Thursday, May 11, 2006

8th Annual Overlooked Film Festival

Bad Santa (2003) ***
Millions (2005) ****
Junebug (2005) ****
Claire Dolan (1998) **½
Spartan (2004) ****
My Fair Lady (1964) ****
Duane Hopwood (2005) ****
Ripley’s Game (2002) ***½
The Eagle (1929) ***½

Man Push Cart (2006) N/A
Somebodies (2006) N/A
U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005) N/A

For the second year in a row I have missed out on one of my favorite events in the world, Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. 2006 marks the 8th year of this delectable film festival. After my first, I promised myself I would never miss another. Well, now I’ve missed two, but thanks to the miracle of Netflix I’ve been able to witness at least the most important part of this year’s festival – the films themselves.

I, of course, have yet to be able to experience those films featured in the festival that have yet to find distribution in US theatrical or DVD releases. This year that includes the minimal budget film “Man Push Cart”, written and directed by an Iranian-American, starring a Pakistani-American about a former Pakistani rock star who now operates a vending cart on the streets of Manhattan. Another Sundance film “Somebodies” is a celebration of African-Americans in Georgia with an unconventional approach that eschews the typical signatures of ethnic films in America and the tendency to try to show black people as role models and simply shows people as people, black or white. Also featured was a new South African adaptation of the Bizet opera “Carmen” in the film “U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha”. It has been my experience with this film festival that these totally under the radar films tend to be the best of the bunch. I managed to see all the films I missed from last year’s festival; I can only hope I get the chance to catch these gems before the year is up.

Of the films I did get to see in the room my wife has come to refer to as my “dungeon getaway” I can only say this year’s seems to have been a truly exceptional festival. While the quality of these overlooked films are always very high, this year’s collection was the best consistency of high quality films I’ve seen yet. They are also all fairly recent films, save the festival opener “My Fair Lady” and the silent feature “The Eagle”, there is no film here older than ten years and most are from just the last couple of years. I present them here in the order I viewed them.

Bad Santa. Truthfully, this film should also go down as one of the ones I missed at this festival. Director Terry Zwigoff returned for his second festival in a row (and I missed ‘em both) to present his unreleased “director’s cut” of this very unconventional Christmas film. I did not see the theatrical cut of this film but did see the “Badder Santa” DVD version, which while longer still did not contain all the material in Zwigoff’s director’s cut. Billy Bob Thornton plays a low level thief who, along with his little person cohort, uses the holidays as an opportunity to bilk shopping malls for money and merchandise posing as a Santa and Elf for the children.

This is a truly black comedy, strictly for adults, where Thornton’s miserable thief is truly the poorest excuse for a human being, and few other characters in the film are any better. When Thornton’s character comes to the rescue of a fat kid who is tormented by peers, it looks as if the film may turn into some redemptive power of children movie, but Thornton’s thief isn’t any better at handling children than he is his own life. The audience is left wondering just how many lives this man can possibly destroy. While I loved this film’s devilishly subversive attitude toward life and the conventions of holiday movies, its released ending betrays the black nature of the comedy by providing a little more happiness than any of these characters deserve. I hope the director’s cut corrects this small misstep.

Millions. So many of today’s “family” films coming out of Hollywood tend to be targeted to the youngest and lowest mindsets. A case in point is Disney’s recent revamping of “The Shaggy Dog”, which does a good job of imagining the easiest way to make a kid laugh by having Tim Allen run around on all fours chasing after cats. “Millions”, on the other hand, is a family film like no other. It tells the story of what happens when two kids discover a bag full of money (stolen money, unbeknownst to them). It imagines the very meticulously thought out process these brothers use to decide just what to do with the money.

Set in Britain on the eve of the national change over to the Euro, there are very little impurities to the characters of these two brothers. The youngest brother consults the saints he has come to learn of in school in his imagination, which provides some comical fantasy segments and explanations to the adults when they discover what the children are up to; and the entire film is a visual cinematic feast compared to your average film, let alone family film.

Even more surprising is the directorial mind this wonderment of cinema comes from. Director Danny Boyle draws from his own cinematic oeuvre of very adult oriented films like “Trainspotting”, “The Beach”, and “28 Days Later” to create this family friendly, yet adult literate tale about the morality of children. “Millions” was Ebert’s choice for this year’s free family matinee, and is perhaps the best choice he’s ever made for this spotlight.

