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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If there’s one person they love at Cannes it’s the triumphant but ever modest Ken Loach …

I’ve known Ken Loach for around 40 years, and supported him and his films for most of that time. Not because I agree with all his political views ( I’m just a champagne socialist compared to him) but because he is a film-maker capable of making us laugh and cry and get angry at the unfairness of the world at more or less the same time (Kes, for instance) — and, by the way, he’s a genuinely modest man to boot. But even a supporter like myself was more than a bit surprised that I, Daniel Blake, his film about a working class guy who has a severe heart attack at 50 and gets screwed by the British welfare system, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Make no mistake, I liked the film and thought it certainly worth something from Australian George Miller’s jury. But there were other even better films around, some of them not even mentioned by the judges.

This is the second time Ken has won the top award — the first was The Wind That Shakes The Barley — and, well, if I don’t quite agree with the verdict, I am genuinely happy for Ken. He made a good rousing speech at the podium too. They love him at Cannes despite the fact that not many of those in their expensive glad rags watching his films can possibly claim to share his political opinions.

The other awards were even more surprising. In fact, most of them were odd enough to secure hearty boos from the journos sitting in the theatre next door to the main auditorium and watching the prizes on the video screen. Most astonishing was the lack of anything at all for Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a hit with almost everyone bar the jury. This German comedy, written and directed by a talented woman film-maker, has an eccentric father trying to persuade his strikingly successful daughter not to take her computer dominated life so damned seriously. It might well have won the Palme D’Or from another jury. There was some compensation, though, when the International Critics Jury awarded the film their prize.

Another strange result gave the Canadian Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World the Grand Prize of the Jury, which is considered the second best award of the festival. Boos rang out again when this was announced since the film had been generally slated after its press show. Accepting the prize, Dolan looked understandably triumphant. UK director Andrea Arnold’s first American venture American Honey, which some loved and others disliked, won the minor jury prize. Which meant that Arnold won that particular prize for the third time after her excellent Red Road and Fish Tank.

There was further controversy when Olivier Assayas’ eccentric ghost story Personal Shopping was paired with Cristian Mungiu’s infinitely superior Graduation from Rumania in the best director category. Graduation, a coruscating story about corruption in Rumania, reaching out from top to bottom of society, was another critical hit and certainly deserved its reward for the director of the splendid Palme D’Or winning Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days.

Finally, there were two more shocks in the acting categories when Shahab Hosseini was made best actor for Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Iran) and Jaclyn Jose was given the best actress award for Brilliante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa (the Philippines). Both were good performances but not generally considered for prizes.

So Cannes 2016 ended amidst considerable controversy after a competition which varied from the nearly sublime to the fairly ridiculous. Maybe Miller’s jury gave its prizes accordingly — only sometimes it seemed that they preferred the faintly ridiculous to the nearly sublime.

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Almodovar and the Dardennes Brothers

Almodovar, monarch of the Spanish cinema for some thirty years, has never won the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes but keeps on trying. Sadly, it is unlikely that his luck will change with Julieta, his new film. It displays much of his flamboyant art, which includes beautiful design and wonderfuL colour schemes. But it all seems in a minor key as old Julieta (Emma Suarez) suddenly finds out that her long-missing daughter (Blanca Pares) is not dead but around where she lives, holidaying with her three grandchildren.

The shock is considerable and Julieta settles down to write a long letter to her daughter tellingly her about her storm-tossed life by way of explanation. We see that life in flashback, with Adriana Uguarte playing her younger self. Eventually, all is well but not until the film has filled up with some of Almodovar’s neatest tricks. Taken from not one but three stories by Alice Munro, the film hasn’t the sometimes frantic and always eccentric melodrama of something like Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It is calmer and perhaps more thoughtful about the disappointments of life.

Perhaps those who find his former work puzzling will find this more straightforward storytelling more congenial. But somehow something is lost. The panache is not quite there, so a pleasant film just misses the mark of so, etching exceptional.

The Dardennes Brothers from Belgium have won the Palme D’Or twice but it is likely to be third time unlucky with The Unknown Girl, which lacks the brothers usual social realist fluency and their wonderful heart on sleeve feeling for society’s drop-outs.

A young doctor from Liege, dedicated to helping such people, fails to answer her clinic’s door to a young African woman who is later found dead. Stricken with guilt, she desperately tries to discover who the young woman was and what happened to her. The police take up the case but she won’t stop interfering, and the film becomes almost a Hitchcockian detective mystery.

