Ebert will have best seat in the house

Ebert will have best seat in the house

CHAMPAIGN – The ninth annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival opens tonight at the Virginia Theatre with the famous critic taking on a new role from a specially installed La-Z-Boy – that of an audience member.

The usually loquacious Ebert, who cannot talk due to a tracheostomy, might go onstage a couple of times during his festival but will not introduce each of the 13 films nor lead the discussions afterward, as he always did in previous years.

"Without Roger onstage, it's going to be a slightly different festival, but I think no less exciting or interesting," said Nate Kohn, festival director. "He's planning to watch all of the movies. It depends on how he feels. It's always been very important for him to watch the films with that particular audience because he wants to read the audience's reactions."

This year the movies will be introduced by Kohn; Ebert's wife, Chaz Ebert; and the directors, when possible. Critics, scholars and other guests related to the films will deliver commentary after the screenings.

Chaz Ebert, a lawyer who married the critic 15 years ago, said she at times will give voice to things her husband writes.

"I always did work with Roger and Nate to help choose movies and guests," she said. "This year I will have a more public role and be onstage more. My only hesitation is that my first priority is Roger. If he has any needs that I need to look after, then I do that."

Ebert, who is recovering from cancer surgery, almost canceled the 2007 Ebertfest. He wrote a public message about his condition and the fact that he plans to attend his festival, his first real public outing, despite advice to the contrary.

"You know, it's just a thrill for him to see something other than four corners of a hospital room, as you can imagine," Chaz Ebert said. "I am so inspired by his courage and determination to be at the festival. He did not want to let anyone down. When (festival assistant director) Mary Susan Britt told us that those tickets had sold out in a little over a week's time, Roger said, 'We have to make a commitment to be there.' When he said that, he was in his hospital bed.

"I think all along that it's been a goal he was working toward. When he was doing his rehab and so forth, one of his goals was to go to Ebertfest."

This year the special event of Urbana native Ebert's alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Communications, features 13 movies, up from the usual 12. Kohn said he and the Eberts couldn't think of one to cut.

"Actually, though, we kept going down the list and because two of the musical documentaries we're showing are short, we put them late at night to give pass holders an extra show to see," Kohn said. "This year, if you want to look for a theme that runs through the festival, it's music. There's lots of music with these films."

And, there will be at least three live music performances, starting Friday afternoon with 18 members of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, conducted by Steve Larsen, presenting the score for the silent film classic, "Sadie Thompson."

Then, Southern alt-country musician Jim White, the onscreen guide to the American South in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus," will perform after that stylized documentary is shown Saturday night.

And live music will close the festival Sunday when the '60s psychedelic band, Strawberry Alarm Clock, performs after the screening of the 1970 release, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Ebert famously wrote the screenplay, and Kohn said they had long considered making it part of Ebertfest.

"It has a tremendous cult following," Kohn said. "We put it in a slot usually reserved for the Sunday musical because it has so much music in it."

Music plays a big role in at least two other Ebertfest films, too:

– "Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story," features archival footage of major rock acts.

– And "La Dolce Vita" has a score by Nino Rota, who composed for most of director Federico Fellini's films.

This is the first year that the festival is not opening with a 70 mm film. Instead, a 35 mm print of "Gattaca" will open Ebertfest this evening.

"There's no particular reason except we're just trying to give ourselves more options," Kohn said. "That's why we put 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' on Sunday. It's technically not a musical. And we decided to give the C-U Symphony an opportunity to perform rather than bring back the Alloy Orchestra. We're trying some new things, and we hope folks like what we're doing."

There also will be two digital projections – of the Mercury and "Wrong-Eyed Jesus" documentaries. Projectionist James Bond will project those using state-of-the-art equipment he will bring from Chicago.

As for guests, several of them are not new to the Ebertfest scene. Returning are the German director Werner Herzog, who has a small onscreen role in "Man of Flowers" and directed "Stroszek"; Scott Wilson, an actor in "Come Early Morning"; and Paul Cox, director of "Man of Flowers."

Among newcomers are Joey Lauren Adams, whose "Come Early Morning" marks her directing debut; Marcia Mc-Broom, a teacher and activist who co-starred in "Dolls"; and actor Alan Rickman, who will go onstage after "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." Individual tickets to that are sold out.

"Everybody wants to see Alan Rickman because he's in the Harry Potter movies," Kohn said. Rickman played Snape in the Potter movies, as well as villain Hans Gruber in the Bruce Willis movie "Die Hard."

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