Ebertfest, Part 1

Posted on April 25, 2009 at 7:42 am

I won’t be able to post pictures until I get home, but here is a quick update on Roger Ebert’s festival at the University of Illinois. Unlike many festivals, which have a dozen or more choices of events every minute of the day, this one has just one panel or film at a time, which creates a marvelous shared experience and sense of community. The screenings take place in the magnificent Virginia Theatre, an historic space that has served as a vaudeville house and as an enormous cathedral of film. Thursday night, we saw “Trouble the Water,” a stunning, infuriating, heart-breaking, and uplifting documentary about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. The film-makers were there to talk about it afterward, including the young couple whose home movies and journey are at the heart of the story.
Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion that included writer-director Ramin Bahrani of “Chop Shop” and the upcoming “Goodbye Solo,” Misty Upham of “Frozen River,” Carl Molider, producer of “Let the Right One In,” and Andy Ihnatko of the marvelous blog Celestial Waste of Bandwidth. Upham, a Native American, spoke of being told in auditions to come back when they do a western. “I can play a regular person! I can play a taxi driver. I will do anything that does not involve a teepee or buckskin!” The debate on whether we should “let” people see pure popcorn films like “Wolverine” was very spirited and I especially enjoyed a teacher from Downer’s Grove in the audience who said that she loved it when the kids in her film class tell her she has spoiled movie-going for them because they can’t “just watch” anymore.
Then I was on a panel of critics — 10 critics, 90 minutes, you can do the math. But at least from where I was sitting at the end of the long, long table, it was surprisingly substantial and a lot of fun. We represented print, radio, television, and the internet. Many of us have done them all. We have appeared in every possible form of media except perhaps cuneiform tablets and notes in bottles. We had the obligatory mourner’s wait over the state of newspapers and how hard it is to make money as a movie critic. But I really enjoyed the variety of voices and the unquenchable passion for movies and for thinking about them, writing about them, and especially helping the good ones find their audience. I especially liked the comments from Time Out Chicago’s Hank Sartin and it was a great pleasure to meet for the first time my email friend Eric Childress, of the withering CriticWatch, which takes on the “critics” who will call anything “the feel-good film of the year” to get their names in the ads.
After a couple of hours at the University’s Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, where I serve as an adviser, I returned to the Virginia Theatre to see “The Last Command,” a 1928 silent film directed by Josef von Sternberg. Emil Jannings plays a Russian general, a cousin to the czar, now reduced to trying to find work as a Hollywood extra for a few dollars a day. A very young William Powell plays the director who hires him to play…a Russian general. It was a thrill to watch it on the big screen, with the live accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, which specializes in music for silent films. The film is an artifact in its tone and context — it was re-enacting events of the Russian revolution only a decade later — but it is utterly immediate in its themes and Powell, especially, gives a performance of timeless grace and humanity.
I also had the quintessential festival experience of sharing an elevator ride with one of my filmmaker heroes, Guy Maddin. Bliss.

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Posted on April 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense fight sequences, some sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief stong language including a racial epithet
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense, brutal, and graphic street-fighting scenes with bare-knuckle, no-rules brawls
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2009

Terrence Howard’s performance in “Fighting” is so bizarrely strange and awful that it occurred to me he might be hoping we didn’t realize it was him. Howard plays Harvey, a street hustler who discovers Shawn, a gifted young boxer (Channing Tatum) and sets up a series of underground, all-or-nothing, no-rules street fights. All Tatum has to do is punch, take punches, and mumble inarticulately whenever he sees the lovely Zulay (Zulay Valez). Howard has to pontificate, hide his money, confess to having been badly treated by his former partners, and ask Shawn to take a dive. Neither one manages to pull it off.

The film does have two things going for it. First is its conceit of multi-million dollar underground organizations that promote illegal street boxing (and the betting thereon) from behind hidden doors under the baseball hat racks in tiny little souvenir stores. That is the only logical explanation I have ever seen for the persistence of those shops, which never seem to have any customers. The second is the marvelous Altagracia Guzman as Zulay’s grandmother. As she did in the superb “Raising Victor Vargas,” Guzman is at once hilarious, endearing, and completely authentic. She provides moments of pure poetry. A small nod to the Foley artist, as well. The sound effects for all the whams and bashes may be cartoony — you almost expect Wile E. Coyote to show up with a package from Acme — but they are entertaining.

But the rest of the film is just dumb and dull. I think the screenplay is punchdrunk. Shawn needs money. He likes to fight. So, fight #1 he surprises everyone. Shawn is hiding something. Fight #2 is against a really big guy. He surprises everyone again, except for the audience. Then there are a few more fights, some old scores to settle, some revelations, some reactions to the revelations (I understand and sympathize! I am disappointed and betrayed! Both!) and everyone goes home. Kidding! The big, big fight is yet to come and as they like to say in movie tag lines, this time it’s personal.

It takes some serious effort to de-star and de-actor Howard and Tatum, but director-co-author Dito Montiel manages. This fight film needs to stay down for the count.

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Action/Adventure Movies -- format Sports

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Posted on April 23, 2009 at 12:00 pm

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday! Try to talk like Shakespeare. Or check out Turner Classic Movie Channel’s list of their favorite Shakespeare adaptations. Can you name three movies inspired by Shakespeare set in high school? Two that became Broadway musicals? Or one set in outer space?

All of Shakespeare’s plays have been filmed, many more than once. Some of my favorites are:

1. Twelfth Night A shipwreck survivor disguises herself as a man and gets involved in many mix-ups as she finds herself falling for her boss and being fallen for by the woman he has asked her to woo on his behalf.

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream An all-star cast appears in Shakespeare’s merriest romantic comedy, with the entanglements of three romantic couples and a little fairy dust.

3. The Taming of the Shrew Famously bombastic couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor play famously bombastic couple Petruchio and Kate in this raucous battle of the sexes. It is not only the shrew who is tamed.

4. Henry V Kenneth Branaugh’s fierce version of one of Shakespeare’s most thrillingly heroic stories is brilliantly done — and a lot of fun to compare with Laurence Olivier’s very different WWII-era version.

4. Hamlet Mel Gibson stars in one of several great versions of the play about the conflicted Danish prince.

5. Romeo & Juliet and Romeo + Juliet are two sensational takes on Shakespeare’s most famous love story.

6. The Merchant of Venice Al Pacino plays Shylock in the story of a money-lender driven to revenge by the defection of his daughter. Lynn Collins is luminous as the heroine Portia.

7. As You Like It Another woman-disguised-as-a-man story and another lovers-in-the-forest story — but this time transplanted by the film-makers to Japan in a very colorful production with a radiant Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind.

8. Macbeth Orson Welles’ version of the Scottish play is arresting and provocative.

9. The Tempest I’m still waiting for a worthy version of my favorite Shakespeare play, but until that happens, this version of the story of the shipwreck survivors on an island with a sorcerer and his daughter is worth seeing.

10. Shakespeare in Love This multi-award winner makes no pretense of historical accuracy but it is wise, exciting, and ravishingly romantic.

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Based on a play Classic For Your Netflix Queue Lists

Interview: Steve Lopez of ‘The Soloist’

Posted on April 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

Steve Lopez thought maybe he would get a column out of the homeless man who was playing a violin with only two strings. He did get a column, and then more, and then a book, a friend, a lot of complications, an education, and a cause. The man he saw on the street was Nathaniel Ayers. The book is called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. And now the story of Lopez and Ayers is a movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

I spoke to Lopez in a little coffee shop on Capitol Hill, just before his meeting with Hill staff to talk about mental health policy.

Why does our society do so poorly in helping people who are mentally ill?

There is a “There but for the grace of God” aspect to it, “This could have been me.” It is so easy to look past somebody, to wrap yourself in the generalizations and stereotypes — they might all be dangerous, they might all be capable of lashing out. But it is not a decision. These are our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters. As you go through this population you see that mental illness does not discriminate on the basis of race or income. It is cruel and unrelenting but people can be helped.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book and movie?

I want people to ask, “How does this exist in American society?” The mentally ill are shoved off into this human corral, out of sight, out of mind. Would we do this with cancer or muscular dystrophy? The answer is clearly no. The reason places like Skid Row exist is the stigma of mental illness. I hope this story shines a light on that and addresses some public policy issues.

Tell me about Nathaniel Ayers.

He was not typical but relatively normal. He grew up in Cleveland. A woman recently brought me a photo of him when he was very young, before the breakdown, just charming. You see the photo before the fall, there’s such hope in his eyes, a great future in front of him, passion for music, a great kid in a good family with a mother who had him mind his manners and go to piano class and get good grades, He gets whacked with this just as his career is about to take off. He was a former classmate of Yo Yo Ma.

How aware is he of his illness? Enough to help in his treatment?

Nathaniel has insight issues. There are times when he is very much aware of his own condition and times when he is not. In some ways he has it made. He found out his purpose in life and has everything he needs.

What have you learned from him?

I found him on the street and wanted to help him get him out of his situation. My life was hectic and frantic. He forced me to reconsider the definitions of success and happiness. In some ways this is a story about a man who has lost everything but has a purpose in life that those of us who are considered successful would envy. A change comes over him when he is with the music. He is more coherent and sane. It could be the science and math of it — he sees and hears things we don’t and it is hard to process all the signals, but the notes are in the same place they have been for 200 years. The world can be so terrifying for people who have schizophrenia. So you build a cocoon, a tin foil hat, or something. In Nathaniel’s case he will do his scrawlings. In that safe cocoon of his, music is the medicine, it is what keeps him whole.

I don’t think “What a wonderful life,” I just think most people do not have his purpose, joy, and passion. For me, journalism had become such a negative experience because we sit around newsrooms grousing about the good old days. Seeing Nathaniel made me realize I do not want to spend the last days of my career grousing about what used to be. I heard about an opening in California for a media person for mental health services, thought about doing that, and then decided I could find my purpose by continuing to write. I realize I’m working on the story of my life. It is not only the human drama but he’s helping me and giving me a chance to shine a light on our public policy failures. I am a storyteller, and that is my passion, equal to Nathaniel’s. It would be foolish to give it up. There are other ways to tell stories, and this new movie is one of them. So now I still write but I savor it a little bit more knowing it is what I chose to do. Nathaniel has made me feel much more grateful and devoted.

What were your disappointments or frustrations? In the book you talk about how you felt when he lashed out at you.

I felt very conflicted when despite my best efforts the condition was more powerful, bigger, more relentless than I was. It wasn’t Nathaniel, it was the condition. But how much patience do you have? I understand how families throw their hands up. You ask, “Can I sacrifice all this time for no guarantee of making a difference?” I know and admire and love him too much to turn back. Recovery is not linear, you slide a lot. Nathaniel has been in an apartment for three years. He has a girlfriend, he comes to concerts. Before, he didn’t consider himself worthy enough to see a concert. He would say, “People should not have to sit next to me.” But he now goes himself sometimes. That growth in him is pretty remarkable. Partly it is a friend handing him a lifeline, partly his own courage.

What is it people most misunderstand about mental illness?

They think, “We offered help and they didn’t want it” or “They can go to a shelter.” They do not realize how many challenges and psychological hurdles mentally ill people face. They have a fear of rules, a fear of having to be more social, a fear of being ostracized. Nathaniel feared a return to the world in which he had snapped. All of the places he played on the street were really noisy. He said, “The city is my orchestra.” With the noise, it was impossible for him to hear his mistakes. He did not want to leave the place he used to play because he said the statue of Beethoven would be alone. We got him a bust of Beethoven for his apartment so he could still keep Beethoven company.

What kind of recommendations are you on Capitol Hill to talk about today?

One of my heroes and mentors, Sister Mary Scullion, co-founded Project Home in Philadelphia. They have taken over abandoned neighborhoods and rehabbed the houses. They have turned lost neighborhoods into anchors of the community. We have Project 50, survey teams with clipboards find the 50 neediest and most desperate and chronically ill people and give them wraparound services, coordinating health care, housing, everything. One year into it, 88 percent are still in housing. It is a double tragedy. People are on the streets and we know what works and can bring them in. Not only is this the humane thing to do, it is the cost-effectrive thing to do.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Interview

Coming Attractions….’Paper Heart’ and ‘New Moon’

Posted on April 22, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Be sure to take a look at the adorable trailer for Paper Heart, starring Michael Cera and his real-life girlfriend Charlyne Yi, to be released on August 7.
And for you “Twilight” fans — here is the first picture of the Wolf Pack from the upcoming “New Moon.”
Alex Meraz (Paul), Chaske Spencer (Sam Uley), Bronson Pelletier (Jared), and Kiowa Gordon (Embry) star in Summit Entertainment’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon, In theatres November 20, 2009. Photo courtesy of Timothy White.

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