Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sayonara, Sisters and Brothers!

As usual, upon my return to Nueva York from Ebertfest, I jumped right into the last week of the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a black hole of a festival, honestly—a huffy sprawl of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink programming that is very much for profit. I mention this not only to explain the long gap looming between Ebertfest’s conclusion and this wrap-up, but because TFF is the sort of event that underscores why we need our own, more carefully selected beacon that shines mid-country.

I’ll admit I never came around on certain Ebertfest selections, as is true every year, and every year I keep that fact to myself. That in itself says it all: The camaraderie generated by this festival inhibits the nastiness that can crop up at others. Chaz was even good enough to carry on Roger’s tradition of ensuring everyone was actually introduced to each other during our Green Room meals.

But there were other films that I was so grateful to finally ogle on a big screen, among them the tall drink of water that is Josef von Sternberg’s maverick mafia pic Underworld (1927). It was Ebertfest that originally introduced me to silent film’s great appeal a few years ago so that I can now report with some authority that this film deserves much more of a spotlight. Another true pleasure: The Cell, which offers brilliant, if unacknowledged, moving-picture tribute to such artists as Damian Hirst and Hieronymus Bosch. When viewing it on a TV, you're more assaulted by its weak-sister serial-killer plotting that you barely notice when you surrender to its gorgeous art direction and cinematography in a theater. It's a testimony to how happily style can trump substance that I could have watched this film all night at the Virginia, which works out since the screening really didn’t end until the wee hours of Sunday.

The happiest surprise, however, was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, which I’d somehow never seen. And again I’m glad I saw it on the big screen for the effect of the many quiet shots of the unruly Northwest would’ve been lost otherwise.

In the film, Christine Lahti is Sylvie, a long-lost aunt to two orphaned girls in a small town. She likes to ride trains, spy on neighbors, hoard the odd treasure she finds in her long, long jaunts, as well as every newspaper ever printed. She is not confined by any social norms, including the impulse to keep an orderly household—or even inhabit a household at all, though she perches uneasily in her family home for the sake of her nieces. The question of her sanity snakes throughout the film, but if I hadn't been seduced visually by those great outdoors that beckon to her, the is-she/isn’t-she plotline would have fallen quite short. Even in the last, commendably openended scene in the film, it’s really not clear whether Sylvie is a mystic in a very unmystical era, or just plum loony.

After that screening, Forsyth and Lahti, who’d not seen each other since the film’s release, held a true confessions session onstage to the great amusement of all. Lahti, radiant in shades of rose and blond, acknowledged she’d based aspects of Sylvie on the abstracted Forsyth. He then said something no doubt hilarious but unintelligible. (His brogue is intense.) Lahti then confided she’d written him a letter begging for inclusion in a Housekeeping Two. Forsyth looked bemused and said something else unintelligible in his brogue. I did understand, to my displeasure, Forsyth when he announced his retirement from filmmaking. A loss for film; I’ve been his fan since I insisted my fifth-grade birthday party be held at a screening of his Local Hero.

It says it all that the festival didn’t really end for me until I stepped in the door of my Brooklyn pad. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, Shotgun Stories’ Jeff Nichols and his pops, and Forsyth and his amazing partner Moira all flew the first leg out of Champagne with me (too early) Sunday morning. As ever, Betsy Hendrick’s party went all hours the night before, even though I convinced Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips to escort me back to the Union before the party even really got rolling, apparently. Hungover and vastly underslept, we all managed to be polite to each other at the airport; Barker even humored the no-doubt repellent odor of my strawberry and chocolate Steak N Shake while we discussed Cameron Crowe’s new book about Billy Wilder. And on the final leg to NYC, Forsyth and I talked and talked and talked. Apparently hangovers aid my powers of comprehension. I’m glad. He is the essence of Ebertfest: The real deal in brown paper wrapping.

I wish you all excellent health and cinema until we convene again next year.

