Cannes Prizes

The weather was fine throughout, the security as tight as expected, the films were okay but not much more than that, and there were a record number of women directors and actors among the prize-winners. Thus the 70th Cannes Festival ended without too much controversy about screening versus streaming or Netflix and Amazon versus the rest. Everyone had their own views about this, including jury members, lead by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who thought films were made for the cinema not for computers or iPhones.

The winner of the coveted Palme D’Or was from Sweden, and the sort of movie whose originality struck the jury as exceptional. Rubén Ostlund’s The Square has a very middle-class museum boss tangling not very successfully with the working classes who never go near his exhibitions. Trying to save a man from a robbery, he is himself robbed blind and, like any good liberal tries to persuade the thieves to reform. It is partly a satire and partly a comedy-drama which the jury found exceptionally apt for today.

The awards to women were headed by a special Anniversary prize for Nicole Kidman, who appeared in two films in competition and two outside as well. But the chief glory belonged to Diane Kruger, who won the best actress for her performance in Fatih Akin’s In The Fade. It was her first starring role in her own German language, as a woman who loses both her husband and son after a terrorist outrage. Another triumph for femininity was Sophia Coppola’s Best Director award for The Beguiled, an adaptation of the old Don Siegel movie of the fifties which had Clint Eastwood as a Union soldier who arrives at a female college in the Deep South to hide from the Confederate Army. No Eastwood this time, and it’s the women who are the leading characters. They include Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst. Colin Farrell takes the Eastwood part.

The one British entrant, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, was deliberately shown on the last day at the director’s request. Editing problems were the reason but since Joaquín Phoenix won the Best Actor gong and Ramsay won a share of the best Screenplay prize, it didn’t count against her that most of the critical fraternity had gone home. It is an excellent film, part thriller, part psychological drama in which a rough and ready hitman is engaged to save the daughter of a well-known attorney.

Finally, the Grand Prix du Cannes, the official second prize, was won by Robin Campillo’s BPM–Beats per Minute, a well-acted and moving account set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic when a group of gay men and women mounted a successful campaign to force a major company to increase their research money for a cure.

The minor jury prize was given to Loveless, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s brilliant successor to Leviathan, which is equally critical of the state of Russia today as a couple who are about to be divorced allow their 12-year-old son little hope of comfort. So he disappears and father and mother finally begin to learn the meaning of love. Many thought the film should have been given a bigger prize. But on the whole, the jury did a decent job spreading their accolades far and wide geographically and giving good reasons for their decisions. It has not always been like that in recent years.

Cannes 2017: full list of winners

Caméra d’Or (best first feature)

Jeune Femme (Montparnasse-Bienvenüe) (dir: Léonor Serraille)

Best short film

A Gentle Night (dir: Qiu Yang)

Best screenplay

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir: Yorgos Lanthimos); You Were Never Really Here (dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Jury prize

Loveless (dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Best actress

Diane Kruger, In the Fade (dir: Fatih Akin)

Best actor

Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here (dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Best director

Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled

Grand Prix

120 Beats per Minute (dir: Robin Campillo)

70th Anniversary prize

Nicole Kidman

Palme d’Or

The Square (dir: Ruben Östlund)

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Cannes 2017: How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc, The Venerable W, Faces Places

I’ve no idea how to speak to girls at parties. But after seeing John Cameron Mitchell’s film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I’m no less confused. The film, the first Mitchell has made in seven years, is set in Croydon during the 1977 celebrations of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and tells the story of a full-on punk who is really just a nice kid at heart (Alex Sharp) who falls for Elle Fanning’s not so nice girl belonging to some strange alien cult. They do indeed go to a party which appears to be full of weirdos where they meet Nicole Kidman’s manager of the Dyschords, a local band. And the film seems to say that aliens are actually about conformity and punks about freedom and originality. But hey, the film works about as well as a very poor party where the booze runs out too soon.

French director Bruno Dumont scares some people stiff with his radical, and often experimental, way with plot, dialogue and character development. At his best, he’s one of Europe’s most original talents. But his latest effort, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc, brings her to life with songs and a cast of kids singing them. If only the music was better and Jeannette was a less precious figure, all might have been well. But it isn’t. The film looks like a Christmas play put on by a school without too much rehearsal.

Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W is the third part of his ‘trilogy of evil’ which started off years ago with a study of Idi Amin, infuriating the African dictator. One hopes it does the same for this Buddhist monk from Burma who helps to persecute the wretched Muslims of his country. Despite the peace loving tenets of the Buddhist philosophy, this racist thug recommends burning some of them alive and not allowing the rest to have children.

The film was made in secret as Schroeder toured Burma, sometimes with only a phone camera in hand, and it shows that evil is on the rampage almost everywhere, and especially in Mandalay where a third of the inhabitants are monks, supposedly dedicated to peace and goodwill. Schroeder is now 75 and clearly still up for a fight against injustice.

Agnes Varda is now 88 and if Faces Places is anything to go by she still has a lot to contribute. This charming and skillfully engineered film has two artists travelling around the French countryside as a fond relationship grows between them. A marvellous and touching film from an old master of the New Wave and one of the best films of the Festival so far. Faces Places may be just a documentary but it observes life in a way which makes you feel good about it again, Trump, Le Pen and other evils notwithstanding.

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Cannes 2017: 120 Beats Per Minute, The Meyerowitz Stories & Redoubtable

What with a bomb scare at the Debussy Theatre where the most important press shows are held and a sudden electrical failure on the railways which cut many festival-goers off from their cheap hotels outside Cannes, the 70th Festival was not without incident over a crowded weekend.

But somehow we all survived and began to see some better movies. If none reached the standard set early on by the coruscating Russian Loveless, several were very likely to compete for the jury’s prizes.

There has to be a film about AIDS in the programme and Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute was an excellent example. Set in the early nineties, when an action group called Act-Up Paris lobbied a multi-national company to bring out a cure far quicker than they wanted, it has some fine realist acting from members of the group as they sought to bring irresistible pressure on the company. No stars in the film but Campillo’s sincerity and anger shine through what could have been a depressing story, and there is a death scene at the end that moved many of its audience to tears. Campillo is a fine director and only the length of the film is against it.

Many of the film-makers here seem to think two hours plus is the right length, forgetting that the Luis Buñuel once said that if you can’t tell a story in 90 minutes, don’t tell it at all. Where have all the good editors gone?

Not many movies presented at the Festival are actually fun. But Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories proved to be a comedy which had gusts of laughter from its hard-bitten critical audience throughout. About two brothers attempting to look after their often curmudgeonly father, it is cynical, spiteful and truthfully sharp at the same time. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances of recent years as the old man, an artist without much talent, while Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are equally good as his sons. When you include Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel among the cast, you really can’t complain of the acting. But it is Baumbach’s sense of the awful perils of family life that makes the film. A bit over the top, perhaps, but not by very much.

Finally there was Redoubtable, the sad story of Jean-Luc Godard’s marriage and break-up with Anna Wiazemsky, twenty years his junior. The film was apparently well-researched by Michel Hazanavicius, its director, though it enlightens us more about Godard than his beautiful young actress wife (Stacy Martin). It suggests that he lost his art to Maoist radicalism but found himself in so doing. It’s a theory that seems pretty probable. And Louis Garrel, the son of French director Philipe Garrel, gives a very decent performance as Godard. We all thought the film was going to be full of cliches. Some were there alright. But by no means as many as expected.

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Cannes 2017: Loveless, Wonderstruck, Sea Sorrow, & Barbara

They say this will be the best Cannes Festival for years, and it does look good on paper, what with a bevy of Hollywood stars due to turn up (Nicole Kidman, for instance, is in no less than five different movies) and for once more women than men among them.

But so far there has been a lack of outstanding movies and some fairly dire fare from directors we were all looking forward to cheering. Todd Haynes, maker of the much admired Carol, produced a weird film in Wonderstruck, taken from Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed novel about two children from different eras who secretly wish their lives were better. It looks fine, but is hardly as mesmerising as the book. The children each set out on quests to discover what is missing from their existences.

