Sunday, April 29, 2007

Overlooked Report #5

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I’ve known about this cult classic for a long time, but never seen it. In fact, the primary reason I was turned on to the criticism of Roger Ebert is because of this film. As a theater arts major and actor, movies were often the topic of conversation among my friends at Hofstra University. Of course, as practitioners of the trade we clearly knew more about what made drama good or not. (I now realize practice and knowledge are two very different things.) And there were few critics with which all of us agreed. But one friend of mine pointed out that Ebert had actually written a screenplay or two, most notably the Russ Meyer exploitation classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. Therefore, he had once practiced what he was preaching.

I’ve read many articles by Ebert about his work for this film and his deep admiration for his friend and its director, Meyer. Ebert would never offer an assessment of the film’s success, due to his personal bias for it. But it was obviously a valuable experience for him as a critic, and I had always been curious and fearful that I would hate it. So when it was announced as the closing film of this year’s festival, I knew the inevitable time had come when I would finally witness Ebert’s imagination as a screenplay artist.

Well, now I’ve seen it. I didn’t hate it, but I did find it a taste I haven’t yet acquired. I believe the film is very successful in achieving what it is intending, but am not entirely convinced of the value of that goal. My biggest problem is that I have no particular taste for it source inspiration, the melodramatic sex escapade stories of the likes of “Valley of the Dolls” novelist Jacqueline Susann. Now, it is important to note that “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is not actually a sequel to “Valley of the Dolls”. It is a completely separate story that shares many of the same exploitational elements of the Susann novel and its film adaptation.

“Beyond” is really a spoof of the genre, with its tongue securely in cheek. It tells the story of an all-girl rock band that goes to Hollywood to find fame and fortune; and after making it big descends into the pitfalls of the drugs and sexual politics that ruled the late ‘60s. To call the movie bizarre would be a huge understatement. Its strange nature is meant to both reflect the age which it celebrates and criticize it. It really is quite fitting that it was penned by an already established film critic.

Ebert had been in the business for a few years, but he was still in awe of his occupation and free-spirited enough to let any inhibitions he may have had about what other people would say lay by the wayside. If you read some of the interviews he wrote from that same time period, especially his interviews with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, you will notice a writer who is more of a participant with his subjects than a commentator on their actions. Both of these interviews can be found in Ebert’s wonderful book “Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert”.

The inclusion of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”, I think is more of a tribute to the late Russ Meyer than it is a showcase of Ebert’s screenwriting credits. But I was very glad for the opportunity to see just what bubbled beneath Ebert’s head in terms of crafting film rather than deconstructing it. What is there might seem scary and frightening to some, as it is often difficult to see that tongue lump underneath that fleshy cheek. I think the tone of the piece reflects its subject more than its creator and would very much like to see more screenplays by Ebert. He wrote one for the punk rockers The Sex Pistols that lasted about two days of production before the producers realized the band would be too difficult to work with. It’s a shame we’ll never see that one.


Even though I’m not there physically, this Sunday morning retains much of the same depression I feel ever time the Overlooked Film Festival ends. Although I never got the chance to meet these filmmakers face to face as I have in the past with such people as David Gordon Green and Paul Cox at his first Overlooked four years ago, I feel that I’m saying good bye to some people I didn’t know before watching their films. This film festival is a very personal way to watch movies. In the past, I thought that was because of the nature of an appreciative festival audience when compared to your typical multiplex crowd. But since I feel that without even attending the festival, it must be something akin to the films themselves.

Next year the Overlooked will officially change its name. In its tenth anniversary year, it will come to be known simply as Ebertfest: The Roger Ebert Film Festival. Ebert says this is because “we are no longer overlooked.” And with tickets selling out in a record-breaking two week period for this year’s festival, I guess he’s got that right. I’ll be sure to purchase mine on the first day of ticket sales for next year’s.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Overlooked Report #4

Saturday is always the most solid block of films for the Overlooked Film Festival. The other days may hold some of the shiniest gems of the haul, but that Saturday bill is the most consistently impressive. That is why you will find filmmakers such as Andrew Davis, the director of the blockbusters “The Fugitive” and “Under Siege”, in attendance to screen his film “Holes” as the free family matinee; or independent auteurs Werner Herzog and Paul Cox on hand to show a couple of their films, Herzog as both director of “Stroszek” and an actor in Cox’s “Man of Flowers”; and the night will end with a live concert by Jim White, the guide of Andrew Douglas’s wonderful documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”. Saturday is the day it all happens at the Overlooked.

Holes. “Holes” is kind of like movie appreciation 101 for the youth market. It is a story of adolescence, about a boy who comes from a family of mishaps. He is mistakenly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes from a famous athlete. He is sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert, where unbeknownst to the authorities, the warden has all of the detainees digging holes in search of a buried treasure.

It is an almost typical setup for a young adult film, where kids are misunderstood and are pushed around by authority figures that either don’t deserve or have come to abuse their power. But the complexity of the story and its structure suggests a much more intelligent and engaging vehicle than can typically be found in the matinee features of the multiplex. The storylines of the characters are all interconnected in ways that are revealed slowly throughout the entire length of the picture, much like a Robert Altman film or even a good noir. It is necessary to follow many small details from the beginning of the story through to various points throughout, engaging the mind in a much more participatory way than a typical young adult film.

