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Cinema Ga Ga: A Guide To Ebertfest 2011

by Peter Sobczynski

A brief overview of the cinematic treats to be had at the 13th annual Ebertfest, all of which promise to be on a slightly more elevated artistic plane than "Fast Five."

The first few months of the year tend to be a fairly fallow period from a cinematic standpoint--little more than a dumping ground for unnecessary sequels, unwanted knockoffs and weird little failures that come and go so quickly that it is almost as if they didn’t even exist in the first place. (Don’t even get me started on such utter gibberish as “Sucker Punch” and “Atlas Shrugged” either or we’ll never get out of here alive.) Luckily, there is one bright spot for film fans amidst all the rubble and rubbish at the end of April and that comes in the form of Roger Ebert’s Ebert fest (a.k.a. The Festival Formerly Known As The Overlooked Film Festival), a five-day celebration of that is good and true in cinema in which movie fans from all over the country and beyond gather upon Ebert’s hometown of Urbana, Illinois to enjoy a selection of films picked by Ebert from himself, both old and new, from within the confines of the majestic Virginia Theatre, a building whose stage has been graced with a variety of personalities over the decades ranging from the Marx Brothers and Donald O’Connor to the Strawberry Alarm Clock (reuniting for the first time in over 30 years) to yours truly. (Hey, I didn’t say every personality was a winner, did I?) This year promises another eclectic program that kicks off with one of the true landmarks of the history of film, ends with an equally enthralling poetry slam and covers just about every other possible base in between. Granted, I have not seen either “Fast Five” or “Prom” as I write these words but I am going to go out on a limb and venture that if you care about film at all, your time would be better spent enjoying just a reel or two of any of this year’s selections over the likes of those big-screen gumdrops.

Below is a list of the films that will be playing, the guest currently scheduled to attend and some brief (and some not-so-brief) about the titles that I have already seen. Although festival passes sold out months ago, standby tickets for the individual screenings can usually be had at the box-office just before they begin. If you can’t make it at all, a number of the films are currently available on DVD and a couple are just beginning to be distributed around the country. Additionally, the post-screening Q&A’s and the panel discussions involving numerous filmmakers, critics and scholars are scheduled to be streamed live on the festival website. To check on ticket availability or any changes to the program, you should immediately proceed to the official festival website at In addition, I will be attempting to tweet in between screenings for any of you who are into such things--if so, feel free to look for me under petersob13.


METROPOLIS (1926): Almost from the time of its original release in 1927, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic “Metropolis” has been considered one of the landmark works in the history of cinema and one of the most influential films ever made--traces of its visually flamboyant styles have turned up in so many subsequent genre films that it would almost be easier to list the ones that don’t demonstrate any obvious influence than the ones that do. This is an impressive enough achievement for any movie to attain but in the case of “Metropolis,” its lasting impact is all the more extraordinary because it has been virtually impossible to see it as it was originally intended since the time of its initial German premiere despite any number of attempts at restoring it to something resembling its former glory. Then in 2008, the seemingly impossible occurred as a couple of film historians in Buenos Aires stumbled upon what turned out to be a 16mm duplicate print of virtually all of Lang’s original version of the film and that rediscovered print has formed the basis for the film’s latest and most significant restoration to date. Granted, there are still a few pieces of the puzzle that are still missing--those moments are papered over with title cards containing information gleaned from the novelization of the film published during its initial release in Germany-- and the new footage is of considerably lower quality than the surrounding material but for anyone even vaguely interested in the history of film, these are flaws that can be easily overlooked because they help to provide us with the clearest look yet at the astonishments that it provided its earliest audiences and also reconfirm its stature as one of the towering landmarks of the cinema in general and the science-fiction genre in particular. This was arguably the key cinematic event of 2010 and this screening promises to be even more significant thanks to the participation of the Alloy Orchestra, the amazing three-man musical group specializing in providing live accompaniments to silent film classics that have become a yearly Ebertfest staple. (7:00 PM)

