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

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February 23, 2008

All right, here's the deal. I had a somewhat disappointing 2007 for seeing movies, so I feel less informed than usual with my Oscar picks. That combined with how last minute this post is means my predictions are more streamlined this year. Let's give this a try...

Academy Awards 2008


--Atonement - Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
--Juno - Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick, Russell Smith
--Michael Clayton - Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent
--No Country for Old Men - Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin
--There Will Be Blood - Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar

Will Win: Atonement
Should Win: There Will Be Blood
Comments: I'm going to take a chance here. I don't think this is going to be a big year for any single movie and Atonement has a time-tested Best Picture pedigree: based on an acclaimed novel, starring two respected young actors (James McAvoy and Keira Knightley), epic scope, sweeping melodrama. Juno has a large base of fans, but Little Miss Sunshine didn't win last year. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have won plenty of awards, but I think the similarly stark films will split their vote here, letting Atonement slip in.


--George Clooney for Michael Clayton
--Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood
--Johnny Depp for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
--Tommy Lee Jones for In the Valley of Elah
--Viggo Mortensen for Eastern Promises

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Comments: An easy choice: Daniel Day-Lewis dominates the screen in Blood and will win his second Oscar (in four nominations). If there's a spoiler, though, it'll likely be Johnny Depp for another fearless performance.


--Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth: The Golden Age
--Julie Christie for Away from Her
--Marion Cotillard for La Mome
--Laura Linney for The Savages
--Ellen Page for Juno

Will Win: Julie Christie
Should Win: Julie Christie
Comments: Except for Diablo Cody (see below), the nomination is the award for the rest of the Juno nominees, including Ellen Page. I don't think this is the last time we'll see her here, though. Christie won this award way back in 1966 for Darling and is poised to pick up her second 42 years later. Her slipping-away performance is simply heartbreaking. That said, Laura Linney is overdue for an Oscar and could represent the night's big win for The Savages. It's only a matter of time until Cate Blanchett wins this award, but Elizabeth: The Golden Age won't be the movie to do it.


--Casey Affleck for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
--Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men
--Philip Seymour Hoffman for Charlie Wilson's War
--Hal Holbrook for Into the Wild
--Tom Wilkinson for Michael Clayton

Will Win: Javier Bardem
Should Win: Javier Bardem
Comments: Possibly the biggest lock of the night, Javier's performance in No Country oozes cold, dispassionate evil. There's some very respected competition, but no one else is even close this year.


--Cate Blanchett for I'm Not There
--Ruby Dee for American Gangster
--Saoirse Ronan for Atonement
--Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone
--Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Cate Blanchett
Comments: Cate seems to be nominated for every role she takes, so look for her to snag a second Supporting Oscar for her gender-bending transformation into Bob Dylan. This should be a competitive category this year, though, so Amy Ryan and Tilda Swinton certainly have a shot as well. For a dark horse, Ruby Dee could sneak in with the Lifetime Achievement vote.


--Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood
--Ethan Coen and Joel Coen for No Country for Old Men
--Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
--Jason Reitman for Juno
--Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Will Win: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Should Win: Paul Thomas Anderson
Comments: Given how much of a PT fanboy I am, I think he deserves every direction award out there. However, the louder buzz for No Country will push the Coens over the top.


--Juno - Diablo Cody
--Lars and the Real Girl - Nancy Oliver
--Michael Clayton - Tony Gilroy
--Ratatouille - Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco
--The Savages - Tamara Jenkins

Will Win: Juno
Should Win: Ratatouille
Comments: Considering the 10,000 news stories that have been written about her in the past year, Diablo Cody will likely take this one easily for Juno's big win of the night. My vote, though, goes to the utterly charming Ratatouille.


--Atonement - Christopher Hampton
--Away from Her - Sarah Polley
--The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Ronald Harwood
--No Country for Old Men - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
--There Will Be Blood - Paul Thomas Anderson

Will Win: There Will Be Blood
Should Win: There Will Be Blood
Comments: Strong competition here. The Coens could win if No Country has a huge night. Harwood could be Diving Bell's big win. Sarah Polley also deserves attention for writing such a mature script at such a comparatively young age. However, I think this will be PT's consolation award for not winning Director or Best Picture.


