April 3- 9, 2003
Following are reviews for the first week of the Philadelphia Film Festival, April 3-9. Tickets, $6.50 for matinees or $8.50 for screenings after 4 p.m., are available at the venue on the day of the show or in advance from the festival box office, 200 Dock St.; all TLA Video locations; by phone at 215-733-0608, ext. 4; and online at www.phillyfests.org. (Online tickets must be purchased 36 hours in advance.) An asterisk (*) after a screening time indicates scheduled director or other guests. All times are p.m. Films recommended by CP critics are preceded by a .
TB The Bridge, 40th and Walnut sts.
IH International House, 3701 Chestnut St.
PMT Prince Music Theater, 1412 Walnut St.
RE Ritz East, 125 S. Second St.
R5 Ritz Five, 214 Walnut St.
ISM Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd.
BOLLYWOOD/HOLLYWOOD True to its title, Deepa Mehta’s entertaining romantic comedy is one part Bollywood musical, one part Pretty Woman. Rahul Seth is a young Indian-Canadian man who likes white girls, much to the chagrin of his widowed, melodramatic mother. When Rahul’s sister, Twinky, and her boyfriend announce their engagement, Rahul’s mother threatens that she will cancel the wedding unless Rahul finds himself an Indian wife. Under pressure to save his sister’s special day, Rahul meets an attractive, mysterious woman named Sue in a bar and pays her to pose as his fiancee. What follows is the predictable whoops-I-accidentally-fell-in-love-with-the-imposter scenario. Not always predictable is the colorful wit in B/H’s musical sequences and its parade of quirky characters that includes Rahul’s Shakespeare-quoting grandmother and his cross-dressing chauffeur. Mehta’s best work has used that sense of whimsy to highlight more fortifying subject matter. B/H, on the other hand, is a self-cannibalizing satire that seems to subsist entirely on merriment. --Elisa Ludwig (4/7, 9:30, R5; 4/9, 5:15, RE)
BREATH CONTROL: THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN BEAT BOX Hip-hop has become, of late, a subject of fascination for documentary filmmakers. In Breath Control, first-time director Joey Garfield zeroes in on the history and cultural importance of beat-boxing. Garfield traces the phenomenon back to its earliest conception in New York, when Doug E. Fresh clicked out beats for Slick Rick and The Fat Boys’ Buff huffed his way through "Jailhouse Rap." In the meantime, Fresh’s child protégé, Emanon, was performing in clubs and attracting the attention of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, showcasing beat-boxing as a futuristic urban art form. But Breath Control goes on to show how the technology and the rise of sampling made the human beat box, for a time, obsolete. In recent years, the form has been refreshed by Zap Mama’s globalizing approach, and the mind-blowing mastery of Rahzel and Scratch of The Roots. Garfield’s documentary is lighthearted and compelling, with plenty of mouth-made pyrotechnics. --E.L. (4/6, 9:30, IH*; 4/9, 5:00, ISM*)
CINEMANIA "Film is a substitute for life," states one of the subjects of Stephen Kijak and Angela Christlieb’s squirm-inducing documentary. "Commitment to cinema ultimately entails a commitment to a technically deviant lifestyle." To say that Jack, Harvey, Bill, Eric and Roberta are film buffs is to say that Norma Desmond liked attention. These five New Yorkers devote their entire existences -- none of them work or have anything resembling a social life -- to watching light shine through celluloid in a dark theater. The filmmakers treat their compulsive cinephiles gently, but if you’ve ever saved ticket stubs or snuck into a second or third screening at the multiplex or made a database of all the movies you’d seen (not that I, me personally, would ever do such a thing), you might find in Cinemania a reason to cautiously reconsider your relationship with the silver screen. There but for the grace of God go all you people with all-access festival badges. … --Ryan Godfrey (4/9, 5:15, R5*; 4/10, 12:30, RE*)
