CINEMA: That Barton Fink Feeling

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Still catching up on many of the event films as the Philadelphia Film Festival moves into its second week. I caught Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, and as a fan was a little underwhelmed, particularly by the underwritten second half. The first half was a treat for the director’s fans, bringing together another stellar cast including, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Udo Kier, John Hurt, Alexander and Stellan Skarsgard as father and son and the sad-eyed Kirstin Dunst for a wedding scene to rival The Deer Hunter. The second post-wedding act may have seemed short on incident but the film’s final planet-destroying imagery does seem like some Spielberg-esque imagery for the ages. I was again charmed by Finnish cobbler of fables, Aki Kaurismaki and his latest Le Havre. Kaurismaki’s love of grizzled losers remains unchanged although the tale of a French shoeshine man recruiting his neighborhood to hide an African immigrant boy brings a new multi-cultural cast to PFF_Laurels___FOR_DOWNLOAD.jpghis humanist comedy. The wild-haired senior citizen rocker Little Bob (playing himself) is the sort of sincere spectacle yearned for but rarely delivered in modern film. I also caught The F.P., a spoof of 80’s action/fantasy from Jason and Brandon Trout. Jason plays Jtro, dressed up with an eye-patch like Snake Plissken, he roams the post-apocalyptic landscape. Occasionally he battles rival gangs, their shared choice of competition being those “Dance Dance Revolution” video arcade games. The charm of the goofy premise lasted for a bit, I liked all the Rocky-esque training sequences, but finally the endless white gangsta dialogue and the mean-spirited “ho” humor at the expense of the film’s female lead (poor Caitlyn Folley) wore past “bad boy” humor into something more pathological. Besides, too much of the dancing is shot from the chest up, I’m not convinced Jason Trout is the “Dance Dance Revolution” champ of Kern County, let alone the post-apocalyptic world. Before we get to our picks for the coming week, let me remind you that The Philadelphia Film Festival is marking the 20th anniversary of the Coen Brothers’ masterful Barton Fink with a 9:55 PM screening at the Ritz 5 on Sunday.


Connected_l.jpgCONNECTED (2011, directed by Tiffany Shlain, 82 minutes, U.S.)

Director Tiffiny Shlain is the daughter of author Leonard Shlain, a brain surgeon who wrote three books looking at how brain chemistry effected our relationship to the environment. Tiffany, best known for founding the internet’s ”Webby Awards” translates some of her dad’s theories about The Enlightenment’s “Left Brain” imbalances into a scattered, factoid-driven film. Her “everything is connected” philosophy gets a little “T.M.I.” in practice, with Shlain’s fertility and her father’s bout with brain cancer somehow revolving into the story’s forefront, while the fate of our species becomes a semi-important subplot. Shlain establishes how our on-line lives are over-stimulating us, then crafts an ADD-addled film that is over-stuffed with superfluous stock footage to illustrate every concept and figure of speech (do we really need to see turn-of-the-century leaping maidens every time a scientific leap in mentioned?) Fascinating and facile ideas are briefly thrown on the table and ignored, with the final effect being more like a distracted surf across Google links than a coherent documentary. Thursday November 3, 7:45pm, Ritz East

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DestinyofLesserAnimalsThe_l.jpgTHE DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS (2011, directed by Deron Albright, 89 minutes, Ghana)

Actor and screenwriter Yao B. Nunoo is Boniface, a police inspector in modern Ghana who is in search of his forged passport, stolen before he could use it to return to the U.S. The passport’s trail leads to a series of violent crimes that Boniface investigates with the help of the affable and world-weary Inspector Darko (Fred Nii Amugi). Directed and co-written by St. Joe’s professor and Fulbright Fellowship awardee Deron Albright, Destiny of Lesser Animals is moderately involving as a policier, with its story tipping off questions of national identity for Boniface, who is eager to abandon his country to pursue success abroad. But if the cop element is somewhat mundane, the rarely-seen atmosphere of modern Ghana elevates the film beyond it formulaic premise, with lead actor Nunoo giving a deep, top-flight performance as the desperate and conflicted Boniface. Sunday October 30, 7:30pm, International House & Thursday November 3, 7:30pm, Ritz East

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Hospitalite__.jpgHOSPITALITE (2011, directed by Koji Fukada, 95 minutes, Japan)

Well-crafted little comedy of manners with an unassuming performance by Keji Yamaguchi as the bedeviled Mikio. Mikio inherited his father’s tiny printing business and he enjoys a pleasantly mundane existence with his younger wife until he hires the endlessly presumptuous Kagawa (Kanji Furatachi). With a mix of comedy and dread, Kagawa unearths all the dirty secrets and hidden desires of the family, moving himself and his Brazilian wife into their apartment and hiring workers without notice. The physical action is carefully plotted, as Mikio’s skinny little shop forces the characters to constantly squeeze past each other, seemingly afraid to exhale and spill the secrets they’re barely hiding. Sunday Oct. 30, 7:20pm, Ritz East & Thursday Nov 3, 9:50pm, Ritz East

Surrogate_Valentine.jpgSURROGATE VALENTINE (2010, directed by Dave Boyle, 75 minutes, U.S.)

