Feast of flicks

Get set for two super weeks of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Posted: April 04, 2008

Philadelphians have long been accused of having an inferiority complex when it comes to our city, wedged as it is between those other metropoli, New York and Washington, which, it must be said, occasionally eclipse us.

But there's no need to fret when it comes to film festivals: The Philadelphia Film Festival, now in its 17th year, can hold its own as one of the largest on the East Coast.

The festival, which will nourish between 65,000 and 70,000 aesthetically ravenous cineasts with a total of 243 feature films and 108 shorts over the next 12 days, has also become one of the best, says artistic director Ray Murray.

"We're doing well in terms of the markers which determine a festival's success, including number of films, total attendance [68,000 viewers in 2007] and the number of world premieres [11 this year]," Murray said.

This year, PFF17 offers six especially strong documentaries about American politics and the war in Iraq. TV personality Phil Donahue and documentary filmmaker Ellen Spiro team up for Body of War, a critique of the war that focuses on the case of a 25-year-old soldier who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound in Iraq.

In Land of Confusion, Pennsylvania-based director Jeremy Zerechak recounts how his Army National Guard unit was activated in March 2004 and sent to fight in Iraq. And Holler Back - Voting in an American Town, which is set in Allentown during the 2004 presidential election, explores the anger and frustration many nonvoters feel toward the government, which they see as corrupt and unresponsive.

PFF17 is also noteworthy for its foreign offerings - it boasts a total of 124 foreign films (83 features and 41 shorts) from 44 countries, with a strong showing from the Middle East and India.

The four-film Indian Cinema Today series features the North American premiere of Bhavna Talwar's Dharm, a drama that explores a relatively new development in Indian religions, Hindu fundamentalism. Another North American premiere, The Sea Within, offers a more colorful - and torrid - look at life in India. It's about an adulterous middle-class housewife torn between guilt and passion.

And let's not forget Afghan Muscles, one of the three noteworthy titles in the Cinema of the Muslim Worlds program. Made by Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard, the documentary examines the bodybuilding culture that has begun to thrive in war-torn Afghanistan. (No joke.)

Also set in Afghanistan, The Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame by 19-year-old Iranian filmmaker Hana Makhmalbaf (youngest daughter of renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf) is a deeply moving allegorical drama about an 8-year-old girl who is determined to overcome numerous obstacles so she can attend school.

Of the eight films in the Spanish and Latin American Cinema Now series, seven are by first-time directors, including Deficit. Directed by and starring actor Gael García Bernal (Babel), the dramedy uses a witty, John Hughes-esque coming-of-age story about high school friends in Mexico City to pose questions about the huge gulf between rich and poor in the sprawling capital.

The Year of the Nail, the first film by Jonás Cuarón (son of Y Tu Mamá También director Alfonso Cuarón), is a sweet story of puppy love in which a 14-year-old Mexican boy is smitten by an American college student who has escaped to the beaches of Mexico to get over her failed affair with her professor.

The World Focus series, which features the bulk of PFF's foreign offerings, has everything the most finicky, internationalist film lover could possibly want, from the lush, violent, John Woo-produced gangster drama Blood Brothers, set in the gritty world of 1930s Shanghai, to California Dreamin', a culture-clash comedy starring Armand Assante about Marines facing culture shock - and then some - when they are stationed in a tiny village in rural Romania.

Other notable films include Roman de Gare by French filmmaker Claude Lelouch, and Irina Palm, which stars singer Marianne Faithfull as an older woman who secures employment in London's sex and porno industry. She's not doing it for kicks, of course, but to raise money to help her sick grandson. And there's Roming, a slapstick comedy about a group of gypsies on a road trip from the Czech Republic to Slovakia.

This doesn't mean the festival is only about French romances, Indian meditations on sexual taboos, and Danish explorations of existential angst among street thugs (that'd be Nothing to Lose by director Peter Kuijpers). There's always the American Discoveries program and numerous other mini-fests, including the Festival of Independents which features work by Philly-area filmmakers, an animation festival presented by the University of the Arts, a documentary series, a terrific film noir program, and the always-popular Danger After Dark, a series of 19 horror and fantasy offerings.

While we've never quite measured up to Sundance as a playground to the stars, Philly will play host to an impressive roster of filmmakers and actors who will make appearances to support their work.

Notable names include achievement honoree John Leguizamo, rising-star award winner Shane West, and indie horror legend Frank Henenlotter, who will receive the Phantasmagoria Award.

Last, but certainly not least, legendary punk poet, chanteuse, and Jersey girl Patti Smith will be on hand to be honored, worshipped, gawked at and adored as she introduces Patti Smith: Dream of Life, the new documentary by director Steven Sebring, who will also be there.

Now go, grasshopper. See a movie, open your mind. As Patti Smith says, "Life is an adventure of our own design intersected by fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents."


Film Schedule

For a complete schedule of films, go to


Film Festival Tickets

Tickets can be purchased in person, by phone or online.

In person: TLA Video (open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m daily):

   1520 Locust St., 215-735-7887;

   517 S. Fourth St., 215-922-3838;    1808 Spring Garden St., 215-751-1171;

   7630 Germantown Ave., 215-248-4448;

   763 Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, 610-520-1222.

The Bridge: Cinema de Lux, 4012 Walnut St., 215-386-3300 (1 to 9 p.m. daily).

The Ritz East, 125 S. Second St., 215-925-2501 (1 to 9 p.m. daily)

By phone: Credit cards only, call 267-765-9700, Ext. 4 (10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily).

Online: Credit cards only at www.phillyfests.com.


For latest information on times, theaters and events, pick up the 17th Philadelphia Film Festival guide, go to www.phillyfests.com, or call the hotline at 267-765-9700.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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