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2004 Philadelphia Film Festival: Heaven in My Own Backyard

by Scott Weinberg

Philadelphia is a hardcore movie town. You might not know it from the outside, but it's true. We have several great universities that claim fantastic film departments, we get several visiting movie productions a year, the arthouse and repertory theaters are among the finest in the country, AND we have a film festival that's long been one of the nation's best-kept secrets. And things are just getting better.

Drexel University, Temple University and The University of Pennsylvania are all located in the large, throbbing heart of The City of Brotherly Love. College kids devour movies, whether they're the most recent blockbusters or the teeny little Italian flicks generally seen only at film festivals. Our trio of classy Ritz arthouses have long been a staple of the Philly-based and the cinematically inclined. We have a gorgeous old movie palace called the Boyd, which is currently involved in a massive salvage effort....

And it's not just M. Night Shyamalan who's discovered what Philadelphia can accomplish as a shooting location; John Landis, Brian De Palma, Kevin Smith, Jonathan Demme, Terry Gilliam and a host of others have made movies here.

And obviously we're the hometown of the legendary Rocky Balboa.

As both a movie addict and a proud son of Philadelphia, I jump at any occasion to mash the two together. And clearly each April's Philadelphia Film Festival is something I wouldn't miss for all the cheese steaks on South Street. Not too long ago, our local flick festivity was known as The Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, a moniker that led many to believe that ALL of the festival's offerings were 'foreign' in nature. (As if the U.S. doesn't contribute to 'World Cinema'.) The name of the festival was changed prior to last year's event, and it was a smart alteration indeed. There's just something simple and classy about "The 2003 [City] International Film Festival" that says all you need to know.

Sponsored mainly by a great little video store/distributor known as TLA Video, the Philly Festival is about to enter its 13th year, and anyone who takes a careful look at the event's roster of movies will get a clear message: this is a film festival on its way UP, not one tired and stagnant or fluffed-up and over-praised. Divorced entirely from my hometown loyalty, and speaking just as a guy who frequents several film festivals a year, I still must admit that this is a supremely eclectic selection of movies. If the ultimate goals of a film festival are to bring in visitors from out of town and deliver solid movies for all, then I see no good reason why the Philly Fest should not be mentioned among the finest such events in the country. Based on what I've experienced over the past few years, the PFF is absolutely in a state of ascension.

Put aside the amazing food we have here; ignore the generally sweet-natured people and the huge fistfuls of American history that you can wander through; temporarily look past our illustrious art museum, our swanky new sports stadia and our colorful tourist stops. Right now we're talking about movies, and if you're somewhere within, say, 100 miles of Philly -- you need to snag a hotel room for a night or two (during the dates of 4/9 - 4-21), take in a half-dozen movies, and support a film festival that's clearly intent on creating something special.

This is not some high-falutin' affair that caters to filmmakers and studio suits while the movie fans wait out in the rain; it's not even remotely some dinky little upstart hoping to copycat the tried-and-true Festival Formula. After a dozen years of earning quiet accolades, the Philadelphia Film Festival is firmly and confidently earning a reputation of its very own ... and it's a reputation that many festival organizers would kill to earn.

Boasting a handful of world (and North American) premieres, tons of fascinating foreign fare, a couple high-end Hollywood releases, and (of course) a devilishly cool lineup of late-night genre goodies, this festival was clearly programmed with the motto of 'something for everyone' in mind. But enough blather; let's talk movies!

Opening Night:

Shade - Sly Stallone, Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Gabriel Byrne, Hal Holbrook, Stuart Townsend, Thandie Newton & Bo Hopkins -A friend saw a truncated version last year at CineVegas and said it was surprisingly solid. Good to know. Promo sez: "An all-star cast excels in this intense, riveting story of a group of L.A. con artists who get in over their heads when they set out to scam a high-stakes poker game."

Centerpiece Screenings:

Laws of Attraction - Pierce Brosnan, Julianne Moore, Parker Posey & Michael Sheen - This one opens WIDE on 4/30, but we Phillyheads get to see it a few weeks early. It might look like a run-of-the-mill rom-com, but any romance with Brosnan & Moore (as opposed to, say, Sandler & Barrymore) is already starting off on the right foot. Promo sez: "Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan (and the gorgeous Irish countryside) star in this romantic comedy about two battling lawyers in the grand Tracy-Hepburn tradition."

Lightning Bug - Directorial debut of long-time FX maestro Robert Hall, this endearingly odd-sounding movie stars Bret Harrison, Kevin Gage, Ashley Laurence and That '70s Show flame-maned beauty Laura Prepon. Promo sez: "This heartfelt and inspiring drama stars Laura Prepon as the girlfriend of a teenage horror movie fan growing up in Alabama, where the real monsters are in the home."

