Saturday, April 25, 2015

Recapping Another Ebertfest Expedition, Coinciding with Record Store Day in Champaign-Urbana

Last weekend, as I have now for 5 of the past 6 years, I traveled down to Champaign-Urbana to attend Ebertfest.

Developed and long-curated by the late film critic--who was born and raised in Urbana and graduated from the University of Illinois--Roger Ebert's Film Festival runs from Wednesday through Sunday at the historic Virginia Theater in Champaign, but as has typically been my wont, I ventured down I-57 to attend movies only on Saturday.

(In recalling that last year, I went down on Wednesday to see Steve James' great documentary about Ebert--Life Itself--on opening night (as well as films on Thursday) I'm saddened to note today's passing of TIME magazine's renowned film critic, Richard Corliss, who was featured prominently in Life Itself.)

I don't know why I didn't catch on to going to Ebertfest--originally officially dubbed Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival--years earlier, but I'm glad I saw Roger himself there in 2010 and 2011, even if he had already been robbed of speech by the cancer that took his jaw and eventually his life.

Accompanied by longtime festival director Nate Kohn and a dedicated staff connected to the university, Roger's wife Chaz has done a remarkably admirable job in continuing the fest and serving as host, including in 2013 just 2 weeks after Roger's death. It is a testament to her, as well as her late husband, that not only movie lovers, but noted directors and actors, continue to make C-U an April destination.

For me, along with the chance to soak in the spirit of a man I so admired, and see movies still largely congruent with the "overlooked" conceit Roger championed, going to Ebertbest also allows for a pleasant visit with Jordan, my best friend since kindergarten, and his wife Erin.

Their hospitality not only adds to the fun of attending Ebertfest--this year abetted by seeing a couple bands featuring friends of Jordan playing for free on Record Store Day--but abets my logistics.

Without having to worry about lodging availability or costs, I comfortably drove down on Friday afternoon and headed back north after brunch on Sunday.

Although timewise I could have fit in seeing A Bronx Tale on Friday night, with Chazz Palminteri on hand as a special guest--and now know, via YouTube, that his Q&A was moderated by Richard Roeper and Leonard Maltin--I was happy to spend the evening with Jordan & Erin, watching a soccer game and then the Blackhawks. (Not only did I expect to be able to see Palminteri on YouTube, but I'd seen him in a stage-performance of A Bronx Tale as well as the movie. Most, if not all, Ebertfest Q&A's can be found on YouTube, including one from Thursday night with actor Jason Segal, who was there for The End of the Tour, a film about another late & legendary Urbananite, novelist David Foster Wallace.)

The first movie I saw on Saturday was Wild Tales, an Argentinean black comedy by director Damián Szifrón.

In Spanish with subtitles, the film is comprised of six separate vignettes, with different actors and no common thread except for a revenge theme and--per the title--visually exuberant storytelling.

Struck by the common language of film, I was reminded of Roberto Rossellini's masterful Paisan, a 1946 Italian film that I'd only watched recently. It likewise features six distinct vignettes--as opposed to more linearly episodic films like La Dolce Vita and Holy Motors--albeit about war and far from the comedy that Wild Tales is.

So even as he's no longer alive, Roger Ebert continues to be responsible for much of what I know about cinema.

I think my favorite of the "wild tales" was one starring Ricardo Darin (of the great Argentinean film, The Secret in Their Eyes) as an explosives expert who becomes enraged at bureaucratic injustices such as being towed from an unmarked tow-zone and nevertheless having no option but to pay the fine. Without giving away any specifics, I think you might be able to imagine where this narrative might lead.

Although Szifrón's fertile imagination leads to several LOL moments--and a few rather gross scenes--what makes Wild Tales really work is an underlying realism in the scenarios to which most audience members can likely relate.

The director was not listed as a special guest alongside actress Julieta Zylberberg and casting director Javier Braier, but joined the Q&A via a Skype hookup that was occasionally technically troubled but still a nice touch.

You can watch the full Wild Tales Q&A here.

And if you have Netflix, you can actually watch the next two movies that were shown at Ebertfest on Saturday.

I didn't attend the 2:00pm showing of Ida, in part because I wanted to hang out with Jordan & Erin and see Lonely Trailer perform for Record Store Day at Exile on Main Street (more on this below), but also because no special guests were cited as accompanying the Polish film that I have seen twice.

I cited Ida as the best new movie I saw in 2014, and it's one of the best I've seen in recent years, so I highly recommend it, but didn't feel I needed to spend the time or $14 watching it again at Ebertfest. There was a Q&A with critics who contribute to, which you can watch on YouTube.

Despite skipping the 2:00pm screening, I nonetheless had trouble staying awake for the 5:00 movie, The Motel Life.

This isn't a condemnation of the film, directed by Chicago area brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky, which I was able to watch--it's only 85 minutes long--Sunday night on Netflix.

Still, even while awake, I would say I more liked than loved The Motel Life, which revolves around two hardscrabble brothers, well-played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff.

The brothers, who largely live together in motels, are forced to bond together even more so in refuge after a tragedy involving Dorff's character.

I would say it's worth a watch on Netflix, and being a bit over-ambitious in my ability to take in 3 movies in a day at Ebertfest has become something of a tradition that I don't even mind.

But while Alan Polsky participated in a Q&A (available here), Stephen Dorff was a no-show despite being listed in the program, which was only explained when an audience member queried the director.

