Music Feature

PFF 2011 Film Capsules

by Piers Marchant
A quick look at some of the winners and losers of the 2011 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Dir. Steve McQueen
Score: 3.0
British director Steve McQueen's Shame may be burning up the fall film festival circuit with talk of an unflinching expose of one man's sexual addictions, but the film itself is a portentous dud from beginning to end. Michael Fassbender’s Brandon seems to like sex a lot in a joyless, compulsive manner. That is until his affectionate but oh-so needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up to wreck havoc with his smooth running, but soulless life. The film reeks of solemnity. Every frame feels weighted down and there is zero room for ambiguity or nuance. It is completely and utterly predictable every step of the way. And for all the talk of controversial explicitness, the film cheats in that department as well. While Fassbender is seen naked several times, his naughty bits are tastefully hidden away in every single sex scene while his partners naked bodies are beautifully lit like some high-end softcore feature. McQueen wants us to tsk-tsk his character’s behavior while still allowing us to get our jollies off on all the female nudity. It’s a cop-out, plain and simple. And so is the film. -Sal Cannestra

The Day He Arrives
Dir. Sang-soo Hong
Score: 6.0
Sang Joon (Jun-Sang Yu) is a film director who now teaches at a small provincial university in South Korea. He comes to Seoul for a few days to visit an old friend, Youngho (Sang Jung Kim). They spend their time, seemingly exclusively, eating and drinking (primarily drinking). People drop in and out of their orbit -- a colleague of Youngho’s who he secretly has a crush on, an ex-actor of Sang Joon’s who resents being passed over for a lead role in his last film, the proprietor of their favorite bar whom Sang Joon falls in love with and just as quickly abandons. The film (shot in soft grey tones) consists of mostly static medium shots of people talking, spinning tales and confiding secrets that get more compelling and desperate as the alcohol flows. Writer/Director Sang-soo Hong’s latest is quirky and at times frustrating in its seeming disinterest in moving outside of a few oft repeated locales and conversational tropes. But ultimately the charming performances and the director’s persistence of vision wins out. -Sal Cannestra

The Kid With a Bike
Dir. Dardenne Brothers
Score: 8.0
Ho-hum, yet another beautifully felt, poignantly detailed story from the Dardenne brothers. Are we really supposed to believe that people have tired of their realist and supremely humanistic examinations of working class life (that was the general word of mouth out of Cannes this past year)? Their latest concerns Cyril (Thomas Doret), a boy left to a group home after being abandoned by his dad. While attempting to return to his father’s last address he literally runs into hairdresser Samantha (a decidedly unglamorous turn by Cecile De France) who slowly lets the boy into her life. Things happen to Cyril, serious things (not all good), but nothing feels manipulative. Neither obsessively pessimistic nor unrealistic in it’s occasional sweetness, every moment feels hard earned and grounded in real experience. The filmmakers have the remarkable ability to shape people and situations in a way that never seems forced or contrived. There is an ultimate belief in the inherent goodness inside us that guides all of the Dardenne’s films and this is something to be celebrated each and every time. -Sal Cannestra

On Tour
Dir. Mathieu Amalric
Score: 7.2
Like Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo Vitelli and Willem Dafoe’s Ray Ruby, Mathieu Amalric’s Joachim Zand is passionately in love with “The Show.” They believe in the romantic notion of beauty and art raising spirits and enriching otherwise humdrum lives (theirs quite possibly at the top of the list). Joachim’s passion brings him to recruit a troop of burlesque performers from the U.S. for a tour of coastal French towns. But he is working out something deeper and more personal as well, as he visits with friends and family all of whom he seems to have let down in one way or another. Amalric directed the film (as well as co-wrote) and he brings the same wild-eyed exuberance of his screen performances to bear on the film’s mise en scene. It’s a loose shuck and jive, juiced with pathos and acerbic wit. And his fellow cast members (most of the burlesque performers are not trained actors per se) give as good as they get. There’s more messy vitality up there on the screen than in any given minute of ‘On Tour’ than most films can manage to squeeze out of their entire running time. And if the end the film seems to run out of steam along with its performers, it only seems fair after all they’ve given. -Sal Cannestra

Dir. Ralph Fiennes
It is odd to consider that it has taken this long for Shakespeare’s late era tragedy, Coriolanus, to be adapted for the screen (there have only been filmed versions of stage productions previously). Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut as well as starring as the brute but effective Roman general who is forced into exile and exacts his revenge by teaming with his sworn enemy, Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to vanquish the countrymen who have tossed him aside. Fiennes has kept the language intact but has made the scene contemporary, complete with CNN-esque talking heads providing commentary and cell phone cameras capturing the general's outburst against the Roman plebeians. Fiennes does an excellent job at handling the numerous action sequences -- they convey the intensity and confusion of war without losing their bearings. And Brian Cox (looking and sounding more like Rip Torn with every performance) is terrific as trusted friend and adviser Menenius. Dare I say that the film’s tragic flaw is the source material itself? Rarely considered “first tier” Shakespeare, Coriolanus himself remains an ambiguous creation, inscrutable in his motives and difficult to feel much for in the end. -Sal Cannestra

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