Day 3: Roger Ebert's 2006 Overlooked Film Festival


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Somebodies (U.S, 2006) * * *
D: Hadjii

Somebodies received one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the festival. Hadjii, the writer/director/star, was a young student at the University of Georgia whose film professor was impressed enough by his spec Seinfeld script that he asked him to write a screenplay, but inspired by his own life. Hadjii then spent years polishing the script, and after becoming inspired by Tarnation at the 2004 Ebertfest, he decided to begin filming even though the financing wasn't all there; the tight budget (it's shot on video, and doesn't look so great when blown up to the massive Virginia Theatre screen), a cast of mostly amateurs, and a first-time director means that the result is rough around the edges, but it works. For one thing, the gritty vibe is enhanced by the Athens, Georgia locales. (I have a thing for Athens, which had produced some of the most talented rock and pop bands of the past two decades.) Most important, the script shines from all that work, and that's what really matters: it's a comedy that's very, very funny.

There's the whole thing with the Campus Crusade for Christ, or "CCC" (someone asks, "Is that like the KKK?"), where Hadjii is dragged by his girlfriend. He's a churchgoing guy (his church is led by a preacher who turns religious rhetoric into some kind of digressive and deliriously inane slam poetry), but the all-white CCC meeting he attends is, in its accurately detailed reconstruction, horrifying. Hadjii is asked to stand up and introduce himself, and he recounts how he's always gone to church and considers himself a good Christian; a second later, an old friend steps in, recognizes him, and tells everyone how glad he is to finally see him here, since he used to get weed and girls from this guy, etc. It's shot terribly, but it doesn't matter. It plays perfectly. Same with the scene where one of Hadjii's friends applies for a job as a security guard; the guard, white, hires him simply because he's black. And as though to underline the fact, he brings out another black employee, gets his name wrong, and sends him back. That the broad setup should play so naturally is a tribute to Hadjii's astute writing.

We meet his family, who are uniformly crazy in different and very specific ways, and follow him as he begins dating a girl who also seems unhinged at first, until we begin to see that despite her eccentricities she's loving and good for him. Character arcs are minimal; it's a comedy of setpieces. In fact, we learn that Hadjii wanted Somebodies to be a sitcom just like Seinfeld (and it may become one), but it was shot as a feature out of necessity. He says his big filmmaking influence was Larry Clark's Kids, a film that, thank God, this resembles not a bit.

The Eagle (U.S., 1925) * * * 1/2
D: Clarence Brown

Rudolph Valentino is considered the first sex symbol of the silver screen, and it's easy to see why in The Eagle: not because of the overt pre-Code suggestions of real sex, as when Catherine the Great regards Valentino's crotch at close range, or even when a passing reference is made to her famous association with a horse, but simply in how appealing Valentino is. Another festival-goer enthusiastically agreed when I compared Valentino's deadpan charisma to Buster Keaton (and when someone enthusiastically agrees with me, I write about it). Valentino is funny in this movie. He wonderfully plays a scene where he pretends that the ring he bears on his hand, which also belongs to the Black Eagle (his alter ego), is only under his temporary safe-keeping--and, with his back turned, desperately struggles to get it off. And in the scene when he gazes after his beloved, fleeing in a carriage, only to see her lovestruck Aunt waving back at him; his expression seems to have been schooled in the comic school of Keaton. The Eagle's plot is very well-worn by now, less so in 1925 (Valentino, fleeing from the jealous Czarina's troops, dons a mask and seeks revenge against a captain who's committed crimes against his family, while simultaneously romancing the captain's daughter); it's Zorro, Robin Hood, V for Valentino. The formula, of course, works splendidly for a silent film, and as the critics of the post-screening Q&A pointed out--film professors Richard Liskosky, David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson--director Clarence Brown brings all of the newborn elements of film language to their apotheosis here, having mastered all the visual cues to telling a story. (Brown directed one of my favorite silent films, the stunning Flesh and the Devil.) Brown's tour-de-force moment is a long tracking shot moving back over a large table set up for a feast in the captain's castle. The moment was highlighted by the score of the Alloy Orchestra, performed live in the orchestra pit below; their synths, drums, accordian, pots, and pans reached a crescendo.

This is the third time I've seen the Alloy Orchestra. The first was at 2004's Ebertfest, where they accompanied Buster Keaton's The General, and somehow made their three-person orchestra perfectly emulate the sounds of a chugging train through the movie's famously breathless second half. A year later they played to Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera at the Times in Milwaukee, a sold-out show, before taking the act back to Ebertfest; they're a regular staple at this festival, and provided the main attraction for my wife, who fell for Valentino almost as hard.


Ripley's Game (U.S., 2002) * * * 1/2
D: Liliana Cavani

Genuinely an overlooked film--it was never released theatrically in the United States--this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith "Ripley" novel stars John Malkovich as the title character, a professional criminal who steals and murders to enhance his standard of living. Matt Damon played a younger Ripley only a few years earlier, which probably prompted this adaptation from the director of The Night Porter. It's a fine thriller that deserved better treatment; the story, as producer Russ Smith explained afterward, is that New Line was so fixated on promoting and pouring money into the Lord of the Rings juggernaut that it let certain other films fall to the wayside (the same thing happened to the Mr. Show feature, Run Ronnie Run, which also went straight to video). Ripley's Game needed Matt Damon to return if it ever hoped for a theatrical release--Malkovich is hardly a charismatic leading man--but it can't have helped that the entire plot concerns Ripley's manipulation of another man into committing a murder (much like Strangers on a Train, which Patricia Highsmith scripted), and subsequently tracking that man's corruption. Here's the clever thing, though: the dupe (Dougray Scott) has been diagnosed with a fatal illness, and when he agrees to assassinate a Russian gangster, he starts down a dark, dirty path that actually teaches him to appreciate life again; in this way, the sociopathic Ripley is like a self-help guru (who sets up bear traps in the living room to snare intruders). All of Ripley's Game, once you understand its tone, plays as pitch-black comedy, no more so than in the scene when Makovich and Scott are forced into killing not just their target, but each of his bodyguards as they stumble into the scene, until the bodies are stacked so high that Ripley remarks, "First class is becoming rather crowded." Ebert draws a direct line between this scene and one in the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera, appropriately enough.

The Q&A with Malkovich was suitably steeped in more of the gallows humor. Malkovich stated his displeasure over the editing of Ripley's wrench-beating of a mobster on his front lawn. He claims to have hit the stuntman over the head with a rubber wrench for "three minutes...a good three minutes," until the man's skull cracked. All in good fun. The scene was edited to only a few seconds, which Malkovich says ruined the punchline ("Do you think he's dead?").

The next night, Terry Zwigoff, a friend of Malkovich's, would mention he was terrified of directing the man in his latest film, Art School Confidential. He found him intimidating.



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