Haynes goes backwards and forwards in time in some puzzling ways and veers between heavy sentiment and abstruse imaginings so that audiences may be puzzled as to what sort of film he is actually making. Is it partly a children’s tale, or an art movie for adults? Maybe both, but neither strikes home with anything like maximum effect.

The best film so far has been from Russia. Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the wonderful The Return and the even better Leviathan, is the sad tale of divorcing couple in the process of selling their apartment who neglect their 12-year-old son and quarrel continuously. They are brought up very short when he suddenly disappears. The acting from Maryana Spivak and Alexey Rozin is superb and the film is unlikely to infuriate the Russian government as much as Leviathan. But, though a powerful film, Loveless is not as outstanding as most of the director’s other work and a little too long for comfort at over two hours.

It’s impossible not to admire Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut Sea Sorrow, which comes a full 51 years after her Cannes best actress award for Morgan– a suitable case for treatment. She is now 80, and says she doesn’t think she has much time left after a heart attack two years ago. If so, Sea Sorrow may prove a fine epitaph for a woman who is not only a great actress but also a powerful political activist. The film is no masterpiece but its feeling for the refugees who are its subject matter is often very moving. Filmed mostly in Europe, the film is only a few minutes over an hour long. But, as it intends, is a personal and completely sincere statement about one of the worst features of our present-day world. A modest Redgrave was cheered to the echo each time she appeared.

Barbara, the film by Mathieu Amalric which opened the section Un Certain Regard (which means not quite good enough for competition but still worth seeing) is about an actress and singer who inhabits her new part so thoroughly that the character grows inside her until even her lover doesn’t know who she really is. A neat idea, but Jeanne Balibar’s performance doesn’t let you care much whether she is Brigitte the actress or Barbara, the character she is playing. So the film lacks punch and real interest.

The chief controversy at Cannes this year has little to do with the films on display but the worry that powerful new players like Netflix do not intend often to premiere their product in movie theatres. Pedro Almodovar, president of the main jury, is clearly worried about this and read out a lengthy statement whose main point was that the size of the screen should never be smaller than the chair on which we are sitting. But Will Smith, also on the jury, disagreed. He said that his three children go to the movies and watch films at home as well. “There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching Netflix at home”. It’s an argument that will pursue across the Festival until the final day, and beyond. But the future of the cinema is bound up with it, and the fact that Cannes is showing Netflix movies is all part of the controversy.

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Venice Awards 2016: A big prize for a long film

Do Film festival awards mean anything anymore? Some doubt it if the successful film is American and full of stars. That sort of movie will find its way with or without prizes at Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the three major competitive jamborees. But the non-English speaking nations would disagree. To win a major festival can make a director’s reputation and send his or her film round the world.

So the Venice jury might just have known what they were doing when, despite the presence of several hot new American films, accompanied by their stars, the 73rd Venice Festival’s international jury, presided over by British director Sam Mendes, gave its Golden Lion to A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, a 226-minute Pilipino film by Dav Diaz. The film, about a woman incarcerated wrongly for 30 years after her best friend gave evidence against her, is based on a Tolstoy short story and is one of the shortest of the 59-year-old independent director’s recent works. He won the Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year for a four-hour drama and a few years ago made a movie is that lasted 593 minutes and is reckoned to be the longest feature ever made. Clearly, the jury had infinite patience since many critics avoided the new film because of its length within a crowded programme.

America, however, came into the reckoning with Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a psychological thriller about a woman, sent a new novel by her ex-husband which describes in gory detail her rape and death by marauding low-lives. This rightly won the main Jury Prize, effectively the second best award of the Festival. Another American winner was Emma Stone who won the Best actress Lion for her performance in The popular La La Land, a musical romance that has already been called a masterpiece by The Guardian and might well have a leading role in next year’s Academy Awards. A further Hollywood triumph was Jackie, the story of Jackie Kennedy’s life after the assassination of JFK before she married Onassis. This excellent film, for which Natalie Portman might well have won an award as Jackie, got the Best Screenplay nod for Noah Oppenheimer.

Strangely, the film most critics judged one of the worst in the competition, Ana Lily Amirpour’s impenetrable existential Western The Bad Batch won the minor jury prize. One of the best, however, was Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, an original and moving take on the Holocaust. This won him a Best Director Lion, shared with Amat Escalante for La región salvaje.