Angsty Lee (and his Hulk)

I’m still thinking about the intimacy of director Ang Lee’s comments following the screening of his Hulk, which received a lukewarm response upon its 2003 release. Lee is an Illini alum, and after one of the school’s a capella groups serenaded him (I will never get over how much I hate that aspect of universities), he discussed quite openly how his relationship with his tyrannical father informed the film. It is a bit funny that the film that brought this Oscar-winning director—he who is responsible for some of the greatest films of the last decade—is arguably his weakest. But Lee’s weakest is still fairly compelling, and indeed, his very psychological take on the Hulk purges the trapped, angry child that most of us carry around.

At first, it’s possible to miss Lee’s self-possession. He sits hunched and speaks quietly with a strong, if inflected English that he says has improved mightily from when he directed Brit actors for the talk-talk-talky Sense and Sensibility. But as he expresses himself, the unmistakable inscrutability of someone confident in their impressions and work emerges, someone confident enough in his gut instinct to make a range of films whose only real commonality is his own vision. He is also kind rather than nice, a fact that is evident in his sweet smile. (Discussing how people would come up to him to compliment Sense, he confessed, “I’d just want to punch [them] in the face.”)

About the making of the Hulk, Lee said that some post-9/11 angst wended its way in there. “It’s the only film I’ve made that I had nightmares about,” he said. When he approached the US military to use their equipment for the film, their only caveat, he said, was that they win. (An impossibility, obviously.)

He also talked some about working with the late Heath Ledger, whom he described as “the perfect cowboy” in Brokeback Mountain, I wanted Heath to carry the movie and Jake Gyllenhaal to steal the show. And that’s how it was.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An Ideal Ebertfest Film: Shotgun Stories

Lean and sentient, Shotgun Stories is the sort of film that outstrips its premise within five minutes. Which is a relief: The prospect of two sets of dueling Arkansas half-brothers did not initially enthuse, regardless of the excellent David Gordon Green’s co-producer credit. I foresaw sword fights, perhaps even literally.

But from the first few shots of water pooling at the edge of a small town, it is clear that writer/director Jeff Nichols shares Green’s fascination with the interplay between nature and small towns—the way that modernity hampers nature; the capacity of nature to put human folly into immediate perspective. It is also clear, from the first few scenes between the grown wildchildren of a recovered alcoholic’s first, long-forgotten first marriage, that Nichols distills where Green sprawls. (I think both approaches work.) Some have taken issue with these characters’ names — Kid, Son, and Boy — but they certainly make their point with the same laconic ivory that is this film's trademark. These are men so unparented that they were never properly named, although the children of their father’s second marriage were. We discover this at their father’s funeral, where the boys from the second marriage mourn properly clad in suits and ties, and which Kid, Son, and Boy crash in tee shirts adorned by massive chips on the shoulders. They express their anger so succinctly and so violently that it ignites the long-dormant tensions between the two clans.

All dialogue between these broken men is so understated that it might as well be a form of Morse Code that would reveal both long-brewed jokes and a yawning, ancient sorrow if you could unpack it. And you want to. For this is a film that picks up where others might leave off, about what happens to the people who managed to survive terrible childhoods from which they were not rescued. More to the point, this is a film that you can trust. It never oversteps the plausibility of its characters, never mugs for a cheap laugh, and it never bombards you with an intrusive soundtrack or unnecessary violence or exposition even as the tension rachets up. And though a climax is achieved, it transpires so, well, naturally that the film ends much like it begins, softly. Shotgun Stories has the effect of a concerto rather than a piece of contemporary cinema.

