Cannes 2016: The Last Face

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Cannes has produced its first unqualified disaster. Sean Penn’s The Last Face plays out like a satire of terrible Sean Penn films: a risible love story, crude and incurious politics, unintentionally laugh-out-loud dialogue, and a highly questionable white guilt agenda viewed through the prism of gung-ho humanitarian intervention. It resembles an advert for UN peacekeeping. It is remarkably bad. The disparity between Penn’s earnestness and his filmmaking ability is galling, and for a film that is so po-faced it achieves the distinction of being frequently boring but also intermittently hilarious.

Events are told in flashback, as the director of an international aid agency Wren Petersen (played by Charlize Theron, who looks for the nearest exit at every opportunity) prepares to speak at a lavish awards ceremony. She recalls her past work for an emergency relief NGO during a barely identified civil conflict in Africa, meanwhile contemplating her relationship with the roguish Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), a brilliant field doctor. This love affair becomes the fulcrum of the film, subordinating the themes of geopolitics and war to a romanticised backdrop, acting as a mere inconvenience for their fated bond. For a story supposedly about them, the black characters barely get a chance to speak. One climactic scene occurs so clumsily that the emotional resonance is nonexistent. There is further intended to be some sort of ideological tension between Wren and Leon, though any possible conflict of ideas is demonstrated through the pair’s regularly inaudible, semi-articulate growls and ludicrous histrionics. The politics are juvenile, the love story laughable.

There is a lot more wrong. Two supporting characters, Ellen and Dr Mehmet Love, played respectively by Adèle Exarchopoulos (a former Cannes winner, no less) and Jean Reno, are reduced to ill-conceived bubbles of oxygen. Both draw the biggest gasps of incredulity. Ellen’s shock revelation is inserted halfway through from a different planet, and Dr Love delivers excruciating pearls of wisdom, including one on romance: “It is not grabbing. It is loving.” Often after lines of this ilk Penn produces a close-up of the other actors. A look of dumbfounded numbness is the stock expression. No one knows what anyone is talking about, least Penn himself, who insistently uses an out-of-focus lens perhaps to demonstrate the characters’ myopic emotional state. It looks terrible and is a magnet of irritation. Elsewhere, teeth brushing passes as a motif, which optimistically sounds avant garde but categorically is not. Some of the blame must be attached to the screenwriter Erin Dignam, whose screenplay manages to display not one ounce of wit, imagination or self-awareness, producing some astonishingly transparent, convoluted and tortured narration. In this film, nothing is sacred. An embarrassment.

Cannes 2016: Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku [After The Storm]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here sporadically. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.


Writer and director Hirokazu Kore-Eda serves up a contemporary tale of domestic split, familial responsibility and emotional closure, deftly handling moments of candid humour along with scenes of poignant seriousness. This is a genuinely funny and sometimes touching film, and Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s elderly mother Yoshiko is close to a revelation: tricky, sharp, humane and sensitive as she comforts and berates her son for his life decisions.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is the hapless man-child at the centre of the story: an unorganised novelist with a gambling addiction, still trading on a writing prize won over a decade before, now unable to keep up payments on his young son’s child support or edge closer to winning the affections of his elegant ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Make). He is a part-time private detective (and not a bad one), refusing a job writing manga comics so to preserve his commitment to quality literature. There has not been much in the way of new material lately. The death of his father and an incoming typhoon, however, gives Ryota the opportunity to rebuild ties with his family, as the storm encloses them in his mother’s house. Grievances, recriminations and disputes ensue, though the film is keen to depict these in minor key. There is barely a shout among the conversations, as the night develops into morning.

Kore-Eda expertly judges the comedy in each scene; he has an acute ear for surprising, witty dialogue and is helped along by fine performances from his cast. The film eschews sentimentality, never forgiving Ryota for his parental and career negligence nor judging him too harshly either. Taiyô Yoshizawa plays the son Shingo with an appropriate mixture of confusion and innocence. He struggles to understand the arrangement between his parents, which mirrors Ryota’s difficulty accepting the new settlement. Despite her intrinsic capacity for compassion, only Kyoko is desperate to move on. It is testament to the craft of the film that it seems impossible to deny her this dignity.

