75th Venice International Film Festival

The 75th Venice Festival has recently managed to trump Cannes where its opening films are concerned. Gravity and La La Land won Oscars and no doubt Damien Chazelle’s The First Man, the story of Armstrong’s moon landing, will get nominated too. Unfortunately, the film starts with two big disadvantages. The first is that we all know what happened so there is a lack of dramatic content. The second is Armstrong himself, described as “introspective” by Chazelle, which is a polite way of saying boring. And that is certainly the way Ryan Gosling plays him. Apart from the moment he bursts into tears when his first child dies, he maintains a straight face throughout, leaving  Tina Foy as his wife to do the emoting (which she does very well). She is a woman who wants an ordinary life with her husband and kids, and he, of course, has to train and train until he is selected to lead the expedition which sees him touch down on the moon. That final episode is well handled by Chazelle. But the first half the film is almost as dull as Armstrong himself.

The two best films we have seen so far are Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Lanthimos, The Greek director of the eccentric The Lobster and the less eccentric The Killing of a Sacred Deer has chosen the gout-stricken British monarch Queen Anne and her influential confidante and lover as his subject matter, with the Duchess of Marlborough making up a trio of early 18th century women who dominated the court at the time.

The film is superbly mounted, mostly at Hatfield and brilliantly dressed too. But if looks could kill, it’s the acting which ought to be remembered. Olivia Colman is wonderful as the distressed old Queen whose word is law even as Parliament is flexing its muscles more than before, while Emma Stone has never been better as her helpmeet. There remains another fine performance from Rachel Weisz as the ambitious Duchess, introduced to the court as a servant, pushed into a brothel but somehow making herby up to or near the top of the pecking order.

This is a period film with a distinct difference, equipt with a fine script and a wonderfully cynical view of English heritage. My historian wife, who actually works within this period, says it is remarkably accurate not just to the looks of the whole thing but also to the psychological implications of a true story. It makes Game of Thrones seem as ludicrous as it actually is, however, entertaining. The Favourite is something entirely different and Lanthimos’ best film so far.

Cuaron’s Roma looks at first like a smaller enterprise than his other films. But in the end this summation of his early life in the Mexico City suburb of Roma is extremely well-judged since its realist view of things does not preclude a real sense of emotion and feeling, so that what athirst sees a very simple story of poverty and aspiration becomes full of the kind of detail we don’t often get in this sort of thing. It was appreciated not just by the critics but by the public as well and is almost certain to get a major prize.

Whether we need another A Star is Born is questionable. But if it stars Lady Gaga in all her glory it is at least arguable that perhaps we do. Actually, Bradley Cooper’s version went down surprisingly well, as did Lady Gaga herself. She is no Judy Garland and Mr Cooper who plays the James Mason part as well as directs is certainly not of Mason’s standard. But the pair do very creditably as the young singer picked up by the alcoholic country rock star and turned into a star herself before the drink and jealousy get to him. It’s a version of the story that is essentially full of Hollywood cliche. But played with some conviction it lets its audience wallow in a period when this sort of thing was regular fodder. Lady G’s study in vulnerability is cleverly emphasised by the director who apparently scrubbed all the make-up off her face for the first scenes between the two leads. Okay, the songs aren’t wonderful but at least Lady G and Mr Cooper sing them with conviction, and those who love this sort of thing will probably shed tears at the right moments. Lady G is a modestly good actress who doesn’t try to hog the limelight, and Cooper has to be commended for his shrewd work as director as well as co-star. Unless I’m well off-beam, the film will be a success and, compared to some modern Hollywood biggies, deserves it.

The problem with Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is that, though the acting is more than adequate, there are no outstanding performances to gloat over. It is not that kind of movie, being a thoroughly researched document about a troubling aspect of British history that too few really know about. The passages leading up to the massacre itself (very well done) are pretty talkie and Leigh does not interfere with them as director. He often shoots them straight on without fuss and without trying to add much to them. The result is straightforward but a little academic, as if Leigh is anxious to let us know the awful truth without burnishing it as a film-maker. It’s a long film, like so many in this festival. But until the final scenes, it doesn’t hold the attention nearly as tightly as many of this director’s other films. Peterloo is an amazing story that deserves to be told. But we needed a little more dramatic conviction before the massacre is thrust upon us.