Nichols shares a reserve with his characters though he is bright-eyed where they are living ghosts. It says it all that he brought his dad to the festival as his wife could not come. He comes from a loving family, he acknowledges, that is so supportive that it made sense to make this film in his native Arkansas. It’s such a close family, in fact, that it is the love he feels for his brothers that helped fuel the script. He says he wrote it with the wide-ranging Michael Shannon (Kid, the oldest of the brothers) in mind based on a film school professor’s recommendation, and that Shannon agreed to work with him based on that script. As for the characters’ names, he admitted a predilection for Coppola’s The Outsiders (one of the few movies Nichols owns), whose three central brothers are Sodapop, Ponyboy, and Dallas. Names from people who couldn’t quite fancy themelves parents, either.

After the screening, I commended Nichols for his restraint, especially in a first feature. He explained how, unlike Green, he scripted everything in the film, except for a few (really funny) exchanges between Boy and some basketball players he coached. He also explained why we never learn what riddled Kid’s back with shotgun holes. “I had a scene that explained it,” Nichols explained. “But it just felt forced, so I had to take it out.”

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ebertfashion — and We Use the Term Loosely

Lest anyone think the prevailing sobriety of Ebertfest 2008 had dampened this broad’s snark, a brief “style” update.

--Joey Pants rocking WTF Albuquerque-meets-New Jersey sartorial splendor: white blazer, hoodie, John Lennon sunglasses, a tangle of Billy Bob-style necklaces, a neat trio of earrings lining each ear, pointy boots and a tuft of handkerchief poking out of his blazer pocket.

--Farmer John, he of the doc The Real Dirt on Farmer John, decked out in a pink bandana (and boa) as well as a straw hat lest we forgot which John he was.

--Ignoring all pleas to the contrary, Ebertfest director Kohn blithely strutted about in the mandals-and-suit look once again.

--Rest assured not all men of a certain age fell prey to the seductions of the mandals: many a Johnny-come-lately sported Vans sneakers beneath his Poppa jeans.

I’d direct that same level at critique at the female festival heavies, but so few were in attendance — and they all looked spiffy in well-tailored suits accented by brightly colored sweaters — that I only have nice things to say. (My motto: if you only have nice things to say, don’t say anything!) Christine Lahti, here for Housekeeping, looked especially radiant and remarkably un-aged, especially for a woman who genuinely seems too self-assured to fall down the plastic-surgery rabbit hole.

Life, That Pesky Concept, Intervenes

A break ensued while I scurried back to Brooklyn, but do keep checking here today and tomorrow. A rundown of the last two days of the festival will appear shortly.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Human Conditioning

So many personal revelations this year. During Friday’s discussion after Canvas, the film about a young Florida boy whose mother is schizophrenic, Joey Pantoliano disclosed his own struggles with depression and ADD that have fueled the terrific energy he’s channeled into getting Canvas out to the general public. Timothy Spall revealed that he’d been diagnosed with leukemia immediately after filming Hamlet. He's since experienced a complete remission. Ang Lee discussed how his complicated relationship with his father impacted his filmmaking career — especially when directing a film like Hulk, which screened this morning.

The tenor is not surprising, given the many losses we’re confronting this year. It has been unusually quiet. No sprawling breakfasts presided over by Dusty; no Steak N Shake with Roger and the gang. But the tenderness we've all demonstrated as well as our less guarded selves reinforces how hardship can connect us to each other if we let it.


Ostensibly Yes is about a London woman of a certain age and means who commences a love affair with a Lebenese hotel chef forced to flee his life as a surgeon in Beirut. Class, gender, age, fundamentalism: check, check, check, check—and it’s in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line). Add to this that the main characters are only referred to as He and She, and writer/director Sally Potter (Orlando)’s 2004 project sounds like the stuff that film critics bad dreams are made of.

Except: it’s not, it’s really not. As She, Joan Allen sheds her customary brittleness for an earthly sensuality that Potter’s lens seize upon almost greedily. As her foil, Simon Abkarian infuses He with a sexy wit that prevents the tragic details of his characters’ life from subsuming him. There’s much to say about this film — about the careful revelations the cinematography and art direction consistently provide, about the pleasure afforded by She’s white trench coat and He’s black suit jacket slowly coated by petals on a spring walk, about the slow coiling of tension that never is cheaply deployed — but it is Yes’ emphasis on adult female sexuality that lingers with me a day later.

