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Philadelphia Film Festival Review # 11: Cave of the Yellow Dog
Title: Cave of the Yellow Dog
Cave of the Yellow Dog is one of the hottest tickets here at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Despite three showings (most films only get two) it was one of the first films to sell out. The Festival's organizers moved the screenings to bigger theaters, but still there were longs lines of people who had to be turned away. So what's Cave of the Yellow Dog got that's set this city's film lovers all abuzz?
Not much, it turns out. Cave of the Yellow Dog is small, precious film about a young Mongolian girl and a dog she rescues from an abandoned cave. That's about it, really. The young girl's mother does some cooking, her infant siblings totter around and her father skins a sheep. This is a film is really nothing more than a 90 minute profile of a nondescript, nomadic Mongolian family, with a cute dog thrown in, you know, for the kinds.
To the extent that this film was created to coo over, it succeeds. The dog is cute, the children are even cuter, and the scenery is breathtaking. However, the film's slightness dooms it to be soon forgotten. Still, for a rainy Sunday afternoon one could do much worse.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #10: The King
Title: The King
Every once in a long while I am able to see a film without any preconceived notions. Usually my expectations are artificially raised or lowered by word of mouth. Often the movie's plot is corrupted by an overzealous marketing department. Yet I have found that knowing nothing about the film I am about to watch sometimes creates the ideal situation for movie going. The only two things I knew about The King was that it starred William Hurt and that pretty-boy actor Gael Garcia Bernal. And all you need to know is that this movie was far better than anything else I saw at the Festival. In fact, it may be the best film I see this year.
I have to qualify this: The King is not for everybody. It is an intense movie, punctuated with moments of incredibly dark comedy. This is a film that is going to make you uneasy. This is a film where people in the audience are going to be talking to the (i.e.-"Don't go in there!"). There was also, at my screening, a man who laughed so hard, for so long, that I thought he was going to need medical treatment.
I implore anyone with any interest in watching The King to stay away from all media relating to this movie (except for this review). The film's first twist happens about 30 minutes in, so it is difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving too much away. I have already watched the film's trailer on-line and was disappointed at how much they show (in addition to the media, stay away from the marketing as much as possible).
The film opens in limited release on May 6th. Go see it.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #9: The Sun
Film: The Sun
Those who have seen Oliver Hirschbiegel’s masterful movie Downfall are going to have difficulty not reflecting back on that film while watching The Sun. Downfall is a drama detailing the last days of Adolf Hitler’s life as the Allied troops encircle his Berlin bunker. The Sun is a drama detailing the historical meeting between Japanese Emperor Hirohito and American General Douglas McArthur at the end of World War II. Unfortunately for viewers of The Sun, Hitler’s drug-addled paranoia makes for far better drama than Hirohito’s pensive contemplation.
To his credit, director Sokurov seems to have stayed loyal to history in this underwhelming presentation of Hirohito. While watching The Sun one can easily imagine that this footage was taken from a hidden camera inside the Imperial Palace. This effect is greatly aided by the fine Japanese actor Issei Ogata, who turns in a powerful, understated performance as Hirohito. Though most actors would be tempted to overact while playing the emperor of a country at war, Ogata wisely plays Hirohito as a meek and cloistered man.
Unfortunately, American actor Robert Dawson, who plays General McArthur proves to be an unusual liability. Dawson plays McArthur with the commensurate gravitas, but he has got one of the largest heads I have ever seen on film. For his first few minutes on screen I had trouble taking my eyes off his oversized cranium.
Ultimately, The Sun is a fine portrait of a landmark historical event, but lacks enough dramatic thrust to captivate.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #8: Hamlet of Women
Title: Hamlet of Women
Hamlet of Women is an Algerian film about a group of Muslim women who are forced to defend their small town from terrorists after the men have all left for factory work in the city. Surprisingly, like the similarly-themed Home Alone, the movie tackles its grim subject matter with an abundance of cheer and whimsy.
The women of this tiny hamlet are much like American women. They gossip about men, make fun of their husbands, and ignore the chastisements of old clerics. With the abundance of media images of Muslims blowing up day care centers and burning American flags, it’s refreshing to see practitioners of the religion portrayed as fun-loving moderates.
Especially amusing is the behavior of the old clerics, who stayed behind with the women because they were too feeble to work in the factory. The old men bicker with each other, issue petty jihads and fall asleep whenever they’re needed. I have no idea how prevalent the mockery of religious leaders is in Algeria, but it’s nice to see that not all Muslims take their religion so deathly serious.
