Philadelphia Film Festival – First round-up

I write longer reviews/articles for all of these films in other publications (see or so this is just a quick round-up of some of what I’ve caught at the Philly Film Fest thus far:


Christian Petzold is underrated and one of the better directors working.  Barbara is optimistic for one of his narratives, but it continues his look at strong female leads, an assured camera that moves only when it has to, understated sound design, and clever editing.  For all of the dark elements in a Petzold film it’s remarkable how often the narratives take place during a high-key daytime.

This 1980 East/West German narrative is a bit of a character study (I’m starting to wonder what that term really means), but is truly a film about compassion and priorities.  One thing I love about Petzold: I’m never right when I guess where it’s going to go.  This is the closest I’ve come to guessing his resolution.  But that’s another thing I like: there’s so much bubbling beneath character’s overt actions and motivations that I don’t really care to guess.  I’ll see anything Petzold makes.

Beyond the Hills

You’re either going to love or hate Beyond the Hills.  No middle ground.  I think the people in front of me hated it.  But they still sat through all 150 minutes.  Good for them. I loved it.  I love a lot of things coming out of Romania these days.  Are we past the point of calling this a Romanian New Wave?  Don’t “new waves” have a shelf-life?  I mean, this one has been going on for nearly a decade.  Isn’t it just the current state of Romanian cinema?

Anyway, Beyond the Hills is kind of like Single White Female minus any on-screen violence, minus Bridget Fonda, plus a monastery, plus a handheld camera with long takes, minus…okay, so maybe it’s pretty far from Single White Female.  But it does have the obsessive-friend plot, wrapped up in a Black Narcissus-like sexual tension mood, and with plenty of director Cristian Mungiu’s vagaries.

The best part of Beyond the Hills is its sound design.  I’ll certainly be using this as an example in some of my classes.  I’d wager that the overwhelming majority of what we hear we never see.  It’s all animal noises, wind, low rumbles, and other, unidentifiable sounds.  It’s uncomfortable at times, and just loud at others.  But it really adds to the sense of dread.  The very last shot plays with sound to a T – the woman next to me jumped.

Holy Motors

One of the more talked about films at Cannes, and Leos Carax’s return to filmmaking has some strange similarities to Cabin in the Woods.  Holy Motors isn’t a great film, but it’s audacious and strangely sweet.

Maybe it’s that a lot of it takes place in a limo, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Cronenberg while watching the film.  Especially eXistenz.  Carax plays with filmic perception and fantasy vs. reality in a way that is framed less as a cerebral exercise and more as an absurd day-in-the-life.

Not to say that Carax isn’t a smart guy.  He clearly is, and his prologue sets us up to interpret the film in any number of ways.  But Holy Motors is best viewed as tongue-in-cheek and really, as working man trying to make ends meet (or as the love of acting).  Carax has some impeccable imagery – a POV from lead actor Denis Lavant’s limo as it weaves through some back alleys at night is gorgeous – and a good feel for the unexpected.


A film that deserves ‘best title’ of the fest, Gayby is definitely funny – a gay man and his straight girlfriend decide to try to have a child not through alternate means of conception, but by just having sex.

While in the theater I had several thoughts during this film: 1) if something is funny enough does anyone give a damn how it’s directed?  2) do I get all gay jokes?  3) why is setting something up in an obvious way and then following up on that set-up considered ‘good writing’?

And in response:

1) No.  I don’t think so.  Everyone in my theater was roaring.  I couldn’t stop noticing how the director seemed to put the camera in really unimaginative positions, use the same annoying right to left slow dolly, and unnecessarily include foreground elements.  I found it really distracting.  I don’t know if anyone else cared.  Not to say that I saw more than they did.  I think it’s kind of a shame on my part, in fact.  I might have liked the film more if I had just shut that part off.  I will say this though (of course I need the last word here): if director Lisecki tries a drama it will come back to bite him.

2) No.  I don’t think so.  There were a lot of one-liners that I thought were both way over-acted (Lisecki himself is most guilty of this) and just kind of a flat ending to a scene…but no one else seemed to.  This made me wonder if I don’t know enough about the gay culture/stereotypes/characters being represented to find them funny enough.

3) I don’t know.  This has always bothered me.  There’s this bit in Gayby that we’re set up for right away.  One of the leads has a habit of perpetually ruining birthday parties.  Okay, so the dialogue where we’re introduced to this problem is kind of funny.  But it’s really just an excuse to use that same habit for dramatic effect later in the film.  And it feels so false.  It’s a pretty easy habit to correct, especially when the audience can see it coming from a mile away (i.e. if we can, why can’t you?).  To properly set something up, in my opinion, it should be naturally integrated into the plot – not just a “hey, let’s stop everything so that I can say this for no other reason than seeming comic relief but actually to allow something to happen later on that I can’t figure out how to make happen otherwise.”


Yossi is a good film, but its first half suffers from boring-camera and boring-performance syndrome.  It’s a film that really feels like the director just wants to make the second half and is only getting through the first act-plus in order to get to what he wants.

In my review of it I noted that this kind of, ironically, works to Eytan Fox’s advantage.  I was so annoyed by the first half that I really, really loved the end.  I wanted to see something that I liked.  The contrast made the remainder of the film all the more successful.

Boring camera here is an odd thing to define.  I don’t mean that it’s static, which would maybe be what that term implies.  Instead, I mean that – kind of like how I described Lisecki’s above – it doesn’t seem to consider other ways to view the scene. I’m personifying the camera here, so consider that comment to be on Fox.  The camera is always placed where I could predict it to be placed – showing reactions rather than hiding a few, for example.

But that’s what’s frustrating.  Fox is clearly skilled and the second half of Yossi shows that.  It’s also a comment I made in my review: this is either one hell of a risky strategy or a sudden onset of on-set boredom.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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One Response to Philadelphia Film Festival – First round-up

  1. Pingback: Philly Film Festival 2016 | dcpfilm

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