Ebertfest notebook: Of volcanoes, unbreakable thumbs, heroes and more

Ebertfest notebook: Of volcanoes, unbreakable thumbs, heroes and more

Another Ebertfest guest won't be making the trip to Champaign because of the flight-stopping volcanic ash over Europe.

British actor Bill Nighy was to appear on the Virginia Theatre stage after the Saturday screening of "I Capture the Castle." In it he plays James Mortmain, the patriarch of a "poor but brilliantly eccentric family living in a decrepit English castle," as Ebert wrote in his review.

Three other festival guests were unable to travel here, among them the Academy Award-winning Walter Murch, a sound and film editor who was to appear after the screening on Thursday night of "Apocalypse Now Redux."

A player

Writer-producer-director Michael Tolkin has made several award-winning films, with the 1992 "The Player" being his best known.

Now the Los Angeles resident is more interested in writing for television and is working on two pilots for FX and NBC, he said at the Ebertfest reception on Wednesday evening at the home of the University of Illinios president.

Tolkin said he watches more TV than anything else.

"Because TV has the best writing in the arts right now," he said. "It's better than most movies and prose writing. It's more transgressive, more funny, irreverent, political.

"What the 'South Park' guys get away with is astonishing. In other countries, they would have been shot for what they're doing."

Tolkin also spoke Thursday afternoon at the Virginia after Ebert screened Tolkin's 1994 film, "The New Age," which he wrote and directed.

Ebert believes the satire is especially relevant today. Tolkin agreed, saying the movie starring Peter Weller and Judy Davis as a wealthy Beverly Hills couple who lose their money is about economic collapse and hubris.

"It's about the mistake of trying to be independent when it's difficult. It's about location, location, location. The couple makes the mistake of opening the store (an upscale shop called Hipocracy) in the wrong location."

The last movie Tolkin made was "Nine," released last year and nominated for four Academy Awards. He shared its screenplay credit with the late Anthony Minghella.

Tolkin also has written four novels; the movie "The Player" was adapted from one.

His father, famed television comedy writer Mel Tolkin, wrote for Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, "All in the Family" and other programs. Mel Tolkin, who died two years ago, was best known as the head writer of the sketch comedy series, "Your Show of Shows," which aired during the "golden age" of television.

Tolkin said on Wednesday he's happy to be at Ebertfest.

"I would have been happier if it was Roger Ebert's Bora Bora Film Festival, but he doesn't have a Bora Bora Film Festival so I have to make do," he joked.


After handing film critic Elvis Mitchell a "Golden Thumb" trophy on Thursday at the Virginia, Chaz Ebert retrieved it to take backstage but dropped it on the Virginia stage floor. She picked it up, noting it was still intact.

"It's a casting of Roger's thumb made by people who make the Academy Awards, but this is even better," she said.

Upon receiving his Golden Thumb, Tolkin quipped, "This is what I came for."

Another filmmaker

You meet the most interesting people at Ebertfest.

On Tuesday evening at the party for festival volunteers at the Cowboy Monkey, volunteer Ray Elliott of Urbana introduced me to Diane Hawkins, an American actress, producer and director who lived in Paris and now makes her home in New York.

She's working on a documentary on her late uncle, Marine Sgt. John Basilone, a World War II hero and legend. Featured in the recent HBO series "The Pacific," Basilone received the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was the only enlisted Marine in the war to receive both it and the Navy Cross. He received the latter posthumously, after he was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Basilone has had streets, military installations, a Navy destroyer and an annual parade in New Jersey named after him.

Called "Manila John," Basilone had served in the Army in the Philippines before the U.S. entered the "Great War." He later enlisted in the Marines and fought at the Battle of Guadalcanal, winning the Medal of Honor there. The Army then sent him on a War Bond tour.

"They wanted him to remain stateside," Hawkins said. "The Army offered him a desk job and an officer's job. He turned them down. He said he wanted to stay with 'his boys.'"

At Guadalcanal, he he held off 3,000 Japanese troops after his 15-member unit was reduced to two men.

For her documentary, Hawkins has been following her uncle's military path to Guadalcanal, the Philippines, Cuba and Australia. She never met her uncle but said, "He's put me on a journey that's unbelievable."

This is Hawkins's first Ebertfest. She's attended the Cannes Film Festival in southern France.

"This looks like a lot of fun and more intimate," she said.