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I Think It Would Be Fun To Run A Film Festival: A Guide To Ebertfest 2012.
by Peter Sobczynski

Everything you need to know about the latest edition of Ebertfest, Roger Ebert's annual film festival in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois--titles, guests and even one painfully embarrassing admission from the author of this piece to boot.

Due to perpetually low finances and a deep aversion to traveling, I do not attend the big film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Sundance--of course, I can do this since being based in Chicago means that I will eventually get to see most of their key offerings at some point down the road on my home turf. However, there is one such even that has the power to pry me from my fortified compound and that is Ebertfest (a.k.a. The Festival Formerly Known As The Overlooked Film Festival), a five-day celebration of all that is good and true in cinema that finds cineastes from all corners of the globe descending upon Ebert's hometown of Urbana, Illinois to enjoy a selection of films picked by Ebert himself, both old and new, from within the confines of the majestic Virginia Theatre. When I think back of my most treasured memories of a lifetime of writing about film, I suspect many of them will center around this festival--the lunch I spent sitting next to famed vocal performer Marni Nixon, who famously redubbed the likes of Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" and Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady," after a screening of the latter and being forced to admit that the film wasn't my cup of tea (which she didn't mind a bit), dining with Marcia McBroom, one of the stars of the classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and attempting to summarize the plot of the Werner Herzog epic "Stroszek," sitting in the balcony to watch another film in the company of a couple of colleagues and actress Michelle Monaghan and many more to boot.

The latest edition of the festival kicks off on Wednesday and offers another typically eclectic group of films--a couple of last year's most acclaimed titles, a few older ones that fell through the cracks, a premiere and even a couple of all-time classics to boot. Below is a list of the films that will be playing, the guests 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--with the occasional quip or two on Facebook to boot in order to satisfy all forms of social media that I vaguely understand.



JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO: My EFC colleague Colin Souter has already written eloquently about this film and its place of honor as the opening presentation of this year's festival, so I advise you to go to that piece for a full appreciation for this comedy fantasy featuring Tom Hanks as a working stiff in the world's worst office whose once-dreary life changes in mysterious ways once he is diagnosed with a mysterious and fatal "brain cloud" and Meg Ryan as the women (three in all) in his life. Instead, I will note that the leadoff slot is a position that is usually filled with films that are epic in size and scope--past festivals have been inaugurated by such jumbo-sized classics as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Playtime," "The Right Stuff" and "Pink Floyd: The Wall." At first, this selection may seem somewhat smaller in scope and while it is true that it may not be as physically overwhelming as those aforementioned titles, it is nevertheless an epic in terms of imagination and emotional impact. There are sights to behold here that are as strange and audacious as any put in front of a camera but writer-director John Patrick Shanley (who got the chance to make his directorial debut here following the success of "Moonstruck" a couple of years earlier) is working on a deeper and more meaningful level than your average would-be blockbuster and if you are on the same distinctive wavelength as the film, you may be surprised to discover how much it truly grabs you at the end. Alas, not many were evidently grabbed by it when it debuted in the spring of 1990 and it died at the box-office. That said, it has gone on to become a cult favorite over the years while the hits of that time have so faded from memory that I can hardly recall any of them at the moment. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, whose efforts will be truly appreciated on the vast expanse of the Virginia Theatre's screen, will be on hand to discuss the film after the screening. (7:00 PM)

PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY: Although Second City is still the name most synonymous with Chicago when it comes to comedy, it could be argued that during its heyday in the 1990's that the All Jokes Aside nightclub was just as important, especially in regards to African-American comedians. From its opening night (featuring the then-unknown Jamie Foxx), the club was a key stepping stone for the likes of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Dave Chapelle, Bill Bellamy and the late, great Bernie Mac, to name just a few, until it was finally shut down due to a combination of gentrification, the rising costs of rent and talent and the city's inexplicable delay in granting a liquor license when it moved shop a few blocks north in a last-ditch effort to attract audiences. The whole story of the club, and of African-American stand-up comedy of the era, is chronicled in this alternately informative and eye-opening documentary by John Davis and while his direction may be a little rough at times, the combination of archival footage of the performers at work (though perhaps not enough for some tastes) and the interviews with those participants looking back in amazement at a club that not only catered towards African-American comedians but which also paid them promptly and in full should make up for those deficiencies and then some. Preceded by the short film "The Truth About Beauty and Blogs," the post-screening Q&A is scheduled to feature Davies, co-writer/producer Raymond Lambert, producer Reid Brody and comedian Ali LeRoi. (10:00 PM)


