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