The Films of Brotherly Love: A Look at the Films Shot in Philadelphia
Written by Eric McInnis
Despite the incredible success of films like Rocky and The Sixth Sense, many do not pay much attention to the historic and legendary filmmaking that took place in the city of Philadelphia. Los Angeles and New York see countless productions, while Atlanta and even Vancouver have become more popular filming destinations. But Philadelphia is a bit more of a rarity when it comes to film productions. Whatever the reason may be, it in a way makes every production, whether film or even television, all the more special.
Some of the films and television productions shot in the Greater Philadelphia Area have seen great critical success, whether they be from Brian De Palma (Blow Out), Johnathan Demme (Philadelphia) or M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Split). Others have gone even further, receiving great renown and appreciation from the Philadelphia community, for their honesty, wit and love for the city they are set and shot at. And it is important to recognize such works.
This is The Films of Brotherly Love, a retrospective on some of the most important films filmed in the Greater Philadelphia Area. Their legacy to the film industry, the city, and more will be analyzed, as well as their own merits and qualities that help make these films so iconic and so recognizable to Philadelphians and viewers the world over. It’s a project that saw plenty of intrigue, surprises, and great pieces of film, and I’m glad I can celebrate this city in my own unique way.
It’s likely the first film people think of when they hear “Philadelphia movies”. Inspired by a 1975 boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner, a young man named Sylvester Stallone took the match, which saw Wepner last for 15 rounds against the heavyweight champion, and created a screenplay based around that fight in only three days. Selling it from studio to studio, Stallone insisted he would star, despite being a total unknown. And knowing its producers would approve the film if placed under a low budget of only $1 million, Stallone would go on to make the most important film of his life.
Rocky Balboa is a humble, working-class man from the streets of Philadelphia. A small-time boxer who frequents small gyms, not much exciting seems to happen in his life. But one faithful day, his life is changed forever. The heavyweight boxing world champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, plans a title bout in Philadelphia, celebrating America’s bicentennial. But after his opponent was injured a couple weeks before the fight, Creed decides to give a local contender a chance to fight in the ring. And Creed’s choice is none other than Rocky. And with the help of an old trainer named Mickey, a quiet, but beautiful woman named Adrian, and her brother Paulie, Rocky Balboa has a chance to hit the big times and make his own legacy.
Upon its initial release, Rocky was an instant success, grossing over $225 million worldwide, and garnering significant praise for its Frank Capra-esque direction and powerful storytelling. Years later, it still resonates as a fine example of inspirational storytelling. And it’s very understandable why. It’s a simple story of a man down on his luck, fighting his way up to glory, while finding love and family in the process. It’s a tale as old as time, but Stallone knows how to make it modern and fresh. It shows the grit and darkness of Philadelphia, but also the overwhelming spirit and zest of the city all the same. This also applies to the film’s tone and style, as director John G. Alvidsen combines gritty, realistic, downright painful boxing and fights with heartfelt, emotionally uplifting story arcs.
To say nothing about the iconic moments that have been ingrained and parodied in pop culture, most notably the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As Rocky trains before the big fight, he runs early in the morning, across all the Philadelphia streets. People either watch in awe or follow him in his trek. Rocky runs across the waterfront, runs through the markets, and after a few tries, ends with him climbing up the long, arduous set of steps of that famous museum. It’s Rocky coming from nothing and rising himself as a star, a legend, a hero.
Filming at the crack of dawn because Stallone and Alvidsen didn’t get permission from their union, this shot was famous for being one of the first to use Steadicam technology, a camera mount allowing its operator to walk and climb steps while still creating smooth photography during Rocky’s ascension over those 72 steps. Since then, the Rocky Steps were the most iconic sequence of the film, becoming an easy use of parody and popular amongst tourists, and even Philadelphians, trying to run up all the 72 steps. A bronze statue of Rocky was also constructed during the filming of Rocky III, and currently resides right next to the Rocky Steps.
The year 2006 would later see the publication Rocky Stories, written by Michael Vitez, profiling 52 of the “Rocky runners” in the span of one year, with photographs by Tom Gralish. The foreword, written by Stallone himself, best explains why these Steps matter to so many people. People have attachments to the films they love. The films that make them feel happy, where they want to live in their world. And those steps are the closest thing that makes people feel like they are Rocky. “I think Rocky has represented something that, when you train for Rocky, you basically train for yourself. Because we are underdogs. And there’s very few things, conic situations, that are accessible. You know, you can’t borrow Superman’s cape. You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie. You are part of the what the whole myth is.”
Since then, Rocky would go on to be a massive film series with five direct sequels, and two spin-offs depicting the son of Rocky’s opponent turned friend, Apollo Creed, with both Creed and Creed II. But despite the qualities found in all these films, there’s still only one Rocky. And there will still only be one Rocky for years to come.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Kate Miller, played by Angie Dickinson, is a frustrated housewife in New York City. Her husband ignores her, her son is more invested in his inventions than anything else, and she has no excitement in her life. It gets to the point where she finds herself flirting with her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott, played by Michael Caine. It isn’t until she visits the Met and sees a handsome stranger that she finally finds excitement in her sex life.
Alas, such excitement is cut short as that evening sees Kate Miller stabbed to death with a razor by a mysterious woman. Robert Elliot soon discovers it is a patient of his named Bobbi, a transgender patient who Elliott refused to sign the sex reassignment surgery papers for. This tragic event sees Robert Elliott, Kate Miller’s son Peter, played by Keith Gordon, and the sole witness, a prostitute named Liz Blake, played by Nancy Allen.
This noir thriller and slasher was directed by Brian De Palma, who himself was born in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in Philadelphia. De Palma first enrolled as a physics major at Columbia University, but found himself invested in film after viewings of both Citizen Kane and Vertigo. And so, after earning his undergraduate degree, he later enrolled as a theater major at Sarah Lawrence College, where he fine-tuned his craft and started developing his first few features. Several of these features, like The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom! also featured a then-unknown Robert De Niro.
De Palma would continue to work on small, independent features, but got his big break with the 1976 movie Carrie, based on the 1974 Stephen King novel. In development before the King book was even on the bestseller list, Carrie was a box office hit, earning $33.8 million domestically, and boosting the careers of Sissy Spacek and John Travolta.
The financial success of Carrie allowed De Palma to work on more personal projects through the 1980s, one of them being Dressed to Kill. De Palma developed Kill as a personal project, mainly to tribute one of his cinematic heroes Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma has many unique elements that make his films enthralling, especially in his camera shots. Split-screen techniques showcasing two events happening at once, split focus shots that allow a foreground and background object to both be in focus, slow motion to allow more suspense. But as a filmmaker, De Palma loves to pay homage to films and filmmakers that shaped his artistry. Hitchcock is no exception. 1976’s Obsession was practically a remake of Vertigo, and 1984’s Body Double took from the likes of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Dial M for Murder.
In the case of Dressed to Kill, much of the film’s plot directly parallels Psycho. Like Psycho, the lead actress is stabbed in the first death. Like Psycho, there’s a shower scene that plays a significant role in the story (though both scenes have different functions). The only real difference between the two is Kill is much more violent and bloody, another staple of De Palma’s work. His films were heavily violent, often resulting in these films garnering controversy with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This film even garnered an “X” rating, meaning nobody under the age of 17 were allowed to see it in theaters. De Palma decided to cut about 30 seconds of the film in order to get an R, though the original cut can be found on the movie’s DVD.
However, perhaps the biggest homage to Hitchcock is a sense of voyeurism, or the idea of peering and spying on other people’s activities without them knowing. Much of this is found during the actual mystery, as the son Peter and witness Kate try to bring justice to Kate Miller’s death. But the finest example is when Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the film is set in New York and most of the film was shot in New York, this sequence was filmed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I feel as if this was a deliberate, genius move on De Palma’s part, letting the most fantastical and layered sequence of the film take place in his own childhood playground.
The scene opens with Kate looking around the museum by herself. Large paintings surround her. A couple placing their arms on each other’s backs are enjoying the view. A single man tries to start up a conversation with a single woman. A little girl is impatiently begging her mother to move along so she can explore the museum. She finds herself on an island. She may have a family, but she doesn’t have something that truly makes her happy like the people around her.
