Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2011

I must confess, I have no idea what the "best" movies in 2011 are. When I see a 10 best from a master critic like Roger Ebert, I am intimidated. There are some eclectic and highbrow movies on his list. What reveals itself about me when I read his list are these 4 things:

1. I don't see all of the movies that the critics do. I am a child of my local 14-cinemaplex. I see mostly what comes there, and not all of the "great" ones did. I'm still waiting to see "Tree of Life", for example, which shows up on many of the critics' lists.

2. I judge a film by that film and not by who the director is and what his or her history is. For example, I did track down Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" after Ebert's excellent blog entry about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. I don't know anything about Von Trier, and I didn't care for this film. It's beautifully shot, yes. Great actors yes. But, I wasn't moved much by the portrayal of family disfunction in a looming disaster. You call that disfunction? Please. It's not on my list of my 10 favorites.

3. My film horizon is broadened by seeing better films at film festivals, specifically EbertFest 2011. My 3 favorite films that I saw in 2011 were not technically released in 2011, but I saw them first at EbertFest. Those three films, all reviewed in my posts from EbertFest are:

A Small Act


Natural Selection

4. Finally, I have decidedly low-brow taste and am out-of-sync with critics, and I am fine with that.

Some examples:

I enjoyed movies that critics hated, like "The Hangover 2". They thought it too deriviative of the first. I thought it clever to pull off that inventive plot twice. Same with "New Year's Eve". How can you not like Garry Marshall's directing of a sweet movie with multiple interweaving plots? Not debauched enough, I guess.

Speaking of debauched, the last movie I saw in 2011 was tonight, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo". How can none of the reviews mention the graphic debauchery of rape and torture and just talk about whether they like the Swedish or American version better? Or, how can they not notice that the villian in "Super 8" was the U.S. Air Force? I was offended, as an Air Force veteran. Critics were not. They were just enthralled with the Speilberg homage.

I am out of sync with critics. No doubt.

Given all that, here are my 10 favorite movies from 2011  - in the order that they were released, except for my favorite movie at the end:

- Country Strong: Same plot and ending as "Black Swan", but with good music

- The Adjustment Bureau

- Red Riding Hood: Gorgeous photography and Amanda Seyfried's big eyes.

- Sucker Punch: Wow. A visual knockout.

- Larry Crowne: a sweet movie about midlife growth, and an uplifting message about teachers. (Compared with the raunchfest "Bad Teacher", which critics liked better and which debauches role models.)

- Horrible Bosses:: Funny, funny, funny.

- Friends With Benefits: Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. Timberlake and Kunis owned the screen.

- The Debt: Suspenseful and meaningful.

- In Time: Clever concept. Time is money. Seyfried and Timberlake again captivating me.

- Hugo: The best of the year by far. Wholesome. Beautiful. Uplifting. Visually stunning. I kept saying under my breath "Oh wow." That seals it for me.

Those are my 10 favorite films released in 2011. My tastes. Worth my entertainment dollars.

Honorable mentions to Drive Angry, Hall Pass, Hangover 2, and Mars Needs Moms.

We'll see what 2012 brings in cinema. I have my EbertFest pass alreay purchased, and my favorite seat on the aisle at the 14-plex picked out. Turn out the lights, and let's start watching.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Out-of-Sync on the 4th of July

Today, the 4th of July, is a good day to talk about how out-of-sync I feel with the dominant culture.

I'm not just talking about the report on DrudgeReport this week about a Harvard University study showing that "4th of July parades energize only Republicans", and are "right-wing" affairs. That says more about Harvard than about rank-and-file Democrats, who I think are generally at the parades with me.

No, I'm talking about Hollywood, their product - often hostile to patriotism, the critics - whose reviews are a foreign viewpoint to me, and finally to movie goers in general who vote with their box-office dollars in ways that puzzle me.

As measured by the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer ratings, I am way-out of sync.

Take "Super 8" with a Tomatometer score of 82% fresh. Really? I've already written below about my disappointment with the Producer / Director choice of bad guy: the United States Air Force. I didn't read a single review that even noticed that. Really? It's not surprising. Professional critics are of the same cultural DNA as the movie-making culture that disdains the military.

Take the flipside as evidence: Green Hornet - a movie that I think respects not only traditional values but the military as well, with a Tomatometer score of 27% rotten. Please.

Let's not start where the critics start - with Ryan Reynolds and his success or not as Hal Jordan, who becomes the Green Lantern.

Let's start with the Green Lantern Corps in the first place. What is it?

The Corps is both a creation story and a military story wrapped together.

A creation of the Guardians. An ancient race that created the known univers, and the Corps to protect it. The Guardians are still around, perched nobly on stone towers in a stunning visual. Wow, better than the Jedi Council! Think of all of the stars that you can see in the night sky. Multiply that by a thousand and that zone is protected by a Green Lantern. Now imagine that there are - I believe - 3600 Lanterns. That is the extent of the universe. Mind boggling. Fictional, but mind boggling.

The Corps evokes thoughts of the United States Marine Corps. The few. The proud. It's embodied most in the character of Sinestro (played by Mark Strong) and his high-and-tight haircut. Sinestro takes Hal Jordan - already an accomplished military pilot - and steps him up to the capability of a Green Lantern. If you've ever been in the military - and I have - and have been through some version of Basic Training / Boot Camp, these scenes will resonate with you. Getting beaten down mentally and built back up to something better by disciplined men. Drill instructors with a mission to make you a skilled protector.

This portrayal of the Green Lantern Corps could be an advertisement for the Marine Corps, as well as it resonates with this veteran. It apparently does not resonate with critics who barely mention - if at all - the pivotal character of Sinestro.

Green Lantern was, I thought, a well told story with worthy values for the kids watching it. Not just to be fearless, but to be courageous. A well-played setup and payoff make that point. I was glad to sit with my kids at Green Hornet. Not so much with Super 8.  Which apparently makes me out-of-sync with the critics and movie ticket buyers.

That out-of-syncness is also apparent in the box-office of "Bad Teacher" (44%) vs. "Larry Crowne" (35%).

