The Overlooked Fest Ebert Looms Large Over Champaign-Urbana By Jason Pankoke. There he goes on the side of that bus! There he stands on that billboard! There he is, looking at us through those familiar glasses in a newspaper ad! Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was under siege! A college town two hours south of Chicago, this intellectual island of the Midwest rarely sees anything like celebrity...

There he goes on the side of that bus! There he stands on that billboard! There he is, looking at us through those familiar glasses in a newspaper ad! Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was under siege!

A college town two hours south of Chicago, this intellectual island of the Midwest rarely sees anything like celebrity. Odd that it’s favorite son would be known best for his thumb. For, you see, Champaign-Urbana is where Roger Ebert, America’s renown movie critic, grew up and went to college.

Moving to the Windy City in the mid-sixties, Ebert became a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Not long afterwards, he graduated to chief movie critic and partnered with Chicago Tribune colleague Gene Siskel for their long-running PBS show Sneak Previews. They would eventually earn their own eponymous syndicated series.

In 1999, Ebert lent his name to an event intended to showcase movies which he felt deserved a second chance with an appreciative audience. The event applies to contemporary films that experienced limited release as well as international cinema that hasn’t yet made it to American shores. Thus, his hometown boasts Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, a presentation of the University of Illinois College of Communications, hosted at the downtown Virginia Theater every April. Those lazy with their linguistics have dubbed the event “Ebertfest,” for the critic handpicks each entry. As Ebert readily admits, no one is guaranteed to like all the movies, but it’s the exposure and viewing experience that count.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, 139 min., USA/UK)
The choice to kick off Ebertfest with 2001 doesn’t readily hinge on the novelty that in both Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film it’s stated that the HAL 9000 computer became operational in Urbana. And it wasn’t just that it’s the year 2001, either. In reality, Ebert loves big, visionary science fiction movies, as witnessed by his previous “overlooked” picks, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982).

And yes, when HAL mentions that it was made operational in Urbana as astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) shuts it down, the audience erupted in applause. We were all certified dorks for the moment and damn proud of it.

Maryam (2000, 87 min., USA)
Maryam is a low-key drama about an Iranian-American family living in the U.S. during the time of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. As archetypal New Jersey teenager Mary Armin (Mariam Parris) fails to fathom the religious and political reasons for the strife overseas, her father and mother, Darius and Homa (Shaun Toub and Shohreh Aghdashloo) welcome Mary’s cousin Ali (David Ackert) into their home. In a series of nicely defined character moments, Ali slowly warms to Mary’s charming vivaciousness as he tries to acclimate to American university life. Conversely, Mary Armin (shortened from “Maryam,” hence the film’s title) realizes how deeply the crisis affects Ali’s heartfelt beliefs, and tries to comprehend a brimming distrust between Ali and her father concerning the death of her uncle. The family sees growing distrust in the eyes of Caucasian classmates, neighbors, and strangers, and it nearly comes to a head when Ali attempts a half-baked assassination attempt of the Shah, in exile in New York City.

Nicely acted and sharply written by director Ramin Serry, Maryam treats the issue of culture clash with gentle intelligence. Muddled melodrama infiltrates the proceedings a bit towards the climax, but otherwise Maryam credibly portrays a family unit that sticks together through the tough spots.

Songs from the Second Floor (2000, 98 min., Sweden/Denmark)
This bold outing of surrealist black comedy from Dane auteur Roy Andersson made for one hell of a mindfuck. In a series of protracted vignettes, Andersson creates an extremely offbeat universe of a dreamy city-state collapsing upon itself.

Central to the film is furniture salesman Kalle (Nordh), a rotund sad sack who unwittingly sets fire to his store. He has a detached relationship with his wife and two sons, one a taxi driver named Stefan (Stefan Larsson) and the other, Tomas (Peter Roth), confined to an asylum because of writing poetry! As Kalle explains his woes to everyone within earshot, Andersson employs visual sleight-of-hand to address what’s going on, often confined to the background. For instance, when Kalle attempts to explain his rationale to insurance brokers as he sweeps the soot in his burnt-out showroom—without having bothered to clean himself off—a pack of business stiffs slowly makes its away down the street, stopping every few paces to flog each other.

Other characters such as washed-up business executives valiantly attempting to skip town, and a magician and his injured audience participant, provide some lighter passages, if no less exasperating. Songs from the Second Floorrequires much patience on the viewer’s part, for it seems to do deceivingly little during its ninety-eight minutes and sixty edits.

Panic (2000, 88 min., USA)
In introducing the movie, Roger Ebert remarked that the most amazing thing to him was that nothing should have caused this film to be “overlooked” in any sense of the word. Panic, the debut feature from television veteran Henry Bromell, boasts slick production values, a tight script, a cute and articulate kid, and several bankable stars. Yet, the film barely received a theatrical release after being stonewalled by its distributor, Artisan.

Panic illustrates the twin pangs of middle age and an unlawful secret that haunt Alex (William H. Macy), who begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Josh Parks (John Ritter). We discover that, despite having a loving wife, Martha (Tracy Ullman), a rather bright 6-year old, Sammy (David Dorfman), and a solid mail-order business run out of their modest home, something’s bothering Alex. Has he grown weary of his other paying job, as a hit man for hire, carrying on the family business with his father, Michael (Donald Sutherland)? Or, does he have buried desires suddenly unearthed by hip urban twentysomething Sarah (Neve Campbell), whom he meets in Dr. Parks’ waiting room? Or is it a bit of both?