--Persepolis -Vincent Paronnad, Marjane Satrapi
--Ratatouille - Brad Bird
--Surf's Up - Ash Brannon, Chris Buck

--Will Win: Ratatouille
--Should Win: Ratatouille
--Comments: A major improvement from the disappointing Cars, Ratatouille is pure Pixar magic. An easy pick.

April 5-April 18, 2007

Philadelphia Film Festival 2007

The 16th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival has begun! For reviews from past festivals, follow these links: 2006  2005  2004  2003. Send any comments to marc@shadowbloom.com. 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.

The Ten     Forever     Red Road     Kurt Cobain About A Son     
638 Ways To Kill Castro     The Disney Cartoon: Nine Decades of Magic
Rocket Science     Day Night Day Night     White Palms
Whispering of the Gods     The King of Kong     S&Man     Taxidermia
Once     The Bothersome Man     A Comedy of Power      Princess     
Cashback     Zoo     Judy Toll: The Funniest Woman You've Never Heard Of
Visions of Persistence     Dante's Inferno     The Page Turner
Eagle vs Shark     The Killer Within     Lake of Fire     Them
In the Shadow of the Moon     Fair Play     Waitress

The Ten
US 2007, Directed by David Wain
Written by David Wain and Ken Marino
Prince Music Theatre: 04/05/07: 6:00pm: 93 min
(** and 1/2) of four

If you've never heard of The Ten and want to know if you should see it, first look at the director/co-writer (David Wain of Wet Hot American Summer, The State, and Stella). Then look at the loaded cast (I don't know where to begin, so just go to its
IMDb page). Chances are, for some of you, that's all you'll need to go see this movie. Temper your expectations, though, since much of The Ten consists of underdeveloped sketch ideas that feel like they've been sitting in Wain and co-writer Ken Marino's notebooks for years. Clumsily and half-heartedly using the Ten Commandments as a framing device, the ten shorts veer erratically from "pretty bad" (the throwaway "goof" sketch that spoils what should have been a killer bit (pardon the pun) for "Murder") to "really funny" (the movie finds just the right tone in the silly "Schwarzenegger" sketch). Unfortunately, the successes are the minority and much of the "absurdist" screenplay degrades into a non sequitur Mad Libs (Hahaha--out of nowhere, the lawyer and his client kiss at the end of the courtroom scene! How wacky!) Thankfully, the cast is game for all the insanity (especially Winona Ryder, who doesn't back down an inch from the ridiculous material given to her) which helps get you through the rough patches. Also keep an eye out for all the blink-and-you-miss-it cameos, including Rashida Jones and Craig Wedren. Give The Ten a shot if you're still pining for a State movie, but don't expect the world.
(PFF)    (IMDb)   (Top)

Netherlands 2006, Directed by Heddy Honigmann
Written by Heddy Honigmann, Ester Gould, and Judith Vreriks
International House: 04/06/07: 5:00pm: 97 min
(** and 1/2) of four

In death, we're all equals. And so it goes in the Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris where housewives and everyday people are laid to rest alongside Jim Morrison, Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust (among many others). Honigmann's documentary mixes stories about the cemetary's residents with footage of their vistors, some making pilgrimages to the resting place of a favorite artist, others simply cleaning the graves of beloved family members. Each finds his or her own inspiration there--from the pianist who honors her father by playing the Chopin he loved to the Iranian expatriate who finds cultural affirmation at the tomb of writer Sadegh Hedayat. We also hear from the cemetary's guide, who dedicates more time on his tours to the decaying grave of young, unknown poet Elisa Mercoeur than any others. He believes we can have a connection with more than just famous people and Honigmann wisely lets him prove his point by giving ample time to the stories of Mercoeur and singer Danielle Messia rather than just focusing on the famous artists. While it's a pleasant documentary, it's still rather slight and Honigmann never attempts to broaden her narrow focus. For what it is, though, it's a minor success.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Red Road
UK/Denmark 2006, Written and Directed by Andrea Arnold
Characters devised by Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig
Ritz East: 04/06/07: 7:00pm: 113 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

