Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Roger's presence was alive and well in the Virginia Theatre at our 21st Ebertfest! Festival Director Nate Kohn and I presented the Roger Ebert's Film Festival in collaboration with Roger's alma mater, the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We were assisted by Festival Coordinator, Andrew Michael Hall ("Andy"). The following photo diary offers snapshots of our cherished memories that took place April 10th through April 13th in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.
Photos courtesy of Timothy Hiatt.
The Opening Night Gala for Ebertfest was hosted graciously by University President Timothy Kileen and his wife Dr. Roberta Johnson. Opening speeches were also given by Chancellor Robert Jones and College of Media Dean Tracy Sulkin.
During my speech at the gala, I was joined at the podium by two of the festival's special guests, Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. Coincidentally, Gina Gerson's cousin, Alan Elliott, preserved, restored and presented our opening night selection, "Amazing Grace," the amazing documentary about Aretha Franklin recording the best selling gospel album in history over two nights in a church in Watts, Los Angeles in 1972.
Joining Nate Kohn and me in welcoming the Ebertfest audience to our opening night screening was Andrew Michael Hall ("Andy"), our invaluable festival coordinator (who kept running offstage, much to the crowd's amusement, but we still managed to snap a picture of him).
Preceding "Amazing Grace," Alan Elliott was joined onstage for a Q&A with producer Tirrell D. Whittley and our Ebert Fellow, Whitney Spencer. Elliott told us of his musical roots and of how he was influenced by gospel music and why he was so passionate about bringing this performance of Aretha Franklin to the public.
Tirrell Whittley's background as a Deacon was evident in his powerful invocation. Once we saw this powerful film we understood Alan Elliott's quest to bring it to the screen. It is being distributed by NEON and has opened in select theaters across the country. No doubt church groups and many others will line up to see this historic performance.
The crowd-pleasing screening concluded with a performance by the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir of Champaign-Urbana that had the audience on its feet.
Turns out moving our musical finale of the festival to opening night was a great idea after all. It raised our spirits through the roof and held them there through the entirety of the week.
Prior to showtime at the Virginia Theatre, two inspiring academic panel discussions were held at the nearby Hyatt Hotel, the first sponsored by the Champaign County Alliance for Inclusion and Respect.
It was entitled "Challenging Stigma Through the Arts," and moderated by Dr. Eric Pierson. The discussion challenged whether the images of addiction in the movies helped or hindered the public's understanding of addiction. Pierson was joined onstage by therapist Marcina Hale, film critic Matt Fagerholm, and professional representatives of the recovery community, including from the Rosencrance Rehabilitation Center. Their in-depth discussion offered suggestions on which movies and TV shows portrayed addiction accurately, but more importantly, they offered practical solutions to treating addiction and it's aftermath as a service to the audience.
The second panel focused on "Women in Cinema: Hollywood or Independent, Does it Make a Difference," and featured such speakers as Alliance of Women Film Journalists president Jennifer Merin, "Bound" stars Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon... They too offered practical suggestions for how to increase the representation of women in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera.
...RogerEbert.com Assistant Editor Nell Minow, "Maya Angelou and Still I Rise" director Rita Coburn and "The Curvy Critic" Carla Renata (filmmaker Stephen Apkon and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker were also present).
Alloy Orchestra members Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue chatted onstage with Michael Phillips and Todd Rendleman following their live musical accompaniment of a silent screen classic, in this case, Jean Epstein's 1923 melodrama, "Coeur fidèle" ("The Faithful Heart"). The third member of their trio, Roger Miller, was busy selling their priceless merchandise in the festival's boutique.
The Alloy Orchestra has performed at Ebertfest for over 16 years and are always brought back by popular demand. They compose original scores for the silent films they select, even making some of the instruments they use. What a talented group. We are fortunate to have them.
Both of the morning panels were reflected in the second film of the day, and Sony Pictures Classics Co-President, Michael Barker, delivered an amazing homage to the late Jonathan Demme's 2008 masterwork, "Rachel Getting Married." It featured Anne Hathaway in what I still consider her best performance, as a struggling addict returning home for her sister's wedding. This film is phenomenal with a cast including Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Anna Deveare Smith, Tunde Adebimpe and many others. Demme considered it one of his favorites in contributing to the understanding of human behavior. It shows how whole families become dysfunctional and act out in various ways, but how facing up to addiction, admitting wrongs, making amends, forgiveness and love can help you face the very messiness of life and come together as a family and community. Michael Barker is without a doubt one of Ebertfest's favorite guests.
Barker spoke onstage after the film with our critic, Nell Minow, and one of Demme's closest friends, Stephen Apkon, a recipient of the Roger Ebert Humanitarian Award for his documentary, "Disturbing the Peace." The screenwriter of "Rachel Getting Married," Jenny Lumet (the granddaughter of Lena Horne and the daughter of Sidney Lumet), joined in the conversation over the satellite.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski's hugely enjoyable debut feature, "Bound," was the evening's cinematic treat, and it was made ten times more entertaining by the Q&A afterward with Gina Gershon and Academy Award nominee Jennifer Tilly. Their banter with critics Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell was a joy to watch.
Michael Phillips introduced the audience to the 2018-19 University of Illinois College of Media Roger Ebert Fellows, Curtis Cook, Pari Apostolakos and Eunice Alpasan, who did a splendid job covering their first full Ebertfest experience. Although Phillips is the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, he is the revered mentor for the Ebert Fellowship program at the University of Illinois, and is valued for his knowledge and experience and his love of teaching. He makes the program better every year.
