Ebertfest 2019: Celebrating Roger in Fine Filmic Fashion

Bound Bound

We look back on a weekend in Champaign-Urbana filled with movies Roger Ebert loved or would have loved.

At the start of its third decade, Ebertfest has emerged a unique beast. Film festivals tend to feel hectic and energetic, but this extended weekend of good movies is perfectly laid back. The people are exceptionally friendly – though as a native of Champaign-Urbana, I might be a little biased. And while the fest’s founder, prolific critic Roger Ebert, passed away in 2013, Ebertfest continues to attract influential guests and screenings to my favorite corner of east-central Illinois.

The movies aren’t half bad, either. Helmed by Roger’s wife Chaz, the slate is comprised of under-seen gems that Ebert reviewed and loved, or newer releases that likely would have earned the coveted thumbs-up. The entire festival takes place in the single auditorium of The Virginia Theater; attending means finding a quality seat, making camp for the weekend, and doing your best to surrender to the relaxed vibe. Screenings rarely start on-time – but that’s ok. You’re meant to sit down, and enjoy a slew of great movies.

The fest certainly started on a high note: following a pre-show Q&A with producers Alan Elliott and Tirrell D. Whittley, the sold-out crowd witnessed Amazing Grace (2019) in all its glory. My full thoughts are already up, but suffice it to say that this was a superb pick for opening night, and a very special movie in its own right.

As a result, there was a lot of momentum rolling into the following day, which featured three top-notch pictures back-to-back. Well, the picture quality wasn’t exactly pristine: ironically, the 1923 French-impressionist epic Coeur Fidele (translated: The Faithful Heart) ended up being the cleanest print shown Friday. Director Jean Epstein’s innovative filmmaking remains engaging nearly a century later: his desire to depict the subjective perspectives of his characters was incredibly ahead of its time. The sequences in which he showcases his frantically-edited style (which he dubbed “photogenie”) remain hypnotic nearly a century after their conception.   

Up next was Rachel Getting Married (2008), which ended up being one of my favorites of the entire festival. Today, Jonathan Demme’s (best known for Silence of the Lambs) portrait of irreconcilable tragedy reads like a superior version of Manchester by the Sea. We follow Kim (Anne Hathaway), who returns from rehab for her sister’s wedding, triggering the reemergence of decades of familial dysfunction.

Demme’s camera imitates a wedding video, further adding to the painfully intimate atmosphere that permeates throughout. Hathaway turns in a brilliant performance, and we’re rarely shown a character this flawed. The screenplay, from Jenny Lumet, strings together emotionally volatile sequences with little regard for the audience’s tolerance. The film is better for it: Rachel Getting Married is an overlooked achievement, and exactly the type of movie Ebertfest exists to serve.

The day closed with Bound (1996), the debut of Lily and Lana Wachowski. And what a debut it is! We’re quickly introduced to Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con handywoman, and Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the long-suffering “girlfriend” (read: hostage) of a local Chicago mobster. The first act intensely focuses on Corky and Violet’s budding romance, before the movie shifts gears, becoming a finely crafted neo-noir, as Corky and Violet hatch and execute a plan to rob the mob without anyone noticing.

This translates into to a constantly-tense back half, as Bound showcases the joy of simple, effective filmmaking from start to finish. Years before The Matrix, The Wachowskis’ aesthetic was already on display: a distinct color scheme (red, white and black here, which would give way to the dark greens and greys of their sci-fi trilogy), lateral, circular camera pans, and a whole lot of black leather. Furthermore, the gender politics are handled with care, and the film’s subtext remains as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. As we watch Violet slowly break out of her misogynist and heteronormative bonds, it’s clear that Bound is another movie that deserves to be seen and remembered.

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