One of its troubles is the playing of Adele Haenel as the doctor which seems stymied by a screenplay that is duller than it need be. The other is the slightly far-fetched thrust of the storyline which often lacks veracity. There are as usual some fine moments in the film, such as the doctor’s treatment of a young cancer patient and her determination to do what’s right for all her patients. But, as someone has rather cynically opined The Unknown Girl looks a bit like a good chapter in the Casualty series. And the Dardennes Brothers have done much better than that. They are wonderful film-makers but perhaps even they should be very careful about their next production.

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Cannes review — Paterson

You wouldn’t expect Jim Jarmusch, that eminent stylist of the American independent cinema, to make a movie about a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry. Nor would you imagine that a bulldog he owns called Marvin gets so annoyed at his apparent neglect that he tears the diary in which the poems are set out bit by bit apart.

I have never subscribed to the idea that Jarmusch lacks humour or a lighter touch. After all Only Lovers Left Alive was not exactly fearsomely obscure and lacking in laughter. Even so, this light and airy trifle about the love of words is a bit of a surprise. It enraged some of the director’s Cannes more serious supporters and charmed a lot of the rest of us almost to death.

Our bus driver (Adam Driver) is a simple soul, happily married to Laura (the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) whom he cuddles fondly every morning before plodding off to work. The dog sees it all, perhaps jealously, but with a stare Jarmusch watches on and off during the whole film. Any more of this latter trope might suggest the influence of Disney. But the upshot is that our canine friend is a shoo-in for the Palme Dog award given annually at the end of the festival.

Be that as it may, this is a simple story about a fairly simple man whose wife, while he is forging his poetic diary, creates cupcakes, practices country and western singing and looks after her husband like a good suburban woman should. Jarmusch puts a lot of the poetry on the screen, suggesting that our bus driver has taken much of his inspiration from William Carlos Williams who worked as a doctor when not writing his verse. Actually the lines are by the 73-year-old Oklahoma poet Ron Padgett whom Jarmusch admires, and though they don’t seem quite as good as Wordsworth and co, they are nice enough to substantiate the director’s love of poetry and the often odd people that write it.

The film can hardly be accused of dramatic over-emphasis, since nothing much happens from start to finish except Marvin’s wicked murder of the poor bus driver’s diary. But it glides along comfortably enough as a portrait of very ordinary lives somewhat lifted to the skies by both verse and cupcakes. Paterson isn’t a bit patronising. It is just a rather sweet story. And what, pray, is wrong with that, even from a film-maker who usually makes cool seem hot.

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Hands of Stone etc

Robert De Niro, receiving a special tribute for his career at Cannes this year, screened his latest film to some applause on Tuesday. Hands of Stone, directed by Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, has De Niro as the veteran trainer of boxer Roberto Duran, a Panamanian world champion who faced Sugar Ray Leonard and other almost mythical fighters and was known as one of hardest hitters in the business. De Niro, whose recent work often looks as if he could act most parts in his sleep, here gives a gritty account of the man who believed in Duran even when others had given up on him. Edgar Ramirez plays Duran and is almost as good as De Niro himself was all those years ago in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The film itself, however, is not much more than a conventional sports picture as it details the ups and downs of Duran’s career. It tries to connect that career with the equally difficult history of Panama, where Duran was a folk hero for years. But, though the scenes in the ring are the equal of any, the drama progresses rather like something we have all seen before.

The film was out of competition, and anyone trying to forecast which film is going to win this year would have to be a little mad. There have been no truly outstanding competitors, though two films have so far hit the button among the press. The first is Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, a long, detailed and highly personal portrait of a family mourning the loss of the paterfamilias. Hailing from Rumania, where at least a dozen good films have reached the festivals of the world in recent years, the film is clearly the work of a master director but not one which will storm the box-offices of the world.

