Philadelphia Film Festival: Recap

I had meant to write reviews as I went, but things didn't work out that way, so here's a recap of all the films I've seen this week. Star ratings are out of 4 stars.
  • Pistoleros (Saturday, Prince Music Theater): Chilean born Dutch filmmaker Shaky González makes a modern-day spaghetti western, complete with a heist-gone-wrong, hidden loot, a trail of clues, betrayals, gunfights and mexican standoffs galore, with a little martial arts thrown in for good measure. An interesting and entertaining mix, though a little uneven in its execution. **1/2 [Read full review]
  • Confession of Pain: From the same writers and directors as the Hong Kong hit, Infernal Affairs, this film is perhaps not as clever, but it's still interesting and complex, mixing noir-like story elements like betrayal and revenge. *** [Read full review]
  • Storm: A confounding and pretentious character study that attempts to disguise its true nature by employing elements of science fiction, video games, comic books, and Matrix-like action and themes. It doesn't work well at all. It's well made and stylish, but by trying to spice up the story with stuff like science fiction and comic books, it manages to present a lot of incomplete ideas that don't even really impact the story much. I don't mind a movie that leaves questions unanswered, but this is ridiculous. It starts out promisingly enough. Two women are being chased through some industrial complex because they've stolen a mysterious metal box. They manage to fight they're way out, but while fleeing, one of them runs into Donny, a 20-something slacker. This seeminly random encounter propels Donny into the action, but it turns out that he's actually the focus of the story. Other interesting things about the beginning of the film: The news on TV and the radio keeps mentioning this mysterious and powerful storm that's wreaking havoc all over the world. One of the women from the beginning looks a lot like a character in a video game. The main villain has a nice Agent Smith mixed with a Vampire vibe going for him. But the film doesn't actually explore any of these elements, instead it focuses on Donny. In a sequence that is actually quite striking, Donny is transported back to his hometown (which is eerily desolate and foggy) and observes a few events from his past. This is the true heart of the film, Donny confronting and accepting his childhood demons. But you know, I didn't particularly like Donny all that much, which you'd think would be important. You're never really sure if what you're watching is real or not. There is a certain dreamlike quality in the way the film throws out ideas and then abandons them, but it just didn't work for me, and it works even less now that I've had some time to think about it. The movie reminded me a lot of the stylish Night Watch and Day Watch films... but considering that I don't particularly care for those movies, that's not a good thing (and I didn't find Storm nearly as entertaining as them). *
  • Soo: Yet another Korean revenge flick (what is it with Koreans and vengeance?), this film is miles beneath any of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy films. It reminded me much more of a film I saw at the 2006 Philly fest, A Bittersweet Life, though this film is not as good as that. It tells the story of two brothers who were separated as children, one turning to a life of crime, the other becoming a police officer. When they're finally reunited, tragedy strikes, and one of the brothers seeks revenge by impersonating the other brother. A mildy clever concept that doesn't actually play very well. The first 3/4 of the film isn't so great, but the final showdown is kinda amazing. It doesn't really fit, but it's a riot to watch. Our hero takes so much punishment - he's hit by a baseball bat or crowbar like 300 times, he takes a knife to the leg, gets stabbed in the gut, and is shot two times. By this time, everyone is on the floor, and in a hilarious scene, our hero and the main villain (both having suffered major injuries) see each other and crawl towards a confrontation. The camera hanges back in a long shot and you see the two crawl towards each other. It's hilarious. When they finally get to each other, our hero gets the bad guy, but apparently takes a sword to the neck and gushes blood (not in a campy, Kill Bill way, but in a more realistic way). Then he gets up and stumbles out of the room. It's unbelievable and very funny. One performance I did want to call out was Soo's female costar (the materials for this film are sparse, so I'm not sure of her name), who has a couple of great scenes. Unfortunately, that stuff really isn't enough to save this film, though it may be worth watching for fans of the genre (still, I'd recommend A Bittersweet Life before this). **
  • Epitaph: Gorgeous Korean ghost story that is reminiscent of A Tale of Two Sisters, both in terms of the subject matter and the confusing nature and structure of the plot. There are really three stories here, each taking place in a Korean hospital occupied by the Japanese during WWII. Each story involves ghosts, each story has a "twist," and taken individually, each story works reasonably well. The atmosphere of the film is fantasticly creepy, and the perfomances are well drawn and believable. There are several tense and scary sequences, and the film is simply gorgeous to look at. The problem is that I'm not sure if there's a problem or not. This is a film that kinda demands a second viewing because the structure of the plot is very confusing. It starts in the 1970s, flashes back to the 1940s (where the bulk of the story takes place), then flashes back 2 days, then flashes back 3 days. Each flashback is told from a different perspective and you start to see how the three various plot-lines intersect. This sounds interesting, and if it all fits, it would be pretty cool, but I couldn't tell if it fit upon my first viewing. I don't know if there is a "lost in translation" element here, but I think at least part of the problem is the editing. The surreal nature of many of the visuals makes it difficult to tell what's going on at times, and I think that contributes to the confusion. But I'll be damned if it isn't a pretty film. Again, it's very much like A Tale of Two Sisters, though I think that film is a little better. The confusing nature of the story makes it difficult to give this a great rating, but it is very well made and creepy. **1/2

