On Saturday, my husband, The Gryphon and I took in several films at the Philadelphia Film Festival (CineFest).
Víctor Clavijo as Alejandro protects his family in Before the Fall
Our first movie of the day was showing at the Ritz 5: Before the Fall (Tres días), a Spanish film directed by F. Javier Gutié</font>rrez.
The movie is an emotional, tightly-controlled apocalyptic thriller. What begins as a midsummer weekday soon becomes anything but typical when the news reveals that a massive asteroid, five times bigger than the one that killed the dinosaurs, is on a collision course with Earth. Immediately, panic ensues, with families loading up supplies and leaving the city in hopes of finding a safer place to await the strike.
Ale, a young man who works odd jobs and lives with his mother, thinks leaving is pointless, but his mother insists on traveling to the countryside house where her son's wife is staying with her grandchildren. When they arrive, the kids are alone, saying that their mother went into town to do some shopping and didn't return. Since the TV is on the fritz, the children are unaware of the dangers that await, and their grandmother keeps them unaware, not wanting them to spend their last days in fear.
That hope is short-lived, however, as the chaos has led to the escape of a psychokiller who has unfinished business with the family. Ale, the cynical underachiever, must face his fears and rise to the occasion.
What I like best about this movie is how natural it feels. People often talk around situations, rather than directly confronting the subjects that pain them, which is typical of real life. Both Victor Clavijo, who plays Alejandro, and Mariana Cordero, who plays his mother, Rosa, are capable of conveying as much through a look as they can through dialogue. The film is also rich with subtext, as the coming apocalypse and the approaching killer force Alejandro to confront the realities of his past.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
(from left) Xun Zhou, Hanyu Zhang, and Chao Deng
in The Equation of Love and Death
Before our next movie, we walked down to South Street and had lunch at Lovash, a nice, little Indian place. I had the lentil soup with the salad, along with a samosa. Delicious and filling. Afterwards, since we had some time, we got some iced coffees at the Cosi at 3rd and Chestnut, where I worked on a poem and The Gryphon worked on creating a role-playing campaign.
Our second movie of the day was also at Ritz 5, a Chinese thriller called The Equation of Love and Death, directed by Cao Baoping. Rather than the fast-paced thriller I'd expected, this film was slow-paced and repetitive, vacillating between dull and melodramatic.
The film follows Li Mi, a chain-smoking, tough-talking young female cabbie who is obsessed with finding her boyfriend, who disappeared four years ago but still writes her loving letters. For the first few minutes, while the story focused exclusively on her, I found the tale riveting. But as soon as she became entangled with two inept drug smugglers, the story lost its emotional core and became a pale imitation of such movies as A Simple Plan, where the exploits of bumbling would-be criminals are both compelling and ludicrous. Rather, The Equation of Love and Death is simply implausible and tiresome.
The Gryphon rated it a little higher than I did, but I found myself laughing near the end during some overly dramatic scenes which were supposed to be heart-wrenching, having to stuff my fist into my mouth. On paper, this film had a lot of potential a tough female protagonist, an unsolved mystery, the hint of intrigue, a promise of car chases and excitement but it failed to deliver on those promises.
Rating: ** (2 out of 5 stars)
We were lucky enough to run into two friends at the showing, The Horror Film Buff and The Goth Grrl, and we sat with them at the theater, then went to dinner afterwards. At the suggestion of The Horror Film Buff, we walked to the nearby Society Hill neighborhood and ate at The Artful Dodger, a reasonably-priced pub in an historic building at 2nd and Pine Streets. I had a crab cake sandwich with a salad, along with a Lindeman's Rasberry Lambic.
Over dinner, we had a rollicking conversation, including our assessments of the films we'd all seen at CineFest so far, mutual friends, Philly geekdom, and pop culture in general. The Horror Film Buff has been one of my favorite people to engage in conversation for several years now, and The Goth Grrl is rapidly becoming a new favorite. Both of them are witty, good-natured, and intellectually curious. We did have a little fun picking on The Goth Grrl, because she's about 10 years younger than the rest of us and didn't get some of our pop cultural references, but she took it in stride.
The Gryphon and The Horror Film Buff also got into a bit of a contest about which of them was more "evil," primarily basing their self-assessments on things they'd done to players while running role-playing campaigns. I love it that this is what passes for evil among my friends.
Afterwards, still laughing, we headed out together. We walked The Horror Film Buff back to Ritz 5, where he was catching another movie. The Goth Grrl was sweet enough to offer The Gryphon and me a ride to our next show, which was a series of shorts at the International House, the Best of the Backseat Film Festival Showcase.
Usually, The Gryphon and I try to catch at least one program of shorts whether live action or animation during CineFest. We enjoy seeing movies on the big screen that normally are unavailable. Plus, such programs can serve as a sampler to directors and animators whose future work is worth seeing.
In this case, the Backseat Film Festival is a festival in its seventh year whose goal is to show the coolest, edgiest short films. This particular showcase was comprised of films described as "rock 'n' roll short films" and audience favorites.
Two representatives of the film festival introduced the films, with one of them running through a list of the films about to be shown (this is probably one reason the showing ran over). He was a guy in his 20s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a retro 60's haircut. The other representative (who ironically would prove to be the more professional of the two) was dressed as a zombie and announced that an after party was taking place at their theater, the 941 Theater at 941 N. Front Street.
