One can't truly get the Philadelphia Film Festival experience until they have completed that first weekend.
After weeks of anticipation for one to submerge themselves into marathon sessions of films it finally happens in those first few days. People line up outside of every festival venue eagerly looking over their schedules trying to maximize all viewing opportunities and trying so delicately to put together this impossible puzzle. They make their notes about viewing possibilities and check, and double check, to see if they can accomplish all that they want to.
For over 110 films across 11 days at three venues, it can be a logistical nightmare when you want to get the most out of your festival badge that grants you access to everything.
Throughout that first weekend (sans opening night on Thursday which only shows one film anyway) we get a sense of how well the festival machine will run. Are the volunteers organized and efficient with crowd control? Are the films starting on time? Have their been projection issues?
It's safe to say that festival organizers are on their game this year.
One thing that I will say is that managing the lines have been far better than in recent years. Instead of scanning dozens of badges before each screening (which took up time for everyone), badge holders are given a simple carnival ticket which acts as their "admission" to the theater before ticket holders gain access. This is so much more efficient and productive that ensures that people are being "checked in" while not burdening everyone with getting a QR code scanned. I hope they keep this going in the future.
I think because so much backup was had for people getting hundreds of badges and tickets scanned for each screening it was quite rare for a film to start on time (and by on-time I mean starting no later than five minutes after its scheduled start time). Of the nine films I saw over the first weekend only one film started late, "A Private War". All other films started promptly when they should have. Because scheduling is critical for people who have to hop from theater to theater, including the dreaded Prince Theater dash, it is critical that all films start without delay.
And to top it all off, not one single phone call or alarm went off during any film just yet! I couldn't believe it.
Because everything seems to be running smoothly in the first weekend, I have high hopes that it will continue without fail through the rest of the fest.
With the logistics out of the way, I must say that this is the first time in the four years I've extensively covered the festival that I've actually enjoyed everything that I've seen so far. Usually, the first day or two has some heavy clunkers that deflates my mood. Either the selections this year are all good or I've actually chosen my titles correctly and have skipped some of the "lesser" films that I've been hearing about; there hasn't been one film that I wouldn't re-watch at least once.
Come Saturday I was ready for a full slate. It started with Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Favourite," a devilishly, funny entry into the Greek auteur's repertoire. Lowly Abigail (Emma Stone) and her cousin Sarah (Rachel Weisz) match wits, barbs and weapons as they try to be the most important right-hand woman to the unhinged Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Working with a script he didn't write, "The Favourite" has all that we would expect from a Lanthimos picture without his own words to direct. His trademark direction of deadpan humor is on point as always and features the most prominent and overbearing use of wide-angle/fish eye lenses I've ever seen.
But compared to his latest in "The Lobster" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer", "The Favourite" lacks that overall sense of being in a purgatory state of disbelief that has you wrestling with the atmosphere of societal dystopia and unfortunate present. This is a period piece that is more straightforward in plot and character development than the more bare aforementioned film. It's an elaborate cat fight that substitutes tonal vacancies for gorgeous production design. I did laugh and I loved all of the leading ladies, but I'll say it's my least favorite of Lanthimos' work. Not bad at all.
Then came Orson Welle's new feature, 40 years after he finished shooting it: "The Other Side of the Wind." This is a weighted final feature from the cinematic master about the (then-)current state of Hollywood and the art of the film. A number of prominent directors, led by John Huston, leads the cast as a director who is showing off his final project which is the film's namesake. It's a film-within-a-film that goes back and forth between a viewing party and the film itself.
This was a grand, if not laboriously pedantic, feature that shows Welles' playing up to the late-'60s, early-'70s film movement taking over the country at the time: Independent, exploitation fare. Even though I found some periods rather boring, it no less shows the importance of film and the conversations we have about it. I would recommend it because I liked its message.
After that was the incredibly suspenseful Danish film "The Guilty" about an emergency call taker who listens as a kidnapping/domestic violence situation unfolds in real time. We, and the call taker, are led to believe that a woman has been kidnapped, but with each new phone call that happens a smaller piece of the puzzle is revealed about what is happening. For a solid 85 minutes the film takes place only in the call center and 95 percent of conversations occur on the phone. It was riveting to find out how this puzzle was going to unfold, and with each new ring of the phone it got that much more intense.
Lastly for Saturday was Jean-Luc Godard's "The Image Book," his latest experimental feature that won the first ever Special Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his efforts. This is a kaleidoscope of images and sounds that really plays to the film's title. A handful of chapters segment the film into clearer messages that we should be noticing. I don't have the means to describe everything, or even any, of what I saw, but I did like the manipulation of images and sound that Godard is so good at. I didn't like "The Image Book" as much as his last feature, "Goodbye to Language" which had more of a narrative and was more technologically cutting edge (two 3D images superimposed on each other, anyone?). Still, it's worth a watch at least once. I think I saw two people walk out of it because they didn't get it. If that's not a sign to check it out, I don't know what is!
