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Ebertfest: It's Back and It's Loverly

by Peter Sobczynski

Now in its eighth year of existence, Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival returns to the town of Champaign, IL to unspool 12 films which most contemporary audiences missed because of poor distribution, promotion or because they were too odd to be summed up in a one-sentence sound bite–of course, his definition of “overlooked” is flexible enough to include the likes of “My Fair Lady,” one of the most critically and commercially successful movie musicals ever made. In some cases, Ebert has selected films that haven’t yet opened commercially on the assumption that they will eventually be overlooked–last year’s crop included the soon-to-be-acclaimed likes of “Murderball” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”

The films will play at the beautifully restored Virginia Theater and each screening will feature an on-stage post-film discussion featuring Ebert and a variety of filmmakers, critics and commentators. As usual, the festival kicks off with a 70mm spectacular and will also feature a silent movie with a live accompaniment from the astounding Alloy Orchestra. Although festival passes are now sold out, there may be individual tickets remaining for some of the films. For information on ticket availability, a list of tentative guests and panel discussions and the answers to any other question that you might have, you should go immediately to the official festival website at

Below is a list of the films that will be playing during this year’s festival and my thoughts on the titles that I have already seen. In a couple of cases, I have chosen to reprint my original reviews as they previously appeared both here and elsewhere–partly because they include everything I have to say on them and partly out of sheer laziness. (In other words, feel free to skip over anything that sounds more familiar than usual.)


MY FAIR LADY: Last year’s festival began with a 70mm presentation of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” a film that is unquestionably a masterpiece but one that can seem challenging to viewers not used to Tati’s unique filmmaking approach. As a result, I suspect that a deliberate choice was made to kick off this year’s festivities with something a little more accessible and crowd-pleasing and films don’t get more accessible and crowd-pleasing than this legendary Oscar-winning 1964 adaptation of Lerner & Loewe’s musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Because I have never been the biggest fan of movie musicals–especially three-hour-long behemoths like this–and because I still can’t believe that this received the Best Picture Oscar in the same year that saw “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Marnie” and “The Horror of Party Beach,” I have never quite developed the affection for this film that so many others clearly have over the years. That said, I will still cheerfully sit through the screening to observe both the delightful performance from Audrey Hepburn as Eliza and the lush picture and sound provided by the 70mm format. At this screening, the scheduled guests include film restorers Jim Katz and Robert Harris, who will discuss the work that went into putting the film back into shape, and Marni Nixon, the woman who actually did all of Eliza’s singing, who will talk about her interesting behind-the-scenes career. (In case you were wondering, the film is considered "overlooked" because the 70mm format it was shot in, a process that offers twice the size and clarity of ordinary 35mm film, is largely defunct today.)(7:30 PM)


MAN PUSH CART: One of this year’s “pre-Overloooked” selections, this title had its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, Ahmad Razvi stars as a man who used to be a top rock star in his native Pakistan and who now ekes out a living in Manhattan selling coffee from a pushcart. Razvi and writer-director Ramin Bahrani, who put the film together on a shoestring budget, are scheduled to appear after the screening.(1:00 PM)

DUANE HOPWOOD: In a change-of-pace role, David Schwimmer stars in this barely-released melodrama that looks at a few days in the life of a desperate Atlantic City alcoholic whose life has turned into a blur of booze, bad choices and eternal regret. To be absolutely honest, I am not much of a fan of this film–while Schwimmer deserves credit for playing such an unlikable character when he could have easily cashed a big check to appear in a dumb romantic comedy, I felt that writer-director Matt Mulhern neglected to give us any reason to care about either the character or his self-destructive ways. However, it does have its supporters and a screening like this, on the eve of its DVD release, should give it a better chance of finding more of them than the half-assed distribution it previously received. Mulhern is currently scheduled to appear for the post-film discussion.(4:00 PM)

SPARTAN:The thing that makes David Mamet’s "Spartan" so thrilling and exciting to watch is not the story that he has chosen to tell but the specific way that he has chosen to tell the story. In ordinary hands, the basic storyline could have been turned into a standard-issue action film, no better or worse than the ones that clog up the multiplexes every weekend. In Mamet’s hands, he has shaken things up by telling his tale in a style so distinct that, like "Pulp Fiction", it leaves viewers excited by both the visceral action and the bravura narrative risks. In other words, cinematic thrill-seekers and lit majors alike will find themselves entranced by Mamet’s achievements.