In the cold, grim future Scotland of Red Road, Big Brother is always watching. Cameras are everywhere and the workers of the City Eye sit in front of walls of monitors, each patrolling his or her little corner of the city. Guilt-ridden and emotionally detached after the tragic death of her husband and daughter years earlier, City Eye watcher Jackie listlessly passes each day until she catches a glimpse on her monitors of a man who is part of her painful past. Unsure why he's back in the city, she slowly moves into his life, keeping her motives shrouded and uncertain until she suddenly puts her shocking plan into motion. Road's digital photography floods the city in a smoggy haze and the numerous ambiguous close-ups of surveillance videos recall the unsettling Caché. The "music," a rumbling background drone, only adds to the unease. Held together by a powerful performance by Kate Dickie, Red Road is a dark and sadly relevant first feature by Andrea Arnold.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Kurt Cobain About A Son
USA 2006, Directed by AJ Schnack
International House: 04/06/07: 9:30pm: 96 min
(***) of four

It's worth noting that I was relatively late to the Nirvana bandwagon. I was 12 when Kurt died and, while I wasn't living in a bubble and had heard plenty of his music, it wasn't for another year or two until my fandom took off. At the time of Kurt's death, I was still in the infancy stages of the all-encompassing obsession with The Smashing Pumpkins that formed the base of my alt-rock family tree. The point is that I've read very few Nirvana interviews, no biographies, and in general have had little exposure to Kurt's mind outside of his music (and what's seeped in due to cultural osmosis). In that respect, About A Son is a revelation. More of an experimental film or video essay than a conventional documentary, Son is based on an extensive interview with Kurt conducted by writer Michael Azerrad in preparation for his book Come As You Are. Azerrad and director AJ Schnack pared down the hours of audio recordings and have coupled Kurt's words with new photography shot by Wyatt Troll. There is no footage of the band, no Nirvana music, and a few photographs are the only visual hints that the film has anything to do with Kurt or Nirvana. Instead, as we hear Kurt talk about his childhood in Washington, we see shots of Aberdeen and its lumber yards. The camera prowls a high school, the streets of Seattle, and acts as a visual counterpart to Kurt's words. Schnack should be commended for taking a chance with this approach--had Son been filled with live footage or interviews with others in Kurt's life, it would diminish the impact of hearing Kurt describe his life with surprising candidness and vulnerability. He doesn't hide his distrust and hatred of the press, but it's clear that Azerrod reached an understanding of sorts with Kurt, allowing him to drop his guard. Since Son is more of a mood piece than a piercing documentary, it can lull at times and some may be put off altogether (or feel it's just a retread of Azerrod's book). If you're open to the interpretation, though, it's a rare chance to delve into the psyche of a tortured artist who flamed out too quickly.
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638 Ways To Kill Castro
UK 2006, Directed by Dollan Cannell
National Constitution Center: 04/07/07: 12:15pm: 75 min
(**) of four

Long story short, a lot of people tried a whole bunch of ways to kill Castro. Some are wacky (exploding cigars and baseballs), some are straight-forward (snipers), none worked. Lather, rinse, repeat. Cannell's documentary offers exactly what it claims: a laundry list of frequently bizarre attempts on Castro's life along with interviews with his personal guard and even some of the would-be assassins. It's documentary fast food and, even at a brisk 75 minutes, you'll start wishing it were more about Castro and Cuba than just his wannabe killers. The Bush connections are fun (and not at all surprising) as are some of the interviews ("Should have hired an Arab..." is the response to one failed attempt), but it all gets a little boring after a while. Guess there's only so much you can hear about assassinations that didn't happen...
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

The Disney Cartoon: Nine Decades of Magic
Various writers, directors, years (1923-2003)
Prince Music Theatre: 04/07/07: 2:30pm
(*** and 1/2) of four

Introduced live by Leonard Maltin and Roy E. Disney, Decades is a whirlwind journey through the history of Disney toons. It's a mixed bag overall, but the highs (the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck selections ("Brave Little Tailor" and the utterly surreal WWII short "Der Fuehrer's Face") are still genius and look outstanding on the big screen) far outweigh the lows (the Winnie the Pooh short has aged badly (have the characters always been that annoying?)). The 1923 short "Alice's Wonderland," where a real girl wakes up in a cartoon, makes you feel that maybe we haven't really advanced too far in 84 years. As the grandparent of movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, it's still impressive today. Speaking of Roger, his included short (the full-throttle "Roller Coaster Rabbit") is another of the highlights. The long-in-development, Salvador Dalí/Walt Disney collaboration, "Destino," is the closer and it's exactly what you'd expect from a Dalí cartoon, in all the good and bad ways. Like last year's silent film collection (that made me pine for a Buster Keaton retrospective), my only problem with these programs is how much of a tease they are (I now want a comprehensive Mickey and Donald collection on the big screen).
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Rocket Science
USA 2007, Written and Directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Ritz East: 04/07/07: 7:00pm: 98 min
(***) of four

