Roger Ebert launched a film festival in Champaign, Illinois 17 years ago and his indomitable wife Chaz has kept it going strong, with the support of the community where Roger grew up and a loyal crowd of movie lovers who come from near and far. My wife and I attended for the first time this past weekend and had a wonderful time. We met nothing but friendly, enthusiastic people and interesting filmmakers, and got to watch movies on a giant screen at the beautifully restored Virginia Theatre.
Because of my teaching schedule at USC, we missed the first two days’ activities, including a showing of James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour (with the director and his star, Jason Segel, in attendance) and the Alloy Orchestra performing their score for Rudolph Valentino’s Son of the Sheik. The folks we spoke to had good things to say about both presentations, as well as a critics’ panel that took place on Friday morning.
We made up for lost time upon our arrival late Friday, when Richard Roeper and I had the pleasure of interviewing actor-writer Chazz Palminteri and producer Jon Kilik after a screening of A Bronx Tale (1993). Palminteri first performed this as a one-man show onstage and turned down film offers until Robert De Niro approached him and made a handshake deal, promising to do justice to his autobiographical story. De Niro not only made his directing debut with this heartfelt film but gave a moving performance as the young hero’s loving, working-class father.
Palminteri is a great raconteur and told colorful stories about the making of the picture, which remains close to his heart and very much a part of his life. He continues to perform the one-man show and is involved in a musical stage adaptation that is aiming for Broadway.
Producer Kilik has a résumé that stretches from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to The Hunger Games, but this movie remains one of his favorites. He augmented some of Palminteri’s anecdotes, and said he still can’t get over the fact that Robert De Niro phoned him and asked if he wanted to produce the picture. (That’s also indicative of Kilik’s unassuming nature.)
A Bronx Tale still plays beautifully, and was warmly received by the festivalgoers—most of whom, it turns out, hadn’t seen it before. We were lucky to have it at all: the original distributor went out of business years ago and there are no circulating copies. Ebertfest finally got permission to borrow Martin Scorsese’s personal, pristine 35mm print from the George Eastman House, where his collection resides.
I skipped several screenings of films I’d already seen (including Ida and Wild Tales), until Saturday night, when I took in a provocative double-feature: The Motel Life, a melancholy tale of two brothers starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, with co-director Alan Polsky in discussion afterwards, and 99 Homes, a devastating new drama from filmmaker Ramin Bahrani starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, and Laura Dern. (I was sorry to have missed this at Telluride last fall.) Bahrani appeared on stage with Noah Lomax, the talented boy who plays Garfield’s son, for a lengthy q&a that addressed the movie’s incendiary subject matter: the heartbreak of housing foreclosures and how one man tries to survive that experience. I’m a huge fan of Bahrani’s earlier films (especially Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) and this one is electrifying. You won’t want to miss it when it comes to theaters in September.
Finally, on Sunday morning, Variety’s Scott Foundas and I conducted an onstage interview with the subject of Ethan Hawke’s beautiful documentary Seymour: An Introduction. Seymour Bernstein is a genuinely inspiring man, an octogenarian who possesses both wit and wisdom, guiding his piano students to a greater understanding of themselves and their music. He was joined by his friend, philosopher and spiritual scholar Andrew Harvey, for a conversation that could have gone much longer. Scott and I were happy to bow out as Seymour proceeded to conduct a master class with two music students from the University of Illinois.
Chaz Ebert has a dedicated team of people working with her, but she is the glue that holds this festival together and makes everyone in the audience feel connected, through her warm and sincere introductions to each event. She also presents her special guests with a Golden Thumb award, actually cast from her late husband’s famous finger by the same company that manufactures the Academy Awards. It’s just one more way of keeping Roger Ebert a living presence at this film lovers’ festival. (A life-sized bronze likeness sits on a bench just outside the theater, for good measure.)
Good people, good movies, a great theater, and good food: what more could one ask? No wonder so many people told me that they look forward to Ebertfest every year. You can learn more at www.ebertfest.com.