Ebertfest 2015 Final Day: Ida, The Motel Life, 99 Homes


On Friday I moderated the Girlhood panel. On Saturday, I participated in the panel for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida, and then right after that, I moderated the QA for the next film, The Motel Life. The funniest thing was that I have no experience with doing things like this, but I was just tossed into all of it, and so of course I over-prepared, and made sure I knew my plan of attack for each one, and also asked questions of more experienced people who were there. It looks so easy when other people do it! Of course the key is to over-prepare, and then just let it go and have a nice conversation up there. Make the guest feel comfortable. Choose some good questions. And roll with the punches.


Ida was on my Top 10 last year, and I’d put it at the top of that list. (I wrote about it here.) I think seeing it at Ebertfest was my 4th time seeing it. It really should be seen on a screen as gigantic as that one. The images are so startling, the compositions so unique, and they just register differently, seeming even more beautiful when seen on a large screen.

I had participated in a panel about Ida up at Columbia last year, so it was really fun to re-visit it. Nell Minow, a Rogerebert.com contributor (among many other things – she’s such a fascinating person), led the panel. It was me, Matt Seitz, and Todd Rendelman, whom I did not know before this Ebertfest. He was lovely, I had many good conversations with him. He has written a book about Roger Ebert. He was great. Nell was our fearless leader, asking each of us questions about the film, and they were great questions. She asked Matt to discuss the aspect ratio (the film was done in the old Academy ratio, so that the image is square, as opposed to long thin and rectangular), asked me to discuss the acting … and there was that structure there to our conversation, but then we all would chime in on a certain question, or we would riff on what someone else said. I told Nell later that it all felt so relaxed it was like we were sitting around talking in someone’s living room. The questions from the audience were fantastic. The film is just so engaging, even with its darkness and with its haunted quality. There is so much to discuss, politics, acting, death, grief, guilt … So many people came up to me afterwards (and Nell said the same thing), thanking us for the panel. It definitely is the kind of film that you feel you MUST “talk about” afterwards, so I am glad our panel helped launch that conversation.


Following Ida was The Motel Life, co-directed by brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky (a very successful producing team, The Motel Life is their first feature as directors), and starring Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch. Secondary roles played by Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson. I had been assigned to review it for Rogerebert.com and was totally captivated by its mood of melancholy and sweetness, its tender heart, its tragedy, not to mention the magnificent performance from Stephen Dorff.

Based on the novel of the same name, by musician Willy Vlautin (an excellent book), The Motel Life tells the story of the unlucky Flannigan brothers, who live in Reno in a series of increasingly depressing and desperate motels, with not even 5 bucks between them. The older brother, Jerry Lee (Dorff) is compromised in some unnamed mental way, and he also lost his leg when he was a teenager, trying to jump a moving train. He likes to draw. Frank, the younger brother (Hirsch), tells what amounts to bedtime stories to Frank, where the brothers star as pirates, or fighter pilots, or … basically anything other than who they are. These stories appear as very funny animation sequences in the film version of The Motel Life. Anyway, I love the film. It’s a meandering character study. It feels like it could have been made in the 1970s. How exciting that they had chosen to show it at Ebertfest! Stephen Dorff was all set to attend but had to cancel last-minute (he had to do some sound stuff for another film). He sent his regrets. But Alan Polsky was able to attend. We met backstage beforehand, and he told me that my review was his favorite of all the reviews of the movie. “I put it on my Facebook page. I really liked it.” That was nice to hear, and it was nice to be able to tell him in person how much I loved the film. And so the conversation we had onstage (and Rogerebert.com contributor Sam Fragoso joined us), kind of went from there. The audience seemed to really dig the movie, and the questions were terrific, showing the level of emotional engagement with the material. One guy stood up in the balcony and his question was, “Where’s Stephen?” Ha! I was proud and pleased to help present this film to the Ebertfest audience. It barely got a release when it came out. There were many critics there who had never even heard of the damn thing. So it was a lot of fun. It was also thrilling for me, personally, because it was the last “thing” I had to do at Ebertfest. Check it off the list!