My wife and I loved Larry Crowne. It's another high-quality performance by writer/director/star Tom Hanks. Bravo. It's a topical story of a man finding himself out of work in this hard economy. It's a terrific story of a man improving himself through ongoing education at the community college. It has a great supporting cast doing interesting things. It has a love interest. What more could you want. Apparently, though, this sweet and topical story bored critics. I pity them.

On the other hand, it was my misfortune to choose Bad Teacher. I walked out of the theater a half hour in and didn't look back. What a crass, coarse, and vulgar piece of trash this is. Were the parents of the tween girls in my theater cringing at the Diaz dialogue that I won't even quote here? Why not? Why did they stay sitting there?

Bottom line: the Tomatometer is of no use to me. Bad Teacher got higher critical scores than both Green Hornet and Larry Crowne? How is that possible?

I am completely out-of-sync with our modern film critics, and the Hollywood product they spend their hours in the dark reviewing. Here they had two high-quality good-values films in Green Lantern and Larry Crowne, and they rejected them for crap like Super 8 and Bad Teacher respectively. Pitiful.

I'll go see the movies I want to see, thank you very much.

P.S. Don't even ask me about Transformers 3. I haven't seen any of the the Transformers movies. Why? Because I don't have to.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Out of Sync on "Super 8"

I've spent more time with film critics - at film festivals and through social media - and consuming film criticism in the last year than I have in my whole life. What I've learned is this, however you want to say it:

I am out of sync with film critics. I view films through a different worldview. I respectfully dissent with the ratings - stars, and thumbs, and tomatoes - and the reviews on many many films.

I'm okay with that. I'm 51 years old. I've seen hundreds if not thousands of films since my teen years when my high school job was a cinema usher and I got in free to all of the films. I'm confident both in my worldview - earned through my education and life experiences - and my opinion of film. I like what I like. I don't really need anyone to tell me what to like or why. And it doesn't bother me to have an opinion that swims against the tide of majority critical opinion.

Today is a prime example, as I took my family wife and 12 year old son to see an opening day matinee of "Super 8".

It's fair to say that it's a critical success. Rotten Tomatoes "tomatometer" rating of 82%. Three and a half stars from the man himself, Roger Ebert.

I get why they liked it. I do. For several reasons.

1. Who doesn't want to have a good time at a Summer blockbuster? I do. Especially a Steven Spielberg production. Although directed by JJ Abrams, it has recognizable homages to Spielberg's various movies throughout. The principal allusion to me in Super 8 - set ostensibly in the late 70's (when I was a cinema usher) - was to Spielberg's 1977 "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".

Close Encounters was a pivotal movie for me. I saw it dozens of times with my free movies privileges. I can see so many scenes in my head, like Richard Dreyfuss sitting in his utilities truck at a stoplight getting a sunburn on half of his face. The utility truck is echoed in Super 8, as is a horizontal blue light glare in several scenes. That puts a smile on my face, that recognition of a homage to a scene I've seen in my youth.

2. Amazing visuals. Really, the train crash scene that featured in the trailers is stunning and raises the bar for effects. As are all of the 70's period touches, like the Super 8 camera itself. Not so much with the bad guy (no spoilers), who scurries around blurrily and is not seen clearly until near the very end.

3. Stellar acting, especially from the kids. Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney are marvelous as the kids at the center of the developing chaos for whom puppy love is inevitable. There is some real talent there.

But the kids are also the key to why this film doesn't work for me. The kids are the indicator that, homages acknowledged, this is not a Spielberg film but just a joyless pretender.

As I said, this is a Summer blockbuster. Aimed primarily at teens. And it fails teens.

If you're going to take me back to being a teen, I can't help but notice how different this film is in tone than the Spielberg films that I saw as a teen. They were inventive and adventurous and hopeful. This is dark and foreboding and joyless. Start with the scene where Elle Fanning is introduced riding up in her father's muscle car that she shouldn't be driving. She's not excited and rebellious and spunky. She's just mad and glowering. Yuck. We've degenerated down the slippery slope since Spielberg to Adams's vulgar, swearing, depressed, anxious, disrespectful children.

Don't take my word for the oppressiveness of the tone. I did something that most critics do not do when reviewing a movie like this. I saw it with a 12 year old boy. He's not a shy wallflower who is easily scared in a movie. He's fearless, and he's seen many scarier movies than this (which I regret). His body language as the film progressed told the story. He sank back into his seat. He stopped eating his nachos. He wouldn't respond to his mom's questions if he was alright. He was not alright. He wasn't scared - he was oppressed, almost traumatized, by the intense negative tone and foreboding of the film. Everyone is grim in this joyless tale and it was taking him down. My wife packed him up shortly after the train wreck and took him home. So much for blockbuster.

I stayed and watched the film. I can't say that I enjoyed it. I appreciated some aspects of it, especially the aforementioned recognition of homages. But, you can exactly duplicate a wet-eyed shot of a child from Spielberg, and not capture at all the spirit of Spielberg. What you get instead is element after element of joylessness. A dead mother. A secret surrounding her death that haunts his friend. A deputy sherriff who chastises and abandons his son as he's suddenly caught up in unexpected duty and leadership. Bickering jealous friends. Gruesomely disappearing people. An evil American military (a new Hollywood staple). Dope smoking heroes. It goes on and on and on. And it adds up to a joyless abuse of it's young audience.

Really, I ask you. Does a 12 year-old boy buying a ticket for a Summer blockbuster need to be confronted with the idea that his dog, and all dogs in town, could get snatched and disappear? That's what entertainment has become in 2011 America? No thanks.

Count me with the 18% on Rotten Tomatoes who vote no on this movie. Out of sync with the majority and fine with that. I know what I know. I know that Steven Spielberg was the master of the Summer blockbuster, and this homage is a faint and joyless shadow.

The best part of Super 8, by the way, is the short film that plays during the credits that is the final product of the movie that the kids are making in the plot. It's cute and funny. Opposite in tone to the whole feature film that precedes it. Go figure.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

EbertFest 2011: Wrap-up

I did well to see 10 of the 13 movies at EbertFest 2011, all of which I've recapped below.