The Story of the Weeping Camel - I don't have a clue. But the Promo sez: "A sweeping and engrossing narrative documentary about a nomadic Mongolian desert family's valiant efforts to keep a camel calf alive after her mother's rejection, this is an emotional and heartrending tale." Interesting....

Artistic Achievement Award in Acting: Mary-Louise Parker

The Best Thief in the World - I missed this one at Sundance, and kicked myself for it. Hopefully that won't happen again. Promo sez: Mary-Louise Parker stars as a beleaguered mother struggling to keep her family together in this touching and captivating American independent drama.

Phantasmagoria Award: Tobe Hooper

Now, how cool is this? A high-end film festival paying homage to a great old Horror Veteran? Well, I don't mean OLD exactly, but much like Craven and Carpenter and King, Hooper's been scaring us silly for about 25 years. So obviously he's not a teenager.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - The classic original presented in a spankin'-new 35mm print! On the BIG SCREEN!! This will be a first for me. (I was 3 when TCM was first released; they would't sell me a ticket without an adult.)

The Toolbox Murders - Silly as it sounds, few movies at the festival have me as excited as this one does. It's an unapolgetic throwback to old-school slasherdom, it's directed by a horror pro who knows his stuff, and it stars my own beloved May, Angela Bettis, in the lead role. (And if you haven't rented May by now, then shame. on. you.)

Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 Retrospective

Film as Subversive Art - "A fascinating documentary look at famed avant garde film programmer and writer Amos Vogel, accompanied by screenings of related short films."

Silent Film

1929's Piccadilly - "Screen legend Anna May Wong illuminates the screen in this silent cinema classic (presented here in a newly restored print with live musical accompaniment) about life in a London nightclub."

Grace Kelly Tribute, to Restore the Boyd!

1956's The Swan - "An Art Deco masterpiece built in 1928, the Sameric [Boyd] is the city’s only surviving movie palace. Since it closed in 2002, the Friends have been taking film lovers on a decade-by-decade journey through Philadelphia cinema to raise awareness and funds for the Boyd’s preservation. This time it’s the Fabulous ‘50s, and who better to showcase than Philadelphia’s own princess -- and 1950s icon -- Grace Kelly? See a rare screening of The Swan, the last movie Kelly made before her glamorous wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco."

The Best of the 48 Hour Film Project - "The Philadelphia Festival of Independents presents “The Best of Philadelphia 2004.” The 48 Hour Film Project is an international filmmaking competition where film teams have only 2 days to make a movie. All creativity—writing, shooting and editing—must occur in the 48 hour period."

Repeat Screenings of the Festival's 15 Most Popular Movies - This is a brilliant idea, if you're askin' me. Movie nuts who may have missed a certain "hot ticket" can pop back in at the tail-end of the festival to catch some of these encore screenings. Can't beat that.

Closing Night

Saved! - The festival closes with another flick I missed at earlier festivals, so YAY for me. And check out the cast: Mandy Moore, Jena Malone, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Donovan...and Valerie Bartinelli as herself? Heck, I'm sold. Promo sez: Mandy Moore, Jena Malone, and Macaulay Culkin star in this Sundance festival favorite, a hilarious satire on religion and morality that unfolds in a Baptist high school.

OK, so everything I already covered? That's just the "Special Screeings" label. Next up we have:

International Masters

(A few of these I've seen, most I haven't. So I'll forgo with the chit-chat and make with the titles.)

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat)
The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme)
Carandiru (Hector Babenco)
Come and Go (João César Monteiro)
The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier)
I'm Not Scared (Gabriele Salvatores)
Last Scene (Hideo Nakata)
Loving Glances (Srdjan Karanovic)
Spare Parts (Damjan Kozole)
Strayed (André Téchiné)
A Talking Picture (Manoel de Oliveira)
Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke)
Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (Peter Greenaway)
Wheel of Time (Werner Herzog)

Hey! Babenco, von Trier, Greenaway, Herzog, Breillat... these are the same names you'd find at Sundance or Cannes! Welcome to Philadelphia, you International Masters, you!

World Focus

If there's one thing a quality film festival should always have, it's a big list of foreign films that you might never get to see elsewhere. Obviously the Philly programmers know this as well.

