YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)

(VOD) YOU CAN COUNT ON ME is one of those early naughts small-scale family-centric indie films that you don’t see much of anymore. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (MARGARET, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), it’s about two middle-aged siblings, Sammy (Laura Linney, LOVE ACTUALLY but I’ll also say: TALES OF THE CITY) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo, I’ll just say BLINDNESS instead of HULK or THE AVENGERS), who have stuck together through thick-and-thin, but Terry is an addict and a bit of a selfihs asshole, and at this point in his life the film focuses on him circling back to needing the emotional and financial support of his sister.

It’s a quaint, heart-felt tale, sparsely told without much in the way of adornment unless you count the East Coast greenery, and worth your time. I wish there was more room for films like these nowadays.

However! YOU CAN COUNT ON ME sticks in my mind because it repeatedly utilizes the prelude in Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major — yes, the video misspells it as C Major, but it’s G Major — building and exposing more of it as the film goes on. It’s an exceptional incorporation of the work into the film, but it has the sad side-effect of reminding me that I completely failed at successfully performing it for my cello teacher for weeks on end, until I finally left for college and quit playing cello all together. (Not Bach or my cello teacher’s fault, obviously! I just didn’t have the chops.)

This is a roundabout way of calling attention to the little weirdsies (as Linda Holmes would say) that we have about artistic works. I can’t watch YOU CAN COUNT ON ME without flashing back to all of my failed attempts at this Bach piece, akin to both Sammy and Terry’s failures and trips during life. I’m sure that Longergan had his reasons for including this work in YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, but all I can hear is a reprise of my teen years.

NEPTUNE FROST (2022)

(Theaters/VOD soon) In this age of cheap film production values, of 4K cameras in every pocket, toaster box CGI readily-available, it’s odd that truly out-spoken, revolutionary DIY works seem to be less visible now than they were during the 90s, when you only had shitty digital cameras or bought the unused 16mm heads or tails from local TV shoots.

This is only one of a number of reasons why Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s NEPTUNE FROST is such a welcome and radical musical, one that embraces a lo-fi, DIY ethic, while still shooting for the stars, for having a globally disruptive message and still being absolutely wildly engaging.

Part-fairy tale, part-post-industrial capitalist nightmare, NEPTUNE FROST sings a number of songs of specially anointed individuals that find each other and then work to upturn the world through their technical abilities. NEPTUNE FROST is one of the most vibrant, most effective posterworks to extoll what can be accomplished by a lo-fi look: the film mostly eschews CGI — apart from some CG-centric motion and interface design late in the film — opting instead for some radical costume design, glowing make-up, black lights, and dumpster diving for CRT monitors, raw electronics, and tactile keyboard pieces.

The physicality of the disparate look of the revolutionaries sets NEPTUNE FROST apart in ways that so many other films would falter. This is a film that should be spoken alongside of REPO MAN, of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and other lo-fi class-centric punk films. It is an effective call to arms, one that I hope finds its audience.

If you do get a chance to see it in theaters, please do so: the soundtrack is astounding, and you will want to feel it surround you.

RELATIVE (2022)

(Theaters) Michael Glover Smith’s RELATIVE is a refreshing throwback family ensemble drama, the kind of indie film that traditionally centers around a homecoming during the holidays or a major family event.

In the case of RELATIVE, the inciting ceremony is a college graduation party for Benji Frank (THE WALKING DEAD’s Cameron Scott Roberts), the youngest child of four who is described as a late-in-life miracle baby by his aged hippie parents, librarian Karen (TWIN PEAKS’ Wendy Robie) and retiree David (grand character actor Francis Guinan).

Living in Karen and David’s basement is their thirty-something asshole son, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), a veteran recovering from both PTSD and a four-year-old breakup.

Rounding out the family is Evonne (Clare Cooney) whose marriage and mental state appears to be strained, and Norma (Emily Lape, MERCY’S GIRL), who presents a cool, calm, and collected veneer to her family that all is well in her world, but that she pines for older times.