Another much-anticipated film was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is an affectionate summation of what the film-makers love about a genre which seldom hits the big screen today. It comprises half a dozen separate stories, linked by well-known songs and performed by some well-known Western character actors. The result is a mixed bag, some excellent and some indifferent and, once again, the film is too long for its own good and could easily be edited down a bit. You could say that for a great many movies at this year’s Festival which displayed a number of films worth 100 minutes or so but spread out beyond two hours. Even so, the programme proved that Venice, in its 75th year, is still as relevant as Cannes. And some would say more so this year. The fact that half dozen Netflix movies, rejected by Cannes, were shown here made a large difference. I think Venice was right personally but the French still have a point.   


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Cannes Festival

I’ve been going to the Cannes Festival for over thirty years, and there are two things that are certain. It’s totally changed from the old days when you could meet someone like Joe Losey on the Croisette and take a coffee with him unencumbered by three or four PRs anxious that he didn’t say anything unwise. Nowadays, if he was still alive, you could only meet him within the company of six or seven others at a roundtable somewhere private where one of the assembled keeps on asking: “when are you coming to Jerusalem, Mr Losey?”

Joseph Losey in Cannes

The other certainty is that every Cannes is different from the last. It’s not just a matter of the films, good bad or indifferent. It’s also the weather, which can be awful or wonderful, and the people too who can be awful or wonderful too. I remember walking the Croisette on my way to interview Nick Nolte and I looked up at the Windows of the Carlton Hotel, where huge adverts for films like Killer Lobsters from Mars are draped across the front windows, and this time spied, hanging out of the third floor, two large human arses. They belonged to Nolte and Gerard Depardieu who had apparently had a fun night together. Not surprisingly, my interview was cancelled. On another occasion, the French director Maurice Pialat, having been roundly booed for winning the Palme D’Or, passed by me in his limo with the window open.”Don’t worry” I said, “You deserved it!” Having little or no English, he shouted back: “Fuck off!” Ah, the old days…

This year was a quiet year. No arses hanging out of the Carlton Windows, good weather, at least while I was there, and films which were very much of the art variety. Added to that, few American stars, hotel bookings down some 30 percent and only a dozen or so parties where something like food was offered to wash down the local rose. Shocking! But if all this was slightly odd, there was Kate Blanchett leading several dozen women up the celebrated red carpet in a MeToo demo which pointed out that only one woman director had ever won the Festival’s main prize. And there was a stir when, for some unspecified reason, the man who had organised the opening and closing shows for years, was summarily dismissed by a testy Festival Director.

As for the films, Asia proved the victor, with excellent work from Lee Chang-dong, Bi Gan, Koreeda Hirokazu and Jia Zhangke. It was Hirokazu who won the Palme D’Or for Shoplifters, a naturalistic portrayal of a family who took in a stray little girl and taught her to steal along with them. The point of the film was the sheer niceness of the thieves, and the way they managed to defeat the world at large with charm and courage. Hirokazu has never made anything better but there were some who thought that Korean Lee Chang-dong should have won with Burning, a vivid thriller and love triangle about a romance between a delivery man and a beautiful girl he first met at school. When she goes to Africa, asking her to feed her cat, and returns with a rich smoothie in tow, the thriller element begins. It’s a wonderful movie which got nothing from the jury but will probably be regarded as a classic in the future because it is poetic as well as deeply sympathetic and exciting. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night gives you 3D glasses but abjures you not to put them on until the protagonist wears his. He is a man on a quest who drifts into a nightmarish darkness of murder and betrayal which develops into an extraordinarily choreographed single take over its last three-quarters of an hour. I suppose you either love or hate it. But whatever you think, here is another real filmmaker to cherish.

