CINEMA: Let The Fest-ing Begin!

BuskirkByline_REV.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Barring the outbreak of more ill-timed bickering, starting tonight we should be blessed with twelve days of films from around the world courtesy of the eighteenth Philadelphia Film Festival/CineFest. Just one film is opening tonight at the Prince Theater, 500 Days of Summer, which promises to unleash the fully combined heart-breaking powers of Zooey Deschanel and The Smiths, followed by cocktails happening afterward on the 19th floor of the Park Hyatt Bellevue. On Friday the Festival turns on the faucet with screenings expanding to The Bridge, The Ritz 5, The Ritz East, The International House and The Bridge, as well as a smattering of screenings happening out at the Main Line’s Bryn Mawr Theater. The festival may be a little leaner than in recent editions (with is a surprising lack of any classic revivals like last year’s gorgeous resurrection of Richard Fleischer’s 1955 color noir Violent Saturday), but since the survival of the entire festival was in question just weeks ago, we’re relieved to witness the tent poles going up at all.

Previous festival goers will know what to expect: there will be a couple of capable old survivors on jeffdaniels_1.jpghand to pick up awards (genial everyman Jeff Daniels appearing at the 3/30 screening of the Philly-shot Answer Man and Oscar-nominated Alfre Woodard appearing at the 4/4 screening of American Violet), accolades given to local talent made good (experimental filmmakers The Brothers Quay will emerge on 4/3 from whatever decrepit clock factory they presumably dwell to pick up their Vision Award) as well as slates of films dedicated to documentary, the Muslim World, Latin America, The French, International Comedies, horror thrillers and for the first time the Fade To Black segment, dedicated to the cinema of African Americans.

Also returning is a trend that has been apparent is recent years, an inarguable weakness in the U.S. made selections. While the foreign selections may not all strike artistic paydirt, the American fictional films too regularly seem hobbled right out of the gate, cursed by cliche-riddled scripts and unsure directors who frequently haven’t mastered the basics mechanics of storytelling. If the Festival were a patient I’d say that, excluding our still excellent tradition for documentaries, American film’s pulse is alarmingly weak. I haven’t seen a single U.S. film as impressive as any of the three films I’ve seen from tiny Belgium, fer cryin’ out loud.

zooey_deschanel_1.jpgOtherwise, I’d say the 2009 edition has surprised me by being uniformly strong, with the under card of unheralded entrees full of gems (let me give you an early heads-up for the romantic near-silent comedy Rumba and the worthy-of-its-Polanski-comparisons horror mystery Left Bank, yes both from Belgium). Friday, I’ll be back with a bevy of reviews for films screening throughout the weekend and check in daily starting next week with more reports from the Festival. With the Festival splintering into unknown formations next year, this might be Philly’s last chance to belly up to a spread of gourmet cinema this luxuriously large for some time. Buy a ticket and dig in!

RELATED: Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest

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