Thursday, May 12, 2005

Overlooked Film Festival report 2005

M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) ***½
The Saddest Music in the World (2003) ***
After Dark, My Sweet (1990) ****
Baadasssss! (2004) ****
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) ****
Primer (2004) ****
The Secret of Roan Inish (1993) ***½
Map of the Human Heart (1993) ***
Taal (2000) **

Playtime (1967) n/a
Yesterday (2004) n/a
Murderball (2005) n/a
You, Me and Everyone We Know (2005) n/a

Four years ago I attended my first Overlooked Film Festival, a most unique film festival as its films consist entirely of movies that have already been tested in other markets including previous theatrical release, home video and other film festivals. Film critic Roger Ebert personally selects all of the Overlooked films as films, formats and styles that have been overlooked in either popular or critical circles.

Some past festival highlights include, Dark City, American Movie, Innocence, Tully, Gates of Heaven, Metropolis, George Washington, Stone Reader, The Right Stuff, Lawrence of Arabia, Singing in the Rain, Patton, Grave of the Fireflies, The General, and many other beyond great films. Each Overlooked opens with a film screened in the superior image quality 70mm film format and closes with a musical. Each festival includes a silent classic with a live performance by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man band with very percussive leanings and an energy that surpasses any accompaniment I’ve ever heard with any film before, as well as a free Saturday matinee family friendly feature. The only award of this festival is that they were invited to be screened by the most respected film critic currently writing reviews.

After my first Overlooked Film Festival, the fourth for the Champaign, Ill. located event, I vowed never to miss another. Well, for this year’s seventh annual Overlooked circumstances, both financial and familial, prevented me from attending. For some reason, the organizers of the festival have deemed it necessary to raise the cost of a festival pass $10 or more each year. My first year, it was the best value around, with a $50 pass. This year passes ran $85 and starting with the sixth annual Overlooked, Ebert himself cut the number of films from 14 to 12. It is still a great value, but demand for the festival has grown so much, passes sold out completely before the festival began for the first time in 2004 and were sold out a full two months ahead of time this year. The great guarantee of this particular film festival is that almost every film shown is sure to be excellent. Most film festivals require its audience to navigate an impossible schedule of films and guess as to which films are the best. Even if you can do that successfully, there is no guarantee you can get into all the films you want.

Of course another great feature of this particular festival is that most of its films are already available for the public’s perusal on home video. Not only does this allow you, my reader, to benefit from my experience with some great rental suggestions, but in the case of a year like this one, when I am unable to attend, I can hold my own little Overlooked Film Festival in my living room with the help of Netflix. It isn’t the same as seeing them on the big screen, but at least I didn’t miss them all together.

I was able to watch eight of this year’s twelve films (with one substitution on top of that). What I missed mostly included films that have not even been released theatrically in the U.S. yet. Two of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival’s greatest critical successes were Murderball and You, Me and Everyone We Know. Murderball is a documentary about the sport of full-contact wheelchair rugby. It was the winner of the Audience Award at Sundance and is set for a wide theatrical release this summer. You, Me and Everyone We Know is a modern romance that delves into the complexities of sex and romantic matters of the heart in a modern relationship. Praised for its original approach to romance, the film stars Miranda July (a performance artist who wrote and directed this film) and John Hawkes (HBO’s Deadwood) and is also set for a summer theatrical run. Despite my disappointment in missing these two films above any of the others, the summer release dates give me hope that I might get a chance to see them before the year is up and consider them for my 2005 top ten list.

Yesterday was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award last year and was the first ever Zulu language film to even be submitted for the Academy nomination process. It deals with a woman whose husband works in the mines of Johannesburg while she raises their daughter. According to the Internet Movie Database, it has not yet had a U.S. theatrical release.

I also did not see Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime presented in 70mm. While that film is not yet available on DVD (hopefully the restored 70mm print means that one is forthcoming), I did take the chance to see Tati’s classic 1953 film M. Hulot’s Holiday, where he originated the buffoonish Hulot character that is featured in both films. Playing like a precursor to Monty Python, the Criterion Collection DVD actually features an introduction by Python Terry Jones. M. Hulot’s Holiday is essentially a series of visual gags and misunderstandings that take place in a holiday resort town with the ubiquitous M. Hulot at the heart of all the chaos with nary a clue of what he is doing. There is no plot to this film at all and almost as little dialogue. Each event exists only to fuel the next bit of visual comedy. By today’s standards, this movie is more like an exercise in comedy than a fully developed feature, but it contains comedy situations that have become standards throughout film. The character of Hulot has been cited as the inspiration of a myriad of classic comic characters for Peter Sellers’s turn as Inspector Clouseau to Seinfeld’s Kramer, even recently informing Tom Hanks’s performance in last summer’s The Terminal. It was a pleasure to see the origin of many of today’s most popular physical gags, and nice that I didn’t have to read all that much but rather just enjoy the universal language of comedy.

