Saturday, 29 May 2010

Cannes Roundup

After a disastrous start to my festival experience (I missed my flight through shear stupidity and the airport's lack of loudspeaker communication) I've finally made it to the South of France at arguably the world's most famous film event, the Cannes Film Festival and although I wasn't there for a long time, I still managed to squeeze in 15 films.  Unfortunately I missed the Palme d'Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as well as most of the other award winners, but there were still some interesting and excellent titles to catch.


Moomins and the Comet Chase

Director: Maria Linberg
Writers: Joel Backström, Iivo Baric, Minna Karvonen, Anders Larsson
Based on the books by: Tove Jansson
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, Mads Mikkelsen, Peter Stormare

Yes, I know it's a bizarre choice of film to begin my Cannes experience, but my fiancé is a patriotic Finn and Moomin lover so would give me no end of grief if I missed this one. Also, I wanted something easy going after my stressful travel problems. It's got an incredible cast too (Max Von Sydow, Stellan Skarsgard, Peter Stormare) so I thought I'd give it a chance. I'm struggling to decide what I thought of it though in the end. It's a film that is either terrible or brilliant I can't quite decide. It's aimed at very young children so a lot of the film is a little too pleasant and quaint to stomach with little excitement along the way, but at the same time it's strangely dark, with a story concerning the end of the world riding alongside scenes of Moomins picking flowers and making cakes. I also liked the look of the film, using stop motion and simple cut out fabric designs like the old series that was released years ago. Unfortunately it was transferred to 3D, which suits the film, giving it a pop-up book quality, but the 3D wasn't done particularly well with some odd layer-blending issues and a couple of faulty shots here and there (it might not have been the final polished version though to be fair).

I can't see it making a big splash on it's release, but it's a sweet, odd little film that very young children (1-5 year olds) will enjoy and adults might find a certain charm to it's surreal whimsy, so long as they can sit through the overly quaint simplicity of it all.

Two Gates of Sleep

Director: Alistair Banks Griffin
Writers: Alistair Banks Griffin
Starring: Brady Corbet, David Call, Karen Young

Two Gates of Sleep is a film I watched totally off the cuff because I'd missed my chance to see Outrage (hopefully I'll have chance on Sunday). Playing as part of the Directors' Fortnight, it's a beautifully made film that unfortunately was too slow and minimalistic to really pique my interest. The cinematography, sound design and music is breathtaking, making sumptuous use of it's unspoilt natural location. The film tells a simple story of two brothers who lose their mother and brave the wilderness to honour her final request. That's really all there is to it, we have a build up to that moment and then witness the hardships they have to face in making their way upriver. It's a film I didn't take a huge amount away from, but I was very tired at the time and was close to nodding off, so given my full attention I may have appreciated it more. It was certainly well-crafted, but far too subtle and dreamy for someone who hadn't slept for 36 hours or so.


La Nostra Vita

Director: Daniele Luchetti
Writers: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli, Daniele Luchetti
Starring: Elio Germano, Isabella Ragonese, Raoul Bova

The first In Competition title I caught was La Nostra Vita, an Italian drama charting a foreman's struggle to keep his life on track after the death of his wife. It's a naturalistic film with a host of solid performances and some touching moments. It also offers an interesting unvarnished view of the immigration situation in the country. Unfortunately I found it too predictable and frequently schmaltzy to fully deliver though. The ending in particular is far too neatly tied up and syrupy, when several of the plot strands could have led to darker, more interesting territories. That said, it's still an engaging film with a charismatic lead performance from Elio Germano, it just left me feeling like I'd 'been there and done that' and too often came across like low rate TV drama subject matter trapped in the body of a gritty art-house film.

...But Film is My Mistress

Director: Stig Björkman
Writers: Stig Björkman
Starring: Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Sven Nykvist

...But Film is My Mistress is a documentary put together using archived behind-the-scenes footage of eight of Ingmar Bergman's films in an attempt to capture the great filmmaker at work. It's a beautifully made film that is fully respectful to Bergman's style. It keeps things simple by presenting us with long sections of behind the scenes footage, mixed with brief snippets of the finished films (generally the scenes we have seen being developed) and occasional voiceover interviews with some of the great directors that admire his work (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles etc.). It thankfully avoids becoming an arse-kissing contest as many retrospective biographical-documentaries become and also never wastes time trying to unravel the mysteries of any of his films. It simply lets us witness Bergman plot out camera movements and work with his cast, which is much more insightful than listening to his fans tell us how much they love him. It was also interesting to see his working relationship with regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist and frequent lead actress Liv Ullmann. There are some heart-warming touches too as we see the cast joking around on the set of some of Bergman's most serious films.

