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The Philadelphia Film Festival has returned to live exhibition after a virtual year in 2020, and the fest got underway Wednesday night. This year, there were designated "Opening Night" films for each of the festival's sub-programs, including Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, new National Geographic documentary Finding Cousteau, and Jerry Risius and Beth Levison’s Storm Lake.
The Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) runs through October 31, with screeners at Philadelphia Film Center, PFS at the Bourse, and the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard, as well as on the virtual platform.
The festival proper opened on October 20, 2021, with Belfast, a film that has quite a bit in common with Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which played at PFF as a centerpiece in 2018. They’re both period pieces, in black and white, loosely based on the directors' own childhoods against the background of historically traumatic events, and there's a key moment that features the entire family hugging.
Belfast, seen as a major awards contender this year, is set in the titular city in 1969, during the early days of what became known as "The Troubles."
The Branagh character, Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), sees the events from a child's-eye view—both the incipient ethno-religious conflict between the Protestants and Catholics, as well as between his mom and dad (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan). And he certainly experiences a lot of it—this is a kid who loves to eavesdrop.
Belfast is framed by the question of whether Buddy's family will ultimately leave the city, and is dedicated to both those who left and stayed. It also doesn't wade that deeply into the politics of the period, although I can see the stands it does take becoming a point of contention as the awards season rolls on.
Ciarán Hinds and Dame Judi Dench, as Buddy's grandparents, steal the show, representing the main ties keeping the family in Belfast. And also well-deployed is a seemingly endless series of Van Morrison needle-drops, including one new song.
Branagh's career as a director has been prolific, but somewhat all over the map in terms of both genre and quality. He directed the great thriller Dead Again—which is getting a repertory showing at PFF—30 years ago, as well as some first-rate Shakespeare adaptations, including the 1996 Hamlet film that was shot in 70mm. He also made one of the worst Marvel movies, the first Thor, and a pretty bad movie about Shakespeare, All Is True.
But Belfast is his best movie in years, and a fine start to this year's festival. It comes out in theaters Friday, November 12, 2021.
This film, directed by Liz Garbus, is a National Geographic documentary which showed at PFF Wednesday as the opening night of "Green Screen," a new category thanks to the Philadelphia Film Society's takeover of the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival. Just two days later, Becoming Cousteau entered general release, and is now playing at about a dozen suburban theaters.
Becoming Cousteau is a fairly straightforward telling of Jacques-Yves Cousteau's life and career, which combs through decades of archival footage of his exploration and his filmmaking. It highlights his advocacy for action to fight climate change, but the film isn't a pure hagiography—it acknowledges that Cousteau wasn't around much for his kids.
The documentary is likely to appeal to fans of Wes Anderson's movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which was mostly an homage to Cousteau, and it's a fun game to point out the different things in the footage that Anderson lifted. There's the costumes, for one, and also the boat being called The Calypso (Team Zissou traveled on The Belafonte).
Garbus is a very busy documentarian. She directed last year's Stacy Abrams doc All In: The Fight For Democracy, along with episodes of The Handmaid's Tale and HBO's I'll Be Gone in the Dark series. Here, she presents a successful portrayal of an important but complex man.
Anyone with any type of nostalgia for community newspapers will be in for a treat with Storm Lake, a documentary about a family-owned newspaper in the Iowa town of that name. Storm Lake debuted Wednesday at the festival as the opening night film of the PFF's Non/Fiction documentary program.
The film, directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, depicts The Storm Lake Times, a vital but struggling twice-a-week paper that's run by Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Cullen. The documentary lays out their struggle, especially at a time when the economics don't work anymore and there's huge mistrust of news.
Storm Lake is very much a Frederick Wiseman-style cinema veritae doc, with very little music and no narration. We also get a front-row seat to the caucuses, that brief period every four years when Iowa becomes the center of the universe.
Long segments are spent on visits to town by presidential candidates, and later the caucus debacle of 2020, when an app malfunction delayed the results for days. And yes, like presumably every other documentary at the festival, we get a brief segment on what happened once the pandemic started.
Not much of what Storm Lake has to stay about the plight of newspapers is particularly new at this point, but Art Cullen proves to be such a fantastic documentary protagonist that it gets the film to the finish line.
Storm Lake is set to air on PBS stations, including WHYY, Monday, November 15, 2021.
What, When, Where
Belfast. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Opens in Philadelphia on Friday, November 12, 2021.
Becoming Cousteau. Directed by Liz Garbus. Now playing at Regal King of Prussia 15, AMC Marple 10, and other area theaters.
Storm Lake. Directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. Debuting on WHYY and the PBS app on Monday, November 15, 2021.
The Philadelphia Film Festival continues through Sunday, October 31, 2021, at Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia; and PFS at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia. (215) 422-4588 or filmadelphia.org/festival.
The Philadelphia Film Festival requires masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination for all indoor events.
The Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Visit its accessibility page for more info.
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