For the next few days, Austin Lugar will share his experiences at the 13th annual Ebertfest held in Champaign, Illinois. He’ll be giving short film reviews and reactions to the festival. For more random comments about the weekend, follow him on Twitter at @AustinLugar.
Once again, the major concept that comes up during a festival like this is how much everybody loves movies. The filmmakers at the panels, the people in the audience and even all of the volunteers are there because they love movies. The entire premise behind Ebertfest is to show movies that Roger Ebert wants more people to see. So even though tonight had the first film I didn’t like, I still had a blast throughout the entire day.
After “My Dog Tulip,” this was the film I was most looking forward to. I knew how much Ebert had been praising this film and I knew it played on PBS but in edited format. Finally, I was able to see it in its entirety and it was amazing. The title referes to the zip code of Sidney, Ohio. Directors Bill and Turner Ross spent a year filming 500 hours of footage of everyone in this small town. Without any narration, interviews or traditional story, the film perfectly captures an essence that is easily relatable.
The city I grew up in was bigger than Sidney, but so many things were still elements I recognized. Everyone was so comfortable in front of the camera that nothing was artificially created. The dialogue and the images were so personable that the film becomes something warm. It’s a tender and exciting view of a city through the eyes of everyone. There’s the cop, the criminal, the teens, the kids, the barbershop, the DJ, the judge, etc. It’s not about telling the arc of who they are or seeing who will win the big game. It’s recognizing something special and magical in the everyday elements.
It’s a documentary with its own voice, but that voice never ever strays away from the subject matter. It’s a wonderful film that I want everyone to see, but unfortunately, due to music rights, that will remain difficult. Catch a screening if you can. The Ross brothers were in attendance for a panel. They are very humbled by the praise, and I can’t wait for their next two films, which have been shot but not edited. These two are exciting new filmmakers.
“Me and Orson Welles”
I don’t know why I hadn’t seen this yet. I like Richard Linklater, I like Orson Welles and I seem to see everything. I remember the reviews — sans Ebert — were lackluster and now I can definitely say…they were wrong. This is a very charming movie full of great performances, including Zac Efron. Efron has always been unjustly labeled as a bad actor because people have only seen “High School Musical” (or more likely just heard of “High School Musical”).
Instead, Efron encompasses a role that is a lot of fun, but not one that people will immediately realize is well acted. Through a course of luck and charm, Efron’s character, Richard, earns a spot in Orson Welles’ famed production of “Julius Caesar.” For the next week, Richard is awestruck by the energy of the Mercury Theatre and all of the greatness that surrounds him. His naïve attempts to stand up for himself are supposed to be very youthful. Efron really understands the character and does a strong job as a character through whom others live vicariously.
The man who really steals the show is Christian McKay, who is the man/myth/Kane, Orson Welles. His voice is so perfect that if you close your eyes, it sounds like listening to captured footage. It’s not just an impersonation because the script gives a lot of unexpected depth to the character that balances between a god of the theater and a secretly weakened man.
The script is very clever as it weaves a coming-of-age story with plenty of hints towards Welles’ future and a mixture of the “Caesar” story. This is such an underrated film that will be liked by those who aren’t as familiar with Welles.
Linklater was in attendance to talk about the film. He brought along his own soundtrack and poster for the film because he liked those more than what the studio made. He gave those to the audience members who could answer his trivia questions about some of the players of the Mercury Theatre. It was very fun to hear how Linklater found McKay, which was in New York when he was doing a one-man show in an very small theater about different stages of Welles’ life. It was very clear how much Linklater appreciated the story behind the film through how much appreciation he has for the men involved.
Alas, the first one that didn’t work for me. (See, I’m not just about gushing all of the time.) This was a romantic comedy that Norman Jewison made in the early ’90s. Marisa Tomei plays a woman who is obsessed with the name Damon Bradley. It was the name that appeared to her twice as a child, which she interprets to mean that he must be her soulmate. Days before her wedding to a dull doctor, the name randomly calls her house. So she and Bonnie Hunt fly to Venice to track down the man who could be her true love. It quickly becomes another entry for White Women Take a Holiday.
After many many confusions and a drive to Rome, they find Robert Downey Jr., who may or may not be Damon Bradley. The cast is great, especially Downey Jr. and Hunt, but the script is all over the place. There are basically three introductions to this film — none of them good. The dialogue is annoyin, and the plot constantly stops its forward momentum for arbitrary reasons. The plot is similar to “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but is never witty or speedy enough to honor that comparison. Instead of being its own story, it constantly calls back to better romances like “Casablanca” or “Roman Holiday.” An innocent film, but very underwhelming.
Having Jewison present made the night something specia, thoughl. He is older and doesn’t remember all of his films right away, but he has the aura of a legend. Much like when I saw Elmore Leonard last fall, Jewison has lived a lifetime of making incredible art but now isn’t the best at Q&A. He’s been asked the same questions over and over again, like talking about certain actors or his thoughts on injustice.
When he came alive is when he rediscovered something. He enjoyed seeing this film again after, perhaps, 15 years because he loves the romance of the film. His best story was one prompted by Ebert where the two of them learned all of the bars of Chicago and a whorehouse in preparation for “Gaily, Gaily.”
Tomorrow is the biggest day of the festival. Two films I haven’t seen (“A Small Act” and “Life, Above All”) and two I really like (“Leaves of Grass” and “I Am Love”).