CINEMA: Philadelphia Film Festival Guidance

BuskirkByline_REV.jpg BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC In too many ways, Philadelphia is not much of a cinema town. We have fewer screens than most cities our size, no full-time repertory theater (a fact that irks me daily) and too many foreign films just do not open here. But for a the next couple weeks, we can pretend we all live in a first-run town, as the 17th Philadelphia Film Festival spreads out across six area venues to supply more film choices than anyone can consume. The Festival has followed the same basic template since the TLA folks took it over a few years back, although this year it has seemed to contract just a bit: no outdoor events, a fewer films and a slightly less posh line-up at the opening and closing night festivities. If belt-tightening was called for, these seem to be sound decisions. With more than 250 films to choose, from the core of the festival remains intact, a broad menu from which to ascertain a snapshot of where international film is today.

FIlmFestogoheader_1.jpgHere’s a sampling of the opening weekend’s offerings, and I’ll be back throughout the week with some suggestions of what can be seen daily. I’m still digging into my plate, but of what I’ve seen so far, I’m throwing my hype behind first-time director Barry Jenkins’ MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, a perceptive and romantic film with race, gentrification and San Francisco on its mind; locally shot documentary IN A DREAM, which gets surprisingly up-close and personal with Philly muralist Isaiah Zagar (and his wife, Eyes Gallery owner Julia Zagar), and BLAST OF SILENCE, an early 60s black-and-white noir that as been a well-kept secret among lovers of the genre for years (it is part of a too-brief section of the festival devoted to those gritty crime films of yore).

But no matter if you’re a sophisticated film buff waiting for Swedish madman Roy Anderson’s YOU, THE LIVING, a Phillies fan dying to see Richie Ashburn’s life story, a follower of future Philly resident (we hope) Patti Smith or just a horny bastard who wants to see a film titled YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING, the Festival should have some angle to rope you in. Hope to see you out there — I’ll be the guy shushing your chatty neighbor.

americanteen2.jpgAMERICAN TEEN (2008, directed by Nanette Burstein, 95 minutes, U.S.)
At the opening of the Sundance-approved documentary American Teen, they have the Warsaw, Indiana high school students define themselves as the age-old stereotypes of Nerd, Jock, Queen Bee and Rebel. For the rest of the film’s undeniably-diverting running time, we’re left with the aching suspicion that both the directors and the students have absorbed enough reality TV to make sure they live up to the role they’ve been cast (‘cept maybe that marching band kid Jake, who’s a natural embodying that nerd role). It’s entertaining, like a good season of “The Real World,” although when the film carefully follows the sexual humiliation of one student (indelicately nicknamed “Pepperoni Nipples”) you have to question whether the film is documenting these teens traumas or just queasily helping to amplify them. TRAINER

Fri. April 4, 7:15 p.m., Prince Music Theater
Sun. April 6, 2:30 p.m., Ritz East


baghead_filmstill1_1.jpgBAGHEAD (2007, directed by Mark & Jay Duplass, 84 minutes, U.S.)
Following up their moderately amusing 2005 comedy The Puffy Chair, Mark and Jay Duplass present a quartet of actors who seclude themselves in a rural cabin where they attempt to conjure a starring vehicle out of thin air over a long weekend. Unfortunately, this feels a little too autobiographical; this group of friends finds out they don’t have much of an idea on what kind of story to tell, and apparently neither do Baghead’s creators. Instead, what we end up with is a half-hearted slasher spoof, a jealous lovers’ quarrel and bare-bones non-film that recalls the worst of Henry Jaglom. IFC has been instrumental in selling the Duplass’ as part of a naturalistic film movement dubbed “Mumblecore.” Baghead doesn’t have the originality of a fresh movement — it just seems like uninspired student filmmaking. There’s a reason Larry David stocks his semi-improvised show with seasoned comedians. Trying to inflate a similar project with unsteady newcomers is a recipe for disaster and Baghead is the main course.

Friday April 4, 7:15 Ritz East


blast_of_silence-10.jpgBLAST OF SILENCE (1961, directed by Allan Baron, 77 minutes, U.S.)
This obscurity came at the end of the film noir cycle, and is reminiscent of one of Kubrick’s similarly low-budget N.Y.C. crime films, Killer’s Kiss. Director/star Allan Baron plays Frankie Bono, a cold-hearted hit man gearing up for the next job, but Frankie’s grim demeanor and the hard-boiled narration by Lionel Stander plays a backseat to New York City itself, seen in stunning location photography that resurrects mid-century America with an overwhelming number of small details. Even though Criterion announced a DVD release for later this year, noir fans would be foolish to forsake a chance to see this stark little gem on the big screen. TRAINER