Built around the little-known talents of Elliot Smith-ish L.A. singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura, the musician gives an understated comic performance in this musical road comedy. Goh (basically playing himself) has an unassuming thirty-something single life that revolves around teaching music and performing to attentive audiences in small clubs between Seattle and L.A. For an extra buck, he allows TV actor Danny (Chad Stoops) tag along on his Northwest tour so he can study him for an upcoming acting role. Danny starts of dumb and annoying and stays that way, but Nakamura wrings a ton of humor out of having the best comic deadpan timing since Barney Miller’s Jack Soo. It is somewhat rare for such a film to get all the music world details right too, like the semi-creepy fan who shows up with a homemade t-shirt depicting Goh as a sad cat. Extra points for the black and white cinematography, giving the film a little spare gravity to bolster its humble ambitions. Consider me charmed. Saturday October 29, 12:10 Ritz East & Sunday October 30, 5pm, International House

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Patang.jpgPATANG (2011, directed by Prashant Bhargava, 93 minutes, U.S.)

Entertaining mix of naturalistic ethnography, old-fashioned domestic drama, and Bhangra-infused energy in this film shot in the ancient city of Ahmedabad. Jayesh (Mukkund Shukla) is the blustery and nostalgic businessman from Delhi who brings his curious teen daughter Priya (pretty young Suganda Garg) back to see his mother and the family he has left behind during the city’s annual kite festival. You could imagine some sort of staid, BBC-like direction of this story but first-time screenwriter/director Prashat Bhargava brings us a richly-hued, fast-cutting style, often fueled by a banging Bhangra funk and Super-8 footage shot by Priya. Jayesh gives “let me tell you as a wealthy man” type of speeches the lay bare the family’s simmering tensions and Bhargava’s thoughtful script savors the tensions before dismissing them, in a way that neither trivializes nor favors his conflicting characters. Despite an uneven climax, Patang is a film rich in detail and empathy. Saturday October 29, 7:05pm Ritz East & Tuesday November 1, 7:50pm, Ritz East


Tyrannosaur.jpgTYRANNOSAUR (2011, directed by Paddy Considine, 91 minutes, U.K.)

Actor Peter Mullen has given a detailed explorations of men of rage in a number of British kitchen sink dramas, often with director Ken Loach. Now, actor Paddy Considine has given Mullen a particularly brutal opportunity in this raw but not unsentimental working class drama (and Considine’s writing and directing debut.) We meet Mullen’s Joseph punching his way through a pub visit and we trail behind the mayhem till he finally he ends up in the reverent Hannah’s thrift shop. Her store resembles a not-very-promising yard sale, and Hannah is played by a believably tremulous Olivia Coleman. Soon we learn Hannah is terrorized viciously by her husband, James (the steadily-working Eddie Marsan). Are the down-on-their-luck Joseph and Hannah worthy of redemption and love? You bet they are, and while there is the obligatory teary prayers, confessions, and eulogies along the way, the cruel and ferocious sadism Considine inflicts seems bound to alienate those who just would like to see two troubled peasants end up together with tea and the telly. If you’re strong-hearted though, there’s some undoubtedly fine acting throughout from the entire cast and at 91 minutes, Considine keeps the story true to its lean essentials. Saturday October 29, 10:20pm Ritz Five & Wednesday Nov. 2, 9:30pm Ritz East

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Underwater_Love.JPGUNDERWATER LOVE (2011, directed by Shinji Imaoka, 87 minutes, Japan)

Whimsical, inexplicable, Underwater Love is a softcore sex film (an odd entry in the Japanese “Pink” genre) which tells the musical tale of a woman pursued by a dead ex-classmate, who has been reincarnated as “kappa,” an amphibious reptile of Japanese folklore. My guess is that you know whether you’re going to like this film from its description. Yes, you can count on cute chirpy young ladies to sway back and forth and sing silly songs (“Hate Hate Hate!” one sings, to the music of Stereo Total). I felt I’d gotten my money’ worth when the kappa’s long scaly penis took a prominent role. Half the fun will be listening to the audience as they figure out how to react to the increasingly sexy and ridiculous high-jinks. How master cinematographer Christopher Doyle ended up photographing this is a mystery, but the digital projection at the Ritz’s screening seemed to barely do the visuals justice. Sunday October 30, 10pm, International House

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