Local talent dominates Film Festival

The Philadelphia Film Festival and CineFest ‘09 will kick off Thursday with a diverse set of films from a number of local filmmakers and actors.

The walls of the CineFest offices on Second and Market streets are sweating from the constant mull and toil of workers in their cubicles.

It’s CineFest season, and CineFest Media Relations Representative Matthew Ray and his co-workers will not sleep until mid-April.

“CineFest is a truly unique two weeks here in Philadelphia,” Ray said, hopping up on a desk to look through a pile of screener DVDs. “International stars mix with local legends and college kids, all here in the City of Brotherly Love for one reason: the appreciation and love of film.”

Luckily for Philly cinephiles, the restless labor of CineFest employees is all for the annual celebration of cinematic arts. This year, the festival will feature 200 films from 39 countries in theaters citywide. It is Philadelphia’s own Sundance, and the streets flutter with excitement for films from the Hollywood to Bollywood. It is virtually impossible (physically and, undoubtedly these days, economically) to see all 200 films during the festival’s March 26 to April 6 run – even with the Philadelphia Film Society discount – a preview is in order.

The Nail: The Story of Joey Nardone
The first screener Ray thumbs is The Nail: The Story of Joey Nardone. A story of a Philadelphia boxer, The Nail instinctively screams Rocky.

Somehow, even with an exterior shot of Kensington and Allegheny avenues – an obvious homage to the gloved god, Balboa – The Nail is able to separate itself from the Rocky stigma. Starring Tony Luke Jr., son of Philadelphia cheesesteak legend Tony Luke, Luke Jr., forges his first starring role as Joey Nardone, an ex-boxer who emerges from prison after an eight-year stint and befriends a 14-year-old Puerto Rican boy named Jesus.

Also starring Leo Rossi and directed by James Quattrochi, the 90-minute tale is riddled with Philadelphia landmarks and elbow nudges to residents.

Cuttin’ Da Mustard

From Philadelphia boxers to Brooklyn rappers, Cuttin’ Da Mustard emerges as a CineFest dramedy with an unlikely topic, centering on plight of illiteracy in America.

“Cuttin’ Da Mustard is a derivative from an old military term dating back to before the Civil War,” writer and director Reed McCants said. “It used to be ‘cut the muster,’ like mustering strength, but through American bastardization of the English language, it’s been transformed to cuttin’ the mustard over the years. It means, can you make the grade and meet the challenge?”

McCants’ account – based loosely on his own experience with a New York acting class — centers on a group of aspiring actors in a small theater company spontaneously led by Brandon T. Jackson’s character (Alpa Chino of Tropic Thunder) who, along with the rest of the group, is attempting to make it big while overcoming the serious obstacles of life.

“Every kid in this film has to ‘cut da mustard’,” said producer Candace Bowen, who was born and raised in South Philadelphia. “I think because I’m from Philly, when I came across this film, it reminded me of growing up here.”

“I see Philly as a blue-collar town,” said producer Tom Karl, an attorney who has practiced in Philadelphia since 1983. “This is a movie where people overcome things through ethic and cuttin’ da mustard. That’s Philly.”

Cuttin’ Da Mustard also stars Gwendolyn Howard, a Temple graduate student who attended the university while filming Cuttin’ Da Mustard, as well as Philadelphia resident, Lauren Karl, who stars as a rapper.

“My part in the movie is about finding the identity of who my character really is,” Karl said about her role as Lydia. “She’s a white rapper. By the looks of her, she’s different, but her vibe is the same. The more people are willing to talk and relate to each other, we find we have more in common than we think.”

Training Rules
Helmed by Dr. Dee Mosbacher, Training Rules is the story of Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland and the allegations of her homophobic discriminations against players she believed to be lesbians. The 58-minute documentary centers on star-player Jennifer Harris, who was dismissed from the team by Portland. Harris brought forth a storm of media attention on the university for its unfair practices, as well as a lawsuit, which was settled in February 2007.

“One of the reasons we were so thrilled to have the world premiere of Training Rules in Philadelphia is that the Harris v. Penn State lawsuit took place in your backyard,” Mosbacher said. “The Philadelphia Inquirer, covered coach Rene Portland’s career, including allegations of her discrimination against players perceived to be lesbian.”

While Portland’s discriminatory practices have been widely publicized after the Harris v. Penn State settlement, the documentary serves a greater purpose.

“All too often, documentaries about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues are not screened at mainstream film festivals,” Mosbacher said. “That is unfortunate because many LGBT films have such universal themes, so I’m very happy that CineFest has decided to share Training Rules with the people of Philadelphia.”

Plague Town
Moving to the Danger after Dark selections, Ray picks up Plague Town.

“Our Danger After Dark series is really going back to its roots,” he said. “It’s dishing up an unheard of amount of gore.”

Such is the case with David Gregory’s Plague Town, which begins as the archetypal horror film with a family stranded in a foreign country and ends in a truly haunting, deadly tale.

In this case, the story takes place in an Irish countryside, where a troubled Monahan family is stalked and tortured by mutant children who seemingly have a purpose for their antics. With obvious echoes of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gregory, a devout horror fan, sought to twist a familiar tale.

“All of the other wilderness horror films are set in hot climates with the mutant families living in squalor and flesh hanging with farm instruments,” Gregory said about the differences in Plague Town. “I wanted to be aware of those clichés and stray from them. We are in a cold climate, and the houses that the people and children live in are cozy, nice houses.”

Filmed mostly in Connecticut, Plague Town features practical special effects and heavy make-up effects for the fleet of blood-thirsty mutant children who taunt the hapless family.

“Plague Town sets up in a generic way, hoping that it gives audiences a comfort level,” Gregory said. “And then, when things start happening, that’s when it becomes unnerving and perversely funny in some ways.”

No Boundaries
Starring Philadelphia legend Tug McGraw’s son, Mark McGraw, No Boundaries tells the story of Christopher Fox (McGraw), an immigration and customs enforcement officer whose loyalty to his country is challenged by his love for an illegal immigrant. McGraw decided to make his foray into acting and eventually landed a starting role in No Boundaries, a film he says is a story relevant to issues we face today.

“It definitely felt good to come back to Philadelphia after not being here for 17 years,” McGraw said. “I got a chance to get another start in the city where my dad did.”

In 1980, his father, Tug McGraw, threw out the final strike for the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, a title the Phillies hadn’t regained until their 2008 win.

“Most of it was shot in the Philadelphia area and out toward the Main Line and showcases mostly Philadelphia talent,” McGraw said. “It’s always really neat when people see things shot in their city.”

The CineFest 2009 films are of an eclectic bunch. Others include likes of foreign language Academy Award-nominated thriller Revanche, a quasi-rural, soul-haunting story of a family stuck in a cycle of poverty, crime and chaos of Mississippi Damned and everything in between. Each of the 200 films from 39 countries are full of the vigor of independent filmmaking.

“Our attendees are going to be amazed that independent filmmakers have produced dazzling work,” Ray said as he hopped off the front desk in the CineFest office.

It’s 5 p.m. on Friday, and it doesn’t look like he’s leaving any time soon.

Gabrielle DiPietro can be reached at gabrielle.dipietro@temple.edu.

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