CINEMA: Philadelphia Film Festival Opening Weekend

philadelphia_film_festival_280uw.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The Philadelphia Film Festival is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a festival of over 150 films running through November 3rd. This is the first weekend of the festival and there will be screenings Saturday and Sunday of major new works from The Duplas Brothers, (Jeff, Who Lives at Home with Jason Siegel and Susan Sarandon), the Dardenne Brothers (The Kid with the Bike), David Cronenberg (Viggo Mortensen as Freud in A Dangerous Method), Lar von Trier’s sci-fi apocalypse film Melancholia (with Kirsten Dunst), and Wim Wenders’ new 3-D dance documentary (Pima), plus revivals of the adaptation of Burrough’s Naked Lunch, the Japanese cult thriller of battling school kids Battle Royale and von Trier’s debut Europa. It would be a fine night out to see any of these, but here are reviews of the more overlooked features in the Festival’s catalogue, the films you might otherwise never run across again. All playing at assorted Philly venues this weekend, more info HERE. Our picks after the jump…

 

 

ATTENBERG (2010, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, 95 minutes, Greece)

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Attenberg’s director Athina Rachel Tsangari produced 2009’s Academy award-nominated freaky Greek drama Dogtooth, and Dogtooth‘s director Giorgos Lanthimos produces and acts in Attenberg, and it is obvious these two share an peculiar vision. Attenberg shares Dogtooth‘s curiosity about stunted sexuality and mysterious ritual although it tells a gentler tale about the virginal young Marina (Ariane Labed) who returns with her dying architect father (Vangelis Mourikis) to the decaying village he once built. Marina explores sex like an emotionless remove of an Aspererger’s patient while her father bemoans life’s futility (a reflection of Greece’s current sad financial state). Occasionally Marina will communicate to those with which she is closest through bird-like dances and nonsensical babbling. Sexy, mysterious, thought-provoking, plus the music of proto electro-punks Suicide; Attenberg‘s careful ruminations offer a singular vision of modern life and modern cinema. Sunday, October 23, 10:10pm Ritz

 

 

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BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (2011, directed by Alan Snitow & Deborah Kaufman, 70 minutes, U.S.)

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The film most likely to inspire protesters outside the theater, the documentary Between Two Worlds looks at the growing division between Jewish Americans over the issue of the Palestinian occupation. After an uproar followed the booking of a documentary on the death of activist Rachel Corrie in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, directors Snitow and Kaufman use the conflict to demonstrate the battle to politically define and confine Jewish identity. With criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinian territories a hot button neither the Republicans not the Democrats want to touch. Snitow and Kaufman dive right into the subject making a passionate appeal for Palestinian reconciliation. They use their families dramatic histories as an example of how the Jewish people’s longtime dedication to oppressed people draws them to the cause. This and criticism of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s construction on a Muslim cemetery in Israel should make for the sort of lively post-screening public discussion that can make The Festival so memorable. Sunday October 23, 2:45pm, International House

 

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BONSAI (2011, directed by Cristian Jimenez, 92 minutes, Chile)

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Cristian Jimenez has made an artfully constructed second film with his adaptation of the 2006 novel by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. A romantic exploration of the writing process, Bonsai tells the tale of Julio’s (Diego Noguero) first flush of young love with the dark and mercurial Emilia (Nathalia Galgani.) Simultaneously he ntercuts their romance with Julio’s life eight years later, when he finally commits their story to prose. The cast is beautiful to look at and the Chilean electro-pop bands that play the clubs where the battling lovers hang and mope are all great fun, but Jimenez doesn’t get quite enough insight out of his time-skipping scenario to make the film especially memorable. Interesting to see U.S.-style young hipsters staking their claim in modern day Santiago though. Sunday October 23, 12:15pm, Ritz 5

 

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GREEN (2011, directed by Sophia Takal, 75 minutes, U.S.)

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I don’t think Green has any specific roots to the naturalistic young “Mumblecore” movement” but its self-involved observational feel sure makes it seem a part of the genre. A beautiful young NYC couple (Kate Lyn Sheil & Lawrence Michael Levine) move to a rural farm for a six month writing assignment and get involved with a cute and unsophisticated woman who they find drunk on their lawn.. The local woman is played by the director Sophia Takal herself, and she begins to exert a power over the couple, despite their condescending attitude towards her. Green has superb performances and seems to be building to some unforeseen calamity but just as it sorts out its ideas on class and jealousy it comes to an abrupt end. Another twenty minutes could have fleshed out the film’s intriguing set up, but as it is Green feels like a frustratingly promising fragment. Saturday October 22, 5:30pm, Rave Theaters

 

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HIT SO HARD (2011, directed by David Ebersole, 101 minutes U.S.)

