Philadelphia Film Festival: Week 1

By Matt Prigge and Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Oct. 19, 2011

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Let’s not mince words: In its 20 years, this is the most impressive—if not perhaps the best—lineup the Philadelphia Film Festival has ever had. Over the next fortnight, the latest from Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss) and Lars Von Trier (Melancholia)—not to mention art cinema titans Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike), Hong Sang-soo (The Day He Arrives), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre) and Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse)—are yours for the peeping. You have the third (and final) Paradise Lost doc, completed just before the freeing of the West Memphis 3, as well as two sex movies with Michael Fassbender (David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and Steve McQueen’s Shame). That leaves plenty that won’t be returning here for a theatrical stint. Here’s word on some of those from the first week:

Theater Key:
RE = Ritz East, R5 = Ritz 5, PMT = Prince Music Theater, IH = International House, ZB = Zellerbach

Attenberg: The second recent major missive from Greece is not only similar to the brilliant Dogtooth, but features Dogtooth alum: Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari was one of its producers while its own maker, Yorgos Lanthimos, here appears in a key role. Amidst a crumbling metropolis that handily stands in for the country as a whole, young Marina (Ariane Labed), virginal and into David Attenborough docs, hesitantly joins the human race, even if that means finding the idea of “a thing inside me, moving in and out” to be “repulsive.” Though also about the awakening, sexual and otherwise, of repressed youth, the stakes are lower than in Dogtooth, the gimmick less defined. And yet the looser, warmer, more emotional Attenberg finds its own reason for being—not better, not lesser, just different. B+ (Matt Prigge) Sun., Oct 23, 10:10pm and Mon., Oct. 25, 10pm, R5.

Between Two Worlds:
In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival programmed Rachel, a doc on an activist for Palestine crushed by an Israeli bulldozer. The firestorm that erupted, complete with Jewish leaders threatening to pull funding and plenty of hate mail, spurned former SFJFF heads Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman to erect this cine-essay on the “intimidation of dissent” with regards to a subject that, understandably, attracts extremes. As they navigate surely through a sea of landmines, Snitow and Kaufman ask plenty of questions but rarely answer them, which is as it should be. The post-film discussion should be fun. B (M.P.) Sun., Oct. 23, 2:45pm, IH; Mon., Oct. 24, 2:30pm, RE.

The Conquest: Nicholas Sarkozy’s campaign becomes the stuff of cynical comedy in Xavier Durringer’s fast-paced dirt-slinger, which chronicles how the French president (Denis Podalydès, only marginally charismatic) ascended to power partly through savvy, partly through turning his life into a reality show. This isn’t a docudrama so much as a blueprint on how to score in modern Western politics. Learn how Sarkozy micromanages, how he recovers from the public relations disaster that is his marital implosion, how he miraculously capitalizes on his appalling remarks on the “suburban uprising.” Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) does this thing better, but it’ll do. B- (M.P.) Tues., Oct. 25, 5:05pm, RE.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life:
Serge Gainsbourg neophytes won’t learn much from comics artist Joann Sfar’s biopic. That’s a compliment. Eric Elmosnino, who so looks like the randy troubadour he could be his clone, purrs and smokes his way through a restless life, from Nazi-occupied France to booze-fueled end. What follows is episodic without being comprehensive (neither “Lemon Incest” or the Whitney Huston make the cut), and more about portraying his life as a dreamscape, complete with an imaginary friend rocking a puppet head (Doug Jones, of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth). Things become more routine once S.G. gets into drugs, but this is the phantasmagoria La Vie En Rose thought it was. And with better music to boot. B- (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 2:45pm, RE.

Green: Described alternately as Junebug meets Teorema and Junebug meets 3 Women, Sophia Takal’s feature debut is a confounder either way. Lawrence Michael Levine, talky and unbearably smug, and Kate Lyn Sheil, mousy-bordering-on-Asperger’s, relocate from New York to the deep South so he can write about sustainable living. Sheil makes an improbable friend in Takal’s gabby lifeforce, but soon Takal is getting chummier with Levine. From there things turn strange but in a realistic, banal way, with Takal charting the psychic damage caused by shifting allegiances, especially as experienced by the shy. There’s a good deal of passive-aggressive anti-urbanism, but it’s eclipsed by mood and keen insights into neuroses. B+ (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 5:30pm and Mon., Oct. 24, 10:15pm, Rave.

