The Philadelphia Film Festival Report

Super Size Me

The First Weekend

Once again, the Philadelphia Film Festival is generating buzz, and in this 13th year, it’s about the films. No longer are the Festival organizers trumpeting the amount of product (247 films from 43 countries! 133 features and 114 shorts!) or B-list guest appearances (in 2003, Patrick Swayze promoted One Last Dance). This year, the movies are the focus, from a 30th Anniversary screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Control Room, a documentary on Al Jazeera filmed during the takeover of Iraq.

Hype for one film, Super Size Me, preceded the Festival. Everyone, it seems, has heard something about the documentary, in which director Morgan Spurlock eats a McDonalds-only diet for 30 days: “He almost dies!” (Not true). “His organs almost fail.” (Almost true). “He pukes!” (Way too true). In fact, Spurlock takes a cue from Michael Moore, traveling the country to mingle with Middle America at various McDonalds, catching flack from the company’s headquarters. While it’s well known that his body suffers, the film also ponders the popularity of fast food. I went straight to the Whole Foods after the screening to stack up on granola and Balance bars.

The opening gala event was a screening of Shade, in which a group of scammers seeks to take down the best card player around. The card mechanics, almost entirely and impressively left to the actors to perform, fine performances by Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton, and Sylvester Stallone (updating Edward G. Robinson in the Cincinnati Kid as “The Dean”) make this clichéd grifter story almost bearable.

The Toolbox Murders

Somewhat less familiar, Grimm features Hansel-and-Gretel-like siblings whose mutual devotion hints at incest, and No Rest for the Brave follows Thomas Suire as a sleep-deprived dreamer caressing and kissing a man some 40 years his senior. The Last Horror Movie is stranger still: the villain makes his own home movie by taping over a rental video to document his killing rampage. Given that most viewers now rent DVDs and are sick to death of reality programming, the film comes off as unimaginative. Still, it doesn’t come close to the Hong Kong 3-D bomb, The Park. The command, “Put glasses on now!” induced audience groans by the fourth or fifth time it flashed on screen. With terrible effects and worse acting, it’s going to be tough to top as the Festival’s most unwatchable movie, 3-D or not.

Perhaps today’s horror mavens need to take a closer look at Tobe Hooper’s body of work. In town to receive the annual Phantasmagoria Award, he also debuted The Toolbox Murders. Accepting the Award, Hooper said, “Hollywood today seems to have run out of ideas.” He recalled reading in the trades that recent and upcoming horror films are 80% remakes, and that alone is a sign that “The conventions need to change.”

Lightning Bug offers one example of change. An autobiographical story by Angel makeup artist Robert Hall, it tracks a wannabe horror makeup artist who just wants to escape his house trailer and the general freakiness of Middle America. Green (Bret Harrison) must deal with a psycho stepfather, whacked out churchgoers, and a small town deputy (the hilarious Hal Sparks) who would all prefer that his dream be laid to rest. Touching and heartfelt Lightning Bug is also original.

The Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Los Angeles disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer has been around so long that he’s been original, copied, and original again. In the documentary, The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the diminutive radio legend appears a quiet kid from a broken home who fell into the decadence of the late ’60s Sunset Strip. Working as a radio DJ, he picked hits before they were hits, by artists like the Sex Pistols, Dramarama, and Oasis. Everyone from Mick Jagger and David Bowie pay homage to Bingenheimer in the film, but it’s also clear that no one really knows the DJ who played their songs, and the Mayor prefers it that way. Demonstrating more than anything else the demise of the DJ as institution, the film points out that radio is now run by corporations interested in profits only, rather than quality or innovation. Witness Bingenheimer’s current shift on KROQ, from midnight to three am on Sundays.

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The Philadelphia Film Festival Report #2: Fear and loathing on the documentary trail

Promoted as the “ultimate Behind the Music,” Metallica: Some Kind of Monster stood out among the Philadelphia Film Festival’s array of Slovenian art films and American independents. Though its focus happens to be one of the most popular bands on the planet, Some Kind of Monster still manages to challenge all kinds of documentary conventions.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Multimillionaire metal maniacs don’t typically undergo therapy to remain a unit, but defying expectations is, for better or worse, what Metallica has been doing throughout their lengthy career. Painfully exposed is the rift between frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, the latter the most anti-therapy of the group and providing the film’s most memorable moments. In one, he takes umbrage at the studio time constraints imposed by Hetfield’s rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, insisting it is simply another way for the singer to remain in control of the band. In one of the many band meetings with their $40,000 a month therapist, Ulrich explains how the situation has left him saying “Fuck” constantly, out of frustration (underlining the point by screaming the word a few times, at Hetfield).

In a more subdued moment, Ulrich meets with ousted guitarist Dave Mustaine and listens teary-eyed as he describes the hell of being kicked out of the band more than two decades ago. Apparently, even after Mustaine founded Megadeath in 1983, he still mourns the loss of Metallica.