If you have not seen a film by Ramin Bahrani, I highly recommend checking him out. There is Man Push Cart, there is Chop Shop (it was Roger Ebert’s review that made me seek out the film), and there is Goodbye Solo, which screened at last year’s Ebertfest. Ebert had championed Bahrani’s work. Hard. The way he championed Scorsese’s work, or Werner Herzog’s work. He mentioned him so often that it got your attention, and piqued my curiosity. Bahrani is now a regular feature at Ebertfest, and the final film on Saturday was his latest, 99 Homes (which has not even been released yet, an Ebertfest first.) It represents a lot of changes for Bahrani, most noticeably being the present of some pretty big stars in it (Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern). Bahrani usually works with non-professional actors or non-actors. 99 Homes tells the story of a hustler/sleazy/real-estate developer/house-flipper who has benefited hugely from the housing and economic collapse. A shark. A con-man. A sociopath. As people’s lives collapse, his star rises. Andrew Garfield, a single parent, who lives in a small home with his mother (Laura Dern), has fallen behind on house payments. Eviction looms. The opening scene of 99 Homes is killer (and represents a huge shift in Bahrani’s style: it’s practically a thriller type of opening): a family is evicted, violently, from their home. The sheriff’s department is there. The people don’t want to leave. Michael Shannon (the hustler) is dead-eyed and implacable. These people are now trespassing. The house belongs to the bank now. Gather up a couple of things and get the hell out. (The opening scene is done all in one. No coverage. One continuous take, through the house, through the yard, down the driveway. It’s a stunner.) 99 Homes is all about real estate, development, the eviction process, the banking process … it’s incredibly elaborate (Bahrani did a ton of research) and – side note – it was really fun because my mother was in real estate for years, so her perspective on this whole thing was fascinating. I might have been slightly confused at points. Mum never was. Shannon is crazy-good, and Garfield is heartbreaking and terrific. Bahrani paints with some pretty broad strokes, and his theme is stated a bit too clearly for my taste making it feel didactic, but I like his style a lot, and I like his concerns. The QA onstage afterwards was a lot of fun because Bahrani was there and he had brought one of the actors with him, a little kid, maybe 12 years old, who plays Andrew Garfield’s son. His name is Noah Lomax. He was awesome in the film, heartbreaking. Scott Foundas and Brian Tallerico ran the QA and I loved Brian’s first question to Noah: “So, how cool was it to have Spiderman play your Dad?” Ha! And Noah was like, “It was really really really cool to have Spiderman play my Dad.” Brian asked him if it was weird at first, but Noah said that no, it wasn’t weird, Andrew treated him normal, and they would “hang out”… “He took me to the zoo and stuff,” said Noah. (The image of Andrew Garfield taking Noah to the zoo and “hanging out” like that? Heartcrack.)

99 Homes is dedicated to Roger Ebert.

After the QA, we all headed over to the after-party. I had a wonderful time, talking with people I knew, meeting new people, and what a wonderful group of people. Had a lovely conversation with Johan Carlssen (producer of the Pigeon movie). Finally got to meet Scott Foundas from Variety, and we ended up talking about Brian Wilson and American Sniper. You know, because those two things go together. I was so excited to meet the Argentinian actress Julieta Zylberberg, because I had just seen her in El Cinco at Tribeca and ADORED IT. I basically raced over to her to talk with her about it. I had a wonderful conversation with Dan Aronson, the founder/CEO of Fandor. It was lovely. The whole thing was lovely. I have a hard time at parties sometimes. I get shy. I didn’t feel shy once. I felt pleased and honored to be there, and everyone I talked to was fascinating.

Saturday was a long day and we were flying out of Champaign on Sunday morning. Of course many of us, writers, critics, and special guests, were all on the same flight back to Chicago. So it was a truly international group gathered at the small airport on Sunday morning. There was Héloïse Godet (the star of Godard’s Goodbye to Language) from France, Johan Carlsson from Sweden, a group of us from the East Coast, another group flying to Los Angeles, others in from Argentina … It was kind of cool, to tune in to all of the conversations going on on that short flight (only 29 minutes). Everyone there was an Ebertfest person.

