The Best of the Philadelphia Film Festival 2019
The Philadelphia Film Festival occupies something of a unique spot among American festivals in major cities.
Owned and operated by the Philadelphia Film Society, the festival is not a market, nor does it offer many world premieres of major films. The films that do have their premieres there are usually locally based, and the majority of the headlining films each year have debuted earlier at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Venice, or New York.
However, situated as it is in late October, most years it is able to offer a virtual whos-who of movies will then be competing for Oscars a few months later. Last year, the festival had Best Picture winner Green Book, and in 2016 it offered both La La Land and Moonlight.
This year’s PFF, the 28th, had most of its major showings at the Philadelphia Film Center, the PFS-owned Center City venue that was known until a year ago as the Prince Music Theater, while the rest of the screenings were held at two of the Landmark Ritz Theatres in the Old City section. Philadelphia is seriously lacking in downtown movie screen real estate, although a big new AMC theater is scheduled to open soon, a few blocks away from the Film Center.
This year’s Philadelphia Film Festival had over 100 films; I saw about 30 of them.
The nominal opening night film (on October 17) was Just Mercy, an earnest but not especially original death penalty drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. But the film that got everyone talking in the festival’s opening days was Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s fantastic dark comedy that screened earlier that night as part of the “Masters of Cinema” program.
Parasite, which sold out the Film Center, was the best film of the festival; the next-best was Knives Out, director Rian Johnson’s delightful whodunit starring a standout cast that includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and many others. Johnson appeared for a red carpet and Q&A, telling a touching story about the actor Ricky Jay, who had been scheduled to appear in the film but got sick, and was replaced by his friend M. Emmett Walsh.
The big event films at PFF are called “galas,” and this year’s lineup included a long list of long-awaited films that will hit theaters and Netflix in November and December. The lineup, in addition to Just Mercy and Knives Out, included Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes and Trey Edward Shults’ Waves.
These films mostly met expectations; I saw all except Jojo Rabbit, Two Popes, and Waves. Motherless Brooklyn was much more impressive visually and sonically than in terms of its muddled plot, and while The Irishman was mostly loved, some in attendance had some quibbles with some of the Philadelphia references, as the Schuylkill River is much wider than the film makes it appear. Marriage Story is a well-acted, superlative film, although it’s hard to imagine watching it again.
In addition to Parasite, the Masters of Cinema section included new films by acclaimed directors from around the world, and highlights included By the Grace of God, French director Franҫois Ozon’s examination of a real-life case in which a group of men struck back against a molestation cover-up in the Catholic Church, and Céline Sciamma’s beautiful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the low-key tale of a forbidden lesbian romance in 18th century France that was both much shorter and much less exploitative than Blue is the Warmest Color. Also wonderful was Varda by Agnès, the former film by master French filmmaker Agnes Varda, which looked back on her own career. I, unfortunately, missed the new films by Terrence Malick, Ken Loach, and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow was another highlight in the “Spotlights” section, though I was less enamored with the bizarro Paradise Hills, from director Alice Waddington.
Scott Z. Burns’ The Report is an intriguing look at the Bush-era torture program, and the Obama-era reluctance to do anything about it. That showed as part of the “State of the Union” program of politics-themed films. Other highlight of that section was Dror Moreh’s The Human Factor, a highly illuminating documentary in which American negotiators from the Israeli-Palestinian peace prospect of the 1990s both told funny stories and lamented the failure of their work. I also learned from the film that Yasser Arafat was a big fan of The Golden Girls?
The Philadelphia Film Festival has competitions, although most of the major films showing there don’t compete in them. The winner of this year’s narrative feature prize was May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts, a Danish film whose plot about a woman having an affair with her stepson sounds like something that would show up on Pornhub, although the film itself is actually quite lovely. Clemency, another film about the death penalty, took the local feature award, while the audience award will be announced later.
