Monday, April 28, 2014

A Year After Roger's Death, Ebertfest a Celebration of Life Itself

"When I go to the movies, I have an out-of-body experience. If the movie is working for me, to some degree I am that person on the screen. I forget my social security number, I don't know where I parked my car, I am having vicariously an experience that happened to someone else, and that makes me a better person--or it can make me a better person.

I sincerely believe that to see good films, and to see important films, is one of the most profoundly civilizing experiences that we can have as people."

-- Roger Ebert
   From a video clip screened before every film
   at the 16th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival
   in Champaign, Illinois April 23-27, 2014

In 1997, Roger Ebert--at that point well-known as the longtime film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of a syndicated movie review TV show (under various names) with his Chicago Tribune counterpart, Gene Siskel--hosted a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Virginia Theater in Champaign, IL, near the campus of his alma mater, the University of Illinois. This correlated to a connection between the U of I and 2001's HAL computer, which you can read about on Wikipedia.

After that screening, per suggestions from the school, Ebert began an annual film festival at the venue, which is also close to Roger's hometown of Urbana. 

It was initially dubbed Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, as Ebert hand-picked movies that he felt deserved greater attention. 

Although my best friend has long lived in Urbana and I've visited him and his wife in many different years, I never thought to travel to the festival until 2010.

That was a few years after cancer and several unsuccessful jaw surgeries had left Roger disfigured and unable to eat, drink or speak. 

By that time, "Overlooked" was dropped from the title of Roger Ebert's Film Festival and it seemingly became more colloquially known simply as "Ebertfest." (Festival website)

According to Wikipedia, this didn't really reflect a change in philosophy so much as eliminated the need for explanation when films that didn't exactly fit the definition of "overlooked"--such as movies shown prior to their official release--were included.

But in my mind, simplifying the name just more directly honored the hometown hero, especially as he courageously faced daunting health challenges.

In the face of those challenges, Ebert astonishingly increased the volume of his voice, even though unable to speak.

While writing even more movie reviews than he had before, Roger became a prolific blogger about many personal and social issues, utilized Facebook and Twitter better than anyone else I've yet observed and wrote an acclaimed biography, Life Itself (which I haven't read in full).

In other words, by the time of his death on April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert had gone from a highly popular, esteemed and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic famous for his harangues with Siskel--who died in 1999--to one of America's most astute and important social commentators, one who I sorely miss. Though I also acutely miss him as a film critic, for there is no other reviewer I read and respect with regularity.

Ebert also came to serve as the epitome of a public figure dealing with a debilitating, disfiguring illness with the utmost in dignity, courage, grace and openness.

Not only did he continue to write, more and--by many accounts--better than ever, but through a cover story in Esquire magazine, an interview with Oprah, appearances at Ebertfest (where I saw him in 2010 & 2011) and even a book signing I was lucky enough to attend, Roger was not afraid to show his mangled, jawless face, which amazingly always seemed to have a smile on it.

This transparency continued with the filming of a documentary based on his autobiography, Life Itself. Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) didn't begin with thoughts he would be documenting the last month's of Roger's life, but rather recapping Ebert's impressive career, compelling biography, inspiring perseverance and the love & support of his remarkable wife, Chaz.

But more bad news about the recurrence of cancer continued to get worse during James' filming, and yet Roger and Chaz continued to let the cameras capture many scenes that would be hard for anyone to watch even had Ebert remained alive.

And though Chaz bravely emceed Ebertfest last year, just three weeks after Roger had died, opening the 16th Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival 2014 with Life Itself was incredibly poignant, touching, sad, celebratory, inspirational and also a truly magnificent movie. 

The festival has typically run from Wednesday night through Sunday afternoon, but though I had attended Ebertfest in 2010, 2011 and 2013, I had always gone down to Champaign-Urbana merely in time to catch a couple movies on Saturday.

Certainly I missed out on many great movies, and top tier special guests who would speak both before their films and more extensively after, but I just enjoyed being there, for the movies I did see, the experience and to pay homage to its host and namesake. (Though last year this became just the latter, Chaz has continued on as a wonderful host.)