“Holes” also marked the official cinematic introduction to the rising star Shia LaBeouf, who recently has ruled the box office for multiple weekends in the thriller “Disturbia” and promises to trump that feat this summer as the primary flesh and blood star of the CGI robo-sci-fi mega-blockbuster “Transformers”. Although Labeouf is supported in “Holes” by some major adult talent, including Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Henry Winkler and Tim Blake Nelson, and is directed by action guru Andrew Davis of “The Fugitive” fame; it is obvious that LaBeouf is a star to be.

Labeouf carries the entire movie, from far flung detail to the more obvious clichés of the genre. I imagine the only reason his star took so long to rise from his introduction here in 2003, is that he took his time to finish school before grabbing hold of that inevitable Hollywood career.

Stroszek and Man of Flowers. With this year’s Overlooked entries by German visionary Werner Herzog and Australian auteur Paul Cox, we venture into the realm of films that are often referred to by less versed cineastes as “difficult films.” This is a label that is not entirely an unwarranted disclaimer. Even when I’m enjoying a film by say… David Lynch, I find myself wondering just how he can expect any normal filmgoer to enjoy, let alone understand his work. But enjoyment is not exclusive to understanding and these are films that are not intended for the average movie audience.

While these two films do share some of the difficult traits of the majority of Lynch’s work, they each wind up with a clear understanding of the events they portray by their divine conclusions. But by that point in each film I had already achieved a great appreciation for what these films were exploring and the understanding became merely a bonus feature. There is such beauty in the way Herzog’s and Cox’s characters experience their lives and their surroundings that meaning becomes secondary.

In Cox’s “Man of Flowers” we are introduced to a gentleman, Charles, who is obsessed with flowers to the point where flowers and music are the only things that can arouse him. He pays an artist’s model to strip for him, but he never touches or speaks to her and even finds himself unable to watch her before she’s finished. When he is uncomfortable he goes to the church next door and plays horrific, yet beautiful melodies on the pipe organ.

The model, Lisa, is trapped in a relationship with a financially dependant artist, David, who was once considered great and now suffers through a drug habit. She likes Charles and eventually leaves the artist to pursue a relationship with a girlfriend, all the while remaining close to her flower man. David sees Charles as his opponent for Lisa’s love and when his drug money runs dry decides to fleece the money from the well-to-do Charles. Charles’s solution to the problem of David is inevitable, yet poetic and enlightening after the fact.

Of course this synopsis has just the opposite effect that the film itself has in the way its logic is impenetrable and dismantling until the resolution of the story. And instead of focusing on the “plot”, there is a beauty in watching how these people so desperately search for the meaning of their actions just as the audience does.

In Herzog’s “Stroszek” the meaning is not as elusive, but is still not the entire point of the exercise. Bruno Stroszek is released from a Berlin prison in the opening moments of the film, with no place left to go but his former life. Despite his problems with alcohol, which landed him in jail in the first place, Stroszek seems to be a thoughtful and sensitive man. He befriends a hooker, Eva, whose pimp is abusive to both her and Stroszek.

Eventually, Stroszek decides to make a new life in America, bringing Eva and his neighbor, who has relatives in Wisconsin, with him. The neighbor’s relatives set Stroszek up with a job and a plot of land in Wisconsin where he can put a mobile home and begin his new life. The “Land of Opportunity” does not prove as bountiful as its reputation however, and soon Stroszek sees his woman leave him for a life of selling her body once again, his mobile home auctioned off by the bank to the highest bidder, he cannot communicate with anyone since he hasn’t learned the language, and he can’t even seem to land himself into the familiar environment of prison.

Once again this synopsis makes the film sound a little more clear-cut than it actually is. But instead of Cox’s in depth dissection of his character’s motivations, Herzog is interested in painting a portrait of these character’s experiences through images. There is Stroszek in Berlin playing his accordion shows in the tenement court yard, the desolate Wisconsin landscape upon which the mobile home is placed and later removed, the rows and rows of semi-tractor trucks parked outside the truck stop where Eva waits tables, and the Native American themed amusement park with its totem pole chair lift.

Herzog prides himself as being able to capture the unique visuals that reflect life on our planet, and his gift is on full display here. His best image, providing the closing commentary on the entire film, is a dancing chicken that is compelled to keep starting the music to which it has been trained to respond. A policeman adds to his call for backup, “…and we can’t stop the dancing chicken.”

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. What a compelling and strange documentary is Andrew Douglas’s “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”. It is a dissection of the highly religious backwater communities of the ultra-rural south seen through the eyes of bluegrass musician Jim White, based on his 1997 album “The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus”.

White guides the film from the point of view of both outsider and one of the initiated. Having been born in California before moving to the Deep South, White was always an outsider in his community as a child and young adult; but with age and wisdom came an appreciation for what oddball perspectives these backwater communities offered their residents. White expresses a deep love for the people and lives of this depressed country.

That sense of depression is carried through the soundtrack of southern blues songs provided by White and other musical guests, including Johnny Dowd, Lee Sexton, and The Handsome Family. The film goes beyond documentary in it presentation of the music, which entails staged performances on location. There is one performance by The Handsome Family that takes place on a house floating down a river, blending the music intrinsically to the environment which surrounds it and it enhances.

“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” is like no other documentary I have ever seen. It is a document in mood and environment, rather than fact. Rarely does a film so wholly capture the true essence of the environment on which it is commenting.

