BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It’s the opening weekend of the 16th annual Philadelphia Film Festival and we’re sitting on the ass end of winter, so no one has to feel bad about being inside, in the dark, on a perfectly beautiful day. Surely you have many more sunny days in Rittenhouse Square in your future, but when will you get another chance to watch silent Our Gang shorts with Leonard Maltin?
While Maltin’s taste in contemporary film can be a bit prim, his love of early Hollywood animation and the world of comic shorts better reveal his importance as an American film critic. He’ll be a man about town on Saturday, interviewing Roy Disney for the Festival’s Inspiration Award at the I-House and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him popping up at some of the Disney animation programs this weekend.
Digging through the choices, here are some of the more intriguing films I’ve seen that will be playing this weekend, a mix of dramas, comedies, documentaries and foreign titles. Skipping out of work early today you could see the South Korean gambler film Tazza: The High Rollers. Part of the fun checking out foreign films is discovering another country’s movie stars. Cho Seung-woo has already won the Golden Bell for Best Actor at age 26, and his performance as Goni oozes charm as he makes the transformation from reckless street kid to suave God of cards. You can thank The Departed’s Best Picture win for early calls for an American remake. Tazza is is both grittier and more sleekly shot than its U.S. counterparts. Like Goodfellas or The Sopranos, director Cho Dong-hoon both gives this fable a sense of momentum as characters crisscross each others’ paths, yet takes the time to tell you the sob stories of all these poor guys losing their shirts.
Friday April 6th 4:15 Ritz East
Saturday April 7th 9:15 International House
Sunday April 8th Ritz East
Friday night sees the first screening of Wholetrain, a hip-hop fueled drama from Germany. Does Germany really contain a graffiti culture where gangs of sensitive hoods risk life and freedom to throw up all-encompassing bubble-lettered murals on the city’s elevated train cars? Florian Gaag’s scrappy little debut convinced me that inner-city Germany is just like the Brooklyn in 1980, and his heartfelt kitchen sink drama comes off like a smart updating of Saturday Night Fever (which is a better film than you might remember). Still, I can hear my mother’s voice tsk-tsking over the undeniably exciting scenes where the gang turn their spray cans on public property.
Friday April 6th 9:30 Ritz Five
Sunday April 8th 12 Noon The Bridge
Monday April 9th 5:00 Ritz Five
The life of grunge martyr Kurt Cobain is pretty well-trod at this point but director AJ Schnack has found himself a thoughtful angle with his documentary Kurt Cobain About a Son (a title screaming for a colon). Schnack uses the interview tapes Cobain recorded for Michael Azerrad’s definitive bio Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, so the singer’s disembodied voice tells his own story. None of Nirvana’s music appears in the film and there aren’t even any images of Kurt until the very end. Instead, it is images of the rainy Pacific Northwest that fill the screen while Cobain makes a game attempt to explain himself for the record. PW’s Matt Prigge found the visuals a little precious but I found them moody and abstract enough to lose myself in this most intimate of rockumentaries.
Friday April 6th 9:30 International House
Thursday April 12th 2:30 The Bridge
Another remarkably intimate film that hits home is Superheroes, a blunt and succinct character study about a vet of the Iraq occupation and a green young filmmaker who wants to film him. The ex-soldier is played by Dash Mihok, who has made a living playing crazy-eyed heavies in Hollywood films for the 10 years. Finally at center stage in this two-character piece, Mihok finds the soul of this shell-shocked vet and delivers hat will be one of the year’s deepest and saddest performances.
Friday April 6 5:00 National Constitution Center
Wednesday April 11th 9:30 The Bridge
Lars Von Trier has by now probably scared off most the audience that would be most inclined to enjoy his whimsical little offering, The Boss of it All. More like one of Bill Forsythe’s Scottish comedies (do people still remember Local Hero?) than the dramatic sturm und drang Von Trier is known for, The Boss Of it All is a quietly amusing little film about a company owner who has been too shy to proclaim himself Boss and instead hires a pretentious actor to try to pass himself off as the big chief. It’s the type of film that provokes more grins than laughs but I was grinning pretty steadily and only later that this humble little film did have something to say about Von Trier’s observation of the relationship between an actor and director.
