Monday, May 30, 2011

(My First) Artistic Consumption Log: May 23, 2011-May 29, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I've finally decided to adopt the viewing-log approach espoused by the likes of Karina Longworth, Kevin Lee, Robert Humanick and other friends/colleagues. But, of course, I'm not content to just straight-up copy what everyone else is my own twist on this by now well-worn format is: I'm not only including films I see, but also music I listen to, and sometimes even books I read and/or performances I attend.

I wish I had all the time in the world to write about everything that I consume...but you know, having a day job sometimes has its drawbacks. With this format, you all get a snapshot of just about everything I've been watching/listening/reading in a given week; even better, I denote highly recommended work with a ★ next to it. Maybe I'll even add critical commentary to some of them, time permitting.


Gaily, Gaily (1969, Norman Jewison), screening at Walter Reade Theater [Those who saw Jewison's Q&A after the Ebertfest screening of Only You will remember him mentioning this rarely screened film in the context of him recounting how he met Roger Ebert in the first place. I hadn't heard of this film before he mentioned it that night; now that I have seen it—in a beautiful 35mm print as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's Norman Jewison retrospective—I think this idiosyncratic mix of coming-of-age drama and surreal farce deserves to be better known than it is.]

The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick), screening at Landmark Sunshine Cinema [My preliminary thoughts on Malick's new one are here.]

Black God, White Devil (1964, Glauber Rocha), screening at Anthology Film Archives

Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr), screening at Anthology Film Archives [This was my first time seeing this art-movie monument, and what an imposing structure it is!]

A bunch of short films presented as part of the now concluded Migrating Forms film festival at Anthology Film Archives, including:
A Movie (2010, Jennifer Proctor) [Believe it or not, this is a modern updating of Bruce Conner's famous 1958 short by the same name. It's actually a fairly interesting, worthy update.]
Coming Attractions (2010, Peter Tscherkassky)
Despair (2009, Stephen Sutcliffe)
Misty Suite (2009, James Richards)
These Hammers Don't Hurt Us (2010, Michael Robinson) [That link brings you to the film itself, available free online on Vimeo.]
Brune Renault (2009, Neil Beloufa)
Rosalinda (2011, Matías Piñeiro)
Cry When It Happens (2010, Laida Lertxundi)

Antonio das Mortes (1969, Glauber Rocha), screening at Anthology Film Archives


+/- (1997, Ryoji Ikeda)

0°C (1998, Ryoji Ikeda)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major "Romantic" (1970, Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan) [my umpteenth time listening to, I think, one of the great recordings of this work, superior in some ways to Karl Böhm's more widely celebrated 1973 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic]

Friday, May 27, 2011

I've Been Writing!

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This week I added two more published pieces of writing to my portfolio. Both of them took up a lot of my time this past week, thus the nonexistent posting on this blog this week until today.

The first one is my latest contribution to The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, in which I wrote up a summary of Film Forum's Evening With Claire Bloom event on Tuesday night, in which the legendary British stage and screen actress—she of, among many other films, Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952); Robert Wise's original 1963 The Haunting; and Charly (1968), in which she played opposite Cliff Robertson in an Oscar-winning performance— came around to the New York art-house theater and talked about her life and work. Her anecdotes and insights made for an entertaining evening of conversation.

The second one is my first attempt at an art review. The art work in question is the transfinite, a terrific new art installation from Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. It's a difficult work to describe, though I gave it a try in my review; really, though, it's more a work to be experienced viscerally and intellectually. Ikeda's multimedia monolith is standing at the Park Avenue Armory now until June 11 (see here for more information), so if you're in New York and have the time to see it—well, it's definitely something to see!

With the help of my trusty iPhone 4, I captured some footage and stitched them together into this video, to give you all a taste. It's no substitute for actually standing in its presence, but for now, it'll do:


And oh hey, it's Memorial Day weekend! And I actually have three days off—today, tomorrow and Sunday—because of it! (As usual, though, I don't have the actual holiday off. Oh journalism...)

