This year, Philadelphia's premiere film festival shook up more than just the audience. Behold, my thoughts
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Philadelphia's 2009 film festival had local cinephiles on the edges of their seats long before any movies were screened. At one point, word on the street was that there might be no festival screenings at all. Earlier this year, creative differences caused longtime Philadelphia Film Festival co-producers, the Philadelphia Film Society (PFS) and TLA Entertainment Group, to part ways, leaving each entity with a desire to organize its own spring fling of cinema. Competition ensued, tensions rose, and when the political circus went public, festival cancellation rumors began to fly. It wasn't until just weeks before the fest's scheduled opening date of March 26 that flustered film buffs could breathe a collective sigh of relief. After numerous reconfigurations and a mini-slew of mudslinging, PFS and TLA announced that they'd resolved their differences and would again be co-presenting the event, dubbing it “Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest '09” – a combination title that itself is indicative of a compromise.
Having interned with PFS a few years back, I know first-hand the kind of behind-the-scenes madness that's par for the course with film festival production. Dozens of dedicated pros run around like decapitated chickens, working tirelessly to put on a good show. This year (their 18th), the folks behind the fest were faced with some hefty additional challenges, and they still managed to deliver a fine lineup of about 220 films from from over 40 countries, thanks to the dependable insight and good taste of their programmers and curators. And, speaking of taste, here's a morsel of what was offered.
Question: What do you get when you add a stylish music video director to a pair of savvy young screenwriters and multiply the sum by the star power of the reigning prince and princess of independent film? Answer: “(500) Days of Summer,” the festival's immeasurably charming, artful, almost-perfect opening night selection. Written with tender wit and insight by pals Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, this irresistible debut feature from director Marc Webb stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as Tom and Summer, two young lovers in modern-day L.A. who belong together but wind up apart. Billed as an “anti-romantic” comedy, “(500)” charts Tom and Summer's brief but memorable relationship via leapfrogging chronology, a discerning pop soundtrack and fetching creative visuals. Using the quirky yet universal script as their runway, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel take flight as one of the most adorable movie couples I've ever seen, creating magical, must-smile moments that are both true and hilarious. That their on-screen romance ends is a rather devastating drawback, but what precious little of it was captured should still be seen by all when this film hits theaters on July 17.
Fans of the festival's 2009 Artistic Achievement Award recipient, Jeff Daniels, will revel in “The Answer Man,” a Philadelphia-set dramedy that sees the frequent second-fiddle player in a rare and range-defining leading role. Everyone else, however, will suffer the inescapable, sinking feeling that they're waist-deep in a stagnant pool of sitcom-quality conventions. Daniels stars as grumpy Arlen Faber, the world-famous author of an enormously successful self-help book whose own soul is in dire need of some chicken soup. The veteran actor's work is sincere and multi-layered, and newbie writer/director John Hindman has some profound philosophical ideas, but they're submerged in a movie that uses a consumer-friendly gimmick to drive an overused premise: with a little help from his friends, the cantankerous recluse crawls back into the human race. Even the handsome photography of a familiar metropolis and an intense supporting turn from rising-star-to-watch Lou Taylor Pucci can't save this one from being dead in the water. Skip it when it goes nationwide on July 24.
It's no coincidence that the open-road murder mystery “Surveillance” has a distinctly Lynchian aura. Starring the unlikely duo of Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as two FBI agents tracking a serial killer in an unnamed stretch of America's heartland, this stirring little thriller was directed and co-written by Jennifer Lynch (“Boxing Helena”), David's daughter who exhibits the same waking-nightmare interests as her demented-old dad. While “Surveillance” never comes close to the brilliance of, say, “Blue Velvet,” it possesses enough unusual characters, unexpected twists and unnerving scenes to suggest that the apple, thankfully, hasn't fallen far from the tree. Lynch lovers in particular should catch this perverse retooling of a tired genre when it opens in limited release on June 26.
With its central, woman-versus-the-system issue and preachy, after-school-special dialogue, director (and Walt's great nephew) Tim Disney's topical crowd-pleaser “American Violet” is more fit for Lifetime than the big screen. Still, this begging-to-be-told, true story of racial biases among Texas task force agents has weighty, national relevance, and the film boasts a prime cast of black actors led beautifully by breakout star Nicole Beharie (“The Express”). A former student at Juilliard, Beharie gives a truly tremendous performance as Dee Roberts, a real-life single mother of four who, in 2000, was wrongfully accused of dealing crack, refused to accept a plea bargain and teamed up with the ACLU to combat and change corrupt legal practices. “Violet” features solid supporting work from Charles Dutton, Anthony Mackie and the festival's Fade to Black Quest Award recipient, Alfre Woodard, but its rock is Beharie, whose furious talent is light years beyond the pedestrian screenplay by writer/producer Bill Haney. Had it been part of a stronger picture, her Norma Rae/Erin Brockovich-esque portrayal would make her a surefire Oscar contender. See her in action when “Violet” opens in select theaters on April 17.
The festival wrapped things up with “Lymelife,” an angsty tale of Suburbia's underbelly from director and co-writer Derick Martini. Set in 1970s Long Island, this sardonic son of “American Beauty” features detailed period production design, a tack-sharp script and standout performances from Timothy Hutton, Cynthia Nixon and Emma Roberts. It deserves your attention when it arrives in art-house venues this Friday, and its theme of domestic unrest was a fitting way to cap off an event that was nearly derailed by in-house struggles.
*See which festival titles won awards from jurors and audiences at http://www.phillycinefest.com/
(This article was featured in Inter-County NewsGroup's The Good Life magazine and has been republished with permission.)