Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Philadelphia Film Festival - Part Three

The festival is now over. My remaining capsule reviews are below. The final published piece can be seen here.
Overall I was very impressed with the scope and planning of this year's festival and look forward to the next one.



A 5 ½ hour long miniseries commissioned for French TV, Carlos will see theatrical release in the states primarily in dramatically edited form. But audiences owe it to themselves to seek out the uncut version, for Olivier Assayas has fashioned an honest-to-goodness epic with a scope and scale unlike anything I can think of in recent years. The story of the rise and fall of terrorist Ilich ‘Carlos’ Ramirez, it is a gangster film on par with the first two Godfather films and similarly, it finds money and ego at the dark heart of its tale of corruption and violence. Edgar Ramirez is remarkable in the title role. His Carlos is magnetic and attractive without once pandering to audiences’ sympathies. Fast paced and directed with a remarkably assured hand, there isn’t a dull moment in all 330 minutes. This is a film unlike anything you’re likely to see again soon.

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz is one of the more accomplished directors to emerge from the micro-budgeted Mumblecore scene. His third feature starts out like much of the genre; mid 20-somethings, overeducated and underachieving, work at shitty jobs and spend their free time drinking and talking around their ambivalence towards just about everything other than pop culture. But then Cold Weather stumbles its way into a decidedly unexpected and involving mystery as one of their crew goes missing. Impressively shot on DV with lots of beautifully composed images of an always rainy Portland, the movie gathers genuine intrigue as Doug (Cris Lankenau) starts to put together the pieces surrounding the disappearance. It’s a shame that Katz seems to lose the thread (or perhaps his interest) in the mystery plot as the film comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. But beforehand there is plenty to enjoy about this well-made and smartly acted mash-up of seemingly disparate elements.

Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Recently, there has been a deluge of DV documentaries on seemingly every subject under the sun, but the best you can hope for is that they hold your interest on a subject you otherwise couldn’t care less about. Based on that criteria, this doc is a definite winner. Commissioned for Australian TV, Mark Hartley’s film takes an affectionate but critical look at the onslaught of exploitation movies produced in the Philippines starting in the late ‘60s through to the early ‘80s. Cheap labor, non-existent health and safety concerns, and the grateful assistance of the Marcos regime lead to hundreds of trashy films being made in the swamps outside Manila for hungry U.S. drive-in audiences. Roger Corman, Joe Dante and an especially forthright John Landis provide illuminating and often hilarious observations. While I can’t say that the sundry clips on display had me clamoring to discover any overlooked gems, the film manages to thoroughly document a forgotten corner of cinematic history without making any great claims for its significance.

The Housemaid

Considered one of the greatest Korean films of all-time, this 1960 melodrama mixes noir and horror elements to tell the story of a household destroyed when the husband makes the mistake of sleeping with family’s live-in maid. The film flirts dangerously close to camp for contemporary audiences but is saved but the savagery of both its images and performances. It is unlikely that an American film made at the same time could have dealt so bluntly with many of the same issues (I don’t want to spoil the impact by going into too much detail here). And just when I thought the film was straining under the weight of one too many emotional crescendos, it ends with a ‘twist’ so incredulous that I couldn’t help but laugh at its sheer audacity.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand’s most acclaimed filmmaker, comes with the blessing/curse of having won this year’s top prize at Cannes. That sets art-house expectations awfully high for a film as inscrutable at times as this meditation on death and reincarnation. It’s best to take all the ghosts and monkey-men at face value. The story is, in fact, easy to assimilate -- Boonmee is very sick and his sister and nephew come to his farm to help take care of him. There they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife as well as an ape claiming to be his long-lost son. Then there is an interlude involving a princess, a waterfall and a talking catfish that is easily the most beautiful 20 minutes I’ve seen on screen all year. Audiences would be best served by not agonizing over meaning: At its heart, the film is as simple and sincere as they come.

White Material

It’s easy for audiences to feel momentarily lost when it comes to Claire Denis’ elliptical story telling style: Character motivation is often not readily apparent and places and faces appear without a great deal of foreshadowing or explanation. Her genius lies in tying together all these elements in a way that lends unexpected gravity and poignancy to the events unfolding. White Material is her latest exercise in carefully controlled chaos. Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert are Maria and Andre Vial, the white owners of a coffee plantation in an unspecified African nation. Their presence is deeply resented by both the rebels and the local government and from the moment we’re dropped into the story we know everything is destined to end very, very badly. This is a revolution with no center, no purpose. Denis sees nothing but a vicious cycle of violence that will ultimately destroy everything and everyone it touches. Powerful stuff.

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