a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Philadelphia Film Festival - 8-21 April 2004

Hardly a contender with Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, NY, Austin's South by Southwest, et al. my metropolis' fest is at least getting closer to mimicking them: in our 13th year, it doesn't boast many big-timers (opening night: Shade?), but it has nabbed a giggle-inducing list of newbies from reliable auteurs -- along with Demme and Haneke, there's McElwee, Breillat, von Trier, Greenaway, Maddin, Babenco, Techine, Berlinger and Sinofsky, even a Herzog I hadn't previously heard of. As for oldies, it's pretty paltry this year: Asian-American silent-to-'50s star Anna May Wong gets advertised with 1929's Piccadilly while Tobe Hooper shows off his newest (The Toolbox Murders) along with the newest-struck print of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That, plus the inexplicable-if-welcome presence of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is it. (Last year had a retrospective on obscure Spanish director Alex de la Iglesias and an impressive collection of Shaw Brothers pics, to send the point home.) Nevertheless, and for the second year in a row, I have a press badge and no second job; I'll do what I can.


[Basically I had to do blurbs for my paper, which meant that my need to write about Greenaway, Maddin and the like had my seeing them on my television rather than the big screen. The screeners were, largely, kinda nice for the record.]

The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, USA) Charming subject, fascinating (and oh so topical!) issue, messy filmmaking. Demme, who cobbled together gobs of interviews conducted over about ten years, can barely arrange them into a pastiche, let alone a coherent storyline. Then again, this - and Storefront Hitchcock - are his strongest works since the ‘80s. Which is all kinds of depressing, really. B-

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, France) Probably total bullshit, but I wound up getting into Breillat’s determinedly nasty look at the nastier parts of the female body - which is saying something due to the faux-profundity of the first exchange (“Why did you just try to kill yourself?” “Because I’m a woman.”) Pretty unique way of looking at sex, if all a bit too humorless. Again, probably total bullshit. Ignore me, in fact. B-

Proteus (David Lebrun, USA) Nifty gimmick - drawings of the various forms of the single-celled undersea radiolarian by 19th century biologist Earnst Haeckel thrown at you in rapid-fire order, as if seeing them in a state of hyperactive flux - meets almost-standard PBS-style doc about Haeckel and his era's attempts at oceanography. Doesn’t quite drown you in the world like it wishes it could - by way of showing nothing but drawings - but an intriguer none the less. B

The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Daava & Luigi Falorni, Germany/Mongolia) Nestled in the middle of the desert, a family’s camel gives birth to another camel. This camel isn’t taken too kindly by the other camel. Meanwhile, kids want to buy a TV. Blatant attempt at Flahertyness yields few returns and, yo, just why is everyone listed as an actor? Predictably this thing was loved by some. C

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada) Is this in fact Maddin’s bid for mainstream acceptance? Or have his advertisers just painted it that way? ‘Cause there’s no way this serially goofy confection is gonna be loved by anyone other than cultists, and then maybe even not by them. Pretty much the same lunatic tinkering from recent-period Maddin (i.e., Heart of the World till right now), only less inspired and hampered by some odd naturalistic acting from Rossellini, McKinney, and de Medeiros. Then again, glass legs filled with beer + Africa vs. Canada + almost anything that emerges from Ross McMillian’s mouth = just fine by me. “My skin is too exciteable for wool, I fear.” B

The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (Peter Greenaway, UK) Gee, Peter, should I give up my day job and dedicate my life to deciphering this self-indulgent monstrosity? Part One in the Tulse Multimedia Epic - following the 60 websites but preceding two more films, a TV show, DVDs, CD-Roms, books, and, I dunno, strategically placed hieroglyphics strewn about the globe’s cities - comes with as welcoming an introduction as “Good luck, those of you who aren’t directly connected to my brain!,” so festooned it is with frames within frames, seemingly pointless Brechtian tomfoolery, references to past Greenaway, citations, multiple pop-up narrators, lists and a general sense that this is some insular, way too autobiographical film for what fans he has left. Intriguing, though, but without wholly earning interest. Interesting to see what becomes of Tulse 2, let alone the rest of it. Those who've never seen, say, The Belly of an Architect need not apply. C+

Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, UK) Britishers declaring everything “intensely boring,” “horrid,” “chaffing” or “the beatliest” for 100 minutes. Not quite the matching of minds that you’d expect from Stephen Fry adapting Evelyn Waugh, what with as many celebrity cames as five combined Woody Allens. Flies by, has an insane quip-per-minute ratio, fumbles when this cartoon expects you to suddenly care. B

The Best Thief in the World (Jacob Kornbluth, USA) “It’s manipulative, sappy shit,” declares harried mom Mary-Louise Parker to her titular, dilinquent son. “You don’t even know you’re manipulating people.” Self-depricating self-critique on the part of director Jacob Kornbluth? Or is his film not merely fake, but deluded to boot? Fixin’ on the former, as this contrived melodrama with transparent “authenticity” (handheld camera, kiddies deploying four-letter words, et al.) only grates on my senses. Damn you, Parker, for giving a terrific perf: should fans wish to see one of your better screen turns, they have to sit through mounds of shit. C-