So the oldest film festival, programmed by Alberto Barbera, but with several other sections which were often just as good, or as bad, as the main competition, wound its way past ten days in wonderful weather, leaving the hundreds of press a bit sad to see it go but much gladder to avoid the prices on the Lido which comfortably beat those of Cannes.

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Fact as fiction or fiction as fact?

How do you dramatise history on film without adding a large dollop of fiction to the mix? Many have tried and most have failed. But Pablo Larraín succeeds better than many with Jackie, the story of Jackie Kennedy, giving an interview to her ghost writer some time after the assassination of her husband Jack. His film leaves a bit out (there’s little or no reference to the President’s serial sexual unfaithfulness) and the hagiographical nature of the film is a little obvious at times. But thanks largely to an intelligent screenplay, clever directorial control and, above all, to a superb performance from Natalie Portman as the troubled Jackie, the film takes wing as a slice of history and a piece of drama too. If Jackie Kennedy will always remain a mystery, possibly to herself as well as others, Portman makes her vulnerability very real and her extraordinary ability to seem in command of herself utterly believable. It is the kind of rounded portrait that must surely attract the Venice jury, headed by British director Sam Mendes, who knows a bit about acting.

The film is less certain in its other parts, though John Hurt is as convincing as ever as the priest who tries to comfort her. But some of those impersonating the President himself, and others of the Kennedy clan, strive a bit too hard to convince. Even so what comes out of this intelligent movie seems more than likely probable, with Larraín, whose last film was the fine Neruda, refusing to rely on too much actual footage to support his storyline. We get the efforts Jackie made to smarten up the old White House, and the fact that the word Camelot, used to describe a short-lived but remarkable period in American political history, was in fact taken straight from the old Hollywood film which Jack loved.

Was Jackie really so impenetrable — an elegant and sophisticated woman of the world who knew exactly what she was doing until the killing of her husband? Perhaps so, but some of the historical footage Larraín uses suggests someone caught in the headlights and never quite able to accommodate herself to the light. Portman is good enough to suggest this as well as the almost stately elegance, and this is the main treat of the film.

Everyone was looking forward, some in trepidation, to the latest film by Terrence Malick who, since Tree of Life, seems to have sunk into a parody of himself. Unfortunately Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey betrays all the faults of his latter-day work and few of the virtues of his earlier oeuvre. It looks good, of course (when did a Malick film not seem beautiful to watch?). But the poetic commentary, written by the director himself, is tiresomely repetitive and the enigma of life as put on the screen in what is frequently a portentous manner does not resonate in the mind as long or as often as it should. Even the underwater passages, gloriously shot among the strange creatures who live there, seem more like a good BBC documentary than anything more philosophical, and the sketchy footage of human beings, mostly the impoverished masses in India, make little or no sense. What we get from the 90-minute film is the struggle of a filmmaker who may think he is a visionary but seems stuck in a rut of his own making. You seldom make statements of importance with headlines but with much smaller efforts, like the best bits of Tree of Life. Maybe Malick has less and less to say and shouts louder and louder in attempting to disprove that fact.

Another piece of history as fiction is supplied by Irelands Nick Hamm with The Journey, which details the burgeoning friendship between Ian Paisley, the fiery leader of Ulsters Protestants, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of the IRA. The time is on the cusp of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, brokered by Tony Blair and the British Government. It looks likely to fail once again until a wily diplomat hits on the idea of sending the two men on a car journey towards Edinburgh airport, where Paisley will fly off to his 50th wedding anniversary. He is now 81 and still breathing holy fire until he slowly but surely unwinds towards his mortal enemy as the car winds its way passed the sodden countryside. Everything depends on the performances of the two men who see each other as monsters. And Tim Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness are more than up to it. The mistake Hamm makes is to suggest that the car is bugged so that Blair and co can listen to what is happening from start to finish.