Hamlet of Women is going to be a tough film to find, but if it ever is released on DVD I highly recommend adding it to your Netflix queue, or whatever it is you use to get your cinema fix.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #7: Pound
The print for Robert Downey Sr.’s Pound was thought to be lost. It wasn’t until, as Downey put it himself, “we found a copy in the closet of our cinematographer’s ex-girlfriend,” that the film was resurrected from oblivion.
Initially I felt a small thrill at the opportunity to watch this film that was, for a short time, lost to the ages. Then, upon further consideration, I wondered if it wasn’t indicative of the film’s quality that it had managed to get lost in the first place. Well, Pound is not nearly good enough to be considered a lost masterpiece. Still, it is nowhere near bad enough to deserve liquidation.
Pound is a wacky counterculture movie that was originally released in 1970. It was an adaptation of a play, also by Robert Downey, Sr., and one of the problems with the film is that it seems to be little more than the filming of a stage show.
The film lacks much of a plot. The movie is pretty much a dozen characters walking around a holding cell. The hook is that these people, though played by human actors, are not actually people, but dogs and cats locked up in an animal shelter, waiting to get adopted. Some of the animals worry about euthanasia. Others plan how to escape. Most suffer from delusions of grandeur. All of them like to talk.
With long stretches of abstract dialogue and little action, the film ultimately plays like a second rate Samuel Beckett play. While that is hardly high praise, it beats spending the rest of eternity in the back of a broom closet.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #6: The Glorious life of Sachiko Hanai
Title: The Glorious Life of Sachiko Hanai
“I usually know how an audience is going to respond to the films I pick,” a representative for the Philadelphia Film Festival told the audience before the screening. “But I have no idea how you're going to react to this. It's basically soft porn.” Light applause. “And it also advocates the execution of George W. Bush for war crimes.” Loud cheers.
Wow. Have things gotten this bad for the president? Even people in a purple state are cheering his execution?
Anyway. The Glorious Life of Sachiko Hanai is pretty much, as the man said, soft-core porn. My guess is it was made by imaginative college students, or extremely perverted adults. Judging from the film's extremely liberal political stance, my guess is college students.
Sachiko Hanai is a Tokyo prostitute. The film opens with a lengthy sex scene between her and a young, overzealous client. At the end of the session the young client ejaculates on Sachiko for about half a minute. If you find this amusing, you will probably enjoy the movie. If you find it puerile then I'll save you some time: you won't like this movie. It only gets worse from here.
While dining in a café Sachiko is shot in the head by a North Korean spy. The bullet lodges in her brain and gives her Good Will Hunting-like intelligence. Sachiko also has a voracious appetite for sex, although it is unclear whether the bullet caused that. She begins a tryst with a local professor, then movies on to his son, and eventually to the North Korean spy who shot her. In a particularly odd scene she also has sex with George W. Bush's finger. All of these encounters are shown in an extremely graphic detail (though, per Japanese obscenity laws, there is no penetration).
I could get into plot, but it really doesn't make much sense. It involves the cloning of George W. Bush's finger so a nuclear device can be detonated in Japan, but believe me, it doesn't matter. The film takes so many pit stops for graphic sex scenes it's obvious the filmmakers aren't concerned with story.
That said, the movie does have its charms. It's irreverent, it's original and whoever played Sachiko sure is a trooper. But the sex gets tedious quickly and even at a hair under 90 minutes the movie long overstays its welcome. Still, if a group of 14 year old boys watched this movie during a sleepover I wouldn't be surprised if they dubbed it was the best film ever made.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #5: Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
Title: Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
Though I've tried, I have never been able to appreciate Leonard Cohen's music. I admire his lyrics, but his flat, detached vocal delivery just doesn't move me. Despite these reservations, I decided to check out I'm Your Man, partially in the hope that it would turn me on to Cohen's music. So did the movie inspire to go out and snatch up all of Cohen's albums? Not quite.
I'm Your Man is part interview, part biography and part concert film. The extended interview with Cohen is entertaining. He tells some funny stories and makes insightful observations about the music business. Watching him, one easily understands why he is recognized as a wizened guru of pop music. Still, the meat of the movie, the reason you should pay $10 to see this on the big screen, is the performances.
Thankfully, for those of us who haven't drank the Leonard Cohen kool-aid, the concert is not Cohen's. The concert is a medley of tribute performances by some of the most talented young musicians working today. The lineup is quite formidable, but some of the highlights include: Rufus Wainwright performing three songs, all brilliantly, Martha Wainwright emoting all throughout “The Traitor,” Beth Orton & Jarvis Cocker dueting on “Death of a Ladies' Man,” and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) warbling “If It Be Your Will.” While I personally was not inspired to buy any of Cohen's albums, I think a cinema could start a lucrative side business by selling Antony's “I Am a Bird” to exiting theatergoers. Man, that guy can sing.
