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Ebertfest — Staying True to its Roots

Roger Ebert is set to host his 10th annual film festival and among the subjects to be viewed at Champaign’s Virginia Theatre will be a big green monster, a serial killer, underworld thugs and a mad housewife. At first glance, one might think that the Central Illinoisan critic is focusing on B-Movies or pulp-fiction fodder. Upon closer inspection, however, the slate of films to be shown is, as usual, an eclectic collection that casts a wide net over the world of cinema, covering a variety of genres and formats that are often neglected by the average filmgoer and movie exhibitors.

Having heard complaints in recent years that many of his selections were far too mainstream, Ebert has dropped the word “overlooked” from the festival title. Ironically, the collection of films to be shown this year consists of the most obscure selections in the festival’s history. Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, starring Steve Buscemi as a paparazzo intent on getting that one big picture that will change his career; Sally Potter’s unconventional love story, Yes, with Joan Allen; and Joseph Greco’s Canvas about a family dealing with the curse of schizophrenia, made nary a ripple at the box office when they were all in limited release, but their inclusion in Ebertfest fulfills one of the intents of the festival, which is to shine a light on films that have been unjustly relegated to obscurity.

Of course, that does not apply to all the features to be screened. Ang Lee’s Hulk had a major publicity campaign heralding its arrival when it was released in 2003, yet it had the temerity to be a thinking person’s superhero movie and paid the price by grossing “only” $150 million at the box office before being saddled with the reputation of being too slow and talky for the teen crowd it was aimed at. The film’s reception will surely be one of the topics for discussion when Lee takes the stage after the screening for a question-and-answer session. Meanwhile, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell created a stir when it hit screens in 2000, as it featured an inventive and harrowing journey into the mind of a serial killer whose psyche is invaded by a psychotherapist who hopes to uncover clues that lead to the whereabouts of a girl whom the killer has kidnapped. Another movie that got its fair share of press was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), the only film version of the play to present Shakespeare’s classic in its entirety. The movie was the last feature film to be shot in 70mm, and it will be presented in this widescreen format to kick off the festival, a nod to this overlooked technique that the critic draws attention to each year.

In addition to starting the celebration with a 70mm film, Ebertfest 2008 continues two other traditions as well. This year’s silent feature is Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld, a gangster flick that revolves around a love triangle. While it’s always a treat to see a silent film on the big screen, what makes the Ebertfest screenings special is that they’re accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, a trio of musicians who compose original scores for movies from the medium’s early years. The final fest tradition is to end with a musical and this year’s selection is Romance and Cigarettes, a modern tale about a man (James Gandolfini) who cheats on his long-suffering wife (Susan Sarandon) with a young homewrecker (Kate Winslet) and pays the price.

Rounding out the festival this year is Shotgun Stories, a tale about a modern feud between two dysfunctional families; the documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John, about an organic farmer who struggles to make it in a world from which family farms are disappearing; Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, an unconventional biography of the famous Japanese author; The Band’s Visit, a comedy from 2007 about an Israeli band that’s forced to stay in a remote Egyptian village; and Housekeeping, about an eccentric housewife who may or may not be losing her mind.

In addition to seeing these films on the big screen in the grandeur of the Virginia Theater, the fact that you find yourself among true film fans is vital. You’ll hear no cell phones ringing and see no text messages being typed while these treasures unspool. The only thing you’ll witness are cinephiles drinking in these classic and offbeat films in the perfect setting, all of them eager to meet and question the guests on hand after each screening. For any film fan, Ebertfest is the one and only Midwestern movie destination.

The festival begins Wednesday, April 23 and runs until Sunday, April 27. Visit Ebertfest’s website for screening times, directions to the Virginia Theatre and a list of expected guests.

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