CANNES 2015: Youth Review – Spritely

Gaspar Noé’s Love wasn’t the only movie with a risqué poster at Cannes this year.

And knowing Rachel Weisz was the female lead, I’d assumed it was her backside on show. So what a shock it was to discover five minutes in that she was playing Michael Caine’s daughter. Where exactly was Paolo Sorrentino (director) going with this?

But, fear not, the incestuous ogling never manifested itself and the grand behind belongs to someone else entirely. But, enough of the arsing around . . .

Youth sees Caine’s retired composer, Fred Ballinger, staying in a gorgeous Alpine care home-come-rehab centre alongside Harvey Keitel’s aging film director, Mick Boyle. And the drama meanders between the two of them, as well as dedicating some time to the other guests. This set of characters includes, but is not limited to, Paul Dano’s lost-his-way actor-director, Jimmy Tree, and Weisz as Ballinger’s daughter and assistant.

In addition to these key players, there are a host of quirky peripheral characters, including – but, again, not limited to – a heavy-set Maradona-like ex-footballer and Paloma Faith (yes, that one).

It’s this occasionally full-blown weirdness that I struggled with early on, with the film coming across as an uninspired The Grand Budapest Hotel knock-off. But, over the course of the drama, Sorrentino did manage to win me over for most of the subplots.

The artifice did loom large over the early sections, and even moments as impressive as Weisz’s extended to-camera monologue came across as overly fake. But, once again, Sorrentino overcomes this flaw; this time with emotional tenderness. One exchange between Jimmy and a young girl is particularly strong and features a number of disarmingly astute observations about art and its place in our lives.

Moments like this soar, and they’re only heightened by Sorrentino’s visual artistry. His last film, The Grand Beauty was famed for its striking cinematography and he’s on top form here as well. His eye for striking visuals is truly impressive and he ensures the film is always a joy to watch. This is strengthened by Sorrentino’s firm handle on his musical choices, which he uses to elevate his stunning visuals.

Adding to the films fake-ness is Caine’s ‘performance’, apostrophised because, well . . . he’s playing Michael Caine. He does display flashes of brilliance amongst the Caine-isms, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Especially when Keitel avoids simply playing himself. But, outplaying both of them is Dano (whose striking face you may recognise from There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave, amongst others) whose performance is fascinating and the perfect dose of Sorrentino weirdness.

Despite this being my first Sorrentino film, it feels like Youth is all I needed to educate myself in his oeuvre. His visuals and use of sound are excellent and his philosophising soars at times. So, even if his grasp on narrative isn’t quite as strong, he still makes for a fun ride.

★★★

CANNES 2015: Sicario Review – It could have been so much more…

Denis Villeneuve (director) gives us a master class in tension-driven action scenes with the opening of his new war on drugs thriller, Sicario. In a sequence that channels Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional Zero Dark Thirty, Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) leads her team in a kidnap recovery raid on a suburban Arizona house.

After uncovering some horrifying secrets about the residence, Macy is given the opportunity to hunt down the men responsible by joining an elite cross-departmental task force, led by Josh Brolin’s Matt.

This woman-in-a-man’s-world narrative starts promisingly as Macy’s by-the-books approach begins to clash with the judge, jury and executioner tactics of Matt and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). But, it’s not long before Villeneuve and his first-time writer, Taylor Sheridan, begin to turn away from the progressive character work and resort back to age-old gender roles.

Macy initially comes across as a strong willed, and successful, woman, who’s battled the odds to get where she is. However, the character regresses, as the complexities hinted at early on are seemingly revealed to be a fluke and her dominance bends, and ultimately breaks.

And, as Blunt is left with little to do, it’s Alejandro who takes the lead with a character arc straight out of any old crime thriller. From this moment onwards, almost all of Sicario’s uniqueness falls prey to generic convention. And, while it’s well-done generic convention, the film was on track to be so much more than that.