Next up was perhaps the strangest film of the festival, and perhaps of last year, and perhaps of the past decade, The Saddest Music in the World. So strange I’ll let Ebert’s own brief synopsis of the film from his festival films announcement stand for my own. “The Saddest Music in the World, by the famed Canadian independent director Guy Maddin, in the form of a 1930s documentary, is about a Winnipeg contest to find the saddest song of all. Presiding (over the competition) is Isabella Rossellini, a glass-legged beer baroness who invites musicians from all over the world.” There is, of course, much more to it than that, including two brothers vying both for the same woman and the prize money, and a good deal of American/Canadian jokes. Those Canucks can dish it out as well. The real triumph of this film, however, is its over all style. It is almost like a silent film, if it weren’t for the sound. That may sound confused, but it is accurate. It is as if they took the energy and filmmaking techniques from the 1920s and imagined them with sound. It is a highly stylized film that would lose the interest of many movie watchers, for its technique along with the strangeness of its premise, but for a film buff with an appreciation for film of the silent era, it is a pleasure to behold.

After Dark, My Sweet opened the exquisite midsection of the festival, which contained gem after wonderful gem. A brooding modern noir, ADMS is a 1990 film starring Jason Patric (Rush) as a damaged ex-boxer who gets wrapped up in a kidnapping ransom plot by a beautiful widow (Rachel Ward) and a scruffy ex-cop (Bruce Dern). Like all great noirs the pace is lethargic and action underplayed until the tension has wriggled its way under the skin and begins to expand at a rate that catches the audience completely off guard. None of the characters are moralistic, but director James Foley (At Close Range) infuses each with just enough sympathy that you find yourself rooting for them anyway. Patric gives one of his best performances leaving the viewer unsure as to how much the violent end to his boxing career damaged his mental facilities. Can his co-conspirators trust him? Can he trust his own actions? Is it all just a con? These questions aren’t necessarily answered in the course of the film, but they are satisfied.

Baadasssss! is easily one of the most overlooked films of last year. Mario Van Peebles unflinching look at the sacrifices his own father Melvin Van Peebles made, often against Mario himself, to make the seminal African American film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made many a critics’ top ten list of 2004 releases including my own, but failed to find the box office support that its subject film did in the early seventies to launch a new black independent movement in cinema and create the gritty street genre the would become known in the latter half of that decade as blackslpoitation. Baadasssss!, again like its subject, is clearly a labor of love. Peebles tells his father’s story with love without pulling any punches. It was Melvin Van Peebles obsession to complete his film despite lacking a trained credible crew, the proper financing, or even a distributor once it was finished. His obsession alienates most people around him, including his son, but without it a purely African American production might never have been birthed. Rarely has a movie about making a movie carried the emotion behind making a movie so readily to the screen. In my original review of the film I speculated that the film’s original title was more interesting, however Baadasssss! may just be a more accurate one.

I generally only watch one or two silent films a year, but careful selections from trusted experts means I usually see a great one. The 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney was a sublime choice for the festival. I’m sure Ebert was inspired by the recent screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version when he picked this one to show people the story done right. Not that the new version isn’t good. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it. But the story is rather simple and the simplicity of silent film really helps to accentuate its strengths. To say the Phantom is a classic misunderstood villain is a bit erroneous. Maybe he was misunderstood at one point in time and that lead him to the evils he performs on the Paris opera house he haunts, but in the confines of this story his soul is just as twisted as his face. There is no sympathy for this monster that only wants to take Christine Daae for his own. He has no need for her to share his affections. There is also this illusion that there was no color in the silent film era. Many silent films used color and none so effectively as this horror classic. The ball upon which the Phantom descends to mark his demands is one of the most effective I’ve seen in silent film because it is in full color while the rest of the film is in monotones of color to reflect moods and geography. But when the Phantom descends the opera house staircase dressed as the devil himself, that red costume silences the already silent soundtrack. And the next scene is awash with red as the Phantom imposes his will. I only wish I could have seen this magnificent production with the Alloy Orchestra’s amazing accompaniment.