In the end, of course, the two rivals became friends as Chief Minister and Deputy when the Peace Agreement is at long last signed. They were, in fact, so close that they were known as the Chuckle Brothers by a surprised media — testimony to the fact that, just sometimes, if enemies get to know each other their attitudes can change. The Journey is an entertaining movie if more like fiction as fact than fact as fiction. Hamm insists there is a basis of truth in the story and it is relatively easy to believe him.

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The Young Pope, Hacksaw Ridge & Nocturnal Animals

Jude Law as the first American Pope? Diane Keaton as the faithful nun who looks after him? It strains the credulity more than a bit. But maverick Italian Paolo Sorrentino is the director, so we must always expect the unexpected. The Young Pope, a ten-part television series, of which the first two parts were shown out of competition at the Venice Festival, seems far from a masterpiece so far. But despite its unorthodox casting, at least it isn’t the disaster some expected. This new Pope, selected largely because the Vatican thinks it can almost certainly control him, has colourful dreams of both despair and hope, but solidly ploughs through his self-imposed task of reforming those who are determined to keep things as they are. This is clearly only the start of a long TV journey, so we don’t know whether he wins out or not. But both Law and Keaton give performances which justify the casting, at least since the object of the exercise is to attract as many watchers as possible to stay the course by using stars.

Sorrentino and his regular cameramen could make anything look beautiful and do so again here. What’s more, the director of the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty clearly hasn’t lost his touch as a man with radical ideas. His Catholic Church is conspiratorial and conservative minded, and his new Pope, beginning his battles against them despite being hardly a revolutionary himself, clearly has a hard battle ahead. If there is a problem with the first two episodes it lies in a screenplay which is serviceable but less than inspired. You always feel that The Young Pope is covering its options carefully and that Sorrentino, in accepting the job knew precisely how far he could go without offending too many. Only in the dream sequences does he pull out the virtuosity we know he possesses. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sure who has directed the film, except that it certainly couldn’t be any old Hollywood hack.

We all know Mel Gibson, recently dubbed the richest actor in America, can direct as well. The Passion of Christ, whatever you thought of it, proved that. And so does Hacksaw Ridge, his latest essay in film-making after a gap of over a decade. This the true story of the conscientious objector who volunteered for the US Army Medical Corps at the start of the Second World War and was almost court-martialled for refusing either to carry or fire a weapon of any sort. In the end, he became a war hero for saving dozens of badly wounded men during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where the infantry has to scale the ridge and face a hail of Japanese bullets when they reached the top. Carnage on a giant scale followed and our hero’s bravery and his determination to go back into the battle area to rescue just one more made that phrase famous for years afterwards.

Gibson tells a fairly conventional story about the young man and secures good performances not only from Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss but the whole cast, which includes Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving and Sam Worthington. Above all, the extended final battle scenes are horrendously naturalistic, which puts a distinction on the film it might otherwise not have had. The horror of war, at least for the boots on the ground, has seldom been more apparent. You leave the theatre more than a trifle stunned. But the problem is that Gibson’s central idea that religious faith triumphs over almost everything also applies to the so-called Islamic State and most other wasteful and murderous religious wars. Doss was a hero who just happened to be on the right side.

The best film at the festival so far, or at least in the star-studded competition, was undoubtedly Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, in which the director of A Simple Man proved he is potentially one of the finest in America. In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s clean living middle-class man goes after the goons who rape and kill his wife and daughter, aided by Michael Shannon’s chain smoking and almost impossibly cynical detective. But this isn’t reality but the plot of a book divorcee Amy Adams is sent by her novelist ex-husband. Not only is it extremely violent but the characters in it have more than a passing resemblance to people she knows, including herself. Totally different from A Single Man, the film bows to Blue Velvet as much as any other movie, with bloody fiction bleeding into uncomfortable reality. It is elegant, acted with real power and has a strong feeling for its an ordinary man faced with circumstances Liam Neeson might attempt to circumnavigate. Maybe La La Land will attract the jury’s attention ahead of Ford’s film, but it must be a candidate for the Golden Lion with British director Sam Mendes, who knows something about such American obsessions, in the chair.

