Cannes 2019: ten films to look forward to

With the announcement of the 2019 Cannes Line-up, the table is set for the ultimate annual high mass for cinema. The announcement tends to be a highlight for cinema of a more international and cinephilic ilk, a welcomed antidote for the hegemony of the mainstream that seems to dictate the majority of today’s discourse on cinema. As usual, this year’s line-up features a list of Cannes-regulars (Ken Loach’s and the Dardenne Brothers are competing with their 14th and 8th competition entry respectively) and competition neophyte’s (the Senegalese actress Mati Diop is the first Black Woman in the Cannes Competition Line-up) and it is usually within that crop of newcomers you will find the most pleasant surprises (remember the breath of fresh air that was Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdman’ or Robin Campillo’s ‘120 battements par minute’?) .  

 I attended the festival for the last time in 2011, a showstopper of a festival that had myriad of marvels in its ranks (including Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’, ‘Melancholia’, ‘Once Upon a time in Anatolya’, future ‘Best Picture’ Oscar winner ‘The Artist’ and Palm D’or Winner ‘The tree of Life’) and although I haven’t attended since, the announcement of the programme is a film aficionado’s Christmas, with its riches stocking up the arthouse cinema’s for at least another year and providing enough blood to flow through the veins of le cinema international. I’m not here to claim that the Cannes film festival is the be-all and end-all for cinema, but with the Venice film festival slowly turning into more of an Awards Launchpad and the Berlinale delivering a fairly middling output as of recent, the Cannes film festival rightfully deserves its space at the forefront of the majesty of cinema.    

Among my favourites from last year’s crop were Lee Chang-Dong’s ‘Burning’, Zhanke’s ‘Ash is Purest White’, ‘Happy as Lazzaro’, ‘Cold war’ and ‘Shoplifters’. What films will dominate the French Riviera this year? So far, it’s anyone’s guess, as fierce anticipation tends to be the root of disappointment but nevertheless and without further ado; here are 10 titles that I expect to make a splash on the Croisette.  

1. Parasite (Dir. Bong Jong-Ho)

The last time South-Korean director Bong Jong-Ho showed a film in Competition, it was all caught up in the Netflix kerfuffle that became the main focus point of the festival. ‘Okja’  was nevertheless a great hybrid between monster movies, political activism and social allegory but it wasn’t a patch on Bong’s home-grown South-Korean films such as ‘Madeo’ and ‘Memories of Murder’. With ‘Parasite’ the filmmaker returns to both the thriller genre and the South-Korean language with the story of two families from extremely different environments coming across each other. Most of the plot details are still shrouded in mystery but the trailer has definitely wetted my appetite.  

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2. Dolor Y Gloria  (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

“A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as past and present come crashing down around him.” If the plot synopsis of the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar is anything to go by, we can expect another deeply personal tale in which the filmmaker lays bare his soul and then some. Almodóvar’s entire back catalogue is composed of personal stories, disguised as cineliterate tales anchored in the work of authors such as Hitchcock (‘Julietta’, ‘Broken Embraces’), Georges Franju (‘The Skin I live in’) and Douglas Sirk. His latest film seems to revel once again in love for cinema and Melodrama, so once might expect the filmmaker really gunning for the much-coveted Palm d’Or.  

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3.  The Whistlers (Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)  

It’s maybe not entirely fair, but it’s tempting to say that the Cannes film festival has given the Romanian New wave the international spotlight. With both ‘The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu’ and ;California Dreamin’; winning the Certain Regard section and ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ picking up the Palm d’Or, Cannes has put Romania on the map of international filmmaking. With the Whistlers, Romanian director Corneliu Porumb  competes for the first time, after early Cannes sidebar Passages ‘12:08 East to Bucharest’ and ‘Police, Adjective’. His latest film tells the story of a policeman intent on freeing a crooked businessman from a prison on Gomera, an island in the Canaries, after learning the difficult local dialect, a language which includes hissing and spitting. The plot sounds darkly farcical, but having seen some of the director’s earlier works, this is definitely a film I’m looking out for.  

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4. Zombi Child (Dir. Bertrand Bonello) 

In the UK, French director Bertrand Bonello’s previous film, ‘Nocturama’ skipped theatrical release, only to be unceremoniously dumped on Netflix. A shame that the film bypassed cinema’s, because Bonello’s searing portrait of teenage ennui and terrorism is one of the very best films French films in recent memory. For his newest film, Bonello draws inspiration from Haitian lore and legend, for a story supposedly situated on the border between ethnology and fantasy. Zombi Child tells the story of an Haitian who has been turned into a zombie by a voodoo spell in the 1960’s and a 15 year old Haitian girl in modern day Paris. ‘Nocturama’ was famously rejected at the Cannes film festival, only to gain favourable reviews on the fall festival circuit, so it’s nice to see Bonello making a return to the festival (albeit in the side section Director’s Fortnight). Between this and Jim Jarmusch’ zombie-ensemble ‘The Dead don’t Die’, the undead will truly reign over this year’s Croisette.  

