"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." -- Herman Melville

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

March 30-April 11, 2006

Philadelphia Film Festival 2006

The 15th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival is upon us and I'll be keeping a running list of reviews below. For coverage of past festivals, check out the Movies Archive. Of course, emails (marc@shadowbloom.com) are always welcome. Enjoy!

Note: After every review is a link to each film's page on the Philadelphia Film Festival web site and on The Internet Movie Database (and if you check out the "Reviews" tab for each movie on the PFF site, I've put up abbreviated versions of these reviews under user name Wintermute).

Akeelah and the Bee
US 2006, Written and Directed by Doug Atchison
Prince Music Theatre: 03/30/06: 6:00pm: 105 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

A crowd-pleasing kickoff for this year's fest, Akeelah takes a worn and familiar framework and transplants it into the surreal world of spelling bees with surprising success. The details change, but we've all seen this one before: young underachiever rises above fierce competition thanks to heart, drive, and an impassioned mentor. There's even not one, but two, inspirational "I can do it!" training montages (the first is straight out of the Rocky playbook, but the second playfully demonstrates how Akeelah is competing not only for herself, but for the pride of her whole community). Thankfully, Atchison mines the spelling bee setting for plenty of kind-hearted laughs with a keen eye for the details (the overbearing parents vicariously feeding off their child's success; idiosyncratic competitors including criers, shakers, starers, and a few clowns (Javier's rhesus monkey routine in particular recalled one Napolean Dynomite fan)). Laurence Fishburne does his best with the "grizzled mentor with a heart of gold" role, but I kept waiting for him to slip out a "You are the One, Akeelah." In the Hollywood whitewashed version of this movie that luckily wasn't made, Fishburne's character would have been played by a white actor (shades of Finding Forrester--indeed, in a Q&A after the film Atchison said that was one of the changes requested by studios when he was shopping the movie around). There are some fun supporting roles (Crabman has a nice cameo and, wait, is that Booger playing a middle school principal now?!) and Atchison gets extra credit for finding a sneaky way to give his movie its best possible ending. A wonderful family film.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
US 2006, Directed by Kirby Dick
Written by Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt
Prince Music Theatre: 03/31/06: 7:30pm: 97 min
(***) of four

With so many reasons to despise and distrust the MPAA, a documentary expose tub-thumping their overwhelming hypocrisy should have been an easy home run. Unfortunately, Dick focuses so intently on the MPAA's secrecy that his zeal for unmasking its raters overshadows what should have been a more thorough examination of how adult-themed cinema can coexist with a restrictive ratings system. The various interviewees flirt with these issues (Kimberly Peirce questions a male-centric industry denying female pleasure on film; Matt Stone relays how the MPAA wouldn't provide a list of specific problems with indie Orgazmo (because "that would be censorship"), but when they had big studio backing for Team America, the raters were more than happy to provide a list of edits to help reach an R rating), but Dick is too busy pursuing the raters to dwell on any of them. While I loved the muckraking reveals, they should have been a much smaller part of the film. At times, I thought I was suddenly watching a doc on private investigators (instead, the PI stuff should have been trimmed considerably from Rated and then expanded into a separate featurette on the DVD). Like Michael Moore going after Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine, it's a stunt and barely moves the dialogue along. Piracy gets only a cursory mention (and region-coding is ignored altogether) and conspicuously absent are any plans to reform the system. Rated picks up steam at the end when Dick enters the ratings process himself, but all said the movie is something of a missed opportunity. MPAA-haters shouldn't miss it, but there's more work to be done.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Feed
Australia 2005, Directed by Brett Leonard
Written by Kieran Galvin
Prince Music Theatre: 03/31/06: 10:00pm: 109 min
(**) of four

