CINEMA: Philadelphia Film Fest Picks

Hyde Park On Hudson, starring Bill Murray as F.D.R. and Laura Linney as Eleanor, screens 7:30 PM Thursday @ The Prince

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It is time for the 21st annual Philadelphia Film Festival, delivering a slate of over one hundred films from around the country and around the world, from now until October 28th . It used to be that critics could gorge on piles of advance DVD screeners of films playing the festival. This year, advance screening opportunities are oddly curtailed, giving us just a handful of films on which to report. Some of the festival offerings will be headed for regular runs in the near future, but you can be among the first to see The Wachowski’s adaptation of the bestseller Cloud Atlas, Robert Zemeckis’ airline thriller Flight, or the directorial debuts of The Sopranos’ creator David Chase (Not Fade Away) and Dustin Hoffman (the operatic Quartet). The festival’s “From The Vault” series concentrates on some fairly common titles given the chance to shine again on the big screen: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, the Spielberg-produced ghost story Poltergeist (perfect for the Friday before Halloween,) Shyamalan’s Signs and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining will also run in this series, tied into the the screening of Room 237, a documentary about those obsessed with discovering hidden meaning within the film.

Here’s a selection of some of the lesser-hyped, but worthy films in the festival:

ALASKALAND (2012, directed by Chinonye Chukwu. 75 minutes, U.S.)
Chuck (Alex Ubokudom) is a young African American man who is headed down the a criminal path when tragedy strikes. Struggling with his Nigerian identity, Chuck’s story is the age-old tale of American youth torn between their parent’s old country traditions and the lure of new American values. Placing the story in the snowy landscape of Fairbanks, Alaska gives a unique setting for this autobiographical debut from female director (and Temple graduate) Chinoye Chukwu. Chukwu’s choice of setting is wise, as a study in alienation few places would seem further away from the homeland of Africa than the frozen tundra of Alaska. The film’s dilemma tells us something about the current state of our country, particularly for young people. Where at one time the wisdom of joining America melting pot was a given, Alaskaland finds the lure of Nigeria (sadly unseen in the film) a tempting contrast to the dead-end life of a Fairbanks thug. Alaskaland doesn’t stray far from its pat conclusions but at a fleet 75 minutes, this well-acted domestic drama doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

Tuesday Oct. 23rd, 5:00pm, Rave
Thursday Oct. 25th, 10:15pm Prince Music Theater

– – – – – – – – – – –

BIRTH STORY: INA MAY GASKIN AND THE FARM MIDWIVES (2012, directed by Sara Lamm & Mary Wigmore, 95 minutes, U.S.)
Ina May Gaskin is the mother of modern midwifery and this homey documentary allows Gaskin to tell the tale of how this movement was born in a Tennessee commune called The Farm in the early 1970s. Filled with the sweetest hippie grandmother types imaginable, Birth Story recounts how a group of women came together in the deep South and changed perceptions about childbirth with the seminal book, Spiritual Midwifery. We get to see four births explicitly documented (surely a unique experience on the big screen) and meet some gracious down home folk, but left frustratingly untold is the story behind the commune Gaskin helped found with her New Age pastor husband Jim. Jim’s “human foibles” are alluded to, but a more complete history of The Farm and the communal life there is begging for its own documentary. As is, Birth Story spreads the good news about more emotionally conducive birthing strategies, a noble, under-discussed and delightfully primal topic for cinematic exploration.

Wednesday Oct 24th 5:00 PM Ritz East B
Thursday Oct. 25th, 2:45pm, Ritz Bourse
Sunday Oct. 28th, 2:45pm Ritz East B

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SISTER (2012, directed by Ursula Meier, 97 minutes, France)
If you enjoy the Dardenne’s naturalistic stories of troubled youth, you’ll love the tragic going-ons in the debut of French filmmaker Ursula Meier. A prize winner at the Berlin Film Festival, Sister follows the 12 year-old Simon as he steals and hustles to survive in the shadow of a Swiss ski resort. He lives with his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux of the last Mission Impossible chapter), who rarely makes an appearance at home, instead spending her time running around with no-good, abusive men. Like the work of Bresson or The 400 Blows, we have the pleasure of watching a young person’s life go from bad to terribly, terribly worse. There is a inevitability to Simon’s sad decline yet Meier’s unerring-eye for the curious and mundane details of the ski resort that keep this dour tale absorbing. Final moments: devastating and unforgettable.

– – – – – – – – – – –

WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff, 114 minutes, Australia)

The highlight of the festival’s “From the Vault” series is this gripping and long-lost Australian drama from Ted Kotcheff (a Canadian director best known for the original Rambo film, First Blood) Gary Bond plays John, an Aussie schoolteacher who ends up stranded on holiday in a grim, desolate mining town. Urged to down endless beers and show off his manliness, John finds himself stripped to his core by the barbaric and unpredictable characters who haunt the Outback. Similar to the following year’s Deliverance, Kotcheff presents a picture of nature as a merciless force that can humble and crush man, and John, confused and ill-equipped, finds himself driven to the brink of sanity by his experience. It’s a glorious nightmare, and it will take the strong-heart of a horror fan to survive sequences like the kangaroo hunt that make this forgotten classic a tour-de-force on the heart of darkness. With a loopy turn by Donald Pleasence and a small early role for Australian star Jack Thompson.

Saturday, Oct. 27th, 9:45pm, Prince Music Theater

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE ZEN OF BENNETT (2012 directed by Unjoo Moon, 84 minutes, U.S.)

Seeing Danny Bennett, the son of vocal giant Tony Bennett, with his name plastered all over the credits of this film prepared me for a P.R-savvy love letter to his famous father. Shot while the 85-year-old crooner was recording his 2011 release Duets II the documentary is in many ways as cynical as that record, which matches Bennett with banal hitmakers like John Mayer and Carrie Underwood. The film would collapse under this shameless promo strategy if only Bennett wasn’t so darn interesting as a man and performer. For one, Bennett suffers fools none-to-gladly and his prickly interactions with John Mayer are some of the film’s most-absorbing moments. Tony is taken aback just after when someone mentions Mayer’s name beside Duke Ellington (“The difference between Duke Ellington and John Mayers? A genius?”). Bennett talks about his experiences in WW II converting him to Pacifism and he recounts some wonderful backstage stories, but it is watching him work – adjust the band’s tempo or calm down an intimidated duet partner – that gives you insight into his musical genius. The long, lingering takes of Bennett working with Amy Winehouse, weeks before her death, are truly heartbreaking, and hearing Lady Gaga’s voice in such a stripped-down spotlight is a revelation. By the time The Zen of Bennett gets to Aretha Franklin and Tony’s final operatic closing number, all cynicism is beaten into submission and you feel honored to be in the presence of such a master in his autumnal glory. And no wonder this doc seduces us so, the film is shot by Oscar-winning genius cinematographer Dion Beebe (as well as directed by Beebe’s wife, Unjoo Moon.)

Saturday Oct. 20th, 3:00pm Rave
Tuesday Oct. 23, 2:20pm, Ritz East A

I’ll be back next week with some reviews of what has been seen. Please keep your feet out of the aisle, and hopefully we’ll see some of you out at the Festival.