Junebug made a bit of a splash this past awards season because of the wonderfully nuanced and comic characterization created here by actress Amy Adams as a compulsively positive yet not very worldly pregnant sister-in-law. Although Adams deserved all the praise she got and more for her performance, there are many other reasons the film itself can be held on equal grounds with her input. Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan have made “Junebug” very much in the spirit of independent film, with a stronger emphasis on slice-of-life presentation than on plot, but they have filled it with more than the average amount of warmth and humor for a film that also deals with the drama of life.

Embeth Davidtz is a Chicago art dealer who returns with her new husband to his very rural home in North Carolina to meet his family and woo a potential artist for her gallery. While the story of a city dweller displaced into country bumpkin culture is certainly no new territory for a film, “Junebug” is a breath of fresh air in the unpretentious characterizations it provides for its cast. It is unusual that a film can do such a good job making its audience feel good while still providing a serious story that avoids any expectations one can place on it. In fact the most interesting element of this film to me was the way in which as it came too a close I realized I had read too far into where it was going, as so often happens with most people dealing with relatives in life, when it was all much simpler than I had at first assumed.

Claire Dolan, on the other hand, was the disappointment of this year’s collection for me. It seems every festival must have one that just doesn’t live up to the rest, although it is fairly easy to see what Ebert found to appreciate about this unusual thriller. I label the movie a thriller, however many may fail to see what is so thrilling about this story of a call girl who struggles to build a new life for herself. In a more typical treatment of this same tale it would be presented as a thriller as the titular character tries to hide from her business minded pimp after she has stashed away enough money to make her run to another city.

Katrine Cartlidge and Colm Meaney provide wonderful performances in the almost daughter/father relationship they share as prostitute and high class pimp. They have reasonable conversations about their business partnership, but he sees her as a business investment and she knows he’ll never allow her to leave willingly. Vincent D’Onofrio also appears as a potential love interest for Claire, which would also be far more exploited for tension and conflict in a production less interested in character.

While I felt this could have been a highly compelling drama with its focus on character above suspense, the film, unfortunately, moves at far too laconic a pace. Too many passages lingered too long on what choices could lead to, and not enough on what they do. While I admire the fact that the filmmakers chose not to go down the typical path of melodrama, they could have used to pump up the tension level a bit more often to keep the story moving along.

Spartan. Ironic that a potential thriller squandered might be included in the same collection of films as this espionage thriller so expertly executed by such an unlikely director as David Mamet. Mamet has built his career known as a great dialogist and although he has dabbled in the thriller genre a couple of times before, even his works like “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Heist” have been mostly supported by Mamet’s amazing skill at wielding the American language (because his English is so uniquely American). While his skill at the art of speech is still on its strongest display in this picture, “Spartan” is the first film of Mamet’s I’ve seen where his plotting and direction of action exists on just as high a level as his words.

Val Kilmer plays a covert expert brought in by the CIA to find the kidnapped daughter of the President. When he uncovers a white slavery ring involved in the kidnapping the twists and turns start coming and don’t stop until the film’s bloody end. Understanding that this is a film by David Mamet, and therefore does not draw studio heads’ attention as a potential box office smash, I was shocked after seeing it that someone with some sort of studio control at Warner Bros. didn’t see a screening of this and recommend a heavy media push to turn it into a sleeper hit, because there is nothing about this film that wouldn’t please a mainstream audience and draw crowds to the theaters. “Spartan” is a wicked thriller and it would be nice to know a large audience could be exposed to such intelligent dialogue for once, but alas they don’t call it the “Overlooked” for nothing, and most people haven’t been so lucky to see this one.

My Fair Lady. Now “overlooked” is not a word that leaps to mind with this 1964 Best Picture Oscar winning musical, but “My Fair Lady” acts as a splendid reminder of what the American movie going audience has forgotten about in its abandonment of the musical format in film. The failure of last year’s “Rent” at the box office only serves to secure the fate of the musical as a now overlooked genre; but only a musical can deliver such a deliciously abusive relationship as that of the waifish flower girl Eliza Doolittle and the arrogant Professor Henry Higgins, who on a whim wagers he can pass her off as high society with a fellow linguist, and still leave its audience smiling.

