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.