What follows isn’t as conflict-driven as you may think, but there is tension in the air as all of the characters find themselves at their own crossroads, exploring life-changing decisions all while under the comforting roof of the family home.

Smith is known for his paeans to Chicago and RELATIVE is no exception. It is primarily filmed in the far north regions of Chicago, mostly Rogers Park which happens to be Smith’s neighborhood. Rogers Park also houses RELATIVE’s family abode, and Smith takes great care to gloriously portray its interiors via several long pans, detailing hand-painted landscapes with inventively embedded lighting, all framed by the signature molding of 19th century Chicago.

Oh, and when the characters occasionally escape Rogers Park, they run off to Andersonville’s mainstay gastropub Hopleaf*, or happen to be in the nearby village of Wilmette.

If there’s one qualm I have, it’s that Smith hits a few dialogue refrains harder than I would have liked. There’s a repeated bit about ‘choosing soup’ that is clearly meant to be an insightful-but-also-comedic icebreaker, the kind ripped from real life, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Nonetheless, Smith serves up a quiet, thoughtful depiction of a family, comprised of individuals who miss their old bonds, some who wonder about the unknown, while others are eager to exit. RELATIVE explores these familial bonds with aplomb while respecting the audience by exerting considerable restraint when it comes to revealing certain facets of the characters. While the audience is rewarded as matters wrap, Smith allows for some questions to linger and remain with you long after the film is over.

Trailer (although, if the above sounds appealing to you, skip it!):

  • While I understand the difficulty of finding a unique bar that was also open to allowing a film shoot while COVID reigned, as an Andersonville resident who often frequents Hopleaf, I couldn’t help but flinch while watching Benji eat pizza and drink wine in the venue. You head to Hopleaf for the mussels or, if you tire of those then a hot sandwich, and you wash it down with an eclectic Belgium draft beer.

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

Making a meta film like THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT, which centers around Nicolas Cage playing himself struggling with his acting career, can’t be an easy task. With such a long legacy of films, such a wide breadth of performances, not to mention Cage’s real-life idiosyncrasies and quirks, it seems foolhardy to try to convey the essence of Cage in under two hours. A serious-minded theme park might be more fitting.

If Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten, director and co-writers of UNBEARABLE WEIGHT were daunted by Cage’s oeuvre, it doesn’t show on the screen. Nicolas Cage is ‘Nick Cage’ who, apart from the name, barely deviates from his real-life counterpart as a quirky, intense, occasionally explosive, but extraordinarily compelling actor, known for his dedication to his craft.

‘Nick’ hits rock bottom after he fails to garner a meaty award-contending role and he declares to his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) that he’s quitting acting, but not before he takes a million dollar gig to make an appearance at an overseas birthday party. Unbeknownst to Nick, the party is a ruse by rich drug lord Javi Gutierrez (the always delightful Pedro Pascal), a Nick Cage superfan who has penned a script just for him, and hopes that by the end of the party Nick will attach himself to the film, and maybe — just maybe — Nick will also become his best friend along the way.

What follows is a pleasurable, occasionally visually kinetic, but very over-stuffed romp across the broader beats of action films that would have featured Nic Cage front-and-center. There’s a lot of sun, surf, sports cars, and high-speed shoot-outs, all peppered with riffs on Cage’s more off-beat roles, such as a few ADAPTATION-esque combative discussions with ‘Nicky’, his wild at heart younger self.

There’s an effortless charm to UNBEARABLE WEIGHT, partially because of the drugged-up interplay between Nick and Javi, but also because of how hard the film leans into Gormican and Etten’s favorite Cage films, adroitly adapting the beats of the likes of THE ROCK and CON AIR to a somewhat sweet bromance (and includes a slightly more problematic, but still very 90s ‘reconnect with my estranged ex via violent set-pieces’ subplot).

