Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Poster Time!

Having seen eighteen movies in various theaters (and two different states, no less) over the last seven days, you would think I would have something to say. If I could catch my breath, I would. In the meantime, enjoy looking at the poster for the Deep Focus Film Fest.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

KUNG FU HUSTLE (GONG FU) (Stephen Chow, 2004)

Writer, director, and star Stephen Chow brings his unique blend of comedy and martial arts to KUNG FU HUSTLE. Chow is featured as the aspiring gangster Sing. He wants to join the vicious, stovepipe hat-wearing Axe Gang, which terrorizes the hapless residents of Pig Sty Alley. Conditions worsen to the point that the kung fu masters secretly living there reveal themselves and fight back.

Part live action cartoon, part love letter to the cinema, KUNG FU HUSTLE is one of a kind. With astonishing results Chow uses well-integrated CGI to manipulate the actors like drawn figures. KUNG FU HUSTLE’S humor benefits from this freedom. A snakebite gives Sing lips swelled to ridiculous proportions. Martial artists defy the laws of gravity and physiology. It’s good, roughhouse fun. Chow also finds creative ways to pay tribute to films classic and recent. Sing and a mute street vendor develop a relationship that recalls Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS. Martial arts sequences are akin to dance scenes, and Chow mirrors a poster for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in TOP HAT with a man holding a woman at knifepoint. References to GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE SHINING, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are among Chow’s many other tips of the hat to Hollywood movies. KUNG FU HUSTLE bursts with imagination and energy.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the April 26, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

The Interpreter

THE INTERPRETER (Sydney Pollack, 2005)

In THE INTERPRETER Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome, a United Nations translator who accidentally overhears plans to assassinate the president of the war torn country Matobo. FBI agent Tobin Keller, played by Sean Penn, is assigned to the case, but he’s not sure whether he should focus on protecting Silvia from the bad guys or suspecting her of involvement with the plot. Questions abound about Silvia. Not only is she one of the few people at the U.N. who speaks the rare language of the conspirators, but also she has ties to opposing political figures in the fictional African country.

THE INTERPRETER is a solid political thriller told on a human level. Director Sydney Pollack keeps Silvia and Tobin at the film’s center. Rather than making THE INTERPRETER about the twists and turns, its focus is the people who don’t know how to read the situation in which they have found themselves. Kidman and Penn play off of each other well. Their performances are subdued and mostly closed off, which heightens the sense of mystery. Hints of a romance enter the equation but aren’t forced. As their relationship--professional or otherwise--deepens, uncertainty surfaces as to who’s playing whom or if that’s even the case all. The action setpieces, including a well-cut sequence on a bus, are spare but effective.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the April 26, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Schultze Gets the Blues

SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES (Michael Schorr, 2003)

A retired German salt miner becomes obsessed with zydeco in the deadpan comedy SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES. Schultze spends his empty days sitting at the pub with his fellow retirees and playing the accordion. One night he comes across the sounds of the swamp on the radio. The melody infects him like a virus, and soon he’s trading in oompah music for something Cajun.

Like the films of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES uses dry humor to extract laughs out of mundane situations. Writer-director Michael Schorr shows music’s transporting power by using it to enliven a film that otherwise beats with a slow pulse. Schultze’s obsession with zydeco leads him on a journey to New Braunfels, Texas and the bayou. His quest down the river is, in a sense, as fanatical as the search for El Dorado in AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, minus the full-blown lunacy. SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES also touches upon the appeal of different cultures and how this exploration keeps life interesting. Here’s a round German accordion player who finds new meaning through zydeco, yet the America Schultze sees is in the midst of celebrating German heritage and music. SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES has an inexpressive surface, but beneath it is a warm, funny story about a life renewed.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the April 26, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Paper Clips

PAPER CLIPS (Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, 2004)

In the documentary PAPER CLIPS, the Whitwell, Tennessee middle school faculty find a unique way to teach diversity to the homogenous student body. The students learn about the Holocaust but have a difficult time comprehending the scope of the genocide. To make it tangible, the students try to collect six million paper clips, each of which represents a Jew killed by the Nazis. During World War II Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a sign of protest, so the item carries extra symbolic weight.

PAPER CLIPS is a well-meaning documentary, but the self-congratulatory tone grates after awhile. The teachers’ concern to expand their students’ limited worldview is admirable, and the kids’ reactions to the horrors of the Holocaust are genuine. I don’t question their powerful experience teaching and learning one of history’s ugliest moments, but as presented in PAPER CLIPS, these people identify with the victims and immerse themselves in Holocaust information to a degree that borders on ickiness. There’s also something troubling about diversity teaching focusing solely on victimization. The Holocaust is an important subject for study, but it isn’t what defines Judaism. PAPER CLIPS shows students being able to rattle off horrific Holocaust details, but what else did they learn other than persecution? The Tennessee middle school’s story is worth hearing, but rather than a feature-length documentary, it’s best suited as a short TV newsmagazine package.

Grade: C

(Review first aired on the April 26, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Return

(Photo by Mark Pfeiffer/April 23, 2005)

Patience is a virtue, and by patience, I mean yours. In other words, my report from Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival is a few days away. Today I finished my trip home from Ebertfest and then proceeded to see three films and edit a half-hour TV show. Now I need to write my reviews for the next NOW PLAYING. There are not enough hours in the day. You can see my dilemma.

(Addendum: My daily Ebertfest reports are now posted according to the days and times I would have written them had I had computer access at the festival.)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Ebertfest 2005: Day 5

Street sign near the Virginia Theatre (April 24, 2005/Mark Pfeiffer)

Ebertfest tradition means that the last day of the festival is devoted to a musical. Since it's get out of town day for those of us who traveled, some of the festival passholders ditch this film. In my experience, that's been a bad idea. Previous years saw one of the last, if not the last, public appearance by Donald Sutherland after a screening of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and a live performance by the Barrett Sisters after SAY AMEN SOMEBODY.

Those ready to hit the road aren't to be blamed if they saw the nearly three-hour runtime of this year's festival capper and decided to bail, but they missed what has to be, for most, a rare chance to see a Bollywood musical projected in a beautiful print.

Taal director Subhash Ghai introducing his film

TAAL uses a basic love triangle for a splashy production. The rich Manav (Akshaye Khanna) falls for the poor Mansi (Aishwarya Rai). Their intentions to marry are halted when his family insults her family. Mansi moves on by becoming a pop singing sensation under the supervision of producer Vikrant Kapoor (Anil Kapoor). Their professional relationship becomes romantic, and soon enough they plan to marry. Regardless, Manav holds fast to his love for Mansi, which leads to the necessary showdown on Mansi and Vikrant's wedding day.