BIG FAN: Last winter, practically everyone who saw "Young Adult"--precious few, as it turned out (though I can imagine it one day appearing in a future Ebertfest lineup)--came away from it raving about comedian Patton Oswalt's alternately hilarious and touching turn as a small-town dweeb who looks on with horrified fascination as one-time teen queen Charlize Theron returns home in a misguided and selfish effort to win her high-school sweetheart from the perceived horrors of a happy marriage and new fatherhood; many of those commentators were surprised that he made the transition from comedy to drama so easily. Of course, they may not have been that surprised if they had managed to come across his knockout performance in this 2009 gem in which he plays an obsessed New York Giants fan (the kind who can always find a reason to call the local sports radio station to gab about his team, regardless of time of day or season) whose life is turned upside-down one night when he and his only friend (Kevin Corrigan) happen upon the Giants' star player and the meeting with his idol does not go as planned. Although presumably inspired by Martin Scorsese's great "The King of Comedy" in certain aspects, this film by writer/director Robert Siegel (who also wrote "The Wrestler) is less interested in irony or notions of what celebrity means in contemporary culture than it is in penetrating the mind of a typical obsessed sports fans (we all know one or two) and in trying to understand what it is that makes them tick and what keeps them giving to something that appears to have little to offer in return to most people than a couple of hours of entertainment. Both Siegel and Oswalt are scheduled to attend this screening and Oswalt will be pulling double-duty by appearing at 10:30 PM that night at the U of I's Foellinger Auditorium to introduce a free screening of the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy classic "Kind Hearts and Coronets," featuring Dennis Price as a distant relation to an elite family who tries to murder his way to their title and Alec Guinness as the eight relatives that he must get rid of to achieve his goal. Oh--Go Cubs!!! (1:00 PM)

KINYARWANDA: There have been a number of films, both conventional features and documentaries, that have attempted to grapple with the enormity of what occurred in Rwanda in the mid-1990's when tensions between the ruling Tutsi and the lower-caste Hutus exploded into a massacre that led to the deaths of upwards of a million people while the rest of the world essentially stood by and did nothing. Of those, the best-known is presumably the Oscar-nominated 2004 drama "Hotel Rwanda" but the best that I know of is quite possibly this 2011 effort from co-writer/director Alrick Brown that ambitiously tries to summarize the whole terrible ordeal of the genocide via a series of vignettes that are seen through the eyes of an number of observers ranging from a couple whose love struggles to transcend the fact that they are from different tribes, a military man from Uganda struggling against odds to bring peace, representatives of the Catholic and Muslim faiths and, perhaps inevitably, a small child. By going from one interlude to another instead of focusing on one particular story, some people may find themselves responding to this one less favorably than they did to "Hotel Rwanda" and its relatively conventional structure. However, this does a far better job of capturing the complexity of the situation, the horror of what the people of Rwanda were to endure and the brief glimmers of hope that helped to keep them sane in the face of some of the darkest insanity ever committed by mankind against itself. Brown, producers Ishamel Ntihabose, Darren Dean, Tommy Oliver and Deatra Harris and actors Cassandra Freeman and Hadidja Zaninka are currently scheduled to appear. (4:00 PM)

