18½ Philadelphia Film Festival Recap

On Saturday, October 17 I made the trek into the city to watch four films from the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival. Alas, that comprised the whole of my viewing experience for this festival, but it was a very good day. Here’s a quick recap of three of the films:

  • Stingray Sam: This eclectic Musical/Comedy/Sci-Fi/Western film is quite a strange film. Constructed as a series of six ten minute shorts, each with their own opening and closing credits as well as faux sponsors, it’s meant to resemble old low-budget SF serials. The story concerns Stingray Sam, a lounge singer on Mars, who teams up with his old cohort, The Quasar Kid, to rescue a kidnapped child. The little girl is being held captive by a spoiled man who is the offspring of two men (one of the highlights of the film is a musical interlude in which the genetic experiments that allowed this union are chronicled – the song consists mostly of the two parents’ names and their offspring’s name, which is a combination – for example, Fredrick and Edward produced Fredward! It’s surprisingly long and hysterically funny with an almost Biblical feel…) The whole film is narrated by David Hyde Pierce, who does an excellent job selling the absurdities and eccentricities of the film’s world. The highlights, for me, were the historical digressions and the visual collage work. The actual live action stuff was a bit lacking, though I like some of the stuff there too (I love the recurring handshake, which is this ridiculously long series of gestures that goes from funny, to annoying and back into funny). I usually hate musicals, but for the most part, this film worked well enough for me (I tend to like musicals better when there’s a lot more going on besides the music). So this was one of the stranger films I’ve seen, but it’s quite entertaining and well worth a watch. At least the first episode is available on the website too, so check it out… ***
  • Bronson: This movie tells the story of Michael Peterson, the U.K.’s most famous (and violent) prisoner. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison, he has now served 34 years, 30 of them in solitary confinement. There is only one interruption in his career as a prisoner, during which time he seeks to make a living by bare-fisted brawling – taking the name Charles Bronson as his “fighting name.” But it doesn’t take long for him to get back into prison. Once there, he engages in his favorite pastime – taking a hostage, stripping naked, greasing himself up, and then fighting the guards who come to rescue the hostage. Sometimes he doesn’t even need a hostage. The film doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight into Bronson, but then, I’m not sure there’s anything to really know. Sometimes there’s no explanation for someone’s behavior. As near as I can tell, the most we get to know him is during one of his less violent periods, when he is allowed to pursue art. He seems to enjoy creating art quite a bit… until the warden indicates that art may lead to rehabilitation, at which point Bronson takes the art teacher hostage, strips naked, etc… It becomes somewhat clear that Bronson is an artist, and his preferred medium is violence. It’s ultimately a bit pointless, but it’s never boring and Bronson is played with volcanic rage by Tom Hardy. It’s an impressive and forceful performance, and he pretty much carries the movie on his shoulders (hard to believe it’s the same guy who played the villain in Star Trek: Nemisis). I’ve gone back and forth on this movie, because I don’t generally like character studies, especially ones that don’t offer much insight or purpose, but I can’t help but respect what this movie has done. ***
  • Red Cliff: John Woo returns to his native China… and after an extended hiatus, he also returns to good filmmaking. In this movie, Woo has created a historical epic, retelling stories of the warring factions in China near the fall of the Han dynasty. Various warlords were vying for power during this period, but rather than attempting to capture the entire story, Woo focuses in on one of the popular milestones. Unsurprisingly, it’s an episode that lends itself to all sorts of epic battle sequences and tactical maneuverings. The battles are pure spectacle, mixing well used CGI with old-school wire-work and kung fu. Some of the characters take on almost mythological personas during these sequences, and they are a joy to watch. However, even during the down times between battles, things are kept interesting by strategic and tactical machinations being played on both sides of the battle. There are several memorable sequences, including one of my favorites in which one side of the fight (the side we are rooting for) realizes that it is low on arrows and someone devises a way to replenish their supplies. It’s a little long and sometimes the action approaches fantasy, which doesn’t always mix that well with the more realistic historical treatment, but ultimately it works very well. Definitely Woo’s best work in well over a decade and one of the better films of this year. This film should be getting a release in November, and if you like historical epics, this is the best one in a while. ***1/2

I also saw Rembrandt’s J’accuse, but there’s sufficient material there for a separate post. I posted a quick thought on Twitter immediately after seeing it, and after some time, I don’t think my opinion has changed much. Still, there’s a ton of interesting things about the film that I want to get into…

All in all, it was a very good day and a much better experience than the last few movies I’d seen at the Philly Film Fest… Not sure if that’s because it was all in one day or if it was because the films were just better, but whatever the case, I had a lot of fun.

Update: I’ve written a rather long and involved post about the aforementioned Rembrandt’s J’accuse