Once upon a time, they renamed Ebertfest from its original (and better) title, The Overlooked Film Festival. It may be time to rename it again: Ebertparty. As a film festival, the event is fairly warmed over. But as an event, it pretty much defines Champaign-Urbana, something (almost) everybody looks forward to, year after year.
This year, the selections are respectable and a number of them aren't already available on DVD for a change.
The biggest disappointment for many will be the lack of a 70mm print for opening night. On the other hand, the 70mm event has had a streak of bad luck in the last few years. Several times they've switched to 35mm at the last minute. The sound was off for the 4+ hour HAMLET, which pretty much defeats the purpose when you're listening to uncut Shakespeare. PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL had anold print that was too pink (really). Plus, they were running out of titles in the large-scale format.
Opening night will feature Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. There seem to be an infinite number of versions and restored versions of Fritz Lang's silent, futuristic classic, so this one must be definitive in some way, even though it is not the first time that METROPOLIS has appeared at Ebertfest. Maybe it was overlooked the first time it was here.
Thursday, April 28 brings three titles: UMBERTO D, the neorealist classic by Vittorio De Sica, which is always wonderful, even at 1 pm in the afternoon. At 3:30, MY DOG TULIP, the story about a lonely gay man and his German shepherd, might be the one animated animal film not aimed at kids. Chicago film critic (and former C-U resident) Rory Jobst was unashamed to say it made him cry. And then, TINY FURNITURE plays at 8 in the evening. Again and again I have given mumblecore movies - which are low-budget, often unscripted works featuring rambling 20-somethings muttering inanities pointlessly - the benefit of the doubt, and again and again I have felt cheated. The director, Lena Dunham, is not scheduled to speak to defend her movie, which is about "a recent college grad who returns home while she tries to figure out what to do with her life." Just like I said. Maybe this time Lucy won't pull out the football from under me.
Friday, April 29, kicks off with a documentary about ordinary life in a small town in Ohio. It's called 45365 and that happens to be a zip code I'm familiar with, having corresponded with a librarian in that town years ago. At 4 p.m., ME AND ORSON WELLES plays, with director Richard Linklater in person. Too bad Zak Efron isn't making an appearance to put this party on the map. One feels sorry for Efron, who may indeed be able to act, but can't escape his pretty features. He gets a good shot here as a 17-year-old getting a break in Welles' Mercury Theater company circa 1937, with Christian McKay giving a dead-on Welles impression. But the movie itself is boilerplate. The curly-haired guy from Glee and Claire Danes are also on hand. And you can rent it at Redbox if you can't wait for the festival. In the evening, another really overlooked movie, 1994's ONLY YOU, a rom-com with Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei, comes from director Norman Jewison following up on his MOONSTRUCK success. Jewison is scheduled to be here.
Saturday is perhaps the strongest day in the lineup. At 11 a.m., A SMALL ACT is a new documentary about a Kenyan who receives a scholarship from a Swedish benefactor and then later tries to repay the favor. At 2 p.m., LIFE, ABOVE ALL comes from South Africa, a drama about the fear and shame of a community, fought against by a young woman. At 6:30, American fake hillbilly Tim Blake Nelson directs LEAVES OF GRASS, a surprisingly literate and frequently funny story of twins (both played with real gusto by Edward Norton), one a pretentious Ivy League professor and the other a tattooed Oklahoma pot farmer. Susan Sarandon pops up as well as the mother of the twins. And at 9:30, #2 on my list of favorite movies from last year, I AM LOVE, the unspoken class struggle in Italy as seen through the prisms of amour fou and haute cuisine. Produced and nurtured by and starring a radiant Tilda Swinton, the film also is the occasion for Swinton to appear at the festival, bringing some star power punch to the party.
Wrapping things up on Sunday at noon, LOUDER THAN A BOMB is a documentary about "four Chicago high school poetry teams as they prepare for and compete in the world's largest youth slam." Five poets will perform live at the screening. As far as I know, the film (co-directed by the nephew of Gene Siskel) has not been seen widely outside Chicago.
And bringing new films is the job of a festival after all, isn't it?