Feed continues the time-honored, annual festival tradition of introducing me to deviant sexual fetishes that I wish had stayed unknown. This year's entry is the twisted world of feeders and gainers: men who get off by feeding and caring for obscenely obese women. However, the filmmakers' fatal flaw is not realizing that a straight-up drama about this co-dependent relationship would have been infinitely more fascinating than the by-the-numbers, hackneyed "rogue feeder serial killer" thriller it devolves into. With frequent parallel cuts between cybercop Phillip's rough sex with his girlfriend and feeder Michael's bizarre sexual routines, director Leonard and writer Galvin beat us over the head with their contention that no one can say what is truly "normal," but they soon abandon this angle once the script requires Michael to go off the deep end with a gambling plot device painfully shoehorned into the story. There are some crass soundtrack choices ("Tainted Love" and "Yummy Yummy Yummy"), one embarassingly edited fight scene (that actually had the audience laughing), and your typical morphine-drip slash editing. Producer Melissa Beauford said that part of the reason they made the movie was to introduce an unknowing public to this subculture and, in that regard, the movie succeeds and earns my recommendation for a rental by you hardcore horror fans who want to say they've seen everything. Don't expect something special, though.

On a separate note, I found it somewhat disingenous to be told before the movie that TLA Releasing is spinning off the Danger After Dark series into a new DVD line and that Feed will be the first release. I think the idea is great (how about giving The Uninvited and Survive Style 5+ their chance on DVD?), but it was a little unsettling that the hype surrounding Feed stank of a bait-and-switch marketing device (curiously, none of the local papers reviewed the movie). I have faith in Danger programmer Travis Crawford that the series won't degrade into a showcase for TLA's upcoming releases, but we'll see. For what it's worth, though, it was pretty cool that the Q&A afterwards was recorded for the DVD.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

The Four Kings of Silent Comedy: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy
Various writers, directors, years (1916-1929)
Prince Music Theatre: 04/01/06: 12:30pm
(*** and 1/2) of four

This year's silent film selection is a collection of five short films from some of the masters. Not surprisingly, the two Buster Keaton shorts are the best (one of my all-time Philly Fest highlights is a screening of The General with live musical accompaniment). Keaton's hangdog Everyman persona has always appealed to me more than Charlie Chaplin's vaudevillian Little Tramp, who seems decidedly aged now (and comes off as more than a little obnoxious in the disappointing short "The Fireman" included here). Keaton's peerless stuntwork and imagination are on full display in "The Balloonatic" (featuring bears and some perilous work in a raging river) and "Cops" (with its hilarious see-saw and a chase scene with every cop in the city in pursuit). Laurel & Hardy also deserve credit for their impressive highwire, Harold Lloyd act in "Liberty." All five shorts featured live music by Don Kinnier, who even tossed in some sound effects for good measure. A wonderful afternoon with the classics, next year I want a Keaton retrospective.
(PFF)

District 13
France 2004, Directed by Pierre Morel
Written by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri
The Bridge: 04/01/06: 5:15pm: 85 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

District 13 plays out as a political allegory in a 2010 French society where the upper-class rulers have resorted to a Final Solution for crime and unrest in the lower-class districts. Reflecting the present-day riots that have erupted in Paris--nah, fuck it--this is all just an excuse for a nonstop parade of death-defying acrobatics, chases, and brawls. Inspired by the French sport parkour (previously seen in those old Nike Presto ads I'm always raving about), stars David Belle (one of the sport's co-creators) and Cyril Raffaelli run, leap, and climb with fierce abandon across the urban sprawl. Most impressive are the staggering distances they can drop without crushing their knees. There's one of those villains who must keep a large pool of henchmen in waiting because he never hesitates to kill his soldiers for insubordination or failure and, topping it all off, there's even a ticking-down neutron bomb to add some urgency. If you're going to start bitching about the thin plot or belabored political subtext, move on, there's nothing to see here. But if it's ass-kicking and stuntwork of the highest order you're looking for, time to take a trip into the District.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Shadowboxer
US 2005, Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Will Rokos
Prince Music Theatre: 04/01/06: 7:30pm: 93 min
(* and 1/2) of four