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There was a fleeting moment in the 1990s when the band Hole was a confrontational, subversive force on the U.S. rock scene. That memory has dissolved over the years (along with Courtney Love’s sobriety) but at the center of this moment was Patty Schemel, Hole’s heavy-hitting drummer. Schemel’s story of navigating the Seattle rock scene as a lesbian and a drug abuser makes a worthy vehicle to re-live the last hurrah of the Seattle grunge scene. Patty was in the inner circle when it comes to Kurt Cobain so we have some unseen footage of Kurt and Courtney lounging around with baby Frances Bean. There’s ample footage backstage during Hole’s early tours and Love herself appears, looking kind of a mess and at times admitting she was too out of it to remember many details. This ain’t much of a documentary for those who aren’t rock obsessives but as a moderate fan, Hit So Hard a pretty fun “Behind the Music” rock and roll ride. Sunday October 23, 3:00pm Rave Theaters

 

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LOSING CONTROL (2011, directed by Valerie Weiss, 116 minutes, U.S.)

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This indie romantic comedy by young director Valerie Weiss should serve as a fine calling card to Weiss’ TV directing career but it doesn’t do much to show off Weiss’ screenwriting skills. Painfully limp comedy pours out the the mouths of the characters in this excruciating story of Sam, a young female scientist who refuses her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage until she does a scientific sample of other lovers available. Miranda Kent is a likable enough lead in a role seemingly meant for the zany persona of Zooey DesChanel but stereotypical characters like the kvetching Jewish mother (played by Farrelly Bros. veteran Lin Shayne) are just lazy shorthand where comedy is meant to be. Typical of the film’s squareness, it refuses to let Sam actually sleep with any of the test cases she is pursuing. No sex, little romance, Losing Control is a comedy for people who like to know the punchline before the joke is finished being told. Saturday October 22, 7:00pm, International House

 

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MICHAEL (2011, directed by Markus Schleinzer, 96 minutes, Austria)

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Michael is a fascinating character study but the darkness of its scenario will probably only make it tolerable for audiences with a taste for horror films. The title character is a dorky, perpetually awkward nebbish (an older Napoleon Dynamite, played straight0 with a horrible secret: he has a pre-teen boy locked in a reinforced room in his basement. The sexual abuse is only discreetly and fleetingly displayed on screen, what we see more of is the repressed and ridiculed Michael’s life, a daily grind so pathetic you can imagine his thrill at being the god-like ruler of easily-manipulatable young boy. There’s black comedy beneath this nightmare, its hard not to giggle as Michael’s best-laid plans are forever thwarted by his deeply disagreeable captive. First-time director Scleinzer has worked for fellow Austrian Michael Haneke in the past, and his film shares a certain detached style amidst the insanity. This precisely-made drama is one of the most haunting selections I’ve seen from the festival, yet it not a film I’d recommend casually, the subject matter remains so charged. Friday, October 21, 10:15pm, Ritz East

 

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RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE EARTH (2010, directed by Michele Loschiavo & Nancy Glass, 84 minutes, U.S.)

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Todd Carmichael walked 700 miles alone without help across Antarctica. Holy mackerel, that’s crazy! Sadly, the adventure has been turned into a low action, small cast reality TV-type documentary. Local television host Nancy Glass is one of the directors and she basically has cut the footage into an extended segment of Evening Magazine. The earnest Carmichael is likable enough (although oddly, his environmental work goes unmentioned in the film,) but he doesn’t become any more interesting as the wind-swept snow-blind trudge gets increasingly desperate. The dull visuals don’t capture the harsh beauty of the terrain and the facts of the journey seem cheaply manipulated to pay off in little climaxes along the way (every obstacle is described as “big trouble”). In the end I felt a little sad for Carmichael, an impressive athlete, whose death-defying otherworldly experience has been translated into the most artless of artifacts. Saturday, October 22, 12:30pm, International House

 

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THE REAL ROCKY (2011, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig & Mike Tollin, 51 minutes, U.S.)

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Chuck Wepner, the quintessential working class “big lug” boxer, has his story told in this fleet, witty and concise documentary made by ESPN. Director Jeff Feuerzeig did excellent work previously with documentaries on musicians Half Japanese and Daniel Johnston and he brings similar easy empathy the hard luck boxer Wepner. While Wepner’s fortunes rise and fall precipitously, his every bump in life seems to fuel another chapter in Stallone’s on-going Rocky franchise. Wepner’s description of fighting Muhammad Ali is worthy the price of admission but he’s a natural storyteller whose narrative is told in a manner worthy of comparison to docu-giant Errol Morris’ light-hearted side. Friday, October 21, 8:00pm, Ritz East

 

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STREETS (directed by Jamal Hill, 90 minutes, U.S.)

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Philadelphia’s-own Jamal Hill is back with a second feature, the locally-shot crime drama Streets. A green young woman Nicole (Nafessa Williams) moves into Philly with her mom, a lawyer who comes to the city to work for the D.A. After a fashion make-over on Walnut Street, Nicole is out for a night of clubbing that turns deadly. The films veers unsteadily between neo-soul love story and gangster beatdown, but the cast is game and good-looking and I always give in to the giddy-thrill of seeing melodrama break out on the same city streets in which we live our mundane lives. Produced by Will Smith’s bodyguard, Charlie “Mack” Alston! Friday, October 21, 5:00pm, Prince Music Theater

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