Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 Preview

Next Wednesday marks the beginning of the 10th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at the historic Virginia Theater. Formerly the Overlooked Film Festival, the occasion has been renamed by organizers to reflect the festival’s true driving force, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. But it is most often refered to simply as Ebertfest. The festival continues its theme this year of highlighting overlooked films, formats, genres and styles—once again opening with a 70mm feature, closing with a musical, and featuring a silent movie, foreign films, undistributed movies, a Saturday Family Matinee, documentaries and just plain good cinema that has been overlooked by the majority of the movie going public for some reason or another.

It also marks my own physical return to the festival after a three-year hiatus. After my first Ebertfest (the festival’s 4th annual) I swore I would never miss another. Well, a baby on the way prevented me from attending the 7th annual; and a dramatic increase in popularity kept me from securing passes for the 8th and 9th annuals. But this year I’m back! And after a spring filled with lukewarm Hollywood fare at the local cinema, a near week’s worth of obscure independent fare with one of the best cinematic audiences in the world is a welcome vacation.

The opening night feature is Kenneth Branagh’s uncut, 4-hour-long version of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”. While four hours of the great Bard’s work isn’t up every filmgoer’s alley, for a former Shakespeare scholar—like myself—it makes for a wonderful night at the movies. Although I have seen Branagh’s version of the meloncholy Dane three times (most recently only a few months ago when it was finally released on DVD), this will be the first time I’ve had the pleasure to witness it in glorious 70mm. You have no idea how crystal clear a film can be until you see it in 70mm, and with the beautiful set design by Tim Harvey and Desmond Crowe, this screening promises to be spectacular.

Then I’ll diasappear into three days of non-stop film including, Tom DiCillo’s even-handed look at the life of a paparazzo starring Steve Buscemi in “Delirious”, Joan Allen’s sexy middle-aged affair with dialogue in iambic pantameter for Sally Potter’s “Yes”, Joe Pantoliano and Marcia Gay Hardin in Joseph Greco’s semi-autobiographical look at schizophrenia “Canvas”, the festival favorite, yet-to-be-released theatrically “Shotgun Stories”, Paul Schrader’s most unusual biopic of the most unusual Japanese nationalist Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) in “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, the multi-award-winning film from Israel “The Band’s Visit”, Bill Forsyth’s portrait of a strange relative as portrayed by Chistine Lahti in “Housekeeping”, and the psychadelic police procedural “The Cell”.

I am particularly excited to see this year’s documentary “The Real Dirt of Farmer John”, about an Illinois farmer who sees much of his family farm fall to creditors only to buy much of it back selling his own brand of organically grown vegetables. His success comes despite his affinity for dressing up like a clown on occasion. I’ll also cherish “Underworld” the silent feature this year with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, a three man band that utilizes everything including the kitchen sink in their percussive arrangements for silent movies. The Alloy Orchestra is what I have missed most about the festival in my absence.

I am not sure how I feel about sitting through this year’s family matinee feature, Ang Lee’s “Hulk”. I was not a fan when it originally ran in theaters, but it seems as if Ebert’s appreciation of the film has only grown since his three-star review in 2003. It’ll be interesting to see if my own appreciation for it changes in the atmosphere of the festival.

Finally, on Sunday the festival’s closing film will be its traditional musical entry, this year the far from traditional musical “Romance & Cigarettes” by writer-director John Turturo. With stars like Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Kate Winslet, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard, and Mandy Moore, it is hard to believe this movie had to be personally distributed by Turturo himself to theaters. But legal shuffling with the financing studios locked this gem out of traditional theatrical distribution. It is available on DVD, but I’ll be glad to be seeing it on the big screen.

Just as exciting as the movies I’m going to see are the guests that will be there and are surprisingly available to chat with the general public attending the event. I hope to be able to refer to Joe Pantoliano as Joey Pants by the end of the weekend, as most of his friends do. And I shutter at the possibility of speaking with such great directors as Paul Schrader, Bill Forsyth, Tarsem Singh, and Ang Lee. And while they might not be names a great many people recognize, actors Timothy Spall and Christine Lahti have contributed great bodies of work to their crafts and will no doubt offer insights into the art and business of acting many would value. I’d also welcome the opportunity to speak with Ebert’s lovely wife Chaz once again.

It has been a difficult couple of years for Ebert personally. Due to a bout with salivary cancer he has spent much of the past two years in the hospital. He has undergone several surgeries to restore his speaking voice, which he lost due to complications. None have been successful. He announced last week he would return to writing from his most recent hiatus, which he took in January for another attempt to restore his ability to talk. Despite the fact that the surgery was unsuccessful, he will still be appearing in person at the festival this year and will return to writing movie criticism shortly thereafter. His return to both the festival and film criticism could not be more welcome by more than just this critic.

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