When first launched in 1991, the Philadelphia Film Festival was a modest, unassuming affair. It wasn’t even called the Philadelphia Film Festival, but the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. The fest’s evolution over 21 years—as it’s repeatedly changed hands—has been dramatic. But today, it enters its third full year under the sway of the Philadelphia Film Society, which switched it from the spring to the fall and beefed up the number of prestige pictures. (This is, sadly, the first year it has not counted as a venue the spacious International House, where the PFF was born.) There are as many nice scores and cinephilic delights in the ensuing 10 days as last year’s impressive slate, a helping of which are reviewed below—with the best ones asterisked, and more to come next week.
No thunderous titles inform us that Barbara, the latest from German neo noirist Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Beats Being Dead), is set in the German Democratic Republic in 1980. But a simple Lives of Others retread this ain’t. Nina Hoss plays the title character, an early-middle-aged physician stuck in a remote Baltic Sea town and trying to flee to the West. She’s cold and remote to everyone, even a fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) whose persistent kindness slowly thaws her. As usual, Petzold’s deliberate, precise directorial style is intoxicating, as is his underplaying of the era; the Stasi act more like petty thugs from a ‘40s programmer, routinely strip-searching our hero or puncturing her bike tires. But Zehrfeld’s puppydog mien makes the whole affair a touch too pat and predictable. If you can’t guess where Barbara will wind up from the opening minutes, you need to get out more.
Beware of Mr. Baker
Opening with its subject angrily assaulting the filmmaker with a cane to the nose, Jay Bulger’s doc drops in on legendary drummer Ginger Baker, only to find he’s still a miserable bastard. What begins as a spin on Winnebago Man luckily focuses entirely on the man, not the filmmaker, as that’s where the goods are. Baker took a genius for percussion and, through excess drug use and general dickishness, alienated everyone, from Eric Clapton—who was shocked, after Cream obliterated, to find that his dreaded former bandmate was in his next super-group, Blind Faith—to Féla Kuti, whom Baker helped break in the West. Old, arthritic and broke, Baker is found nestled in a massive recliner in a South African compound, and though it’s slightly annoying that Bulger asks us to feel bad for him, Baker’s pissy attempts to pummel any emotional connection make that feeling all but inevitable.
Beyond the Hills*
Cristian Mungiu—of the great Romanian abortion saga 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—finally returns with a follow-up, taking a free interpretation of a true story. Alina (Cristina Flutur) arrives at a remote Orthodox convent to visit Voichita (Cosmina Strata), her friend from an orphanage who has since found God. Alina has not, and her attempts to free Voichita from the ascetic life gradually lead to unmanageable behavior, and attempts by clergy to contain her lead to tragedy. Mungiu is of the long-take school of filmmaking, and if he’s not its best practitioner—although Béla Tarr is retired—he is its most intense. He crams untold amounts of characters and action into his often static, expertly composed and choreographed frames, watching calmly as events spin of control. The subject is not nearly as vital as in 4 Months, but Hills is at least a master class in direction, with Mungiu, cool and nonjudgmental, revealing himself the possible second coming of Otto Preminger.
Caesar Must Die
Another of the season’s autumnal visions of theater—the other, Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, ain’t playing PFF—finds legendary Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Night of the Shooting Stars) shooting Shakespeare in jail. Art therapy results in Julius Caesar being mounted in a high security prison, acted out by real-life murderers and Camorra members. Filmed mostly in B&W high-def, it’s a simple (and short) product, putting its points—on how art both enriches prison life and, when completed, exacerbates the feeling of imprisonment—directly into the characters mouths, sometimes addressed to the camera. Its complexity comes in the rehearsal scenes, where the actors get worked up and the realization that we’re watching actual cons acting, much less acting Shakespeare, magically vanishes. But that’s all it has going for it.
Call Me Kuchu
As homophobia goes, few countries can best Uganda, which came terrifyingly close to passing a law that made homosexuality punishable by death. Cameras were there for the law’s obliteration in Parliament, as well as to document the activists who tried to sell a lifestyle in a country that almost entirely disapproved, to put it lightly. Kuchu (taken from the slang for Ugandan gays) winds up spinning on the murder of David Kato, the country’s alleged first out gay man and up till then the film’s focal point. But the rest of the film spends time with the country’s few homosexuals, who have to keep their lifestyle on the DL, and, more hesitantly, their detractors. That includes weekly tabloid Rolling Stone (no relation), which goes undercover to out homosexuals, run by a chuckling sociopath who blithely shoots down accusations that stoking the flames of Ugandan homophobia could lead to tragedy. Kuchu could stand to be more investigative, but it’s still vital.
In 1991, the brilliant but wildly pricey The Lovers on the Bridge all but destroyed the career of French enfant terrible Leos Carax. His first feature in 13 years, however, has become a comeback, and it’s even close to accessible, if you can consider accessible an episodic art film featuring stop-motion lovemaking and a poor P.A. getting her fingers chewed off by a leprechaun-like beast. The reliably strange and animalistic Denis Lavant plays a mysterious shape-shifter who travels by limo to a series of curious episodes, with guest stars including Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Much has been made of the severe loopiness, which in no way prepares you for the melancholy that gradually takes over, turning this from bugfuck to elegy on aging, regret and cinema itself. If you never thought you could get choked up by a film with talking limos—much less a Carax film—think again.
