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!

DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Programming note: NaNoWriMo is over, and I hit my goal! That said, now I’m on the wane, so posts will be intermittent until 2022.

I’m embarrassed to say that this film wasn’t on my radar until Turner Classic Movies featured Maureen O’Hara’s monologue in one of their ‘monthly promotional vignettes’. I quickly snapped up the Criterion Blu-Ray and wow, I’m glad I did. This is a bold, brazen film from one of the most prolific women Hollywood directors, Dorothy Arzner, based on a text by Vicki Baum.

It’s the story of two dancers from a ramshackle dance troupe that specialized in burlesque which had the misfortune to be preemptively dissolved. The star of the troupe, Bubbles (Lucille Ball), goes on to have an exceptionally popular mainstream striptease career under the name of Tigerlily White, and she enlists fellow prior troupe-mate Judy (Maureen O’Hara), a woman with aspirations to be a ballerina, to serve as her ‘stooge’, where Judy dances her high art act while the audience boos and jeers here in order to tease Tigerlily White’ return to the stage.

If you only know Lucille Ball from I LOVE LUCY, she had quite the career as a supporting film actor prior to her sitcom career — she had a few stand-out roles in noirs like Douglas Sirk’s LURED (1947), and also held her own against Katharine Hepburn in the extremely entertaining STAGE DOOR (1937). While it was an earlier film for Maureen O’Hara — she was coming off of JAMAICA INN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME — she brings her A-game to this.

Ultimately, DANCE, GIRL, DANCE is a powerful film about exploitation and appeasement and the willingness to settle, to be content to not attempt to rise above your current station, and it is not subtle or apologetic about it. For its time, hell, even now, it is an astounding work from Dorothy Arzner who, sadly, has been mostly forgotten by film academics. (Thankfully, not all.)

Dorothy Arzner was the first woman sound director and, for many years, the only woman director in Hollywood. Not only that, she was as unapologetically openly gay as you could be back then, hair shorn short and her uniform consisted of menswear. Dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan was her partner, and Arzner leaned on her skills for DANCE, GIRL, DANCE.

Despite that, she’s rarely talked about today, which is a crime because this film is Arzner using her platform to dissect the role of a viewer and the role of a creator, while also featuring a woman taking advantage of another woman explicitly because of capitalism, all without completely vilifying her. It’s a complicated work, one that also manages to be severely entertaining.

“Give ‘em all ya got, baby.”

“They couldn’t take it.”

SPONTANEOUS (2020)

(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) Yep, this is a repeat recommendation! (Here’s the original recommendation.) I often read the source material of a film afterwards, but that’s usually concerning dusty films from the 40s; rarely do I seek out source material for a modern film because many modern literary-to-film adaptations simply aren’t that interesting. (The last great book/film pair I can recall is probably GONE GIRL which was checks notes seven years ago?!)

However, I just finished reading the source material — Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name — and I -love- both versions. To summarize both real quick, just in case: the senior year students in a traditional American high school start spontaneously combusting, BLEAK HOUSE-style. (Sorry, spoilers for a 150-year-old novel.)

The novel is denser and woolier than the film, but the film has a cavalier, high-energy attitude that the book lacks, and it doesn’t get so bogged down with the details. The film feels like a very concise reinterpretation of the novel — vast sections of the last third of the book are dropped or merely given lip-service in the film — the focus here is more on Mara and her end-of-youth relationship with Dylan — who is has far less back-story in the film — but that’s okay because the film is about Mara’s agency and her graduating to adulthood. Yes, writer/director Brian Duffield (writer of the previously recommended UNDERWATER) bumps up Mara’s quirkiness, but in a way that feels organic for Katherine Langford (KNIVES OUT), while still preserving her fuck-up demeanor (although it does significantly ramp down her drug use for some reason).

Sadly, Mara’s best friend Tess (RIVERDALE’s Hayley Law) is significantly dumbed down in the film, which is perhaps the only misstep the film makes, but otherwise it’s an extremely smart, visually inventive and refreshing take on a coming-of-age tale. I’m hoping it’ll find an audience post-COVID, because it has all of the hallmarks of a great cult film. And, if you like the film, pick up a copy of the book.*

  • I’d like to note that I picked up a used copy of the book, and the previous owner of the book took the effort to use typewriter whiteout tape — not actual whiteout — to obscure not only every swear in the novel (Mara swears approximately every other page, and it’s a 355 page novel) but also any physical sexual moment, including full paragraphs about self-stimulation. I can’t wrap my head around it — Mara’s utterances and the sex is the least disturbing part of the novel — but at least the presumed kid that asked to read the book got to read it?

BUG (2006)

(epix/VOD) One of the few screenings I was able to catch last year before lockdown was a special 35mm screening of William Friedkin’s BUG, featuring actor Michael Shannon and writer Tracy Letts for a post-film discussion. Before both became relatively big names, they worked together on Letts’ lurid, often horrific, small town stage plays, such as BUG and KILLER JOE. Both film adaptations arguably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Friedkin as, according to Letts, Friedkin hounded him to adapt BUG after seeing it on the stage, and Friedkin also volunteered to take on KILLER JOE, requiring that Letts write the screenplay for each film.