It does have the benefit of a composer, in Jóhann Jóhannsson, and a cinematographer, in Roger Deakins, playing at the top of their game, however. Deakins visuals are strikingly composed and he really draws the muscularity out of the southern states landscapes. His work shooting the border is especially impressive and, aided by Jóhannsson’s thumping score, the US-Mexico divide has rarely felt as imposing.

It’s an excellent pairing of sound and visuals, as important to the film as, dare I say it, Ennio Morricone and Tonino Delli Colli’s work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. They may not compare stylistically, but there are certainly formal similarities. In fact, the film, as a whole, draws a great deal from the Western genre, with the moral ambiguity, the gunslinger figures and the Mexico-as-hell conventions all playing a part.

But, with regards to the treatment of Mexico, there’s just as much to learn from Middle East-set war movies. The streets of Juarez feel no different to the streets of Kabul or Baghdad. They’re alien, they’re wild, they labyrinthine . . . and little else. Villeneuve simply treats Mexico as a location and a thematic basis for the cartel thrills.

As for the ‘social commentary’, it’s primarily generic in its roots. And, when Robert Rodriguez’s Machete outdoes your film for scathing social commentary, you know something’s off.

Sicario boasts a playful performance from Josh Brolin, a terrific soundscape and Roger Deakins firing on all cylinders, but it could have been so much more than the competent genre picture we’re given. The powerhouse opening becomes an increasingly distant memory as Blunt gets slowly sidelined by her male co-stars.

★★★

Mad Max: Fury Road Review – Faster & Furiosa

I sat there, mouth agape, knuckles white and eyes glistening with fiery glee . . .

And I thought to myself: this is different, this is new, this is more . . .

More movie than I’ve ever seen up on the big screen. More movie than my mortal soul can handle. More than my delicate eyes can comprehend.

I watched on as (soon to be feminist icon) Imperator Furiosa (the immense Charlize Theron) led her precious cargo, Moses-like, across the scorched earth towards the promise of a future free from the foul gropings of the tyrannical Immortan Joe. And I marvelled at the onslaught Joe sent her way in the hope of reclaiming all that was taken from him.

In that instinctual premise, George Miller, the 70-year old captain of this majestic vessel, finds cinematic purity. A blissful nirvana of biblical clarity. His storytelling is lean and intensely focused, resulting in a motion picture that is defined by just that; motion. Always moving, always forwards. Every detail, every look, every tyre squeal revs the engine just that little bit more.

And what engines! Miller’s design team have crafted a nightmarish stampede of singed metal and blistered rubber. He expertly juggles the different clans, providing them each with an iconic arsenal, whilst always elevating the overriding appetite for destruction. But, the brilliant design work doesn’t end there. You get the feeling Miller has fine-tuned every last detail to match his twisted vision, and every mask, grenade, explosive spear, nipple piercing and grease-drenched steering wheel feels part of a harmonious whole.

But wait, there’s more! Miller’s Namibian-location is perfect in every conceivable way. The landscapes are muscular, yet breathtakingly gorgeous. The equatorial Sun infuses the entire movie with a tangible sense of naturalism. Miller seemingly does away with the artifice of unnatural light and instead wields the mighty power of our life-giving Sun. He utilises the natural contrast between the seared sands and the vibrant blue skies, resulting in a movie that looks like no other. His dazzling colour palette instils an almost palpable level of immersion, with the sweltering days becoming increasingly feverish and the frosty nights ever numbing.

Even more overwhelming is the focus on death-defying practical effects. If Miller is to be believed, he really did send rusted death traps somersaulting through the air in fireballs of fury. One sequence places the practical stunts inside an inconceivably vast (and presumably) CGI sandstorm and the symbiosis of practical and CG is extraordinary. Enhancing the mayhem is Junkie XL’s terrific, and suitably bonkers, score. He channels the best work of Hans Zimmer, infusing the latter’s affinity for bombast with a through line of anarchic delirium. Yet, in that sandstorm scene, he somehow managed to draw a hint of moisture from my exhausted eyes.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a drag race of a movie, if ever there was one. Its unwavering insanity may alienate some but, for others, it will stand as a proud bastion of boundary-pushing cinema. Movies have felt the same for decades now but, with ‘Fury Road’, Miller suggests there may be more to this magnificent art form than we could ever have imagined . . .