CONFIDENCE Oh, how the Glengarry have fallen. Director James Foley is, and should be, best known for his 1992 adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross -- partly because GGR is superior screen Mamet, and partly because nothing he’s done since (Fear, The Chamber) has even come close. For one thing, it helps to start with Mamet, and not Doug Jung’s fifth-generation House of Games retread, which is so Mamet-licious it’s a wonder the assembled con men don’t start talking about "the thing." For another, it helps not to let the actors turn in some of the lazier performances of their careers; nothing wrong with Edward Burns (at least as an actor), Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia or Dustin Hoffman, but they’re adrift, never jelling into any kind of ensemble. The double-triple-quadruple-cross plot recalls the hole Mamet dug himself with The Heist, only deeper (and that’s the only time that word will be applied to this movie). Plus, didn’t they use the same framing device for Deliver Us From Eva? --Sam Adams (4/3, 8:15, PMT*)
DARK WATER Thank heaven for little girls. No, wait, not heaven -- what’s the other one? Based on his recently adapted Ringu, Nakata Hideo knows a thing or two about the creeping-out power of preteen females, a power he exploits expertly, not to say shamelessly, in his newest film. Dark Water’s centerpiece -- practically its only set -- is a decrepit, all-but-abandoned apartment building whose damp, empty hallways seem to echo with disembodied footfalls and low, electric hums. Just the kind of place where a young mother’s ears can play tricks on her, especially a mother who’s engaged in a custody fight with her ruthless ex-husband. Nakata’s mastery of the form is indisputable; the apartment building is like a giant fright machine, with every element, from the windowed elevator that allows elusive figures to be glimpsed just as they slip from view to the monstrous water tower that looms over the puddle-filled roof, engineered for maximum tension. There hasn’t been a thriller this formally taut since What Lies Beneath. That said, Nakata doesn’t always bridge the gap between his constantly escalating climaxes and the cloying sentimentality that underlies its machinations. Nevertheless, they’ll be filling in the fingernail-marks in the armrests for weeks after they show this one. --S.A. (4/6, 10:00, RE; 4/7, 5:30, RE)
DAVID HOCKNEY: SECRET KNOWLEDGE Artist David Hockney has an interesting theory: Painters have been using mirrors and lenses to project traceable simulacra of their subjects onto their canvases since the High Renaissance, much earlier than most art historians previously thought. In this film -- originally produced for the BBC program Omnibus -- and in a gorgeous coffee-table book of the same name, Hockney lays out his evidence, including: the precision of the lines of Ingres; the size of Caravaggio’s canvases; pictures with changes in focus and perspective; van Eyck’s improbably accurate rendering of complex objects; and the disproportionate number of portrait models that appear left-handed, as if their images had been reversed. It’s a compelling case, but the art world is far from sold, and a more objective production would also present the counterarguments. Hockney insists that the Old Masters weren’t cheating ("Optics don’t make marks"), but without the other side of the debate, it feels like smoke and mirrors. --R.G. (4/5, 2:30, ISM; 4/8, 5:00, IH)
THE EDUCATION OF GORE VIDAL This documentary by Deborah Dickson (LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton) ably recounts the history of Vidal, a man who’s done a fair amount of history-recounting himself. From his barbed take on Abraham Lincoln to his sympathetic rendering of Timothy McVeigh, Vidal has mainly chosen fiction as his weapon -- not to avoid the judgment of history, but to invoke it. Education eavesdrops on numerous interviews with Vidal, and features commentary from contemporaries like George Plimpton and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as well as excerpts from his work read by kindred spirits Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. The trouble is that Vidal, who’s spent a lifetime knocking idols off their pedestals -- or at least clambering atop them to look his subjects in the eye -- has developed a cult of his own. Vintage shouting matches with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley (who offers to sock him in the nose) have no contemporary equivalent; Vidal essentially gets a free pass for the post-Watergate era, which hardly serves such an eager debater well. The film, produced for PBS’ American Masters series, is all but certain to turn up on TV eventually, but you can’t beat the festival’s timing. --S.A. (4/6, 2:00, IH*; 4/13, 7:15, IH*)