Normally, I would say, in a situation like this, that I'd be gearing myself for more movie discoveries this long weekend. But then I saw a midnight screening of Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life last night...and...oh boy! I'm going to be mulling over that experience for a while! Short version of my rough initial impressions: It's good. Really good. Some of is positively great in Malick's own distinctive ways. I'm still deciding whether I think it quite adds up to the sum of its masterful parts, so I think I'll need a second viewing to sort out my amorphous thoughts on the film before committing any of them to paper.

I do know this, though: Today, when I opened the window of my bedroom to let the breeze in, I suddenly felt an urge to make like a Malick character and wave my hand in the air as if I was touching blades of grass. I'm also looking at leaves on a tree right outside my window and all I can think about are images I took in from The Tree of Life. Malick's film may already be having more of an impact on me than I realized after walking out of Landmark Sunshine Cinema at about 2:20 a.m. this morning.

More to come, of course. In the meantime, enjoy the (hopefully long) Memorial Day weekend, my friends!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

An Image of...What Else? Rapture!

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Apparently, one man with a history of getting these kinds of dates wrong predicts the Rapture will happen today, and everyone gets into a tizzy either believing in the imminent end of the world, or joking about how stupid the believers are.

For me, the only real value of all of this Rapture chatter is that it gives me an opportunity to post this screen capture:

That's David Duchovny as Fox Mulder in the (criminally underrated) fourth-season X-Files episode "The Field Where I Died" (an episode that has something to do with the Rapture, but isn't its main focus). Doesn't he look oh so, well, enraptured by extreme possibilities? If the pitch-black background and the skyward direction of Duchovny's teary eyes don't inspire thoughts of religious contemplation on the day that the true believers supposedly go to Heaven, then I don't know what else will!

Oh, and no, I haven't seen Michael Tolkin's 1991 film The Rapture, which also features Duchovny. Though I have to admit, my interest in seeing that has shot through the roof with all this silly Rapture talk in recent days. Remind me of how this became a major news story again?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Rest of Ebertfest, Part I

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Here is some of the rest of my foreshortened Ebertfest recap—basically a bunch of capsules with a few odds & ends to finish it off.


Umberto D. What's left to say about Vittorio De Sica's late-neorealist 1952 masterpiece that hasn't already been said? Only that the key word to understanding the film's everlasting power is "dignity," and that while newer filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt, Lance Hammer, Lee Daniels and Courtney Hunt prefer, to varying degrees, to stage undignified horror shows out of poverty, De Sica humanely focuses on the title character's quest to remain dignified even as he finds himself in increasingly dire living conditions. The result isn't exactly uplifting—Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) does eventually lose his home by the end and contemplates suicide with his dog in tow. And yet, with that emphasis on a man trying to hold onto his personal dignity, the film is somehow life-affirming in its own way.

My Dog Tulip. Here's another film featuring a dog as a human's closest companion. The human in this case is writer J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who has gone through a lifetime of disappointments with female companions and decides to turn his affections to the titular German shepherd he adopts. Even when Tulip turns out to be a handful, though, Ackerley recounts his experiences with a nostalgic wistfulness in his omnipresent voiceover narration. Meanwhile, husband-and-wife directing team Paul & Sandra Fierlinger illustrate Ackerley's tales with lustrous watercolor animation that actually does suggest paintings come to life. My Dog Tulip—based on Ackerley's own memoir—is especially admirable, in the midst of all these Disney nature documentaries that shamelessly anthropomorphize the animals they present onscreen, for its general refusal to assign Tulip human characteristics to explain her behavior. Ackerley is too thoughtful to fall into such a trap; his voiceover narration occasionally detours into ruminations on the nature of human attraction to dogs and other such broader topics. Tulip, in Ackerley's memoir and in this film adaptation, remains an eating, pissing and shitting animal to the very end—and he loves her more than he's ever really loved anyone else. That's a funny thing, when you think hard about it.

Tiny Furniture. No dogs in this movie, but this does feature its writer/director/lead actress Lena Dunham telling seemingly everyone around her that she's in a "post-graduate delirium"—but doing it in a way that makes us—or maybe it's just me, judging by the very vocal response from this film's detractors that I've encountered on Twitter—wonder whether she's merely using that as an excuse to indulge in self-pity, aimlessness, etc. It's that kind of willingness to lay bare her own faults that suggests to me that mere "narcissism"—the common knock against the film—is far from Dunham's mind. I suppose one person's self-examination equals another's narcissism—but if self-examination equals "narcissism," then what of Federico Fellini's ? Dunham's film isn't that one's equal, obviously...but frankly, I find I can relate to Dunham's personal issues more than I can Fellini's, who gets so tied up in his own private obsessions that he threatens to push the audience away.

