Ebertfest Day 2 | 'Interstellar' out of this world

Ebertfest Day 2 | 'Interstellar' out of this world

CHAMPAIGN — Introducing Thursday's showing of Christopher Nolan's science-fiction blockbuster "Interstellar," RogerEbert.com editor Brian Tallerico called it "the biggest movie in this festival" and "a $20 million movie about love."

He couldn't have been more right — although the first half of that description was probably more in reference to the 70 mm print of the film to which the Virginia Theatre audience was treated Thursday at Roger Ebert's Film Festival.

But the emotional impact of a film best-known for its special effects and careful adherence to real-life science impressed even the pair of scientists invited to reflect on the movie afterward.

Mexican astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre said the idea for "Interstellar" came from the mind of his "academic grandfather," Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who served as consultant on the film and actually recommended him asan Ebertfest guest expert, according to Chaz Ebert.

With him was fellow astrophysicist and University of Illinois graduate Brand Fortner, who noted that since Alcubierre's field of numerical relativity was created at the UI, he, too, was an "offspring" of Illinois.

Fortner concurred with the film's premise that "Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here." Citing the dangers of a meteor strike, the sun burning out, global warming or other natural disasters, Fortner concluded, "At some point, we have to leave Earth. ... Only this film and '2001' have dealt with this."

Fortner also likened "Interstellar" to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi opus "2001: A Space Odyssey" as the only two sci-fi films who took their science seriously and got it right, at least for the most part. But he agreed the emotional impact of "Interstellar" and its subthemes of parenting, separation and death far outweighed that of "2001."

He even went so far as to risk disagreement with the festival's namesake.

"Roger was wrong," Fortner postulated. "He said movies are empathy machines (that generate empathy) for other people. They are empathy machines for the universe."

Critics have their say

Consider Rotten Tomatoes a welcome addition to Ebertfest.

The film and TV review aggregation website sponsored Thursday morning's panel discussion at Hyatt Place in downtown Champaign, and it went surprisingly well — considering that it featured 13 professional movie critics plus one more as moderator, all with something to say about the state of movies and film criticism today and all within a one-hour time slot.

All right, so it ran nearly a half-hour beyond that, but credit moderator Claudia Puig, longtime reviewer for USA Today, for managing mic time for all 13 of her fellow critics — not an easy task considering her panel included the likes of author-historian Leonard Maltin; Chicago Sun-Times critic and Ebert's former "At the Movies" sidekick Richard Roeper; and his counterpart and friendly rival at the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips.

But if their fellow panelists were somewhat less well-known, their com-ments were no less insightful, from discussing movies' role in the "AD-ization of our culture" (as coined by MovieMom.com's Nell Minow) to their usefulness in real life (Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com: "I use watching movies as a kind of mental calisthenics. ... It's the mental benchpress of our time,") to the issues of racial and sexual diversity in the field of film criticism itself (Scott Mantz of TV's "Access Hollywood": "You have to have the same reflection of gender balance and diversity in the people reviewing the films as you do in the people who are actually seeing them.")

Other film critics on hand to discuss the present and future of their business included Susan Wloszczyna, Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, Sam Fragoso, Tallerico, Matt Fagerholm, Sheila O'Malley and Sarah Adamson.

The event was the first of four panel discussions scheduled each morning of Ebertfest at Hyatt Place, all of which are being livestreamed at the festival's website.

Frank's Favorite Fest Moments, Day 2: Thursday, April 19, 2018

— I really enjoyed sitting in on Rotten Tomatoes' panel of critics discussing the future of film criticism at Hyatt Place. There were more great observations from all 14 critics than I could ever hope to do justice to, let alone squeeze into print, but there were also some truly funny exchanges between the panelists. One of my faves came as Matt Zoller Seitz was expounding on his stark assessment that "movies are on their way out," meaning "the communal experience" of watching a movie in a theater with an audience, or as he put it, "The church of cinema is endangered." No sooner did he take a breath than Richard Roeper piped up, "Forgive me, I was playing Tetris while you were talking."

— As if watching the 70 mm print of director Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic "Interstellar" from the second row of the Virginia wasn't mind-blowing enough, hearing astrophysicists Miguel Alcubierre and Brand Fortner discuss the science of the film left my poor brain on the far side of a wormhole and at least a galaxy away. But just as mind-blowing was an update from two previous Ebertfest guests just before the curtain went up. Chaz Ebert introduced the recipients of the first Roger Ebert Humanitarian Award, Stephen Apkon and Marcina Hale, who reported that their documentary, "Disturbing the Peace," about the reconciliation of former Mideast combatants, had won several film festival awards and been shown all over the world since its premiere at Ebertfest two years ago. Apkon recalled that Chaz had given him one of Roger's handkerchiefs as a gift at the time, "and that, too, has been all over the world."

— I couldn't get enough of Wednesday night's guest Andy Davis, University of Illinois alum and director of "The Fugitive," so I hung around after that film to hear more of what he had to say, and I wasn't disappointed — right from his first remark on taking the stage at the conclusion of his breathlessly action-packed thriller: "I'm exhausted. Are you exhausted?" He went on to talk about working with the film's famously improvising stars (Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones), about the importance of geographical settings in his work ("The Fugitive" having been filmed in his hometown of Chicago), about the movie's sensational train-wreck scene ("You don't get two takes on a shot like that"), even about where in Illinois he found that huge dam to film (he didn't; it's in North Carolina) — as well as about Roger Ebert himself: "Roger helped make a lot of filmmakers because of his heart and soul. That's why we're here."

Looking forward to Day 3: Friday, April 20, 2018

— Noon: I've haven't seen "Columbus" before, but its showing features the festival's biggest panel of guests to grace the Virginia stage for one film: producers Bill Harnisch, Andrew Miano, Ruth Ann Harnisch and Danielle Renfrew Behrens,as well as writer-director Kogonada. And the film not only stars one of my favorite Asian-American actors, John Cho (best-known for his roles as Sulu in the rebooted "Star Trek" films and as half of the titular comic team in the "Harold & Kumar" movies), but also the geometric modernist architecture of this movie's title Indiana town as well. Definitely a lot to see and appreciate in this movie — and afterward.

— 6 p.m.: You already know Ebertfest is marking its 20th birthday this year, but did you know they're throwing a party to properly celebrate the occasion outside the Virginia Theatre between movies? I don't know if Chaz Ebert and the rest of the festival organizing team will be blowing out candles, but save a piece of cake for me!

— 8:30 p.m.: Here's another film viewing that will be a first for me, and I'm pumped about it. "American Splendor" holds appeal for me as a one-time aspiring cartoonist as it tells the real-life story of Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti, who was a frustrated Cleveland file clerk who became a superhero in the world of comic books by writing about his life for a series of R. Crumb-illustrated graphic novels. Guests will be writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and producer Ted Hope. Is it too much to say I feel drawn to this movie? Yeah, probably ...