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Venice Film Festival: Film Reviews

You have to take the rough with the smooth at film festivals. Sometimes the films are so impenetrable that boos break out among those left by the end. Sometimes the applause lasts for a full two minutes and nobody leaves early. One of the most popular films so far has been Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival which has Amy Adams as a young lecturer who saves the world from an alien invasion and from the stupidity of mankind facing it. It is one of those sci-fi movies which attempts a thoroughly human face rather than heaps and heaps of dynamic special effects. Adams is about to give a lecture on a scientific subject when she looks up and sees a much smaller than usual audience. What’s more, they are all looking anxiously at their computer news screens. Anyway, it is clear that most nations of the world face some sort of threat and, in Montana where Adams lectures, the National Guard has already been called out. Fighter planes buzz overhead and a general panic has manifested itself. Then we see a giant half globe descending on earth and, for some reason never quite explained, Adams has to don anti-radioactive clothes and is driven out to meet whoever or whatever is controlling the machine.

It would be a pity to divulge how she does it. But suffice to say she is not painted as a heroine but as an anxious mother with a baby who simply has to do what she has to do. In the end, even General Chang of the Peoples Liberation Army congratulates her and so does everyone else. But Villeneuve, whose last film was the violent thriller Sicario, has here adopted a more philosophical approach to a film which has already been dubbed Blade Runner 2. He clearly wants to tell us that love triumphs over hate, with both alien forces and humans. And that the important thing to remember is that the future generation (ie babies) are what is vital in the world. The film is not a colourful one, with suitably muted cinematography and a sense of realism many such stories eschew. Maybe that’s not the best news for the box-office but it makes for a more intelligent movie of the genre all the same.

The Light Between Oceans, adapted from M L Stedman’s best-selling novel and made in a far off part of Australia that fair takes the breath away, has Michael Fassbender has a young lighthouseman who marries his lover (Alicia Vikander) and tries for a child. But twice his wife is unsuccessful and she gets more and more desperate to conceive. Then something happens that will almost ruin the loving couples lives. A boat arrives at the windy seashore and in it is a dead man and a live baby. The temptation is too great. They bury the man and adopt the baby, hoping no one else will know or care. But their secret is exposed when a local woman (Rachel Weisz) on the island appeals for her missing husband and baby, apparently lost at sea. This the stuff of melodrama (who will eventually get the child and what effect will the little girls two mothers have on her tender psyche). As the film slowly progresses, its final plot twists seem more and more unlikely. It is also far too long at 137 minutes. But the acting is good enough to assuage most doubts and the cinematography lovingly details the extraordinary scenery it inhabits. This is what used to be called a woman’s picture. But if you say that now all hell might break loose. So I won’t!

One of the scandals of latter-day filmgoing is the way they make you pay extra for 3D productions. One hopes they don’t do it for Wim Wenders new film, made in French with Italian subtitles for the festival. Quite why it is in 3D is a puzzle many are trying to work out since it simply has two actors (Sophie Semin and Rada Keteb) talking to each other in a garden about love and death and such things. The scenery is nice and Peter Handke’s screenplay could be called poetic. But I can’t see it in the cinema nor adding much to Wenders already uneven reputation. The film is called Les beaux jours d’Aranjuez and there were not many left in the theatre by the end of its 90 minutes or so.

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La La Land, Venice opener

It wasn’t much of a surprise that the 73rd Venice Film Festival cancelled its opening night party on the Lido in deference to the victims of the Italian earthquake victims. The oldest, most venerable festival in the world invariably makes sure it has valid connections to the world at large. After all, it was invented by Mussolini not just to show good films from all over the world but to headline Italian movies he didn’t object to. Nowadays the festival is decidedly left of centre, thanks largely to its director Alberto Barbera, who studiously tries to be fair to all political persuasions but clearly likes the radical part of the show best. This year, however, he offered a rare Hollywood musical as his opener — the eagerly awaited Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone starrer La La Land.

Gosling and Stone have worked together before and with writer-director Damien Chazelle too. But after the highly successful Whiplash no one Chazelle to make a musical. It is, though, pretty unorthodox stuff, bursting into song and dance when you least expect but mainly concentrating on two things. These are the drama itself between the two leads and a semi-satire of the musical conventions of the past. Does the mix work? Not entirely. But it is lively enough to keep most audiences happy, especially at a time when fun in the cinema usually involves vast expenditure of special effects, and heroes rather bigger than life. Here they are not.