I can’t help myself but provide two clips from this day’s wonderful line-up of films. The first is the Handsome Family performance mentioned above, the second is Herzog’s dancing chicken.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Overlooked Report #3

As the folks in Champaign-Urbana move into the third day of the Overlooked Film Festival, the mix of films and guest gets more eclectic, and I begin to wish even more that I was there to see the likes of Joey Lauren Adams and Scott Wilson, writer/director and actor respectively from the film “Come Early Morning”; film scholar David Bordwell and composers Steven Larsen and Joseph Turrin for the silent film presentation of “Sadie Thompson” with a live score performed by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony; Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Baker with a pristine print of the Italian classic “La Dolce Vita”; and biographical documentarian Rudi Dolezal with a surprising look at the life of the late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. At least this was the final day of replacement movies for my own home recreation of the Overlooked.

Miss Sadie Thompson. Alas, I will miss seeing the silent film presentation this year of the 1927 film “Sadie Thompson” starring silent legend Gloria Swanson and with a live score performance by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. I take a little comfort in the fact that I won’t be missing one of the Alloy Orchestra’s wonderful accompaniment scores, but seeing the silent films at the Overlooked has really helped me develop a great appreciation for that bygone era in film.

I tried to get a copy of the film on DVD to my house for a screening, but a series of mail mishaps prevented it from arriving in time for me to view it before this report. As I despaired from having no film to watch for this Overlooked entry, I discovered “Miss Sadie Thompson”, a 1953 sound remake of the W. Somerset Maugham story starring Rita Hayworth. Maugham’s story told the tale of a prostitute trying to escape her past reputation in the Pacific islands, but she is discovered by a missionary who tries to compel her sense of morality to own up to her past. The missionary, Davidson, has his own moral dilemmas to deal with, however.

“Miss Sadie Thompson” updates the story, making the island the heroine ends up on a military base left to ensure stability in the Pacific in the days following World War II. The soldiers on the island haven’t seen any non-native women since their tours of duty began before the war had ended. Sadie’s presence on the island stirs up the GIs in ways they couldn’t even effectively hint at in this production because of the strict production codes of the time. As a result, the first half of the film acts merely as a vehicle for Hayworth to show off her aging beauty, vibrant personality and singing.

The conclusion of the film actually gets rather interesting as Sadie and Davidson must face their difficult moral choices. Sadie must own up to her past, which could mean surrendering to the authorities just when she has developed her first meaningful relationship with a man. Davidson, on the other hand, must realize that for all his moral platitudes, he has the same carnal desires of any man.

Davidson’s story concludes in a shocking, yet true to character manner. But the filmmakers sidestep Sadie’s fate with a happy ending that not only ignores the growth of Sadie’s character, but isn’t even developed. Her happy ending is merely tacked on in a way that betrays any investment the audience has placed in the film.

Come Early Morning. This is one of those films that makes a film festival like the Overlooked so special. “Come Early Morning” is the writing/directorial debut of Joey Lauren Adams. Some people would know Adams from the roles she has played in independent cult hits, such as Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” or Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy”; she played Amy. I always like Adams as an actress, but I feared for her career because she has such a unique character voice, so leading roles will be limited to independent film and even supporting roles in larger films will start to peter out as she ages. But after seeing what she is capable of as a writer and director, I no longer worry that this major talent will just disappear some day.

The film is also a milestone for actress Ashley Judd, who provides the best performance of her career as a woman who “doesn’t do well with relationships.” As Lucy Fowler, Judd portrays a 30-something who has gotten set in her ways. She’s a valuable worker to the construction company that employs her, but she spends her weekends in a pattern of drinking away her nights at a local dive and providing her family healing during the days. Her love life is a series of one night stands until she meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), who helps her believe in herself as a good person worthy of someone else’s love.

There is much more to Lucy’s story, but it is the simple way in which it is told that makes it so special. There is little emphasis on the melodrama inherent in this material by Adams, both as writer and director. And the observations of character and life in the south (the story is set in Arkansas) are accurate to the most minute detail and enlightening as to what drives the human spirit through lives that might be described as unexciting. I was reminded greatly of my all time favorite Overlooked film “Tully” while watching this picture; and it is an example of yet another film to which this event has introduced me that I will treasure all my life.

La Dolce Vita. Believe it or not, I had never seen a film by Italian director Federico Fellini until earlier this month. Perhaps the most universally well-known if the Italian neo-realist directors; Fellini’s impact on film is probably greater than that of his contemporaries because he eventually broke out of the neo-realist movement. He continued to make films of a highly biographical nature, yet became increasingly fantastical. “La Dolce Vita” is the 1960 film that could be sited as the turning point for Fellini from neo-realism into his bio-fantasies.

“La Dolce Vita” looks at a series of anecdotes in the life of a journalist, played by the dashing actor Marcello Mastroianni. Marcello is the embodiment of a playboy, and Fellini structures the entire picture around the free-spirited life of such a character, jumping from one sexual encounter to another throughout most of the picture. There are more serious moments of life that creep into the playboy’s life, such as a visit from his estranged father, and moments of psychosis from his possessive fiancée. But most of his adventure is lighthearted.

What starts out as a series of everyday life type of stories, eventually descends into more bizarre encounters, until finally our hero spends an evening of debauchery with a group of costumed partiers. The next morning, after the party has made its way to the beach, there is a moment where Marcello seems to be offered a chance to return to normalcy as a girl calls for him. He cannot hear her, or chooses not to hear her and rejoins the partiers.

I think it is at this point that Fellini leaves the neo-realists behind. Like his hero, he’d rather join the costumed circus of partiers. The fantasy life has set in, and he likes the taste.