A quick summary: Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a troubled waitress who works at a gay bar in a small Oklahoma town who drinks and snorts away her loneliness. One night she meets a fresh face, Peter (Michael Shannon), who reluctantly says he’s a freshly discharged solider. The two get to bonding, and before long he’s crashing in her ramshackle hotel room. What follows is an expertly balanced grimy, disturbing tale about abuse, paranoia, mental illness, and co-dependence.

While I’d previously seen BUG a few times via DVD, and several weeks later I’d attend a production of it at Steppenwolf — Letts and wife Carrie Coon are members, and Coon played Agnes in that production — nothing compares to seeing a print of it in a sold out theater full of fans and fans who dragged their unknowing friends to it.

Friedkin ramps up the claustrophobia, leans more on the characters’ perspectives, and tightens the screws with some manic editing and montage work, making it far more effective on a big screen than viewing at home. Also, when watching a film as gonzo as BUG, the audience’s emotions roil through the theater, amplifying some of the more absurd moments the film throws at you. At the screening, after a particularly confusing array of images and sound that are followed by relative silence, someone simply shouted out ‘WHAT THE FUCK’ and the theater burst out laughing because how the hell else do you react to BUG?

Sadly, chances to view BUG under my 2020 conditions don’t roll around too often, so don’t wait as it plays just as fucked up on a small screen. Arguably, thanks to being in lockdown, the horror of it may play more effectively when one watches at home after a year of lockdown.

There’s a trailer and, while it doesn’t ruin anything exactly, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

SPONTANEOUS (2020)

(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) In a year of unnervingly prescient pandemic screenplays, this one stands out. Based on Aaron Starmer’s young adult novel, senior-year high school teens start spontaneously exploding and are quarantined while scientists race to find a cure.

Brian Duffield’s (writer of both UNDERWATER and JANE GOT A GUN) adaptation takes a number of notes from THE LEFTOVERS, such as uniforms similar to the ‘Guilty Remnants’ and referring to the ‘exploded’ as ‘departed’. They even leave the ‘act of departing’ in the visual gutter — you never witness it occur, you only witness the aftermath. It’s a nice touch by Duffield, and it leads to more than a few gleefully shocking moments.

While you will laugh while watching this — especially at the playful insults bandied about by acerbic smartass Mara (Katherine Longford, KNIVES OUT and LOVE, SIMON) with her best friend Hayley Law (RIVERDALE), boyfriend Dylan (Charlie Plummer, LEAN ON PETE), and ‘cool dad and mom (comedy mainstay Rob Huebel and COYOTE UGLY’s Piper Perabo) — it’s a much more downbeat and thoughtful, occasionally distressing, look at teens reckoning with their mortality on the cusp of beginning their adult lives. It’s not exactly the thigh-slapping dark rom-com the trailer pitches, which is a relief because the end result resonates far longer than a more flippant approach to the material would.

GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) One of the last films I managed to catch in an actual theater before lockdown. Lushly shot — often explicitly evoking Jodorowsky’s THE HOLY MOUNTAIN — and exquisitely paced, with striking production design — as you’d expect from Oz Perkins — but mostly, it’s another triumph for actress Sophia Lillis.

The characters are a bit more fleshed out, the circumstances are broadened a bit for a modern horror audience, but it’s still the Hansel & Gretel you know. It’s not trying to be IN THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984, see yesterday).

(As a film nerd, I was unreasonably delighted to see the ORION PICTURES card on the big screen for a new film. Dumb, yes, I know, but I have many weaknesses.)

THE TRIP (1967)

(epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD) Surreal drugsploitation film penned by Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson), featuring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda’s ass and, yes, it predates EASY RIDER. It’s intriguing simply because it’s psychedelic Corman — clearly over-extending himself, but enjoying doing so* — however the end result is a bit dull, dated, and feels too long, despite it clocking in under 90 minutes. However, one line really snapped me to attention: “Gimme the thorazine. You don’t need the thorazine!”

My media tastes came of age in the early 90s, when I glommed onto sample-heavy goth/industrial acts like MY LIFE WITH THE THRILL KILL KULT, FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY, MINISTRY, and far lesser known acts and, while I don’t listen to much goth/industrial nowadays, I’m constantly tripping over samples that have been burned into my teen memory while filling in my adult tv/film gaps. That line is an iconic third-wave industrial opening sample for MINISTRY’s JUST ONE FIX. (It’s oddly excised from the video, probably because of licensing issues.) When I happen upon a sample I’ve heard for years, but never knew the source or context, it’s oddly thrilling.

LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

(epix/Paramount+/tubi/VOD) LADY OF BURLESQUE is a delightfully self-aware adaptation of Gypsy Rose Lee’s sensationlist detective novel regarding the murder of a stripper in a burlesque stage show (the original novel was called THE G-STRING MURDERS). Barbara Stanwick leads, clearly loving the role. Honestly not sure if the Hayes code restrictions help or hurt the film.

BUMBLEBEE (2018)

(epix/fubu/Paramount+/VOD) Yeah, it’s technically a TRANSFORMERS film, but it’s actually a winsome teen film, the modern HERBIE THE LOVE BUG we deserve. Also, unlike other TRANSFORMERS films, the action scenes are actually comprehensible, as opposed to a slurry of cuts, motion blur, and sound effects.