Anthony Pantalone, Editor
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Philadelphia Film Society’s SpringFest and see some of the most exciting movies coming out in the latter half of 2023. PFF SpringFest is the organization’s spring festival—the main Philadelphia Film Festival taking place in fall every year—that showcases some of the best works of cinema arriving in the next few months. The festival took place over the course of the past weekend with a lineup of eighteen total feature films and documentaries from Friday to Sunday. I was able to watch nine films at this event, and here are my reviews of what I covered this past weekend.
“Somewhere in Queens”
“Somewhere in Queens”, Ray Romano’s directorial debut, offers the story of a middle-class father who faces a crisis when his son is offered a potential basketball scholarship. Romano hits all the beats here in a sincere indie dramedy of a father who somewhat wants to live vicariously through his son. The emotional tension here and the presence of a great Laurie Metcalf performance reminds the viewer of a less-great “Lady Bird” but with high school basketball. Still, “Somewhere in Queens” is worth the watch if you are in the mood for a heartfelt comedy about family.
Set in Finland in 1944 during the Lapland War, “Sisu” takes on some of the best attributes of classic action B-movies, slasher films, and modern action films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “John Wick”. The movie was touted as the late-night showing for the festival on Friday and did not disappoint in that time slot. The word “sisu” can be roughly translated from Finnish to more or less mean courage in the face of indomitable odds, and the entire film thus centers on stoic old miner/retired veteran who must defend his newfound gold from Nazis enacting a “scorched earth” retreat tactic. What follows is an hour-and-half long tale of revenge and one man’s war of attrition against a squadron of Nazis who wish to rob and murder him. The film plays up the audience’s desire to see Nazis suffer for their evils—passing up any commentary on Finland during WWII to focus on the action. “Sisu” was an overall enjoyable time—a gnarly action film in which the viewer can naturally get behind this one-man army who looks to reclaim his gold and wipe out a Nazi squadron.
Benjamin Millepied’s modern adaptation of the classic opera “Carmen” is tough to bite into. The new take on a classic story is about a refugee and a border control agent that finds themselves together in dangerous circumstances. Being a big fan of Paul Mescal and composer Nicholas Britell, “Carmen” had been one of my most anticipated films of the weekend. The film boasts stunning cinematography and, of course, Britell delivers with a haunting, mesmerizing score. Mescal and Melissa Barrera both offer strong performances as the film’s two leads. Also, the dance and fight choreography were incredible and mesmerizing. Still, something felt lacking. There is not much of a clear, effective story here unfortunately. At least not one that draws the viewer into the film.
“The Eight Mountains”
The directorial collaboration between Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch “The Eight Mountains” likely won the weekend for me personally. Set in the Italian Alps, this film chronicles the decades-long friendship between Pietro and Bruno—who had first met as children and later reunite as adults. Simply put, this film and its cinematography gives you a breath of jolting, fresh air like its characters are given in the high altitude of the Alps. This film looks breathtakingly gorgeous while the slowburn tale of friendship slowly guides the viewer through decades in the lives of these two men. The performances from the two leads were especially convincing in their portrayals of meditative melancholy over the same father that so profoundly shaped their lives in distinct ways. This film achieved the hallmark of any great movie—which is both making me cry and want to leave everything to live in a tiny home deep in the mountains.
A debut feature film from Georgia Oakley, “Blue Jean” is the story of a closeted lesbian and PE teacher who must conceal her sexuality in Thatcher’s England. In a period of so much repression for LGBTQ+ people under the Thatcher regime, the film does not shy away from the harsh reality for the protagonist, Jean. In a similar vein that echoes modern struggles for queer people in the United States, panic about “traditional moral values” is used as a political tool to quiet the existence and presence of LGBTQ+. The film’s screenplay smartly considers the internal struggle between identity and society. It offers a look into how queer people are forced to change themselves to fit within society and the intense feelings of alienation from the mere suspicion of nonconformity. That internal struggle defines “Blue Jean” and—along with Oakley’s direction—makes for a great film.
