BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Heading into its last weekend, the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival unleashes the big celebrity guns, giving us this year’s American Independent Award winner, Dermot Mulroney. I spent a few minutes this week trying to stoke a friend’s memory on exactly who the very recognizable Mulroney is, and finally had to give up. His specialty in nearly 20 years of film acting has been in supporting roles, often playing ingratiating nice guys who are romance-bait for the female lead. He’s worked with Altman on Kansas City, with Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding and most recently as part of the sprawling cast in David Fincher’s underwhelming Zodiac, but his most vivid turn might be as Jack Nicholson’s droopy-mustached, hyper-mulleted waterbed salesman son-in-law in Alexander Paine’s About Schmidt. Anyway, since he’s in such demand, I’d imagine Mulroney exhibits easygoing charm both on- and off-camera, and we’ll have a chance to see for ourselves tomorrow night when he takes the stage at 7 pm (no word on who’s interviewing him ) to receive his award before a screening of Dante’s Inferno.
Yet you’ll only hear Mulroney’s gruff, Everyman voice in this topical version of the English class-conflict film, which is basically an elaborately imagined puppet show acted out by elaborately drawn cardboard cut-outs. At a brisk 78 minutes, the beautifully rendered Hell-scape is able to sustain itself remarkably well, its handmade quality giving the “South Park”-styled script a unique visual stamp. It’s one of the few films in the festival about which I could utter, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Saturday, 7 p.m., Prince Music Theater (with Dermot Mulroney in attendance)
Sunday April 15 at noon, National Constitution Center
More conventional puppet animation is found in The Book of the Dead [pictured above and top], a lushly-mounted fable from octogenarian Kihachiro Kawamoto. You’re obviously seeing a master at work, as the the production’s lovingly detailed sets and props are a joy to behold. But its talky story of a headstrong princess asks viewers to stare into the the eyes of its wooden puppets for an eternity while all sorts or exposition is placed into their little painted mouths, calling for an act of emotional transference that’s a bit difficult to muster. Still, I know some audiences must be in heaven watching such meticulous craftsmanship.
Saturday, 9:30 p.m., International House
Wednesday, April 18 8:30 Ambler Theater
There’s yet more ornate Japanese ritual to be found in “Danger After Dark” entry Wicked Flowers [pictured, below], a tightly-budgeted mystery that follows a group of captives forced to wrestle with a deadly riddle. Much like the micro-budgeted cult hit Cube, Wicked Flowers tries to make something out of almost nothing. Most of the film takes place by a little red-velvet-curtained stage, with creepy twins and other grotesques repeating unsolvable clues in arch, David Lynch-like vignettes. The first-time director, the singularly-named Torico, shows sporadic promise with these surreal asides, but the whole story is too inscrutable to hold up very long, and the denoument evoked one long disbelieving grunt on this end.
Saturday, 9:45 p.m., National Constitution Center
The French thriller Them, on the other hand, really scores on its limited scale, its brisk 79 minutes giving its fat-free narrative time to do nothing but spook us to pieces. Its premise couldn’t be more basic — an unremarkable couple spend a unremarkable evening at a country home, until visitors arrive to stalk them as they lay down for the night. The directing duo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud do a savvy job of hiding the nature of the threat from us for as long as possible and the conclusion is just weird enough to make Them a memorable little gem.
Saturday, 10 p.m., The Bridge
Sunday, 9:30 p.m. Ritz Five
Thursday, April 19th 8:30 p.m., County Theater
Perhaps the best of this year’s festival horror films, Severance is being touted as “The Office” meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that isn’t an unfair comparison. Following a typical mix of working stiffs as they set out for the wilds of Eastern Europe promoting their company’s weapons line, this British import mocks corporate culture then takes its revenge on the crew in a truly harrowing chase through the woods. Mixing humor into horror films is often a dicey proposition, but director and co-writer Christopher Smith locates a dark tone in the humor which makes the witty killings seem all the more believable. The fact that the script is as funny as it is scary makes Severance a real crowd-pleaser and a worthy follow-up to last year’s popular British cave thriller The Descent. Don’t miss this one — but if you do, a May theatrical run is tentatively in the works.
TONIGHT 5 p.m., The Bridge
One of the more annoying films in the festival is Anna Biller’s painstakingly mounted ’70s sex film spoof Viva. Biller wrote and directed Viva as a vehicle for her performing talents (she warbles a little torch song here and dances a little there) but her talents are best displayed in the film’s design, which accurately captures the garishly-hued era the film inhabits [pictured, below]. Every scene shows off a number of kitschy props and clothing, but at two full hours, Viva milks its premise absolutely dry — which is all the more painful since everyone here seems to have complete disdain for the genre. Besides, Biller can’t work up the sort of lustful ogling of her own assets that gives these films their smutty allure, leaving Viva as a perfectly awful recreation of films that are frequently unwatchable to begin with.