In one scene, She and He dine in a well-appointed restaurant, the type of place whose expensiveness is most evident in its hush, and as they gaze upon each other with a clear-eyed amusement, he brings her to an orgasm with his hand beneath the table. Afterward he licks his finger lasciviously and they laugh silently. Hot. When is a sex scene onscreen solely focused upon female pleasure, especially one that lives even in the ballpark of plausibility? Especially one that focuses on the pleasure of a woman, not a girl.

For Joan Allen has never looked more beautiful and she has never looked more her age, a fact that seems not only in keeping but essential to the prevailing elegance of this film. In another scene, She goes swimming with her goddaughter, a study in the new, knowing ripeness of late adolescence. The juxtaposition of their two bodies invites the kind of comparison that most women over 30 might shun, but when the girl asks, “Do you mind the lines on your face?” She only smiles enigmatically, an oyster smile. The grace She displays fluttering through the pool renders the young girl’s body, prone on a sundeck chair, as too obvious, still clumsy. It is a grace carved out by She’s purposefulness—a beauty borne by the survival of her will and willingness after life’s inevitable disappointments. As Potter has said in interviews, “Yes is the most beautiful word.”

That’s what I love about this film. The pedestalization of woman over girl; the declaration that what has survived invisibility is in fact most beautiful (this is true of He, too). Only this weekend not one but two movies about late-30s women struggling with declining fertility have been released (Baby Mama, Then She Found Me), reinforcing the constant message that women over a certain age are not only unsavory but almost no longer biologically female (certainly not biologically viable). I have to say: writer/director Sally Potter’s Yes, about which I had been warned aplenty, proved a welcome relief.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Delirious with DiCillo

In his films, director Tom DiCillo typically paints some aspect of show business with plenty of spit and vinegar and a surprising wallop of sentimentality. Delirious, his treatise on the fame machine, is no exception. It reunites the writer/director with Steve Buscemi, who clocks in arguably the most undersung performance of his career, as Les, a bitterer-than-thou celeb photographer who hires homeless Toby (bumpy-mouthed Michael Pitt) to be essentially an indentured servant. (Yes, they call those interns in New York.) Toby hankers after poor-little-rich-girl Karma, a Britney-like starlet (Alison Lohman) whose parents are suing her for $7 million to recover the costs of raising her, who launches her own fragrance Instant K’Harma (yes, sic) and who writes her own songs clad only in a bra and horn-rimmed glasses. What’s more, she is strangely sympathetic, partly because of how she’s been written and partly in credit to Lohman. Eventually, Toby's pout snags Alison's attention and a moral struggle with Les ensues that involves a meta-scripted reality series in which Toby plays Toby, the homeless serial killler. To say DiCillo has keenly observed this industry in this well-edited film is an understatement, and I know of what I speak these days.

This is probably why Kohn included me in the discussion with DiCillo that followed the film. I was genuinely curious about DiCillo's juxtaposition of an idealized romantic love (one scene between Pitt and Lohman is literally strewn with flowers if not hearts) with an otherwise prevailing bitterness. It's a tonal contrast that sometimes disrupts the narrative flow of all his films in a way I've never been able to reconcile.

In person, DiCillo oddly resembles Buscemi’s character; they both sport rather long shanks of dark hair and a ‘90s version of a '70s aesthetic. Was DiCillo conscious of that choice? Was he mocking himself in some way? Forgive my superficial observations but I am always fascinated by how people choose to present themselves. (To be fair, I should disclose I am wearing bright red lipstick and a tiger print jacket over a red 60s print dress with gold platform clogs. “Color!” mouthed a slightly cowed DiCillo before we strode on stage.)

