The Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival ended a week ago, and I am still struggling to report on it, with four films on Saturday and one on Sunday to write about. I have been busy trying to earn a living so I haven't had the time I had hoped to have to give indepth analyses of the rest of the movies at Ebertfest. I have other things to write about and to do, so I am just going to give brief summaries of my reactions to the rest of the movies.
Millions was the free family movie shown at noon on Saturday. In years past, I have skipped the children's movie, but experience has taught me that if you don't see the first movie of the day in Ebertfest, you lose any chance for the best seats for the rest of the day as people have various ways to save their seats.
Ebert introduced the movie by noting that in 1990, he hosted a Showbiz forum on Compuserv. There were about 40 participants in the core group, one of the most engaging of whom was Frank Boyce. Many years later, Ebert started noticing films written by Francis Cottrell Boyce and discovered it was the same man, now one of England's most respected movie writers.
Ebert claimed to be at least part of the inspiration for the movie. In an interview of Martin Scorsese, who said he had been reading the lives of the saints, Ebert said that if he was ever in need of an idea for a movie, he should do one on the lives of the saints. Boyle read the interview and came up with Millions, which is about two young boys playing in their playhouse near a railroad tracks when a duffle bag containing millions of stolen pounds comes crashing through the roof.
The younger of the two boys, Damian, has been reading the lives of the saints and is very devout. He thinks the money came from heaven and wants to use it to help the poor. His brother, two or three years older, wants to invest in real estate. Eventually, the bad guys who stole the money in the first place, figure out that the boys have it and come looking for it. In an improbable ending the saints help protect the boys, and the philanthropic nature of Damian wins out over his greedy brother and parents. I thought the movie was above average and gave it four stars.
Ebert warned the audience that the next movie Claire Dolan is definitely not a family movie. My friend and nemesis, p.g., a/k/a "The Decider" had warned me beforehand that the movie is "vile." He predicted that audience members would walk out and could not understand why Ebert picked it for the festival. As usual, I disagreed with p.g. There is nudity and sex in the film, but it is not erotic, and there is not as much as one would expect in a movie about a prostitute.
The title character, is a young Irish immigrant who works as a high-priced prostitute in New York to pay off a debt to a mysterious pimp who claims to have known her since she was 12 years old. He says, "Deep inside she is a whore. She was born a whore and she will always be a whore." But the pimp is wrong about Claire. Deep inside, she is not a whore. She hates telling the lies she has to tell in order to make a living and deep inside she wants to be a mother. She becomes pregnant with a sweet young cab driver, who knows she is a prostitute, but then can't handle that fact and abandons her. Eventually, in an ambiguous ending, she leaves New York for Seattle. The last scene shows, I think, that she has given up prostitution, although p.g. believes the pimp that she will always be a whore.
One scene particularly, I found very moving. Her mother had died in New Jersey and she did not want the pimp to find out because he would pay for the burial and add it to her already monumental debt. Despite her intimate encounters with many men every day, she had no one to tell that her mother had just died. She is standing at a magazine kiosk and she finally says to a woman standing nearby, "My mother died today." The other woman just looks at her and walks away.
In introducing the movie, Ebert said that the writer and director, Lodge Kerrigan, is his hero because he is on the very short list of people who make only the movies they want to make. He said the movie shows the mystery of human personality -- people have three faces; the face they present to the world, the face they present to themselves and underneath that is the real face. Kerrigan, Ebert said, shows the third face.
Kerrigan said in the discussion afterwards that in so much of society, women are either sexualized or put in the role of mother. This film looks at what happens when those ideas collide. Kerrigan also said that we tend to categorize people. We think, when we meet someone and find out that they're vegetarian, for example, that we know everything about them -- who they voted for, etc.
Much of the film can be intepreted in different ways because Kerrigan tries to get away from dialogue to tell the story and use actions to show the story. He says that words are not reliable. This is obvious in the way that Claire talks to her johns, pumping up their egos when all she really wants is their money. I thought this movie was one of the two best in the festival and gave it five stars.
I had heard good things about Junebug, the other Ebertfest movie to which I gave five stars and I was not disappointed. The basic plot is outsider wife/husband/significant-other meets the parents has been done many times by Hollywood, but never with the authenticiy of Junebug.
In this case George takes his new wife, Madeline, back to meet his family in North Carolina. All of a sudden Madeline sees a different kind of George than the suave lover she had met an an art show. George's family is not exactly "hick" from a North Carolinian point of view, but southern middle-class is in a different universe from the Gold Coast of Chicago. Her mouth drops as she sees George rejoin his high school trio to sing, "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling," at a church potluck in perfect acappella harmony.
