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Ebertfest 2009: Hippies, Vamps and Thieves Come to the Virginia.

by Peter Sobczynski

Now in its eleventh year, Roger Ebert's annual celebration of cinema returns with a dozen eclectic films from around the world to thrill and delight movie fans of all types, blood and otherwise.

Ever since the unofficial kickoff date for the annual summer movie derby was moved back from Memorial Day to the first weekend in May (largely as the result of the unexpected success of the disaster epic “Deep Impact” in that slot back in 1998), the last weekend of April has become a cinematic graveyard of titles being dumped at the last minute before the rush of summer blockbusters that often makes the grey days of early January seem positively fecund with possibility by comparison. This year, for example, the big releases in that particular slot are “Fightsiting,” a gerund-based drama featuring pretty-boy Channing Tatum making his way in the world of underground fighting, “The Soloist,” a film that was being hyped as a sure-fire Oscar nominee last year until it was abruptly yanked from the schedule (hardly a good sign) and “Obsessed,” a “Fatal Attraction” knockoff that is apparently so good that Screen Gems decided not to show it in advance to critics. And yet, for one group in cineastes, the last weekend in April is a time for celebration because it marks another edition of Roger Ebert’s increasingly popular Ebertfest (formerly known as the Overlooked Film Festival), a five-day celebration that brings together both a diverse collection of 12 films from all over the world to Urbana, Illinois and the confines of the majestic Virginia Theatre and an equally eclectic array of filmmakers, actors, critics and scholars to talk about them at post-film Q&A’s and panel discussions.

Although last year’s festival was, by all accounts, a complete success, the absence of Ebert himself from the proceedings--he was unable to make the trip after suffering a hip injury--was felt by all who attended. Happily, Ebert will be back for this year’s edition, the 11th, to greet well-wishers watch the films from the back of the theater in the customized Barcolounger that was installed there for him a couple of years ago. Obviously he won’t be doing all of the intros and Q&A’s as he used to but I suspect that he will be making at least a couple of on-stage appearances to greet audiences using his voice synthesizer. To pick up the slack, he has once again called upon a group of friends and colleagues to help out with introducing the movies and participating in the post-screening discussions, including scholars like Donald Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, critics like Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips and, in a move that defies any rational explanation, myself.

Below is a list of the films that will be playing, the guests currently scheduled to attend and some brief thoughts on the titles that I have already seen. Although festival passes sold out months ago, tickets for some of the individual screenings may still be available. To check on ticket availability or any changes to the program, you should immediately proceed to the official festival website at


WOODSTOCK: 3 DAYS OF PEACE & MUSIC, THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (1970): Most of you have probably seen Michael Wadleigh’s landmark, Oscar-winning documentary of the legendary 1969 rock festival--an event that defined a generation, featured many of the era’s top musical acts (including The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin) and exposed the world to Sha Na Na--at some point or another in the years since its original release. However, you have never seen it in the version that is being premiered here in anticipation of its DVD release this June--Wadleigh has gone back and inserted nearly an hour of additional footage (bringing the running time to 225 minutes) including previously unseen performances from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead. Although I must confess a preference to that other great film documenting an end-of-the-Sixties concert, the infamous Altamont chronicle “Gimme Shelter,” this is still a fascinating snapshot of a particular moment in time that will never be repeated and I can’t wait to see it again on the big screen with all of the new footage. Fun fact: one of the army of editors employed by Wadleigh to put the film together was this young New York City kid by the name of Martin Scorsese. Wadleigh (who would later go on to make the fascinating environmentally-themed werewolf epic “Wolfen”) and associate producer Dale Bell are scheduled to appear for a post-screening Q&A and there may even be an additional surprise guest or two. (7:00 PM)


MY WINNIPEG (2007): Having made some of the most delightfully strange and unclassifiable films in recent years (including such previous Ebertfest favorites as “The Saddest Music in the World” and the jaw-dropping short “The Heart of the World,” Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin here gives us what may the most audacious work of his entire career--a bizarre, bittersweet and bleakly hilarious meditation on his hometown that blends fact, fiction and fantasy together into the kind of package that might have resulted if David Lynch and Werner Herzog used a time machine to go back to the 1920s to collaborate on a project. Of all of the films in this year‘s lineup, it is the one that most completely defies description but once you see it, I guarantee that you won’t forget it. Maddin is scheduled to take part in a post-screening Q&A that I suspect will not be wanting for Q’s. (1:30 PM)

