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Carry Me Back To The Old Virginia: The 9th Annual Overlooked Film Festival

by Peter Sobczynski

Although the host may not be as active this time as in past years, Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival is still going strong.

On the surface, the 9th edition of Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival–a celebration of worthy films that most audiences were unable to see in theaters because of poor distribution, promotion or because they lacked the kind of simplistic plot that could be easily summed up in one sentence or less–looks similar to the eight previous editions. Over the course of five days, the sell-out crowds at the beautifully restored Virginia Theater in Ebert’s hometown of Champaign, IL, will be treated to 13 films–several excellent titles that simply fell through the distribution cracks, a few that never even got the chance to fall through the cracks and even a couple that stretch the definition of “overlooked” to the breaking point–along with post-film Q&A’s featuring filmmakers, actors, scholars and critics that are often as entertaining as the films themselves. For those lucky enough to attend, the Overlooked Film Festival is the rare film festival where the audiences are there because of a shared love of the cinema and not from a desire to find the hot new film on the block.

This year, however, there are a couple of significant differences to the Overlooked Film Festival. For starters, this is the last year that it will be known as the Overlooked Film Festival–starting next year, it will be known as Roger Ebert’s Ebertfest, the name that it has informally been known as for a long time. Although I doubt this new name will signal a shift in the programming away from obscurities to more mainstream titles, I must confess to being a little bummed over the new name–part of the fun for me has always been listening to Ebert introduce such little-known films as “2001,” “Lawrence of Arabia” or “My Fair Lady” while attempting to explain with a straight face how they could be classified as “overlooked.” The more significant and serious change to this year’s festival involves the host. As anyone who is reading this presumably knows, Ebert has been away from the movie beat for several months while battling salivary gland cancer and while he will be present at this year’s festival in his usual seat in the back row, he will not be introducing the films and leading the post-film discussions as in years past. Instead, he has recruited a group of friends and colleagues to take over those duties–in a move best described as inexplicable, I have been asked to help out with the discussion of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the infamous 1970 camp epic that was directed by cult filmmaker Russ Meyer from a screenplay written by none other than Ebert himself. While the idea of discussing the joys of the film with Ebert sitting in the audience is more than a little intimidating–I liken it to being asked to talk about the genius of “Blonde on Blonde” at a party at Bob Dylan’s house–I am fairly certain that the program–which will feature an appearance from co-star Marcia McBroom and a live performance from The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the famed psychedelic-rock group that appear in the film and whose original lineup has reunited for this event–will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the Overlooked Film Festival (though certainly not because of my contributions).

Below is a list of the films that will be playing, the guests currently scheduled to attend and some brief thoughts on the titles that I have already seen. Although festival passes sold out months ago, tickets for some of the individual screenings may still be available. To check on ticket availability or any changes to the program, you should immediately proceed to the official festival website at


GATTACA: In the not-too-distant future, genetic engineering has progressed to such a degree that perfect physical and intellectual test-tube creations have become the elite class while those created the old-fashioned way are relegated to the bottom rungs of society. That is the conceit behind this startling and intelligent film in which the genetically inferior Ethan Hawke assumes the DNA identity of Jude Law, whose good breeding has been rendered useless due to a paralyzing accident, in order to qualify for a space expedition and winds up embroiled in a murder investigation. Among the other characters involved in the story are Uma Thurman as a fellow genetic marvel (duh!), Alan Arkin as a detective looking into the murder and, in a flourish of witty casting, Gore Vidal as a top-ranking member of the elite class. Although classified as science fiction, this startling debut from writer-director Andrew Niccol (who would go on to make the equally interesting “Simone” and “Lord of War”) is more concerned with ideas than special effects and the result is one of the most thought-provoking examples of the genre to come along in years. Producer Michael Shamberg, who also helped bring “The Big Chill,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Out of Sight” to the screen, will be on hand to discuss the film. (7:00 PM)


THE WEATHER MAN: Although the career of Nicolas Cage has become increasingly hit-and-miss in the last few years–the release of this weekend’s “Next” marks the third film of his in a row to come out without the benefit of press screenings–he is still capable of turning in excellent work when he is suitably inspired. While this 2005 dramedy, which chronicles the life of a goofy Chicago weatherman who successful professional existence is offset by his disastrous personal relationships with his estranged wife (Hope Davis) and his highly respected father (Michael Caine), is a decidedly uneven work–a subplot involving Cage’s son and a creepy school counselor is a distraction and a slapsticky running gag involving Cage being pelted with fast food by disgruntled passerby is too silly for its own good–Cage’s performance is so strong and sure (especially in his scenes with Davis and Caine) that it pretty much helps to save the entire film. Writer Steve Conrad and co-star Gil Bellows are scheduled to appear after the screening. (12:30 PM) (REVIEW)