My familiarity with Bollywood is limited, but what I have seen indicates that these films made in India are molded in the classic Hollywood tradition of mass entertainment. The broad performances and screenplay conventions are intended to appeal to a wide audience, and even if the execution can be corny, it's effective nonetheless. What TAAL lacks in subtlety it more than compensates for with its three-hour sugar high of singing, dancing, and inflated emotions. Th elaborate musical numbers sizzle with passion and eroticism. It goes to show that the film can be restricted in what it can show and yet convey a strong degree of sensuality.

No subtitles were included for the songs, but it doesn't seem too matter. The gestures with the music and the dancing compensate for the language barrier. In that way TAAL'S songs function in the way silent film could get information across to the audience without sound. The performances become more important than the words. Rai, Khanna, and Kapoor are all good. Rai's beauty is magnetic, so it's no wonder why she's one of Bollywood's biggest stars. The camera loves her, which makes it easy for millions of viewers to feel the same way. (Incidentally, there's a street scene with throngs of people behind Rai being held back by police. I have the feeling that they were doing real crowd control and weren't there as window dressing.) Kapoor has some of the funnier moments in the film as an Indian Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/whatever Sean Combs is calling himself these days.

TAAL is a familiar story about transcending class in pursuit of love. Vikrant comes from a poor background, but when he accumulated his wealth he became poor in spirit. Manav's more important richness is in his spirit rather than his bank account.

Comedy doesn't always translate, but a couple in-jokes slide through to savvy American viewers. There's an obligatory product placement joke about Coke, which is also the film's sponsor. One character mentions that Mansi is behaving like she thinks she's Miss World, a title that Rai held. What doesn't translate is why in one scene we see costumed people dressed as Pinocchio, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and a blue bear among others.

Thus concludes Roger Ebert's 7th annual Overlooked Film Festival. Going by audience sizes, the event is as popular as ever and for good reason. This is a well-run, accessible festival with good films and guests. I look forward to whatever next year's fest brings.

Exit sign inside the Virginia Theatre

Ebertfest 2005: Day 4

The University of Illinois (April 23, 2005/Mark Pfeiffer)

My first Overlooked Film Festival was in 2001, and it was as much of an endurance test as any I had in moviegoing. Four films a day every day, opening night and closing day excepted. It was not unusual for the day's final discussion to wrap around 1 a.m. Festival organizers have opened up the schedule this year so that it is possible to get something to eat from somewhere besides the concession stand or the vendor outside the Virginia and get to bed at a relatively sane hour.

Up to this point none of the days have been all that grueling. Or maybe I'm fest-tested, especially after doing consecutive days of five films at Cleveland in March. Whatever the case, day 4 at Roger Ebert's 7th Overlooked Film Festival is a more accommodating version of one of those time crunch days.

Roger Ebert and Jean Picker Firstenberg

But first! Another discussion! This time with Roger Ebert and Jean Picker Firstenberg, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the American Film Institute! And I didn't take notes! Again! But how about making up for it with enthusiastic non-reporting!

The Secret of Roan Inish producer Maggie Renzi and director John Sayles

It's tradition for Saturday to begin with a free children's matinee. John Sayles' THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH was selected for this slot, and while it might be a little more challenging than is typically expected of kids' fare, who says that's a bad thing? God knows there are plenty of emptyheaded movies targetd at children.

There's a legend in Fiona's (Jeni Courtney) family that long ago one of her ancestors married a Selkie, a half-woman, half-seal creature. The couple had children, which explains why the following generations bore dark-haired children drawn to the ocean.

Fiona has been sent to live with her grandparents, who reside across the water from the family's one-time home on the island of Roan Inish. She explores the island and finds some things that her family may find hard to believe.

Sayles' austere film emphasizes the power of storytelling, particularly those tales passed down through generations. Fiona takes her family's legend seriously, and why shouldn't she? Religious instruction and ways of understanding the world originate from this oral tradition. As Fiona, Courtney delivers a delightful performance.

I don't know about the kids, but this Irish family fable proved challenging for me, although on a sleep level rather than an intellectual one. So pardon my less than revelatory writing on THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH. It was inevitable that I'd struggle to stay awake at least once during the festival. This just happened to be the film during which I drifted in and out.

Ebert and Primer director Shane Carruth

I needed all of my senses about me for the next film, and even then I was bewildered. I don't really know where to begin with PRIMER, a great film that I didn't understood entirely. If ever there was a film for me to recommend to my brothers, all engineers, this is the one. Maybe they could cut through the dense, technically precise dialogue. Or maybe not. The characters talk quickly and overlap one another like people do in real life.

Four tech workers are trying to obtain venture capital for their invention. Similar to the humble origins of other tech companies, these guys are beginning in a garage and hoping to hit the jackpot. Eventually the project is taken over by Aaron (Shane Carruth, also the film's writer and director) and Abe (David Sullivan), two of the initial four. Their invention seems to be some kind of time machine, and of course Aaron and Abe have to try it out, even if they're not entirely sure what they've created or what it might do to them.

PRIMER is a puzzle movie to end all puzzle movies. I'm incapable of explaining the film and may not even have followed all of it, yet I don't think that it's critical to penetrate all of the tech-head jargon. Carruth knows these types of people and their relationships backwards and forwards, so even if what they're doing is mystifying, who they are isn't. So much modern sci-fi is about gadgets--and PRIMER has a nifty one at the center--but few demonstrate such insight for the characters.

It helps that Carruth's direction is superb. PRIMER is cut together well and flows so that everything you need to know is present even if it isn't all understandable. Carruth made PRIMER for reportedly $7000, but it doesn't look like it. The cool blue/green tint enhances the futuristic, cutting edge of tech world these characters inhabit. He has a strong sense of composition, with everything within the frame taking a diagram's structure. Carruth also inserts some sly visual jokes, in one instance panning over to show the solution that one character already knows is there. It's in keeping with the film's themes of doubles and prescience.

Ebertfest has a higher percentage of good films--of course, he'd say it's 100%--than practically any other festival one is likely to attend. That it's a curated festival has a lot to do with the fact that clunkers are rare occurrences. Nevertheless, we've found one in Vincent Ward's MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART. I was no fan of his WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

Ebert with Map of the Human Heart director Vincent Ward and star Jason Scott Lee

Films like MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART either work for you or seem dippy. I'm definitely in the latter camp. Here we get one of those passionate romances about lovers kept apart, but there's enough syrup to make you want to gag.

