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An Overview of the 18th Annual Ebertfest

Ebertfest, a celebration that has brought the world of cinema in all its potential forms to Champaign, Illinois and the historic Virginia Theatre for five straight days of moviegoing and good companionship since 1999, has overcome the potentially crippling loss of its founder, the late, great Roger Ebert and, to judge by the lineup of films put together by the crack staff of programmers under the guidance of that indomitable force of nature that is Chaz Ebert, is stronger than ever. Now, I realize that some of you may be thinking that a claim like that is nothing more than polite boilerplate but I promise you that in this case, it is all true and then some. The collection of films on tap for this year is truly one of the best in the history of the festival. 

Running April 13 - 17, this year’s festival, which is dedicated to the memory of the celebrated cinematographer/filmmaker/beloved Ebertfest guest Haskell Wexler, offers up another provocative, eclectic and entertaining collection of 12 titles that spans the entire history of film from the silent era to today. There is an elaborate horror fantasy from one of the most celebrated names in contemporary genre filmmaking. There are a couple of thought-provoking documentaries that are as unique as the subjects that they cover. There is a stirring biopic on one of the most innovative musical geniuses of our time. There are two masterpieces of the silent era that will be presented with musical accompaniment. There are films dealing with such familiar topics as abortion, religion and dark family secrets, but not presented in any of the familiar ways. There is the latest effort from one of the festival's favorites and a film that pretty much defies description and is all the better. Finally, there is the title that I would not only cite as being the best of this year’s festival but which also has a place of honor on my list of my Top 10 all-time favorite films. 

In addition to the films themselves, filmmakers, actors, scholars and critics will be on hand to participate in discussions after the screening and during panel discussions on the mornings of April 14 - 15 at the Illini Union (1401 Green St. Urbana, IL). For more information on the films, guests, ticket availability or any other information, please go to the festival website by clicking here

Here is a film-by-film overview of this year’s lineup.

Wednesday, April 13

CRIMSON PEAK (2015): In Guillermo del Toro’s lavishly appointed merging of the horror and Gothic romance genres, Mia Wasikowska stars as a young heiress and aspiring author who, against her father’s wishes, marries an ambitious Brit (Tom Hiddleston) and goes off to live with him and his oddball sister (Jessica Chastain) in their crumbing family home built atop a mountain of red clay that literally bleeds through the snow. Before long, however, it becomes apparent that the house is teeming with forbidden rooms, strange artifacts and even a few ghosts and that someone—or something—is out to get her. When I first saw this film, I was torn between my admiration for its stunning visual style—between the nifty special effects and the sumptuous production design by Tom Sanders, this is one of the best-looking films of any genre in recent years—and the inescapable fact that the story is a curious letdown that cribs from the oeuvre of Henry James and contains a number of theoretically shocking plot twists that will come as surprises to precious few viewers. Upon further review, it is easier to overlook the plot deficiencies in order to further bask in its look, which should seem even more astonishing when projected on the Virginia’s big screen. As an added bonus to this screening, del Toro himself will be on hand for the post-screening Q&A. (7:00 PM)

Thursday, April 14

GRANDMA (2015): Lily Tomlin is, of course, one of the great American comedic voices of our time but Hollywood has never really known what to do with her. Although a familiar face on the big screen ever since her Oscar-nominated debut in “Nashville,” she only appeared in one film since, the uneven remake/spoof “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” in which she was the sole central character before appearing in this indie comedy-drama from writer-director Paul Weitz (whose previous efforts include “American Pie,” “In Good Company” and “Admission,” which featured Tomlin in a supporting role). Tomlin plays Elle, an acerbic poet who, on the very day she has broken up with her much-younger girlfriend, is unexpectedly visited by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who is pregnant and in need of $600 for an abortion she has scheduled for that very day. Temporarily light in the financial sense herself, Elle hits the road with Sage to try to scare up the cash and both find themselves confronting their uneven pasts and uncertain futures along the way. The setup is a bit rough but once the two hit the road, the film turns into an alternately hilarious and touching meeting of the minds between the older generation that fought on the front lines for women’s rights and the younger one that oftentimes takes those rights for granted. As Elle, Tomlin is absolutely spectacular throughout. She shares a scene with Sam Elliott, who turns up as a man from her past who still has feelings for her, that's so funny and heartbreaking that it could have been spun off into its own movie. Weitz and producer Andrew Miano are scheduled to appear at this screening. (1:00 PM)

