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Overlooked Film Festival, Take 8

Some films are born overlooked. Others have it thrust upon them. Among this year's festival entries, "Ripley's Game" has never had a theatrical release in the United States, and "Duane Hopwood" had a release so spotty it seemed designed to hide the film. Yet these are the kinds of films a movie critic views with joy: Films that are a meeting of craft and art. Being able to share them is an incalculable pleasure; everybody should have their own Overlooked Film Festival in the glorious Virginia Theater, all the year around. You have no idea how much fun it is.

John Malkovich, who will join us onstage after "Ripley's Game," along with Russell Smith, the film's executive producer. Malkovich has given many great performances in his career, but as Tom Ripley he has found a role he might have been born for. Remarkable, how much he shows about the character and how little he reveals. David Schwimmer is of course a famous television star, but although I knew he worked on the stage I had no idea what power he has as an actor until I saw "Duane Hopwood." Matt Mulhern, the writer and director of "Duane Hopwood," will join us onstage.

Overlookers who have attended some of the previous seven festivals know my claim that I can define any movie as overlooked. "My Fair Lady" may be the most famous musical of all time, but have you ever met Marni Nixon, who sings the Eliza Doolittle role? And have you ever seen it in glorious 70mm? Miss Nixon will join us on the stage, joined by the film's restorers, Jim Katz and Robert Harris. And handling the precious print in the projection booth are James Bond and Steve Kraus of Chicago, nationally-recognized leaders in the field.

How can Amy Adams be overlooked, when she was an Oscar nominee this year? Because her movie "Junebug" has grossed less than $3 million at the box office, according to the Internet Movie Database. Yes, it's on DVD, but this lovely and magical film must be seen with an audience. It's a communal experience, a human comedy of wonderful perception, and to have to see it at home alone strikes me as very sad. The film's director, Phil Morrison, will join us onstage, along with Michael Barker, whose Sony Classics released it. Amy Adams has said she will come unless the shooting schedule of her current film prevents her. And we are particularly proud to have the great Scott Wilson, who plays Army's father-in-law, back at the festival for the third time!

Lodge Kerrigan is a hero of mine, an independent filmmaker whose work is brave, uncompromising, and looks very deeply into the human heart. He has made three films, all extraordinary: "Clean, Shaven" (1994), "Claire Dolan" (1998) and "Keane" (2004). All three would honor our screen; I chose "Claire Dolan" because it stars the great actress Katrin Cartlidge ("Breaking the Waves," "Topsy-Turvy"), who died too young in September 2002. Lodge Kerrigan will join us onstage.

Two of our movies fall into my favorite category, "overlooked for now." That means they may not be overlooked for long -- at least, once they get theatrical distribution.

Prof. Nate Kohn, director of the Overlooked since its inception, will be center stage after the screening of "Somebodies," the movie he and his wife, Pam, produced after reading an extraordinary screenplay by a young film student named Hadjii, who also directs and stars. All three will be onstage, along with co-star Kaira Whitehead. The film was an official entry at Sundance this year; the odds against that are 100-to-one, and as I saw it at Park City I shared a real sense of discovery.

Also overlooked, for now, is "Man Push Cart," another of my Sundance discoveries. Made by Ramin Bahrani on a budget you couldn't rent a push cart for, it stars Ahmad Razvi as a former Pakistani rock star, now selling coffee and bagels from a Manhattan push cart. Movies can look more closely at people we see every day, but don't really see at all. Bahrani and Razvi will join us on stage to talk of a production where when Razvi wasn't acting, he was a crew member.

Another of our Overlooked films, "Bad Santa," has grossed well over $100 million at the world box office, and is selling like hotcakes on DVD. Why is it overlooked? Terry Zwigoff, its director, told me why. He is the director of the musical documentary "Louie Bluie," shown in our 2004 tribute to the musical and artistic genius Howard Armstrong. A few months ago, I joined Terry in recording a commentary track for the DVD of his documentary "Crumb." The Overlooked came up, and he said, "I've got one for you: 'Really, Really Bad Santa'." I said I thought that was the DVD Director's Cut. "No," he said, "that was 'Badder Santa.' That was merely the unrated version. This is the real Director's Cut." Since Zwigoff's star, Billy Bob Thornton, told me at Cannes that as a deliberate acting decision he was drunk during the entire shoot, the audience may want to wear seat belts. Zwigoff and his editor, Robert Hofffman, will be onstage.

