Sunday, October 17, 2010

Philadelphia Film Festival: Day 1 through Day 3

Well, it’s been a great first few days of the festival.  Here’s the lowdown on the seven I’ve seen so far:
Make Believe             Grade:  A+
This one is what film festivals are all about, folks!  In 2002 a documentary called ‘Spellbound’ travelled the film festival circuit.  It was just a small film about a bunch of kids competing in a national spelling bee competition, but it slowly grew in popularity due to word of mouth.  Since then, there have been documentaries on the best crossword puzzle enthusiasts, best scrabble players, best Donkey Kong players, best ventriloquists, and pretty much every niche hobby you can think of.  (But my reviews on all those are a blog for another day.)  Just when I thought they’d done it all, we get a film about the best teenage magicians, and their journey to reach the annual teen magic competition in Las Vegas.  Every kid has his own story and you can’t help but root for each and every one of them.  The film is well shot, well produced, and has the perfect soundtrack.  I absolutely love everything about this movie.  And you will too, guaranteed!   When or if it has a limited theatrical release, or else just shows up on DVD, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Black Swan                 Grade:  A
I already briefly reviewed this one in my Toronto Film Fest post, but since you’ll all be hearing about it a lot between November and March, I figure I’ll bring it up one more time so you remember you heard it here first.   It’s a psychological thriller about the ballet ‘Swan Lake’.  Natalie Portman stars and it’s directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Up until now I haven’t been a fan of Aronofsky’s work (and you can read more about that in the Toronto post as well.)  But this one is a winner for sure.  It’s not for everyone, though.  It’s dark, erotic, and suspenseful throughout, kind of like watching a nightmare for two hours, but with ballet and set to the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky.  Well, almost Tchaikovsky.  Composer Clint Mansell actually decomposed and reconstructed Tchaikovsky’s actual score to have it mesh better with the film.  And it totally works.  The music is the true star of the film.  I love it.  But, you be the judge if it sounds like your cup of tea or not.

On a side note, a last minute surprise on Opening Night was a Q&A with Aronofsky after the film.  I never saw him in person.  He’s kind of an arrogant jerk.  I like him even less than I did before.   He could learn a few things from Danny Boyle.
Grade for Darren Aronofsky’s Filmography excluding Black Swan:  C-
Grade for Darren Aronofsky as a person:  D

Life 2.0                        Grade:  A-
Perhaps people reading this have heard of a computer game / virtual world called ‘Second Life’, but I had not.  So I found this documentary fascinating.  Apparently computer games have come a long way since I used to play them on the Commodore 64.  (Commodore, anyone?  Who’s with me?)  People can now create an avatar that looks just like them and essentially live a second life, similar or completely different, than their own.  They can build homes, create businesses, get rich, and even form relationships and have sex.  Now of course I’m aware of the ‘Sym City’ games, but this ‘Second Life’ seems to have gone much, much further than I remember ‘Sym’.  This doc follows several people who have had very different life changing experiences due to this game.  I won’t spoil it, but it’s fascinating.

Hesher                        Grade:  B+
OK let me be clear, this film is not for everyone, but I really dug it.  It centers around a teenage boy named T.J. whose mom has just passed away.  He is struggling with grief, as is his dad, played by Rainn Wilson (who is just as spectacular here as he was in ‘Super’, which you can also read about in my Toronto post).  T.J. is also trying to deal with an older bully, a crush he develops on an older girl played by Natalie Portman, and a mysterious long-haired psycho, bad-ass, heavy metal, pyromaniac named Hesher, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt.  It’s hard to figure out what the deal is with Hesher.  In fact, every character in this film is hard to put your finger on.  And every situation is unexpected.  The film is very dark, but still has comedy sprinkled throughout.  It’s not perfect and it’s not for mainstream audiences, but it’s a wild ride and I liked it.

Richard Garriott:  Man on a Mission                       Grade:  B
Have you ever wanted to be an astronaut?  Well, you can apply to NASA and hopefully meet all their requirements or you can do what pioneer role-playing computer game designer Richard Garriott did, and just pay 30 million dollars.  This documentary isn’t nearly as polished as some of the other films I’ve seen, but the subject matter is fascinating.  Garriott is a very interesting subject.  Even his history of how he made his millions is worthy of a documentary.  And his 9 month training for his dream space mission is a joy to watch.  My only critique is that it really doesn’t have the look for a theatrical release.  This one would play much better at home on the couch on a weekend afternoon.

By the way, when I got to the Ritz 5 which has three festival films screening simultaneously, I walked up to the ticket taker and said, ‘Richard Garriott’?  She looked puzzled and replied, ‘Ummm … I think I just saw him go outside.’  I chuckled and replied, ‘No, no, the man is not here, I’m just looking for the movie’.  I found that particularly funny.  Good help is so hard to find.

The Best and the Brightest               Grade:  C+
This one was neither the best nor the brightest, but it has some moments that are good.  This comedy stars Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Somerville as a financially strapped couple that move from Delaware to New York City for one last shot at their dreams.  The problem is, they can’t find a private school that will take their 5 year old daughter.  (This isn’t implying their daughter isn’t worthy, but apparently you need to apply for these schools while you’re still pregnant.)  So they enlist the aid of wacky Amy Sedaris to help them get their kid into school.  The cast is strong and the comedy is outrageous and wildly inappropriate at times, and that’s the good news.  The bad news is that the audio and video are kind of amateur and the movie drags on even though it’s really not that long.  It could have been better, but unfortunately something’s just not right about the production.  So you should probably skip this one.  Although, for all you Philly fans, I will note that although it’s set in NYC, some scenes were filmed in Philadelphia.

Lebanon, PA               Grade:  F
Oh boy, where do I began?  This film, about an advertising executive in Philadelphia whose father has passed away and has to go back home to deal with it, is absolutely unwatchable.  First off, when you do a film about the death of a child, spouse, or parent, you really need to hit all the notes exactly right or it just doesn’t work.  I don’t think director Ben Hickernell hit a single note right, so no, it doesn’t work … at all.  The cast is terrible.  The writing is terrible.  The plot is terrible.  It’s one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year.  But it’s set in Philadelphia and there are plenty of scenes and references to Philly!!  Big deal.  At this point I should also point out something I’ve learned.  When you go see a locally made film at a film festival, you have a much less than average chance that the film is any good.  Because, good or bad, the film will get programmed for the mere fact that it is filmed locally.  This film drops the ‘P’ bomb so many times that it’s almost as if they KNOW the only way it’s going to get programmed is by screaming ‘Filmed in Philadelphia’!!!   Terrible.   And chances are the audiences will be filled with friends and family of the crew, so the film will get better audience votes than it deserves.  (I did observe two people at the screening who absolutely gushed about this film, but I’m convinced both of their last names are Hickernell.)

Alrighty, three days down and eight to go!  Check back soon for more Philly Film Fest reviews.  You can still buy tickets at

Oh, and I’ve seen the video of my television world premiere on Fox 35 News Orlando.  It’s surreal watching it.  The beginning is utterly painful to watch but halfway through the first movie review it gets pretty decent.  Hopefully I’ll have it uploaded or a link to it soon.  Stay tuned…

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