Your mileage may vary, but the print I saw of Shadowboxer was stunning, full of vibrant, rich colors and some breathtaking, widescreen scenery-porn shots of our lovely Philadelphia. I don't know if the city has ever been captured so beautifully on film. Too bad everything else about the movie is such an astounding failure, from the laughable script and exaggerated characters to the stilted performances and gratuitous everything. While Cuba Gooding Jr. never shifts out of neutral, Stephen Dorff goes way, way over the top as Kingston, glomming tricks from the Tony Montana handbook while overlooking the soul Pacino infused into the role (for a Main Line gangster who's not a broad caricature, check out William Hurt's performance in A History of Violence). There's no character development to speak of, doubly frustrating since every role is a thinly-sketched genre stereotype. As if the Gooding/Helen Mirren pairing weren't already implausible enough (and Rokos only gives us throwaway stabs at their motivations), Daniels tosses in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo'Nique, one of the most painfully unrealistic, jarringly mismatched couples in cinema history (especially since they serve only to push the plot forward near the end). In a woefully misguided attempt at Tarantino "edginess," there's enough awkward and uncomfortable sexuality to make two more American Pies and a Catherine Breillat film (including a far-out-of-place masturbation scene keyed off by a lingering shot of Gooding's ass). Capped off with an out-of-nowhere ending it did nothing to earn, it's a train wreck of a film. I think Daniels shows some promise, but hopefully he can curb his self-indulgence for his next film (apparently a biopic of Hendrix starring Lenny Kravitz--I'm very wary).
(PFF)    (IMDb)

A Bittersweet Life
South Korea 2005, Written and Directed by Kim Ji-woon
The Bridge: 04/01/06: 9:45pm: 120 min
(***) of four

A smoldering gangland revenge story with a familiar plot told with confidence and plenty of blood by A Tale of Two Sisters director Kim. Sun-woo is a mob enforcer working at a city nightclub. He is contracted to follow his boss's wife to make sure she is not having an affair. When he unexpectedly has a moral pang and is unable to follow through on the assignment, he's beaten, buried alive, and left for dead. Needless to say, when he escapes, he's pissed and it's time for everyone to die. Kim keeps Life grounded in hardboiled stoicism without resorting to melodrama or stylish overkill. The color palette is dark and cold with shocks of white light in the club that are soon splashed with impressive arterial sprays in the climactic shootouts. It's nothing groundbreaking, but another solid entry in a crowded genre.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

The Sun
Russia/France/Italy/Switzerland 2005, Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by Yury Arabov
Ritz Five: 04/02/06: 12:00pm: 110 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

Set in the hermetic, sterile hallways and rooms of an underground bunker, The Sun tightly focuses on Japanese Emperor Hirohito during the final throes of World War II before Japan's unconditional surrender. Issey Ogata (a favorite of mine after Yi Yi) gives a masterful performance as the Emperor, his every movement careful, deliberated, and only betrayed by a facial tick that keeps his mouth moving but silent, as if his mind is too exhausted to give his body voice. Wearied by the long war and questioning his role in history, Hirohito prepares to renounce the divine nature of the Emperor, much to the chagrin and suppressed anger of his remaining advisors and warhawks who are all ready to battle to the end. As Hirohito speaks in broken English to General MacArthur, the Japanese translator employed by the Americans plaintively tells him, "A deity in this imperfect world can only speak in Japanese." The solemn, glacial pacing befits the somber mood and keeps The Sun at a much lower volume than the similarly-themed Downfall. A challenging, but rewarding, festival entry.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

A Lion in the House
US 2006, Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
International House: 04/02/06: 2:00pm: 225 min
(****) of four

A moving and quietly beautiful portrait of families coping with the unthinkable, Lion follows five children with cancer through the ebb and flow of the recovery and treatment process. Filmed over six years, we witness the cautious optimism of remission (with the shadow of fear of relapse always lurking in the background) through the painful, gradual realization of the hopelessness of treatment. The long running time ensures that we become emotionally invested in the children in a much deeper, more poignant way than pat, tearjerking news stories and the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Pity Machine and its ilk. It also allows us to see the paralyzing reverberations the sickness has across the whole family. There are no Hollywood happy endings to be found here (you'll have a good cry), but it leaves you inspired and hopeful that, no matter how devastating the hardships, the human spirit will endure. Lion runs four hours (with intermission), but not for a second did I think it was too long. It's on the festival circuit now, but apparently will be shown on PBS near the end of the year. It's an experience you won't forget.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Midnight, My Love
Thailand 2005, Written and Directed by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
Ritz East: 04/02/06: 7:15pm: 100 min
(***) of four

