I‘ve been lucky enough to be over at the Cannes film festival for the week (with the epic re-run of competition films still to come tomorrow). I’ve been watching as many films as I can and writing capsule reviews on my phone. Below is the majority of them, with more to follow after my day-full of screenings tomorrow.
We’ve also been recording podcasts for Blueprint: Review, links to which can be found below:
Shield of Straw
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Takao Osawa
I’m baffled as to how this, Takashi Miike’s latest, was entered into the competition. It has a fairly interesting set up; a handful of police officers protect a child killer on his way to trial after his last victim’s grandfather has offered 1 billion Yen to his killer. Unfortunately it’s a cliched action thriller through and through. I wouldn’t have minded if it were actually any good though. The direction is bland, it’s at least half an hour too long and above all it’s just plain stupid. Very few of the actions of the key characters make logical sense and much of the film is downright absurd. It is played painfully over the top, from the hammy performances to the clunky dialogue and stock thriller soundtrack, but the action isn’t over the top or the tone fun enough to make this work. If this were a straight to DVD Steven Seagal movie I might have thought it was ok but for a competition film at Cannes this is embarrassing proof that they pick names over film quality for their lineup.
Director: Valeria Golino
Starring: Jasmine Trinca, Carlo Cecchi, Libero De Rienzo
Screening in the Un Certain Regard competition, Miele is a thought provoking look at the moral implications of assisted suicide as it follows a young woman who illegally helps terminally ill patients end their days on their own terms. When she unwillingly assists a man who is not ill, but has simply had enough of life, she begins to question her work and own isolated existence. This is a beautifully made drama with a lot of meat to chew on. It could have done without a few of the ‘artistic flourishes’ when we get unnecessary shots of the protagonist staring into the sun etc, a romantic side-story doesn’t add much either and the very end is set up a little awkwardly and obviously earlier on, but overall this is a finely made and quietly powerful piece of intelligent adult filmmaking.
The Last Detail
Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid
I always like to squeeze a classic or two into my time at Cannes and I hadn’t seen this film by Hal Ashby before. Starring Jack Nicholson and a young Randy Quaid, The Last Detail follows two Navy ‘lifers’ who are assigned to take a young recruit to prison after he stole a small amount of charity money. Feeling like he got a raw deal with an over the top 8 year sentence, the two men help make his last free days memorable. It’s typically free-wheeling 70’s fare which is light on plot but strong on character and realism. I enjoyed it a lot even if it didn’t get anywhere fast. The performances are very strong, with Nicholson on charismatic form and Quaid surprising as the shy inexperienced recruit. There’s plenty of snappy dialogue too although the loose sound mix makes some of the quieter and wilder moments hard to decipher. If, like me, you’re a fan of 70’s American cinema you won’t be disappointed if you give this a whirl.
Our Heroes Died Tonight
Director: David Perrault
Starring: Denis Ménochet, Jean-Pierre Martins, Constance Dollé
Part of the Critics Week, Our Heroes Died Tonight is a French film noir following the rise and fall of two wrestlers in the 60’s. It’s an incredibly stylish homage to the genre, with gorgeous high contrast black and white cinematography and plenty of slow motion moody dream sequences. It’s more of a nod to the French brand of noir though with a slow, ponderous pace and plenty of musing over situations. I saw this late in the evening so this occasionally pretentious tone made it a bit of a struggle to engage with, but I still quite liked it. A fairly straight forward narrative kicks in later on to stop it getting too much of a slog and it’s an original concept slickly presented. It’s rather a case of style over substance and doesn’t always work, but it’s still a solid and refreshingly unique film.
Behind the Candelabra
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd
Supposedly Steven Soderbergh’s final film (for a while at least), Behind the Candelabra is a dramatisation of the final decade or so of the life of Liberace, played by Michael Douglas. Saying that, the film is really more the story of Scott, his lover at the time, played by Matt Damon. This is a handsomely mounted biopic which is entertaining and well controlled, but offers little new. The story of the central relationship in the film is nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times so it isn’t particularly compelling or exciting. I’m glad it was more of a relationship drama than a biopic though so avoids the aspects I dislike from that format. The performances are very strong too with Douglas drumming up buzz suggesting he could take the festival’s best actor award. I found Damon to deliver a more layered portrayal though as the young lover/son figure. Together the two of them keep the film engaging on top of some sharp dialogue and classy cinematography. It’s just a shame the story itself was so tired.
Director: Lucía Puenzo
Starring: Natalia Oreiro, Àlex Brendemühl, Diego Peretti
An entry to the Un Certain Regard competition, Wakolda is set in a German speaking town in Patagonia in the 60’s where a family move to reopen the hotel the mother of the family grew up in. There they attract the attention of a German doctor who holds a peculiar interest in their daughter, who isn’t growing properly. Gradually the secrets behind the doctor’s work and his dedicated supporters in the town are revealed. This is a highly effective mystery thriller with some dark themes surrounding the Nazi’s desire for perfection. The tension is slowly cranked throughout making for a thrilling experience. The finale lets things down though, ending on a revelation for the characters which was already quite clear to the audience. Nevertheless this remains quite compulsive viewing with a welcome air of mystery and darkness.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Benjamin Walker, Danny Glover
Playing out of competition, Stephen Frears’ latest is a dramatisation of Ali’s court case standing up for his right to not be drafted into fighting in the war in Vietnam.