I knew going in that I would have to be back home on Sunday, and would miss "Louder Than a Bomb", a documentary about poetry "slams" in Chicago, and was able to arrange for my friend Kassie to use my pass for that day. I'm not much of a poetry guy, and I would be the guy asking: Really, is "Loud" a desirable attribute in poetry?  #Kidding#  I saw a video on UStream of the performance after the movie and it looks awesome. My loss.

Once there and in my hotel, I made a strategic decision to miss the first two movies on Thursday: "Umberto D" and "My Dog Tulip". I am a dog lover, and I know that the audience loved them, but I chose to do other things in that timeslot before I made it to "Tiny Furniture" that night.

Around noon on Thursday, after the Ebert Club meeting and the Far-Flung Correspondent panel at the Illini Union, I made my annual memory tour of the University of Illinois. It wasn't as melancholy as it was last year. I just enjoyed kicking around the Quad and my old hangouts Altgeld (math), Noyes (chemistry), Loomis (physics), etc. Focusing on some campus ambience and architectural photography for my own enjoyment.

You can find my 25-picture gallery  "EbertFest 2011: Campus Memory Tour on Lick Creek Photography 

I had a great time at EbertFest. Saw 10 great films. Had a lot of great conversations with a lot of great people - fellow film-lovers all.

Thank you most of all to Roger and Chaz Ebert for putting on a wonderful festival.

Thank you to the Far-Flung Correspondents that were so gracious with me. Omer, Ali, Gerardo, Michael, Grace, Olivia, Anath, and Kartina.

Thank you to the other VIPs that I had such great conversations with. Tom Dark, foremost. Rachel Harris and Tilda Swinton (Q&A).

Thank you to my fellow-festival passholders: Sean Kelly, Brett Phillips, Greg Salvatore, the two Don's (AngryMick and the Odienator), Eric Isaacson. And thanks to everyone I met in line and in the theater between shows. I know I'm leaving out someone - sorry.

I've given it my best shot to recap my whole full-immersion experience in the space of eight posts here and in my picture galleries on Lick Creek Photography. I hope you enjoyed them.

Here's looking forward to next year.

EbertFest 2011: Caught on Film

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I got to ask the first question of Tilda Swinton in the audience portion of the Q&A panel after her film "I Am Love".

Turns out, there is a video of that.

The whole Q&A is fascinating, and a good example of what an EbertFest Q&A panel looks like.

My question, and her answer directly to me, comes at exactly 37:18 in the clip. Yes, you do have permission to slide directly to that point. Enjoy!

Video streaming by Ustream

Friday, May 13, 2011

EbertFest 2011: The Studio Films

Roger Ebert selects a wonderfully eclectic mix of films for the enjoyment of us EbertFest festival-goers, across the full timespan of cinema history. A silent film. Foreign films. Some indies. And this year, three studio films. These are major films, but not the current popcorn films playing at the local multiplex. No, these are underappreciated gems from as far back as "Only You", and as current as "Me and Orson Welles" and "Leaves of Grass".

1. "Me and Orson Welles" - directed by Richard Linklater

Honestly, I almost walked out of this film in the first 30 minutes. Which would have been my mistake.

It wasn't the movie's fault. It was me. I was disoriented. Keep in mind that I had watched 4 movies at the festival by the Friday 4pm screening of "Me and Orson Welles". I had watched one silent film from 1927, and 3 indie films. I had a mindset going. A mood. A tone. And then here onscreen comes a Hollywood big(ger) budget film with A-List actors (the luminous Claire Danes for God's sake), extravagant sets, period costumes / cars / music, professional lighting, crane camera shots, etc. It was too much. I was stunned.

But, I stayed and I enjoyed not only the film but the informative Q&A panel afterwards with the colorful director Richard Linklater. His thoroughly animated discussion made it hard to take a candid photograph without at least one blurred hand. I learned 3 key things during the Q&A:

1. Orson Welles was a bigger than life figure with a storied career in Hollywood. Linklater noted that it would be impossible to capture all of Welles in one film. If many directors would film one small piece of Welles, collectively they could capture him. Linklater chose as his piece this mostly true story set in 1937, early in Welles career.

2. Linklater knew that finding the right actor to play Welles was the make or break casting decision, and had to be made before the film would be a reality. He found him in British actor Christian McKay. He also believed in the casting of Zac Efron, who he thought had a broader range than he was known for.

**McKay certainly has the look and sound of Welles, I'll give him that. Although, I thought in the first third of the movie that he was working too hard to establish it. Almost winking at the camera in a "Look at me, I'm Orson Welles!" way. But, it grew on me.

3. The cast includes a lot of well-known British actors who took seriously the play within the movie - Ceasar. They gave thought briefly to getting a theater in New York for a couple of weeks after wrapping the movie and putting on the play of Ceasar.

The story turns on Zac Effron's character. The Me in "Me in Orson Welles". He plays an ambitious high school student who stumbles into Welles production and shoots to the top through luck and perserverance and grit. A little drumming, a little dance, and little prose, a little improvised ukele, and he's in the company. Can he pull it off? How far will he go? With some help from Danes' character - the theater secretary, and a social climber - he has a chance. Efron is the romantic character, Danes the gritty realist.

I enjoyed the finely crafted plot. Early setups with satisfying payoffs - like Effron's opening scenes chance encounter with aspiring writer Gretta in the music store, and again in a musuem. Life in the theater. Orson as a force of nature. Very entertaining. I just had one request by the end of the movie: More Gretta, please.

My Tweet after the film, Gretta's last line: "It's all ahead of us." As it was for Welles.

Note: I'm watching the DVD tonight at home with my wife and kids. Wow. Way too much cussing. I didn't notice that at EbertFest.

Intermission: I had some wonderful conversations with my fellow festival goers

- two gentlemen behind me were having an animated political discussion, reveling in thrashing right-wingers and Tea Partiers - oblivious that I was one of each. I eventually turned with a smile and said "You know what the great thing about EbertFest is? You're who you are and I'm a Tea Partier and we're here watching great films together." Surprised look on their face - priceless.