David Mamet is so famous as a playwright that it's not always remembered that he is one of our best American directors. I feel an instinctive sympathy with his films, with their particular attention to details of behavior and dialogue. I can think of half a dozen that would grace our festival. "Spartan" is one of them, but I can't claim credit for its inclusion. Michael Barker, a frequent festival guest, suggested it. Barker, as I have mentioned, is co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. What is remarkable is that "Spartan" was not produced by Sony Classics. He just happens to love it. We hope to be joined onstage by one or two of the actors from the movie.

We always close the festival with a musical, and what a wonderful discovery we have this time. I went to see "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" as part of the celebration of the South African film renaissance at Cannes 2005. In "U-Carmen" I saw a version of Bizet's opera made particular and moving in an altogether new setting, and I was deeply moved by the leading role as sung by the South African diva Pauline Malefane. She sings it in Xhosa. You know what? Every time I've heard it, it's been in a foreign language.

For me, a personal highlight of the festival every year is the silent film, with the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., in the pit of the Virginia. These three remarkable musicians have single-handedly helped to inspire a revival of silent films all over the country; their restored prints and inspired scores bring the genre to life and remind us that the original magic of the movies did not have spoken dialog, but didn't miss it, working with the magic of sound and light. Their film this year is "The Eagle," starring Rudolph Valentino, who was one of the most famous stars in the world; this may actually not be the first time "The Eagle" has played the Virginia!

And now a story. In the early 1990s, I hosted a movie forum on CompuServe. One of the regulars was a kid from England named Francis Boyce. He grew up to become Frank Cottrell Boyce, perhaps the most respected of the younger generation of British screenwriters. His credits include "Butterfly Kiss," "Hilary and Jackie," "The Claim" and "24 Hour Party People." This year he wrote a family film, and it will be our free family matinee. "Millions" was directed by Danny Boyle (whose "Trainspotting" wouldn't lead you to expect a PG rating!). It's the story of two brothers who come into possession of the loot from a train robbery. One of them sees saints, not imaginary saints but real ones, who advise him on how to spend it. Frank claims that in an indirect way the screenplay was inspired by an interview I did with Martin Scorsese, who talked about his own amazement while reading the lives of the saints. Boyce could not be with us this year because of a family gathering, but has taken a rain check for 2007 -- when the film we choose will not be the family matinee.

The Overlooked is possible only because of the tireless generosity of our sponsors and the tireless work of our volunteers, for whom thanks seems hardly adequate. The festival is a production of the College of Communications of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose dean, Ron Yates, has been generous in his support and encouragement. Associate Dean Nancy Casey is the executive producer. Festival director Prof. Nate Kohn and I, both Urbana natives, exchange countless opinions as we choose the programming; his counsel is invaluable. Mary Susan Britt, cheerful in the face of the most daunting complications, is the assistant director; Nickie Dalton makes it all happen as the festival manager; Dr. Norman Denzin coordinates the academic panels; Robert Baird is our invaluable webmaster at ebertfest.com; Leone Advertising designed the new look of the site; Prof. Andrea Press is a friend and advisor; Carlton Bruett is responsible for the posters and the look of the festival; and Allison Firor is our invaluable coordinator. Among many local friends, many from my early years here, none gives warmer or more cheerful hospitality than the irreplaceable Betsy Hendrick.

Jameel Jones and Anthony Howell deserve warm credit for the Virginia Theater operation itself, which they coordinate and supervise with warm hospitality. Thanks to the Champaign Park District for its support of the Overlooked and the festival area. Jim Emerson, editor of rogerebert.com, will be attendance again and providing expertise on and off-stage. And Dusty Cohl, who founded the Toronto Film Festival, joins with his wife Joan as our Accomplices-in-Chief; sometimes they seem to be running a family reunion. The Daily Illini, my other alma mater, produces this splendid program. And a special thanks to my beloved Chaz, whose title of "special advisor" represents a universe of wisdom and encouragement.

Schedules, film descriptions and ticket information are online at www.ebertfest.com or at the Virginia Theatre box office in Champaign.

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