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5. A Hidden Life (Dir. Terrence Malick)  

Even the most devoted Terrence Malick devotees (I definitely consider myself amongst them) have to admit that his recent work has been missing an inspiring spark. His latter films, such as Knight of Cups and Song to Songs feel like free-flowing soliloquys that are ultimately feeling just as vapid as the vapidity it is trying to depict. With the long-gestating film ‘A Hidden Life’ (formerly called ‘Radegund’), Malick seems to return to the kind of cinema that is underpinned by a more linear narrative structure, with the story of a conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis, and was therefore –spoiler alert – executed. The cast consists mainly out of European stalwarts such as August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx), Matthias Schoenaerts and the late Michael Niqvist. During Malick’s last jaunt at the festival, he managed to pick up the Palm d’Or for ‘Tree of Life’, so the question is if the secluded director can join the select team of double Palm winners (Bille August, Ken Loack, Coppola and the Dardenne brothers) .

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6. The Wild Goose Lake (Dir. Yi’nan Diao)  

With ‘Black Coal, thin Ice’ Chinese director Yi’nan Diao showed himself as a chronicler of modern-day China, with a vast and angry portrait of China and its deeply engrained cynicism. Partly state of the nation, partially film Noir, the film managed to win its director the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2014. With his successor ‘The Wild Goose Lake’, Diao seems to go for the second trophy in the film festival trifecta (Berlin, Cannes & Venice). The story centers on the leader of a dangerous biker gang on the run who meets a woman willing to give everything to get her freedom back. The Asian continent is fairly underrepresented this year in the competition, so I hope ‘The Wild Goose Lake’ will make its mark.  

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7. Bacurau (Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)  

Latin-American entries are thinly strewn in this year’s competition, with one sole Brazilian film making it into the line-up. Rumors were swirling about Pablo Larraín’s ‘Ema’, which seems to be gobbled up by Netflix, so now it seems that Kleber Mendonça Filho’s ‘Bacurau’ (Nighthawk) is the only film to represent the South-American continent. Filho is mostly known for his two mosaical portraits of Brazilian society (Neighboring sounds and ‘Aquarius’ are both terrific) and with Bacurau he delivers another social critique, albeit this time laced with folklore and horror elements. The film centers on a filmmaker visiting the interiors of Brazil to film a documentary. However, when a small village loses their eldest matriarch, the 144-year-old Dona Carmelita, strange things begin to happen amongst the villagers, who appear to be harboring troubling secrets. The logline sounds intriguing and although the film has been in development for quite a few years, I’m glad it finally came to fruition.  

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8. The Dead don’t Die (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)  

The last couple of years zombie films have been flooding both the big and the small screen and in 2019 it seems the walking dead will continue to march on. None one than Jim Jarmusch, will provide his take on the zombie-genre with ‘The Dead don’t die’ and those who remember Jarmusch’s vampire flick ‘Only Lovers left alive, a love-story infused with wistfulness and melancholia, will understand that the director will provide enough bite to the genre. The cast will consist out of a couple of Jarmusch regulars (Tilda Swinton & Bill Murray), Paterson’s Adam Driver, Daniel Craig and Selena Gomez. The Walking dead it ain’t.  

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9. The Lighthouse (Dir. Robert Eggers)  

A fair amount of young American film makers were rumoured to make it into this year’s Cannes line-up (Trey Edward Shultz, Benh Zeitlin, Ari Aster), but ultimately it was director Robert Eggers (‘The Witch’), who managed to snuck into the margins of the festival.  ‘The Lighthouse’ stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers in the 1890s and is shot on 35 mm black & white filmstock, a format that is rarely used these days. Most of the plot is currently kept under wraps, but with ‘The Lighthouse’ Robert Pattinson continues his streak to work with the most formidable filmmakers around.  

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10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir. Céline Sciamma)  

French actress Adèle Haenel is definitely the femme en vogue at this year’s festival with entries in the director’s fortnight-section (‘Deerskin’), the Critics week-section (‘Heroes don’t Die) and the official competition. With ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, Haenel teams up with director Céline Sciamma (‘Girlhood’) for a period piece set at the end of the 18th century, chronicling the relationship between a female painter and her subject, a young woman who is about to get married. I adored Sciamma’s previous two features, ‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Girlhood’ so ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is definitely one of the more intriguing competition entries.  

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A Star is Born (2018)

 Dir: Bradley Cooper Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle. Cert tbc, 135 mins.