- meeting the quiet and polite young man next to me in row 2C, house left. Mr. Tim B Martens. We shared our full immersion experiences at the festival, and then our Twitter addresses - each doing a "follow" of each other on the spot. Turns out us two were carrying a significant portion of the tweets at the #EbertFest hashtag, sitting right next to each other. Tim wrote a terrific piece in the Daily Illini later on.

2. "Only You"

Norman Jewison's lovely romantic movie about fate, set in Italy, and starring a very young and very lovely and very romantic Marisa Tomei. And oh, there were some guys in the movie. (An early Robert Downey Jr.)

How could you not love Marisa Tomei in this movie? I loved her short haircut, her infectious smile, her romantic innocence. Same goes for the delightful Bonnie Hunt, who carries a lot of the weight of the comedy as the married friend who accompanies Tomei around Italy on a lark to fulfill her romantic destiny. Here's a great Bonnie Hunt line, as she's comforting Tomei after a moment of betrayal:

"I married a liar. How do I know? Because, I married a man." Funny. Ouch, but funny.

I loved this movie, all the way through. And I was blown away by the Q&A session with director Norman Jewison. This man has an accomplished history. He could tell stories about Oscar winning pictures and big name actors for hours, and I would stay for hours to listen.

He answered with frivolity, as when he was asked why he made this movie and he answered that he wanted to make a movie in Italy - which he loved.

And he answered questions with depth of soul. Roger's Far-Flung correspondent Anath White asked him why he made movies about social justice, like his Academy Award winning film "In the Heat of the Night". Jewison told a moving tale about an experience that he had in his youth that had opened his eyes to injustice. He was in the South, Memphis I believe, waiting for a bus in his Canadian Navy uniform. He boarded the bus and headed to the back of the bus where there was a good breeze, when he was confronted by the voice of the bus driver. "Hey, are you trying to be funny?" As he looked back forward, he realized that there was a line drawn at the middle of the bus and a swinging tin sign handlettered to read "Blacks to the back of the bus". He was mortified. Embarrassed. He didn't know what to do. So, he picked up his bag and walked off of the bus and never forgot that moment. That moment led to working with Sidney Poitier in the groundbreaking "In the Heat of the Night".

"Only You" is not so serious. It's a romantic romp. A travelogue in love with the gorgeous scenes of Italy's cities and glorious seacoast. It asks the question is there one soulmate fated for us? Should Tomei settle, and marry a perfectly fine podiatrist? Or, does she hold out and race across the ocean for a longshot at finding the soulmate predicted by name in childhood by a Ouija board and a carnival fortune teller? Well, romance dictates the second. And a fine movie it makes.

That takes me to Saturday night and...

3. "Leaves of Grass"

Tim Blake Nelson, the Hollywood VIP guest I most wanted to see, brought this film that he wrote and directed to EbertFest. Nelson often plays blue collar rednecks in films, as he does in this one, but is in real life quite accomplished and studied in the ways of poetry and philosophy. Those two aspects of himself are expressed in his movie in the form of twin brothers Bill and Brady.

Chaz expressed Roger's admiration of Nelson as she introduced him before the film was shown. Nelson echoed that, with the rejoinder that he admires Roger more. Because of Roger's glowing review of Leaves of Grass, Nelson was able to get theatrical release.

The film's opening scene has Bill, the polished brother, giving a lecture at an ivy league school in Providence. The gist of the lecture on the classics is that man should live his life in as controlled a means as possible, but that this is illusory and when he thinks he has it controlled he pretends divinity and that's when it comes crashing down. Which, of course, foreshadows his reunion with his pot-growing twin brother Brady and the chaos that ensues. Nelson acts in a supporting role as Bolger, Brady's Okie friend and pot-growing associate.

Note: I took a restroom break at a crucial point in the movie and missed someone's demise. But, I did pause in the lobby with my Canon SLR and take my favorite picture of the whole festival - of the popcorn machine in the Virginia's lobby. Love that pic. It's in my gallery of EbertFest pics at:

Lick Creek Photography

Nelson lived up to his billing in the Q&A. I snapped a lot of candid pics. Kicking myself that I missed the perfect pic from the 3rd row when he leaned forward in his chair and, describing the methods that various directors frame shots, looked right at me through his hand formed in a "L" frame. The absolute perfect pic of the festival, and my camera was off. Missed it! But, I see it in my mind's eye. I got this instead.

One aspect that Tim Blake Nelson shared in the Q&A was that of shooting twins. He wanted to move past the typical trick of splitting the screen in half with one on one side and the other on the other statically. He wanted them to interact. To put hands on each other. To finish each others sentences. He succeeded spectacularly, I think.

He also enjoyed screening his picture in the grand theater that is the Virginia, on a college campus with an educated film audience. He said his line about the OED dictionary had never gotten a bigger laugh. As did he audience question: "What did you do with all of that weed when you finished filming?"

Loved Leaves of Grass. I loved all fo the acting performances by the stellar cast, including: Ed Norton, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, the lovely Keri Russell, and the actress that plays Rose on Two and a Half Men, among others.

As the lights went up, I immediately Tweeted  these 5 lines that stuck in my mind during the film:

- "I don't take accidental encounters for granted"
- "Just a little bitty taste?"
- "It's not good to have unresolved issues with your mother"
- "Do you have a spiritual aversion to monofilament?"
- "All of us, we are breaking the world. Repair it."

Postscript: I rented it on DVD and watched it also tonight to catch the scene I missed at EbertFest. Ah, now it all makes sense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

EbertFest 2011: The African Films

Saturday's 4-movie line up at EbertFest 2011 was as powerful a movie-going day as I've ever personally experienced. Wow, wow, wow, with both the movies and the stellar Q&A panels. And Roger kicked us off that day with two emotional Africa-centric movies.

1. A Small Act

This documentary, based on a true and heart-warming story, was my clear favorite film of EbertFest 2011.