Sort of a more melancholy, less violent Taxi Driver set in Thailand, Midnight is the story of cabbie Bati, a lonely heart drifting aimlessly around the city while listening to his favorite radio DJ. He soon falls for prostitute Nual and begins a very tentative courtship. Petchtai Wongkamlao (of Ong-bak and Killer Tattoo) gives a soulful performance as Bati, old-fashioned and out-of-place in a mile-a-minute modern society. The radio drama fantasies starring Bati and Nual are charming and cleverly tongue-in-cheek, full of swelling music, dramatic zooms, and overwrought emotions. It only missteps in a bizarre sci-fi climax that spoils the delicate mood before the warm ending. It'll get nowhere near your local theatre, but is pleasant festival fare.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

The Descent
UK 2005, Written and Directed by Neil Marshall
Ritz East: 04/02/06: 10:00pm: 99 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

For those of you keeping track at home, the following are the places I will not be visiting in the near future: Slovakia (thank you Hostel), the New Mexico desert (ditto The Hills Have Eyes), and after The Descent I'm not getting the fuck anywhere near a cave any time soon. The latest from Dog Soldiers director Marshall tosses six women in an unmapped cave, traps them in there, and if that weren't enough, throws in some half-human, carnivorous creatures with a taste for human flesh. Plan your spelunking adventure today! The nocturnal cinematography is wondrous--as the women crawl along a narrow passageway, the camera slides along in front of them, trapping the audience with the characters (if you have any latent tendencies for claustrophobia, this'll bring them out). There are plenty of jump-scares that had the audience screaming, enough gore to satisfy your bloodlust (though it's not as visceral an experience as High Tension), and bonus points for any movie that finds good use for a huge pool of blood. I thought the underground creatures were a bit lame, but Marshall at least deserves credit for not making them hulking CG beasts (the CG bats in the beginning already look ridiculous enough). As straight-up horror goes, it's a tense, riveting time.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Hanging Garden
Japan 2005, Written and Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda
Based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta
Ritz Five: 04/03/06: 7:00pm: 113 min
(****) of four

After a four-star showing at the festival two years ago with Nine Souls, Toyoda returns with another winner, a deceptively conventional family drama that gradually reveals its deeper secrets. From the beautiful opening shot that circles an ornately-detailed light fixture and then moves down over a kitchen table at breakfast, Toyoda seizes control of the frame with startling confidence. The camera is always roving and prowling, tilting back and forth with the controlled sway of a plant in the titular garden, a reflection of the family's growing disconnection, as if they are dangling over a precipice and trying to hold themselves back. Toyoda's slight surreal touches blend well, leading to the climactic rain that washes the sins of her parents from embattled mother Eriko. While not as darkly comedic or energetic as Souls, it's a more mature work and clearly establishes Toyoda as an important filmmaker to watch.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Porcelain Doll
Hungary 2005, Written and Directed by Peter Gardos
Based on the short stories by Ervin Lazar
Ritz East: 04/03/06: 9:30pm: 75 min
(** and 1/2) of four

A collection of three stories based on the fairy tales by Lazar, Doll's most inventive, clever moments are sadly the opening and closing credits. The three tales themselves are too oblique and simple, though, focusing on a small Hungarian farming town and its inhabitants' encounters with increasingly strange visitors. The first is the best of the three; a young boy is forced to compete in an athletic competition against an intimidating group of soldiers. He keeps winning, much to the chagrin of the head officer, and the fatal consequences lead to an understated supernatural ending. The magical realism bent is appreciated, though it smacks of a cop-out to keep from having to fully flesh out each tale. It's not going to ruin your night or anything (I mean, seriously, it's only 75 minutes long) and it makes for nice festival fare (since Hungarian fables aren't exactly burning up your local cineplex), but it should have been more substantial.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Wristcutters: A Love Story
US 2006, Written and Directed by Goran Dukic
Based on a short story by Etgar Keret
Prince Music Theatre: 04/04/06: 5:15pm: 91 min
(***) of four