NORTHFORK (2003): How does one even begin to describe this strange and haunting film from the fraternal filmmaking duo of Michael and Mark Polish? In his review, Roger Ebert suggested a combination of “Days of Heaven” and “Wings of Desire." While that doesn’t quite capture it entirely, such a comparison will do until someone comes up with a better one. Set in 1955 in a small Montana town about to be flooded over to make way for a hydroelectric dam, it tells three seemingly dissimilar stories that eventually pull together in unexpected ways. In one, a group of enforcers (including James Woods) try to convince the few lingering townspeople (including one who has built and stocked a full-size ark, complete with two wives) to leave their homes. In another, the town priest (Nick Nolte) desperately tries to find a couple willing to adopt a deathly ill orphan (Duel Farnes) in his care, no questions asked. Lastly, a group of honest-to-goodness angels (including Daryl Hannah and Anthony Edwards) arrives in town searching for a missing member of their group. Balancing moments of harrowing drama, tenderness and offbeat comedy (there is a seemingly throwaway moment involving several men ordering soup in a diner that never fails to crack me up), this is that rarest of cinematic beasts—a genuine original. Even you somehow don’t like it, you will still come away from it with an admiration for the Polish Brothers for having the nerve to even attempt something this unique in the first place. Michael Polish will participate in a Q&A and trust me, there will be Q’s aplenty with this one. (4:00 PM)

THE THIRD MAN (1949): There is a part of me that almost wanted to leave this entry blank. Those who have seen it before do not need me to suggest to them that Carol Reed’s thriller set in the seedy underworld of post-war Vienna is one of the great titles in the history of the cinema; those that somehow have not seen it should have the chance to experience its glories with the freshest possible eyes. Suffice it to say, the film, which follows pulp fiction author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as he tries to get to the bottom of the mysterious death of old acquaintance Harry Lime in an investigation that leads him to the then-thriving black markets for vital materials then in short supply and forces him to face some unpleasant truths about his friend, is one of those rare films where virtually everything works. The screenplay by Graham Greene is by turns funny, gripping, dramatic, romantic and mysterious. It somehow manages to suck you in no matter how many times you have seen it. All of the technical aspects from Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography to Anton Karas’s instantly familiar score are top-notch and the performances from Cotton, Alida Valli as a former lover of Harry’s and Orson Welles as Harry Lime himself are all great. Despite only appearing on the screen for about five minutes, Welles’ presence thoroughly dominates the proceedings even when he isn’t seen and when he does finally make his long-awaited appearance, it is arguably the single greatest entrance ever filmed. The Q&A following the screening will include Angela Allen, who served as the script supervisor for the film, one of the first credits in a career spanning more than a half-century that saw her working with such filmmakers as John Huston, Robert Aldrich and John Frankenheimer and on films ranging from “The African Queen” to “Labyrinth.” (8:30 PM)

Friday, April 15

DISTURBING THE PEACE (2016): Co-directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young, this new documentary looks at an old conflict—the tensions between Palestine and Israel—through the eyes of a group of soldiers from both sides who have decided that the violence between them has to stop and made the move from being combatants to non-violent activists pushing for peace instead of war. Apkon and Young are both scheduled to attend the screening, along with two of the film’s subjects, Israeli Chen Alon and Palestinian Sulaiman Khatibi, and story consultant Marcina Hale. (1:00 PM)

L’INHUMAINE (1924): One of the highlights of each Ebertfest is the chance to see a classic silent film screened in a theater old enough to have played such films during their original runs, as accompanied by a live score performed by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man ensemble that specializes in performing music for such films using a combination of electronic synthesizers and some of the more unusual percussion devices that you will ever see. This year’s offering, to put it in critical terms, is a doozy and a half—a surreal and stylistically stunning tour de force from director Marcel L’Herbier that was way ahead of its time when it first came out more than 90 years ago and remains so today. The film tells the story of a femme fatale (Georgette Leblanc) and her four main suitors—an American producer who wants to make her a superstar, a Russian who wants to use her to help inspire a revolution, a maharajah who wants her to become his queen and a scientist who just loves her for herself—who get together at her mansion for a banquet destined to go down as one of the craziest meals in cinema history. To say that the film is bizarre is an understatement for the ages and by most critical standards, it doesn’t really work at all—none of the relationships are especially convincing and it becomes quickly apparent that Leblanc, a opera singer who had never been in a film before, had no idea of how to act in front of a camera and was charitably at least a couple of decades too old for her part. (Her casting can be explained largely due to the fact that she apparently financed the project.) And yet, despite these flaws, the film maintains a hypnotic hold on the viewer thanks to its flamboyant visual style and cheerfully crazed plotting that will throw even the most jaded for a few loops—whether you love or hate this film, it is not possible that you will forget it anytime soon. (4:00 PM)