Ash is the Purist White by Jia Zhanke is a gangster movie which eschews the usual signs and symptoms of the genre in favour of a character study of a small-time crook and the gambling den hostess he is obsessed with and who in the end goes to prison to save him. There is a political theme running through the film, but in the main it is about the interaction of the main characters within a self- destructive world.

Few films matched this clutch of brilliant productions. But Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War did. Made in black and white, and one of the mercifully shortest of all the competition films at just under 90 minutes, it is set in post-war Poland where a pianist-composer tours villages and small halls with his lover, a music teacher. They search for local folk talent. The film is two things above all. The first is a musical and the second a wonderfully apt portrayal of the period during which hope combines with despair to fire its characters lives. Great performances too from Joanna Kulig and Agata Kuleska, as the two women in the composer’s life. Another which struck a decent blow for Europe was The Wild Pear Tree by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. But if Pawlikowski managed to tell his tale in under 90 minutes, the prolix Ceylan takes three hours, and talk dominates its story of a novelist who returns home to his rural retreat only to find his father’s gambling is ruining the family. Will the rebellious novelist ever break free? As usual with this director, there are plenty of resonant visuals and a rich tapestry of meaning beyond them. But two hours would also have been enough for a film which resonates in the mind but not necessarily In the heart.

Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman, which won the second prize of the jury and was lucky to do so, is set in seventies Colorado Springs where the counties first black policeman is part of an undercover unit trying to infiltrate the KKK. Based on a real case, Lee flavours it with humour and a kind of Tarantino-like energy. It is, of course, a political and polemical film but it’s raucous tone soon tires despite the fact that Lee has made a film that’s certainly relevant to now, as it was to then.

From Ukraine came Donbass, in which Sergei Loznitsa turns the awful war on the Ukrainian border into a bloody farce. But his film is also a fully fledged tragedy as sleazy politicians, brutal Russian soldiers and a population taunted by the awful nature of their lives mix the film’s 13 segments into a whirl of devastation and hopelessness. Some amazing moments. What to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book? Well, he was awarded a special prize and, being Godard, probably deserved it. But the film, with its images and texts sometimes contradicting each other, has brilliant and infinitely tiring moments as if the great man deliberately wants to provoke the watcher with the slightest of smiles before kicking him or her up the backside.

Lastly, Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built is more or less a bleak black comedy, in which Matt Dillon bravely plays a serial killer. Some of its scenes have its press audience screaming with anger, or possibly disgust. I won’t describe them since I don’t want to end on a sour note. But though von Trier is still an exceptional director, his return to Cannes after several years of persona non grata was soon forgotten amidst the Festival’s more simple blood and thunder. You can’t defeat Cannes, even if you’d like to sometimes. It is still the greatest film jamboree there is and a good measure of the year’s quality, even without American stars hogging the limelight.

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Cannes 2018 roundup

Cannes 2018 was strange affair, punctuated by controversy (the refusal to screen Netflix films unless they were guaranteed cinema exhibition, and the march up the red carpet by 80 or so women, lead by Kate Blanchett, head of this year’s jury, to complain that Cannes had far too few women film-makers this year or any other). Add to that a less than vintage programme and fewer people braving the expense of a Cannes visit, and you have a Festival which looks a bit uneasier in its skin than for some time past. Even so it would be foolish not to admit that the Festival, 71 this year, is attempting to adapt to changing times and likely in the end to do so successfully.

Not many expected Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifting to win the Palme D’0r. But this Japanese director, a regular at Cannes and one of the best film-makers in the world, surely deserved the honour, even if several other competitors would have deserved it too. Shoplifting is about a group of petty criminals living on the loose in Tokyo who adopt a little orphan girl and teach her their shoplifting trade. The film’s chief point is that this posse of outcasts live happier, more fulfilled lives than those from whom they steal—an unusual moral that the director, through the sheer humanity and skill of his film-making, makes thoroughly convincing.

The Grand Prix, nominally the second prize, went to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the fictionalised story of how a black American managed to filter his way past the KKK to provide the American Government with vital ammunition. It is one of this director’s most commercial thrillers which displays a fast pace, and a sense of humour as well as anger. Chiefly, though, it parallels the Trump era pretty precisely, which is presumably why the jury liked it so much.