Some may be disappointed that UNBEARABLE WEIGHT doesn’t zig or zag as much as it could, or that it doesn’t subvert Cage’s persona say, in the way that JCVD (2008) lifted the curtain on the ennui of a similarly fictionalized ‘Jean-Claude Van Damne’. However, Gormican and Kevin Etten made this film to extoll Cage and recreate the glow his films exuded, and their script — plus the earnestness that Cage brings to the role of err, himself — sees them warmly meeting that goal.

Official trailer:

Red band trailer:

HAPPENING (2021)

(Theaters only/VOD soon) Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING (original French title: L’ÉVÉNEMENT), adapted fromAnnie Ernaux’s autobiography of the same name, may initially look like a slice-of-life character drama: It’s France in the early 60s and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a devoted student of literature, ready to buckle down and pass her final exams. Her parents are supportive, albeit overly industrious small bar owners and, after sunset, she enjoys a bit of the nightlife with her clique, while occasionally being glared at by her enemies.

In another film, that could be the opening of a quaint, comfortable ‘that one crazy summer’ movie. Not HAPPENING. Underneath its sun-washed gauzy palette of aqua blues and verdant greens is a tense, unwavering tale of a young woman under pressure as she realizes that she is pregnant in a country where abortion is outlawed and vehemently taboo. Anne is gravely aware of her ticking clock and she is determined to roll it back.

Anna gets to work and, as she goes from one failed plan to another, we see how her possibilities and her world shrinks. The already-tightly composed framing — shot in an 1.37 aspect ratio, closer to the boxed-in look of a standard definition TV show than a widescreen film — finds the camera inching closer in on Anna; rooms she inhabits feel smaller, more constrictive, she takes up more of the frame, her wide, defiant eyes inhabiting more and more of the screen. Her friends distance themselves, and those she talks to cower in fear of being jailed for simply hearing her broach the idea.

Anna’s solutions become more desperate, the world increasing hostile to her escape attempt, and the camera refuses to flinch or turn away, brusquely displaying her efforts through longer and longer takes. Her strength and vitality wane, exhaustion sets in due to the strain of the clock, the machinations of her body draining her, and she finds herself more and more emotional drained by her time spent lurking in the shadows.

Yet, during all of this, Anna unwaveringly brandishes her physical desires with confidence. That detail helps to set HAPPENNING’s scope to that of a steadfastly look at an unjust twist in a singular person’s life as opposed to one part of a grander coming-of-age tale or a film consisting of well-meaning scare tactics.

HAPPENING is an affecting work that resonates past the France of the 1960s, a headstrong tale of individual survival. Diwan, who is open about having had an abortion, had the following to say about why she adapted L’ÉVÉNEMENT:

“Lots of people told me in the industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, because we’re in France and we already have [a law legalizing abortion]?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker that comes to you and says they’re going to make a movie about World War II. Because I guess the war is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I mean, look at how many women died on that battlefield and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.”

EBERTFEST 2022 – PART II: SIREN OF THE TROPICS (1927), KRISHA (2016), NIGHTMARE ALLEY [B&W] (2021)

(Miss the first part? It’s available here!)

SIREN OF THE TROPICS (1927)

(tubi) All you need to know about SIREN OF THE TROPICS is that it’s the feature film debut of one Josephine Baker who, in the late 1920s was the most popular American entertainer in Paris, mostly because of her erotic dancing. Baker went on to star in a number of other French films before retiring from acting to bring her focus back to live entertainment, and then she went on to become a prolific activist and humanitarian.

Sadly, SIREN OF THE TROPICS is not even close to a grand showcase for Baker, not even for its time. It’s a very middling, very colonial silent film whose only worthwhile moments are those when Baker appears on screen. TROPIC doesn’t just perk up when Baker breaks into dance, but it comes to life whenever she’s in the frame; she deftly wriggles and lithely leaps around and all over the set, as if the boundaries of the screen can’t contain her. When she does break out into dance, especially for her extended Charleston number, the film becomes transcendent and you get lost in her enthusiasm, exuberance, and sheer joy of movement.

Ebertfest brought in renowned composer Renée Baker who has a history of drafting up untraditional silent film scores, and her contribution to this screening was an aural delight. While Renée rarely tampers with the visuals of a film, she did take it upon herself to bookend TROPICS with an extreme slow-motion close-up of Josephine during her solo on-stage dance and, as Renée stated post-film, to celebrate the magic of Josephine Baker.

KRISHA (2016)

(fubo/Showtime/VOD) When is the best time to watch a brutal emotional rollercoaster of a film? Certainly not in the morning, when one’s brain is still somewhat fogged, or when one’s stomach may be churning its way through breakfast. The mid-afternoon? Perhaps not, especially if it’s a beautiful day outside. Even if one doesn’t like lounging in the sun, it’ll be there to accost you upon exiting the screening.

I prefer mid-evening when dealing with works that focus on trauma. The mood feels right, and it’s early enough that you can put some distance between it and that night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a smaller film festival, you don’t have the luxury of opting for a later screening. In the case of Ebertfest’s screening of Trey Edward Shults’ crowdfunded debut feature KRISHA, you either watched it right after a light lunch, or not at all.

It’s not as if anyone going into KRISHA is doing so unaware of what they’re getting into: KRISNA is explicitly about Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a troubled middle-aged woman with a history of addiction which led to an estranged son. Krisha swears to her sister that she’s cleaned up her act, and she’s invited to the family Thanksgiving get-together, which includes her son. Matters escalate, wildly and horrifically, in a way that feels like Gaspar Noé’s take on a severely dysfunctional family homecoming.

Despite being a relatively young entry in the genre, Shults’ film (based on a short that he filmed a few years prior) is widely acclaimed as one of the rawest depictions of addiction, partially thanks to how personal the material is to Shults, the involvement of his family in the production — a number of them, non-actors all of them, are parts of the core cast — as well as the aural and visual literacy of the film. You would not know that this film was shot on a shoestring budget, as the throbbingly sound design expertly builds tension, and ghostlike camera work cranes up stairs and peeks around corners.

Following the screening was a discussion with Krisha Fairchild, who went into great detail about the pre-production and shooting process, as well as demystified a few facets of the film such as what was the impetus behind Krisha’s missing appendage, details behind certain facets of the house, as well as the reasoning behind some of the character names. I highly suggest watching the discussion yourself, made available by Ebertfest for all to see!

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021, B&W Cinematic Version)

One of the guest tentpoles for Ebertfest 2022 was the black-and-white version of Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and both of them were slated to fly out for a post-film discussion. Unfortunately, halfway through the festival it was announced that del Toro had to undergo non-emergency surgery and would have to attend virtually, which was a bummer, but not completely unexpected. (Similarly, a number of actors from GOLDEN ARM were slated to attend their screening, but had to bow out at the last minute due to conflicting schedules.)

The show went on, a bit later than its announced 8:30pm time. While introducing NIGHTMARE ALLEY, Chaz noted the lateness of the festival’s final screening and assured everyone that we wouldn’t have another ‘Herzog’ incident. Apparently, more than several years ago at a prior Ebertfest, Werner Herzog talked with Errol Morris until well beyond one in the morning. Very few made a preemptive exit, but many of the attendees were worse for wear the following day.

As I’ve grown older I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay awake during evening screenings, even early ones. Add into the mix the woozy warmth of wearing a KN95 mask, compounded with the exhaustion of exploring a new area and the emotional rollercoaster of a week of brilliant-but-difficult films, and I was running on fumes when the projector flickered to life.

Long story short: I fell asleep about an hour into the film and, apart from a few glimpses of an office here, an underground tunnel there, woke up about twenty minutes before the closing credits. Embarrassing, I know. I can say that the first act hews closer to the original film adaptation than I expected, that what I saw of the back-half of the film was far darker than I expected (probably because I have yet to read the source material), that Bradley Cooper is surprisingly well-suited to his role as an over-confident confidence man, and that I still think the latitude of the black-and-white lacks the contrast that would best fit the film. Apart from that, I’m waiting to watch it in full before I say anything more about the film proper. My apologies if you expected otherwise.

