CINEMA: Our Film Festival Picks & Pans

BuskirkByline_REV.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC As you’re thumbing through your festival guide here’s a rundown of some of the entries screening throughout the first weekend of the Philadelphia Film Festival. Among the highlights unavailable for preview were Sam Rockwell lost like Major Tom in the ’70s sci-fi throwback Moon (opening here in June), the IRA hunger strike drama Hunger, the Philly-set cooking school doc Pressure Cooker, James Toback’s Sundance hit documentary on ear-biter Mike Tyson and the two part (of a projected three) Japanese fantasy epic 20th Century Boys.  And check back next week as we continue daily coverage of all the ephemeral celluloid wonders.

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BEFORE THE FALL (2007, directed by F Javier Gutierrez, 97 minutes, Spain)

A family is stalked by the revenge-obsessed escapee who is ready to wreak havoc in the hours before a speeding meteor destroys all life on earth. I was curious to figure out how the apocalyptic backdrop was going to inform the film’s mad stalker scenario. Unfortunately the script has these two concepts on parallel rails; we never figure out why the family chooses to spend their final hours awaiting the arrival a psychotic ex-con instead of heading for the hills like everyone else. Lives are lost in the balance but Before The Fall can’t replace the urgency it loses in knowing that all salvation will be won just moments before doomsday.

Saturday March 28, 4:30, The Prince

Sunday March 29, 9:30, The Bridge

Saturday April 4, 12:30, Ritz 5

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blind_1.jpgBLIND LOVES (2008, directed by Juraj Lehotsky, 77 minutes, Slovakia)

Wonderfully odd mix of documentary and flights of fancy in this film that presents a quartet of stories of love among Slovakia’s blind citizens. In some stories blindness directly effects the subjects relationships, whether it is the young Mommy-dependent Romanian man who is trying to take responsibility for his blind girlfriend or the blind mother taking care of her sighted infant. On the other hand, a blind teenage beauty’s fantasies capture the universal dreaminess of youth, her sightless sky-blue orbs searching the Heavens as she describes an ideal imaginary boyfriend. And especially unforgettable are the old music teacher and his wife. Homely as a couple of old toads they seem to live in a state of symbiotic bliss as we peer in on them together in their cottage. She rocks and knits the evening away as he improvises fantastic stories while noodling on his keyboard. Blindness may be the unifying premise but it is love itself that director Juraj Lehotsky so artfully explores in this quite little gem, and he finds new things to say about it as well.

Friday March 27, 2:30, Ritz East 2

Wednesday, April1, 9:15, I-House

Thursday April 2, 9:30, Ritz 5

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COWARDS (2008, directed by Jose Corbacho & Juan Cruz, 89 minutes, Spain)

Cowards plays like a slightly more subtle version of one of those Lifetime Network social problem dramas. Middle school boy Gaby is beaten up daily from a gang of skinny punks, who love to kick his ass and film it with their cell phones. The guidance councilor makes the scene with the statistics on bullying and the clueless parents might notice if they weren’t so busy being interrupted by their own cell phones.  All the film’s good intentions threaten to bog it down but who doesn’t love a good juvenile delinquent film? Cowards make us cheer when Gaby finally turns the tables, it also makes us question the cost of striking back

Friday March 27, 2:30, The Bridge

Friday April 3, 9:30, The Bridge

Sunday April 5, 7:15, Ritz East 2

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ELDORADO (2008, directed by Bouli Lanners, 85 minutes, Belgium)

A rotund, unshaven car salesman takes pity on a skinny house thief whom he finds hiding under his bed. By dawn, he has coaxed him out and warily agrees to drive them back to the thief’s parent’s home in the suburbs, together exploring the surreal landscape of modern day Belgium. This buddy/loser road film could easy fall prey to Bucket List-like sentimentality, director Bouli Lanners instead plays a mournful strain of sweet melancholy like a perfectly-tuned Stradivarius. Films like Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 and Wim Wenders’ forgotten early classic Kings of the Road conjured a similar strain of lonesome poetry, though neither is as beautifully concise as this. I’d jump at the chance to see Eldorado this weekend, delicate little miracles like this have a way of evaporating back into the European mists from which they came.