As the opening credits run, we watch as Zia (Patrick Fugit) purposefully cleans and organizes his apartment. With everything tidy and neat, he walks into the bathroom, takes out a razor, slashes his wrists, and crumbles to the ground. We're then taken into the suicides afterworld where, as Zia tells us, "Everything's the same here, just a little worse." Colors are washed out, the sky is a constant gray overcast, no one can smile, no stars in the sky, and the landscapes are barren and stark (naturally, it was filmed in L.A.) When Zia learns that his once-girlfriend Desiree also "offed" shortly after Zia's suicide, he goes on a road trip to find her. Dukic has fun filling this Sartian afterlife with little surreal touches (that black hole under your car seat where you keep losing things becomes a literal black hole in this afterworld), but the love story is rather underdeveloped. After Zia spends the whole movie pining for Desiree, their relationship suddenly 180's way too quickly and easily simply for the convenience of the happy ending. Wristcutters isn't the revelation it was hyped to be at Sundance, but it's a quirky little winner.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Twelve and Holding
US 2005, Directed by Michael Cuesta
Written by Anthony Cipriano
Ritz East: 04/04/06: 7:30pm: 90 min
(***) of four

For Cuesta's next film after 2001's L.I.E., he's jumped back into the rough and tumble world of kids, this time tweeners who've just traumatically lost their best friend in Twelve and Holding. Par for the course for Cuesta, he skirts a dangerous line with the various storylines. One malicious step in the wrong direction and my opinion of Twelve would have plummeted. Thankfully, Cuesta respects the audience enough to take us to the edge, allow the considerable tension to grow as we fear the worst, and then hold our hand back to safety. A more mean-spirited director could have given in to the temptation for a more shocking ending and summarily would have torpedoed the film. The underrated Jeremy Renner (who exudes evil after a few years of North Country, S.W.A.T., and Dahmer) has thankfully been given a sympathetic role as pained construction worker Gus, the object of 12-year-old Malee's crush, and their climactic meeting has the viewers on pins and needles. There's a fair share of comic relief as well (mostly in overweight Leonard's zeal to start living healthfully) and Cuesta navigates the disparate material well without the film becoming disjointed. With very few filmmakers willing to make films for adults about kids, Cuesta deserves credit for tackling such sensitive subjects.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Lady Vengeance
South Korea 2005, Directed by Park Chan-wook
Written by Park Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-Gyeong
Ritz East: 04/04/06: 9:45pm: 112 min
(****) of four

A bittersweet coda to Park's brilliant "Revenge Trilogy," Lady wisely doesn't attempt to be Old Boy 2 and takes a more restrained, carefully-calculated approach. Upon her release from prison after 13 years, Geum-ja begins putting into action a Plan to seek revenge against the man who blackmailed her into the sentence. Breaking from Old Boy's one-on-one showdown, here Geum-ja enlists the help of others, gradually building to a cathartic confrontation where the many strike back against the one who has made them all suffer. The black humor and over-the-top action of Old Boy have been scaled back as well, allowing the intermittent shocks of violence to have more emotional impact. While proceeding along a fairly linear path, the narrative is fractured with multiple narrations, quick flashbacks when characters are introduced, and it keeps just enough back from the viewer to allow the climax to surprise without making us feel jerked around. Now that the Trilogy is out of his system, I'm very curious what direction Park will go in next. I'll be waiting anxiously.

