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An Overview of the 17th Annual Ebertfest

Last year's edition of Ebertfest, the annual five-day celebration of all things cinematic  that has been a tradition in Champaign, Illinois since 1999, was the first to have been entirely conceived without the participation of its founder, the late, great Roger Ebert, who passed away the year before only a couple of weeks before the 2013 iteration. As a result, some attendees may have arrived on the scene with a certain degree of trepidation about the whole thing—could the festival go on without Ebert? Happily, last year's festival, put together by the crack Ebertfest staff under the guidance of the indomitable spirit that is Chaz Ebert, not only proved that it could and should continue on indefinitely, it was one of the best editions in its history thanks to a canny lineup of films ranging from all-time classics to recent critical favorites, a lineup of guests that included the likes of Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Brie Larson, Bennett Miller and Patton Oswalt, the unveiling of a statue of Ebert outside the festival's home base, the majestic Virginia Theatre, and the cathartic opening night presentation of the Ebert documentary "Life Itself" accompanied by the premiere presentation of a deleted scene focusing on Ebertfest.

Those are some mighty big programming shoes to fill, but, on the surface, it seems as if the Ebertfest organizers have put together a collection of films for this year's event, running April 15-19, that is just as strong—a provocative and entertaining slate of titles from around the world that includes the most recent works from two of the most audacious filmmakers in the world today, a number of recent art-house favorites (including the winner of this year's Foreign-Language Film Oscar), advance screenings of two highly anticipated independent films from former festival honorees, a couple of strong older titles and the requisite silent film, once again shown with a live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra. In addition to the films themselves, filmmakers, actors, scholars and critics (including yours truly) will be on hand to participate in discussions after the screenings and during panel talks in the mornings of April 16-17 at the Illini Union (1401 Green St. Urbana, IL).

Here is a brief overview of the titles playing at the 17th annual Ebertfest. For more information on the films, guests, ticket availability or any other information, please go to the festival website.

APRIL 15

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE: This year's festival kicks off with the latest masterpiece from one of the all-time greats of the cinema, the always-provocative Jean-Luc Godard. The film itself consists of his usual stew of concerns—love, death, war, cinema and the painful breakdowns of communication, romance and self in a world increasingly isolated from itself, albeit with a little more comedic flair than he has displayed in some of his more recent works (even indulging in a little bit of toilet humor for good measure). This is all fascinating stuff on its own but what truly makes it unforgettable is the stunning 3-D photography that he and cinematographer Fabrice Aragno have utilized to tell the story. It sounds like a joke but both in technical terms (including one moment—you will know it when you see it—that literally defies description) and in their use of the added dimension to bring something more than simple visual glitz to the proceedings, it puts every other use of the process that I have ever seen to shame. Heloise Godet, one of the film's co-stars, will be there to discuss this film, and, trust me, there will be plenty to talk about afterwards. (7:00 PM)

HAROLD RAMIS TRIBUTE: This year's festival is being dedicated to the memory of Harold Ramis, who, before passing away in February, 2014, served as one of the key architects of the revolution of American comedy on the stage and screen that began in the '70s and which continues on to this day. "SCTV," "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," "Groundhog Day"—any one of those credits would be more than enough on which to base an entire career, but as a writer, director and performer, Ramis had a hand in all of them and many other equally worthy projects to boot. (If you haven't seen the woefully overlooked "Stuart Saves His Family" yet, I implore you to seek it out right now and prepare to be blown away by how funny it is and how thoughtful it is in its look at the effects of corrosive familial dysfunction.) To pay tribute to Ramis' life and career, the festival has put together a celebration that will include clips from his considerable filmography (Oh please, let there be one of his portrayal of Allan "Crazy Legs" Hirschman from "SCTV"...) and on-stage reminisces from his wife, Erica Ramis, and colleagues Trevor Albert and Laurel Ward. (9:30 PM)

APRIL 16

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE: One of the favorite filmmakers in the history of Ebertfest has been Swedish director Roy Andersson, whose surreal and darkly funny epics "Songs from the Second Floor" and "You, the Living" played (in 2001 and 2010, respectively) to audience reactions that ran the gamut from bravos to bafflement. (The former had an equally memorable Q&A session from two of the actors who appeared on stage afterwards—one of them never spoke a single word in the film and continued that streak throughout the Q&A as well.) Although one could make glib comparisons between Andersson and the likes of Dali, Bunuel and Tati, to name a few, the fact of the matter is that he is a true original and a filmmaker seemingly incapable of coming up with a banal, run-of-the-mill image and this film, a collection of 30-odd comedic vignettes focusing on love, aging, death and other light topic--several of which involve a pair of sad sack novelty salesmen, promises to be a fitting conclusion to the loose trilogy begun with those two previous works. Producer Johan Carlsson, who worked on all three of the films with Andersson, is scheduled to appear for a talk afterwards. (1:00 PM)