I also enjoyed the taste. Not so much for the strangeness of it, but for the richness of Fellini’s world. It is clear his characters enjoy life, even revel in it. It is “the sweet life” indeed.

Queen: Live at Wembley Stadium. One of the more unusual entries in this year’s festival is a screening of the European television documentary “Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story”. As far as I know this hour-long doc has yet to be aired on U.S. television, therefore I have no idea what secrets it contains. As a replacement screening, I sought out a Queen concert. It seemed the most widely praised of the Queen concerts available on DVD was their famous 1986 concert at Wembley Stadium.

“Live at Wembley Stadium” is nothing outstanding in terms of concert footage, but it is an incredible document of the impressive presence and charisma of Freddie Mercury as a performer. Other than his famous over-bite, he comes across more like a European footballer than the frontman of progressive rock band from the ‘70’s. He commands the audience like a dictator leading his brainwashed followers. Few rockers could allow a stadium-sized audience to sing so many of their lyrics in time and in tune without prompting.

Watching “Live at Wembley”, I was transported to the time of my youth, when the British prog rockers like Queen and Yes were switching from symphonic accompaniment to the more modern power chords of the early ‘80’s, giving their music a new, more sonically powerful life. I remembered sitting in the movie theater during the opening credits of "Flash Gordon", one of the most highly anticipated movies for myself at the time. Today, Queen’s title theme for the film is about the only remnant of that movie that can still be looked at seriously. “Flash” was unfortunately and noticeably absent from the Wembley set list.

While certainly not living up to the quality of films which are the standard of the Overlooked Film Festival, I was glad to see “Live at Wembley Stadium”. It was a reminder of just why the late Freddie Mercury was such an icon and a reminder of a genre of music that once meant a great deal to me. I may just finally drop some money on a copy of “Queen’s Greatest Hits”, just so I can give myself a taste of a true rock classic whenever necessary.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Overlooked Report #2

Roger Ebert has apparently taken a lot of grief for his decision to actually attend his own film festival this year in light of the medical problems he faced over the past year due to a bout with salivary cancer. The biggest issue for his detractors it seems would not be his health, but his appearance. The Chicago Sun-Times ran an article by Ebert defending his decision today, and it is a good way to familiarize yourself with just what Ebert has been through during his writing hiatus and a nice thumb (not in his usual manner) in the face of celebrity paparazzi. Read it here.

The Weather Man. I have to admit that of all the films at the Overlooked this year, Gore Verbinski’s 2005 gift project “The Weather Man” was the one I was least excited about. Although I did enjoy this film about one man’s desire to be more than he is actually willing to be, it didn’t exactly blow me away. It was the one film I did not attempt some form of tribute to in my film screenings over the past month. I did not choose to watch it a second time or replace it with another film.

The performances by Nicolas Cage, as the titular underachieving weather man, and Michael Caine, as his father who is perennially disappointed in everything his son has, or hasn’t, done in his life, are worthy of a viewing in and of themselves. But the rest of this film, where life never seems to live up to what should be promised these characters, is a little too deprived of success to get excited about.

The fact that so little seems to work out for Cage’s character is really the point of the piece; but when things do turn around on the surface at the end of the film, even his apparent success seems undeserved. I almost wanted the character to fail completely at everything by the end of the film, because even in success he never lived up to his potential. But that is life, I suppose.

Moolaade. While “The Weather Man” was the one film I did nothing to celebrate, “Moolaade” was the film that I just couldn’t get a hold of or replace. Written and directed by the father of African cinema Ousmane Sembene, “Moolaade” is a 2004 Cannes Film Festival winner of a special jury prize and the Un Certain Regard Award and has yet to find any sort of distribution in the U.S.

It tells the story of the Senegal tribal tradition of ceremonial circumcision of girls. A woman shelters the village girls under the law of “moolaade,” a word meaning “protection.” No, it certainly doesn’t sound like a film that is a barrel of laughs, but in Ebert’s own review of the film he claims to be at a loss for words because he knows no description of the plot could even hint at the life and urgency of the film contained within.

These very foreign films of the Overlooked are often some of my favorites. Two years ago the Zulu language feature “Yesterday” was one of Ebert’s festival features that I was unable to see at the time of the festival, but I did catch it when it premiered on HBO and it wound up on my 2005 Top Ten list. And the adaptation of Friedrich Durrmatt’s play “The Visit”, aptly titled “Hyenes” (also from Senegal), from the first Overlooked I attended will forever remain one of my favorite films. I do hope “Moolaade” will soon be released in some format in the U.S., so everyone will be able to enjoy its treasures.

Run, Lola, Run. In the closing moments of 2006, when Oscar hype was on the rise and every film in release was fighting for prize recognition, German director Tom Tykwer quietly released his American directorial debut. Satrring Dustin Hoffman as a perfumer who discovers a boy with an amazing nose for odors, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is based on a book that plays to Tykwer’s strengths of directing quirky thrillers. The boy (Ben Whishaw) is so obsessed with the perfection of the smell of women, he eventually turns to murder.

Ebert brought this film to his festival this year based on the amazing feat this story seems to have pulled off in each of the mediums which it has existed. A book that evokes the sense of smell so well is amazing enough, but Ebert was so impressed with Sean Barrett’s audio book performance, he would bring parties to a halt showing it off to guests. Tykwer seems to have impressed Ebert just as much with his film adaptation. Alas, for those of us not lucky enough to have seen it during its extremely limited theatrical run or without passes to the Overlooked, we will have to wait a few more months for it DVD release.

