Sunday, October 25, 2015

24th Philadelphia Film Fest, Days 2 and 3: Having a 'Cannes' do attitude

This may be only the second time of sitting in theaters for hours a day watching movies, a.k.a., enduring the best of a film festival. And for me, Philadelphia's annual fest devoted to international and local cinema is the only place I do it... for now.

But the some feeling kicks in days before it starts: do I really have the energy to endure four movies a day for the first few days of the fest? In my head I say no, but by the third movie of each day my body is programmed to endure it. It also doesn't mean that I don't feel like nodding off during the third movie, either. Whoops.

So with day one of the festival off to a smashing start with "Anomalisa", I grabbed my badge and tickets (for select screenings not covered with my badge) and headed downtown for day two, Oct. 21.

The day's slate consisted of official selections from Cannes, Berlin and Toronto film festivals. Now, does that guarantee the films will be great? No. It just gives you something to look forward to. I mean come on, whenever a movie has wonderful international film fest logos on its promotional materials, that has to be a good sign.

First is a winner from Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, "Rams", an Icelandic film about two brothers who are torn apart, then pieced back together when their sheep fall prey to an incurable disease. The brothers may be neighbors in the obscenely gorgeous Icelandic countryside, but a feud has prevented them from speaking to each other for 40 years, using a dog as a courier to relay paper messages.

It's a basic story, grappling brothers who need to work together, and I loved watching it's gorgeous scenery, it just didn't do too much for me. I appreciate its craftsmanship and it's funny moments, but meh. Cute sheep, though.

After waiting outside in front of some snobby bitches complaining about going outside to wait for a screening in the same theater we just came out of - seriously, fuck off - "Tale of Tales" started, and whoa, that was weird.
Salma Hayek eats the heart of a creature in "Tale of Tales", a memorable moment.

This English-language debut feature from Matteo Garrone is remarkable eye candy consisting of lavish sets and costumes in a strange retelling of fairy tales we may. or may not, know. Consisting of three tales involving a queen and her son, a sex obsessed king and two old women, and a king with a pet flea and a daughter striving to leave the palace.

The tales have no connection to each other, and it was annoying me how they weren't working together. It wasn't until the last 30 minutes that I really enjoyed it. These were magically dark interpretation of basic fairy tales, and of themes we already know: be careful what you wish for. Action, gore, sex and a deeper understanding of life's major themes are evident here. While I was in awe of the production design, it took me a while to warm up to the film as a whole, but enjoyed it.

After this was the Guatemalan film "Ixcanul (Volcano)". The problem with small films from countries with almost no film presence is that it can blow up with acclaim just on its achievement of getting to big named festivals. This, in my opinion, is the case of "Ixcanul", a winner at the Berlin Film Festival about a young girl living on a coffee farm.

It's very bland, but beautifully so as it encompasses Guatemalan life like we rarely see, with hardships. hope, and, at its core, just a girl trying to find out who she is. It was OK, and I'll leave it at that. Basic with a cloak of pretentiousness about it.

And finally, I ended my day off on a horrible note. "Room", the top winner at the Toronto International Film Festival, will probably be the worst film I see at the festival. That's a blanket statement, but I'm sticking to it.

About a mother and child imprisoned in a room until they finally escape, "Room" would be perfect for Lifetime. The mom, known as Ma/Joy, is probably the worst excuse of a mother, yet is applauded for her selfish attempts to a) escape from the room and b) escape from life in general later on.

Perusing "Room" reactions on Twitter after the screening and conversing with cinephiles in the time since, I was clearly in the minority of those who didn't like the film. Sorry, but a stupidly basic screenplay that defies all logic and is full of conveniences to make the story propel isn't my idea of a good film. Every moment where the screenwriter appeared to be stuck on how to propel the story she had characters yell at each other, or found a cheap reason to make the audience cry.

You know it was meant as an uplifting film because the finally shot shows the mom and son walking away from the camera as it tilts up to the sky. Groundbreakingly cheesy.

I'd rather live in the titular space for seven years like Ma did than see this silly excuse to force people to feel good for an awful mother figure and all of the stupid repercussions of her actions.

I left the festival scene and saw "The Martian" afterward, and that was a delight.

"(T)error" co-director David Felix Suncliffe during the Q&A
For day 3 I was a smidge late to the first screening of the day, "(T)error", but didn't miss anything, it seemed. I saw the opening credits in full and didn't appear to miss the premise for this documentary. Saeed is an FBI informant and for his last task he asks a camera crew to document his attempts to bring down a POI (person of interest) for his apparent terrorism ties.

This was the first type of film that I've seen to show an FBI informant at work, and this examination of post-9/11 paranoia was a good one. It has a good flow as we delve deeper into the POI and the colorful, broken down informant trying to get him.

Co-director David Felix Sutcliffe was on hand for a Q&A afterward and he gave some good talk about shooting the film and his subjects. I enjoyed it for the five minutes I sat around and listened, but I was trying to get in "gear" for my next screening.

"The Program" is the latest project from Stephen Frears and it shows the grueling doping regimen the U.S. Postal Service team and its leader, Lance Armstrong, endured as the latter conquered seven consecutive Tour de France wins from 1999-2005.

According to Philadelphia Film Society executive director J. Andrew Greenblatt, this showing of "The Program" was the first in the country. Sweet, but why didn't they better publicize that? PFF is always a collection of films from other festivals, like picking through the remainders bin at a store. We finally have a U.S. premiere here and it's taken for granted.


The film was very good, by the way. Ben Foster has an uncanny resemblance to Armstrong, which made it all the more involving.

Next up was the Palme d'Or-winning "Dheepan" about a "family" leaving their war-savaged Sri Lakan homes trying to start a new life in France. It was a gripping look at what immigrants go through trying to do better for themselves. The cultural and lingual difference are already jarring, then the emotional impact of such a move can wear people down. The titular character is no difference. He could physically escape the war he was involved with, but the war won't escape him as he deals with thugs in a new housing complex he moved into.

A film like "Dheepan" resonates today given the troubles Syrian refugees are having in Europe. Powerful stuff and not an overbearing immigrant tale.

Finally was "The Prince of Pennsylvania", an ESPN 30 for 30 film about the Schultz brothers and the eccentric millionaire John du Pont who brought them to his 1,000-acre estate to create the world's best wrestling program. Just watch last year's "Foxcatcher", that was better.

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