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Cannes 2018

There are plenty of big names to come, but the first week of the Cannes Festival was rather less than uplifting. This, after all, is the most prestigious film festival in the world and one expects a lot. But the grand opener, Everyone Knows from the Iranian director of the marvellous The Separation was distinctly underwhelming. Not a bad film but nothing to write home about either. Asghar Farhadi’s second film outside Iran, after the France set The Past, has Javier Bardem as the owner of a local vineyard and Penelope Cruz as his childhood friend arriving in Argentina from Spain to celebrate the marriage of Cruz’s sister in the village where they grew up. The post-ceremony party is in full swing when one of Cruz’s two children is reported missing. It looks like she has been kidnapped, and the rest of the film discusses why and by whom.

We none of us know until the last moment as the entire family is gutted by the awful news, and Farhadi mixes love, class and money into the mix as virtual hysteria pervades. There is a precedent of a similar situation from the past which ended badly which is why no one calls the police. Bardem and Cruz do their best within this melange of family disturbance but Farhadi, in mixing a love story and a thriller takes several false steps. A bit of mystery is a good thing but too much of it wearies. The film lacks the precision and the ambition of Farhadi’s earlier work. It is certainly watchable but not much more than that.

The competition is full of films running at well over two hours length and not really sustaining the minutage. Which is why it was such a relief to see Pawel Pawlikowski 89-minute Cold War, an intimate love story of two people, shot in black and white and set in the ruined Poland of 1946 but progressing to Paris, Yugoslavia and Berlin. He (Tomasz Kot) is a conductor and pianist and she is the singer of the group of musicians trying to make their way through folk song and eventually jazz at a time when everyone is struggling immediately after the war. The love story is impressive enough, thanks largely to the playing of Joanna Kulig as the singer, but it is the post-war mise en scene, elevated by some superb cinematography from Lukasz Zal, that’s the true star of the film. Pawlikowski, UK based since his teens, is clearly a director of unerring taste, as his previous Ida showed us, and also one who understands that what we see is as important as what we hear when conviction really matters. Dedicated to his parents, the film is the present favourite for the Palme D’Or, or at least a major prize from the jury headed by Cate Blanchett.

I would guess that the second favourite is The Ukrainian Donbass, directed by Cannes regular Sergei Loznitsa. A fictionalised version of a true story, it tells the sad and often horrifying tale of the conflict between the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian-backed separatists which has virtually destroyed all sense of decency from either side. The film is really a chain of interconnected scenes illustrating the appalling struggle. There are several extraordinary scenes in which a suspect soldier is tied to a lamp post and reviled physically and mentally by an enraged crowd and another when a grotesque wedding is acted out between two hideously simple locals. The plot takes place largely within the Eastern region of the title, an area bordering Russia that’s the frontline between the Government and the insurgents backed by Putin’s Russia. Loznitsa hardly needs to take sides. He just states what is happening. It makes your average horror-thriller look like a vicarage tea party.

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Cannes Festival 2018

There may be no British film in the competition at the Cannes Festival this year, but at least one of the hot stories of the crowded annual jamboree concerns Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, whose The Man who killed Don Quixote, at least 20 years in the making, has been given the last slot in the Festival’s programme. And thereby hangs a tale and a half. Paulo Branco, one of the epic’s producers, was furious when the Festival announced its plans, since he mounted a court case claiming he was wrongly cut out as producer in breach of an agreement he and Gilliam signed two years ago that awarded Branco the rights to the film. If he’d won the case the Festival would have had to find another closing night film. But he didn’t and so the film goes ahead.

It has been a monster trial for Gilliam over so many years, both financially and artistically. Already one movie has been made as a documentary on the trials and tribulations of the production and there’s a second one on the way. Gilliam has had to halt or abandon production several times owing to lack of finances, bad weather on set or other accidents, like his veteran French leading man being unable to get on a horse because of a bad bladder infection. Johnny Depp was attached at one point but had to decline because of other engagements.