The other ‘favourite’ is, wait for it, a German comedy called Toni Erdmann, in which an eccentric father desperately tries to persuade his daughter not to work so hard and start to live life other than via a computer. Maren Ade is the director and all one can say is that he has turned what could have been a fairly straightforward laughter-maker into a very shrewd attack on a world so full of stress that it often forgets to enjoy itself at all. Both these movies deserve prizes, and we all agree that Ken Loach, beloved at Cannes, will get something too for I, Daniel Blake. Otherwise who knows? Cannes this year has been more than a bit muted, with less people attending and many of those agreeing that this has only been a passable year. But there are still a few days to go and you never know what will turn up. New films by Almodovar, the Spanish maestro, and the Dardennes Brothers, who have already won the Palme D’Or twice, are on the horizon. At Cannes you never know until the very last moment.

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The Transfiguration and Personal Shopper

You do not expect vampire movies and ghost stories at the Cannes Festival. But this time round we got both. The most impressive of the two new films was New Yorker Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, in which Milo, a black teenager with an inferiority complex, sucks blood to gain enough confidence to face the world. He lives with his elder brother in a tatty apartment in Rockaway, Long Island, has no parents, few friends and is remorselessly bullied by other teenagers in the housing project. He is being given counselling for all this, and the fact that he has committed acts of animal cruelty. But no one knows about his blood-sucking exploits, except watchers of the film, since in an early scene, Milo kills a customer in a loo, biting his neck and then taking his money. O’Shea, who is over 40 and has been trying to make a feature for years, has finally constructed a tall tale which is as much about impoverished youth as it is about vampirism.

The film is not so much a shocker as an independent’s view of social and cultural deprivation. There are plenty of references to other vampire and horror movies. But The Transfiguration remains a unique take on such things. O’Shea is lucky to have a performance from Eric Ruffin in the leading role since the actor maintains a strong presence throughout which never disintegrates into parody, even when all the geek talk about horror movies threatens to stop the thrust of the film in its tracks. Maybe all this will not be enough for those seeking blood and gore in such stories. But O’Shea, who must have made the quietest vampire movie on record, seems dedicated to constructing a debut feature that is as much a typical American, socially aware independent movie as a blood and guts late night thriller. Sometimes, it is true, the drama of The Transfiguration is worryingly slow-burning. But the film makes its mark as an unusual take on its subject matter from a film-maker who has patiently waited his chance to see what he can do.

French director Olivier Assayas has been presented at Cannes four times but Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart and in English, seems a strange way to gather international success. Stewart, clearly a fresh talent as we already know, is the personal shopper of the title. She shops for a leading model who spares no expense in looking good. But she finds that her boss has suddenly gone missing and, worse still for her, a smokey-looking ghost begins to terrify her. Not only that but strange messages appear on her mobile phone, some of them threatening. Slowly but surely she becomes paranoid, desperately trying to discover what has happened and why the messages and the strange apparitions multiply. Assayas is clearly enjoying himself with his ghost story and has certainly got a very decent performance out of Stewart. But this, unlike The Transfiguration, was a competition entrant, and roundly booed at the press showing, possibly for its temerity in giving us more ectoplasm than sense. If it gets a prize, which is highly doubtful, the boos will only increase. At Cannes they like a bit more intellectual rigor than Assayas gives us this time.

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Loach and co at Cannes

There are few certainties at Cannes. But one of them is that British veteran Ken Loach will get an ovation for any new film he cares to put before us. The last time he was at Cannes with Jimmy’s Hall, he announced that he was giving up feature films to concentrate on documentaries. But I, Daniel Blake, has proved that now he is approaching 80, he is entitled to change his mind.

Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old Newcastle joiner and carpenter who suddenly has a heart attack and is thus thrown on the mercy of the welfare state. It is not an easy process. A healthcare professional strips him of the disability benefit his doctor recommends and he has to claim jobseeker’s allowance instead, even though he can’t work. At the benefit office, he meets Katie, the mother of two young children who has been forced to leave her single room in London in order to get a flat in Newcastle. Furious at the unfairness of it all, Blake gets evicted from the premises and a friendship ensues which is firmed up at a food bank later on. There, at last, some kindness reaches the desperate pair. At least somebody cares.

Clearly, of course, Loach and Paul Laverty, his now regular screenwriter, care too. But they have been careful not to make too angry and one-sided a film. There is humour there too, and a dramatic ending when Blake and Katie quarrel over her work as an escort. Above all, the performances are terrific. Dave Johns and Hayley Squires carry I, Daniel Blake throughout. If the film isn’t exactly Loach’s very best work, it is certainly one which will please almost everybody who sees it. Already many territories have a been sold, and there will undoubtedly be more to follow.