Stone is an aspiring actress in LA but temperamentally too vulnerable to deal with the savagery of a series of unsuccessful auditions and screen tests. He is an aspiring jazz piano player who believes in the good old days when jazz was not a watered down branch of pop and rock. They fall for each other and, one way or another,get through their career dilemmas with some elan. She at last has a success as an actress, and he gives up a well-paid job with a successful group who don’t play proper jazz to become the owner of a small club which does.

I have to say that the lively Stone is the true star of the picture, acting with serious intent and singing and dancing at least decently. Somehow her personality shines through even during the film’s more awkward moments whereas Gosling, smooth and sexy as ever, has all the charm of a defective refrigerator when asked to portray romance with the lightness of touch of a Cary Grant. Stone definitely keeps the on-off romance going, and Chazelle wings his unorthodox way through the story with obvious pleasure but at least some sense of the darker nature of Hollywood and the La La Land of showbiz. The film looks good, sounds good and, if you’re not too fussy, it might make you feel good too.

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Party Time at Karlovy Vary

Never heard of Karlovy Vary? Well, it’s in the Czech Republic and a spa town like few others. They drink the healing water all the time and wander the vast gardens before and after. It’s near Marienbad where Alain Resnais made his famously indecipherable classic Last Year at Marienbad.

But that’s not the only film connection. Every year at around this time, there’s an international Film Festival which comes neatly between Cannes in May and Venice in late August. It’s a huge event, attracting thousands, from old critical hacks to keen young students. And it is now in its 51st year. It is chiefly housed in the mammoth and transcendently ugly Thermal Hotel and complex which dominates the gardens like an evil spirit. They’ve tried to pull it down and build a better venue. But all attempts have failed, chiefly because they found the valuable spring waters underneath.

I remember travelling to KV many years ago when the festival was under heavy Russian influence, and got into trouble for casting aspersions on the Soviet films on display. Shortly after my report appeared in The Guardian, there was a knock on my hotel door and what I presumed to be a KGB heavy politely asked me to stop criticising Soviet films unfairly. He intimated that, if I complied, there was “some fun to be had” and that included some “lovely ladies” who would love to meet me. Perhaps foolishly I politely declined.

Nothing like that would happen now though most of the hotels are Russian owned the spa has a direct flight daily to and from Moscow. The festival, however, is now fully independent and has been for many years. It attracts American stars rather than Russian who this year included Willem Dafoe and Charlie Kaufman, director of Anomalisa, which I still regard as the best film of the year and certainly one of the finest animated features ever made.

One of the festival’s main problems in that coming between Cannes and Venice there is not much left for the competition section. But around it there is much to see and, if you want parties, there’s nothing quite like KV, particularly at time when most festivals are cutting such expensive events to a bare minimum.

Consider last night, for instance. First, there was a Slovakian do, then a Variety event, then an Italian dinner and finally a noisy Polish shindig. And that doesn’t count an industry event and a distributors dinner. If you can survive that lot, you’re a more avid delegate than I am. I gave up halfway and went to bed at midnight, ready for the 8.30 press show in the morning.

This was a beautifully acted Polish film called Waves, about two young hairdressers learning the trade from scratch and trying to cope with difficult family lives back home. As a portrait of teenage woes, the film, directed and written by Grzegorz Zariczny and taken from a short he made last year, is in competition and could easily get an acting prize for Anna Kesek, one of the two girls the film examines. She is extraordinary while not seeming to act at all.

One of the festival’s strengths lies in its documentary section which includes a remarkable film about five autistic children, one a burgeoning piano virtuoso, from the Czech director Miroslav Janek. The film poses the simple question: who is to determine what’s normal amidst the frequent absurdities of modern life? And talking about absurdities, I have lost count of the number of Brits, castigated for Brexit by disappointed and often angry Europeans, who have protested either than they are Scottish or have Scots blood in their veins.

> 51st Karlovy Vary International Film festival

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