Suddenly, a man sits down next to her. The score by Pino Donaggio starts. After a few seconds, they both look at one another, Kate with a smile, the man with a blank expression. Kate soon takes off her glove, showing her wedding ring. The man gets up and leaves, with Kate feeling as if that removal cost her a chance with the handsome gentleman who could turn her life around. She soon stands up, leaving her glove on the ground, and follows the man throughout the museum. There’s twists and turns throughout this Philadelphia establishment’s corridors as they continue walking. Kate thinks she lost him, only for him to appear behind her back.
As Kate starts to walk away, pretending as if she doesn’t care about him, the man starts to watch and follow her. And after both figures move to different parts of the museum, De Palma has a close-up on Kate’s face, distraught she lost the man that could turn her life around. But lo and behold, the man saw her glove on the ground, puts it on his hand, and touches Kate’s shoulder, as they finally have their first true interaction. Kate rejects him, out of fear she will lose the sanctity of her marriage.
And then, she realizes the glove is not in her hand, and rushes back to the place she dropped it, only for it to disappear. And in a split screen shot, Kate realized where it was the whole time: on the man she grew smitten with. She follows the man again, through several twists and turns throughout the museum, trying to catch up. She tries to move faster and faster, only to lose the glove and the man, losing her one last chance at excitement. She leaves the museum thereafter, but soon finds the white glove hanging out of a taxi. At last! She can finally be whole again. And with the man opening the cab door, the two finally start to talk, and passionately kiss while in the cab, as they drive back to the man’s apartment.
Everything about this moment is brilliant, solely in how De Palma uses the act of voyeurism. In cinema, voyeurism allows viewers to see the world from another character’s point of view. The world they inhabit, the people around them, their inner emotions. It’s in this moment we know who Kate Miller is and what she wants out of life. She wants a man who excites her, who enthralls her. Somebody who understands her. And we get to see the struggles she has at home as a bored housewife. This 10-minute sequence is done with almost no dialogue, and is solely conveyed through visuals, music, and quick edits. It’s the perfect example on how film language can make a viewer understand someone’s viewpoint without a single piece of expositional dialogue.
With all that said, while De Palma is known for his incredible film language, this film is far from perfect, especially when it comes to its treatment on its transgender antagonist. As said before, the killer is a transgender woman named Bobbi, but what the film reveals at the climax is Bobbi is Robert Elliott. According to a psychiatrist at the end of the movie, another parallel to Psycho, Elliott was at a battle between their female and male side. Elliott wanted to be a woman, but their male side forced him away from sex reassignment surgery. And through their mental confusion, this results in the creation of Bobbi, their murderous female side that comes out whenever a woman sexually arouses them. This is because such arousal was considered a threat to Elliott’s female side, causing a murderous tendency to jump out.
It’s very clear the problem with such a character comes into play. Essentially, Robert Elliott is confused and terrified of changing gender, which causes mental deterioration and results in the murder of other women. It plays into a slew of harmful transgender stereotypes that make the film uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. And while it is important to understand that 1980 was a very different time, it is still very important to call out and acknowledge these harmful depictions. Media internalizes certain messages, and it’s important to critique these messages to improve situations for those who are discriminated against.
But even with such harmful messaging, though it is understandable people may not be able to look past that, the film is still very, very strong. De Palma’s direction is sleek and stylish, the performances consistently deliver, and the mystery is clever and gripping, resulting in a sharp homage to Hitchcock’s work. The film would go on to see great reviews from critics, despite three Golden Raspberry nominations, with David Denby of New York Magazine citing the film as “the first great American film of the ‘80s”.
And alongside strong box office, netting $31.5 million, this only helped further De Palma’s unique film career that would last throughout the rest of the 1980s and beyond. And while Philadelphia was only featured in one sequence, it was perhaps the most crucial of them all. As for De Palma’s next project, his next film would be entirely shot and dedicated entirely to the glorious city he knows and loves.
Blow Out (1981)
John Travolta’s Jack is a sound technician, currently working on a low-budget horror movie. He’s asked to find the perfect scream for the movie, when the killer is about to slash a naked woman in the shower. But before finding that scream, he’s asked to add more wind effects to the film, in order to deliver stronger ambiance to the feature. In the middle of the night at the park, as he records wind effects with his equipment, Jack records the sound of a car’s tire being blown out. An automobile veers off course and crashes down into the creek. Jack tries to rescue the riders, only able to save a young woman and prostitute named Sally, played by Nancy Allen, in the passenger’s seat, while the driver’s fate was unfortunate. It is later revealed that the driver was Governor George McRyan, who was in the news recently, trying to develop his bid for president.
Things already seem pretty strange, as McRyan was considered a presidential hopeful, and McRyan’s associates don’t seem to want people to know Sally was in the same car. Jack is almost attacked by these men, but rushes out with Sally in a motel, still confused at the events of the night. Soon, Jack finds himself using his moviemaking talents to discover a greater conspiracy. He discovers a videographer named Manny Karp, played by Dennis Franz, took photos of the car and sold it to tabloids. The audio he captured, when synced with newspaper photos and Karp’s footage, seems to show a gun was shot. It wasn’t just an accident, but an assassination attempt. And as Jack continues his investigation, he seems to have discovered a grander conspiracy that a lot of higher-ups and officials are trying to cover up, including one fixer played by John Lithgow.
After the success of Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma returned to Philadelphia with Blow Out, another homage to another famous director’s work: Blowup, from Italian director Michelangelo Antonini. Both Blowup and Blow Out involve a man taking part in their activity for a client, only to find themselves discovering a murder conspiracy. The key difference is Blowup’s protagonist Thomas is a photographer, while Blow Out’s Jack is a sound effects technician. That key change adds plenty of layers and creativity to Blow Out, as De Palma expertly uses sound and moviemaking to explore themes and ideas of voyeurism and conspiracy.
As said before, voyeurism is defined as the act of looking and watching others privately. Its origins come from voyeurs privately watching others undress or take part in sexual activity, but it can be used in a general sense as one who just watches and observes others without their knowledge. While De Palma has employed such acts in several of his movies, nowhere is it more prominent than in Blow Out.
Just before the inciting incident, where Jack picks up sound of a car’s tire being blown out, resulting in said car crashing into the river, he is quietly perusing the park at nighttime, with nothing but his microphone and portable recording equipment in tow. He stands out there, on top of a bridge above a simple creek, scoping the world around him. He spies on couples enjoying the moonlight, looks at the sky for owls after hearing a simple hoot. It’s through his voyeurism he becomes a part of this massive conspiracy in the first place. After seeing a car’s tire blows out, he becomes entangled into the story and sees through the lies and cover-ups.
The film builds on the ideas of voyeurism even further when it comes to the moviemaking aspect. As Jack takes his audio and photos from others together, he is developing his own story. He gets into another person’s business, as he watches footage on people he never met, learning about what really happened. It’s exceedingly meta, as Jack’s spying through a movie is almost as if De Palma is saying the audience, any audience, is a voyeur. We watch strangers we never met, figure out their story, uncover hidden secrets, and create our own conclusions about why events or actions happened the way they did. There’s something truly special about a movie that analyzes how or why people watch, interpret and see movies in the first place, as when done well, it creates unique commentary and stunning metaphors.
The film also revels in conspiracy, which became very popular once released. At the time Blow Out released in 1981, it was only seven years after the Watergate scandal. The incident of a presidential hopeful’s car falling into a river is also very similar to the Chappaquiddick incident 12 years prior. At that point, conspiracy and scandals were rising, while presidential trust was dropping. It’s clear De Palma had heavy influence at this time, considering the screenplay’s progression.
John Lithgow’s character Burke, Sally, and Karp were hired by a rival candidate of McRyan to create a scandal that would force him to drop out of the race. Things did not go as planned, but it builds onto the idea on how politicians use cover-ups and secrecy, all in attempts to earn political gain and succession in the world. It’s still a relevant issue, and De Palma smartly uses Jack, a regular sound effects technician, in a fascinating fight between the working man and the ruling elites. Everything Jack tries to do when it comes to getting the word out seems to backfire, as people either refuse to listen, acting as if they are afraid to learn the truth, or are also part of a massive cover-up.
This all leads to a stunning climax. Using a fictional Liberty Day parade as a backdrop, Jack moves through a parade of people decked in red, white, blue, and all things American. Passersby are paying him no mind, as he races against the clock. Burke, a government fixer, is about to murder a woman, going against everything our nation, our Constitution, has fought and stood up for in the first place. And the only one willing to stop the government and upholding American values is being pushed back by the very symbols that represent the nation. It’s mesmerizing, a brilliant visual metaphor.