MOOLAADE: Though largely unknown in this country, Ousmane Sembene is generally regarded as the finest living African filmmaker–in fact, he is essentially the founding father of African cinema–and this 2004 effort is often cited as one of his greatest works. The premise of the film–a stand-off between the traditionalists and progressives in a remote village that begins when four young girls about to undergo the brutal practice of female circumcision escape and take shelter with a local woman (a great performance from Fatoumata Coulibaly) who was able to protect her own daughter from the ritual–may make it sound like an unbearable earnest and solemn drama that one watches solely because it is Good For You. While there are a number of wrenching and powerfully moving moments, Sembene includes surprisingly effective moments of levity and good cheer–even a musical number or two–in order to give a fuller view of the day-to-day life in this town. Coulibaly and Samba Gadjigo, a leading scholar on the subject of African cinema and the director of the documentary “The Making of Moolaade,” will lead the post-film Q&A. (3:30 PM) (REVIEW)

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER: Despite becoming an enormous box-office success throughout Europe, this long-gestating adaptation of the 1984 Patrick Suskind best-seller–the chronicle of a strange young man (Ben Whishaw) driven to murderous lengths by his obsession with scents to put together the most beautiful and intoxicating perfume known to man–tanked in America when it was released last winter by a studio that was too busy attempting to get “Dreamgirls” a Best Picture Oscar to give it even a token push in the marketplace. This was a shame because the film is a lovely and lurid gem that feels like what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick (who once flirted with adapting the novel himself) and Ken Russell decided to team up to make the world’s artiest mad slasher movie. Everything about it–from director Tom Tykwer’s darkly funny direction (the best work he has done since his 1999 breakthrough “Run Lola Run”) to the lush period trappings to the effective performances from Whishaw, Alan Rickman and the hilarious Dustin Hoffman–works like clockwork and it all builds to what will surely go down as one of the most unforgettable climaxes ever put on the big screen. Alan Rickman, whose performance here as a generally decent guy is a decided change-of-pace from his more flamboyantly villainous turns in “Die Hard,” “Robin Hood” and the “Harry Potter” films, is currently scheduled to appear with the film. (8:30 PM) (REVIEW) (Interview with Tom Tykwer)


SADIE THOMPSON: One of the high points of each year’s Overlooked Film Festival is the screening of a silent film with a live musical accompaniment. This year, the slot is filled with this 1928 film, the first screen adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel “Rain,” in which Gloria Swanson (in a role that would result in the first of her three Oscar nominations) as a prostitute who turns up in Pago Pago and becomes involved with both a solider (portrayed by the film’s director, Raoul Walsh) and a local preacher (Lionel Barrymore) with grim results for all. As the film plays, Steven Larsen will be conducting the Champaign-Urbana Symphony in the performance of a score composed by Joseph Turrin–Larsen and Turrin will discuss their efforts after the film along with film scholar David Bordwell. (12:00 PM)

COME EARLY MORNING: Still best known as the delightful central character of Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” Joey Lauren Adams makes an impressive writing and directing debut with this affecting drama of a young woman in a small Southern town struggling to break free from a cycle of too many drunken one-night stands when she meets a guy who is interested in more than just that. What elevates it from just another indie drama about a woman coming to terns with things is the electrifying lead performance by Ashley Judd (in a role that will remind some of her breakthrough part in “Ruby in Paradise”)–this is the best work she has done in a long time and serves as a much-needed reminder (to her, if no one else) that she can be one of the most powerful actresses around when given material slightly more challenging than the dull thrillers she has been stuck in for the last few years. Adams and Scott Wilson, an Overlooked Festival regular who appears in the film as Judd’s estranged father, are scheduled to appear. (3:30 PM) (REVIEW) (Interview with Joey Lauren Adams)

LA DOLCE VITA: Considering the status of this film–Federico Fellini’s 1960 chronicle of a few long days and nights in the life of a paparazzo (Marcello Mastroianni) obsessively trying to capture the private lives of the frivolous habitues of the nightclubs, cafes and fountains of Rome while searching for some shred of meaning to his own–as one of the high-water marks in the history of cinema, I am not exactly certain how it can be considered to be “overlooked.” Then again, when faced with the charm of Mastroianni’s performance, the originality of Fellini’s visual style, the strains of Nino Rota’s famous score and the overwhelming physical presence of Anita Ekberg (as a starlet pursued by Mastroianni), it is likely that everyone in the audience will be too engrossed in the film to feel like nitpicking. Michael Barker, the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics and another longtime friend of the festival, will talk about the film afterwards. (7:30 PM)