MOVING MIDWAY: In this fascinating 2008 documentary, film critic-turned-filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire ventures to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit Midway Plantation, a structure that was built before the Civil War and where he spent many a childhood weekend visiting cousins. One of them, now the owner of the place, decides to combat the urban sprawl just outside its once-secluded doors by devising a plan to lift up and transport the entire structure from its present location to a more peaceful spot. While chronicling this effort, Cheshire digs into his family history and makes some startling revelations that force him to reconcile the romanticized notions of the past—both personal and cultural—with the darker realities lying just beneath the surface that continue to reverberate to this very day. Cheshire will be on hand to talk after the screening. (4:00 PM)

THE END OF THE TOUR: One of the more notable successes at this year's Sundance Film Festival was the newest work from director James Ponsoldt, who visited Ebertfest two years ago with the stirring coming-of-age drama "The Spectacular Now." Based on the memoir from Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), it chronicles the memorable few days that he spent with acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) following the publication of his landmark novel "Infinite Jest" in 1996. Of course, most people going into the film will know that Wallace would kill himself 12 years later, but rather than spend its time foreshadowing that event, Ponsoldt is more interested in the meeting of these two literary minds and examining the struggle of Wallace to retain his normalcy in the wake of being deemed "the voice of a generation" by seemingly everyone around him. Playing here as a preview before its general release this summer, this screening will include a Q&A featuring both Ponsoldt and Segel. (8:30 PM)

APRIL 17

GIRLHOOD: Despite the similar title, this third feature film from director Celine Sciamma (whose previous efforts were "Water Lilies" and "Tomboy") has nothing to do with Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" other than being another excellent and observant cinematic exploration of adolescence. This one follows the misadventures of Marieme (Karidja Toure), a 16-year-old French girl living in a housing project with her largely absent mother, a mean older brother and a younger sister that she is practically raising by herself. One day she finds herself falling in with a trio of "bad" older girls and at that point, you may think that you know where the story is headed but you would be wrong. Instead, Sciamma is more interested in the smaller moments that exist in the life of every young person—regardless of race, gender or nationality—as they go about beginning the process of figuring out, through trial and error, who they really are and what they really want out of life. There are a lot of coming-of-age movies out there—some very good, some very bad. This is one of the good ones and I can almost guarantee that after seeing it, you will want to go out afterwards and immediately download Rhianna's "Diamonds." (1:00 PM)

THE SON OF THE SHEIK: One of the most anticipated events at Ebertfest each year is the presentation of a classic silent film, often with a live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, a musical trio that has composed and performed such scores at festivals around the world. This year's title is the 1926 Rudolph Valentino vehicle that finds him playing Ahmed, the son of a powerful sheik who falls in love with a dancing girl (Vilma Banky) who has been promised to the evil Moor Ghobah (Montague Love) and who does not know his true identity. When Ghobah learns of this, he kidnaps and poisons Ahmed, telling him the the girl is nothing more than a lure for suckers like him. Naturally, Ahmed escapes and, now filled with hatred for the girl, kidnaps her and treats her cruelly. Will he ever learn the truth and if so, will he then be able to rescue her for good from the clutches of Ghobah? I wouldn't dream of telling you but there are two things I can share—this was one of the very first sequels ever produced by Hollywood (a follow up to the 1921 Valentino hit) and it would arrive in theaters only a couple of weeks after the unexpected death of its star on August 23, 1926 at the age of 31, an event that sent shock waves throughout the world. After the screening, the Alloy Orchestra will be on stage to discuss their approach to scoring this particular film. (4:00 PM

A BRONX TALE: When Robert De Niro offered to buy the rights to the autobiographical one-man play "A Bronx Tale" from its largely unknown creator, actor-writer Chazz Palminteri, in order to make his directorial debut, it is said that Palminteri would not sell unless he was allowed to both write the screenplay and play one of its key roles. Luckily, De Niro agreed to those terms and the result was this wonderful 1993 film about a young kid (Lillo Brancato) growing up in the Bronx in the Sixties who finds himself torn between the influence of the flashy gangster Sonny (Palminteri) and his nose-to-the-grindstone bus driver father (De Niro). The setup may sound familiar but the results are anything but thanks to Palminteri's skillful adaptation of his original work, De Niro's strong and sure work behind the camera in evoking the look and feel of the period while telling the story in a cinematic manner (despite showing much promise in this area, his only subsequent directorial effort to date has been his thoroughly underrated 2006 CIA history "The Good Shepherd") and the excellent performances from the two actors as well as Brancato. Palminteri and co-producer Jon Kilik, whose credits include numerous projects over the years with Spike Lee, the "Hunger Games" films and "Foxcatcher”, will appear after the screening. (8:30 PM)

