Sunday, May 4, 2008

17th Philadelphia Film Festival

Last month, I had the privelege of covering selected events and screenings for Philadelphia's 2008 Film Festival. I had interned with the Film Society who puts on the show last year, so it was quite interesting to be on the other side - as press. The films I saw (4) ranged from very good to very draining, but the collective experience was one for the, the blogs.

Below is the link to my kick-off article, which covers the opening night festivities, including the opening night selection - the sweet, harmonious documentary Young@Heart. Following that is my wrap-up article, which has been pasted into the body of this post because the website where it could normally be found is apparently under some serious construction. No worries, it's been some time since I posted something really substantial and scroll-worthy. Enjoy.

Artist profiles highlight the 17th Philadelphia Film Festival:
One critic's coverage of selected events

by R. Kurt Osenlund

“There are over 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, but we just want to focus on one tonight. Just one little word: thanks.”

So said Development Director Thom Cardwell to a packed crowd at Chestnut Street's Prince Music Theater on April 15, paving the way for the 2008 Phildelphia Film Festival's Closing Night celebration. It would be Cardwell's final audience introduction for the 17th annual event, in which he expressed his gratitude to guests, filmmakers, curators, staff, and volunteers.

“It takes a lot of people to put a festival together,” he said. “It's not a singular sensation.”

The evening, however, was just that – a sensational night of awards, of music, a night that would wrap-up nearly two weeks of showcasing nearly 250 films from around the world and the artists who helped bring them to the screen.

Cardwell mentioned at least two of those artists in his speech, The Deal star William H. Macy and What We Do is Secret director Rodger Grossman, both of whom were Festival guests. But many more gifted individuals were recognized during the Festival's 13-day run, including Artistic Achievement Award recipient John Leguizamo, Rising Star Award recipient Shane West, and the star of Closing Night herself, legendary folk-rocker Patti Smith.

Leguizamo graced Philadelphia film-goers with his dynamic presence on the night of April 10, when he accepted his award prior to a 7:00 pm screening (also at the Prince) of his film The Take, directed by Philly native Brad Furman. Flashing his razor-sharp grin and delivering hilarious one-liners not unlike those of his many screen counterparts, Leguizamo sat down on stage for a pre-show Q&A with longtime Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey. The Columbia-born, Queens-raised actor matched wits with Rickey, and answered questions about on-set quarrels with former co-stars, how he feels about the industry's representation (or lack thereof) of his culture, and what truly inspires him about showbiz.

“The passion that's behind people like Brad [Furman] is the reason I'm in the business,” he said. “[It's] people like me who are hungry to do great things that attract me to [it].”

The Take features Leguizamo in one of his meatier roles, as an armored truck driver who seeks revenge after a robbery nearly kills him and the aftermath tears his world apart. Shot in a guerilla style that effectively conveys its frantic tone, the movie plays like a cross between The Fugitive and Falling Down, but looks and feels like a '70's thriller. Though it suffers from a saccharine ending, it's an impressive feature debut for Furman, who was also on hand to thank his family, his friends, and his city.

“It's great to be home,” Furman said. “I wore my Philadelphia T-shirt.”

West also showed up at the Prince to claim his honor, just before a 7:00 pm showing of Grossman's What We Do is Secret, in which he portrays '70's punk icon Darby Crash. West is only the second recipient in the short, 2-year history of the Festival's Rising Star category, following 2007's debut honoree, actor Mark Webber. Rugged and down to earth, West expressed humility upon accepting the award, while also looking to the future of his career.
“It feels like this is kind of the beginning for me,” he said, observing the good ink his performance in Secret has earned him thus far.

Surely, the work West displays in the hard-rocking biopic of the hard-living Crash (and his band “The Germs”) is a far cry from the actor's earlier turns in teen fluff like 2000's Whatever it Takes and 2001's Get Over It. He digs deep – literally - into the skin of the bisexual, self-mutilating, and eventually, suicidal musician, whose death in 1980 was overshadowed by the far more public demise of John Lennon.

Rock star Patti Smith's life could also warrant one helluva musical biopic, but instead gets the documentary treatment with Steven Sebring's exhausting Patti Smith: Dream of Life, the Festival's Closing Night Selection. The film was unveiled just after local radio hosts Michaela Majoun and Robert Drake of WXPN gleefully announced the winners of the Jury and Audience Awards for the best of the fest, in 10 categories including Feature, Documentary, and Animation (for a full list, go to Sebring's entry, while relentlessly passionate for its subject, never had a chance to rank among them.

Hired by SPIN magazine to photograph Smith over 10 years ago, Sebring took the opportunity above and beyond the original job description, documenting the next decade of the musician's life on 16 mm. Dream of Life is the overly long, aimless, and haphazardly edited result of that documentation, which will leave everyone other than die-hard Smith fans scratching their heads and checking their watches. The definition of “art for art's sake,” Sebring's film demands way too much from the viewer, somehow managing to present one mundane sequence after another in the life of a woman whose interesting story deserved a much better platform on which to be told.
Thankfully, Smith made a crowd-pleasing appearance after the movie's credits rolled, righting all the wrongs of Sebring's misguided work with her wonderfully disheveled, kooky, and human stage demeanor. She brought the audience to its feet with a performance of her hit single “Because the Night,” and like Furman, she too paid tribute to her Philadelphia area roots.
“Infinite things [about Philadelphia] have influenced me,” she said. “Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, William Penn, The Mummers' Parade, ...Scrapple. It's not just memories, it's part of who I am everyday.”

The Closing Night screening/performance was followed by the Closing Night Party, held at the luxurious Top of the Tower on the 50th floor of Arch Street's Bell Atlantic Building. Catered with a menu of hand-carved meats, featuring cocktails by P.I.N.K. Vodka, and fueled by tunes selected by DJ Robert Drake (moonlighting from his announcing gig), the bash ended the Festival with style.

“They've really rolled out the red carpet for us,” observed Grossman of the city's refined hospitality; and while not all of the films featured in the Festival were the best representations of their talents, artists like him were the highlights of a cinematic smorgasbord that continues to enthrall Philadelphians each year.

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