Two

Hello again!

The second day of the 15th Ebertfest ended just a short while ago and the day was filled with beautiful films, each in their own right.

For starters, we had a short film To Music, which was co-written and directed by Sophie Kohn, the festival director’s daughter. If this was any other festival, its inclusion could easily be viewed as playing favorites, but To Music shined incredibly bright. Featuring a cameo by director Paul Cox, To Music captures the beauty of life as well as music. As with yesterday’s short feature, I look forward to seeing more from these promising young filmmakers.

Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van GoghNext, from cameo to the director’s chair, came Paul Cox’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh. This film was not quite what I expected. After last year’s introduction to Paul Cox with On Borrowed Time, this was my first true introduction to Cox as a filmmaker. Vincent was not quite what I expected in that I thought it would be a documentary following Van Gogh’s highs and lows, but I should have known better. Narrated by John Hurt through letter’s to Vincent’s brother, Theodore, the entire film consists of stills of Van Gogh’s sketches, drawings, and paintings, with some live action reenactments and scenery. While it was strikingly beautiful, I almost wish I could have read the entire script with the aid of closed captions so I could doubly appreciate the finer details being read. Still, the film was beautiful and while everyone in the audience seemed to expect some of Van Gogh’s more famous paintings to be displayed, they were not. Sorry “Starry Night” fans, but the painting is nowhere to be seen in Vincent, but honestly, the film may be better because of this. It completely humanizes Van Gogh, not just as an artist.

Unfortunately, Paul Cox was not able to make it to the festival since his doctor would not let him fly, it would have been quite interesting to hear about the film from his perspective. Sophie Kohn and her filmmaking partner, Feike Santbergen, were on hand, however, which was quite pleasant. You can find the session in the link to the archive at the end of this post.

In the FamilyAfter running a bit late to get started, we were finally graced with In the Family, another film by a first-time filmmaker, Patrick Wang. In the Family is a startlingly frank look at some topics that, if handled in an indelicate fashion, would be controversial. A young man, Cody (Trevor St. John), loses his wife in childbirth to their son, Chip (Sebastian Banes née Brodziak). He falls for a contractor working for them named Joey (Patrick Wang) and together they raise Chip. Several years later, Cody dies in an accident and unbeknownst to Joey, Cody’s sister was named Chip’s legal guardian. Joey is faced against the law and the not-so-understanding nature of their small Southern town to fight for his son. The film is incredibly moving but also surprisingly funny at times. Films with this much heart are rare enough, but films with this much heart that are not patronizing or manipulative are downright endangered. Race and homosexuality are at the forefront of In the Family and yet neither topic is addressed directly, which is simply amazing to me. Also amazing are some of the long takes in this film, which place the viewer in the story and makes us feel like we are a part of Joey’s life. I had never heard of this film before its announcement at Ebertfest but I urge everyone to keep it on your radar. I daresay there was not a dry eye in the house by the end.

Patrick and Trevor were available for the q&a session afterward, which is definitely worth checking out in the link to the archive at the end of this post.

BernieTo cap off the second day, the wonderful film Bernie was presented. When I first watched Bernie, I was hugely surprised by it and was looking forward to seeing it on the big screen with a crowd. I have to admit that I liked it even better a second time through. Check out the above link for my initial thoughts on the film. The experience was made even better by having writer/director, Richard Linklater, in attendance. Jack Black, the star of the film, was also supposed to attend but was unable to make it in person and had to join via phone. I strongly urge you to check out Bernie, but also to watch the session with Linklater and Black in the link to the archives below. It was very illuminating into the process of the film and the real Bernie Teide.

Though it was a rainy day here in Champaign, that didn’t stop the crowd from enjoying these great cinematic gifts given to us by Roger. It was a fantastic day filled with terrific movies.

Important links:

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Ebertfest 2013: Day One

Ebertfest 2013

Today marked the first day of the 15th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (aka Ebertfest) in Champaign, Illinois. Since Roger’s passing less than two weeks ago my anticipation for this year’s festival has been mixed emotions of excitement and sadness. For the film festival, Roger wanted to share some of the finer movies of the past year as well as a few gems that he loved and without him here there is an obvious gap. However, we are there to not only enjoy Roger’s selections for the year, but also to celebrate Roger’s life and love of film.