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According to old Hollywood lore, there are only seven basic plots in the whole world — plots that are recycled again and again, stories that transcend time-worn clichés, only to seemingly become more robust after every outing. ‘A Star is Born’ is one of those evergreens, a rag to riches story about ingénues and their mentors, a version of Cinderella with a guitar strapped on its back. If it ain’t broke, there’s nothing left to fix but director Bradley Cooper takes a familiar idea and suffuses it with passion, conviction and a triumphant and luminous performance by Lady Gaga.  

The reason why ‘A Star is Born’ has undergone as many rebirths as it has because it’s a story about its own manufacture, as if Hollywood is staring through the mirror and taking stock of itself. The notion of what it means to become a star (or what aspires to become one) has changed throughout the years and Cooper effortlessly guides his story into the 21st century. Cooper portrays Jackson Maine, a Country-and-Western singer with a leathery voice and a penchant for popping pills and hitting the bottle. One night he inadvertently stumbles into a drag queen bar where he locks eyes with Gaga’s Ally during a sultry rendition of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’. What follows is a film that dazzles through the highs and lows of fame and stardom, heartbreak and passion, a tear-soaked love ballad that manages to exhilarate at every turn.  

The film’s version of the traditional meet cute is what breathes the oxygen through the film’s weathered longs. It’s a moment that electrifies, the kind of cinema that delivers clammy hands and sweaty palms. Or the moment in which Main invites Ally on stage. Even the most stone-cold cynic has to admit that it’s that scenes like these are the scenes we go to the movies for: Cinema boosting emotional grandeur with a palpable sense of affection of chemistry. Lady Gaga brings her own persona and baggage as a pop star on board, which not only gives the film a metatextual reading on the notion of fame, but also allows the audience to discover how film stars ARE actually born. Gaga shines with an intoxicating performance but is easily matched by Cooper’s crooner, lowering his voice by an octave to a low and throaty growl. A Star is Born boosts an almost olde worlde sense of chemistry between its two leads, vividly lensed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique whose camerawork lends the film its emotional candour.  

Ultimately the film doesn’t really venture into new and uncharted recounts of a well-worn formula, but what it does it does with heart, panache and soul. A Star is Born is a ballad for the ages.  

 

 

Climax (2018)

Dir: Gaspar Noé; Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle. 18 cert, 96 mins.

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Director Gaspar Noé straps his red shoes on, whirling himself down the seven circles of hell in Climax, a drug-infused frenzy that shocks and gnarls its way throughout a tight 90-minute run. The Argentinian provocateur is definitely not going to gain any new devotees, but those who are familiar with Noé’s brand of brazen provocation can buckle up for the ride. Climax might just be the filmmakers’ most satisfying work to date.  

From the get-go Gaspar Noé makes clear the gloves are off. The opening scene depicts a woman crawling through the snow, followed by the end credits in reverse (the lack of linear storytelling is one of Noé’s well-worn tropes) and a scene that functions as the proverbial silence before the storm. A roster of dancers and bon vivants explain the essence of dance in a scene framed by some of cinema and literature’s most notorious cause célèbres, DVD’s and books, ranging between  Zulawski’s possession and Bunuel’s Chien Andalou. Noé elevates himself to a circle of infamous peers and for once his move, teetering on the right side of indulgence, is completely warranted by a hypnotic spell of a movie, a dance macabre that tolls and whirls in stirring and unrelentless fashion.     

We meet a diverse cross-section of dancers and fortune seekers in a garnished warehouse in the French banlieues. A tricolor flag is draped across the hall, as if it is saying that la douce France is the pinnacle of high culture. An eclectic group of lovers, brothers, sisters and outcasts, led by Sofia Boutella’s Selva, are about to celebrate the end of a three-day practice run. Bodies are moving and sangria is flowing, although unbeknownst to all, the booze is spiked with hallucinogens. What follows is a Dantean dance spectacle that revels in carnal delights amidst lust and destruction. Vibrancy and lunacy reign supreme whilst cinematographer Benoit Debie’s camera topsy turvies its way through neon lit corridors (another Gaspar Noé staple) and dim spaces. With its abattoir-like tableau’s, it is here that Climax not just dips its toes, but washes its entirety in the mound of horror, sharing a kinship with Argento’s Suspiria or the flamboyant works of Ken Russell.            

One of the questions that people have been hurling at Gaspar Noé’s work is if ultimately there is something more beyond the veneer of shock tactics. Climax is a hallucinogenic Rorsach test that can be read as a state of a nation of a country that constructs and destructs from within. Or is it maybe an overelaborate statement of birth, death and the debauchery that lies in between. Madcap captions (‘Life is a collective impossibility’) are slapped on the screen as if the director is aiming for something far grander than its individual parts.  

One thing is for sure, the overused adage that X film feels like a cinematic LSD trip has never rung more true as with this gruesome slice of Grand Guignol. In a body of work that is constantly balancing between a constant sense of self-gratification and artistic merit, his latest film might be a clim… high-water mark.  