APRIL 18

WILD TALES: Revenge is the name of the game in this wildly entertaining 2014 anthology film from Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron (one of this year's nominee for the Oscar for Foreign-Language Film) centering on six tales involving people who have hit their respective breaking points and set about getting back at their tormentors in spectacular fashion. Actress Julieta Zylberberg, who stars in the segment about a waitress who finds herself at a moral crossroads when the person responsible for the destruction of her family unwittingly enters her diner late one night, and casting director Javier Braier are both scheduled to do a Q&A after the screening. (11:00 AM)

IDA: The winner of this year's Foreign-Language Film Oscar was this visually and emotionally stunning Polish-language drama from Pawel Pawilkowski (whose previous features have included "Last Resort" (2000) and "My Summer of Love"), set in 1962, about Anna (Agata Trzebokowska), an orphan raised by nuns in a convent who is about to take her final vows when she is ordered to go see the aunt that is her only living relative, hard-living Communist Party official Wanda (Agneta Kulesza). When she does, Wanda unveils a shocking secret about her roots and this sends the two of them off on a journey to confront both the ghosts of their shared past and who they really are. Composed largely of a series of extended shots shot in a 1.37 aspect ratio that, along with the luminous black-and-white cinematography, quietly evokes the past without calling undue attention to itself, "Ida" itself is a film that doesn't overtly milk its potentially melodramatic situation and is all the more powerful and meaningful for it. Frankly, it doesn't need to thanks to the two incredible performances from newcomer Trzebokowaska and veteran Kulesza. (2:00 PM)

THE MOTEL LIFE: Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) are a pair of hard-luck brothers who have shared a lifetime of woes that have included the abandonment by their father, the loss of their mother when they were young and a freak train accident that cost Jerry Lee a leg. Things go from bad to worse when Jerry Lee hits and kills someone with their car and they are forced to hole up in a grungy motel while trying to plan their next move with only each other and their imaginations (Frank is a natural storyteller and Jerry Lee has drawing abilities that we see depicted in several animated sequences) to distract them from the inevitable. There are also strong supporting turns from Dakota Fanning as the girl that Frank loved until he dumped her after learning her terrible secret and Ebertfest veteran Kris Kristofferson as a friend of Frank's who gives him perhaps the closest thing to fatherly advice that he has ever received. Dorff and Alan Polsky, who co-directed the film with his own brother, Gabe (who also did the acclaimed Russian hockey documentary "Red Army"), are scheduled to appear at the screening. (5:00 PM)

99 HOMES: Over the years, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has become almost as readily identified with Ebertfest as Ebert himself—though only 40 years old, he has already screened four films at the festival, including the features "Man Push Cart" (2005), "Chop Shop" (2007), "Goodbye Solo" (2008) and the 2009 short "Plastic Bag." This year, he returns with his latest work, a drama about an ordinary construction worker (Andrew Garfield) who loses his home and is forced to move himself, his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son (Noah Lomax) into a seedy motel while desperately trying to find a way out of his situation. Miraculously, one occurs when he begins working for the very same shady real-estate magnate (Michael Shannon) who is responsible for his predicament and while his plan is to use this job as a way of getting back his home, the easy money and the dream of getting his home back for his son is enough to distract him until he finds himself in a position where he now has to evict people who are in the same situation where he once found himself. Bahrani will be returning to the festival once again and will be bringing along 13-year-old Noah Lomax to accompany him on stage. (9:00 PM)

APRIL 19

SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION: One night at a dinner party, actor Ethan Hawke happened to make the acquaintance of Seymour Bernstein, a celebrated classical pianist who left the performing world at the age of 50 in order to focus on teaching and composing, the musical areas where he felt most at home. Over the years, a friendship would develop between the two and the result is this fascinating documentary directed by Hawke that finds Bernstein looking back on his life and career as he prepares for a 2012 recital that would be his first public performance in over 35 years. Even if your working knowledge of classical music is minimal at best, it is still possible to appreciate this film as a loving tribute to one artist from another that says things about the importance of the creative process that ring even more true today in an era where a talent show or viral video can provide someone with instant fame before they have even begun to master their craft. Bernstein himself will be appearing on stage after the screening, along with activist Andrew Harvey, who also appears in the film, and I suspect that at least one of them may find themselves playing the piano for a few minutes as well. (11:00 AM


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