To circle back to del Toro and Morgan: not to worry, del Toro is fine. Also, if you’ve heard him speak before, you know he’s very excitable and loves to talk at length about cinema. Add his wife into the mix, and they can chat for hours without interruption.

While they didn’t quite talk until 1am, I didn’t exit the Virginia Theatre until around midnight. Bleary eyed and more than a little groggy, I left the venue feeling sleepily satisfied. I technically bought my tickets to Ebertfest 2022 way back in 2019, as while Ebertfest 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to COVID, they still honored my initial ticket purchase. This trek was a long time coming, one I should have attempted far earlier in life, but I could hardly ask to attend a better first post-lockdown film festival. Here’s to Ebertfest 2023!


If you’d like to watch any of the panels or Q&As, each and every one has kindly been made available via Ebertfest’s YouTube channel!

EBERTFEST 2022 – PART I: FRENCH EXIT (2020), PASSING (2021), GOLDEN ARM (2020), GHOST WORLD (2001)

For whatever reason, Ebertfest is a film festival that is often overlooked, despite the fact that it’s been running for over twenty years, despite the fact that it was the singular vision of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who shaped the field of film studies for years to come and is still wildly revered today, Ebertfest — for some reason I can’t figure out — simply isn’t sexy enough.

Yes, it’s true: it doesn’t traffic in exclusive premieres. Yes, the screenings occur in the beautiful and sizable Virginia Theatre, but it resides in the college town of Champaign, IL, where Roger Ebert got his start writing reviews for the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign newspaper.

However, after attending my first Ebertfest — Ebertfest 2022 — I’m flabbergasted as to why so few cinephiles don’t see this as one of the few North American waypoints of film festivals. It’s by far one of the friendliest film festivals I’ve ever attended. It lacks the snobbery you often see in genre film fests, or the ‘there to be seen’ vibe some attendees exude. Additionally, all of the special guests invited to introduce and/or discuss the film afterwards? They’re clearly absolutely tickled to be there.

I’m not sure if this is because Ebertfest was created out of love for film from a man who was extremely generous championing cinema and his alma matter, or whether it’s because it takes place in a smaller midwest city, or perhaps because it has been around for over twenty years and many of those who attend are locals who have attended the festival for many years.

Either way, it was utterly delightful, and I wish I had made the journey earlier. His wife, Chaz, has kept the festival going since the world lost Roger, and with her enthusiasm, spirit, and love for film, Ebertfest is in great hands. Without further ado, here are some brief musings on the films I managed to catch:

FRENCH EXIT (2020)

(Starz/VOD) This year’s Ebertfest unofficial theme was ‘overlooked films’, honoring the films that slipped through the cracks for one reason or another, and there are few better examples of a film that was give short shrift due to the pandemic than FRENCH EXIT. The latest from Azazel Jacobs (THE LOVERS, DOLL AND ‘EM) featured the return of Michelle Pfeiffer to the silver screen, but its theatrical rollout was muted and, thanks to a very delayed VOD release, was mostly ignored.

The lack of attention, critical or public, is a damn shame because FRENCH EXIT is a thoughtful throwback of a 90s indie ensemble film with a modern sheen. FRENCH EXIT — based on the novel by Jacobs’ good friend Patrick deWitt, who also penned the screenplay — features Frances (Pfeiffer), an acerbic, flinty NYC widower whose rich husband, Franklin, died under suspicious circumstances and left her with a rather valuable estate and assets. Her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, perhaps best known for his role as Danny in LADY BIRD), is a curious but rather aimless young man, and he’s been spinning his wheels about telling his mother about his fiancée Susan (a rather under-utilized Imogen Poots). Frances comes to the realization that she’s finally spent through everything, has to liquidate her cherished home, and finds herself moving to a more affordable abode in Paris with Malcolm.