800 BULLETS Although most of festival honoree Alex de la Iglesia’s movies have been inaccessible to American audiences, you get the sense just from looking at his titles -- Mutant Action, Day of the Beast et al. -- that judging the director by this glossy in-joke satire is a little like trying to extrapolate Peter Jackson’s oeuvre from The Lord of the Rings. Bullets’ Spielbergian setup follows a runaway child lured from home by unanswered questions regarding the death of his father, and the existence of a mysterious grandfather who turns out to be a former stuntman for Spanish-made American Westerns. Julian (Sancho Gracia) is reduced to falling off roofs for tourists these days, but he still cherishes the memory of a time when he wore Clint Eastwood’s poncho, leading to a confrontation with his daughter-in-law, who means to level the "Texas-Hollywood" attraction where Julian and his fellow mock-outlaws make camp. (It’s typical of the movie’s approach that the park, essentially a movie set, is treated like a historic landmark.) Bullets’ self-referentiality becomes a little exhausting, and you can feel de la Iglesia keeping his black humor in check; even last year’s Common Wealth had more kick. Good news for fans, though; plans for a near-complete retrospective came together after the festival’s catalog was printed, so check the festival’s website for info on Friday/Saturday midnight screenings of Dying of Laughter, Day of the Beast and Common Wealth, to add to the already-scheduled Mutant Action. --S.A. (4/6, 9:30, PMT*; 4/8, 7:15, TB*)
FÜHRER EX Based on Ingo Hasselbach’s memoir, Führer Ex is an examination of how violence begets violence, and how political views are shaped by personal experience. Things seem bright enough for Heiko and Tommy, two teenage punks in late-1980s East Berlin who hang out at local bars and pull pranks to buck authority. But when the pair plans an escape to Australia, they are captured and placed in a communist prison. Inside, they witness chaotic, brutal violence. Tommy aligns himself early on with prison Nazis, winning favors and protecting himself from gangs. Heiko, the less cynical of the two, resists on political principles, a decision he later regrets, and when he emerges into a reunified Germany, Heiko is a hardened Nazi. Fine direction and acting show a believable character transformation rarely achieved on film, and Führer Ex skillfully manages to convey the cultural and political forces that have given rise to neo-Nazism in modern Germany. --E.L. (4/4, 6:15, TB; 4/7, noon, RE; 4/8, 7:30, R5)
INVISIBLE MOUNTAINS There are few genres more dead-end than the artistic coming-of-age tale, and few arts harder to depict onscreen than painting. (Jackson Pollock aside, it’s hard to get excited about watching people pick up a brush.) Luckily, writer/director Richard Power Hoffmann’s debut keeps the stakes low, and adopts a pleasantly ambling pace, which eliminates the need for trite "lessons." As a (literally) wounded young painter, Paul Weil seems to have more hair than head, listening quietly while advice, none of it wholly good, comes from every angle. If, like Weil’s hair, the movie goes in too many directions, and the rotoscope animation meant to bring his inner visions to light seems haphazardly employed, Invisible Mountains’ realism and heart are never in doubt. --S.A. (4/4, 7:00, ISM*; 4/12, 2:30, ISM*)
LOOK OUT HASKELL, IT'S REAL!: THE MAKING OF MEDIUM COOL Paul Cronin’s man-with-a-DV-camera style leaves a lot to be desired, but this roughshod documentary offers insight not just for fans of Haskell Wexler’s movie, but for anyone with an interest in the intersection of politics and art. (In an ideal world, that’d be everyone, but it’s probably enough to fill the Seaport Museum’s 500-plus seats.) Look Out Haskell takes its name from a line in Medium Cool that accompanies footage of a tear-gas cloud visibly drifting towards the camera as Wexler filmed during the 1968 Chicago riots. The line was, in fact, dubbed over later since Wexler was shooting without sound, but, he says here, it’s just about exactly what he was thinking. Cronin devotes most of his efforts to placing Medium Cool in the context of the times, unfortunately neglecting the equally fascinating context of Wexler’s own career. But the scads of unused Medium Cool footage (none of which is included on Paramount’s DVD) is a real find. The screening is followed by an on-stage interview with Wexler, conducted by critic David Sterritt. --S.A. (4/8, 7:00, ISM*)
