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:: Spotlight :: 69th Festival de Cannes - the films

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

Going to Cannes for the 69th Film Festival was a most interesting experience, especially being part of a 4,900 strong press contingent for the first time. There was so much to see and do, with scores of films and press conferences, and several trade stands in the market section. The security was very strong and the scores of everyday people wanting big premiere tickets was incredible. Watching their favourite stars on the red carpet was a special time for the locals as they would set up a position nearly all day to wait for the appearances at about 7.00pm each night.

Swaths of reporters, producers, vacationers, partygoers, and desperate ticket seekers paraded a thousand times up and down the Croisette. When not parading, many found themselves happily nestled in their fauteuils - the comfortable seats that fill the various screening rooms, large and small, of the Palais des Festivals and its orbiting theatres. They were eager for new and foreign worlds to flash, larger than life, before their eyes. The Cannes Film Festival had a lot to offer the journalists, distributors and dreamers.

As for the films, the Cannes Jury, headed by Australia's George Miller, had a tough time deciding who might win awards this year. Here is a rundown of what I saw.

THE NICE GUYS

Shane Black is to friendly cop films as like Raymond Chandler is to crime novels, and his latest movie, the retro detective noir “The Nice Guys,” is arguably his best entry in the genre since redefining the formula three decades ago. Although it hits all of the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency, brimming with witty banter, solid action and even a little heart, that it feels totally fresh.

Set in 1977 in the seedy, neon-tinged underbelly of Los Angeles, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a drunken private eye who’s less concerned about solving mysteries than getting paid. His latest gig finds him investigating the death of famous adult film star Misty Mountains, and though it sounds like an open-and-shut case, Misty’s grandmother claims that she saw the actress alive several days after the car accident that supposedly killed her. Holland’s only lead is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who was seen leaving Misty’s house on the date in question, but the trail goes cold after enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is enlisted by Amelia to stop Holland from following her around. However, when Amelia’s life is threatened by a pair of menacing thugs and she goes on the run, Jackson and Holland team up to track her down with some help from the latter’s precocious tween daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). But as they get closer to uncovering the truth behind Amelia’s involvement in the conspiracy, an assassin (Matt Bomer) is sent to silence them.

The story is admittedly a bit of a mess, especially during the opening minutes, but its main purpose is to get Holland and Jackson in the same room together, because that’s when the real fun begins. The classically mismatched duo are both broken men battling their respective demons, but together, they’re a loveable pair of losers who bring out the best in one another. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s dialogue crackles with wit and humour, while the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe is outstanding.

The supporting cast doesn’t get much to do apart from the young Australian actress Angourie Rice, who holds her own alongside her talented co-stars, but that’s okay, because this is basically a two-man show; Gosling and Crowe are so entertaining together, playing off each other’s strengths, that it practically demands sequels. Overall, the running time may have been a little long but it’s a consistently enjoyable film that reconfirms why Shane Black is the best at what he does.

I, DANIEL BLAKE

Amidst the glamour and glitter of Cannes, Ken Loach brings us all back down to earth – and in this specific case, austerity-riddled Tyneside – with an uncomfortable and painful bump. I, Daniel Blake is the story of our eponymous hero (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner who has suffered a heart attack. Although on the mend, his greatest challenge is not the physiotherapy or the pills, but the Byzantine benefits system he has to navigate in order to claim income support.

The film opens with the first of many phone calls between Daniel and the state, which leads him through a maze of dead-ends and farcical encounters. Some of these encounters are incredibly funny – at least until you remember that countless claimants are having the very same conversations all over the UK. Loach pulls no punches here and his anger is palpable, despite Daniel’s own good-humoured attempts to remain civil and sane.

Daniel is well-liked by his former colleagues, who saw him keel over and almost plummet from the scaffolding at work, and he has a good relationship with his scallywag neighbour. We see why he’s so liked when he stands up for Katie (Hayley Squires) at the job centre. A new arrival from London, she has been housed in Newcastle with her two young children as there is no place for her back home. As the two form a bond, and Daniel becomes a grandfather figure for her lonely children, we see them deal with the humiliations and frustrations faced by people in need. One tear-inducing scene sees Katie wolfing down baked beans at the food bank, weak with hunger and consumed with shame. But we all feel a little shame when we see the long line of people queuing for their bag of groceries.

As the film progresses, so the situation of both Daniel and Katie deteriorates. Yet Daniel is determined to hold on to his self-respect and he tries desperately to communicate this to Katie. She’s been reduced to stealing sanitary towels from the supermarket and worse, for while the government turns its back on people like Katie, Loach reminds us that there are plenty of others willing to take advantage of their plight.