Saturday, 5 p.m., Ritz East
Sunday April 15 Ritz East
Another bungled domestic comedy is American Fork, which is shamelessly being promoted as being from the producers of Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon Dynamite has become a legitimate popular hit, but I wouldn’t expect a similar fate for Fork‘s Tracy Orbison, the obese optimist chowing down at the center of this weak dramadey. The character is a poetry-writing outcast whose compulsive eating is too real to evoke any guilt-free laughs, while his church-going sweetness makes him nice without being particularly interesting. “24”‘s Mary Lynn Rajskub is on hand doing her twitchy shtick and making us peeved they haven’t given her much to do, and Billy Baldwin is an unexpected scene-stealer as a pompous acting teacher. You heard that: Billy Baldwin is the best thing in this film! Let’s hope you recognize faint praise when you hear it.
Saturday, 12:15 p.m., The Bridge
Sunday April 15 7:15 p.m., Ritz East
Wednesday April 18th 8:30 p.m., County Theater
Hearing the story of the production of The Orange Thief led me to expect the worst. As a writer, the idea of starting a film without a script is vaguely sacrilegious, especially since the first-time filmmakers dragged their crew from the U.S. to Italy to shoot this rambling shaggy-dog tale. Their confidence wasn’t completely unfounded, as their lead, a singing guitarist played by Andrea Calabrese, does have a rough-hewn young Tom Waits kind of charm. And while the story doesn’t add up to a whole lot, it is surprisingly painless to watch Calabrese wander around as a itinerant title character. The music (played by the talented cast) and the beautiful rural Italian settings don’t hurt either. Hopefully, whatever talent is suffused between the film’s three directors will find a more potent and refined project next time around.
Sunday April 15, 7:15 p.m., International House
Wednesday, April 18 6:15 p.m., Ambler Theater
The Page Turner is a formulaic but still effective suspense film about a young musician whose grudge against a jurist who ruled against her leads the character to infiltrate the judge’s home as a servant. Denis Dercourt’s direction is almost defiantly without style, but still effective in the clutch. Robert Gaston’s 2 Minutes Later, on the other hand, is a production so inept that basic storytelling skills seem to escape the director’s grasp. A photographer’s disappearance leads his twin brother and a female detective down a predictably dangerous trail. The only thing that separates this from a bad episode of “Silk Stalkings” is its gay protagonists and ample full-frontal nudity.
The Page Turner:
Saturday 9:30 p.m., Ritz East
Thursday April 19th, 6:15 p.m., Hiway Jenkintown
2 Minutes Later:
TONIGHT, 7:15 p.m., Prince Music Theater
Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater
Me, I’m taking my crime straight-up tonight, with a screening of Paul Wendkos’ 1957 noir The Burglar. Based on a novel from one of the true artists of pulp fiction, Philadelphia’s David Goodis, The Burglar is not on video and has been nearly impossible to see for years — maybe not since The Secret Cinema’s Jay Schwartz ran a 16mm print locally a few years back. I’ve been waiting years to see it; my old haunt, San Francisco’s Roxy Theater, mounted ambitious film noir festivals for years but never found a print. The Burglar has a stellar cast with Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Shaughnessy (Elvis’ bunkmate in Jailhouse Rock), and the added interest of being shot locally and featuring beloved newscaster John Facenda. Director Wendkos went on to an interesting career in television, directing some particularly crazed TV movies, including Robbie Benson’s anti-drug shocker The Death of Ritchie and The Ordeal of Patty Hearst. The festival will be showing a rare 35mm print of The Burglar and Movies Unlimited guru/author Irv Slifkin will be on hand to provide some context.
TONIGHT, 7 p.m., Ritz Five
Other notable screenings include: Friday has the British hip-hop drama Life and Lyrics, Gyorgy Palfi’s surrealistic romp Taxidermia (alas, projected from DVD after print problems arose), a documentary on the late Philly comedian Judy Toll and actress Sarah Polley’ s directorial debut, Away From Her. Saturday includes the PW rep dude Matt Prigge’s favorite fest film Woman on the Beach and documentaries on abortion and the sad story of Centralia, PA. Sunday features two centerpiece screenings: the space program doc In the Shadow of Moon and Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling and David Straithhairn in Fracture.
That’ll get us through the weekend, check back on Monday and we’ll be talking smack about the Festival Favorites. Till then, I’ll see you at the theaters; I’ll be the guy in the wrong line.
FILMFEST SPOTLIGHT: Dear Bill Gates
[quicktime width=”520″ height=”390″]http://sarahchristman.com/qt/dbg.mov[/quicktime]
A film by Sarah J. Christman. Music by Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.