EVE’S BAYOU (1997): “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.” With those instantly memorable opening sentences, this utterly unique drama from actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons instantly establishes a mood that draws viewers into a story that is complex both in terms of the narrative it relates and the emotions that it explores. Set in the summer of 1962 in Louisiana and seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), who witnesses her beloved father (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who is married to the most beautiful woman in town (Lynn Whitfield) but still has a roving eye, with another married woman, an incident that will eventually have great repercussions for her entire family after she confesses what she saw to her older sister (Megan Goode). I wouldn’t dream of saying anything more except to say that if you think you know where the film is going from what I have described, you are going to be surprised. Instead of telling the story in a straightforward manner, Lemmons dares to recount it through the perspective of a girl who is still too young to fully perceive or process what she has actually seen. The film is also a rich character study with some of the best scenes involving an aunt (Debbi Morgan) who can tell the fortunes of everyone except herself and of whom it is said that any man that she marries will die—with three husbands already in the grave, what is she to do when the man who may be her true love (Vondie Curtis Hall) wants to marry her? Ebert himself listed this as the best film of 1997 and after seeing it, you will be hard-pressed to argue otherwise. Lemmons is scheduled to appear at this screening. (9:00 PM)

Saturday, April 16

FORCE OF DESTINY (2015): Paul Cox is one of the great friends of Ebertfest and with this screening of his latest film, he will be making his sixth appearance at the festival. Throughout a career that has spanned over four decades as one of Australia’s leading filmmakers and included such acclaimed works as “Man of Flowers,” “A Woman’s Tale” and “Innocence” (all of which screened at past Ebertfests), his work has often contained a certain autobiographical element and that is certainly the case here. Back in 2009, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and given six months to live before receiving a life-saving transplant. During his recovery, he made the acquaintance of another recipient, Rosie Raka. The two began a romance that would help to inspire this film starring David Wenham as a sculptor who is facing what is essentially a death sentence until he meets a marine biologist from India (Shahana Goswami) who helps inspire the love and strength that he needs to help combat his illness. This marks one of the film’s first screenings in America and based solely on the strength of Cox’s previous work, it should prove to be worth the wait. (11:00 AM)

RADICAL GRACE (2015): You may recall hearing about the so-called “Nuns on the Bus,” a group of nuns who became involved with social activism, much to the chagrin (and eventual censure) of the Vatican. When then-congressman and full-time scumbag Paul Ryan suggested that draconian budget cuts aimed at services designed to aid the poor was somehow inspired by his “Catholic social teaching,” they responded by hitting the road for a nationwide tour designed to help drum up support for the upholding of the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of your particular spiritual affiliation, it is almost impossible not to come away from this film without enormous admiration for these women and their tireless quest for social justice, which comes far closer to the teachings of Jesus Christ than anything that you are likely to hear from the pulpit of one of those ludicrously ornate megachurches anytime soon. Following the screening will be a discussion that is scheduled to feature director Rebecca Parrish, producer Nicole Bernardi-Reis, music composer Heather McIntosh and Chicago’s own activist religious figure of note, Father Michael Pfleger. (2:00 PM)