The Cordon (Goran Markovic, Serbia) Only somewhat disappointing, given the POV used in handling this subject matter (anti-Milosevic protests in 1997 Serbia, focused entirely on the cops used as human shields). Semi-disappointedly goes for an illumination on its anti-heroes penchant for violence than the political ramifications, though it at least handles that: everyone’s gotta earn money, they say. Excellent cutting between news footage and the re-staged ones. B-

Asshak, Tales From the Sahara (Ulrike Koch, Algeria/Switzerland/Germany/The Netherlands) Okay, so it’s “Scenes From the Sahara,” more likely. Warmed up to this one over the vaguely similar Story of the Weeping Camel, basically because it isn’t content to simply observe and because the stories, when we get them, relieve the ethnocentric tedium. B

Shade (Damien Nieman, USA) One of the heftier examples of first-timer Damian Nieman’s skill with the bad-ass dialogue: “Who’s that?,” inquires Character A. “None of your fucking business, that’s who,” replies Character B. Basically Confidence only somehow worse: poker is the game but it’s still the melange of screenwriter’s crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and crosses that look like double-triple-crosses but wind up as triple-gainer-backflip crosses. Lifeless filmmaking; names working with nothing; Sly, as Minnessotta Fats, still finds time to mope. D+

Wheel of Time (Werner Herzog, Germany) Send Werner to document Buddhist monks (with tete-a-tete with the D.L.) and you get what you expect. B

The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth & Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France) While Dogville is one of the few films to truly polarize everybody, this one seems to have be unanimous: kickass idea, only mildly disappointing come the end. Obstructions #3 and #5 the real let-downs, but otherwise it’s an exhilerating illumination on the creative freedom = slavery belief. B+

Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper, USA) In which Hickenlooper can’t decide if Rodney Bingenheimer’s a great man for being the first to promote many terrific bands, a pathetic man for being a life-long celebrity hanger-on with a non-threatening personality, or a funny man because he has a werid voice. Felt half-queasy; also felt this would be more trenchant as a Behind the Music episode. Kim Fowley is scary. B-

Cowboys & Angels (David Gleeson, UK) So much a Queer as Folk rip-off that it could conceiveably enjoy a telvisual life as, say, Bent as People. Harmless fluff, that is as long as it’s not dealing with the Francis Veber-esque dealings with drug traffickers. C

Buddy (Morten Tydlum, Norway) Is it a good sign when you criticize a movie for dealing with interchangeable romance problems instead of its wan satire of reality TV show culture? W/O

The Swan (1956, Charles Vidor, USA) Grace Kelly looks seriously mopey as a woman forced to marry Alec Guiness’ prince, only to find solace in the flirtation with Louis Jourdan’s tutor. Any response from Prince Rainier? The supporting cast all but hi-jacks this Charles Vidor dramedy, with Guiness and Estelle Winwood coming up with the best material. B

Seven Days, Seven Nights (Joel Cano, Cuba/France/Italy) Rather a cacaphonous mess: an underground film, shot right under Castro’s nose, about the nether-regions of Havana, including back-alley abittoirs, cockfighting dens, etc. Has its points, certainly, though the enthusiastic anger comes with some shrill acting. B-

Piccadilly (1929, E.A. Dupont, UK) Anna May Wong is a charismatic one and the rest of this British silent ain’t bad either: a not-bad melodrama with a take on racism decades before its time and some elegant filmmaking from Dupont. Charles Laughton, in his first screen appearance, pigs out and then some. B+

The Kite (Randa Chahal Sabbig, Lebanon/France) Romeo and Juliet on a barb-wire-festooned border. A little too content to choog along on national identity signifiers, but works best when it’s portraying the ins and outs of its locale; the best bit would have to be dispersed relatives communicating via megaphone. Filmmaking is a bizarre mix between Iranian and West Hemispherean. B-

Please Teach Me English (Kim Sung-si, South Korea) Shrill, flashy South Korean comedy saved by some trenchant observations (if you don’t speak English, you won’t be able to read corporate logos) and a general sense of getting used to it -- had I not had to review it, I probably would’ve turned it off after five minutes. Grade, under different circumstances, would be dramatically lower. C

Distant Lights (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany) Life sucks on the Polish side of the Uber River, and Germany, on the other side, presumably doesn’t. Schmid has technical and structural chops, holding many balls in the air and keeping it moving. But whenever something could conceivably go wrong, it does. Need to do overtime taxi work to pay for your daughter’s pricey communion dress? You will become too tired and crash into a car, forfeitting your day’s profits. That refugee you stuffed in your car and drove across the border for no pay? He will pilfer your camera equipment. That tube of toothpaste in your bathroom? It will be out of its stuff and all the near-by stores will be closed. Again, well put-together. C

[Note: I've been remiss in updating this; you'll notice, if you look to the date of the fest, that I'm doing this pre- stuff on Day Four, for instance. I'll throw up what I've seen projected very soon indeed. Also, I haven't been out to much stuff, mostly due to work, Easter, and a cold I can't quite shake off. I'll be a better fest-attendee soon. I.e., tomorrow.]


<< Home