Saturday, May 3, 2008

17th Annual Philadelphia Film Fest Overview

(L-R: William H. Macy, Fiona Glascott and Jason Ritter at Philly Film Fest for their film, "THE DEAL")

The place to see an outstanding number of 243 feature length films and 108 short films, wasn’t Cannes or Sundance, but at the 17th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival (April 3rd-15th). Adding close to 100 feature length films more than last year, the Philadelphia Film Festival has become the largest film showcase on the East Coast.

Housing independent films with unknown to well-known actors such as William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Elle Fanning, Matthew Broderick, Meg Ryan, Bette Midler, Jason Ritter, Patricia Clarkson, LL Cool J, Saffron Burrows, Tyrese Gibson and Felicity Huffman are a few familiar faces you will see on screen during the festival. Festivals like these are an excellent opportunity to view amazing films on the big screen and spread the word for them to have a chance at theatrical release.

As an added bonus to going to film festivals, the attendees get the rare and unique opportunity to meet the director and stars after many of the films. There to help promote the movie, audiences are given the chance to ask questions during Q&A’s that are fun and insightful. Among other things such as parties and free promotional giveaways are events like educational seminars on how films receive funding as well as a critics roundtable where the professionals give their critique on the films playing.

This year I got to view some of the most talked about movies at the festival. Most lived up to the hype and hopefully will get the recognition that they deserve.
  • American Teen
    **1/2 out of ****
    USA, 2008, 95 minutes
    Dir. Nanette Burnstein
    "American Teen" is a documentary that gives an insightful but ultimately tired look on High School life, chronicling the lives of High School Seniors in small town Warsaw, Indiana. The film focuses on Hannah, an artistic outsider; Colin, a friendly basketball jock; Megan, the school’s popular bully; and Jake, the nerd, tackling peer, family and college pressures with some expected and unexpected outcomes.
    Academy Award nominee director Nanette Burnstein gives each of the students an equal amount of face time and knows where and how to cut to the next High-schooler for a seamless transition. Periodic animated vignettes that attempt to paint an image of what the teenagers are saying are awkward. "Teen" has spark and reality, but the same message has been played out many times before.

    Dangerous Parking
    ***1/2 out of ****
    Great Britain, 2007, 109 minutes
    Dir. Peter Howitt
    Starring: Peter Howitt, Saffron Burrows, Sean Pertwee, Rachael Stirling, and Tom Conti
    Director, writer, producer and star, Peter Howitt brings to us the dramatic and hilarious "Dangerous Parking"; a film dangerously close to perfection. Howitt is Noah Arkwright, a cynical drug and alcohol addicted filmmaker. Noah narrates the out-of-order visual film that gives the true feeling of Noah’s abstract thinking and personality. Following his marriage to cellist Claire (Burrows), detox, and his fight with cancer, eccentric Noah keeps us laughing with pessimism and internal thinking throughout.
    Peter Howitt wonderfully adapts Stuart Browne’s novel in a stunning directorial. Howitt takes on the task and succeeds at making the audience enjoy such an unlikable character with quick wit and charisma. Burrows gives one of her best performances as Noah’s wife as well as the supporting Pertwee and Stirling as his friends.
    The choice of going out-of-order works well, all coming together in the end. However, the beginning is quite confusing and some dramatic scenes are hindered by not fully understanding what lead up to them. Overall, "Dangerous Parking" is a success with no major violations.

    Deadline U.S.A.
    *** out of ****
    USA, 1952, 87 minutes
    Dir. Richard Brooks
    Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore, Kim Hunter and Martin Gable
    A blast from the past, "Deadline U.S.A." is a nostalgic noir from 1952. Bogart stars as Newspaper editor, Ed Hutcherson who tries to save his paper from being bought out in a matter of days while bringing down mobster, Thomas Rienzi (Gable) in a shocking expose. Dealing with layoffs and closings of newspapers, the message is still prevalent today in this exciting crime drama.

    The Deal
    *** out of ****
    Canada, USA 2008, 100 minutes
    Dir. Steven Schachter
    Starring: William H. Macy, Meg Ryan, Jason Ritter, Fiona Glascott, LL Cool J and Elliot Gould
    Based on the book by Peter Lefcourt, William H. Macy adapts and stars in this Hollywood comedy. Playing an out of luck producer, Charlie, who swindles an executive, Deidre (Ryan), at a troubled studio to green-light his nephew’s (Ritter) script on the Jewish English statesman Benjamin Disraeli. Changing the script from a serious drama into an action comedy, they cast black action star (LL Cool J), who recently converted to Judaism as Disraeli for funding. Numerous setbacks and delays including a terrorist kidnapping and other chaos provide abundant laughs.
    Macy and Ryan are at the top of their comedic game. Ritter along with Fiona Glascott as the female lead add well to the script. LL Cool J is the deal-breaker as a dim-witted action star adding lots of Jewish humor as Elliot Gould guides him as his equally clueless Rabbi.

    Phoebe in Wonderland
    **** out of ****
    USA, 2008, 96 minutes
    Dir. Daniel Barnz
    Starring: Elle Fanning, Patricia Clarkson, Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman
    Fanning is brilliant as the titled character, Phoebe Lichten, an imaginative young girl who has trouble with following the rules. Phoebe is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, having visions of the characters pop-out throughout her day, much like her mother (Huffman) who is writing a book on Alice. As coincidence has it, her school is putting on the play Alice in Wonderland, run by the eccentric new drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson). While Phoebe is fine during rehearsal, her behavior outside of the theater is worsening in this extremely moving picture on what is and isn’t “normal” from the perspective of children and adults.
    Desperate Housewives star Huffman shines as Phoebe’s mother while Clarkson plays a strong supporting hand. Pullman skillfully undertakes the part of Phoebe’s father. Director and writer Daniel Barnz makes a powerful debut that will certainly leave viewers in marvel.