LOVE & MERCY (2015): Films based on the lives of famous musicians are a dime a dozen these days—no fewer than three examples of the genre came out within the space a couple weeks recently—but this take on the life and art of Brian Wilson, the driving creative force behind the Beach Boys and one of the great craftsman of pop songs of the 20th century, is one of the best of the subgenre. Instead of following the traditional format of the genre—sort of a greatest hits of high and low points linked together by all the familiar songs—it takes a different approach by going back and forth between two separate eras in which the common link is Wilson’s well-known personal and professional struggles. In one, set during the late Sixties, the young Wilson (Paul Dano), challenged by the increasingly complex music being issued by the Beatles, strives to go beyond simple surf music and satisfy his expanding musical ambitions—a process that would alienate him from his fellow band members, inspire one musical masterpiece in “Pet Sounds” and cause his fragile mental state to collapse while trying to top it with another album, “Smile,” that wouldn’t see the light of day for another three decades. In the other, set twenty years later, the heavily medicated Wilson (now played by John Cusack) is under the complete control of a megalomaniacal psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Levy (Paul Giamatti) until he makes the acquaintance of a pretty car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) who likes him a lot, is disturbed by the power Levy has over him and is determined to get him out of the doctor’s sleazy clutches before it is too late. This could have been a tacky and exploitative story but director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman & Michael A. Lerner avoid all the usual cliches and mine the material for honest truths instead of gossip. As the two versions of Wilson—one entering the early stages of the psychosis that would threaten to take over his life and the other struggling to take his first real steps away from its clutches—Dano and Cusack are both excellent and genuinely feel like two sides of the same person. There are strong supporting performances as well from Banks and Giamatti as well. The music is, of course, amazing and some of the most compelling scenes in the film show the younger Wilson as he attempts to get the complex orchestrations he hears in his head onto tape, using the most wild orchestrations imaginable. (4:30 PM)

BLOW OUT (1981): A couple of years ago, while writing an article for this site ranking the films of controversial director Brian De Palma, this is what I had to say in regards to this particular film:

“In this masterful thriller, John Travolta plays a sound man for a sleazy movie producer who inadvertently records a car plunging off a bridge containing a potential presidential candidate and a hooker (Nancy Allen) whom he manages to rescue. Upon studying his tapes, he becomes convinced that he can hear a shot just before the fatal tire blow out and tries to get to the bottom of the growing conspiracy with tragic results. Far from being the 'Blow-Up' knock that many assumed it to be, this film brought together the obsessions that had fueled his best films and revisited them in a startlingly mature and thoughtful manner. Throw in great performances across the board (Travolta has never been better, Allen never more lovable and sympathetic and John Lithgow and Dennis Franz never sleazier as two of the guys involved in the 'accident'), a straightforward style that is still electric despite the relative lack of visual pyrotechnics (the scene in which Travolta fuses his soundtrack to a series of photos taken during the accident to make his own Zapruder-like film may be the most spellbinding thing De Palma has ever filmed) and a gut-punch of an ending that can still be felt after 30 years and you have De Palma's masterpiece and a film permanently enshrined in my personal all-time Ten Best list.”

Looking back on this, I am happy to say that my opinion of it has not changed—it is still one of the best movies that I have ever seen in my life. I am even happier to note that while the film was neither a box-office success nor a overwhelming critical favorite when it first came out (though it did have passionate supporters like Ebert and Pauline Kael in its corner), the critical tide has shifted and it is now generally considered to be one of De Palma’s finest films. I am practically giddy to announce that Nancy Allen, who made three other films with her former husband (“Carrie,” “Home Movies” and “Dressed to Kill”) as well as such other favorites as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “1941,” “Robocop” and “Out of Sight,” is scheduled to participate in the post-screening Q&A. (9:00 PM)

Sunday, April 17

BODY AND SOUL (1925): Although Oscar Micheaux’s name may not be familiar outside of hardcore cineaste circles, he is one of the key pioneers of the early days of cinema. He was the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (1919’s “The Homesteader), the first to make a sound feature (1931’s “The Exile”) and was a true independent filmmaker decades before most people had any inkling of what that entailed. Of the 42 films he made between “The Homesteader” and “The Betrayal” in 1948, “Body & Soul” is arguably the most famous of the bunch because it also marked the screen debut of the great Paul Robeson. In it, Robeson plays an escaped prisoner who turns up in a small Georgia town and poses as the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins in order to swindle the congregation out of their money and steal the lovely Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell) away from her poor but good-hearted suitor, who just happens to be his estranged twin brother (Robeson again). The film is melodramatic to the extreme and many will object to the alternate ending that Micheaux was forced to include in order to appease censors. Nevertheless, it is still a fascinating artifact that offers viewers the chance to explore an aspect of the early days of moviemaking that they may have never experienced. To make this concluding screening of the 2016 Ebertfest even more special, it will feature a live musical accompaniment by Renee Baker and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. (12:00 PM)


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