Smile Politely

Ebertfest 11 preview

Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s yearly film festival held at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, is just around the corner (April 22nd – 26th). Film selections were announced last week, and we have a full three weeks to get whipped up into frothy anticipation of the festival.

Smile Politey’s friendly stable of Ebertfest veterans and movie reviewers (Dan Schreiber, P. Gregory Springer, Jamie Newell, Chuck Koplinski, and Suzanne Lewandowski) weigh in on the choices and what they are looking forward to in this year’s batch.


Dan Schreiber:

It looks like Ebertfest 11 will be a festival of reality. Of the twelve entries, three are outright documentaries (Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and MusicTrouble The Water, and Begging Naked), one is a fictionalized drama of real events (Nothing But The Truth), one is a travelogue-ish “meditation on the planet” (Baraka), and one is a fake documentary (My Winninpeg).

The traditional opening night 70 mm slot is being swapped with the traditional Sunday afternoon musical slot. This year, the festival will open with a big wet kiss to the groovyness of the 60s (Woodstock), a nice continuation from the final entry two years ago (Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls). And this year’s festival will end with the 70mm astonishment of Baraka, illuminating nothing less than the state of the planet.

In-between are the aforementioned documentaries, plus some returning Ebertfest lettermen (or is it letterpeople?): Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg/The Saddest Music In The World), Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop/Man Push Cart), and Tarsem (The Fall/The Cell). What, was Werner Herzog not available this year?

Science Fiction has been replaced with vampires this year (Let The Right One In). And, at long last, a hometown filmmaker returns in Nina Paley, who grew up in Urbana, but had to go to India and 1920’s jazz to get the attention of the wider world (Sita Sings The Blues).

It promises to be another good year.


P. Gregory Springer:

Roger Ebert is going to speak through his computer this year. Along with the Kindle’s read-to-me program, automated telephone services, and the increasing use of voice recognition software, Ebert might actually be in the forefront of the way speech is done in the 21st century. Computerized, holographic, or otherwise disembodied, Ebert’s presence here is crucial to the festival. 

What link other than these being the picks of Roger Ebert do these films have?  Four of the titles deal with poverty and loss in America, but that might just be a sign of the times. Once again, there isn’t a selection of titles in other languages, just the Swedish Let The Right One In, and that is a genre vampire movie about to be remade in English.

Maybe Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg counts as a foreign film. Am I the only Guy Maddin fan in Champaign-Urbana?  I am watching a video of My Winnipeg right now as I type. Maddin is definitely an alien. He’s the only guest this year I would be excited to hear speak.

On the other hand, I am reluctant to admit that I am less enthusiastic about the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop).  Those two films didn’t hold many surprises for me, although his newest film — just opened in NYC and called Goodbye Solo — has received really positive reviews.  Similarly, I liked Tarsem’s The Fall because of its wild visual style and because it stars that guy from Pushing Daisies, the cancelled TV show about pies.  Tarsem’s sensibility reminds me only slightly of Alejandro Jodorowsky, deprived of any social/political commentary. 

Begging Naked
is the festival’s most unusual and most festival-worthy entry, the one with the least exposure. It’s not even listed on the IMDB, although the director is listed as a crew person on a number of films. This must be her first feature film. Since it’s about a sex worker turned homeless artist, it could certainly be surprising.

Frozen River is a great movie, I think.  Von Sternberg’s The Last Command is a good pick (especially because I haven’t seen it), and Nothing but the Truth — although it comes out on DVD at the end of the month — also deserves a screening. 

As for the big screen extravaganzas, what can anyone say about Woodstock at this point?  Should we bring our sleeping bags?  The director’s cut with special guests?  Definitely sounds like an overnight to me. Maybe they’ll import rain and mud.

And to show the 70mm Todd A-O form of Baraka is totally in keeping with the trend of moviegoing these days.  Whether it is 3-D or IMAX or digital projection, the movies are looking for exceptional means of presentation to get people out of their homes and into the collective experience of moviegoing. That’s a primary function of Ebertfest, too, and it seems to be fulfilling its purpose this year again.


Jamie Newell:

I admit, Ebertfest is one of my favorite times of the year. I look forward to the atmosphere, the audience reactions, the panels, and discovering new favorite films. This year, I will have a smaller selection of potential “new faves” to choose from, unfortunately. Champaign-Urbana has shown three of the festival’s films in the past year (The Fall, Frozen River, and Trouble the Water), and of these, only River strikes me as a real masterpiece. The latter of these, I think I’ll end up skipping. The premise of Water is more thought-provoking than the end product, which is more of a platform for the wanna-be rapper in the film than a showcase of the heart of New Orleans. And since I so love the Crescent City, I feel it deserved much better.

I will be looking forward to the other documentaries, Woodstock and Baraka. Yes, the Wednesday opener will be long, but can I just say, thank God it isn’t another HamletChop Shop, the sophomore film by the director of Man Push Cart, looks to be another heart-stomping drama, and I look forward to it. The director, Ramin Bahrani, will be back for a Q&A to make us cry and count our blessings.