What follows is a mesmerizing character study that unfurls into a surreal web of human connections. It’s a story that feels unmoored of time, both the passage of and any concrete notion of era, although it does seem to be firmly affixed anywhere-but-now. The end result isn’t necessarily satisfying, but it is captivating with its visual construction and vibrant flourishes of color as the camera traverses through the streets, then gliding through Frances and Franklin’s living spaces. (Look carefully and you can see a few nods to Jacques Tati’s masterpiece PLAYTIME, noted in the post-film discussion by the director himself.)

While Pfeiffer is the obvious draw for the film — rightfully so, as she perfectly conveys Frances’ sense of pride tinged with a hint of self-dissatisfaction — the rest of the cast boldly embellishes the film: television mainstay Valerie Mahaffey brings some well-received laughs, Frances’ best friend is Susan Coyne (best known to fans of Canadian television, and who co-created and occasionally appeared on the best show about theatre, SLINGS & ARROWS), Danielle Macdonald (DUMPLIN’, BIRD BOX) provides significant snark as a professional medium, and Tracy Letts has a role that I’ll let you discover for yourself.

PASSING (2021)

(Netflix) If you only saw Rebecca Hall’s glorious black-and-white adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel of being a Black woman in Harlem in 1929 via streaming through your TV (or, heavens forbid, on your phone), then you are missing out. Yes, PASSING’s grand pull is the dynamic performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, but visually it is so exacting — almost, almost! clinically so — that it merits several rewatches on the largest screen possible. The way Eduard Grau (who also shot Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN) utilizes the overhead lines of the urban landscape, how he finesses the camera through Irene’s (Thompson) home and then echoes the same motions near the very end of the film is astounding precise in a way that enthralls without calling too much attention to itself.

There’s a lot to love, to think about, to extoll, to muse over with PASSING, but to fully appreciate it and its visual achievement, its best done in a theater.

GOLDEN ARM (2020)

(hoopla/kanopy/VOD) GOLDEN ARM, penned by best friends Anne Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, was self-described by them as “BRIDESMAIDS meets OVER THE TOP”. Now, if you’re a certain age like I am, you may fondly remember OVER THE TOP; it was a quintessential ‘only in the 80s’ type of ‘underdog takes on a niche professional sport’ film that featured Sylvester Stallone as a trucker working his way up through the rungs of the arm-wrestling world to regain custody of his son and get his own trucking company off the ground.

GOLDEN ARM opens with Danny (Betsy Sodaro, who you’ve probably seen or heard in a comedy at some point in your life), a very squat, very brash woman tearing through an arm-wrestling playoff competition, her eye on heading to the finals when Brenda, The Bone Crusher (Olivia Stambouliah) walks in and swiftly dashes Danny’s hopes by shattering her wrist.

Danny, desperate for revenge, seeks out Melanie (Mary Holland, HAPPIEST SEASON, VEEP, and so many other works) her best friend from college, who she recalls as having a deceptively strong arm. Danny finds Melanie in the midst of divorcing her terrible dudebro of a husband while helming her long-gone grandmother’s failing bakery, trying to scrounge up enough cash to replace her faltering oven. Long story short: Danny talks her into filling in for her on the circuit, and we’re treated to the requisite number of training montages and heart-crushing loses, loses that quickly become buoyed by rollickingly amusing feel-good moments.

GOLDEN ARM is an extraordinarily winsome film, one led primarily by its hilarious cast — if you are a comedy fan, it’s wall-to-wall talent, including: Eugene Cordero (THE GOOD PLACE, LOKI), Aparna Nancherla (A SIMPLE FAVOR, MYTHIC QUEST, so much voiceover work), Kate Flannery (THE OFFICE (US)), Dot-Marie Jones (GLEE, Olympic athlete and multiple world arm-wrestling champion) Dawn Luebbe (GREENER GRASS), and of course since it’s about wrestling, you know comedian Ron Funches (POWERLESS, and also so many voiceover parts) has a prominent role.