In 1931 an Inuit boy, Avik, is brought from the Arctic to a foster home in Montréal. There he meets Albertine, a girl whose French and Indian heritage makes her something of an outsider at the school as well. They become fast friends. Ten years later in London, Avik and Albertine (Jason Scott Lee and Anne Parillaud) renew their love affair. Complicating matters is Walter Russell (Patrick Bergin), the cartographer who befriended a young Avik and was responsible for taking him to Canada. Walter and Anne are a couple when Avik encounters them, creating a love triangle that could destroy all of their prior relationships.

This is standard romantic melodrama stuff, and there's no doubt that the emotion is in the story. It isn't, however, in these dull, partially formed characters. Not helping matters is Parillaud's insufferable performance and the oh so precious sequences with the kids (played quite annoyingly by the child actors). That cloying quality extends to a completely misconceived section in which Avik is busy screwing around taking aerial photos to send a loving message to Albertine when he should be doing his critical job during World War II. But it's all for Love, you say. True, but will anyone care if England's in flames because they're preoccupied with their love games?

Released in 1993, MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART feels like the sort of Oscar-grubbing fare Miramax was accused of releasing. Fair enough. The Weinsteins' company distributed Ward's film.

MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART isn't a total wash, though. There are two visually captivating love scenes, one atop a hot air balloon and another at the peak of the Royal Albert Hall. The shot of the entwined lovers on the balloon takes away one's breath as it reveals them in midair while the balloon is tethered to the ground.

Ebert and Me and You and Everyone We Know director Miranda July

The day's last film was Ebert's Sundance fave ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, Miranda July’s comic musings on the search for love. July plays Christine, a sensitive elder cab driver who finds an outlet in performance art. John Hawkes is Richard, a lonely shoe salesman coping with a recent divorce and trying to put on a brave face for his two kids. Christine and Richard’s awkward flirtation is the main story, but ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW also touches upon a few other characters’ tentative attempts to make a connection.

If Todd Solondz were a humanist, he might make something like performance artist July's winning debut feature film. Instead of observing human foibles and determining that people are diseased creatures, she finds something affirming and hopeful. Dressed in cheerful pastels, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is a comic look at how people keep themselves apart, remain confused about sex and love, and desperately want human contact but are afraid or think themselves unworthy of it. The film is neatly summarized in a scene in which Christine writes “me” on her left shoe and “you” on her right shoe. She then videotapes the feet hesitantly approaching and retreating from each other. July displays an excellent visual sense, such as buttonhook transitions from the moon to a mirror’s reflected beam and a tapping penny to the moving sun.

She expertly straddles the line of edgy humor without taking it someplace really twisted. July gently skewers the art world and takes provocative jabs at sexual and emotional hang-ups. Initially ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW’S sketch-like construction may seem facile and too precious, but the slowly emerging through line leads to an emotionally affecting resolution. Similarly, Michael Andrews’ electronic score, akin to the music of The Postal Service and other laptop pop bands, sounds chilly before revealing the deeply rooted passion. Ultimately July is interested in exploring the barriers and freedom offered through technology. The digital age affords the ability to be anyone, witnessed most humorously in the film’s chat room “sex” scene, but July questions if it is worth false or absent intimacy.

During the post-film discussion July didn't seem all that different from her on-screen persona, but far be it from me to guess in which, if either, she was playing a role.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Ebertfest 2005: Day 3

Upstairs concession area at the Virginia Theatre

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to drive to the University of Illinois, eat breakfast or a semblance of one (a necessity on these marathon days) at a Green Street coffehouse or the Illini Union, and snag a halfway decent seat at the panels. The Elderhostel group brings a sizable contingent, and they are usually the first ones camped out at these discussions. Anyway, another day, another panel discussion, and again no note-taking. Keeping track of all these films is enough effort.

Things every Ebertfest attendee should know:

-If you're a passholder, bring something to leave on your seat between films. You don't want to stick by it all day long.

-A seat cushion isn't a bad idea. The Virginia's seats can get uncomfortable after sitting in them all day.

-Time your bathroom visits wisely. (Judging by the lines I've seen, this goes double for women.)

-Stay hydrated and eat meals on a regular basis. It will help you make it through the ten to twelve hours at the theater. The Virginia's concession stand offerings are priced as reasonably as any you'll find in a movie theater, but don't let that tempt you into subsisting on pop and candy bars.

Roger Ebert and Yesterday director Darrell Roodt

First on the docket today was YESTERDAY. The South African film touches upon societal problems--in the instance, the ravages of AIDS in Africa and the community stigmatization of the afflicted--but keeps the focus on conveying the main character's story rather than pound out a message.

YESTERDAY is named after the protagonist, a woman coping with a dying husband and raising a daughter. Her health is slowly detiorating, but the nearest doctor takes a couple hours to reach by foot. The physician is in that place just once a week, and with long lines forming early in the day, getting there is no guarantee of being examined and treated. Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) eventually gets an appointment. The prognosis reveals that she is HIV-positive.

There's an elegant simplicity to the storytelling in writer-director Darrell Roodt's film. He captures the sense of place and community so well that Yesterday's environment and circumstances, foreign as they are to most of us, don't seem incomprehensible. YESTERDAY'S story may be localized, but the emotions are universal. That's where the film's power resides.

Khumalo's performance should be credited for much of the film's impact. She exudes quiet strength and inner peace in spite of her character's problems. Her acting is all the more impressive because her face speaks volumes that can't be equalled with words.

YESTERDAY is well made on a formal level. The composition and cinematography are outstanding. There's also a marvelous moment in the score during which it sounds like a death moan or rattle when Yesterday's husband is in death's throes.

Perhaps more than any other film that has played at the festival, this is the one best fitting the overlooked designation. To my knowledge it has not received a commercial U.S. theatrical run and won't. It will play on HBO, which will probably put it in front of more potential viewers than if it had received a cursory theatrical release.

Ebert with two members of The Alloy Orchestra, David Poland, and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Each year one of the festival's treats is a silent film with live musical accompaniment. The Alloy Orchestra is back again, this year with the 1925 version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA starring Lon Chaney as the monstrous title character.

Through several film versions and the beloved stage musical, the plot should be familiar by now. A disfigured man, known as the Phantom, lurks below the Paris Opera and commands that the lead role be given to Christine (Mary Philbin). The Phantom is not acting out of charity. He desires Christine, who is unnerved by his underground world. When things do not go his way, the Phantom goes out about wreaking revenge on the Opera.

Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of the musical was pretty silly, but I enjoyed the spectacle of it. This PHANTOM is scarier and more cinematically accomplished. It too can seem ridiculous--dramatically PHANTOM doesn't make much sense--but the overwrought emotions in the silent film tend to connect despite this quality.

The 1925 film and Schumacher's version are strikingly similar, especially the sets. He did some smart borrowing, though, because the sets are magnificent. The special effects are impressive for the time. The chase at the end and the chandelier crash, of course, deliver everything audiences wanted then and expect now. The masquerade ball, shot as an early color sequence, and the spotlighting of color on the Phantom's red death costume adds some spice to the visuals as well.

The 1925 PHANTOM has it all over the 2004 remake in the horror department. The creepiness of the Phantom's mask and the hideousness of his exposed face don't compare to how Gerard Butler was made up. The Phantom's monstrous obsession and behavior is matched with the brutality of his demise, but I suppose those aspects wouldn't have been at home in the more romance-oriented musical.

The Alloy Orchestra provided a wonderful aural experience through their percussion-heavy accompaniment. Watching them perform can be as enjoyable as the films they're in concert with.

Mario Van Peebles and Ebert

Laassssst but not leaassssst was BAADASSSSS!. Mario Van Peebles, recreates the making of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, a film written by, directed, and starring his father Melvin Van Peebles. Young Mario played Young Sweetback in the 1971 film. Adult Mario wrote and directed BAADASSSSS! in addition to playing Melvin.

I saw BAADASSSSS! in the course of reviewing 2004 releases, and it holds up well on second viewing. (I've yet to see the movie that is this film's inspiration.) Better than most movies about movies, BAADASSSSS! captures the determination and perseverance needed to bring one's vision alive. (This is the most thorough depiction of a movie's gestation from conception to release that I recall seeing.) Melvin Van Peebles had to work outside the system at great cost to himself personally and financially. He believed in the project and would let nothing stand in his way, be it lack of money, worsening eyesight, etc. Some might find such lengths extreme, but BAADASSSSS! makes clear how this creative and political fervor drove him to accomplish the task.

Funny and raucous--the Virginia's sound system got its best workout of the festival with Van Peebles' film--BAADASSSSS! was an energetic way to finish Friday night. Van Peebles brought along a bonus for the appreciative festival audience. BAADASSSSS! GRANDKIDS! takes the whole son playing the father thing even further, with his children recreating these roles in an amusing short.

Unlike other years at this festival, I have been able to eat meals at normal times, so I hadn't needed to make a late night trek to Steak 'n Shake. It isn't unusual to see the festival VIPs there, if you're interested in that sort of thing. (Ebertfest is more intimate than most film festivals, so if attendees desire to speak with one of the visiting filmmakers, chances are the opportunity will be there.) I popped in for a carryout order and then went back to the hotel. The only day with four films is ahead, so after some late night sustenance, a smidgen of sleep is beckoning.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ebertfest 2005: Day 2

Ebertfest panel discussion at the Illini Union (April 21, 2005/Mark Pfeiffer

The first full day of Roger Ebert's 7th Overlooked Film Festival began with a panel discussion moderated by the famed critic. I've been to the four previous festivals and taken notes at these sessions, but I never do anything with them. Today I didn't take any notes. You'll just have to trust me that it was worth crawling out of bed to hear.

The first film of the day was MURDERBALL. From year to year the "overlooked" tag gets stretched but never perhaps as much in the case of this film and Miranda July's ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW. Ebert saw both at this year's Sundance Film Festival and liked them so much he wanted to show them to the Champaign-Urbana audience (and other outsider stragglers like me). So call them "pre-overlooked", even if July's film will be playing Cannes soon. Regardless, maybe it's better for Ebert to use this festival as a platform to assist films that can use all the help possible in a crowded marketplace. (MURDERBALL and ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW open commercially this summer.)

As it turns out, I'd already seen MURDERBALL. As a programmer for the inaugural Deep Focus Film Fest, I'd seen this in the course of making selections. This was my first crack at seeing this outstanding doc on the big screen.

Joe Soares, Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, and Mark Zupan conversing with Roger Ebert after the screening of Murderball

Upon learning that MURDERBALL is about quadriplegics who play wheelchair rugby, the first question that comes to mind is “How?” Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s lively documentary clears up the common misconception that quadriplegics don’t have use of their arms and then proceeds to show these athletes ramming themselves into one another in pursuit of victory on the court.

The filmmakers train their cameras on the charismatic individuals of the 2002 U.S. quad rugby team competing in the World Championships and 2004 Paralympic squad. MURDERBALL pays special attention to Mark Zupan, a muscular, tattooed star of the sport, and Joe Soares, a legend for his aggressiveness and nail-hard attitude but also an aging player who’s losing his edge. When Soares is dropped from the team, he takes a job as the captain for archrival Canada, placing the man in direct, heated competition with his former teammates.

MURDERBALL is a thorough examination of how quadriplegics go about their day-to-day lives. Most of it is shot from the perspective of being in a wheelchair, and the co-directors incorporate similar camera moves, such as court-long push-ins that introduce the various quad rugby teams.

While it’s an effective sports film—there’s great potential for a terrific narrative feature based on this material—the players and their enormous spirits take precedence over the outcome of the games. MURDERBALL isn’t soaked in cheap sentiment and doesn’t soften the hard edges of the more irascible people profiled. They don’t perceive themselves as victims, and many probably don’t view themselves as role models. Still, one can’t help but be inspired by how these guys have adjusted to their circumstances and live to the fullest.

Like the players, MURDERBALL is funny and brash. It’s a deeply felt film with outsized personalities. Zupan and Soares are a combustible duo and MURDERBALL’S ostensible stars. Their hostility toward one another gives the film a terrific rivalry, but just as powerful as their enmity are the stories of their lives off the court. Zupan reunites with the friend who has never forgiven himself for getting behind the wheel in the accident that led to his injuries. Soares grapples with the fallout of his fierce competitiveness and how to accept his sports-averse son. Uplifting, informative, and energetic, MURDERBALL shreds preconceptions and entertains like few films can.

The co-directors were in attendance, but the attraction was seeing Zupan and Soares on stage after the film. No fights broke out, but it's obvious that there's still tension between them. (In the film Zupan says he wouldn't piss on Soares if he was on fire.)

Ebert with Guy Maddin and IFC Films' Jonathan Sehring

Next up was Guy Maddin's THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, preceded by his amazing short THE HEART OF THE WORLD. (Oddly enough, at this point in the festival I still haven't seen a film new to these eyes.) In SADDEST MUSIC Isabella Rossellini plays a Depression-era, double amputee beer baroness who holds a contest to find what country plays the planet's saddest music. (Whether intentional or not, having this follow MURDERBALL made for a compelling exploration of acceptance and denial in dealing with physical impairment.)