Affter outlining his very frustrating, largely unsuccessful struggle to achieve distribution (he used the word “astonishing” a lot), DiCillo fielded my question with aplomb. “I believe in real love,” he said. “And we rarely see it on the screen. The reason that the relationship between Toby and Karma works is because they possess a purity. They are honest, which is necessary for love to happen.” It was such an unabashed thing to say that I almost felt embarrassed for him, except that it was true and it was clear that DiCillo wasn’t just tossing out a line. His voice broke and I felt, not for the first time at this year’s festival, dangerously close to crying in public myself.

In Which the Author Takes a Roofy

Yesterday began in a pink and gold haze. Ebertfest director Nate Kohn humored my epic crush and sat me next to Rufus Sewell on a panel in which some other filmmakers, actors, and writers who are not Rufus also participated. Rufus muttered two very, very amusing jokes under his breath, poured water in his glass, and commented upon what I wrote in my notepad. He studied his iPhone surreptitiously. He scratched his nose twice and generously laughed at three of my own jokes. He then fondled the soap bubbles inexplicably placed in front of all the panelists. He nibbled at not one but two chocolate cookies. Significantly less of note: the death knoll for American attention spans was rung; the merits of bothering to watch film on small screens were debated; filmmakers bemoaned their decades-long, soul-breaking quests for budgets and distribution. Rufus disclosed in a breathtaking moment that he had recently opted to work in theater rather than film. He then raised his eyebrows when I named the gossip publication where I toil and I pointed out that an Arabian Nights stint was not exactly Shakespeare. We then made up and rode into the sunset ever so awesomely.

Actually, the panel — which also included Tom DiCillo (Delirious), film critic Roger Roeper, Timothy Spall, Joseph Greco (Canvas), Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), Eran Kolirin (The Band's Visit), Bill Forsyth (Housekeeping), and producer Adam Hammel (Canvas) — proved lively and well-moderated by Kohn, if he could just learn to speak a little less emphatically. The dude puts the B in subtle.

Is It My Bad Energy?

I apologize for my even more glacial-than-normal posting rate. In an unexpected and most unwelcome turn of events, my Macbook battery has died, which is making all kinds of computer activity (like using it) uber laborious. If anyone wants to hook me up with a battery I’d be much indebted because I don’t really have time to scavenge for one right now. So pinned to an outlet I write before jumping to a Shotgun Stories screening. Apparently losing my juice renders my grammar Yoda-like. Just so you know.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sewell and Spall in the Land of Dreamy Dreams

Here’s what I forgot: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) is about a million years long. And by a million years, I do respectfully mean 238 minutes of rawther unadorned Shakespeare. In the press notes, Ebert describes it as the first uncut film version of the bard’s “most challenging” tragedy. If I were writing elsewhere, I might wrench that quote out of context for my own nefarious purposes, but in the interest of fairness I must acknowledge Roger goes on to say many complimentary things.

Whereas I will say that the film requires an intermission, which in my allegedly humble opinion should only be required by Reds and Gone With the Wind. Suffice to say at 11:30 I cruised to the theater and still managed to catch the last 20 minutes or so — admittedly grand enough to make me wish I’d had the chance to revise my opinion after all. Afterward, actors Rufus Sewell and Timothy Spall spoke, both as charming and bright as you’d expect and smart in pinstriped trousers and boots. Why can’t American men take a page from those Brits? And yes, Rufus proves eminently crushworthy. A laundrylist of why before it leaks elsewhere, Tourettes-style.

1.He is as handsome in real life as he is stretched across a big screen. A rarity, I doth assure you. This includes: a. bedroom eyes b. long lashes not wasted on this boy c. a head proportionate to his body.
2. He laughs all the time, sometimes at his own jokes. Admittedly this quality might endear himself less to me were he less handsome or if he’d laughed less at my own high comedy, but who’s going to live their life on a conditional? Not I, says this frog.
3. He speaks in the straining, raspy voice of an earnest nine-year-old.