Anyway, this was my second time seeing Tiny Furniture, and for the most part, my enthusiasm for it remains undimmed, especially seeing it at the Virginia Theatre's large screen. (Who knew Jody Lee Lipes's impeccably framed widescreen compositions could look so gorgeous?) For me, its depiction of a young adult who, after graduating from college, is struggling to find her way, remains poignant—doubly so in the case of main character Aura, who has all this privilege at her disposal and yet has no idea what to do with it, especially on the heels of a fairly useless film-studies degree. But who says this is merely an issue of privilege (examined or not)? Surely this is a crisis most of us have faced at one time or another in our own lives. Hell, I may still be in my own post-graduate delirium...but I'd like to think I'm doing a better job combating it than Aura is.


45365. Actually, I skipped Bill & Turner Ross's documentary in favor of writing my never-to-be-published Ebertfest dispatch for The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog...but I had seen it previously in preparation for an interview with the two brothers that actually did get published. So I'll let that interview and this extra commentary stand for a review here. Great movie.

Me and Orson Welles. I did come back to the Virginia Theatre for Richard Linklater's 2008 drama, which I had not seen before Ebertfest. I had heard a lot about the film, though, particularly about Christian McKay's performance as Orson Welles...and folks, when I first heard Welles's familiar, beautifully confident baritone coming out of McKay's mouth, I was immediately stunned into submission at just how uncannily he is able to channel this larger-than-life character—or, more accurately, someone who wasn't afraid to act larger than life, to ruthless extremes.

The rest of the film isn't too bad, either. Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Me and Orson Welles looks at this great artist through the eyes of a brashly confident (and fictional, I assume) up-and-comer named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), who randomly catches Welles's eye and is immediately hired to play a small role in a new production of Julius Caesar with his Mercury Theatre players, including Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin). Richard has dreams of theatrical stardom himself, and he sees this as a road to his big break. Predictably, it doesn't work out that way; Welles's ego-driven manipulations turns out to be more than he can handle. But even as this coming-of-age drama hits its familiar marks, Linklater offers us the pleasures of a lovingly detailed depiction of life in the theater: the hard work that goes into putting on a production and the joys that lie at the end of it all. You could call it an American equivalent of Mike Leigh's equally loving Topsy-Turvy (1999). And seeing some of the reenactments of the production make me think I must have missed out on one hell of a production. As Robert Schumann once said about Frédéric Chopin, "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!"

Only You. Yes, this is Norman Jewison's 1994 romantic comedy with Marisa Tomei in full cutey-pie mode and a disarmingly young Robert Downey, Jr. Who the hell remembers this movie? Apparently, as Chaz Ebert said in her introduction to the film, she and Roger wanted to program a good love story in the festival, and so they decided on this one, an out-of-left-field choice that reminded me that Ebertfest used to be called "Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival." It is what it is: a sunny, fluffy throwback to 1950s Hollywood entertainments of the Roman Holiday vein, with charming leads, witty dialogue, quirky supporting characters (Bonnie Hunt does most of the scene-stealing honors here), beautiful Italy locations (shot like picture postcards by the great Sven Nykvist) and a complete lack of cynicism or condescension. As such, it's diverting...and Downey once again proves that he can do just about anything, including imbuing fresh, jittery life into formulaic rom-com shenanigans with his own distinctive vocal cadences. Does anyone else, though, find the lengths Downey goes to win Tomei over to be a bit, um, problematic—creepy, even?

More Ebertfest summarizing to come...soon...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Theaters Now: Louder than a Bomb

NEW YORK—The closing film of this year's Ebertfest, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel's documentary Louder than a Bomb, is now getting a theatrical release here in New York at IFC Center. To my mind, the film misses greatness by sticking so closely to its conventional sports-movie structure that it generally crowds out any number of deeper topics that the broader subject matter—inner-city youths finding a powerful means of expression through slam poetry, cast against the backdrop of the largest slam-poetry competition in the U.S., held right in Chicago—suggests. Thankfully, the film is chock full of superb slam-poetry performances, and even when Jacobs and Siskel (the latter of whom is the nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel) curtail some of those performances to move on to their next plot point or interview, the brilliance of even the foreshortened performances are enough to carry the film along. If nothing else, Louder than a Bomb induces in a viewer the excitement of seeing real young budding artists expressing themselves with abandon; they really are something to see.