★★★★★

And, a word on the 3D, if I may. While Miller has declared his preference for the 2D version, don’t let that put you off, if (like myself) you have limited access to any 2D screenings. Miller’s exceptional use of natural light ensures it’s the best 3D work I’ve seen in a long time.

CANNES 2015: Macbeth Review – Seminal

This Shakespeare guy’s pretty good, isn’t he?

From performing it for my year six play (ambitious, I know…) to studying it during secondary school, The Bard’s Play has long been a favourite of mine. In whatever form, I’ve always found an inextinguishable might to Shakespeare’s tragedy. So, to see it perfected up on the big screen is a treat, to say the least.

This adaptation is a prestige picture in every department. Markus Stemler’s chilling sound design is integrated brilliantly with Jed Kurzel’s atmospheric score, which, in turn, is a fitting accompaniment for Adam Arkapaw’s (cinematographer) immense visuals. The nature’s ferocious, the landscapes are vast and the mud is tangible. The film feels dirty and raw, yet there’s an unmistakeable beauty to every scene.

The film thrives in this netherworld, where brutality becomes graceful and where a seed can grow into a maddening forest. It’s a balance that extends to Justin Kurzel’s (director) handle on the theatricality. One scene sees Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth deliver a tearful single take monologue in close up, and the emotion conveyed stands ahead of any stage performance I’ve seen.

But one thing this adaptation does share with the best of Shakespeare on stage is a transformation of the verse. It feels totally normal for these characters to be using this language and the meaning is all there when your ear locks in. It’s the most I’ve ever connected with Shakespeare, in any form.

This is despite the potentially problematic accents. They’re unashamedly thick, even to my English ear, and I just hope they don’t prove to be too off-putting for international audiences.

In the end, it’s Cotillard who comes across as the most comprehensible. While she can sometimes struggle with English-language dialogue, she does a great job here. In fact, her performance, as a whole, is rather fantastic. Her transformation from manipulative temptress to terrified conspirator is brought to life brilliantly. ‘Macbeth’s wife’ also becomes a surprising entry point for the audience and, as Macbeth’s bloody plan escalates, our fear is channelled through her.

And, if Cotillard wasn’t good enough on her own, throw Michael Fassbender’s Scottish King into the mix and you’ve got a whole new kettle of fish. He handles every character development expertly. We buy the noble thane just as much as we buy the power-gorged king and his descent into madness is seamless, and truly disturbing.

That being said, star turns from Cotillard and Fassbender are virtually a given, at this point, so it’s worth drawing attention to the uniformly excellent ensemble. Sean Harris’ work as Macduff is particularly extraordinary and I hope this performance sets him up for the future lead roles he deserves.

A great deal of credit must also go to Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, whose brilliantly adapted screenplay provides the vital framework for the rest of the movie. I had been left concerned by the 113 minute running time, but they’ve transformed what can feel like a bloated play into a cinematic tour-de-force. There’s an urgency to every scene, whilst always maintaining that magical otherworldliness that permeates the visual palette. It’s Valhalla Rising via Under the Skin, and if that doesn’t sell it to you then I don’t know what will.

Seeing the burning of Birnam forest is the kind of cinematic memory that will be seared onto my retina for year’s to come. Justin Kurzel has nigh on perfected a literary classic on the big screen. An immense piece of cinema!

★★★★★

Three of Chaos, Three of Quiet . . .

And that’s my Cannes reviews finished! I hope to get round to a formal write-up when I’m back from New York in three weeks time, but we’ll see . . .

In the meantime, links to all my festival reviews can be found below. And, hell, I may as well rank them . . .

