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!

THE SOUVENIR (2019)

(hoopla/kanopy/Prime/Showtime/VOD) I saw THE SOUVENIR during its theatrical release on a sparsely attended Sunday afternoon matinee at the Lakeview Century Cinema, an act only a handful of Chicago folks would do, even in the before times.

THE SOUVENIR is a story from writer/director Joanna Hogg — who also wrote and directed EXHIBITION, which I dragged some folks to a Chicago International Film Fest screening many years ago which I loved, but I’m pretty sure they have yet to forgive me — about a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, and yes, Tilda Swinton appears as her mother) who makes terrible relationship decisions that she firmly believes in, but can’t see that they’re awful. Classic youth romanticism. There’s a lot of class work thrown in, commentary about art and film, facets of addiction and the like, but ultimately it’s about her navigating, discovering, reckoning.

Right before the credits rolled, I thought I couldn’t love THE SOUVENIR more, then it closed out with a new Anna Calvi song (see also the previously recommended music video STRANGE WEATHER) and I shivered. Then an older women behind me complained to her companion:

“I don’t know, the whole film was weird. I mean, this song too! So weird!”

Damn right it was, and we need more of it.

Astoundingly, Hogg received funding for a sequel in which Robert Pattinson was to co-star. Then COVID and THE BATMAN happened, but the sequel did go into production — sans Pattinson — and is now in theaters! Give yourself the dramatic double-feature you deserve!

Halloween 2021 Programming: CLASSIC

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features classic horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her.

This time I will apologize not for leaning on prior works, but for posting about films I have yet to watch, but they all have stellar reputations, and at least one of them will be viewed tonight!

DOCTOR X (1932, Criterion/VOD)

While I purchased a copy of the newly restored DOCTOR X — it was one of the rare early horror films shot on a very distinct, very early two-color Technicolor process (see also: THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)) I have yet to watch it. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, during his infamous horror run at Warner Bros, and stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Excerpt:

SISTERS (1973, Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD)

Also previously suggested. Classic Brian De Palma film about two sisters, two sides of the same coin.

DIABOLIQUE (1955, Criterion/HBO MAX/Plex/Roku)

Also previously suggested. “More of a thriller than a horror film, but it’s a seminal piece of film history for both. I haven’t seen it in over twenty years, and I’m eager to revisit it.”

THE VANISHING (1988, Criterion/VOD)

This has been on my watchlist for years. I think I had a copy on the DVR via TCM, but it may have been auto-deleted due to space.

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, DVD/YouTube)

It’s campy, but very intelligent and darkly comic. Also, Vincent Price AND Joseph Cotten! (There’s a sequel I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to.)

(Shh)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927, epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD

I haven’t seen this yet but, similar to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) — which we watched a few years ago — it’s an ensemble film along the lines of Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (although this film predates both works). It’s directed by Paul Leni, who directed THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, notable for Conrad Veidt’s (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) performance that was blatantly ripped off for the look of the Joker.

Excerpt:

WHAT THEY HAD (2018)

(HBO MAX/kanopy/VOD) I appreciate a tight, succinct opening, and WHAT THEY HAD has it in spades.

The opening consists of: an older woman wearing a nightgown with a tight pedicure and freshly-painted toenails. She then pulls on gray knee socks, obscuring the nails. She draws on lipstick, crosses through a hallway with a Mucha painting, pulls on a gray wool coat, and marches erratically into a winterly urban alleyway toting a navy bag, then dissipates into the background; she fades away.

It’s a bit of a feint, as the woman — Ruth (the ever-industrious Blythe Danner) does return home. She has Alzheimers, but her husband Burt (an amazing Robert Forster) refuses to put her in a nursing home, even as his son Nick (BUG’s Michael Shannon) tries to talk him and daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) into rehoming her. The end result is an emotional drama written and directed by playwright Elizabeth Chomko.

“What are you, dead inside?” “Almost.”

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

(Criterion/Kanopy/VOD/Vudu/YouTube)? Robert Downey, Sr. passed away this week at the age of 85. While his son is mostly known for more accessible fare, Downey Sr. was an anarchic indie filmmaker, and there’s no better example of his cinematic skills than PUTNEY SWOPE.

PUTNEY SWOPE is a nihilistic indictment of Madison Avenue, American capitalism and everything it’s created (including filmmaking and anti-American capitalist revolutionaries), while also being damn funny and inventively shot. The faux-commercials it features are perhaps only rivaled by ROBOCOP (1987) or the best of Adult Swim. For instance:

I need to note that this is an incredibly insensitive film in ways I haven’t quite managed to personally reconcile — after all, it’s a film written and directed by a middle-aged white man about a Black man breaking the system — but it is also endlessly fascinating.

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019)

(kanopy/Prime) I’d argue that THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO has one of the best opening scenes in the last five, maybe ten years? It’s brilliantly executed: it tells you everything you need to know about the world, the primary characters drawn with so little dialogue, and does it so artfully and succinctly:

Even if the film was just this short scene, I’d still be raving about it. I can’t get enough of Adam Newport-Berra’s visuals or Emile Mosseri’s Michael Nyman-esque score.

However, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is far more than its opening. I -love- this film. It intersects with a lot, but the male friendship portrayed here is something rare. It’s also about an infatuation with a house, the history of a building, and the complex history of a city.* It’s also about exploitation, gentrification, modern classism, economic race disparity, the obligations of those who come into a city, and homeownership all dovetailing regarding a space with pre-existing history. It’s dense, but it never overwhelms you. It’s an astounding work, an intimate tale that takes on a larger context.

* If you want to read about the origins of film and San Francisco in one big gulp, I highly suggest THE INVENTOR AND THE TYCOON, which is the story of early photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his railroad tycoon backer Leland Stanford. (Yes, Stanford University is named after him.) I guarantee you that it’s far more interesting and intriguing and ruthless than you’d suspect. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/7965/the-inventor-and-the-tycoon-by-edward-ball/

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

(Hulu/kanopy/VOD)? Every film nerd I’ve known has their favorite seat. I certainly do: I prefer middle aisle as I have long legs and prefer not to be tightly compacted for ~two hours, and I enjoy a slightly more distanced view of the screen, as opposed to having the screen fully fill my vision.

However, sometimes — especially with film fests — you aren’t going to score your favorite spot. Sometimes you’ll get the worst seat in the house. My wife and I certainly did when we nabbed stand-by tickets for a screening of MELANCHOLIA during the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.

If you aren’t familiar with MELANCHOLIA, it’s Lars Von Trier’s meditation on depression and, while I run hot-and-cold on von Trier (especially regarding his on-set approach to filmmaking), MELANCHOLIA is certainly one of his more palatable films and features fantastic performances all around, but especially from Kirsten Dunst. It’s also arguably one of the most visually jaw-dropping films from von Trier; there’s a scale and scope and painterly look to MELANCHOLIA that’s absent from the majority of his other works. (One exception might be the psychodrama horror of ANTI-CHRIST.) While it’s absolutely gorgeous, this is a film that was not meant to be viewed in an offset front row seat which, surprise, was what our stand-by tickets garnered us.

You’re left without any distance from the mind-numbing depression and cosmic confrontation. It hammers itself into your head; you have nowhere to run. I’m sure von Trier would smirk if he read this, but it turns the film into something absolutely appropriately overwhelming and suffocating, but a perspective on the film that I would not recommend. Keep with the middle row or watch it at home and keep your distance, or it will mess with you even more than it’s intended to.

PLEASE STAND BY (2017)

(hoopla/kanopy/VOD) I’ll preface this by saying this isn’t exactly a recommendation. I found merit with the film and ultimately enjoyed it, but it is not a perfect work and is, perhaps, inherently exploitative.

PLEASE STAND BY is the story of a young autistic woman, Wendy (Dakota Fanning), who has been placed in Toni Collette’s home for autistic individuals by her older sister Audrey (Alice Eve), who has recently had a kid and self-proclaims that she doesn’t have the time to babysit Wendy as well.

Wendy, who has always been a huge STAR TREK nerd, sorts this out by writing a four-hundred some-odd page STAR TREK screenplay involving the complicated relationship between Spock and Kirk — Spock representing herself, Kirk representing her sister — for a $100,000 competition to celebrate STAR TREK’s 50th anniversary. Shortly after Wendy completes the absurdly long script, she realizes there’s not enough time to mail it, so she has to go on a journey to deliver it by hand.

A personal note: when I was a kid, I -loved- STAR TREK, and I particularly identified with Spock because he struggled with similar emotional issues that I grappled with. So, to see Wendy do the same warmed my heart, even if Spock is one of the easiest autistic analogues.

PLEASE STAND BY mirrors another relatively recent work centered around an autistic protagonist, Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: autistic person is mostly sheltered, has to venture out in the world, and their life becomes a living hell. It, like CURIOUS INCIDENT, was also written by a dude that found the concept of an autistic character ‘interesting’ and ‘challenging’, and they decided they were the ones to tell this story. In the case of PLEASE STAND BY, writer Michael Golamco was inspired by the New York Times article ‘What Autistic Girls Are Made Of’ to write a one-act stageplay, and then turn that into PLEASE STAND BY. (Similarly, CURIOUS INCIDENT started as a novel, then became a Tony award winning musical.)

CURIOUS INCIDENT frustrated me because of how little research Haddon did. He wanted to tell the tale that he envisioned, details be damned. PLEASE STAND BY frustrates me because it’s a work extolling the creative nature of those with autism, but it’s written, directed, and performed by neurotypicals. It feels inherently disingenuous, despite the amount of research and experts they enlisted.

That said, it’s still an entertaining film, with fantastic performances all around, and it seems to have been well-received by the autistic community, especially since it is a positive portrayal of an autistic woman. Representation matters, but I would rather that it wasn’t via the writerly curiosity of a neurotypical man, regardless of how well-wishing his intents were.

**

MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

(fubo/kanopy/Showtime/VOD) Josephine Decker’s films always take a bit of time for me to come to terms with. I remember seeing MADELINE’S MADELINE as part of a self-imposed triple-feature at the Music Box during a particularly stormy Chicago day, and it left a sour taste in my mouth, as if the characters I’d seen writ large on the screen weren’t being portrayed fairly.

Then, after haunting my memory for a month or so, it clicks. I realize why the actions were made, no matter how selfish, how distasteful, how the film couldn’t be any different.

(Also, it helps that her films are uniquely surrealistically stylized in a way that most indie filmmakers eschew nowadays, and it’s a style I can’t help but love.)