The only problem is that the key to what makes "Spartan" so exciting to watch is unfortunately destroyed the minute anyone starts talking about it in even the vaguest form of detail. You know how in most movies, there are always scenes and dialogue exchanges that exist only so that we know who the characters are and why they are in their particular situations? In "Spartan", Mamet has done away with all of those elements and forces the viewer to pay attention and figure things out as the film goes along. In the past, Mamet has experimented with leaving certain elements vague (such as the mysterious "Process" that drove "The Spanish Prisoner") but this is the first time that he has utilized such a trick for every aspect of a film. It is a interesting idea for a thriller-it makes sure that the audience never gets too far ahead of the on-screen characters-and the success of the gambit can be measured in the fact that after a few minutes, I no longer even noticed the experiment because I was so engrossed in the story. The drawback, of course, is that any prior knowledge of the storyline before going in begins to undermine what Mamet is trying to do.

As a critic, my problem now becomes trying to figure out what I can tell you about the film without becoming like the boy who cut open his drum to find out how it made noise. There are a few things I can tell you without screwing things up. There is a man (Val Kilmer), a hard man who has sworn to do his job and will go to any lengths to do so. There is another man (Ed O’Neill), a hard man who comes into a room and forcefully orders everyone around with impunity. There is a third man (William H. Macy) who stands in the background and says nothing, but we instantly surmise that he is the most powerful person in the room-after all, true power doesn’t need to announce itself. There is also a girl (Kristen Bell, the girl who would become Veronica Mars), whose absence causes no small amount of trouble for those three men and whose presence inspires even more. To say any more would begin to spoil things and so I will stop right there. (The commercials for the film, however, spill a lot more-so much more that I can only imagine the creative epithets they must have inspired in Mamet when he saw them.)

David Mamet is, of course, justifiably famous as arguably the most significant playwright of his time but a case could be made for him as one of the most inventive people working in film as well. As a screenwriter, he is one of the best (if he wrote nothing besides "The Untouchables" and the Alec Baldwin scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross", he would still be enshrined as one of the greats) and as a director, he has been quietly and steadily building an impressive body of work. "House of Games", "Homicide", "The Spanish Prisoner", "State and Main", "Heist"-entire careers could be made on any one of those films and "Spartan" is a more-than-worthy inclusion into their ranks. The filmmaking style is spare, taut and exciting and he has grown steadily more adept at staging scenes that have more going on than two guys sitting in an office-there is one moment involving a gunshot that is so perfectly put together that you will jump when it occurs and then be impressed with how easily he pulled you into the moment. The writing is just as brilliant-the storyline is smart, clever (though perhaps a bit troubling from an ideological point-of-view, as you may discover) and filled with the endlessly inventive foul-mouthed bon mots that he is famous for.

The trick, however, is to find actors who can deliver those lines-in the wrong hands, Mamet’s words can sound overly mannered and theatrical. O’Neill and Macy have worked with Mamet before (the former had a spellbinding monologue in "The Spanish Prisoner" and the latter has been a regular collaborator both on stage and screen) and they have the particular cadences and rhythms down. The surprise here is how well Val Kilmer adapts to those cadences and rhythms as well-they sound utterly natural coming from his mouth. Kilmer is a good actor who has unfortunately allowed alleged bad-boy behavior and poor taste in material ("The Saint", anyone?) to derail him but his performance here is the best thing that he has done in a long time and will hopefully inspire filmmakers to look beyond the reputation and recognize the considerable talent that is still there.

Perhaps my favorite film of all the ones showing this year, the post-film discussion will be headed by Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, a passionate fan of the film even though it was released (badly and barely) by a rival studio, and there is a possibility that some of the actors may attend as well. (8:30 PM)


SOMEBODIES: Another as-yet-unreleased film that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this is said to be an oddball comedy about an aimless college student (played by Hadji, who also wrote and directed the film) trying to discover who he really is. Hadji is scheduled to appear at the screening, along with co-star Kaira Whitehead and producers Pam & Nate Kohn. I can pretty much guarantee that the latter will be in attendance as he is also the director of the Overlooked Film Festival. (1:00 PM