How electric is the slam poetry in the film? This might give you an idea:

A few of the students featured in the film performed their poetry after a Q&A session, so I figured it'd be worth capturing on video. Rest assured, though, there is plenty more to witness and stand in awe of in Louder than a Bomb. (See here for IFC Center screening info.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Housekeeping, Or "Where the Hell is My Last Blog Post???"

NEW YORK—Normally, I would apologize after an absence of more than a week from this blog...but it only looks like I haven't posted since Mother's Day last week. In fact, those who faithfully read My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second may know that I actually did post something on Thursday morning: my third entry in the "epic, multi-part Ebertfest recap" series I've been running. But then, Blogger had that massive outage on May 13 that laid the service low for, like, a full day. And then when service was finally restored on Friday, I discover, to my supreme irritation, that that last post—which took me a few days to write—was gone! But I didn't panic yet; someone at Blogger indicated on its Buzz blog that tech people were in the process of restoring blog posts and comments missing after restoring the service to its Wednesday, May 11 version.

Since then, my draft for the fourth post in the Ebertfest series has been restored. But that third post that was published on Thursday? Well, it was restored...but it was restored to the incomplete draft version that it was at the beginning of Wednesday! (My official defense of Tiny Furniture, all gone!)

That's enough for me to decide that, if I don't hear from anybody at Google about this issue by the end of today—and I haven't heard jack shit from anyone in the past few days, because Google apparently doesn't believe in good help service—I think I'm going to simply abandon the "epic, multi-part" format and just sum the rest of the experience up in one final post. Frankly, I'm ready to move on from Ebertfest and start focusing on other things both here on this blog and elsewhere in life. (I already feel my career stagnating; I don't need to feel like this blog is stagnating as well.)

I'm open to anyone willing to persuade me to do otherwise, but if nothing changes at the end of the day today, I think that's pretty much my final decision.

For those who care.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

To My Mother, on Mother's Day

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—It's Mother's Day, so I'm taking a temporary break from my epic, multi-part Ebertfest recap to mark the occasion. The "holiday" especially means something in my case.

For those who have followed this blog all the way from its humble beginnings in 2006, you will all know of the fraught history between my mother and me. I'm not really inclined to go over all that again; for those who are new to My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, you can read these old posts to get you up to speed. Let me put it this way: She may not have been quite as extreme as Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua apparently was toward her first daughter, but she was often quite close to it...and it's taken me years to cast off the resentments that built up as a result of frustrations borne out of her imposing, tough-love mothering style.

Distance, though, has allowed me to come to a fuller appreciation of the genuinely loving impulses that fueled everything she did—even when those impulses led her to do things (like, say, guilt-tripping me into majoring into a field in college—accounting—in which I had no interest whatsoever) that drove me to damn near emotional breakdown at the time. And in an indirect way, she has taught me a larger lesson about love and humanity.

I'll be the first to admit that I have not always treated my own mother with the kindness she (more often than not) deserves. All that pent-up resentment has sometimes led to me treat my mother as a enemy rather than as a parent or even a human being, to the point where I would often get angry at her about things she would say or do that clearly didn't deserve my ire. (When she will try to helpfully suggest something to me in a given situation, for instance, I often find it difficult not to read commands into those suggestions, even if nothing in her manner would suggest such a thing.)

And yet, amidst it all, my mother still treats me the same way she always has. Even now, whenever I come back home to visit—as I did, briefly, this weekend—she'll still do things like prepare food for me or ask if there's anything I need for her to buy for me. In other words, she'll still act in as loving a way as she ever did. Even after all the ill treatment, deserved or not, I've given her over the years, she doesn't allow that to build up inside of her and influence the way she acts toward me.