Brief shoutout of hate to whomever messed up the projection. I honestly didn't even notice, but apparently two reels were shown out of order (and here I thought it was just the narrative style). There have been a number of projection problems at various screenings (mostly just misframings that were quickly corrected), but this one was an egregious mistake, especially since this was our one and only shot at Lady during the festival (and if Old Boy's any clue, it won't be returning to Philly during its limited theatrical run). Exceedingly frustrating.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Joni's Promise
Indonesia 2005, Written and Directed by Joko Anwar
Ritz East: 04/05/06: 5:00pm: 85 min
(** and 1/2) of four

A pleasant, but overly familiar, romantic comedy from Indonesia, Promise spoils a perfect setup with stale supporting characters and a surprisingly unfunny script. Promise gets off to a great start with Joni relating how we speak in film and let it form our identities (including a wonderful shot that hovers over a crowded movie theater as Joni introduces us to the ten types of movie-goers). It sounds like great cinephile festival fare, except that once Joni heads out for his Day From Hell, all of this cleverness is quickly jettisoned for a cavalcade of bad luck, "D'oh!" moments, and shake-your-head frustration. Of course, this would all be fine if the script were funny, but we just end up feeling bad for Joni (especially in the sadistic scene with the avant-garde artist). Sure, it all works out in the end, but the obligatory happy ending could have been much more satisfying (would it have killed Anwar to let Joni get to the theater just ten minutes earlier? or how about a flash-forward ending that finds him a movie star after his earlier cameo on the film set?) If this is your cup of tea, enjoy, but don't go out of your way for it.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Shame of a City
US 2006, Directed by Tigre Hill
Cinema at Penn: 04/06/06: 5:00pm: 90 min
(**) of four

Saying there's corruption in Philadelphia politics is like saying there's sand in the desert, so when Republican Sam Katz was beating incumbent Democrat John Street in polls leading up to the 2003 Mayoral election in a traditionally liberal city, it became a national news story. As Shame chronicles, it only took a few weeks for everything to collapse for the Katz campaign. The discovery of an FBI-sanctioned/Ashcroft-approved bug in the Mayor's office (placed there as part of an ongoing investigation into pay-to-play schemes in city government) allowed Street to play a whole deck of race cards, galvanizing his base and quickly erasing Katz's lead. Shame traces the momentum of these last weeks, but doesn't delve deeply enough into the ramifications. There are the required clips of reporters and analysts, but the bulk of the footage is taken from news stories and press conferences. Sadly, this means Shame is awash in a sea of bullshit as each candidate spins like a Tilt-A-Whirl. While Street's omission from the interview clips is understandable (given that he's cast as the villain), Katz's absence is especially glaring and it would have been worthwhile to hear his thoughts on the race now that some time has passed and he doesn't have to keep up appearances. But instead it's all BS and lingering slo-mo shots of Katz walking down the street looking like a beaten dog. Some of the footage is priceless (the 1981 clip of then-Councilman Street shoving a reporter never gets old and even more telling is the hail of boos thrown at Street at the opening of Citizens Bank Park shortly after his reelection) and the closing montage of indictments and convictions is chilling, but there's not enough here to recommend. It's hard to see the audience for Shame. Philly crowds have already heard more than enough about this race (it did happen less than three years ago after all) and Hill doesn't extrapolate what this election says about racial politics and corruption on a national level, lessening its dramatic weight outside the Philadelphia media market. Disappointing.
(PFF)

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
UK/Germany/France, Directed by the Quay Brothers
Written by the Quay Brothers and Alan Passes
Ritz Five: 04/07/06: 5:00pm: 99 min
(**) of four

A bout of artistic masturbation, Earthquakes is armed with a cool title, some nifty stop-motion automata, and very little else. In what's passing as a "story," Amira Casar (and, if you're wondering, yes, it's still awkward looking at Casar after Anatomy of Hell, like we hooked up drunk at a party one night and it ended with her throwing up on me...or something...) plays an opera singer who's murdered and kidnapped (in that order) by some crazy fuck who wants to bring her back to life in his forbidding mountain castle. It certainly isn't worth going any further with the nonsensical plot because the Quay Brothers definitely didn't. Now, I know looking for reason in these movies is completely beside the point, but even The Decay of Fiction (from the 2003 fest) had a method to its madness. In Earthquakes, I could have easily done without the ponderous, pretentious dialogue ("He's a forest no one can inhabit," not to mention something about female opera fans listening only with their clitoris) and drawn-out, achingly-slow pacing. The gorgeously animated automata deserved much more screen time and I would have happily replaced half the dialogue with footage of them. Maybe you'll slip into its trance, but I know I didn't.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

