Ebertfest, Day Two

Ebertfest, Day Two (photo)

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Yesterday I wrote about movie time travel, today someone drove a DeLorean to Ebertfest. I’m quickly beginning to realize it’s that sort of film festival: fun, whimsical, and totally dedicated to the movies. It’s so relaxed too. Because it’s not a market, or a place where new films premiere, there’s none of the pressure I typically associate with film festivals. Nobody’s here to tell you how they spent four years of their lives and their parents’ savings on their movie about the endangered marmot. People really let their hair down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Day 2 began with its hair up, with a panel dedicated to Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, a brigade of writers and critics from all over the world. I tend to shrivel away at the prospect of critics talking about — and invariably complaining about — themselves, but this was something different, less a panel discussion than a sharing of cultures and ideas. We learned how audiences in Dubai behave in movie theaters (rudely, it turns out). We discovered the Mexican equivalent of “Siskel & Ebert,” which was cast with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert look-alikes in an attempt to cash in on their formula. Critics like Ali Arikan, Michael Mirasol, and Pablo Villaça talked about the state of film culture in places like Turkey, The Philippines, and Brazil. It was fascinating to see where our differences lie — distribution and exhibition being the biggest — and where we share common ground. Can you believe nobody gets paid to be a film critic in foreign countries either? I know, I was shocked too.

After morning panels, it was time for the movies, starting with a double feature of films about men and their dogs, a topic close to my heart since I have a dog, and as soon as puberty hits I’ll technically be a man (doctors say it could be a matter of weeks). I had seen neither movie before. The first was an acknowledged masterpiece, Vittorio de Sica’s 1952 film “Umberto D.”

Now I should preface my thoughts on the film with a disclaimer. No critic is an objective viewer, but when it comes to movies about dogs, I am about as trustworthy as the chairman of a meeting of Pathological Liars Anonymous. After a lifetime of living without pets, my wife convinced me to get a dog after we got married. Though I was reluctant, it was the right decision (and oh, how I hate admitting that in print, where my wife can read it and present it as evidence the next time we disagree about something). Having a dog has enriched my life in so many ways. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its downsides. Paramount among those: after spending almost 30 years of my life as a proudly cynical, cold-hearted film viewer, getting a dog has suddenly turned me into a movie mushpot. I’ve told my wife this before and meant it: I can never repay her for convincing me to get our dog, and I will never forgive her for the fact that getting our dog has turned me into that guy who cries at movies about dogs.

Of course, even a jaded hater of animals would be helpless to resist “Umberto D,” a devastatingly beautiful and sad film about a retired civil servant named Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) suffocating under a mountain of debt. The connection between man and animal is a powerful thing, and never more touching than when it exists for a man like Umberto, who’s watching his connection to everything but his faithful mutt Flike cruelly severed. He can no longer afford his tiny apartment and his cruel landlady has taken to renting out his room to people looking for a place to have sex. He’s retired and when he sees former co-workers in the street they have nothing to say to him. To make ends meet, he’s slowly selling off every one of his possessions. Soon all he has left to his name fits in a single suitcase. And, of course, Flike.

At the post-film Q&A, it was pointed out that several dogs played the part of Flike because different dogs were required to perform all his different tricks. But that connection between Battisti and the dogs feels so real, and it’s that connection that the film captures so well. Umberto’s friends, associates, possessions, they’re all gone. But Flike will follow his master to the ends of the earth. In perhaps the film’s greatest single shot, Umberto is preparing to kill himself by throwing himself in front of an oncoming train. He’s left Flike playing in a park with some children, hoping he won’t notice his absence, but sure enough, Flike comes scampering after him. In a single long take, the canine actor playing Flike bounds over a bridge, and discovering an ashamed Umberto hiding in the bushes.

I’m sorry, I think my allergies are acting up. Let me just go get a tissue or five…

Better. “Umberto D.” was followed by a more recent dog-related triumph, 2010’s “My Dog Tulip,” from husband and wife team Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. The film is animated in a loose and affectionate style, entirely by hand, entirely by the two filmmakers, and entirely without paper. After the film, the Fierlingers described their process in fascinating detail: Paul draws in ink on computer tablets, and Sandra paints his drawings with electronic watercolors. They haven’t calculated how many drawings they had to make to create this feature length film. Let’s put it this way: it was a lot.

The result of years of work is a charmingly ramshackle, gleefully vulgar, and deeply personal film. Based on the 1956 book by J. R. Ackerley, it’s the author’s story of his life with a German Shephard. Ackerley was a homosexual living in England in the first half of the 20th century, but we share at least one thing in common: we both came to our love of dogs as adults. Acklerley was well into middle age when he gave a neglected dog a home and fell deeply in love. I know what that’s like. The Fierlingers are dog owners themselves, and they understand that feeling well, too.

One thing “My Dog Tulip” gets exactly right is the charm of an imperfect animal. “Umberto D.” is a magical film, but it must be said that for all the films claims to Italian neorealism there is one aspect that is incredibly unrealistic: that impossibly well-behaved pooch. He does tricks on command, he doesn’t beg for food, he never barks at strangers, and he loves little children. Dogs like that do exist, but I imagine most dog lovers — myself included — relate more to life with a dog like Tulip, who can be anti-social, nervous and untrusting of strangers, and insanely devoted to their masters. Owners of the Tulips of the world would love it if their dog were more accepting of others, but on some level, they also love the fact that they aren’t. Their love seems more pure and more genuine, because it is special. Dogs like Tulip don’t come to their trust easily. Which makes when they do that much more powerful.

“My Dog Tulip” is dry and witty; it’s also got enough graphic on camera defecation to make John Waters raise an eyebrow. The clash between high society and lowbrow behavior seemed to bridge the gap to the final film of Ebertfest Day 2, Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture.” I’ve talked about the film before, so I don’t have a lot to say about it now. I will simply note that I remain a fan of the film, and of writer/director/star Dunham, who has received a lot of abuse from certain wings of the critical community, I think because she comes from a wealthy family and has had more opportunities than other people do (an issue that is directly addressed in the film’s story of a lost girl trying to decide what to do with her life now that she’s graduated from college with a worthless film theory degree). The fact of the matter is there are a lot of rich people out there, and a lot of those people make films. But few of them are as sharply directed as “Tiny Furniture.” Few have the snap of Dunham’s dialogue, or the same sense of incisive, introspective truth. And none have a character who’s as much fun to hate as Alex Karpovsky’s delightfully douchey “YouTube star” Jed. That performance belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Movie Douchebags, along with Bill Paxton from “True Lies,” Ben Affleck in “Dazed and Confused,” and William Atherton in “Ghostbusters.”

After “Tiny Furniture,” something like twenty people from Ebertfest — including festival host Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife — adjourned to a local bar for karaoke. That’s when the hair came down. But now it’s time for me to go. The curtain’s about to go up on Day 3.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.


IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines


The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.


Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.


A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.


Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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