Ebertfest never rests: A guide to the 2017 event's films

Ebertfest never rests: A guide to the 2017 event's films

CHAMPAIGN — Roger Ebert's Film Festival, opening Wednesday night at the Virginia Theatre, will show three documentaries — unusual, but "we're going through a documentary renaissance, and documentaries are mattering more and more."

That's from festival Director Nate Kohn, who along with Ebertfest Executive Producer/emcee Chaz Ebert selected the documentaries for the 19th annual Ebertfest running through April 23 at the Virginia Theatre.

They are: "They Call Us Monsters," Ben Lear's look at juvenile offenders in California who face stiff sentences for their crimes; "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw," about the college basketball star called the "female Michael Jordan" directed by Rick Goldsmith; and "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," with its two directors here as well as their subject.

"We're deeply honored to have Norman Lear," Kohn said. "The documentary is really an important film. It's not only about him but also the history of that particular period of television. He revolutionized television."

In connection with the documentaries, Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association, will moderate the 9 a.m. April 21 academic panel discussion, "Why Documentaries Matter," at Hyatt Place in downtown Champaign.

Before joining the association, Kilmurry was the executive producer of "POV," the long-running PBS showcase of documentaries, and executive director of American Documentary, the nonprofit parent organization of "POV."

Besides the documentaries, Ebertfest will present six U.S. features and three international films, among them "Elle" starring French actress Isabelle Huppert, who will be here.

"I've wanted to have Isabelle Huppert at the festival for a long time," Kohn said. "She works so much it's really hard to get her on our schedule. It just so happened to work out this year and it just so happened she made a film that has won lots of awards and is really extraordinary. So we're happy to have her."

Kohn and the Eberts also tried for the longest time to bring the 1979 musical film "Hair" to the festival. Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, first mentioned it a decade ago.

"The film was blown up to 70mm for a road-show release," Kohn said. "I searched the entire globe for a 70mm print and couldn't find one anywhere. Same for a 35mm print."

Then Kohn received an email from a UCLA librarian telling him filmmaker/festival director Michael Moore had paid for a new 35mm print to be struck from the original print.

"That's why we're showing it this year," Kohn said. "I think everything else is digital. Some studios are much better at preserving archival prints but most have given up on them."

Cue in the informal workshop at 9:30 a.m. April 22 at Hyatt Place: "The Ethics of Film Preservation and Restoration," led by Barry Allen, who retired from Paramount Pictures in 2010 as executive director of Film Preservation and Archival Resources.

Another honored guest will be Caleb Deschanel, an American cinematographer who's been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography five times. He will be here with the movie "Being There."

Also coming are two distinguished directors who are good friends: Charles Burnett and Robert Townsend, with Burnett's "To Sleep with Anger." After the screening, he and Townsend will be on stage together.

Other directors coming are Gary Ross, with "Pleasantville," and Irwin Winkler, with "De-Lovely."

"We're really honored to have Gary Ross with us," Kohn said. "He's just finishing a film 'Ocean Eight' (the working title) where all the principles are women as opposed to men. He's directing that, and he's taking time out of finishing it to come here."

Winkler, who will be here with the festival-closer "De-Lovely," has directed or produced 50 films dating to "Double Trouble" in 1967. As producer, he was nominated for nine Academy Awards for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and for Best Picture for "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff" and "Goodfellas." He won an Oscar for Best Picture for "Rocky."

"He's a major producer," Kohn said. "He's directed a few films, and 'De-Lovely' is the favorite of his films he's directed. It was an honest-to-God musical that Roger really loved, and it's Cole Porter, and everybody likes Cole Porter."

The "heartthrob" actor-guest this year will be Hugh Dancy, with the movie "Hysteria." The English actor/model is best known for his roles as Will Graham in the TV series "Hannibal" and as Prince Charmont in "Ella Enchanted."

Here's more on each movie — plus the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer and audience scores and the rating stars from Roger Ebert's reviews, when applicable:

"HAIR" (1979)
7 p.m. April 19
Tomatometer: 89% | Audience: 88% | Ebert: 4 stars (out of 4)

While Rotten Tomatoes believes Milos Forman's adaptation of the Broadway musical "has dated somewhat," Ebert wrote that his doubts about how the movie would transfer to the late '70s "disappeared with the surge and bold authority of the first musical statement: This is the dawning of the 'Age of Aquarius'!" It "opens with such confidence and joy, moves so swiftly and sustains itself so well that I wonder why I had any doubts," he wrote.

He also cited the "glorious choreography" by Twyla Tharp and said the plot is less thin than that of the musical: A young Midwestern farmboy (John Savage) takes the bus to Manhattan to be inducted into the army and makes instant friends with a family of hippies living in Central Park.

Guests: Michael Hausman, first assistant director, and Michael Butler, producer

"HYSTERIA" (2012)
1 p.m. April 20
Tomatometer: 57% | Audience: 54% | Ebert: 3 stars

The romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett tells of the birth of the electro-mechanical vibrator at the peak of the prude Victorian era. Ebert describes the flick about Dr. Robert Dalrymple, who treated female hysteria by inducing orgasms in his patients, as "quietly saucy" and noted "how elegantly it sets its story in the period."

