26th 04 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Departures (Okuribito, 2008)

Director: Yôjirô Takita

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Many of the films many of us see are filled with death. War movies, detective and serial killer movies, fantasy and action films—and above all, horror movies—entertain us in one way or another by strewing the screen with corpses. It is the rare film, however, that actually deals with death as a rite of passage that all human beings will face. It’s easier to watch troops get mowed down somehow than it is to consider our own extinction. It’s a shame, really, that people rarely turn to the movies for instruction on how to die, because there are some great features and documentaries out there that could help us learn about our own mortality and create a fairly comfortable space for it in our thoughts and lives.

Departures, the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, is one such film. A gentle, often humorous look at death that explores not only grief and reconciliation, but also the commonplace needs of the dead and their families, Departures focuses on one man’s passage from one way of life to another—one in which he ritually prepares bodies for burial.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a Tokyo orchestra. We watch as the musicians perform the rousing finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and then learn after the performance that the bankrupt orchestra is being dissolved. Daigo breaks the news to his sweet wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), and they decide to move to his hometown, where he has a paid-for home his deceased mother left him in her will. Daigo sells his expensive cello, which he cannot afford to pay off, with a sigh of relief, feeling he was never a good enough cellist for the instrument. It’s time for a new kind of life.

Daigo sees a help-wanted ad in the local paper for someone to handle departures for a firm called NK Agency. The ad promises great pay and short hours. Thinking it must be a travel agency, Daigo arranges an interview with the owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He enters the establishment, and meets Yuriko (Kimiko Yo), the office manager, who tells him to have a seat. Directly in his line of sight are three wooden coffins. When Mr. Sasaki arrives, Daigo hands him his resume. Sasaki shoves it aside, looks at him closely, and asks him if he will work hard. When Daigo says “yes,” Sasaki hires him at a very handsome salary. When Daigo asks what the job entails, Sasaki merely says, “You’ll be my assistant.”

It isn’t until the next day, when Daigo is told to meet Sasaki at a theatre, that he learns what he is to do. Sasaki uses him as a demonstration model for an instructional video on encoffinment, showing how to pack the cavities of the body for burial, how to shave and handle necrotic skin, and how to dress and apply make-up to corpses. NK, it turns out, stands for “nokan” (encoffinment), and the ad should have said “the departed” rather than “departures.” When the next job involves handling a body that has been decomposing for two weeks, Daigo loses his cookies and very nearly quits, that is, until he goes with Sasaki to a proper funeral and watches the careful attention his boss pays to the corpse and the relief and gratitude the grieving family experience. He takes pride in the comfort he can bring to people and the reverence he can show for the deceased—but he keeps the nature of his work a secret from Mika, fearing she will be repulsed. When she does finally find out, she basically says, “your job or me.” When Daigo chooses his job, Mika leaves him.

Departures zeroes in on the passages of Daigo’s life in a way that universalizes the progression of life from birth to death. Daigo, in the middle of his life, has written off in bitterness the father who left him and his mother when Daigo was 6, and he failed to attend his mother’s funeral. Finding in Sasaki a surrogate father in whose shoes he can follow, he regresses somewhat and lets go of his adult life with Mika. Invited by Sasaki to share dinner with him after Mika’s departure, Daigo observes Sasaki’s lingering sadness over his wife’s death nine years before. He starts learning lessons his own father never had time to teach him and relearning some he did, such as returning to the cello he learned on when he was a child. Eventually, Daigo becomes reconciled to his past and ready to move forward as an adult.

The film mixes a bit of pathos with comedy, such as Daigo’s bewilderment at his role in the training video; Daigo’s first corpse preparation, when he learns the young woman he is washing is actually a man; and a full-scale fight among members of a family that blame each other for the death they are grieving. Although the story is somewhat predictable and broadly sketched, the fine performances of Motoki and especially Yamazaki as Daigo and Sasaki ground this film and keep it from flying away with the first strong gust of wind.

Director Takita provides some gorgeous “pillow shots” that show the beauty of nature, making death seem a natural part of life and encouraging audiences not to turn away from it. In the Q&A Takita mentioned a happenstance by which he first learned of the encoffinment profession and his own advancing age as spurs to his desire to make this film. I’ve seen better films on death and dying than Departures, but perhaps none as sweet and accessible. l

Q&A with Yôjirô Takita


25th 04 - 2010 | no comment »

Trucker (2008)

Director/Screenwriter: James Mottern

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Trucker opens with sex. Its main character, Diane (Michelle Monaghan), is on top of a young man—a busboy at a nearby restaurant—and climaxes. After taking a few moments to catch her breath, she rolls out of bed and moves into the bathroom to wash and start getting dressed. As she moves about the motel room, getting her boots on and gathering her belongings, the young man assures her that he really likes her and tries to entice her to have dinner with him at his restaurant (“I get a really good discount.”). She says she really needs to get to Reno and leans down to give him a quick kiss. “Don’t you want my e-mail?” he asks. She just looks at him with incredulous condescension and walks out the door.