Throughout all this Gilliam, the original cheeky chappie who fundamentally lets nothing get him down, was totally determined to make the film and eventually succeeded in doing so. But at some cost to his health, since he recently lost the sight of one eye briefly after a minor stroke and only a few days ago had another one. He is however determined to support the film at Cannes which has described Branco as “a self-important troublemaker” and Gilliam as a genius who has to be supported.

It is altogether an extraordinary story of triumph over adversity but, if you look at his successes and failures you understand that he never ceases to take risks, financially and otherwise. Brazil, Time Bandits and The Fisher King were among his successes and the Adventures of Baron Munchhausen a considerable flop. All in all, however, this very Anglicised American director has been a cherishable member of the British scene ever since has provided the brilliant animated sections of the Monty Python series. “Not dead yet” was his last message to Cannes,”I’m coming to the Festival for sure”!

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Christine Keeler

10 years ago I was unexpectedly outed as Christine Keeler’s “favourite public school lover”. I remember Roger Alton, then of The Times but formerly the opening bat in the Guardian cricket team I captained, pleading with me to tell all in lubricious detail. I decided not to. But my fling with poor Christine was a strange affair, as was my meeting with Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who tragically killed himself after the press had falsely accused him of procuring girls, including Christine, for immoral purposes. I remember marching into Gerry Fay’s office with others to object to a first edition leader which intimated that Ward’s death was a good thing. It was deleted just in time.

What do I remember about Christine? That she was a lovely girl who, for some strange reason, thought I was a “proper gentleman” compared with most of the bounders who she had taken-up with when in fact I was as naive as she was but delighted she liked me. I remember trying to take her out to restaurants and being told by her that she couldn’t possibly go in because everyone would recognise her. And when I persuaded her inside she was furious if nobody actually did.” I’m a footnote to history, you know”, she said. But a sad one really because the last years of her life were lived on social security, ignored by every one of those members of the establishment who would have loved to get their hands on her when she was young.

I must say I was flattered by her attention and at one time tried to get her the post of secretary to the arts editor on The Guardian. Unfortunately, she eventually took fright and didn’t turn up for the interview. Gosh, you should’ve seen the excitement at the Guardian the day she was due to come in. So perhaps she was right. What lot of wankers! she said afterwards. And that was that.

How do I remember her? As a rather nice, decidedly innocent girl whom men made famous but who only wanted a decent life with someone, she could trust. She was not a prostitute or a good time girl like Mandy Rice-Davies, who wouldn’t take shit from anyone without answering back in kind. Nor had she Mandy’s talent. I saw Mandy in Ibsen’s Ghosts once and she was the star of the show. Christine was only the star of the show because of her looks which, until she lost them, were truly remarkable. What she saw in little me I will never know.But I am grateful for the experience. “Derek”, she said once, “You are a very nice man.Too good for me. The only one who doesn’t care a damn who I am.” Oh yes, I did!

Seriously, though, I thought to whole bloody business was so very typical of the way the establishment spears the innocent while being guilty of all sorts of crimes. Talk about hypocrisy! These bastards, or their children, would do the same today. Nothing much has changed. They murdered Ward in my opinion and would have got rid of Christine if they could have. Mandy, who admitted to me that she had acted as a call girl on occasion, told me that 80 percent of the men she slept with only wanted a cuddle. What about a quick strangling? I’d help.

• Christine Margaret Keeler (22 February 1942 – 4 December 2017)

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Shashi Kapoor obituary

I was once taken to a cricket match in Bombay by Shashi Kapoor, the great Bollywood star, who has died aged 79 after a long spell of illness. As his open-topped car sped from his house to the ground, whenever it was forced to stop at the frequent traffic lights, a crowd of admirers would gather, clapping, shouting and begging for autographs. He signed willingly, sometimes holding up the traffic, and when we reached our seats at the cricket ground, he spent almost the entire day signing again. I asked him why he was so generous with his time, particularly as he was really interested in the match. “Look, Derek,” he said. “I owe everything to these people. It’s my way of saying thank you.” He was not only the most handsome leading man in Bollywood, but also the most charming and modest.