In its stead, I have chosen to watch the film that put Tykwer on the map, the 1998 German thriller “Run, Lola, Run”. Netflix describes this film as “a thrilling post-MTV roller-coaster ride.” I have to admit, I can’t imagine what the hell that statement is supposed to mean. It’s the whole “post-MTV” thing that’s throwing me off. But it is a non-stop kinetic, frenetic, balls-to-the-wall ride; that is for sure.

Have you ever wanted to be able to call a “do over” in life? Well, if you’re thinking about that when you’re trying to fix your lawnmower, try to imagine how much an action hero might want to utilize such a gift. Lola gets that chance in her movie. She and her boyfriend are having a very bad day. Lola is trying to get 100,000 marks to her boyfriend before he robs a grocery store to replace some money he owes to a gangster.

Tykwer employs a number of tactics to pump up the frenetic energy of his film, from animations, to stills with brief future stories for the people Lola runs into along the way, to jump cutting and extreme close ups. Every time things end poorly for Lola, Tykwer takes the audience back to the beginning until she gets it right.

This is the rare thriller that is joyous in its execution, rather than somber. Even when Lola’s story ends badly, it is hard not to delight in the events of this film. Plus, after one time through you get the concept that she’s going to get a chance to try it all again with a different outcome.

I’ve heard it compared to a video game, and I suppose that is true in the way Lola starts again from a certain point in her story after a poor choice leads her down the wrong path. But the added elements of dialogue and melodrama make this film so much more fun than watching your buddies work their way through a bunch of zombies, or whatever obstacles their particular choice of video game has to offer. And I can only imagine that playing this game a second or third time would only reveal more details and tidbit to delight and amaze.

Here is the trailer for Tykwer’s latest film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”.

Overlooked Report #1

Wednesday, April 25 marked the opening day of Roger Ebert’s 9th Annual Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Ill. It also marks my 3rd annual absence from the event, which I once promised I would never miss. This year’s excuse, I was in the hospital with a herniated disk when the passes sold out in a record two weeks of sales. Not to mention the fact that at that time I had no idea of what my financial, or even work, status would be when April rolled around.

Although, I am not there in body, as always my spirit is in attendance; and as has become my custom to try to replicate the experience in my own home, I have designed my own Overlooked Film Festival to enjoy throughout the month of April in the darkness of my basement. Over the past few weeks, with the help of Netflix, I have watched several films that are also on Ebert’s Overlooked schedule. For those films that are unavailable for home entertainment, I have come up with related replacements to fill in the gaps.

Ebert once again has culled together an incredible array of films that touch upon a wide range of subject matter and genre; from sci-fi noir, to music documentary, female circumcision to Southern hospitality, prostitutes making good to just living the sweet life. Even aroma inspired killers and underachieving weather men make it into the mix. The Overlooked has a little bit of everything, and all of it is the best that today’s most respected movie critic has seen.

Gattaca. Of course, I’d had plenty of time to accept that I would not be attending this year’s festival by the time Ebert finally announced his films in late March; but I could not have been more disappointed in my imminent absence as I was when I discovered that the opening film would be one that I consider to be one of the most overlooked films of the ‘90’s, Andrew Niccol’s debut sci-fi noir about a future when genetics allows us to customize our children before they are even born, “Gattaca”.

I was lucky enough to see Niccol’s visionary film when it was originally released in theaters, so I have not been deprived of its theatrical experience. However, I never would have guessed at that time that it had been directed by a first time writer/director. It is a movie that is very sure of itself, with a strong vision and an even stronger message.

The story follows Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a man who was not lucky enough to have been born with engineered genes, so he must accept the life of the underprivileged and work as a janitor at a training facility for astronauts being sent to Saturn. But Vincent has devised a plan to fake his identity by using the genetic makeup of Jerome (Jude Law), an engineered athlete who was paralyzed in an accident.

Niccol goes to great lengths to illustrate just how difficult a false identity would be to pull off in a society where an individual’s genetic code defines their standing. Millions of cells are shed from one individual in a single day. Vincent’s dream to fly through space requires extreme sacrifice to achieve from his position.

To go on describing the film, I could not hope to capture the power and scope of this incredibly intelligent film, which epitomizes the somewhat lost art of science fiction, combining genres and style to present a societal commentary that is as important to the age in which it is made as it is to the one which it portrays. But to see this film again, with an appreciative audience, would be one of the finest film experiences any lover of the medium could hope to have.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Meet the Robinsons / *** (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Lewis: Jordan Fry and Daniel Hansen
Wilbur: Wesley Singerman
Bowler Hat Guy: Stephen J. Anderson
Mildred: Angela Bassett
Fanny: Nicole Sullivan
Carl: Harland Williams
Uncle Art: Adam West

Walt Disney Animation presents a film directed by Stephen J. Anderson. Written by Jon Bernstein, based on the book by William Joyce. Running time: 102 min. Rated G.

Recently, my wife and I applied for an international adoption of a little girl from China. We did not do this because of Angelina Jolie, or because we wanted a real-life china doll. We did this because we both had felt all our lives that we had a spirit to offer a child, who may not be of our blood but will be of our hearts. We have two boys of our own, and we felt we would like to offer our love to another child who, without us, may never find out how special she actually is. This also happens to be what Disney’s latest CGI adventure “Meet the Robinsons” is about.

