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!

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/

M.F.A. (2017)

(Plex/Prime/Tubi/VOD/Vudu)? A revenge thriller from director Natalia Leite (BARE) and actress/writer Leah McKendrick that pairs well with PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. It’s a stylish tale about assault and baring yourself in your work, unfurls at a fine clip, and is more complex than you might expect.

SELAH AND THE SPADES (2020)

(Prime) Tayarisha Poe’s debut SELAH AND THE SPADES can be described as DEAR WHITE PEOPLE meets BRICK and, while I can’t argue with that — it’s full of teens scheming in a neo-noir underworld of their very own making — it’s more than a mashup of those two, partially because it focuses predominantly on girls and power. Also, while it’s Jomo Fray’s first feature as a cinematographer, his experience with short films is wisely executed, providing a strikingly visual film while still keeping a steady hand on SELAH’s framing.

SYLVIE’S LOVE (2020)

(Prime) SYLVIE’S LOVE is a lovely Sirk-ian throwback romance from writer/director Eugene Ashe. It features Tessa Thompson as Sylvie, a bright young woman who dreams of a job in television and whose fiancee Lacy (Alano Miller) is overseas fighting in the Korean War. Nnamdi Asomugha is Robert, a skilled Jazz saxophone player who immediately falls for Sylvie immediately upon seeing her in her father’s (Lance Reddick) record store.

It’s a sweet, lushly shot old-school melodrama of two people who keep finding themselves thrown together, despite the obstacles they put in front of themselves.

THE WILD BLUE YONDER (2006)

(hoopla/Prime/tubi/VOD) The few folks who saw this film after first being exposed to Werner Herzog via his masterful documentary GRIZZLY MAN must have walked out of the theater feeling very confused. THE WILD BLUE YONDER doesn’t fall into Herzog’s lighthearted docudramas, but instead lands closer to his doomsaying visual photo montages, such as the better known LESSONS OF DARKNESS (1992) which took an abstracted, hellish look at the oil fields and general destruction of nature in Kuwait after the Gulf War.

THE WILD BLUE YONDER goes one step further by bringing in Andromedan extraterrestrial Brad Dourif as your personal tour guide through arctic and NASA footage. Herzog’s always been exceptional at crafting visual narratives, but having Dourif here to verbally stitch the montages together is a real treat. That said, if you’re looking for anything resembling a proper narrative, look elsewhere. My wife and I debate to this day as to whether the Gene Siskel Film Center accidentally played the reels out of order.

VIBES (1988)

(Prime/VOD) When I first found out about VIBES a few months ago via TCM Underground, I was very upset. “What do you mean there was a late-80s film with Cyndi Lauper, Peter Falk -and- Jeff Goldblum? Why am I just finding out about this?!” Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it, I can understand why it never registered on my radar but I do feel it’s the sort of film that anyone who has any interest in either of the three performers — which I think encompasses most of humanity — needs to know about.

VIBES capitalized on the short-lived mid-80s screwball romantic adventure genre spurred by ROMANCING THE STONE and the like. It’s comprised of two psychics (Lauper & Goldblum) who are enlisted by a dodgy cad (Peter Falk) to track down treasure in a lost Incan city. As you’d expect, the romantic intrigue and banter between Lauper & Goldblum should be enough to propel the film forward but, sadly, Goldblum’s halting delivery hampers an already weak vaudevillian script. For example, here’s an exchange between veteren character actor Michael Lerner and Peter Falk, regarding Falk’s wife: “Harry, I once slept with your wife.” “Estelle? Or Vivian?” “Both.” “Well, you’re one up on me!” (Cue rimshot.)

The sole highlight is Lauper as a 1980s Mae West but, sadly, the material simply isn’t there to let her shine. While she has the enthusiasm and rhythm for the role, her jokes rely on a more energetic and combative performer than the languid Goldblum (who has since been given far more opportunities to hone his comedic timing than Lauper).

I don’t want to oversell -or- undersell this film. Veteran TV director Ken Kwapis does the best with the material as he can, Julian Sands does a classic Julian Sands heel turn, and Steve Buscemi briefly appears as a sad-sack gambler! It’s an intriguing oddity, and it’s worth your time if your Venn diagram of interests intersect with any of those I listed above.

SMALL AXE (2020)

(Prime) Obviously we’ll be hearing a lot about this series over the upcoming months, but a lot of ink has already been spilled as to whether Steve McQueen’s SMALL AXE is TV or film. You’d think that, since Krzysztof Kieslowski did something similar with THE DECALOGUE in the late 80s, critics would have an answer to that by now. Personally I don’t care. Call it a modern successor to the televised theater anthologies of old for all I care. Let him win a bunch of Emmys and Oscars!

It’s a singular achievement in this day and age — each and every segment of SMALL AXE would land on anyone’s ‘best of’ list this year — and to release five masterpieces in one year? It feels like McQueen challenged himself to direct the hell out of a wide range of genres, personally investing himself by showcasing London’s Black community he grew up in, daring himself not to fuck it up.

Visually sumptuous with scenes full of food preparation, simmering, consumption; aurally entrancing with music endlessly throbbing, knives and forks clattering on ceramic; exceptional performances that bolster meticulously crafted scripts — it’s fantastic cinema. Or TV. Or cinematic TV. Or just great art.

Yes, you can watch every film on its own — although I’d suggest going with the suggested viewing order — and you will find each and everyone to be exceptional, but watch them together, watch the timeline of events unfold, watch matters ebb and escalate, and the whole becomes a greater sum of its parts. It’s remarkable.

Oh, and when you’re done, check out the SMALL AXE online zine: https://smallaxe.interactnow.tv/zine

THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

(Hulu/kanopy/Prime/VOD) Recently I’ve been waking up with STARSHIP’s -Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now- in my head and I couldn’t quite figure out why. It’s a top-notch slice of 80s pop, but hardly a song in my normal rotation.

Then I remembered the following scene from THE SKELETON TWINS:

Not the worst scene to occasionally wake to.

THE SKELETON TWINS is a charming, human look at two very fucked up fraternal twins who have been estranged for ten years, but re-unite when the sister Maggie (Kristin Wiig) is told that her brother Milo (Bill Hader) has unsuccesfully attempted suicide. Maggie invites Milo to live with her and her husband (Luke Wilson), and together they explore the miseries and coping mechanisms of their lives.

It’s rare for film to get adult brother/sister dynamics right, but writer Mark Heyman (BLACK SWAN) and director Craig Johnson (ALEX STRANGELOVE) do a fantastic job of managing the push-and-pull aging siblings have, without turning either of them into cartoonish monsters. It’s not as cheerless as it may sound — especially when you have interludes like the above Starship one — but also not as maudlin as it could be.