TERRI: To describe this 2011 film by Azazel Jacobs simply as the story of a fat high school kid who is mocked by his peers and finds friendship with a couple of other outcasts might be accurate in theory but in doing so, I run the risk of making it sound like a cliched outing that could either be a wacky teen comedy, a horror-revenge epic a la "Carrie" or an earnest piece of pap along the lines of the current and generally useless documentary "Bully." However, there is much more than that going on in this story about a chubby oddball (Jacob Wysocki) whose life of seeming desperation is shaken up when a well-meaning assistant principal (John C. Reilly in a surprisingly sympathetic turn) reaches out to him and he further falls in with another misfit and a pretty classmate whom he defends from harassment. Unlike most contemporary movies about high school life (yeah, I am looking at you, "Project X," you rotten, dishonest and borderline inhuman piece of shit), this film has a realistic idea of how teens behave when they aren't at the mercy of filmmakers pandering to the lowest common denominator. This is a perfect movie for thoughtful teens to watch--certainly more so than "Bully"--and so I suppose that it was inevitable that it wound up with a "R" rating, ensuring that most of them couldn't get in to see it in the first place. Both Jacobs and Wysocki are currently scheduled to attend the screening. (8:30 PM)


ON BORROWED TIME: Those who have regularly attended Ebertfest in the past have no doubt become familiar with the works of Australian filmmaker Paul Cox, a frequent guest of the festival who screened his "A Woman's Tale" in 2000, "Innocence" in 2002 and his extraordinary "Man of Flowers" in 2007, all to thunderous acclaim. A few years ago, Cox took ill and was in dire need of a liver transplant that eventually took place on Christmas Day 2009 and went well from all accounts and is the subject of this documentary from David Bradbury. Since this screening will mark the film's North American premiere, I must confess that I have not yet seen it but if a film about Cox's life is only half as interesting as his work, this will be a must-see for sure. Happily, COx himself is scheduled to appear. (1:00 PM)

WILD AND WEIRD: THE ALLOY ORCHESTRA PLAYS 10 FASCINATING AND INNOVATIVE FILMS 1906-1926 One of the annual highlights of Ebertfest is the presentation of a silent film, nearly always shown with live accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, a three-piece outfit that specializes in scoring such films with some of the more unusual instrumentations imaginable--as I recall, a bedpan is part of their arsenal--all of which they were doing long before the success of "The Artist" and "Hugo" inspired a resurgence of interest in the earliest days of cinema history. For this year, they are offering up a selection of ten silent shorts (not, alas, including "A Trip to the Moon") that will illustrate that even in the most seemingly primitive days of film, there were pioneers and dreamers, including D.W. Griffith, represented by 1909's "Those Awful Hats," doing things with the medium that can still make the eyes and jaws of the most jaded CGI aficionados pop and drop (respectively) even today. (4:00 PM)

A SEPARATION: And here is where I come to the extraordinarily embarrassing revelation of this article. If you are care about film, you have no doubt heard of this 2011 Iranian film about a married couple who are torn between leaving the country to make a better life for their child or staying in order to car for the husband's sick father and how these decisions affect both their marriage and that of another couple. At the very least, you probably know that it received acclaim from critics and audiences around the world and went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film a couple of months ago. The problem? I still haven't seen it yet. I know--how is it possible that a seemingly serious film critic could have missed it and yet somehow made time to see "The Devil Inside" and "The Three Stooges." All I can say is that when it had its press screening last winter, I was otherwise engaged and when I assumed I could catch up with it via awards screener, that plan was thwarted when it never arrived. Needless to say, I will not be missing it this time around and I am relieved to finally get a chance to see what everyone has been talking about. Star Peyman Moadi is currently scheduled to appear at the screening. (8:30 PM)