Shashi Kapoor appeared in Heat And Dust, 1983

The British will remember him best in Merchant Ivory films such as The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Heat and Dust (1983), and for these he willingly accepted far less money than for the Bollywood movies that made his name. Trained in the theatre, he took his acting seriously and often laughed at the fact that he had to make three or four Bollywood epics at a time and had no idea as he went from set to set what he was supposed to be doing, and who he was supposed to be doing it with, let alone what he was pretending to sing, as the playback singers did the real business behind the scenes. “It’s all a game,” he told me, “and I am very fortunate to be asked to play it. But sometimes it’s a bit too much.”

In fact, he appeared in some of the best Bollywood films of his era, opposite the greatest stars in the business. His looks carried him through all the absurdities of the song-and-dance numbers. Although the list of his hits at the box office is endless, he made a good many bad movies too. As a producer for his own company from the late 1970s to the early 90s, he had less success than he had been used to, despite critically well-received productions such as 36 Chowringee Lane (1981), which starred his wife, Jennifer Kendal.

Shashi was a member of the famous Kapoor family, who dominated the Bollywood scene for decades, particularly through the influence of Raj Kapoor, Shashi’s elder brother. Raj made hit films such as Boot Polish (1954), nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Shree 420, the highest grossing Indian film of 1955. If Raj was considered the Clark Gable of India, Shashi was his country’s Robert Redford.

Born in Kolkata, son of Ramsarni Devi and Prithviraj Kapoor, Shashi was already on the stage as a child in the 40s, acting for his father’s repertory company Prithvi Theatres, as his brothers Raj and Shammi had done before him. The movies soon followed, among them Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951), both directed by Raj, and considered classics now. Shashi then became assistant director for Sunil Dutt, who was making Post Box 999 (1958).

Shashi Kapoor appeared in Shakespeare Wallah, 1965

Success followed as a leading man in more than 60 Hindi films, in which he appeared with the most notable female stars of the time. One of his favourite leading ladies was Nanda, with whom he made eight films and whom he regarded as his mentor. Others he worked with included Raakhee, Sharmila Tagore, Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini and Parveen Babi. He also made a dozen films with Amitabh Bachchan and appeared with almost all the male stars of the period. He was well paid for his work, but somehow managed to lose much of his fortune, perhaps through sheer generosity and the fact that he was not a good businessman.

He became increasingly bored with commercial Hindi movies and charged into films such as Bombay Talkie (1970), Siddhartha (1972), Junoon (1978), New Delhi Times (1986) and In Custody (1994) with some relief. The 70s and early 80s were a good period for more challenging independent films and Shashi took full advantage of the freedom they gave him.

Though the cinema made him, theatre was his first love, and he did everything he could to encourage the stage in Bombay (now Mumbai), with money and help. Shashi’s work in establishing the Prithvi theatre in the city, in memory of his father, was outstanding. Jennifer helped supervise and run the theatre for many years.

She was the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal, who had toured the Shakespeareana acting troupe around India, and upon whom Shakespeare Wallah was loosely based. Both Jennifer and her sister, Felicity, acted with Shakespeareana in the 50s. Jennifer and Shashi met in Kolkata in 1956 while each was appearing with their father’s company and they married two years later. It was thought that Shashi never fully recovered from the shock of Jennifer’s death in 1984 from cancer. He died from complications of long-standing heart and liver problems and while in hospital insisted on meeting and attempting to help other patients.

He is survived by their three children, Kunal, Karan and Sanjana.

• Shashi Kapoor (Balbir Prithviraj Kapoor), actor and producer, born 18 March 1938; died 4 December 2017

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Films not to miss from Venice

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Wiseman’s three-hour plus Ex Libris is not what you’d expect. It’s an eloquent summation of one of the greatest libraries in America, and possibly the world, where talks, discussions, concerts, instructive courses and even telephone enquiries necessitating copious research are combined with the act of reading. A triumphant corrective to the era of Trump, admittedly from a firmly Democrat state.

