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Movies That Speak for Themselves: Roger Ebert Previews Ebertfest ’11

He may have lost his voice, but the world’s most famous film critic still knows how to call attention to great films.

Thumbs Up to Life: Roger Ebert at the 2011 TED Conference

The thirteenth edition of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival starts Wednesday with an eclectic mix of films whose sole qualifying criteria is that the world’s most famous film critic wants you to see them. Over five days, Ebert and his wife Chaz will play host to thirteen features ranging from documentaries (45365, Louder than a Bomb), American indies (Leaves of Grass, Tiny Furniture), and world classics (Metropolis, Umberto D).  The festivities take place in the Virginia Theater at Ebert’s alma mater, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with an impressive roster of guests including Tilda Swinton (I Am Love), Richard Linklater (Me & Orson Welles) and Norman Jewison (Only You).

While Ebert is the driving force behind the festival, he will largely take a back seat during the presentation of his hand-picked films and invited VIPs due to his well-documented fight with salivary cancer that has left him unable to speak. Ebert made his condition the subject of a powerful presentation at the TED Conference last month, with his wife, two close friends, and the computerized voice of his MacBook taking turns delivering his address. Ebert’s TED Talk is a poignant reflection on the place that words and technology have in determining both one’s identity and the ability to have a fulfilling existence in society.

We caught up with Ebert to get a preview of what to expect at Ebertfest ’11:

Keyframe: It’s worth considering the meaning of Ebertfest for you in light of your recently posted TED Talk, which is now an instant viral video hit. You gave a life-affirming testimony of how digital and virtual technology enable you to continue living a very productive and socially active life, to speak without needing to “speak.” But what about a live public event, especially Ebertfest, where you are one of the main attractions? How do you experience Ebertfest differently than you did before you lost your ability to speak?

Ebert: It is completely different. For years I was on stage with every guest after every film. The use of a computer voice makes that kind of exchange impractical. On the other hand, I  enjoy the wonderful participants we put onstage, including the Far-Flung Correspondents from my web site, and some of the contributors to Ebert Presents. Chaz has taken over the emcee duties, and is a natural.

Keyframe: This year’s Ebertfest has a distinctive South By Southwest theme; perhaps it’s no coincidence as you were on the Narrative Feature Jury of this year’s SXSW. Two films you are presenting, Natural Selection and Tiny Furniture, were the big winners of the last two years at SXSW. What distinguishes SXSW from all the other major US festivals?

Ebert: I wasn’t consciously looking for SWSW films; it sort of worked out that way. I think SXSW may be a little more outsider than the other major American festivals, a little more regional (in  a good way). The films it draws gain something from their juxtaposition with the enormous presence at SXSW of music and interactive media. Some movie fans don’t quite realize that, of the three, film is probably third in importance at the festival. (Not to me, however.)

Keyframe: Ebertfest opens April 27 with a screening of the new restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with 30 minutes of re-discovered footage. How does the added footage improve or enhance what is already an all-time landmark in sci-fi cinema?

Ebert: It fills in some narrative gaps and answers some plot questions. It restores some gorgeous shots. It is as close as we will ever come to a director’s cut.

Watch other classic silent films by Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon and Spies on Fandor.

Keyframe: I’m perhaps most intrigued by the inclusion of Only You. Director Norman Jewison and stars Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. all have long, distinguished filmographies, and this film hardly gets mentioned among them. How did you come back to this film for inclusion in the program?

Ebert: The festival started out being called “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festval.” I wanted to show films, genres and styles (including silent and B&W) that were overlooked. We changed the name, but the idea remains. I have admired Norman Jewison since I began reviewing. I love Only You. You’re right–it hardly gets mentioned.  I also have great respect for Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey. So it all came together.

Keyframe: On April 30 Tilda Swinton will be on hand to present I Am Love. How would you describe what makes her such an unmistakable performer?

Ebert: She is her own person. I’ve run into her time and again at festivals, and we’ve talked a lot, but oddly enough I’ve never done a proper interview with her. I am so inspired by that photo we have in the program of her physically hauling a “cinema wagon” through the hills of Scotland to bring movies to outlying districts. As an actess, she he fearless and peerless, and has superb taste in directors. I Am Love really, really got to me.

Watch Tilda Swinton in Conceiving Ada and Teknolust on Fandor.

Keyframe: Your TED Talk was as riveting as a Hollywood drama, though a movie could never recreate the power of the moment captured on that stage between you, Chaz and your friends. Still I am curious, who would you and Chaz pick to play yourselves in a movie version of your life together?

Ebert: I have no idea!

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  • Red Love Film’s feature film Joy releases today through Amazon.com and other retailers like Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. We were reaching out to see how we might have you review the film.

    What can the perfect cake teach us about love and loss? Have you ever passed someone at the grocery store and wondered what is going on in their life? What can a 1997 Michigan Pinot Grigio teach us about the unexpected death of a loved one? What’s on your grocery list?

    These questions and more are asked in “Joy.” When the death of their father doesn’t bring sisters closer together, it takes an unexpected journey to make them realize the importance of finding joy in life by living each day to the fullest. In this feature comedy, these sisters learn about love, loss, and redemption while on a trip to quite possibly the most magical grocery store.

    Joy is a magical reinterpretation of a true story. After her sister and father passed away, both unexpectedly, actress Julie Marie Hassett conceived the script. In awe of her family’s journey through grief and healing, she decided to make a film that would be a perfect explanation to fix grief, erase the fear of unknown, and heal. Instead of finding those answers, she created a celebratory film that has been called by cast and crew, “the little film that could.” It is our story of finding joy, told with bravery and humility, some great music, and a lot of joy.

    Hassett began co-producing the film with her sister Elizabeth Joy, an MBA student at Xavier University, after their father passed away. The goal for Julie, Liz and Red Love was to combine profitable feature film-making with support to the non-profit and philanthropic world.

    No one knew how literal and personally this goal would be realized. When they were nearing completion of pre-production, Elizabeth and her twins passed away after 17 weeks of pregnancy. Devastated, the film almost came to a complete halt, put on a shelf and left to move on to other projects. But encouraged by friends and family to finish the film for Liz, Julie decided to finish this for her and their family. Julie started the Foundation of Joy (www.FoundationofJoy.Org), a 501(c)(3) charity in honor of Elizabeth. The Foundation became a co-producer in the film and will benefit as a major investor from the sale of this film. Foundation of Joy produces and creates art in the effort to educate, increase awareness, and raise money for the health, wellness, education and artistic development of children and women’s reproductive healthcare and human rights. We do this through art: film, music, literature, and mixed media. Art spreads joy. We partner with nonprofits domestically and globally and we are dedicated in our participation in the UN Millennium Development Goals.

    And the film did happen, and Liz posthumously became a producer on her first feature, because of the generosity of the cast, crew, vendors, locations and the community at large who donated their time, energy and love to the film. Actors who flew in from Los Angeles at a fraction of their rate, crew that came in from Chicago and New York on buses, or drove on their own dollar are just some of the many incredible efforts put forth to see this film made.

    “Joy” is the latest completed film from Red Love Film (Joy, Salesgirl, Measure, Blue Marble Gang). It’s a slice of life film mixed with a dose of the mystical – reminiscent of “I [Heart] Huckabees,” “What the [Bleep] Do we Know” and “The Peaceful Warrior.”

    The film features Bootsy Collins as the “voice” of Jungle Jim’s International Market and stars Julie Marie Hassett who will be seen next in Blood Redd, directed by special effects guru Brad Palmer , a project being eyed by Wes Craven. Evan Boymel whose latest is “Goats” with David Duchovny and Minnie Driver. He’ll also be in the Joe Esterhaz penned film “Lust.” Vince Jolivette (partner, Rabbit Bandini films with James Franco) will appear alongside Franco in the film “Maladies” this winter. These three also reteamed on “Measure” directed by DJay Brawner this past summer. Brawner has been busy directing music videos for The Foo Fighters, Gym Class Heroes and commerciasl for Coors Light.

    Our website is being built around our message of “Spread the Joy,” with a cookbook of cast and crew recipes that can be downloaded to “cook for your family,” postcards to write to friends and relatives – encouraging them to do selfless works on behalf of other people. It’s a social movement – philanthropic in nature – not unlike the “Pay it Forward” idea. There are also links that can be copied into Facebook. After just a few weeks of being online the Facebook Spread the Joy Cause is already a few hundred members strong.

    The publicity for this film up to now has been very positive. During production, the cast and crew were interviewed several times by local ABC affiliates, Julie was interviewed by Backstage West, and Filmstew and Yahoo news covered the project.

    One fun highlight of this coverage was the story done when the cast and crew made a trip to the local Cincinnati chapter of Boys and Girls Club to make a donation on behalf of the Foundation.

    On November 9th we held a private screening of the film at the Cincinnati Art Museum. On the evening of the event, a silent auction was hosted by The Foundation of Joy, which donated the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club of Cincinnati, Union Bethel’s Off The Streets Program and Lonely Instruments for Needy Kids. I could immediately tell, after that screening, that we had “something.” The next day we received emails from the cast and crew. Here’s a poignant excerpt from one such letter “in my dealing with loss, I have reflected on my interpretation of the theme of your film. I have considered putting thanks where it is due. I want to commend you on the positive message you seemed to convey in your film. I also want to commend you on your endeavors with children, adoption, and mentoring. These are all very important issues. Doing these good things may have been therapeutic in your recovery and spiritual well-being, but they also have a lasting impact on the others you come in contact with. You may even influence them to do the same in return.”

    We’ve begun the soundtrack album of music “from and inspired” by the film which will be released by us through Lizzy Records. Intended to be completed and released soon, we hope to feature both the local bands, who were in the film and are on the brink of “breaking out,” and more bands with larger exposure, which we’re going to contact as the film builds in notoriety. We hope this will be a reciprocal relationship, as their involvement will further increase the films popularity.

    From the soundtrack, Bootsy Collins, The Hiders, Kim Taylor and Wussy have received multiple nominations for the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. Kim is on the verge of breakout success, having been featured on CBS’ Flashpoint, NPR World Cafe, and has been written up in a number of articles in magazines from Performer Magazine to the Washington Post.

    And from the music world, Bootsy Collins, of the famous Parliament Funkadelic, brings his funky persona and charming reggae inspired voice to the world of Jungle Jim’s, playing the “voice” of the store.
    I may be a bit biased, but I’ve seen how this film, and the process of making it has already touched so many people, I have to believe it’s a story worth telling and an effort worth supporting.
    Thank you and all the best,

    Joseph Ruggieri
    Red Love Film

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