Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ebertfest: A Beautiful Day "At The Movies" in Mister Roger's Old Neighborhood

I have enjoyed reading, watching and listening to Roger Ebert as far back as I can remember. Although my family was--and I remain--exclusively a Chicago Tribune subscriber, I have always preferred Ebert's movie reviews in the Sun-Times and his opinions on TV--dating back to Sneak Previews on PBS--more than those of his Tribune counterparts, most notably Ebert's longtime TV partner, the late Gene Siskel.

But while Roger has always been a presence in my life, I'm probably not the only one who never fully appreciated how much I enjoyed what he had to say until thyroid cancer and post-surgical complications cruelly robbed him of his speaking voice.

But though Ebert's health problems as detailed in this excellent Esquire article have deprived him--and us--of the ready wit and insight he brought not only to his own shows but to numerous engaging talk show appearances and a few wonderful DVD commentaries (most notably on Citizen Kane and Casablanca), he is still saying more than ever.

I mean this both literally--in addition to the numerous weekly reviews that populate the Sun-Times and his excellent website, he prolifically blogs and tweets about politics, society's foibles, his life and much more--and figuratively, as I can think of very few public figures who have been as open, and even visible, after the type of disfigurement that Ebert has endured. But as he has joked, he was never that beautiful to begin with and more seriously has stated, "If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive."

So not only does Roger Ebert remain America's foremost movie critic, he continues to demonstrate courage and character far more extraordinary than anything found in most films he reviews. And while he would never postulate such a lofty stature, I have found that somewhat akin to Muhammad Ali, in his speech-bereft infirmity, Roger has assumed an import that seems almost mystical.

With such regard for the man, my trip down to Champaign on Saturday for Ebertfest--as the marquee above shows, it ran for five days and no, I can't explain why I never went in the past 11 years--was about more than the chance to see a pair of good, "overlooked" (per the fest's original thesis) movies, or to take in post-show panel discussions, or to see an attractive movie star (Michelle Monaghan) in person, or to enjoy the short expedition with my movie buff friend Dave or to have an opportunity to visit with longtime friends in Urbana.

As much as any of the above, going to Ebertfest was a chance to celebrate Roger himself and to share in his unbridled love of movies, particularly ones that the mainstream might not know about.

After getting into Urbana well-past midnight (because I saw this performance in Chicago), and unknowingly driving past Roger's boyhood home (which now has a plaque in front of it and about which he reminisced here) on my way to my friends' house, and in the morning stopping at one of my favorite bakeries anywhere, Dave and I caught Saturday's first movie at 11:00am: I Capture the Castle (IMDB listing; Ebert's review).

A British film about a quirky family that moves into an abandoned castle only to become impoverished, setting up the central plot about two sisters and their romantic entanglements with two wealthy American brothers whose family owns the castle, this is a movie I had never heard of prior to making plans to attend Ebertfest 2010 and probably would never have otherwise seen.

It wasn't perfect, but I would give it @@@@ (out of 5) and appreciate why Ebert championed it (he programmed all the festival films).

Disappointingly, star Bill Nighy was unable to attend the post-show discussion due to the European flight ban in the aftermath of the volcano in Iceland; as a friend relates in this blog post, another planned guest--Apocalypse Now sound designer Walter Murch--had the same difficulties earlier in the week.

Confined by the deliberateness of his computerized speech system, Ebert also did not participate in the panel, which was comprised primarily of contributors to Ebert's website. I found the discussion heavy on opinion yet short of insight, which exacerbated my dismay that Nighy couldn't make it.

Previously opting to pass on the 2pm showing of Vincent: A Life In Color--not about Van Gogh but a rather unique Chicago performer--Dave and I had lunch with my friends Jordan and Erin at a place called Farren's, where I had a good cheeseburger as we watched the beginning of the Blackhawks and White Sox games (but not what turned out to be exciting endings to both). Former Illinois governor Jim Edgar came in and sat at the table next to us. It was nice to see an ex-Gov not in jail or on trial, but I was convinced not to tell him that.