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country

This Australian epic is long and slow but a fascinating example of the continuing guilt about the long-standing mistreatment of the country’s aborigine population. Made by the director of Samson and Delilah, which won the Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the film is set near Alice Springs in 1929 where an Aborigine family start working for a brutal white rancher. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown are among the cast, and the native actors are equally sure. A horror story told with proper humanity.

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete

As an ex-jockey, I appreciated Haigh’s first American film more than most since it is about a young boy who steals the broken-down racehorse he looks after when he’s told it will be sold as meat in Mexico. He leads the animal in a long trek towards his mother’s home in the South and finally finds the woman who left the family years ago. The film is beautifully acted (Steve Buscemi is Lean on Pete’s trainer) and the boy (Charlie Plummer) is a real find. But it is also a stunning portrait of Trump’s America, worthy of 45 Years, Haigh’s garlanded last British film.

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s Under the Tree

Icelandic films often have a special blend of humour and seriousness, and this one about two warring families is no exception. “Two families. One tree. A bloody mess” says the publicity for Sigurdsson’s saga, a tagline that for once seems truly appropriate. Fine acting and an approach that sees society’s ills reflected in individual lives distinguish this appropriately quirky film.

Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico 1988

Nico 1988 is about the last year in the life of the Velvet Underground superstar who branched out on her own with much less success. It tells of her fight with heroin and alcohol, how her deserted son comes back to her as an adult and how her music became more and more angry and original. She is beautifully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm who sings the songs herself almost better than Nico did. A small- scale triumph, in fact, for the Italian director Nicchiarelli.

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Venice Festival 2017

Not long ago the head of the Cannes Festival was invited to Venice’s equivalent and was heard to say: “There is no danger to us here”. If it is still true that Cannes is the foremost film jamboree in the world, Venice looks to be coming up on the rails. On the first day last week, it was possible to see new films from Alexander Payne, who made Sideways, Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, and William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. And the last three opening attractions (Gravity, Spotlight and La La Land) won a bevy of Oscar nominations between them. Clearly, Alberto Barbera – the Festival’s boss – has recruited Hollywood to his side in a big way while still remaining firmly on the Italian Left.

It’s a pretty good achievement in his ninth year as head of the world’s oldest Festival, started by Mussolini as a way of publicising Italian movies. And with the films come the stars, a whole bevy of them day after day.

This year’s opener, Payne’s Downsizing, attracted Matt Damon to the Lido but didn’t go down that well. While some regarded the film as a minor classic, plenty of others decided it was overlong and rather dull.

Damon appears as the male part of a couple who agree to be shrunk after a scientist found a way to do it, thus cutting the huge costs of humans to a ravaged earth. Kristen Wigg, his lover, is more doubtful and the story unfolds as a for and against decision made by the world’s inhabitants. Part satire and part serious in tone, the film was received respectfully but not enthusiastically by a full house.

There was considerably more applause for Schader’s First Reformed, which was again about the world’s present ills as its leading character, very well played by Ethan Hawke, is a priest of an historic early American Church who counsels a war veteran against suicide but in the end decides to blow himself up to point the way against consumerism and big company perfidys. The film, which ends melodramatically but is otherwise beautifully made, was given extended applause by its first press audience.

Friedkin, who made The Exorcist some forty years ago decided in The Devil and Father Amorth to shoot a real exorcism, conducted by the present Pope’s official exorcism who tries to banish the Devil from an Italian woman troubled by visions and strange voices. It is a process which Friedkin evidently treats very seriously though there were irreverent giggles from some of the audience. But, alas, the Devil in the poor woman is not defeated and Father Amorth is the one who dies after his failure. Clearly Satan has some of the best tunes, especially nowadays.

The next major attraction was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which recalls the imagination he put into Pan’s Labyrinth, the film which made the Mexican director’s name all over the world. This has British actress Sally Hawkins as a cleaner in a secretly laboratory who falls in love with an aquatic sea monster who has been captured by the Americans and is also much sired by the Russians. Half fantasy, half thriller, Del Toro makes us believe in his strange tale, and Hawkins is certainly superb as the working class girl who tries to save the beast from both his friends and his enemies. The era is the early Cold War and the period is beautifully put together without a false note throughout. Plenty of Oscar nominations beckon.