What these artists provide, and what Leonard Cohen lacks, is raw emotion. They inject a soul into his well-crafted lyrics. I don't know how Cohen fans will react to this collection of covers, but this neophyte sure enjoyed himself.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #4: Wah-Wah
Wah-Wah is a mostly autobiographical film written and directed by character actor Richard E. Grant (if you haven't seen Withnail and I, do so immediately). Grant was born and raised in Swaziland. In the late 1960s, when Grant was a teenager, Swaziland was on the cusp of gaining their independence from Great Britain. Grant's father worked for the English government in Swaziland, and faced an uncertain future when power was transferred. Surely there is the potential for a great movie with this source material. Wah-Wah is not that movie.
The main problem with Wah-Wah is that the film's drama hinges far more on familial strife as opposed to anything to do with colonial occupation. This wouldn't be so damaging if the family discord was particularly novel, or was portrayed with extraordinary depth, such as in the grand master of domestic dramas, Ordinary People. Instead Wah-Wah plays like a Cliff Notes-style montage of dysfunction, where events cram together without any context of exposition that would allow us to understand at anything other than a surface level. In the first scene of the movie the mom is cheating on her husband. In the second scene she leaves him. The father drinks and soon becomes violent. Things progress at this breakneck pace, with nearly every scene encompassing either nasty sunderings or warm reconciliations. It seems like Grant felt the need to squeeze every event of his childhood into this film. To his credit, and to the film's detriment, he succeeded in this aim.
It is also worth noting that in real life Grant has a brother who lived with him in Swaziland. Due to some sort of family feud the brother has been excised out of the movie. I have no idea what the feud is, but my guess is that, whatever it may be, it's more interesting than any of the drama portrayed in Wah-Wah.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #3: This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Title: This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The MPAA's ratings system favors studio films, pushes moral agendas and lacks transparency. These are widely held beliefs, and This Film Is Not Yet Rated provides enough evidence to drive most any film lover to arms. Perhaps more importantly, the film also presents its case in an irreverent, yet forceful, tone that makes the film great entertainment as well.
The formidable lineup of directors Kirby Dick interviewed for his movie include: Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), Kevin Smith (Clerks), John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For a Dream), and countless others. These directors all have first-hand knowledge of the MPAA's ratings board, and their stories are simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. The interviews with filmmakers are supplanted with comments from critics and first amendment lawyers, which makes for a pretty well rounded attack on the system.
Dick also adapts a questionable, Nick Broomfield-like style of filmmaking. In addition to the talking heads, he hires a lesbian private detective (and her step-daughter) to identify the previously anonymous raters. The private detective is so successful she is able to supply Kirby the names, pictures, marital status, and ages of children of nearly every rater. Dick then gleefully exposes these people in his film. At one point he even goes through the garbage of one of the raters. At the time I was so worked up I felt these people deserved whatever punishment Dick could dole out. In reflection, the brazen way in which these people's privacy was invaded is more than a little disconcerting.
Still, The Film Is Not Yet Rated is a rare documentary that sheds light on a previously esoteric subject and manages to be wildly entertaining at the same time. It is highly recommended for all cinephiles and first amendment buffs.
Philadelphia Film Festival Review #2: Lucky Number Slevin
Title: Lucky Number Slevin
Is it too late to change this film's title? It's baffling how such an effortlessly smart and breezy film got saddled with such a horrible pun as its title. Well, you shouldn't prejudge. This is going to be one of the best films at the festival.
I say this despite a ridiculous plot and some questionable casting. Josh Hartnett (Hollywood Homicide) plays Slevin, a young unemployed sad sack who's mistaken for his friend, Nick Fisher. Seems like good ol' Nick owed money all over town and now Slevin's assuming his debts. Like every great comedy-action hero, Hartnett tries to affect a relaxed, wiseass coolness that belies the danger his character is in. The greats - such as Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis - pull this off with ease. Hartnett, however, looks too much like an Abercrombie & Fitch model to be so self-deprecating and charming. Still, this is a huge upgrade from his work in garbage like Pearl Harbor and 40 Days & 40 Nights. Thankfully, strong supporting turns by Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsly and the aforementioned Willis lend the film's plot a resonance it would have otherwise lacked.
It's also best not to concentrate too hard on the plot. The story is creative and engaging, but falls apart under close scrutiny. Thankfully, the movie has enough humor and charm to earn a lot of goodwill. This is one of those films where, if you watch it in a crowded theater, you are going to miss some dialogue because of the laughter. If you are just looking to have a good time at the cinema, you're going to have to search awful hard to find something better than Lucky Number Slevin.
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