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD isn't a silent film, but it retains much of the tone and style of those old melodramas. Maddin is some kind of aesthetic genius in how he mimics film's early days. He gives the images a bygone era's texture and authenticity. Yet modern technology is what permits him to make something as altogether fresh and astonishing as this.

Formal aspects aside, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD is worth seeing because it is a consistently funny film. Maddin takes good-natured pokes at cultural stereotypes and the absurdity of what he's putting on screen. The American songs are about disasters and suffering, but gosh darn it if they don't have an upbeat twist. The film also works as a sort of musical, with Maria de Medeiros' nymphomaniac Narcissa providing a song highlight.

To put a more serious read on the film, Maddin seems to be dealing with the commodification and denial of grief. They're two sides of the same coin. The contest is a way for the competing cultures to wallow in the pain and attempt to profit from their most morose music. The film's only color sequences--two funeral scenes and the final musical number--are when these façades of grieving are stripped away, which are also the moments when grief is most vivid and immediate.

In this post-9/11 world, it can become all too easy to see commentary on the situation everywhere. It seems to me that some of that is present in THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD--Rossellini's towering glass legs, anyone?--but such dissection will have to wait until another time.

Item of interest from Ebert's post-film discussion with Maddin: The Canadian director's THE HEART OF THE WORLD was his way of remaking Abel Gance's lost film THE END OF THE WORLD. Maddin wanted to do his own remakes of the great lost films from the silent era.

Outside the Virginia Theatre

The day wrapped up with James Foley's AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. Collie (Jason Patric), an ex-boxer who acts like he got hit one too many times upside the head, meets the widow Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward) in a bar. Before long he takes up residence in a trailer on her property. Her Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern) sees easy money in abducting a rich man's boy and holding him for ransom, but only if he can convince Collie and Fay to get on board with the plan.

AFTER DARK, MY SWEET takes its conventional film noir elements and executes them well, leading to an ending that, while not unsurprising considering the genre, catches us off guard nonetheless. Much is ambiguous, which adds to the mystery. (Whether it's fatigue or not paying attention, I completely misread a revelation about Collie, so it seemed even more mysterious to me.)

Ebert with Jason Patric

Patric carries himself like a boxer, as if he's always ready to spar. It's a Method performance with shades of Brando. The most impressive quality of Patric's acting here is how he plays "crazy" without making it broad or actorly. It's a critical choice because it keeps the audience uncertain as to how unhinged he may be.

Mood is often equally as important as plot details in noir, and AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is quite effective in capturing a sense of desolation. The film was shot in Indio, California. In 2001 my brother and I were driving from Ohio to California when his car broke down a ways from Indio. I don't remember much, but it felt about like the end of the earth, with nothing and no one around save for the highway patrolman who pulled over to see if we needed any help.

The ol' brain seems to be shutting down, so I'll call it a night. Back with more tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ebertfest 2005: Opening Night

An opening night view from the balcony (April 20, 2005/Mark Pfeiffer)

The operative word for the opening night of Roger Ebert's 7th Overlooked Film Festival is rain.

A roped-off VIP section aside, seats are not reserved, so experienced festival attendees know to arrive early, especially on opening night. I made it to my hotel in adequate time and planned to get to the Virginia Theatre by 5:30 at the latest, a full two hours before PLAYTIME would begin. Armed with an umbrella to fend off the steady rain, I lined up about halfway around the corner of the building. The first people in line had already been there for several hours. That's more than I would have been willing to wait, but it netted them an advantageous--and dry--spot under the marquee. My umbrella was no match for the buckets of cold rain that drenched me from head to toe. Nothing like going to the movies and having your shoes squish every time you take a step.

Although the weather outside was frightful, PLAYTIME was so delightful. (Still, what I would have given for a hair dryer...) Critics too freely dispense the word masterpiece--and yes, I'm probably among the guilty--but there isn't a more apt description for Jacques Tati's film about the absurdity and beauty of modern life.

Tati reprises his M. Hulot character, a genial fellow with a loping walk. (Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean could have descended from Hulot, although he's prone to mean-spirited outbursts that are unfathomable for Tati's kind soul.) Yet the film isn't about Hulot, or anyone in particular, for that matter. Instead PLAYTIME observes a day of the ordinary moments in (then) contemporary Paris. People mill about a large airport terminal and various undistinguished buildings in the film's first half. Then they congregate for a raucous time at a Parisian restaurant's error-plagued opening night.

While degree of difficulty isn't something that should come into play when evaluating a film's merits, PLAYTIME is an exception if ever a film deserved it. Tati's direction is nothing short of brilliant. It's almost incomprehensible how he coordinated the exquisite timing needed for scenes to play without descending into chaos. There's a lot of mirroring within the frame, such as when a worker lays down glue for a floor tile while a waiter presents a meal. Tati uses the rhyming actions to tell the joke. The frame is packed with details, so many that it's impossible for a single viewing to reveal the visual jokes tucked away in each quadrant. (I saw PLAYTIME in 70mm last summer, but there are plenty of things I missed, such as a man doing a fake striptease while on stage at the restaurant or the riff on the home as a department store window display.)

PLAYTIME is strong visually--the geometry is as rigorous as that in a Mondrian painting--yet it employs very few colors. Grays, blacks, and whites predominate. This less vibrant color scheme, though, is in keeping with the film's aesthetic of finding pleasure in a modern landscape that is antiseptic, impractical, and uniform. Even with this emphasis on visuals, Tati uses sound just as expertly. Whether it's using air conditioning to mimic the sound of a jet or building a scene around Hulot's "dialogue" with an unusually noisy chair, Tati's inventiveness shows no limits. In fact, PLAYTIME is not subtitled, but everything conveyed through sound and image is understandable on a universal level.

I've said before that PLAYTIME can't have the same impact on a TV screen versus a projected 70mm image. I'll amend that slightly. Familiarity with the film from a theatrical screening provides the necessary clues for where to look on one's home set-up.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum joined Ebert on the stage for a post-film discussion. It was probably the best chat of this type that I have ever seen. It doesn't hurt to have a great movie to talk about, not to mention a student of this particular film in Rosenbaum. I didn't take notes, but one interesting item he mentioned was that there are versions of PLAYTIME with different languages emphasized.

All in all, this was a great kick-off to the festival. In a sense, it's not fair to the upcoming films. Surely they can't equal one of the all-time greats, but then again, this isn't a competition.


