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Dinner Date: Joey (Matt Price) and Melvin (Michael Blieden) go to dinner. Two other people join them. Hilarity and mayhem ensue in Bob Odenkirk's 'Melvin Goes to Dinner.'

'Dinner' and Some Movies

The Sonoma Valley Film Festival serves up Bob Odenkirk's tasty new feature--and a film fan's buffet of indie-world side dishes

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"Imagine a friend coming up to you," says Bob Odenkirk, "and they ask, 'Hey, whatever happened with that really awful relationship you were in all those years ago? What was her name? How'd you ever get out of that?' And you say, 'Jesus! I really don't know! It was a really freaky night and I'd just been out to dinner with a bunch of friends, and we talked for hours--it was a really weird conversation, it was really fucking amazing what we ended up talking about--and then after dinner she just showed up. And it was really uncomfortable. And then, suddenly--"

Let me stop Odenkirk right there.

Another few words and we'd have given away the ending of Melvin Goes to Dinner, Odenkirk's sensational directorial debut, making its West Coast premiere Friday and Saturday at this year's Sonoma Valley Film Festival. Based on the popular play of the same name by actor and writer Michael Blieden, who re-creates the role of Melvin from the original Los Angeles run of the play, Melvin Goes to Dinner follows one poor schlub of a guy whose life changes, ever so slightly, because of a very strange dinnertime conversation that he almost decided to skip.

The film debuted at last January's SlamDance Film Festival in Utah, which features films a little too Independent for the concurrently running Sundance glamfest, and quickly became one of the most talked-about must-see films to screen at either festival.

"I don't hold it against Sundance that they wouldn't have my film," insists the magnanimous Odenkirk, an Emmy-winning comedy writer (Saturday Night Live, Get a Life, The Ben Stiller Show) and sometimes actor (he played Steve the agent on The Larry Sanders Show and starred in HBO's Mr. Show with Bob and David). "Those poor people at Sundance," he jokes, "they have to watch so many movies, something like 1,500 films in a month. How does a mere mortal do that and still know which way is up? It's brutal. No wonder they couldn't see straight enough to choose my movie."

Along with Blieden, the movie version features the play's other original cast members: Matt Price, Stephanie Courtney, and Annabelle Gurwitch. For the film version, Blieden and Odenkirk have expanded the scope of the stage piece--which was pretty much just four people sitting at a table talking about ghosts, God, masturbation, anal sex, insanity, sweating, and the previously unknown real point of having sexual intercourse--squeezing in some hilarious and/or warmhearted cameos by Jack Black, David Cross, and ER's Maura Tierney along the way. It's a film about a lot of things (and yes, anal sex is one of them), but at its heart, Melvin is a mesmerizing homage to the power of casual conversation.

That's what Odenkirk thinks, anyway.

"In the midst of certain conversations--just casual conversations that started out somewhere harmless--you can experience seismic shifts in your whole life's outlook. I think it's rare, and I think most changes happen because your back's up against a wall, not because you want to change. The truth is, most people really don't want to change, or they don't know how to change even if they suspect they should. You just change because it's on your schedule to change; you change because the husband of the woman you've been fucking suddenly pulls up in the car next to you as you wait at a stoplight."

And sometimes you change when your wife drags you to a play you fully expect to hate. That, more or less, is how Odenkirk came to be the director of Melvin Goes to Dinner, a film about as far removed as one could get from the border-blasting zaniness of the aforementioned Mr. Show (a fearless sketch-comedy series that ran for several seasons).

"I finally saw the play," Odenkirk says, "and I really liked it, but I went and saw it four or five more times because I honestly couldn't believe it was as good as I thought. . . . I mean, how could these four people having this dinner conversation be as captivating and funny and moving as it was? It's impossible! But after seeing it six or seven times, I finally had to give in and admit it was just a solid piece of writing with really good performances."

Completely hooked, he set out to make the play into a feature film, intent on capturing the same excitement he felt while seeing the show onstage.

"The audiences were always walking out of the play talking," he says, "just jabbering away rapidly and excitedly, talking about how they were feeling or what they were thinking. It was great! And you know what? The film does the same thing!"

Odenkirk expects to see the same thing in Sonoma when he appears, along with Blieden, for lively postfilm question-and-answer sessions. Interestingly, Odenkirk suggests that much of the film's head-shaking appeal arises from the conflicting viewpoints he and Blieden had of the self-deceptive, emotionally elusive truth skirters that are the movie's four main characters.

"I identify with all of them--and none of them," Odenkirk laughs. "Blieden has great sympathy for these characters, while I actually had very little sympathy for them. I think they're fucked up.

"Of course," he adds with a knowing chuckle, "they're fucked up in a very, very interesting way."

'Melvin Goes to Dinner' screens Saturday, April 12, at 10pm at the Sebastiani Theatre.

Films Served Hot--and Hotter

Conversations between humans, sympathetic and otherwise, play major parts in several other films featured at the annual, rapidly growing festival.

Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth--which, like Melvin, is based on a play--uses as its script the verbatim recordings of legendary alcoholics Pete and Ray, an astonishingly rude and contentious pair of real-life roommates who lived and abused one another, loudly and often, in San Francisco's lower Haight district in the late 1980s.

"Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth is a story of real people who talked at each other without understanding a thing," explains Robert Taicher, the film's director. "Strangely enough, there's also a lot of humor in their conversations. They were very colorful characters, and they had some extremely strange and funny things to say."

So strange and so funny, in fact, that audiences habitually begin impersonating Pete and Ray's conspicuous conversational style. "A lot of people leave the theater snarling, 'Shut your dirty little mouth, no one told you to say anything!' It's just irresistible," says Taicher. "There's something hypnotic about the language. There's something there in the way they spoke that attracts people. I don't know why. It's an intangible thing. But it certainly attracted me."

The talk turns to matters of art, life, and community in the visceral, heart-tugging documentary Confessions of a Burning Man, directed by Un Su Lee and Paul Barnett, and produced and filmed by a team of former dot-com slaves including Curt Dowdy. Filmed over two years at the legendary art festival held annually in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the film features several artists--Petaluma's David Best among them--discussing, debating, and interacting as the world's biggest and oddest art show rises and burns all around them.

"We tried to dig to the core of what Burning Man is supposed to be about," says Dowdy, "and to represent that in an artful way. Burning Man is all about community, the creation of a community that supports self-expression, and the people who get the most out of Burning Man are those who come with a contribution to make to that community."

Since hitting the road with the finished film the filmmakers have, appropriately then, worked to incorporate what Dowdy calls "collaborative participation" into all of the screenings. In other words, he says, "We invite people to come dressed in 'Burner chic,' wearing whatever glow-in-the-dark electroluminescent outfits or other bizarre costumes they might wear to Burning Man."

In Sonoma, to boost the festivities even more, there will be a festive primal drum circle in Sonoma Plaza following the Saturday screening with ongoing exhibitions by Burners who will bring along whatever expressive art they might bring with them to the desert.

"Any part of their lifestyle that they don't get to live out in their workaday world," says Dowdy, "they bring to Burning Man, and they live it out there to the fullest degree. We hope to see that at the film festival as well. It should be beautiful."

If nothing else, it will give us all something to talk about.

'Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth' screens Saturday, April 12, at 11pm at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. 'Confessions of a Burning Man' screens Saturday, April 12, at 12:30pm at the Sebastiani Theatre and Sunday, April 13, at 12:30pm at Sonoma Cinemas.



What They're Talking About

See www.sonomafilmfest.org for a full schedule; this is a selection of short reviews of the festival 's films.

Bark

An uptight dogsitter (Heather Morgan) has a nervous breakdown and starts acting like a dog. Her husband (Lee Tergensen), instead of hauling her off to the loony bin, seeks the advice of his deadbeat best friend (Hank Azaria), his dingy veterinarian (Lisa Kudrow, the movie's lone bright spot), and a psychiatrist (Vincent D'Onofrio). Shot in a grating pseudo Dogme 95 style with sloppy editing and way too many close-ups, Bark is a faltering black comedy whose main premise is as annoying as it is dumb. Screens Saturday, April 12, at 7pm at Sonoma Cinemas and Sunday, April 13, at 9pm at Sebastiani Theatre. (Sara Bir)

And Now . . . Ladies and Gentlemen

Claude Lelouche film about a repentant jewelry thief (Jeremy Irons) with mysterious reccurring blackouts who sets sail around the world to escape his former life. In atmospheric Morocco, he finds a beautiful chanteuse (French singer Patricia Kaas) with the same mysterious ailment, but their pasts may be too much to overcome. So very moody, so very French. Screens Saturday, April 12, at 5pm at Sonoma Cinemas and Sunday, April 13, at 4pm at Sebastiani Theatre. (Davina Baum)

Bug

At least four story lines are woven into this independent feature by the creators of Crazy/Beautiful, predicated on the six degrees of separation theory. The sudden (sticky, gooey) death of a cockroach sets off the chain of events, bringing the story lines together. The coterie of curious characters includes great roles for Brian Cox and Jamie Kennedy. Screens Friday, April 11, at 2:30pm at Sonoma Cinemas and Saturday, April 12, at 8pm at Sebastiani Theatre. (DB)