You can be forgiven for cringing at the most basic plot description of Rocket Science: a socially-awkward teenage stutterer joins the debate team and slowly finds his voice. Yikes. Thankfully, in the hands of Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz (making his fiction film debut), Science dodges all the obvious cliches and doesn't bother with the time-tested underdog formulas. Blitz's eye for quirkiness (without going Napolean Dynomite over-the-top) and his ear for sharp dialogue ("Sloppy Joes are all that's left, but they're not all that terrible if you've never had really good ones before") serve him well, but would be for naught if not for his gifted young cast (particularly lead Reece Thompson, who had to take voice lessons to learn how to stutter, and Anna Kendrick as his overly-ambitious partner/recruiter). I'm hesitant to discuss much of the story because Blitz continually defies our expectations and twists the plot when we think we have it figured out. Between this and the two episodes of The Office he's directed in the last year ("The Convict" and "The Negotiation"), it's nice to see that Blitz won't only be known now as "the guy who made the spelling bee movie."
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Day Night Day Night
USA 2006, Written and Directed by Julia Loktev
Prince Music Theatre: 04/08/07: 4:45pm: 94 min
(****) of four

A startlingly controlled and unnerving film by writer/director Julia Loktev, Night narrowly focuses on two days in the life of a teenage suicide bomber. Wisely, Loktev strips all politics from her film: the lead actress is of ambiguous descent and no countries or organizations are mentioned. Instead, her camera never leaves Luisa Williams' character as she slowly and methodically goes through her preparations. Very little is dramatized and Night builds tension by dedicating so much time to the slow minutia of the two days. Superficially, the main character files her nails, practices reciting her directions, and waits for a phone call with more instructions. On a deeper level, her simmering, internal unease and impatience about the task in front of her is reflected in the audience's unease with what is coming. That said, Loktev's minimalist approach will surely turn off some viewers (the people in front of me excoriated the movie after it ended) as it's pretty much the opposite of a sensationalistic terrorism movie (its tone and defiant lack of pat explanations remind me more of Gus Van Sant's Elephant). Night is stark, quiet, features a powerfully mature performance by Williams, and will stick in your mind long after it ends. One of the best films of the festival.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

White Palms
Hungary 2006, Written and Directed by Szabolcs Hajdu
Ritz East: 04/08/07: 7:15pm: 101 min
(***) of four

The story of Hungarian gymnist Dongó as told via two critical points in his life: as a child phenom bristling under his domineering, abusive coach while being treated as a circus performer by his obnoxious parents and as an adult attempting a comeback while coaching an arrogant young star. Thanks to his athletically gifted actors (can't be too much film trickery going on with the many gymnastics stunts), Hajdu is able to employ a documentary aesthetic to heighten the realism, ditching the high-gloss editing and melodrama that mark similar films. Unfortunately, this subtle approach leaves the relationship between Dongó and his protege Kyle (played by Canadian gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt) feeling underdeveloped and a little glossed over, as if a film reel of their warming to each other went missing. Even with its flaws, though, its still a well-told story of an athlete's redemption.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Whispering of the Gods
Japan 2005, Directed by Tatsushi Ômori
Based on a novel by Mangetsu Hanamura
Screenplay by Yoshio Urasawa
Ritz East: 04/08/07: 9:30pm: 107 min
(**) of four

It was somewhere after the boy scout leader wanted to eat the main character's vomit, but before a priest was fellated by a dog, that the audience completely gave up on this movie. Looks of confusion and shock turned into raucous laughter and, just like that, Whispering was dead to them. I get annoyed when audiences turn on a film like this, but, then again, it's not exactly easy for me to defend Whispering either. Only now making its American premiere two years after its initial release in Japan, Whispering has drawn some controversy (you did read my first sentence, right?) that's likely made other festivals reluctant to touch it (not our rock star programmer Travis Crawford, though). Rou returns to the seminary where he grew up and was sexually abused as a child. His morality destroyed by his horrifying childhood, Rou seeks revenge on the system that corrupted him and his perverse sexuality spreads like a virus. There is a good movie in here somewhere--Rou's scenes with a teenage boy also being abused by the priests are moving--but it's a little hard to see through all the "What the hell?" moments of disturbing sex and/or violence. Adventurous Japanese film fans might as well give it a shot to see what all the fuss is about, though.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