Not just for the titular story of the foreground heroes Hilde, Chris, and Chris's sister. That background story is both easy to tell and compelling. It goes like this. Hilde Back survived the holocaust that here parents did not. Rescued from that, she arrives in Sweden and becomes a school teacher at a school where the headmaster signs them up for a program supporting school kids in Kenya. She diligently pays her $15 per month to sponsor a child, by name - Chris Mbutu. What she doesn't know is what happens to Chris. We know. By virtue of the sponsorship, Chris was able to attend secondary school in "the village". From there to college in Nairobi, from there on to graduate from Harvard Law, and from there to a post with the UN in human rights advocacy. Chris then founds his own organization to sponsor Kenyan students, and names it after Hilde Back. Through that organization, he's able to multiply her original small act of charity. The film documents the meeting of Chris and Hilde, with her getting to know what her act wrought. Wonderful.

The key line of the film, for me - which I tweeted immediately after the show, was:

Chris: "Whoever saved Hilde saved many more." Wow.

EbertFest bonus: Hilde back came to the festival, watched the movie with us, and was featured in the Q&A session afterwards with writer/director Jennifer Arnold and DP Patricia Lee.

All of that is terrific and heartwarming. How did it get made? Jennifer Arnold shared during the Q&A that she went to college for a year in Nairobi, and that her next-door dormmate was Chris Mbutu's sister - who also was sponsored and also graduated from Harvard Law and was also a founder of the Hilde Back foundation. Hearing her story, Arnold set off to tell it in her documentary. Drafting DP Lee to film it with her.

They could have told the heart-warming historical story of Chris and Hilde and we would have oooh'd and ahhh'd. What makes "A Small Act" a compelling film is the driving narrative of the current real life students who are competing for this year's scholarship.

What wonderful students they are. We get to know Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline who have a difficult life today in the village. Their hope, and their family's hope, lies in earning one of this year's Hilde Back scholarships. Win it, earn it, and they have hope of a better future. Failing in that task dooms them and their family to continued deep poverty. They are carrying their family on their backs as the study hour after hour in mud houses by oil lamp. They are studying for the one national exam that dominates their life. Will they make the cutoff mark of 380 on the exam, and have a future? They can't all. Chris says in the film "We can't save them all. But we can save one. We can maybe save 10." The tension builds as these stoic students study hard, then test, then wait for the marks, and finally arrive at the scholarship awards meeting with Chris and his sister and their board. Who will win?

I admired Hilde and Chris. Her small act of charity is blossoming through Chris's foundation and the growing funds they are receiving as a result of this wonderful documentary. I admire them all.

But I loved these students. Very young children who carry so much burden and who work so hard with so little. It was deeply inspirational. This film should be shown in every elementary school in America. Now.

2. "Life, Above All"

This fictional film set in South Africa and dealing with the difficult subject of HIV/AIDS affects in a small village was a perfect follow on to "A Small Act". A powerful twofer.

South African director Oliver Smitz attended EbertFest with his star 13-year old star (now 16) Khomotso Manyaka, who was delightful. How did she carry the whole film, being in almost every scene, having never acted before? "It came naturally. I just showed up every day and did what Oliver told me".

Manyaka plays Chanda. A young woman whose parents are in medical crisis. Whose neighbors are fearful as to the nature of the illnesses. Whose schoolmate and friend Esther is making poor but necessary choices of income at the truck stop. Chanda carries the weight of the world on her young shoulders, and does so with grace and will beyond her years.

"Life, Above All" is not so much a treatise on AIDS, although that provides the dramatic tension of the plot. It's a story of growing up too soon in the hard realities of life. It's a story of survival-level courage in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Chanda and her mother do what they have to do, and find the courage to do it.

I was most taken by the relationship between Chanda (Manyaka) and her classmate Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). Will Chanda stand with her friend even as the town shuns her? Both are non-actors - and real-life friends - plucked from the village where the film was shot by director Smitz. Wow. They shone onscreen.

3. The EbertFest experience of these films

I am not from Africa, but from the American Midwest. I do not have a lot of personal knowledge of Africa or it's diverse issues. Seeing these two films, back-to-back, broadened my horizons considerably and I'm grateful to have had that experience.

I was moved by both Q&A panels, which I watched up close from the 3rd row. Hilde Back and Khomotso Manyaka in turn took the stage and looked out at the crowd in awe. "I'm not used to this much attention", demurred Hilde. They were very sweet.

Monday, May 9, 2011

EbertFest 2011: The Home Movies

A panelist in a Thursday night Q&A panel at EbertFest 2011 made the following observation, which I am paraphrasing:

"We are at a stage where literally everyone can make and publish a home movie about their family. Not that everyone should."

Roger Ebert found two of the best home movies on the festival circuit and brought them to EbertFest for our enjoyment. Those would be Thursday night's "Tiny Furniture" and Friday morning's "45365". Let's take a look at them.

1. "Tiny Furniture"

Is this a feature length home movie? Writer / director Lena Durham stars as Aura, a young woman returning from college away to live with her family as she figures out what to do next. Her real life mother acts as her mother. Her real life sister acts as her sister Daphne. Their home is her mother's real life home. All of that puts us pretty squarely in home movie territory.

Tiny Furniture is nominally, however, a fictional story which includes other characters not in her family. Those include two friends, who create a tension in her life, and two men as potential love / sex interests. Just a question: if you are a woman who is the writer/director/star of a fictional film, would you not write yourself better men as love interests and give yourself a shot with them? Lena/Aura doesn't, so maybe this isn't fictional after all. The two men are such jerks that actor David Call - who attended EbertFest - felt compelled to add this statement as he introduced the movie: "Just remember as you watch that I'm acting, and that I am a nice guy, and that I really do respect women". Ouch.

Lena / Aura sets the tone of the film with an easy humor and a gentle pace of the flow of her life. She is not trying to impress with big themes, but to be present and authentic. If she has body image issues - and she should not - she displays none of them in her no-makeup, unpretentious, casual wear day-in-the-life storyline. She's living in an upscale Manhattan neighborhood with obvious privileges, but is not living a privileged life.

Ostensibly, the story is about Aura being lost in the gap between college and career. What does she want to be when she grows up? A filmmaker? And what is she willing to be until she gets there? A waitress? And how long will she have to with her mother and sister until she decides? That is the surface tension in the movie.