In other words, she accepts me, flaws and all—which is more than I can say for the way I've treated her sometimes. And isn't that kind of love and acceptance, well, the essence of humanism? Nobody's perfect, obviously, and not everything one says or does will endear oneself to others...but if you still value that person's love and friendship, you'll look past those flaws. My mother has been doing that ever since I was born, and this realization humbles me into trying my best to behave in a like manner towards her.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Even if I may not always show it, I still treasure you in many ways, and I honestly sometimes dread what it'd be like to have you gone from my life.

I'll end this post with a photo:

From left to right: my brother Masao, me and my mother, in Shanghai in 2008. (If you're wondering about the expression I'm sporting on my face in this one: I'm pretending that that lion is biting my hand. Yes, I can be quite the silly boy sometimes.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

An Epic, Multi-Part Ebertfest Recap: Day One



The first screening of the 13th annual Ebertfest was scheduled for 7 p.m. (though, as I was soon to discover, none of the screenings ever actually started on time)...but, even as I made my way to Champaign's historic Virginia Theatre at around 4 p.m. to meet up with a few Twitter friends in person for the first time, I noticed a long line away going around the corner outside the theater. People were braving the rain to try to get the best seats in the house. The anticipation was in the wet, misty air!

My first day of the festival didn't begin with that evening screening, though. Instead, it began hours earlier, at around noon, when, upon Ali Arikan's invitation the night before, I decided to walk over to the Illini Union—University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's student center—and meet up with him and a bunch of others to do what anyone visiting Champaign apparently is supposed to do as a matter of course: go to a Steak 'n Shake to consume burgers and milkshakes! Which I did, in the company of, among others, three more of Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents: Michael Mirasol, representing the Philippines (even though he and his family currently live in Malaysia); Gerardo Valero, from Mexico City; and the 17-year-old wunderkind Krishna Shenoi, who comes from India but who currently lives with his family in Dubai. I was especially interested in meeting Michael, with whom I have had frequent online interactions over the past year since first hearing him speak, along with a bunch of other FFCs, at last year's Ebertfest via live-stream.

When we got to the Steak 'n Shake on Neil St., Michael was telling me about how, last year, the local media had swarmed onto that particular restaurant after Ebert had alerted people to that location on his Twitter feed. This time around, however, the coast looked clear...until we all noticed the one cameraman setting up near the entrance of the restaurant. 

Upon seeing this, Michael turned to me and his wife, Claire, and said, "Oh no, not again!" (He eventually did speak to this cameraman for an on-camera interview, though with vocal reluctance.)

As far as the lunch went...well, I wasn't totally blown away by the Western BBQ 'n Bacon Steakburger I had (though it was certainly far better than anything you'd get at McDonald's, to be sure), but the strawberry milkshake? Just look at the size of this thing!

This first day of Ebertfest would be marked by introductions to people I knew only from online interactions, in fact. Only a couple hours later, I would find myself standing in front of the Virginia Theatre, umbrella in hand, meeting with one Donald G. Carder—who heretofore had been known to me only as @theangrymick on Twitter—who was attending the festival with his wife Anne. I also met, for the first time, Moira (@PlaidGirl), Visha (@vanyc) and Greg (@litdreamer)—all of whom I would see again at various points in the next five days. (If nothing else, Ebertfest, by holding his festival in this one festival, helps foster lasting movie-connected friendships in ways that much larger festivals such as, say, South by Southwest can only dream of doing.) Along with Odie Henderson—the man the blogosphere knows best as Odienator—we all went to a nearby bar and hung out for a couple of hours before returning to the theater to try to get our seats for Ebertfest's opening night. Just before I went in, I was greeted by film critic/blogger Craig Simpson, who some of you may know as The Man from Porlock. (One of my regrets about this festival is that I didn't get as much of a chance to chat with him as I did with others. Sorry, Craig! Maybe next year?) And once I was in the theater about a half-hour before Ebertfest's first film began, I finally met in person film critic Mark Pfeiffer, who was sitting with a friend of his in what he said was his usual spot up in the balcony. (Mark turned out to be the one I relied on to offer some interesting historical context regarding past Ebertfests, I may end up sharing some of his tidbits of information later on.)

Noticeably absent from this roll call of film critics and Twitter buddies, by the way, were the estimable film critics/bloggers Jim Emerson and Marilyn Ferdinand, both of whom I was most excited to meet this year, and both of whom were unable to show up this year for various reasons. Sad face. Again, maybe next year?