Eat This, New York

Four out of five new restaurants close within five years of opening, and yet dreamers and fools continue to open them. Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack's documentary boasts enlightening profiles of the biggest big guns of New York's restaurant scene as well as talking-head insights from Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. The main framework of the movie follows two young Brooklyn hipsters as they struggle through poor planning and money crunches to get their bar and cafe, Moto, up and running. The two halves of the movie never really gel, but it's still packed with drama. Screens Saturday, April 12, at 5pm at Sebastiani Theatre. (SB)

Hang Time

Directed by Craig Gerber, this hilarious seven-minute short about a very strange elevator ride in a bustling building contains no conversation whatsoever, yet it communicates a whole range of up-and-down human emotions, along with a physics-defying flight of fancy. Screens as part of the festival's narrative-shorts program on Friday, April 11, at noon and Sunday, April 13, at 10:30am. It also screens before 'Melvin Goes to Dinner' on Friday at 7:30pm at the Sonoma Cinemas and Saturday, April 12, at 10:30pm at the Sebastiani Theatre. (DT)

Happy Hour

A moment of small talk leads to a night of sharp-tongued banter (and booze), when a blocked novelist (Anthony LaPaglia) accidentally hooks up with a hard-drinking school teacher (Caroleen Feeney) in New York City. When the writer's best friend (Eric Stoltz) gets involved, the threesome embark on a journey of the spirit that will leave them all changed for the better--and not. Well acted and moodily photographed. Screens Friday, April 11, at 9:30pm and Saturday, April 12, at 3pm at the Sebastiani Theatre. (DT)

Julie Walking Home

An emotionally fraught, meandering film by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). A woman (Miranda Otto) betrayed by everyone--husband, family, God--finds refuge in a Russian healer who can help her terminally ill son. Shifting from Russia to Canada to Poland gives the film a disjointed feel, and some lose ends don't get resolved. But proof of miracles--and Holland's prowess behind the camera--salvages the film. Screens Friday, April 11, at 2pm and Sunday, April 13, at 6:45pm at Sebastiani Theatre. (DB)

Mergers and Acquisitions

Mitchell Bard's drama is a protest against the Starbucking of America. Bard's angle on the subject of the merge-and-purge method of doing business will win him sympathy with the journalists of America. Del Richards (Steven Chester Prince) is a 35-year-old spinning his wheels at a moribund NYC trade magazine. The mag is the latest target of an Iowa-based engulf-and-devour conglomerate which approaches Del to become its point man--and he's almost ready to bite. The interesting subject matter battles with uninvolving acting and too-basic characterization. The film's essential naiveté never gets it out of the nice-try category. Screens Saturday, April 12, at 5pm at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. (Richard von Busack)

Miranda

Christina Ricci is not what she seems. When she slides into the life of Frank (John Simm), a love-struck English librarian, the spooky beauty passes herself off as a dance student named Miranda. And he believes her. That's before Miranda--actually a smooth-talking con woman with a knack for selling condemned buildings to unknowing buyers--introduces poor Frank to her snaky partner and mentor (John Hurt) and the delightfully bonkers millionaire (Kyle MacLachlan) they plan to swindle next. Gentle lunacy ensues. Sex occurs. Screens Friday, April 11, at 10pm and Sunday, April 13, at 8:30pm at Sonoma Cinemas; the director and some actors will be in attendance. (DT)

Scrabylon

For those who read Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis' 2001 exposé of the tournament Scrabble scene, Scott Petersen's documentary is like seeing the book come to life--that is to say, there is more depth and tension in the world of Scrabble than most of us ever thought. Focusing on the major players in the 2001 World Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas, Scrabylon brings the audience face to face with players who, among the fanatical Scrabble set, are legends in their own time. Screens Friday, April 11, at 5pm at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. (SB)

You'll Never Wiez in this Town Again

Fans of Pauly Shore's patented brand of coarse, mean-spirited humor will be mighty amused by the cleverly conceived mockumentary that marks the directorial debut of Shore, who all but disappeared after a string of, ahem, bad movies. It begins with Shore's death by suicide, followed by a series of flashbacks examining the crass comedian's rise and fall, interspersed with a galaxy of star cameos. Those allergic to cruel humor might want to avoid this, however; even when the subject is Pauly Shore, Pauly Shore is nothing short of brutal. Screens Friday and Saturday, April 11 and 12, at 9pm at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. Pauly Shore will attend both screenings. (DT)

Welcome Sinners: The Velvet Hammer Story

Probably the only time you will see a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe lookalike shake and strain a martini with her breasts to the tune of the Mike Hammer theme is in this video diary of Velvet Hammer, the L.A. neoburlesque troupe whose brassy, saucy shows are way more than just pasties and G-strings. Screens Saturday, April 12, at 7pm at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. (SB)

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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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