However, despite its high quality and great reviews, including raves from New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, the film was considered a financial failure, grossing only $13.7 million at the box office on an $18 million budget. However, upon its release on VHS, the film garnered a substantial cult following, thanks to De Palma’s growing popularity, and stylish themes, and since then is considered one of, if not the best of Brian De Palma’s entire filmography. Since then, Brian De Palma has had a varied filmography, from blockbusters like Scarface and the first Mission: Impossible, to cult favorites like Body Double and Carlito’s Way. But within his varied work, it is nice to see De Palma pay two unique tributes to the city he grew up in.
The one aspect that makes this 1985 neo-noir thriller so unique is that outside of being shot in Philadelphia, it was also shot in Pennsylvania’s Amish communities. The film details a young Amish boy named Samuel Lapp, played by Lukas Haas, traveling into the city with his mother Rachel, played by Kelly McGillis, for the first time. Samuel then witnesses a murder at 30th Street Station, and is now forced into protection by detective John Book, played by Harrison Ford. The mother and son are forced to say in the city a while longer, as John Book tries to uncover the clues.
However, due to the corrupt police force covering up the murder, Book is then forced to hide in the boy’s Amish community. It is during his brief time in the community that John Book finds himself happier. He discovers his own inner peace and inner self, learns about the stark contrast between the modern world and the world the Amish have avoided, and falls in love with Rachel all at the same time. Yet two questions remain: what did Samuel Lapp witness and can John Book really live and coexist with this community?
Witness was first conceived by its writers, William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace. The two had worked in television, on western series like Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won. The project soon came into the hands of producer Edward S. Feldman in 1983. Initially titled Called Home, the script was 182 pages long and was sent to Fox, who rejected it on the basis that the studio was not interested in “rural movies”. After several rewrites and pitches to other studios, Called Home saw a name change, a tightened screenplay, and distribution by Paramount Pictures.
The film also saw several directors getting pitched the project. Feldman’s first choice was Peter Weir, an Australian director who was part of a New Wave of directors in the country, which also included the likes of George Miller (Mad Max) and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). He rejected it due to his commitment to developing the feature film The Mosquito Coast. John Badham of Saturday Night Fever fame was also pitched but rejected the film due to the project looking as if it would be a generic cop film. Lynne Littman, known for the 1983 film Testament, was almost on board, but soon dropped out. However, she did recommend Lukas Haas, who appeared in Testament, to perform the young boy Samuel. But in the end, Weir did manage to direct this after financial backing for The Mosquito Coast fell through.
Meanwhile, Weir, Kelly McGillis, and Harrison Ford used the location of Philadelphia to their advantage. Weeks before filming, Weir and cinematographer John Seale visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and visited an exhibit focusing on Dutch painters. Artist Johannes Vemeer was a major influence for the film’s lighting and composition. McGillis lived with an Amish widow to help familiarize herself with the setting, learning how to perfect the accent, and even learning how to milk a cow. Ford visited the homicide department of the Philadelphia Police Department to help understand how homicide detectives act and think out situations.
That understanding really helped create one of the most genuine and intriguing looks at the stark contrasts between both the Western and Amish lifestyle. Weir shows how both cultures differ, almost night and day. The film opens with the vast Amish Pennsylvania landscape. Lush agriculture and a clear sky, seemingly harmonious, as cinematographer John Seale showcases the glory and beauty of a world isolated from technology. This creates greater contrast when the film goes into the dark, seedy underbelly of Philadelphia, with darkness and shadows and neon lights ablaze.
This contrast shows how the Western world many live in and the Amish world few live in are so different, they just cannot be compatible. However, Wallace and Kelley’s screenplay does recognize the qualities and flaws that come from both lifestyles. They are both very different, but the screenplay emphasizes the necessity to take the qualities of both to make one’s life better. Whether it be the simplicity of the Amish, or the freedom of the city. And, clever enough, this is detailed with John Book and Samuel witnessing such new worlds for the very first time.
John Book’s time hiding in the Pennsylvania Dutch village changes him. He grows happier, more thankful for the life he is given. He garners hesitance and disdain from some of the community, which is known for gossip due to its small size. Yet as the film progresses, his work and skills as a carpenter garner him more appreciation and respect than his time as a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department. John Book finds himself in a world that truly appreciates one another. A community that holds one another up, that avoids competing or getting ahead of another. Everybody has a role to play in the community and hard work is adulated. It’s best shown during a barn raising ceremony Book attends. Little dialogue is said, but the community and collaboration are shown and feels important and special. This also results in a blooming relationship between John Book and Rachel Lapp, which is developed expertly.
And yet, it is that love that explains why Book can’t stay there long. He still has a love for technology and media, best shown when Book sneaks a radio into a barn and dances away with Rachel. He’s still a man of the Western world, and he can’t stay confined to a world that avoids electricity and limits contact. But in the end, as John Book, rides back home and leaves this new world behind, the lessons he learned feel earned, thanks to the screenplay’s deliberate pace and Ford’s wonderful performance.
This is paralleled by young Samuel, as the film’s first act features him going into the big city for the first time. The sequence where he and his mother wait at the train station is quite possibly the most profound sequence in the entire film. While waiting, Samuel is stared at by many, treated as if he is a mythical creature, solely for his attire. Yet Samuel sees no concern, and finds himself staring, arguably enamored by the new world he finds himself in. To Samuel, the random bronze statues in the station are as if they were depicting Gods. Technology we take for granted are mind-blowing, almost otherworldly. Others who wear similar clothing to him follow other religions or cultures.
After breaking free from the small, yet tight knit community, Samuel discovers there are multiple beliefs, incredible art, ways of communication and transportation that seemed impossible to him only a few hours ago. Helped also by his own innocence, being a child, Samuel shows how the developed urban world has created so many benefits: its growth, its technology, its diversity. All of it is in great display.
However, Samuel’s innocence is shattered when he witnesses murder for the first time. As much as the world may be vast, wonderful and diverse, it can be cold, scary, and dangerous all the same. Like Book, Samuel returns to the life he is content and familiar with, but still found great wisdom just the same. The outside world has so much to offer and to delight, but one should not wander too far, at least without knowledge to protect one’s self.
In the end, while both cultures have their ups and downs, Witness argues for a sense of balance. It may seem that both the Amish and Western lifestyle cannot work together. However, the peace, tranquility, and values of hard work and community found in the Amish lifestyle and the wonderful differences found in the Western lifestyle can be combined, and that is where true happiness can be achieved. It’s mature and subtly laid out in the feature, resulting in a layered and poignant look at life, its evolutions, and its needed improvements.
Alas, the actual Lancaster Amish community, where much of the film was shot, was not happy over the film. Not only did they find their depiction to be inaccurate but would potentially lead to tourists invasively entering their homeland. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom called for a boycott against the film, believing that it would lead towards invading America’s Amish communities and their privacy, through “the crowding, souvenir-hunting, photographing and trespassing on Amish farmsteads”. It’s cruelly ironic, as the film calls out the stares and ogling of Rachel and her community from bystanders and tourists. This boycott pressured Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh to remove Amish communities as potential film sites for any more upcoming productions.
However, such boycotts did not stop the film from achieving acclaim and popularity. When released, it managed to be a solid success, grossing $68.7 million at the domestic box office. This box office, as well as rave reviews, including 4 out of 4 stars from Roger Ebert, helped the film land eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, becoming Harrison Ford’s only acting nomination as of this writing. It would later win Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing.
With such success, Weir was able to convince Ford to star in The Mosquito Coast, giving the film financial security, and was fully produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Unfortunately, it was a critical and commercial failure at the time. But despite that, Peter Weir did find continued success, with films like Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show, and Master & Commander: Far Side of the World. And while Witness has had its controversy in how it depicts the Amish and its ramifications on their communities, it is still a popular and interesting look at the Pennsylvania Dutch communities and is still well-liked to this day.
Here’s a film so synonymous with the city, it literally names itself after its location. Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, has a secret. An associate at Philadelphia’s largest corporate law firm, Beckett is a homosexual and suffering with AIDS, and is trying his best to hide it from the rest of the firm. But as time goes on, Beckett finds it harder to keep it a secret. Lesions develop on his face, and he soon calls in sick for several days in order to try and hide them to avoid suspicion. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work.
