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The buzz preceding the Philadelphia Film Festival was that it was on its way to becoming “The East Coast Sundance.” And this year’s numbers bear that out: a record 57,500 tickets sold, for over 300 films screened at seven different theaters. All told, attendance was up 25% from one year ago, the final time the Festival suffered the awkward designation, “The Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema.” Still, when Ed Burns and Patrick Swayze are the biggest stars to peddle their films around town, some perspective seems in order.
The 12th Festival was no longer merely a friendly local event, but an expansive venture, dedicated to engulfing the city with the serious business of movies, with the schedule full of panels and lectures, extravagant parties, and post-screening Q&A sessions with filmmakers. Some films came with hype and stars attached: Ed Burns is surprisingly adept in Confidence, Nick Nolte gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the otherwise bland The Good Thief, and Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art features a much-praised performance by Frances McDormand. On the downside, these movies were scheduled to open within the next week, and Laurel Canyon had opened before the Festival. Even the Awards presentation turned embarrassing, with electronic miscues, forced applause, and some unexpected winners.
Most of the Festival was like that: attendees took the good with the not so good. Tickets for the world premiere of the upcoming Showtime film, Jeff Byrd’s Jasper, Texas, a fiction film based on James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death, were issued by invitation only, to VIPs of the Festival and workers for a large banking corporation. Such elitism hardly seems in keeping with a film about racism, oppression, and separatism.
Salvation came by the way of the quality of the Festival’s films, most notably the documentaries. Stevie, written and directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), documents his reconnection, after 10 years, with a man for whom he was once a Big Brother. It’s painful for James and for us to see this young man, Stevie, now charged with multiple crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to child molestation. Along with its poignant consideration of individual relationships, the film also indicts child welfare and legal systems.
Another exploration of a personal past is offered in Stone Reader. Equal parts documentary and narrative, Mark Moskowitz’s film tracks his obsession with finding what happened to an author who pulled a Salinger after publishing what many readers considered a masterpiece in 1972. Moskowitz doesn’t focus solely on his own search, but also the broader question: why does a writer fade away after producing one great work? Through interviews with critics, academics, and writers, he comes up with revealing answers.
Joey Garfield’s Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box offers a different kind of historical excavation. It tracing the rise of hip-hop’s human beat box, from its by accidental beginnings in the 1980s, to the dispute over who was the true originator, featuring interviews with Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, and Scratch, who rightfully point out that the art has outlasted all sorts of changes in the culture.
Less successful was the mockumentary The Wedding Video, starring a mix of former Real World-ers intent on extending their 15 minutes. Directed by Norm Korpi (the gay guy from the original Real World), and shot like a wedding video, the film inflates the already perceived personalities of the cast, but fails to make them any more interesting, with the exception of Heather B. (also from the series’ inaugural season), whose over-the-top performance provides welcome comedy.
Under the banner of “American Independents” came the stunning debut from writer-director Austin Chick, xx/xy, a relationship drama set in the early ’90s for the first half, then in present day for the second. Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me) gives another amazing performance in this examination of sexual temptation, emotional devastation, and self-delusion.
While U.S. films were a primary focus of the Festival, there were offerings from 49 other countries (split into multiple subcategories such as “Italian Cinema Today,” “Cinema of the Muslim Worlds”), providing consistently stellar filmmaking. Winfried Bonengel’s Fuehrer Ex tells the tale of two best friends in mid-’80s Germany who try to escape East Berlin. Caught, they’re sent to prison, where they take drastically different routes in order to survive. By the time the Wall comes down, their paths have crossed and views flipped, in shocking fashion.
In another tale of confinement, this time in a wheelchair, Aiki (directed by Daisuke Tengan), is best described as a Karate Kid for the paralyzed. An up-and-coming boxer is paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident, which throws him into depression. Only when he sees a demonstration of jujitsu using the hands and wrists does he see the possibility of reclaiming a championship status. Both cheesy and uplifting, it’s a classic root for the underdog type of movie that leaves little room for misinterpretation, no matter what the viewer’s language.
Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which won Best Picture at last year’s Venice Film Festival, details the persecution of young women in 1960s Ireland for such “crimes” as having a child out of wedlock and being raped by a family member. Sent to Magdalene Laundries to atone for their sins, the girls are brutalized by the Catholic nuns who run the facility. Easily the darkest film at the Festival, especially as an end title reveals that most of the women were never able to put the trauma behind them. Brilliantly affecting, it has also come under heavy fire from the Church for its negative portrayal of nuns.
The wildly popular “Danger After Dark” section, mainly showcasing Asian horror or martial arts films, featured The Eye (Gin Gwai, directed by siblings Oxide and Danny Pang), which with a promotional strategy (Tom Cruise recently purchased the rights to the U.S. remake) and delivered an original and chilling storyline. Dark Water, on the other hand, from the director of Ringu, Hideo Nakata, is a supreme clunker. One of the most anticipated films in the Festival, it is unbearably slow in building to a pointless ending; in sharp contrast to The Eye, it garnered more unintentional laughs than anything else.
It may not be Sundance, or even “The East Coast Sundance,” but the Philadelphia Film Festival is on its way to becoming one of the most respected festivals on the circuit. Despite the few disappointing moments, the Festival was a major event. For two weeks, Philadelphia was full of film, both art and business.