Roger Ebert’s Film Festival this year had a distinct international flavor, in more ways than one.
All eight of the film critic’s "farflung correspondents" — bloggers and critics whom he features on his website — attended, coming from Turkey, Toronto, Egypt, the Philippines and other places.
Ebert showed shorts from the website playingforchange.com. The videos record musicians all over the world playing the same song.
And though Icelandic volcanic ash smothered the the travel plans of four Ebertfest guests, Ebert was able to screen 13 movies that took us nearly around the world.
At the Ebertfest reception, interim Chancellor Robert Easter called film an important expression of human experience, one that takes us places we can’t reach otherwise.
This year Ebert started us out in postwar Great Britain with the psychotic "Pink Floyd, The Wall," and then took us to Sweden with "You, the Living" and its 50 or so riffs on the sad-yet-hilarious human condition.
From there we went to post-genocide Rwanda with "Munyurangabo," a revenge-turned-compassion tale, then the well-to-do sections of Los Angeles with "The New Age." After that through the jungles of Vietnam and upriver to "Cambodia with the war epic "Apocalypse Now Redux."
The next day, we journeyed to Japan with the heartfelt "Departures," a look at the elegant practice of encoffinment, to late 1920s Soviet Union in the silent "Man with a Movie Camera." Then to Schenectady, N.Y., and New York City, with Charlie Kaufman’s inventive, scary-malady "Synecdoche, New York."
Day 3 we landed back in eccentric England with "I Capture the Castle" and then back home to Chicago with the personality documentary "Vincent: A Life in Color."
Then to American Southwest territory with reformed-mom "Trucker" and later, them Skid Row Los Angeles with the drunken-poet "Barfly."
Last Sunday, the final day, Urbana-born Ebert set us squarely back in the Midwest, Milwaukee to be exact, with "Song Sung Blue," a documentary about Mike Sardina, a Neil Diamond look- and sound-alike, and his wife, Claire. After the screening she sang Patsy Cline’s "Walking after Midnight" and "Crazy" and ABBA’s "Dancing Queen" to 1,500 festival-goers, many on their feet.
The morning after, I woke with jet lag and "Dancing Queen" running through in my head.
Festival director Nate Kohn aptly called this festival "more intense" than the first 11 Ebertfests.
One university administrator, on the last day, told him the five-day event had a good vibe. For sure. There's nothing like watching movies with an engaged, like-minded audience. And unlike other film festivals, Ebertfest is not hipper-than-thou and sophisticated, Chaz said. Questions are answered, many by the volunteers in blue shirts, she told the house.
This year’s lineup was transformative, making me a bit more compassionate toward and undertanding of other folks who might be different.
Everyone asks each other their favorite Ebert film. The audience choice this year seemed to be "Departures," director Yojiro Takita’s "unabashedly emotional," as David Bordwell put it, study of the ritual preparation of bodies for cremation.
When the little girl bid "bye-bye" to her deceased grandmother in "Departures" I chocked up and remembered how hard I took the departure of my 105-year-old grandmother five years ago. I was selfish to want her to stick around; she was ready to go.
After seeing "Departures," I have a slightly more accepting attitude toward death.
The other ones
I’ll try to tell of the other Ebertfest movies I enjoyed; I can’t say I strongly dislike any.
Because I had to file reports, I missed the first half of "Wall" and all of "I Capture the Castle" and "Apocalypse Now Redux."
Here are my capsules on the others, in chronological order of screening:
— "You, the Living," written and directed by Roy Andersson. Fifty morose yet witty set pieces, chief among them an apartment building that took two months to build and was moved on rail tracks while a crowd of people outside waved at the two newlyweds inside.
— "Munyurangaboo," a beautifully observed, authentic depiction of a young Tutsi man who plans to revenge the killing of his father in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. (SPOILER ALERT) He decides not to machete the man after he discovers him in his hut, dying of AIDS and begging for water.
— "The New Age," an unsettling satire-not-satire about a wealthy Los Angeles couple who lose their money and seek meaning in life from New Age gurus. Good dialogue by director-writer Michael Tolkin. Some folks didn’t like "New Age," finding it unfocused and its characters unsympathetic.
— "Man with a Movie Camera," with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
Made in 1929, this silent has hundreds of shots that jump quickly from one to the next, of teeming streets in Ukraine and Russia, modernist assembly lines, track-and-field events, a live birth, nudity and hundreds of faces seeming to have a really good time.
I had always wanted to time-travel back to the Roaring ‘20s. .
— "Synecdoche, New York." I watched a DVD of this 2008 Charlie Kaufman film three or four weeks before Ebertfest. I find it inventive and interesting, if a bit puzzling.
I lost some interest after actress Catherine Keener’s character deserts her husband (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for Berlin and later is heard only through voice overs.
Kaufman said after the screening he doesn’t want to explain his films. He seemed to do that. With "Synecdoche," he said he wanted to show the scary aspects of life: periodontal surgery, pustules on your face, being abandoned by your wife and daughter, a perpetutally burning home (purgatory?), an 11-year-old daughter with tattoos, etc.
One of my friends who liked "Synecdoche" called it a "head trip." Another said, "What was Roger thinking?"
— "Vincent: A Life in Color." I feel this was the "feel-good" movie of the festival. A friend disagreed. She said it’s obviously a first film (directed by Jennifer Burns), was not edited tightly enough and should have delved deeper into some aspects of Falk's personlity.
Falk, who is legally blind, obsessively dresses in technicolor suits and waves to and twirls his jackets to tourists on cruise boats on the Chicago River and in front of Windy City TV and radio studios.
The movie made me feel good; it accepts Falk, who attended the UI in the ‘70s, on his own terms and shows that, despite his "disabilities," he made a good life for himself as a computer programmer and fixture in downtown Chicago.
(Falk told me before the screening he had prepared a 3-minute pun-filled monologue on the Middle East that included Chaz Ebert’s name. He did not deliver it from the stage.)
— "Trucker," about a free-spirited mom who abandoned her son 10 years earlier and is saddled with him as his father dies of colon cancer. While a friend didn’t find Michelle Monaghan’s performance as the trucker impressive, I did.
(SPOILER ALERT) Her tough Diane comes to love her son, the excellent Jimmy Bennett. And he comes to love her and want to stay with her permanently.
An old story, but well told.
— "Barfly." I had seen this movie about hard-drinking poet Charles Bukowski (Mickey Rourke) when it was first released, in 1987. It was a treat to meet again on the big screen the well-structured and -written movie, masterfully directed by Barbet Schroeder, who hewed faithfully close to the Bukowski-penned script.
As Ebert noted, nothing much happens in "Barfly." And while Faye Dunaway might have been too much of a movie start to play Bukowski's main squeeze, Wanda, Schroeder said he found her performance sublime. So did many of us.
— "Song Sung Blue," 10-time Emmy Award-winning director Greg Kohs’s documentary, a love story, about Vietnam vet and recovered drug addict Mike Sardina and his wife Claire, who make their living paying tribute to Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline and hope to make it to Vegas some day.
Kohs and DP Jimmy Sammarco became the proverbial flies on the wall while making this movie, which like "Vincent" has not yet been released.
It was heart-rending at one point to watch Claire’s teen-age children excoriate her for not having any food in the house. At the time, she was addicted to painkillers and down over the loss of part of her leg in a freak accident.
So give your mother a break when she really needs it.