In Another Country
As if to both counter and stoke accusations that he makes the same damn movie every time, Hong Sang-soo—South Korea’s Rohmeresque art-dramatist (Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man)—gives us In Another Country, which brings into his world Isabelle Huppert only to wind up, well, the same damn movie. Hong is, of course, self-aware: He even casts Huppert as three separate women, each named Anne, each of the same oblivious temperament, each staying in the same guesthouse in the same seaside town. With each iteration, the same men fall for her and, depending on which story it is, make some degree of a move. And as ever, soju is consumed with abandon, and the men betray unflattering desires. The key to enjoying Hong is picking up on the reverberations in the repetitions, not just within the film, but within the Hong universe. And much like last year’s The Day He Arrives, Country isn’t Hong at his most probing—just the work of a confident master doodling and riffing.
Stanley Kubrick inspires unnatural levels of devotion, but few can touch the gaggle of obsessees in Rodney Ascher’s doc on The Shining and the various theories it has inspired, if mostly by accident. Hypotheses range from the passably sane (proof, after charting the Overlook Hotel, that one office window is “impossible”) to the inexplicable (subliminal messages abound) to the batshit (the film is Kubrick’s veiled admission that he helped stage the moon landings). Ascher presents these with a mix of jokiness and respect, and the decision, initially odd, to never show the postulators’ faces or delve into their lives allows one to more easily get lost in this labyrinth of misdirected obsession. It also means that the preponderance of clips may lead to legal problems once it’s off the festival circuit. See this while you can.
Something in the Air*
There is no better working director than Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Carlos) at capturing the spark of life in the moment, a quality that makes him atypically talented at documenting youth. This sequel-in-spirit to Cold Water focuses on the post-high school/early college era, specifically Paris of the early ‘70s, even more specifically a young man (Clément Métayer) who evolves from political activist to a disillusioned artist. That this is semi-autobiographical has led some to write Air off as a disorganized memory piece, in part because it can seem disorganized. But if the narrative frequently meanders, the focus is narrow, and its specific subject is a novelty that hasn’t seen many, if any, iterations, film or otherwise. Air is too dense and constantly on the move to rock many individual Assayas highs, but when it briefly turns into Cold Water–during a Soft Machine-backed country party–look out.
Portugal’s Miguel Gomes is one of the more unusual structuralists working in cinema today. The three-hour Our Beloved Month of August starts as a shapeless documentary that slowly evolves into a well-crafted drama. Tabu isn’t as radical, but it’s close: The first half is a vaguely dark comedy about a middle-aged woman dealing with the almost certainly paranoid ravings of her elderly neighbor. When this old bitty dies, the second half—narrated by Gomes himself, his being the only voice we hear—delves into her youth in Africa, finding her a vital spirit embroiled in a high-stakes romance. The present ignores the past while the past, coming second in Gomes’ reverse chronology, ignores the present. Without straining, Tabu—whose title recalls F.W. Murnau’s swan song, which too boasted luminous B&W—becomes a cosmic reflection on faded eras that exist only in the minds of history’s few survivors.
The Zen of Bennett
No surprise that a doc about Tony Bennett produced by his son Danny is a sloppy valentine. But at least the man has good taste. After Bennett himself, the main pleasure here is the relentlessly gauzy cinematography from Dion Beebe (Miami Vice, In the Cut), who shoots his subject in dimly lit rooms, through translucent surfaces, anything that puts us in a laidback mood. Then there’s the structure itself. Those longing for a bio will have to hit Wikipedia, as Zen is a near-formless hang-out session, structured only by Bennett recording Duets II and telling great stories to his star guests and anyone standing around. Footage of Amy Winehouse’s final recording session may interest some, but the real draw remains spending time with one of entertainment’s most soft-spoken and stubborn legends, who adapts for the times by forcing its faddish stars—John Mayer, Gags—to adapt for him.
Somebody Up There Likes Me*
Where others of the “mumblecore” ilk err towards naturalism, Bob Byington (Registered Sex Offender, Harmony and Me) makes dense, arch comedies that couldn’t be more artificial. Sucking into his low-fi Nick Offerman (who also co-produced), his latest concerns a terminally bored slacker (Keith Poulson) whose ennui is so strong that he never ages. Some 30 years pass, characters die, others age, but Poulson and his tired demeanor never change. He’s only the most bored of a coterie of bored characters, from his moneyed and dissatisfied wife (Jess Weixler) to his best friend (Offerman), all who offer deadpan readings of Byington’s tight dialogue. Byington plows through a lot in just under 70 minutes (plus credits), and his efforts are more impressive than enjoyable, although that, too.
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings’ bohemoth of David Mitchell’s time-jumping opus is a consistently watchable take on an unfilmable novel. If “watchable” is your criteria for cinema, then, please, shower it with the awards it demands. Mitchell’s doorstop is a series of genre pastiches that progresses chronologically before heading back to the start. Tykwer and the Wachowski’s wisely dice up the chronology into a three-hour montage, with an all-star cast playing multiple roles as well as genders and, alas, ethnicities. See: Tom Hanks as an English brute, Halle Berry in whiteface, Keith David in yellowface and Ben Whishaw as Hugh Grant’s trophy wife! The vaguely tongue-in-cheek makeup—the many Caucasians cast as South Koreans look, as one critic put it, like Romulans —does take the edge off the self-importance, which, to the film’s credit, never approaches toxic levels. Impressive plate-spinning, then, but it’s rarely more than a parlor trick.
For showtimes and venue information, visit filmadelphia.org.
At this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, the head of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office for two decades will get the ovation that’s long been due.
Among them is 1976's "Mikey and Nicky," starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as mobsters trying to escape a hit. Their chatty meanderings take them through Philadelphia at its scuzziest.