CINEMA: Film Fest Highs And Lows


BY DAN BUSKIRK It’s the last weekend of the Philadelphia Film Festival, whose films stretch on through its closing this Sunday night. In my overview. there was a shocking lack of lowlights. While the festival has cut the number films to nearly a third of the massive number that played in its pre-crash years, it seems like the ratio of excellence in their selection has gone through the roof. I was a little underwhelmed by David Chase’s Not Fade Away. It had all the great character detail you loved from Chase’s The Sopranos (including Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini playing a father who shares Tony’s temperament) but its tale of a teen coming to age as a struggling ’60s rock musician was too rambling to make much impact. It was as if Chase thought he had all season, not just two hours, to make a point.

That’s about it or lukewarm reviews, I was completely charmed by Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, with Isabelle Huppert seemingly having a ball as three different characters attracting and/or repelling amorous advances in a seaside inn, Romanian critical favorite Christian Mingu’s Beyond the Hills just killed me with his story of a quietly monstrous monastery. Life in the Christian monastery seems austere but not particularly evil, but somehow this disciplined environment leads the brutal exorcism. The film’s invisible manipulation delivers a wallop with the consequences it spins, the final effect like few other films I’ve seen. Ken Burns’ first feature is a gut punch examination of the high-profile crime known as The Central Park Jogger case. His film, The Central Park Five exposes, in sickening detail, politicians, police, the media, and ultimately everyone’s role in committing the story’s most shocking crime, the railroading of five black teens for the incident. Unshakable. Also Beware of Mr., Baker, perhaps the music doc of the year, detailing the improbable life Ginger Baker, the influential drummer of the band Cream and a first-class rock and roll madman. Eric Clapton is among the interviewees to recount the legend and shake his head in disbelief.

Those films are long gone for now, although I suspect many will be returning over the next few month for runs at The Ritz. But here are five excellent film you can still catch this weekend at we wrap up another Philadelphia Film Festival.

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(2011, directed by Don Argott & Sheena M. Joyce, 92 minutes, U.S.)
Burgeoning Philly doc giants Don Argott & Sheena Joyce (Rock School and the Barnes Museum doc The Art of the Steal) are back with a devastating exposé of the nuclear power industry. While Atomic States breaks no ground visually (although at Thursday’s video-projected screening the color was detuned to give everyone a nauseous green-ish hue) it provides a clear narrative on the dangers and health risks of nuclear power that is sadly missing in mainstream journalism. The dangers of these plants are not just theoretical, emotionally wrenching testimonials are given from folks who have seen their whole neighborhoods riddled with cancer, courtesy of leaking tritium and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission that has been captured by the energy industry. This sort of info comes out in dribs and drabs in the mass media (where the energy industry is notorious for influencing coverage) but to have the facts brought together in this manner gives the viewer the sort of solid and necessary argument an informed citizen should hear as the U.S. prepares to reinvest in this problematic technology.

Saturday Oct. 27th, 5:10 Prince Music Theater

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(2012, directed by Daniele Vicari, 127 minutes, Italy)
While Olivier Assayas’ latest wrings nostalgia out of early 70s activism, Diaz, based on violent events during the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, presents a fearsome picture of modern peaceful activism under siege from police armies. With its documentary-style approach, Diaz recreates the casual camaraderie of youth in the activist movement, capturing the fleeting connections and spirit of brother and sisterhood among the politically-minded participants. The sight of the gathering police, faceless like black-clad Star Wars stormtroopers, ratchets up the tension until the film’s epic siege on the sleeping protesters at the Diaz School. The climactic club-swinging mayhem is staged like a relentless zombie attack, with the swinging arms and sickening “thuds” leaving a gut-churning impact on the viewer. Although this moment in history is now over a decade old, the story is relevant as ever as a depiction of the increasing violence and extra-legal strategies being used by militarized police on peaceful protests. The various plot threads of its earnest characters get somewhat lost in the shuffle but the grand scale of the action is staged with such grim force that the hard-hitting effect is devastating.

Friday, Oct. 26th, 9:50opm, Ritz East A

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(2012, directed by Leos Carax, 115 minutes, France)
French director Leos Carax’s career as a quintessential “Enfant Terrible” skidded off the roadway after 1991’s romantic epic Lovers on the Bridge, with 1999’s uneven Pola X being his only feature of the past 20 years. His unexpected and triumphant return could not be more welcome and Holy Motors finds the director leaving behind his intoxicated romances for a constantly-morphing tale drunk with love for the possibilities of cinema. Carax’s longtime muse, acrobat and contortionist actor Denis Lavant is a mysterious actor who spends the day wearily limo’d to one appointment after the other. Each stop demands he transform himself into everything from a little old lady, to a actor acting out “digital motion capture” scenarios, to an ordinary man picking up his daughter from school. While you might expect such rapid changes of character and mood might be exhausting, yet Levant and Carax are able again and again to evoke our interest and sympathies. Film references and whimsical humor abound but only when checking the credits did I realize that Levant’s beautiful silver-haired chauffeur and confidant was Edith Scob, the mad scientist’s daughter whose iconic masked image was captured in the French chiller Eyes Without a Face.

Friday, Oct. 26th Ritz East A

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(2012, directed by Olivier Assayas, 112 minutes, France)
Assayas follows up his masterful epic on legendary terrorist Carlos The Jackal with a gentler and sweeter tale of beautiful French youth swept up in the revolutionary movements of the early 1970s. Assayas has admitted that the film has autobiographical origins, which must account for its eerily dead-on feel for the era; over the course of the movie, the fact that a period was being recreated never crossed my mind. What’s most predominant is the sense that we’re re-living our own youth, the fleeting romances, the indecision, the earnest conversations and the looming, uncertain future. Assayas and his flawless cast delivers all this heady emotion with a kick-ass soundtrack and the vibrant urgency he imbues in all of his films. Filed by the festival under the “Masters of Cinema” section, this hauntingly beautiful film is truly a master working at his peak powers.

Sat. Oct. 27th, 4:45pm., Ritz East B

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(2012 directed by Dong-Hoon Choi, 135 minutes, South Korea)
The crowds pouring out of the Thursday night screening of The Thieves seemed to be giving off post-coital moans of cinematic pleasure. South Korean second-highest grossing film of all time, Dong-Hoon Choi’s (whose Tazza dazzled the fest a few years back) The Thieves doesn’t re-write the genre of the heist movie but he unquestionably masters it with this dizzyingly grand action film. A gang of South Korean criminals (led by Yun-Seok Kim of former fest-fave The Chaser) joins up with a Hong Kong collective (featuring longtime Asian action star Simon Yam) for a casino heist in neon-lit Macao. Everything you love about your favorite caper films, The Hot Rock, Riffifi, Ocean’s 11, is here, the specially-skilled burglars, the unflappable safe cracker, the exquisitely-timed distraction and hair-raising escapes. What is endlessly wondrous is Choi’s effortless direction, juggling ten thieves back-stories, subtle foreshadowing, heart-pounding action sequences, and delivering a poetic turn when you least expect it. A mind-blowing set piece with battling participants rappelling down a high-rise residence hotel is an action scene for the ages. So much to love here: the middle-aged love story among two robbers, the tightrope antics of coltish Gianna Jun, and the preponderance of integral female characters, so often just eye-candy in films of the genre. As pure pop entertainment, it is doubtful any film this year will best The Thieves.

Saturday Oct. 27, 5:00pm, Ritz Bourse