Hit So Hard: A doc on Patty Schemel, the drummer for Hole, inevitably becomes a doc on Hole, complete with the regular insights of Courtney Love wearing what looks like clown makeup. Some home video footage of Kurt Cobain being funny with his kid aside, this is boilerplate rock history that oversells the band’s worth and generally has no business flickering on a big screen, nor running 105 minutes. Schemel, for what it’s worth, comes off as cool and nice. C (M.P.) Sun., Oct. 23, 3pm, Rave; Mon., Oct. 24, 9:45pm, IH.

Hospitalité: The stereotype that the Japanese are polite to a fault is the solitary joke that fuels Koji Fukada’s calm comedy, in which the owners of a small Tokyo printing company let their business and home be overrun by a quietly pushy “slacker” (Kanji Furutachi) and his frequently naked wife (Bryerly Long), who alternately claims to be Brazilian or Bosnian but who sounds unmistakably American. Furutachi is the real reason to see this mildly amusing almost-satire: He somehow manages to suggest furtive menace while never being any less than utterly chill. B- (M.P.) Mon., Oct. 24, 2pm, RE.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Of the so-called “Mumblecore” “movement,” Mark and Jay Duplass were always the one’s capable of one day making Jeff, Who Lives at Home. And here it is. This funny-but-sensitive look at the farcical day had by three family members—slacker Jason Segel, uptight douche Ed Helms and their suffering mom, Susan Sarandon—is thin sitcom pap, sanding down the edges that made The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Cyrus decreasingly interesting. All that’s left is a couple of mildly amusing bits heading for a conclusion where everyone hugs and cries. The Brothers Duplass could easily make these low-watt faux-indies until the end of time. That doesn’t mean they should. D (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 9:30pm and Sun., Oct. 23, 2pm, PMT.

Like Crazy: Illegal immigration affects privileged white people, too! Naive collegiate lovebirds Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones—he Yank, she British—learn a harsh lesson when she whimsically violates her Visa and stays locked in his embrace in California for longer than allowed by law. They’re punished with separation, forced to choose between other lovers or rushing into a perhaps unwise marriage. Yelchin and Jones are fine but not particularly exciting actors, which is actually a plus; had they been Ashton Kutcher and Zooey Deschanel this could have capsized into cuteness. Instead it’s about what happens when cute runs roughshod into realism, with nascent love struggling to survive when faced with the cold imprecision of bureaucracy. B- (M.P.) Thurs., Oct. 20, 8pm, ZB; Sun., Oct. 23, 2pm, RE.

Michael: Taking “the banality of evil” to literal extremes, Markus Schleinzer’s Austrian downer unblinkingly observes the titular monster (Michael Fuith)—by day a quiet office monkey, by night a pedo who tends to the young boy he’s imprisoned in his basement. A longtime casting director for Euro art films, Schleinzer counts as a regular client Michael Haneke, whose clinical surveys of man at his most fucked is this one’s most glaring inspiration. Fine, we’ll oblige: Michael lacks the nuance that makes Haneke’s work more than mere provocations, and the audience implication that renders them maddening. This is a one-note dirge, predictable down to the last beat; even the revelation of our psycho’s jones for Boney M. is visible from miles off. Although at least it has a sense of humor—not something one can always say about Haneke. C (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 10:15pm and Mon., Oct. 24, 10:15pm, RE.

Miss Bala: The previous film by absurdly talented Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo was called I’m Going to Explode. That might not have been a threat, but his follow-up is certainly singular. Naranjo’s own curious version of an action film finds a beauty queen (Stephanie Sigman) shuffled relentlessly between a drug cartel and the DEA, until the line between both hopelessly blurs. Dank lighting helps heighten the dislocation of Naranjo’s frequent long takes, which tend to observe action scenes from limited perspectives. A final on-screen text tries to repurpose this as mere social commentary, but Naranjo is more interested in bring the intensity out of abstraction. B+ (M.P.) Tues., Oct. 25, 7:35pm, RE.

