Movie madness

"The Atomic States of America" is by Philadelphia documentarians Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce.
"The Atomic States of America" is by Philadelphia documentarians Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce.

The Philadelphia Film Festival is back for its 21st year, with something for everyone.

Posted: October 20, 2012

It's impossible. It's exhilarating. It's a quick fix. It's total immersion.

It's that strange beast known as a film festival, a time to be surprised and startled, provoked and transported - and on occasion, to be bored or enraged. And it's a time to tear around town with your dog-eared, marked-up program guide - or your thumb-smeared calendar app - hustling to get to the next screening before the theater lights go dark.

The 21st Philadelphia Film Festival began Thursday night with one of the strongest opening entries ever, and certainly the most Philly-centric: David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. (The raw and rollicking Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence dramedy romance starts its theatrical run Nov. 21.)

The festival ends, more than 100 features and 20 shorts later, on Oct. 28. The closing-night selection (which actually screens Saturday, Oct. 27) is, like Silver Linings Playbook, sure to be in contention come Oscar-nomination time: Flight, Robert Zemeckis' turbulent civil-aviation drama, with a heroic performance from Denzel Washington as the pilot of an ill-fated commercial airliner.

Zemeckis will be in town for the evening premiere at the Annenberg and for a talk, with highlight reels, that afternoon at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. Inquirer contributor Carrie Rickey will host the "Close Encounter" with Zemeckis - who can be expected to discuss not only Flight, but also his formidable filmography ( Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and the 10 years he spent honing the art of "motion capture" animation.

And in between Silver Linings Playbook and Flight?

Film obsessives Michael Lerman (the festival's artistic director), Andrew Greenblatt (executive director), and their team have culled from festivals far and wide - including Berlin, Cannes, South by Southwest, Sundance, and Toronto - to assemble a lineup strong in American indies, documentaries, high-profile and prestige Hollywood fare, and foreign-language titles.

PFF 21 has eight films in its international program vying this year for Academy Award consideration. Among them: After Lucia, Michel Franco's bullying drama (from Mexico); Barbara, Christian Petzold's portrait of a young doctor in early '80s East Germany (the official German entry); Beyond the Hills, Christian Mungiu's follow-up to the daunting 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania); Caesar Must Die, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's experimental doc about inmates staging a Shakespeare tragedy (Italy); Lore, Cate Shortland's German-language tale of children set adrift at the end of World War II (Australia), and A Royal Affair, Nikolaj Arcel's historical drama, with Mads Mikkelsen creating heavy awards-season buzz (Denmark).

And there are doozies in the centerpiece program. Cloud Atlas, the epic undertaking from codirectors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, attempts to bring David Mitchell's eons-spanning new-age novel to cinematic life, with the help of a vast cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess) wearing vast amounts of aging makeup. Quartet, a veddy British undertaking from first-time director Dustin Hoffman, brings Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connolly together as old opera colleagues in a retirement home for musicians. (No aging makeup needed.) And Stand Up Guys, another gathering of veterans - veteran criminals, this time - stars scenery-chewers Alan Arkin, Al Pacino, and Christopher Walken.

Speaking of Walken, the famously idiosyncratic line-reader also appears in A Late Quartet, set in the world of classical music - with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Imogen Poots. The film shares the festival's "Spotlights" section with The Sessions, with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in a beautiful, daring duet. This, too, is likely Academy Award fare.

Many films on the festival slate won't see the light of a theater screen again until next year, while with others, this may be your only chance to see them on a big screen at all.

But the festival isn't just about taking an exclusive peak at forthcoming releases - it's about celebrating the past. The "From the Vaults" section includes presentations of David Lynch's 1997 nightmare noir, Lost Highway (in 35 mm); Tobe Hooper's 1982 paranormal classic, Poltergeist; Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror opus, The Shining - (see Room 237, a Shining deconstruction doc, as well); Paul Thomas Anderson's delirious Punch-Drunk Love, with Adam Sandler in sad-sack mode, celebrating its 10th anniversary, and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, also celebrating its 10th year. Shyamalan will truck in from his Penn Valley digs to introduce his Mel Gibson aliens-among-us thriller.

Other filmmakers and cast expected on hand over the run of the fest include Michael Stephenson ( The American Scream); Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott ( The Atomic States of America); Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett ( A Band Called Death); Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore ( Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives); Katie Dellamaggiore ( Brooklyn Castle); Rick Alverson ( The Comedy); Keir Politz and Damon Maulucci ( Detonator); Matt Antell and David Hearn ( From the Shadows); Jonathan Lisecki ( Gayby); Jesse James Miller and Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini ( The Good Son);  Till Schauder ( The Iran Job); Adam Leon ( Gimme the Loot), and Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson ( A Place at the Table).

So don't be surprised if you run into a director or actor or screenwriter as you navigate the festival.

For a complete schedule and ticket information, go to: or call 267-908-4733.

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at

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