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Ebertfest 2008: Romance, Cigarettes and the Hulk? Yes, I'm Delirious!
by Peter Sobczynski

Now in its tenth year, Roger Ebert's annual celebration of film returns with another baker's dozen of eclectic films from around the world to thrill and delight film fans (especially if they have a thing for disembowelments and/or Kate Winslet).

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 for that particular slot are “Deception,” an erotic thriller that has been on and off the schedule for a while, the stoner sequel “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” and “Baby Mama,” a film that Universal Studios apparently has so little confidence in that they have banned online critics from seeing it until the night before it opens in an effort to contain what they must clearly expect to be horrible reviews. (Ironically, the very same studio was actively courting those very same online people a few weeks ago by trying to get them to interview director Neil Marshall for his new film “Doomsday” even though they weren’t showing that one to anybody ahead of time.) 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 13 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.

This year’s festival, the 10th edition, is unfortunately kicking off on a somewhat somber note for a couple of reasons. One is the recent passing of Dusty Cohl, the Canadian producer and co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival who had become one of the fest’s most visible and beloved supporters. The other is, of course, the various health complications that the host has been undergoing as of late, including a recent hip injury that he suffered while at the Pritikin Center in Florida. The former will be formally celebrated with a short film tribute held during the festival (details on that can be found below) and will no doubt be informally feted by those whose have gotten to know him over the years exchanging their stories with one another over dinner and between screenings. As for Ebert, he has vowed that as long as his doctors give the okay, he will be at the festival to greet everyone and enjoy the films from the comfort of his specially-installed recliner. Knowing Ebert, I can pretty much assure you that if there is even the slightest chance that he is okay enough to attend, he will be there to enjoy the films and brighten everyone’s experience with his infectious good cheer.

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


HAMLET (1996): The festival typically kicks things off with a jumbo-sized cinematic epic and they don’t get much bigger than Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, a mammoth undertaking that presents the play’s complete text via the miracle of 70mm cinematography (it remains the last film to be shot entirely in this process), a four-hour running time and an all-star cast that includes Branagh, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Although I suppose that Laurence Olivier’s 1948 take on the material remains the best screen version of the story to date (I will just say that as the film goes on and on, it does become apparent at some points exactly why certain scenes have been dropped over the years), this is still an uncommonly thrilling adaptation that looks spectacular (especially when seen in 70mm) and contains wonderful performances, the best ones coming from Christie, Winslet (who is amazing as Ophelia) and Heston, whose brief turn as the Player King is ironically one of the most subtle bits of acting on display and one that serves to remind us that there was indeed a gifted actor lurking behind that most iconic of screen personalities. Acclaimed British actor Timothy Spall, a favorite of Mike Leigh and most recently seen in “Enchanted” and “Sweeney Todd,” will be on hand to discuss the film and playing the role of Rosencrantz. (7:00 PM)


DELIRIOUS (2006): No, this is neither the old John Candy movie about the soap opera writer who becomes trapped in his own creation nor the Piper Perabo lesbian boarding school melodrama (that latter film was “Lost and Delirious” and now that you mention it, it would be a perfect candidate for a future Ebertfest). This is a low-key pop-culture satire from Tom DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion”) about a grungy paparazzi (Steve Buscemi) who takes in an amiable homeless kid (Michael Pitt) and exploits his eager-to-please nature by utilizing him as his assistant. When the kid, through a series of flukes, becomes a famous actor and the boyfriend of a Britney-esque pop idol (Allison Lohman), he tries to extend a hand to his former employer but when it goes bad, the shutterbug becomes gripped with jealously and begins planning revenge. To be honest, I am not quite the fan of the film that Ebert obviously is--some of the plot machinations towards the end lean a little too far to the absurd for my taste--but many of DiCillo’s observations on celebrity culture are spot-on and Buscemi is, as always, fascinating to watch. DiCillo is scheduled to attend this screening. (1:00 PM)

YES (2004): Even though writer-director Sally Potter, whose previous efforts have included the brilliant adaptation of “Orlando” and “The Tango Lesson,” has never been known for playing things safe in the past, this particular film may well be the oddest of her entire career. It’s a romantic melodrama involving She (Joan Allen), the disaffected wife of a creepy politician (Sam Neill), and He (Simon Abkarin), a Lebanese doctor whose self-exile has led him to work as a cook in a London restaurant, that takes them from England to Cuba--if that weren’t enough, all of the dialogue is written in iambic pentameter. This is a bold stab at experimental filmmaking and while your feelings for the movie as a whole will depend on your tolerance for such decidedly oddball material (though if you didn’t have a taste for the offbeat, you would most likely not even be attending this festival in the first place), but I think that everyone will be able to appreciate both the ambitious nature of Potter’s style and the wonderful central performance from the perennially underrated Joan Allen. At the moment, Potter and producers John Penotti and Christopher Sheppard are currently scheduled to attend. (4:00 PM)

