Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival 2005 Overview

Never mind that it took trekking to the big-shouldered, big-burgered land of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival April 20-24. And never mind the perversity of jumping NYC ship just as Tribeca reared its overhyped head. A chronic case of cinennui has been kicked, and all it took was four days of Ebert-selected movies screened in a dilapidated, grand theater for 1,000 cinenthusiasts, mulled over slowly and surely in long question-and-answer periods, aided and abetted by Long-Tall Sally shakes and steak(burgers). Ebertfest 2005 was the cinema studies grad school experience we all wish we’d actually had.

The premise of the festival is brilliant in its simplicity: films that Roger Ebert really digs. Initially, the festival solely focused on unjustly overlooked films, but as this was its seventh year, the category of unjustly overlooked was bound to slide into semi-deservedly overlooked. Better instead to uphold movies that deserve a closer look, a decision this year’s programming reflected, and which Ebert himself acknowledged before each screening. (A festival name change looms if only so he can sidestep the definition song and dance in years to come.) So the bill of fare: Playtime; Murderball; Saddest Music in the World; Heart in the World; After Dark, My Sweet; Yesterday; The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Baadasssss; The Secret of Roan Inish; Primer; Map of the Human Heart; Me and You and Everyone We Know; Taal. Crazy good.

Dave Poland, Lord of the Hot Button and Movie City News hooked me up but swell in the University Union where all the Swells were residing, complete with a green VIP pass to the green room, where junior mints and wacky taffy flowed like wine. After a Coney Island ride of a flight, he met me at the airport and immediately greeted Jason Patric, Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum and numerous (significant) others whom I should’ve already recognized on my tiny plane. A powerschmoozer I am not.

In the mornings, a kitchen klatch convened in — no joke — the student union to talk shop. Bad coffee and sugary scones breeds more cinemaspeak. Kubrick became the Elijah at the table and DP offered his Eyes Wide Shut rationalization thesis. My alternathesis — that Kubrick’s films were unremittingly remote due to being unremittingly male — landed about as well as Ishtar; those who agreed expressed their sentiments out of earshot from the rest. The first day I also picked a fight about the new pope with Toronto Film Festival pope Dusty Cohl, who graciously pardoned me after a beat. Someday soon I will learn to keep mum till my blood sugar properly spikes.

Steak n Shake, a local franchise founded, no kidding, in Normal, Illinois, turned out to be the Peach Pit of the festival. The festival was small enough so that every night after screenings, a crew collected under the fluorescent lights to talk movies past, present and future. It was enormous whipped-cream-topped strawberry shakes (Ebert’s wife Chaz bought me one of my own the first night, and I got hooked) and two-tiered Swiss burgers with the likes of Guy Maddin, Jason Patric, Mario Van Peebles, Rosenbaum, DP, and the Murderball crew. No late-night drinking here; the drugs of choice were sugar, dairy, and good old red meat here in the Midwest. Boozy confessions replaced by giddy, sugar-bred free associations. The hangovers, however, were just as bad.

Neither of us were able to stay for the whole festival as seders called from the really big-shouldered land of Chitown, but a breakdown of highlights that we encountered — cinematic and otherwise — follows. Should we have been able to stay longer, no doubt director John Sayles and performance artist Miranda July would have been real boons. I’ve heard only amazing buzz on July’s new feature, which I’m disgruntled to have missed again, and, well, Sayles is Sayles, Silver City or not.

Freelancers: Unite Your Freewheeling Asses!

I’m Little Blogger on the Prairie this week, looking at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Festival and suffering from wonky old-school Internet connex. Having a fine old time otherwise — which I’ll launch into shortly — but wanted to point all and sundry to Yancey Strickler’s call to freelancers. It’s time we freelancing writers and editors really organized ourselves. Working Today and other freelancers’ unions provide us health insurance but not much else, and recent experiences have brought home the fact that we all need to step up our support for each other. Check out Yancer’s proposal, and email either of us with idears please.

Also, while I’m in the bidness of touting Mr. Strickler’s bloggy, please note his homage to R&B; divadom. Best line: “R&B; was once the milky cleavage of a heaving bosom wailing love notes to the wind; now it’s a navel flatter than the Platygæan Hypothesis getting bossed around by some scrub in a tank-top who’s at a loss on how to love anything other than a girl.” Yes, yes, y’all.

Sloppy Seconds DVDs (The Incredibles, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spanglish, I Heart Huckabees, Sideways)

Yancey’s had flu for a week and I’m Barely Employed Bertha (rolls right off the tongue, don’t it?) so time together has become a bed-in of the asexual variety. Since we’re a. products of our (respective) generations and b. not John and Yoko, no revolutions have been planned nor questions of a deep philosophical nature deliberated. Instead, we’ve been on the sacrificial lamb, drowning our snot and sorrows in new DVD releases to spare others the horror of deservedly deleted scenes. Oh, such lofty superheroes we in pajamas be.

The theme: Love and Life in the Disappointing Face of Mortality. Or: When We Realize Even Superheroes Aren’t Superheroes. All movies I saw last year, and with the exception of Sideways, all movies I loved when first I saw them. The test, then: Did they make us feel sicker and sadder in our time of woe? Or (marginally less pathetic): Were they better the second time round?

The Results

Turns out Sideways is an ideal renter, though I balked at joining its fan club when it came out last fall. Former TV star Thomas Haden Church’s gummy schtick fares better when returned to its rightful size screen. You can linger in the sun-dappled Tuscany-by-Cali wine country with the time you’ll save after skipping the split-screen montages, and you can piece together Paul Giamatti’s best performance by editing out the too-long sadsack sequences. (Everything after they return from wine country is overkill.)

