It's difficult to find time to post my reviews with all the screenings to attend and nights out to enjoy. Today's rather quiet though, so I thought I'd catch up on posting the reviews I've been logging on my phone through the week. This will cover almost everything, but we're hoping to catch the post-awards screening of the winner of Un Certain Regard tonight (assuming we haven't yet seen it) and then tomorrow all of the competition films are shown throughout the day so I should get another 4 watched at least.
Anyway, here's what I've seen over the last couple of days:
Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Benjamin Walker, Danny Glover
Playing out of competition, Stephen Frears' latest is a dramatisation of Ali's court case standing up for his right to not be drafted into fighting in the war in Vietnam.
Sensibly the film uses real footage of Ali himself, even though the rest of proceedings are recreated by actors. On reading about this I thought it would be a risky effects job, seamlessly splicing the two together, but the boxer wasn't actually physically involved in the latter stages of the case as it reached the Supreme Court, so instead his 'scenes' just show what he was up to in the meantime. This means Ali gets away lightly as the dramatisations are very poorly done. It's incredibly bland in all departments, from the look of the film to the performances. There's no drama either, it's just a damp squib. Frears tries to add a couple of side plots surrounding the families and health of some of the judges and their staff but these are totally superfluous and frustrate rather than enhance. It all feels like a very average TV movie and feels totally out of place at the festival. It's a shame because the subject matter is actually very interesting.
Director: Thierry de Peretti
Starring: Aziz El Hadachi, François-Joseph Cullioli, Hamza Mezziani
Playing the Directors Fortnight, Apaches is an ensemble drama about a group of teenagers that sneak into a holiday cottage one night for a party and steal a few things including two antique rifles. When the owner tells an important local figure about it, a disastrous chain of events is set in place.
I thought this got off to a great start with an intriguing set-up and a subtle sense of danger and tension under the surface. Unfortunately in the last half an hour or so there's a major turning point that I didn't buy into and the film became a little ridiculous. Nevertheless some great naturalistic performances from the young cast and an interesting insight into the race and class issues faced by those living and working in a popular tourist area make it worth your time.
Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn follows up Drive with yet another stylish, violent mood piece. The plot is barely worth mentioning. Julian's (Ryan Gosling) brother is brutally killed in revenge for his rape and murder of a 16 year old girl. This, aided by the appearance of his overbearing and twisted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) sparks a viscous chain of revenge around the streets of Bangkok.
Now, I liked Drive quite a lot - it was a case of style over substance and got a bit ridiculous at times, but it worked, it was cool and it was brooding yet exciting. Only God Forgives, on the surface, is more of the same, but it just didn't connect for me in the same way. The slow-motion, emotionless performances, especially from Ryan Gosling, feel like a parody now and there is no relatable core here like Carey Mulligan in Drive to give you anyone to even remotely care about. This makes the whole languidly paced affair a bit of a slog and totally disengaging. Kristin Scott Thomas as the true villain of the piece is the only actor that brings the screen alive. She plays it way over the top so doesn't quite fit in, but her fiery scenes are a welcome spark to the tediously empty moments in between.
Another big problem I had was that it's all so nasty. I like violent films, but this was just unpleasant through and through and the violent set pieces weren't particularly exhilarating or well executed, just grim. Of course, the film looks and sounds absolutely stunning, so I have to give Refn (and his DOP) credit for that. Every shot is meticulously constructed and bathed in bold neon and shadow. The soundtrack, which mixes almost industrial drones with aggressive drumming, is powerful too, helping craft the oppressive atmosphere. It's just a shame that that's all there is too it. Maybe the same could be said of Drive, but here it feels tired already and is not enough to carry the flimsiest of plots or transcend the overbearing sense of self-indulgence and emptiness.
Nothing Bad Can Happen (a.k.a. Torre Tanzt)
Playing in Un Certain Regard, Nothing Bad Can Happen is a powerful drama about Torre, a member of a group of 'punk Christians', the Jesus Freaks. After performing a 'miracle' for a passing family, the father takes Torre under his wing and he becomes a third child to them. As the father's treatment of Torre and his step-daughter becomes ever more abusive though, the teenager sees it as God's test and he struggles on to endure what is to come.