I’m sure many of you read my recent review of the film Primer, in which I tried to evoke the flip-flopped feeling of the picture itself more so than describing it. I actually did write that review in one night -- in one hour actually -- not over several days, racing back and forth through time in order to get it right, as I suggested in the review. I hope none of you thought I actually did that anyway. What I didn’t get to write about was the totally messed up dream I had that night after watching the film and writing the review. It somehow involved Keanu Reeves, who was trying to kill me in a sort of anti-Neo role, and I was wearing tin foil on my head like those stereotypical street crazies, trying to block “them” from seeing into my thoughts. I knew I was only making myself look crazy too, but it was the only way to keep “them” from stealing my thoughts and, of course, I couldn’t convince anyone I wasn’t crazy because I was wearing tin foil on my head. I have no doubt in my mind that watching this film spouting theories of time travel and doppelgangers was directly responsible for this dream. The plot of this story about two tech-heads who accidentally invent a time machine and use it to get rich off the stock market relies heavily on paranoia. The paranoia of the film transferred right into my own consciousness, and I’m sorry if that is a poor support for a thesis, but that is damn good filmmaking.

This year’s free family matinee was the John Sayles (Lonestar, Men With Guns) tale about the Irish folklore of selkies -- seals who can turn into humans -- The Secret of Roan Inish. A little girl with a family history steeped in tragedy learns of the legend of these mythical creatures while living on the coast of Ireland with her grandparents. After hearing the story of the selkies and of her own family’s history she begins to connect them, and in doing so she helps her family regain some of their lost joy. This is a film of stories, many of the characters exist only to sit and tell stories, but the Irish cast along with the beautiful cinematography by Haskell Wexler carries these stories into a wonderful tale of its own. It is a laid back picture that is more about revelation of the human spirit than tension and actions. It has the patience of a child who is involved in her own imagination. Children aren’t often thought of as patient (or maybe that is just the father in me speaking out), but when they are committed to an idea, as the girl in this film is, they can almost will it into existence.

As the list of films became short, my enthusiasm for them started to dwindle. Vincent Ward’s A Map of the Human Heart is a good film, but I found some of the conventions of the dramatic romance in it a little worn. Its main characters’ backgrounds are unique enough. It follows the life of a half White/half Eskimo man, played by Jason Scott Lee, who is taken from his arctic home as a child by a mapmaker in order to survive a “white man’s disease.” In a Montreal hospital he meets a half Native American/half French Canadian girl with which he begins a lifelong romance. As children they are persecuted for their non-white heritage, mostly notably by a nun who is particularly nasty because that’s what a story like this requires in order for these characters to want to be together so badly. As adults they meet again in the European theater of World War II. They have adapted into their social roles since childhood. He is part of a bomber crew who brings good luck because of his heritage. She has become a nurse and has hidden herself in White society because her features don’t reveal her “Indian” blood. She has become the lover of the boy’s savior the mapmaker, and a rather forced love triangle is formed. Not forced by the script so much as by the casting. Patrick Bergin’s (Sleeping With the Enemy) mapmaker is unnecessarily unsympathetic because of his typical stiff performance. There are some wonderful features to this film however. I loved the look at Eskimo life. It reminded me of another great film The Fast Runner; a movie made by Inukitut Eskimos that I’m sure will eventually be featured at Overlooked. All the flying sequences in the film, the mapmaker travels to the artic and take the boy to the hospital in a plane and the bombing of Dresden during the war, are dazzling to see. The bombing of Dresden in particular is a beautiful sequence. I wish the love triangle didn’t exist at all so more could be said about the way the two lovers had to deal with the racism against them, and more artic and air sequences could be explored. The love triangle reminded me a bit too much of Legends of the Fall, not a favorite of mine.