After finishing paperwork for a case, and deliberately leaving instructions on how the firm should file them, it seems to have vanished, with the firm seeming to have never got it. Beckett is dismissed the following day, but something doesn’t seem right. Why did his paperwork suddenly disappear? Why was he fired despite years of success, and a promise of a promotion? It’s clear to Beckett, and the audience, that the heads of the firm saw his lesions, determined them to be from AIDS, and fired him for his diagnosis and his sexuality. Beckett is determined to have someone take his case, but the only one left is personal injury lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington.
Miller is a homophobe afraid he’ll contract AIDS just by being near Beckett. However, thanks to some education, and the material Beckett has already gathered, he reluctantly takes the case. And through several days of trial, Miller and Beckett grow closer as friends, and will hopefully convince the people about the homophobia and the discrimination the gay community face every day.
Philadelphia was directed by Jonathan Demme, who won Best Director two years prior for the 1991 smash hit The Silence of the Lambs. Demme found inspiration for the film by the events of two attorneys, Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence B. Cain. Both men were wrongfully dismissed for their AIDS diagnoses, in 1987 and 1990 respectively. By this point, the AIDS crisis was still a major talking point, and paranoia and homophobia were rampant across the world. AIDS discrimination was also a hot topic, as misinformation and general bigotry led to unfair dismissals at a time when people really needed financial stability and an active job. This made a film dramatization about such discrimination all but inevitable.
That said, the Bowers family were not too keen over the similarities. One year after Geoffrey Bowers’ death, Philadelphia’s producer Scott Rudin interviewed the family, promising compensation for the use of Bowers’ story as the film’s basis. Family members insisted multiple scenes in the film were so exact to his life they came from Rudin’s interviews. Yet despite Rudin’s promises, he never actually compensated the family, claiming when writer Ron Nyswaner was attached, Rudin did not share their interviews to Nyswaner. The lawsuit would later be settled, with the defendants admitting the film “was inspired in part by” Bowers and his story.
Regardless, the standout element of Philadelphia when it first released was its taboo subject matter. Philadelphia became one of the very first mainstream Hollywood films to tackle AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. It brought issues that were only now being discussed by people and brought it into the limelight, and it did it very well. The movie tackles these issues seriously, with great respect towards their victims, and while the writing and story could be considered cliché and safe today, it still succeeds as an emotional gut punch, thanks to some powerful courtroom sequences, Demme’s sharp direction, and two astonishing lead performances.
Of course, Denzel Washington works best as the audience surrogate, learning about AIDS and developing a relationship with Beckett, but Tom Hanks was the real star of the film. Not only did Hanks lose weight and thin his hair in order to appear sicklier, Hanks knows to play Andrew Beckett as a character. He knows to give him humanity and flaws, allowing him to be sympathetic and relatable to the audience. And of course, when it comes to Hanks’ deteriorating health, it feels genuine. It was no wonder Tom Hanks won Best Actor at the Academy Awards, delivering one of the most iconic award acceptance speeches of all time, as Hanks tearfully celebrated his high school drama teacher and former classmate, both of whom were gay.
The success of Philadelphia only furthered Tom Hanks’ rise into becoming one of the most celebrated and successful actors of all time. He saw solid success in the 1980s with comedies like Splash, Big, and Turner and Hooch, with a handful of box office underperformers like 1989’s The ‘Burbs. But once the 1990s rolled around, Hanks’ career saw a massive resurgence, starting with hit comedy films like A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle, while Philadelphia solidified him as a strong dramatic actor with awards backing. The following year saw Forrest Gump, which became one of the highest-grossing films ever at that time, with over $600 million worldwide, and another Best Actor Oscar for Hanks. The following years would see other classics starring Hanks, like Apollo 13, Toy Story, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, Catch Me If You Can, Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies, and most recently A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Surprisingly, another major selling point of the film came from one of the musicians on the soundtrack. Bruce Springsteen became a phenomenon in the 1980s, with the household name album Born in the USA in 1984, as well as the very popular Tunnel of Love in 1987. I assume to help sell a film that tackled controversial and heavy subject matter, Demme asked Springsteen to compose a single for the film that would also play well on the radio. And “Streets of Philadelphia” was born, becoming an instant critical and commercial success. It peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and saw massive success in Europe, with #1 in Germany and France, and #2 in the United Kingdom. “Streets of Philadelphia” also won Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, and four Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year.
The placement of “Streets of Philadelphia” in the actual film is at the very beginning, where the song plays during scenic shots of the city itself. Aerial shots of the city, children playing on the street, workers beginning their shift, families enjoying the park, murals and graffiti across the walls of the city, and people waving directly at the camera, all while Springsteen’s soothing voice. For nearly four minutes, ambiance is the focus, as viewers see all the landmarks, tourist destinations, and, most importantly, the people. Philadelphia may be a story about a homosexual man fighting for his wrongful dismissal, but it’s also a story about the city and its people. A city that prides itself on diversity and community, from the convenience store workers, to the firemen, to the kids going to school. It’s a place that thrives on excitement, energy, and most important of all, brotherly love. Philadelphia is the perfect setting for this story. It’s a city all about love and respect, and this is a movie about love and respect. It’s a perfect combination that makes the film much stronger than it would in another city.
And as it turns out, Springsteen’s single, as well as great reception from critics and audiences, helped this become a success for all involved. The film generated over $206.7 million worldwide, becoming the 12th highest-grossing film in 1993. The film’s success also saw several, though sadly not an overwhelming amount, of gay-themed releases go through production, like 1996’s The Birdcage, 1997’s In & Out, and more recently 2018’s Love, Simon and 2019’s Rocketman.
Hanks and Washington would both see great success in the coming years, with consistent work in lead roles and strong critical notices. Demme would later go on to direct several documentaries and concert films over the years, including several Neil Young concert films, as well as narrative features like 1998’s Beloved starring Oprah Winfrey, 2004’s adaption of The Manchurian Candidate starring Philadelphia alum Denzel Washington, 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, which earned star Anne Hathaway an Oscar nomination, and 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep and written by Diablo Cody of Juno fame. Sadly, Johnathan Demme passed away April 2017, with his last film being the Netflix concert film Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.
It’s a film that broke down barriers and celebrated the streets of Philadelphia, in all its glory. And whether it be for its performances, subject matter, or even Springsteen hit, the film continues to be a favorite to this very day.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, is a child psychologist going through a rough patch. One of his patients went down a hard road. His relationship with his wife is strained. It seems that nobody even acknowledges him. But Malcolm has one more chance to help a child; Cole Sear, played by Hayley Joel Osment. Cole has a sixth sense, an ability only he possesses. He can see and talk to the dead. He sees ghosts walking around, unaware they are even dead in the first place.
It terrifies Cole. He’s given a curse that forces him to see people nobody else can. He sees how they died and can do nothing to stop them from returning to their regular life. The ghosts walk around, unaware that they are even dead in the first place. His mother Lynn, played by Toni Collette, doesn’t understand his son, doesn’t know his curse, and doesn’t know how to make things better for each other. But perhaps Malcolm could find a way to show Cole that his curse could be a gift for both the deceased people he comes across, and their survivors, unable to find answers to their tragedies.
Released in 1999 by The Walt Disney Company under Hollywood Pictures, The Sixth Sense is a perfect example of a film that nobody expected to be the landmark success that it was. In a way, only two people had any faith in the idea: Disney production president David Vogel, and its director and screenwriter, Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. Or as people may know him best as, M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan, born in Mahe, India, and raised in Penn Valley, grew up with an early desire to be a filmmaker after acquiring a Super 8 camera. This led to him attending the New York University Tisch School for the Arts, graduating in 1992. While a student there, Shyamalan developed his first feature, Praying with Anger, about a young Indian-American’s return to his country of origin.
Shyamalan would use the craft he had gained from Praying with Anger to his next feature Wide Awake in 1998. Focusing on a Catholic schoolboy and his search for God after the loss of his grandfather, this comedy-drama saw mixed reviews and limited box office returns, despite a solid cast of actors like Dennis Leary, Dana Delany and Rosie O’Donnell. However, Wide Awake was distributed by Miramax, which was then a subsidiary of Disney. Shyamalan used his connections and delivered a spec script about a boy who can see the dead to Disney production president David Vogel. Vogel instantly loved the screenplay and greenlit the film, despite not obtaining corporate approval from other executives and board members. After the purchase, Disney’s top executives seemed to have little faith in the project, as Vogel would later be dismissed from his position.