NATURAL SELECTION (2011): This oddball indie comedy stars Rachael Harris as a nice and childless Christian woman who discovers that her seemingly devout husband has secretly been a regular sperm donor for more than two decades. Now at death’s door, he asks her to seek out his son (Matt O’Leary), a drug-addled goofball, and when she finds him, the two set off on a road trip filled with unexpected twists and revelations. This film was added to the Ebertfest schedule at the last minute after Ebert saw it at last month’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where he served as one of the members of the narrative feature jury that awarded it the Grand Jury Prize as well as prizes for screenplay, editing, sound and the performances by Harris and O’Leary. (It also received the festival’s Audience Award as well.) Harris and first-time writer-director Robbie Pickering are scheduled to attend the screening. (10:30 PM)


UMBERTO D (1952): Neorealism was a cinematic movement born in Italy during World War II and lasting throughout the Fifties that utilized non-professional actors and a simple, straightforward style in order to best embody the nuances of everyday life. Of the films that emerged from this movement, this effort from Vittorio De Sica is one of the very best of the bunch--a heartrending look at an elderly man (Carlo Battisti, a former university lecturer who had never acted before) with little money struggling to keep himself and his loyal pet dog from being kicked out into the streets and being forced to beg to survive. On paper, I suppose that it sounds like an especially maudlin tear-jerker, especially when it develops that the dog has disappeared after Umberto spends a few days in the hospital, but the beauty of the film is that De Sica never tries to milk the material for sentiment in the way that others might have and as a result, he winds up generating a far stronger emotional response from viewers as a result. This is one of those films that tends to always get short-listed when discussions of The Greatest Movies Ever Made come up and as you will see, this one more than deserves its place on those lists. (1:00 PM)

MY DOG TULIP (2010): Not many films could possibly live up to the task of following up the likes of “Umberto D” but this off-beat animated film manages to do just that. Based on the autobiographical book by J.R. Ackerley, it chronicles the 15-year-long relationship between a solitary British man (voiced by Christopher Plummer) and the one true love of his life--a German shepherd that he takes in and bonds with in unexpected ways. Like the De Sica film, it takes material that could have been cheaply sentimentalized into something tacky and vulgar and instead handles it in a subtle and restrained manner that pays off beautifully as it goes on. Despite being an animated film, this is not necessarily one that young children will be able to fully grasp or appreciate and that is no doubt while it failed to secure much of a release in this country, where any animated films that don’t at least partially cater to younger viewers is pretty much doomed. However, it is still a charming and touching work that is well worth watching even if you don’t happen to be much of a dog person. Co-directors Paul and Sandra Schuette Fierlinger are scheduled to attend the screening. (3:30 PM)

TINY FURNITURE (2010): I have made no bones in the past about my general loathing of mumblecore, the super-low budget American independent film movement whose output consists mostly of navel-gazing twenty-something twits (one of them usually portrayed by the increasingly insufferable Greta Gerwig) jabbering away relentlessly in scenes that combine the worst aspects of a lesser John Cassavetes film and an exceptionally boring college bull session. However, this 2010 charmer from debuting writer-director Lena Dunham is the rare exception to the rule because unlike most other mumblecore monstrosities, she remembers to include such arcane elements as narrative drive and likable characters into the mix. Dunham stars as Aura, a recent college graduate with no job, no boyfriend and little to show for her years of college other than a YouTube video. With nothing else to do, she returns to New York to live with her mother (Laurie Simmons), a well-known artist specializing in photographs of tiny furniture, and her younger, prettier sister (Grace Dunham) while trying to sort out her professional and personal lives. (Dunham’s mother and sister are played by her real-life mother and sister, YI.) Granted, nothing much happens as the film goes on from a dramatic perspective--there are no big reveals or shocking twists--but Dunham does an excellent job of capturing the rhythms of the lives of her characters in ways that make them fascinating to watch instead of tedious and her work here makes her a talent to watch in the future. Co-star David Call, producer Kyle Martin and distributor Ryan Werner are scheduled to attend the screening. (8:00 PM)


45365 (2010): I have not yet seen this documentary chronicling a few months in the life of Sidney, Ohio (the title refers to the town’s zip code) as seen through the eyes of a couple of its former residents, brothers Bill and Turner Ross. Therefore, I can’t really comment upon it except to note that the program notes make it sound strangely fascinating and that it won the Roger and Chaz Ebert Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards. Bill and Turner Ross are scheduled to attend the screening. (1:00 PM)