HIGHER GROUND: In films ranging from low-budget indie fare like "Down to the Bone" to glossier star-filled studio films like "The Departed" and "Up in the Air" to unapologetic B-movie stuff like "Running Scared," "Orphan" and "Source Code," Vera Farmiga has become one of the most intriguing and compelling actresses to emerge over the last few years. In the new film "Higher Ground," Farmiga makes her directorial debut with a story that examines one woman's evolving relationship with Christianity over the years and it changes and shapes her in unexpected ways. After Corinne (played by Farmiga as and adult and by her younger sister Tessia as a rebellious teenager) and her husband and child miraculously survive a car accident, she re-embraces her faith and the family joins an evangelical community that provides her with a sense of purpose at first but whose constraints involving the place of women in the congregation eventually force her to look for something else in her life. On the one hand, the film is a bit of a mess--the story rambles on a little too long for its own good and some of the digressions (especially a bit where Corinne and a more enlightened friend draw sketches of their husbands' genitalia) are a bit silly--and it never quite pulls itself together into a coherent whole. At the same time, while it isn't exactly a successful film in the end, it is often a fascinating one. As a director, Farmiga is generous in the way she allows her fellow actors to take center stage instead of keeping the focus entirely on herself. Moreover, her depiction of religion is interesting in the way that it avoids the expected cheap shots--for the most part, she portrays the various forms of religion and its practitioners in generally positive ways instead of as the monstrous entities that might have cropped up in a less subtle handling of the material. In the end, this isn't a great movie but it is a pretty good one and while I certainly hope that Farmiga doesn't give up her day job anytime soon, her work here is impressive enough to make me keenly interested in seeing what she comes up with next as a director. Carolyn S. Briggs, whose memoir was the basis for the film, is currently scheduled to appear at the screening. (1:00 PM)

PATANG: In this debut film from Chicago-born director Prashant Bjargava, a prosperous businessman and his daughter travel from their home in Dehli to make a surprise visit to his family in his hometown of Ahmedabad, a move that shifts away from celebration to resentment as his grand ways eventually begin to chafe on his hosts. Set amidst the backdrop of India's biggest kite festival, this is a very entertaining film that is filled to bursting with color, humor, excitement, romance and drama without ever devolving into the melodramatic excesses of the Bollywood genre. Writer-director Prashant Bhargava, producers Jaideep Punjabi, Vijay Bhargava and Ranjana Bhargava and actors Seema Biswas and Siddiqui are currently scheduled to appear.(4:00 PM)

TAKE SHELTER: In 2008, writer-director Jeff Nichols appeared at Ebertfest with his debut feature "Shotgun Stories," a powerful drama starring Michael Shannon about two sets of half-brothers and the violent feud that develops between them after the man that fathered them dies. That was a great film but this follow-up from Nichols is even better--a gripping psychological thriller about a quiet and decent man (Shannon) who finds himself plagued with increasingly violent and apocalyptic nightmares that lead him to sink everything he has into the expansion of a storm shelter out back, much to the consternation of his loving but concerned wife (Jessica Chastain). Is he really seeing the beginning of the end or is he succumbing to the same mental disorder that overtook his mother? I wouldn't dream of saying anything more but I will note that it is appropriate that this is the last film of the day because everything about it, include the knockout final image, will have viewers arguing long into the night. Both Nichols, whose latest film, "Mud," was just selected to compete in next month's Cannes Film Festival, and Shannon are currently scheduled to attend. (8:30 PM)


CITIZEN KANE: Considering its long-standing status as The Greatest Film Ever Made, it was perhaps that Orson Welles' groundbreaking 1941 directorial debut about the life and times of a newspaper baron corrupted by wealth, power and the loss of his own ideals would one day turn up at Ebertfest. However, outside of the chance to see it in the kind of movie palace that it might have once screened at during its original release, what could possibly be done to make such an event special to viewers who have presumably seen it countless times over the years? Well, as many of you may know, Roger Ebert recorded an exemplary commentary track for the film when it first came out on DVD more than a decade ago (a track that was retained when it made its Blu-Ray debut last year) and it will be accompanying the screening to serve as the soundtrack to what should be more like a master class on the film and its place in screen history. Needless to say, this screening is a must-see but if you have somehow gone through your entire life without having seen "Kane" before, I must implore you to avoid any and all "Peanuts" comic strips until then because Charles Schultz loved to spoil its final reveal for some inexplicable reason. After the film, there will be a Q&A with David Bordwell, a film scholar whose knowledge exceeds even my own, and Jeffrey Lerner, who produced the DVD commentary. (12:00 PM)

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originally posted: 04/22/12 06:42:23
last updated: 04/26/12 08:37:36
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