Here’s a rundown of my itinerary at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. Seventeen movies in fourteen days. Good thing I live here.
We start with a film that defies categorization, Lionel Bailliu’s Fair Play. This part thriller, part comedy, mostly corporate soap opera plays out (maybe a little too much) the juxtaposition of corporate and athletic competition. Worth checking out for the unbelievably tense twenty-minute squash sequence alone.
A couple of foreign crime dramas made the rounds. Uro, by the Norwegian director Stefan Faldbakkenn, is a Michael Mannish take on the drug trade in Oslo, with a good deal of family drama thrown in. As undercover cop stories go, it’s no Narc or Deep Cover, but it’ll do in a pinch. Triad Election, on the other hand, approaches Godfather-level status at times. Though it screened without its predecessor, Election, I was still able to follow the action, which director Johnny To films with gorgeous darkness. Basically another take on the “but I don’t wanna be a gangster” genre, but executed beautifully.
I only checked out a couple of dramas and had very different reactions. Red Road is being hailed from here to its native Glasgow as the best thing since the invention of Dogme, but I was unimpressed. It’s one of those films where I can appreciate the outstanding direction, acting and even the power of the story, but still find it boring as watching video render. Everybody else loved it, though, so you may still want to check it out.
Day Night Day Night on the other hand, achieves more with even less. But it’s context that makes all the difference. The film begins with a woman arriving at an airport, going to a hotel and taking a bath, clipping her nails, etc. This is, like, the first twenty minutes of the film. Should be deadly dull. But you know going in if you know anything about the film that this woman is about to commit a horrible terrorist act. Suddenly everything takes on a greater significance, whether it really should or not. Director Julia Loktev continues to film her protagonist with a Jarmusch-like focus on the minutiae, even as her literal deadline nears. It makes for some of the most gripping, disturbing cinema precisely because it’s depoliticized (we never learn her name, much less who she’s working for or why).
The Danger After Dark program was as strong as ever this year. Though not technically part of the program, The Kovak Box would have fit right in, with its mind control, suicides and Stephen King-esque protagonist. It’s dark fun, if a little silly at times. The same could be argued for End of the Line which asks the question what if a bunch of fanatical Christians all snapped at once and started killing people in order to “save” them from the Apocalypse, and what if you were trapped on the subway with a bunch of them when it happened? This Canadian flick wrings a lot more tension from that premise than you might think, especially in its closing seconds.
Operating at another level is Dead Daughters, from Russian helmer Pavel Ruminov. A visual feast with the best use of surround-sound in a horror film I’ve ever heard. Mood and atmosphere, not blood-and-guts. Severance, on the other hand, is the funniest horror movie since Scream — maybe funnier. Basically The Office thrown into a slasher flick, it’s the most fun I had at any movie of the fest.
The most unlikely source for comedy this year was Lars Von Trier whose The Boss of It All skewers corporate culture, actors and Icelanders with equal glee. Eagle Vs. Shark takes the quirky, affectless comedy of Napoleon Dynamite and sets in in New Zealand and Samoa with a little more depth. The Ten takes on as many commandments with mixed results.
Waitress, by the dearly departed Adrienne Shelly, shows how adept she was as an actress, writer and director telling the story of the eponymous character’s travails trying to leave her overbearing husband by whom she has just become pregnant. Firefly and Felicity fans take note, Nathan Fillion and Keri Russell are outstanding in this, though Curb Your Enthusiasm fans have the most to enthuse about as Cheryl Hines gives a near Best Supporting Actress worthy performance as a fellow waitress.
My favorite comedy of the fest, though, was Rocket Science from Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz, who’s as adept with narrative fiction as documentary. The film follows the travails of a young stutterer convinced to join his school’s debate team. It’s based on Blitz’s own disfluent childhood and aches with all the turmoil of bitter youth. And it’s funny.
Finally we come to the docs which were a myriad bunch. The Killer Within enthralls with its tale of a seemingly normal psychology professor who confesses to murdering a dorm mate in college. The reactions to and implications of his crime and subsequent release resonate throughout and provide plenty of discussion fodder.
VHS Kaloucha profiles a passionate (the man literally bleeds for his shots) Tunisian director who cranks out genre films on VHS with no budget as he makes his latest opus Tarzan of the Arabs. A must for film geeks and anyone interested in Tunisia.
Finally, In the Shadow of the Moon takes a seemingly worn out topic, the moon landing, and finds fresh life that not only illuminates a turbulent time in history but sheds light on a number of current crises. The archival footage director David Sington intercuts with the surviving astronauts, who provide the film’s only narration, is still powerful today.
Most of these films will be getting their release in the months to come, so keep your eyes peeled.