Philly – The city that Penn built
Hi friends, filmkailm is back from a summer sojourn to the east coast of America with a few discoveries.
Unlike the fictitious Ramgarhs and Badlapurs of Bollywood, Hollywood has regularly chosen to set its stories in real cities, with the cityscape often serving as a character, propping up the plot and lending it a certain intimacy and cognition. As a consequence these cities make economic gains by being marketed as tourist destinations.
While Washington DC was under construction, the city of art and culture Philadelphia (compounded from philos “loving” and adelphos “brother”) acted as the capital of the United States.
Founded in 1682 by William Penn and going by the moniker of Philly, it is amongst the most progressive, tolerant cities of the world and serves as a sanctuary to people of all races, religions and sexual orientation. Philly was the venue for the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and is where Liberty bell rests.
It’s famous former residents include the legendary polymath Benjamin Franklin, the first US flag maker Betsy Ross, boxer Joe Frazier and actors Will Smith and Princess Grace Kelly.
Philly, with its variety of public installations, parks and magnificent architecture has served as the backdrop in a legion of films. These are my top picks.
1. The Rocky Saga: The mythical Rocky Balboa is an honorary citizen of Philly. His training montages through the streets are testosterone inducing and the 72 stone steps leading to the American Museum of Art have now been rechristened the “Rocky steps”.
His 10 foot bronze statue now graces the north east end of the steps and gets millions of tourists every year. His saga has lasted 30 years over six movies. That’s proof enough for those who doubt the power of cinema.
2. The Shyamalan Films: M Night is a native of Philly and has shot most of his films here. Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are his masterpieces of mise-en-scene, crafty screenplay and twister endings.
His camera caresses every brick and street of the city he obviously loves. After his “Signs” though, even nights are casting shadows on his ability to make good cinema. At least he has his city to cajole him.
3. Blow Out (1981) : Must watch for a sound recordist/designer as John Travolta plays one. Believing he has witnessed and captured the murder of a presidential candidate on audio tape, he tries to reconstruct the incident, frame by frame.
An eerie performance by John Lithgow, the film is directed by Brian De Palma who grew up in Philly and gave his best to this one.
4. Twelve Monkeys (1995): The eccentric Terry Gilliam shot this sci-fi in the now abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary which was similar in design to Cellular Jail in Andaman.
Completed in 1829, the guiding principle of this prison was reform rather than punishment, in solitary confinement with a Bible for company. Assuming prisoners would change given time for reflection, change they did with most going insane. Watch for Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt’s crazy outing.
5. Philadelphia (1993): The eponymous movie is a dark, ponderous critique of prejudice against the physically diseased and homophobia, set appropriately in the “City of Brotherly Love”. Tom Hanks picked up his first of back to back Oscar for Best Actor.
The first Hollywood mainstream film with stars (co starring Denzel Washington) to acknowledge the widespread threat of AIDS after the epidemic had claimed its share of celebrities including actors Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins and singer Freddie Mercury.
6. Trading Places (1983): Probably the funniest film Philly based film, it treats the environment versus biology debate like a comedy of manners, infused with satire and delectable performances.
Although not their debuts “Beverly Hills Cop” Eddie Murphy and “Ghostbuster” Dan Aykroyd made an orbit-launching start after this.
7. Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Second of the toy line based movies goes across the coast to Philly and the big canvas conforming director Michael Bay shoots all over the city – literally.
Shia LeBeouf’s Sam Witwicky studies in the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740. Their college motto is: Leges sine moribus vana, Latin for “laws without morals are in vain.”
8. Silver Linings Playbook (2012): The first film since 1981 to be nominated for four acting Oscars with Jennifer Lawrence picking up the trophy for best actress. A film which could have easily slipped into a clichéd Hollywood rom-com is saved by a sterling cast honestly imbuing the proceedings about deeply flawed characters facing agony and triumph.
Philadelphians are proud of native Bradley Cooper whose ascending star needed ‘The Hangover’ to kick start.
9. National Treasure (2004): Only Nicholas Cage can say “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence” with the gravity of a neuro-surgeon searching for an undetected tumor and mean it. And steal he does while decoding a cryptic message on its back.
An inane plot is largely protected by breakneck pace and slick handling of the material. To its credit, it does give a crash course in the historical significance of Philly.
10. Mannequin (1987): A throwback to the times when movies were simpler, this fantasy comedy features an ancient Egyptian curse (in the past) and a window dresser who falls in love with a mannequin (in the present) which intermittently comes alive for his eyes only.
A pre “Sex and the City” Kim Catrall goes from dummy to yummy and enthralls Andrew McCarthy’s cute boy next door as Starship’s #1 song “Nothing’s gonna stop us now” plays in the background. An 80’s date movie.
Honorable mentions for other Philly films: The Philadelphia Story (1940), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Birdy (1984), Witness (1985), Invincible (2006), Marley and Me (2008), Law Abiding Citizen (2009).