THE EAGLE: Every year, the festival shows a silent film and every year, it is accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man band who have become famous for composing and performing new scores for classic films with decidedly odd instrumentation (including the judicious use of a bedpan at certain points)–their performances alone are so entertaining that you should try to sit in the front rows of the balcony so you can see both the film and the group at the same time. This year, they will be performing a score for “The Eagle,” a 1925 vehicle for silent-screen legend Rudolph Valentino in which he plays a former Russian soldier who becomes the outlaw The Black Eagle in an effort to destroy the man who stole his father’s lands, only to fall in love with the rotter’s daughter. Though I can’t say that I’ve seen this particular film (or many other Valentino films, for that matter), I can easily assure you that this will be one of the festival’s true highlights.(4:00 PM)

RIPLEY’S GAME: The idea of John Malkovich portraying Tom Ripley, that infamously immoral and utterly captivating creation of Patricia Highsmith (the very same one played by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) is one of those casting notions that is so utterly perfect that you can’t understand why no one thought of it before. Despite his presence, the revived interest in Highsmith in the wake of the Minghella film and the strong reviews it received in Europe, this 2002 adaptation of another Ripley book (previously filmed by Wim Wenders as “The American Friend”), which is probably best experienced knowing as little about it going in as possible, had its proposed American theatrical release scuttled by distributor Fine Line without any explanation given. (When I asked Malkovich about this in an interview at the time, he claimed that the studio decided to spend the money to promote “The Real Cancun” instead.) This was a tragedy because the film, directed by Liliana Caviani (director of that classic first-date film “The Night Porter”), is flat-out great–a twisty, endlessly surprising and blackly funny thriller that is as sheerly entertaining as anything you are likely to see anytime soon. Malkovich and executive producer Russell Smith, will be on hand to discuss it afterwards and believe me, there will be plenty to discuss. (8:00 PM)


MILLIONS:Although the critical and commercial success of his first two films, the Hitchcockian crime drama “Shallow Grave” and the cult hit “Trainspotting”, many expected that British director Danny Boyle would continue to crank out similar films. Instead, he has quietly accumulated one of the more intriguing and eclectic filmographies of anyone currently working in the U.K. Like Alan Parker, he seems hell-bent on exploring new genres with each films and he has so far given viewers a goofy screwball comedy (“A Life Less Ordinary”), an odd literary adaptation (“The Beach”), several intriguing projects for British television and a low-budget horror extravaganza (the surprise hit “28 Days Later”). With his latest film, “Millions”, the predictably unpredictable Boyle has come up with something that no one knowing his work could have possibly expected that he had in him–a perfectly charming family film that still contains the edgy humor and stylish direction that made him famous in the first place.

The film stars Alex Etel as Damien, a saint-obsessed seven-year-old who discovers a sack stuffed with pounds while playing one day. Following the example of heroes such as St. Francis of Assisi, he begins to use the loot to buy the contents of a pet store (in order to set them free) and feed the homeless (with a trip to Pizza Hut); Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), his more materialistic brother, who is the only other person to know his secret, has other ideas and uses some of the cash to buy his own posse at school. Two complications soon arise to put a crimp in Damien’s plans. The first is that England is planning to convert to the Euro in less than two weeks, rendering any pounds he has remaining worthless after that time. The other is the arrival of the man who actually stole the money in the first place and threatens the brothers if they don’t return it.

Although filled with Boyle’s trademark visual flourishes, “Millions” does mark itself as a departure from Boyle’s other films (which include the flawed “The Beach” and the better-than-expected “A Life Less Ordinary”) and not just because it is pitched at audiences far too young to have seen any of his other films. The difference here is that, with the exception of “Trainspotting”, this is the first time that he has given viewers characters that are genuinely interesting and worth caring about instead of ciphers meant to move from one flashy set-piece to the next; an exceptionally big risk when you consider that this film must live or die on the strength of the performance of a six-year-old child. Happily, plays Damien with a refreshingly unforced feeling; you get the sense that he is a real kid with real hopes, fears and obsessions and not one of these perfectly-scrubbed moppets that too often dominate kid-oriented films.

