L 627 ^ By Jeff Westhoff ^ **** ^ Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
For a long, meandering story about the futility of fighting a drug war, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1992 drama “L.627″ is supremely engrossing. During his post-screening discussion with Roger, Tavernier said he didn’t want the film to be ruled by “the tyranny of the plot.” Many other directors set out with the same objective and produced obtuse, incoherent and agonizingly pretentious pictures. In “L.627,” the lack of forward movement adds to both the theme and our involvement. Tavernier collaborated on the
script with Michel Alexandre, a retired drug squad detective who filled the story with bizarre or harrowing incidents from his career. The result is a soulful police procedural heavy on the procedure, an unlikely combination of “The French Connection” and “Barney Miller.”
Didier Bezace plays the protagonist, Lulu, a mildly corrupt but dedicated detective whose frustration with lazy, self-serving superiors often gets him reassigned. Lulu’s latest contretemps lands him with a drug squad forced to work from a trailer in one of Paris’ seamier arrondissments. This assemblage of detectives with their various tics and neuroses is what reminded me of “Barney Miller.” I kept waiting for Lulu and his partners to mobilize against a major drug lord, a case that would provide the film with its major through-line. It doesn’t happen. Instead, Tavernier stays true to life as he tracks their day-to-day work. Some days bring small triumphs. Most bring a feeling of uselessness. The title refers to an obscure provision in the French Code of Health, Tavernier’s joke that the police battle bureaucracy more often than drug dealers. Because it laid out France’s ineffectual tactics to combat drugs, “L.627″ was reviled by many upon its original release, Tavernier revealed after the screening. But he felt a sense of triumph when Steven Soderburgh called to he used “L.627″ as a model for his critique of America’s war on drugs, “Traffic.”
After “The Stone Reader,” “L.627″ was my most exhilarating experience at the Overlooked Film Festival.
Part IV: Golden Age of Silent Comedy ^ By Herb Kane ^ ***** ^ Presented by the Silent Movie Theatre Co.
The free family matinee this year featured “The Golden Age of Silent Comedy” presented by Charlie Lustman’s Los Angeles-based Silent Movie Theatre Company. Dean Mora used the Virginia’s old-fashioned organ for most of the score and Lustman himself entertained onstage before and in between movies – even engaging the audience with interactive silent film trivia. His passion for this genre is literally contagious and the films presented were as magical as ever.
“Kid’s Auto Races at Venice” (1914) show Charlie Chaplin constantly stepping in front of the motion picture camera as a production crew tries to film the races. A black & white cartoon called “Felix Finds ‘Em Fickle” (1924) shows Felix the Cat’s unending pursuit to get a flower. “Mighty Like a Moose” (1926) features Charlie Chase (director of several Laurel & Hardy films) who has buckteeth while his wife has a huge nose. They both fix their imperfections and no longer recognize each other and end up dating. Hilarious! An intermission followed and then we later find ourselves with Buster Keaton in “The Scarecrow” (1920). Two farmers are shown eating in a kitchen packed full of mechanical devices, making chores a cinch. It was absolutely brilliant! Harold Lloyd walks on a skyscraper that’s under construction in “Never Weaken” (1921) and he almost falls at every turn. “Saturdays Lesson” (1929) concluded the films with the Little Rascals. Kids are confronted by the devil man and he gives them a lesson in obeying parents.
Roger and Chaz Ebert brought several small children on stage to act out silent film stars and Charlie gave each one a free hat. It was a fun time for the family. I hope Ebert brings Charlie Lustman back again with his silent picture show. It was a highlight of this festival.
Shall We Dance? ^ By Herb Kane ^ ***** ^ Directed by Masayuki Suo
When Roger Ebert brings a foreign film to the Virginia Theater, you can expect we’re in for a treat. “Shall We Dance?” is one of those films. Imagine riding home each day on a train, after a long boring day at work, and each time you see a beautiful woman gazing out of a second story window from a nearby building. She looks lonely and lost and with each glimpse of her you become intrigued. You see a sign on the window advertising ballroom dancing lessons and so one day you decide to get off the train to investigate. This is what happens to Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakusyo), a married worker in Japan who is bored with his marriage and life.
You might think Shohei is going to try and have an affair with a beautiful woman, but the beauty of this movie is that it takes us in another direction, which ends up far more interesting than some love affair flick. Roger Ebert said it best in his review, “A man seeking not so much a woman as an answer to his question: Why is she sad? What is she thinking?”
The story answers those questions by showing us how one man and one woman ignite their passions for life through the art of dancing. The dance students provide just the right amount of comic relief to appreciate the more poignant moments in the film.
If you’re thinking about cheating on your wife, forget it. Take dance lessons!
Charlotte Sometimes ^ By Herb Kane ^ **** ^ Directed by Eric Byler
I watched Eric Byler’s “Charlotte Sometimes,” his first feature length Asian-American movie, and I was taken in by the story’s realism. Michael (Michael Idemoto) is an auto mechanic and we see him do real things like sit around his house and read books. Then he constantly hears loud sounds of a girl engaged in lovemaking in the apartment next door. Michael is good friends with that “girl next door” and her name is Lori (Eugenia Yuan), a really cute Asian girl. She visits him often (usually after she has sex with her boyfriend) and it’s obvious Michael wants more than a simple friendship. She, however, does not. Ok, guys. Can you relate?
Michael can’t stand the sounds anymore and finds himself in a local bar. He makes eye contact with a beautiful Asian girl. Hesitant at first, he later introduces himself to the girl we all come to know as Darcy (Jacqueline Kim). What I like about this story right away is that Michael rejects Darcy’s offer to have sex (she made it known she won’t be around long) and he replies, “What I want is more time with you. No shortcuts.” The story becomes very interesting at this point.
Roger Ebert wrote in his festival program, “Going into the film, I expected some kind of conventional boy-girl story, in which the problem is that the boy and girl are not in love and that’s fixed by the happy ending. This movie is not about those moronic movie romances. It is about very particular people with needs and fears, and the lies that separate them.”
This film’s unconventional characters create a mellow mood that amplifies the mysterious plot about to unfold. If you’re looking for something different, now is the time to see “Charlotte Sometimes.”
13 Conversations About One Thing ^ By Peter Sobczynski ^ **** ^ Directed by Jill Sprecher
The “thing” referred to in the title “13 Conversations About One Thing” appears to be happiness and in her new film, director Jill Sprecher (whose previous effort was the wonderful, little-seen “Clockwatchers”) takes a group of wildly different, though overlapping, characters, and shows both how they personally define happiness and how they react when their expectations are subverted. A hotshot lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) seems to have it all until an accident sends him on a newer, darker path. An idealistic maid (Clea DuVall) discovers that the world is a harsher place than she had imagined. A pair of married academics (John Turturro and Amy Irving) find their lives changing when he decides to leave her. An unhappy office manager (Alan Arkin) is driven to distraction by the overly cheerful attitude of a co-worker and does anything he can to wipe the smile off of the man’s face.
Structurally similar to multi-character mosaics like “Magnolia,” “13 Conversations” has a lot of good things to offer to it. Most of the performances are quite strong (especially Arkin and McConaughey, who seems to be shedding his cocky movie-star persona in order to be regarded as a straightforward character actor) and the construction of the screenplay (co-written by Sprecher and her sister Karen) provides some interesting moments. However, the film feels curiously half-formed; it seems as if some grand, unifying idea that would pull all the various plot threads together is missing. Still, there are a lot of nice performances and individual moments and those in the mood for more than mere eye candy might want to check it out.
Singin’ in the Rain ^ By Herb Kane ^ ***** ^ Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Even if Hollywood doesn’t resurrect the movie musical, Roger Ebert will every year at the Virginia Theater in Illinois. In 2001, we watched mainstream movie stars sing and dance in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You”. In 2002, George Nierenberg’s “Say Amen, Somebody” gave us a big dose of Gospel music. This year we’re back to watching movie stars sing and dance in the 1952 MGM musical “Singin’ in the Rain” directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.
The movie’s story is simple, fun, and romantic. The vibrant colors in this restored 35 mm print light up the screen with good ole fashioned dance numbers – and the singing is absolutely contagious! Watch this movie and you will sing “Singin’ in the Rain.” In fact, even if you never saw this movie – you’re probably already familiar with the song.
Many people only know one thing about this movie: A soaking wet Gene Kelly sings and dances to the title song on a rainy street. It’s sad, but certainly no surprise. In Ebert’s review, he quotes Peter Wollen who wrote in a British Film Institute monograph that the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene “is the single most memorable dance number on film.” Ebert slightly disagrees and says it’s tie between Kelly’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh.” Regardless of what Wollen and Ebert say, I proclaim here and now that Donald O’Connnor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” number is the best dance number in the whole movie.
Ebert describes O’Connor’s famous dance scene perfectly: “He wrestles with a dummy, runs up walls and does back flips, tosses his body around like a rag-doll, cartwheels on the floor, runs into a brick wall and a lumber plank, and crashes through a back drop.” It’s no wonder Ebert called this “one of the most amazing dance sequences ever filmed.” I get out of breath just reading about it! Even more breathtaking, folks, is that Donald O’Connor himself (77 years-old) sat in the Virginia Theater with us all to watch this movie. When O’Connor later walked on stage for a question & answer session, Ebert said, “This is the greatest moment in the history of this festival.” I agree and so did the entire packed house. I would also like to add that this was the greatest film presented at this year’s “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.” It’s a rare musical gem, indeed, and movies like this don’t come around often. But when they do, you’ll be inspired to sing, “Gotta dance!”
O’Connor moves a bit slower these days, but is still sharp and funny. What a glorious feeling it was to see and hear him talk about one of America’s best movie musicals ever made – if not THE BEST. O’Connor, wearing a bright yellow jacket, said he and Kelly did most of their own stunts. When producers thought it was too dangerous, they called in stunt men. He said, “Ninety times out of 100, he would get hurt, and we would have to do it.” What’s interesting is that O’Connor was never professionally trained to dance. He gained his knowledge with his family in vaudeville and the circus. You’d never know it.
O’Connor was also known for his “Frances the Talking Mule” movies and when an audience member at the Virginia Theater asked how it felt playing the straight man to a mule, he replied, “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice with jackasses.” O’Connor spoke of many interesting stories including a visit to Buster Keaton’s home (they were good friends), giving advise to 17 year-old Debbie Reynolds regarding her concern about french kissing Gene Kelly in scenes (O’Connor’s advise? “Just like it.”), dispelling rumors about getting hurt in the “Make ‘em Laugh” scene, etc. It was truly a magical night and one I will remember forever.
I’m still sad some people only remember the song “Singin’ in the Rain” and not the movie. If you are one of those people, go buy the 50th Anniversary DVD (like I did) and experience this film.
Do this and you’ll make me – Happy again!
The Critic Doctor has some final thoughts in part six of EBERTFEST: THUMBAPALOOZA 2003>>>
Posted on May 20, 2003 in Festivals by Herb Kane
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