The Philadelphia Film Festival: CineFest 09 runs March 26-April 6. While the program of more than 200 international features and shorts contains a handful of LGBT titles, all of this year’s queer entries are worthwhile. Here’s a rundown of what to watch:
A lovely, elegiac memory piece, “Of Time and the City” is a beautifully constructed ode to gay filmmaker Terence Davies’ (“Distant Voices, Still Lives”) birthplace, Liverpool. Davies’ strong, crisp narration and excellent use of archival photos and images are extraordinary, as is his shrewd use of music, which alternates from poignant to uplifting. Davies describes his sexual coming of age — which includes the illicit pleasures of a wrestler’s body heat and some Catholic guilt — and declares his contempt for The “Betty Windsor” Coronation, not in the least by detailing her gift list.
Davies is a fussy old gay man who projects a righteous anger at all he finds wrong with the world. He laments the rise of rock ’n’ roll signified by the Beatles and denounces the sterility of municipal architecture. Yet his descriptions of family life and his hometown — which he alternately loves and hates — are both insular and universal. Even for viewers who don’t get every obscure, Anglophilic reference, “Of Time and the City” is still tremendously affecting. (9:30 p.m. April 2 at Ritz East, 125 S. Second St.; 5 p.m. April 5 at The Bridge, 4012 Walnut St.)
A fun and very funny Spanish farce, “Chef’s Special” features gay restaurant owner Maxi (Javier Cámara of “Talk to Her”) dealing with a host of problems. For appetizers, his oversexed maitre d’ Alex (Lola Dueñas) is drunk after being jilted; he is led to believe a Michelin inspector contemplating a make-or-break review is eating in his prized establishment; and Maxi’s ex-wife dies, leaving their two children — neither of whom he’s seen in years — in his care.
Of course things quickly go from bad to worse: Maxi’s troubled teenage son has issues with his dad for leaving him long ago and for being queer. His business is in deep debt, and Horacio (Benjamín Vicuña), the hunky Argentine soccer player he fixes Alex up with, puts the moves on him instead. (OK, so maybe that’s not a terrible problem, but it does strain his relationship with Alex.)
“Chef’s Special” gets sillier as it goes along, with secrets and lies spilling out and doors being frantically slammed. These elements are all part of the film’s charm, but the secret ingredient to the farce’s success is Cámara’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the high-strung drama queen Maxi. Broad but never offensive, the actor puts a contrived moment of searing a bratty customer’s raw tuna tableside deliciously over the top. Cámara’s gestures, expressions and body language are frequently amusing — especially when he gets into a grudge-match soccer game against his son while his boyfriend referees. Yet the character remains lovable even when he mistreats his kids, his lover and his staff, which is often.
Nimbly directed by Nacho G. Velilla, the film may predictably resolve its subplots, but “Chef’s Special” is a delightful film and quite special indeed. (2:15 p.m. March 28 at Ritz East; 7:45 p.m. April 4 at The Bridge; 4:45 p.m. April 6 at Ritz East)
“The Country Teacher” is a sensitively made Czech film about Petr (Pavil Liska), a gay man who wants to be alone. He initiates this by leaving the city and taking a job teaching science in rural Czechoslovakia. In the country, he befriends Marie (Zuzana Bydzovska), a widow who runs a farm along with her teenage son Lada (Ladislav Sedivy). Marie likes having Petr around, and she hopes for a romance with this supposedly eligible bachelor. However, Petr has an unrequited attraction to Lada, and one night, after he makes his intentions clear, all hell breaks loose.
While some viewers may cringe at Petr’s weak (e.g., self-hating) character, and the scene in which he “molests” Lada is sure to provoke responses, “The Country Teacher” is absorbing in its depiction of the characters and how they suppress or express their feelings. As the relationship between Petr and Marie changes, both come to some interesting realizations. Director Bohdan Sláma coaxes fantastic performances from both Liska and Bydzovska as Petr and Marie, and they allow their characters to transform in subtle ways that engage viewers.
Sláma also provides viewers with an incredible sense of time and place. If the inclusion of some calf-birthing scenes to reflect the characters’ sense of self-worth is heavy-handed, there are several portentous moments — a water well being improved, or a TV crashing — that suggest much about the characters’ lives. “A Country Teacher” may not be subtle, but the film’s messages about tolerance and forgiveness are still worthwhile. (9:15 p.m. March 27 at Ritz 5, 214 Walnut St.; 2:15 p.m. March 29 at Ritz 5)
“A Beautiful Person” is Christophe Honoré’s loose adaptation of Madame de Lafayette’s novel “La Princesse de Clèvess,” set in a contemporary French high school. Junie (Lea Seydoux) is a new student who provokes infatuation from both a classmate (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and her teacher (Louis Garrell). This watchable film is mostly a talky affair — though the adorable Leprince-Ringuet sings a love song in one hypnotic sequence.
