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Outgoing MPAA chief gets one last shot at pirates at U. of I. film fest

Movie czar Jack Valenti, who announced his retirement Tuesday as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, will revisit the scene of the crime before leaving office. Valenti, a crusader against motion picture piracy, will speak at my sixth annual Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As everybody knows, the National Center for Supercomputer Applications in Urbana is the birthplace of the Web browser, and therefore of the Web as we know it, where movie piracy seems to be flourishing. Valenti will speak on piracy and other matters at 10:45 a.m. April 22 at the Illini Union.

The festival will be held April 21-25 at the historic 1,600-seat Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign. It features movies, formats and genres that have (in my opinion) been overlooked.

This year's Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris ("The Fog of War") will appear in person with his first doc, "Gates of Heaven," a tragicomedy about pet cemeteries.

The visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog will appear with his "Invincible," based on the true story of a Jewish strong man who entertained Nazi audiences and then revealed his true identity. It was on my top 10 list of 2002.

Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas will observe the 20th anniversary of their great film "El Norte," about two Guatemalan Indians who journey north to Los Angeles. They were Oscar-nominated for their screenplay.

Director Hilary Birmingham and star Anson Mount will appear with "Tully," a great small film about a Nebraska farm family. Tim Reid, who directed "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" will appear with his film, which was on my 1996 best 10 list. It follows a Southern black community from 1946 to 1962, as segregation slowly crumbled.

"People I Know" (2003) starred Al Pacino in one of his best performances, but never got a proper release. It's about a confused day in the life of an idealistic, self-destructive New York press agent; director Daniel Algrant and legendary publicist Bobby Zarem, who inspired the character, will appear in person.

"Tarnation," a sensation at Sundance 2004, is a documentary about three generations of a wounded family. Director Jonathan Caouette tells his own story, which would be powerful no matter what it cost; Sundance was astonished to discover he made it on a Macintosh for only $187.

The Dardenne Brothers' "The Son," which won the best actor award at Cannes 2002, is a harrowing Belgian film about a carpenter who takes an apprentice for hidden reasons. It was on my 2003 top 10 list.

Ebertfest always opens with a 70mm. film and closes with something musical. This year opening night will feature a 70mm. print of "Lawrence of Arabia," and film restorer Robert Harris. Valenti and I will conduct a Q&A before the screening.

The Sunday musical matinee will pair two documentaries, both about 70 minutes long, about the legendary African-American musician and artist Howard Armstrong. "Louie Bluie" by Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb," "Bad Santa") shows him in the early 1980s, and "Sweet Old Song" by Leah Mahan, shows him in 2002, when he was over 90. Armstrong's widow, Barbara Ward, will appear in concert with musicians who played with him.

There's always a silent film, this year one of the greatest: Buster Keaton's Civil War epic "The General" (1927). The Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., will perform its original score.

A special treat: "The Scapegoat," a 22-minute short by Darren Ng, is his tribute to Keaton, and Ng sometimes feels like Keaton reincarnated.

And there's always a Saturday family matinee; this year, "My Dog Skip," based on Willie Morris' memoir of growing up lonely and left out, until a dog taught him lessons about life.

For more festival details, go to

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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