The King of Kong
USA 2007, Directed by Seth Gordon
The Bridge: 04/09/07: 7:30pm: 79 min
(****) of four

Laid off from his job at Boeing, Steve Wiebe finds consolation in a budding obsession with classic arcade game Donkey Kong and decides to make a run at the world record high score held by the infamous professional gamer Billy Mitchell. Yeah, how could I not love this movie? Festival programmer Michael Lerman introduced it as "the Rocky of video game movies" and King certainly earns the title. Wiebe, a regular guy and father, is easy to root for (in a recording of one of his record attempts, we hear Wiebe's son in the background whining to his dad to stop playing) and Mitchell is a natural villain. Desperately clinging to his claims to fame, Mitchell spends the movie avoiding confrontation with Wiebe, arrogantly dismissing his challenges. However, Wiebe just won't be denied. For gamers, this one's an easy recommendation, but it should appeal to a much broader audience. It's your classic underdog sports story...only with rolling barrels, kill screens, and a giant ape.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

USA 2006, Directed by J.T. Petty
The Bridge: 04/09/07: 9:45pm: 86 min
(***) of four

Director J.T. Petty (of 2002 PFF selection Soft for Digging) is our guide through an inferno of perverted underground S&M films and their unbalanced creators (let's see, how about a movie named Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist directed by a guy called Bill Zebub that features the tag line, "First he nails you, then he NAILS you!") As a result, there's plenty of black humor in the mondo-bizarro interview subjects and ridiculous movie clips (Petty's cutting narration helps also). Things aren't quite as they seem, though, and the tone slowly turns more menacing. Now, full disclosure, I had more than a little to drink both before and after King of Kong, so much of the end of S&Man was a blur (though that probably increased its surreal effect). That said, if this is your type of movie, the ending probably won't come as a huge shock, especially since Petty builds to it gradually and doesn't spring it out of nowhere. Don't venture into S&M schlock on your own--let J.T. show you the way.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Hungary/Austria/France 2006, Directed by György Pálfi
Based on short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy
Screenplay by György Pálfi and Zsófia Ruttkay
Prince Music Theatre: 04/10/07: 5:00pm: 91 min
(* and 1/2) of four

A gratuitously grotesque mess of a film, Taxidermia throws plenty at you (pig corpse fucking, fire shooting out of a guy's dick, a thoroughly disgusting eating contest...), but none of it extends past the "Let's put some weird shit on the screen!" level. If you twist your brain the right way, you might be drawn into its world, but I kept wondering what the point was outside of cinematic onanism. Not helping matters was that the distributor was unable to get a film print to the festival in time for the screening, so we had to watch it on DVD, which always looks terrible blown up on the big screen. It's even harder to be absorbed by the crazy visuals when the colors are so muddy and washed out. Even with that excuse, Taxidermia is still more of a "Can I top this?" than a real movie, though I will give Pálfi credit for an impressively horrific ending that almost redeemed some of the pointlessness that preceded it. Almost. I'll also give a nod to Amon Tobin for an awesome soundtrack. Take a flyer if you're intrigued, but don't say I didn't warn you.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Ireland 2006, Written and Directed by John Carney
Prince Music Theatre: 04/10/07: 7:15pm: 85 min
(****) of four

A rousing crowd-pleaser about two wandering souls who forge a powerful connection through a luminous musical collaboration, Once features beautiful songs and terrific, naturalistic performances from Glen Hansard (front man of The Frames) and Markéta Irglová. The film's greatest success is its portrayal of musical creation as an organic outgrowth of spontaneity rather than just a script contrivance (though one song is repeated a couple times too many). It's a freedom born of having two talented musicians as the leads rather than two generic Hollywood stars who have had a couple voice lessons. Hansard and Irglová have worked together in real life and their comfort with each other shines through. The tentative romance moves slowly in the background and Carney wisely refrains from inserting any overinflated melodrama, keeping their relationship muted and realistic. It's a remarkable joy of a film.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

