What follows are capsule reviews of four films from the Philadelphia Film Festival's 25th anniversary season opening weekend. The festival is still underway and continues through this weekend.
One of the more exhilarating films of this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival and of the cinematic year is a two-and-a-half-hour German comedy about a businesswoman and her estranged father. It also builds to one of this year’s better third-act comedy setpieces.
Directed by Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is many things, including a satire of modern-day corporate practices and workplace sexism. But ultimately, it’s a charming character study about a very different father and daughter.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried, an older, divorced, blue-collar retiree with a weakness for pranks and fake identities. Winfried creates a new persona for himself, Toni Erdmann, a mysterious business titan with nice suits and a long wig that makes him resemble Andre the Giant.
This leads to hilarious, farcical situations, and a great sequence involving an afternoon party, a wardrobe malfunction, and one of the funniest costumes I’ve ever seen. Is the film longer than it needs to be? Perhaps. Its plot doesn’t even kick in for nearly an hour. But the film’s delights are so manifold they were worth the wait.
Kristen Stewart has spent the past three years doing solid film acting work, especially in Café Society and Clouds of Sils Maria. Those movies show she’s capable of playing more a passive protagonist in vampire flicks. In Personal Shopper, she reunites with her Sils Maria director, Olivier Assayas, for a film that should ultimately go down as a noble failure.
The problem with Personal Shopper is that it’s three separate movies that appear to have little to do with one another. Two of them are quite good.
Stewart plays Maureen, a young American living in Paris who works as a personal shopper for a wealthy socialite. She also works as a medium, and wants to contact the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother, who succumbed to a heart condition that she also fears. Meanwhile, she’s being stalked by a mystery texter, who seems to know where she is at all times and is even aware of her secret, forbidden habit of trying on her boss’s clothing.
The stalking plot ends abruptly and cheaply, but the film’s actual ending is even worse. It’s one of those movies that has what would have been an absolutely perfect final shot, but then goes ahead and continues for 10 more minutes.
Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director best known for Oldboy, crossed over to the U.S. three years ago with the underrated Stoker. The Handmaiden is a large-scale epic drama about a con man and aspiring nobleman (Ha Jung-woo), an heiress (Min-hee Kim), and a maid (Tae-ri Kim), and their various alliances and double-crosses.
Based on a Welsh novel called Fingersmith and transported to Japanese-occupied Korea, the film offers a lot of delights: lush cinematography, repeated scenes from multiple perspectives, lengthy sex scenes that are actually erotic, and a highly satisfying ending.
Though The Handmaiden has been drawing great responses, it left me somewhat cold. It’s long at 145 minutes, and as great as it looks, it also operates at an emotional distance. It’s also one of those movies that has so many twists its story ultimately becomes meaningless.
Do Not Resist
Amid all the debates about race, police misconduct, and the national anthem, a continuing theme has been the expanding militarization of U.S. law enforcement. That’s the subject of Do Not Resist, directed by Craig Atkinson.
The film includes some of the best footage of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and also shows us some of the more ridiculous debates about high-end military equipment being delivered to community police departments. My one quibble is that the film falls into that liberal documentary cliché of relying on spooky music, as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the material enough and believes it needs music to really sell it.
But that material is strong. If you saw the Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, and thought Nick Pisa was the year’s documentary villain to most make your skin crawl, wait until you see David Grossman, the law enforcement consultant who’s seen in a seminar telling officers that, after using deadly force, they can expect the best sex they’ve ever had.
What, When, Where
Toni Erdmann. Written and directed by Maren Ade.
Personal Shopper. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas.
The Handmaiden. Written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Directed by Park Chan-wook.
Do Not Resist. Directed by Craig Atkinson.
The Philadelphia Film Festival continues through October 30, 2016. See the full schedule here.