BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC With the end of the second and last weekend of the Philadelphia Film Festival, I head into the last few days of screenings with that feeling of having finished a wonderful meal but still wanting to stretch and make room for dessert. I caught some pretty choice films this past weekend. I became addicted to the Black Lizard reprints of David Goodis’ pulp fiction novels in the late ’80s and have waited nearly 20 years to see the film he scripted and which was shot in his hometown of Philly, the 1957 film noir The Burglar. While it drags in the middle, the film is full of fun moments and details, especially director Paul Wendkos’ homages to Orson Welles, including the Citizen Kane-influenced fake newsreel opening and the closing funhouse chase ala The Lady From Shanghai. Then there were the local locations, including WCAU’s TV newsroom (with John Facenda delivering the 15-minute nightly newscast) and Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, diving horse and all. It’s a sharply-edited film, made with care and craft by some of the crew responsible for the local children’s show Diver Dan (which also lent its crew for Ralph Hirschorn’s rough gem The Disembodied, shown last year by The Secret Cinema).
Afterwards, I caught Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her, where one can see a still-exquisite Julie Christie gracefully slip away into Alzheimer’s. It brought to mind other snowy and somber Canadian-shot films, including Paul Schrader’s The Affliction, Atom Egoyen’s The Sweet Hereafter and the death’s-door drama My Life Without Me (the last two which starred Polley). The performances are pitch-perfect and you’ll definitely shed tears, yet it plays a bit too much like an educational video for the disease.
Braving the rain Sunday night for the much-recommended A Dirty Carnival, I was again amazed how fully the South Korean film world has absorbed the American crime film, and how they beat Hollywood at its own game with growing regularity. With its Old World Italian score and a storyline that takes enough side trips for a season of “The Sopranos,” director You Ha’s love of the gangster drama is on display as he follows the ascent up the crime ladder of Byung-du (the lanky and athletic Jo Insung), who tries to keep his humanity while remaining perfectly ruthless. Like last year’s Korean mob revenge flick A Bittersweet Life, A Dirty Carnival is not built around stylish camera acrobatics or violent shocks. Instead, it depends on old-fashioned storytelling to engage the viewer. The crowd seemed to be pulled in hook, line and sinker and the woman next to me was audibly weeping as the gangster’s rise led to his inevitable fall. Up there with the best of the gangster genre anywhere.
As for tonight’s screenings, there is the Christian cult shocker End of the Line, also shot in Canada. I had to wonder: Would any one in the U.S. dare to distribute a film where the villains are wide-eyed followers of a Christian minister who suddenly gives the order to begin killing all infidels? It’s at least as spooky as Disturbia as these smiling and possessed killers, loudly proclaiming God’s love as they stab you with their sharpened crucifix knives, unnerve with the sort of contradictory image that haunts nightmares. The acting is a little uneven and a bit more subtlety might have gone a long way, but End of the Line, like Children of Men and An Inconvenient Truth and so many films these days, is very successful in tapping into the very large pool of unease people are feeling about the future of our society.
TONIGHT, 7:15 p.m., The Bridge
I’d be warier of Trigger Man [pictured, top]. the second film from Delaware’s Ti West. The 80-minute running time should make for a taut, tightly-wound thriller, but instead this his Deliverance knock-off allows its stalking scenes to drag on forever, convinced that its lush natural setting can carry more of the film’s weight than it actually can. This looks like the type of film a talented young crew could pound out while partying over a weekend, but it must have impressed someone, as West is currently shooting the sequel to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever.
TONIGHT, 9:30 p.m. The Bridge
A companion piece to the festival’s graffiti art drama Wholetrain, Life and Lyrics is another British hip-hop film, this time showing a rap crew’s struggle to fight the boasts, brags and raps of their more criminally-minded local competition. Their battle to keep the crew together hits on a steady parade of expected cliches (handguns, beatdowns and the like) but the rock-solid cast and a first-rate soundtrack are strong enough to distract you from its shortcomings. Keep in mind the British use the metric system, where 8 Mile(s) converts to 12.872 kilometers.
TONIGHT, 9;30 p.m., Ritz East
Pushing its way to the very top of my list of festival films is South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo’s latest film Woman On the Beach. Here’s a film whose plot summary makes it seem more conventional than it actually is: a middle-aged director goes on a road trip with a student and seduces his girlfriend. Yet just as you can start imagining the farce that lies ahead, the film deepens and then deepens again, revealing as much about its characters’ hearts and lives as you might learn in a great novel. The film is breathtaking on the most intimate of scales and contains a defiantly un-cinematic yet strangely unforgettable scene where a character’s obsession is beautifully clarified as he takes a pen and paper and maps out his relationship to memory with circles, dots and arrows. Director Hong Sang-soo also wrote the script and he shows a real gift for writing full-blooded women with unusual insight and empathy, and when the film ends it leaves the impression that you know these characters better than you know your own friends. My gut feeling is that this is the most masterful film I’ll see all year and Sang-soo has to be acknowledged as among the greatest filmmakers working today.
TONIGHT, 5 p.m., The Bridge
And with that I’ll be wrapping up the Festival coverage for another year. Of course there will be Festival Favorites playing Tuesday night (check the website for the complete line-up) and again this year I have only seen one of the choices during the course of the festival. Since these are presumably the crowd favorites, I have to ask: Are my taste esoteric, or just bad? I’ll vouch for the British comedic thriller Severance, but also available for one last look are the Russian ghost story Dead Daughters, Tim Hutton’s Spanish sci-fi film The Kovac Box, the quirkfest from New Zealand Eagle vs. Shark and the late-arriving Philly sports doc The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball.
Finally, Wednesday’s closing night festivities will begin with the awarding the fest’s prizes, a screening of the late writer/director Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (a well-reviewed little comedy starring Felicity herself, Keri Russell) and the closing night celebration at The Top of the Tower at the Bell Atlantic Building (1717 Arch St.). Then it’s back to the old movie-going habits, just seeing one or two films a week out at the theaters and reporting back here at Phawker. Seeing 40-odd films in a couple weeks is wildly stimulating, I walk around in a bit of a fog during the festival, reflecting on the fate of all these film characters. But by the last few days it starts to feel like I’m numbly pounding each film into my brain like a 5-cent nail. It’s my favorite part of the year, and yet I enjoy letting life go back to unspooling in real time. Thanks to Pat McHugh and Pooja Shah from the film fest office for their help and I’ll see you out at the theaters, where you’ll find me arguing at the boxoffice with my fake student I.D.