The Bothersome Man
Norway/Iceland 2006, Directed by Jens Lien
Written by Per Schreiner
Ritz East: 04/11/07: 5:15pm: 95 min
(* and 1/2) of four

Sort of a tedious, humorless version of Wristcutters: A Love Story, Bothersome begins just after a man's suicide. He wakes up in a dull, emotion-sapped world eerily similar to the one he just checked out from. Some may be quick to label Bothersome as Kafkaesque, but that's giving far too much credit to the obtuse plot and its slight eccentricities. There's a lot of time wasted on a vaginal orifice that reveals the "real world" after you crawl through it (or something), but, after an extended setup, it acts as little more than a weak climax to the ponderous script. Even with an abrupt, mean-spirited ending that ends the film on a relative high note, Bothersome just isn't worth your time.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

A Comedy of Power
France/Germany 2006, Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Odile Barski and Claude Chabrol
Ritz East: 04/11/07: 7:30pm: 110 min
(* and 1/2) of four

What is the point of this movie? Comedy is littered with problems: the incomparable Isabelle Huppert is wasted in a role that requires little more than a stone face; the rushed moments of suspense are overcooked by Chabrol's horns and retro editing; rather than establishing realistic villains or corporate puppet masters, the script devolves into hackneyed scenes of rich, old men smoking cigars who just look evil as hell; and, finally, all the ending seems to say is, "None of this mattered at all." It's a shame that so much talent was squandered on this clunker.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Denmark/Germany 2006, Directed by Anders Morgenthaler
Written by Mette Heeno and Anders Morgenthaler
Ritz East: 04/11/07: 9:45pm: 77 min
(****) of four

A shockingly disturbing indictment of the porn industry told through an innovative mix of animation and live action, Princess made waves when it first debuted thanks to its unflinching violence and its placement of a small girl in the middle of the mayhem. There are some stabs at pitch black humor (no pun intended), but the tone is overwhelmingly grim throughout its quick 77 minutes. In Princess, as pornography begets violence and violence begets harsher violence, this cycle cannot end until everything in its path has been destroyed, a point chillingly reflected in the film's devastating, haunting final frames. For those willing to stare into the abyss, Princess should not be missed.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

UK 2006, Written and Directed by Sean Ellis
Ritz Five: 04/12/07: 9:30pm: 90 min
(**) of four

Perhaps if I had discovered Cashback on Skinemax one late night in the early '90s as an adolescent without access to copious Internet porn, it might have been an all-time favorite. Now, it just makes for a great entry on Mr. Skin. Unable to find a proper tone as a drama (too one-note) or a comedy (too dour), Cashback only succeeds as a showcase for fawning, worshipful shots of naked models. Ellis is a talented director and there are numerous well-constructed shots, but his highly-regarded short film suffered mightily in the expansion to feature length. I look forward to seeing what he can do with The Broken when not hamstrung by his own past success.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

USA 2007, Directed by Robinson Devor
Written by Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede
International House: 04/13/07: 4:45pm: 80 min
(* and 1/2) of four

Zoo and Whispering of the Gods can battle for the title of the annual "Sexually Perverse Festival Entry I Regret Seeing," but the viewers are the losers either way. Zoo is based on the family-friendly true story of a man who died from a ruptured colon after engaging in <ahem> sexual relations with a, uh..., horse. The ensuing scandal revealed a network of "zoos," people who feel they have more of an affinity with animals than humans. Let's be frank, shall we? Basically, they fuck animals. The experimental documentary Zoo combines ethereal photography and audio interviews with various "zoos." Given such a depraved subject, the biggest surprise is how monotonous and confusing the film is. Maybe my attention drifted or the theater's acoustics weren't up to the task, but I found it very difficult to understand many of the interviews (subtitles would have been welcome), making it hard to piece together a logical structure out of the mess. The film meanders, we come to no better understanding of this strange world, and then it ends and we're mercifully allowed to leave. It's not worth your time.
(PFF)   (IMDb)   (Top)

Judy Toll: The Funniest Woman You've Never Heard Of
USA 2007: Written and Directed by Gary Toll
International House: 04/13/07: 7:00pm: 77 min
(***) of four

