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

21 Apr

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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.

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

19 Apr

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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.

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

17 Apr

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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.

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Ebertfest 2016: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

14 Apr

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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.

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Ebertfest 2015: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston

1 May

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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.

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Ebertfest 2015: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston

24 Apr

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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.

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Ebertfest: Day Two, by Aaron Pinkston

20 Apr

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A little behind-the-scenes: This year, instead of making the couple mile commute to and from my hotel and the Virginia Theatre, I rented an apartment two blocks away for the week. So far, it makes the experience so much more comfortable. In this vein, I made an executive decision to forego the panel discussions that happen each day in exchange for more relaxation. Overall, the panels are decent, but don’t delve into their topics quite to my liking, despite being made up of intelligent and interesting film writers and filmmakers. I also decided to take the time spent by the post-screening Q&As (because we know nothing good really ever comes from them) to spend more quality time with my wife and two dogs, who made the trip for the first time this year. Theoretically, this should also give me good time to write up my coverage in a more timely manner, though that already doesn’t seem to be the case.

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Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night, by Aaron Pinkston

17 Apr

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Another year, another Ebertfest! I have now attended and covered four straight festivals, and thus have written four introductions that described my history with the festival and the history of the festival itself. So, why don’t I skip all that and just get to the basics? The Roger Ebert Film Festival is held each year at the home of the University of Illinois (both my and Ebert’s alma mater). In this 17th edition of the festival a lot has remained unchanged – it is a small festival of 12 films stretched over five days at one singular location, the beautiful Virginia Theatre. In this third festival after the loss of the great critic, it seems that the festival is finally finding its legacy going forward. It has always been a celebration of films, and that hasn’t changed, but eventually it would have to move on from being a curated list of its namesake’s favorite films. This year more than any other feels like a festival molded in his spirit. Ebert would have seen only three of this year’s selections, but their intelligence, humor, and humanity are in line with what the man championed. The course of the festival will see Ebertfest favorites return with new films, some of the best international films of the past year, the amazing Alloy Orchestra, and a tribute to another recently lost film icon.

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Ebertfest 2014: Day Four, by Aaron Pinkston

9 May

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Saturday at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival is the most jam-packed day, with four screenings and filmmaker Q&As over more than 12 hours, so (to borrow a phrase) let’s get into it shall we?

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Ebertfest 2014: Day Three, by Aaron Pinkston

2 May

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Taking a look at the Ebertfest schedule in advance, day three was without question what I was looking forward to the most. Featuring two classic films I had never seen before and one I hadn’t seen in years, this day felt very much in the festival’s spirit. These three films (He Who Gets Slapped, Capote and Do the Right Thing) provide three different takes on outsiders that nearly spans the entire history of filmmaking. Society often spurns people because of their background, mistakes, skin color, socioeconomic status, and these three films discusses the fringes of society in wildly different styles and plots. Two of these films focus on the anger and potential violence that can come when a person or a group are relegated as second-class citizens, while the third may provide a bit of redemption. It isn’t always a requirement to place films with similar themes together (and this isn’t exactly an obvious one), but when there is a through-line during a day’s screenings, it always feels a little more special. Also, personally, with only three screenings, day three also allowed me to sleep in a little, forego the morning’s panels and relax — maybe I’m just getting old, but staying up past midnight takes a toll on me.

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