However, it’s Betsy Sodaro who really stands out. She brings a physicality to her hyperactive, over-enthusiastic, pansexual character that consistently entertains and befuddles. It’s rare to see a film lean into a woman throwing herself around and against everything in this day and age — pratfalls are hardly trendy in film right now — and it’s damn refreshing. Here’s hoping someone is penning a BLACK SHEEP-like film for her right now.

While GOLDEN ARM could coast by on its quips, slapstick, and charm alone, first-time feature director Maureen Bharoocha and cinematographer Christopher Messina provide a colorful contrast between the bright costumes of the wrestlers and the dingy, filthy, tiny shitholes everyone has to train and perform in. More often than not everyone’s tightly framed, not only emphasizing the wide range of expressions of the elastic performers, but also lending a sweaty, authentic claustrophobic feel to the material.

GOLDEN ARM is a crowdpleaser of a film and, unfortunately it appears that it won’t receive the wide theatrical rollout it deserves, as it’s a perfect summer comedy. It’s now available on VOD, so invite a few friends over, make a theme night of it, and get that word of mouth going.

GHOST WORLD (2001)

(epix/Paramount+/Prime/VOD) Part of the allure of Ebertfest is that each and every screening is paired with a post-film discussion featuring directors, writers, producers, actors, etc., often folks who rarely bother with appearing at film festivals unless it’s contractually required to do so for promotional purposes. Because of Ebert’s prominence, and because his and his widow Chaz’s festival is so well-regarded, they’re able to wrangle some big names, folks that are more than happy to show up and shoot the shit for however long they want.

GHOST WORLD closed out the penultimate fest night, and they managed to wrangle both Terry Zwigoff and Thora Birch to treat the night right. Zwigoff opened with an ‘anti-semitic review of GHOST WORLD’ read in jest by the recently departed Gilbert Gottfried (you can hear it here), who was slated to attend Ebertfest alongside the relatively recently documentary about Gottfried’s life, GILBERT. Birch was presented with the award all first-time attendees receive: the Ebert Golden Thumb.

Once the credits rolled and the curtain closed, both Zwigoff and Birch were back out on stage, regaling us with on-set stories, musings, jokes, pokes at the industry, and the like — Birch in particular was quite blunt and forthcoming about her experiences. There was a game enthusiasm in the air, an easy rapport that is often not found in film fests, one that’s emblematic of the general spirit at Ebertfest in general.


If you’d like to see any of the panels or Q&As, each and every one is available via the Ebertfest YouTube channel!

WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR (2021)

(Cinemas, VOD) WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR was often described as creepypasta during its film fest tour last year, which — fair, given that it’s about (mostly) teens performing ritualistic summoning acts based on internet content, and then recording themselves online to document the results of said acts — but I find it more to be a character drama lined with horror elements, as opposed to a modern technological horror tale.

(As usual, I’ll keep spoilers light, but if the above sounds appealing to you, perhaps just watch the film and read this after!)

To summarize: ‘Casey’ (an astounding debut from Anna Cobb) is a high-school teen who lacks a mother, hides in a bedroom attic from an asshole father whom is rarely home, and has no friends. She loves horror and darkness and is -extremely online-. She decides to take ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’, which consists of repeating ‘I want to go to The World’s Fair’ three times over — Bloody Mary/Candyman style — then pricking your thumb and bleeding onto a screen, and lastly, watching the ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’ video via said screen, all of which she records via her very underwatched online channel.

What happens next is questionable for all involved, but it always involves some sort of physical transformation. While this could be construed as a teen puberty allegory, it has more depth.

(It’s at this point that I should note that the director, Jane Schoenbrun, is trans, but hadn’t started transitioning when she started writing the script. I highly recommend reading her spoiler-free interview with IndieWire’s Jude Dry)

‘Casey’, based on her videos, hears from an older male-presenting person known solely as JLB (the memorable character actor Michael J Rogers), who constantly frets about her. Matters escalate, but in ways you wouldn’t suspect.

At the center of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is a meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation, not in thrills or scares. (Although it does have a few of those.) While some would write this off as a COVID-centric film — apart from a sole snippet in one scene, no two major players act alongside each other — it’s also about how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work, and I can’t wait to see more from Jane.

