Philadelphia's 11-day movie marathon is always a special event for cinephiles. Most people have seen dozens or hundreds of films before they sit down to see a couple dozen more for the Philadelphia outing held annually in late October, which happens to be the best time to get the leg up on some of the hot Oscar contenders.

But I'm not too keen on actively searching those titles out.

A number of those "big" titles dangle before us as Roadshow-like presentations before they find their comfortable home on a streaming platform - I'm looking at you Netflix and "The Irishman" - or open in the area within the next few weeks. It's cool to get that edge before the rest of the national audiences, but I'd rather use my time to watch something just a bit below the radar. "The Irishman," "Jojo Rabbit" and a number of other Gala selections will have press screenings coming up so I'll hold out until then to get my glance... if ever at all. Besides, those screenings can get so packed at the Prince (fine, the Philadelphia Film Center!) that in order to get every seat filled the start time runs later and messes up the Prince Theater Dash.

Before marking up my film festival schedule in the program guide I couldn't recall what the last film I saw this year in theaters  Everything came and went so fast this year and I didn't find time to see anything. Sure, most I wanted to skip, but "The Farewell" and "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?" Nope, slipped right through the cracks with me. 

I was cloaked in guilt as I made the festival my first memorable foray into the movie-going experience this year. Surrounding me for 10 days (opening night omitted) would be thousands of people who have seen a boatload of films already this year. I had nothing to bring to the table. I slump in my seat of whatever theater I'm in surrounded by film lovers who will maximum the number of films they can see per day. A group of "critics" openly discuss who is reviewing what film, what they still need to see this year, and other pompous ramblings to let people know they have an air of importance to their online publications, because who writes for print anymore? (Ouch, that stung me!)

That same drive got me earlier in my journalism career. I wanted to see tons of movies a year, many of them due to press screenings. Hell, I remember 2012 was the only year I saw all of the eventual Oscar nominees for best picture before the nominations announcement! Now? Never anywhere close to it. It's the toll one takes when entertainment reporting is not their job. To me, it's been a nice perk, but I can't keep up my primary reporting duties with optional press screenings like I used to.

(Upon further recollection as I write, I have remembered that "The Dead Don't Die" was the last film I saw in theaters. Jim Jarmusch did a Q&A after the screening that was funny and enlightening.)

With a whole week off from work I set out to my first few screenings on Friday with "The Whistlers". How interesting that I stared last year's film festival with a Corneliu Porumboiu picture, "Infinite Football," and I do it again this year! It's a first for me to start consecutive festivals with the same director. At any rate, Porumboiu moves back to narratives after last year's infuriatingly interesting documentary with a good cop/bad cop Cristi (same character) learning a rare language spoken only through whistling. The point is to learn the language so he and a bunch of gangsters can get a man out of jail, one whom he has helped escape serious criminal prosecution due to his standing as a corrupt-ish police officer.

I never thought that whistling could be a language. In how it was explained in the movie, the tones are blown to simulate certain vowel and consonant sounds, and for how much easier it appears to learn to whistle, wouldn't listening be an even more critical component to learning? Lord knows that was always an obstacle for me learning Spanish. But the language is fascinating and the film wraps a cool little narrative around it. Cristi is the main character balancing his obligations to the police force to arrest Zolst in a money laundering scheme, but he's also aligned to Zolst who will give him millions for working for him. The film jumps around chronologically at the start to shake us up about who we can trust and align ourselves with as everyone plots and schemes against the other. Eventually, it all shakes out with deadly consequences and humor to carry it forward.

Compared to "Infinite Football" I liked this so much better. I was enjoying how this tangled up mess was going to pan out and who would be left standing at the end. One of the notable things to takeaway is the perception that Romanian law enforcement officials haven't changed since the fall of Communism, and its leader, Nicholae Ceaușescu, in the late '80s. It's scary to think about the amount of wiretapping and in-home surveillance that may still go on in Romania of its own people, but the USA isn't a holy child, either.

The next film was what a festival programmer called a "can't miss", an Indian export called "Jallikattu" about a village that has absolutely lost its mind after a butcher's wild buffalo escapes death and runs rampant. It takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to capture a bull; one of these scenarios is more effective than the other.

A pulsing soundtrack and soundscape thrust us into this world of short-fused men running rambunctiously through forests, plantations and village streets to capture said buffalo. Other than that, I'm left with 90 minutes of a less entertaining livestream of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It seems like a solid hour of this film is shots of men running and screaming or wrangling the buffalo. The brutal nature of man versus beast became evident when the village men hoist it up and prepare to kill it. I got glimpses of the water buffalo slaughter from "Apocalypse Now" but that direct connection to the savagery of man was more appropriately realized.

As this never-ending ordeal drew to a close I had such a prominent image in my head about the dawn of time and the early tools man needed to survive. It was such an obvious message in "Jallikattu" that it LITERALLY comes on the screen at the very end. Don't worry, filmmakers, I picked up on your message LOUD AND CLEAR! 

The high energy of "Jallikattu" is something I longed for after sitting through "The Lodge," a laborious exercise that tried to take the evil stepparent story and infuse the best parts of "The Shining," "The Innocents," last year's "Hereditary" and so many other psycho-paranormal films into one. Of course, it succeeds at none of these areas.

After the suicide of their mother, two kids spend the upcoming Christmas holiday with their dad's new fiancee, Grace, a suspected cult follower who was the only survivor of a mass suicide that freed her from the unforgiving hands of religion. The father carelessly dumps his kids and the fiancee off at a snowy lodge thinking it would be good for them to get to know each other. Good going, dad!

What follows is paranoia and unease as Grace fights off her manic religious background and the kids' attempt to gaslight her into an even worse state of mind. 

Quite frankly, I couldn't stand this movie. It was extremely boring and nothing scary happened, in my mind or on the screen. It was as plain as their snow-swept surroundings. The story kind of meanders on wondering who is going to break first, relying on its highly stylized visuals to make up for the empty shell of a story it has to work with. And I can't like a film where I just want to beat everyone's ass: the father because he's an idiot; the kids because they're awful; and Grace for being a crazy SOB. The father and kids were probably the most disdainful persons in the whole movie because the story would not have conveniently progressed without their malicious actions.

Up to this point I didn't spoil anything in talking about "The Lodge," but I wouldn't recommend you waste your time finding out why I wanted to kill them all.

But in true film festival fashion I've begun making my stash of dishcloths! How well I do in knitting these things usually correlates to the quality of the film playing as I work. That said, "The Whistlers" was a perfect cloth but the other two has two noticeable defects. Alors, I have at least 25 more dishcloths, and at least that many more movies, to perfect after this!

Happy movie watching!

Film Ballot:

The Whistlers: Very Good

Jallikattu: Fair

The Lodge: Poor

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