A LOVING FATHER No one does wretchedly, miserably dysfunctional like the French, and A Loving Father, starring Gérard Depardieu and his real-life son, Guillaume, is further proof, taking viewers to the depths of a relationship between an esteemed author (Gérard), who can charitably be called distant, and his estranged (formerly) drug-addled son (Guillaume) and slavish daughter (Sylvie Testud). Though director Jacob Berger gets bogged down in the beginning with needless flashbacks, this beautifully shot ode to broken families picks up speed, quite literally, as the senior Depardieu’s character -- riding a motorcycle en route to pick up his Nobel Prize -- is chased by his emotionally abandoned son. A horrible accident leads to the son kidnapping the father and a chance to air old grievances. Alas, this has no fairy-tale ending. Grab a parent (or child) and go see this rueful, dark film, which is bound to spark some interesting familial conversations. --Howard Altman (4/5, 7:30, RE*; 4/6, 12:15, PMT*)
MAN WITHOUT A PAST Aki Kaurismäki’s wit is as dry as the tundra, and amply on display in this wry, bleak comedy. Markku Peltola plays a man who essentially has his identity beaten out of him; he’s set upon by thugs, and awakes with no memory of his life before. Man Without a Past can be a bit rarefied at times, so restrained it almost dries up and blows away, but it leaves a pleasant aftertaste. --S.A. (4/8, 9:30, PMT; 4/10, 2:45, RE)
MONDAYS IN THE SUN Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s drama of economic despair may be set in Galicia, Spain, but the postindustrial world it depicts is universally recognizable. When a shipbuilding factory closes its doors, three laid-off dockworkers find themselves, in between fruitless attempts at finding new employment, meeting at a bar run by another ex-dockworker. Through their discussions we find that each of the men confronts his situation differently -- with anger, with desperation, with impotence -- but all three struggle with an eroding sense of manhood. Santa, fiercely portrayed by Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), holds to his Marxist principles, insisting that the workers should have united against the management and resisting paying for damages he owes his former employer, but even he is dampened by a feeling of futility. De Aranoa has clearly taken a cue from Ken Loach in this talky but immaculately paced look at the indignities a global economy inflicts on its working class. --E.L. (4/8, 7:30, RE; 4/11, 2:30, RE)
MY ARCHITECT: A SON'S JOURNEY The Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania may not seem that interesting to us, the architecturally ignorant, but the building is a modernist masterpiece, the only major work in Philadelphia by the city’s adopted son, Louis Kahn. First-time filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn wants to like The Richards Center not least of all because Louis was his father, who died when Nathaniel was a child and without publicly acknowledging Nathaniel’s existence. My Architect works well as a primer on the great works and mysterious, secretive life of one of the foremost structural innovators of the 20th century. The film bogs, however, in conversations with Nathaniel’s mother and the members of Louis’ other, simultaneous families; it feels like we’re being asked to observe the documentarian’s therapy. There’s a claustrophobia to these scenes that’s wholly at odds with the architect’s emphasis on open space and expansiveness. --R.G. (4/4, 7:00, PMT*; 4/13, 2:30, R5*)