It's an excellent documentary and fans of Bergman will lap it up. Being a recent newcomer to the director myself it made me desperately want to work my way through his oeuvre. A must see for film-lovers.

A Alegria

Director: Felipe Bragança & Marina Meliande
Writers: Felipe Bragança
Starring: Tainá Medina, Junior Moura, Cesar Cardadeiro, Flora Dias

A Alegria was another Directors' Fortnight title that I caught with little knowledge of it going in. I had a completely opposite reaction to this than I did with Two Gates of Sleep though. Whereas that was a beautifully crafted film with not enough going on to truly engross me, this was a film with some interesting ideas, but really sub-standard production. Quality-wise it comes across as a student film and not a particularly good one at that. It's shot digitally, which isn't a problem – I use the format myself, but it's clean, sharp picture quality shows up it's cheap, bland lighting which looks like something out of a Mexican soap opera. The performances are pretty bland and unconvincing too, which hinders the film's message of using art and imagination to tackle the world's problems. The young lead actress Tainá Medina has a lot of potential, but the directors waste her talents through poorly conceived long, slow takes that ruin the film's pacing and unveil flaws in the actors' deliveries. It does have a quirky, mildly uplifting finale, but ultimately I struggled to forgive it's technical shortcomings and slow, bland presentation.

Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs)

Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Writers: Lodge Kerrigan
Starring: Géraldine Pailhas, Pascal Grgory, Lodge Kerrigan

A tricky one to review, Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs) is Lodge Kerrigan's experimental entry to the Un Certain Regard competition. It's at times curiously fascinating and at others infuriatingly impenetrable and seemingly meaningless. The lead performance from Géraldine Pailhas is powerful and she'll be a force to be reckoned with in the festival's best actress award. The film revolves around her as she plays an actress preparing to play Grace Slick in a film as well as featuring as herself in sequences that break the fourth wall. It's an interesting take on the nature of performance (at least that's what I took from the film) however, too much of the film is wasted on overly long and worthless sequences, specifically two excruciatingly drawn out close-up tracking shots of Géraldine. The artistic merit of watching the back of her head as she walks down the road for literally about 20 minutes of the film is bewildering. A lot of what is displayed was undecipherable in general and although I was hypnotically drawn into the film at times, I often didn't know what to make of what I was watching.


Lights Out (aka Simon Werner a Disparu...)

Director: Fabrice Gobert
Writer: Fabrice Gobert 
Starring: Jules Pélissier, Ana Girardot, Jean-Philippe Goudroye, Serge Riaboukine

I actually gave up my ticket for Uncle Boonmee to see this as it was gathering quite a bit of buzz and sounded a bit easier to digest after the several heavy going art pieces I'd watched previously.  Although I'm gutted now that I missed the Palme d'Or winner, I'm still glad I caught this as it's a compulsively engaging mystery that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I don't want to go into too much detail because its main strength is the unfolding of its story, but the film is set in a French High School where a student goes missing and his classmates try to figure out what happened.  We are shown the same period of time from several different perspectives, gradually letting the audience piece together exactly what happened.  It's a technique that isn't totally original, but it works very well and I was hooked throughout.  The ending will divide audiences, but I think they pulled it off.  I'd love to say more about the film, but it's best watched cold so I won't go on.  All I'll say is look out for it if/when it gets released, it's well worth your time. 

Life, Above All

Director: Oliver Schmitz
Writer: Dennis Foon
Starring: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana, Audrey Poolo

Life, Above All is a South African film tackling the taboo of AIDS in  the poor rural areas of the country.  It centres around Chanda, a 12 year old girl who has to hold her family together amidst the fear of her neighbours after her baby sister dies and her mother falls ill.  It's a solid film that gets its point across effectively, but it felt a little too straightforward and earnest (but with a lot of heart) to truly stand out.  The young lead, Khomotso Manyaka is excellent and the photography is impressive, but it never moved me as much as it should have considering the subject matter.  It has a warmth to it that is admirable for the bleak situations that are placed before us, but it occasionally causes the film to get cheesy, particularly in a very Hollywood turnaround scene at the end.  It's not bad by any means, but ultimately it failed to impress me enough to deem it more than merely decent.