Friday March 27, 9:30, Ritz East 2

Sunday March 29, 7:15, The Bridge
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food_inc1.jpgFOOD INC. (2008, directed by Robert Kenner, 94 minutes, U.S.)

Bleak and incisive documentary, giving a sweeping portrait of how consolidation, corporatization and government subsidization has left our food system in a fragile state. Authors Eric Sloesser of Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma are on hand to synopsize some of their most cogent warnings on the state of modern food and there is something unnerving to the core when one hears the facts about how susceptible our food supply is to disease and the unhealthy schemes of multinationals like Monsanto or Tyson. Food Inc. will leave you hungry for a new national food system.

Sunday March 29, 5:00, The Prince

Monday March 30, 4:45,  Ritz 5

Wednesday April 1, 4:45, I-House
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GS WONDERLAND (2008,.directed by Ryuichi Honda, 100 minutes, Japan)

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in Japan’s Beatles’ inspired “Group Sound” scene of the 1960’s, when cute Japanese guys would grow mop tops, wear matching outfits and write their own “Yeah Yeah Yeah” anthems. GS Wonderland takes a breezy pop stab at recreating the era, charting the rise of The Tightsmen (clad in Victorian tights) and the cross-dressing female organist who is hiding out in the band. The giddy spirit should put a grin on your face for about twenty minutes, once the songs and costumes have been given the once over GS Wonderland wears out its welcome like a ninety-minute concert by Herman’s Hermits. The fake Hendrix act is a groovy highlight though.

Sunday, March 29, 9:30, Ritz East 2

Tuesday March 31, 4:45, Ritz East 2

Wednesday April 1, 7:00, The Bridge
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HERB & DOROTHY (2008, directed by Megumi Sasaki, 91 minutes, U.S.)

herb-and-dorothy-at-the-gates-central-par.jpgA preposterous story that happens to be true, this documentary introduces us to postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife Dorothy who used their meager salaries to amass a museum-sized priceless collection of Minimalist Art masterpieces, all stuffed into their modest NYC apartment. At first look Herb & Dorothy are as unassuming as can be, closer inspection reveals the razor sharp intellect that was able to divine where the artistic action was. This charming documentary leisurely reveals the scope and strategies of the Vogels’ collecting as well as giving an incisive primer on Minimalism itself through interviews with artists Christo, Chuck Close and Richard Tuttle as well as the quiet observations of those cute & wily Vogels.

Saturday March 28, 4:45, Ritz East 1

Sunday March 29, 12:00, Ritz East 1
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I SELL THE DEAD (2008, directed by Glenn McQuaid, 85 minutes, U.S.)

Larry Fessenden has previously directed a string of psychological and political horror films (Wendigo, The Last Winter) that deserve a retrospective of their own. How disappointing that the Fessenden-produced I Sell The Dead wastes its humorous grave robbing premise on such a half-baked script. Fessenden also stars (he’s always recognizable for missing one of his front teeth) with Lost‘s Dominic Monahan as two grave robbers whose adventures are told in flashback under the shadow of the gallows. Ron Perlman is the priest hearing this confession but with all the energy these actors bring it is forever frustrated by a script that flails mightily while never raising the mayhem to the Evil Dead-style hysteria for which they’re reaching.

Friday March 27, 9:45, Ritz East 1

Wednesday April 1, 9:45, Ritz East 1

Sunday April 5, 9:30, I-House

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IT’S NOT ME, I SWEAR! (2008, directed by Philippe Falardeau, 105 minutes, Canada)

It’s Not Me, I Swear! recalls Volker Schlondörff’s phantasmagorical adaptation of Gunter Grass’ satire The Tin Drum.  eon is a suicidal ten year old, in open rebellion against his bourgeois neighborhood in this black comedy set in late ’60s suburban Montreal. Despite the irksome falseness inherent in stories of extra-precocious kids wracked with adult neuroses, It’s Not Me‘s deep feeling for its wounded characters and the script’s anarchic humor wore me down, even with lead Antoine L’Ecuyer’s resemblance to a young Macauley Culkin. L’Ecuyer is a kid tour de force here, in a complicated role the pre-pubescent thespian hits notes of humor and despair at unexpected moments, giving an achy-hearted center to the increasingly trippy tale.