I am mere hours from alighting in Champaign-Urbana and experiencing the beginning of this year's Ebertfest. I write to you from the exotic land known as Indiana with key information. I do not own a laptop computer, so it is highly unlikely that I will post updates from the festival unless I land a patron or benefactor. (Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival is more for the hoi polloi than, say, Sundance, so I'm not holding my breath.) Short of that happening, you can get your fill of fest news and gossip from the News-Gazette, the Official Ebertfest blog, and David Poland's The Hot Button.

Granted, these sources probably will not be able to tell you how little sleep I get each night (answer: little) and what I eat (answer: most likely something from Steak 'n Shake), but that's just the kind of precious information that brings you back here each day.

The festival kicks off in glorious fashion tonight with a 70mm presentation of Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME. Even though I caught one of the select 70mm screenings of it last summer, I may be most excited to see this film more than any of the others.

And with that, I sign off until the next time...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Last minute housekeeping

I'm working on a couple things, but tying up some loose ends at work and in other areas before departing for Ebertfest is swallowing my time. If time permits, I'll post some commentary on the picks that made my Film Journal top 25 directors ballot.

I had hoped to write about KINGS AND QUEEN, but I'm fooling myself if I think it's going to happen in the next day. For the time being, why don't you check out what Paul Clark at Film Dribble had to say about it. Seems that he too was knocked out and knocked sideways by it, so there must have been something in the air at the Wexner Center Saturday night. I don't think it was mass delusion. That's more of a festival phenomenon. (Two of us don't exactly equal the masses either.)

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin at the Wexner Center (Mark Pfeiffer/April 16, 2005)

This month the Wexner Center for the Arts is holding a retrospective of Arnaud Desplechin's films. To kick-off the retro, the director was in attendance tonight for a brief introduction and Q&A following the regional premiere of his latest KINGS AND QUEEN (ROIS ET REINE). It's a bewildering--maybe brilliant--film that's still ricocheting off the inside of my skull. Sometimes you see a film that you can't quite explain or be sure that you've understood it all, but it leaves such a firm imprint that you think you've witnessed a major work from a major talent. My gut feeling is that KINGS AND QUEEN is one of the year's best films, but I'm going to need more time to process it.

This is not a paid endorsement

The telephone companies must be shaking in their boots.

I finally had a high-speed internet connection installed at home in March, and on the heels of that I switched my phone service to Vonage. I cut my bill in half and gained a bunch of features (caller ID, call waiting, three way calling, voice mail, e-mail notifications with voice mail messages attached). At worst, the cost of land line and dial-up internet service equals the price for Road Runner and Vonage. I don't think I have to tell you which combination delivers superior results.

It took some time for my phone number to switch from SBC's land line to VOIP through Vonage, but once it did, SBC has tried like the dickens to get me back. In April I have received almost a call a day from the SBC sales department. I talked to a salesperson about a week ago and explained I had switched to Vonage and was happy with the service. I figured that would be the end of it, at least for awhile. Nope. The calls continue to come. Today I talked to another salesperson who attempted to convince me that a land line would be helpful in instances of power outages. True enough, but I have a cell phone. (And how often do I lose power or does the cable go down? Not that often.) Oh yeah, your reduced rate offer is still more than what I pay per month and doesn't offer all the advantages of VOIP. Please put me on your do-not-call list.

Vonage's service, or VOIP in general, doesn't yet make sense for everyone. Those in some areas of the country can't carry over their current phone numbers or establish local numbers. Then there's the pesky issue of needing a high-speed internet connection. Owning a cell phone would be a good idea in the event that the power goes out. That said, the ability to port numbers from one service to another should increase. More people will migrate to high-speed internet service over dial-up. Cell phones are already one of the most common tech gadgets. Since consumers love getting more for less, which is what VOIP offers, the traditional phone companies are fighting an uphill battle. While I don't envision a time when land lines will cease to be used, it seems like we're headed in that direction. Ma Bell better find a way to keep up with the times.

Addendum: My brother Philip wanted credit for selling me on switching to Vonage, so here it is. He also points out that a battery back-up would permit you to use the phone during a power outage but not if the cable service goes down.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Deep Focus Film Festival lineup

Press release found via the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies:

Columbus Alive, Drexel Theatres Group and Nationwide Realty Investors, co-presenters of the Deep Focus Film Festival, Columbus’ first festival of the best independent films, announced the schedule of films to premiere locally during the event. The festival will begin the evening of Thursday, May 5, and continue through Sunday, May 8, 2005, with all screenings to take place at the Arena Grand Theatre.

Opening Night Gala
“Off the Map”
A Holedigger Studios release
It’s hard to describe the spell Campbell Scott and a stellar group of actors, including Joan Allen, Sam Elliott and J.K. Simmons, cast on viewers in Scott’s third directorial effort. Told from the viewpoint of pre-teen Bo, Off the Map is a simple, enchanting tale of a family living “off the map” in just about every sense -- a remote desert home, no phone, no electricity and a yearly income of about $5000, but enough of a presence in modern society to attract the attention of the IRS. The arrival of a young tax collector shakes up the family’s life, but refreshingly, not in any of the ways you might expect.
Gala ticketholders are invited to partake in appetizers and cocktails during the gala party at Red Star Tavern, 191 W. Nationwide Blvd., immediately following the screening.
Screening: Thursday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m.

An IFC release. Sponsored by Jones Day
Both an intense drama and a timely reminder of the human costs of war, this Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner by Danish director Suzanne Bier centers on two brothers - a responsible army officer with a beautiful wife and children, and a drinker fresh out of prison - and the profound changes that occur in both when the former is sent to Afghanistan, then taken hostage and presumed dead.
Screenings: Friday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 4 p.m.

“The Animation Show”
Co-programmers Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Office Space) and Don Hertzfeldt have compiled a second edition of their successful touring animation program. This year’s selection features over a dozen short films in a wide variety of styles, including Hertzfeldt’s own 14-minute, hand-drawn epic The Meaning of Life, and Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog, a 2004 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short.
Screenings: Saturday, May 7, at 7 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 1 p.m.

“The Aristocrats”
Midwest premiere. Introduction and post-screening Q&A with co-director Paul Provenza. For mature audiences only. A ThinkFilm release. Sponsored by Studio 35
About 80 comedians, from Drew Carey to Eric Idle, Jon Stewart to Bob Saget, share their variations on a joke so old no one knows its real origins, and so dirty few have ever told it in public -- until now. A hit at Sundance and South by Southwest, the documentary by Provenza and co-director Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) celebrates the art of comedy while testing the power of really foul language to provoke shock, awe and laughter in the listener.
Screening: Friday, May 6, at 10:30 p.m.