Mum and I had a couple of hours to kill, so we sat and had some lunch at O’Hare and talked. During the screening of Ida (which Mum had already seen), I became aware of the scratching of her pencil beside me in the dark. She was taking notes. I love this woman. So I asked her to tell me what she had been writing, and she shared some of her observations, things she noticed on the second time around that she hadn’t noticed on the first. My favorite observation from her was: In the section when Ida goes back to the convent after spending time with her aunt, there’s a scene in the dining room where the nuns have lunch and it’s dead-quiet. Ida can’t help but start laughing to herself at one point. But that wasn’t Mum’s observation. What she noticed was: during the prayer before dinner, all the other novitiates placed their palms together in prayer. Ida held her hands down against the table. “That was HUGE,” Mum said. Yes. It was. I had missed that detail! I guess I’ll have to see it again. It’s one for the ages.

To the town of Champaign-Urbana: thank you for your welcoming atmosphere, your kindness. To all of the volunteers at Ebertfest: you are awesome. We love you all. Our stay there was beautiful and we had a wonderful time. Looking forward to next year already!

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15 Responses to Ebertfest 2015 Final Day: Ida, The Motel Life, 99 Homes

  1. Paula says:

    Like mother, like daughter, right?

    Ebertfest sounds like an amazing experience. After reading your review of The Motel Life (and to satisfy my Stephen Dorff fascination), it is next on my NetFlix watch list.

    • sheila says:

      Paula – and of course I thought of Supernatural a couple of times during Motel Life. :) Brothers. Motels. Etc. There’s even a Winchester rifle. But, you know, I keep the SPN references out of stuff where people might be like, “What the hell are you talking about?” The reference only works when you’re talking to another fan.

      SPN romanticizes the brothers – even their trauma. Motel Life does NOT. :) But it’s a beautiful portrait of a close and tender sibling relationship – in the midst of a really violent and upsetting world. Both actors are amazing – and amazingly intimate one another (the scene where Hirsch gets Dorff into the shower a particularly poignant example. These two actors! So good!!)

      Would love to hear your thoughts once you’ve seen it!!

      • Paula says:

        Finally finished The Motel Life. Intense and heartbreaking. Still thinking about some of these scenes days later, many of them being back to back hits to the heart.

        Like the hospital scene where Frank is telling Jerry Lee that the victim had nobody in his life who would miss him – “like us?” Which immediately transitions into the stolen dog story and his big smile – “that’s great news!” because this is the best thing happening to them. Ugh.

        The other one that sticks with me is at the beginning where Frankie is driving and Jerry Lee is riding in the back seat, freaking out quietly. I kept thinking why is he in the back seat? Frank doesn’t seem bothered by it, but I was as the viewer. There is this distance between them, far enough that they can’t touch or comfort each other (not that they are the kind of brothers that would have hugged but proximity offers its own comfort). This is immediately followed by Frankie walking by the RV in the dark, looking in at the couple playing cards and the window is like a frame around the brightly lit scene of family, love and comfort. Then Jerry Lee is gone. Back to back hits to the heart again.

        • sheila says:

          Oh Paula, I am so glad you saw it. Isn’t it painful and wonderful?

          That moment with the couple playing cards in the RV … that was in the book, just a small paragraph – and I’m so glad the directors knew they had to keep that in there. No words, no explanation – the image says it all. Other people are inside and warm and cozy … these boys are on the outside.

          That hospital scene: “Like us?” God, Stephen Dorff.

          Just heartbreaking, both of them.

    • sheila says:

      and yes – ha! Mother like daughter!!

      Mum was a trooper – if you don’t regularly see 4 movies in one day, it can be a grind. We took walks in between the movies just to get some exercise. She did amazing – and it was awesome to have her there.