Many of Loach’s best films have revolved around a decent man in difficult situations and in Dave Johns he has found the ideal actor to portray a man finding himself going through the inner circles of hell that are the benefits system. Johns oozes warmth and humour, while as Katie, Hayley Squires shows the vulnerability of a woman on the brink.

Loach is brutally direct; the issues are presented as black and white, the tragic ending seems inevitable and the reasons behind it are explicitly articulated. But without any doubt I, Daniel Blake is a deeply moving and, sadly, much-needed reminder of everything that’s wrong with Britain’s benefits system and a man’s right – and defence of his fight – to be treated as a human being by the state that has devised it.

LOVING

Based upon the famous case of Loving vs. Virginia, a landmark moment in the civil rights movement in America that invalidated laws preventing interracial marriage, Jeff Nichols’ Loving is far, far removed from what that premise might suggest. Nichols avoids all the expected cliches that this would normally include, and delivers an emotional, political and handsomely crafted period drama.

Instead of making a court room drama, the likes of which we are very used to seeing come out of Hollywood, Nichols instead chose to focus on the emotional core of this case: the love between the couple at its centre – Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga). The loving couple – their name would be far too on the nose if it weren’t for the fact that this is based on real life events – are shown early on to share a tender and incredibly warm relationship, and when Mildred falls pregnant Richard quickly proposes. But Virginia doesn’t allow mixed race couples to marry, and so the pair must elope to Washington.

But not long after returning to Virginia they are arrested, charged, and told that they will face prison time unless they move out of the state for a period of twenty-five years. They must leave behind their family and the life that they love – particularly the countryside in which they have grown up – to move to the city. As they arrive in Washington and pull up in front of the house in which they will be living, Mildred looks down at a patch of weeds on the pavement, the only piece of greenery to be seen. It’s a tender and deeply sad moment that Nichols smartly plays relatively subtly.

Ruth Negga’s performance also tells a story that no amount of words could ever cover, her expressive eyes frequently conveying so much emotion and telling us so much about what this strong women thinks. Joel Edgerton does a superb job of showing just enough cracks to let us into the character and understand the emotion beneath the surface. A late moment in which he tells one of their lawyers what message to give the Supreme Court is a phenomenally simple and beautiful line, which Edgerton delivers in a way that convinces that he has been living with this injustice for years. This is Joel's best performance to date.

Nichols tells the pair’s story in an understated and simple manner, so much so that it’s not until the later scenes that the weight of emotion and political significance really begins to creep in, and there are only a few minutes of courtroom scenes, despite the film lasting two hours. Nichols wisely realises that we don’t need to see the lawyers and judges arguing and making a case for and against these two people in love being allowed to stay together; some truths are self evident.

MONEY MONSTER

There really is no denying that the American financial institution is rigged. Movies like The Big Short and Capitalism: A Love Story delve deep into just how Wall Street and banks routinely screw over the middle class in order to make big profits and pay their CEOs huge bonuses.

In this movie, George Clooney play Lee Gates, the host of the TV financial show “Money Monster". One day during a live broadcast of the show, a man (Jack O’Connell) dressed as a delivery driver makes his way onto the set. He shoots a gun in the air and then points it at Gates. He then demands Gates to put on an explosive vest and keep to the cameras broadcasting until he gets answers on why his life savings went missing when an investment company’s trading algorithm glitched and lost their investors $800 million. To make matters worse the stranger blames Gates for saying on his program that the investment was a guaranteed safe bet. It’s now up to the show’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) to investigate the high-tech global market’s computer glitch before everyone in the studio is blown up in front of millions of viewers.

I really liked Money Monster. It had an intriguing, yet simple premise to follow. You didn’t need to be a financial Einstein to explain what was going on. The movie didn’t come off as pretentious. The movie instead focused more on the tension of the situation and how the characters dealt with the insane circumstances.

Jodie Foster steps behind the camera to direct this thriller. She and her crew do a great job with editing, pacing, and camera work. The whole movie is supposed to take place in real time and it felt like it. I also liked that the movie was equal parts intense, funny, informative, and social commentary. George Clooney and Julia Roberts put in terrific performances. But it was Jack O’Connell as the stranger Kyle Budwell who played an eye-catching role. That I liked about the character was that he was an allegory for all the citizens who have lost it all because of the greed of corporate America. I felt more for Kyle than any other character because just like him, all we want are answers. All we want is an apology.

