Smile Politely

A preview of Ebertfest 2017

Every year, Smile Politely does a little legwork and brings some blurbification to the festival’s lineup. With the new Ebertfest website this year, there’s great access to the innermost thoughts of professional critics, filmmakers, editors — Roger’s own handpicked employees. There’s always, if you’re more into stats, and then there’s the printed program if you’re willing to wait until opening night. Still, what we do is quick & easy — written by people who like movies but aren’t heavy into analysis, and surely aren’t paid by the word — and paired with trailers. So if you need a fast scan of why something sounds familiar, or how you know that guy, or if you should bother with this movie you haven’t heard of, SP is here to help. 

Marika Christofides, Sarah Keim, and Rebecca Knaur “reporting”. 

Wednesday, April 19th

7 p.m.   HAIR  with special guests Michael Hausman (first assistant director) and Michael Butler (producer)

What I know about HAIR: 1) my mother was scandalized when I memorized the theme song from some 60s hits compilation cassette. 2) that same mother was quite excited to watch Scott Hamilton ice skate to that same song. 3) I’ve heard most of the songs, like “Let the Sun Shine In” and “Age of Aquarius. Plot? Hippies vs. money in a star-crossed lust-story, with great dancing. I generally enjoy a musical, and Ebert described this one as having “confidence and joy”, which bodes well. Since one of my favorite Ebertfest memories is of watching the hippie band “Strawberry Alarm Clock” perform, I’ll be glad to attend the opening screening for a taste of that again. (And for Treat Williams. He’s dreamy.) (RK)

Thursday, April 20th

1 p.m. Hysteria with special guests Tanya Wexler (director) and Hugh Dancy (actor)

Hysteria (2011) is a romantic-comedy, Victorian period film about the invention of the vibrator and the medical management of hysteria. After developing carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) finds his recent employment by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) threatened. Granville also finds his burgeoning relationship with Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones) tested by his growing feelings for the older Dalrymple daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Hysteria isn’t 100% historically accurate, but it is a delightful and fun movie about Victorian sensibilities when it came to sex. In a weird way, the film reminds me of The Road to Wellville (1994), but with less scatalogical humor and more ducks. (SK)

4 p.m.   To Sleep with Anger with special guests Charles Burnett (director) and Robert Townsend

Charles Burnett’s 1990 film To Sleep with Anger is about a middle-class black family living in Los Angeles whose life is disturbed by the arrival of an enigmatic friend from back South. As Harry Mention (Danny Glover) overstays his welcome with the family’s parents Gideon and Suzy, his southern charm transforms into an eerie, menacing swagger, causing the family to unravel and eventually face conflicts that have been simmering for generations. This leisurely family drama showcases Burnett’s talent for deploying symbolism in subtle, unexpected ways. While Burnett is more widely known for his 1978 neo-realist masterpiece Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger has elements of horror, folklore, and comedy. It has been described by critics as a “neglected classic of African-American cinema,” and promises to be fresh, funny, and insightful. (MAC)

8:30 p.m. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-Wook’s dramatic, sensual, crime thriller The Handmaiden (2016) is a lush, strange, and captivating film. Instead of keeping the British Victorian setting of the novel, Park sets the plot of Sarah Winters’ Fingersmith in Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II. Like the novel, a young woman (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to serve an heiress (Kim Min-hee) who lives at a secluded estate with her uncle (Cho Jin-Woong). Unbeknownst to the heiress, the newly hired handmaiden is really a pickpocket who is working with a con-man (Ha Jung-woo) to steal her money. However, no one anticipates the handmaiden and the heiress becoming intimately closer to one another. When the betrayal comes, the moment is not what you are expecting. The Handmaiden was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Queer Palm and won the Vulcan Award for the film’s art director Ryu Seong-hee at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Like Park’s other films, The Handmaiden is a tactile film about betrayal and revenge. (SK)

Friday, April 21st

1 p.m. July and Half of August (short film) with special guest Sheila O’Malley (screenwriter)

They Call Us Monsters with special guests Ben Lear (director) and Sasha Alpert (producer)

This double-feature keeps it all in the family: the short film was written by Sheila O’Malley, a film critic and contributor to; Ben Lear is the filmmaker son of Norman Lear, the subject of a documentary being shown on Saturday. Ben’s documentary explores the lives of three occupants of a juvenile hall: Jarad, Antonio, and Juan. The boys have suffered plenty before their sentencings, and while they are offered some opportunities inside, find themselves facing bleak futures afterwards. While they have all been tried for committing crimes, there is a lot to see here regarding HR 260, our justice system in general, and what incarceration really does to and for a person. I think this will be a rough watch, but I’m also predicting being moved as much as I was last year during Disturbing the Peace. (RK)


4 p.m. Variete with special guests Alloy Orchestra (performing an original score)

Have you gone to an Alloy Orchestra performance yet? If you have, you probably already have your ticket for this screening. If you haven’t, you should buy a ticket for this screening. These guys have the strangest instruments and most creative minds. Variete is a simple tale of a middle-aged man who runs a carnival with his wife who used to perform on the trapeze, and the things he does after hiring a new sideshow dancer and trapeze artist. It doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the plot here, but watching the story unfold from the ceiling of a German theatre where the director installed camera tracks in order to simulate the high-wire is the real main attraction. (RK)


