Three Rivers Film Festival packed with movies with varied appeal

Reviews of works from the first week

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'The Girl From the Wardrobe' 3.5stars

"The Girl From the Wardrobe" -- a terrific new cutting-edge film that concerns love between the neurologically impaired -- is Polish writer-director Bodo Kox's seriocomic tale of three young misfits, each lonely and alienated in a different way.

Jack is a skilled (and oversexed) webmaster, supporting himself and his brother Tom, who has "savant syndrome" -- the syndrome more evident than the savant. Tom's severe autism, rocking back and forth with periodic bursts of bizarre behavior, makes caring for him difficult. He's okay unless overstimulated by something on TV -- in which case, he tends to attack whoever is nearest him.

"Normally he's normal," Jack apologizes, on one such occasion, to a sexy lady client who happened to be sitting next to Tom. As she stomps out, Jack moans, "I'll never find a girl if you keep assaulting them!"

Their otherwise comfy fraternal routine is disturbed when an elderly neighbor can no longer baby-sit him during the day. In desperation, Jack turns for help to the mysteriously reclusive woman across the hall who just moved into their building.

That would be beautiful Magda, our title-character "Girl." Pity poor Sophie-the-translator's choice: In Polish, she's "in the closet" -- but that sounds too gay in English. So they call it the "wardrobe" -- meaning a big piece of furniture, not a collection of clothes. In either case, hypersensitive Magda spends most of her time there, smoking weed and emerging now and then to attempt suicide.

She also has a thing for rabbits and hallucinatory visions involving Nazis and dirigible blimps. In one of many darkly funny moments, Jack asks her for an exchange of phone numbers to call "in case he wants to kill you." But who is falling in love with whom?

We get increasingly involved with these insane characters, thanks to the fab performances: Wojciech Mecwaldowski as Tom is Rain Man on steroids, or maybe Peewee Herman on crack -- you never know when he's gonna go bananas. Piotr Glowacki's Jack is an Alan Bates-type lovable rogue. Magdalena Rozanska as "The Girl" is a charming enigma. Each is more (but sometimes less) dysfunctional than the other.

There's a melodramatic twist or two that we could have done without. But this is a fascinating, twisted, original effort overall -- happy, sad, weird, unsettling -- with a super soundtrack. Misfits taking care of misfits, and somehow finding common ground.

-- Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris

'The Broken Circle Breakdown' 3.5stars

Bring tissues or duck into the restroom and spin yourself a length of toilet tissue -- two or three feet ought to do it.

Nothing is lightly felt in this Dutch-language melodrama, Belgium's entry in the Oscar foreign-language film race. Love, desire, worry, sorrow, resentment, rage and surrender to a riptide of despair are played out in a story that tinkers with its timeline.

It opens in June 2006 in Ghent, Belgium, with Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (writer Johan Heldenbergh) devastated by the news that their 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle, has cancer. Elise runs a tattoo shop and has her personal history inked on her body and Didier is a banjo player. They literally make beautiful music together when Elise lends her sweet voice to his bluegrass band, they fix up his farmhouse and welcome a baby.

The girl's illness brings the differences between Elise and Didier -- she's religious, he is not and believes there is no life after death -- and need to assign blame for the medical misfortune into sharp relief.

"The Broken Circle Breakdown," from director Felix van Groeningen and featuring lovely new and familiar music, presents emotions that are raw, profound and expertly conveyed. It feels so much like real life that you want to look away, for fear of intruding on a family splitting apart at the seams.

-- Barbara Vancheri

'Philomena' 3.5stars

In a movie inspired by true events, Judi Dench plays the title character, a woman who gave birth to a son out of wedlock in 1952 at a Catholic convent in Ireland. While she toiled seven days a week in the laundry there to repay the nuns for taking her in, she spent an hour a day with her precious boy -- until he unexpectedly was bundled into a car with strangers who adopted him in 1955.

After decades wondering what happened to her Anthony, she joins forces with a cynical journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), in an effort to locate him. Philomena has visions that he is homeless and unloved; she just wants to know he's OK.

Their search doesn't go as she -- or he -- imagined and it tests Philomena's faith, fortitude and ability to forgive.