And then, 7 p.m. struck. Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz came onstage about 10 minutes afterward and made some introductory remarks. Ebert himself came onstage with a white scarf; to me, he had the look of a high priest—a high priest of the cinema, at least for this event. They introduced film scholar Kristin Thompson—sans her equally distinguished husband David Bordwell, alas (laid low due to pneumonia contracted during his recent trip to the Hong Kong Film Festival)—to make some remarks of her own regarding the festival's first film. Then, the three members of the Alloy Orchestra—a group that is known for performing original scores to silent-film classics—took their places in the orchestra pit, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) began.

Naturally, we watched the recent "complete" version that premiered last year at Berlinale and which I saw during a two-week run at Film Forum. Thompson, as one would expect from a film scholar of her caliber, got into the nitty-gritty about how the extra footage that was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008 ended up there in the first place (apparently, Argentina and many other South American countries were considered a big market by the German film industry at the time, so they often sent prints of their films there). For me, the extra footage—which includes one extra scene that adds an extra level of menace to a side character that, in previous versions, didn't seem play all that important a role to the action—neither diminishes the film nor makes it a much greater work; it's just longer now, but by no means is it any more sprawling. For a work of this scale, it's astonishing just how tightly constructed it is, really—especially in its third act, appropriately dubbed "Furioso" in this complete version.

The big news with the screening of the complete Metropolis at the Virginia Theatre that night was two-fold:

1. The digital print furnished by Kino International struck me as far more superior to the print I saw at Film Forum last year. With the latter, I was always aware I was watching a digital print; the one I saw at Ebertfest struck me as sharper and far more convincingly film-like. It can't be the larger screen deceiving my eyes, it can't be!

2. This is my first time seeing the famed Alloy Orchestra perform one of their of original silent-film scores live. Oh. My. God! My memory of seeing Gottfried Huppertz's original score accompanying the digital print seen at Film Forum is admittedly fuzzy, but I don't recall it having the same starkness and vividness of sonorities as this particular score conceived by members Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller. In the film's first shot of the underground workers joylessly marching out of their jobs, all that their score called for were steady timpani thwacks—but the effect was as chillingly empty as the image surely calls for. Even more romantic moments that might have called for a more sweepingly upbeat approach—the moment the real Maria (Brigitte Helm) kisses Freder (Gustav Frohlich) after her rousing speech to the workers—still maintained an unsettling, almost doom-laden modernistic flavor to them. It was thrilling to hear this score accompany this, one of the grandest follies of the cinema, and still as amazing an achievement of the human imagination as ever...and if you missed it at Ebertfest, or last year at the TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles, you most likely won't be able to hear it! (That said, in a Q&A session after the screening, Terry and Roger said that this score was available on the Alloy Orchestra's website, but separately, not as an added soundtrack on home video. You'll have to sync the soundtrack to the film all by yourself.)

Apparently, it's rare for Ebertfest to feature two films on its opening night. But Ebert was one of the judges of the Narrative Feature Competition at South by Southwest in March, and apparently he was so smitten by Robbie Pickering's award-winning Natural Selection that, according to Chaz, he felt he had to try to get this film into his festival, without question.

I was not as big a fan of Natural Selection as Ebert and the other judges were, and I wrote so in this House Next Door dispatch. Nevertheless, when I discovered that Ebert had made this a last-minute selection in this year's Ebertfest, I figured I might as well sit through the film again to see if I could perhaps warm to it more. Let me put it this way: It wasn't an entirely unfruitful endeavor.

