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Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse plan to be on hand for Ebert Film Festival

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor
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movie poster showing a pirate sitting on a treasure chest
Silent films are getting special attention at this year’s Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, with three on the schedule, each a unique event. "The Black Pirate," starring Douglas Fairbanks, was one of the rare silent films shot in color.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The film fest will open with a big-screen showing of "The Right Stuff," the 1983 epic about America’s first men into space.

Four days later, it will dance its way to a curtain close with a newly restored print of "Singin’ in the Rain," the hit 1952 Hollywood musical. Two of the movie’s stars, Donald O’Connor and Cyd Charisse, are scheduled to be on hand.

In between, the fifth annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, April 23-27, will show a dozen other films, all in the 1,500-seat Virginia Theater, a 1920s-era movie palace in downtown Champaign. Last year’s festival brought 20,000 admissions.

At least six of the films’ directors will be on hand, along with actors, producers, critics, film scholars, movie executives and other guests. Many will appear on stage with film critic Roger Ebert after the screenings for informal discussions.

Other related events, held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, include panel discussions on film-related topics, a book signing by Ebert, and an exhibition of posters focusing on the changing image and role of women in the movies.

This year’s "Ebertfest" films include both recent work and early silents, and deal with subjects as diverse as pirates, the Paris drug trade, 1960s political protest, ballroom dancing in Japan, a multiethnic American Thanksgiving, and ruminations on happiness.

Ebert looks for films for the festival that he feels have been overlooked by critics, distributors, audiences, or some combination thereof. "The Right Stuff," for instance, received an Oscar nomination for best picture, but was a "puzzling flop" at the box office, he says. "Singin’ in the Rain," considered by Ebert and others as the best Hollywood musical, originally received little critical acclaim.

Ebert is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and also co-hosts "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies," a weekly televised movie-review program. He is a 1964 Illinois journalism graduate and adjunct professor.

The festival is a special event of Illinois’ College of Communications.

Silent films are getting special attention at this year’s festival, with three on the schedule, each a unique event. "The Black Pirate," starring Douglas Fairbanks, was one of the rare silent films shot in color. It will be shown with accompaniment from the three-man Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge, Mass., which last year accompanied "Metropolis."

"I Was Born, But …," a silent film from Japan, will be accompanied by a renowned Japanese "benshi," or movie storyteller, who stands next to the screen and interprets the dialogue and action. In the silent movie era, these storytellers were more popular than the films themselves, according to Ebert, and often headlined their own theaters.

The other silent offering is a collection of restored shorts by comedy masters Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Little Rascals, for the Saturday family matinee. Presenting the program will be the Silent Film Theater of Los Angeles, with the theater’s owner acting as host, and its organist providing the accompaniment.

This year’s schedule of films and guests:

Wednesday, April 23
7:30 p.m. – "The Right Stuff" (U.S., 1983), directed by Philip Kaufman. At the top of Ebert’s list of best films that year, it tells the story of men such as Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard and John Glenn, who broke the sound barrier and took America’s first steps into space. The festival will be screening a new print of the film, and actors Veronica Cartwright, Donald Moffat and Scott Wilson will be guests.

Thursday, April 24
Noon – "Stone Reader" (U.S., 2002), a documentary that tells the story of director Mark Moskowitz’s years-long search for the author of a treasured novel. Its trail leads through literary critics, agents and publishers to a family home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Moskowitz and producer Jeff Lipsky will be guests, along with Robert Goodman, a director, writer and expert on digital video production.

3:30 p.m. – "Shall We Dance" (Japan, 1996), directed by Masayuki Suo, the story of a Japanese office worker mysteriously drawn to take ballroom dance lessons. "This is the kind of foreign film that makes me want to grab people and shake them, and say ‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ " says Ebert. David Bordwell, a professor of film studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be a guest.

7 p.m. – "Your Friends and Neighbors" (U.S., 1998), directed by Neil LaBute, a harsh look at a trendy group of urban dwellers and their relationships. They are "materialistic, selfish, narcissistic, and yet feel good about themselves, because they live up to the shabby values of their environment," says Ebert. The director will be a guest.

10 p.m. – "Blood and Wine" (U.S., 1997), directed by Bob Rafelson, a crime picture about partners in a jewel theft that goes very wrong, with the partners played by Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine. The director will be a guest.

