Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Philadelphia Filmdom - Three from the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival

Some people I know don't like film festivals, and that's fine. They can be annoying, troublesome events, with lots of long lines, delayed shows, theater-to-theater hustling, obnoxious attendees and sometimes even more obnoxious festival programmers (no one I know is in that group, I assure you). But if you don't take them too seriously and just flow with them then they're a good time, an opportunity to play up your film going experience with a little travel, some good food, good company and some good cinema (hopefully). As long as it doesn't cost you too much dough it's a fine way to pass the time, in my humble opinion, and I enjoy the experience more often than not. This was the case once again this past weekend when I jaunted down to Philly to sample some of the goodies of this year's Philadelphia Film Festival, which is always a quality fest and an opportunity to take in the city of brotherly love as it goes through its annual spring awakening with cherry blossoms in full bloom and agreeable weather finally making it nice enough to walk around. Aside from the flicks, I enjoyed cheese steaks at Jim's on South Street, sampled some damn good sushi with pal/non-obnoxious programmer Michael Lerman and DiG! director (and all-around fabulous babe) Ondi Timoner (whose outstanding new film, the religious cult doc JOIN US, was screening as we sampled the sush), and just walked around, hit some shops, met some folks and had a pretty pleasant day all around. And the movies were good - what's there to hate? No hatin', please.

The big deal for me at this year's fest was the world premiere of BAD BIOLOGY, the first new film from BASKET CASE/BRAIN DAMAGE/FRANKENHOOKER auteur Frank Hennenlotter in 17 years. I happen to know Frank a little, thanks to my pal Scooter McCrae (who edited BAD BIOLOGY), and I know how he's been struggling to get another picture off the ground for so many years, so to hear BAD BIOLOGY was actually happening was exciting in a lot of ways. Frank seems to be the last of the real 42nd Street grindhouse directors still kicking, and from the very start of BAD BIOLOGY it become very, very, very obvious that Frank is making movies like it's still 1982 and that Giuliani never happened. It opens with the line, "I was born with eight clitorises" and keeps going and god damn is it real fucking good to have Frank Hennenlotter back on the big screen again. I can't really call the film a "return to form" if only because Frank doesn't really have any clunkers, so I'll just say that it's a most welcome return to NYC big screen sleaze done right. The story (woman with eight clits meets a man with a monstrous schlong) is prime Hennenlotter, "just wrong", as the man himself uttered before the screening (which, I must say, went over quite well). I'm going to dance around the particulars about the film because, like all good films, I think it's best experienced knowing less about it, but I will say that Frank (and co-writer R.A. "The Rugged Man" Thornburn) is really committed to doing his own thing here, with very little care about what civilized society will say, and my admiration for that is immense. He's also helped out by two fearless performances from Charlee Danielson and Anthony Sneed, both making their film debuts. Now, I feel the need to say two things about their work here: First, it's obvious that both are new to screen acting and there's a certain inexperience to them that hampers things. Line readings could be better, screen presence needs to be worked on, that sort of thing. That said, the rawness also works in the film's favor, because these two certainly give their all for the film, both truly holding nothing back (especially Danielson) and while I found myself admiring their work in the end, it is with reservations. Other than that, BAD BIOLOGY is the fun piece of sleaze I hoped it would be and I know that it will be festival bound throughout most of 2008, so I hope you all get a chance to see it, cause it sure is fun.

Likewise fun (and likewise very un-PC) is Stuart Gordon's STUCK, which premiered back at Toronto and was picked up by Think Film, who have it scheduled for a small release in late May (at least it was the last I heard) before Image puts out on this newfangled DVD format in the summer. Gordon has been on a major roll lately, with such dark, yet really powerful, films as KING OF THE ANTS and EDMOND (from a Mamet screenplay), all of which seem to be saying the same thing: People are no damn good. STUCK continues in that glorious tradition, taking a true story of a nurse (here played by Mena Suvari) who hits a homeless man (Stephen Rae) with her car while drunk and stoned and leaves him to die in her garage. This is ace material for black comedy, and since Gordon is a master of the genre he comes up with yet another winner and his third home run in a row, at least by my estimates. It's a bit slow to start - the opening scenes don't give you a sense of where it's really going - but once Rae becomes stuck it really does pick up and the second half is full of one great sick joke after another. Part of you wonders just how far they could go with this concept, but Gordon and his crew wisely keep it small and intimate (just a few characters and settings) and nasty. STUCK is unpleasant, no doubt, but Gordon isn't out to be mean, because he sympathizes very much with Rae's character, a decent man who's stuck not only in this car but in a society that not only doesn't care for its downtrodden but whose downtrodden don't care for one another, either. Both Rae and Suvari do their best work in a while, especially considering that they're given good material and an actor's director to work with, while Russell Horsby is very funny as Suvari's drug dealer boyfriend who isn't quite as gangsta as he claims to be. Once again, Gordon is proving himself to be one of the most fearless social commentators we have and after 20+ years of movies he keeps getting better and better. Can't wait to see what he does next.

In between these two (but just after cheese steaks) came I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, Masayuki Suo's follow-up to his extremely successful SHALL WE DANCE? from over a decade ago. That one would probably lead you to believe that he's either going to follow it up with another schmaltzy movie, or he's going to try and make a "serious" movie to prove he isn't a scmaltzmeister and he'll fall flat on his face doing so. With I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, he does the latter, but not only doesn't screw it up, he comes up with one of the best Japanese films I've seen in years, so huzahs to him! The "it" of I JUST DIDN'T DO IT, is an accusation of groping a young schoolgirl on a crowded train, something that usually results in a fine and a misdemeanor charge to those accused. This is a big problem in Japan (they even have "women only" trains to help combat it), so if you're accused of groping but happen to be innocent the law is not usually on your side, no matter if your innocence can be proven or not. I JUST DIDN'T DO IT makes the point that the film's lead character (well played by Ryo Kase) did not grope the schoolgirl (while not revealing who did, it also makes a point that a groping did take place), so that we understand that when he goes through the long, nearly impossible process of trying to clear his name, he does so for a reason. What's fascinating about the film (especially for an American audience) is how it details the Japanese judicial system, which is seemingly designed to end up with a guilty verdict, and how the idea of innocent until proven guilty doesn't seem to apply. Kase spends months in jail awaiting trial, treated like a common criminal, browbeaten by police and prosecutors, all in an attempt to get him to "confess". It's a pretty tough thing to sit through (I always hate seeing miscarriages of justice like this), especially when it dawns on both the characters and the audience just what an uphill battle they're facing. This makes I JUST DIDN'T DO IT sound like the downer of the year, but it's such an absorbing piece (and an effective piece of tragedy) that you're riveted (a cliché, I know, but that's the right word) by the proceedings. It's not merely that you're seeing another country's judicial system at work, but one that's infamous for its conviction rate (it's argued that's why crime in Japan is so low) for a supposedly free society. Though the film is pretty long (143 minutes), it's a fascinating piece when you consider how just a few minutes of your life will choose the course the rest of it takes, becoming exhaustively examined by you and by others almost forever. I don't think anyone has picked up I JUST DIDN'T DO IT yet, but I hope someone does, because it offers the viewer a lot of think about and discuss and if I ever visit Japan I sure as hell plan on keeping my hands in my pockets.

I'm hitting Philly again this weekend, checking out Schwarz's SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY and a few others. More movies, more cheese steaks, more fun. I like this Philadelphia.

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