HORI SMOKU SAILOR JERRY (2008, directed by Erich Weiss, 77 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC There are few more entertaining films in this year’s festival than this enthralling look at the origins of modern tattooing. Held in highest esteem among ink lovers is Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who from his shop in Hawaii created the iconic American designs that decorated the chest, arms and backs of soldiers headed into battle in WW2. Hori Smoku makes a convincing case for Collins as a major folk artist and he’s as colorful as his designs, full of pranks, hard-bitten wisdom and contradictory in his respect for Asian art and his racism towards the Asian people. There’s a long line of tattooists who line up to pay their respects to Sailor Jerry and most of them curse like sailors as well, with hysterically profane language that would leave JoePesci tongue-tied. They describe the art’s history from the carny tattooers and the red light districts to its final arrival a modern day sterile respectability in a way that will make you nostalgic for dirty needles and blood-soaked storefronts (one artist writes off the latest generation as “the black t-shirt crowd”). The legendary Philadelphia Eddie (who got his start in Coney Island) is on hand for local color.
Thursday, April 10th, 9:30pm, Prince Music Theater
ALEXANDRA (2007, directed by Alexander Sokurov, 95 minutes, Russia)
In my unofficial poll on what local critics were most anticipating in the festival, Roy Anderson’s You, The Living (debuting Friday) and this new entry from the director of 2002’s Russian Ark were most often mentioned. Receiving strong notices at last year’s Cannes Festival, Alexandra may be the rigorously experimental storyteller’s most accessible film yet, telling the story of an elderly Russian woman (played by opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya) who makes the journey to the Chechnyan front to visit her soldier grandson. Again Sokurov puts us in the center of a family relationship and you’ll feel intrusive in the few moments of unrestrained motherly love we see between the loving and no-nonsense grandma and her hardening grandson (other young soldiers are seen spying on them, so desperate they are to feel such emotions). You sense the danger Alexandra is in as she roams around this desperate war camp but the strength of what she stands for seems to protect her from misfortune.
I was surprised when I attended Tuesday screening that Alexandra is being projected from DVD. Sokurov is noted for his visual acuity yet the film’s frequent night time scenes were downgraded to a murky sea of browns. The festival has long showed independent productions from video, especially some of the small budgeted, video-shot documentaries that may never be transferred to actual film prints. This year Matt Prigge reported in his Philly Weekly blog that the Romanian film California Dreamin’ was projected from DVD, and I’m also hearing that the noir reissue Blast of Silence was as well, with the Criterion Film logo in plain view to remind us of its imminent home video release. Local film series usually give notice if they are running their schedules from film or video, it is surprising that the Festival didn’t supply this information in their catalogs. If they were thinking that audiences would not notice or care, they are wrong on both accounts. Here’s to hoping Alexandra gets a regular run at the Ritz this year, to give Sokurov’s latest masterpiece the optimal chance to work its haunting spell. –D.B.
Thursday, April 10th, 2:30pm, Ritz East
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BAD HABITS (2007, directed by Simon Bross, 98 minutes, Mexico)
Picking up a load of awards on the film fest circuit, Bad Habit is a visually lush and wonderfully literary debut by Simon Bross. Food is at the center of this domestic drama as three generations of Mexico City women are locked in to strict denial of food’s pleasures. As a child, Mathilde’s believed she saved a family member from choking at the dinner table with her prayers. Years later she turns her back on a medical career to join an impoverished convent and denies herself food to further pursue such miracles. Meanwhile, her aunt is fasting in pursuit of beauty, all the while denying her young daughter food as a way of withholding love. It is a daring move that first-time director Bross places the church in the middle of this unhealthy denial and he intelligently expands this metaphor to the family patriarch, an architect forced into strict utilitarianism in his designs for church buildings. Meanwhile the rains never stop, as inescapable as the gnawing hunger. While Bad Habits may be about denial the film itself has a wonderful voluptuousness. Bross is generous in appealing to our senses, taking advantage of sight, sound and emotion to strengthen the force of this impassioned story. First-rate filmmaking. –D.B.
Thursday April 10th, 2:30pm, Ritz East
Sunday April 13th, 7:15pm Ritz Five
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THE MUGGER (2007, directed by Pablo Fendrik, 70 minutes, Argentina)
A small triumph, this Argentine film strikes a deep mine of tension with the most every day of elements. A nondescript gentlemen appears at small office in the film’s opening scene, asking to pay his daughter’s school tuition when he quietly presents a gun and robs the till. From here the hand-held camera follows this man through his day, where he prepares more robberies and attends to other minute details. Since we know nothing about him besides what we see, we find ourselves studying his every action for clues about this unconventional bandit. Its brief seventy minutes is the perfect running time to sustain this single-minded story but what is most important in a little riddle like this is the quality of its punchline. You may question his motives when the robber’s identity is revealed but to question his motivations is to question yourself as well. –D.B.
Thursday April 10th, 5:00pm, Ritz East
Sunday April 13th, 2:15pm, The Bridge