Director: Sang-soo Hong
Writer: Sang-soo Hong 
Starring: Sang-kyung Kim, So-ri Moon, Ju-bong Gi, Kang-woo Kim, Min-sun Kim

Hahaha took home the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category.  It's a lo-fi South Korean comedy drama about two friends who meet at a bar and tell each other the story of their previous holiday spent in a certain town, unaware of the fact that their visits were at the same time and with much of the same people.  I must admit this did little for me and I was very surprised when it took home the award.  I did get drawn into the two tales after a while and found a lot of the cast quite likeable, but then I got pretty bored by the last half an hour.  It's far too long for such a low key and simple film and the humour was pretty lost on me.  The conclusion of one of the stories was unheralded too which made what had come before quiet unsatisfying.  Clearly others got a lot more from the film, but for me this was a bit dull and uninspiring.


We Are What We Are (aka Somos Lo Que Hay) 

Director: Jorge Michel Grau
Writer: Jorge Michel Grau 
Starring: Adrián Aguirre, Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Carmen Beato

I'd heard a lot of buzz about We Are What We Are over at Twitch so was quite eager to catch this, then got even more excited when I realised Gael García Bernal was sat behind me.  I was devastated however when the first lines of dialogue were uttered and no English translation came up on screen.  I decided to stick with it though, it had French subtitles and I know a tiny amount of that.  I was glad I did because despite pretty much all of the dialogue being lost on me, it remained one of my favourite films of the festival.  It's a testament to the quality of the film that it was still probably the most entertaining too.  If you've not heard about the film already, it's about a family of cannibals struggling to find an offering for their regular ritual after the father dies.  It's all done totally straight with an art-house feel but a solid, gripping pace.  It's not an exploitation piece at all, most of the gore is saved for the finale, instead it's a very dark family drama with a side helping of horror and hints of black comedy.  It looks fantastic too utilising a dark and dirty palette that creates a moody, never glossy feel for the film.  It's definitely one to look out for (IFC bought the American rights at the festival) and personally I can't wait to watch it again, with English subtitles next time though please. 

Route Irish

Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty 
Starring: Mark Womack, Andrea Lowe, John Bishop, Najwa Nimri, Stephen Lord

Entered into the competition at the last minute (supposedly due to Terence Malick's The Tree of Life not being finished on time), Route Irish is an Iraq war focused (not set) thriller about a private security contractor Fergus (Mark Womack) who returns home to the funeral of his best friend Frankie, a contractor himself who was killed on the job.  Dissatisfied with the claim that Frankie was just 'in the wrong place at the wrong time', Fergus sets out to track down those responsible for the tragedy.  It's a blunt and heavy handed effort from Loach which was entertaining enough and had a lot to say about the ridiculous privileges granted to these highly trained but unhinged ex-soldiers, but ultimately comes across as quite clunky.  Womack, although occasionally commanding, delivers an annoyingly one-note performance and Andrea Lowe is pretty poor as his love interest.  This side of the film in general doesn't really work either and just slows down the main plot strand.  Even though watching a tough thriller was a welcome change to the more slow and sombre films of the festival, this wasn't the best example and made me pray for some subtlety and artistry in the next film we watched.


Another Year

Director: Mike Leigh 
Writer: Mike Leigh 
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Oliver Maltman

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've never seen a Mike Leigh film all the way through before.  This is something I have to remedy as soon as possible though, because I totally fell in love with Another Year.  It was one of the longest films I saw at Cannes and probably the least eventful, but it remained the most captivating and enjoyable.  It's basically about a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a couple nearing retirement who spend their evenings and weekends having friends and family over for dinner.  Their most frequent guest is Mary (Lesley Manville), a motor-mouthed 50-something whose liveliness covers a tragic loneliness.  The film is a bittersweet, yet warm and subtly moving drama that sucks you into it's marginally heightened realism.  The performances are utterly superb, especially Manville who stole the show for me.  A scene towards the end where she is alone with Tom's practically mute brother had me nearly crying with a mixture of laughter, sadness and shear joy over the brilliance of the moment.  Imelda Staunton, who earned heaps of kudos for her role in Vera Drake is fantastic too, although she only appears briefly in some early scenes.

