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!

MATINEE (1993)

(DirecTV/Starz/VOD) Of Joe Dante’s amazing run of movies though the 80s and 90s, MATINEE is often forgotten, which is a shame because — while all Dante films are paeans to cinema — MATINEE is his magnum opus to filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon and William Castle and the theatergoing experience.

A brief synopsis: It’s 1962. Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) is a Navy teen whose parents just moved to Key West. Due to the constant life interruptions, Gene finds comfort in horror films, and more often than not spends his free time haunting movie theaters with his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer). It just so happens that schlocky director Lawrence Woolsey (an utterly delightful John Goodman) is coming to town to show off his latest gimmicky film, MANT!, which is about a man who, due to radiation incurred while having his teeth x-rayed during a dental appointment, turns into a mutated ant. Woolsey’s visit also just happens to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has the world on pins-and-needles, especially the Loomis family as their father has been sent out on a Navy submarine mission. MANT! becomes a huge town event, and — as typical of a Dante film — anarchy ensues.

MATINEE was co-written by Charles S. Haas, who also wrote GREMLINS 2, which is unsurprising as it has a lot of the same self-reflexive nods — although few as fourth-wall breaking as GREMLINS 2 — that never detract or take you out of the film.

If there’s one flaw to the film, there isn’t much of a reason why we’re following the Loomis brothers, apart from the fact that their father might be involved with a Cuban Missile Crisis operation, and the fact that Gene loves horror. They aren’t given much to do but, once the MANT! screening unfurls halfway through the film, it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of MANT!, one could argue that it’s -too good- of a horror film, with some overly clever dialogue (which killed when I rewatched it at a recent theater screening) and surprisingly detailed creature design. That said, I realize complaining that the film-within-the-film is too good is a severely stupid nitpick, and please don’t let my dumb quibbles deter you from enjoying both MATINEE and MANT!.

THE KID DETECTIVE (2020)

(Starz/VOD) I have a hard time believing this film wasn’t pitched as ‘gritty adult Encyclopedia Brown’ (and then whomever was being pitched probably replied ‘Encyclo-what?’) but even if it wasn’t, it works as a pretty succinct summary.

As I grew up reading ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN and TWO-MINUTE MYSTERIES, and love Chandler-esque detective fiction in general, I was already on this film’s side. While it’s much more subdued, quiet, and cynical than I thought it’d be, debut feature writer/director Evan Morgan clearly loves the genre and is surprisingly unwilling to poke fun at it, or even to modernize it. (For a film that takes place in modern day, it’s surprisingly reliant on landline phones.)

While some may be turned off by the dourness of the film — there are cutting remarks and laughs to be had, but the film is soaked in melancholy — it’s a welcome surprise to see a neo-noir that isn’t peppered with flippancy.

THE CLIMB (2019)

(Starz/VOD) The flip-side to yesterday’s IZZY GETS THE FUCK ACROSS TOWN, THE CLIMB involves a best friend who actively works to undermine his friend’s relationships because he wants him all to himself.

Similarly overworked, it also features inter-titles for each scene, but writer/director/actor Michael Angelo Covino goes the extra mile by insisting that each and every scene be filmed in one long take.

While it’s a perfect companion film to IZZY, and I couldn’t resist suggesting the two back-to-back, two facets rub me the wrong way: 1) While I love watching films about fuckups, that love doesn’t extend to asshole dudes, and these dudes are very blinkered. 2) While I love a proper long take, and I realize they’re utilized here to heighten the feeling of being present within these significant moments, and while they’re often fluidly and adeptly executed, it feels gimmicky, and several scenes would have benefited from a handful of rigid cuts.

Never the less, it’s an intriguing look at male friendship and forgiveness, which is certainly to be applauded.

“What the FUCK is he doing wearing white?!”

THE BROKEN HEARTS GALLERY (2020)

(Starz/VOD) A funny and surprisingly sweet quarter-century crisis film/rom-com that’s is well-calibrated for minds hungry for loads of smart quips.

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS, MIRACLE WORKERS), a mid-20s pack rat with the habit of hanging onto keepsakes of her exes, is working towards her dream job as a gallery owner with her attractive and responsible boyfriend Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar, PITCH PERFECT) at a NYC museum run by her idol Eva Woolf (Bernadette Peters, who needs no introduction).

Within the span of one night, she loses both Max and her job and, in a drunk/depressed stupor, gets into what she thinks is her Lyft, but it’s just one dude who forgot to lock his passenger side door. The dude, Nick, takes pity on her and drives her home, and they start orbiting around each other. Lucy discovers that he’s trying to rehab an old YMCA into a hotel, and she takes the opportunity to set up a gallery inspired by her attempts to let go of her exes’ knickknacks, hence the title of the film.