LOL
US 2006, Directed by Joe Swanberg
Written by Joe Swanberg, Kevin Bewersdorf, and C. Mason Wells
Cinema at Penn: 04/07/06: 7:30pm: 82 min
(***) of four

A zero budget, largely improvised look at how cell phones and computers, devices ostensibly designed to bring people together, are actually pushing away those around us while regressing our interpersonal skills, LOL follows three 20-something men who are too busy texting and checking their email to actually go out and live their lives. The bare bones production values and scattered narrative structure will likely frustrate many viewers, but the fantastic sound collages interspersed throughout lull you onto the film's wavelength. Swanberg doesn't overplay the misogynistic undercurrent that would make Neil LaBute proud (Tim and Chris sit on the couch with their laptops IM'ing each other and laughing about Tim's girlfriend while she sits on the floor in front of them). It'll hit close to home at times--don't think it was lost on me that I spent the whole movie constantly checking my cell phone for the latest Phillies score.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Fuck
US 2005, Directed by Steve Anderson
Cinema at Penn: 04/07/06: 10:00pm: 91 min
(** and 1/2) of four

Ahh, at last, a documentary about one of the most glorious words in the English language. As such, it's about what you'd expect. There are the requisite film clips (including Punch-Drunk Love, Sideways ("I'm not drinking any fucking Merlot"), and Pulp Fiction (because naturally Samuel L. Jackson needed to be included)) and random celebrity blurbs (Billy Connolly continues to be my hero, but who the fuck decided that human waste Alan Keyes was qualified to talk about anything?) George Carlin is well-represented with a generous amount of concert footage (that I committed to memory a long time ago), but why couldn't they get him for an interview? His appearance would have elevated the whole movie. My personal favorite fuckers also missing from the movie? Thanks for asking. Jack Black swears like an artform and I would have loved a Tenacious D clip (how about from "Kielbasa:" "It's Tenacious D time, you motherfuckers, go! Fuck yeah!!") and I doubt anyone else will know what I'm talking about, but comedian Louis CK did an amazing bit in an HBO half-hour special years ago on different ways to say "fuck you." Fuck never turns off the cruise control and only gives a cursory glance at the serious questions of censorship, so there isn't too much to get worked up about good or bad. If you catch it on cable one night (unedited, of course), you'll have a good time.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Hell
Thailand 2005, Directed by Teekhayu Thammanittayakul and Sathit Pratitsahn
Written by Marisa Mullikamarl
Ritz Five: 04/08/06: 2:30pm: 90 min
(** and 1/2) of four

Seriously, between this and Wristcutters, the Devil has really got to get his shit together and start patching up the loopholes and clerical errors. If I'm going to be sent to hell to be tortured for eternity, I want to at least enjoy a nice lecherous life beforehand so I deserve it and not be tossed in there because some clumsy demon misfiled my record. Anyway, there's not much to see here. A movie crew are killed in a car accident, thrown into the pits of hell, and try to find a way out (thanks to some blather about a few of them still being alive on the other side, etc.) Basically just an excuse for overwrought special effects and mud people. Good instruction manual, though. Now I know all I need to do is slip on an obvious disguise and that's good enough to sneak past the Barbarian Guardians of Hell unseen. I'll file that nugget away. But, for what it's worth, any movie that has the line "She was eaten by disgusting infant ghosts" has got to be worth something...