Sat. April 5, 9:30 p.m., Ritz East
Mon. April 7, 5 p.m., The Bridge


EDGE OF HEAVEN (2007, directed by Fatih Akin, 122 minutes, Germany/Turkey)
Director Fatih Akin’s ambitious follow-up to his 2005 breakthrough Head On is one of the festival’s highlights. A Turkish mother lives in Germany as a prostitute. Her daughter remains in Turkey, protesting the government while living underground. Over the course of the film, they both cross between borders, under different circumstances and with different dramatic results. Also on hand is Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla, as a mother hoping to stop her own daughter from becoming entwined in the same political forces. I hate to give away much more than that, as one of Edge of Heaven‘s strengths is that it exists outside of genre conventions, staying as alive and as unpredictable as life itself. Writer/director Akin achieves a richness and scope on a par with the best novelists of our generation, and Edge of Heaven is of the most heartfelt and original films of the year. TRAILER

Sat. April 5, 7 p.m., Ritz East
Sun. April 6, 7 p.m. The Bridge


(2007, directed by Scott Hicks, 115 minutes, Australia)
You’d be forgiven for thinking of minimalist composer Philip Glass as a detached and high-minded artiste yet this Australian-produced documentary presents the genius as a amiable mensch from Baltimore. Done with Glass’ full co-operation, the doc chronicles one of the truly ground-breaking careers in modern music while showing you his day-to-day life from a respectable distance. True, watching Glass do Tai Chi and play with his children may be less than enlightening, however listening to him talk about the origins of his music offers a rare insight into his art. TRAILER

Sun. April 6, 4:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater
Tue. April 8th, 2:15 p.m., Ritz East


MILK IN THE LAND, BALLAD OF AN AMERICAN DRINK (2007, directed by Ariana Gerstein & Monteith McCollum, 90 minutes, U.S.)
Not sponsored by the American Dairy Association, this ominously-toned documentary tries to spook, anger and gross you out over the subject of factory-farmed milk. There are some wonderfully idyllic asides showing small family farms that properly coddle their livestock, but I’m not sure why the directors went so heavily on the distracting Brother Quay-styled atmospherics.

Fri. April 4, 4:45 p.m. International House
Thu. April 10, 7:15 p.m. Ritz East


IN A DREAM (2008, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, 80 minutes, U.S.)
It will be impossible to take the city’s ubiquitous mosaic murals of Isaiah Zagar for granted again after seeing this deeply-felt documentary, made by his son Jeremiah. The elder Zagar unearths decades of journals and sketchbooks to illustrate the pleasures and travails of a lifetime dedicated to the muse, and Jeremiah allows animated flourishes to draw the viewer into the fractured core of his work. Like that documentary on musician Daniel Johnston from a few Festivals back, In A Dream has a surprising amount of mental illness and domestic dischord to present, all rendered somewhat magical when seen refracted through the Zagar’s art. Locals won’t want to miss this, but I suspect the film is going to find an audience well beyond Philly. TRAILER

Fri. April 4, 7 p.m. International House
Sat. April 5, 3 p.m. Ritz East
Just Added! Sat. April 5, 5 p.m. Black Box @ The Prince


JESUS, THE SPIRIT OF GOD (2007, director Nader Talebzadeh, 100 minutes, Iran)
Considering which Iranian films get distributed in the U.S. market, you might have a rarefied idea of the country’s film market. Jesus, The Spirit of God is not an art film directed by Kiarostami or Panahi, but a rousing Crucifixion film meant for popular audiences, presenting the story of Christ as recounted in The Koran. There are some interesting details along the way — Christ is shown as light-skinned with blonde highlights, and who knew Muslims believed Judas took Christ’s place on the cross — but it’s took bad the whole thing is so talky its appeal may be limited to Biblical scholars and Iranian Christians. And Jews fare no better in this story then in Mel’s Passion, sad to say.

Fri. April 4, 4:45 p.m., Ritz Five
Sat. April 5, noon The Bridge
Mon. April 7, 5 p.m. Ritz Five


LOVELY BY SURPRISE (2007, directed by Kirt Gunn, 99 minutes, U.S.)
Inadvertently copping its premise from a recent Will Ferrell vehicle, Carrie Preston plays a blocked writer whose main character (a child-like fat man in a Speedo) realizes he’s a being manipulated by an unseen author. First-time director Kirt Gunn is looking to unleash some Charles Kaufman-style surreal cleverness on us but his laugh-deprived script isn’t up to the challenge. A seemingly unconnected subplot about a single dad losing control (a suitably sweaty Reg Rogers) runs parallel to the action, yet the film’s self-satisfied and smirky demeanor exhausted my patience by the time Gunn tied up the loose ends. TRAILER

