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Ebertfest 2017: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston

27 Apr

I always have mixed emotions about Saturday at Ebertfest. It is the busiest day, with an extra matinee screening—and who would complain about more movies? But considering I’m already exhausted from the week, tired of eating garbage food for every meal and missing home, the end seems sweet. Thankfully, the festival will end with a bang for me, with two profile documentaries, a 90s fantasy well worth revisiting, and my first viewing of a Hal Ashby classic comedy.


Ebertfest 2017: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston

26 Apr

Whereas Day Two of the 2017 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival highlighted its aims to showcase the overlooked and underappreciated, Day Three showed off its diverse interests.


Ebertfest 2017: Day Two, by Aaron Pinkston

21 Apr

When the Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was formed in 1999 it was specifically meant to shine a light on a number of films that the prolific film critic saw throughout his years that didn’t get the recognition he thought they deserved. The then-named “Overlooked Film Festival” used this thesis to span tiny indies like Henry Bromell’s Panic, internationally acclaimed but little seen at their release films like Songs from the Second Floor, and minor entries in big filmographies like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Over the years, that specific aim has shifted a bit, but there is always room in the schedule for a few underappreciated and overlooked—the second day of the 19th Ebertfest is a great example of this as it starts with two perfect examples of the festival’s spirit.


Ebertfest 2017: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

20 Apr

The 19th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is built on four key principles: empathy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. Even if not as explicitly, this has always been the mission of the festival, as was true of its namesake. Each year in Champaign, Illinois, the home of the main campus of the University of Illinois, Ebert’s alma mater, film lovers flock to celebrate films and carry out the legacy of the greatest film critic. This is now my sixth straight year covering the festival and it has become a part of my life. I unfortunately never got to experience the festival with Roger as the key figure (by 2012 the effects of his cancer had taken his ability to speak, and with that, his role in leading the film introductions and Q&As), but I’ve seen it grow past the “Overlooked Film Festival” of its roots to championing Ebert’s spirit. Since he passed a few short weeks before the festival in 2013, Ebertfest has embodied the man’s legacy with love and through those four principles that he looked for in every film that he loved. This year’s slate is as interesting as any I’ve attended, a mix of classics ready for a reevaluation and contemporaries that carry on what Ebert looked for in a great film.


Ebertfest 2016: Force of Destiny, Radical Grace, Love & Mercy, Blow Out, by Aaron Pinkston

21 Apr


The Saturday slate of Ebertfest is the most full (especially if you’re skipping out on the panel discussions and other offerings), making the day feel most like a more normal film festival. Thankfully, festival-goers don’t have to theater hop or worry about getting in the door at all, but as luxurious as a four-film day sounds, the seasoned festival attendee knows it is anything but. As I did not stick around for the Sunday screening (this year was a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s Paul Robeson vehicle Body and Soul, which I am sad to miss), though, the long day is a welcome send-off. This year’s final day screened four more diverse offerings, with three recent films setting up a reconsideration of a De Palma pulp thriller.


Ebertfest 2016: Disturbing the Peace, L’Inhumaine, Eve’s Bayou, by Aaron Pinkston

19 Apr


Each year, the Thursday and Friday slates at Ebertfest open with academic panel discussions, held at the student union of the University of Illinois, with the festival’s guests, film critics, and community experts talking about relevant issues that support the themes of the festival films. The two most interesting panel discussions this year both tackled the growing perception of a diversity problem in Hollywood: “#oscarssowhite: Diversity in Hollywood” and “Women in Film.” The panels included Gil L. Robertson and Shawn Edwards from the African American Film Critics Association, filmmakers Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) and Rebecca Parrish (Radical Grace), film critics Nell Minow and Jana Monji, and more. These two discussions in particular were among the most engaging that I’ve seen, despite only being scheduled for an hour each, not nearly enough time. Still, the panelists tackled these complex issues with depth and diversity of thought—the panel on diversity did very well to identify the problem as much more than black vs. white and extending much further than what we see on screen. Overall, it was a nice kick-off to a day screening a selection of three very diverse films.


Ebertfest 2016: Grandma, Northfork, The Third Man, by Aaron Pinkston

17 Apr


One of the well-noted changes to the festival this year is the video trailer that runs before each film. In previous years, there has been an introductory film made that used a specific speech from Roger Ebert and shots from the films that were playing that year. It has always been well-crafted and poignant—but a little overkill to see it a dozen times when you’re at every film. Smartly, the festival has been mixing it up this year in an interesting and appropriate way. On the second day, the two films which had been covered by Roger were preceded by a clip from his essential program Siskel & Ebert. Alternatively, for the first film of the day, which had been released after Roger’s death, a brief speech from a previous film festival was shown. All in all, this approach is a spectacular way to honor Roger and give focus to the specific film that was being presented. The only downside in practice was seen in the third film of the night, Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man, which was presented with a clip from Siskel & Ebert when the critics talked about their favorite black and white shots—unfortunately for anyone who hadn’t seen the film, the defining shot of Harry Lime’s introduction was shown. This is a relatively minor quibble, given the immortality of that shot in cinema history and the (I assume) relative few in the audience who hadn’t already implanted in their brains.


Ebertfest 2016: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

14 Apr


Until 2007, the Roger Ebert Film Festival was officially known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. According to Roger’s wife Chaz, who is now the face of the fest, filmmakers who presented their work appreciated the recognition, but were becoming wary of the label. By shedding the explicit term while ultimately keeping the spirit of highlighting the underseen and underappreciated, Ebertfest was able to expand its scope a bit to include beloved classics and yet-to-be-released gems. Over the years as I’ve covered the festival, I’ve wondered where it might be heading, especially following Roger’s passing a little more than three years ago. The schedule of this 18th edition, however, is perhaps the most representative of the original spirit as I’ve seen over the past five years. This year has moved away from the recent trend of featuring a spot or two as a pipeline from the most recent Sundance Film Festival (James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour being two recent examples) and is almost exclusively focusing on smaller or notable films that didn’t reach enough of an audience.


Ebertfest 2015: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston

1 May


The Saturday of Ebertfest is always the most packed day, with four screenings instead of three, so let’s cut the chit-chat.

Of the three films I had previously seen coming into Ebertfest, Wild Tales was definitely the one I was most excited to revisit. I absolutely loved when I saw it in my local arthouse theater a few weeks ago and really wanted to dive back into writer-director Damián Szifrón’s twisted world of retribution. It is my favorite film of the year so far, even though I still have a difficult time qualifying a film that was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year could be considered a 2015 release, but that’s no fault of this fantastic film. Also, seeing the film with 1,200+ willing and eager filmgoers was sure to be an awesome experience. And it was! Throughout the festival, no other film got as much interaction from the Virginia Theatre crowd – there were literal howls at the screen at times, and each segment break was met with rousing ovation.


Ebertfest 2015: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston

24 Apr


The second full day of Ebertfest began with some bad news: somehow, the print of the day’s first film, the French coming-of-age drama Girlhood, came without subtitles. Since Ebertfest takes place in Champaign, Illinois, not Champagne, France, this wasn’t going to work. The festival directors were able to secure a screener copy of the film, an imperfect compromise. The festival prides itself on getting the best prints and digital projections possible, so seeing a blown up DVD copy, complete with an ever-present “Copy of Strand Releasing” subtitle, was a bit disappointing. Thankfully, seeing Girlhood was worth it. The rest of the day went swimmingly with the two oldest films of the festival screened.