The real-life nature of the story pairing a retired nurse who has a fondness for romance novels with the onetime communications director for the British government is just half of the equation. Allowing those roles to be filled by Ms. Dench, replacing the steely resolve of "M" from James Bond with a mother's enduring love and the ability to natter on with anyone, and Mr. Coogan, as the impatient, angry but ultimately understanding reporter, is the other half.

"Philomena" doesn't end as we expect, either, and that is also part of its power.

-- Barbara Vancheri

'The Animal Project' 3stars

Somewhere between an 8-year-old boy in a bunny costume offering free hugs on the streets of Toronto and 5,500 participants in the Anthrocon convention that floods Pittsburgh streets with furries comes "The Animal Project."

Writer-director Ingrid Veninger, variously called the DIY queen of Canadian filmmaking or its low-budget indie sweetheart, introduces Leo (Aaron Poole), the widowed father of a 17-year-old boy and acting teacher to six adults he calls a "misfit circle."

Instead of performing a play for 30 people in a black-box theater, Leo suggests they take a risk, don animal mascot costumes and venture into the world. His idea was prompted, in part, by "The Bunny Project" his son did at age 8 and which he recorded on 8mm film.

After initial resistance, the three men and three women turn into furries and don disguises -- a donkey here, a rabbit there, an owl up yonder -- in order to clear or lose their heads and pursue their passions. With eight characters, including Leo's son whose noggin is rattled in an entirely different way, no one gets much in-depth examination but the visuals are striking, whimsical and irresistible.

-- Barbara Vancheri

'Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie' 2.5stars

What's so surprising about Morton Downey Jr. isn't that he took TV talk to a new trashy level. Or that he faked an attack from neo-Nazi skinheads in a restroom stall at the San Francisco Airport. Or that he died of lung cancer after smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.

No, it's that his talk show launched in New York in October 1987, was syndicated nationally in late May 1988 and canceled by July 1989. With lightning speed, he coarsened conversation, made bullying acceptable as a hosting style, emerged as an abrasive hero (or devil) to viewers and, as a former colleague admits, "squeezed every bit of blood and rancor" out of the Tawana Brawley case.

Playing the angry populist on TV turned Downey into a cartoon who eventually repelled potential guests who might disagree with him. He grew obsessed with an Atlantic City showgirl half his age who eventually became the last of his wives.

He, of course, cannot reflect on his own career or influence although his 2001 death likely gave others the license to be candid. But even after select interviews -- including with a daughter, Kelli, and an old friend who called him by his given name of Sean and media mogul Bob Pittman, who helped to make Downey a star and rued the day -- the talk show host remains an elusive figure.

-- Barbara Vancheri

'The Truth About Emanuel' 2stars

By way of further forays in psychosexual pathology, there's "The Truth About Emanuel," a thriller by Italian-American director Francesca Gregorini. Its original title was evidently "Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes," but it might better have been called "Up All Night with the Living Dead Baby."

Emanuel is a very troubled, very sullen and very abrasive teen who lives with her father and stepmother. Into their affluent neighborhood moves mysterious Linda, who has a newborn babe and who bears a striking resemblance to Emanuel's own deceased mother. Much intrigued, Emanuel offers to baby-sit, thus entering -- and soon overidentifying with and controlling -- Linda's delicately balanced world.

Or is it unbalanced?

At its heart is an unbelievably creepy-looking infant -- either a real baby that looks like a weird doll or an amazing doll that looks weirdly realistic. Is it dead or alive? Or could there be two babies?

In the title role, Kaya Scodelario replaced Rooney Mara (who was no fool to get out of this project). She's capable enough, as are Frances O'Connor and Alfred Molina (as her parents) and Jessica Biel (as Linda).

Director Gregorini sees it as "a haunting dance between sorrow and fantasy ... born of my subconscious, my demons ... capturing the interplay between fear and seduction ... layered with subtext and mood, yet flexible enough to stretch its wings into magical realism."

Yes, well ... That's a pretty overstuffed omelet. There are some scarily effective moments, but in the end it's an overwrought exercise in ersatz suspense -- cinema therapeutica --which overwhelmed some at Sundance but underwhelmed me.

The cemetery symmetry of the ending comes with more chuckles than goosebumps.

-- Barry Paris

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