Clemency was part of the “Filmadelphia” section of local releases, which also included Maybe Next Year, director Kyle Thrash’s fan-focused look at the Eagles’ Super Bowl run two years ago, and The Nomads, a feature directed by Brandon Eric Kamin that told the story of a local rugby team.
Speaking of local sports, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons executive-produced the documentary The Australian Dream, and appeared on the red carpet along with several teammates, while the team’s general manager, Elton Brand, was in the house for Parasite on opening night. As Brand (himself a sometime movie producer) is 6’9,” I feel sorry for whoever had to sit behind him.
The documentary program was somewhat lackluster; with Citizen K, Alex Gibney once again has made a documentary telling a more boring version of a fascinating story, although filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s Red Penguins is a more entertaining film about a different aspect of Russia.
There were also screenings of several vintage titles, including Takashi Miike’s Audition, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Albert Brooks‘ Defending Your Life, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. The rationale for choosing those particular films was either that someone in the cast recently passed away (i.e. Rip Torn, in Defending Your Life) or a new 4K print happened to be available.
Among the most buzzed-about films from the later part of the festival (though I did not get to see it) was Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables. No, not the musical with Javert and Jean Valjean, but rather a different French story, based on the director’s earlier short. That’s getting an Amazon release later this year.
Ultimately, the 2019 festival offered a very strong lineup, which will be remembered, most of all, for the film that began it: Parasite.
Ranking the best of the festival:
2. Knives Out
3. The Irishman
4. Marriage Story
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
6. The Report
8. Motherless Brooklyn
9. By the Grace of God
‘House of Cardin’ is a Toothless Retrospective of an Auteur
DOC NYC 2019
An enigmatic figure in the fashion industry, but one whose output has an everlasting appeal, Pierre Cardin’s stylistic choices feel prescient. They also represent an individual who has sequestered his private life away from prying eyes, while cultivating a brand that is distinct and pushes forth a public persona of eccentricity and boundless ambition. House of Cardin serves as a means of exploring the brand which Cardin has fashioned, and how it reinforces the prolific designer as an auteur. But as a look at Cardin himself, the film feels stunted.
Clearly a vanity project authorized by someone who has maintained a life of luxury and prefers to keep his life outside of the spotlight a secret, House of Cardin is a toothless but still relatively interesting beginner’s guide to Pierre Cardin. Focused primarily on his successful endeavors inside and out of the fashion industry, the documentary offers an extended look at the idea of creating a brand and preserving it as the world around is constantly in a state of flux. Littered with interviews with some of fashion’s biggest names, as well as other famous stars like Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and Alice Cooper, there is a lot of ego-boosting to wade through before finding the nuggets of compelling ideas. No matter how many people say great things about Cardin and his work, there’s a distance to the man himself that the film fails to narrow. This ultimately leaves the film feeling inconsequential, even with concepts that it easily attaches to Cardin.
The trouble with House of Cardin is that it doesn’t really have much of a thesis. It opens with talk of how Cardin’s private life is a mystery to many, but then moves immediately away from that and into his public-facing self. It’s less a biography and more of a career retrospective that feels disingenuous, at best. It plays the highlights, and despite a few extremely brief moments in his early life, much of the documentary places a further level of gloss on an already shiny exterior. There’s no real examination of any specific facet of his career, effectively declaring Pierre Cardin to be untouchable.
Now, whether Cardin is truly unassailable or not is one thing; how the film handles it is another. It feels like a lot of Cardin’s work is put in a bubble, separated from the outside world and therefore excluded from a critical perspective, as there is nothing within the bubble to immediately compare and use as reference. The film doesn’t take his work and put it in the context of his contemporaries, instead opting to treat it like a separate industry of its own making. It doesn’t place Cardin in the fashion industry, but instead looks at his works as components of his brand. Yet, even then the film simply identifies it as a strong brand without actually positioning it in the pantheon of commercial enterprises. Cardin is Cardin, and the documentary refuses to believe that any other external factors are worth exploring to explain why he is so distinct from the pack.
