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Last spring, the Philadelphia Film Society's annual spring film festival, PFS SpringFest, was the first in-person film festival in the city since the start of the pandemic. A year later, SpringFest returned, with an expanded lineup of 22 films over the course of a single weekend, running on both the upstairs and downstairs screens at Philadelphia Film Center.
The very impressive lineup consisted of several of the more acclaimed films of the recent festival season, including various titles that played at the Sundance and South by Southwest Festival earlier this year.
Here are highlights of the festival, all of which will be available to watch in the coming months.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Last year, Apple bought a buzzy film out of Sundance, CODA, and ultimately rode it to a Best Picture Oscar win. This year, Apple tries again, with Cha Cha Real Smooth, a crowd-pleasing comedy drama that's the standard story of an aimless young man who finds a way to grow up, mostly through his relationship with a mother (Dakota Johnson).
Directed by the young filmmaker Cooper Raiff, the movie stars Raiff himself as the protagonist, who lucks into a career as a "party starter" at local Bar Mitzvahs, despite neither the actor nor the character being Jewish. On paper, the film seems very much cliched, but Raiff offers a unique voice, and the vibe of the film is always positive. A common refrain among critics at Sundance was “I expected to hate this guy, but I was charmed by the end.”
Cha Cha Real Smooth is set to arrive on Apple TV+, and probably also some theaters, in June.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
I admit I had quite a bit of skepticism that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On had enough to it as a concept to justify an entire feature-length film, but it was an absolute delight.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a stop-motion animated character, introduced in a series of shorts which first played the festival circuit about a decade ago and later went super-viral. Voiced by Jenny Slate, who co-created the character, Marcel is a tiny shell, with a single googly-eye and shoes, who speaks with a nervous stammer.
The new movie builds out Marcel's world. We learn that Marcel lives in an Airbnb meant for humans along with her grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). The two were separated from the rest of their family, and spend the film searching, through unconventional means, for that lost family. This gives the movie major stakes, and the payoff is glorious (and also likely to lead to lots of tears).
Marcel does extremely resourceful things to get along in a house built for humans—not too different from what Pixar characters typically do. But the film also finds a surprising emotional core. It is (I believe) A24’s first children’s movie, one perfectly in tune with the A24 style.
The director is Dean Fleischer-Camp, who co-created Marcel with Slate, and he plays himself as the guy filming Marcel for the videos in the film’s story. He and Slate also were married at the time of the original vehicles, but are no longer, adding a meta touch to the subplot that has Dean living in the Airbnb because he just moved out of his wife's home.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On will arrive on June 24 from A24.
The Phantom of the Open
This is the very British story of a very bad golfer who became famous for his golfing anyway. Directed by Craig Roberts, the film tells the story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), who had the worst score in history in qualifying for the 1976 British Open. Banned from future qualification, he entered other times under assumed names, and subsequently became something of a folk hero.
Based on the book called The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World's Worst Golfer, the movie is something of a trifle, but it’s still entertaining. It joins Eddie the Eagle in the small, possible future Netflix category of "movies about real-life British athletes who were notably bad at their sport but got to compete at a high level anyway."
The film also offers very good music, including some quality 1970s classic rock needle drops and an opening montage scored with a piece of music that sounds remarkably similar to Michael Giacchino's "Married Life" piece from the beginning of Up.
The Phantom of the Open is set for a US theatrical release on June 3.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Another Sundance darling, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, closed out the festival on Sunday night. With this two-hander that often resembles a filmed play, Australian director Sophie Hyde offers a very modern, forward, and entertaining treatment of a subject the movies have more often than not been too squeamish to address: older women’s sexuality.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande stars Emma Thompson as Nancy, a woman in her 60s who, due to a combination of religious repression, an indifferent (deceased) husband, and general self-loathing, has never enjoyed any type of sexual pleasure. So she enlists the services of a young, male sex worker (Daryl McCormack, from Peaky Blinders). The film consists of a series of long scenes depicting their meeting. Thompson has been around for decades, while McCormack is a relative newcomer, but they’re both outstanding here, in very demanding roles.
Yes, there is sex, and nudity, but there’s more talk between the two than anything else. Thanks to its specifically modern, sex-positive attitude, this is one of those movies that is hard to imagine existing anytime before the last couple of years.
The film also lives up to a cinematic trope I’ve noticed—call it Chekhov's orgasm—that if a character states at the beginning of a film that they've never had an orgasm, that person will always have one by the time the film is over.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande will arrive on Hulu on June 17.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Film Festival's SpringFest ran May 13 through 15, 2022 at the Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. filmadelphia.org/springfest.
The Philadelphia Film Center requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination; mask-wearing is optional inside the theater.
The Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Visit its accessibility page for more info.
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