Friday, April 25

Noon – "Medium Cool" (U.S., 1969), directed by Haskell Wexler, a fictional film with a documentary feel set in the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "Its message of protest in a time of political turmoil is as relevant today as it was then," Ebert says. Wexler, also the cinematographer, will be a guest.

3:30 p.m. – "What’s Cooking?" (U.S., 2000), directed by Gurinder Chadha, an Indian woman who grew up on London, about Thanksgiving feasts in four American families: African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese. It’s a "comic round-robin," says Ebert, but also "a thoughtful story about who we are and why we give thanks."

7 p.m. – "The Black Pirate" (U.S., 1926), directed by Albert Parker, about a man who joins the pirate band that killed his father, hoping for revenge. An early experiment in two-strip Technicolor, it will be accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.

9:30 p.m. – "L.627" (France, 1992), directed by Bertrand Tavernier, looks at drugs and the drug trade – in this case, in Paris – with "accuracy, sadness and anger," offering no easy answers, Ebert says. The director will be a guest.

Saturday, April 26
11 a.m. – "Golden Age of Silent Comedy," the free family matinee featuring a collection of silent shorts by comedy masters – presented by Charlie Lustman and Dena Mora, owner and organist respectively, of the Silent Film Theater of Los Angeles.

2 p.m. – "I Was Born, But …" (Japan, 1932), directed by Yasujiro Ozu, "one of my three favorite directors," Ebert says. The silent film, about two boys and their diminishing perception of their father, will be interpreted by Japanese benshi Midori Sawato. Bordwell, who has studied and written about Ozu, will again join Ebert on stage.

6 p.m. – "Charlotte Sometimes" (U.S., 2002), directed by Eric Byler, an
Asian-American film about relationships, and "about very particular people with needs and fears, and the way they dance around the lies that separate them," Ebert says. Guests will include the director, along with actors Jacqueline Kim and Michael Idemoto and executive producer John Manulis.

9:30 p.m. – "13 Conversations About One Thing" (U.S., 2002), directed and
co-written by Jill Sprecher, a story that loops through the lives of its characters, exploring happiness and "how ethical decisions have a ripple effect on the lives we touch," Ebert says. Guests will include the director and her sister, co-writer Karen Sprecher, and Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Classics Pictures.

Sunday, April 27
1 p.m. – "Singin’ in the Rain" (U.S., 1952), directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, a musical comedy song-and-dance fest set in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly and Debbie Reynolds played the leading roles, opposite co-star Donald O’Connor.

Other guests who will take part in the festival include Dusty and Joan Cohl, founders of the Toronto Film Festival and the Floating Film Festival; Brand Fortner, founder of Spyglass and senior research scientist, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University; Scott Foundas, a film critic for Variety magazine; Steve Garfinkel, regional account manager of feature films for Kodak (U.S. East); Chris Gore, founder and editor of Film Threat magazine and, and host of "The New Movie Show with Chris Gore" on FX; and Lorr Kramer, director of Special Technical Projects at Digital Theater Systems (DTS).

Dates, times and topics for the four free public panel discussions, all to be held in the Pine Lounge of the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St., Urbana:

Thursday, April 24
9-10:15 a.m., "The Director in a World of Distributors," moderated by Ebert.
10:30-11:30 a.m., "What’s the Use of Film Criticism?" moderated by festival director Nate Kohn, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Georgia.

Friday, April 25
9-10:15 a.m., "Women in Cinema: Eight Conversations on One Topic," moderated by Pat Gill, a professor of media studies at Illinois.

10:30-11:30 a.m., "What a Glorious Feeling: The Rise, Fall and (Maybe) Rise Again of the Musical Film," moderated by Christine Catanzarite, associate director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.

On April 25, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., Ebert will sign copies of his books "The Great Movies" and "Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2003," on the second floor of the Illini Union Bookstore, 809 S. Wright St., Champaign.

Scheduled to coincide with the festival is an exhibition of movie posters, "Larger Than Life: Mythic Women in American Cinema," on view April 18 through May 25 at the university’s Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign.

Festival passes are $60 and tickets for individual films are $7. Both are on sale through the Virginia Theater box office, (217) 356-9053. Passes also can be purchased online through the festival’s Web site, which also provides links to Ebert’s reviews of the festival’s films.

For additional information, visit the Web site or contact Mary Susan Britt, the festival’s assistant director, at (217) 244-0552.