  2. sheila says:

    A couple tidbits from the QA:

    I asked Alan about the casting process. He said that he was so impressed with Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild and had reached out to him first. Stephen Dorff really campaigned for the role – he wanted it BAD. Once he got the role, he spent a month or so at a VA hospital, talking to amputees, going to their physical therapy, asking questions about losing a leg, etc.

    To get Kris Kristofferson – it was really important to Alan. “He is such an icon.” The brothers in the movie absolutely idolize Willie Nelson (and, by extension, that whole country-outlaw movement – encapsulated by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings – and, earlier – Johnny Cash. The tough motherfuckers who owned country music – guys who were bad-ass and tough but also vulnerable and raw. None of this canned-nostalgia-crap that makes up so much of country music now.) These guys lived and mourned and partied HARD. And KK was so much a part of that tradition too – he symbolized so much of that. It took some doing, but KK finally said Yes.

    One audience member asked, “Did you feel like such a badass directing Kris Kristofferson?” I loved it – he has such stature!

    Alan then said that the best email he got was from KK after the film was released – KK was in Hawaii, in a hotel (I think) – and he watched the movie with Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson. (Just picture that.) And KK said to Alan that Motel Life was his favorite movie that he had appeared in.

    Not too shabby for a young director from Chicago!!

    They filmed on location in Reno – and used Virginia City as a stand-in for Elko (in the book).

    Alan said he had been hesitant at first to do the animation sequences (animation done by Mike Smith) – because much of it is, frankly, pornographic. It’s all about hookers and drugs and strippers, etc. “I thought – people are gonna think we’re perverts,” said Alan. But he felt it was important – because the animation shows the “influences” on these guys – who grew up in Reno, grew up surrounded by addicts and gamblers and strippers – this was their world.

    If I think of anything more, I’ll share it – but I think the interview went really well. And great audience questions too!

  3. Barb says:

    Sheila–I’ve enjoyed reading your Ebertfest reports. It’s been great to hear the background stories and how the panels went for you. The venue looks so gorgeous! And I have so many movies to add to my “must see” list!

    • sheila says:

      Barb – Thanks so much for reading! I really appreciate it!

      The venue – oh my goodness, an old-fashioned gilded movie palace, with an orchestra pit, and organ pipes – Man oh man!!

      Also it’s great because it’s such an attentive audience. There’s no glow of cell phones in the theatre anywhere. :) Even during the totally wacko Godard which many people have real problems following, or liking, or even being engaged by. (I love the Godard, but I know he’s a weirdo). Like, people pay for their ticket, and once they’re in the theatre – they’re IN.

      it totally changes that whole beautiful collective-movie-going experience thing that I love – when everyone there is engrossed. Not everyone loves every movie – but art is there to be engaged with, discussed – and that requires concentration. That might be my favorite thing about it.

      Again – thanks for reading. If you see any of these movies and feel like sharing your response – would love to hear!

  4. april says:

    You did a *great* job both in leading and contributing to the Q&A sessions. I know I’m biased, but I also overheard several conversations in which people were talking about how excellent the discussion periods were this year, and how you, in particular, really made them interesting. I’m so glad you’ve become part of this very special festival — I *knew* you’d love it! Hope to see you again next year…

    • sheila says:

      April!! I’m so glad we ran into one another! I had been keeping my eyes peeled for you!

      It really is such a special festival – no other festival really like it. I’m so glad people enjoyed the discussions! I, too, thought there were some really good ones this year, and good audience questions as well!

      What was your favorite film this year, if you had to choose?

  5. april says:

    Gosh, it’s always so hard to pick a favorite… the range is so broad, and each film so special in its own way. If I had to choose, though, I think Girlhood was my favorite, with The Motel Life a very close second. I had seen Ida before the festival, so it wasn’t really the same as I’m sure seeing it on the big screen for the first time would have been. I also loved A Bronx Tale, which somehow I’d never seen before, in part because it gave me a whole new appreciation for Chazz Palminteri, both as an artist and as a human being. That Q&A was off the charts — what a funny guy! So sad, though, how current its treatment of racial issues seemed; so much has changed, and yet so much has not.