Sensibly the film uses real footage of Ali himself, even though the rest of proceedings are recreated by actors. On reading about this I thought it would be a risky effects job, seamlessly splicing the two together, but the boxer wasn’t actually physically involved in the latter stages of the case as it reached the Supreme Court, so instead his ‘scenes’ just show what he was up to in the meantime. This means Ali gets away lightly as the dramatisations are very poorly done. It’s incredibly bland in all departments, from the look of the film to the performances. There’s no drama either, it’s just a damp squib. Frears tries to add a couple of side plots surrounding the families and health of some of the judges and their staff but these are totally superfluous and frustrate rather than enhance. It all feels like a very average TV movie and feels totally out of place at the festival. It’s a shame because the subject matter is actually very interesting.
Director: Thierry de Peretti
Starring: Aziz El Hadachi, François-Joseph Cullioli, Hamza Mezziani
Playing the Directors Fortnight, Apaches is an ensemble drama about a group of teenagers that sneak into a holiday cottage one night for a party and steal a few things including two antique rifles. When the owner tells an important local figure about it, a disastrous chain of events is set in place.
I thought this got off to a great start with an intriguing set-up and a subtle sense of danger and tension under the surface. Unfortunately in the last half an hour or so there’s a major turning point that I didn’t buy into and the film became a little ridiculous. Nevertheless some great naturalistic performances from the young cast and an interesting insight into the race and class issues faced by those living and working in a popular tourist area make it worth your time.
Only God Forgives
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
Nicolas Winding Refn follows up Drive with yet another stylish, violent mood piece. The plot is barely worth mentioning. Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) brother is brutally killed in revenge for his rape and murder of a 16 year old girl. This, aided by the appearance of his overbearing and twisted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) sparks a viscous chain of revenge around the streets of Bangkok.
Now, I liked Drive quite a lot – it was a case of style over substance and got a bit ridiculous at times, but it worked, it was cool and it was brooding yet exciting. Only God Forgives, on the surface, is more of the same, but it just didn’t connect for me in the same way. The slow-motion, emotionless performances, especially from Ryan Gosling, feel like a parody now and there is no relatable core here like Carey Mulligan in Drive to give you anyone to even remotely care about. This makes the whole languidly paced affair a bit of a slog and totally disengaging. Kristin Scott Thomas as the true villain of the piece is the only actor that brings the screen alive. She plays it way over the top so doesn’t quite fit in, but her fiery scenes are a welcome spark to the tediously empty moments in between.
Another big problem I had was that it’s all so nasty. I like violent films, but this was just unpleasant through and through and the violent set pieces weren’t particularly exhilarating or well executed, just grim. Of course, the film looks and sounds absolutely stunning, so I have to give Refn (and his DOP) credit for that. Every shot is meticulously constructed and bathed in bold neon and shadow. The soundtrack, which mixes almost industrial drones with aggressive drumming, is powerful too, helping craft the oppressive atmosphere. It’s just a shame that that’s all there is too it. Maybe the same could be said of Drive, but here it feels tired already and is not enough to carry the flimsiest of plots or transcend the overbearing sense of self-indulgence and emptiness.
Nothing Bad Can Happen (a.k.a. Torre Tanzt)
Director: Katrin Gebbe
Starring: Julius Feldmeier, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Annika Kuhl
Playing in Un Certain Regard, Nothing Bad Can Happen is a powerful drama about Torre, a member of a group of ‘punk Christians’, the Jesus Freaks. After performing a ‘miracle’ for a passing family, the father takes Torre under his wing and he becomes a third child to them. As the father’s treatment of Torre and his step-daughter becomes ever more abusive though, the teenager sees it as God’s test and he struggles on to endure what is to come.
This is a harrowing drama that becomes quite difficult to watch as it goes on. The direction is unflinching, the performances strong and the view of unwavering faith in the face of immeasurable hardship quite fascinating. Unfortunately for me the film got a bit much as it went on. The brutality put upon Torre grew and grew and in getting other characters involved in the acts it became less believable within the world that was created and almost ridiculous at times. Personally I’d have been more interested in seeing his faith questioned in some more complex and thoughtful ways too, other than just subjecting him to an endurance test. Nevertheless this is undoubtedly a powerful film, if you’ve got the stomach for it.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (a.k.a. La vie d’Adèle)
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Jeremie Laheurte
This competition entry tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15 year old girl who falls in love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue haired older woman. Charting their relationship over several years its an epic 3 hour romance which seems to have wowed critics and is currently one of the front runners for the Palme D’Or.
Personally I liked numerous aspects and thought the first hour was very strong, but felt it lost its way in the latter two thirds. After naturally and poignantly developing Adèle’s sexual awaking and love for Emma, their eventual relationship hits the usual bumps and milestones which failed to interest and aided by the incredibly excessive running time I wasn’t suitably affected by the inevitable finale.