CHOP SHOP (2007): Having wowed Ebertfest audiences a couple of years ago with his debut feature, the internationally acclaimed “Man Push Cart,” writer-director Rahmin Bahrani returns with his follow-up, an equally celebrated drama about a not-quite-teenaged orphan who struggles to make a living by working in an illicit auto repair shop operating out of a junkyard. Like his previous film (not to mention his latest work, the lovely “Goodbye Solo”), Bahrani has given viewers another small-scale masterpiece of contemporary neo-realism fueled jointly by his documentary-like approach to storytelling and his ability to get wonderful performances from actors whom you will never catch “acting” for an instant. Cited by many as the next great American director, Bahrani will be appearing after the screening. (4:00 PM)

TROUBLE THE WATER (2008): Although many felt that Spike Lee had already made the definitive documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath with his mammoth 2006 effort “When the Levees Broke,” filmmakers Carl Deal & Tia Lessin demonstrated otherwise with this smaller-scale but no less affecting film, much of which consists of home video footage shot by Ninth Ward resident Kimberly Roberts, an aspiring rap artist who, with her husband Scott, began shooting the day before the storm touched ground and continued shooting until the power ran out. Although you might think that time might have lessened the impact of what is presented here but the impact of the material, from what Roberts was able to capture from her street-level vantage to her struggles to rebuild her life and livelihood, is as strong and affecting and horrifying as it was when it all originally occurred. Deal, Lessin and the Roberts are all scheduled to appear at this screening. (8:30 PM).


BEGGING NAKED (2007): This as-yet-unreleased documentary from filmmaker Karen Gehres was born when she began selling art supplies to a woman named Elise Hill whom she met in 1989--a few years later and now living in a crawlspace, Hill asked her to document her life story. This is the one film in this year’s lineup that I have not as yet seen. That said, the mere fact that it made the cut for this year’s lineup suggests that there must be something special about it. Gehres will be on hand to discuss the film after the screening. (1:30 PM)

THE LAST COMMAND (1928): Ebertfest always makes sure to program one silent film each year and this year’s selection is both one of the all-time greats and one of the last masterpieces of the entire format to be released before the advent of talkies. In this brilliant work from director Josef von Sternberg (whose “Underworld” was a previous Ebertfest entry), Emil Jannings plays a former general in Czarist Russia who lost everything as the result of the revolution and who is now living in California and picking up a few dollars as a film extra--eventually, he is hired by a Russian-born director (William Powell) to appear in a film as, of all things, a general in the Czarist army fighting against the Communist revolution. As usual, the screening will be accompanied by a live musical performance from the Alloy Orchestra, a musical group that specializes in writing and performing new scores to classic silent films that are often as exciting to experience in person as the movies themselves. (4:00 PM)

FROZEN RIVER (2008): I must confess that I wasn’t the biggest fan of this low-budget indie drama about a single mother (Melissa Leo) teetering on the edge of poverty who finds herself involved with smuggling people across the Canadian-American border by driving them over a perilous frozen river as a way of making extra money--although I admired the performances by Leo and Missy Upshaw (who plays the young Indian woman who brings her into the scheme in the first place), too much of the film struck me as the result of someone trying to replicate a lesser John Sayles film. That said, a lot of people felt otherwise and both Leo and writer-director Courtney Hunt were both nominated for Oscars for their efforts here. Hunt and Upshaw are both currently scheduled to talk about the film after the screening. (8:30 PM)


THE FALL (2006): Of all of the selections from last year’s festival, the most controversial by far was easily “The Cell,” the visually opulent serial killer thriller that inspired a sometimes heated post-screening discussion between the audience and filmmaker Tarsem Singh. This year, the festival is screening his equally striking follow-up, an eye-popping fairy tale of sorts (and while it is playing in the slot annually reserved for a family film, it is rated “R” and is probably too intense for the younger ones) in which a badly injured stuntman (Lee Pace) convalescing in a remote L.A. hospital in the 1920’s enchants an imaginative five-year-old Romanian girl (Catinca Untaru) with a wild story involving a quintet of noble heroes (including Charles Darwin) coming together to battle a common enemy. Although clearly a labor of love for Singh, who spent three years and millions of his own money to shoot the film in no less than 28 different countries, it suffers from the same central flaw as “The Cell”--while the visuals are often astonishing to behold, the basic narrative isn’t and as a result, it lacks the sense of dramatic wonder found in such similar fantasies as “City of Lost Children,” “Mirrormask” and the recent “Coraline.” That said, the visuals are often so extraordinary that I wouldn’t dream of not seeing them unfolding on the mammoth screen at the Virginia. After the film, the audience will be treated to an appearance from young Catinca Untaru, who will be flying in from Romania to attend the screening. (11:00 AM)

SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008): One of the most talked-about films to hit the festival circuit last year was this stunningly original animated epic from Urbana native Nina Paley, a hypnotic work that blended together the stories of an ancient goddess and a contemporary animator whose husbands have left them, a riff on the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana” and the songs of Twenties-era jazz singer Annette Hanshaw in unpredictable and unforgettable ways. Unfortunately, for a while, it seemed as if it might never be shown again when the people who owned the rights to Hanshaw’s recordings (an integral part of the film, needless to say) demanded too much money for the use of them in a commercial theatrical release. Happily--happily--the dispute has been settled and Ebertfest will be hosting the film less than a week before its first commercial engagement at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center. Paley will be participating in a post-screening Q&A to discuss the years that she spent struggling to bring this project to the screen and the months spent trying to keep it there. (2:30 PM)

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (2008): Despite a strong cast including the likes of Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Vera Farmiga, Alan Alda and Angela Bassett, Rod Lurie’s drama, loosely inspired by the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in print by a New York Times reporter who went to jail rather than reveal who passed the information to her in the first place, also faced difficulties getting to the screen when its distributor went out of business just before it was due to come out. Since it didn’t receive any award nominations (because there was no money to fund any sort of campaign) and since the home video rights had already been sold, no other studio demonstrated much interest in taking it on and a film once touted as an Oscar contender received only a token release in a few theaters and is set to hit DVD next week. It is a shame because while it may not be the masterpiece that some have suggested--Lurie (whose previous films have included “Deterrence,” “The Contender” and “Resurrecting the Champ”) is good at coming up with provocative story ideas but sometimes has trouble rendering them in cinematic terms--it is generally a strong and smart adult-oriented drama at a time when such things are at a premium. From a directorial standpoint, it is Lurie’s best work today and he gets great performances from virtually every member of his star-studded cast--the most valuable players being Farmiga as the outed agent, Dillon as the special prosecutor (based on Patrick Fitzgerald) and Alda as a lawyer who has somehow managed to retain a certain degree of idealism regarding his profession. Lurie and Dillon are scheduled to talk about the film after the screening--in preparation for Dillon’s arrival, I shall attempt to chalk out the phrase “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns” on every available surface. (6:30 PM)

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008): As I have written about this astounding Swedish horror film about the friendship that develops between a lonely 12-year-old boy and the strange girl that moves in next door who turns out to be a vampire, I will not delve too deeply into what you will experience while watching this work from debuting director Tomas Alfredson. Suffice it to say, it is not only one of the best explorations of the vampire myth since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (imagine what “Twilight” might have been like if it were actually good) but also one the best horror films in recent years and a brilliant coming-of-age drama to boot. Even if you don’t like vampire movies, horror film or coming-of-age dramas, you will still be knocked out by Alfredson’s obvious gifts as a filmmaker that are demonstrated here, especially in his soon-to-be-legendary climax. In a move that many will no doubt find inexplicable, I will be appearing on stage after the screening to talk about the film on a panel that will also include my eFilmcritic colleague Erik Childress (making his first Ebertfest appearance) and producer Carl Molinder. (9:30 PM)


BARAKA (1992): It takes a very special film to bring Ebertfest to a close each year and those words certainly describe this breathtaking environmentally-themed documentary consisting of images captured by director Ron Fricke throughout the world utilizing the large-screen 70mm Todd-AO format that had been developed by Michael Todd in the 1950’s to compete with Cinerama and which was used for such epics as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Cleopatra” before dying out in the early 1970’s. Although the film is an astonishing visual feast when viewed through conventional means, such as the recently released DVD and Blu-ray editions, the fact that it will be screened here not only in a newly restored Todd-AO print but on an actual Todd-AO projector that was installed in the Virginia Theater and never subsequently reclaimed makes it both a perfect closing act for the festival and one of the authentic film events of the year. Fricke and producer Mark Magidson will be on hand to present the film. (12:00 PM)

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originally posted: 04/22/09 01:36:31
last updated: 04/22/09 02:05:29
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