In case you missed the schedule for this year’s Ebertfest, here it is.

Before I begin with the festival itself, I want to point out that The Virginia theater has been under extensive restoration since the close of last year’s festival and the results are simply stunning. You can see some of the details for yourself on their website.

Day One, of course, began with a lovely introduction by Chaz Ebert, who gave a heartwarming thank you to us for giving her something new to do. The festival is dedicated to Haskell Wexler, one of the directors of photography for tonight’s main feature, Days of Heaven. Chaz also introduced director Grace Wang, of the short film that officially kicked off the festivities, I Remember.

I Remember is clearly a film about love, but also of loss. Taking place on the bed in a lonely apartment with a view of the street below, we see a young woman. There is very little dialogue in the film, entirely taking place in a phone conversation between She and someone, maybe a former fling, maybe the man She is missing. We do not know, but we can tell She is annoyed by the call. It isn’t until She finds a man’s shirt with a note inside that we start wondering what happened to She and if the man she is remembering is still around and what happened between them. The apartment scenes are cut with scenes of a beach with the hands of a young woman and some shells, the same shells also appear on the window ledge in the apartment.

For a short film with next to no dialogue, a beautiful story is hidden and we only catch glimpses of it around the edges. I found the film haunting and quite well-made. Grace Wang, who you may recognize as one of Roger’s far-flung correspondents, did a fantastic job in her debut effort.

Days of HeavenNext, we had a sing-along to the tune of Those Were the Days, with modified lyrics by Roger himself. It was quite charming, though instead of singing, I opted to listen to the choral group onstage. To close the evening, we were graced with Days of Heaven on the big screen in its original glory. While I have been a bit spoiled by the completely remastered Criterion blu-ray version of the film, seeing it in its original format the way it was meant to be seen was quite a thrill. I won’t go into detail of the film, as I covered it last year. I do wish more people could watch this film in theaters as the beauty is even more breathtaking on such a grand scale.

Haskell Wexler did a Q&A session afterward that was quite interesting and I will say that for an
87-year-old 91-year-old, Mr. Wexler is still incredibly sharp and is still working! For those of you that have seen Days of Heaven, you may wonder how Malick was able to get the shots of the locust swarms rising from the fields. According to Wexler, a helicopter dropped coffee beans and they reversed the film to make it look like a locust cloud rising. Incredible. Hit the video archive link below to see more!

Stay tuned for more on Ebertfest and follow me on Twitter for live updates of what I’m doing!

Important links:

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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!

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 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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Ebertfest Day One – Joe Vs. The Volcano

Joe Versus the VolcanoLast night kicked off Ebertfest 2012 and we saw Joe Versus the Volcano, one of Roger Ebert’s favorites. The movie itself is a zany romantic comedy that is surprisingly funny. We meet Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who works at a miserable job and has suffered from not feeling well for years. He goes to see a doctor who tells him he is dying of a brain cloud. Joe is then confronted by a wealthy businessman (Lloyd Bridges) that tells Joe he needs to jump in a volcano in the South Pacific to gain the trust, and natural resources, of the island.

Along the way, Joe has contact with three different woman all of whom are played by Meg Ryan. Meg and Tom Hanks are so wonderful together on screen and watching them is simply a joy. Joe Versus the Volcano switches tones and visual cues often, but in the context of the whole pictures it works wonderfully.

It’s a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously but I think it is definitely worth watching. Joe Versus the Volcano was a great way to start the festival given its lighthearted nature and it was truly a joy to see it on the big screen.

After the movie, we were introduced to the director of photography on Joe Versus the Volcano, Stephen Goldblatt, who has most recently done the cinematography on The Help. The moderator for the discussion was Christy Lemire, who you might recognize as a host from Ebert Presents: At the Movies. Also joining was Brazilian film critic, Pablo Villaca.