Madeline wants desperately to fit in and her new sister-in-law, newly out of high school and married to George's surly brother, Johnny, wants desperately for the rest of the family to like Madeline, whose Chicago mores make her stick out like a sore thumb.
Amy Adams got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Ashley, the pregnant sister-in-law. Although I don't begrudge Adams the nomination, for my money, Davitdtz's performance was just as remarkable.
The director, Phil Morrison, deserves kudos for striking just the right authentic tone for this movie. A typical Hollywood production would have emphasized the wacky, while Morrison was willing to stop at eccentric. Morrison grew up in Winston-Salem, where the movie was filmed, and shows throughout the movie that he knows the culture that he is depicting. Morrison was interviewed by Ebert after the showing and said that his mother helped a lot in producing the movie by enlisting her friends, but that he was "disappointing her every day for not taking the time to visit my relatives." That sounds so like my mother that I felt instant kinship with Morrison. Of course I would have identified with this movie anyway because I remember my first trip back to rural Illinois 35 years ago with the woman who later became my wife and the cultural shock my little hippie tart had as she struggled to pull down the hem of her miniskirt as my black-clad Amish relatives looked on disapprovingly. I highly recommend the movie.
The less said about Bad Santa, the better. I can't imagine why Ebert thought the film was noteworthy, and I didn't hang around after the showing to hear his explanation. The movie didn't start until 11:00 p.m., so it was past 12:30 a.m., when it was finally over and I was already disgusted with myself for not walking out.
Billy Bob Thornton plays an alcoholic crook who is a shopping mall Santa, who cases and then robs the stores in the mall. What was shown was the director, Terry Zwigoff's personal cut, which supposedly was even more gross than the movie and DVD versions. If watching a Santa pee in his pants, throw up behind the Santa house and cuss out the children who come to see him is your kind of humor, then you would enjoy this movie. If you like this movie, then you probably think Animal House was cheated out of the Best Picture Oscar.
Ebert had mentioned before the movie that the rumor had been that Thornton was actually drunk when making the movie, although Thornton denied the rumor. Maybe the idea was that a noteworthy frontier in film making had been crossed by having an actor actually be drunk, but I have no idea why anyone would want to pay to see that. The first thing actors learn is how to play a drunk and whether Thornton was actually drunk or simulating the state of drunkenness does nothing to make this piece of excrement smell any better. I gave the movie one star, which is probably overly-generous.
The last movie of the festival was shown at Sunday noon and as traditional, was a musical, this year, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a film made in South Africa in the Xhosa language (with English subtitles, of course.) I am not a big fan of opera, nor of musicals for that matter, but Bizet's Carmen is very listenable and this was a superb production.
The director is Mark Dornford-May, an English director who went to South Africa 10 years ago to put on theater productions in Capetown slums. His second production was Carmen and that led to the movie. Although Bizet set the opera in a gypsy section of Saville, it translates very well to the South African setting. The movie opens with a tight frame on the face of Carmen, played by Pauline Malefane, while a narrator reads a description of the woman written by Bizet 150 years ago. It is eerie the way the ancient words perfectly describe the face of Malefane. In fact, she said, after the movie, that she was frightened when she first saw that scene.
The Xhosa language is very beautiful and, with its clicks and lip smacks, adds a wonderful counterpoint to the music. The movie does a wonderful job of depicting the life in the "townships," as the black slums are called, as colorful and vital, not at all the image of the cadaverous African children one sees in the charitable solicitations for African relief. I like it that Dornford-May's charity was to bring theater to the townships, not that they may not also need grains, but there are enough organizations already doing that. They also need food for their souls.
I highly recommend this movie and would have given it five stars if I liked opera better. As it is, I gave it four.
I still trust Ebert's movie judgment, although I thought he showed more clinkers than usual this year. Next year, I plan to get festival passes as soon as they go on sale to make sure I get mine before they sell out. This year, the passes went on sale in December and were sold out in January, although the films weren't even announced until two months later. I'm not a professional reviewer and I hope I never am because the professional reviewers get jaded; criticizing movies becomes a job that isn't much fun and they don't care how they experience the movie, they just want to fast forward through it and get the review done. Going to Ebertfest is still fun for me. When it's no longer fun, I'll stop going and do something more interesting.