(as “trailers” were not a thing in the 20s, here’s a video about Alloy Orchestra)

8 p.m. Elle with special guest Isabelle Huppert (actor)

Elle (2016) is a psychological thriller from Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven (the director of such acclaimed classics as RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls) about a successful businesswoman who lives alone and owns a cat. When Elle is sexually assaulted in her own home by a masked assailant, she coolly takes a bath and orders sushi. Thus begins a psychological game of cat and mouse as Elle tries to determine which of the men in her life committed the crime so she can exact revenge, simultaneously revealing a web of disturbing relationships. This film, which features an outstanding performance by Isabelle Hupert, promises to push the audience’s limits by blurring the lines between consent and assault. I have to admit, based on the poster and title I thought this would be a kind of slice-of-life romantic comedy along the lines of Amelie or Mostly Martha. It is apparently the opposite of that. (MAC)

Saturday, April 22nd

11 a.m. Mind/Game with special guests Rick Goldsmith (director)

Ebertfest usually has one screening in particular that focuses on mental health issues, whether fictional like Short Term 12, docu-drama like love&mercy or documentary like this year’s Mind/Game. This short feature follows the basketball career of Chamique Holdsclaw who was rising nearly as fast and high as Michael Jordan in the late 90s. As she played ball, she was also struggling with the epic highs and lows of bipolar disorder, and not really seeking treatment for professional and personal reasons. Mental illness touches 20% of the population at least, so watching films like these and learning how it affects us all is something we all can benefit from. Plus, game footage. (RK)

1:30 p.m. Pleasantville with special guest Gary Ross (director)

What would you do if you were transported into a television show like Father Knows Best? Would you seek to subvert and change the pleasant but false presentation of reality on the show or would you strive to keep the show as an idyllic fantasy of the past? When David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are transported into the fictional television show Pleasantville, they struggle with these questions. As they assume the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, David and Jennifer watch as their actions irreparably change the people around them. Personally, Pleasantville (1998) has one of my favorite depictions of how art can effect a person. For that reason alone, I recommend seeing the film to friends. Pleasantville is a 90s gem for being a quirky morality tale and coming of age story with a great cast (like Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy). (SK)

4:30 p.m. Norman Lear: Just another version of you with special guests Norman Lear (subject) and Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Brent Miller (directors)

To be honest, when Ebertfest made their first announcement that Norman Lear would be here with the documentary about him, and several of my friends were excited, I had no idea why. Then I figured it out – every single one of the sitcoms he’s known for were completely verboten in my household: Maude, All in the Family, Good Times, Jeffersons, Sanford & Son. Every single one was so banned that if my dad paused on one of them while clicking through, either he or my mother would panic and speed away. So Norman Lear isn’t a household name to me much in the way Voldemort wasn’t, and the draw of the forbidden is still very strong, so I’d bet I am anticipating this documentary at least as much as those of you who already know and love him. (RK)

8:30 p.m. Being There with special guest Caleb Deschanel (cinematographer)

Peter Sellers’ name recognition is built around slapstick — subtly intelligent slapstick, but broad humor to say the least. Whether you know him from Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove, or even from the original Casino Royale, there’s a certain expectation of what you’ll get from Sellers in a role. In Being There, however, he plays a simple gardener whose reticence is interpreted as political genius and manipulated into powerful positions by people who wish to control him. It’s not just the understated performance that makes Being There so brilliant, unfortunately, forty years later the satire is just as biting. I grew up loving Sellers’ work, and I can’t believe my luck at having the chance to see this film and hear the thoughts of another artist whose work I’ve admired since I discovered it: Caleb Deschanel, a director on Twin Peaks and the cinematographer on Killer Joe. This is going to be a must-see for me. (RK)

Sunday, April 23rd

11 a.m. De-Lovely with special guests Irwin Winkler (director & producer), Jimmy Demers (singer), and Donnie Demers (pianist)

De-Lovely (2004) is the second musical biopic of legendary American composer Cole Porter. While the first, Night and Day (1946), stars Cary Grant as a resolutely straight Porter, this version explores the composer’s (played by Kevin Kline) complex sexuality in the context of his marriage to his wife, Linda Lee (Ashley Judd). Cole and Linda Lee Porter met in the 1920s Paris milieu of Ella and Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and with Porter’s pre-existing fortune and musical success, their life together was characterized by all of the era’s extravagances. While Porter had many relationships with men throughout his life, Linda Lee remained his muse and confidante until her death. This context sheds new light on some of his classic songs, which are performed by present-day stars like Elvis Costello, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crowe, and Natalie Cole. I usually don’t enjoy musicals all that much, but this is one I’m excited to see. (MAC)

So that’s the schedule, day-by-day, with our inexpert opinions. Smile Politely will be at the festival each day, bringing you highlights and anecdotes. Hope to see you there! 

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