Whether Robert Redford (81) or Jane Fonda (79) together many years ago in The Electric Horseman, and Barefoot in the Park, get any Oscar nods for Our Souls At Night, made by Ritesh Batra, the Indian who directed The Lunchbox, is more problematical, largely because it is a Netflix movie. It has the pair as lonely ex-marrieds, who come together when she asks him to share her bed, not for sex but for companionship in the dark moments of the night. He does so, and eventually sex is managed (very tactfully) as they sort out each other’s problems. Some called this sentimental tale ‘marshmallow cinema’ but at least it was good to see these two old troopers goes through their paces again. And joshing each other through their press conference, the starry pair were popular guests and surely deserved the Golden Lion for their careers given them by the Festival.

The next day it was George Clooney’s turn for adulation, supported by Matt Damon in his second appearance at the Festival. Clooney’s directorial work in Suburbicon was generally admired, as was the work of screenplay writers Joel and Ethan Coen. But this scathing attack on Middle America’s suburban values was either liked or hated. Damon plays a small- time man who is prepared to murder his crippled wife (Julian Moore) for a large insurance payout but finds the suspicious insurance agent after a cut on the proceeds and proceeds to murder him too. Mayhem follows in a township where the sudden presence of a black couple promotes riots and even more bloodshed. It is all rather like a horror movie dressed up as a social document. Which is why some felt it betrayed the point of the film. But if the film sometimes seems like Blood Simple II, it is certainly entertaining. And Damon gives a fine performance as the little man trying to make it big but failing in a blood-soaked finale.

The Brits have come out of the Festival smelling of roses rather than weeds. First, there was Lean on Pete, the American debut of Andrew Haigh, who made Weekend and the highly praised 45 Years where Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling won award after award. This is a road movie about a young boy who gets a job with a second-rate horse trainer and falls for the horse he has to look after. When the broken down nag fails to win, he steals him and makes his way hopefully across country towards the mother who left his family years ago. Eventually he finds her but not before Lean on Pete, the horse he steals is killed In a road accident. It’s a story that illustrates the underbelly of Trump’s America very well and the boy, played by Charlie Plummer, is exceptional, with Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny excellent in support. Much applause from press and public alike for a young British director of some consequence.

Then came the film many had been waiting for — Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, in which the ever-popular Judy Dench reprises her role of the old queen, besotted by men whom her advisers detest. This time it is Abdul, an Indian servant who worms his way into her favour and stays there.

It is almost superfluous to say that Dench plays the elderly queen of Shrabani’s book on which the film is based with virtuoso skill, making her not just an imperial figure of British history but also a lonely woman surrounded by either sycophants or power brokers. And her performance is almost matched by that of Ali Fazal, last seen in Fast and Furious 7. He plays with dignity and resource, making the interloper at court a gently honest rather than sinister figure. It also goes without saying that Frears has directed an impeccably designed film with bit parts played by such experts as Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and a host of other familiar faces.

The criticism some historians had with the telling of what is a substantially true story was that it was played almost tongue in cheek at times, as if the times were comically absurd rather than totally unaware of social cruelty. The shocking treatment of Abdul is there alright but it often inspires giggles rather than shock. Perhaps Frears felt that cynical times deserve cynical films.

Finally, there was another British success when Helen Mirren who played the present queen so well in another Frears slice of history, partners Donald Sutherland in The Leisure Seeker as an ageing husband and wife who take off in an old motorised caravan for a holiday, Unknown to their anxious family. He is on the verge of dementia, she we discover is dying of cancer. It’s a journey where the pair discovers things they didn’t know about each other, and Mirren in particular plays with great aplomb, avoiding too much mushy sentiment. the film, made in America by the Italian director Paolo Virzi is as much about love and affection as comedy or drama and received an ovation for its stars and director at both the press and public showings.

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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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