Special Report From Philadelphia Film Fest 2007

Editor’s Note: David Thomas is a friend of mine from many years of SXSW, but he’s also an astute observer of the film world, and since he’s a Philadelphia res­id­ent, I asked him to report on this year’s edi­tion of the Philadelphia Film Festival, which ran from April 5th-18th. Please for­give his gauche American (mis)spellings.

Philadelphia Film Festival

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.

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