Ebertfest 2016: Force of Destiny, Radical Grace, Love & Mercy, Blow Out, by Aaron Pinkston

21 Apr

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The Saturday slate of Ebertfest is the most full (especially if you’re skipping out on the panel discussions and other offerings), making the day feel most like a more normal film festival. Thankfully, festival-goers don’t have to theater hop or worry about getting in the door at all, but as luxurious as a four-film day sounds, the seasoned festival attendee knows it is anything but. As I did not stick around for the Sunday screening (this year was a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s Paul Robeson vehicle Body and Soul, which I am sad to miss), though, the long day is a welcome send-off. This year’s final day screened four more diverse offerings, with three recent films setting up a reconsideration of a De Palma pulp thriller.

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The Saturday matinee slot went to Force of Destiny, an Australian cancer drama from festival favorite son Paul Cox. Cox isn’t a household name for many American film fans, but anyone who has attended a few Ebertfests have seen his work. By my count, Force of Destiny marks his fifth appearance—four for films he directed and once for On Borrowed Time, a doc in which he was the subject. I only know his work through the festival, and for that matter, and the only film of his I’ve seen is the languid documentary Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh, which played the festival back in 2003. But I was willing to give one of his narrative films a chance, particularly because of Ebert’s support – previous films Innocence and A Woman’s Tale both received 4-star reviews (as did Vincent).

Force of Destiny is a semi-autobiographical account inspired by Cox’s struggle with cancer and his experience on a organ transplant waiting list. David Wenhem plays Robert, a modern artist whose surprising cancer diagnosis seems to hit his loved ones much harder. While Robert goes from doctor to doctor for reevaluations and eventual treatment, he meets Maya (Shahana Goswami), an aspiring painter from India whose elderly uncle is also dealing with aggressive cancer. The film is a quiet, mildly charming humanist character study that certainly feels like it came from an emotional place of its writer-director. For those who haven’t seen a Cox film, a brief ramble in Force of Destiny about why they didn’t make “Star Peace” instead of Star Wars tells you all you need to know about the filmmaker’s outlook.

Wenham – a big, hale looking man known best for 300 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy – is interesting casting as Robert, a quiet and thoughtful character. The subdued tone of the film keeps the range of emotions on the low end, but there is a lot of internal expression going on. A lot of the actor’s work comes through voiceover, where the film’s existential and philosophical musings lie. Like the film, they are delivered in hushed tones, as if the narrator were jotting them down in a notepad.

Overall, the film doesn’t cover much different emotional ground than most cancer dramas. The transplant waiting list angle offers a slightly different slant, one which was obviously important to the filmmaker. Cox’s style doesn’t allow the film to over-sensationalize the process of cancer treatment, which makes Force of Destiny a simpler film, perhaps, but more watchable. Toward the end of the film, when Robert is spending more time in hospital rooms, the character and camera often look at other patients. These characters are more in the normal scope of the illness drama – more destitute, more resigned to their fates, or the inverse and full of melancholic celebration with their loved ones. This subtle touch adds a documentary feel to the film’s conclusion and is probably the most impressive filmmaking in Force of Destiny.

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Among my most anticipated films of the festival was Rebecca Parrish’s Radical Grace, which I first heard about at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival. A profile doc about a group of delightful social justice nuns? Sounds good to me. Radical Grace is a fairly standard as far as profile documentaries go, but its subjects and specialized scope make for an entertaining film.

Radical Grace opens with a title card explaining that in 2009 the Vatican opened an investigation citing the “feminist spirit” of nuns to decide if their modern lifestyles were “faithful” to the Church. When a group of Catholic priests famously sued the government over the inclusion of birth control in the Affordable Care Act, 59000 nuns signed a letter in opposition of their action. To them, the benefits for the poorest people in America, the people they spend most of their work serving, made standing up for the ACA a “pro life” stance, regardless of their views on abortion.

The major narrative of the film comes from this background, when a group of leaders organized a series of events across the country to speak in support of the Affordable Care Act in a tour affectionately called “Nuns on the Bus.” The film also gives a quick history of nuns in the Catholic Church, focusing mostly on Pope John Paul II’s leadership. Previously, women in the Church saw a potential path to priesthood and more of a community voice in the progressive 1960s and 1970s, but many have felt increasingly silenced following widespread philosophy changes within the Church’s leadership.

Many of the nuns we meet in the film speak to the issues that so many non-believers have with the institutional nature of the Catholic Church. They no longer see their positions as a philosophical duty to help others – for them, they are finding little support to practice their work for the reasons they became Christians in the first place. This thought seems fairly hypocritical and is fully explored throughout Radical Grace. The bishop charged with overseeing the nuns during the Church’s investigation openly wonders whether there’s a limit to social justice and helping people while still being a Christian and living within Catholic law.

The sisters profiled in Radical Grace are all thoughtful, caring, strong women. They are incredibly hard-working and have a lust for life. Much different than the public and literary personas of their priest counterparts, these nuns are extraordinarily personable to those they serve. The film’s most touching and heartbreaking portrait is of Sister Jean Hughes, who worked with former convicts on the south side of Chicago. Despite being from a different background, race, and educational status, Sister Jean built a real connection of trust with disenfranchised men trying to contribute something to society. Much of that trust comes from the ability to be personable and open to her community. Of the nuns we meet in the film, we see most of Sister Jean working out in the field and showing exactly why it is important for lifestyle to be supported.