Diane knows her way around a big rig, which we see as she pulls up to a factory bay door, unhooks the trailer of goods from the truck she owns, and drives back to her home in a “white trash” town near Los Angeles. She walks into her nicely furnished house and crumples into bed for a long sleep that she reluctantly leaves when her neighbor Runner (Nathan Fillion) invites her to have drinks at the VFW: “It’s 70s night.” The pair gets smashed, and she drags him out of his truck and onto the front porch of his home. His wife and brother-in-law Rick (Bryce Johnson)—a lout who has warned her earlier about spending time with a married man and aggressively “suggested” that he would be a better companion—come out to find Runner laid flat on his back with a pillow under his head. Diane has taken off for home.

In the morning, Diane answers a knock on her door. It is Jenni (Joey Lauren Adams), her ex-husband Leonard’s (Benjamin Bratt) girlfriend. Diane complains that Jenni should have called first, only to be scolded that Diane has not returned her calls or letters. Leonard is in the hospital, and Jenni has to leave town to attend her mother’s funeral. She hands over 11-year-old Peter (Jimmy Bennett), the son Diane had with Leonard, and says Diane will have to look after him for three or four weeks. Diane argues that she’s on the road all the time, but to no avail. The mother and son who barely know each other must make the best of things until Leonard is released. Only Leonard is dying and is hoping Diane will make room in her life for Peter. This is the central problem with which the rest of the film concerns itself.

Trucker tells a familiar kind of story, in fact, one reminiscent of another Ebertfest movie directed by Joey Lauren Adams, Come Early Morning. Like Ashley Judd in the latter film, Monaghan carries herself with a stoic swagger and a sexual assertiveness that ensure we know we’ve got a skittish animal in our corral. Unlike Come Early Morning, Trucker doesn’t suggest that Diane is damaged by a frigid parent-child relationship. Instead, Diane is much like her mythological namesake, Diana the Huntress. Capable, free, unchained to any man, instinctual, Diane seems more a creature than a human. “(Leonard) wanted me to do things I couldn’t do,” she tells Peter when he asks her why she left. In other words, he wanted to domesticate her, or at least that’s how Diane saw it. Indeed, director James Mottern mentioned in the Q&A after the film that he made a documentary about mustangs and had those beautiful and wild horses in mind when he wrote the character of Diane.

Monaghan and the wonderful Jimmy Bennett show the gradual steps mother and son take toward each other. Peter learns from Runner that Diane is great on a baseball diamond. She tries to teach him to hit, but he cowers from her pitches. “I’m afraid of you,” he says, and she pitches the next ball right into his leg, pleading that she didn’t mean it. Indeed, at this point, Diane does aim her arrow a bit haphazardly. But, as a child, Peter also needs some taming. He tells her that because he didn’t bring his toothbrush, he uses his finger instead. She considers that uncivilized. He demands money from her to buy a toothbrush at the convenience store across the street, where he is roughed up by two older boys. As soon as she sees blood on his face, she runs out of the room in only her t-shirt and panties and slaps the teens like a mother bear. In a later scene, Diane leans into her sleeping son and sniffs him up and down, as though remembering his newborn smells to bond with him.

The film, generally gentle, indulges in a moment of violence—an attempted rape of Diane that allows her son to come to her defense. I thought this was a bit of a cheap shot to cement their relationship. I also thought the nonsexual, four-year love affair between Diane and Runner strained credulity. While it seems perfectly reasonable that Diane would avoid any entanglement, let alone with a married man, it’s unlikely a wife would put up with her husband spending the kind of time we see him spend with a woman as attractive as Diane. But Runner’s wife is glimpsed once and never seen again, an omission that took me a bit out of the story.

Other omissions, however, work beautifully. For example, Diane, suffering emotionally, sits in a truckers’ lounge. Another trucker eyes her; she returns his gaze. He gets up and leaves the lounge, and a beat later, Diane does the same. The next scene shows Diane showering in the truckers’ facility with a concentrated look on her face. This is all we need to know she’s had another one-night stand, but is concerned about how she has been conducting her life.

The final scene is written as close to perfection as I can imagine. Diane has a choice to make, one she makes nonverbally. Peter asks her to say what she wants, a simple line that takes Diane out of her animalism and encourages her to exercise that one, most human ability—speech.

Q&A with James Mottern and Michelle Monaghan


23rd 04 - 2010 | 3 comments »

The New Age (1994)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Tolkin

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If there had never been a California, Michael Tolkin would have had to invent it. Tolkin, a talented novelist and filmmaker, has made a specialty of exploring the particular kind of lost souls that emanate from the balmy, windblown clime of Southern California. He especially likes to take on the self-important pretensions of the rich and bored. The Player (1992) showed up the arrogance of privilege in a particularly satisfying way, as Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi wallowed in the mud bath of a desert spa like two contemptible pigs. You might even say that he showed contempt for the privileges God arbitrarily offered and withheld in The Rapture (1991).

The New Age takes a slightly different tack by having a privileged couple, Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis), serve as the instruments of their own destruction. Katherine, a graphic designer with her own business, “fires” her biggest client for nonpayment, deletes all his electronic files, and then goes on a shopping spree. Peter, who has been screwing up at a CAA-like talent agency, spontaneously quits his job when he is brought under fire at a board meeting and goes off to meet Alison (Paula Marshall), his mistress. When the Witners meet up back at their exquisitely appointed mansion and learn of each other’s financially disastrous follies, what do they decide to do? Throw a party. “We haven’t had one in weeks,” Peter laments.