The film I’m most looking forward to I saw on the shelf of a Family Video last night, Let the Right One In. Apparently, there is a controversy about how the subtitles of the theatrical version are different than the DVD version. I wonder if Ebert has a preference, and if so, if we will be seeing the “best” version in the Virginia. Whatever the case, he had me at the word “vampire.”

But before I see this much-anticipated Swedish horror film, I will be forced to sit through Nothing But the Truth for the second time. Rod Lurie’s latest film missed being picked up by a major studio and thereby released beyond two screens its opening weekend, which is why you’ve never heard of it. I have seen the film thanks to the powers of the magical Skip Huston, owner of the Avon Theater in Decatur, because he specializes in mining hidden film gems and showing them off in his weekly film classes. Well, I was really into Truth until the final scene, which I believed destroyed the integrity of the main character’s motivation. I won’t spoil it, I’ll leave it up to the viewers to decide for themselves; but it will be interesting to see how a different audience reacts. Warning: watch for flying popcorn once the credits begin to roll.

Hopefully Mr. Ebert makes it to the Fest this year. His presence elevates the mood of the audience, and I think, forces them to pay a little more attention and have an opened mind. You can’t help but respect the man, despite his rave reviews for films like Taking Lives and Godsend, which I will never forgive him for. Hey, every batter strikes out one day. He thinks more deeply about films than the average person, and for that, we can at least turn our ears to him and find out what we can learn.


Chuck Koplinski:

As usual, a good solid line-up though I would have hoped for a bit more diversity. There seems to be a bit of a pattern in place here as the fest starts with a 70 mm film, (which I love) contains at least two documentaries and a silent feature and wraps up with a movie devoted to music. While this is not necessarily the case this year, as the fest’s final feature, Baraka, is a visual delight, though the music by Michael Stearns is incredible, the pattern is becoming more and more obvious.  Still and all, with the films that have been chosen, nine of which have not played on any of the area screens ever or in many years, how can you complain?

There are certain types of films that are insured a place at Ebertfest.  I am not a big fan of the music-based film, but always love the documentaries, as they inevitably are the most revelatory movies of the fest for me.  Now that Ebert has gotten away from the notion of this being a celebration of overlooked films, it appears as though this pattern is set.  I, for one, have often wanted to see a western included.  While they were immensely popular during the 40s, 50s and into the 60s, this has been a genre in decline for quite some time.  In fact, the very first wide-screen film made by a major studio is a western called The Big Trial, an early John Wayne film.  Screening this as the Fest’s opening 70 mm feature would be ideal but this doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Without question, Nothing but the Truth is the major coup of the fest and the one feature I am looking most forward to.  The buzz on this film was quite good towards the end of last year and then with it not being released widely because of financial problems at the distribution company, it was a major disappointment.  Getting to see it here practically before any one is very cool.

I am also looking forward to The Last Command, simply because the Alloy Orchestra is such a dynamic group and they add a new dimension to anything they score.  They’re presentation of Metropolis a few years back still ranks as one of my greatest film-going experiences.

The final film I am looking forward to is the documentary Begging Naked.  If there is a recurring theme at the fest this year, it is that 25% of the films deal with poverty.  As harrowing and eye-opening as Chop Shop, and Frozen River are, I think Naked could provide an even more honest look at this problem.   


Suzanne Lewandowski:

This year’s Ebertfest films could be said to more accurately embody our times than the offerings of previous years. Indeed the dark somber tones of the films reflect an unstable world characterized by an economic recession that has caused many of us to despair. The concept of the American Dream has never seemed more elusive to the masses.

However, the recession of the economy does not equate with a recession of the creative force of ideas. Although many of the featured films force us to confront the uglier side of living (Begging Naked, Chop Shop, Frozen River, and Trouble the Water), there is a paradoxical, haunting beauty that still emanates from these works. Frozen River particularly embodies this concept for me. The overwhelming sense of poverty that the characters must contend with leaps off the screen and becomes a palpable force in our consciences that refuses to be denied

Let the Right One In is an offering seemingly apart from the gritty realistic dramas that characterize the fest. However the exploration of primal urges goes way beyond the lust for blood that the main character, the vampire Eli is driven by. Indeed the film is a deeper examination of our fragile human psyche and the primal urges that inform our actions and desires, not dissimilar to the urges that drive the characters of the other films in the desperation of their circumstances. This film has had an impact on me, though it was a bit lessened by the English dubbed version that I unwittingly rented from Blockbuster. The voices were ill-suited to the characters and I do believe there was something literally lost in translation; I look forward to seeing this film on the big screen in its original format most of all.

Although Roger’s voice is absent-and the English-accented voice generated from his computer is more than a bit discomfiting, his lack of voice mirrors the struggle that the characters of the films contend with as they fight to be heard in a society that does not cater to the desolate, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless. Perhaps there is a subconscious desire at work then in Roger’s selections. One thing however is certain:  the worlds shown through the sometimes muddied lens of these films can still emerge triumphant and beautiful and through their depictions, we can all catch a glimmer of much-needed solace.


More Articles