So like anything else, film festivals have their highs and lows, and this was a relatively minor low.

Plus, being brief even with the Q&A, The Motel Life enabled me to easily catch another free Record Store Day, this time featuring Bookmobile!, before Jordan and Erin accompanied me to the 9:00pm film, 99 Homes.

The movie is directed by Ramin Bahrani (Wikipedia), a terrific young director of Iranian descent who was born (and I believe raised) in North Carolina.

Roger Ebert gave all four of Bahrani's feature films that he lived to see his pinnacle 4-star rating, and in this review of 2009's Goodbye Solo, called him "the great new American director."

With Roger being a great champion of Ramin's, the two became friends; Bahrani has attended several Ebertfests--this was my first time seeing him--and got substantive screen time in Life Itself.

Although I think I would give 99 Homes @@@@1/2 (out of 5)--as with Wild Tales, and perhaps @@@@ to The Motel Life--my guess is that Ebert would bestow his very highest rating.

While taste is certainly subjective--Jordan wasn't wowed by 99 Homes--the director is one of few making socially commentative films reflective of the challenges and injustices faced by many Americans, something I've oft rued as being far too lacking.

In 99 Homes, the always terrific Michael Shannon is again here as an arrogant real estate broker who has made a fortune by flipping homes that have been foreclosed upon. As the film opens, he accompanies two Florida sheriffs in evicting a construction worker played by Andrew Garfield from the house he shares with his mom (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax, who was at Ebertfest along with Bahrani).

With its cinematic release not coming until this fall--after a brief film festival circuit--I don't think I'm giving too much away to reveal that after understandable indignation, through a creative twist Garfield's character becomes an associate of Shannon's. Essentially, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

But this is where the story begins, not where it ends, and the film is poignant not only for Garfield's struggle with what he has become--while faced with few better options--but for its depiction of people being kicked out of their homes. (In some cases, Bahrani employs real people, not professional actors, to embody the homeowners.)

I was reminded of Michael Moore's documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, where similar scenes--and even a predator similar to Shannon's character--were depicted in a non-fictional way.

Though I haven't revisited any of Bahrani's films after initially seeing them, I think I'm still most partial to the first two, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, which have a strikingly unique tonality, different than most Hollywood films.

Understandably, as Bahrani has gained acclaim, his subsequent Goodbye Solo and especially At Any Price and now 99 Homes have felt more like bigger budget--as opposed to Indie, but still relatively small--films with known stars. As such, they lack the glossless appeal of his first two movies, but as I believe Ebert would proclaim, the director is still doing things better than most.

Though not amazingly revelatory, Bahrani's Q&A was probably the best of the three I sat through on Saturday, and is also available on YouTube.

Although Ebertfest itself doesn't offer much in the way of activities beyond the movie screenings--a few catering trucks and an underwhelming book/gift shop are about it--because of Jordan & Erin, coming down for the fest is always pleasurable for me well beyond the Virginia balcony.

Although I generally tend to like variety, I somehow prefer to be a habitual creature in Champaign-Urbana, and last weekend happily visited several places I've been to numerous times before (many being favorites of my hosts as well).

These include the Esquire Lounge, Mike & Molly's, Mirabelle (a fantastic bakery), the Jane Addams Book Shop and the Courier Cafe for Sunday brunch. We also, repeatedly, drove past Roger Ebert's childhood Urbana home, which is close to where Jordan & Erin live.

Once again, Jordan gave me a driving tour through much of the University of Illinois campus, and the nearby campus town, noting the newfound--and ongoing--glut of glitzy private student residence buildings, including high rises taller than had previously existed. On Green Street, there are now mostly national retail chains, rather than the localized (and sometimes orange-and-blue clad) businesses I remembered from visits over the years. (I attended NIU, but came down to see Jordan during and since our college days.)

I didn't actually make it to a Steak 'n Shake--not such an objective as there are now suburban Chicago locations, unlike years ago--but as the chain was a favorite of Ebert's, it was nice to see a SnS food truck outside the Virginia Theatre.

And yes, Virginia, I did partake.

Fortunately, unlike at least a couple previous years, Ebertfest weekend in Champaign didn't coincide with the Champaign Marathon.

Though the race always made for more of a theoretical hindrance than a real one, it was nice not to have to worry about avoiding the marathon route on the way to the movies.

Less cumbersome, if really just mentally, was Saturday also happening to be Record Store Day, across the nation (world?) and celebrated in Champaign at Exile on Main Street (as well as presumably, Record Service, which we didn't get to).

A pretty good record store with new and used merchandise, Exile on Main Street has now relocated just off Main Street in Champaign into the old train station (as opposed to both the new and oldest train station, all in a row along the tracks).

In commemoration of Record Store Day, Exile on Main Street had local bands playing every half-hour, alternating performances in the store with those on a nearby concourse.

I have long known of Jordan's affinity for Lonely Trailer, a band that began in the '80s and includes two good friends of his named Brian.

It was fun to see them play an afternoon set, especially as their power drowned out a freight train rolling by on the tracks above.

In the evening, we were able to catch a hard-driving punk set from Bookmobile!--featuring Jordan & Erin's friend Trevor--who must have played at least 20 songs in 30 minutes. 

All in all, it all worked out rather well.

Good movies, the typically pleasant Ebertfest vibe, cherished places, satisfying food, great friends, free music.

Thumbs up all around.

I hope to be back. Roger that.

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