The party puts the Witners in contact with Jean Levy, a French (“Belgian, actually”) self-help guru (Patrick Bauchau, Vic in The Rapture) who seems to have anticipated Twitter with his pithy, vague exhortations to “Live the Question” and other New Age falderall. Jean’s disciple Ellen (Susan Traylor) buzzes close to Peter, arousing Katherine’s suspicions, but her cheat-o-meter goes into high gear when she spies Peter and Alison talking, though they lied to her about having just met when Alison shows up unexpectedly as the date of an invited guest. In retaliation, Katherine leaves the party with Misha (Bruce Ramsay), an attractive, young coffee-shop owner, and becomes an adulterer for the first time. Shortly thereafter, she suggests a trial separation, one in which she and Peter share the house but not the bedroom; Katherine seems to have abandoned her business and has insufficient finances to move out. Alison and Misha both move in, and Peter and Katherine carry on their dalliances while opening and running a high-end clothing store together after Levy suggests that their next move should be something that involves their greatest talents—talking and shopping.

The New Age is quite funny in the way it shows what impresses people like the Witners and their set. Jean speaks French, so he must be at the vanguard of something authentic. Katherine also seeks help from Sarah (Rachel Rosenthal), a spiritualist who must be the real deal because she’s old, dresses like a wealthy hippie, and shaves her head, but Katherine confesses in frustration that she cannot feel the vibes of the universe the other women in her drum circle do. Katherine’s pain at her husband’s serial infidelities, her failed business and slowly failing clothing store, and the betrayal of her friends is difficult to watch. She sells a $400 belt to her friend Anna (Patricia Heaton), oblivious to Anna’s reluctance to buy it, and later finds out Anna is throwing a party to which she and Peter are not invited. Anna bluntly says she doesn’t want to deal with Katherine and Peter’s problems; “I have to be honest,” she says when she no longer has the option to lie by omission. Later, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the coming of the Apocalypse in The Rapture, Peter, Ellen and several others go to a “sacred place” in the desert and get caught up in a dust storm. As the assembled scurry for cover, Katherine stumbles upon Peter and Ellen kissing passionately at the base of a rock. Katherine, who admits she only cares about looking cool (“but I’m working on it”), is more afflicted by others than inflicting. Her businesses legitimately dry up, and she faces the reality of surviving and making better choices.

Peter isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic a character. Despite being poorly fathered by a hypercritical, rejecting father (Adam West) who gives him a $10,000 check to help him keep his home and business afloat and then cancels the check first thing the next day, Peter actively turns into someone he himself despises. Telemarketers, whom he loathes as lying parasites, plague him throughout the movie until he is so desperate that he begs one for a job. When he hoodwinks an elderly florist (Audra Lindley) out of $150, his boss (Samuel L. Jackson) declares him to be “a man.” This “validation” is an indictment of Peter and Katherine’s entire way of life—selling image rather than substance to corrupt people like themselves—and by extension, the lack of substance that, in 1994, was making overvalued or nonworking elites wealthy and quietly destroying the economy for real workers, who were being laid off in droves and replaced by cheaper labor in other countries. Katherine ends up doing what she is truly interested in doing with her talent for style, and Peter, though offered high-paying work back in show biz, descends into self-loathing and acts on the outside what he has always been on the inside, choosing to follow in his surrogate father’s footsteps as a telemarketer.

In the panel discussion after the film, Tolkin said it really shook him up to watch the film, that it was more personal than he remembered. He said the point of the film was to explore what a man is supposed to be in this society. When questioned about his attraction to religion, he admitted that he sees religion as all psychology, and that belief is an expression of character that he can’t explore in the abstract. Therefore, he does not caricature belief systems, though the spirituality in this film certainly skirts that line.

Tolkin revealed that he didn’t agree with Judy Davis when they were making the film, but stands in awe of her skill and recognizes after seeing the film again that her choices were dead right. A funny line in the film comes when Peter sits down to play the piano—Fauré—and he is asked to play something else by a guest who has heard him play this piece numerous times. “It’s the only song I can play,” says Peter, and indeed, it is the only piece Peter Weller could play on a piano at the time.

Tolkin offered his different takes on being a novelist and a filmmaker, and on being a screenwriter and a director of his own work. Humorously, when asked what he thought of the film, he said, “The writer was really angry with the director, and the director threw the writer off the set.”

Although this film takes place in 1994, its mention of an economic meltdown makes it timely. “I’m always right about the economy,” said Tolkin about his social commentary over the years. He also suggested that the film had some documentary qualities to it, that he likes to film real people being themselves. At one point, Peter is taken to an S&M orgy. Tolkin said the people at the party, including the two women who invite him to take his pants off and join them in a threesome, were real members of the scene. While this part of the movie seemed a little tacked on, it was a fascinating scene reminiscent of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut; the entire film has quite a few echoes with Kubrick’s film, though somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s is more hopeful.