As a baby, Lewis was left at an orphanage doorstep. On the verge of turning thirteen, he has yet to find a family. Lewis is a very bright and determined young boy. He’s an inventor. Although his inventions rarely work and are often the reason why potential parents reject him, he doesn’t let this discourage him. Eventually, he constructs a device that will allow him to look into his own memory to see the image of his mother from when he was just an infant. His poor roommate, Goob, becomes his assistant by default.

He enters his invention into a science fair, but before he can see if it works, it is sabotaged by a man in a bowler hat. We will come to know this man only as the Bowler Hat Guy, thanks to the intervention of Wilbur Robinson, a boy about the same age as Lewis who claims to be from the future. When Lewis refuses to believe Wilbur, he throws Lewis into his time machine to prove it.

The future envisioned in this joyous fantasy film is one straight out of a young boy’s imagination. The popular mode of transportation is via soap bubbles. Buildings construct themselves instantly and bear a resemblance to those air-blown bouncing play stations found at carnivals. The vacuum tube has replaced the elevator for traveling within the confines of a single estate. And a man by the name of Cornelius Robinson is solely responsible for almost all of the technology.

The Robinsons as a family comprise a large assortment of goofball characters. The mother, Fanny (voiced by Nicole Sullivan, “Mad TV”), has trained a chorus of frogs to sing R&B. Grandfather Robinson likes to draw a face on the back of his head to throw people off. One of his brothers is married to a puppet. Uncle Art (Adam West, TV’s “Batman”) is a pizza delivery man who approaches his job as if saving the world. Another uncle’s obsession with canons has him firing everything from dinner meatballs to his own body out of gunpowder-packed tubes. The only sane member appears to be the wisecracking family robot (Harland Williams, “Rocket Man”).

As we are introduced to the Robinsons and their wacky household, we are treated to a loose form of storytelling that was much more popular in the days when Walt Disney himself was overseeing the feature films his studio was producing. There is a randomness and utter detachment from reality in the way this future world is presented that is jarring at first but becomes quite endearing. I was reminded of older animations, like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo”, in the freeform nature the filmmakers allowed themselves to explore their ideas. At times, the film completely liberates itself from traditional storytelling in an explosion of incoherent imagination.

Lewis himself is an utterly likeable child; voiced, for no reason I’ve been able to discern, by two actors, Jordan Fry and Daniel Hansen. In fact, the freedom of the filmmakers’ imaginations very much carries over into the voice talent of the film. There are characters, such as the Bowler Hat Guy (voiced by director Stephen J. Anderson) and others, whose voices thrum toward extreme cartooniness. And several characters capitalize on the personalities behind them, like Laurie Metcalf’s (TV's “Roseanne”) Dr. Krunklehorn and West’s superhero-inspired delivery guy. There is even a surprise cameo voice that will inspire a chuckle if you can identify it.

The Robinsons’ tendency toward individual expression makes them a perfect family for Lewis’s misfit personality. Despite a proclivity toward kung fu showdowns at the dinner table in the Robinson household, Lewis is honored when they offer to adopt him. But secrets that cannot be revealed here make such a gesture impossible for Lewis to accept.

For all of its overabundance of imagination, “Meet the Robinsons” amounts to little more than a fun time at the movies; this is not necessarily a bad thing. My son Jack was engrossed from start to finish, and I believe even broke his own record for holding his bladder for the last twenty minutes. And besides being a fun time at the cinema, “Meet the Robinsons” does point its small spotlight on an issue that hasn’t been seen in popular films much since Little Orphan Annie made it to the big screen. In the Robinsons’ world, our individuality makes us all orphans in one sense, but it is through the bonding power of family that we get our strength.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse / **** (R)

Cast listed for each feature individually below.

Dimension Films presents a double feature by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Running time: 191 min. Rated R (for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity, and drug use).

Ever since first hearing about this double feature project from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, I’ve been thinking about how difficult it will be to explain and review. Now that the moment is here, I realize that writing about it will be just as much fun as watching it, however guilty I may feel for enjoying it.

“Grindhouse” is Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s ode to the ‘70’s exploitation pictures they both enjoyed during their formative years. Each director’s work has been heavily influenced by the exploitation genres of ‘70’s “grindhouse” cinema, films which were churned out by now defunct independent studios for little money to capitalize on the specialty market of filmgoers who fed off extreme violence and gratuitous sexuality.

As a film, “Grindhouse” is more than just a tribute to this particular market of genre films. It is a return to the entire experience of watching grindhouse films that goes beyond just ridiculous plots that merely act as excuses for graphic violence and voluptuous women; it goes so far as to mimic the poor production values and the scratches and color deterioration on the film stock. It even features four fake grindhouse previews made just for this double feature. What these filmmakers have created are not just a couple of movies, but an entire movie going experience.

I wrestled with what star rating I should award the film. It won’t appeal to a mainstream audience, nor does it try to. But as an exercise in exploitation cinema, “Grindhouse” is a phenomenal success. In essence, this film is a peek into what would result if some of the most innovative modern filmmakers were to tackle some of the worst Z-movie plots conceived. Apparently, it is not the material that makes a film but the men behind the camera who can turn anything into an entertaining experience.

Fake Movie Trailers

“Machete” directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Machete: Danny Trejo

“Werewolf Women of the SS” directed by Rob Zombie.
Franz Hess: Udo Kier
Eva Krupp: Sheri Moon Zombie
Gretchen Krupp: Sybil Danning

“Don’t” directed by Edgar Wright.

“Thanksgiving” directed by Eli Roth.
Tucker: Eli Roth
Judy: Jordan Ladd
Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn

The four fake movie trailers are as much a part of the experience of this project as either of the feature films. “Machete” sets the mood for the entire experience with its ultra exploitational nature. In a plot that bares a striking resemblance to the recent “Shooter”, the titular character Machete (Danny Trejo, “Heat”) has a penchant for surviving an assassination frame up, a bevy of beautiful bare-chested women and, of course, the blades of his moniker. There was such a positive response to this fake trailer when it premiered on You Tube last week that Rodriguez is thinking about making it a reality for his follow-up project to “Sin City 2”.

Cult directors Rob Zombie (“The Devil’s Rejects”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Eli Roth (“Hostel”) provide the three trailers which separate the two features, with each capitalizing on one particular exploitation trademark. Roth’s “Thanksgiving” imagines a teen slasher flick based around the titular holiday. If you think you’ve seen every shocking way in which teenagers can lose their life while having sex, Roth offers a few more imaginative suggestions, one of which had the entire theater groaning in disgust. Wright’s “Don’t” has fun with the marketing technique offered by the ultra simplistic title of this awful looking haunted house flick. And the title of Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS” pretty much says everything it can about some of the ludicrous plots found in these exploitation films and the trailer lives up to everything the title promises.

Death Proof

Stuntman Mike: Kurt Russell
Zoë: Zoë Bell
Abernathy: Rosario Dawson
Kim: Tracie Thoms
Lee: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Jungle Julia: Sydney Poitier
Arlene: Vanessa Ferlito
Shanna: Jordan Ladd
Pam: Rose McGowan

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I acquired a taste for exploitation cinema only later in life. Originally, my problem with the basic format was that while I was watching the movies for the gratuitous violence, their low budgets really didn’t allow for too many effects sequences. The talent was dirt cheap, so all the money was spent on the action sequences, but for all too many exploitation pictures that money did not stretch very far. So what would result would be two or three fun action scenes separated by long stretches of people who couldn’t act their way out of a garbage bag spouting dialogue from writers who weren’t any better.

With Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, a car chase thriller grafted with a sexy girl-power flick, we get a slasher flick structure filled with talented performers and long stretches of beautiful dialogue. Damn, Tarantino can write good lines. Here he gives us a lecherous baddie who says things like, “There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel.” Or, “This car is 100% death proof, only to get the benefit of it honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat!” Even simple dialogue exchanges seem to sparkle.

Pam: Warren, who is this guy?
Warren: That’s Stuntman Mike.
Pam: Who the hell is Stuntman Mike?
Warren: He’s a stuntman.

Or this one:

Mike: Do I frighten you?
[Arlene nods.]
Mike: Is it my scar?
Arlene: It’s your car.
Mike: Yeah, I know. Sorry.

Because Tarantino’s (“Jackie Brown”) script is as dialogue-driven as any of his work, “Death Proof” is the tamest segment of the “Grindhouse” experience. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get his chance to exploit the audience’s fears and visceral response to gore. Stuntman Mike is a sociopathic killer who hunts sexy young women and mows them down with his death proof stunt car. He kills one set of victims by smashing into them head-on on the open highway.

Mike meets his match in stuntwoman Zoë Bell, playing herself. This allows for some spectacular stunt sequences and a car chase that could go down as one of the greats. Tarantino has a blast empowering Bell, with her fearless stunt-driven personality, and her posse of friends, including the frank personalities of Kim (Tracie Thoms, CBS’s “Cold Case”) and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, “Sin City”).

I suppose this could also qualify as a revenge picture. It’s quite a hoot to see Kurt Russell, the man who was Snake Pliskin in John Carpenter’s exploitation influenced “Escape from New York”, scream like a girl when a woman finally takes a shot at him.

Planet Terror

Cherry: Rose McGowan
Wray: Freddie Rodriguez
Dr. Dakota Block: Marley Shelton
Dr. William Block: Josh Brolin
JT: Jeff Fahey
Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn
Abby: Naveen Andrews
Rapist: Quentin Tarantino
Earl McGraw: Michael Parks

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

The zombie flick has been exploiting people’s fears of other people since the dawn of the horror genre. The sub-genre reached a new plateau of stomach churning when George A. Romero introduced the first of his “Living Dead” series “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. Romero’s zombies fed off their human victims in full view of the camera, causing audience members to clutch their own stomachs in effort to hold on to their lunches.

Rodriguez (“Desperado”, “Spy Kids”) takes mutilation to a new level with “Planet Terror”. In his sometimes goofy, sometimes laughable, always gruesome and extremely clever zombie flick the protagonist has to deal with her own mutilation. The go-go dancer Cherry (Rose McGowan of TV’s “Charmed” in one of two roles in the “Grindhouse” project) loses a leg in an early zombie attack and spends the final scenes with a machine gun/grenade launcher as a pyrotechnic prosthetic.

As is often the case with viral mutilation plots, a military experiment has run amuck. On a base near Austin, Texas a rouge Army lieutenant (an uncredited Bruce Willis) has unleashed a gas which turns ordinary people into mindless zombies.

Rodriguez gathers a sprawling cast of characters to act as both victims and resistance to this zombie plague. Freddie Rodriguez (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) is a mysterious outlaw who never misses with any weapon and becomes the leader of the plague survivors. Marley Shelton (“The Last Kiss”) is a doctor who wields a needle as if injection was a martial art. Josh Brolin (“Hollow Man”) is her psychopathic doctor husband. And Jeff Fahey (“The Lawnmower Man”) and Michael Biehn (“Aliens”) play a pair of brothers fighting over the family BBQ recipe. In Texas, even a zombie plague takes a back seat to barbecue.