The only criticism I might give (other than Imelda Staunton being criminally underused) is that a couple of the characters are a little too 'nice' and threatened to get on my nerves, but it all seemed part of the larger-than-life nature of it all.  It certainly didn't stop me from loving the film though and becoming an overnight Mike Leigh fan.  I'm just gutted the British Mike Leigh boxset has been deleted, preventing me from buying up his whole collection in one fell swoop.

Of Gods and Men (aka Des Hommes Et Des Dieux)

Director: Xavier Beauvois 
Writers: Xavier Beauvois & Etienne Comar 
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin

Of Gods and Men was one of the favourites to take home the Palme d'Or, but ended winning the Grand Prix instead, which is still a great honour of course.  It's a classy drama that follows a group of Cistercian monks who refuse to make compromises or leave their home for the fundamentalists that rise up in the area.  There's little more plot to it than that really, the film is all about the characters and how they come to terms with what they must face together in order to stand up for their beliefs.  It's slowly paced and meditative, yet engrossing due to it's fine acting and beautiful subtly flowing camerawork.  I did start to lose interest as the film went on, finding some of it a little repetitive, but a couple of powerful scenes towards the end brought me back in.  In particular there's an overwhelmingly poignant scene when one of the monks smuggles in a bottle of wine and a recording of Swan Lake.  It's not for everyone, but it's a fine piece of filmmaking and is bound to do well on the art-house circuit when it's released elsewhere.

The Housemaid (aka Hanyo)

Director: Sang-soo Im 
Writers: Sang-soo Im & Ki-young Kim 
Starring: Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Seo Woo, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Yeo-Jong Yun

A remake of a 1960 Korean film of the same name (which I know nothing about), The Housemaid is an erotically charged thriller about a young housemaid who is seduced by the man of the house, leading to his wife and mother-in-law plotting revenge against her.  For a Cannes In Competition entry I must admit I found it pretty trashy.  I don't mean that in a particularly bad way and it's certainly not an exploitative B movie, it's just occasionally silly and has its share of raunchy sex scenes and nudity.  It's nicely shot though, well produced and entertaining.  I thought it lost its way a bit towards the final third, as it got a bit daft when the mother in law was introduced.  She comes across as a bit of a pantomime villain and her actions seemed too over the top at times.  I had fun with this though and it's worth a watch, even though it's not the best film of the festival by any means.

Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project

Director: Kornél Munruczó 
Writer: Kornél Munruczó
Based on the Novel by: Mary Shelley
Starring: Rudolf Frecska, Kitty Csíkos, Lili Monori, Kornél Mundruczó

My last film at Cannes was unfortunately a massive disappointment.  Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project is a modern day spin on the classic Mary Shelley novel, switching the man-made monster to an unwanted child who now in his late-teens/early twenties tracks down his mother to find out the truth of his lost childhood.  It's a painfully slow film that doesn't really go anywhere.  Yes it looks fantastic, but it outstays it's welcome after half an hour or so.  I thought their treatment of the original story failed too, ruining the sensitivity and humanity of the original character by turning the 'monster' into a murderous nutcase rather than a misunderstood innocent.  The acting style is very stilted too which got infuriating after a while and added to it's plodding pace.  Cinematography buffs will appreciate some of the visuals, there are some very well composed sequences, but ultimately this film is as dull as you get and in my opinion ruined a powerful story.


  1. I just came across your website and enjoyed it and reading your reviews a lot(even the ones I disagree with!)The only thing that would have made it better for me is if you listed the country each one of these films came from, next to the review. That always makes international film reviews more interesting for me...

  2. I usually do add the country of origin to my reviews, but because of the volume of them for this post I skimped on a few details, so apologies!

    Glad to hear you enjoy it though. I do most of my writing over at Blueprint: Review these days (which I manage too) so head over there to check it out.

  3. I just read the reviews and agreed with you on HAHA.But did not think ANOTHER YEAR is the best of Mike Leigh though all the actors were fabulous especially Manville .But the film had certain dull moments where Manville was not present.The film was definitely better than HAPPY GO LUCKY.I am going to watch Of Gods and Men next week at a French Film Festival .

  4. I do think Manville was incredible, but I was captivated by the whole film. It's still probably my favourite film of the year. I've not seen enough of Leigh's work to say it was his best, but I thought it was brilliant.