“Millions” is sentimental, to be sure, but never sappy and even has the good sense to give us a bad guy who is genuinely scary and not just another bumbling dope of the “Home Alone” variety; between him and the action-packed robbery scene, “Millions” may be a little too intense for younger viewers. If they can handle that, not to mention a couple of heavy accents, this film should prove to be a delight for kids and parents alike.(12:00 PM)

CLAIRE DOLAN: “Millions” is the family-oriented selection at this year’s festival and I can only hope that the tykes will have departed long before this dark 1998 drama unfolds. In a brilliant performance that reminds us just how much we lost when she died tragically in 2002 of pneumonia, Katrin Cartlidge plays the title character, a Irish immigrant who decides to leave her work as a high-priced Manhattan prostitute in order to settle down and have a baby and finds herself caught between her vicious pimp (Colm Meany) and a nice cabbie (Vincent D’Onofrio) who falls for her. This was written and directed by wunderkind Lodge Kerrigan (who is scheduled to appear), a man who has made three films to date (his others include 1994's “Clean, Shaven” and 2005's “Keane”) and each of them could qualify for inclusion in this festival–it says a lot about how harsh and uncompromising his work is when I say that this dark slice of life is easily the most audience-friendly of his films.(3:00 PM)

JUNEBUG: An amusing and thoughtful culture-clash dramedy in which hip art dealer Embeth Davidtz goes down south to meet her husband’s family for the first time and finds herself sort of swept into their world. What separates the film from others titles in which slick hipsters find themselves drinking in home-spun country wisdom is the wonderful and touching supporting performance from Amy Adams, who scored a much-deserved Oscar nomination as the pregnant sister-in-law who gloms onto the newcomer. Debuting writer-director Phil Morrison, co-star Scott Wilson and Michael Barker, whose studio did release the film, will discuss it afterwards and there is a possibility that Adams may show up as well. (If she does, though, you might want to keep the “Cruel Intentions 2" questions to a minimum.)(7:30 PM)

BAD SANTA (10:00 PM): For those people who would rather poke their eyeballs out than sit through a typical holiday special-the kind of thing in which a grumpy old curmudgeon learns the True Meaning of Christmas-"Bad Santa" should come as a blessedly profane relief. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a low-life drunk who, with his midget partner-in-crime (Tony Cox) travels from city to city every holiday season to use his department-store Santa job as a front to pull off elaborate Christmas Eve robberies. In Phoenix, though, things become complicated when Willie crosses paths with a suspicious store manager (John Ritter, who the film is dedicated to), a greedy store detective (Bernie Mac) who knows what Willie is up to and wants his cut and a local babe (Lauren Graham) with a kinky Santa fetish. Things really become complicated for Willie when a lonely little boy (Brett Kelly) latches on to him in the belief that he is the real Santa.

The central joke in the film is the sight of a guy in a Santa outfit drinking and thieving and swearing and screwing-not exactly the most original idea but one that "Bad Santa" manages to milk for a good amount of its running time. Part of the reason why it succeeds is because a lot of the jokes, filthy though they may be, are genuinely funny (I love the moment where "Santa", facing a kid tugging on his fake beard, explains that the real one fell out because "I loved a woman who wasn’t clean."). An even bigger part of it, however, is the fully committed performance by Thornton as Willie-even though he wasn’t the first choice for the part (the role was once earmarked for Bill Murray), it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. (With the combination of a deranged Thornton, a lonely boy and John Ritter, it feels at times as if director Terry Zwigoff-a long ways away from "Ghost World"-is secretly doing a spoof of "Sling Blade.”) While it will probably never become an annual holiday classic on the level of "A Christmas Story" (mostly because the sheer amount of profanity will prevent it from ever being shown on commercial television), I can safely predict that for those who need a break from the holiday spirit, "Bad Santa" will come as a blessed relief. (10:00 PM)

This review dealt with the original theatrical release–a film as filthy and depraved as anyone could possibly hope for. Later, there was a DVD release, entitled “Badder Santa,” that restored some scenes to make the proceedings even filthier. For this screening, Terry Zwigoff (who will be attending, along with editor Robert Hoffman) will be screening his personal print of his own extra-filthy director’s cut. Having seen the first two versions, I can’t begin to imagine what depravities are going to be unveiled and I can’t wait to find out.