The New Age captures a moment and place in time with breadth and deadly accuracy. Despite its moments of humor, the film is not really fun. But it is wise in its wariness, and another small gem from a talented writer and director.

Q&A with Michael Tolkin


29th 04 - 2009 | 12 comments »

Ebertfest 2009: Roger’s Back, and Ebertfest’s Got Him

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It was with great joy that the audience for the 11th Annual Ebertfest welcomed its namesake back to the cavernous Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. During the 9th Ebertfest, with Roger’s health in a precarious state and his voice silenced after bursting his carotid artery during cancer treatments, the festival installed for him his very own La-Z-Boy lounger in the back of the theatre; his wife Chaz and other Ebertfest supporters took over the emceeing and Q&A duties. Last year, despite his best efforts, Roger Ebert was too physically fragile to attend the festival.

This year, Roger returned to the podium to introduce each of the 12 films at the festival. His voice still gone, he cued up his Macbook, and a very British-sounding voice the Eberts have nicknamed “Sir Lawrence” recited his prewritten remarks. Not missing were Roger’s fluent prose, passion for movies and movie makers, self-deprecating jokes about his computer voicebox, and humorous gestures often made behind Chaz’s back as she stood at the podium reading biographies, acknowledging funders and guests, and generally making the festival the kind of homey affair for which it is justly loved. It was great to see Roger in such high spirits.

This wasn’t my favorite slate of films at Ebertfest. I just didn’t like Baraka enough to find inspiration to share my thoughts about it, though it was a beautiful-looking film in every respect. Fatigue kept me from writing a review of My Winnipeg, seeing Frozen River, and seeing Let the Right One In for a second time. I was terribly disappointed in Nothing But the Truth and not terribly bowled over by The Last Command or Chop Shop. But seeing Trouble the Water and Begging Naked, two outstanding documentaries of continuing relevance, certainly made the 2.5-hour trip from Skokie worth the trouble.

Highlights included meeting Guy Maddin and telling him that my favorite film of his is Cowards Bend the Knee. He seemed genuinely pleased by that and said it was a “criminally underseen” film. He’s just as funny in person as his films would suggest. One story he told was of the opening for My Winnipeg in which his narration starts: “Winnipeg.” “Winnipeg.” “Winnipeg.” That, he said, was the result of him not knowing what to say when he began the narration. He kept it because it seemed to hypnotize the film editor into watching the film.

It was also lovely to see Catinca Untaru, the 7-year-old costar of Tarsem’s The Fall, now 12, as she looked back on the experience of making the film. Tarsem told no one that her costar, Lee Pace, could walk. She said she used to bring him cookies when they took a break. “After I knew that he could walk, I was glad, but I was also annoyed” because she had been waiting on him hand and foot. The hubby recorded her entire Q&A and I’ll post it as soon as we can figure out how.

Nina Paley, back in her hometown with Sita Sings the Blues, spoke a great deal about how coming from a family of scientists gave her the mindset to share information and how her need to spend $50,000 for the rights to the Annette Hanshaw recordings she used in the film—music only available through record collectors since the copyright holder had destroyed all the masters—led her to an organization called Question Copyright. Her film is a free download to anyone who wants it, and she is working actively to see the arcane copyright laws changed to keep artistic creations alive and available.

Michael Wadleigh, the director of Woodstock, which opened the festival, helped on the Baraka Q&A. His question to Baraka director Ron Fricke was more a statement that an alien coming to this planet would observe an overpopulated, overly aggressive species of humans doomed to extinction, and what did Fricke think. Fricke optimistically referenced the peaceful creatures that open the film in answer: “I think there’s a snow monkey in all of us.”

Finally, I got the second thrill of a lifetime from Roger himself. He linked to my review of Sita Sings the Blues some time ago, an honor I’ll never forget. I went up to him to thank him for the validation. He shook my hand, pointed at me, put his hand over his heart, and pointed back at me. I love you, too, Roger. l


25th 04 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Ebertfest 2009: The Last Command (1928)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Emil Jannings has the distinction of being the first Best Actor Oscar winner for his performance in the film under consideration here, The Last Command. It’s interesting that the Oscars set a precedent they would follow faithfully up to this day—honoring actors for previous performances. There is no question that Jannings would have garnered a Golden Boy for his moving performance in The Last Laugh had the awards existed in 1924. The Last Command is inferior in every way to that film, and Jannings’ performance as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin of unfortunate Czar Nicholas Romanov, while showing off the Swiss actor’s ability to gain an audience’s sympathy, is kind of a walkthrough in most respects.

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The Last Command has a wraparound story in which the Grand Duke is a down-and-out immigrant working as an extra in Hollywood. The director of a Russian war epic, Lev Andreyev (William Powell), surrounded by assistants, is working his way down a stack of head shots. He’s not happy, even though his assistant director (Jack Raymond) says it contains every Russian in Hollywood.

Andreyev finds one headshot that seems to mesmerize him; he turns it over to read the actor’s particulars: “Claims to be the cousin of the Czar and the commander of the Russian Imperial Army. Little acting experience. Will work for $7.50 a day.” Andreyev tells his assistant to get the man in and fit him with a general’s uniform. When his landlady knocks on his door to tell him there’s a call for him, the Grand Duke opens his door tentatively and shuffles lethargically to the phone in the hall, his head shaking incessantly.

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The cattle call in the morning is a frenzy of extras trying to get their costumes and props. The dazed Russian moves from window to window, gathering up his uniform, saber, boots, and hat. When he goes into the dressing room crowded with other extras, the man next to him tells him to stop shaking. “I can’t help it. I’ve had a great shock in my life.” Another sees a medal the Russian unwraps from among his personal items. “The Czar gave it to me,” he says. The extra snatches it and humiliates the old soldier by making him fetch it off the top of a bayonet. The Grand Duke escapes in memory to Russia and his glory days.

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We’re taken to 1917, just before the Russian Revolution. The Grand Duke, confident and resplendent in his fur-trimmed coat, is inspecting his troops, who are ill-supplied to fight battles on every front. The Czar, however, thinks war is a board game. He makes demands that require the Grand Duke to pull divisions from the already outmanned front lines just so that he can inspect them. “This is the kind of thing that feeds the revolutionists.” Two such suspected revolutionists, Lev Andreyev and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), have been rousted from their flat and brought in to headquarters. The Grand Duke interrogates them both, striking Andreyev across the face with a riding crop and taking Dabrova as his “guest” when the command must move to different quarters.

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Dabrova behaves like a glamorous ornament, but plots the Grand Duke’s murder. She invites him up for coffee in her room, but secrets a pistol she has stashed among her belongings under a pillow. He sees it, but does nothing to stop her. She asks him about his devotion to Russia, and he says he would give his life for his country. Her resolve wavers. When he gets up to get her a cigarette, she pulls out the gun but, shaking, collapses into tears. She admits she loves him. Naturally, love cannot conquer the Russian Revolution. Revolutionaries capture the Grand Duke’s train and execute his entourage in a mob frenzy. Dabrova sacrifices herself to help ensure the Grand Duke’s escape from Russia. He leaps from the train and watches as a trestle the train passes over collapses into a frozen river below. His head shake starts from that moment. The memory having reached its climax, we return to Hollywood and the reunion of the Grand Duke and Andreyev on set.

The script, written by von Sternberg but credited to someone else, is a very silly affair. The Ebertfest audience laughed out loud at the purple prose of love he injected into it, and also at the intentional and witty jokes. When the Grand Duke’s valet (Michael Visaroff) is caught for a second time trying on the Grand Duke’s great coat and smoking his cigarettes, the general exclaims, “If you catch him doing it again, remove the coat and shoot the contents.” The seriousness of the backstory is undermined by the improbabilities required by Hollywood at the time. For example, although Dabrova is taken straight from interrogation, she seemingly has a huge, chic wardrobe at the ready. Perhaps the Grand Duke bought it or had it from his previous mistress, but where did the gun come from? It’s the usual illogic of the early costume drama in action.

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An escape of Andreyev and the other prisoners was well staged and exciting, as was the taking of the Grand Duke’s train. The mob frenzy was believable, but Jannings’ endless mugging at them started to try my patience. Powell was excellent as a committed revolutionist, as was Brent. The final scene of the film is both melodramatic in a bad way and undercut by a callous joke. The scene could have worked as a reconciliation between the Grand Duke and Andreyev, who must have seen the failure of the revolution (why else would he have left Russia?) with 10 years’ hindsight and felt more sympathy for the general’s urgings not to believe the traitors to Russia. Von Sternberg despised working with Jannings, so I can imagine he may have deliberately ruined the actor’s last impression.

The Alloy Orchestra’s score worked well in the grander moments of the film, but was too pompous-sounding for the many light moments, particularly in the first act. I’ve had this complaint with them before, that their scores are not particularly sensitive to mood changes. The print of the film was spectacular, though it seemed to have been synched at the wrong speed.

As a silent-film buff, I am perhaps harder on this film than the average filmgoer would be. It’s perfectly enjoyable. Just don’t expect too much of it.


29th 03 - 2008 | 8 comments »

Ebertfest 2008

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April 23-27
Virginia Theatre
203 Park Ave.
Champaign, Illinois

As a veteran of almost every Ebertfest ever held, I can tell you that this is an event not to be missed. The films are always a revelation and the guests, oh, the guests, are not to be beat. Last year, I got to watch Paul Cox pit his morbid outlook on life with Werner Herzog’s mordant sense of humor. In previous years, I’ve been privileged to listen to conversations between Roger and John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, Bertrand Tavernier, Miranda July, Ayesha Dharkar (star of The Terrorist), Tian Ming-Wu (director of King of Masks), and so many more that only the likes of Roger Ebert could entice to come to a college town in the middle of nowhere.

Champaign is a pleasant town with some nice restaurants and shops and the beautiful Virginia Theatre, looking better every year as restoration work continues, largely through the financial windfall that is Ebertfest. What’s nice about this festival is how laid back it is. Despite its growing popularity, the filmgoers are still mainly townspeople and university faculty and students. The free children’s show every year brings a new generation of film lovers in in droves. Roger and his wife Chaz are very approachable and friendly, even last year, when Roger, struck dumb by a tracheostomy tube, still had a smile, a thumbs up, and an autograph for all comers to his La-Z-Boy lounger in the back of the theatre.

I’ve been waiting weeks for the schedule to come out, and now here it is:

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23
7:00 pm
Hamlet (1996)

THURSDAY, APRIL 24
1:00 pm
Delirious (2006)
Guest: Tom DiCillo, director

4:00 pm
Yes (2004)
Guests (tentative): Sally Potter, director, Christopher Sheppard, producer

8:30 pm
Canvas (2006)
preceded by Citizen Cohl: The Untold Story (2006), a short film tribute to Dusty Cohl
Guests: Joey Pantoliano, cast, Adam Hammel, producer, Lucy Engibarian-Hammel, producer, Joseph Greco, director, Barry Avrich, director (Citizen Cohl)

FRIDAY, APRIL 25
11:30 am

Shotgun Stories (2007)
Guest: Jeff Nichols, director

2:30 pm
Underworld (1927)
Music: The Alloy Orchestra

7:00 pm
The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)
Guests: John Peterson, documentary subject, Taggart Siegel, director

10:00 pm
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Guest: Paul Schrader, director

SATURDAY, APRIL 26
11:00 am

Hulk (2003)
Guest: Ang Lee, director

3:00 pm
The Band’s Visit (2007)
Guest: Eran Kolirin, director

7:30 pm
Housekeeping (1987)
Guests: Bill Forsyth, director, Christine Lahti, cast

11:00 pm
The Cell (2000)
Guest: Tarsem Singh, director

SUNDAY, APRIL 27
Noon

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Guests: Aida Turturro, cast, Tricia Brouk, choreographer

For more information, go to the Ebertfest Web site.

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30th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Man of Flowers (1983)

manofflowers.jpgDirector: Paul Cox

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Paul Cox, a Dutch/Australian director who Roger Ebert has long championed, has made sad nostalgia his stock and trade. Two previous films of his shown at Ebertfest, A Woman’s Tale (1991) and Innocence (2002), look at the very old and reflect on the narrowing of their lives and the regrets that have accompanied their choices. Man of Flowers is another distinctive film from Cox that examines one man’s painful memories of his budding sexuality and his current battle in late middle age to reach beyond his cloistered, idealized, but dissatisfying existence.

Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye) is a very rich man who lives in a gated mansion filled, museum-/mausoleum-like, with fine art and flowers. He appears to leave his home rarely and only to perform a limited number of tasks. He plays the organ at the church across the street, goes to the flower market, takes walks in the park to gaze upon nude bronzes, posts letters daily to his dead mother, takes an art class, and visits his psychiatrist. Into this narrowly circumscribed existence are admitted a homespun philosopher of a postman, a clumsy maid, and most recently, a young girl named Lisa (Alyson Best) who we see in the opening scene leave her slum neighborhood, go with Charles to his home, and strip naked while an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays in the background. Her performance rouses him out of his easy chair and over to the church, where his orgasmic cacophony of organ music shakes the church walls.

Indeed, this is the only kind of voluntary orgasm Charles has ever known. Flashbacks to his childhood show his elegant mother (Hilary Kelly), a flower lover who bears a passing resemblance to Lisa, his severe father (Werner Herzog), and several sexually charged scenes in which a dour-looking young Charles (James Stratford) sees his mother naked, follows his irresistible urge to place his hand on the enormous bosom of one of his aunts, and walks closely behind another to breathe in her scent. Invariably, his explorations result in physical punishment from his father. These silent vignettes, shot in Super 8, represent dreams that help Charles guide his money-grubbing psychiatrist (Bob Ellis) in prescribing cures for his sexual inhibitions.

Man%20of%20Flowers%20Lisa.jpgLisa lives with a selfish, cocaine-addicted painter named David (Chris Haywood) who constantly pesters her for money. When she starts bringing home $100 more each Wednesday, he learns that she is stripping for Charles and starts to scheme about ways to get his hands on more. Lisa says she likes Charles, though certainly she is looking for a place to stay to get away from David. One day she shows up for their appointment with a black eye. Charles has already ceased to see her as an anonymous body upon which he can project sexual fantasies. He sees her as his little flower, crying, and “salt water is no good for flowers.”

Charles goes to David’s studio to see if he can legitimately give him money through the purchase of one of his paintings. Unfortunately for David, Charles considers his modern art coarse. Later, he admonishes Lisa that David is a much worse artist than she had led him to believe. “He can’t paint flowers.” Something else must be done to relieve Lisa of the burden of David. The film takes an unexpectedly comic turn that is as delightfully wicked as it is surprising.

norman_kaye_.jpgWatching Charles is, at times, like watching a child. His sexual nature has been frozen in childhood. He finds sweet scents and flowers erotic. He enjoys touching bronze nudes, even tries to buy one from a very peculiar metalworker. He is advised by his psychiatrist to watch himself in the mirror and try to masturbate. He considers watching Lisa and her lesbian friend Jane (Sarah Walker) touch and kiss, out of curiosity. He’s very innocent of what intimate human contact looks like because he hasn’t seen much and never engages in it himself. Instead, his mind has turned the guilt his father made him feel into a fetish for beauty that is, nonetheless, without real human intercourse of any kind. My companions at the festival thought he was quite like the character of Chance in Being There, but I didn’t see him that way.
Charles’ innocence is not total; he is not ignorant of what sex is. If he reminded me of anyone, it was the guilt-ridden Francis from Exotica whose experience of tragedy inhibited his ability to relate normally to others. Loneliness drove both men to try to experience some contact, some warmth.

Charles, however, is a singular man among men. It is perhaps instructive to know that Lucia di Lammermoor deals with the last surviving member of a Scottish clan who lives in a lonely tower by the sea. He gains the love of a woman, the sister of his sworn enemy, and hopes to marry her to heal the rift. Alas, the plan ends in tragedy, and heaven must be the place of their union. Cox’s haunting last shot brilliantly communicates Charles’—and all men’s—essential longing.

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30th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Come Early Morning (2006)

Director: Joey Lauren Adams

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“It’s going to sound like the biggest cliché in the world, but there are no good parts for women. Well, a few, and Nicole Kidman gets them.” So said Joey Lauren Adams about her motivation for writing and directing Come Early Morning, a mature and particular look at a woman in her 30s who has a successful career and a dysfunctional emotional life.

Adams’ own career as an actress should have taken off following her breakout performance in Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy. However, already “aging” out of contention at the ripe old age of 30, Adams envisioned herself on The Surreal Life and decided that rather than gripe about it, she’d move in another direction. In the process, she harnessed the power of another underutilized actress, Ashley Judd, to create a real life on screen.

Judd plays Lucy Fowler, a partner in an Arkansas contracting firm whose m.o. with men is to hook up with one at a bar, get drunk, get laid, and vanish early in the morning. The film opens with Lucy after one such tryst, stumbling into her boots, suffering a slap from the man who doesn’t take kindly to catching her making a getaway and insisting to the hotel clerk that the room be placed on her charge card. She catches a cab to the house she shares with her roommate Kim (Laura Prepon). After throwing her panties in the garbage, Lucy catches a little rest before she has to go into work. We see her on a building site with her partner Owen (Stacy Keach) and watch her demonstrate how well she knows her business.

Lucy frequents a tavern called The Forge, where she likes to listen to the traditional country jukebox and play pool with Eli (Wally Welch). One afternoon, a woman comes into the bar and starts baiting Lucy about the fact that she has two fathers. The catcalls escalate into a full-blown fight, and a young man in the bar pulls Lucy off the other woman and drags her outside. His name is Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), and he draws her attention to the nasty cut on her face. She drives off, giving him an interested look.

Lucy has two grandmothers whom she visits regularly. Nana (Diane Ladd) lives with the verbally abusive Ed (Pat Corley), and every visit is fraught with complaints. Doll (Candyce Hinkle) lives in an assisted living complex, and Lucy drives her to the grave of her nasty husband. When Lucy asks her why she still goes, Doll answers, “You got no say over your heart, Lucy. And if you think you do, you’d best not let yours roam too far.” Lucy has been taking this advice all her life, though she hadn’t heard it before from Doll.

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When she meets up with Cal again, he asks for her phone number. “Why?” she asks uncomprehendingly. “So I can call you,” he answers. “For a date?” she says in cynical disbelief, then says she’s in the book. It is only at this point that she reluctantly tells him her full name. When they finally do go out, she brings Kim along and resists making small talk. They end the evening as all Lucy’s evenings end, in bed, with Lucy making her early exit the next morning. But she finds ways to pursue him anyway.

Come%20Early%20Wilson.jpgDespite Lucy’s same-old same-old routine, she seems on the verge of a change. When she learns from Doll that her distant father Lowell (Scott Wilson) was over to replace her VCR, Lucy finds out from Doll where he is living and that he is attending a new church. Lucy gingerly makes contact with Lowell and asks if she can attend church with him. This she does for several weeks, and we learn that the congregation is a caring one, and the preacher (Ray MacKinnon) doles out some pretty good advice.

Predictably, Lucy’s romance with Cal is almost too painful for her. When they make love, Lucy sober this time, Cal’s gentle stroking of her body in comfort brings Lucy to tears. She needs to find a way to ruin it, to maintain her independence. When her business partner decides to take a job that’s less demanding, she feels momentarily abandoned. She runs to the preacher and wonders why God would be so hard on the little child she was, that she’s tired of knocking and knocking on a door that doesn’t answer. The preacher advises her to stop knocking and just walk in. This she does literally with her alcoholic father, and listens to him play his guitar, his offering and hiding place. Lucy finally seems to realize that everyone has limitations, and that you just have to work with them.

Ashley Judd gives a nuanced, mature performance that feels real at all times. Bravely, by Hollywood standards, she eschews glamour for direct sunlight on a naked face. She finds a number of interesting mannerisms, such as the way she stands away from a door when she knocks, that make this character completely individual. Her supporting cast members give fully fleshed performances, too, even in small roles. Laura Prepon as Kim, for example, sticks to her hopes for a real relationship. “Don’t you ever get tired of waiting by the phone for some joker to call?” Lucy mocks. “Don’t you ever not?” Kim shoots back.

This film doesn’t offer all the answers, and Lucy doesn’t solve all her problems by falling in love and getting the guy. Her father doesn’t suddenly warm up, and her grandparents don’t realize they’ve been selfish. Lucy has emotional problems, but she’s not a child. She understands through trial and error and utter desperation that she has to figure out how to make peace and learn to be happy. We don’t know what life will look like for her when she finds her way, but Lucy gives us hope that she—and we—will get there.


29th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Sadie Thompson (1928)

Director: Raoul Walsh

9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The world of cinema has lost a great many films over the years to decomposition. Sadie Thompson, a film that held such fascination for movie studios and fans alike that it was remade twice, nearly left us. The only surviving print was kept in the vault of United Artists partner Mary Pickford, whose company distributed the film, and it was badly damaged—nearly the entire final reel of the film disintegrated. Fortunately, Kino International restored and released the film on video in 1987, using still images from the private collections of the film’s cast and crew, as well as the scenario and notes from director Raoul Walsh to create intertitles. Kino also commissioned a score for the video release by Joseph Turrin. Roger Ebert chose Sadie Thompson as the silent film to be featured at this year’s Overlooked Film Festival.

The Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute on the run going head to head with a moral reformer certainly has spice, but the special attraction of this first and arguably best rendition is Gloria Swanson. This charismatic actress who became a huge star in the silent era, imbues Sadie with exactly the right degree of natural spunk, fear, and madness.

At the end of a long voyage from San Francisco to Pago Pago, a crewman asks passengers to sign his remembrance book. Reformer Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) and his severe wife (Blanche Friderici) signal their characters by writing of damnation and the need for repentance. Another couple, the Angus McPhails (Charles Lane and Florence Midgley) temper this response with a plea for tolerance. Finally, Sadie gets her chance to crack wise to the crewman and write a defiant message of her own. In this humorous way, we know exactly who we’re dealing with.

At the dock, bored marines watch the new arrivals, brightening considerably when Sadie comes down the gangplank. The Davidsons are appalled as Sadie is swarmed by men, and head off to the guest house at which they normally stay on their visits to the islands. Davidson has made himself a very powerful man, and detours to the governor’s office for an update on the state of the natives’ souls. Sadie is waiting for a ship to take her to a job in Apia, Samoa, but learns the ship is quarantined for smallpox and will not leave for at least 10 days. Sadie runs from the ship and starts examining herself for spots, carelessly inviting the marines, particularly one named Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), to help her look. They return her to the guest house, owned by a trader named Joe Horn (James A. Marcus) and his hefty native wife Ameena (Sophia Artega). Sadie sweet-talks him into letting her stay just until the boat sails. The marines clean out a store room off the sitting room for her. To thank them, she invites them to listen to some jazz records on her victrola. The Davidsons, of course, are scandalized.

Naturally, Davidson decides to make trouble for Sadie, certain he has seen her in the red-light district of San Francisco. He uses his influence with the governor to have her deported. Sadie is panic-stricken at the thought of returning to San Francisco; she eventually confesses to Davidson that she is wanted by the law, though she swears her innocence. Tim proposes to Sadie and tells her to go to Sydney instead, where his friends will look after her until his tour is up. In a pure act of sadism, Davidson refuses to allow the change of destination. Panic and the incessant rain on the roof sends Sadie into a nervous collapse, putting her at Davidson’s mercy.

Swanson is absolutely perfect in every scene. She affects a jaunty walk that signals her sexual freedom and toughness, but we watch her prepare it every time she must confront Davidson. She’s actually fragile and certainly not the hardened prostitute Davidson would have us believe her to be. In fact, she probably just likes men, and the feeling is mutual. It’s not hard to see how Tim could propose to her, whether she has a past or not. She also has a believable temper. When Davidson tells her he is having her deported, she flies off the handle, unable to be stopped by a roomful of marines. She swears a blue streak, as evidenced by Mrs. Davidson and Mrs. McPhail running from the room holding their ears. The scene is funny but also intense. Sadie may be scared, but she doesn’t bend easily. Nonetheless, when her paranoia finally gets the better of her, we have been well prepared for her break in character by these small moments of uncertainty.

sadiethompsonstill.jpgWalsh is a perfect foil for Swanson, the two exhibiting chemistry and a playfulness that make us believe that their short romance could blossom into love so quickly. At one point, as Sadie wonders whether Tim could ever be serious about a good-time girl like her, Tim says his buddy married a girl from San Francisco. “Where in San Francisco?” Sadie asks. “Where they hang the red lanterns.” Sadie assumes a look of foreboding. “And are they happy?” Yes, Tim replies, and they have two kids. His lack of judgment reassures Sadie and brings out the softness in her. Therefore, when Sadie sends Tim away at Davidson’s instigation, it is a truly heartbreaking scene. And what of Davidson? Lionel Barrymore has a cunning face that makes this professional meddler into something quite twisted and evil. I thought he chewed the scenery a bit—a Barrymore family flaw—but his fall from grace, seen only in still photos and two brief film clips that survived from the last reel, is chilling.

The entire Turrin score was performed by the Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra and conducted with a sure touch for movie accompaniment—an art unto itself—by Steven Larson. This, my first film of the festival, was an absolute joy and revelation.


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