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Macbeth
3. Dope
4. Son of Saul
5. Amy
6. Carol
7. Madonna
8. Valley of Love
9. Youth
10. Sicario
11. The Measure of a Man

I’d also like to draw your attention to my seemingly ever-developing site. I’ve included a few extras features, so feel free to have a browse and let me know what you think.

As you may have noticed, I’ve made the switch to star ratings and, while it gives me less room for differentiation, there’s something pleasingly universal about the minimalism of a 5-star system. I’ve also included a feature to find all the films I’ve given each rating (it should be on the right-hand side of your page). I’m still a long way off updating all my reviews with the new scoring system but, when I do, that should be a fun little feature.

I think that’s all for now. But, as I’ve mentioned, the site will be dormant for the next three weeks or so, while I’m in New York (a work-free trip, as promised to myself and Natalia, my wonderful, and ever-patient, girlfriend). But I’ll take some time to integrate all these new features when I return. So keep your eyes peeled for that!

Thank you for all the support over the last three weeks or so, it means a lot! May is now my third 1,000+ pageview month in a row, which is amazing and all thanks to you!

And a huge thank you to Dan Wilshire and Talia, especially, who’ve both firmly cemented their title as The Murmur’s biggest fans.

Until next time,
Benedict

As always, you can follow me on Twitter @benedictseal and find the site on Facebook.

CANNES 2015: Carol Review – Marvellous Mara

Viewed by many as a Palme d’Or shoo-in, Carol sees Todd Haynes return to the big screen after his 2011 HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce. And, he’s on familiar ground with this one.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol tells the story of Therese Belivet (brilliantly played by Rooney Mara), a young department store worker who falls for married-with-a-child older woman, Carol Aird (the ever-reliable Cate Blanchett).

The drama is then shared between their burgeoning relationship and Carol’s battles with her husband (played brilliantly, as always, by my man crush, Kyle Chandler) over custody of their young daughter.

But, as you may have heard, it’s the performances that really set Carol apart. While Blanchett’s best actress snub seemed to come as a surprise to some, it’s Mara who really stands out here. Now, don’t get me wrong, Blanchett’s good, great even, but she can play a role like this with her eyes closed. Instead, it’s Mara who’s the real revelation. Sure her performance in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo earned her a great deal of recognition, but I’ve never seen her as good as she is here. She has a confidence that belies the age gap between Blanchett and herself (16 years), and her child-like innocence is just so watchable (epitomised by her heart-breaking line; ‘I’m fond of anyone I can really talk to’).

She sent welcome reminders of Lizzy Caplan’s excellent turn in Showtime’s period drama, Masters of Sex, and the similarities don’t end there. Like Masters of Sex, Carol has a clearly defined sense of time and place, alongside some wonderful period detail. They also both take a very mature approach to human sexuality. Sex is viewed as complex and worthy of study, yet both manage the delicate balancing act of keeping it sexy.

This is most noticeable during the film’s key sex scene, which is really well directed by Haynes. His sensuous camera glides over these two women, tracing their delicate curves and exploring their beauty whilst never exploiting it. He also crafts one staggeringly beautiful shot later on, using a pair of windows to create very telling internal frames.

It’s these moments of directorial flare that I could have done with more of, because the film does feel very much like the kind of worthy adult cinema so favoured by the Academy. The subject matter fits perfectly, of course, but it’s also very performance-driven, like so many traditional Oscar favourites.

Haynes’ direction even comes across as highly performance-focused. He seemingly shoots for his actors rather than for himself. To his credit, that does result in even the smallest bit parts feeling considered and purposeful. You get the feeling that he could up sticks at any moment and start following the peripheral figures and they too would have a fascinating story to tell.

‘World building’ is a term most commonly thrown around in reference to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s just as apt here. Therese and Carol’s story feels like part of something bigger and, when Haynes chooses to make a couple of (pretty considerable) narrative jumps, we really feel like we’ve missed out on something.