    Funniest thing — I was tempted to join in one of the discussions that you helped moderate, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate to engage you about similarities and differences between the The Motel Life and Dogfight — especially that killer closing sequence — since I’ll bet we could have talked about just those scenes for hours! hahaha I also thought the animation sequences in Motel Life were exquisite — not only demonstrating the role of fantasy in the brothers’ lives, but also in establishing how the circumstances of their lives had stunted their emotional growth, leaving them grown men who in many ways were stuck in a sort of permanent adolescence.

    It was so great to see you, and to realize what an integral part of the festival you’ve already become. A match made in heaven, as far as I’m concerned… <3

    • sheila says:

      // because it gave me a whole new appreciation for Chazz Palminteri, both as an artist and as a human being. That Q&A was off the charts — what a funny guy! //

      I know!! Matt Seitz and I are going to see Chazz P’s one-man show this coming Sunday out in Queens. We were inspired!! The QA really was just so great – I could have listened to him tell stories for a couple hours more !

      // similarities and differences between the The Motel Life and Dogfight — especially that killer closing sequence //

      Ooh!! I like that thought! That hadn’t occurred to me at all.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed Motel Life. It seemed the audience may have enjoyed it more than my critic friends did – Not sure what the issue was there. I think the movie is so sad, and so sweet – but sweet in a really hard way. The Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings way. I loved the animation too. It was great hearing the roars of laughter through the audience during that one animation where the woman shoots the gun off in the air while she’s having sex. Ha! It worked!! There’s so much worry about things being offensive- or reductive – or whatever – but I thought the Polskys did a great job in making those pornographic-ish animation sequences to be REALLY about love. These guys want to feel love, they want to be with a woman who loves them. They weren’t just Penthouse Forum letters. They were about tenderness, in a weird way.

      For me, it really worked.

      So glad you loved Girlhood too – just adore that movie!! Her other two are wonderful as well – Water Lilies and Tomboy. I really look forward to seeing what she does next !

  6. Todd Restler says:

    I loved The Motel Life! Great performances, and just a really well made film. I was shocked as I read the reviews and most are lukewarm or worse. I am totally with you on this one Sheila.

    The structure is interesting. The inciting incident (accident) happens off-screen before the movie even starts. Takes the idea of starting your story as late as possible to the extreme. It’s a great move, because it creates drama and tension so that we are already on edge as they start to cut in the flashbacks and fantasy sequences that flesh out the characters.

    I loved the animation. It served many purposes, but to me the key was that Frank had always been spinning stories to Jerry Lee, so that when he spins a story to him about the background of the accident victim (“he was a loner, he was like us, he had nobody”), Jerry Lee believes him. Frank is ALWAYS protecting Jerry Lee.

    The production values were extraordinary for an “indie” film. From the animation, to the cinematography, to the creation of the effects for Dorff’s missing leg. One critic said he felt this was out of place because it takes some of the grime out of the movie. It’s an interesting argument but not one I agree with. I was totally immersed in the time and place of this movie- it all felt very real to me.

    Even critics who did not like the movie admire the cinematography. The movie was shot on film by a Russian cinematographer (Roman Vasyanov) making his first American movie. It looks like he had good experience filming winters. There are some beautiful shots here- the car in flames on the icy lake, the boys walking on the train tracks. The movie looks fantastic.

    There is some surprising humor too. The fact that the plot turns on the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson fight is funny. So is: “Don’t get thrown into a mental hospital Frank, it’s way worse than you think.”

    The acting to me was off the charts by both leads. I’ve always liked Hirsch. He had to do a lot with minimal dialogue. I imagine restraint is even harder to play then wildness, and he was great. Dorff was amazing throughout. He has a reaction shot near the end that blew me away. He says to Dakota Fanning’s character that he wishes he were killed in the accident instead of the boy. She replies “Don’t say that, what would Frankie do if he couldn’t take care of you?”.