“Mad Hot Ballroom”
A Paramount Classics release. Sponsored by 5/3 Bank
A diverse mix of kids from all over the New York City public school system are introduced to the rhythm and required etiquette within the world of ballroom dancing in Marilyn Agrelo’s highly acclaimed documentary, which started a surprise bidding war among film distributors at the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival.
Screening: Saturday, May 7, at 4 p.m.

A New Yorker release. Sponsored by Marconi Square, Bernard and Miriam Yenkin
Senegalese master filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, the first African to produce a feature film, still maintains extraordinary creative power in his 80s. Arriving here with multiple awards and heaps of audience and critical praise behind it (the film was number five on Roger Ebert’s Top 10 of 2004), his latest takes a difficult subject -- the ritual of female circumcision -- and makes it the source of a stirring, sometimes funny, ultimately uplifting example of how one strong-willed woman, standing up for her own daughter and other young girls, can combat an entire culture.
Screenings: Saturday, May 7, at 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 1:30 p.m.

“My Summer of Love”
Midwest premiere. A Focus Features release. Sponsored by Dooley & Company
Writer-director Paul Pavlikovsky’s 2004 BAFTA winner for Best British Film takes place over one long, hot summer in the British mining town of Yorkshire. There, two teenage girls form an intense bond that goes beyond friendship, past love and into the realm of obsession, all under the watchful, judgmental eye of one’s older brother, a Christian fundamentalist, played by Paddy Considine (In America).
Screening: Saturday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m.

“Dorian Blues”
A TLA release. Sponsored by Downtown Connection
A comedy for anyone who’s felt like an outsider, this witty, award-winning festival favorite, the feature debut by writer-director Tennyson Bardwell, follows teenage Dorian as he comes to terms with being gay, and tries to get his stern father and denial-happy mother to do the same.
Screenings: Saturday, May 7 at 9 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 6 p.m.

“One Missed Call”
A Media Blasters release. Sponsored by Video Central
Incredibly prolific Japanese horror master Takashi Miike, whose films are rarely seen in U.S. theaters, has had a career that’s covered everything from goofy, family-friendly comedy to unrelenting gore. This entry, already pegged for an American remake, brings the unique filmmaker into The Ring territory with its tale of a curse that starts when a young woman gets a cell phone call from the near future, from the moment of her impending death.
Screenings: Saturday, May 7; at 10 p.m.; Sunday, May 8, at 7 p.m.

“Zero Degrees of Separation”
U.S. theatrical premiere. Introduction and post-screening Q&A with director Elle Flanders. Sponsored by the Wexner Center for the Arts
Completed in part in the Wexner Center’s Art & Technology Department, this documentary comes here from a successful world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The experiences of two gay couples of mixed race living in Israel (one partner’s Israeli, the other’s Palestinian) are paired with home movies of the filmmaker’s grandparents participating in the creation of Jewish settlements there in 1946. Flanders combines these images and opinions with alarming statistics to form a close, critical look at the political and cultural climate spawned by that moment in history.
Screening: Sunday, May 8, at 3:30 p.m.

Closing Night Selection
A ThinkFilm release
The only major difference between the subjects of this thoroughly entertaining documentary, another Sundance Audience Award winner, and the members of any other full-contact sports team are their custom-made wheelchairs. Energetic camerawork and a kick-ass soundtrack enhance Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s depiction of the 2002 Paralympic U.S. quad rugby team (“Murderball” is the game’s original name), which includes turns of fate no screenwriter could top, and reveals just about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the physical life of a quadriplegic but were afraid to ask.
Screening: Sunday, May 8, at 8 p.m.

Melissa Starker, arts editor for Alive as well as the festival’s director, Drexel Theatres president Jeff Frank, Chris Stults, curatorial assistant in the Film/Video Department at the Wexner Center for the Arts, and Mark Pfeiffer, a producer and film critic for Otterbein College’s WOCC-TV, contributor to The Film Journal and member of the Online Film Critics Society, selected the festival program.

Short films by Ohio filmmakers will also be presented before select features. Details on these, as well as the names of local guests who will introduce festival screenings, will be announced on the festival’s website, A program will also be available to patrons at the Arena Grand during the festival.

Tickets for the Opening Night Gala will go on sale Saturday, April 23. Single tickets to all other festival screenings are $10 general admission, $8 with student ID. Discounts will be offered on full price admissions with the purchase of 10 tickets or more. Tickets go on sale Saturday, April 16, at the Arena Grand box office, 175 W. Nationwide Blvd., and online at

Major sponsorship of the Deep Focus Film Festival is provided by Toyota Scion, CD101 and Orange Barrel Media. For more information about the event, call the Arena Grand at (614) 469-5000, Alive’s offices at (614) 221-2449, or click to the festival’s website,

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

MELINDA AND MELINDA (Woody Allen, 2004)

Using a framing device that evokes MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, Woody Allen’s latest, MELINDA AND MELINDA, flips between comic and tragic versions of the same story. In both Radha Mitchell stars as Melinda, a damaged woman trying to pull her life together. She interrupts a dinner party that sets in motion either a painful or pleasant chain of events.

MELINDA AND MELINDA finds Allen again struggling to decide if comedy or drama is more important. The film feels like a summary work, as if he is reevaluating his career twenty-five years after exploring similar territory in STARDUST MEMORIES. Allen may have inadvertently answered his question because MELINDA AND MELINDA’S comic portions are more accomplished than the dramatic sequences. As Woody’s on-screen surrogates, Will Ferrell tops Jonny Lee Miller. Ferrell feels at home with Allen’s rhythms yet still makes the character his own. Although the writing isn’t Allen’s sharpest, MELINDA AND MELINDA is his best since SWEET AND LOWDOWN. Ferrell’s ability to make his dialogue fresh enlivens the film. Mitchell bears an uncanny resemblance to Mia Farrow here, again underlining how Allen is processing his body of work, but she too is capable of distinguishing herself and juggling two interpretations of one character. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS’ Chiwetel Ejiofor also gives a notable performance as a piano player Melinda dates. Some of Allen’s recent work seems flecked with bitterness. That’s present here as well, but ultimately MELINDA AND MELINDA comes to the realization that our lives aren’t about what happen to us but how we perceive those events.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the April 12, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Sin City

SIN CITY (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005)

In adapting Frank Miller’s SIN CITY for the cinema, Robert Rodriguez invited the comic book artist to serve as co-director and pal Quentin Tarantino to guest direct a scene. Tough guys try to protect or redeem the tough dames who populate the grimy world of this black-and-white noir splashed with color. Bruce Willis’ cop Hartigan saves a little girl from a rapist and years later must keep her out of harm’s way again. In standing up for his woman, Clive Owen’s Dwight finds himself in the middle of a turf war between dirty policemen and prostitutes. Mickey Rourke is beefy thug Marv, who seeks revenge for the murder of Goldie, a hooker who showed him some kindness.