Rodriguez’s primary goal here seems to be disgusting the audience with the mutated pustules that mark the infected zombies. There’s a really funny scene as the hospital first starts to see infected victims where two doctors view pictures of some painful infection cases in front of one victim. The joke comes back around later in the film with the demise of a rapist character played by Tarantino in what is the film’s biggest test of audience intestinal fortitude.

“Planet Terror” is populated with just about every weapon in the exploitation arsenal. It has sexy women in skimpy clothing, men with big guns on testosterone highs, more blood and gore than one would think could fit into 80 minutes, terrible dialogue, and bad editing. The film even stops and appears to burn up on the projector bulb at one point. This could be the ultimate exploitation film.

And remember, never allow a child to handle a gun.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Blades of Glory / ***½ (PG-13)

Chazz Michael Michaels: Will Ferrell
Jimmy MacElroy: Jon Heder
Stranz Van Waldenberg: Will Arnett
Fairchild Van Waldenberg: Amy Poehler
Katy Van Waldenberg: Jenna Fischer
Darren MacElroy: William Fitchner
Coach: Craig T. Nelson

DreamWorks SKG and MTV Films present a film directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon. Written by Jeff Cox & Craig Cox and John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky and Busy Philips. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, language, a comic violent image and some drug references).

Comedy is hard. I don’t know who originally introduced this idea, although it was most likely a comedian. But it’s a phrase that critics rarely take into consideration. In the world of film criticism, comedy is rarely taken seriously. Well, the paradox in that thinking should be obvious. Comedy is not meant to be taken seriously.

It is tempting as a critic to look for meaning and depth in everything that we dissect. There is no meaning and depth in the new figure skating farce “Blades of Glory”. None is intended. All that is asked of the audience is that we laugh. And throughout this particular comedy, I laughed hard.

“Blades of Glory” tells the story of two of the world’s top male figure skaters, bitter rivals who represent the sport’s two ends of the spectrum. Jimmy MacElroy, played by Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynomite”), is the traditional skater. He was plucked at the early age of four by a former horse trainer (snicker) who adopted him for the soul purpose of breeding a champion. His technical skill on the rink is matched by no one. His beauty is matched only by the female skaters, and only some of them.

Chazz Michael Michaels, as portrayed by Will Farrell (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”), is MacElroy’s polar opposite. He is a grand stander, the sport’s bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He came up through the tough-as-nails ranks of sewer speed skating under the streets of Motown. He is a sexual dynamo (not to mention addict), and he knows it. Although considering Ferrell’s physique, it’s questionable whether anyone else agrees.

After the two are kicked out of singles competition for life for getting into a knock down, drag out fight on the medals podium after tying for the gold, they decide to team up for the pairs competition and a second chance at glory. The writers have a lot of fun exploring the differences between the two, but it’s when things start to click between Chazz and Jimmy that the comedy finds most of its life. The skating sequence during their first competition together is rib splitting from the moment they appear as their costumed personas Fire & Ice to the wince-inducing finale. The skating performances are far from realistic but do a fine job in milking the clichés of figure skating for comedic effect.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck have done wonders immersing their production into the unique world of international figure skating. From the over dramatic personality profiles the television coverage puts together to the ridiculously themed costuming and choreography of the skating routines, this film takes the nearly absurd reality of the figure skating establishment and pushes it just past that point of absurdity into pure comedic farce.

It’s wonderful to see so many figure skating stars, from past (Peggy Fleming) and present (Sacha Cohen), so willing to poke fun at their sport. But real-life Olympic figure skating commentators Scott Hamilton and Jim Lampley threaten to steal the show with a spoof commentary worthy of Fred Willard’s color commentary in “Best In Show”.

Once Chazz and Jimmy earn their entry into the World Winter Games, they must contend with the less than ethical tactics of the reigning pairs champions, the brother and sister team of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg. The pair is played with thick comedic sinistry by Amy Poehler (“Saturday Night Live”) and Will Arnett (of the overlooked sitcom “Arrested Development”). This pair is so sick they even choose to lounge around in costumes as outrageous as those they wear in the ice.

The Van Waldenberg’s family history is even more hilarious than Chazz and Jimmy’s backgrounds. They have a little sister, Katy (Jenna Fischer, NBC’s “The Office”), who was obviously the unwanted child and family scapegoat, even drawing the blame for their parents’ tragic death. Stranz and Fairchild enlist Katy to spy on Chazz and Jimmy, but she ends up falling for the flowery Jimmy instead.

Plenty of room is also made for supporting and cameo performances to fill every inch of film with laughs. Craig T. Nelson shows up as the male pair’s coach, with a little nod to his long-running television character of the same title. Frequent Ferrell collaborators Luke Wilson and Rob Corddry lend their talents and Nick Swardson (“Grandma’s Boy”) appears as a stalker fan of Jimmy’s. Be sure to stick around for his credit cookie.

“Blades of Glory” is silly, yet filled with original jokes and ideas. While it may not transcend ideas of meaning and depth, it is transcendent in terms of absurd comedy. This makes it more valuable than many will give it credit. The plot will not change the course of comedy filmmaking, but the humor is relentless and grossly detailed. What a nice touch to have the mascot of each Winter Games mutilated in some way each time we see it. “Blades of Glory” will make you laugh; if you go into it with the impression that it should achieve some other goal, perhaps you lack a sense of humor. In which case, what you seek is provided here in spades.