And, no, unfortunately, I couldn't follow up Fuck and Hell with Damn, Shit, or Ass, but don't think I didn't look.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

The King
US/UK 2005, Directed by James Marsh
Written by Milo Addica and James Marsh
Ritz East: 04/08/06: 5:00pm: 105 min
(** and 1/2) of four

Gael Garcia Bernal gives yet another excellent performance, but Marsh and Addica's script keeps Bernal from really delving into his character's insecurity and moral disconnect, stifling any empathetic bond we have with him. Bernal's sphinx-like face belies his considerable internal conflict, but we're given very little insight before Elvis's sociopathy becomes glaring. This insistence on hiding Elvis's motivations robs the dark ending of emotional resonance by going for shock value rather than letting the ending grow organically. After pulling the rug out, the film ends very suddenly when we even more want to explore Elvis's psyche. This approach is no doubt intentional, but it's also an easy way out to keep from having to try to answer these difficult questions.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Hard Candy
US 2005, Directed by David Slade
Written by Brian Nelson
Ritz East: 04/08/06: 7:15pm: 103 min
(****) of four

If you want to do yourself a favor, stay far, far away from any spoilers or plot summaries for Candy. I barely want to write anything about it. Basically, a precocious 14-year-old girl meets up with a 32-year-old photographer she met online and chaos ensues. Just leave it at that--no need to ruin the overwhelming psychological tension, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and oh-god-where-is-this-going-now momentum. When it premiered in festivals last year, it was one of those polarizing films where people either ran screaming out the theatre spitting vitriol or hailed it as masterful. Obviously, I'm in the latter camp. The two leads (Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson) match perfectly and give brave, harrowing performances. Slade's camera prowls the hallways, holding just enough back from the audience's too-curious eyes. The disturbing subject matter and relentless pace should and will turn some away, but if you're intrigued, don't miss it. Unlike most of the movies in the festival, this one is already slated for release and should hit your local art house in the next few weeks.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Tokyo Zombie
Japan 2005, Written and Directed by Sakichi Sato
Based on the manga by Yusaku Hanakuma
Prince Music Theatre: 04/08/06: 10:00pm: 103 min
(* and 1/2) of four

On paper, it's got everything going for it. Sakichi Sato (who wrote Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer and Gozu) makes his directorial debut in a zombie comedy starring Tadanobu Asano (of Survive Style 5+ and Kitano's Zatoichi, among many others) in a kick ass afro (just check out the PFF link). How can this lose? Oh right, with a shockingly unfunny script, interminable wrestling scenes, bad gay jokes repeated ad nauseam, not nearly enough gore/violence (save for a great fire extinguisher beheading in the beginning), and a lack of any imaginative set pieces (with the exception of Black Fuji). The Land of the Dead second half is labored and straddles the line between parody and horror, choosing neither and failing at both. After a while I really just wanted it to end so I could go home (it has the dubious distinction of being the only festival movie that during I found myself doodling in my notes out of boredom). Not helping matters was yet another projection problem. Maybe if you're horribly drunk it'll work its limited magic (though it might just put you to sleep), but it was one of my bigger disappointments in the festival.
(PFF)    (IMDb)

Friends With Money
US 2006, Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Prince Music Theatre: 04/11/06: 7:15pm: 88 min
(***) of four

Not nearly as annoying as I worried it would be after hearing the premise, yes, it's about spoiled rich women, but Holofcener wisely lets their wealth occasionally take a back seat to their considerable neuroses. Frances McDormand rips loose with one of her angriest performances, bitching out waiters, retail clerks, and lashing out at anyone that looks at her wrong. Her is-he-gay? husband (well played by Simon McBurney) provides much of the comic relief, but thankfully Holofcener doesn't give in to the temptation for a cheap plot twist. Joan Cusack and Greg Germann aren't given much to do, though, and their relationship floats through Money with little direction. The only serious misstep is a last-minute surprise in Aniston's orbit that is completely unnecessary, reeks of Sex and the City faux-feminist selfishness, and tosses out the growth her character shows beforehand. It's nothing special, but you can certainly have a much worse time at the theater.
(PFF)    (IMDb)


POSTSCRIPT
As of this writing, the festival's a few months behind us now, but some of the movies I missed have returned during their theatrical runs. Here are links to reviews of movies that played in the Festival, but I'm only getting to now:

June 28, 2006: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

July 13, 2006: The Proposition

July 13, 2006: The Heart of the Game