Camp Ebert

Usually at this time of year, I am at the University of Illinois, taking in the sights, scents and sounds of Champaign Urbana. At this moment, I’d be waking up in the Illini Union, taking in the abundance of youth walking through its halls. Inspired by the vigor and hope I see in the students that I would see walk past me.


I would walk out of the back entrance and be in awe at the Quadrangle, overcome by even more campus denizens walking through the grounds. I’d walk along with them, looking at the history in the green and mahogany around me. The architecture, the trees, the sheer space and Spring is intoxicating, if only for the short time that I would have it at UIUC.


But I’m not there this year, not there to share in Ebertfest, where wondrous films will be seen in a secluded place far away from the world’s worries and concerns. I won’t be able to see dear friends I’ve made in the past two years, people who I’ve come to care for deeply because we care about the same things. These silly little treasures called movies, the kind that stay with you, grab you, and don’t let go. My heart aches.

The Far Flung Correspondents

The first time was the best. Speaking at panels, illuminating my world of film with foreigners curious about what lies beyond their borders. I share strange perspectives with fellow strangers from strange lands, but without the alienation. Just love and enthusiasm. We don’t speak in an auditorium down to an audience. We share in a room just paces away from those facing us. We see each other closely. We listen.

The Virginia Theater

Then come the movies in the Virginia Theatre. An actual Movie Theatre! Not one of those fancy multiplexes with cushy seats. It’s got history in it. Donald O’Connor of “Singin’ In The Rain” danced up on its stage in the age of Vaudeville. Would that be something you’d want to tear down just for a comfortable derriere?

The theatre is lush, with hues of rouge surrounding you. Taking my seat, I stepped back in time, recalling those old saturday matinees of my youth. The screen is majestic, wide in its breath, larger than most theaters without the overpowering feel of an IMAX screen.


There is a balcony. An honest to goodness balcony that seems to have gone the way of the dodo everywhere else. There’s popcorn and snacks, but how I miss the sandwiches being cooked right outside the theatre. You can see the sausages smoking. You know it’s cooked.


There’s the audience. That Midwestern small town feel that you never want to leave. Before and after screenings, people chalked up random conversations with me. “What do you think it will be like?” “What did you think?” The most common question I would always hear was, “Wasn’t that great?”

I’ve also been scolded for chatting during a screening. I welcomed it. These movie lovers don’t mess around.

These people around me weren’t merely an audience. For those five days, they were my neighbors, a concept that seems to be sadly disappearing. I would see many folks in the same seats day after day, coming to see overlooked films because they knew they weren’t going to be disrespected, and loved the communal moviegoing experience that might go extinct. They stay long afterwards to ask moviemakers questions, and the moviemakers are moved that we are moved.


There are no movies that are being marketed or sold. No paparazzi chasing down stars for sound bytes. There is a trust that exists here that you can find nowhere else. It exists because Roger Ebert reaffirms that trust by what he selects and how he maintains this festival landscape.

As a film critic, I miss Ebertfest dearly for these reasons and more. I miss knowing that a major critic gets to ride in the trunk of a 4×4, just as I did. I miss finding out Chaz Ebert’s favorite karaoke song is Rapper’s Delight, and seeing her tearing up the mic. I miss the BBQ at Black Dog, the double guacamole steak burgers at Steak N’ Shake, chatting with David Bordwell (with him doing most of the chatting), hearing people in the know dishing out the dirt, and meeting some of my heroes, whether they write about films, or help make them.

I miss it because I learn something every time I set foot on its grounds. I miss meeting fellow movie lovers I’ve met online and off, who have gone on this pilgrimage with me. I miss disagreeing with my critic friends after a bad film, and smiling with them in quiet unison during a good one.

Most of all, I miss spending quiet moments with Roger, a friend and teacher who gave me so much. Who gave all of us so much. This is one of the very few things I can do for him in return. I think we should all call Ebertfest what it really is to all those who love him and film.

Camp Ebert.

The Avengers (**)

There are two kinds of superhero film fans. The first are those who have outgrown the familiarities of the genre and eager to see something new, be it a wonder and awe not seen or felt before, or an idea/theme that is ripe for the taking. The second are those who are content with supremely safe entertainment, with imagery reinforcing what they already know, wishing to see their special comic book lore acknowledged.