This is true again in 2014, but instead of going on the weekend--when there was also a marathon happening in town--I decided to get there for the opening of the fest, and Life Itself.

I'm glad I did.

I would give the documentary @@@@@, and the same to Short Term 12, the second of three films I saw on Thursday before heading home Friday morning.

That 2013 movie stars Brie Larson, who gives an outstanding performance as a young supervisor of a group home for troubled kids.

Larson was at Ebertfest for the screening along with co-star Keith Stanfield, enthusiastically snapped pictures of the audience to share with her director (Destin Daniel Cretton) and participated in a couple of panel discussions at the Illini Student Union, which I didn't attend.

Almost all of the movie introductions by Chaz, post-show Q&A sessions and panel discussions can be viewed through the Ebertfest YouTube Channel.

So in addition to the guests I saw live--including James, Larson, Stanfield, director Jem Cohen of the movie Museum Hours and comedian Patton Oswalt, who accompanied Young Adult--I've now watched director Bennett Miller discuss Capote starring his close friend Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Spike Lee who was there in part to salute Ebert for being an early champion of Do the Right Thing. I also intend to watch Ebert friend and favorite, Ramin Bahrani, who directed fest selection Goodbye Solo, and Oliver Stone, who was there with Born on the Fourth of July.

It was certainly fun to see the hilarious Oswalt speak at length about Young Adult and his reverence for Ebert, who (to paraphrase) "inspired young actors and filmmakers in a way Velvet Underground and early Metallica demo tapes had spawned a new crop of rock musicians."

I didn't much care for one of Oswalt's rather humorless interviewers, and while I never saw a healthy Ebert serve as a moderator for his guests, I perceive the post-show discussions as an area in which the ongoing festival needs to improve.

I clearly can forgive Chaz for being overcome with emotion after Life Itself, but too many of the conversations felt slapdash or just not all that interesting.

Meaning no disrespect, this included the one with Jem Cohen, whose Museum Hours is a quality film, but a bit too slow and non-narrative for me to really love. And I was truly hoping to, given that it revolves around a security guard at Vienna's Kunsthiorisches art museum, which I visited last summer.

In full disclosure, I had trouble staying awake during the 1:00pm Thursday screening, but I suspect that may be more causal than coincidental, given that I was fine for the later showings of Short Term 12 and Young Adult.

But despite this being the first Ebertfest that Roger had no part in programming, Museum Hours felt like a movie he would have enjoyed and endorsed. ( contributor Kevin Lee certainly did, and was part of the post-show discussion.)

Thus I valued seeing it at Ebertfest, even if I can't say I loved it on a first viewing. For now I'll give it @@@1/2.  

I had seen Young Adult once before, and think Charlize Theron (along with Oswalt) is terrific in it, and not quite as despicable as often described in playing a prom queen who cluelessly returns to her hometown in hopes of reprising a high school romance. I'd probably give it @@@@.

Even with some better than others, all 4 movies I saw, plus Do the Right Thing, Capote, Goodbye Solo and Born on the Fourth of July, which I've seen previously, definitely deserve a Thumbs Up. (I also hope to soon see another fest entry, Wadjda, from Saudi Arabia.)

Though not huge hits, and the sort of movies made too infrequently now, Do the Right Thing and Born on the Fourth of July probably can't be considered overlooked. And Steve James is still prepping Life Itself for a theatrical release.

But even without Roger's warmhearted acuity in identifying films deserving of greater attention, and perhaps an increasing inclusion of big names and better-known movies, Roger Ebert's Film Festival should be in good hands for years to come, namely those of Chaz Ebert and Festival Director Nate Kohn.

For more than any other theme or rationale for inclusion, it seems the movies of Ebertfest 2014 were predominantly about, appropriately, life itself.

And if this continues in future years, as I have to imagine it will, the incredible spirit of Roger Ebert will live on.

And not just at the movies. 

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