Radical Grace ends with a sliver of hope as Pope Francis rises to leadership with an emphasis on helping the common man. The charges of the radical feminist nuns have yet to be fully appreciated, and they are still feeling the forces of their superiors, but they can see the tide turning.

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For some reason, Love & Mercy was lost in the end-of-year film discussion; perhaps it was the crowded, deep field or too many folks skipping over the film to begin with. This is unfortunate, because Bill Pohlad’s first directorial effort in 24 years is among a recent trend of sharper, more artistically focused musical biopics. Love & Mercy tackles Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys in two different eras and with two different characterizations. It doesn’t take the liberties of I’m Not There, but creates two strong and different characters: Paul Dano as the young musical genius during the complicated efforts of creating his lasting masterpiece, and John Cusack as the troubled man trying to find new love while being trapped by the people closest to his interests.

The filmmaking style of the two narrative threads are different, as well. Until the very end of his story, the Cusack scenes are comparatively straightforward, keeping focus on his budding relationship and the simple evil of his handler, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). On the other hand, the Pet Sounds recording sequences and Wilson’s emotional break are filled with sound experimentation and a more kinetic editing style. In the earlier sequences, we are more directly put inside of Wilson’s head, hearing the torment he is beginning to feel. As a sick man emotionally stifled by too much medication, we don’t have that same insight and that is affected in the directorial choices. The relationship with time also has inherent effects, with the 1960s portions feeling more hazy, like a faraway dream, whereas the 1980s sections seem easier to grasp.

We all know the formula for biopics: the rise, the fall, the redemption in the most simplest terms. The most recent strain of the genre has put forward an effort to show its subjects “warts and all.” But most (even the good ones) struggle to do this without an ego, a strange reversal where they seem to honestly tackle hardships as a way of showing their legitimacy as a film. Love & Mercy might be the most unpretentious profile I’ve ever seen. Cusack’s performance as Wilson is so quiet and unassuming that it would be easy to forget the gigantic cultural icon he is inhabiting. This plays out in the narrative, too – when Wilson meets Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), it is Dr. Landy who announces his importance; you get the idea that Wilson would be embarrassed to reveal his identity at all.

Each of Love & Mercy’s halves likely would have been a good film on their own, given the care that Pohlad gives to the characters and emotional journeys, but their balance together works surprisingly well. Obviously, it wouldn’t be as successful without its three strong central performances (I’m putting Banks in there, too, as she is phenomenal in the kind of role that we’re used to not thinking about). The film might struggle a bit with characterizing its villains, but the heroes are so strongly and intricately formed that Dr. Landy or Mike Love’s more one-note roles didn’t burden the film. If you skipped Love & Mercy because you’ve seen too many bad biopics or the dual roles seemed gimmicky or for any other reason, you should quickly reconsider. Though the namesake of the festival didn’t see the film, I don’t doubt he would have been a strong champion for it.

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The final screening of the day and of the festival (for me, at least) was Brian De Palma’s reemerging thriller Blow Out, which Ebert gave a 4-star review upon its release. Blow Out wasn’t exactly ignored when it came out (critics liked it, though audiences were small), but it seems to have been rediscovered among those reconsidering De Palma’s pulp sensibilities and thanks to a Criterion Collection Blu-ray release in 2011.

Ebert opened his review with this very interesting line: “There are times when Blow Out resembles recent American history trapped in the Twilight Zone.” Thirty five years later, that seems as true as ever. The film’s almost fetishistic look at how we consume public tragedy has become even more magnified. Could the events of Blow Out even exist in the TMZ media era? Ebert was of course thinking more about the Kennedy assassination and those who have pored over its footage to find the clue no one else has seen, but the modern media 24-hour news cycle would have had a field day with the strange death of a presidential hopeful.

Stylistically, Blow Out is a tried and true vision of its auteur. De Palma shoots the mundane, somewhat alien process of sound recording and film editing with maximum effort, multiple images and intense editing. Blow Out is often called a “film about filmmaking,” though it’s not a film about the making of a film. Still, De Palma shows love for craft through the eyes of a crazed conspiracy theorist. It shows the power of what filmmaking can capture even as it is a disposable art. It is also a showcase for the filmmaker’s love affair with Hitchcockian thrillers, with many easily identifiable trademarks: the paranoia, complicated conspiracy, elements of the man wrongly accused, the psychotic killer, and build to a large-scale event climax.

Seeing the film again now, perhaps the most striking element is John Lithgow’s role as Burke, the hired gun who takes on more than was intended. Over the years, Lithgow has created a pretty established on-screen persona as the mannered, sophisticated funny man, which makes his role in Blow Out even more menacing. Still, he’s so recognizable (even with the hair) that it makes many of his other roles retroactively creepier, too. The character doesn’t have a lot of screen time (he isn’t even introduced until about halfway through the film), but boy does he make a quick impression.

Overall, I think the 2016 Roger Ebert Film Festival showed a good balance between the festival’s original spirit and where it will go in future years. The festival showcased a diverse selection of films that were mostly just plain good. There may have been fewer flashy titles in the schedule, but the presence of Eve’s Bayou and Blow Out in the weekend showcase slots showed a renewed desire to focus on the films of which Ebert was most fond. Seeing as Blow Out has recently gone through a rediscovery that Eve’s Bayou deserves, the festival has put the emphasis back on its former “overlooked” moniker, an idea that has renewed my excitement for Ebertfests to come.

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