Sun. April 6, 2:30 p.m. Ritz Five
Mon. April 7, 7:15 p.m. Ritz Five


MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008, directed by Barry Jenkins, 90 minutes, U.S.)
This is just the sort of delicious surprise for which filmgoers love festivals. Taking place over a beautiful San Francisco Sunday, Mica and Jo (newcomers Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) wake up from their drunken one-night stand to wander around the city spending the day getting to know each other. First-timer Barry Jenkins’ direction is out-and-out masterful, and his actors don’t hit a false note, perfectly capturing the cautious attraction between two people who are trying to decide if they wish to be in each others lives. Medicine For Melacholy has drawn some easy comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise yet it distinguishes itself on many fronts. Its lead characters are African American, and an honest and thoughtful dialogue on race and politics continually arises throughout the day. Nor are his characters the constantly chatty philosophers of Linklater’s Sunrise, and Jenkins knows how to make something cinematic and striking out of the couple’s akward silences. With its even-handed and insightful treatment of its conflicted characters, Medicine For Melancholy is one of the most impressive American debuts in years, perhaps superficially resembling the Mumblecore trend yet more closely recalling the works of such French masters of the relationship drama as Olivier Assayas and Truffaut. These comparisons are shorthand though, as Jenkins is truly a fresh voice and he has found a uniquely visual way in which in which to express it. TRAILER

Sun. April 6, 7 p.m. Ritz East
Mon. April 7, 5 p.m. Ritz East


(2007, directed by Volker Einrauch, 91 minutes, Germany)

A teenage boy lashes out at the bullying son of his father’s co-worker, bringing holy hell to two families in this dark psychological drama. Willi Gerk is a standout as the morose teen who is the victim of some really bad parenting, but the entire production is mounted with an impressively grim efficiency. I just wish it found a way to make the story a little more cinematic, and as it is The Other Boy feels like high-quality European TV.

Fri. April 4, 9:30 p.m., Ritz Five
Wed. April 9, 5 p.m., Ritz Five


(2007, directed by Leopold Grun, 90 minutes, Germany)

American entertainer Dean Reed had the undeniable charisma of a less dorky John Davidson, and he used this power to promote world socialism and charm the pants off massive audiences behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The Red Elvis is an unexceptional documentary elevated by the exceptional oddness of its main subject. Reed was a passable singer with an Elvis-like delivery, yet his lanky, almost too-handsome good looks gave him an irresistible star power. With Reed’s career invisible to the Western audience, he seems like a superstar from an alternate dimension, and the scenes from his East German cowpoke dramas and almost-recognizable hits are almost familiar. Dean committed suicide in 1986, and this doc never seems to crack the mystery of how deep Reed’s politics ran (he proclaimed himself a socialist while later giving subtle indications of his disillusionment with Communist repression). I guess it is okay we’re left with our curiosity unsatisfied, as Tom Hanks is reportedly planning his biopic as we speak. TRAILER

Fri. April 4, 7:15 p.m., The Bridge
Mon. April, 7 p.m. Ritz East


(2007, directed by Julian Richards, 75 minutes, Great Britain)

A group of delinquent 14-year-olds come across a homeless drifter in their wooded hideout, leading to murder, mayhem and madness. Filled with intense performances, this grim thriller zips along through its 75 minutes, yet by the time it is over you’ll wonder if being dragged through all this ugliness was worth the mere smidgen of insight you’ll gain into these juveniles’ sad little world. TRAILER

Sun. April 6, noon, Prince Music Theater
Sat. April 12, 2:45 p.m., Ritz East
Sun. April 13, 2:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater


THE TOE TACTIC (2008, directed by Emily Hubley, 86 minutes, U.S.)

Despite possessing nothing but affection for the Hubley‘s hand-drawn animation empire, daughter Emily’s self-consciously quirky directorial debut is far too precious and haphazard to hit its mark. It’s the American indie malady that causes filmmakers to write characters who don’t seem to exist except to parade their catalogue of improbable eccentricities. If the wacky elevator operator and a precociously driven child aren’t enough for you, The Toe Tactic includes a menagerie of animated animals who pop in constantly to comment none-too-wittily on the action. In the lead, Lily Rabe does her best Laura Linney imitation and at least indie-faves Kevin Corrigan, Jane Lynch and Mary Kay Place bless us with their presence, until this half-assed mess draws to its sunny conclusion. Hubley sister Georgia brings along her band Yo La Tengo for musical support.

Sat. April 5, 12:30 p.m., Ritz East
Sun. April 6, 6:45 p.m., International House


THE VISITOR (2007, directed by Thomas McCarthy, 103 minutes, U.S.)

A fitting follow-up to his popular hit The Station Agent (which people seem to unfortunately remember better as “The Dwarf Film”), The Visitor brings together another group of lonely, disconnected people who teach each other how to live. Politics also gets in the mix here, when fate brings two African refugees into the household of emotionally constipated professor Richard Jenkins (the dead dad from Six Feet Under ). First shown updating his syllabus by simply changing the year, Jenkins comes to life when he joins the Syrian houseguest Turek’s drum circle, forging a bond that is tested when Turek runs afoul of dastardly immigration agents. The story sways towards sentimental preachiness, only to be saved by McCarthy’s unerring direction with his spot-on cast. Particularly memorable is Israeli actress Hiam Abbass. In real life Abbass is an acting coach who specializes in coaxing performances out of children. No surprise, then, that as Turek’s concerned mom she imbues the film with a truly radiant motherly grace. TRAILER

Sat. April 5, 7:15 p.m. Ritz Five

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