MY LIFE AS McDULL McDull is a little pink animated piglet whose life, even its most mundane aspects, is anything but dull. Even simple things are a challenge for McDull: One of the 75-minute film’s funniest scenes is McDull trying, unsuccessfully, to order fish balls -- a Seinfeldian bit of business that is funny even if you don’t read Cantonese. Director Yuen Kin-To’s absurdist mix of animation techniques -- the hand-drawn, two-dimensional South Park-ish McDull is blended with high-end computer animation -- gives McDull an eye-pleasing visual texture. That, combined with the staccato Cantonese vocal delivery, makes McDull an ethereal trip, enjoyable for animation enthusiasts (despite the hard-to-read, poorly translated subtitles) and little kids alike. My 3-year-old, who reads neither English nor Chinese, was mesmerized. Accompanying McDull is a wonderful German short called Mehmet, a seven-minute film about a dog from Turkey that shows what would happen (sort of) if the Three Stooges morphed into havoc-seeking neo-Nazi thugs. --H.A. (4/5, 4:45, RE; 4/6, 12:15, RE)
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS Alan Rudolph tends to make movies that are either brilliant (Afterglow) or simply awful (Trixie, Breakfast of Champions). Dentists, surprisingly, is neither. Insightful if heavy on the self-satisfied quirk, the film -- based on Jane Smiley’s story, "The Age of Grief" -- explores midlife marital discord among the Hursts, who share a dental practice, a house and three kids, but perhaps not the same vision of a healthy marriage. Campbell Scott, who seems to have hit his stride in his early 40s, makes poetry of his character’s cuckolded stiffness, though Hope Davis, as his wayward wife, flounders a bit in an underwritten role. Craig Lucas’ script is over-reliant on gimmickry; Denis Leary pops up as a foul-mouthed phantom adviser, while Rudolph dramatizes the hallucinations brought on by a household flu epidemic by having Robin Tunney’s dental assistant materialize in a shimmery dress and sing "Fever." (Get it?) Luckily, Secret Lives’ close-to-the-bone observations outweigh its excesses, although you wish they didn’t have to do battle quite so often. --S.A. (4/4, 9:30, PMT*; 4/5, 2:15, RE*)
SPELLBOUND In Toronto last fall, you could actually hear the rarely experienced phenomenon of "buzz" at work; everywhere you went, people seemed to be talking about Spellbound, to which their audience would inevitably reply, "Spelling bees?" Maybe spelling champions were the kids even the nerds made fun of, but Jeff Blitz’s piercing, engaging documentary finds that the American dream is alive and well, at least as far as the National Spelling Bee is concerned. Following eight children on their way to nationals, Blitz finds a true microcosm of American society, from the well-heeled New Haven family whose daughter all but expects to win to the recent immigrants from India who’ve tutored first one child and then the other in French and Spanish (in addition to Latin at school, of course), all in the hopes of mastering the art of spelling words no one’s ever heard of. ("Cephalalgia" comes up in the first round.) There’s enough drama on these kids’ faces to make for an epic miniseries, but Blitz ably boils it down in 95 minutes, elegantly interweaving stories once the big contest begins. Even at the end, Spellbound doesn’t falter; Blitz’s climax takes the emphasis off victory, pointing the way toward the post-orthographical future. --S.A. (4/6, 2:30, PMT*; 4/7, 7:15, R5*)
STONE READER Though Mark Moskowitz sets out looking for Dow Mossman, who wrote what Moskowitz calls "one great novel" and then vanished off the map, his literary detective story evolves into a love letter to the act of reading. So it’s not surprising that Stone Reader’s structure is more literary than filmic. Moskowitz’s discursive style, encompassing footage of the filmmaker raking leaves or taking his son to the fair, might strike some viewers as needlessly self-indulgent, but they’d be half-wrong -- self-indulgent, yes, but no more so than a chronicle of a hopeless quest should be. Moskowitz, whose background is in political commercials, plays needlessly fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking -- he "mails" a copy of the book to a friend, then happens to be standing by when he unwraps the package -- but the journey wins out in the end. --S.A. (4/5, 7:15, PMT*; 4/6, noon, RE*)