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” falls squarely for those in the second category, pleased with itself and proud of it. Marvel fans who have wanted to see these heroes in the flesh will get their fill, but for those of us hoping for something more, such spirit is definitely weak.

We all saw it coming, beginning with “Iron Man,” which gamely reinvigorated Marvel’s line of heroes. With its post-credits teasing, it began a multi-threaded plot involving “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and their sidekicks. Comic strip founding fathers resurrected for a whole new generation of kids to sell toys to.

But in the process of their assembly, there were only so many working parts they could reuse. They had Robert Downey Jr’s invaluable charm as Tony Stark, really the most valuable human presence of the film, whose intense eyes and irresistible snark draws us in every time we get a look inside his armor. But gone is the youthful energy infused by John Favreau’s direction. And the chemistry sparked by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in much too short supply.

Gone too is the serious aura of Edward Norton, which wasn’t needed for this Jekyll-esque incarnation of Dr. Banner. Now played by the great Mark Ruffalo, he exists mainly to provide science-speak with Stark. His CGI alter-id in the Hulk, upstages him with the movie’s best moments, punctuating its third act with immensely satisfying comic geek-out sequences and the biggest LOLs. Too bad it all comes way too late.

The Chris-es, Evans (Captain America) and Hemsworth (Thor), are two gifted young actors in a film that does them no favors. The former is a noble bore, while the latter is pretty much a big dumb blonde with a drinking problem (thankfully on hold here). They both deserve better roles and opportunities as none of their gifts, aside from their physical ones, are worth a damn here.

Two extras brought along for the ride do what they can. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is smart, fearsome, and insidious. But I wish she could have been cast as another character. You know, one that actually has super powers other than her skin-tight costume. She’s more than what I expected, but undeniably mostly a tease. And Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye shows once more that he’s the American version of Daniel Craig, capable of holding a masculine gravitas regardless of silly second billing. He’s another talent much too valuable for the part.

Even Samuel L. Jackson is under-utilized as he gets out of everyone’s way. His out-of-sight machinations only emphasizes his absence. And Tom Hiddleston, the Super-baddie Loki, is about as intimidating as Thor is interesting. What is it about Marvel’s film-adapted demigods that make them so… boring (save for Idris Elba’s Heimdall).

What the film does do very well is its climax, with Manhattan laid under siege by otherworldly invaders and beasts. It’s here where we finally see this titanic team fulfill visions of hero-loving boys and girls around the world. It isn’t as creative as that of Hellboy’s inter-dimensional account of hell, or the monumentally epic finale of “Dark City” (the gold standard of what a superhuman conflict would look like), but it does the job competently and skillfully.

But really, what took it so long? Its first act is one long predictable slog of trope after trope. Its second is a mixed bag of visual goodies waiting to burst forth (like the rise of the Hellcarrier) and confusing motives clashing against each other. “X-Men: First Class” handled multiple themes and characters with grace and heft that it feels like King Lear compared to this mishmash.

And the third act, though entertaining, is entirely on autopilot. Not once do we feel anything at stake. Not once do we feel the overwhelming odds. The one-liners and sight-gags are fantastic, but I don’t want to remember my superhero movies solely for the jokes. The many colossal monsters which they face fail to raise the kind of awesome thrill of a single gigantic serpent in “How To Train Your Dragon.”

Gone are the times when superhero films dared to take a risk, especially with directors of great imagination. It gives production companies mixed results. With the financial successes of Guillermo Del Toro (the “Hellboy” movies), we have the box office letdown of Ang Lee (“Hulk”), despite both being remarkably creative narratively and visually. Disney is in charge now. And unless Pixar is at the helm (Hey! There’s an idea!), they’ll be pitching safe profit over craftsmanship more often than not.

So there you have it. If you’re a longtime comic book fan who is happy to be reassured with the familiar, or a child who has never heard or seen of these heroes, you’re in for a treat. But if your imagination is waiting to stirred, “The Avengers” is an all too familiar disappointment.

Do I really need to tell you to stay after the credits?