Race to the Bottom of the World:
Comprised almost entirely of footage shot by its two subjects, this doc reveals the wouldbe-suicide mission of Philly explorer Todd Carmichael, who decided to trek from the edge of Antarctica to the very South Pole. (A partner-in-crime bailed halfway through.) Neither he nor his wife, fretting from home, have much of an eye, but we can understand if they were otherwise engaged. Still, Carmichael makes for a boisterous host (who becomes increasingly less boisterous, natch). Too bad directors Michele Loschiavo and Nancy Glass do little in their role as a third party. There’s no probe into his obsessions or possible mania. It’s just his trek, which may be enough for some. B- (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 12:30pm, IH.

Streets: Locally-made crime piffle that owes its debt to The Wire while committing every screenwriting sin that show sought to eradicate. The bratty teen daughter of a new City Hall bigwig finds herself drawn too close to the drug trade and a world of crooked cops, crackheads with white lips and actors that ranges from OTT to non-existent. (Troy “Poot Carr” Chaney files the few credible moments.) Switching violently between verisimilitude and cliché, this winds up simply inane. C- (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 5pm, PMT.

Young Goethe in Love:
Samuel Fuller once conceived of a Balzac biopic that opened with a thrilling chase. A similarly keyed-up reimagining of the stuffy period piece seems to be the idea behind this dramedy, which traces Goethe (Alexander Fehling) from funny-face-making goofball to depresso capable of unleashing The Sorrows of Young Werther onto the world. (The German title is simply “Goethe!”, which is some kind of joke?) Perhaps the author really did write “KISS MY ASS” in the snow to the PhD department that shunned him. Either way, the first half is obnoxiously sprightly, while the second half—following a violent tonal shift that yields suicides, duels and moping aplenty—is the kind of examination of depression to which you can take your grandmother. C (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 5:30pm, RE.

Melancholia: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Kirsten Dunst feels fine. Dunst won Best Actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her stunning performance as a blushing bride suffering from crippling bouts of bipolar disorder in writer-director (and media class clown) Lars Von Trier’s rudely hilarious, heartbreaking gaze into clinical depression on the eve of the apocalypse. A rogue planet (from which the movie takes its title) is on a deathly, deliberate collision-course with Earth, and what better metaphor for depression than a giant celestial sphere slowly bearing down on you? Stunning. A (Sean Burns) Sat., Oct. 22, 2:20pm, PMT; Sun., Oct. 23, 7:05pm, RE.
 
Martha Marcy May Marlene: Writer-director Sean Durkin’s shattering debut feature stars Elizabeth Olsen (sister to Ashley and Mary-Kate) as a rootless 20-something who just escaped from a creepy hippie cult in upstate New York. Crashing with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), Martha slips in and out of flashback fugue states, and we only gradually grow to understand the depths of her dehumanization. John Hawkes is terrifyingly insinuating as the charismatic cult leader, while Burkin’s formally breathtaking, deeply unsettling film makes exquisite use of tension within long-take compositions worthy of Polanski. The movie’s ever-unnerving formal rigor mirrors Martha’s decentralized state, with no catharsis or relief. A (S.B.) Mon., Oct. 24, 7:40pm, R5.

Philadelphia Film Festival runs Oct. 20-Nov. 3. filmadelphia.org

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1. Jennifer, said... on Oct 19, 2011 at 06:29PM

“Hmmmm... Matt, MARTHA MARCY (Fox Searchlight), MELANCHOLIA (Magnolia), LIKE CRAZY (Paramount Vantage), and MISS BALA (Fox) will certainly be released in Philly. It is also quite likely that GAINSBOURG and THE CONQUEST will get a one-week run at the Ritz as many Music Box films do.”

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2. Linda said... on Oct 28, 2011 at 08:12AM

“I liked Miss Bala. The film stuck in my head for days.”

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Philadelphia Film Festival: Week 2
By Sean Burns

Let’s not mince words: In its 20 years, this is the most impressive—if not perhaps the best—lineup the Philadelphia Film Festival has ever had. The latest from Alexander Payne, Werner Herzog and Lars Von Trier—not to mention art cinema titans Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Hong Sang-soo, Aki Kaurismaki and Béla Tarr—are yours for the peeping.