ME & ORSON WELLES (2009): Ever since he first burst onto the scene in 1991 with the indie cult classic “Slacker,” director Richard Linklater has carved out one of the most fascinating filmographies of any filmmaker working today in the way that he has effortlessly moved back and forth between experimental works like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly” and mainstream projects such as “School of Rock” and the “Bad News Bears” remake without losing any of the quirky inventiveness that made him someone to watch in the first place. In this film, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, he offers up a look at no less a figure than the legendary Orson Welles (played perfectly by Christian McKay) as he and his Mercury Theatre cohorts, including such future names as John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and George Koulouris (Ben Chaplin) struggle to put on their first production, a staging of “Julius Caesar” staged in Mussolini’s Italy. All of this is seen through the eyes of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron in a strong performance), a young actor who blossoms when he is both taken under Welles’ wing and begins a romance with another member of the company (Claire Danes). Sadly, the film barely made a blip at the box-office during its truncated theatrical run--presumably because older viewers were put off by the presence of teen idol Efron while younger viewers had no idea who Orson Welles was in the first place--but it is one that is ripe for rediscovery and this screening is a perfect place for it to begin. Richard Linklater is currently scheduled to attend the screening. (4:00 PM).

ONLY YOU (1994): Of all the films playing at this year’s Ebertfest, this is perhaps the biggest curveball of the bunch--a relatively unsung romantic fantasy featuring Marisa Tomei as a woman who has heard from a Ouija board and a psychic that she would grow up to marry a man named Damon Bradley. Now prepared to settle for someone else, she receives word that a friend of the groom-to-be has to miss the ceremony because of business in Venice--a friend who just happens to be named Damon Bradley. With best pal Bonnie Hunt in tow, Tomei takes off for Italy to track Damon down and falls for a man who may or may not be Damon but since he is played by Robert Downey Jr., he is pretty much irresistible nevertheless. This film is clearly a throwback to the great screwball romantic comedies of an earlier era but instead of merely trotting out the familiar old clichés, screenwriter Diane Drake and director Norman Jewison, a filmmaker usually associated with more serious works like “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Hurricane,” have managed to come up with a fresh spin on the familiar ingredients that is so utterly delightful to behold that even the most cynical viewers will find themselves succumbing to its charms. Of course, a lot of the credit has to go to Tomei and Downey, two incredibly likable screen presences who mesh together so beautifully here that yes, I would be willing to compare them to some of the great on-screen couples. Throw in a killer supporting turn from perennial MVP Bonnie Hunt and you have one of those films that is so entertaining that you will come out of it wondering why it wasn’t more of a success during its original release. (Alas, it had the misfortune of coming out at around the same time as the cultural juggernaut that was “Pulp Fiction” and it wound up slipping through the cracks as a result.) Norman Jewison is scheduled to attend the screening. (8:30 PM)


A SMALL ACT (2010): This thoughtful and touching documentary from Jennifer Arnold focuses on the life of Chris Mburu, a native of a remote Kenyan village who had his primary and secondary education paid for by a Swedish woman who had never met him. As a result of her $15-per-month largesse, Mburu was able to go from living in a simple mud house in Kenya to the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School before going to work as a human rights commissioner for the United Nations. The film chronicles Mburu as he looks up the woman who made this all possible, a woman named Hilde Back, and meets her for the first time. In tribute to what she did for him, he also sets up a foundation in her name in order to give other students the same chances that he was given and the film also follows three students whose futures almost literally depend on getting one of those scholarships. It sounds potentially mawkish but the film is anything but, mostly thanks to the delightful presence of Back, a smart and tart woman of 85 who has more energy and more of a zest for living at her advanced age than most people a fraction of her age. Back is currently scheduled to attend the screening along with Arnold and producer Patti Lee. (11:00 AM)

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010): On the eve of its theatrical release, this South African drama, which received its world premiere at Cannes last year, is making its North American debut at Ebertfest. The film stars newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda, a 12-year-old girl left with the responsibility of trying to hold her family together after the death of her baby sister and the arrival of a rumor that the death and the family’s subsequent problems (including her mother’s depression and her father’s alcoholism) are really the result of AIDS. Manyaka, director Oliver Schmitz and Sony Pictures Classics head Michael Barker are scheduled to attend the screening. (2:00 PM)

LEAVES OF GRASS (2010): Tim Blake Nelson, perhaps best known to most moviegoers as one of the Soggy Bottom Boys in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and to a few others as the director of such challenging indie films as “Eye of God,” “O” and “The Grey Zone,” directed this strange and trippy comedy starring Edward Norton as Bill Kincaid, a hotshot philosopher with a string of books and the opportunity to open his own department at Harvard when he gets word that his twin brother Brady has been killed. Despite having long shucked his particular family ties, he returns to his small Oklahoma hometown for the funeral only to discover that (stop reading if you don’t want to know anything about it) that Brady is still alive and that Bill has been lured back in order to force him to meet with his long-estranged mom, a inveterate pothead played by Susan Sarandon, and to pose as Brady in order to provide an airtight alibi while the real Brady goes out to meet with rival dope dealer Richard Dreyfuss. Although this film will remind many viewers of the works of the Coen Brothers, particularly in the way that it effortlessly weaves together quirky characters, colorful dialogue and unexpected plot developments into a brew that will leave most heads spinning, but this is no mere copycat exercise--Nelson has his own voice as a filmmaker and he uses it here without hesitation and, combined with the best and most inventive performance that Edward Norton has delivered in a long time, the result is a blast from beginning to end. Alas, the film got caught up in a distribution snafu as strange and complicated as any seen on the screen and as a result, it was barely released in theaters before popping up unheralded on cable television. Nelson is currently scheduled to appear at the screening. (6:30 PM)

I AM LOVE (2010): I must admit that I am of two minds when it comes to this operatic melodrama starring Tilda Swinton as the Russian-born wife of a rich and powerful Italian aristocrat who throws her carefully controlled and perfectly manicured life into upheaval when she finds herself falling for a young chef (Edoardo Gabbriellini) who is the best friend of her own son with predictably dire results for all involved. On the one hand, although director Luca Guadagnino certainly tells the story in a decidedly bold and energetic manner, that isn’t enough to distract from the inescapable fact that once you get beyond all the huffing and puffing--both literal and figurative--there is really much of anything on display here from a narrative standpoint that will come as much of a surprise to most viewers. On the other, it does contain yet another in a seemingly endless string of fearlessly inventive performances from Tilda Swinton, an actress who isn’t afraid to let it all hang out when such an approach is required. She is pretty much pitch-perfect throughout--not a single false note that I can recall--and to whatever degree that the film as a whole works, it is due almost entirely to her efforts. In arguably the biggest coup of this year’s Ebertfest, Tilda Swinton herself, a woman who is so passionate about the cinema that she has gone so far as to establish her own film festival for which she and other cineastes actually haul a 33-ton portable cinema throughout the Scottish Highlands to play independent films in remote villages, is scheduled to appear at the screening. (Note: While calling out “Yo Tilda, you were da bomb in “Constantine” during the Q&A is not necessarily recommended, I cannot deny that such an incident would be really cool.) (9:30 PM)


LOUDER THAN A BOMB (2011): Another film getting a sneak peak at Ebertfest before its official commercial release, this documentary from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (the nephew of Gene) takes a look at the poetry slam scene by focusing on the 2008 edition of the Chicago-area slam of the same name, the nation’s largest such competition, and the various participants striving for the top prize that include a return from the team from Steinmetz, the inner-city school that shocked everyone by winning the previous year’s contest in an upset. Members of that Steinmetz team--Lamar Jordan, Charles Smith, She’Kira McNight, Kevin Harris and Jesus Lark--are scheduled to appear at the screening, along with competition Founder/Artistic Director Kevin Corval, Jacobs and Siskel, and to perform afterwards. (12:00 PM) (There will be an additional free screening of this film, sponsored by the Champaign Country Anti-Stigma Alliance, at the Virginia Theatre at 4:00 PM as well.)

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originally posted: 04/27/11 03:18:06
last updated: 04/27/11 04:29:54
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