This is a harrowing drama that becomes quite difficult to watch as it goes on. The direction is unflinching, the performances strong and the view of unwavering faith in the face of immeasurable hardship quite fascinating. Unfortunately for me the film got a bit much as it went on. The brutality put upon Torre grew and grew and in getting other characters involved in the acts it became less believable within the world that was created and almost ridiculous at times. Personally I'd have been more interested in seeing his faith questioned in some more complex and thoughtful ways too, other than just subjecting him to an endurance test. Nevertheless this is undoubtedly a powerful film, if you've got the stomach for it.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (a.k.a. La vie d'Adèle)
This competition entry tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15 year old girl who falls in love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue haired older woman. Charting their relationship over several years its an epic 3 hour romance which seems to have wowed critics and is currently one of the front runners for the Palme D'Or.
Personally I liked numerous aspects and thought the first hour was very strong, but felt it lost its way in the latter two thirds. After naturally and poignantly developing Adèle's sexual awaking and love for Emma, their eventual relationship hits the usual bumps and milestones which failed to interest and aided by the incredibly excessive running time I wasn't suitably affected by the inevitable finale.
The performances are fantastic throughout though, especially Adèle Exarchopoulos who gives a wonderfully natural and raw performance which is sure to be in the running for the best actress award. The intense, close up camera work accentuates their skills and by shooting from a distance allows them to forget the camera is there.
Finally, it's hard to discuss the film without bringing up the sex scenes. These are numerous and incredibly explicit. One scene in particular runs for a bafflingly long length of time, prompting more than a few uncomfortable shuffles and giggles in the audience as well as a couple of walk-outs. The scenes felt excessive to me. Granted, the sexual aspect of the relationship is important, but it's so drawn out and explosive it begins to feel pornographic.
So yes, when it works the film is very impressive and although the running time is patience testing and felt unnecessary I wouldn't say I was bored. However, by the end the film lost me a bit and it didn't effect me as much as the strong opening promised.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Alexander Payne's entry to the competition is the black and white road movie Nebraska. Bruce Dern plays an old man suffering from dementia who believes he has won a million dollars in one of those magazine subscription scams. Hell bent on travelling to Lincoln Nebraska (800 km away) to retrieve his award, he keeps wandering off on his own, much to the frustration of his sons and wife. The youngest son David (Will Forte) eventually decides to put a stop to this as well as spend some quality time with his father, and takes him on a drive up to Lincoln. On the way they stop at their old home town and encounter some old friends and family who try to take advantage of the old man who they also believe is set to be a millionaire.
This was a little disappointing I felt. It's a sweet, lightly humorous yet lightly melancholic tale of a man that has lost his self respect and I quite enjoyed the film. Unfortunately there are numerous issues with the execution which make it too often fall a bit flat. The main problem for me was that the performances were wildly hit and miss. Dern is superb in the lead role getting a nice balance of vulnerable and curmudgeonly. Will Forte however is far less impressive, blandly going through the motions. Worse still is the mother (June Squibb), who hams it up in the worst possible way. Her and the majority of the other supporting characters are broad characatures, which sometimes work (two large dumb cousins are fun to watch) but often don't. In fact the whole middle section when they settle in their hometown for a couple of days unsettles the film quite a bit as the humour and drama doesn't always hit the mark.
I did like the beginning and end of the film quite a lot though. These sections have that little extra warmth and offer a nostalgic travelogue and metaphor of a dying small town middle America. It's just a shame the entirety of the film is so inconsistent and occasionally quite poorly made.
On the Job
On the Job is an action thriller from the Philippines which follows a pair of prisoners who are 'employed' as hitmen, being briefly let out of jail from time to time to take down important figures and easily get away with it. When they assassinate an important politician however, it sparks an investigation by a rookie cop with personal links to a potential senator who may be linked to the murder.
I noticed some buzz for this film (which is part of the Directors Fortnight) over at Twitch and the trailer promised a slick, violent action thriller which would be a welcome change to the more ponderous offerings from the festival. Unfortunately, like Shield of Straw, this is not a good example of the genre. I love the concept and I'd be interested to hear how much of the film is actually genuine after the film claims to be based on true events. For the most part this is a generic and rather clumsy affair though. Lighter on action than I'd hoped, it instead tries to juggle too many subplots and fumbles its political slants with too many cliches and distracting bilingual conversations which jump between languages from sentence to sentence which seemed bizarre. Maybe this is a Filipino thing I'm not aware of though. All I know is the lines delivered in English were painfully clunky.
It's kind of entertaining at times I guess, if you take it as a low budget trashy thriller, but is too overlong and weakly presented to be any kind of notable entry to the genre.