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Split Decision: The Philly Connection

Split Decision: The Philly Connection

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on TwitterFacebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

What is your favorite movie with a Philly connection?


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I immediately thought of the more obscurt film, Mikey and Nicky Elaine May's 1976 drama with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes as the title characters--one of whom stole money from the mob. They go all night the run from a hit man. I haven't seen the film in three decades, but I recall the extended bus ride through the city. This film is rarely thought of as a "Philly" movie; it's national release was delayed for ten years. Night Comes On, which was released earlier this year was also set and shot in Philly and its environs, so that's my back up. Dominique Fishback gets released from  juvenile detention with revenge in mind. Both films are nervy little indies, and show the grittiness of the city then and now. - Gary Kramer

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The Italian Job remake with Marky Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def, Donald Sutherland, and a delightfully pissy Ed Norton. There's exactly one sequence, a collection of about two or three shots total that are recognizably Philly but watching Theron drive a Mini Cooper through downtown and slide into a space in front of her locksmith shop is all you need. Ryan and I often refer to this movie as "perfect" as far as cinematic entertainment metrics are concerned. We've each seen it about a million times, and it's our go-to "let's pop something on while we're doing other things" kind of movie. Except those other things never get done. Because this movie is great. -Jill Malcolm

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Gotta go with A History of Violence, where Philly is this haunting thing in the distance for most of the movie, and then in the last 20 minutes it's the setting of a big explosion. It's sort of the inverse of Zihuatanejo from The Last Man on Earth (or, I suppose, The Shawshank Redemption). We really don't see much of the city, outside of an anonymous highway, a bar and the inside of William Hurt's mansion, but we know Philly is where Viggo Mortensen destroyed Ed Harris' eyeball and most of his face with a length of barbed wire. Harris, as he does in any movie he cares about, makes a bunch of great, sometimes weird choices, including speaking in a New York/Boston voice that sounds nothing like a Philly accent. That touch, I imagine unintentionally, helps further push the movie's version of Philly into the abstract. It isn't the real Philadelphia at all. It's more like what Donald Trump imagines Chicago to be like, how Frank Miller used to depict Hell's Kitchen in Daredevil comics or like Pleasure Island from Pinocchio-- A History of Violence just turns Philly into a metaphor masquerading as a place, a crime-riddled nightmare city no sane person would live in. Sometimes Cronenberg makes his characters dig to see how ugly their surroundings are-- i.e. James Woods' obsessive hunt from Toronto to the US to figure out what's happening beneath the surface in Videodrome-- but here, the main character is hiding personal things while the locations are upfront about what they are. Philly is just straight up where seemingly likable people kill for money and pleasure.

The two places I've lived longest besides Philly are San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and both get regularly abused in the movies. D.C. is where politics and absolutely nothing else happen. SF is, 50% of the time, a place where things seem idyllic but there's something shadowy going on behind the scenes (Zodiac, Vertigo, The Conversation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mrs. Doubtfire). You can practically tell things are going to go bad the first time a movie shows you how nice a park by the bay looks. Maybe I like A History of Violence's Philly so much because it's more an idea than a city, and that idea isn't just playing off the way the city's been depicted in dozens of other movies. -Alex Rudolph

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Brian De Palma’s Blow Out tops my list of films shot in the city of Brotherly Love. Moreover, there are very few, if any, other films which utilize Philadelphia locations as effectively as Blow Out. Whereas most directors are content with shooting their actors against the backdrop of a city skyline, De Palma and his collaborators do a masterful job of exploiting the dramatic potential of the 1980s Philly locale. Of course, one could point toward the Liberty Day Parade or one of the two major set-pieces at 30th Street Station, but let’s not overlook those scenes set in more unconventional environs.

Take, for instance, a pivotal early scene, wherein protagonist Jack Terry (John Travolta), a sound designer for low-budget horror films, collects nature tones along the Wissahickon Creek in the dead of night and winds up recording the car accident which sets the plot in motion. It’s a masterclass in scene orchestration, geographic orientation, use of offscreen space, and sound, with De Palma building the scene through editing, first hinting at the grandness and tranquility of that particular spot beneath the Henry Avenue Bridge, before pulling back to reveal the space in all its glory, dwarfing Travolta in the process, and suggesting nefarious presences lurking in the shadows. He repeats the visual pattern several times, the film’s soundtrack indicating the subject of Terry’s microphone, then explicitly visualizing it. Words fail to convey how stunning this marriage of form and location truly is, not to mention what it’s like to bear witness to it. 

Raised in the Delaware Valley, De Palma’s familiarity with the city’s nooks and crannies certainly aids in conjuring a concrete sense of place that’s not necessarily present in other fine Philly films. Blow Out also offers one of the grottier depictions of Philadelphia on screen, with sickly neon illuminating the nighttime streets, steam billowing out of manholes, and amassed garbage lining the street curb. After a while, this filth seemingly seeps into the film’s DNA, enveloping the central themes (political corruption, truth-seeking, and lingering guilt) with a sinister, mephitic aura. I can’t imagine the Visitors Bureau thinking highly of this one.-Dan Santelli

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Probably the best Philly film is Blow Out, which I have written about before, so I will go with a movie that I have seen more recently; Birdy, a 1984 Alan Parker film starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine. The two play best friends who have come home from Vietnam, with Modine as the titular "Birdy" who is in a catatonic state in a VA hospital, thinking that he is a bird as a way to cope with the trauma he experienced in the war. Cage plays Al, who has had his face severely burned and is waiting for the bandages to come off his skin grafts. The story is told partially in flashbacks to their upbringing in South Philadelphia, and it is actually shot in our fair city. Although South Philadelphia is actually West Philadelphia, which I suppose in the 80's still looked like like it did in the 1960's (pre-gentrified). The wooden porches, rowhouses, trees and backyards are unmistakable. There's a scene where they go to Atlantic City too (though filmed in Wildwood, another place that has always appeared like it was stuck in the mid-century). There's a part where they joke about how from a certain angle, the Billy Penn statue on top of City Hall looks like he has an erection- and now I will never not think about that when I walk past it. -Andy Elijah

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Any movie filmed in Philadelphia that also uses Philadelphia as a setting is one I am automatically going to have some amount of affection for, including the films mentioned above, as well as the filmography of M. Night Shyalaman (seeing Split at the King of Prussia Mall-where the movie begins-was a real treat), and National Treasure.

But one that sticks out in my mind prominently is Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Firstly because I remember visiting the Art Museum with my family on a day where the front of the building was closed for filming so I couldn’t run up the steps.

But more importantly because I love the use of the Eastern State Penitentiary. It has since been used in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (the least watchable film in that franchise), but in Gilliam’s film it stands in for a mental hospital. The white, cornerless walls underline the unreality of the film as well as the warped nature of Bruce Willis’ character’s experience as a time traveler. -Ryan Silberstein









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