A love letter from Gary Toll to his deceased sister, Woman is a charming look back at the comedian's life. Generously filled with stand-up clips and interviews with friends, it doesn't attempt to be a True Hollywood Story or exposé, just a eulogy to a funny woman who never quite found the success she deserved. It was easy to be swept up in the lovefest considering the screening was attended by many of Toll's family and friends (including comedians Judy Gold and Taylor Negron), turning the event into a poignant celebration of her life.
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Visions of Persistence
Various writers, directors, years
International House: 04/14/07: 4:30pm
(***) of four

Frankly, most of the shorts were a blur of the bizarre and random, but I was only here to see Don Hertzfeldt's latest, Everything Will Be OK. Hertzfeldt's shorts have gradually moved into more and more surreal territory and Everything is no exception. While it's not as funny as the brilliant Rejected or as simply twisted as Billy's Balloon, its stunning animation, gorgeous in-camera special effects, and impressive production value elevate it above the rest of the shorts on display here. It definitely needs multiple viewings to digest, though, so make sure you pick up the DVD at Don's site.
(PFF)   (Top)

Dante's Inferno
USA 2007, Directed by Sean Meredith
Based on the novel by Dante Alighieri
Screenplay by Sandow Birk, Paul Zaloom, and Sean Meredith
Prince Music Theatre: 04/14/07: 7:00pm: 78 min
(** and 1/2) of four

Thanks to some nifty hand-drawn puppet animation and an eclectic group of celebrity voices (including Dermot Mulroney, James Cromwell, Scott Adsit, Tony Hale, and Dana Snyder), Inferno's reimagining of the classic Dante tale goes down easy, but it's neither funny nor incisive enough to make much of an impression. Of course, any movie that trashes the conservative establishment deserves at least a lukewarm endorsement from me (Cheney, Condi Rice, and Fox News are among the targets), but you're probably best off just watching ten minutes or so to admire the quirky animation and then moving on.
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The Page Turner
France 2006, Directed by Denis Dercourt
Written by Denis Dercourt and Jacques Sotty
Ritz East: 04/14/07: 9:30pm: 85 min
(***) of four

A child piano prodigy's career abruptly ends after a disastrous entrance exam for a prestigious music academy. Ten years later, she becomes a page turner for the jury member she blames for her ruinous recital. Thus begins this old-school French thriller filled with restrained suspense, tons of sapphic sexual tension, and one of those good ole evil plans that takes the whole film to unravel. Déborah François's sphinx-like demeanor sufficiently masks her nefarious intentions and Catherine Frot convincingly falls apart little by little, but the climax lacks the fever pitch of Clouzot's Les Diaboliques. Turner doesn't bother to stretch from its classic influences, but it's certainly an efficient little time bomb.
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Eagle vs Shark
New Zealand 2007, Written and Directed by Taika Waititi
Ritz East: 04/15/07: 2:30pm: 87 min
(**) of four

A disappointing romantic comedy out of the Napolean Dynomite/Wes Anderson mold, Eagle falters due to one of the most unlikable, least redeemable main characters to grace a comedy in some time. Played by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, Jarrod starts off as a maddening asshole and stays that way. After a while, it's hard to believe the female lead would waste so much of her time on him without having a serious mental problem of her own (though that's a distinct possibility). Despite the novelty of the New Zealand setting, we've seen this brand of quirkiness done better before (shout out to a great soundtrack by Phoenix Corporation, though). Eagle seemed to win over the sold out festival crowd (including someone in front of me who let out loud, distracting guffaws every ten seconds), but I was keeping an eye on my watch waiting to get out of there.
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The Killer Within
USA 2006, Directed by Macky Alston
National Constitution Center: 04/15/07: 4:30pm: 85 min
(***) of four

One night in 1955, Swarthmore College student Bob Bechtel shot his sleeping roommate point blank in the head. After spending five years in a hospital, Bechtel was released and went on with his life. He married, started a family, and became a psychology professor. Killer follows Bechtel and his family as he finally reveals his long-buried secret (previously known only to his wife). The many interviews with Bechtel paint him as an inscrutable figure, strangely unaffected and flip about the events that night in Swarthmore. Whether it's repression, justification (he claims his roommate was a tormenting bully), or sociopathy is up to the viewer to decide. However, the most fascinating aspect of the story is Bechtel's daughter Carrah's journey to find the truth. She sees her life as a gift--she could have easily have never been born--and needs to find her peace with what happened on that fateful night.
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Lake of Fire
USA 2006, Written and Directed by Tony Kaye
National Constitution Center: 04/15/07: 6:30pm: 152 min
(****) of four