One of our longtime Ebertfest guests, Sam Fragoso, was encouraged by Roger to keep doing what he loved, and he is now an accomplished critic, podcaster and filmmaker. His wonderful short film, "Sebastian," preceded the first feature screened on Day 3 of Ebertfest, and earned him the coveted Golden Thumb.
Pawel Pawlikowski's ravishing Polish romance, "Cold War," was the discussion topic for Festival Director Nate Kohn, Michael Phillips and Carla Renata, following the morning screening. Carla Renata interviewed the film's director and shared some revealing insights into the movie. It was partially based on Pawlikowski's parents' tempestuous love story and is an epic told over several decades. Renata is also a recurring actress on ABC's Superstore, and just published a book for actors on marketing.
Horace Jenkins' newly restored 1982 gem, "Cane River," brought out a stellar quartet of talents: producer Sandra Schulberg, actress Tommye Myrick and Jenkins' children, Sacha and Dominique Jenkins. This film is a modern day Romeo & Juliet played out in Louisiana among descendants of African-American Creoles and slaves. It is a tale of colorism, land ownership, and a young woman's determination to pursue her education, but above all, it a tale of love. Very romantic. Ms. Myrick hilariously told us how she had to learn to swim and ride horses because she couldn't do either and the film required both. Schulberg told us how she preserved to get the film restored. And Dominique and Sacha told us of their remarkable father whose life itself is worthy of a film.
The great Polish actress, Madame Maja Komorowska, traveled all the way from Warsaw to attend our Ebertfest screening of Krzysztof Zanussi's 1984 love story, "A Year of the Quiet Sun," which paired her with the late Scott Wilson, to whom this year's festival was dedicated. She was joined on stage by her amusing translator, Jerzy Tyszkiewicz, who also happens to be her grandson.
Their Q&A was moderated by Professor Todd Rendleman and Jennifer Merin. After tribute clips of Scott Wilson's film career, his widow, Heavenly Wilson, spoke of getting this movie made in Poland and at Monument Valley in the United States.
Here Maja Komorowska and Jerzy are joined by Scott's widow, Heavenly Wilson. Getting to spend time with them was heavenly indeed. It has become an Ebertfest tradition for guests and audiences to pose with the sculpture of Roger on the plaza of the Virginia Theater. The sculpture is by artist Rick Harney and was installed by the fundraising efforts of festival donors Donna and Scott Anderson. It was truly a gift from the heart, as Donna woke up in the hospital when she was having a heart transplant and said she wanted to do whatever it took to get a sculpture of Roger near the Virginia Theater as a gift to the community.
Iconic "Simpsons" producer David Mirkin brought down the house with his beloved 1997 comedy, "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion." Festival Director Nate Kohn appears here with film critics and broadcasters Chuck Koplinski and Pamela Powell who had a ball chatting with David Mirkin onstage.The audience loved seeing Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in their screwball roles. Mirkin presented an image of high school that so many can relate to. He was a delightful guest.
Beginning the last day of Ebertfest 2019 were two films about heroic figures who have left an indelible imprint in our culture long after their passing. The first was "Maya Angelou and Still I Rise," directed by Rita Coburn, who spoke onstage with our Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz and Ebert Fellow Whitney Spencer afterward. Rita Coburn, in a surprise, was presented with the inaugural ICON award, for the scope of her film about the iconic Maya Angelou, and her contributions to humanity. This was the first ICON award ever given at Ebertfest. Rita Coburn is actually one of those phenomenal women that Angelou talks about. The film was awarded a Peabody among other awards.
Director Morgan Neville won the Ebert Humanitarian award for his film, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" about the television trailblazer and radical humanist Fred Rogers. It was only the third humanitarian award given. The second was given to Norman Lear for his lifetime of work in television in highlighting the various nuances of the human condition through humor. Neville was joined onstage by RogerEbert.com Assistant Editors Nick Allen and Matt Fagerholm, who were both great admirers of the movie. Matt movingly shared with the audience the letter he wrote to Mr Rogers when he was five years old, and also the amazingly long and very specific response Mr Rogers wrote back to five-year-old Matt in encouragement. It illustrated the respect Mr Rogers had for children and his principle of radical kindness.
Our festival culminated with a celebration of Roger's longtime on-air "At the Movies" partner, Richard Roeper. A montage of hilarious and touching highlights from their reviews preceded my conversation with him onstage. Richard chose two films to present at Ebertfest, and both were well received: "Almost Famous," and "Sideways." Richard's career includes broadcasting on radio and television and other platforms, publishing books about movies and gambling, and lecturing. He may also be working on future movie projects.
RogerEbert.com Managing Editor Brian Tallerico and Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz chatted with Richard Roeper and Sam Fragoso about one of their favorite movies, Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," a film very close to Roger's heart (and his own life story). Crowe provided a special video introduction to the picture that was appreciated by the whole audience. His film still plays well all these years later, with an luminous performance by Kate Hudson, and an unbelievably perfect cast, including Billy Crudup, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee and the vulnerable newcomer Patrick Fugit.
Last but certainly not least, we screened one of Roeper's most prized films he ever got to review with Roger, Alexander Payne's "Sideways." The film's Oscar-nominated star, the beautiful Virginia Madsen, joined us via Skype from the set of her new TV series, "Swamp Thing," for an emotional conversation about Roger and his championing of the film. The film starred Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden-Church and the unforgettable Sandra Oh. Virginia shared many insights, including about drinking fabricated fake wine. Hilarious. Richard Roeper, Matt Zoller Seitz and Nell Minow were on hand for the discussion. All in all, a perfect end to another unforgettable Ebertfest. Join us April 15th through April 18th next year for the 22nd anniversary of Roger Ebert's Film Festival!
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