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Roger's Welcome

Good films are an endangered species. Unless a movie opens on 3,000 screens with a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, it may not beRoger Ebert frame a shot able to attract the attention of its potential audience. Moviegoers have to be attentive and curious to know that a small film in a perhaps obscure venue may be the best film playing in town. Too often they cave in to the publicity and go to the latest Hollywood no-brainer. The purpose of the Overlooked Film Festival is to provide a second chance for wonderful but overlooked films and genres, and to bring to Urbana-Champaign and downstate Illinois some of the most creative artists in the world of cinema.

Of course the definition "overlooked" can be defined in many ways. After I selected "Children of Heaven," Miramax's Cynthia Swartz reminded me it was an Oscar nominee and did well at the box office. Yes, I replied, but subtitled films themselves are overlooked--and Iranian films--and serious films by and for families. We are scheduling "Children of Heaven" as the free family screening because I believe kids who can read are old enough for subtitles; it's never too early to introduce them to the best of world cinema.

"Oklahoma!" too is hardly overlooked--not when the whole audience knows most of the score by heart. But its format is overlooked; we will be presenting it in 30 frame-per-second Todd AO Vision. Todd AO Advertising Banner reading: "New Sight! New Sound! New Screen!"It may be the first Todd-AO 30 fps to ever play south of Chicago in Illinois, and it will startle audiences with its clarity. Once again the ace technical team of James Bond and Steve Krause, who first worked with us on the "2001" screening at CyberFest and made such a contribution at the first Overlooked, will supply the rare projector, and the expertise. Tim Zinnemann, a film producer and son of "Oklahoma's" great director Fred Zinnemann, will be here in person for a screening that honors the late director's birthday.

"The Last Laugh" and "Un Chien Andalou" are two of the most famous films ever made, in some circles. But a silent film and a Surrealist film are not ordinary fare, and we will also present live musical scores by Concrete, the band from St. Joe-Benton Harbor, Mich., who had such a triumph last year with "Potemkin." This year we also present a modern silent film, Charles Lane's enchanting and moving "Sidewalk Stories," made with great courage in 1990, which was well into the talkie era. Lane will be here in person.

"Dark City" did get a national roll-out, but not the kind of marketing I thought it deserved. I picked it as the best film of the year, and thought it was superior to the more successful "The Matrix," which had a similar buried theme. Science fiction and special effects pictures are themselves overlooked by people who don't, or think they don't, like the genre. This film may surprise them. We'll talk with its director, Alex Proyas, by telephone from Australia.

Documentaries are often overlooked, even though they are the most immediate and vibrant of film forms, and this year we have two great ones. "Legacy" tells the story of a Chicago family that regrouped and transformed itself after a family tragedy, and its narrator, Nicole Collins, will be our guest after the screening, along with director Tod S. Lending. "American Movie," which won at Sundance a year ago, is the funny and perceptive story of Mark Borchardt, a truly independent filmmaker whose hand-made horror movies are American folk art. After the screening, we will show "Coven," the film Borchardt is seen making in "American Movie," and I'm sure he would agree it is overlooked. Director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price will join Mark on the Virginia stage (and "Coven" will be for sale in the lobby).

. . .a truly independent filmmaker whose hand-made horror movies are American folk art.

Animation is not overlooked if it is from Disney, DreamWorks or Warner Brothers. But in Japan, anime is a major art form; it hardly ever plays on big screens in America. We will present "Grave of the Fireflies," which has been called the most emotionally powerful animated film ever made. From Australia, two very different films. I first saw Paul Cox's "A Woman's Tale" in 1992, and have been haunted by it ever since. Sheila Florance, who won the Australian Oscar for her work, is brave and true, and her performance is a fitting successor to the powerful work of Heather Rose in last year's "Dance Me to My Song." Cox himself is one of the most original and gifted of all directors, and this screening will inspire you, I hope, to see out some of his other films. I have had good times with Cox in Cannes, Montreal, Toronto, Honolulu, Chicago and Calcutta, and now at last in Urbana-Champaign.

I expect the Overlooked audience to agree with me that it's a weird, inspired and lovable comedy.

Also from Australia: "The Castle," which I saw on the 1998 Floating Film Festival. (The Floating's founder, Dusty Cohl, is an Overlooked guest this year, so ask the bearded guy in the cowboy hat all about it.) The audience roared with laughter, but the film curiously failed to have much of a success in America. I expect the Overlooked audience to agree with me that it's a weird, inspired and lovable comedy. Director Rob Sitch and producer Michael Hirsh will be here in person.

"The Terrorist" is exactly the kind of film you should hear about, but don't. John Malkovich saw it when he was on the jury of the Cairo Film Festival, and was so impressed he set up a screening in Chicago, and arranged to present it in America. It is currently in release, although unless you care about good films and are paying attention, you might not realize that. When I saw it, I was stunned. "The Terrorist" provides a portrait of a young woman who volunteers to become a human bomb, following her for the last few days before the planned assassination. It is from India, where I saw "Malli," the new work by the same director, Santosh Sivan, when I was at the Calcutta and Hyderabad film festivals in November. I am pleased its star, Ayesha Dharkar, will be with us, along with producer Mark Burton.

Last but very far from least is an old friend, Henry Jaglom, whose "Deja Vu," made with and starring Victoria Holt, is an astonishingly moving story of love and fate. Jaglom has been a major presence among independent American filmmakers for three decades, making films in his own time, in his own way, often with friends and family. For those who related to the grown-up love story of Eric Rohmer's "An Autumn Tale" last year, here is another intelligent emotional experience. Jaglom and Holt will be here.

. . .an astonishingly moving story of love and fate

It is hard to choose the films for the Overlooked every year; there are so many deserving candidates. Movie critics despair sometimes because they know of so many good films that are overlooked, and so many bad ones that are not. For a few days in April, at the Virginia Theater, the balance tilts the other way.


Roger Ebert