Keeping it reel: Three Rivers Film Festival delves into a world of subjects

The Three Rivers Film Festival opens Friday with "A Dangerous Method," "Farmageddon" and "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles."

Below are reviews of some of the movies showing the first week of the festival, which concludes Nov. 19. See or the PG's listing for coming week for details.

' Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

At the intersection of Smithfield and Oliver streets, Downtown, within sight of Saks Fifth Avenue, a small plaque flattened into the roadway reads "Toynbee idea/in movie 2001/resurrect dead/on planet Jupiter."

It's among four in Pittsburgh, and hundreds in cities stretching from Boston to Kansas City -- and in South America -- that have appeared over the past three decades bearing the cryptic message. The hunt for their furtive creator is the subject of the engrossing documentary "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles."

Self-taught artist and musician Justin Duerr became infatuated when he began noticing the tiles after moving to Philadelphia in 1994. In 2005, he and filmmaker Jon Foy started documenting their search for the unknown tile maker, joined by fellow aficionados Colin Smith and Steve Weinik.

While still pondering its meaning, Mr. Duerr breaks the four-part message into references to historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee, Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," "some sort of physical resurrection of the dead," and "the largest planet in the solar system."

As it heads for a resolution that befits its subject, the search becomes a mission -- disciplined, diligent and imaginative -- that leads to a rambling manifesto, shortwave radio convention, playwright David Mamet, and a knockout glimpse of a colorful South Philadelphia neighborhood.

-- Mary Thomas, PG art critic

' A Dangerous Method'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

When troubled Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is brought literally kicking and screaming to his Zurich doorstep in 1904, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) thinks she might be the one to test Sigmund Freud's "talking cure" or psychoanalysis.

It's a radical notion, listening as the 18-year-old patient contorts her arms and juts her jaw, as if she were trying to exorcise a demon rather than the physical abuse and humiliation she suffered at the hands of her father. "There's no hope for me. I'm vile and bitter and corrupt. I must never be let out of here," she says after disclosing her association of pain and sexual pleasure.

But she eventually enrolls in medical school as Jung meets his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), in Vienna and a tangled triangle is forged. When Freud asks Jung to treat a sybaritic psychiatrist, Jung's monogamy and his relationship with Freud start to unravel in this David Cronenberg film drawn from true-life events.

Working from Christopher Hampton's script, the director has so much fascinating, fertile ground to cover in 99 minutes that he's forced to jump ahead with screen notations such as "two years later."

The actors distinguish themselves, and the scenery and costumes are gloriously rich but the movie often seems like an expanded highlight reel, skipping from one key moment to the next before revealing the characters' bleak fates.

R for sexual content and brief language.

-- Barbara Vancheri, PG movie editor

' The Swing'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

"Who's Afraid of Peter and the Wolf?" is the title I'd have given "The Swing."

Charming dentist Michal (Wojciech Zielinski) is a little too successful for his own good, in and out of ladies' mouths. He has a gorgeous wife, Anna (Joanna Pierzak), who forsook her promising cello career to make a well-ordered home for him and the little daughter he adores. But in free-spirited Karolina (Karolina Gorczyca), he has bitten off more of a mistress than his well-flossed choppers can chew.

Karolina is a hot-headed costume designer who likes hot-and-heavy sex -- the kinkier the better. So does Michal. But Karolina is wildly jealous and confrontational, while Michal is careless about all the cell phone calls and out-of-town "symposiums" that take him away from home. Anna still lives by the metronome, and is getting more than suspicious. Michal is always late and in trouble with one or the other of them.

The triangle is squared by the fact that Karolina is engaged to Peter -- who is Anna's brother. They all show up (together with Anna's and Peter's parents) at the family summer place, where news of a pregnancy thickens the plot. Michal's dental practice in Warsaw is suffering, but no more than the women he keeps filling and drilling, leaving and rejoining.

Director Tomasz Lewlowicz' intensely erotic drama is wonderfully acted and sumptuously filmed (though the photography sometimes defaults into shampoo-commercial mode). Its obsession with desire, fidelity, marital angst and sacrifice is underscored, literally, by Bach's yearning Suite #1 Sarabande -- Anna's and the movie's haunting cello theme -- and Massenet's Meditation from "Thais."

"Don't you think that as the years go by, children take away all the good words we once had for each other?" Michal asks. "Haven't you ever wanted to run away somewhere?"

"No," Anna replies. "Everything's the way I wanted."

Moral: Be true to your teeth (and wife), or they'll be false to you.