What I also liked about Money Monster was how it showed society as they were glued to their TVs and smartphones. The movie does a good job realistically portraying society as hungry for carnage and addicted to their social media. It’s no wonder that banks and corporations can get away with with what they do. Money Monster made me sad to watch as it was not just an eye-opening look at financial greed, but also the reality that deep down, even though society demands to know everything in the information age, it is never acted on.

Overall, this is a pretty good movie that kept me on the edge of my seat. Even though it’s a fictional look into the corruption of Wall Street, it’s still a sad social commentary on the shenanigans the financial institution pulls on the American public. Even though the performances of George Clooney and Julia Roberts may not be deemed Oscar calibre, I still think they did a great job with their characters. The only big negative of the movie is its low replay value. Once you see the movie, I really couldn't watch it again. If you’re looking for an interesting and intriguing thriller, Money Monster is worth checking out at a bargain matinee.

JULIETA

Though Pedrp Almodovar's newest film in competition, Julieta, is good, I can't over-enthuse about it. In this melodrama Almodovar adapts several Alice Munro short stories into the one cohesive plot. After running into a friend of her estranged daughter, Julieta (played by both Adriana Ugarte as the older Julieta and Emma Suárez as the younger) decides to contact her daughter with a tell-all letter explaining her past and scrutinising the circumstances that lead to their estrangement.

The film is ostensibly about guilt, Julieta’s guilt. This overriding emotion begins to infect the character early on, as she takes a train which a man throws himself off of and commits suicide. Just moments before this he had tried to talk to her, but she had taken his efforts to connect to be unwanted advances, and she ran away. Later in the story her husband dies, and again she feels a sense of guilt, not helped by her daughter ultimately blaming her for his death.

This intense guilt spreads and courses through Julieta’s veins like a virus, but this emotion never really breaks through the screen and into your own thoughts and feelings. Both Suarez and Ugarte are perfectly fine in their respective Julieta roles, but they’re not delivering performances that reach out into the audience and pull hard on your heart strings; they and the story of the film’s various guilt-ridden twists just flicker on the screen a little dully, without sparking into life.

The filmmaking is anything but dull though, as Almodovar’s wonderful eye for production design and gorgeous approach to framing and camerawork is all on display here to the nth degree. Like so much in Julieta, it’s stunning to look at but it’s not in service of a narratively, emotionally or thematically rich narrative and therefore it simply feels wasted.

AMERICAN HONEY

One of the hottest in-competition tickets at the Palais this year was American Honey from British director Andrea Arnold. When first we meet Star (Sasha Lane) she is dumpster diving for food, and hitching lifts with children that are obviously not her own. After she meets Jake (Shia La Boeuf) at a K Mart and he offers her a job selling magazines door to door, she leaves the kids with their parents, and sets off on a road trip across America with Jake and other disaffected and lost teens, led by the mysterious Krystal (Riley Keough).

The film’s first half is fantastic; we can see how the young salespeople feel sweepingly liberated by a life of drinking, smoking, and singing on the open road, but we can also see how close they are to the dangers of absolute destitution, a juxtaposition of ideas that elicits a strong emotional reaction to the film.

Lane is well able enough to carry the film, and works well with the other members of the cast. Shia La Boeuf plays Jake, the salesperson most favoured by Krystal, and who develops an infatuation with Star. La Boeuf’s performance as the morally bereft Jake is strong, and a good contrast to the well meaning and kind Star. Riley Keough makes Krystal ruthless and unlikeable, delivering many of her lines with a dripping malice.

As director, Andrea Arnold makes the kids likeable for the most part; it is clear they are having the time of their lives crossing the country with little responsibility, staying in motels and partying every night, but this means that the 2 hour 42 minute running time of the film feels drawn out, and the eventual ending unsatisfactory.

In all, American Honey feels too familiar to be truly original. Though the characters are charming, if you are looking for a two and a half hour video on how beautiful the USA can be, during which the characters change very little, then this is the film for you. The rest of us, however, may struggle to stay engaged.

IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD

Xavier Dolan has shined since 2009 as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, both by his career and style. After winning the Jury Prize in 2014 for his vigorous Mommy, his entry in the Official Selection for 2016 was much anticipated: Juste la Fin du Monde however will surprise addicts of his showy aesthetic as much as sceptics.

The action of Juste la Fin du Monde takes place in a single afternoon, as playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel, a regular in Dolan’s movies) visits his problematic family for the first time in 12 years, in order to announce his own death. As his mother, sister, brother and sister-in-law sway between eagerness to communicate with their long-lost relative and showing him total resentment, Louis (briefly) comes to terms with his own past.

Adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s homonym theatre piece, the picture combines a stage-like single-afternoon, single-setting story that focuses on inner drama, with a few sprints of all-out Dolan-esque. Louis’s memories set off sequences of artsy, symbolic and choreographed shots with Dolan’s distinctive vintage edge. The story itself is an intense emotional endeavour that reveals, without explaining, the choked contrasts within a family. The director always aims for a cinema of harsh emotional impact, and Lagarce’s play gives an excellent base.

Plaudits go to the actors’ vigorous interpretations of the family members. Nathalie Baye is delightfully campy in a face-full of ridiculous make-up (the way Dolan seems to like them), Léa Seydoux and Marion Cotillard both remarkably troubled, while Vincent Cassel’s performance as the ill-tempered brother is as disturbing as it is remarkable.

It's Only The End Of The World is fundamentally a theatre piece with enough pop extras to keep it recognisably Dolan, with an uncertain mix of new and old, it essentially feels like a transition film.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

The setting is West Texas and within a few seconds, director David Mackenzie manages to depict all the destitution and despair in the rural backwaters of the US. We see empty streets with sale signs and foreclosure notices in the windows, graffiti protesting the government’s lack of provision for its ex-service men and women, and the signs of the cross on the church windows across the street in this God-fearing, gun-toting state. Blasting onto this desolate setting are two masked bank robbers, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster).

Setting upon the teller who’s opening the bank, it’s soon apparent that Toby is a rookie and the victim (played by the excellent Dale Dickey) isn’t afraid to let them know it. We also quickly grasp that Tanner not only has more experience, he also is more violent. As the men screech off to their next robbery, the audience has a clear picture of who these men are and what makes them tick. Tanner is all about the high octane chase and the adrenalin rush of the heist, whereas his younger brother has a focus, which is to save his dead mother's ranch and leave it to his boys.

In this opening scene Mackenzie sets the tone for the rest of the film, which veers between high tension and laugh-out-loud comedy thanks to Taylor Sheridan’s beautifully balanced screenplay. Continuing from the opening shots, there are also constant references to the dire financial situation of so many in the US. Mackenzie depicts how uneasily Texas embraces contemporary culture and how fiercely it clings to the past in a scene with a cowboy on horseback at a gas station whose horse is worried by two oiks in a sports car blaring out rock music. The film also pokes fun at the gun culture in Texas:

On the brothers’ tail is the Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham), the part Cherokee-part Mexican long-suffering butt of his boss’s politically incorrect jokes. Marcus is on the verge of retirement and this could be his last big case. There is a lovely symmetry to the relationships between the two pairs of men.

Mackenzie has not created anything groundbreaking with Hell or High Water, but he has stayed true to traditional tales of cops and robbers, of lovable rogues, and of old, wise lawmakers. The four main characters are strong, with Jeff Bridges clearly in his element here. Pine gets his teeth into this lead role and it is great to see Foster share so much screen space alongside him. Their sibling shorthand and their physicality make you believe they are brothers. Yet there are some lovely performances from the supporting cast as the old timers, clerks and waitresses of a Texas that is still part cowboy country and which is reeling from the poverty brought on it by the banks.

THE LAST FACE

Charlize Theron is in the lead role as Wren, a South African woman who stays in the field with her father’s charity after she meets the charming Miguel (Javier Bardem). Theron does well in the role, but this badly written character spouts nonsense for much of the film and insists that people don’t truly know her beyond the superficial. Javier Bardem makes Miguel charming, but again, fights against a script that is full of odd choices and lines that mean very little when actually examined. The rest of the cast features Jared Harris, Jean Reno, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sean Penn’s son Hopper Jack Penn in criminally small and underdeveloped roles.

The screenplay, written by Erin Dignam, pits the first world plight of two privileged people against the backdrop of war, which feels vulgar and exploitative. The title card for this film would have us believe that the “burning love” between the two helped to end the war, but instead, their whining about their feelings and the morality of what they are doing feels indulgent, when real suffering is happening just behind them. The film never examines the politics of the war that it uses as dramatic tension, which again, feels crass and exploitative.

Director Sean Penn never truly manages to get great performances from his actors, all of whom have the capacity to be great. Most of the performances verge into soap opera drama much of the time, with drama being inserted for no good reason, which makes the film feel disjointed and odd. As well as this, the decision to tell the story through odd flashbacks and flash forwards makes for some incredibly messy pacing. Overall, the cast and subject matter of ‘The Last Face’ deserved better than what they got.