By all accounts, the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival, which began Oct. 18 and ends Sunday, has enjoyed great turnout and from Day One, when David O. Russell’s award season favorite, Silver Linings Playbook, set the wowed-audience bar. Since then, dozens of other narratives and docs—some given props here last week—have dazzled and confounded Philly cinephiles with equally welcome intensity. But just because PFF’s winding down doesn’t mean it’s letting up. Here’s a selection of notable films among the rest of the fest, with asterisked recommendations.
Nigerian-American Chukwuma (Alex Obukudom) is a former hood trying to go straight, but the prejudices of normal society—and the cruel whims of director Chinonye Chukwu’s screenplay—are keeping him down. Major and supporting characters get repeatedly put in the hospital, and everyone shouts too much, but the whole thing is at least lensed beautifully by cinematographer Dave Selle. His smart, widescreen compositions are stunners, even when he’s not trained on Alaskan vistas.
The Atomic States of America
Local documentarian Don Argott toggles between loving profiles tied to music (Rock School, Last Days Here) and activist polemics (The Art of the Steal, this). The unifier is a yen for the common man who tries to make a difference. Co-directed with Sheena M. Joyce, this exposé of nuclear power—which paints it as a science humanity is not yet ready to safely harness—is no mere exposé, in part because it grounds its findings to regular people. Atomic finds folk in nuclear locations like Long Island and Harrisburg who’ve gone from citizens to grassroots activists, if only because no one else would do the grunt work. They call bullshit on regulations that simply adjust the regulations to benefit the suppliers instead of punishing wrongdoing. This is fine angry muckraking, but one that doesn’t get so lost in facts that it forgets the people they affect.
In Rick Alverson’s relentlessly unpleasant drama, Tim Heidecker plays a bored, rich Williamsburg asshole who’s an obnoxious prick to everyone he encounters, from the male nurse attending to his sick father to taxi drivers to girls he wants to fuck at parties. More divisive than Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (Eric Wareheim pops up as one of his buddies), it’s also funnier, if in a fucked-up way. Heidecker’s gabby hellspawn voices praise for Hitler (“If you take the murder out of the equation, he was like a male cheerleader”) and Timothy McVeigh (“I didn’t know this, but apparently that building had it coming”); what little plot there is involves occasionally tempting him with redemption, only for him to turn it down, one time at the last second. A character study hasn’t been this wonderfully unwatchable since Ronald Bronstein’s even more brilliant Frownland.
“I like science because it helps you measure changes,” crows 13-year-old Lauduree (Perla Haney-Jardine), the brilliant but troubled hero of Jenny Deller’s feature debut. A heartfelt, well-acted but too fussy indie in the Sundance mold, Future Weather follows our bookworm as she contends with school and being abandoned by her mother (Marin Ireland). The Francophile-named Lauduree fears for her future, just as she fears global warming, a connection that’s a touch too neat and screenwriterly. Subtle in places, unsubtle in others, it does, however, speak to a unique generational concern, with Lauduree representative of kids who now have to literally fight for their future. And it’s always nice to see Amy Madigan, who plays Lauduree’s ornery grandmother.
There are always diamonds hidden in the rough of bad cinema history, so credit the Alamo Drafthouse, the salty theater chain-turned-distributor, with unearthing this delightfully under-sensical 1987 martial-arts extravaganza. Streets of Fire re-imagined with neither a budget nor acting chops, it memorably pits coke-dealing biker ninjas against a tae kwan do-rocker contigent, one of whom models his looks after John Oates. Though it never reaches the absurd heights of Raw Force or Lady Terminator—whose reps are still relatively obscure, while this scores a ride on the festival circuit—it comes close, particularly whenever Korean star/writer/casting director Y.K. Kim inventively mangles the English language. More important, you’ve likely never seen synth rock performances wherein the band does high kicks. Book these guys at the Troc.
Only the Young
Bro’ing down with young skaters without once remotely slipping into skeevy Larry Clark territory, Elizabeth Mims’ and Jason Tippet’s brief doc earns the trust of a bevy of high schoolers in a nowhere Southern California town. There’s not much to do but skate, pair off, get dye jobs and talk to these suddenly present documentarians, and the best parts of the film offer an impressive undiluted entrée into a rarely legitimately explored world. But the filmmakers go too far, eventually getting caught up in what’s not terribly interesting personal business. Lacking a deeper perspective on its characters, the film winds up stretched out and redundant, even at only 69 minutes.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty*
Original and so much more, Terence Nance’s relentlessly naval-gazing feature debut abandons narrative for a restless, shape-shifting experiment in self-documentation. Nance’s love life, as with many neophytes, is the focus, a subject that has consumed him so much that it comprised earlier shorts. One of those, 2010’s How Would You Feel?, winds up spliced into his long player, which starts with him worrying about a would-be one-night-stand and spirals into a look at his past relationships, his paranoia about “The Cosby Effect”—being an African-American in an age with few legitimate problems—and concerns that he’s not adequately representing the female side. Live action gives way to dreamy animation, the personal gives way to the universal, and you will not see anything remotely like this at the PFF or elsewhere.
French filmmaker Ursula Meier follows up her surreal, Isabelle Huppert-commanded family drama Home with the more grounded confines of a Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes-style drama set in the Alps. Roaming among jet-setting resort tourists, young Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) steals gear from the rich and sells it back to them, all to buttress the paltry income made by housecleaner Louise (Léa Seydoux), his sister—or so we’re told. As in Home, a near-reckless mid-film gear shift throttles both the characters and us, and though Meier seems to be impersonating the Dardennes more than herself, even faux-Dardennes is welcome, particularly when it makes room for both Martin Compston (Sweet Sixteen) and Gillian Anderson.
Wake in Fright*
The “Ozploitation” movement, which rose to prominence in Australia at the same time as tasteful exports like Picnic at Hanging Rock, began in earnest with a film that made the country look like a hellish wasteland. Before he made First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s, Canadian director Ted Kotcheff shocked Cannes with this 1971 grueler, in which a frustrated, bookish school teacher (Gary Bond) finds his Sydney holiday scuttled when a layover in a nowhere town results in a three-day bender. Instead of beach sex with his hot girlfriend, he winds up with shit beer, aborted coitus and killing baby kangaroos alongside a shirtless Donald Pleasance. That he survives is the worst punishment of all.
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