Then, oddly, the guy with the horn-rimmed glasses announced he had some whiskey and vodka in a bag and would be passing it around during the showing! Then, as he proceeded to get more drunk, he would talk loudly over the beginning of each film, trying to provide more information about it and why it was being shown. It would have been better, instead, to insert title cards or to at least use a microphone.
The Gryphon and I found the collection to be a bewildering hodgepodge of joyfully creative indie films and abysmally amateur efforts that could easily be topped by freshman film majors. I've provided links to the films and to directors' sites, where available. A lot of these sites have sound.
"Robot Bastard" (Rob Schrab, 2002), a mishmash of live action and stop-motion animation, following a robot special agent on his mission overcome the aliens to rescue a kidnap victim. It was clearly amateurish, and The Gryphon disliked it intensely. I thought that it started out as a colorful tribute to genre films but quickly grew tiresome, which was not helped by extremely bad editing. Rating: ** (2 out of 5 stars)
"Tyger" (Guilherme Marcondes, 2008), a blend of both hand-drawn and computerized animation, along with masterful puppetry. This is a mesmerizing tribute to the William Blake poem, showing a nighttime cityscape becoming increasingly more like a jungle. Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
"Man vs. Woman" (Juan Carlos Vargas, 2006), a live action short that includes computer animation in an other-wordly standoff between a man, a woman, a robot and a dinosaur. Considering this film contains no dialogue, it manages to convey the inner thoughts of all the participants in a creative, funny short, if it does rely on stereotypes for its humor. He was also a contestant in On the Lot, the reality show pitting young filmmakers against each other. Rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
"Kabumei: The Art of the Sharpened Grenade" (Bob Forward, 2006), a live action martial arts send-up where the practitioners wield deadly, exploding weapons. A clever tribute to '70s martial arts films, with gleefully over-the-top special effects. Rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
"Full Metal Slacks" (Scott Colonico, 2005), a nonsensical animated film, where shifting scenes from the Vietnam War counterpoint a comically mundane phone conversation as Lyndon Baines Johnson orders some new slacks. Creative but seemingly pointless. Rating: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
"TV Head - Family Dinner Party" (Kevin Maher, 2002), a live action short that was painfully amateur, built on a bad recurring joke where a young man punishes himself in increasingly violent ways for what he perceives as goofs while entertaining his parents. Badly acted, badly written, badly shot. If you hate someone, make him watch this film. Rating: * (1 out of 5 stars)
The Hives "Abra Cadaver" (John Michael McCarthy, 2008), a music video incorporating live action and animated backgrounds for a slick, stylish, retro look that blends perfectly with the music. Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
Arab on Radar "God is Dad" (Rusty Nails, 2008), a surrealistic music video in black and white live action with a retro look, as various couples demonstrate either love or deathlike poses. A bit pretentious, but it suits the discordant song. Rating: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
Riverboat Gamblers "Don't Bury Me, I'm Still Not Dead" (Christopher Rose, 2007), a music video that pays homage to classic genre films, with the band interacting with computer animated words featuring elements from science fiction, horror and fantasy. Buoyant fun, especially for those who love genre films. Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
Naked Ape "Fashion Freak" (Eric Althin, 2006), a brilliant live action movie video that is best described as and I'm not making this up a sexy zombie car-washing video. Lots of fun, and the song is catchy, too. Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
The Phenomenauts "Mission" (The Phenomenauts, 2007), a music video blending live action with special effects for a retro SF look. Deliberately low-budget, stylish and catchy. You've got to love their motto: Science and Honor! Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
Harry Knuckles trailer (1998), a live action trailer for a low-budget martial arts film shot in Ottawa, Canada. Can't find it anywhere online, which is probably a good thing. It was amateurish and not terribly funny (but still better than "Family Dinner Party). Rating: ** (2 out of 5)
"Dec. 2666" (Derek Roden, James Hollenbaugh, 2008), a short that combines live action with stop-motion animation, with a plodding, pointless opening and then the unfunny exploits of a debauched Santa Claus who meets Jesus Christ in a bar. Rating: * (1 out of 5 stars)
"Calzone Crispies" (Cheese Theatre, 2008), a live action short by the sketch comedy group Cheese Theatre. It plays on ethnic stereotypes of Italians and goes on a little bit too long, with some bad sound editing. Rating: ** (2 out of 5)
"Jones' Big Ass Truck Rental & Storage" (Big Dog Eat Child, 2008), a funny live action parody commercial about a guy who runs a commercial where you can store anything: as long as you don't care about the conditions. By a sketch comedy troop from Illinois. Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
Run! Bitch Run! trailer (definitely NSFW), an exploitation movie trailer with women, guns, blood, and boobies. The version we saw was PG-13, unlike the Internet video in this link. Rating: ** (2 out of 5)
There was also another short thrown in for which I didn't catch the name, as well as a trailer for the next Backseat Film Festival. Afterwards, someone from CineFest came out and told us that they'd only run the "Greater Philadelphia Student Film festival 2009 Winning Shorts" if anyone really wanted to see them. By this point, everyone was standing up to go, since the show had run over. I was disappointed at not seeing the student films, but I also didn't want to force the staff to stay just for me, so we left.
Drinking and introducing films don't mix.