On the way back to the Virginia Theatre--which dates back to 1921 and is beautifully restored--we stopped at the Jane Addams Book Shop, a used book palace worth bookmarking.

There was a good backup getting into the 4:30pm showing of Trucker, which was preceded by Roger's wife Chaz bringing Roger onstage--to great applause--to introduce (via his computer voice) an unlisted short film called Plastic Bag, written and directed by the outstanding young director Ramin Bahrani and narrated by acclaimed German director Werner Herzog. It wasn't quite as great as the talent involved, but worthwhile nonetheless, and you can see the whole thing here on YouTube.

Following the short, Roger "spoke" about his love for Trucker (see video below) and he & Chaz welcomed to the stage writer/director James Mottern and star/executive producer Michelle Monaghan. The pair, sans the Eberts, would return after the screening for a panel discussion.

Named one the Best Movies of 2009 by Ebert (his review; IMDB listing), Trucker stars Monaghan as Diane, a pretty yet gritty over-the-road driver who is forced to care for Peter, the 11-year-old son she had abandoned a decade earlier, after his cancer-stricken father (Benjamin Bratt) no longer can. Jimmy Bennett as Peter, Nathan Fillion as Diane's platonic best friend, Bratt and Joey Lauren Adams as his new wife all give strong performances, but Monaghan, who is in virtually every scene, carries the film and easily could have been nominated for an Oscar.

I enjoyed the movie very much and thought Mottern made some nice choices to keep it from being formulaic or cloyingly sentimental, though perhaps went too far at times in making Diane intensely anti-maternal and might have provided a bit more of her backstory.

I give Trucker @@@@1/2 and note that Netflix has it available for instant streaming and it is also widely stocked at RedBox.

With Monaghan and Mottern joining two moderators, but not Ebert, for a lengthy discussion, this post-show talk was much more satisfying than the one after I Capture the Castle. I still can't say I learned all that much more about the movie or the choices made by its creators, but Monaghan came across as quite likable (she's a Midwesterner hailing from Winthrop, Iowa) and Mottern was justifiably proud about his debut directorial effort and candidly expressed disappointment that the movie did not get wider distribution.

Before making the trek back home, Dave and I met up with Jordan and Erin once again for some pizza at Jupiter's. Among other topics, most notably baseball, we talked a good bit about movies and it seems I really need to catch up on the oeuvres of British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. And from a check of his site, it seems Ebert--whom I neglected to mention above is a University of Illinois alum in addition to being an Urbana native--would fully endorse both.

So all in all a very worthwhile jaunt down I-57, and back up again, during which Dave noted that it was all a really enjoyable experience.

Roger that.

Or in other words--famously trademarked by its esteemed host, programmer and namesake--Ebertfest gets an enthusiastic "Two Thumbs Up."


Greg Boyd said...

I used to love Roger Ebert. However, he has recently lost most of my respect with his "review" of the recent film "Kick-Ass". The word review is in quotes because it wasn't really a review, and was instead an unfocused rant about the character of Hit-Girl.

If he had criticized the plot, characters, or writing it would have been fine. But he didn't. In that instant he went from a film critic to a member of the "morality police", which is just too bad.

Enjoy his festival, though. It sounds good.

Suzi said...

This was a nice tribute to Ebert, who has really created something special with his Festival. Film criticism isn't about whether you agree or disagree with the reviewer; it's about the insight the critic brings to it. Ebert has grown over the years from reviewer to critic, and if he has a bone to pick with a certain film (re: KICKASS), then he's earned the right to express that. Out of respect for his experience, we should listen.

Greg Boyd said...

See, that's my point. Ebert didn't offer any "insight" in his review of "Kick-Ass". All he did was lash out at it for having a foul mouthed 11-year-old killer. And yet he didn't object to a young Jodie Foster playing a teenage prostitute in "Taxi Driver". Can you say hypocrisy?