There is rather less to commend the other British film in competition—Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Prized at Cannes for both Red Road and Fish Tank, her first largely American film seems a considerable regression. It has Sasha Lane as a young woman who joins a noisy gang of teens travelling across the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions. Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are the more experienced members of the cast and there is little doubt that the best thing about the film is their feeling for their parts. This is at least piece about teens you can readily believe in.

The worst facet of the movie is its more than two and a half hours length. At times, the editing seems almost non-existent. Nor does the drama of American Honey amount to much. Nothing much happens that hasn’t happened in the story before. Still, the lively playing is something. But it is never quite enough.

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Cannes Opener: Café Society

If you never know what you are going to get from Woody Allen, a director who writes notes on an old typewriter which do not always translate into great movies, the same could be said for the Cannes Festival’s opening films. Sometimes you just have to look away towards the bigger fish of the competition and hope like hell.

This time, however, most people were satisfied with Café Society, which sets itself in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is wonderfully shot by Vittorio Storaro, one of the best cinematographers around, and tells the story of a young nightclub manager (Jesse Eisenberg) who goes from gauche young man to disillusioned veteran largely because of a broken heart. There are echoes of Crimes and Misdemeanors here. But the film never quite reaches those considerable heights.

Maybe because Allen is now 80, and still plagued by his son Ronan Farrow who has reasserted old charges of sexual abuse and doesn’t much care for the way Cannes celebrates his father, the film’s tone is ironic rather than acid where Hollywood is concerned. It is almost as if Allen is ambivalent about what fame and celebrity does to you and, while appreciating the upside, knows about the downside pretty well.

Café Society, lest we forget, may be a minor strut in the large Allen canon but it has been made by one of the most fluent directors in America and, for that reason alone, is worth savouring. Add the excellent performances from Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as the object of his love, and you get a decent essay on love, guilt and, above all, fate.

This must have suited a security-obsessed Cannes very well, and even Woody’s barbed remarks about the unfair nature of competition, were not taken as an offence. George Mad Max Miller, head of the jury, merely opined that “the simple joy of being here” countered any doubts about handing prizes around. Allen, of course, won’t get one since Café Society is firmly out of competition.

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George Routier’s Farrebique was the first Fipresci award at the Cannes Festival and this year there will be a special performance of the film in celebration of the anniversary of both Fipresci itself and the film. Fipresci is the International Association of Film Critics which now covers 62 countries and distributes awards at a large number of film festivals worldwide.

Most people think that the critic’s chief job is to report on the latest films put before the public. But it is equally important to remind cinema goers of went before in the short history of the cinema. This is what Fipresci, the international association of film critics, has always tried to do. In a period when the theatrical audience for films is substantially younger than it was when the family audience held sway, the task of informing the young about the cinema’s heritage becomes more and more important. The ignorance that often prevails is depressing in the extreme.

That is why I am happy to celebrate George Rouquier’s Farrebique, a documentary made in black and white in 1945 which still manages after all these years to be included in many lists of the ten most innovative documentaries ever made. Amazingly, it was Rouquier’s first feature and came as a necessary corrective to the often flimsy escapism of the French cinema during the German Occupation. Its view of the world was both naturalistic and poetic as the film traces the four seasons and the work and lives of farmers deep in the French countryside.

We see a grandfather’s death and the birth of a baby, the ploughing and harvesting, a way of life as hard as it was fulfilling. The pageant of the seasons was all-important in these simple people’s lives. While being affirmative, Farrebique is never sentimental and, while often simplicity itself, it is never naive. Yes, it subscribes to Petain’s ideology of “work, family and fatherland”. But if it is linked to the Occupation years, it also pushes past the stern barriers of the time.

You can watch the film now and note its occasional lack of sophistication and even political awareness of a world beyond its confines. But it still works brilliantly on the senses. It makes you believe in these people and the microcosm they live in, commanded by a nature that is in turn kind and cruel. Rouquier is not like Visconti and his film is not like La Terra Trema. Nor does the comparison with the praised British school of documentary and Flaherty hold up. Farrebique is a unique film made with love and skill, and no one studying the documentary form should fail to see it. Unlike many observational films made now it allows you to think your own thoughts. The film whispers rather than shouts. It has been copied many times but remains proudly its inimitable self.

— Derek Malcolm, Honorary President of Fripesci.

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