    Son of Rambow
    **1/2 out of ****
    USA, 2007, 95 minutes
    Dir. Garth Jennings
    Starring: William Poulter, Bill Milner, Jules Sitruk, Jessica Stevenson and Adam Godley
    Set in the ‘80s, "Son of Rambow" is a sweet and funny family film that is enjoyable for all ages. Milner stars as the 11-year-old Will who has never seen a film in his life due to his religion of the Plymouth Brethren and strict leader (Godley). When school bully Carter (Poulter) decides to enlist Will into making a homemade version of First Blood to enter into a young filmmaker competition, the two set off with their video camera to make an action film. Reminiscent of the recent Be Kind Rewind, "Rambow" falls into the same pitfall: building a film off of one joke. However, "Son of Rambow" handles the problem much more properly by adding a dramatic element of friendship and religion to aid the film.
    Writer and director Garth Jennings ("Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy") who drew experiences from his own childhood adds a lot of heart to the film. Jennings draws fantastic performances from his young actors. Younger audiences certainly needn’t see Rambo to get the joke, but the older audiences will enjoy the references.

    Summer Scars
    ½ a * out of ****
    Great Britain, 2007, 75 minutes
    Dir. Julian Richards
    Starring: Kevin Howarth, Ciaran Joyce, Amy Harvey, Jonathan Jones, Darren Evans, Christopher Conway and Ryan Conway
    "Summer Scars" is a suspense-less thriller and drama with little emotion and sense. Kevin Howarth plays Peter, a stranger that stumbles upon six fourteen year old friends that cut school to hang out in the woods. Deciding to help Peter find his dog, it isn’t until Peter takes out a gun that they realize he has a different agenda. Peter supposedly is trying to teach the kids life lessons as they are about to reach adulthood. The chance of escape comes multiple times, but the brain-dead kids make the worst possible decisions to propel the plot that in the end is pointless.
    The kids have a long way to go in acting. Howarth is the highpoint to the film as the stranger. Director Richards never seems to know where to go with the film that would make a better short, than feature length, which it barely is at 75 minutes. Bad acting, plot, writing and ending makes "Summer Scars" one of the worst of the fest.

    The Take
    **1/2 out of ****
    USA, 2007, 96 minutes
    Dir. Brad Furman
    Starring: John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, Bobby Cannavale and Tyrese Gibson
    "The Take" is about family man Felix De La Pena (Leguizamo) who’s held at gunpoint as a thug, Adell (Gibson), kidnaps Felix while on duty as an armored truck driver. After stealing the money, Adell shoots Felix, leaving him for dead. Felix miraculously survives albeit personality changes. The police (Cannavale) not being helpful in finding the culprit, the now violent Felix is hell-bent on finding the perp. Driving away his wife (Perez) and children in the process, The Take is a gritty and dark crime drama.
    Leguizamo gives one of his best performances but seems to be trying a bit too hard. Academy Award nominee Perez, on the other hand, does a fine job with a natural aura. Cannavale plays the average cop figure and Gibson is dead weight.
    The plot is contrived and far from original with one or two glaring plot holes. For a low-budget flick, Furman brings some style and nice editing to make it worth checking out.

    Trailer Park of Terror
    **1/2 out of ****
    USA, 2008, 91 minutes
    Dir. Steven Goldmann
    Starring: Nichole Hiltz, Lew Temple, Brock Cuchna, Myk Watford, Matthew Del Negro and Trace Adkins
    From the Reading, P.A. based comic books; "Trailer Park of Terror" stars Nichole Hiltz as the headstrong beauty Norma who’s to leave the trailer park life behind her with boyfriend Aaron (Cuchna). When things start looking up, they soon come crashing down when fellow trailer-parkers Marv (Temple) and Roach (Watford) kill him. Running away, Norma encounters, The Man (Adkins), fueling her rage, giving her a rifle to take revenge on her trailer park neighbors. Cut to twenty years later when a group of six troubled teenagers and their pastor (Del Negro) get in a car accident during a thunderstorm coming home from a retreat. Seeking shelter in the nearby trailer park, they meet a now awry Norma who offers them shelter for the night. This is if they survive the night as monster zombie rednecks start picking off the kids one by one.
    This not-for-everyone B-movie, filled with dark humor, a country rock-n-roll soundtrack and blood is an entertaining ride. Famed country music video director, Steven Goldmann, certainly breaks away from his roots with the help of screenwriter Timothy Dalton in this Predictable but fun southern terror.

***1/2 out of ****
Great Britain, 2007, 107 minutes
Dir. Stephen Walker
Hilarious and heartfelt, Young@Heart is a documentary following a choir of senior citizens that sing….Rock N’ Roll? Originated in Northhampton, MA, the choir has toured the world and the film documents them preparing for their next tour.

Laughs are inevitable watching these old folks (whose average age is 81) sing everything from Sonic Youth to Coldplay to James Brown. Heart strings are pulled in scenes when a couple of the choir members fall fatally ill, but ultimately "Young@Heart" is a feel good flick for any age. By the time the film is over it makes you feel, well, young at heart.

Last year the festival hosted the likes of hit films such as Away from Her and La Vie en Rose, both Oscar nominated and winning pictures respectively. While it is unsure what films this year will be lucky enough to reach such a broad audience, there is enough picks worthy enough to reach such a status. For the ones that don’t, many are still worth searching out for.

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