Sunday, May 1, 2011

Like You Were There: Ebertfest 2011 (Day Four) (JB's Take)

JB is taking over Like You Were There this week, as he reports daily from Champaign, Illinois, while attending Roger Ebert's annual film festival, Ebertfest.

It had to happen. It happens almost every year at Ebertfest -- a film so good, so well intentioned, so meaningful that it puts all of one’s petty gripes and snarkiness to shame. A film that conquers cynicism
with talent, heart and intellect. That film is A Small Act, a moving documentary by Jennifer Arnold. At its conclusion there was not a dry eye in the house.

When Hilde Back, a schoolteacher in Sweden, started contributing $15 a month to educate an anonymous Kenyan boy, she had no idea that she was saving a bright child from an adulthood of unrealized potential and crushing poverty. Chris Mburu, the recipient of her generosity, graduated from Harvard Law School, worked for the United Nations, and founded the Hilde Back foundation, which grants scholarships to impoverished children.

Much can be praised in this film, but the theme that moved me the most was this: educated people are harder to fool by politicans, educated people are more open-minded and empathetic, educated people are better able financially to pass along these small acts of kindness. Sometimes we might feel dwarfed by the enormity of the world’s problems. In the film, Hilde reasons that even the smallest act is never wasted; any attempt to right a wrong is never in vain.

When Hilde Back herself came out on stage for the Q&A, it brought down the house. She received the longest standing ovation of the entire festival. Bravo, Hilde. 

Life, Above All suffered from having to follow A Small Act, although the pairing was intentional -- both films focus on social injustice in modern Africa.  Despite the great performances by the two nonprofessional leads and a very moving climax, I thought the film suffered from a glacial pace and a certain repetitiveness. Austin Lugar (of pointed out that the plot and tone were almost identical to last year’s Winter's Bone. F This Movie! readers can check it out for themselves when the film opens July 15th.

Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass was a mixed bag, pardon the pun. Featuring the usual fine performance(s) by Edward Norton and an ambitious philosophical subtext, this film should also be congratulated for its jarring midfilm change in style and tone, increasingly rare in mainstream Hollywood fare. Most of it worked; some of it did not. I thought a pivotal scene between Norton and Susan Sarandon was poorly written; it seemed to be out of a Lifetime network movie or perhaps the work of improvisation. It is always great to see Richard Dreyfuss getting work.

Tim Blake Nelson was the single most concise and lucid of all the invited filmmakers. His post screening Q&A was thoughtful and rewarding, especially his insights gained from working for the Coen brothers. I must confess that I so associate Nelson with his role in O Brother, Where Art Thou? that I found it a pleasant shock that he was so intelligent and well spoken when not in character. Another bonus? No Ignatiy Vishnevestsky-- ALL DAY.

I confess to skipping the film I Am Love for personal reasons. Because all of my friends consider ME to be love, because I know that I AM LOVE, I found the film and its title to be a little presumptuous.

Some final thoughts on Ebertfest:

1. Films like A Small Act make one forget about what a hassle it is to take three days off work, drive to Champaign, suffer from sleep deprivation, foot a substantial hotel bill, stand in line for two or three hours every morning and subsist on a diet of popcorn and Dots.

2. Every single person attending this festival is also blogging about it. I am serious.

3. The seats at the Virginia theatre are punishing. Bring a back pillow. Better yet, be like Roger Ebert and bring a Lazyboy recliner.

4. Me go sleep now, ‘kay? 

Ebertfest: Day One Recap

Ebertfest: Day Two Recap

Ebertfest: Day Three Recap


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