I was captured by two other ways in which Aura is lost.

First, she is lost between Ohio (where she has just graduated from college and established her own identity) and Manhattan (the nest, which she has returned to). This lost-ness is represented by her two friends Frankie and Charlotte. Frankie is her college roommate from Ohio, and is moving to NYC to share an apartment with Aura. Charlotte is Aura's childhood friend who she meets at a party and reconnects with. These two collide at an art party in the city. Will Aura get the apartment with Frankie and continue her new identity established at college? Or will she get sucked back into her childhood life of privilege by Charlotte? Aura is lost between them.

Note: Charlotte is played wonderfully by non-actor Jemima Kirke, a real-life friend of Lena Durham - continuing the home movie feel. Jemima/Charlotte cinched the movie for me.

Second, Aura is lost between her family (mother/sister) and her independence. One thing I liked that illustrated this is three pivotal scenes where each in turn gets to vent. Aura at her mother - "It's hard for me right now". Her mother at Aura - "I'm just trying to be heard". And Daphne at Aura - "You disgust me." Wonderfully expressive screaming fits. At one pivotal point Aura's mother asks her "Are you happy living here?" That is indeed the question.

2. "45365"

Brothers/directors Turner and Bill Ross - who attended EbertFest - have produced a loving documentary of their hometown in Sidney Ohio, which bears the postal code of the title. They filmed an amazing 500 hours of raw footage, and shaped the movie in months of editing.

Is there a plot? If so, it's known only to the Ross brothers. I had a sense early on as I watched it that the plot was the recognizable turning of the seasons. The passing of a year, with it's milestone events. Starting with Summer events like the county fair, a demolition derby, and the 4th of July fireworks. Maybe a June wedding. Off into the fall with an election cycle and football season. Ending with the snows of winter.

We meet real people along the easy flow of the seasons. Cops. Radio DJ. The candidate. The football team. The Ross brothers made some amazing editing choices in weaving their patchwork quilt of Sidney in a coherent manner. One choice that struck me as brilliant was a wedding scene where we never see the wedding. We see her dressing, and hear his vows. We then see him dressing, and hear her vows. That's it, and it's brilliant.

3. Two views of these home movies

We all see movies from our own life experiences and history. Especially such personal home movies as these two choices.

I had conversations with a new friend, a fellow festival-goer from Toronto that I met Tuesday morning at a breakfast. She's in the film industry and is Toronto / New York / Los Angeles. I am not in the business and am from small town Midwest USA. We're not likely to see these two movies the same.

I loved both movies, for different reasons. Tiny Furniture's NYC setting was foreign to me, but Aura's Ohio vibe resonated. And, as the Ross brothers explained, 45365 could be about any town in the Midwest. It could be about my town.

My new friend had the opposite experience. Tiny Furniture was her town, and she didn't like it's portrayal. "She's trying hard to be Woody Allen, and she is so not Woody Allen". (Was Woody allen even Woody Allen at 24 years old? )

She objected to the statement that 45365 represented all of America.

Her: "Do Americans know that Canadians see America as nothing at all like the town in this movie?"

Me: "45365 is my America every day. I know all of the people in that film."

Her: "I know none of those people."

No doubt, Sidney Ohio is not Tribecca. And here we have two terrific home movies about those two very different home towns. Count me as fans of both.
My photo galleries of EbertFest are found at

Sunday, May 8, 2011

EbertFest 2011: The Unfulfilled Women

I had the distinct privilege of interacting with two of the actress guests at EbertFest 2011. That would be the delightful Rachel Harris of Natural Selection and the estimable Tilda Swinton of "I Am Love".

I met Rachel Harris after Thursday night's movies as a group set off for an impromptu karoke night at Bentley's.

And I got to ask Tilda Swinton the very first audience question at the Q&A panel after the showing of her movie. From the 3rd row center. Yeow!

Perhaps uniquely, and certainly counterintuitively, it seemed to me that their very different movies had essentially the same plotline: unfulfilled woman leaves town and does something about it.

So let me group these two movies together for discussion.

1. Natural Selection

Rachel Harris is the star of this indie film, shot in 18 days and still seeking distribution. Roger Ebert was significantly impressed with the film's showing at SWSX in Austin and quickly added it to the schedule at EbertFest. First time director Robbie Pickering wrote and directed this impressive tale set in his home town in Texas, inspired by his mother's impending widowhood and her future of facing life on her own.

Harris plays Linda White, a faithful wife in a strained 25-year marriage. Strained, in large part, by her husband's strict religious view of sex, even within the confines of Christian marriage, as only for the purpose of procreation. A discovery made after her husband's unexpected stroke sets her off on a journey to find his son that she didn't know he had and bring the son home to him as a last request. Chased cross-country by their smitten married pastor, who clearly has a thing for her, events conspire against her. Hilarity and personal revelation ensue, culminating in a stunning late-night confessional scene. Moving and powerful.

I loved the movie, principally for how it framed two powerful issues: religion, and long-term marriage. I related to both topics, and it affects how I see the movie.

Director Robbie Pickering addressed the topic of religion in the Q&A session after the movie. His mother, knowing that the film was essentially about her, asked him not to mock the religion he grew up with or her church & friends. He wanted to respect that. I got to ask him about that the next night as we walked to the karoke bar. Was he picking on religion? "Of course I was. What's the point of making a film that doesn't pick at it some?"

From my point of view, he both picked at religion and respected it in a reasonably good balance. I wasn't quite sure as the story developed, and I was steeling myself for the standard Hollywood liberal mockery of religion, especially of the Texas bible-belt brand that Pickering grew up in. It wasn't looking good on its face. The too strict attitude on sex, for example. I go to church weekly in a conservative evangelical church, and I don't know anyone with that strict of a belief that sex in marriage is only for having kids and never for pleasure. That seemed a strawman setup. Also, the hypocritical strict pastor who clearly is lusting for his married parishoner.