There was a reason why Vogel was so passionate about the film, because Shyamalan’s screenplay is absolutely brilliant. The script moves slowly, but as the story progresses, and more is revealed about Malcolm and Cole, as well as how the two bond and develop, it draws people in more and more. Both leads have their own insecurities and desires to make things better. Malcolm wants to connect himself back to his wife and absolve the mistakes he made with his former patients, while Cole wants to be rid of this curse, stop his constant bullying, and most importantly not have his mother worry or be afraid of him.
Bruce Willis sells it as a defeated man trying to make his life better, but Hayley Joel Osment, at only eleven years old, is the true star here. Osment’s appearance and performance create a brilliant contrast. He has a sweet, almost cherub face. And yet, he is conflicted, distraught, horrified over what he sees. Passing by him, anybody would see any sweet, normal kid, and have no idea he is so troubled and possesses something nobody else seems to share. Osment is able to make these fears and insecurities work so well, resulting in one of the most emotional performances that rival even adult actors.
The Sixth Sense is also home to plenty of M. Night Shyamalan’s traits, whether it be their emotional resonance, their spiritual backdrops, and emphasis on outsiders and outcasts. But of course, his biggest claim to fame, one that has garnered both praise and ridicule, is his infatuation with twist endings. The Sixth Sense arguably has his most famous twist of all. After Malcolm manages to help Cole use his curse as a gift, by helping spirits find closure and finally connect to his mother, he returns home again to his wife, Anna, played by Olivia Williams. And after seeing Anna’s wedding ring on the floor, he comes to the realization: he was a ghost the whole time.
Ghosts see what they want to see, but Malcolm slowly puts the pieces together and realizes the truth. Nobody really seemed interested in talking to him. The clothes he wore have never changed. During their anniversary dinner, Anna didn’t seem spiteful or angry, but depressed. People couldn’t see him. He was killed, and like the other spirits Cole interacted with, he is looking to find closure again. Closure to help one more child in need, and closure to help his wife know he always loved her. And after confessing his love and appreciation to the woman he loves, Malcolm’s goals are fulfilled, his life is complete, and he vanishes with a flash of light.
It’s simply a perfect conclusion. Malcolm went through the whole film dealing with frustration, insecurity, fear, and uncertainty about his life. And through a shocking twist that was subtly laid out throughout the film, thanks in part to Shyamalan’s layered direction and intricate writing, it allows something that is both very shocking and very poignant all the same.
It’s really no wonder the film became the massive hit it was. Opening on August 6, 1999, the film already saw record numbers with a $26.7 million opening weekend, becoming the biggest opening ever for an August film. However, the true success story was in the weeks to come. Thanks to great reviews, and that astonishing twist, the film stayed #1 at the box office for the next four weeks and continued to play for months to come. In short, the film finished with a domestic total 11 times greater than its opening, with $293.5 million in the United States and Canada. And alongside $379.3 million in international territories, the film wrapped with $672.8 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing films ever at that time.
This success resulted in a slew of nominations in the awards circuit, with six Academy Award nominations, including Actor nominations for Osment and Toni Collette, and a Director and Screenplay nomination for Shyamalan. The film also saw two Golden Globe nominations, four BAFTA nominations, and a win for Best Director at the Empire Awards. In 2007, the film appeared on #89 on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Years…100 Movies list, and as of now, it is still considered a landmark horror release and lauded for putting Shyamalan on the map. I would even dare say, with such impeccable direction and fantastic writing, that this is perhaps my favorite film of all time.
This great success meant Shyamalan was here to stay and could do carte blanche with whatever project he was interested in. Even to this day, all of Shyamalan’s films have been shot in Pennsylvania in some way, shape, and form. One notable example came a year later, where he returned to Philadelphia to tell the story about two men with superhuman abilities and an affinity for comic books.
David Dunn is a peculiar man. While he has a solid family life, with a wife Audrey, played by Robin Wright, and a son Joseph, played by Spencer Treat Clark. He’s a security guard with a strange instinct for knowing what a person does or has done just by touching them. His greatest weakness seems to be water, as he has a fear of swimming and drowning. He seems to possess incredible strength, being able to bench press 350 pounds. But strangest of all is David Dunn managing to avoid death.
While attending a Philadelphia train, Eastrail 177 to be specific, it veers off course into a horrific crash, killing all its passengers…all of them except David Dunn. It didn’t even seem as if he got a scratch. It’s a miracle, downright impossible. How could it be that David Dunn could survive such incredible destruction? While Dunn tries to pretend that he is just a normal man, one figure watching over him doesn’t think so.
Elijah Price is also a peculiar man. Born prematurely, Elijah was born with brittle-bone disease, meaning his bones are so weak, just one accident could cause them to be permanently broken. He was bullied and teased as a child, called “Mr. Glass” for his disability. He seems distant, as if he’s coldly calculating, living in his own fantasy world. But strangest of all is his obsession with comic books and superheroes. Elijah is a comic book art dealer. He owns an art gallery full of memorabilia and artwork of classic comics. Superheroes and supervillains. Good and evil. And most importantly, superpowers unlike anything else.
Elijah’s passion for comics has made him believe that his disease is actually a superpower, as there seems to be nobody else like him. People may think he’s crazy, but to Elijah, there must be a reason why he has such fragile bones. Elijah also believes that in this world, there must be others who have superpowers like him. Specifically, there must be a polar opposite to his extreme condition: he is breakable, so there must be another who is unbreakable. David Dunn, with his astonishing strength and impossibly durable body, seems to be a perfect match, as he finds himself a part of Elijah’s comic book fantasy, whether he likes it or not.
Developed and produced after M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout success with The Sixth Sense, the one aspect that makes Unbreakable so unique is its love and appreciation towards the art and storytelling of comic books. Even in a day and age when adaptations of Marvel Comics make billions every year, Unbreakable is one of the very few films to use the medium of comics to enhance its themes and messaging. Perhaps the finest example, in a visual sense, can be found in the cinematography. Shyamalan and director of photography Eduardo Serra (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) have several shots that are designed to look like comic book panels. This of course enhances the motif of comic books and allows for dynamic and unique compositions and angles that create something fresh. In particular, the movie loves to utilize reflections to play on the name Mr. Glass, as well as create stunning visuals. It’s marvelous to look at and shows the craft Shyamalan had gained since The Sixth Sense was released.
Most importantly however, Shyamalan uses the conventions of comic books to create a unique narrative that celebrates comics and shows how they influence stories and people. Already Shyamalan uses the contrast found in established comics to set up his two leads. Superman is a humble man who grew up in the heartlands, has incredible powers, and fights for the innocent. Lex Luthor is a rich urban businessman who uses machines and money to take control of the world through capitalism. Batman fights for justice and order. The Joker fights for anarchy and destruction.
David Dunn is unbreakable and wants to be considered normal. Elijah Price is breakable and pushes himself as an oddity. The contrast is brilliant, setting up the dynamics and conflicts between the two in a way that’s clever and unique, even in our current glut of superhero films. It also brings up an interesting idea about realistic superheroes. David takes Elijah’s words to heart, and soon begins to realize the gifts he seems to have could really do something to help people who are wronged. He soon begins to realize his knack for finding wrongdoings come from his own extrasensory perception abilities, allowing him to sense information not found in the physical sense but within the mind. This gains him the ability to have a second sight, letting him home in on people and finding about criminal acts they have committed.
It is through his powers he becomes a vigilante, fighting a man who invaded another family’s home. This sequence is chilling, tense and dramatic, and again, it shows what it would be like if superheroes really existed in our world. Their powers come from a real place, and how they could be used depend on the person. Some could use their powers to save others and help victims. Meanwhile, others, like Elijah Price in yet another stunning twist that concludes the movie, can use their powers to create darkness and destruction. It’s up to them how they use their powers, and it’s a believable struggle such figures would have to deal with. It’s brilliantly layered commentary, and it’s fascinating to see how Shyamalan uses such an idea through a combination of his own wit and reference material.