After a long day, I didn't have the strength to muster up writing about about it on Sunday, so I went right to the festival starting my day off with "Studio 54" an informative documentary about the disco powerhouse club that was a melting pot of 70's New York City culture. Here is a film that could have had so much promise to go even further into the underground cultures that made NYC a haven for artists, gays, freaks, celebrities and the uncategorized. Studio 54 was a place for all of these people, and the documentary only looks into what it took to create, how to keep it the best and the financial downfall that came from its two greedy owners. A good chunk of the film is focused on the $2.5 million the owners kept off the books to avoid paying taxes on, and for which they were sentenced to a federal prison. We shouldn't feel bad for what they've done and the film makes us want to feel bad.
"Studio 54" is an informative, skimming of the top feature that presents a 101 look into the club. It was a joy to watch and to relish in the stories of the patrons and the extravagance that could only be had in New York City. Disco isn't dead in this film, but the ability to tell a story that delved deeper is dead.
Right after "Studio 54" I had to do the infamous Prince Theater dash for my next film. For those unfamiliar, the Prince Theater dash is when patrons have to run up two blocks to the subway from the Ritz theaters so they can get 13 blocks over to the Prince Theater. I've seen people hustling to bolt out of one screening to beeline it for the subway in a way that reminds me of the "The Blob".... only it's more middle-aged folk running out by the dozens and not the crowds of younger patrons in that iconic sci-fi film.
It is usually never a pleasant experience to do the dash because the ending of one film at one venue does not comfortably match up with the start time at the other theater. And if a film runs late at either one? Forget about it. In the time it takes to walk to the stations and hope that a train comes within one minute of getting there, you're bound to spend a good 15-20 minutes getting between the two theaters.
With that said, I was ready to take the dash to the Prince and then back to the Ritz after that was done.
Going to the Prince for "A Private War" was no problem. I arrived just a shade before the start time and got me a seat. This film started at least 10 minutes late, which was already going to inhibit me getting to my next film back at the Ritz on time.
So anyway, "A Private War" is about former Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, an eye-patch wearing, chainsmoking reporter who bats an eye at international war zones to get the human interest stories that made her an icon in the field. For over 30 years she covered war until her death in the heavily-ravaged Syrian city of Homs where the story starts and ends.
This was actually my least favorite film of the festival so far. The structure was all wrong because every new chapter of her life that we see it gives a timestamp of the present time and location and then how many years until Homs (when she would die). Director Matthew Heineman relies heavily on his documentary background by using this tactic to show the narrative countdown to something most important. It was an egregious error to make because if you don't know about Colvin's life you wouldn't know why there was a focus on Homs. It sets the viewer up to expect something important and gets their emotions up that she will probably die at that point. Why give us the dangling carrot when we should be able to witness her death in a raw, unpredictable manner?
The saving grace of the film is Rosamund Pike who gives a very strong performance as the alcoholic, emotionally fraught Colvin. There was no getting around how much she loved her job and what she went through to get the best story. "I see it so you don't have to," she tells her editor at one point about covering war-torn areas. Pike portrays Colvin as a no nonsense reporter who was probably one of the toughest persons in the world. At a time when journalism is under attack, "A Private War" shows that it's a truly gritty job that is thankless to our editors and the public, but not to the people who write the stories.
Because this started late I had to hustle back to the Ritz for "Burning". Going back to the subway I had just missed a train when I arrived so that added another 6-8 minutes waiting for the next train to arrive. I got on, walked down to the theater and was 10 minutes late. Womp womp.
Unlike some patrons, when I walk into a feature late I don't scramble around playing hide-and-seek in a packed, dark theater looking for an open seat. I will take one that is closest to the screen than finagle my way into the center of a row in the back or middle of a theater. I should float in without distraction to others because they were there on time and shouldn't be inconvenienced by my own tardiness. That's the most respectful thing I can do.
"Burning" was definitely the longest film yet at 148 minutes and the slowest in pace. After a while I was so infatuated with the story that it was the most rewarding experience for me at the festival yet. South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong creates a story about a young man named Lee Jusong who begins to fall for an old childhood friend. When she returns home from an African trip with a mysterious guy named Ben, things turn incredibly cryptic, mysterious and deadly.
Jusong gets wrapped up in a bleakly mysterious story that wonders about his friend's sudden disappearance upon her return home and what Ben has to do with it. It's a chilling look at the manic inside all of us and the clues we wish we could have seen before.
The run time isn't that daunting for "Burning"; it's the deliberately slow pacing and buildup to a crazy final half hour that makes it all worth while. I would recommend it because after viewing it you'll want to go back to pick up on all of the clues we could have missed. Every word means something in the film even though we think it's just a bunch of hot air and lies. Pay. Close. Attention. "Burning" is my favorite film of the festival so far, followed by "The Guilty."
After three days and nine films I managed to knit almost seven dishcloths! I ran out of yarn during "Burning" so that cut my productivity short. (Yes, I knit during movies. It keeps me up and I can focus on the feature.)
I look forward to just one film on Monday which I know will continue the great slate of films I've seen already: Frederick Wiseman's "Monrovia, Indiana." Wiseman can give the most neutral and absorbing documentaries of everyday life, and I know this look into a midwest will be no different. I'm so excited!
Ratings (to date):
Infinite Football- Good
The Favourite- Good
The Other Side of the Wind- Good
The Guilty- Very Good
The Image Book- Good
Studio 54- Good
A Private War- Good
Burning- Very Good