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As usual, this year’s Ebertfest provided an opportunity to mingle with the stars. Jason Segel of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” discussed his change-of-pace role as author David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour," and actor Chazz Palminteri, Oscar nominee for 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” looked back at his experience co-starring in Robert De Niro’s directing debut, the 1993 crime drama “A Bronx Tale.”
After 17 years, the festival has produced its own special brand of celebrities among those who return again and again. No one fits the bill better than Champaign residents Daniel and Janet Weber. Since host Chaz Ebert considers Ebertfest a major component in the ongoing love story between her and Roger, she likes to take the opportunity to point out various regular attendees in the crowd whose own romantic relationship has ties to the fest and/or Roger. And no one epitomizes that better than the Webers.
The couple, who met at a Bible study and began dating the year before the first Ebertfest took place in 1999, have attended each festival since. Daniel, 47, who recently finished his Ph.D in horticulture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that Janet (gentleman that he is, he will only say that his wife who works with the technical services unit at the main campus library is “uh, 29”) first discovered the festival.
“We had been dating off and on and she thought it would be something we could do together,” he recalls. “We may have been going through an ‘off’ phase at the time because I only purchased tickets to a few of the films while she purchased a festival pass.”
Daniel initially was put off by how what would eventually evolve into Ebertfest was then known as an “overlooked film” festival: “It suggested a festival chock-a-block full of experimental or art-house films. I appreciate experimental cinema, but felt I would not want to sit through four days of them.”
But it didn’t take long for him to realize the festival offered much more. “I immediately loved the variety, the thought-provoking discussions afterwards, and with my fellow attendees in line, and the festival atmosphere.”
Another benefit: The annual event helped him and Janet realize that their mutual passion for the arts was bonding them together. The event, he says, “encouraged our first serious conversations about film. And books. And music. And life. And love. And we have never stopped. Never stopped loving each other and never stopped returning to the festival that holds so many good memories for us.”
Their most momentous year, however, would prove to be 2003. Among the titles was ”Shall We Dance?,” a 1996 import about a depressed Japanese businessman who signs up for ballroom lessons. “We watched this movie a few months before it was announced for the lineup that year,” Daniel says. “I had known at that point that I didn’t want a life without Janet in it, so I decided then and there that I would find a way to propose to her at Ebertfest during or after the movie.”
There were unforeseen complications, however. At first, Daniel hoped to sneak a PowerPoint slide into the rotation of sponsorship mentions that appear on the screen before the movies. But when he presented the slide to the projectionist, he refused to sneak it in without permission from associate festival director Mary Susan Britt aka she who must be obeyed at least as far as Ebertfest is concerned. Her alternate suggestion: That Daniel should propose in person during the Q&A period after the film. “I loved the idea,” he says. “She assured me that the wranglers would deliver me the first microphone to guarantee that the question got asked.”
But, alas, the course of true love, especially when over-eager post-screening question posers are concerned, was destined not to go quite so smoothly. Daniel was beaten to the punch by another attendee who butted in with a query that unfortunately inspired a rather lengthy response.
Eventually, however, the spotlight was on him. He told Roger that because of Ebertfest, “I had fallen in love with so many new films and, simultaneously, I had fallen in love with Janet. I apologized to the panelists, including an honored Japanese ambassador who was present that day. And I explained that the question was not addressed to them. Instead, the question was for Janet.”
He proceeded to go down on one knee. “I proposed in my best Japanese followed by the English translation. I can still recite the Japanese to this day.”
Meanwhile, “Janet, who is naturally shy, had about sunk under the seat in front of her. People behind her could barely see the top of her head.” He also remembers how Janet’s mother, who came with them that day, was sitting between them. “Not only was I trying to kneel down between those narrow theater rows, but I also had to lean across my future mother-in-law to get an answer. Fortunately, Janet squeaked out, ‘Yes.’”
Janet recalls how “Roger and Chaz graciously agreed to be photographed with us after the proposal. He gave us two thumbs up from a happily married couple.”
They would attend one more Ebertfest before getting hitched on May 30, 2004. “We invited Chaz and Roger to the wedding," says Daniel. "How could we not invite the family that had such an influence on our relationship and happiness? We had no illusions that they would be able to attend, but are honored and humbled that Chaz remembers us and asks about us each year.”
He notes that the wedding ended up being as equally memorable as the proposal. “I can attest that a great way to get 300-plus wedding guests to meet one another is to force them into a tornado shelter just before the meal is served.”
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