Having said that, Unbreakable did not follow the same success story as The Sixth Sense. It saw solid box office with about $248.1 million worldwide, but it was considered a bit of a financial disappointment after the monster success of The Sixth Sense. This was not helped due to misleading marketing. Shyamalan wanted to market the movie as a comic book film, but Touchstone decided to push it as a psychological thriller in the style of The Sixth Sense, which it was really anything but. This also led to more tepid reactions, as while it garnered solid reviews, many critics found it a step down from The Sixth Sense.
But as with all great movies, it garnered greater appreciation over time. The film got a cult following, with many considering it better than The Sixth Sense, due to its deconstruction of the superhero mythos and compelling characters. Even filmmaker Quentin Tarantino lauded the film, citing it was a “brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology”. Time would also consider it one of the greatest superhero films in a 2011 article. Its growing popularity left many clamoring for a sequel to continue the storyline, and Shyamalan did pitch a follow-up to Touchstone throughout the years. But due to the disappointing box office, it was considered a lost cause.
However, Shyamalan did manage to find a way to continue the story, through a 2017 thriller starring James McAvoy, and a 2019 sequel that finally saw the return of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Called the Eastrail 177 Trilogy, named after the train David Dunn survived, this resulted in a wild series of films that combined horror, thrills, and mystery all into one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano Jr., a man from Upper Darby who has gone through in the past few months. He’s dealt with bipolar disorder for years, but one day found his ex-wife Nikki in the shower with another man, a history teacher at the high school she works at. This led to a violent outburst, as Pat brutally assaults him for being with the woman he loves. Of course, a messy divorce ensues, and Pat finds himself forced into a mental health facility for eight months to gain treatment.
Pat moves back with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, and tries to recreate his life. With the motto “Excelsior”, meaning “always higher”, he tries to push himself, finding all the silver linings in his world, staying positive and reinventing himself, all in a hope to get Nikki back, in an effort to make things back to normal. After all, if Pat gets happier, fitter, and more positive, he should get what he wants, right?
Alas, things aren’t great. Pat tries to avoid his problems, avoid anything that would acknowledge his mental issues, and does everything in his power to get Nikki back, even when it destroys him mentally and everyone knows it’s best for him to move on. This destroys him, as he just can’t seem to cooperate with himself mentally. Pat’s dad, Patrizio Sr. also finds himself in trouble, forcing to bet on Eagles games after losing his job, hoping to get the money to open his own restaurant. All of the Solitano family are going through a lot of tension, but Pat and his father are going through it the worst.
However, things start to change when he meets a widow named Tiffany Maxwell, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Tiffany has also gone through mental trouble, at first coping with the loss of her husband with sex and hookups, and now using dance for therapy. When the two first met, at a dinner with Tiffany’s sister, they talk about the drugs they went through to help with their disorders. Both start off on the wrong foot, but they soon realize they both need to help each other. This leads the two into a deal. Pat helps Tiffany with her dance competition, Tiffany helps Pat reconcile with Nikki. And it’s through their practicing that Pat, Tiffany, and even Pat’s father re-examine their relationships with one another, cope with their mental problems, and perhaps find love and discover their true silver lining and happy ending.
Based on the 2008 debut novel The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, this adaptation was fast tracked before it was even published by director David O. Russell, in association with The Weinstein Company. Russell first hit the independent scene with his debut feature, 1994’s Spanking the Monkey. Despite its controversial subject matter focusing on an incestuous mother-son relationship, this dark comedy saw critical acclaim, with two Independent Spirit Awards, and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. This led to further success with the 1996 Ben Stiller comedy Flirting with Disaster and the 1999 satirical war film Three Kings. 2010 would later see the release of The Fighter, a biopic focused on famed boxer Mickey Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his druggie half-brother Dicky Eklund, played by Christian Bale. Not only did it see critical and financial success, but the film saw seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and two wins for supporting actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, playing Mickey Ward’s mother Alice.
In a way, David O. Russell was a great fit when it comes to adapting Quick’s novel. The story itself combined emotional drama, romance, and comedy. Russell started out with black comedies, while The Fighter was able to have solid drama and characters that resulted in an emotional, but still somewhat uplifting feature. With Russell also having a penchant for witty dialogue and talkative conversations, Playbook’s screenplay combines drama and comedy beautifully. There’s a strong emotional core to Pat and Tiffany’s struggles and characters that make them easy to root for. Their struggles are relatable, especially for people who experience or have experienced mental health issues, and Russell knows to make them both flawed and the causation of many of their problems, yet still likable and understandable about their plights and issues.
Russell also delivers when it comes to its direction and presentation. The film utilizes a lot of handheld camera work that really sells the world and characters. Shots, especially in conversations, often have the actors close to the frame, making the audience feel as if they part of the scene. They are looking into Pat or Tiffany’s eyes when they are talking. They are right up in the middle of a heated argument. They are up close as viewers to Pat and Tiffany’s dance rehearsals. There’s also a great sense of improv in the way the characters speak and move. It’s scripted of course, but the stammers, the nervous but uncluttered choreography make each scene feel more realistic and therefore more alive. Therefore, the moments of emotion or comedy manage to land even further.
Of course, it also helps that Russell concocted an all-star cast. Even down to the supporting cast, including Anupam Kher, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles, and John Ortiz, are all memorable, bringing in needed comedy or enhancing the drama the leads go through. As for the leads, Silver Linings Playbook has a pretty rare distinction. For the first time since 1981’s Reds, this film managed to earn Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), and Best Supporting Actress (Weaver) nominations at the Academy Awards. This is for good reason.
Jacki Weaver brings an important heart to the film. Between the mental stress, Weaver has a warmth that allows the film its heart. De Niro creates a perfect blend of anger and sympathy that shows the love for his son and the frustration that comes with dealing with somebody going through heavy issues. Of course, at the end of the day, the real stars are Cooper and Lawrence, who absolutely shine. Their baggage is believable, downright frightening, but they have such perfect charisma that it allows them to elevate the screenplay and bring charm to even some of the more intense moments. Admittedly, the age gap between the two actors is noticeable, and can be distracting. However, thanks to the screenplay and the actors’ sharp chemistry, it still manages to work out well, though it understandably could leave some conflicted or uncomfortable.
Of course, the film’s biggest claim to fame is Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance, deftly showcasing trauma, guilt, and even humor, was given immense praise, especially since Lawrence was only 21 at the time. This soon led to wins at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards. The Oscar win made major headlines when Jennifer Lawrence ran up to the stage and tripped on her own dress. That Oscar win capped off what was a banner year for Lawrence. A few months prior to Playbook’s release saw the release of The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling young adult series. Starring Lawrence, it became one of the most popular films of the year, garnering positive reviews and generating almost $695 million worldwide, turning the young actress into a household name. Silver Linings Playbook piggybacked on Lawrence’s newfound fame to great success. Her Oscar win helped keep the film in the conversation weeks after it released, resulting in over $235 million worldwide.
Lawrence would continue to use her newfound fame to great success, as The Hunger Games series continued to see strong box office, and she also appeared as Mystique in X-Men films like First Class and Days of Future Past, coming out at a time when the superhero movie was becoming as big as ever. But most importantly, David O. Russell found himself a new collaborator. Along with Bradley Cooper (as well as a cameo by Robert De Niro), Russell and Lawrence would work together on the film American Hustle one year later, which saw even greater success, earning $251 million worldwide, and ten Academy Award nominations. 2015 would also see another Cooper-Lawrence-De Niro-Russell collaboration with the film Joy. However, it did not see the same success, with mixed reviews and mediocre box office.
Russell hasn’t seen much work since then but is currently developing a new project for 20th Century Studios and Regency Enterprises, set to star Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and Michael B. Jordan. It’s fair to say that Silver Linings Playbook reinvigorated a lot of careers, and it’s wonderful to see such a rich and well-made film garner such success, especially considering this is a film shot in such a great place.
It was 35 years since Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed fought in the ring. In that time, a lot has changed. Apollo died in the ring decades prior, while Rocky lives alone as a widower, quietly owning his Italian restaurant Adrian’s. However, legacy never dies. The illegitimate son of Apollo, Adonis (Donnie is his nickname) has dreams of following his father and joining the professional boxing ring.