“BlackBerry” slyly tells the story of the rise and fall of the most popular phone of the early 00s—with substantial help from great performances by Glenn Howerton, Jay Baruchel, and Matt Johnson. With cinematography that reminds one of “The Office”, “BlackBerry” thrives when it does not take itself seriously as a business drama and leans in towards comedy. Film studios at a breakneck pace are pillaging any semblance of intellectual property they can get their hands on to make money. Business biopics worshiping materialism, IP and capital have become more and more prolific—a simultaneous sign of the times and foreboding harbinger of American consumer culture. Therefore, it is incredibly easy to be so tired of this genre. Going in, I did not want to like this movie, because I thought it would hop on those same trends. Thankfully, its comedic tones and show-stopping line deliveries by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Glenn Howerton greatly benefit this film.
“Passages” is the newest film from writer-director Ira Sachs and centers on the story of a film director whose budding romance with a woman causes strife in his marriage with his husband. All three leads provide great performances—especially Ben Whishaw who follows up his stellar turn last year in “Women Talking”. LGBTQ+ representation has been an important topic in culture for a long time, but recently many people also emphasize that representation does not always have to be perfectly clean and positive. True representation will highlight queer characters and people as complex, complicated, flawed, real people and not perfect. And that is what “Passages” accomplishes so well. Tomas is our protagonist, but this character from the very first frame is shown to be an incredibly manipulative, flawed individual—making “Passages” one of the most compelling pictures at the festival.
As someone who wrote a ten-page research paper on “The Last Temptation of Christ” and considers “First Reformed” a perfect film, I would consider myself a fan of Paul Schrader. As someone who also wrote my senior Honors Project on recent growing trends of right-wing extremism in the United States, I have a myriad of thoughts and feelings on Schrader’s newest film. This director and famed screenwriter of “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver” returned this past year with “The Master Gardener” starring Joel Edgerton. Much like several other recent Schrader pictures (“First Reformed” and “The Card Counter”), “Master Gardener” follows a middle-aged man who has a haunting past, skills in a niche profession, and a diary. It is difficult not to feel decidedly mixed on this film. Schrader’s screenplays always feel so sharp and on the pulse of the dark realities of American existence, and “Master Gardener” is not an exception. Still, to call the subject matter of this movie complicated would be an understatement. Schrader does not want to paint the characters in this script to be uncomplicated. Throughout his entire filmography and career, it would be a mistake to say that Schrader has ever intended for his protagonists to be uncomplicated individuals. The stark difference with “Master Gardener” is that this writer/director takes on a much more optimistic stance on a person’s capacity for change and the future when compared to films like “First Reformed”. I am still unsure how to feel about this movie and am sure it will inspire discourse like any Paul Schrader movie does.
When writing about this film, one cannot refrain from thinking about the parallels between the flower motif and a certain line from “Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers.
And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing, I’ll plant a garden in the yard then
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”
This Apple TV+ documentary sheds light on the famed star, his career, and his decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. From prior trailers, I went into the film with the preconceived notion that it would only be covering his long struggle with the degenerative disease. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the documentary encompasses nearly the entirety of the great actor’s life and career—illustrating how the fluidity of movement had always previously defined his life and perspective on the world. It is also made with so much compassion and admiration for Fox—never looking to exploit his condition but instead allowing the star to tell his story as he sees it. The film conveys that, for Michael J. Fox, his Parkinson’s diagnosis never killed his spirit despite constant adversity over the decades.
The Philadelphia Film Society is a great member-run non-profit organization that promotes cinema in Philadelphia. This organization owns three different theaters in Center City—the Philadelphia Film Center, the PFS Bourse Theater in Old City, and the PFS East Theater near 2nd Street. For more information on this organization, upcoming events, and memberships, follow the link to https://filmadelphia.org