The performances are fantastic throughout though, especially Adèle Exarchopoulos who gives a wonderfully natural and raw performance which is sure to be in the running for the best actress award. The intense, close up camera work accentuates their skills and by shooting from a distance allows them to forget the camera is there.
Finally, it’s hard to discuss the film without bringing up the sex scenes. These are numerous and incredibly explicit. One scene in particular runs for a bafflingly long length of time, prompting more than a few uncomfortable shuffles and giggles in the audience as well as a couple of walk-outs. The scenes felt excessive to me. Granted, the sexual aspect of the relationship is important, but it’s so drawn out and explosive it begins to feel pornographic.
So yes, when it works the film is very impressive and although the running time is patience testing and felt unnecessary I wouldn’t say I was bored. However, by the end the film lost me a bit and it didn’t effect me as much as the strong opening promised.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Alexander Payne’s entry to the competition is the black and white road movie Nebraska. Bruce Dern plays an old man suffering from dementia who believes he has won a million dollars in one of those magazine subscription scams. Hell bent on travelling to Lincoln Nebraska (800 km away) to retrieve his award, he keeps wandering off on his own, much to the frustration of his sons and wife. The youngest son David (Will Forte) eventually decides to put a stop to this as well as spend some quality time with his father, and takes him on a drive up to Lincoln. On the way they stop at their old home town and encounter some old friends and family who try to take advantage of the old man who they also believe is set to be a millionaire.
This was a little disappointing I felt. It’s a sweet, lightly humorous yet lightly melancholic tale of a man that has lost his self respect and I quite enjoyed the film. Unfortunately there are numerous issues with the execution which make it too often fall a bit flat. The main problem for me was that the performances were wildly hit and miss. Dern is superb in the lead role getting a nice balance of vulnerable and curmudgeonly. Will Forte however is far less impressive, blandly going through the motions. Worse still is the mother (June Squibb), who hams it up in the worst possible way. Her and the majority of the other supporting characters are broad characatures, which sometimes work (two large dumb cousins are fun to watch) but often don’t. In fact the whole middle section when they settle in their hometown for a couple of days unsettles the film quite a bit as the humour and drama doesn’t always hit the mark.
I did like the beginning and end of the film quite a lot though. These sections have that little extra warmth and offer a nostalgic travelogue and metaphor of a dying small town middle America. It’s just a shame the entirety of the film is so inconsistent and occasionally quite poorly made.
On the Job
Director: Erik Matti
Starring: Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson, Joel Torre
On the Job is an action thriller from the Philippines which follows a pair of prisoners who are ’employed’ as hitmen, being briefly let out of jail from time to time to take down important figures and easily get away with it. When they assassinate an important politician however, it sparks an investigation by a rookie cop with personal links to a potential senator who may be linked to the murder.
I noticed some buzz for this film (which is part of the Directors Fortnight) over at Twitch and the trailer promised a slick, violent action thriller which would be a welcome change to the more ponderous offerings from the festival. Unfortunately, like Shield of Straw, this is not a good example of the genre. I love the concept and I’d be interested to hear how much of the film is actually genuine after the film claims to be based on true events. For the most part this is a generic and rather clumsy affair though. Lighter on action than I’d hoped, it instead tries to juggle too many subplots and fumbles its political slants with too many cliches and distracting bilingual conversations which jump between languages from sentence to sentence which seemed bizarre. Maybe this is a Filipino thing I’m not aware of though. All I know is the lines delivered in English were painfully clunky.
It’s kind of entertaining at times I guess, if you take it as a low budget trashy thriller, but is too overlong and weakly presented to be any kind of notable entry to the genre.
The Dance of Reality (a.k.a. La danza de la realidad)
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Starring: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits
The Dance of Reality marks Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surprise return to the director’s chair after a 23 year absence. A more personal film than his previous offerings, this is a kind of semi-autobiographical story, charting young Alejandro’s relationship with his domineering communist father and free spirited mother.
Of course, being a Jodorowsky film, it’s not your standard biopic. The format is simply used as a frame for a series of warped and surreal scenes which can confound, confuse or bewitch. It’s not always successful, the film can topple onto the wrong side of silly at times, but after a very shaky opening 15 minutes I warmed to it and tapped into the unusual tone and bafflingly peculiar goings on.
What let the film down much of the time was the presentation. Jodorowsky shot it in secret from what I’ve heard and looking at the credits much of the cast and crew are family (and I’m guessing friends). So it’s clearly a low budget affair and this shows. Shot on digital cameras, the film looks so clean and sharp it shows up the cheap costumes, props and effects and lessens the visual splendour of Jodorowsky’s imagery. The cast can let things down too. Granted the grotesque, cartoony feel it revels in can allow for unnatural hammy performances, but few of the cast pull this off as effectively as I’d have liked.
So it’s certainly flawed and probably won’t hold the same level of cult status that his earlier work did, but I still got caught up in the madness and quite enjoyed the experience.