It was shocking to witness how vicious these two characters are to each other. Not only is it highly comic, but it is a level of human relationship that can only be seen in the most daring (overlooked) of today’s movies so homogenized by political correctness. The film may have also been slightly ahead of its time for the women’s rights movement which didn’t take full flight in Hollywood until the 80’s with films like “Baby Boom” and “Working Girl”. It does cave into the happy ending in the end, which marks most of its female rights activism moot, but it takes some grand digs at the male dominated society of the story’s and the film’s time periods. I only wish I could have seen it in glorious 70mm, the other overlooked aspect for which Ebert chose it.

Duane Hopwood. Next to the grandeur of a Hollywood musical made in the heyday of their dazzling production values, a digitally shot film with the simplicity of “Duane Hopwood”’s story might never seem to live up to it. Yet what this story of a man’s struggle with his alcoholism lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in emotional power. The surprising thing is not all of that emotional boiling is a downer. Like in “Junebug”, first time writer/director Matt Mulhern has the amazing ability to find the humor of life in the humility of what the titular character of this film has to go through.

Mulhern also knows how to utilize the natural comedic talents of his cast to lighten what can be a big emotional pill to swallow. David Schwimmer’s performance as Duane marks another career defining performance for a comedic actor who tackles the serious subject matter of alcoholism. Most of all, this is a film that seems to be made with love and understanding of its characters and their feelings toward one another and the difficult to control disease of alcoholism. It made for a rough ride emotionally, but was warmed with enough laughter and love to make it a better experience than can be found with most movies.

Ripley’s Game. Patricia Highsmith’s literary murderous con artist Tom Ripley is a difficult nut to crack. His strange cold outlook on life is nearly impossible for the average filmgoer to understand. Put in the hands of a performer who is just a bit off kilter himself, such as the ever engaging John Malkovich, and Ripley begins to make a little more sense.

Like “Spartan”, it is hard to believe that this adaptation of Highsmith’s novel “Ripley’s Game” was able to fly so far under the radar it never even received a U.S. theatrical release. While it is a little less traditional for a thriller than “Spartan”, it is an adaptation of an adventure of a very popular literary character and follows not to long after the higher profile Ripley adaptation “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. It contains much of the unusual plotting of that story, but this film, set in the present day rather than that of the time period of the novel, seems less interested in the setting and mood of Mr. Ripley’s unusual world, as it is in exploring the characters of it three primary players.

The performances by the principal actors elevated this movie to a level beyond what the plotting provides. Malkovich was born to play Ripley, but the performances by Ray Winstone as a former partner of Ripley’s and Dougray Scott as his latest “victim of circumstance” are as equally compelling.

Winstone has provided a great many wonderful supporting roles of late in films like “King Arthur” and “Cold Mountain”, but here he gets a chance to take a controlling interest in the endeavor. There is a scene where his character bumbles his way into a delicate venture of Ripley’s and Winstone’s execution makes it clear that while this man is a bit of a buffoon, this clumsiness is also part of his personal style that allows him to get what he wants out of others.

Scott, on the other hand, is the epitome of a desperate man in way over his head and mostly unaware of it. Watch the glee that percolates under his every action after he has performed Ripley’s initial duty. This is impressive mostly because Scott has tended to play heavies in his career, his most well-known performance being Tom Cruise’s nemesis in “Mission: Impossible II”.

The Eagle. Performances are also the shining force behind the silent classic “The Eagle”. A Rudolph Valentino starring Robin Hood story set in Russia during the rule of Catherine the Great, “The Eagle” proves that the silents weren’t just a stepping stone to the sound era for the spectrum of performance.

In most of the silent films I’ve seen the focus has been either on the technology of film itself and how it allows for illusion or on stunts. The emphasis when film was new was always on the visual, rarely did the emotional enter into what are generally known as the great silents. And when it did, it was always accompanied by a heavy helping of visual gags as well. While the visuals of “The Eagle” are not dull, they are hardly the focal point of this romance between Rudolph Valentino’s character and the daughter of his enemy. There is also a great comedic storyline with Catherine the Great who puts a warrant out for Valentino’s character when he rejects her advances toward him.

The performances are executed with the same aplomb as great dramatic and comedic performances of today, which gives the film a more immediate feel than your average (or even above average) silent. It is easy to see why Valentino was as famous in his day as Tom Cruise is today. I only wish I could have seen his passion complimented by the incredible soundtrack provided live each year at the Overlooked by The Alloy Orchestra.

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