What swayed me though, what told me the religious background of the plot had a ring of authenticity, was three things:

First, the music. There is a scene where Linda is driving and she puts in a Christian cassette tape in her car. She says it's "Sally Patty". Wow. That is authentic. An authentic reference to Christian singer Sandy Patty. If you're a Protestant Christian for the last twenty years or so you've heard Sandy Patty sing. I had just watched several videos of SP on YouTube over Easter, like "Via Dolorosa". I got the reference immediately. It locked in authenticity. I asked Rbbie Pickering about the "Sally Patty" reference. He said his mom was a big fan, and the first concert he went to was a Sandy Patty concert. Pickering had a good sport of picking at religion, but it was also clearly authentic to him, and he respected his mother's religious faith. I appreciated that.

Second, Rachel Harris's portrayal of Linda White respected religion and her family. Harris herself took a swipe at "batshit crazy" religion during the Q&A. But, she didn't in character, in acting out the script that Pickering had written for her. There were plot points where they could have had Linda rebel and take gratuitous swipes at her church and her upbringing and her husband. But, they didn't. Even when she felt betrayed, she didn't lash out and trash them. She played Linda with strength and grace, not shallowness and vulgarity.

Third, Linda White had a chance to renounce her religion. There's a pivotal scene where she arrives at the son's house and tries to talk to him through the door. He shouts aggressively "I don't want any Jesus shit!". Three times. It would have been so easy for Linda, with what she's been through, to say I don't either. But she doesn't, and she never does. This is purely my impression, but I think this scene is writer / director Robbie Pickering talking to his mother through his script. I get it. You don't want any Jesus shit. But you respect that your mother does, and there's enough of it still in you that you portrayed that authentically. I appreciate that.

I'm 30 years married this Summer, which is why I related to the authenticity of the White's 25-year marriage. People tell me that it's rare anymore to be married that long. I'm not sure that's true. It's not rare in my family. But, having that experience behind me helped me to appreciate the central crisis in the movie. To appreciate the authenticity of the tension of both strain and strength in a 25-year marriage. Perhaps that will go right by most movie-goers. Perhaps the writer/director hasn't yet experienced that himself but he faithfully transcribed it from his mother's experience. But, he got it right.

The central scene in the movie to me, besides the diner confessional, was a quiet scene with Linda White and her husband retiring to bed - with just these few lines:

Linda: "Why did you...

Husband: "Betray you?"

Linda: "...marry me?"

Wow. The whole weight of the movie is in those three lines. You know by her question that he didn't do her any favors by marrying her. Ouch.

I watched Natural Selection as a Christian man in a 30 year marriage. I saw it in that context. Said ouch a few times, but I loved the film.

I wanted to ask a question in the Q&A, and it would've been this: "What does the title mean, and does it mean the same to Pickering as it does to Harris?" Wish I had asked it. I'm asking it now.

2. I Am Love

This Italian film with English subtitles could not be more different in tone than "Natural Selection". It's sensibility is very European, and I am very not. Yet, it has the same essential plot: an unfullfilled woman does something about that.

Why is she unfulfilled? Well, it takes a long time to tease that out. The movie takes its time establishing the family and the family dynamics. Tilda Swinton's character, Emma - a Russian national in an Italian family, is both the wife and mother of succesor's to a rich industrialist's factory ownership. This is not fullfilling for Emma. Why? Well, because as it turns out - she doesn't fit in the family. Why that is is revealed in a brief conversation with the family chef:

Antonio: "How did you meet Tancredi?"

Emma: "He came to Russia looking for treasures for his home."

She was apparently one of the treasures that he brought home. An art piece, nothing more. Unloved, unfullfilled, she is willing to give that up even if it means going peasant Bohemian.

That's what I got out of it anyway. I didn't love it. I'm glad I saw it. And I enjoyed the setting in Milan - a city that I have been to and photographed.

My question to Tilda Swinton was this: "I loved the street scenes in Milan. You walked by the Duomo, by the Central Station, by the little church where Da Vinci's "Last Supper" hangs. Did you choose Milan as the setting, and how important were those street scenes to the film?" And she looked right at me in the 3rd row and answered wonderfully.

Two films with the same theme: an unfulfilled woman does something about it. One resonated with me, one was foreign to me. Which is why I say that "Natural Selection" told that tale better of the two.

And two great experiences with wonderful actresses & a director. That was me having the full EbertFest experience.

PostScript: Two further moments with "Natural Selection" Director Robbie Pickering

1. Robbie and Rachel Harris did not leave the festival after their film showing day, as I think a lot do, but stayed for much of the festival. I would see them kicking around the theater every day. On Thursday night after the showing of Richard Linklater's "Orson Welles and Me", I saw Robbie run down to the 2nd row in the VIP section to get a fanboy picture of Linklater onstage at his Q&A. Just like I do! That was fascinating, to see one director as a fan of another. So, of course I took a picture of Robbie Pickering taking a picture of Richard Linklater. Here it is:

2. I took several pics of Pickering and Harris onstage in the Natural Selection Q&A. As I was editing the sets, I saw this one with Pickering staring right at me as if to say "Dude, you're killing me with that camera!" As I probably was.

You can see my EbertFest photo galleries at

Friday, April 29, 2011

EbertFest 2011: Metropolis!

Great films are the heart of EbertFest. I've seen three so far, so let's discuss the first.

1. Metropolis (1927 - clip at the end)

This is my first silent film ever, at 51 years of age. Wow. What an experience. I had the unbelievable privilege of seeing the reconstructed and restored two-and-a-half-hour version. A beautiful print, and a wonderful experience.

You can find a description of the plot online that are better than my ability to describe it. Let me simplify it to this briefly:

Joh Fredersen (the mind) runs the teeming futuristic - staggeringly futuristic for 1927 - above ground Metropolis. His son Freder, beset by a vision of a beautiful woman, sets off into the Worker's City undergound to find his "brothers", the workers. The question is whether the worker drones, represented chiefly by the mechanic Grot (the hands) at the Heart Machine, will rise up under the quasi-religious figure Maria and overthrow the privileged in the Metropolis above. Make sense? Try figuring all of that out without dialogue for the most part.