Finally, I have been hearing for years about the wonderful epic musicals of India. Producing nearly twice as many films each year as Hollywood, India is the world’s movie capitol in terms of quantity and has become known as Bollywood. I was very excited to see my first Bollywood feature when Ebert announced his films for this year. After having seen it, I am very glad I did not actually attend the festival and stay for the final day’s only screening of Taal. I would have been very angry that I could have been home much earlier if I hadn’t wasted those three hours of my life. You’d think a film starring “the most beautiful woman in the world” Aishwarya Rai would be worth it. She is beautiful, but it wasn’t. First of all the man who played her love interest didn’t belong on the same screen as her. There are lots of musical numbers and eventually the style of the Indian song becomes appealing, but there is also so much posing and posturing by the singers and actors that it all feels so insincere. This is really a question of production style and therefore something that becomes a matter of personal taste. The middle part of the film, after their two families have driven the lovers apart because of their class standings, when the girl is tapped by a famous producer to be his next big star, is much more interesting than their endless courtship and their eventual reunion, which seem to play by the numbers and just trace those numbers over and over and over again. But the middle hour of this three-hour spectacle cannot sustain its bookends. I was most shocked to find one of the grossest abuses of product placement I’ve ever seen in a film before when a coke bottle becomes an integral part of the two lovers’ courting process. I kept waiting for Mean Joe Green to throw his stinking sweaty jersey on the most beautiful woman in the world and watch her peel it off her face, chocking and gagging. I find it hard to believe that such a ridiculous ploy, even if it didn’t seem like a promotional scheme, could get past the scrutiny of a respected critic like Roger Ebert. I should probably try another Bollywood production out one day, but I pray it won’t seem like half the waste of time this one did.

I’ve had to put off a good deal of recent DVD releases in order to hold this film festival on my own this year. I hope not to be in that situation again. Ang has been with me twice, but with two children next year, she probably won’t want to rush off to Illinois to watch a bunch of movies. I may just buy two tickets when they go on sale in November anyway, and maybe one of my readers will want to join me. Of course when Angie reads this idea in this article, she might change my mind; but I’d hate to miss another Overlooked Film Festival. I miss the stories of people I didn’t dare talk to. I would have loved to not talk to Mario Van Peebles this year, or Jason Patric. Anyway, I’m glad I could at least pass on some good movie rental ideas to people, and offer a warning or two.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy / *** (PG)

Arthur Dent: Martin Freeman
Zaphod Beeblebrox: Sam Rockwell
Ford Prefect: Mos Def
Trillian: Zooey Deschanel
Slartibartfast: Bill Nighy
Questular Rontok: Anna Chancellor
Humma Kavula: John Malkovich
Marvin: Warwick Davis
Voice of Marvin: Alan Rickman

Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by Garth Jennings. Screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the book by Adams. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, action and mild language).

Aaaarh…! Grrr.mabble dopgrrumph. Ummmm. augh! Argh. Hmph! That is the sound of frustration. Frustration inspired by the conundrum of adapting literature to a medium that combines all art forms… the moving, talking picture. There are film adaptations of books that hardly resemble their source material. There are adaptations that follow their source material to the “T”. There are successes and failures on both sides of this coin. I personally like it when a film strays far from its literary source. I have trouble keeping myself from hitting people who say, “Sure, it was good, but it was nothing like the book. Why do they do that?” Because some books would just be boring to watch. Because film is a more compressed medium in which it would be tedious to watch every detail of some books’ stories. Because the word, translated literally more often than not loses something. But there are some great films made from books that have been religiously faithful to their original inceptions, the recent Harry Potter film series comes to mind (hopefully it will not suffer too much when screenwriter Steve Kloves leaves the series after this winter’s Goblet of Fire).

I have read Douglas Adams’s original novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and enjoyed it a good deal for its oddly original outlook on the world as we perceive it and how our human perception of the universe could be so severely flawed in how it all actually works. I am not, however, one of the book’s ravenous fans that has worn his copy so ragged and thin that it seems he must read it everyday and never leave home without it. My copy of the book is ragged and worn because I bought it at a garage sale where its previous owner must have decided it was all just too silly for him to keep. It is silly. It is supposed to be. But silliness in literature is not entirely without value, or meaning for that matter, so it is inevitable that a tome that has reached the cult status of this sort should be adapted to the film format, which so frequently embraces silliness and ravenous cult followings of fans so readily.

I have also seen the 80’s BBC television version of the book, or at least as much of it as I could stand. It was a faithful adaptation done in the style of the old Dr. Who BBC series with unbearably bad production values. This new version finally sees the Hollywood budget necessary to portray this unique space adventure. Honestly, I’m not really sure how closely this more condensed film follows the book. I’m sure there are details that have evacuated my memory of the story that also were ejected from this screenplay, but since it was redrafted by Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) from a screenplay penned by Adams himself, it probably plays much as Adams wished. It seemed to be very much the same as the book to me. Which brings us back to that conundrum…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a very strange book. It is also a very strange movie.
From the opening credits of the film it is obvious that the filmmakers are hitting the right notes as far as Adams’s strange sense of humor goes. The opening credits run as a Broadway musical style song plays. “So long, and thanks for the fish,” is what all the dolphins on the Earth sing as a farewell before they leave the planet which is scheduled for demolition, but since human beings are only the third most intelligent creatures on the planet (behind the dolphins and another pair of beings I will not reveal here), no one else on the planet is aware of its imminent destruction.