Perhaps the best way to look at the film is as a story of one woman's female empowerment (and it's real female empowerment, too, not the Zack Snyder/Sucker Punch male-fantasy bullshit) rather than as the facile satire of religious hypocrisy that it threatens to be in the film's choppy opening 15 minutes. Even in those opening moments, you can sense, in Linda West's behavior and facial expressions, a deep dissatisfaction with her lifestyle that she's possibly been repressing for years. Of course, even around supposed long-lost son Raymond (Matt O'Leary), Linda tries to hold onto that good-girl Christian image...and part of the fascination of Natural Selection, on a character-based level, lies in trying to determine just how much she truly buys into the goody-goody image. Is she secretly ready to cast it off, and is Raymond the one to help her finally do so? The brilliance of Rachael Harris's deservedly praised performance as Linda lies in her empathetic refusal to condescend to her character (unlike the way Pickering often condescends to the rest of her clan—though he said he intended nothing of the sort in the Q&A with him and Harris following the screening). You might find fundamentalist Christians of her ilk insufferable—and with the public prominence of groups like the Tea Party movement, it's arguably difficult for rational people not to find such behavior insufferable, on some level—but her brand of fundamentalism seems to come out of a heartfelt desire to do good—even for those (like her husband, we come to discover) who really don't deserve her charity.

I still can't say I'm crazy about Natural Selection, but I'll concede that there are elements in it worth celebrating. It sure as hell wasn't Metropolis, though...but then, what is?

And thus endeth the first day at Ebertfest.

Coming up next on this epic, multi-part Ebertfest recap: Two movies with dogs in them, another go-round with Lena Dunham's post-graduate malaise, and a raucous night of...what else? Karaoke, of course!


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

An Epic, Multi-Part Ebertfest Recap: Prelude

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Okay, the idea behind the next few posts on this blog is this: Because I didn't get to update much during my recent Ebertfest experience, and because so far none of the editors of The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog have seen it fit to publish that first dispatch I sent them on Friday—I guess news events like the Royal Wedding (really?) and the death of Osama bin Laden (all right, I concede that is a bona-fide Big Deal) will naturally trump a mere festival dispatch like mine—I will go ahead and try to recap the experience, reasonably complete and uncut, here on this blog.

This will take a few days, I let's dive right into it, shall we?


There was no doubt in my mind on Tuesday, April 26, that I would eventually get to Champaign, Ill., for Roger Ebert's Film Festival, the five-day film-appreciation extravaganza also known as Ebertfest (this is its 13th year). It just ended up taking far longer than expected.

As I was walking to a restroom after having gotten past the usual security checkpoints at LaGuardia Airport in New York, I overheard someone saying something about a bunch of flights being delayed as a result of brewing inclement weather in the Chicago area—Chicago's O'Hare International Airport being my destination for a connecting flight to Champaign. Uh-oh. My concerns were not ameliorated when I received a text-message alert via American Airlines at around 11:45 a.m. suggesting that the departure time of my scheduled 1:35 p.m. flight was now pushed back by 10 minutes. Then, at around 12:55 p.m., I got another alert saying that departure time was now 1:55 p.m.

At around 1:40 p.m. or so, all of the passengers were finally allowed to board the plane; eventually the plane started pulling out of its gate and slowly made its progress toward takeoff. And then it stopped...and proceeded to stay still. Then, an announcement: This flight was going to be delayed for 15 minutes until they got word from air-traffic controllers in Chicago that it was safe to take off. We waited for about that length of time...and then we got another announcement saying that they needed to wait another 30 minutes for said word!

Well, I said to myself after all this waiting, it sure doesn't look like I'll be making my 4 p.m. connecting flight to Champaign at this rate. And so it came to pass. The plane finally took off at around 3 p.m. and landed in Chicago at around 5:15 p.m.; when I landed in Chicago, I immediately booked a seat on a flight scheduled to leave at 6:15 p.m. Okay, fine, I thought, these things happen (though this was the first time, in my memory at least, that I had had to deal with a delayed flight). But then that connecting flight got delayed! The reason? Apparently, they were waiting for the crew to arrive from a previous flight. So this time, no weather-related delays—just a missing crew!

This was taken by Ali Arikan on his BlackBerry

A silver lining to this particular cloud arrived, though, in the form of Ali Arikan, a friend, fellow film critic/writer and one of Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents; it turned out we were on the same flight from Chicago to Champaign! Funny how things just seem to work out that way in life. So I didn't have to be lonely while waiting for the delayed flight; instead, I ended up having drinks with him and chatting before we were finally allowed to board the plane at around 7:40 p.m.