Cannes 2016: Bacalaureat [Graduation]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Former Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returns to Cannes with Bacalaureat, an engrossing study of conflict between public morals and necessary compromises. Another Romanian entry to this year’s competition, the slowly unfurling tale depicts the insidious effects of endemic corruption within the Eastern European country. The thin end of the wedge is represented through nepotism and small favours, which spiral deeper into blackmail attempts and criminal injustice. But this is mostly a film about fathers and daughters: a parent’s choice of offering paternalism and positive liberty, and a child’s desire for independence and autonomy.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo, a respected doctor in Cluj with a network of useful contacts across a variety of public institutions: in health, education and the police. His daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus, of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon) is a brilliant student, due to earn a conditional scholarship in psychology at an esteemed English university. The day before her final exams she is assaulted and raped outside her school by an unknown assailant. Men, including her father, emphasise the assault; women, including her mother Magda (Lia Bugnar), do not dare downplay the fact that it was rape, despite the apparent flaccidity of the attacker. This fracture is only the beginning of a severance. Romeo’s concern for his daughter is twofold: obvious anguish at her injuries, but a further acknowledgement of the importance of her upcoming exams. Sensing Eliza’s disillusionment and distress, he attempts to circumvent the rules of the process, enlisting help from various high-ups to whom backhand deals are common currency. The film then carefully and complexly attempts to pinpoint whose best interests are served by such machinations.

Mungiu fascinatingly and painstakingly prods at the moral dilemmas that dominate Romeo’s life. Romeo cares deeply for his family, but is a constant philanderer. He believes in teaching honesty and respect, but eschews both traits when the occasion suits. As he castigates a young boy for throwing stones, we see an explanation for Eliza’s new-found resistance and disdain for her father. There are problems: the middle section is extremely cluttered, with several plot strands later left by the wayside, and Dragus’s performance as Eliza is a strangely muted one. These are minor issues though; this is thoughtful, absorbing filmmaking.

Cannes 2016: La Tortue Rouge [The Red Turtle]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Studio Ghibli and director Michael Dudok de Wit combine to create this sometimes affecting but mostly tedious picture. The film is entirely without dialogue – it fudges with some grunts and yelps – but the story in itself is not strong enough to carry a wordless picture. The score must overcompensate for the lack of dialogue, undermining the agreeable simplicity of the animation. Themes of seclusion, love and family are time-worn, and there is little new or imaginative here to provoke more than a cursory interest. The illustration is quietly striking, but to the extent that the various terrains take on greater characterisation than any of the island’s inhabitants.

A man is washed up on an unpopulated island. He repeatedly attempts to escape on a raft; each time it is broken up by an unknown force. The third time the audience sees it: the red turtle. The great beast comes ashore after its latest act of destruction. A short conflict ensues. On its back, the turtle bequeaths a woman to the man. Emerging out of the shell, she bears a son. The family begins to live with and against the elements. As the boy grows older, the trio view catastrophe, a new beginning and the possibility of escape.

The film is subtle and the key ideas – love, protection, survival – are presented in the abstract. The man is a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Jesus Christ; the turtle embodies forgiveness and fertility. Some minion-like crabs provide comic relief, but this feels tacked on to provide snippets of vague amusement among the dreariness. The human inhabitants are expressionless. Perhaps this is deliberate: the film focuses on nature and our relationship with the land and sea. In hope, the son ultimately swims away, leaving the island behind. Breaststroke is the preferred technique. A panorama remains, a barren coast and demolished forest. There are some implicit references to environmental degradation, but the film is not able to justify our interest, presenting visual non sequiturs as if they were profound, sounds as if they were heart-rending. Such a story – condensed to its essence – has much to say about human nature and the passage of time. It is a shame this film barely attempts to articulate it.

Cannes 2016: Goksung [The Wailing]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

This narratively unbalanced and frankly unhinged picture by Cannes favourite Na Hong-Jin includes frightful plagues, demonic possessions, gruesome zombies, appalling massacres – and mushrooms. The first act plays out like a surreal comedy, before the film descends into a thumping, incessant and horrific drama. Rain powers down, the bloodshed mounts and the wailing grows louder. For much of the end section, the noise is deafening. There is little time to take in the remarkable tonal shift, and by the point the battling shamans attempt to expel the devil it is easy to forget the buddy cop movie that was developing in the opening stages.

High up in the mountains of South Korea, cowardly policeman Jong-Goo (a permanently spluttering Kwak Do-Won) begins investigating a series of mysterious and grotesque murders. Previously upstanding citizens appear driven insane and possessed to butcher their families. The arrival of a Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) in the hills – a very explicit display of the other – causes concern among the villagers that this distant, taciturn man is behind the various attacks. Jong-Goo’s young daughter becomes possessed and begins wreaking her own special type of havoc. Under pressure from his mother, Jong-Goo employs a local shaman named Il-Gwang (in a ridiculous, fantastic, over-the-top performance from Hwang Jun-Min) to ward off the evil spirits that have overcome his child. Meanwhile, a mysterious young woman in white (Chun Woo-Hee), who ghosts intermittently about the wreckage, appears to have supreme powers of her own.