Guests: Tanya Wexler, director; Hugh Dancy, actor

4 p.m. April 20
Tomatometer: 84% | Audience: 83% | Ebert: 2.5 stars

Ebert called Charles Burnett's feature "a subtle kind of horror movie in which the unwelcome visitor is not a slasher or a cartoon character but a soft-spoken relative from down South, getting on a bit in years, well-dressed, seemingly courteous.

"The tension in the movie is created as he stays and stays, until he is clearly unwelcome and yet no one can figure out a way to get rid of him. And the horror element comes as it begins to dawn on us, and the characters in the movie, that this man is some sort of emissary of evil."

Guests: Charles Burnett, director, with special guest Robert Townsend

8:30 p.m. April 20
Tomatometer: 94% | Audience: 92%

The South Korean crime drama by Park Chan-wook was inspired by the novel "Fingersmith" by British author Sarah Waters.

Moved to 1930s-era colonial Korea and Japan, it tells of a young Japanese lady living on a secluded estate and a Korean woman who is hired to serve as her new handmaiden but who is secretly involved in a con man's plot to defraud her of her large inheritance.

1 p.m. April 21
Tomatometer: 82% | Audience: 71%

The film will be preceded by the short "July and Half of August," by Sheila O'Malley.

"Monsters," directed by Ben Lear, one of Norman Lear's six children, is a documentary about violent juveniles ages 14 to 17 in California who can be tried as adults. They typically face murder and attempted-murder charges yet remain kids, with a greater capacity to change and one day return to society. Ben Lear asks: "What is our responsibility to these kids? And to their victims? Do they deserve a second chance?"

Guests: Ben Lear, director, and Sasha Alpert, producer

"VARIETÉ" (1925)
4 p.m. April 21
Audience: 92%

The silent German film by E.A. Dupont tells of jealousy and betrayal in a seedy circus, focusing on a carnival owner (Emil Jannings), his wife (Lya de Putti) and the handsome acrobat (Warwick Ward) who comes between them. Jannings, a German actor, won the first Academy Award for best actor for his work in a several films.

Guests: Alloy Orchestra, performing its live soundtrack

"ELLE" (2016)
8 p.m. April 21
Tomatometer: 90% | Audience: 73%

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, "Elle" tells of Michele (Isabelle Huppert), the seemingly invulnerable head of a video game company who brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. After she is attacked in her home by an unknown assailant, she tracks the man down; both are drawn into a curious, thrilling and dangerous game.

Guest: Isabelle Huppert, actor

"MIND/GAME" (2015)
11 a.m. April 22

The documentary is about basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw, who is recruited by Coach Pat Summitt from the rough courts of New York for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. Hailed as the "female Michael Jordan," Holdsclaw seemed destined for a spectacular professional career until her long-suppressed battle with mental disorders emerged. She become a mental-health advocate but faced unexpected challenges to her recovery.

Guest: Rick Goldsmith, director

1:30 p.m. April 22
Tomatometer: 84% | Audience: 79% | Ebert: 4 stars

Ebert calls it one of the best and most original films of that year, a comedy about the twilight of the 20th century that ends as a social commentary. It's about a brother and sister who through a magic remote control transfer themselves to the 1950s black-and-white sitcom world of Pleasantville.

Guest: Gary Ross, director

4:30 p.m. April 22
Tomatometer: 85% | Audience: 64%

The documentary tells of one of the most influential creators, writers and producers in television and how he brought prime-time TV into step with the times with his '70s sitcoms "All In the Family," "Maude," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons" and how they opened dialogue and shifted the national consciousness.

Guests: Norman Lear; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors; and Brent Miller, producer

"BEING THERE" (1979)
8:30 p.m. April 22
Tomatometer: 96% | Audience: 92% | Ebert: 4 stars

The comedy tells of Chance Gardener, played by Peter Sellers, whose "mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life," Ebert wrote. "But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man's tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires."

Guest: Caleb Deschanel, cinematographer

"DE-LOVELY" (2004)
11 a.m. April 23
Tomatometer: 48% | Audience: 65% | Ebert: 3 1/2 stars

The musical/biopic tells of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), who "floated effortlessly for a time between worlds: gay and straight, Europe and America, Broadway and Hollywood, show biz and high society," Ebert wrote. "He had a lifelong love affair with his wife (Ashlee Judd), and lifelong love affairs without his wife. He thrived, it seemed, on a lifestyle that would have destroyed other men (and was, in fact, illegal in most of the places that he lived), and all the time he wrote those magical songs. Then a horse fell down and crushed his legs, and he spent 27 years in pain. And still he wrote those magical songs."

Guests: Irwin Winkler, director and producer; singer Jimmy Demers and pianist Donnie Demers, who will perform after the screening.