Lastly, I’ll note: this may seem antithetical for an -extraordinarily online- work, but try to make the effort to see it in the theater if possible. The use of negative space, of silence, of punctuational sound — especially rain — and most certainly of hard-cuts to loading animations is so goddamn effective when blown up and taken out of a smaller screen context. It becomes almost overwhelming and daunting in a way that one rarely thinks about, but one that is certainly intended.

“I swear, some day soon, I’m just going to disappear, and you won’t have any idea what happened to me.”

PROJECT A-KO (1986)

(Blu-Ray/Roku/tubi) As one might suspect, I was a gigantic nerd in my youth, enough of one that I was part of a group in high-school that would pool our lunch money to order LaserDiscs of late 80s anime and we’d then, err, find ways to ‘happen upon’ ways to duplicate copies for all involved. Let me tell you: bootlegging works were far more difficult, but far more enthralling, back then.

Apart from the soundtrack occasionally popping up in my playlists over the years, I’d mostly forgotten about PROJECT A-KO (despite still having a proper VHS copy of it)! At least, until this post popped up in my feeds.

The immediate flashback this post induced was: “oh, now that I think about it, this anime wasn’t just fan-service, it was super gay.” And, yup:

“The basic plot of PROJECT A-KO is: one dumbass lesbian fighting another dumbass lesbian to win the heart of the dumbest lesbian in the lands.”

I forgot how funny, how comic, PROJECT A-KO was, even though I know I didn’t get the bulk of the in-jokes and parodies and references back-in-the-day, and probably still don’t. However, it features a ton of hilariously universal kinetic physical comedic moments, while still often feeling grounded despite, you know, someone using numerous missiles as stepping stones during combat. Additionally, while the characters do a lot of punching, there’s not much in the way of punching down. Everyone here is flawed and messy and definitely either queer or over-protective found family, and you’re meant to identify with their flaws, rather than scorn them.

I rarely recommend any YouTube film-centric commentary video that runs for over an hour because I often don’t have the patience for watching them, but I highly recommend the one linked in the MeFi post above. I learned a lot, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Lastly, the OST is well-worth your time. Spaceship in the Dark is still a banger with all of its orchestral hits.

DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991)

(YouTube) I caught DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991) as part of a triple Sherilyn Fenn feature during the recent David Lynch complete retrospective. While it conflicted with the last Swanberg Secret Screening at the Davis, I couldn’t resist — there’s only one print, and no one apart from the organizer of this retrospective will probably care enough about the film to jump through the hoops to screen it again. There are plenty of LaserDisc and VHS copies available via eBay (and a copy on YouTube if you look for it) but, apart from the home market, it went mostly unseen, and will probably continue to do so.

That’s a goddamn shame, because this is a wildly fun bit of throwback color noir, perfectly framed with beautiful blues all around that makes it ideal for the big screen, and it makes the most of Sherilyn Fenn’s abilities.

To summarize: husband and ‘small toy seller’ Chester (Whip Hubley) travels out for a company conference to California with his wife Bridey (Sherilyn Fenn), and stay at the Sunset Motel, managed by a leering voyeur (the always delightful Paul Bartel). Chester suspects that Bridey is cheating on him, so he hires someone known as Deadpan (CUBE’s David Hewlett) to shadow her while there. Meanwhile, Bridey has finagled a dude she’s lead along known as Auggie (David Johansen/Buster Poindexter) to meet her there to kill Chester with his own gun. Matters escalate, then completely fragment as Bridey’s memory starts to falter.

The story barely holds together and the dialogue is overly colorful in a way that almost feels like a parody of hard-boiled patois, but despite all that, it is a thrilling ride that leans into its frenzied plotting. However, it mostly succeeds because Fenn was born for these sort of retro-noir films, exuding danger and seduction not just with her stark hair and beauty mark, but her demeanor and poise; Ava Gardner reborn.