CANVAS (2006): Joe Pantoliano (you may know him as Ralphie from “The Sopranos” or Cypher from “The Matrix,” but to me, he will always be Guido the Killer Pimp) and Marcia Gay Harden (recently seen as the monstrous Mrs. Carmody in “The Mist”) star in this drama about a man trying to keep things together and forge a relationship with his troubled teenage son after his wife is diagnosed with schizophrenia. I have not yet seen this movie so I cannot really offer any judgment on it at this time but I will note that it is currently running at a solid 75% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. Preceding the film will be “Citizen Cohl: The Untold Story,” a short filmed tribute to longtime festival friend Dusty Cohl, who passed away earlier this year--I had the pleasure to get to know him during previous visits to the festival and I can assure you that a.) his presence will be missed terribly and b.) they could have made the film the same length as “Hamlet” and it still would have barely scratched the surface. Attending this screening will be “Canvas” director Joseph Greco, producers Adam Hammel, Lucy Engibarian-Hammel and Bill Erfurth and “Citizen Cohl” director Barry Avrich. (8:30 PM)


SHOTGUN STORIES (2007): Okay, I haven’t seen this one either, but at least I have an excuse--although a favorite on the festival circuit (where it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and picked up prizes at film fests in Seattle, Austin and Newport), it hasn’t received anything resembling a commercial release as of yet. Set in a small town in rural Arkansas, it tells the story of the tensions that develop when a man dies and the sons from the first marriage that he abandoned in order to marry another woman come into conflict with the sons that came from that union. Writer-director Jeff Nichols will be present at the screening. (11:30 AM).

UNDERWORLD (1927): No, Roger has not completely flipped his lid and programmed that Kate Beckinsale werewolf-vampire reticular from a few years ago. This is actually the brilliant gangster melodrama from the legendary Josef von Sternberg in which criminal kingpin Bull Weed (George Bancroft) takes a liking to a decrepit bum (Clive Brook), cleans him up and makes him his lieutenant--all is well and good until Bull’s moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent) comes between them. Besides being entertaining as all get out, this film is historical significant for a couple of reasons--it was one of the very first examples of the gangster genre to hit the big screen and noted writer Ben Hecht took home the prize for Best Writing, Original Story at the very first Academy Awards. As in past years, the acclaimed musical group The Alloy Orchestra will be providing a live musical accompaniment and if this is anything like their previous appearances, watching them in action is just as much fun as watching the movie itself. (2:30 PM)

THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN (2005): This documentary chronicles the life of John Peterson, a self-styled Midwestern iconoclast whose efforts to keep the family farming concern running face stiff opposition from the economy and wary neighbors who believe him to be a Satanist or a drug dealer until he finally finds success after embracing the movement towards organic farming techniques. I am sure that some smart-ass out there is going to point out that I didn’t exactly give the film a positive review when I reviewed it a few years ago--while I stand by what I said (the film drifts a little too far into hagiography for my tastes while more important discussions about the struggles of the American farming industry over the last few decades are occasionally pushed to the side) , I will add that it does have its modest charms and I suspect that it is the kind of feel-good film that plays much better with a large audience. Peterson himself will be appearing at the screening along with filmmaker Taggart Siegel. (7:00 PM)

MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985): In one of the most audacious and visually stunning films in a career filled with audacious and visually stunning films, Paul Schrader examines the extraordinary life and even more extraordinary death of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima through a trio of segments that find parallels between key events in his life with some of his most important writings and a fourth chapter depicting the events of November 25, 1970, the day when the fiercely nationalistic writer attempted to lead a military coup against the Emperor and, when that failed, committed suicide in the most shocking and public manner possible. Although this decidedly unconventional biopic will probably resonate more with those with a working knowledge of Mishima’s life and art, even those completely unfamiliar with him will still be able to appreciate the film because of the stunning contributions of cinematographer John Bailey, composer Philip Glass and costume designer Eiko Ishioka (who later won an Oscar for herjaw-dropping designs for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) and because of Schrader’s obvious passion for the material. Both Schrader and Ishioka are scheduled to attend. (10:00 PM)


HULK (2003): Easily the most underrated and sadly misunderstood big-screen adaptation of a comic book property since Robert Altman’s equally impressive “Popeye” (another film that deserves a slot at a future Ebertfest), Ang Lee’s take on the saga of mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) and his gamma-ray-induced and rage-filled alter-ego disappointed many film geeks when it failed to provide the standard-issue action-packed blockbuster that they had become accustomed to over the years and which the initial trailers seemed to suggest. The problem is that this was not the film that Lee decided to make--he instead chose to make a film about the themes of emotional isolation and broken family units that he has consistently dealt with in his work. This may have earned him the ire of the fanboy contingent but it made for a film that I predict will stand the test of time far better than such cinematic superhero gumdrops as the various “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” extravaganzas. If nothing else, I have to bow to Lee for his bravery in ending his film with what may well be the most beautifully bizarre conclusion of a big-budget studio epic since the head-scratcher that kind of wrapped up “The Black Hole.” If you cannot make heads or tails out of the ending, Ang Lee will be on hand after the screening to answer questions and I am sure that he will be happy to explain it all to you. (11:00 AM)