This is writer/director Natalie Krinsky’s debut film, but she’s been writing for TV — including a long run on GOSSIP GIRL — for quite some time, and it shows. The heart of the film is the bluntly smart and rapid comedic patter of the dialogue, as opposed to flashy visuals or convoluted set pieces — although he film’s lighting is vibrantly under-lit, a rarity in rom-coms — and Krinsky couldn’t have hoped for a better lead for her script than Viswanathan. While Viswanathan has always stood out in every work she’s been involved in, her extremely expressive face and ability to turn on a dime pulls off a character that could come across as a bit too intense or creepy.

Viswanathan doesn’t have to solely carry the film on her shoulders either, as the supporting cast is ridiculously talented and fill out the film’s flavor: Lucy’s extremely supportive, but gloriously unique, roommates are HAMILTON’s Phillipa Soo (not a role I expected to see her in) and Molly Gordon (TNT’s ANIMAL KINGDOM and Hulu’s RAMY), and Arturo Castro (BROAD CITY, NARCOS) has a great rapport with Lucy as Nick’s friend. Even Nathan Dales (LETTERKENNY) pops up in a slightly gimmicky role!

While the breathless jokes, earnestness, and conventional story beats may turn some folks off, I couldn’t help but embrace it. In a genre full of paint-by-numbers comfort food mediocrity, it’s nice to see a rom-com add some verve and push the boundaries a bit, while remaining supremely entertaining.

SAINT FRANCES (2020)

(kanopy/Starz/VOD) SAINT FRANCES won me over within the first five minutes by spooning out an absolutely perfect introduction to the protagonist, her whims, persona, and obstacles. It expertly sets up the achingly human story of Bridget (writer Kelly O’Sullivan), a thirty-something Chicagoan woman working through a lot of issues while being a nanny to Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), an extraordinarily interesting misfit child.

The end result is a delight, and pairs well with PRINCESS CYD — not just because it too was shot in Chicago.

“I don’t know why I’m crying! I’m an agnostic feminist!”

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY (2020)

(Starz/VOD) Adapted from detective fiction writer Charles Willeford’s novel, this film is oddly not much of a potboiler, and not terribly thrilling. It does, however, attempt to examine critic-as-artist and vice-versa, as well as the different masks one wears in order to operate in order to ingratiate yourself to others in society, which gives it the trappings of a prestige neo-noir.

To summarize: art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) hooks up with an enigmatic woman named Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) and the two of them go on a road trip to visit his friend/art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger — yes, Mick Jagger). James is handed the possibility to reinvigorate his career by scoring an interview with the reclusive ‘last great modern artist’ Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who just happens to live on Joseph’s Italian estate. Plans misfire culminating with an end that you may or may not enjoy. (That said, the final realization is extremely satisfying and, I imagine, taken from the book.)

As this is a ‘prestige’ genre flick, director Giuseppe Capotondi takes it slow, giving you all the time in the world to revel in the fantastic backdrops and production design* while the characters talk circles around each other. It is a nice distraction because the mysteries and secrets aren’t terribly intriguing, and the characters are maddeningly paper thin. While the film is explicit about its themes of critic-as-artist/artist-as-critic/the many masks folks wear, the execution is rather facile, and rarely paid much more than lip service. For example: Debney bluntly states to Bernice that “It’s masks all the way down.”

It’s disappointing because novelist/screenwriter Scott B. Smith (A SIMPLE PLAN, THE RUINS) penned the adaptation, and he certainly has a tendency towards noir-like duplicity and the ramifications of distrust, but there is very little friction or underhandedness on display. It feels as if Smith couldn’t quite get a bead on how to approach the adaptation.

However! This film does scratch a certain itch for me and, despite the wasted potential of Bernice, Debecki wrings as much out of it as she can, and Jagger is a delightful surprising, turning in a restrained devilish performance that — as someone who has seen FREEJACK — didn’t think he had it in him. Worth a watch if your tastes are THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY-adjacent.

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (2001)

(STARZ/VOD) If you know me, you know I’ve been a booster for JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS practically since it was released. My wife has even walked into my office and exclaimed: ‘You’re watching JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS again?!’

It’s a cutting satire of late ‘90s/early naughts consumer culture, perfectly cast, with candy-coated visuals and a soundtrack to die for. Even if it didn’t have goddamn amazing songs fron Adam Schlesinger (R.I.P., also responsible for many great songs from CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND. Also, Fountains of Wayne) and Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo), it’d still be amazing. It’s far smarter than it looks.

Also, it’s the only film to have prominently featured SEGA’s SPACE CHANNEL 5, an under-appreciated videogame classic.