Some Kind of Monster is an unflinchingly honest portrait of individuals in a persistent state of flux, professionally and emotionally. They now face consequences after years of not giving a damn. The film explains (but doesn’t excuse) the mess they made of the album, St. Anger. Urgent, overloaded with riffs, and inconsistent, it’s the perfect musical accompaniment to their turmoil.

Brilliance and unconventionality are expected in anything involving irreverent journalist Hunter S. Thompson. And the road journal, Breakfast With Hunter, doesn’t disappoint, jumping all over the place, as Thompson demands a new director be attached to the film adaptation of his landmark novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; careens the streets of Los Angeles with his ever-present glass of Scotch on the rocks; or faces drunk driving charges in his hometown of Aspen, when he was, at least in this case, innocent. Footage of Thompson running for office in 1970 (during the Nixon Administration) shows him challenging the official “qualifications” for the job, a scene that resonates oddly with today’s political landscape.

Control Room

Director Jehane Noujaim shows the disorder in Iraq in Control Room, a documentary on the inner workings of Arab news organization Al Jazeera. While the U.S. press complied with the military’s request not to show “anti-American” images, Al Jazeera had no such limits, and has paid the price. Taking harsh criticism when it showed American POWs early in the war, Al Jazeera continued to report in a balanced way. Conversations between Army Press Officer Lieutenant John Rushing and an Al Jazeera correspondent show that different views on the war do have a common ground, and that open discussion can get points across. And yet, as Al Jazeera’s head says, no matter what his network reports, ultimately, “History will be written by the victors.”

Orwell Rolls in His Grave takes that theory one step further, blaming Right Wing conservatives for making George Orwell’s 1984 look prophetic. First-time filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas uses interviews with former 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis and Congressman Bernie Sanders to support his case that U.S. media are controlled by only a few corporations, so they can’t help but be biased. While Pappas’ intentions are no doubt good, footage of Michael Moore speaking about the inconsistencies in the media comes across as overkill, as Moore’s own films cover much of the same ground.

Still another documentary, Slasher, follows a renowned (on the used car route at least) specialist in slashing the inventory of car lots during big sales. “The Slasher” is an abrasive, fast-talking type who flies into Memphis on Memorial Day weekend to move cars and keep his legend alive. Local dealers extol the numbers the Slasher reportedly moved on a weekend, and eagerly anticipate his arrival. Director John Landis (Animal House) shows here that life can’t deliver comedy like art. The Slasher’s drunken rant in a parking garage — about how great it is to be him — is almost funny, but ultimately depressing. The film doesn’t exactly vilify used car salesmen’s swindling, but then, it doesn’t need to. They do it on their own.

You Can’t Stop the Murders

Close Out

She’s One of Us tracks 35-year-old temp worker Christine (Sasha Andres), as she lies to her parents, her boss, and anyone else she encounters. When she finally has the opportunity for some meaningful interaction, she sabotages it by either striking out violently or hiding her vacancy with untruths. The film’s slow pace makes it difficult to care what happens to her, and Gabriel Scotti’s eerie score builds to nothing. The temp worker’s life is empty, and after sitting through She’s One of Us, you kind of know how she feels.

A Problem With Fear is also about feeling; here, irrational fears (being swallowed by an escalator, falling into a sewer) are preventable, by bracelets that warn of impending danger. But Laurie (Paulo Costanzo, who played the genius stoner Rubin in Road Trip) suffers from such extreme paranoia that it disrupts the collective feeling of bracelet wearers. Inadvertently causing multiple accidents to sweep the city in a “fear storm,” Laurie decides to face his fears. Costanzo is brilliant, but the film is overly focused on setting its fearful mood, lapsing into pretentiousness.

A Slipping Down Life premiered half a decade ago at Sundance, but has only recently found distribution. It follows Evie Decker (Lili Taylor), a small town girl without inspiration. One night, she hears local musician Drumstring Casey (a pre-Memento Guy Pearce) on a radio show, droning on about how he’s going to get out of town and be something “big.” Something clicks, and Evie starts semi-stalking Casey, going so far as to carve his name into her forehead. Naturally, romance blossoms. While neither performer quite salvages this mess, Pearce is especially ridiculous, a cheap imitation of Jim Morrison.

The best of the worst came last though, as the 13th PFF awards ceremony for the topped last year’s in terms of length, miscues, and boos from the audience gathered to see the closing night film, Saved!. Highlights for nominees sometimes were simply the film poster (Super Size Me, I’m Not Scared) in place of a clip from the movie, winners were announced for the wrong category, and the jury’s choices pleased few.

Still, with a record 70 sell-out screenings and 61,000 attendees, the Festival wasn’t all bad. Highlights included the hilarious You Can’t Stop the Murders, where a series of murders in Australia leave the local police confounded, until they realize the dismemberment of the bodies form the letters “Y.M.C.A.,” and those killed (a biker, sailor, construction worker) form a perverse homage to The Village People! Berlin Blues, another German film about the fall of the Wall. Frank Lehmann (Christian Ulman) falls in and out of love, questions his life’s purpose, and deals with overbearing parents, all while approaching 30. The most shocking and explicit film by far was The Principles of Lust, about underage bare-knuckle boxing, in addition to the complexities of meeting someone new.