The Philadelphia Film Festival begins Oct. 20 with a screening of “Like Crazy,” starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as two students in love. The festival, celebrating 20 years, continues to unspool through Nov. 3, even though the official closing-night feature, “The Descendents,” starring George Clooney as a cuckolded husband, premieres Oct. 29.
Audiences can also get a sneak peek of two hotly anticipated films opening later this month. “Anonymous” (6:30 p.m. Oct. 22, The Prince; 4:15 p.m. Oct. 23, Ritz East) is an about-face for openly gay filmmaker Roland Emmerich, of “2012,” “Independence Day” and “Universal Soldier” fame. In this period drama, Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans) claims to have written Shakespeare’s plays. The Sundance favorite, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (7:40 p.m. Oct. 24, Ritz Five) gives out actress Sarah Paulson a supporting role as the sister of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a woman returning home from a cult.
While there are just a few features and documentaries specifically targeting LGBT life, one of the highlights is co-writer/director Mike Akel’s modest gem “An Ordinary Family” (7:45 p.m. Oct. 22, Rave; 3 p.m. Oct. 26, Ritz East). In this graceful coming-home/coming-out comedy-drama, the estranged Seth (Greg Wise) joins his family for a week’s vacation with his boyfriend William (Chad Anthony Miller) in tow. While his sister-in-law Mattie (Janelle Schremmer) knows that Seth is gay and that he is bringing William with him, Mattie’s husband Thomas (Troy Schremmer), a pastor, is completely unaware. Thomas is hurt by and unhappy with Seth’s arrival, and he reacts badly.
Much of the film’s drama stems from how Seth and Thomas negotiate their differences and how they try to reconcile faith and family. Thomas awkwardly expresses his discomfort, while Seth, who cares deeply about what his brother thinks, sees his brother as judgmental.
If the film does stack the deck — making Seth sympathetic and Thomas a bit of a villain — “An Ordinary Family” is still very engaging and only rarely forced. When Akel juxtaposes scenes of the brothers dancing with their partners or trying to see their emotional situation from the other person’s point of view, he seems to be trying too hard. Indeed, the film’s biggest strength is its relaxed, largely observational approach to the action. Viewers will relate to and enjoy watching the characters bond as they eat, drink, play games, joke and talk.
As Seth, Wise is particularly good in his dramatic scenes with Thomas, and he shares a wonderful camaraderie with Miller, who plays his boyfriend William. Miller’s crackerjack timing provides the film with some witty comic relief. Although Schremmer does his best with the difficult task of making the faithful Thomas sympathetic, his real-life wife Janelle is splendid as his level-headed but still-loving wife Mattie.
Two non-fiction entries with queer appeal also have strong buzz. “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” (3 p.m. Oct. 23 and Oct. 27, Ritz East) is said to be a fabulously entertaining documentary on the Broadway legend, featuring comments from Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera and Jerry Herman. “Pina” (5:30 p.m. Oct. 23, Rave) is expected to be an eye-popping 3-D documentary celebrating the work of noted choreographer Pina Bausch.
“The Bully Project,” unseen at press time, strives to be a powerful documentary about an important, topical subject. Note: Only one of the five subjects featured in the film is queer-identified.
One other documentary, however, is more ambitious than good. “Hit So Hard,” about Hole drummer Patti Schemel, plays like an overlong episode of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.” The film traces Schemel’s career in the band, along with her alcoholism, her lesbianism and her drug addictions that lead to her decline and her recovery. The interviews and footage of bandmates Courtney Love and Melissa Auf der Maur, in particular, are compelling, but a little goes a long way. Director/co-writer P. David Ebersole’s focus on female drummers fails to add depth to Schemel’s story; the film as a whole could use some editing. “Hit So Hard” will certainly appeal to fans of the alt-grunge scene and Schemel is at times ingratiating, but the only novelty to this sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll story seems to be that it’s about a lesbian drummer.
Oddly, perhaps the best section of the festival to see LGBT actors and characters is in the “From the Vaults” program, which brings 20-year-old classic films back to the big screen. Out actress Jodie Foster delivers a stunning, Oscar-winning turn in the controversial “The Silence of the Lambs” (10:10 p.m. Oct. 31, Ritz East). David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” (10 p.m. Oct. 22, Ritz East) is a memorable adaptation of bisexual William S. Burrough’s novel and “Barton Fink” (9:55 p.m. Oct. 30, Ritz Five) features openly gay actor and Philly native Jon Polito in a supporting role.
Lastly, queer actor Udo Kier has both a very funny supporting role as a disgruntled wedding planner in the new Lars von Trier film “Melancholia” (7:05 p.m. Oct. 23, Ritz East) and co-stars with gay icon Jean-Marc Barr in von Trier’s 1991 feature, “Europa/Zentropa” (10 p.m. Oct. 23, Ritz East).
See you at the movies.