As an officially authorized biography of the iconic fashion designer, House of Cardin is still a substantial entry-point for those unaware of Cardin and his work. Clearly equipped with a unique style, the movie has plenty of imagery to gawk and drool over, simply reinforcing how influential and important Cardin’s work is in the industry. That being said, nothing is more depressing than watching a puff piece that omits key elements of any biography simply because the subject refuses to be candid about that. House of Cardin amounts to the kind of documentary that gets played in a museum exhibit that highlights career-defining moments in a succinct and easily digestible fashion. Perhaps it’s better to just go look at the work he’s done and form one’s own opinion than have it spoon fed by the creator and his followers.
The 2019 DOC NYC festival runs 11/8-11/15.
‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres
The Divine Fury has a premise you could only find in a film that would premiere at a genre film festival like Fantasia. Yong-hoo Park, champion MMA fighter, develops a bleeding wound on the palm of his hand, and medical science cannot help him. Further assailed by voices and terrifying visions, Yong-hoo turns to a medium, who directs him to Father Ahn. Ahn is a sanctioned exorcist, and one of many Vatican agents on the trail of the sinister Black Bishop, an occult practitioner who has amassed demonic powers. Father Ahn informs Yong-hoo that his wound is a stigmata, a powerful tool in the battle against evil. This comes as something of a surprise to Yong-hoo, a devout atheist since the death of his father. With his new mentor, Yong-hoo becomes a force for good — a demon-punching holy avenger who uses his physical and spiritual gifts to battle the Black Bishop.
From that description, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining something like that one scene from Peter Jackson’s Braindead, or maybe Ninja 3: The Domination, if you’re a fan of 80s Cannon Group cheese. Even worse, you might be imagining some kind of hokey, low-rent religious superhero movie, like a South Korean Bibleman. But you’re in for a surprise; while it could easily have set its sights on camp and gunned the engine, The Divine Fury instead goes a different route, playing its bonkers premise almost entirely straight. From the outset, Joo-hwan Kim’s film remains utterly sincere about itself, mixing horror and action with some deft direction and a stellar cast to create a dark, engaging, and fun hybrid.
Painting a dark and stylish portrait of modern Seoul, Kim’s direction comes off almost from the first frame as slick and confident. Smooth, elegant camera movements glide through the dimly-lit streets, where shadows lurk and fear reigns. The film often surprises with some wonderful imagery, and walks a fine line between stylish and efficient. When things start hitting the fan and demons emerge to menace our heroes, the film also busts out some serious effects wizardry, with top-notch makeup and creature effects bolstered by clever and dynamic camera work. There are flashes of terrific art direction, with brief tantalizing glimpses of a beautifully realized world of demonic forces, and even real-world locations like the Black Bishop’s luridly-lit nightclub make for interesting and unique backdrops.
As Yong-hoo and Father Anh grow closer, it becomes apparent that their chemistry and onscreen charm is one of the cornerstones the film rests on. Even when they’re just sharing a meal, the two leads are terrific to watch together, with an easy and natural chemistry that makes them eminently believable as friends, despite their vast differences in outlook. Of course, Father Ahn’s platitudes and homilies often come across as stock and predictable, and the film’s attempts at a theological discourse are pretty shallow. But when it can’t muster a convincing theological argument, the film defaults to much more universal fare in its message: defend the defenseless, oppose evil. Who can argue with that?