Alex is a devoted man facing moral dilemmas about his place in life, and Panic does a rather sweet job of depicting how his decisions affect those closest to him. Bromell consistently takes subtle left turns that point the film into the bittersweet territories of damaged family ties and inner reconciliation. Even the tense climax seems an obvious wrap-up until Bromell rolls out a wry denouement that speaks volumes. In the greater scheme of things, we’re reminded that life simply goes on no matter how good or bad it treats you.

It’s no secret that the Artisan brass has stuffed their heads so far up their asses, dazed by their The Blair Witch Project success. Thus, none of their other promising fare, including Requiem for a Dream, Way of the Gun, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and The Minus Man, has been given a fighting chance. Panic could have been the theatrical gem of last year’s Artisan roster, but it seemed Book of Shadows: The Blair Witch Project 2 ranked far above everything else on the marketing department’s priorities.

Easily my favorite film of Overlooked 2001, Panic is currently available on home video from Artisan.

Girl on the Bridge (2000, 92 min., France)
A razzle-dazzle fit of whimsy from French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, Girl on the Bridge opens on its only misstep as a young woman named Adele (Vanessa Paradis), tells a jury (for reasons never explained) about her unending series of short-lived trysts with men. It’s a rather amusing monologue that sets up her character well, but simply seems detached from the rest of the film. The movie soon springs to life as we find the waifish Adele overlooking the river Seine in Paris, contemplating a jump to her death. Suddenly, gravel-faced Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) stands alongside her, trying to convince her to forget suicide. Confused, Adele jumps anyway, and Gabor dives in after her.

What ensues is a rush of high-energy set pieces as Gabor and Adele travel through Europe earning money as a knife-throwing act in carnivals and on ocean liners. The trust that develops between them extends beyond their routine as director Leconte allows Gabor to exhibit elements of “magic realism,” for the veteran shyster believes Adele to be a cipher of good luck. Adele concurrently experiences a friendship with this man unlike any of the failed conquests of her past. It’s ultimately the film’s unique meshing of the characters’ sensibilities, quirks, and acceptance of each other that make Girl on the Bridge a refreshingly romantic trip.

3 Women (1977, 125 min., USA)
Personally, I haven’t gone out of my way to check out Robert Altman’s work (although, as a kid, Popeye played on HBO more than was humanly healthy), but this production seemed curious enough, and not quite in tune with Altman’s trademark multi-character cast and interweaving storylines.

Sporting reddish Pippi Longstocking locks and a freckled face, Texas-born Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) lands a job at a southern California old folks’ spa alongside self-proclaimed socialite Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall). While the characters appear vastly different, they seem equally ignored by and distanced from their co-workers and other social acquaintances. Pinky eventually moves into Millie’s perfect-as-punch apartment, and the two enact an uneasy friendship that includes frequent treks to a dilapidated Western bar near the desert run by ex-stunt man Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier) and his wife Willie (Janice Rule). In the latter stages of pregnancy, Willie is a slightly older woman who doesn’t speak and spends her time painting labyrinthine murals of serpent-skinned deities at the bottom of pools.

Purposely obtuse while driven forward by sterling performances from the leads, 3 Women is literally a dream come to life. According to Ebert, Altman envisioned the entire movie in a dream. Cineastes, psychologists, anthropologists and feminists could all have a field day dissecting 3 Women, especially since the title characters gradually swap or share their identities over time. While I found 3 Women oddly challenging and affecting, like Altman’s other work, it definitely will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

On the Ropes (1999, 90 min., USA)
Boxing is a sport for which I have little tolerance. But On the Ropes tells a compelling story about young people living in a run-down world of crime and drugs (but not necessarily living as participants of it), and they seem so genuinely real as they attempt to shine in and out of the ring.

Harry Keitt is a man who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York, running drugs, fucking up, and even killing a man in a deserted apartment complex. He eventually straightened himself out and opened the New Bed-Stuy Gym as a place for amateur boxers to train and, hopefully, go places with Keitt as their manager.

Shot on a Sony camcorder, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary follows Keitt’s evolving relationships with three kids who might have “what it takes.” George Walton, a burly young African-American with a disarming Mike Tyson grin and sheer talent, Noel Santiago, a fresh-faced Hispanic kid with some moves but not necessarily the determination, and Tyrene Manson, an African-American woman who defines what it means to stand tall in the face of adversity, all train under Keitt.

Had On the Ropes sported lush production values and been more manipulated to heighten the drama of these kids’ travails, it would not have had a fraction the impact that it does. I’m not so sure that I was as saddened by the subjects’ stories, as I was miffed that their life situations simply don’t give them the outside support network that they so truly need. Their tenacity and stamina under pressure is something to admire, even when the outcome isn’t exactly the greatest.

This Overlooked Film Festival also featured some of the least overlooked films yet, including A Simple Plan, Jesus’ Son, Everyone Says I Love You, the original Nosferatu, and off-site screenings of Almost Famous and Shadow of the Vampire. Yet, Ebert and his staff still presented efforts that barely registered in the public eye, including Such a Long Journey, The King of Masks, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Picture, and the other aforementioned films. You can’t go particularly wrong during the Overlooked; with the industry element all but removed, this festival is all about watching movies.

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