Saturday March 28, 7:30, The Bridge

Sunday March 29, 4:30, Ritz 5

Tuesday March 31, 7:00, Bryn Mawr
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LEFT BANK (2008, directed by Pieter Van Hess, 102 minutes, Belgium)

A masterfully constructed thriller, Left Bank has drawn comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby for some of its plot convolutions but this very feminine nightmare is in a class all its own. Marie is a young competitive runner forced by health problems to stop training.  At the same time she begins a steamy affair with a charming archery expert who quickly moves her in to his roomy high rise apartment. Paranoia worms its way into Marie’s mind as the neighbors get creepier, her body begins to change in unpredictable ways and a mystery develops around the apartment’s previous tenant who mysteriously disappeared. Left Bank‘s unusually psychologically astute script builds its details so naturally we’re left to wonder if Marie’s nervousness is her own fear of intimacy or is something darker afoot. The answer, when it finally arrives, is a real corker and should give birth to some spirited debate after the credits finally roll.

Friday March 27, 9:30, I-House

Monday March 30th, 6:15, The Prince

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THE NAIL: THE JOEY NARDONE STORY (2009, directed by James Quattrochi, 90 minutes, U.S.)

You might think I was describing a Depression-era Warner Brothers picture: “an ex-prize fighter returns home from prison determined to go straight and help a troubled neighborhood boy…” Based on a story by and starring (not Jimmy Cagney but) local cheese steak impresario Tony Luke Jr., our lead’s Jackie Gleason-like physique make him an unlikely centerpiece of this hackneyed tough guy tear-jerker. Local audiences will enjoy seeing the scenic squalor of South Philly but watching our rotund ex-pug try to channel his rage by fashioning a punching bag from a bed roll and some duct tape seems like a rediscovered moment from vintage SCTV.  Still The Nail never loses its watchability as we follow this bunch of South Philly die-hards (bolstered by the presence of the always fun William Forsythe and Tony Danza, of all people) making like a dinner theater production of Rocky in this goofy retread of every inspirational inner-city sports story you’ve even seen.

Friday March 27, 7:15, The Prince

Sunday March 29, 2:15, Ritz East 1

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no_bourdaries.jpgNO BOUNDARIES (2009, directed by Jake Willing & Violet Mendoza, 109 minutes, U.S.)

This local production left me slack-jawed at its sheer incompetence. The boundaries the title refers to are those crossed by Isabel and Christopher, an undocumented worker and the Immigration officer with whom she falls in love. Christopher is played by Mark “Son of Tug”McGraw, who is handsome like a catalog model and whose acting mostly consists of flashing an “aw shucks” grin. With a plot-line that would be at home in a Mexican telenovela, No Boundaries plays like one of those Cinemax erotic dramas, sans all the simulated humping and pumping. And fearing the whole “boundaries” metaphor seems too subtle, the directors dare to fade the film’s title back up at center screen mid-scene whenever the message is being hammered home, supposing perhaps the audience could be more thick-headed than the film itself.

Saturday March 28, 7:00, I-House

Sunday, March 29, 2pm, I-House

Friday, April 3, 6:45pm, I-House
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NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008, directed by Mark Hartley, 102 minutes, Australia)

If you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan he’s all over this survey of Australian exploitation flicks, slobbering and squealing like a ten year old hopped up on Captain Crunch and Mad Max. Barely any national cinema existed in Australia until the 1970s, when their own drive-in circuit built a market for a sexy and violent (and often bracingly misogynistic) brand of homegrown Australian movies. The steady stream of graphic clips give a voyeuristic jolt and the film has a rich well of heavily-accented characters to spin some profoundly deranged anecdotes of making movies in the swinging ’70s down under. Stylistically, Not Quite Hollywood feels as pedestrian as your typical movie channel doc, still you’re bound to come away with a handful of Ozploitation titles you’ll be itching to see (and please give me a call on the night you rent Turkey Shoot).