Note: The fact that the movie has a plot has apparently not been apparent for many of the years since it's release. My new friend Peter, who I met at the Virginia theater in the hour before the showing, tells me that he has seen the film many times over the last 30 years in Germany - but always much shorter and chopped up versions. He frankly thought it was an expressionistic film, and was surprised Wednesday night at the full version that it did in fact have a recognizable plot. It totally changed how he looked at the film.

There are periodic cue cards and "interstitles" to guide you along with the very physically dramatic silent film acting style. Big movements. Physical risks. Arched eyebrows. And such. What I noticed most about the silent film was the silence. I could hear myself thinking throughout, without dialogue coming at me. I Tweeted that I could "hear myself imagining".

To cut to chase: the tagline at the ending of the film is this:

"The mediator between the Mind and the Hands is the Heart!"

To translate that into plot: the Mediator (Freder) between the Mind (Joh Fredersen, the leader of the Metropolis) and the Hands (Grot, the representative of the Workers) is the Heart (Freder/Maria). There, that makes sense now.

To translate it into my understanding of my first silent film:

The mediator between the silent Film on the screen and my film-going Heart was the Score by the brilliant live Alloy Orchestra.

3 guys in the pit. One guy on keyboard. Two guys on percussion. Playing and banging continuously for 2.5 hours. Wow. Brilliant. They really added to the emotional experience of the film. I would go through phases of not being aware of them being live. But, then I would see the mallets striking the metal and be thrilled again that this energetic and moving score was being played live. They set the mood. Brooding, scary, kinetic, hopeful. The brought it all home in a way that was more than just song clips juxtaposed to set a mood in a typical movie. It was a wall of sound throughout. I will hear those drums in my head for days.
 Kudos to the Alloy Orchestra - the Heart of this viewing of Metropolis!

The best part! I had a moment Thursday morning to share this experience with our host himself, Roger Ebert in a brief but meaningful chat. I told him that I enjoyed my first ever silent film. That I "could hear myself imagining". Roger wrote me two notes on his notepad during our chat. "Silent movies bring on a reverie" and "They are in the head". Yes. Absolutely. What an experience it was - both the movie and the chat with Roger. I'm having the full EbertFest experience!

And now, a clip of Metropolis!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Immersed at EbertFest 2011

I had a wonderful time last year at EbertFest 2010 and, though a long and traumatic year has passed in between, arriving this year is like stepping right back into those moments. I'm back. And, I'm taking the opportunity to immerse myself in film culture for a week at EbertFest 2011. what a week it will be!

I have 4 goals for the week:

1. Spend a moment with Roger Ebert.

It is EbertFest, after all. His week. His movie choices.

Roger Ebert has become my friend, in the last two years. I was going to say my virtual friend. My internet friend. But, Roger is very gracious at extending himself to everyone who will engage in civil dialogue with him and so I will just say "my friend". I'm just a guy, often with an opinion to share on his blog, and he has reached out and befriended me. And he's become my social media role model as I have engaged on Roger Ebert's Journal and on Twitter. He's made me feel part of the community that he's built.

I had that moment Thursday morning at the Ebert Club breakfast. Roger visited with us. Had us each introduce ourselves. And eventually patted the seat next to me for me to sit down with him. I got to say to him "I appreciate you." I got to have a brief but meaningful chat about my first experience on Wednesday night of seeing a silent film. 5 minutes, with Roger "chatting" with me on his notepad. A moment. An eternity of time.

2. Immerse myself in film.

I say "film", not movies. I see movies every week of my life. EbertFest is a chance to see quality films and to interact with their actors, directors, and critics. These are films that I would not ordinarily see in a year's time and I am better for having seen them.

I am not of the film culture, as many of the attendees here are. This is either their business or their passion. Not only the professionals in the ranks of the invited actors and directors. Not only the film company professionals and the University media folks. But the bloggers / critics who eloquently their passion for the art of film.

I'm just a guy, with a day job as a quality engineer in a factory. I watch movies. I have since I was a child who walked a long walk downtown on a weekend to watch "Jeremiah Johnson". Since my first job as a teen which was as a cinema usher who got to pause as he walked the theater and watch "A Star is Born" scene by scene many times over the course of it's run. I'm just a guy. Here to watch films.

3. Be human.

Last year I was overwhelmed and star struck at Ebertfest. Last year I met people. This year I know people, having talked with many over the course of the year online. I had a delightful conversation with my friend Omer Mozzafar - one of Roger's Far-Flung Correspondents - this morning at the Ebert Club Meet-n-Greet. Omer is the most resonable and learned voice on Twitter and the Journal. Omer's advice to me this morning - which I cherish - was that the most important thing on a venue like Twitter is to come across as human.

I want to be human at this event. Not just immersed, but engaged. Interested in the sea of my fellow film goers. I am delighted at the conversations that I am having at the Virginia Theater and the Illini Union. A discussion in line outside with Gary, who has come for all but two years of EbertFest. With Maggie, who sat down on the aisle behind me and eyed me warily to size me up for how tall I would sit in my seat! With Peter, my new German film and a Champaign townie who was also a festival regular and who shared the experience of the German silent film "Metropolis" with me. With Brett, my fellow Ebert Club'er, who shared the moment of wonder with me as the room filled up this morning with film luminaries. With my friend Ali Arikan, who hailed me in the hallway of the Union dripping wet from his morning run! And with my good friend Tom Dark, who affectionately calls me "Ran" on line and with who I had a deep conversation this morning on film and science and on how real the people on line that we spar with are.

Me, with my friends Omer and Gerardo:

4. Survive

I'm down in my back this week. In extraordinary pain, for me. It will take a good measure of will and strategy to survive the grueling week that is a film festival. I will intentionally miss 3 of the 13 films strategically, and do my absolute best to make the rest. I missed two today to lie on a heating pad with hopes of making the best of tonight's feature and then some blogging.

Here's my friend Tom Dark sharing an excercise with me at breakfast that might help. Grab your ankles and roll around in a ball like we did when we were kids. Thanks Tom! I tried it today.

I'll be back later to share my thoughts on the extraordinary films that I am seeing at the out-of-body experience that is EbertFest. Tonight, save the aisle seat for me.