Okay, Sewell PSA officially over.

Both Spall and Sewell extolled the virtues of working in a production in which no part, uh, bit. “It was about the language this way,” Spall said. This surely shed new light on the tremendous “supporting” cast (everyone from Billy Crystal to Charlton Heston to Jack Lemmon) that I’d previously dismissed as distracting.

The two shared background on the production, from how the terrific snow scene was achieved (apparently a company called Snow Business actually exists!) to the coach who wrote Shakespearean-like dialogue for the extras to mutter at each other. (I want those lines! How they would spice up my subway rides: A pox on your house, o he who spreads his legs so wide I can't sit down.)

As the Q and As often go here, the conversation took an unexpected if welcome turn. Spall reminisced about his long professional and personal alliance with English director Mike Leigh. “He and I share a love of showing what’s extraordinary in the ordinary,” he said. “The delivery man in a Hollywood movie—that’s the main character in the Leigh movie.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Feels Like Starting Over

Greetings once again from Champaign, where this broad has finally landed after a long, less-than-glamorous trek from jolly old Brooklyn. I swear every time I take that baby (American) Eagle (jet) from Chicago to the local airport here, I can’t help flashing on the likes of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Patsy Cline, Otis o Otis. Although I'm still a relative newbie in the Ebertfest family — and rest assured that it is a family — it hit me tonight that this is my fourth year at the Festival. Enough time for a lot of changes to have taken place.

The biggest disturbance in the force, as they say, was the death in January of Dusty Cohl, the co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, this festival’s “accomplice-in-chief,” and an all-around lion-hearted troublemaker. I have never been one for a daddy complex — my complicated relationship with my own old man always having precluded such folly — but I have to admit I always secretly wished Dusty were my pop. He never missed a beat; he was the original tough Jew; and his shrewdness never outstripped his enormous, far-reaching kindness. He was one of the few people whose good opinion I actively campaigned for, and when he solemnly pinned one of his legendary silver cowboy hats on my lapel, I nearly plotzed. When I first saw him again last year, his big embrace — all whiskey and cigars and chutzpah — broke down any remaining New York reserve that had survived my flight. For a guy whose shtick was gruffness, he could give a mean hug. It was rivaled only by his wink — the best wink I’ve ever witnessed. I still practice it all the time.

The airport was nearly empty upon my arrival this year, and the contrast to last year’s hustle and bustle hit me hard before I could bolster myself. I thought of Dusty, and of how Roger, still fighting the good fight with the after-effects of his cancer, won’t be able to make it. I thought of all the people I had lost in my own life in this last year.

But then just when I was sliding into an inexcusable malaise, my friend Chris, who’s been squiring me around these last three years, strode in sporting that grin as big as the Midwestern skies. “What movies are we gonna see?” he said, and grabbed my Canal Street-cheap suitcase. Before I knew it I had launched into a happy laundry-list. Because, well, it’s the movies, stupid. It’s always the movies — selected by Roger, screened on the gorgeous, old-timey screen of the Virginia Theater, and discussed ad nauseum afterward.

I’m ecstatic to ogle The Cell and Hulk and Romance & Cigarettes (Turturro’s fabulously unironic but still tongue-in-cheek working-class musical) on a big screen; to finally learn why Shotgun Stories has set tongues a-flapping; to surrender to the silent film Underworld’s squalid pleasures, and to revisit such worthy films as Housekeeping. And I happily anticipate some conversions: to be convinced that some of the other films (that shall remain nameless here) are worthier than I remember them. Roger has a knack of banishing the cinennui of even the most jaunidiced film viewers. Even from afar, I know he will achieve that again this year.

And with that, I’m off to find the gang. I may have missed the first film (Hamlet) but there’s still Steak N Shake, I’m sure. Here’s to the strawberry-banana malted.