    She’s trying to be funny, but the comment devastates him. His expression shows that he has been bottling up tremendous guilt over their circumstances. Frankie has had no choice but to spend his life taking care of his brother. That’s just what he does. And Jerry Lee feels like it’s his fault. You can see in that one moment the entire history of the relationship laid bare.

    The ending is surprisingly optimistic, because even though there is tragedy, there is also the feeling that Frankie is now free to pursue a real life, one with Love, perhaps one that isn’t in a Motel.

    Great movie. I have seen some comparisons to the “Cowboys” (Midnight and Drugstore) and I think that’s about right, which is high praise.

    Thanks so much for the rec Sheila, I probably wouldn’t have found this one without you.

    I have always liked Dorff. Did you ever see Blood and Wine? It played at Ebertfest several years ago. Great film, Dorff holds his own against legends like Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine.

    • sheila says:

      So thrilled you saw it, Todd, and absolutely loved your in-depth commentary. Especially about the cinematography. YES, that man knows how to shoot winters – you’re so right. Just the whole atmosphere – I loved the one shot of Emile Hirsch racing down the sidewalk in Reno – and it is literally coated in ice. Ice that was reflecting the bright lights. Some beautiful effects – and you really felt the chill desolation, but also the beauty, of that kind of winter.

      I agree that it had a very very good look for an indie film. The Polskys know how to put a team together, that’s for sure – as producers they know how to do that! Also I liked that it wasn’t all just jaggedy hand-held camera – which, at this point, for me, marks a director as an amateur.

      They had some really good set-ups. Images that repeat: people sitting across the table from one another. Emile H. and Dakota F., Emile and KK – just beautifully framed shots, I thought.

      // so that when he spins a story to him about the background of the accident victim (“he was a loner, he was like us, he had nobody”), Jerry Lee believes him. //

      YES! Such a fascinating detail !

      I haven’t read many other reviews – but it was definitely not one of the favorites of the critics at the festival – although the audience loved it.

      // critic said he felt this was out of place because it takes some of the grime out of the movie. //

      Weird observation. So literal. Not everything is meant to be Mean Streets. This is a fantasy, on some level, a story about escape – AND – most importantly – it has a kind heart. I think I said something like that in my own review. The people we see are all on the edge of the law – but there’s more kindness than corruption. Annie’s mother, in my opinion, is the only truly evil person in the film. Everyone else is struggling – but not low-lifes. Like the moment with Frank’s boss – which I LOVE. “I had to replace you. You shoulda come to me. Maybe I could have helped.” Life is more often like THIS than it is a nihilistic landscape of selfish corruption – and there are people throughout who have fondness for Frank and Jerry Lee and do want to help. And Frank and Jerry Lee’s innocence has somehow been maintained – through the telling of the stories. These are kind-souled men. Who have been dealt a terrible hand.

      I thought the glamorous achingly beautiful cinematography – and animation – and all that – really was a style choice to show the emotional underpinnings of the story.

      // So is: “Don’t get thrown into a mental hospital Frank, it’s way worse than you think.” //

      I loved that character. Ordering a vodka cranberry. Renting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on a Saturday night.

      // I imagine restraint is even harder to play then wildness, and he was great. //

      Very nice observation. I thought he was wonderful too. Frank obviously has some kind of bleeding ulcer, and drinks way too much. Jerry Lee’s problems are more out there, more visible, but Frank is a MESS. Jerry Lee knows it. That final scene between them. ACK. SO GOOD.

      I loved the scene in the shower. So brotherly, these two actors doing that together … just gorgeous work from both of them.

      // He says to Dakota Fanning’s character that he wishes he were killed in the accident instead of the boy. She replies “Don’t say that, what would Frankie do if he couldn’t take care of you?”. //

      That whole scene was so beautiful. Jerry Lee lighting up when she walked in the room – happy to see her because she loved his brother – so she’s good news in his book. And she is good news. “She’s had a hard life, Frank,” says Jerry Lee. He’s forgiving of other people’s errors. Not of his own.

      I thought Dorff was magnificent – some of his best work – and I always love to see him. Yes, I saw Blood and Wine!!

      So glad you checked this movie out, Todd!

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