Carol looks like it will be there or thereabouts come awards time next year, but I kind of wish the filmmakers hadn’t been working with that in mind. Carol is an example of a film that’s so strong across the board that nothing really stands out.

Besides Rooney Mara, that is. If only we had a few more Mara’s; aiming to push the boundaries, rather than just satisfying them.

★★★★

CANNES 2015: Dope Review – Malcolm in the Middle

Fresh out of Sundance earlier this year, Dope earned itself the closing spot in Director’s Fortnight and its spunky enthusiasm gave me a much-appreciated boost after a week of increasingly harrowing affair.
From the minute the pumping soundtrack kicked in, I knew I was in good hands. Now, I may not be especially in the know when it comes to 90s hip hop, but everything just felt so right. The shoes, the bikes, the slang, the tunes, it’s all there . . . and it’s joyous.
Rick Famuyiwa (writer-director) also has the benefit of a pitch-perfect cast. Shameik Moore’s an endlessly charming lead. His cheeky smile is infectious and gets the film through a couple of moments that could well have come across as tasteless. And, Tony Revolori smashes it out of the park again as Malcolm’s best friend, Jib, after his star-making turn as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel. But, not to be outdone, Kiersey Clemons’ tomboyish Diggy is hilarious.
They’re a killer trio and I expect big things from every single one of them. But, if it’s the game leads that get us on board, then it’s Famuyiwa’s passion that keeps us there. His gleefully specific pop culture references are drenched in nostalgia, but they never come across as saccharine and, even to the blindly ignorant, the film’s energy is palpable.
In fact, the film’s pop culture references sent welcome reminders of Clerks-era Kevin Smith, as did the openly explicit sex talk and the general conversational diversions. Famuyiwa even went as far as including his own Jason Mewes-like stoner character.
Every so often a film comes along that feels like a prefect slice of subculture. Dope is one such film. Its street-smart culture-literacy is plain for all to see. Get up on this, folks, ‘cause this could be huge!
★★★★★

Dope is out on DVD in the UK from 4th January.

CANNES 2015: Son of Saul – Fearless

László Nemes’ debut feature seemingly came out of nowhere to win this year’s Grand Prix (effectively the silver medal behind the Palme d’Or), but it’s certainly a worthy runner-up . . .
Shot in a series of long takes, Nemes’ holocaust drama follows death camp worker, Saul, on his search for a rabbi to give his son a honourable burial. And, credit to the creative team for remaining fiercely loyal to their protagonist, because there must have been the urge to drift from the titular lead and explore the world around him.
But, the camera never leaves Saul’s side. In fact, it’s set firmly on his face for the majority of the movie. And what a face! Géza Röhrig may well have just been cast for his fascinating and deeply sorrowful features, but his performance, as a whole, is excellent. And it had to be; with only a select few lines of dialogue, much of his performance is purely expressive and he does a brilliant job.
Nemes also opts for a 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio (a squarer image, similar to old TVs). Add that to the tight framing on Röhrig, and we’re left with a large portion of the ‘action’ relegated to the soft focus backgrounds.
It really is a technical marvel. The blocking and the lighting (much of it seemingly fire-lit) are exceptional and the 35mm aesthetic fits perfectly. This is a deeply troubling film, and Nemes has managed to capture the horror of the Holocaust as well as any film in recent memory. The riot scenes towards the finale are particularly terrifying, especially with the addition of Tamás Zányi’s chilling sound design.
Son of Saul is absolutely fearless filmmaking from everyone involved. I didn’t catch Dheepan, but it sure has a lot to live up to . . .

★★★★

CANNES 2015: Valley of Love – The Deer and the Bear

There’s a certain kind of spiritual relationship drama that really appeals to me. “Lost” had it… and so does Valley of Love, the Gérard Depardieu/Isabelle Huppert-starring French drama from director, Guillaume Nicloux.

Depardieu and Huppert play ex-lovers reunited by the dying wish of their son: for them travel to Death Valley and visit a number of pre-ordained locations at suspiciously specific times. As they begin to find each other once again, it seems that they’re not exactly alone.

