Ebertfest Day 1: Champaign’s Favorite Son Returns With More Overlooked Gems
While Ebertfest 2012 started out with a disappointing announcement—one of this year’s big name guests, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, cancelled his fest appearances only minutes before opening night remarks by producer/co-host Chaz Ebert—the capacity crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm in Champaign, Illinois’ gloriously shabby chic Virginia Theatre was in no way diminished.
While SML wasn’t initially super excited about revisiting opening night feature Joe Versus the Volcano, the quirky fantasy was enthusiastically received, and won our hearts with its surreal staging, quirky, absurd dialogue, and top notch comic performances–Tom Hanks, his mullet wig, and Meg Ryan, a comedy knockout playing three very different and well defined characters. In the following Q&A with Joe Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt, when panelist Christy Lemire mentioned that Goldblatt’s most recent works were Julie & Julia and The Help, the people sitting behind SML cried out, “Wow!” and “Oh my God!” for altogether different reasons than had SML upon discovering this info weeks before.
A comedic short film preceded the next feature, entertaining internet personality spoof The Truth About Beauty & Blogs, amounts to a fun homemade actor’s reel, which is pretty much what it was, according to very smartly dressed writer/co-producer/actor Kelechie Ezie in the Q&A.
Closing out opening night was Phunny Business: A Black Comedy, a laugh a minute, but often too slick by half documentary about entrepreneur Raymond Lambert’s famous Chicago comedy club All Jokes Aside, a spectacular crossroads of black comedy partly responsible for helping launch heavyweights like Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer. While there are plenty of laughs throughout, the onscreen narration by subject/writer/producer Lambert felt forced and oversold, and exactly like the talking heads in today’s crop of “unscripted” reality shows. The result felt self-aggrandizing and a little phony. But luckily, with so many interesting, funny interviews and consistently hilarious clips from the club’s early ’90s heyday, this can only be a very minor complaint.
In the following Q&A, director John Davies told a funny story about when he worked as a Production Assistant for “Sneak Previews” back in its early public television days and once rewrote part of an Ebert review while transcribing it for the teleprompter. When Ebert reached the new lines he called over Davies and gave him a few stern words, followed by the christening of a new nickname: Functional Illiterate.
Stay tuned for recaps of Days 2 through 5, featuring the Alloy Orchestra, momentary eye contact with Doug Benson of “Doug Loves Movies,” and an all-strings version of “Smooth Criminal”!