FREDDIE MERCURY, THE UNTOLD STORY: The life and times of the flamboyant lead singer of the popular rock band Queen is chronicled in this film from Rudi Dolezal (who will be in attendance) that combines archival footage, interviews with friends, family, co-workers and those influenced by his music and dramatic recreations of his formative early years growing up in Zanzibar. (11:30 PM)


HOLES: Another tradition of the Overlooked Film Festival is to have a free screening of a family-oriented film and a post-screening discussion in which children in the audience are encouraged to participate. This year’s selection is Andrew Davis’s surprisingly effective and hugely entertaining 2003 adaptation of the much-beloved young adult novel about an unlucky kid (the now-ubiquitous Shia LeBouf) who, through no fault of his own, is sentenced to a desert-based reformatory where the inmates are required by the adults in charge (Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Tim Blake Nelson) to dig holes under the blazing sun every day in search of something that I wouldn’t dream of revealing. This is a strange and quirky little gem with the power to genuinely entertain kids and adults alike. Davis, better known for such harder-edged fare as “The Fugitve” and “Under Siege,” will be on hand to take questions. (11:00 AM)

MAN OF FLOWERS: I am embarrassed to admit that I have never seen Paul Cox’s acclaimed 1983 film about the relationship between an eccentric old man (Norman Kaye) and the beautiful-but-troubled young woman (Alyson Best) whom he pays to strip for him. That said, when you combine the intriguing premise, Cox’s gifts as a filmmaker and the mere presence of the great Werner Herzog in a rare acting performance, I can pretty much guarantee that this will be one of the more interesting titles on display at this year’s festival. Cox and Herzog, both of whom have attended in the past, will be on hand for what is sure to be a fascinating discussion. (2:30 PM)

STROSZEK: Of course, you can’t bring Werner Herzog in for a film festival and then not show one of his own considerable directorial efforts. Although Herzog has made many strange and unclassifiable films in his career, this 1977effort may well be his most mystifying to date–a singularly odd and strangely tender look at a trio of misfits (a mentally handicapped ex-con, an old man and a prostitute) who leave Germany to begin a new life living in a trailer in the same Wisconsin town where the notorious Ed Gein (the man whose bizarre crimes inspired “Psycho” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) once lived. No description of the film could possibly begin to do it justice but I can assure you that once you see it, you may love it or hate it but you will never forget it. Herzog will be discussing the film afterwards and as anyone who saw the post-film Q&A of his “Invincible” a couple of years ago can attest, a chat with him can be just as dense, mysterious and deliriously entertaining as his films. (7:00 PM)

SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS: Equal parts scary, funny, strange and tender, this decidedly oddball 2005 documentary follows alt-country singer Jim White as he takes us on a bizarre guided tour of a series of small towns in the Deep South and their inhabitants. Although some have charged that the film only offers a condescending perception of the area as a backwater populated entirely by Pentecostal weirdos performing odd rituals, even the weirdest moments (and there are plenty of them) are presented with a open-minded humanity that makes them genuinely fascinating instead of merely freakish. Jim White and director Andrew Douglas (who inexplicably followed up this work with the terrible remake of “The Amityville Horror”) will be at the screening and I suspect they will have many tales to tell. (10:30 PM)


BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: No, I have no idea as to why I was selected to discuss this infamous 1970 camp classic–directed by cult filmmaker Russ Meyer and written by Ebert himself–that chronicles the trials and tribulations of an all-female rock trio (Cynthia Myers, Dolly Read and Marcia McBroom) who travel to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune and wind up caught in a web of sex, drugs, violence, perversion, lust, betrayal, Nazis, crippling accidents, mass murder and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. That said, I am thrilled to be able to because this is a compulsively entertaining and cheekily amusing work that takes the premise Jacqueline Susann’s ridiculous best-seller and transforms it into a deliciously demented soap opera satire (that builds to a finale so wild that it makes the climax of “Perfume” look staid by comparison) for which the words “over-the-top” hardly begin to do it justice. Joining me on stage will be co-star Marcia McBroom and the screening will be followed by a live performance from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, who are reforming for the first time in 20 years for this appearance. (12:00 PM) (DVD REVIEW)

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originally posted: 04/23/07 05:40:11
last updated: 04/23/07 14:44:46
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