As for the extras, they confirm what before I’d only suspected: Alexander Payne is a smug prick. Most DVDs include deleted scenes without much fanfare from directors, possibly because they’re embarrassed by what typically amounts to dirty underwear, but Payne precludes the whole of them with an enormous typed essay that fills three different screens. Not to mention that he introduces each individual deleted scene (each duller than its predecessor) with a loving homage in the same shitty font. It’s a testament to his fairly exceptional wit that his films are as good as they are, given that he’s clearly never learned that art flourishes when you kill your babies. Hey, Payne, KILL ALL YOUR BABIES. Consider him told.

Ready for umpteenth bad lead regarding this flick? I heart I Heart Huckabees even more the second time around.

Everything lives inside that movie that I could ever want.: french farce; ‘60s psychedelia; big, hard spiritual questions about meaning and responsibility tossed into the air like a pizza pie that never flops. J’heart heart heart Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as the good-parent existentialist detectives (a sort of reprise of Tomlin’s eye-twinkling acid mommy in director Russell’s Flirting with Disaster); Jude Law as the smarmy fuck we all know he prolly really is (LA gossip was he fired his agent and manager after Chris Rocked him at la Oscars); Marky Mark earnest as you want him to be, rasping out critiques of capitalism and petroleum use and existentialism with all the indignation of a nine-year-old boy straddling a dirt bike, which, incidentally, he does; Jason Schwartzman, so hangdog highlarious as the floundering environmentalist that his Rushmore performance will never be dismissed as a fluke ever again; and, may it please the court, Naomi Watts putting her normal stridency to good use as the former model slouching toward enlightenment in overalls and a lil bonnet and a mud-smeared face. If only all movies could hit you on as many levels as this one. It manages to hit all the stages any spiritually thirsty Westerner undergoes on a quest for enough peace of mind to tolerate the mundanity of the mall — from the initial revelation that everything is connected, to the dawning that pain’s inherent to being alive, to a reconciliation of that whole process. Only, the journey is rendered shorter and smarter, which is what movies are supposed to do for us.

As for the extras, note in particular the extra Huckabees commercials. I never liked her before, but I kind of have a hard-on for Watts now. Girlfriend is (a) good sport.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was better first time round. The ‘50s-style science fiction still melds well with the philosophy MA jokes; Winslet’s performance is still only bested by Imelda Staunton’s Vera Drake in the annals of 2004; and it’s still the best Charlie Kaufman movie yet, which is saying rather a lot. Sunshine is a fantastically original movie that has a heart rather than a navel. But on another viewing, clever occasionally slides into cloying, complacent, and other c words. Second time in, it’s harder to ignore Jim Carrey’s selfish performance, in which he sucks up all the air in his scenes. And once you know the story’s outcome, the plotline devolves into Jack and Chrissy land occasionally. Truth told, so stir-crazy was I by the time the film itself finally ended, I didn’t even watch the extras.

Spanglish was the most underrated movie of 2004 and the extras go a long way toward suggesting why. The movie as an event proved an interesting case study of how critics can sink a movie. (Sideways reviews showed how critics could make a movie, as Times critic AO Scott pointed out.) Its reviews tanked, mostly focusing on what was perceived as Téa Leoni’s gross caricature of an insecure wife, and director James L. Brooks’ cultural imperialism despite his obvious good intentions. The fact that a very sharp, very decent movie had been made was overlooked.

There’s not a bad performance in the lot, including those from Leoni, a real 40s-screwball movie dame, and Cloris Leachman, boozily teaching torch songs to her young grandson. Even man-of-the-house Sandler lays aside his idiot savant mugging for this film, though the good cop-bad cop dynamics between him and Leoni grated, as did the zero sexual chemistry between man-of-the-house Sandler and Paz Vega as his Latina maid. Watching it at home meant I could hide in the kitchen during their love scenes; it’s embarrassing how Sandler’s not enough of a grownup to summon a response in or for a woman as formidable as Vega.

Brooks’ roots lie in some of the best sitcoms ever made, and the weaknesses and strengths of Spanglish betray those beginnings: an immediate emotionality, snapdragon dialogue, strong but strangely two-dimensional characters, and a tendency to be pat — as if conflicts needed to be wrapped up before the commercial break. When we watched the deleted scenes, Yancey drawled out: “I can see why he’d want to delete scenes that showed other sides to the characters.” Fair enough. Rare are the deleted scenes that suggest a far better movie ended up on the cutting floor. But then again, I’ve not watched the Gangs in New York DVD.

Also of note: a special featurette on how to make chef Sandler’s egg sandwich. Practical!

I saw The Incredibles at Thanksgiving with my sister and her boyfriend, and we girls who’ve only studied Spanish kept whispering “incroyable!” in a French accent over and over. It was too good to compliment in only one language.

It was nice to take in the movie itself again, not surprisingly as director Brad Bird made Iron Giant, the only other animated movie worth watching over and over. But we were much more obsessed with the extras, which took more than an hour to watch in full. Included is a ‘50s style cartoon of the Mr. Incredible and Frozone, which you can watch with Mr. Incredible and Frozone’s commentary (Craig T. Nelson and Samuel Jackson, respectively; sweet Georgia Brown). Also included are “cast” bloopers such as when Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets too elastic — she’s just so wacky — and a vignette narrated by author Sarah Vowell who, bizarrely, provides the voice for Violet, about the similarities between her character and Abraham Lincoln. This DVD’s comedy is as layered as, well, Arrested Development. Incroyable.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy