Once a year, film critic Roger Ebert makes the trek to Champaign-Urbana. With him he brings his legendary thumbs - and some rare cinematic gems - for the annual Overlooked Film Festival.
To an audience of Central Illinois' most discriminating meat animals, he screens his celluloid pearls. Even better, he hosts intimate discussions about the celluloid oysters who made them.
Why Champaign-Urbana? Why are we blessed with the opportunity to view films the chain theaters pass up? For one reason. Mr. Ebert conducted a nationwide poll of filmgoers, and found that Champaign-Urbana contains the audience most likely to overlook films. He decided to correct this sad state of affairs.
Some of the problem stems from political corruption. Local officials are easily bribed to overlook certain movies, especially the Playmate Calendar videos. More often, however, human error is the culprit.
For example, 1991 Oscar winner Dances With Wolves was mistaken for a boa constrictor by Urbana-Junior-High biology teacher Steve Edor. The film was placed in a cage, fed mice by unwitting prepubescents, then forgotten. The film survived because mice happened to be the natural diet of star Kevin Costner. Hollywood only recovered the movie when sixth-grader Adam Sandler dropped his scissors into the cage by mistake.
Clearly, this kind of neglect can't continue if movies are to be made at all. If the studio execs think the kids aren't into the talkies anymore, the best we can hope for is movies about hip, disaffected young ninjas who've taken vows of silence. Even Jodie Foster couldn't keep that trend going! At worst, Hollywood moguls might dump all their stock in Hooked On Phonics - and bring literacy to a screeching halt.
Although the Film Festival's screenings and panel discussions can be pricey to attend, the money isn't wasted. For instance: since commercial Hollywood is overburdened with special effects, a large part of the proceeds goes to special causes. Even four hundred years ago Isaac Newton recognized that there can be no effects without causes. It's a measure of the sad state of science education that even the supposed technical wizards in Hollywood don't realize this. It's up to Midwestern film audiences to correct that misperception!
Even though Mr. Ebert takes days from his schedule to screen rare movies, he can't show everything that deserves acclaim. With this in mind, What Jail Is Like has put together a short list of movies that the Film Festival won't cover. The movies can be found at your local video store. We hope they can finally have the recognition they deserve.
First on our list comes the movie that even Madonna was afraid to do: Boxing Helena. Having walked out at the beginning of the shoot, Madonna was replaced by veteran wisp Julian Sands. Meanwhile, Madonna went on to make classics like Sliver II: The Woodening and Pardon Me, But My Bosom Is Lodged Under Your Nail. (The latter costars John Cleese, and is a hilarious bedroom farce in which reserved English couples mistakenly swap chests. Since Madonna had difficulty acquiring an English accent, her voice was overdubbed by Keanu Reeves).
Boxing Helena suffers not a whit from Madonna's absence. The source material is too powerful for any actor to ruin. The movie is based on the true story of boxer Jake "Mt. St. Helena" LaMotta - and how he overcame limblessness to win the world middleweight title.
The movie is often overlooked because the title character is not at eye level. The film's producers realized this would be a problem, but bravely went ahead with production. (A lawsuit is pending over the film's score, which the producers claim was maliciously designed to be hypnotically soothing - thus increasing the chance that potential viewers wouldn't see the movie sitting on the bottom shelf).
In a suprising turn, Jake LaMotta is played with complete confidence by sexpot Sherilyn Fenn. Even more suprising is the directorial debut of Sherilyn's left thigh - detached for the duration of the film so she could convincingly play a limbless man. "It was really a team effort," said Ms. Fenn in an interview with Rolling Stone. "The right hand did the lighting, the left the cinematography, and so on. My limbs spent some time learning each other's specialties, which helped things run smoothly. Except when they all wanted to be the grip - the left foot had to kick everyone off the set for a few days until order was restored."
The film opens in a burlesque hall, where a desultory LaMotta performs ping-pong tricks for small change. However, things look up when LaMotta is discovered by ace boxing promoter Don King (in a tour de force performance by Julian Sands).
Though LaMotta is an outcast, King sees potential in the scrappy survivor. King persuades the reluctant LaMotta to begin training as a boxer. He begins by sparring against box lunches. He moves up the scale to battle German pillboxes in Normandy. Then - at last - the real deal.
Being limbless, LaMotta utilizes the rest of his body to participate in the sport of boxing. He invents and perfects the art of tongue-lashing, and makes bold forays into the arenas of browbeating and eye-batting. Surprisingly, he foregoes ear-boxing - which he derides as unsportsmanlike.
Fenn's rigorous training as a professional sexpot served her well in this film. Handpicked from the thousands of invertebrates who came to the casting sessions, Fenn was already well known for tying a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. It was easy for her to learn to dish out a thorough tongue-lashing. In addition, the supple psychological ambushes of the accomplished femme fatale transferred readily to whaling the tar out of big dopey guys. "It was a triumph of the human spirit, really," said costar Sands.
Boxing Helena. Searing and raw. Overcooked and underdone. Deliberately misplaced by a video store near you.
The other film on our short list was actually nominated for several Oscars this year. So why was it underappreciated? For this reason: the version that audiences saw was not edited according to the director's wishes. In fact it was sliced and diced into unrecognizability - into a pale shadow of what it once was.
Rumor has it that the culprit was the director's personal chef - and that he switched the editing instructions with a grocery list. The film was served as a special widescreen-edition springroll platter at the wrap party, and half-eaten before anyone wised up.
This was an understandable mistake. However, it's always a crime to undercut the director's intentions. Therefore: for the first time ever, What Jail Is Like presents - the director's cut of Michael Mann's The Insider.
The final version told the story of a mid-level tobacco executive who must wrestle with his conscience as well as with his former employers. The original version told a much more complex and intimate tale. Originally conceived as a sequel to 1984's Inner Space, The Insider told the shocking and personal story of tobacco's addiction to Russell Crowe.
As the film opens, we see that tobacco is the guinea pig for a groundbreaking experiment. Tobacco is successfully shrunk to one-sixtieth its normal size by a bumbling scientist (in a great cameo by Rick Moranis) - then mistakenly injected into the body of Australian actor Crowe.
Desperate to return to normal, tobacco tries to talk with Mr. Crowe - who is understandably unnerved and skeptical. Unfortunately he's much less suggestible than Martin Short was in the prequel. He's unmoved even by tobacco's desperate threats to filch his lungs. "I've already ruined my peepers readin' in the dark," says Crowe. "What's a lung?"
At the end of its rope, hoping to calm its craving to live on the outside once more, tobacco enrolls in a Transcendental Meditation course. There, tobacco learns that it creates its own reality. Finally it dawns - tobacco is stuck inside Russell Crowe because it wants to be stuck.
Tobacco solves the problem by reenvisioning reality. It envisions Russell Crowe as a middle-aged Kentuckian in a fatsuit, and thus cures itself of any desire to be inside the man. Tobacco returns to its normal size, and lives happily ever after inside Jesse Helms.
The story works on many levels. Its theme of personal growth (or personal size changes of any kind) appeals to audiences the world over. The film is also the story of man versus nature: man as jailor, nature as prisoner. This groundbreaking theme is sure to plant the seeds for a bumper crop of thoughtfully anti-human films.
Sadly, the director's cut is lost forever. We can only surmise how Mr. Crowe's pancreas must have looked, burnished to a golden sheen in the light of a late Kentucky summer. However, we understand that the original shooting script is up for auction on E-Bay. Bid while you can! (The grapevine claims that Al Pacino used the script to whack costar Christopher Plummer upside the head, which should boost the price).
Now - as a sad footnote to the Overlooked Film Festival, we must report the low to which a former film great has sunk. Months ago, the Festival was contacted by the estate of Stanley Kubrick - and asked to screen his final masterpiece. The title? Return to the Overlook Hotel.
Thrilled about sequels to any collaboration with Stephen King, the Festival committee agreed to review the film. On viewing, it turned out to be a bootleg of Return to Witch Mountain, crudely intercut with commercials for spiced red rum. In light of the scandal, Captain Morgan has withdrawn its initial support from the film.
Despite this tragedy, the Festival will go full steam ahead. Latest accounts report it to be "unsinkable". And if sinkable becomes thinkable, we can always clamber aboard Mr. Ebert - who has already been generous in so many ways.