THE BAND’S VISIT (2007): In this charming comedy-drama, a musical group consisting of eight Egyptian police officers arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in the town of Petah Tikvah but get on the wrong bus and wind up in the remote town of Beith Ha-Tikvah, a place that local restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) assures them doesn’t even have culture, let alone a cultural center. As it also lacks a hotel, she arranges for the band members to stay with locals for the night until the next bus comes along the next day. Although many assumed that this film would be a front-runner for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, it wound up being disqualified because too much of its dialogue was in English, the only language that both the Egyptian and Israeli characters could communicate freely in. Writer-director Eran Kolirin will be on hand to answer questions afterwards. (3:00 PM)

HOUSEKEEPING (1987): It is hard to figure out what is the bigger shame--the fact that Bill Forsyth, the creator of such utterly delightful works as “Gregory’s Girl,” “Comfort and Joy” and the great “Local Hero,” hasn’t made a film since 1999 and has supposedly given up on directing for good (allegedly in response to his unfortunate experiences while making 1993’s underrated “Being Human”) or that this acclaimed 1987 humorous drama, in which Christine Lahti plays an oddball free spirit living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950’s who finds herself raising her two young nieces when their mother abandons them, still hasn’t been released on DVD. It may sound like a mawkish bit of barely-watchable treacle but I assure you that it is anything but--the aunt is more than just a self-consciously adorable kook, the kids come across as real children instead of as the kind of well-scrubbed urchins you only see in the movies and the story does not develop in the ways that one might otherwise anticipate. In a real coup, both Lahti and Forsyth are scheduled to appear at the screening--perhaps if enough people come out to show him the love that he and his work deserve, perhaps it might inspire Forsyth to reconsider this whole retirement thing. (7:30 PM)

THE CELL (2000): Easily the most controversial selection of this year’s festival, this trippy take on the serial-killer genre (in which psychotherapist Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of comatose psychopath Vincent D’Onofrio in the hopes of discovering the location of his latest victim and finds herself enmeshed in the bizarre and horrifying visions lurking within his noggin) continues to divide audiences into those who are put off by the grotesque nature of the story (what the killer does to his victims before and after death is enough to freak out even the most hardened devotee of the genre) and those who are blown away by the eye-popping visuals supplied by director Tarsem Singh. Although I was somewhat distracted by the similarity between many of the visuals on display here and those seen in the music video for R.E.M.’s hit song “Losing My Religion” (which was, not surprisingly, another Tarsem joint), I must admit that as a flashy bit of depraved eye candy, this film can’t be beat and it will be worth watching it again just to see how it goes down with the Ebertfest crowd. Tarsem Singh, whose second feature film, “The Fall,” is set to be released next month, will be at the screening along with producer Nico Soultanakis and costume designer Eiko Ishioka, whose creations are among the film’s most striking elements. (11:00 PM).


ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (2005): Having kicked things off with a film featuring a wonderful supporting performance from Kate Winslet, quite possibly the best actress working in films today, the festival concludes with another film featuring a turn from the Divine Ms. W. Here, she plays a hot-blooded temptress whose affair with a blue-collar New Jersey man (James Gandolfini) causes strife in his relationship with his estranged wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro and Mandy Moore) while friends and relatives (including ones played by Elaine Stritch, Bobby Cannavale, Steve Buscemi and, perhaps inevitably, Christopher Walken) look on in bemusement. Oh, did I mention the fact that the film is also a musical and that at certain times, when the characters can no longer express themselves in words, they suddenly burst into song (including tunes from Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield and Nick Cave) in a manner that will remind some of previous festival selection “Everyone Says I Love You”? (I promise that you will never be able to listen to Tom Jones’ “Delilah” again with a straight face after seeing what Walken does with it here.) Cheerfully raunchy, visually stylish (one sexy number set in a burning building to the tune of the Buena Vista Social Club looks like what might have resulted if Frank Tashlin and Russ Meyer had teamed up to do a musical) and energetically performed by a game cast, this film is an absolute delight from start to finish and is probably my favorite of all the titles in this year’s festival. Unfortunately, because it got caught in the middle of a couple of studio buyouts, this film was stuck on a shelf for a couple of years and was threatened with a direct-to-video release until writer-director John Turturro shelled out his own money to distribute it himself in a few cities last winter. It is on DVD now but this is one of those films that really needs to be seen on the big screen with a huge crowd to be fully appreciated. Actress Aida Turturro and choreographer Tricia Brouk will be on hand to discuss the film and help bring Ebertfest 2008 to a close. (12:00 PM).

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originally posted: 04/20/08 05:47:08
last updated: 04/20/08 07:22:38
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