Saturday March 28, 10:00, Bridge

Sunday March 29, 9:30, Ritz 5
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NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET (2009, directed by Jim Dziura, 101 minutes, U.S.)

Coming at least a decade too late, this solidly stylish documentary looks at gun violence in America, connecting it to the pervasive influence of that favorite kicking-boy, “Gangster Rap.” This cultural argument is so persuasive you might find yourself nodding along, then you begin to realize that the non-celebrity status of hard-talking interviewees like Graffix of The Denver City Killaz underlines Gangster Rap’s status in 2009 as a long ago worn-out trend. What is onscreen is absorbing, interviews with ER doctors at North Philly’s Temple Hospital and no name rappers playing pimp to their stripper girlfriends; where Number One With A Bullet fails is in coming up with proper insight to justify its fascination with the underlying horror. Mos Def, KRS One and Ice Cube pop in occasionally to talk some much-needed sense.

Sunday March 29, 9:30 Prince

Thursday April 2, 4:45, Prince
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RUMBA (2008, directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy, 77 minutes, Belgium)

A pair of lovers live in blissful rhythmic harmony until an accident throws them off beat and sends their lives into a spin. Our gangly couple, who danced that rumba so beautifully in the film’s opening, struggle against an uncooperative world to gain control of their limbs, love and destiny. A few lines of dialogue are uttered over the course of this film’s spry seventy-seven minutes but Rumba is basically a love letter to silent comedy. This sort of whimsy can wear thin quick, which is what makes Rumba such a pleasant triumph; the grim reality of our couple’s plight gives a much-needed bite to the zaniness of its concept. Should be a crowd-pleaser, it is hard to imagine an audience of moviegoers that could resist Rumba‘s inventive laughs.

Friday March 27, 4:30, Ritz 5

Saturday March 28, 7:15, Ritz 5
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This film certainly feels like it sprung from the mind of Connie Stevens. The daffy ’60s sex symbol turns seventy this year and she’s directed her first fictional film, a ’50s-set period piece that is part Tennessee Williams and part Hallmark Special.  Grace is a fragile little bird returning after years in a local institution and she is building her shaky nest in the home of her saintly brother played by The Terminator’s Michael Biehn. The script feels like it was taken, cobwebs and all, from a chest unopened in fifty years, and it is a perverse fascination to watch fine actors like Piper Laurie, Penelope Ann Miller and Scott Wilson try to find their footing with such an floridly anachronistic script. Connie sure likes her actors, she gives ample room for Tatum O’Neal as Grace to weep and converse with God. By the end the film’s mix of chirpy country optimism and tragic melodrama curdles with the cheap TV-style production like an over-ambitious Velveta recipe. Director Connie Stevens is sure to look marvelous as she appears in person at both weekend screenings.

Saturday March 28, 7:15, Ritz East 1

Sunday March 29, 12:15, The Prince

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THE SEA WALL (2008, directed by Rithy Panh, directed by 115 minutes, France)

Isabella Huppert is an exhausted widowed matriarch residing on a failed rice farm in 1930 French Indochina. The wall of the title has been breached by sea water in the story’s opening and Huppert shares its defeated state. Yet before this grande dame expires she wishes to prepare the future for both her sexually precocious teenage daughter and her frustrated hunky son. Like 1992’s The Lovers (L’Amant), The Sea Wall is based on one of Marguerite Dura’s autobiographical reveries of her early sensual adventures with a Chinese nobleman. The scenic production delivers much of what you’d expect: fleeting sexuality, glamour mixed with picturesque poverty and the always entrancing Huppert, who despite her familiarity still immediately draws your curiosity. It is getting to be novel enough to notice that Ms. Huppert pulls off this masterly feat completely free of Botox or a middle-aged tuck.

Friday March 27, 4:45, The Bridge

Saturday March 28, 4:45, Ritz 5

Sunday March 29, 7:00, Ritz 5

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