But despite his inexperience, disapproval from his mother, and rejection from the elite boxing academy run by the family who trained Apollo years ago, he wants to prove to the world he is something great, and more than just Apollo’s boy. And so, the only person left is Rocky Balboa, the man who fought with him and became one of his closest friends. Donnie travels to Philadelphia to try and make Rocky his trainer and his mentor. And with some reluctance, the two begin to train, while also dealing with their own personal demons and new adjustments that will change their lives forever.
When Creed was produced, it came out at a time when studios used franchises as a crutch. It’s certainly true that IP was always a factor when it comes to greenlighting a film, but by 2015, executives were eager to capitalize on any nostalgic brand in order to capitalize on viewers who saw these movies when they were younger, or introduce it to a new audience. It’s still an issue today, with original features and IP considered unimportant compared to pushing out films based on properties like Marvel Comics or Frozen.
What makes Creed so unique from the pack was that it was not the idea of an executive or even Sylvester Stallone to bring back the franchise. It was instead the young, up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler. Coogler and his father loved the Rocky series. They would watch it over and over throughout the years, partly because Ryan’s father grew up watching Rocky II when he was younger, while his mother was suffering with cancer. Rocky and Apollo were heroes to the Coogler family, for their determination and resilience, and Ryan wanted to celebrate these heroes, leading to him pitching the idea to Stallone.
Stallone approved, and the film went into production. The idea of Ryan Coogler pitching the movie rather than a cynical executive attempting to get more money out of an iconic property is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. It results in a film that is personal, with a lot of emotional heart and care for the characters audiences know, as well as the newcomers introduced to viewers for the first time. There’s a great sense of tribute and adoration for the franchise that never feels like fanservice, because Coogler manages to capture Rocky Balboa’s fighting energy, while also evolving his character, as he deals with getting older, losing more and more family, and even dealing with sickness.
Much of the plot focuses on Rocky getting diagnosed with cancer and having to deal with the idea that he has little time left and doesn’t have anything he can pass on to. It’s so raw and emotional and gives Stallone the chance to deliver perhaps his best performance yet. Coogler mentioned his dad being diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition was the main inspiration for this film. In Creed, Rocky is Ryan Coogler’s father. Donnie is Ryan Coogler. Ignoring bloodlines, this is a movie about a father giving his son one last chance for advice and growth before he must move on. It’s a true gut punch from that perspective and shows the humanity and soul Coogler put in the project.
But while Rocky is an integral part to the narrative, the most important rule Coogler’s screenplay has is that it is an Adonis movie first, and a Rocky movie second. Michael B. Jordan, who collaborated with Ryan Coogler previously for the film Fruitvale Station, is the glue that holds the film together. He brings charisma, heart, emotion, and so much more. There’s this great sense he refuses to give up. He refuses to let the world around him crumble. He refuses to be known as the illegitimate son of a famed boxer, who only got his way because of his name. He’s taking the Creed name and making it his own. Adonis is one of the most finely crafted characters in sport film history, and Michael B. Jordan delivers every step of the way.
Perhaps the greatest moment in the film is the obligatory training montage right before the final fight between Donnie and Ricky Conlan, played by Anthony Bellew. It’s almost tradition for there to be a training montage in a Rocky movie. And this is easily one of the best in the series. Intercutting between Donnie’s practicing and exercise throughout the Philadelphia neighborhoods, with Rocky’s treatments through chemotherapy and Conlan’s training publicized by the English press, every shot is felt, every cut is tightly-wound. The music swells more and more as the training continues.
And in one last moment, as Donnie runs down the street, he’s joined by neighbors, driving on Quads and motorcycles. The music is getting more and more pumped up. The people of Philly follow behind Donnie as he continues his trek. At that moment, the people ride with him, traveling as if he was one of their own. He’s no longer just a kid from Cali. He’s not just somebody’s Dad. He is Adonis Creed. He is his own man. He is a new hero, a new inspiration, a new legend being born on the streets of Philadelphia. This is not a Rocky movie. It’s a Creed movie.
Upon its release, Creed saw instant acclaim, hailed as a perfect modernization of the classic series, with incredible fights and stirring performances from all the cast. It was an instant success at the box office, generating $109.8 million in the United States and Canada, and $173.6 million worldwide, exceeding all expectations. Sylvester Stallone saw a win at the Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor and a nomination at the Academy Awards. The film’s success would also lead to one of the luckiest gigs ever for Ryan Coogler. On January 2016, Ryan Coogler signed on to direct Marvel Studios’ Black Panther. Also garnering critical acclaim and featuring Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther became one of the biggest success stories in recent history, garnering more than $1.347 billion worldwide, and hailed as a cultural moment when it comes to black representation in blockbusters. Creed’s success also saw a sequel three years later with Creed II, which also saw good reviews and great box office. A third film is reportedly in development.
As a beautiful celebration to an iconic film series, a personal release for its director, and as a showcase for the raw acting talents of its two leads, it’s fair to say Creed was victorious, and that the series is here to stay in people’s minds.
Casey Cooke, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a withdrawn teenager. She keeps to herself, seems distant from everyone else, and doesn’t seem to be all that popular in school. Regardless, she was invited to a birthday party and was about to head home with some classmates: Claire, played by Haley Lu Richardson, and Marcia, played by Jessica Sula. As they head in, a man, performed by James McAvoy, gets into the driver’s seat. Not Claire’s father, but a stranger. The girls are confused, but things get hairier when the man knocks all three unconscious.
When Casey, Claire, and Marcia wake up, they’re in a whole new location. An underground cell, that seems to have no exit or no contact with the outside world. They’re locked up, like animals in a zoo. And the man who knocked them out? He seems to be different every time they see him. At one moment, he says his name is Dennis, where he is violent and obsessed with cleanliness and order. At another moment, he says his name is Patricia, an older woman that is proper, motherly, and polite, so long as you obey her. At another moment, he says his name is Hedwig, is nine years old, and has a cute, kid-like lisp. At the same time, the man also calls himself Barry, who seems to be the one in control of what personality gets to come out. Whatever the identity, the man treats the girls differently depending on who’s in charge. Sometimes kindly, sometimes cruel. Regardless, the man, regardless of who he says he is, is doing everything in his power to keep these girls stuck here.
Casey soon discovers the man is named Kevin Wendell Crumb, and is suffering with dissociative identity disorder, meaning he has multiple personalities and identities, each with their own patterns, mannerisms, and ideologies. Kevin has 24 personalities, all of whom are fighting for control in just one body. One personality in particular is The Beast, where Kevin is at his most animalistic and his physical capabilities are greatly enhanced. It is up to Casey to find her way out, breaking free from Kevin’s grasp, before the Beast comes out, or else she will never see the light of day again.
Another work from director M. Night Shyamalan, this was an idea the director had developed for years. He had this idea for a character with multiple personalities. He even wrote a few scenes and pieces of dialogue but sat on the idea for years. He even thought about including the character in 2000’s Unbreakable, but the idea was cut in later drafts.
Seventeen years later, Shyamalan would get a chance to bring the character to life after making a deal with producer Jason Blum, best known for low budget horror titles, like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Insidious, among many others. After the two successfully collaborated with 2015’s The Visit, which saw decent reviews and solid box office, Shyamalan began developing this release shortly after The Visit opened in theaters.
It’s clear that Kevin Wendell Crumb took years of development, because he’s absolutely the highlight of the film. He has a perfect blend of comedy and chills that make him unpredictable from scene to scene. One minute he has plenty of great jokes. The next he is chilling, seemingly unstoppable. Another minute he seems like any other person. McAvoy delivers with each character he plays and is clearly having fun at every moment. There are times of course where he is too over the top, even for a character as broad and eccentric as Kevin, but he still makes every moment entertaining and even touching.
However, that doesn’t mean Kevin was not hit with criticism, especially with the mental health community. Horror films are already infamous in how they stigmatize mental disabilities, and Split, using a real-life disorder, was no exception. Psychiatrist and DID specialist Dr. Garrett Marie Deckel mentioned such stigmatizations in a CNN article at the time of the film’s release. Deckel mentioned, in contrast to Kevin, “people with DID, who may represent over 1% of Americans, are rarely violent. Research has shown that they are far more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt others”. Other members in the DID community have also expressed concern, believing that the film would create harmful stereotypes and would deter those with DID to avoid seeking help, or else be considered a psycho like Kevin.