In Polish with English subtitles.

-- Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris

' Tales From the Golden Age'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

"Romania," declared the great professor Zbigniew Brzezinski on the first day of my East European History course, "is like the man who goes into a revolving door behind you and comes out in front."

What choice other than sleight-of-hand did people have for survival under Nicolae Ceausescu's 25-year Communist dictatorship? The last grim 15 of those years were dubbed officially (by the propaganda ministry) and sarcastically (by Romanians) as "The Golden Age."

Romanian New Wave leader Cristian Mungiu (with five other writer-directors) has assembled for us some "Tales From the Golden Age," a marvelous anthology of six urban legends based (just maybe) on truth. The result is a sly and properly collective serio-comedy that captures the surreality of crumbling-Commie life in its waning Romanian days.

Best of the six segments is the final one, "The Legend of the Air Sellers," in which sultry grifters Crina (Diana Cavallioti) and Bughi (Radu Iacoban) try to channel their black-and-white bootleg-video notions of Bonnie & Clyde. Their scam involves going door-to-door, posing as government inspectors, to get water and air samples in bottles that they later sell. Both their products and their frustrations are bottled-up, indeed, in a bittersweet little crime-and-punishment love story.

Similarly poignant is "The Legend of the Chicken Driver," the story of an unhappily married poultry-truck driver who gets caught and cooped up in an eggs-for-Easter bartering scheme.

Funniest of the tales is "The Legend of the Greedy Policeman," about a cop whose brother brings him a black-market pig -- alive. Once smuggled into their urban apartment (no mean feat in itself), the problem is how to slaughter the thing without waking the neighbors and police. Knife? Too much squealing. Gun? The shot would be too loud. They settle on nice, silent butane gas ... with explosive results.

There's an education zealot in "The Legend of the Party Activist," charged by the Party to make all rural villagers literate within a year. He comes up against the locals' perfectly logical resistance: "If everyone can write, who'll watch the sheep?"

And then there's "The Legend of the Party Photographer," who has the unenviable task of making Comrade Ceausescu look taller -- and better -- in a photo op with Giscard d'Estaing. On deadline.

The payoffs vary; some segments are better than others. But these slices of life of an era "when food was more important than money, freedom more important than love, and survival more than principles" go by fast and pleasantly, even at a hefty 153 minutes.

In Romanian with English subtitles

-- Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris

' Farmageddon'

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained

The eat-local scene might seem as pleasant and peaceful as your neighborhood farmers market, but there was one evening this season when police cars rolled to mine -- for a vendor fistfight.

This latest food-umentary turns on the lights and sirens over a bigger battle: Big Agribusiness vs. small farms and food businesses, some of which find themselves subject to unfair, or much worse, regulation by state and federal governments. The film's subtitle: "The Unseen War on American Family Farms." But it's really about the issue of raw milk.

First-time filmmaker Kristen Kanty's shtick is that she's just a mom who wants to feed her four kids good food. Cue the politics: Is raw milk as good as some claim? Is it as potentially dangerous as claim others? Who gets to decide?

While the recounted raids aren't a fact of life or a worry on most area farms, the raw milk issue has been hot here, too.

The film's tone seems unfocused and a bit over the top, but its many talking heads do invite people ponder the political questions that are right there at the farmers market, lurking, perhaps, in some of the cheese.

-- Bob Batz Jr., PG food editor

' The Salt of Life'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Gianni Di Gregorio from "Mid-August Lunch" is back with another charming slip of a film.

It's as light and warm as a bowl of broth, thanks to the writer-director-actor and cast of characters surrounding him in a lovely section of Rome called Trastevere. Chief among them is Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, as his 95-year-old widowed mother who likes to play poker with her lady friends and calls Gianni when she's having trouble with her TV.

Gianni was forced to retire and is at loose ends. His wife treats him like a handyman, asking him to go to Ikea and buy curtains ("What else do you have to do?"), his daughter has moved her boyfriend into their apartment, and a young neighbor loves the fact that he will walk her dog with his and pick up some fruit at the market.

Even though he's married, he longs for female attention and feels the sting of middle-age invisibility. "It's like I'm transparent. You used to, at least, get a smile," he says of a bartender.

"Mid-August Lunch" was wispy, too, and the comic "Salt" is more of an appetizer than full-course meal but it's satisfying and evocative of a place and age where an appetite for life and love endures.

In Italian with English subtitles.

-- Barbara Vancheri, PG movie editor

First Published November 3, 2011 4:00 AM


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