Ebertfest 2016: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

14 Apr

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Until 2007, the Roger Ebert Film Festival was officially known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. According to Roger’s wife Chaz, who is now the face of the fest, filmmakers who presented their work appreciated the recognition, but were becoming wary of the label. By shedding the explicit term while ultimately keeping the spirit of highlighting the underseen and underappreciated, Ebertfest was able to expand its scope a bit to include beloved classics and yet-to-be-released gems. Over the years as I’ve covered the festival, I’ve wondered where it might be heading, especially following Roger’s passing a little more than three years ago. The schedule of this 18th edition, however, is perhaps the most representative of the original spirit as I’ve seen over the past five years. This year has moved away from the recent trend of featuring a spot or two as a pipeline from the most recent Sundance Film Festival (James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour being two recent examples) and is almost exclusively focusing on smaller or notable films that didn’t reach enough of an audience.

In part because of this, my knee-jerk opinion to the festival’s schedule was lukewarm. None of the films that I hadn’t previously seen really jumped off the page for me. As Ebertfest starts, though, and I begin to dive into its offerings, I realize the overall slate is nearly perfect under its spirit. I was definitely excited to see The Third Man on the big screen for the first time and revisit De Palma’s intense Blow Out (at the perfect time to begin reconsidering John Travolta’s career in the post-People vs. O.J. Simpson light, no less), but now the thought of discovering the likes of indie drama Northfork, recent doc Radical Grace, and finally seeing Eve’s Bayou is even more exciting.

Ebertfest’s opening night showcase title, Crimson Peak, is probably a bit more mainstream than most of the overlooked films highlighted by the festival, but there is no doubt its box office performance was not superb and the film itself was perhaps misunderstood by many, especially those who decided to skip it entirely. It certainly has its defenders, and I think Ebert may have been among them – its strong visual sense and well-developed characters were always something he looked for. Personally, when I saw Crimson Peak in theaters last fall, I was among the underwhelmed, but was eager to see it again, especially with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in attendance. There is a specific link between this artist and place for me. Back in 2007 I discovered del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth at the Champaign Art Theater, only a block away from Ebertfest’s historic Virginia Theater. Returning to this scene and in this spirit, I found much more to like in Crimson Peak, a film that still has narrative valleys, but is intricately beautiful and more fun than I remembered.

With this second viewing, I became more focused on the film’s central relationship between Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), which del Toro called an “anti-romance” in his introduction. Knowing how the characters end up and their true motivations throughout the film’s mysterious elements, the relationship (and the actors’ performances) became much more interesting. Early on in the film, Edith, a writer, is told her “story with a ghost” needs some romance. Crimson Peak indeed responds with a potential romance before turning it on its head. It doesn’t set out to bamboozle the viewer, making it pretty clear early on that there is something more to Sharpe’s interest in Edith than love. Still, the actors’ chemistry and charm makes it easy to look past these suspicious facts and yearn for the dirty love of Gothic romance.

Movies about bookish girls who spurn the ideas of love until they are swept off their feet by an out-of-their-league strapping gentleman are often pretty silly. Crimson Peak is not. Throughout the film, Sharpe connects with Edith’s eccentricities, leading him through a true, yet subtle, transition. There aren’t any contrived grand romantic gestures, but small shared moments like Edith’s curiosity over the trinkets Sharpe has made or his actual constructive interest in her writing. The major problem most films with romantic subplots face is shoe-horning two characters together who don’t connect on this type of level. Even as the first two acts of Crimson Peak do drag at times, I appreciate the groundwork del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins laid to develop Edith and Thomas together before it all dramatically breaks down.

For its horror elements, Crimson Peak creates one of the all-time great movie castles—Allerdale Hall’s wonderful design is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. Many of its features work on multiple levels as pure conceptual visual and metaphor for theme and character. In the post-screening Q&A, del Toro noted how this works within the film’s genre and why it isn’t a haunted house film: while a haunted house has a sentient ability, the edifice of a Gothic romance is a representation of the corruption of its inhabitants. Crimson Peak pushes hard on this, maybe a bit too on-the-nose in some cases. The permeating red clay, for example, is especially striking but at times too representative. The visual absolutely works in the horror context and in the marketing of the film, but in its full context, the horror elements are dramatically undercut. Still, there is no denying how much the setting reflects the insanity that drives into the final act and the grotesque beauty of it all.

Seeing Guillermo del Toro speak about Crimson Peak, which he called his personal favorite film along with The Devil’s Backbone, was fascinating and without a doubt contributed to my reading of the film and enjoyment of the festival’s opening ceremonies. You get the feeling that the filmmaker could talk about filmmaking for as long as you’d let him, and he certainly did while answering questions as completely as you would find at any filmmaker Q&A. Specifically interesting was his discussion on the design of the film and its effects—as is del Toro’s style, nothing was faked, the setting and the ghosts were all built from reality with as little computer assistance as possible.

No matter how del Toro feels, Crimson Peak isn’t among his very best work in my mind, but I’ve come away to appreciate its craft and unusual narrative. I have loved the most recent renditions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both which return to more stylized and edgier roots of romance as they were intended. Crimson Peak fits more in this light than the perhaps expected horror-fantasy del Toro fans most cherish. This is also among the filmmaker’s most complete and dedicated character studies, which ultimately may have turned off the genre fanatics while it slowly builds to the crazy climax. It also can’t be ignored how fantastic the cast is—I’ve mentioned the great chemistry between Wasikowska and Hiddleston, but its third wheel Jessica Chastain who completely steals the show as Sharpe’s deranged sister. Her performance definitely fits in the “overlooked” vision of Ebertfest.

The second day of Ebertfest includes Chris Weitz’s Lily Tomlin star vehicle Grandma, Montana-set Northfork, and screening of one of Roger’s all-time favorites, classic noir The Third Man.

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