To make too much sense of the plot is perhaps a mistake. The enterprise, detail and expansiveness of Goksung is an experience to behold. The audio and visual effects are stunning, particularly in the shaman hex sequences, where the drumbeat and choreography merge to produce something resembling nausea. There is a tendency for the dialogue to tell you precisely what you are seeing – “there’s been a power cut again!” – and the film’s rapidly building insanity takes a large amount of goodwill to accept. But the dramatic denouement certainly resonates. Whether this is due to sensory overload or dramatic skill, however, is open to dispute.

Cannes 2016: La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl)

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Adèle Haenel brings subtle emotional depth and a dogged persistence to the role of Dr Jenny Davin in the Dardennes brothers’ newest offering of clinical Belgian social realism. Though the premise is suspect, and some plot convolutions jar along with an overall pace that is, to put it kindly, leisured, La Fille Inconnue studiously depicts the codes of practice and ethical quandaries of a medical career. Davin’s strident professionalism and moral righteousness are cleverly juxtaposed with an obsessive, sometimes invasive, pursuit of answers as she takes it upon herself to discover the identity of a girl killed after being refused entry into her doctor’s practice.

Davin and her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) finish up at the surgery having already stayed an hour over time. Earlier, a young boy had suffered a fit in the waiting room. Julien is shaken, irate and wishes to quit. The buzzer rings but Davin tells Julien that there will be no more patients admitted. If it were urgent “they would ring twice”. The consequences of this decision play out almost immediately: a dead girl is found the next morning by the river. Davin probes and pesters policemen, colleagues and patients, wracked with a personal guilt that permeates those she interrogates. Of particular interest are patients Bryan (indigestion) and his father (slipped disc), respectively played by Louka Minnella and Jèrèmie Renier. The Dardennes invoke the traditional tenets of crime mystery and police procedural – investigation, deception, clues and red herrings – but where good detective work usually solves the case, here private guilt and external pressures become the faulty deliverers of justice.

Davin is the hero, her hair pinned back in a ponytail, her body wrapped in a blue tartan coat. She’s the strait-laced cousin of Frances McDormand’s police chief in Fargo. Haenel beautifully articulates the character’s mental toughness. Her reticence and response dovetail rhythmically in the face of provocations, appeals and rejections. The doctor who cannot save everyone is an admittedly well-worn trope, but the Dardennes imbue the film with a level of humanity and an understanding of people which makes particular scenes intensely moving. By the end, we appreciate what duty of care truly entails.

Cannes 2016: Aquarius

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Aquarius is a large, stunning demonstration of what world cinema does so well: a novelistic, chaptered narrative coupled with an acute, engaged character study. Sonia Braga embodies Clara, a wealthy, ageing music critic with the righteousness and assurance of someone who has fought, succeeded and lived abundantly. Writer and director Kleber Mendonça Filho teases out a multitude of feelings, attributes and mannerisms from Braga’s lead performance, and he generally holds the film together throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time (despite a short lethargy in the middle section). It rivetingly depicts the changes in some areas of Brazilian society since the developing country was labelled a BRIC. Globalisation and a growing middle class promise prosperity, but also deliver greed, displacement and architectural abominations.

Clara has been resident in the Aquarius apartment for most of her adult life. The film opens with a short flashback to her aunt’s party, held in the same block decades ago. The young Clara (Barbara Colen), returning after recent breast cancer surgery, is a permanently smiling figure, acknowledging the single-mindedness and compassion of her birthday relative and the fortune of her own convalescence. Forward to the present day, Clara’s smile has diminished. She is wise in some respects, stubborn in others: ‘I am an old lady and a child.’ All of the flats in the building have been sold off; the construction company want her apartment to finish the job. Diego (Humberto Carrao), a young business graduate with an easy grin and a pernicious agenda, leads efforts to remove Clara. He wishes to destroy and build over; whereas Clara obstinately desires to stay in her stylish, tastefully furnished home. This is a war of subterfuge, feigned ignorance, questionable motives and sporadic periods of détente. Clara’s grown-up children are concerned for her safety in the rotting building, and wonder about the implications that not selling-up would have on their own inheritance. Unstoppable forces meet an obstinate, though ultimately fragile, object.

The energy and subtlety of Aquarius are a wonder: it is brilliantly crafted. Braga gives Clara’s character a dizzying portfolio of emotions. The contours of her face display the shame of a single mastectomy, the pride of an esteemed career and the fear of an unknowable future, often within a single moment. The film gets away with an abrupt plot contrivance near the end due to the warmth, brio and ingenuity of the filmmaking on show. The final scene, however it comes about, is funny and triumphant.