Years in the making by director Kaye, Lake is a sprawling history of abortion in America (the 152-minute run time makes this my annual "Incredibly Long But Excellent Documentary" (former winners include A Lion In The House and Henri Langlois)). Kaye refrains from turning the film into Michael Moore agitprop, giving ample time to many points of view (even if the pro-life zealots often come off as, well, insane). He also draws the important and sometimes overlooked distinction that pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. In fact, the pro-choice crowd is doing a great deal to limit the number of abortions by focusing on environmental influences, birth control, and sexual education, a far cry from the brute intimidation, fear mongering, and legal manuevering that fuel the pro-life footsoldiers. Abortion is by no means a triumph of modern culture, but it is a necessary evil in an imperfect world. Attempting to take away a woman's right to abortion is ignoring the overall problem by focusing myopically on a side effect. The documentary inhabits this ambiguity and the somber ending underscores that the two sides' ultimate goals may not actually be that different.
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France/Romania 2006, Written and Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Ritz East: 04/15/07: 9:30pm: 77 min
(*** and 1/2) of four

A razor-sharp French thriller, Them doesn't push forward its genre, but it's packed with enough scares and nervous tension to make it worth your while. It falls in between the two horror models that have saturated American theaters over the past few years. It's not a gorefest like torture porn flicks Hostel and Saw, but it has a much nastier edge than peek-a-boo PG-13 J-horror entries like The Ring and its ilk. The final reveal is a little anticlimactic (the Hostel movies spoil some of the fun), but any further exposition would be unwelcome and would needlessly detract from the rush of Them's quick 77 minutes.
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In the Shadow of the Moon
UK/USA 2007, Directed by David Sington
Prince Music Theatre: 04/16/07: 5:00pm: 100 min
(****) of four

A moving and inspiring documentary, Shadow chronicles America's quest to land a man on the moon. For those of us too young to have witnessed the moon landing, Sington's fantastic film may be the closest we can get to experiencing the exuberant thrill of that historic day. Chills and goosebumps are guaranteed. The astronauts are well-spoken and full of humor (only Neil Armstrong is missing from the film). They are quick to emphasize that this was not a landmark achievement only for America, but for all of mankind, an enlightened perspective in today's fractured BushWorld. Space nuts should seek Shadow out immediately, but there is a great deal here for everyone to enjoy. Filled with rarely seen archival footage, it's a must see.
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Fair Play
France 2006, Written and Directed by Lionel Bailliu
Prince Music Theatre: 04/16/07: 7:15pm: 103 min
(****) of four

The surprise of the festival, Fair Play is a deliciously evil corporate black comedy set entirely outside of the office. Instead, Fair Play jumps from squash courts and exercise trails to golf courses and a sprawling canyoneering range. Far from team-building tension-relievers, the sports are a perfect backdrop for copious amounts of backstabbing, power-grabbing, and out-of-control machismo. It's a unique spin on a familiar genre and as Fair Play slowly morphs into an adventure thriller by the end, it continues to further distance itself from its peers. Its vicious black humor isn't for everyone, but its keen grasp on corporate intrigue transcends its French setting. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure how you can track this one down (short of importing a foreign DVD), but it's worth the effort.
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USA 2007, Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelly
Prince Music Theatre: 04/18/07: 7:30pm: 107 min
(****) of four

Capping off a rush of great films to close off this year's festival, Waitress is a sweet and funny romantic comedy armed with an excellent cast (including Shelly, Cheryl Hines, and the Always-Reliable Nathan Fillion (I think I'm just going to make that his official title from now on)). Keri Russell is radiant as a small town waitress trying to break away from her abusive husband. To her credit, Shelly refuses to give in to romantic comedy clichés, keeping the audience engaged instead of just counting down to the predictable Hollywood ending. The pie recipes sprinkled throughout the film (including "I Hate My Husband Pie") are clever and quite tasty-sounding (that one's bitter chocolate drowned in caramel). Consider it a perfect date movie (especially if you plan to get dessert afterward).
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