Regardless of the quality of the film, that is a major problem. It’s been a constant issue and talking point in horror films, especially ones that feature a slasher or a human antagonist. And while it’s likely Shyamalan had good intentions, in a day and age when mental health is gaining more discussion, it is sad to see the film fall into some dangerous stereotypes. And I certainly understand people’s disapproval of the film on that ground.
Having said all that, I still think what makes Kevin Wendell Crumb work is how the film positions him as an outsider and doesn’t shame him for it. It’s revealed in the climax Kevin lived with an abusive mother, while his father left on a train and never returned home. It broke him, and it is through that abuse his identities formed, becoming the man he is. Yet at the same time, one piece of dialogue stood out. When Kevin chases Casey as The Beast, right before he delivers the final blow, he notices Casey’s scars. Self-harm scars. He discovers Casey also went through abuse, shown in the film as molestation from her uncle and later legal guardian. And seeing that Casey has also gone through the horrors of life, The Beast says this: “You are different from the rest. Your heart is pure! Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.” Upon saying that, The Beast spares Casey, letting her leave her captivity.
It’s just a few lines, but I feel like it says so much about Shyamalan’s main theme, which is present in many of his other films, but feel most prominent here: outsiders. Kevin and Casey are distant from the rest of the world. Most people don’t understand and can’t comprehend the horrors and issues they have gone through. Only those who have suffered from abuse and the evils of the world can truly understand one another. Only they can see what all the world has to offer, both in its beauty and in its cruelty. They are above the rest, because they have been destroyed by humanity. They have evolved from the rest, because they have risen from abuse.
It’s a chilling look about how cruel life can be. Yet Shyamalan also draws sympathy from the broken. Kevin and Casey were not at fault for what happened to them. And in a strange way, breaking down let them move farther and be greater than the rest of the world. This idea would be further explored in the film’s sequel, but these small droplets really add more to what could have been a standard thriller.
Speaking of sequels, perhaps the film’s greatest claim to fame comes at the very end. As news breaks out about Casey’s kidnapping, and the media nicknaming Kevin and his personalities as “The Horde”, we cut to a diner watching the local news. A woman notices how similar this story was to another story 15 years ago, about a man in a wheelchair who also had a disability and a nickname. And then, a man clarifies that nickname: Mr. Glass. And then, David Dunn, played once again by Bruce Willis, emerges, as Shyamalan reveals, in perhaps his greatest twist yet, the film took place in the same universe as Unbreakable. And perhaps Elijah was right that there are more superhumans like him and David after all.
This last reveal surprised and delighted fans the world over. After years of demand, while not specifically focusing on David or Elijah, an Unbreakable sequel finally emerged. It’s a clever twist, tying into the homegrown superpower themes found in the 2000 film, and seemed like it was the perfect set-up for a sequel that would see the return of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in their iconic roles. And two years later, Shyamalan, and fans, finally got what they always wanted.
It’s been 15 years since Elijah Price was imprisoned. David Dunn, helped by his son Joseph, has since gone become a vigilante, using his ability to see people’s past crimes just by touching them, in order to keep the streets of Philadelphia safe. His next assignment finds him facing off against Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 24 split personalities. David discovers Kevin kidnapped four cheerleaders in an abandoned factory and uses his incredible strength to save the girls and fight against Kevin. Lo and behold, both men are then taken by armed forces and sent to the local psychiatric hospital.
It is in that very hospital David meets up with Elijah, who appears to be completely harmless after years of sedation. All three men are being studied and watched over by Dr. Ellie Staple, played by Sarah Paulson. Staple has brought them together because she herself believes all these men suffer from delusions of grandeur. They all claim or believe to have superpowers; that their disabilities, disorders, and oddities are because they are superhumans. While David, Kevin, and even Elijah try to push the idea that they are superhumans, Staple will not budge.
Even David’s son Joseph, Elijah’s mother Mrs. Price, and Kevin’s former captive Casey, all of whom have seen these men do things no regular human could do, try to convince Staple to no avail. However, through a series of rigorous tests, and Elijah apparently not being as distant and catatonic as he looks, there could be a chance that not only do all these men have superpowers, but maybe the world will soon discover they, and others, have incredible gifts unlike any other.
As mentioned in previous chapters, there was solid demand for a sequel to the 2000 superhero thriller Unbreakable. The film had a strong following, and director M. Night Shyamalan had strong interest in a new installment that saw the return of David Dunn and Elijah Price. However, due to the disappointing box office performance of Unbreakable, Touchstone Pictures had minimal interest in the project. As such, Shyamalan would go on to direct other features, including Signs, The Village, and The Visit, among others.
However, in 2017, things began to change. The film Split, which starred James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, was not only in development around the same time as Unbreakable, but the character was supposed to appear in the 2000 release. While that did not come into fruition, Split still ended with a shocking reveal that showed the movie took place in the same universe as Unbreakable, thanks to a clever integration of a Bruce Willis cameo. After that stunning reveal, as well as Split’s critical and financial success, the final piece of the trilogy was announced, earning the name Glass.
With all that said, despite the immense build-up, and strong marketing campaign that kicked off with a debut trailer at San Diego Comic-Con, the film did not a see a favorable response. Critics were negative on the film, for its poor writing, meandering pace, and rushed conclusion. And while the film was considered a financial success, it grossed less than Split, and it left plenty of bad tastes in people’s mouths.
And I do understand these criticisms. The screenplay is sloppier, with a more convoluted plot and stranger comedy. Yet in the end, despite its flaws, what really makes this film work as well as it does is its lead characters, and, surprisingly, its ending. To start off, it’s obvious all three leads were very excited to be in the film. They all play off well against one another, and they all know what makes their characters work. David Dunn is the straight man, Elijah Price is quiet and methodic, Kevin Crumb is loud and bombastic. They all feed into each other and they all bring chills, comedy, and most important of all, emotion. James McAvoy as Kevin in particular is at his best. The film offers him a chance to play around with more personalities and identities, and is given the most tragedy and emotional hook, and McAvoy delivers with every moment.
That emotion is carried over in the finale, when all the secrets are revealed. Dr. Ellie Staple reveals that she is a part of an organization that kills and suppresses superhumans, attempting to hide the very idea that people with incredible gifts even exist, believing they are a threat to the world. Through a combination of David, Elijah, and Kevin fighting against each other, and Staple and her team suppressing them, the three superhumans die, with only David’s son, Elijah’s mother, and Kevin’s captive as their survivors. Staple deletes the footage that showed any footage of these men and their abilities, but due to Elijah’s own private recordings, the survivors broadcast their feats online, finally showing to the world that there are incredible people with incredible gifts.
While not everything is executed perfectly, those final moments really make the film work as a greater package and tie the themes of Unbreakable and Split together beautifully. Unbreakable is about how people with superhuman gifts can blend into regular society. Split is about the abused, and how being able to confront the horrors of reality make them stronger and more advanced than those who lived a life away from such torture. The last few minutes, where people see the capabilities of these men, it all comes together. People are experiencing what it’s like to have superheroes, albeit without the fanciful powers seen in comics, and see just how these powers come to be. There’s a sense that these superhumans are being treasured, celebrated by being shown out in the open. It’s very much Shyamalan celebrating the outcasts and outsiders. They are unlike anyone else, and regardless of their backgrounds or past treatments, they are greater than everyone else because of who they are. In a way, it is very much the opus of almost all of Shyamalan’s films. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split. All of them are distant, unable to blend in with the rest of society.
It is through the world he created, and the characters he crafted that Glass works so well for me, despite its flaws. And it shows why great Philadelphian artists like Shyamalan are so important to the art of film. They create unique visions, tell impactful stories, and celebrate the unique. The stories based on their lives or intended to inspire others. Whether it be a boxer looking for their big break, a cop understanding a simpler lifestyle, a gay man fighting for his own personal rights, a boy who can see beyond the five senses, or a man with several personalities, these stories were made because a director had a vision, a passion, and a yearning to create art that would inspire.
And regardless of the story, Philadelphia played a key role. Whether it be for one scene, or the entire film, this city was integral in making sure the film would work in some capacity. And while films are shot in Los Angeles soundstages or on New York City streets all the time, there’s something special that a city about liberty and revolution would become a hotspot for creatives and visionaries. And while it’s unknown what Philadelphia’s next major release will be, this city is here to stay, and is always waiting for cameras to roll. And I’m sure what comes next will be as exciting as what’s come before.
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