Arthur Dent is one of two humans who survive the Earth’s destruction by hitching a ride -- along with his friend Ford Prefect, an alien that only reveals this fact to Arthur in a pub a mere 12 minutes before the planet’s demise -- on one of the very alien ships sent to destroy it. Ironically, before Ford revealed both his true identity and the crushing news that Earth was about to be destroyed to Arthur, Arthur was trying to prevent a crew of contractors from leveling his home for a new thoroughfare. This is ironic since the Vogons, the race of aliens who destroy the Earth, demolish it in order to build a space super-highway in its place.

The other survivor of Earth happens to be a girl named Trillian, whom Arthur blew his big chance with only a few nights before. She asked him to go far away with her somewhere, and as he hesitated with his answer she was swept off her feet by a flamboyant cock who claims he can take her away in his spaceship. This ridiculous man turns out to be Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. Oh, and there’s also a clinically depressed robot named Marvin. And Zaphod’s ship has this thing called an improbability drive, which, when pushed, will take the occupants to the least likely place in the galaxy for them to end up. And when they get there they take any possible form until normalcy sets back in. And….

To go any further describing this film’s wacky plot would only serve to confuse and confound, and could never convince one who is not yet interested in this insanity trip to see it. Despite the complexities of the stories and relationships of the characters, plot is not really what this story is about anyway. What really fuels the fandom of this material is the ideas contained within the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book in the story that has become the most popular compendium of who is who and what is what and how it all works in the universe. The guide offers definitions of species, historical accounts, and explanations of how things work. These, let’s call them “lessons”, are presented as animations in the film. This book even provides accounts of events that have not yet happened in the course of the story, and those who are fans should certainly not miss the credit cookie that closes the precedings with that dry Adams humor of obliterating all your previous conceptions and sets up the sequel.

When initially reading this book, I found it nearly impossible to imagine how many of these characters could be portrayed in a film, since some have deformities such as two heads. First time feature film director Garth Jennings (director of many music videos and commercials) however, manages what seems to be the impossible by assembling the perfect cast. Martin Freeman, whom most people would know as the one sane employee on the BBC series The Office, is that quintessential cubical Joe who just chugs through the daily grind and is the least likely candidate ever in film for a space adventure. Perhaps his casting was in part due to his office lackey role on the popular British television series. He also pulls out one of the film’s biggest and most British laughs when the group is faced with a DMV type of line they must wait through. “Leave this to me. I’m British. If there is one thing we know, it is how to queue.”

Mos Def (HBO’s Something the Lord Made) brings the right amount of oddity to his human looking, if not acting, hitchhiking alien. Zooey Deschanel (Elf) plays Arthur’s love interest Trillian, and maybe I am just a sucker for her, but take a look at those almond eyes as Arthur confesses his true feelings to her and tell me she can’t just melt your insides. While little person Warwick Davis (Willow) provides the physical performance for sad little metal Marvin, Alan Rickman’s (Love Actually) weary voice sells his melancholy. Bill Nighy (Still Crazy), having made a career of late as utterly wacked-out philosophers on life, shows up in the final act as a typically loony Slatribartfast and even manages to add some poignancy to this lunacy. But it is Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) who steals the show as the two-headed madcap Zaphod Beeblebrox. I don’t think the two heads turned out in anyway anyone may have imagined them before, but they work visually both to allow Rockwell the most acting freedom and to provide a few sight gags.

Admittedly many people will find much of this material utterly mind boggling and therefore uninteresting. Ironically, in a film filled with ironies if you hadn’t noticed, the film suffers in exactly the opposite way the book does. With the relentless flurry of events that open the story, the book grabbed me and sucked me in with ease. The film begins with the same vigorous flurry, but it plays more like a mind numbing experience, leaving the audience exasperated until the relentless insanities that are presented might actually seem boring. As the book went forward and leveled out, my interest began to wane, wishing for more of the breakneck pace of the opening passages. The film, however, finds its stride in its final act as somehow all the silliness starts to make some kind of twisted sense and it doesn’t seem quite so pointless as it did to begin with. Perhaps it proves the point of the Hitchhiker’s Guide and the clearly printed words of its back cover, “DON’T PANIC”, and everything will be all right in the end.