U-CARMEN e-KHAYELITSHA: Another tradition for the festival is to close the proceedings with a musical–past selections have included “Singin’ In the Rain,” “Say Amen, Somebody” and “Taal,” a Bollywood extravaganza highlighted by an electrifying scene involving mega-goddess Aishwarya Rai and a Coke bottle. This year’s pick comes from South Africa and is a modern-day version of Bizet’s “Carmen” that is said to be anchored by an amazing central performance by Pauline Malefane as Carmen. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to catch this one but based on what I have heard about it, I am already regretting it. (12:00 PM)

And since everyone who goes to a festival like this comes away thinking, “Hey, they should show “-------“ next year,” I will now offer my own two cents by tossing out a couple of titles that will hopefully be considered for future Overlooked festivals. (And in case there is a smart-ass out there ready to suggest that I should just book my own festival if I know so much, all I can say is that I did and it was cooly received–perhaps the inevitable result of devising a retrospective designed to highlight such titles as “Ishtar,” “Streets of Fire” and the Richard Gere version of “Breathless.”)

THE CLAIM: Another film written by “Millions” screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, this little-seen 2000 film was director Michael Winterbottom’s powerful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” It features a stunning lead performance from Peter Mullan (currently coasting below his talents in “On a Clear Day”) as a rich and powerful man who owns a Old West mining town and who discovers that his considerable wealth can’t buy peace of mind when the dark secret of his past literally returns to his doorstep. The film also features wonderful supporting performances from Milla Jovovich, Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley and if the festival can get any of them to appear, I would personally be as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning.

FEMME FATALE: Despite being written off as a flop when it came out in 2002, this Brian De Palma film, a twisty thriller that plays like a cross between “Topkapi,” “Belle du Jour” and “Mulholland Drive,” was actually one of the best works of his entire career–a sly, sexy and witty mind-bender that told a wildly lurid story (involving betrayal, double-crosses, murder, deceit and the most erotic jewel theft ever filmed) in a manner that combined the self-assuredness of a master with full command of his powers and the enthusiasm of a newcomer who throws all of his energy into the proceedings on the assumption that he may never get a chance to do it again.

MAY: Easily the finest American horror film of the decade (not to mention the most criminally overlooked), this tragic, touching and terrifying fusion of “Frankenstein” and “Carrie” featured Angela Bettis (in the single best performance to grace a movie screen in 2003) as a strange young woman who goes to unusual lengths to make friends. The reason why this film stands head and shoulders over the likes of crap like “Hostel” and “Saw II” is because writer-director Lucky McKee allows us to get to know the main character in order to relate to her as a real person–as a result, the bloodshed in the final reels (and this is definitely not one for the squeamish) delivers an impact that has nothing to do with the amount of gore being spilled.

THE PLEDGE: In what may well go down as the single greatest performance of his long and distinguished career, Jack Nicholson plays a veteran cop who, on the night of his retirement party, has to inform a couple that their young daughter has been brutally murdered. In order to reduce their grief, he vows to bring the killer to justice himself and becomes so obsessed with the case–even after the case is closed when a prime suspect commits suicide while in custody–that it threatens to destroy his own life as well. Beautifully directed by Sean Penn, the film also features an astonishing cast of actors delivering top-flight work, including Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Benicio del Toro, Harry Dean Stanton, Patricia Clarkson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Mickey Rourke (whose single scene as the grieving father of another murdered child contains the best acting he has ever done).

TOP SECRET!: In 1984, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker triumvirate followed up their surprise comedy hit “Airplane!” with another three-jokes-a-second spoof of Hollywood genre films. However, while “Airplane!” was a clear and straightforward goof on disaster movies, this effort took its twin inspirations from WW II melodramas and Elvis Presley musicals–two genres that were likely unfamiliar to most members of the target audience. To make matters worse, it had the misfortune to debut at the same time as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “Star Trek III” and “The Karate Kid” and it just got lost in the shuffle. This was a tragedy because the film–in which Val Kilmer (in his screen debut) plays an American rocker on tour in East Germany who joins the French Resistance (including members named Latrine and Chocolate Mousse) in order to halt a nefarious Nazi plot to rule the world–was actually far funnier than “Airplane!” and I still consider the Swedish bookstore sequence (which you’ll have to see for yourself since to explain it would be to kill the joke) to be arguably the single most hilarious thing I have ever seen in a film.

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originally posted: 04/23/06 13:37:03
last updated: 05/13/06 21:37:38
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