Berlin Blues
Bright Young Things
Cold Light
The Cordon
Cowboys & Angels
The Danube
Distant Lights
Facing Window
Free Radicals
Hanging Offense
The Island
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
Last Life in the Universe
Nine Souls
No Rest for the Brave
The Principles of Lust
A Problem with Fear
Remember Me
The Saddest Music in the World
Seducing Doctor Lewis
She's One of Us
16 Years of Alcohol
Stormy Weather
Travelling Light
Truth and Lies
When Ruoma Was Seventeen
Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself
The Wooden Camera
Work Hard, Play Hard
Young Adam

Spanish and Latin American Cinema Now

The festival shines a spotlight on the newest batch of cinema from the southern regions.

The Debutants
The End of a Mystery
The 4th Floor
Kill Me Tender
The Man of the Year
The Man Who Copied
Seven Days, Seven Nights
Sexual Dependency

International Comedy

Very helpful of the programmers to point out the comedic fare from other nations.

Mortaelo & Filemón: The Big Adventure
Please Teach Me English
You Can’t Stop the Murders

New Korean Cinema

The heading says it all: new Korean cinema. That's all I got.

The Classic
Double Agent
A Good Lawyer's Wife
Memories of Murder
The Road Taken

Cinema of the Muslim Worlds

A well-needed window into a culture we barely know.

Asshak, Tales From The Sahara
Control Room
Deep Breath
The First Letter
The Kite
A Thousand Months

American Independents

I've seen a few of these at other fests; I aim to see the others as well.

Dear Pillow
Everyday People
One Point 0
A Slipping Down Life
Unknown Soldier
X, Y

Festival of Independents

More indies...

Feature Length:

In Justice
Otaku Unite!
The Other America
Steve Phoenix: The Untold Story

Shorts Programs:

Shorts Programs
The City That Shoves You Back
The Dream Programme
A Holy Experiment
One Weird One X 10
Philly Film Fatales
When All Else Is Lost

Animation Mania

Special screenings of Bill Plympton's rather hilarious film Hair High, in addition to several shorts programs:

Art Comes To Life
Café Risque: An Evening of Adult Animation
Family Toons
Model Magic

--Sounds like I'm wrapping things up, right? Wrong-o. Two of the coolest categories still remain!

Documentary Tradition

Maybe it's just that we're in the midst of a Doco Renaissance, but this is a stellar selection of features!

( * = Earns my LOUD stamp of raucous approval. Definitely something you should see.)

Breakfast With Hunter *
Bright Leaves
The Corporation
Home of the Brave
Martins' Passion
The Mayor of Sunset Strip
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Orwell Rolls in His Grave
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Super Size Me *

...and saving the nastiest for last... I present to you the highlight of any worthwhile film festival: the late-night genre fare. Sundance does it, SXSW does it, and Philly also does it exceedingly well. (Last year's Beyond Re-Animator was a real treat.) A guy I've never met, Travis Crawford, was behind this slate, and he sounds like a fella who truly knows his horror. I'd love to have this guy's job, only he's too good at what he does. Here's the stuff:

Danger After Dark

- Seen it. Has some of the best action sequences ever. Seriously.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - Yep, the classic old Russ Meyer / Roger Ebert breast-fest!
Haute Tension
- Seen it. It's a grand and gruesomely old-fashioned stalker flick from France. It was recently awarded an NC-17, it deserved it, and reportedly Lions Gate is sticking with the rating. Cool.
King of the Ants - Two words: Stuart. Gordon. Can't wait.
The Last Horror Movie - All over this one.
The Legend of the Evil Lake
Moon Child
The Park
- Japanese Horror. In 3-D.
A Tale of Two Sisters
The Tesseract
The Uninvited
Who Killed Bambi?

So here's the bottom line:

Fourteen days, 250 movies from 43 different countries, one great city. If it sounds like I'm just cheering for the home team, well that's just fine. I'm extremely proud of what the Philadelphia Film Festival has become, not at all unlike the way I'm extremely proud of the Phillies when they make the playoffs. But regardless of my birthplace and lifetime residence, the simple fact is this: It's a fantastic festival, period. For all the info you'd ever need, check out the festival's Official Website and poke around for a while. To read the eFilmCritic reviews for the Philly Film Fest fare, be sure to check back here on a regular basis.

Look, we gets tons of tourists year 'round. People love this city. So if you're planning a trip to visit The Liberty Bell or Independence Hall or creepy ol' Edgar Allan Poe mansion, do us all a favor and schedule your trip for mid-April. You'll be able to catch a dozen great movies in between all the soft pretzels and the cheese steaks.

Artistic Director Raymond Murray has clearly surrounded himself with a stellar crew, and their efforts have yielded what plans to be another two-week session of cinematic heaven. Come say hello if you see me; I'm the one with the red eyes and the black Eagles hat.

E me: scott@efilmcritic.com

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1074
originally posted: 03/31/04 23:54:59
last updated: 02/10/05 03:53:45
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