The discussion was interesting and spanned Goldblatt’s career in the movie industry. We were enlightened on some of the tougher shots to achieve in Joe Versus the Volcano and also Angels in America. It wasn’t so in-depth that it was confusing, it was relatively light on technical terms but still quite informative.

As for Joe Versus the Volcano

I give it 4 viewings of the moon from a raft 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

If you’d like more info, please follow me on Twitter @WatchesMovies

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Welcome to Ebertfest!

EbertfestMy buddy, Julian, and I arrived in Champaign Illinois about 2 hours ago for the 14th Annual Ebertfest! You can see the line-up this year here. I still have a few movies to write about from the past week, but those will be put on hiatus as I write about the films shown here.

So for the rest of the week, expect several posts about Ebertfest, I’ll try to post regularly, but I am falling behind on reading all the blogs I follow, so bear with me!

Things are kicking off here at 7pm central with Joe Versus the Volcano!

Ebertfest 2012 Announcements!

Roger Ebert’s Blog – With the Ebertfest announcement

Allow me to give a brief history lesson to set up this post…

I am from the greater Chicagoland area and have been a movie lover for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my family would watch Siskel and Ebert At the Movies religiously. My father wouldn’t see a movie without hearing the opinions of both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I have literally grown up with Roger Ebert as the film critic and I’ve enjoyed reading his work my entire life.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ebertfest, here is the official site, here is the Wikipedia page. It pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a film festival helmed by Mr. Ebert. It is held near the University of Illinois campus and unlike other film festivals where submissions are welcome, Ebertfest choices are handpicked.

I am incredibly excited to get to be going this year and a good friend of mine is flying up from North Carolina to share the experience. It’s my first time going, but hopefully not my last.

Now, onto the film choices…

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets – Not only is this a great movie, but Patton Oswalt (Young Adult) picked it and will be the host for the night. Alec Guiness is simply amazing in this.
  • Big Fan – Another great movie, starring Patton Oswalt as a rabid NY Jets fan. Obviously Oswalt will join for this
  • Joe Versus the Volcano – An seemingly odd choice but one of Ebert’s favorites. I’m always up for classic Tom Hanks movies.
  • Phunny Business: A Black Comedy – Totally unaware of this documentary but it is about an all black night club and the owner. The owner of the club, Raymond Lambert, will be joining us.
  • The Truth About Beauty and Blogs – Short film, hadn’t heard of it before but it looks like it will tie into Phunny Business. Joined by Kelichi Ezie, the comedienne and filmmaker. Joined by the writer-director, actors and some crew.
  • Kinyarwanda – I have heard many things about this and if it’s as heart-wrenching as it sounds it will be mesmerizing.
  • TerriHey, I blogged about this! Star Jacob Wysocki and director, Azazal Jacobs, will join.
  • On Borrowed Time – A documentary about the past two years of Paul Cox’s life after getting a life-saving kidney transplant. Should be a fascinating watch. Cox and Nate Kohn will join.
  • A short film collection accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra including Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, which you may recognize from Hugo. Alloy Orchestra members will join the discussion.
  • A Separation – This Iranian film (and Oscar winner!) is something I regret not having already seen so I greatly look forward to it. Director, Asghar Farhadi, is hoping to join.
  • Special effects techniques from the wizards that worked on The Tree of Life.
  • Higher Ground – Not the stoner comedy that its name makes it out to be, this is a film about how religion shapes a woman’s life. Screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs will join.
  • Patang – I don’t believe I had heard of this film before. The director’s father was one of Ebert’s old film students. Director Prashant Bhargava will join along with his father and assorted cast and crew.
  • Take Shelter – A movie that has ranked very high on my ‘to-watch’ list and I couldn’t be more excited that Michael Shannon will be there along with director, Jeff Nichols. So very excited for this one.
  • Citizen Kane – Not only is this one of the best movies ever, but Ebert recorded a commentary track for the DVD release some years ago and that will be playing along with the movie. It is a fantastic commentary to go along with an incredible film.

More details can obviously found in the source link at the top of this post but I must say again…I am EXTREMELY excited for this. I will be posting from the event, so expect more to come!