    Epitaph

  • The Wackness: Before the festival, there was a film on the schedule called "Mystery Film" which gave no explanation other than that the festival organizers got a last-minute entry that was a hit at Sundance. I bought a ticket and it ended up being this film. This is your typical indie-flavor stoner comedy, heavy on the indie. I love stoner comedies, but I didn't care much for this film. There are a few laughs here and there, but in the end, this film overreaches and becomes a little heavy-handed and self-congratulatory. Set in 1994, it tells the story of Luke Shapiro, a pot dealer who is nonetheless not very popular, and his shrink Dr. Squires (played by Ben Kingsley) who trades therapy for weed. Luke becomes enamored with Squires' daughter and hijinks ensue. The setting is mildly interesting (I was in high school at the time, so I guess I can relate) and the filmmakers hit a lot of the "hip" lingo, etc... The performances are mediocre. Josh Peck plays Luke with a near constant open-mouthed stoner smirk, and while Kingsley does his best to chew scenery and go over-the-top, he ends up with a Dustin Hoffman-like performance. Then again, Kingsley is responsible for most of the film's laughs. Still, any charm this film has wears off as it attempts to hammer home it's themes in much too literal a way. In perhaps the worst titular justification ever, Squires' daughter explains to Luke that the difference between them is that she looks at “the dopeness” of life while he sees nothing but “the wackness.” It was mildly entertaining and I'm betting this will be a mainstream hit, but it's just not my bag. **
  • Black House: Another Korean horror film, albeit a significantly more conventional one. A mild-mannered insurance agent investigates a suspicious suicide and tries to warn an impending victim. Again, this is a pretty conventional thriller that generally progresses in predictable ways (one "twist" really isn't much of one). It's executed in a competent and steady fashion, making for a watchable but ultimately forgettable film. The pace picks up towards towards the end, and another unexpected twist is revealed. It's probably an above average horror/thriller film and worth watching for fans of the genre, but you wouldn't be missing much if you didn't see it... **
  • Timecrimes: An intricate Spanish time-travel thriller, and my favorite film of the festival. Hector and his wife have just moved into a countryside house in Northern Spain. Sitting in the backyard, Hector peers through his binoculars and spies a woman undressing in the woods. He follows her to investigate, but is stabbed and chased by a mysterious bandaged man. He takes refuge in a house that turns out to be a lab, and eventually finds the sole employee, who tells him that he can hide in a large circular pod. He emerges from the pod about a hour and a half in the past, where he can watch events unfold a second time, from a different perspective. Naturally, time-travel causes more problems than it solves, and the film doesn't shy away from that, despite keeping a pleasant tone. There is actually quite a bit of humor and wit in the script, and none of it seems forced or silly. It's a complex and fascinating film, but unlike other complex films in the festival, this film manages to maintain a clarity that was refreshing to me. The film requires you to think, but all the pieces fit, and the film addresses the time-travel pitfall of paradox by employing a "circular causation" style (as used in The Terminator, 12 Monkeys, and, uh, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Perhaps it's just my affinity for time travel stories, but I loved this movie. It may get a limited release in the U.S., but I believe it's also being remade (I have mixed feelings about that - if you don't mind subtitles, this is defiintely worth checking out). ***1/2

    Timecrimes
    The mysterious bandaged man...

  • Son of Rambow: Written and directed by Garth Jennings (he did The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a film I enjoyed despite it not living up to the source material), this is a smaller, more personal story of an imaginative child who becomes friends with the school screwup after they discover a mutual love for First Blood and attempt to make their own film, titled "Son of Rambow." There are, of course, obstacles to their friendship, including an overbearing religion and a French exchange student named Didier. I think the interesting thing about this film is that it captures the way a child will latch on to certain movies. As an adult, I don't find this happening much, but I can think of dozens of films from my childhood (good and bad, it doesn't really matter), that thrilled and inspired me. A fun crowd-pleasing film, I believe it's going to be released mainstream sometime this year, and it's definitely worth watching. ***

    Son of Rambow

  • Triangle: A strange little caper flick helmed by three Hong Kong masters: Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Kaedrin favorite, Johnny To. Each director apparently worked on a third of the movie, though there don't seem to be any obvious transitions between the three "segments" (difficult to call them such, as it's all basically one story). In all honesty, the first two thirds of the movie aren't all that special. However, the final act brings various plot elements together nicely and a couple of neat set pieces and gunfights take place here. I believe this is the portion of the film directed by Johnny To, though again, it's difficult to tell, and I think you can see the hand of Tsui Hark in the last section as well. It's worth watching for that final third of the movie, but it's also not an especially spectacular effort on any of the filmmakers' parts. **1/2
While I don't have much of a frame of reference for film festivals, I'd say this was a middle-of-the-pack sorta year. I didn't see as many movies at the 2006 festival, but 3 of the films shown in 2006 ended up on my top 10 for that year. At the most, I can see two films accomplishing that this year (Timecrimes and Son of Rambow). Of course, I also chose to focus mostly on the Danger After Dark series, mostly avoiding the other fare, of which there are apparently many good films. My understanding is that the DAD leadership had some problems this year, though I'm short on the details on what's involved in those rumors. In any case, I certainly still enjoyed myself and will probably make the effort again next year.

Update: Made some edits, specifically to the Storm review... Also removed the The Last House in the Woods entry, as I didn't end up seeing that film...