The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The confident direction and charming leads do help make up for one crucial shortcoming, though: the film may have a lot of the divine, but it’s a tad short on fury. After a tantalizing fight scene early in the film teases some great action, no punches fly until the film’s showstopper of an ending. For those expecting a rock ‘em-sock ‘em actionfest, much of The Divine Fury’s middle section — the vast majority of the film — may leave them cold. But be patient. Enjoy the atmosphere and the more horror-oriented segments, because that patience will be rewarded. When the film reaches its final sequence and Yong-hoo finally unleashes his holy fisticuffs, the result is, well, divine. The climactic action sequence in The Divine Fury is one worth waiting for, a slick and deftly delivered pair of fight scenes that will have action fans cheering in the aisles. The camera maintains a perfect distance, allowing the physical performances of the actors to take center stage, and never obscures the action with jittery movement or rapid-fire editing. The presentation is dynamic, but never overwhelms or distracts from the solid physical performances by star Park Seo-joon and the stunt team. The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The Divine Fury is a fun, surprising and just plain cool horror-action hybrid that offers something for fans of both genres. Kept aloft by two engaging and charismatic leads and some top-notch direction, it pulls you into its ridiculous world of exorcisms and action with gusto. While it does make you wait before it fully unleashes its premise, which can and has strained the patience of some viewers and critics, its final action sequences are worth waiting for.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 2, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.
All Hail ‘The King’: David Michôd’s Latest is a Rewarding Slow-Burn
BFI London Film Festival 2019
In today’s world, Shakespeare isn’t an easy sell. Perhaps due to its links with school days, or the running time of the features which take inspiration from the plays, adaptations of arguably the world’s greatest writer are few and far between, with higher quality works coming around at an even less consistent pace. Luckily, then, that The King falls into this category.
Combining both parts of Henry IV and the later Henry V is a smart move by co-writers David Michôd and Joel Edgerton; The King is thoughtfully paced without awkward transitions from one play to the next. It may prove too glacially paced for some — Shakespeare was never known for his action-heavy plays, after all — but it’s a testament to the adaptation of the works that the potential dryness in this the tale of a medieval king never comes to fruition. The final moments may seem tacked on, despite its source material, but by combining the trilogy, Michôd and Edgerton make a dense story more palatable, and a seemingly straightforward story more interesting.
The King will be much compared to Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth released in 2015, but apart from the fact that they are both Shakespeare plays filmed beautifully, that’s where the similarities end. Whilst Macbeth played with the surreal — a natural course as the story involves witches and premonitions — The King is rooted firmly in its realistic world. Had this not been based on the plays, it is simply another historical drama vying for our attention.
Timothée Chalamet is good as the titular king, but the part of Hal is arguably the least interesting in this iteration of Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad,’ so he has little to work with, remaining stoic and giving the occasional rousing speech; even Henry’s early hedonistic days are met with a dourness carried throughout the film. Chalamet, arguably one of the best young actors working today, is overshadowed by the supporting cast, particularly Joel Edgerton as Sir John Falstaff, friend and advisor to the king. Understated and naturalistic, Edgerton seems the most comfortable of the cast with the dialogue, understandable given the fact that he is co-writer, and has most likely lived with the play the longest.
The film is also beautiful to look at, mostly thanks to the wonderful cinematography by Adam Arkapaw. Imbued with the gray and blue hues present in many of Michod’s work — England has never looked colder with the sun (occasionally) beaming down on its fields — many beautiful shots are juxtaposed with the death so rife in Shakespeare’s works. A stitched tracking shot during a climactic battle sequence is quite literally muddy and unclear, but one of the most impressive sequences in the entire film, and worth witnessing on the big screen.
There is not much fun to be had with the ‘Henriad,’ so it’s no surprise that The King‘s lighter moments are rare. Edgerton occasionally brings a bit of humour to his role, but the comedic relief from the consistent war planning is unfortunately unintentional. Robert Pattinson is a fantastic actor, and his physical performance is not lacking, but, as The Dauphin, the Brit is burdened with the task of speaking in a French accent. Whilst not the most hideous fake accent ever to be heard, it is an incredibly distracting and odd note in the film.
Even with this slight mishap and a few short scenes that could probably be cut, The King is an adaptation worth watching. Methodically paced, its near three-hour runtime is for the patient and fans of extended conversations, but its subtlety and lack of urgency become the narrative, instead focusing on the mastery of the original art, with the added bonus of some great performances.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 3, 2019, as part of our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival.
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