It’s a great premise and a perfect set-up for a complex study into long-lost love and elderly romance and, while the film doesn’t entirely live up to that, it does prove to be a welcome diversion.

The two leads are a particular draw and their chemistry comes across as absolutely genuine. Their rapport is pitched perfectly and it’s well served by Nicloux’s dialogue, with Depardieu getting some juicy one-liners along the way.

The film also benefits from some stunning backdrops. Death Valley looks amazing and the blinding natural light warms the colour palette very pleasingly. One shot, in particular, has really stuck with me. Cinematographer, Christophe Offenstein, frames the two stars from behind, looking out over the great Californian expanse on their tiny camping stools: Depardieu bear-like and Huppert more reminiscent of a nimble dear, fragile enough that we fear she may be crushed under his staggering load. It’s the single greatest comedic image I saw at the festival and Nicloux never again matches that shot for its pure distillation of Gérard and Isabelle’s relationship.

The crisp sunlight is well juxtaposed with the chillier night-time scenes. This even extends to a Lynchian encounter between Depardieu and a teenage girl on a tennis court. In addition to this, Nicloux’s use of Charles Ives’ classical compositions evokes Lynch’s collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti.

Somehow, Valley of Love manages to feel long, even at a slim 93 minutes, and most of the side characters just come across as distractions. But, the film is a strong vehicle for Depardieu and Huppert. And, if their interplay isn’t justification enough, Offenstein’s visuals and the magic realism ensure there’s much to be said for this over-looked Palme d’Or contender.

★★★

CANNES 2015: Madonna – A Tough Watch

Shin Su-won’s ‘Madonna’ will be remembered as my first big Cannes surprise, having totally caught me off-guard in the Un Certain Regard section.
My interest was piqued from the moment the haunting pianos kicked in as the lights fell and, despite some wrong turns, the breathless finale brought everything back on track.
Moon Hye-rim (Seo Young-hee) has just started a new job as a nurse’s hand in a South Korean hospital and we’re introduced to the establishment’s patients as she is. Most notably, Kim Cheol-oh (a.k.a The Chairman) who’s been comatose for a decade and is due for a second heart transplant to keep him going for as long as he can muster.
The Chairman’s slimy son finds a potential donor in the form of Mi-na, a brain-dead pregnant woman in the hospital, and sets Moon with the task of tracking down her next-of-kin to gather the necessary signature on the consent form.
And thus begins the central mystery: who exactly is this young woman and how did she end up slumped in a hospital bed 7-months pregnant? It’s a great central hook and we explore Mi-na’s past in a series of flashbacks triggered by Moon’s findings. These sequences are revelatory and, while they can come across as slow, they’re purposeful and crammed full of character development.
But, be warned, the truth’s not exactly pretty. It seems that life of the streets for young Korean women is rife with abuse and sexual assault, which makes for some pretty tough viewing. It’s truly disconcerting at times and, while I feel Su-won just about gets away with the rape scenes, she veers dangerously close to descending into bad taste. At one point, I felt totally alienated by the overwhelming frequency of these scenes. But, the final fifteen minutes and the effective performances brought me back on board with the film entirely.
Suddenly, the film seemed to be drawing attention to the way these women are treated rather than just using it for the shock value. And, it wasn’t long before everything clicked into place. Su-wonasks whether someone can be a weak woman, but a strong mother. The Madonna character often times seemed to encourage the abusive men in her life, but we come realise that that may have all been for the good of her child. She’s a woman desperate for acceptance; her only downfall is that she sees sexual favours as the only way of achieving that.
The central hour is unrelentingly grim and it won’t do any favours for the Korean tourist board, but ‘Madonna’ ultimately stands as a harrowing portrait of life on the streets in one of the most ‘modern’ cities in the world. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but give ‘Madonna’ a chance and you’ll be treated to a brutally raw piece of socially astute Asian filmmaking.

★★★★