While viewers may have trouble initially keeping track of the various characters and their (unrequited) loves, “A Beautiful Person” gets considerably more interesting and involving when a subplot about a secret queer relationship is revealed. Soon, blackmail, heartbreak and other nasty goings-on liven up the central drama of this well-acted morality play. (4:15 p.m. April 4 at The Prince, 1412 Chestnut St.; 9:15 p.m. April 5 at Ritz 5)
Lesbian filmmaker Leá Pool’s “Mommy Is at the Hairdresser” is a perspicacious coming-of-age story/domestic drama about a Canadian family coming apart at the seams. It is 1966 and Elise (Marianne Fortier), her older brother Coco (Elie Dupuis) and her younger brother Benoit (Hugo St-Onge-Paquin) are home for the summer. Elise is a barefoot tomboy who often watches over Benoit, who is learning-disabled. She wants to learn to fish, and doesn’t want to go to boarding school in the fall.
Her life is mostly idyllic — and Pool beautifully captures this carefree existence — until she confirms her suspicions that her father (Laurent Lucas) is having an affair with one of his golf buddies. When she provides evidence of this to her mother (Celine Bonnier), Mom reacts by taking a job in London, leaving dad to fend for himself. (The title refers to what the family tells outsiders who ask, “Where is your mother?”)
Pool’s domestic drama hits all of the expected notes — Dad can’t cook or care for the kids; the children yearn for their mother’s return and eventually learn to cope on their own — but the film never suffers for being cliché. This is perhaps because each of the families in the neighborhood is equally troubled. A comic highlight has a boy discovering something he would rather not know about his father — with all the other neighborhood kids watching.
Pool artfully uses color — the fashions in particular are fabulous — and music, as when bubblegum pop plays on the TV during a tense phone call from Mom. But what makes “Mommy Is at the Hairdresser” notable is that the filmmaker allows viewers to fill in the blanks for scenes and conversations that take place off screen. The notable exception has Elise describing what it means to be different to Benoit. As she explains how a boy with red hair or a local deaf man is distinctive, she also comes to realize that she, too, is special. This just may be the most touching moment in this gem of a film. (7 p.m. March 27 at Ritz 5; 2:30 p.m. March 28 at Ritz 5; 5 p.m. March 29 at The Bridge)
The inspirational documentary “Training Rules” addresses the issue of homophobia in women’s sports — in particular, the “training rules” of Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who tells student athletes: “No drinking, no drugs, no lesbians” or they are off the team. In player Jennifer Harris’ mind, it was time to call Coach Portland on her discrimination.
Out filmmaker Dee Mosbacher interviews various players from the past 30 years whose passion for the game ended with Portland dismissing them on the basis of their supposed sexual orientation. They discuss the fear, anguish, psychological abuse and shame they experienced as members of Portland’s team in pained interviews. These women also complain — with righteous outrage that is palpable — about how Portland’s tactics would likely end any chances of them playing for the WNBA. While Portland declined to be interviewed for the film, the testimonies of the athletes are quite telling and often heartbreaking. “Training Rules” is a fine and very moving documentary. (7 p.m. April 4 at Ritz East; 12:15 p.m. April 5 at The Bridge. Note: This is the film’s world premiere. Following the April 4 screening, there will be a conversation with Mosbacher.)
Another documentary of note is “Not Quite Hollywood,” about the various exploitation films that were made in Australia since the 1970s. This film will appeal to queer audiences looking for a chance to see Barry Humphries in and out of his Dame Edna drag. Humphries talks about the naughty sex films produced in his country and has some hilarious one-liners in film clips and interviews. Although the laughs stop when the documentary segues into the thriller and other genre films, “Not Quite Hollywood” still provides a fun look at a brand of cinema rarely screened in the States. (10 p.m. March 28, at The Bridge; 9:30 p.m. March 29 at Ritz 5)
Closing out the fest is “Lymelife,” an intense domestic drama about two suburban Long Island families falling apart. Rory Culkin stars as Scott Bartlett, a teen who has been smitten with Adrianna (Emma Roberts) for years. His father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is a real-estate developer who begins an affair with Melissa (lesbian actor Cynthia Nixon), his coworker and Adrianna’s mother. The film boasts excellent period detail, a fair share of squirm-inducing moments and a terrific supporting turn by Timothy Hutton as Melissa’s husband, a man stricken with Lyme disease. It may not be a happy film, but “Lymelife” is a compelling one. (7:15 p.m. April 6 at The Prince. Note: The film will be preceded by the festival awards ceremony.)
Happy moviegoing! See you at the festival!