From beginning to end, Rodriguez’s joy in making films is palpable throughout SIN CITY. Its kinetic energy and embrace of film noir tropes provide a surge of adrenaline and testosterone for the fanboy universe. This visually inventive film attempts to recreate Miller’s comic panels as closely as possible, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Stylistically, SIN CITY may be Rodriguez’s crowning achievement, but his adherence to replicating Miller’s drawings often gives short shrift to the storytelling and characters. The archetypal tales of hard men and the women they love follow similar arcs to the point where repetition sets in. Marv’s beauty and the beast storyline stands out in large part due to the callous, world-weary characterization that Rourke conveys underneath his thick features. SIN CITY’s world is a grim one drenched in buckets of blood. The glee with which Rodriguez translates it to the screen makes SIN CITY a worthwhile destination for those so inclined.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the April 12, 2005 NOW PLAYING)


MILLIONS (Danny Boyle, 2004)

Two motherless boys find a gym bag full of money in MILLIONS, a children’s film that gets the directorial energy that Danny Boyle brought to TRAINSPOTTING. Damian is a mystical lad who converses with the saints on a daily basis. Naturally, he believes the money is a gift from God and is determined to distribute the cash to the needy, much to the chagrin of his older brother Anthony.

Rarely do children’s films address serious issues without getting caught in the traps of sanctimony and sentimentality. Boyle demonstrates that a family film with a moral message mustn’t necessarily be a musty affair. MILLIONS asks hard questions about faith and charity in entertaining and imaginative ways. The boys’ windfall allows them to sublimate their grieving, whether through helping others or buying things for themselves, but of course they would give it all back to see their mother again. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay crafts a wonderful allegory for the value of money. With the impending conversion to Euros, the English pound will soon be worthless. MILLIONS takes us on a discovery to find the things that have the greatest significance and endure versus those that are ultimately inconsequential and temporary.

Grade: A-

(Review first aired on the April 12, 2005 NOW PLAYING)


SAHARA (Breck Eisner, 2005)

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, and Penélope Cruz set out on an unlikely adventure in SAHARA. As Dirk Pitt, McConaughey hunts for a Civil War battleship that legend causes him to believe is somewhere in Africa. Along with Zahn as his fortune-hunting partner Al and Cruz as a UN doctor investigating a possible epidemic, Dirk follows clues that could lead him to the end of his longtime quest and definitely lead him into trouble.

Like NATIONAL TREASURE, SAHARA borrows liberally from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE DA VINCI CODE for its improbable narrative. While utterly ridiculous, it coasts on the easygoing appeal of stars having fun in a silly action picture. SAHARA’S laid-back nature can only work for so long, though. A rehash of better films, most of SAHARA fails to linger in the memory aside from the creative reconfiguring of an airplane body into a wind-aided vehicle. It’s the kind of movie you forget upon leaving the theater. There are worse ways to kill a couple hours, but there are plenty of superior options too.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the April 12, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Friday, April 08, 2005

Admit one

Champaign-Urbana's most fashionable neckwear from April 20-24, 2005

My press pass for the 7th annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival arrived in the mail yesterday, so I'm now all set for the second of three festivals I'll be attending in the course of three months. Now if only I could make it to Toronto in the fall...

Last year I posted updates on the blog during the festival--the pre-fest countdown, opening night, day 2 comments, leftovers from the first two days, the obligatory "I'm wiped out" post, and the day 4 recap--but I don't expect to be able to do so this year. As far as I know, my hotel doesn't have a computer for guest use, which I'd need seeing as I'm laptop-less. Still, expect coverage of some sort after the fact on this site in addition to a recap at The Film Journal.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Top 25 Directors

Also in the latest issue of The Film Journal is a survey of the Top 25 Directors. It isn't a list of the "best" but a list of favorites for those who participated in the poll.

I submitted a ballot, but I wouldn't be surprised if I omitted some directors whose absence will cause me to kick myself for forgetting them. I took the survey as a fun exercise, not something to sweat over for hours. While I'm relatively literate in classic and foreign cinema, there are also many gaps in my knowledge that tilt these results toward newer and American filmmakers. If time permits, I'll provide some commentary on my picks at a later date.

Here's my list:

-Woody Allen
-Robert Altman
-Paul Thomas Anderson
-Wes Anderson
-Luis Buñuel
-Hirokazu Kore-eda
-Alfred Hitchcock
-Jim Jarmusch
-Krzysztof Kieslowski
-Stanley Kubrick
-Akira Kurosawa
-Sergio Leone
-Richard Linklater
-David O. Russell
-Martin Scorsese
-M. Night Shyamalan
-Steven Soderbergh
-Steven Spielberg
-Whit Stillman
-Jacques Tati
-Quentin Tarantino
-François Truffaut
-Lars von Trier
-Orson Welles
-Robert Zemeckis

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Play ball!

Fountain Square during the Findlay Market Opening Day parade in Cincinnati (Mark Pfeiffer/April 4, 2005)

A stand-up spot for a standing room only ticket (Mark Pfeiffer/April 4, 2005)

Ken Griffey Junior faces Pedro Martinez (Mark Pfeiffer/April 4, 2005)

April 4: Attend Opening Day 2005 in Cincinnati. The Reds hit back-to-back homers to beat the Mets 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Not a bad way to start the season.

April 5: Attend a screening of FEVER PITCH, which turns out to be one of the year's best films to date. Think of it as ANNIE HALL for the baseball set. Although the jokes aren't as outlandish as is usually associated with the Farrelly brothers, it's a very funny film and quite possibly their best. FEVER PITCH is equal in quality to Hollywood's two other superb Nick Hornby adaptations (HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY). Hornby creates male protagonists who are boys in men's bodies, yet compared to the adolescent behavior that defines most of mainstream cinema's romantic couples, FEVER PITCH is a refreshing alternative. It provides a truer, more mature portrayal of people working on their relationship. Go figure.

Colin Firth fans may be aware that FEVER PITCH was first made as a 1996 British pic that hews more closely to Hornby's book about soccer fanaticism, but it's a lesser film compared to its American counterpart.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Cleveland report

My 2005 Cleveland International Film Festival report is now up at The Film Journal. I wrote brief synopses and reviews for each of the ten films I saw at the festival and four others that played at CIFF but which I viewed elsewhere.

I'm off to Opening Day in Cincinnati tomorrow. Hopefully the Reds can pull out a win when I'm attendance for once.