- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

Chaz Ebert welcomed the crowd to the 18th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, also known as “Ebertfest,” Wednesday evening at the Virginia Theatre, where Roger Ebert started the festival, now in its 18th year.

Ms. Ebert recalled for the crowd how the festival initially had the word “overlooked” in its name.

“We were looking for gems. It didn’t mean that the movie had to be something you’d never heard of, but something that Roger felt celebrated the human condition,” Ms. Ebert said of the Chicago Sun-Times film critic, who died in 2013.

“And one director said, ‘We don’t like that our films are overlooked,’ so we changed it to Ebertfest.”

Ms. Ebert said at the evening’s outset that her late husband, aware his end was near, told her to continue the festival after his passing only as long as she enjoyed doing so.

“When Roger made his ‘transition’ in 2013, he knew he was going, but I thought he was going to be here for two years,” she said.

The first few years after his death were particularly difficult — particularly as 2013’s fest happened mere weeks after his death — but she has soldiered on in the critic’s memory.

“We try every year because we care, and we’ll keep doing it,” she said.

Ms. Ebert called out the local newspaper, The News-Gazette, for a story that ran this week claiming that ticket sales were down and the festival was perhaps less relevant.

“I don’t understand the purpose of that story. We don’t compare one movie against the other. This is a cultural and arts and educational event,” she said to a roomful of applause at the Virginia.

Ms. Ebert then brought to the stage the eccentric Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, whose 2015 “gothic romance” “Crimson Peak” opened this year’s festival.

“All of my movies represent me. I’m weird I’m fat, I’m [messed] up … that’s basically me,” the director of “Chronos,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Pacific Rim” said. “I’m never interested in what everybody is interested in,” he said, adding he has turned down lucrative overtures from various studios to helm superhero and other megabudget films in favor of his passion projects.

Mr. Del Toro described “Crimson Peak” as a “gothic romance” in the tradition of such classic literature as “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” The film stars Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as a mysterious pair of English siblings at the turn of the 20th century who pay a visit to a New York family seeking money for a mining venture. Mr. Hiddleston’s character has his eye on a wealthy businessman’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who is haunted by disturbing paranormal visions.

The film is by turn mysterious, disturbingly sensual, unsettling and aggressively violent. All throughout is Mr. Del Toro’s signature love of the grotesque and, of course, the supernatural in his own unique vein.

“I don’t do movies for demographics, I make them for myself,” Mr. Del Toro said following the screening. “I don’t give a movie two or three years of my life if I don’t adore it.”

He said the film took nine years to make. Originally Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone were attached, but when the cast changed, Mr. Del Toro and his co-writer, Matthew Robbins, rejiggered the script with the new leads in mind.

“It is not a ghost story, it is a story with a ghost in it,” he said.

The maleficent mansion in the film was as much a character as the humans, Mr. Del Toro expressed, enthusing that his set was an actual three-story structure constructed on a Canadian soundstage — a “living painting,” as he put it.

The filmmaker expressed that it was important that his female lead not be a damsel who needs rescuing but rather takes an active role in her own eventual triumph. This, he claimed, is his way of paying tribute to the fact that much gothic horror and romance was in fact written by women.

“We’re not used to women duking it out. I think audiences are very conditioned to that not happening,” he said of the climax of “Crimson Peak,” which sees Miss Wasikowska and Miss Chastain battling brutally and bloodily.

Mr. Del Toro said he believes that too often female characters are “debased” or put on a pedestal: either humiliated by their creators’ lack of ingenuity or simply he objects of admiration.

“Most of the time when you see two women fight, it’s like mud wrestling or cat fighting. And I wanted very much to hand [Miss Wasikowska and Miss Chastain] the ending of the movie.”

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