- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — Roger Ebert’s Film Festival presented two films Saturday that dealt with what it means to be family — and how far people might be willing to go for those closest to them.

On Saturday afternoon, director Alan Polsky spoke after a showing of “The Motel Life” at “Ebertfest,” which he co-directed with his brother, Gabe. The film stars Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff as brothers on the lam after tragedy strikes. The film blends live action with magical animation that brings to life stories Mr. Hirsch’s character tells Mr. Dorff’s as a way to lighten up their daily lives.

“We felt it was a perfect opportunity to tell a very sort of personal brother story that didn’t exactly mirror our [own] relationship,” Mr. Polsky said. “[Because] we’re brothers, I think we can at least convince people we understand that relationship.”

Mr. Polksy explained that he and his brother tried to capture the hope that is inherent when parents tell their own children stories. In an interesting twist, his brother Gabe was present at Ebertfest 2014 along with his hockey documentary, “Red Army,” which was about the first Soviets to play in the NHL.

“As we get older, I think it’s harder for us to be honest,” Mr. Polsky said. “[Gabe and I] actually always saw this as a little bit of a fairy tale.”

He said the relationship between the actors was key to the film.

“We got them in a room, and they just felt really good together,” Mr. Polsky told the Ebertfest audience.

Kris Kristofferson has a small role, after three initial rejections. Mr. Kristofferson later told Mr. Polsky that the role was his personal favorite from his lengthy acting career.

On Saturday evening, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whom Ebert once called “the new great American director,” spoke about “99 Homes,” his new work that follows a young man, played by Andrew Garfield, who goes to work for the very real estate developer who evicted him from his own home — a veritable deal with the devil.

“I wanted to screen it here because this festival is very important to me,” Mr. Bahrani said. “Everyone here knows me because of Roger. Not [only did he] believe in me, but what he wrote about cinema and [his] television [program] inspired me as a filmmaker.”

“99 Homes” takes place in 2010, when the foreclosure crisis hits its nadir, and in Florida, one of the hardest-hit states.

An early scene shows Dennis, Mr. Garfield’s character, and his family being evicted from their home.

“Unless you’ve been through that, you don’t know what that is,” Mr. Bahrani said of the film, which he co-wrote with Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi. “I think this story could be about you. If not you, your sister, your brother, your neighbor, your grandfather.”

During a post-show Q&A with Scott Foundas of Variety and Brian Talerico of RogerEbert.com, Mr. Bahrani said that the film offered him a chance to “de-romanticize” the banker “farming” system that has harmed so many Americans. He also praised character actor Michael Shannon, who plays the film’s villain, Richard the real estate mogul.

“Michael Shannon is like an endless machine of gold, always spitting out more gold,” Mr. Bahrani said of the Oscar-nominated actor who also played the evil General Zod in 2013’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.” “I feel [that] in [his] performance, despite the nasty sarcasm of his dialogue, you feel the pain he’s in,” Mr. Bahrani said, noting that while Richard is undeniably vile and cares little for anyone but himself, there is a definite humanity about him.

“It’s not like [Richard] was born to be [a villain],” Mr. Bahrani said. “The system created him.”

Dennis gradually takes on more and more of Richard’s traits, slowly becoming his dark apprentice in evicting other people much like himself. Half of the people evicted in the movie were portrayed by real actors, and the others were locals in the Louisiana area where the movie was shot.

The dynamic between Dennis and Richard calls to mind such work as Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” which Mr. Bahrani said was one of his influences.

Mr. Shannon improvised a crucial line of dialogue at the film’s close. Mr. Bahrani did not inquire what the character Richard meant by the remark, and he instructed Mr. Shannon to never share in an interview what the exclamation meant or how he felt it would play out for the characters.

“I think people want to know everything,” Mr. Bahrani said of keeping the secret. “Now we have Google, [but] there was an era when we didn’t know, and that allowed for dreams and imagination.

“I don’t want to know,” he said.

Mr. Bahrani said he saw Ebert in Chicago not long before his death in April 2013. Based on his one-sentence synopsis, Ebert, who by then could no longer speak, gave the idea his iconic thumbs up.

“I’ve always felt his belief in me was more than I believe in myself,” Mr. Bahrani said. I always feel that with each film I make, would Roger be proud of it? Would it get me one step closer to the things he said about me?”

Indeed, “99 Homes” is dedicated to Ebert’s memory.

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