Melissa Merli: My take on Ebertfest lineup
For the most part, I like the lineup for the 2014 Ebertfest, though a couple of my Facebook friends believe it lacks Roger Ebert's touch.
One of my only regrets, if that's the right word, is that Ebert himself won't be on the Virginia Theatre stage interviewing Philip Seymour Hoffman after "Capote" is shown on April 25.
I like to think of the famed critic, who died last year, in heaven or wherever, chatting with Hoffman, who passed earlier this year.
In my visual memory, though, I can still see Ebert at Ebertfst, leaning in toward his subjects, asking insightful, intelligent and knowledgeable questions. No interviewer has come close to his enthusiasm and greatness in the Ebertfest setting.
Unlike those two Facebook friends, I see Ebert's touch in most of the lineup. I'm most excited that festival director Nate Kohn and emcee Chaz Ebert are bringing "Wadjda" and its director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, to the fest.
I saw "Wadjda" at the Art Theater Co-op, where it drew small audiences, making it an overlooked gem in keeping with Ebert's original intent of a festival showing overlooked yet excellent films.
The title character is a precocious Saudi Arabian girl who saves her money to buy a green bicycle she covets. The subplots along with the main story line give viewers a fascinating look into contemporary Saudi life.
"Wadjda" is also the first feature-length movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia by a Saudi woman.
Many people are pumped about Oliver Stone and Spike Lee coming to the festival with their 1989 movies "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Do the Right Thing. Me, a little less so, and at least one Facebook friend pointed out that Lee was a no-show for a speaking engagement a few years ago at the University of Illinois.
Though I like the two directors and their work, those two movies as well as "Capote" are known to even casual moviegoers.
I prefer seeing at Ebertfest lovely movies I haven't seen. Like "Young Adult" and "Goodbye Solo." After reading about them after their initial release, I really wanted to see them but never got around to it.
Patton Oswalt will be here with "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron. He was great in the 2012 Ebertfest offering "Big Fan" but couldn't make the trip in person; he had to remain on the set of a movie he was working on at the time.
"Goodbye Solo" was directed by Ramin Bahrani, a young director long championed by Ebert. The critic showed Bahrani's "Man Push Cart" at the '06 Ebertfest — it's one of those movies Ebert loved because it gives us glimpses into lives unfamiliar to us.
Another Ebertfest 2014 movie I'm psyched about is "Museum Hours," a 2012 Austrian-American drama written and directed by Jem Cohen, who will be here in person. It's set at an art museum in Vienna. That's all I need to know to make it interesting for me.
I also want to see (and hear) "He Who Gets Slapped," the 1924 silent movie with live accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra, a trio of silent-film composers and players Ebert considered the best. Hearing them play their "junk instruments" while accompanying a silent classic is a major treat.
And making it even better: "He Who Gets Slapped" stars Hollywood greats Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert. I love Chaney; his face is so expressive and sad.
Also promising: "A Simple Life." Ebert gave this 2012 movie from Hong Kong four stars. It's about a woman who cared for a family for four generations. The last family member switches roles, taking care of the servant after she suffers a stroke.
"It expresses hope in human nature," Ebert wrote in his review.
He liked those kinds of movies, and they fit right into the emotional roller-coaster ride that is Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
And because I was a psychology major, I want to see "Short Term 12," about a female counselor who with her live-in boyfriend works at a foster-care center for at-risk teens. Actress Brie Larson stars and will be here in person, with actor Keith Stanfield.
One of my Facebook friends who works in human services loved this movie (as well as "Wadjda").
I look forward to seeing for a second time the festival opener "Life Itself," Steve James' revealing biopic about Roger Ebert. What other movie could have led off this festival, the third without its beloved namesake? (Ebert was ill and unable to attend in 2008; he died three weeks before the opening of the 2013 festival.)
And I'm digging the idea of the festival closer: "Bayou Maharajab." Kohn produced the documentary about New Orleans pianist James Booker; it was directed by Lily Keber, who I believe is one of his former students at the University of Georgia.
It's a tradition for Ebertfest to end with a music-filled movie, followed by a live musical performance. New Orleans-based pianist Henry Butler, whom I met when he was on the Eastern Illinois University faculty, will perform after the Booker doc on April 27. Like Booker, Butler is know for his technique and mixing of various styles.