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE The second-best title in this year’s festival (after the short A Ninja Pays Half My Rent) is an apt one, although there’s not a clear choice for which character is the titular mister. The most sympathetic -- though not the most vengeful -- is Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute who resorts to kidnapping to raise funds for a kidney transplant for his ailing sister only to have everyone he loves meet violent ends. This isn’t quite the brutal neo-noir actioner promised by the catalog; it’s neither as flashy and style-dependent as last year’s killer-mute fest favorite Bangkok Dangerous, nor as excruciatingly sadistic as Miike Takashi’s Audition. The story unfurls languorously in artful master shots, which makes the occasional explosion into bodily trauma that much more startling, visceral and devastating. Sympathy is that rarest of creatures: the heartbreaking genre film. --R.G. (4/4, 8:30, TB; 4/6, 3:00, RE)
WAR Alexei Balabanov’s blunt drama seems constructed expressly to attack western naivete about the brutality of warfare, which either makes it incredibly timely or utterly redundant. Alexei Chadov, in a coldly effective performance, plays a Siberian soldier who leads a foppish British actor (Ian Kelly) into war-torn Chechnya to rescue the latter’s girlfriend from Islamic extremists. (The two were captured while performing Hamlet in Georgia.) Kelly may just play an annoying character too effectively, but you soon grow tired of his exasperated whining; when a man is pleading for his fiancee’s life, the foremost thought in your mind shouldn’t be wishing he would just shut it. It’s clear the movie’s heart is with Chadov, anyway, and his coldly pragmatic attitude. "This is war; you have to kill people to win," he says. The film’s low-budget production values only increase its authenticity; you doubt that’s a prop jeep they’re pushing over a cliff, and might even wonder if those rocket launchers might be the real deal. Bloody and confrontational, War is tough going, but worth the journey. (Note that the screening on April 5 has been cancelled.) --S.A. (4/4, 9:45, RE)
A WEDDING IN RAMALLAH Sherine Salama’s documentary shuttles between the West Bank and Cleveland, following Bassan, an émigré who’s returned home to meet his arranged bride and spirit her back to the U.S.A. All doesn’t go as planned, though; the intifadah starts, and passage to the American consulate in Jerusalem becomes impossible. (It could be worse; Bassan’s sister has been waiting eight years for her American husband to arrange for her emigration.) Avoiding easy stereotypes, Wedding embraces cross-culturalization in all its complexity, subverting simplistic dreams of American success while still rendering the country’s enduring allure. --S.A. (4/9, 5:00, IH; 4/10, 9:30, ISM)
WEST BANK BROOKLYN Inspired by his own experiences, Jordan-born Ghazi Albuliwi’s comedy isn’t long on craft, but resonates with a true depth of feeling, at least at times. The film’s portrait of a Palestinian community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood is incisive and fascinating, but Albuliwi dresses up the story in too many stock situations, from the successful son bucking his father’s insistence on arranged marriage to a character (played by Albuliwi himself) who starts pretending he’s Puerto Rican in order to feel more accepted. (Plagiarizing both Do the Right Thing and the comedian Bill Hicks doesn’t up the originality quotient.) Strong, honest performances from the leads keep West Bank steady, though, even when it ought to capsize. --S.A. (4/5, 9:45, IH*; 4/13, 7:30, ISM*)
WINGED MIGRATION Moments in Jacques Perrin’s documentary, which follows migrating birds in flight around the globe, almost defy belief: The camera seems to soar among them like, well, a bird, dipping and diving, so close you swear you could reach out and grab a feather. Waddling geese are transformed into sleek creatures of the sky, while birds that already seemed graceful become almost supernatural. A few moments break the spell, though; twice, when the camera is about to capture the food chain in all its merciless, fascinating splendor, Perrin cuts away, which seems more dishonest than tasteful -- edit that stuff out for the Discovery Channel, but leave it in for the theater. And though you’d think a film about birds couldn’t possibly have any political content, what else to make of a sequence where Perrin cuts from American hunters downing birds in flight to a flock flying past the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty? No Frog-basher I, but something smells fishy, and it ain’t just that seagull. --S.A. (4/5, 2:30, PMT*)