The trip from Chicago to Champaign took a mere 30 minutes once in the air, so we landed at Champaign's Willard Airport at around 8:50 p.m....but my extended-length voyage to Ebertfest wasn't quite done yet! When Willard's one baggage-claim carousel (it's a tiny airport) had gone around a couple of times, I realized that I didn't see my checked bag anywhere! When I checked with an employee there, he looked up my information on a computer and discovered that my bag was on the Chicago-to-Champaign flight after the one I was just on! Seriously??? (In talking to a couple of random people at the airport, I discovered that this kind of thing is not a rare occurrence at that airport.)

I was given the option of either waiting for that next flight to land in order to look for my bag, or to have it delivered to the place at which I was staying. All right, I figured, if it's just one more flight, and if that next flight is coming within the next hour, I can wait. So, after Ali was forced to part ways with me as he was rushing to get to a Q&A session for Ebertfest's pre-festival screening of Chris Smith's 1999 documentary American Movie (which I would have loved to have seen—given that I haven't seen it yet—if those blasted delays hadn't prevented me from being able to make it in time for the beginning of the film), I sat around until 10 p.m. or so, when the next Chicago-to-Champaign flight landed. When I stood around the baggage-claim area and looked closely for my bag, lo and behold, there it was!

My luggage having finally been procured, I took a cab and noticed the general emptiness of the Urbana streets. (Hey Fever Ray, this might have been just as fitting a venue for your haunting "Keep the Streets Empty for Me" video as...Sweden, I'm guessing?) I was warned that this was mostly a pretty dead town, and so it appeared to be. I really did feel like I was driving through a ghost town; it was eerie...and rather seductive, in its own way. (There is one lively stretch in the town, though, of which I will explain in a future post.)

Through these empty streets, I headed toward the home of my host, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign literature professor whose place I had discovered thanks to the site—kind of a variation on, except people actually get paid for offering up a room for travelers like myself. It was a nice place, and the room I had was comfortably spacious (not that that made a huge difference, in the end, considering how little time I spent at the home). But there was something even more special about this place than I had realized, something I didn't know about until a week before this trip: Apparently, the house was recently designated a historic landmark because none other than former American president Abraham Lincoln slept in one of its rooms! Read this article if you don't believe me!

Oh, and George (whose wife and daughter were away in Toronto during my stay there) also had this dog:

Thanks for your hospitality, George! It was very much appreciated! Maybe we could do this again next year?

Coming up on this epic, multi-part Ebertfest recap: The festival kicks off in grand fashion with the near-complete Metropolis with a live performance of an original score by the Alloy Orchestra. Plus...Natural Selection again? Will I warm to it more the second time than I did the first at South by Southwest in March?


Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Round-up of Tribeca Film Festival Links

CHAMPAIGN, ILL.—Sorry for the lack of posting in the past couple weeks or so on this blog. This time, though, I have two good excuses, I think: Tribeca Film Festival and Ebertfest!

For Tribeca, I contributed to Slant Magazine a few reviews of films playing at this year's edition of the Robert De Niro-founded festival. And when I say Slant Magazine this time around, I mean the actual Slant Magazine, not its side blog The House Next Door. So now I have reviews for that site with star ratings and everything! Despite its reputation as a wildly uneven and inconsistent festival in regards to quality of films shown, the bulk of the handful of films I saw at Tribeca this year were actually pretty good, or at least reasonably interesting. I'm happy that one of the films I reviewed, Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza's uneven but intriguing Grey Matter, picked up a couple of awards at the festival, one for lead actress Shami Bizimana and another for Ruhorahoza himself.

Here is a list of all the Tribeca films I reviewed for Slant:
Black Butterflies
Cairo Exit
Grey Matter
Janie Jones
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Journals of Musan

And here is a link for Slant Magazine's full Tribeca Film Festival coverage.

I wasn't able to cover more of Tribeca, however...because, at about the halfway mark, I found myself here in Champaign, Ill., for the 13th year of Roger Ebert's Film Festival, or what is more commonly known as Ebertfest!

Thirteen films hand-picked by the legendary film critic himself, screened in the span of four days at the historic Virginia Theatre in this small Illinois town (his hometown, apparently), plus a couple of panels and one epic night of karaoke—all of this contributed to taking away precious time to blog about the experience. So obviously, I'll have much more to say about Ebertfest in one or two future posts (short version: it was a lot of fun, if oddly more exhausting, in less days, than South by Southwest).

Until then, though...chew on this: