Greetings from Ebertfest 2012

Posted on April 28, 2012 at 10:50 am

Greetings from Roger Ebert’s legendary film festival in his home town of Champaign/Urbana Illinois, also the home of the state university.  Once again, Roger has curated an extraordinary collection of films from the under-seen (Ebertfest was originally known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival) to the celebrated (this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and Roger’s pick for the best movie of 2011, “A Separation”).  This year’s festival is dedicated to Roger’s friend Paul Cox, a Dutch-born Australian director (“My First Wife,” “Man of Flowers,” “Innocence”), whose illness and liver transplant are the subject of one of the festival’s highlights, the documentary, “On Borrowed Time.”

Yesterday, I appeared on a panel for a discussion of the ways that “On Demand” and other delivery options are changing the world of film and moderated a discussion of “A Separation.”  Today, I will interview author/memoirist Carolyn S. Briggs following the movie made based on her book about her faith journey, “Higher Ground.”

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Interview: Writer/Director Richard Linklater of “Bernie”

Posted on April 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

Richard Linklater has directed some of my favorite movies like “Waking Life,” “Before Sunset,” “School of Rock,” and “Dazed and Confused.”  He talked to me about his new film, “Bernie,” starring Jack Black as the real-life Bernie Tiede, the most popular man in the small Eastern Texas town of Carthage even after he confessed to killing a wealthy widow and stuffing her in a freezer for nine months.  Tiede, now in prison for the murder, was a funeral director who became friendly with octogenarian Marjorie Nugent, known as “the meanest woman in east Texas.”  She lavished him with gifts and trips and made him her heir, but then became possessive and demanding and abusive.  He shot her, hid the body in her freezer, told everyone she was in assisted living, and spent a lot of her money helping people in the community.  Shirley Maclaine plays the widow and the prosecutor is played by Matthew McConaughey.  As Ms. Nugent’s nephew wrote in the New York Times:

There are little things in “Bernie” that aren’t exactly true, bits of dialogue, a changed name here and there. But the big things, the weirdest things, the things you’d assume would have to be made up, happened exactly as the movie says they did. The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!” And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw.

One of the highlights of this film is the commentary from the people in Carthage.  Are those real townspeople really talking about their own experiences?

Oh, they’re definitely, mostly real people, I mean, “non-actors,” but some are actors. Most are people from the area of the state near Carthage and surrounding towns. Some of them were actually intimate with Bernie and Mrs. Nugent, so it’s kind of a mix.

It feels so natural.  Was it unscripted?

No, it’s scripted, but they kind of put it in their own words, quite often. I looked at a lot of people and found people that could be themselves, doing material and throwing in. You know, some of my favorite ones were things that people just threw in there.  When Sonny Carl Davis, who’s an actor, goes off on the town, “He’s my daddy, he’s my cousin,” you know, he’s got a way with words.  And Juli Erickson saying, “Honey, there are people in this town who woulda shot her for five dollars,’ stuff like that.

What made you decide on this quasi-documentary format?

I really never thought of it much as documentary, because the stories were dramatic.  I saw a story told from town gossips—and Southern gossip is such a huge thing.   I attended the trial, and read and got my hands on everything. I was going through Skip Hollandsworth’s journalistic notes where he had interviewed everybody, and what they were saying was really kind of funny, I felt, and very telling of the town and of the situation.  If you think about it, Bernie was in jail, Ms. Nugent was gone, and they’re not there to speak for themselves. As in small towns, with any event like this, all that’s left is the community itself reverberating around with opinions. If you were to go to Carthage, anybody over a certain age would be able to tell you what happened; how they knew Bernie, about the nine months she was in the freezer, how he preached at church, “we hung out, went to a party at his house,” maybe how he should’ve killed her to get away with it—everyone has their own idea, how they would’ve done it? You know, it’s just one of those crazy things. It’s a very rare event, such a notorious crime in that area.  The guy says on closing credits, “we don’t have stranger killings, usually it’s family.”

You certainly deglamorized Matthew McConaughey.  I love the choice of the glasses, they were wonderful.

Oh, you liked those? Let me think about it, he also had little plumpers in his mouth, and a little gut, an extra 25 pounds.  He still had a ways to go to get to the real Danny, but he tried.

And you were at the trial?  I never heard of a change of venue to a different city because the defendant was too popular!

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of that. I’ve talked to every judge, DA, defense attorney, since this trial.  “Have you ever heard of a trial being moved because it was too because he was too well liked and they didn’t think they could get a conviction, so they had to move to get a jury of his peers?”  People just kind of go, “No, I’ve never heard of that.”  Skip’s article probably didn’t help Bernie—it just was not on terms that were any good. I think Danny Buck started feeling pretty confident at some point and there wasn’t a plea bargain, or it didn’t work out or something.  At the end of the day he definitely got a really hard sentence. Well, the deck was stacked against him. First off, the change of venue, and then the judge disallowed the psychiatrist to examine him, who was going to speak on behalf of his disassociated moment, temporary insanity, and that got disallowed. That was his only hope. As Scrappy tells it, I had a guy who had confessed and told em’ everything and he didn’t have a lot to work with by the time he was with Bernie and yet he was really going for this thing…. The evidence that Danny was allowed to show him at trial, pulling Ms. Nugent out of the freezer, with some really horrific images and out of context. And he successfully prosecutes him as the other— not like us— flying first class, going to the opera.

Tell me about working with Oscar winner and old-style Hollywood movie star Shirley MacLaine.

There’s no one like her. I had always had her in mind for this part, I guess because she had played a Texas grand dame a couple times already, as Aurora in “Terms of Endearment” and the sequel, and I was just lucky she did it.  I think she wanted to work with Jack. It’s not a huge part for her, but I think she had fun. It kept her laughing, but she was sort of perfect. What was funny, I think, Shirley liked Ms. Nugent. The first thing she told me was, “even after she’s dead, she’s still around. That’s how I’m going to be! That’s how I’m going to be, you can tell me, that’ll be me.” I think she’s right!   There was so much historical record, there was so much testimony. It is a little bit of a dance of how much of a bitch, to what level the bitchiness should reach, but at the end of the day, Ms. Nugent was actually a lot worse than Shirley was in the movie, according to all accounts.  Shirley kind of humanized her, but that was my goal. I think the fun part—and this is why I love Shirley for the part—is that she still has that little girl infatuation, she’s still very sensual.  When they were first together we called it the honeymoon, the time where she was happy, when out of the blue this terminally miserable lady who could never be happy with anyone or anything, had some fun, a guy paid some attention to her, before she had to possess him and ruin it. There were some happy times there.

I know you’ve worked with him before, but Jack Black would not have been the first person to come to my mind for this part, because Bernie’s a very restrained character, a kind of repressed character—and I think of Jack Black as irrepressible.

Well, that’s what you know from parts you’ve seen him in—but I know him, and having worked with him before, I knew he could do it. I was just lucky he wanted to do the part and found it interesting. And you know, a good actor like Jack, you find there’s a part of Jack that could relate.  Bernie is a guy who’s non-confrontational and Jack really is the sweetest guy in the world, a total nice guy.  He saw Bernie very clearly, and could in some ways relate to him.  And who else could sing like that? There’s really no one else at the end of the day who could play this part, who could sing to Bernie’s actual level.

I love the parts when he sang, when he steps in at that funeral and sings “Amazing Grace,” it was fantastic.  What was it like to stage a big musical number from “The Music Man?”

Fun! A dream come true!  Anytime, you’re making a musical, it’s just fantastic. I felt like, “I’m Vincente Minnelli, and it’s the fifties and I’m making a musical!”

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Based on a true story Directors Interview

Contest: The Making of “Chimpanzee” Book

Posted on April 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

I am thrilled to have five copies to give away of a magnificent new book about the making of the extraordinary film, “Chimpanzee,” from DisneyNature.  This book is something very special, with spectacular photos and an astonishing behind-the-scenes story.  It will be a treasure for those who are lucky enough to win.  And I am setting aside one book for a teacher because this should be shared with a classroom of students.

To enter: send an email to with “Chimpanzee” in the subject line and tell me your favorite movie about a primate.  If you are a teacher, also tell me what grade you teach.  Do not forget your address so I know where to send the prize.  I promise I never use it for any other purpose.  I will pick five winners at random on May 4, so get your entries in by midnight (Eastern time) on May 3.  US addresses only — apologies to my non-US readers.  And thanks to DisneyNature for providing the books and for extending the contributions to Jane Goodall’s Institute for each ticket sold, so that every ticket-buyer is helping to protect these beautiful creatures.

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Books Contests and Giveaways

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Posted on April 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, and some language
Profanity: A few bad words ("crap")
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Comic action-style violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2012
Date Released to DVD: August 27, 2012 ASIN: B0034G4P1W

The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) enjoys his life of adventure on the high seas, but there are a few problems. His crew is having a spirited debate about the best part of pirating – is it the cutlasses, the looting, the chance to catch exotic diseases, or ham night? Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has ordered the Royal Navy to get rid of all pirates.

Most important, the Pirate Captain really, really wants to win the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award, reasoning that because “Every time I’ve entered, I’ve failed to win. So, I must have a really good chance this time!” He does have a coffee mug that says “World’s Best Captain” and once won a ribbon for telling the best anecdote about a squid.

The wonderful folks at Aardman (“Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit”) have created another deliriously silly stop-motion animation delight, filled with giddy pleasures and so many witty details flying by that you wish for a pause button. The “Pirate of the Year” application is whisked away quickly, but we get a glance at some of the items requested. Was the booty acquired by exciting adventure, a beauty contest, or perhaps in exchange for bonds? And what is the quality of the beard?

The Pirate Captain’s beard is certainly glossy and bushy enough to win a prize, but – it must be said – he is not up to some of the other candidates in other categories. Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), and the bling-sporting beauty Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) are out front when it comes to ruthlessness, treasure, and the price on their heads. The Pirate Captain’s wanted poster shows a reward of just 12 doubloons and a free pen. He is not very good at selecting targets for robbery and pillage, boarding a ghost ship, a leper ship, and a boat carrying a school geography field trip.

The prospects for Pirate of the Year seem dim until the Pirate Captain boards another booty-less boat, this one carrying Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes that the Pirate Captain does have one important asset. It seems the Pirate Captain is as poor at ornithology as he is at treasure-detection. The bird he has insisted is a big-boned parrot named Polly is something much more exotic, and if he presents it to the scientific association and wins their Scientist of the Year award, the fame and fortune just might qualify him for Pirate of the Year!

But others are interested in the bird. Darwin and his trained monkey manservant Mr. Bobo, who communicates entirely via hilarious cue-card style signs and Queen Victoria herself want Polly as well. The various captures and rescues involve various disguises and Aardman’s sublimely inventive chase scenes, combining Rube Goldbergian intricacy with Jackie Chan timing. They also manage to bring in Jane Austen, the Elephant Man, Rubik’s Cube, The Clash, the classic elementary school science experiment combining vinegar and baking soda, and gourmet dining.

The pleasures we expect from an Aardman film are all here, including humor that manages to be both wild and understated. The silent Mr. Bobo, cautioned to be quiet, patiently holds up a second sign repeating the same word, but smaller. And the brilliantly executed action sequences dazzle. The chase scene through Darwin’s house has split-second timing through a museum’s worth of artifacts, including an Easter Island head. The bright and eclectic soundtrack includes very funny new song from Flight of the Conchords. And in the midst of all the action and comedy there is some warmth, even tenderness, as those clay faces become surprisingly expressive, and a moment of friendship and loyalty is genuinely touching.

The British Aardman refreshingly makes few concessions for American sensibilities (only the most devoted Anglophiles will catch the Blue Peter and Slocombe references) and none for children. Gideon Defoe’s screenplay, based on his series of books, is filled with the kind of humor that challenges as it amuses. But the distributor decided that Americans would be put off by the original title. It was released in the UK as “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!” both funnier and more accurate. The switch to a more “marketable” generic title is disappointing for a film that so amply rewards its confidence in the audience.


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3D Action/Adventure Animation Based on a book Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Satire

The Five-Year Engagement

Posted on April 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Jason Segal co-wrote and stars in the latest in a genre he helped to pioneer — the raunchy but sweet-natured romantic comedy.  Films like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “I Love You Man” put the misunderstandings and complications of the kind of “marriage plot” comedies over hundreds of years with a more modern casual and generous earthiness.  You can’t imagine Doris Day and Rock Hudson laughing at an engagement party audio-visual presentation about all of the girls the groom has had sex with or talking affectionately but frankly about how a gesture of support from him should lead to some major sexual special favors from her.  “Do you want me to wear a cape or something?” she asks gamely (the characters in Segal movies are always GGG).  “You’ll get the Cirque du Soleil of shows,” she promises with a smile, showing off some impressive mime skills.

Tom (Segal) proposes to Violet (Emily Blunt) on New Year’s Eve, exactly one year from the night they met.  They are very compatible, loving, and happy together, and excited about getting married.  But he has a job opportunity near their home in San Francisco and she has one at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  His skill as a chef seems more portable and the Michigan job is just two years, so they decide to move.  She flourishes in the post-doc program in social psychology and he has poor results in looking for a job, finding friends, and scraping snow and the strain begins to wear on their relationship.

At just over two hours, the movie at times feels as though it is dragging.  I know it has to cover five years, but a section where Tom goes kind of feral and ends up hunting deer with a cross-bow is much too long, especially when Tom goes all Grizzly Adams and starts serving mead made from his own honey from an antlered stand.  There are too many flashbacks to the night they met.  Supporting characters played by Chris Parnell as a stay-at-home-dad who knits, and Kevin Hart and Mindy Kaling as Violet’s colleagues are never as funny as they are intended to be.  And it feels like Segal and co-screenwriter/director Nicholas Stoller ran out of ideas near the end as the obstacles to the wedding get less believable, less interesting, and more out of character.

The family interactions work better.  Violet’s father gets up at the engagement party to propose a toast to the importance of commitment — awkwardly standing next to his young second wife.  Then Violet’s mother gets up to explain that you may think your relationship is a Tom Hanks romantic comedy but “in reality, it’s more like ‘Saving Private Ryan.'” The combination of mystification and jealousy Tom and Violet feel towards another couple they are close to is sharply observed.  They genuinely do want her sister and his best friend to be happy together, but they know they are smarter and have a better relationship so it is maddening that the other couple seems to be lapping them.  Twice.

The movie is also nicely even-handed in its portrayal of most of the conflicts Tom and Violet face and their genuine good spirits in trying to resolve their issues.  When they have a “bird in the hand” argument about delayed gratification (the subject of Violet’s academic work), they are both allowed to make good points.

One reason romantic comedies are so difficult to get right these days is that it is harder and harder to find a reason to keep the couple apart for the two hour running time.  The conventions of the pre-sexual revolution era made possible all kinds of humorous and spicy near misses in movies and our knowing that the couple could not have sex until marriage set the stakes high.  Couples had to find other ways for establishing their compatibility to each other and the audience.  Today’s movies and television shows portray endless omni-sexual cuddle puddles, with encounters that are zipless but never really intimate.  Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and its anti-“Sex and the City” is called “authentic” for showing sex that is joyless at best and degrading at worst.  It is intriguing to see Segal and his contemporaries reconsidering the implications of this approach on the romantic as well as the comic side.


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Comedy Romance
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