Saturday April 7th 5:00 Prince Music Theater
Sunday April 8th 7:15 Ritz Five
Documentaries seem to be what American directors do best these days, and Jeffrey Blitz’s spelling bee doc Spellbound is among the most compelling U.S. docs of recent years. Now Blitz is back with his first fictional film, Rocket Science, and he carries many of Spellbound’s strengths into this tale of a stuttering student’s (a squirrelly Reece Daniel Thompson) attempt to join the debating team. Blitz has a real feel for the awkward years and it’s nice the way he sets up the film to be a triumphant sports drama then undercuts all expectations. The “Trenton Makes The World Takes” sign even gets some screen time (too bad most the film was shot in and around Baltimore); my only grumble is how such an empathetic film could continually use goofy Asian characters as a punchline. With music by Clem Snide.
Saturday April 7th 7:00 Ritz East
Monday April 9th 4:30 Ritz East
More student activity high-jinks with The Paper, a documentary looking at a year in the life of Penn State’s student newspaper The Daily Collegian. Anyone who worked on a student paper can cringe anew over the rookie mistakes, but the film also reveals that the problems in the Collegian’s newsroom mirror many of the problems in professional ones — sagging circulation, lack of diversity in the newsroom, overly deferential reporting on those in power, etc. Nice to know young people can take part in a verite doc without turning the thing into a reality TV drama.
Saturday April 7th 7:00 International House
Sunday April 8th 2:300 National Constitution Center
Thursday April 19th 6:15 Ambler Theater
Geeky film buffs love their Brian DePalma. “Oh those tracking shots! Ooh, the split screen!” I knew this sort of idolatry would lead to complaints when newcomer Douglas Buck announced he was remaking DePalma’s first thriller, the perversely melodramatic twin tale Sisters. Response has been mixed (Jesse Peretz from The International House’s film program singled it out for particular abuse at the Festival’s opening night party) but I walked away mostly impressed. Turns out it was DePalma’s original story that most interested Buck, in fact the film has more of David Cronenberg‘s influence (disease, doctors, wound-licking) than DePalma’s show-offy antics. I liked its stateliness, I thought the story still held up and Chloe Sevigny appeared more womanly than I have seen her in the past. Still, I don’t know what audiences are going to think of this ending . . .
Saturday April 7 10:00 the Bridge
Tuesday April 10 9:30 Prince Music Theater
Cult star of the stage and screen Alan Cumming, in his directorial debut, plays one of those neurotic young Jack Lemmon types in Suffering Man’s Charity. The comedy turns pitch black as he tries to throw his no-good would-be writer out of his house; if you can’t take Cumming’s high-pitched performance there are funny turns by Carrie Fisher, Anne Heche, A Mighty Wind’s Jane Lynch and the original batty eccentric, Karen Black, to keep you distracted. Me, I found it hysterical to watch Cumming act, well, hysterical.
Saturday April 7th 9:30 Prince Music Theater
Monday April 9th 5:15 The Bridge
But I’m not playing press agent here, I didn’t love everything. The Curse of William Penn asks the question “Is Philly’s inability to bring home a pro sports title tied to the skyline’s rising above Billy Penn hat?” and its Joe Six-pack poses the query everyone from Pat Croce to Kevin Bacon. What can they do but shrug their shoulders and say “I don’t know, maybe” and that’s what they do in this documentary that looks like something they’d run while they waited for the rain to stop falling on Citizens Bank Park. And Ray Lawrence follows up his multiple-character thriller Lantana with Jindabyne, an adaptation of Raymond Carner’s short story “So Much Water So Close To Home.” The story, about a group of guys ignoring a young girl’s corpse so they could resume a fishing trip, was already used as one of the mosaic of stories in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. It’s a bleak tale and while Altman could enliven it by skipping across narratives, Lawrence has over-extended the grim mood by stretching it across two hours. Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne make the most out of the dour script, but Jindabyne is too one-dimensional to truly hit its mark.
I’m still waiting to see I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the latest from that Taiwanese king of loneliness Tsai Ming-Liang, Fay Grim, one-time indie darling Hal Hartley’s sequel to his last successful film Henry Fool; Severence, a British horror film that’s among the most hyped of the Danger After Dark series and 12:08 of Bucharest, which the City Paper’s Sam Adams singled out as his favorite fest film.
That’s all I know right now, be back Monday with more from the Festival. Hope to see you there, watch my popcorn as you slip past me down the aisle.