Smile Politely

Ebertfest 2013: Show me character

The annual magic that Ebertfest brings to Champaign-Urbana is back. The Virginia Theatre has received a makeover and its character is on full display now more than ever. Wow. Check out Sean O’Connor’s photo gallery below.

But the nostalgia I wrote about last year will be mixed with melancholy as we continue to mourn the loss of Roger Ebert, a man of character. Ebert’s passing puts a new spin on this festival, and the films themselves will inevitably seem more essential and palpable, at least for myself, as I reflect on Ebert’s final film choices.

Last year the focus seemed to be on strong characters and I would say that this year sticks to that formula, presenting conflicted, challenged, or challening people who are trying to find their place and their own form of peace in the world. There are some really amazing films here that I know I would have overlooked had they not made it to town (The Spectacular Now, Escape From Tomorrow, and Oslo, August 31st) and a few that I hoped would make it here one day (Blancanieves, Kumaré, and In the Family).

I’ve highlighted three five standouts below (Julia, Blancanieves, Kumaré, Bernie, and Oslo, August 31st) that are my picks for the year, even though you should see them all if you get the chance. Mathew Green previewed Days of Heaven yesterday. Tracy Nectoux has made her pick below with In The Family (look for her full preview today at 1:00 p.m.). Seth Fein has chosen the Disney vacation horror-fantasy Escape From Tomorrow. Also, look for a full preview of Kumaré from Thom Schnarre on Friday afternoon.

All the films are sold out, but many are worth a wait to try to get in. Whatever you choose, I say wait and do anything you have to do to see Julia and Tilda’s Swinton’s concurrent return to The Virginia Theatre stage. 

And don’t overlook the panel discussions, another wonderful part of this festival.

We’ll see you at the movies.

[gallery virginia_theater_renovations]

Wednesday, April 17,

7:00 p.m. Days of Heaven (with special guest Haskell Wexler, Cinematographer,DP)

                 I Remember (with special guests Grace Wang Writer, Director; June Kim, Director of Photography; and Lily Huang, Actor)

I hope that you’ve already read Matthew Green’s preview of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven by this point. Fans of Malick’s later work, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and the upcoming To the Wonder (coming in May to the Art Theater Co-op) get an introduction to his visual meditations of the silver screen.

Thursday, April 18
1:00 p.m.  Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (with special guest Paul Cox, Director)
                  To Music (with special guests Sophie Kohn, Co-Director; Feike Santbergen, Co-Director)
4:00 p.m.  In the Family (with special guests Patrick Wang, Director and Actor;
Trevor St John, Actor)
Joey Williams lost his first family very young. His parents died when he was a child. And he again lost his family in his teens, when his foster parents also died. And now, Joey’s lost a third family. His partner Cody is killed in an accident, and Chip, the son that he’s raised with Cody for five years, is taken away.
Patrick Wang, the film’s writer, director, and lead actor is exquisite. Indeed, all of the acting in this film views like a documentary. In the Family is a lengthy film (almost three hours long). It takes its time to tell the story, and to illustrate the story. It gives us time to get to know these characters, get involved with them. Become invested. It’s calm; it’s still; it’s quiet. It’s also one of the most compelling, moving, kind films I’ve seen this past year. (Tracy Nectoux)
9:00 p.m.  Bernie (with special guests Jack Black and director Richard Linklater)
I enjoyed Tenacious D when I was in college but, over the years, I’ve gotten tired of the usual Jack Black schtick that traverses music and movies. Fortunately, Richard Linklater has exercised Black’s potential and cast him again (see School of Rock also) here with favorable results. This is a more challenging film and role for Black, which he meets with sincerity and verve. Bernie is a steadfast, small-town people-pleaser based on a real-life mortician accused of murder. Linklater mixes dark comedy and documentary-style filmmaking to help make this a stand-out.
This film also marks a change in my view on Matthew McConaughey, who is an excellent addition here during his string of more intriguing roles (see Killer Joe and Magic Mike also). Shirley McClaine is great and evil. This is a strong character piece that doesn’t forget about plot and paces itself well. It is not your typical “based on real events” film and it will most likely leave you feeling conflicted about Bernie.
Friday, April 19
1:00 p.m.   Oslo, August 31st (with special guest Joachim Trier, Director)
It’s a day in the life of Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), a rehabilitating drug addict caught between suicidal thoughts and trying to get his life on track. The film, based on the 1931 French novel Le feu follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, is a mix of melancholy and hope, as Anders battles to find out if the happiness he sees around him in others is a possibility for his future self. Anders’ friend, Thomas (played by Hans Olav Brenner), assures him that he has plenty to live for: friends, family, and his intellect. But he also tells him that “Proust is Proust,” and Anders seems to be plagued by his involunatary memory of a troubled past.  

It’s a difficult film that delves deepy into the character of Anders despite the fact that it takes place in one day. Lie captures the complexity of the character with subtlety and seems to be another actor that has found his home with a skilled director (Lie and Director Joachim Trier worked together on 2006’s Reprise). Does Anders have enough to keep going? Does he really have all of the things to be thankful for that Thomas suggests, or are they merely misinterpretations of an obstinate past?

4:00 p.m.   The Ballad of Narayama (with special guest David Bordwell, film historian)

8:30 p.m.   Julia (with special guest Tilda Swinton, Actor)

In Julia, Tilda Swinton plays a temperamental, jobless alcoholic who “sells things to people that they didn’t know they wanted.” She makes the classic empty promises of an alcoholic, but is conflicted by her decisions, even in the moment. Swinton is always flawless and her portrayal of the unstable and desperate Julia is no exception. This role is a stark contrast to her more recent roles as the detached mother in 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (which you should definitely see if you haven’t done so already) and the militant, heartless, and nameless character “Social Services” in last year’s Moonrise Kingdom. Instead, Julia is eccentric and emotionally charged and, even though she is “not really down with the good neighbor shit,” she finds a way to get herself involved in her neighbor’s precarious business.

Julia winds up in a kidnap plot to help out neighbor, Elena, an estranged mother who is on the verge of flying over the cuckoo’s nest. But Julia finds herself going rogue to satisfy her own needs by trying to extort money from the boy’s wealthy grandfather. On the surface, it appears to be a purely selfish motivation, but character and plot form a solid bond here, traversing unexpected turns through misfortune, feats of emotional strength (sorry, not the Seinfeld kind), and a pure will to carry on. The film’s evolution is surprising and the character becomes quite complex by the time it winds into its dénouement. It’s a remarkable film with great performances and fantastic direction.

Saturday, April 20  

11:00 a.m.   Blancanieves (with special guest Pablo Berger, Director)

The first fifteen minutes of Blancanieves are slow-burning suspense, showcasing the devilish tango bullfight of the great bullfighter Antonio. The art of bullfighting is a brutal spectacle, which some of the audience embraces and others fear. Mother-to-be, Carmen, Antonio’s wife, feels the hurt for her battered husband deep in her womb. Although Carmen goes into early labor, she is called “lucky” because of her marriage to a great man. But she is not lucky after all, and with the loss of her life, her daughter is cast under a curse from the unforgiving eyes of the bull and her widower father.

Blancanieves is a take on the classic Snow White story, set in Spain with tenderhearted bullfighting dwarves, an evil, self-absorbed step-mother (Encarna) who you’ll love to hate, and a pet rooster that holds up his own as an empathetic character. It’s a silent black and white film about redemption, perseverance, and forgiveness that Spain chose as their entry into this year’s Oscars. Seeing it is evidence that they made the right choice. It’s a beautifully shot film full of contrast in its light and shadows and its good versus evil battles.

2:00 p.m.   Kumaré (with special guests Vikram Gandhi, Director and Stephen Feder, Producer)

Kumaré is a documentary by Vikram Gandhi that approaches religion as an experiment. Gandhi poses as the guru Kumaré, a façade that he has created to present the ideal version of himself. While it may seem cruel to misrepresent oneself to others, I assure you that this is no Borat, and the takeaway isn’t a laugh at the expense of others. Kumare serves as a mirror to his new followers, bringing the experience of the same peace in his made-up religious wisdom that they might find through more “authentic” means. It’s an exposé on lies versus truth and the perception of self versus the ideal self. It’s an unexpected and inspiring film that will surely move you and leave you holding your breath during the big reveal.

5:00 p.m.  Escape from Tomorrow (with special guests Randy Moore, Director;
Soojin Chung, Editor; and Roy Abramsohn, Actor)

I pretty rarely, if ever, write about films, and this is no exception. Part of my problem is that I simply don’t know much about this particular film except this: it was shot at Disney World and Disney Land without the massive conglomerate’s knowledge or permission. Its premise is somewhat based upon the idea that a man spends a day at Disney with his family and slowly loses his shit. It is filled with hallucinations and disturbing visions, most of which go beyond the standard hallucinations and disturbing visions you’d see at Disney on any given day.

That sounds like enough for me to be very very excited, and to consider taking some edibles before the show. (SF)

9:00 p.m.  The Spectacular Now (with special guests James Ponsoldt, Director and
Shailene Woodley, Actor)

Sunday, April 21 

12 noon  Not Yet Begun to Fight (with special guests Sabrina Lee, Producer/ Co-Director; Shasta Grenier, Co-Director/Editor; and Elliott Miller & Erik Goodge, Subjects

marquee photo by Jeremiah Stanley

all other photos by Sean O’Connor

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