 

Some thoughts on Dunkirk

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Resistance is futile – Christoper Nolan delivers a war epic that takes hold in bold and brazen fashion. He strips down the infamous Dunkirk evacuation to an abstract story of Survival and shows cinema in its most pure form: stripped down to the bone, lean (it clocks a meagre 109 minutes) and tight as a drum. The story denials exposition and set-up (more often than not Nolan’s films are bogged down by ponderous expose) and drops the spectator right behind the enemy lines where bullets whistle and bodies fall. Dunkirk is mastery in the abstract, cinema at its most primal and vicious.

The dialogue is kept at a minimum with the visuals and Hans Zimmer’s roaring score helps to deliver the sheer size and magnitude. Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema are painting the canvas in huey blues and stark whites and blacks, as if the war portrayed is a J.M.W Turner painting that has come to life in bewildering fashion. Here is a director at play who fully understands craft and the power of image and composition – air fighters dazzle in meticulously orchestrated ballets  and soldiers are framed as mere termites as if it’s an abstract work of art. Dunkirk demands the biggest screen. This is cinema as a brazen mission statement, a work of cinematic urgency in times in which theatrical distribution has come under pressure.

Nolan has always toyed with the concept of time. His ideas and stories aren’t the ones to be constrained by linear narrative structure, as if his stories are reaching further out and venturing into realms of dreamscapes and abstract depictions. Dunkirk is probably the director’s most realistically grounded film, but once again he shows interwoven timeframes to lever the tension and heighten the sense of immediate urgency. We’re stuck with Kenneth Branaghs self-effacing captain on ‘the mole’, a breakwater where soldiers are vulnerable targets whilst waiting for a boat ride home. We fly with Tom Hardy’s spitfire pilot and we’re sailing along with a small civilian vessel to bring survivals ashore. Stories are told within different time-frames, but Dunkirk maintains its urgency and clarity throughout. Nolan nurtures the infamous Hitchcock-mantra on how to build tension and executes it to a near abstract and conceptual point.

With Dunkirk Chistopher Nolan challenges Hollywood to do better, to step up its game and raise its stakes. In times of cookie-cutter narratives and run-off-the-mill templates Dunkirk throws down the gauntlet.  It shows what cinema can really aspire to.

Thoughts on Knight of Cups

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Over the last couple of years Malick has had his fair share of detractors – “his films are like Perfume adverts” is one of those well-worn phrases commonly bandied around – but credit where it’s due.. there is no film-maker who aspires to the same sentiments as Malick. The films he made since The Tree of Life are ephemeral reveries  deconstructing narrative cinema and if you listen carefully you can hear his films squaking underneath the limitations and restraints of cinema as a medium. Malick aspires to that what can’t be put in words ; his films are scattershot meditations on artifice and memory, awe-inspiring dreamscapes  constantly reaching for purity and the crux of being. Comparing his films with perfume ads is a lazy shorthand that is completely missing the point of what his films aspire to.

‘Knight of Cups’ is a visually inventive testament about the directors own aspirations and limitations. It shows a filmmaker peeling at the edges of a narrative construct with the means of free association and the purity of images, a filmmaker bottling moments and sentiments that are ethereal and transcient. Malick is interested in the elusive, which makes writing about his work a fool’s errand (the always reliable Richard Brody has captured my sentiment is his perfect review) as word’s can’t capture the purity and poetry Malick is threading in. Knight of Cups’ audience surrogate is Rick, a Hollywood persona that is becoming increasingly more alienated of the world he is living in. His life has become like sand slipping through his fingers, an existence in which nothing is ever-lasting and everything is fleeting and temporary. Malick explores the nullity of a being that is encompassed by everything the world can buy. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture this futiliy by showing the world in columns in modernity, and temples of nature. In face of these temples we’re all but futile specs in a greater cosmos.

The life is specific (I’m by no means a Hollywood screenwriter who indulges in the carnival that is modern Hollywood) but the experience of longing and yearning is universal and Malick managed to bottle that prescious moment of transcience. His films are  pearls of beauty that make everything else look pale in comparison. No matter what critics and detractors say… Malick is still one of Cinema’s inimitable forces of nature.

You had me at hello – A disclaimer about Cinema unrefined.

If this blog was a fine film Noir,  this first post is its  doe-eyed femme fatale, appearing from out out of the shadows with a gun cocked in her shaking hand. “These are perilous times, Bogey” she would say, with her lips pursed as if she already had a taste of what was about to follow. “Perilous times, for one to start a blog about cinema and add to an ear-piercing choir of half-witted fan-boys and navel-gazing wannabe-journo’s”. She would go on about how the internet is an overload of information and information that isn’t restraint can blind us, deafen us, desensitize us until it all becomes nothing but white noise. She stares in Humphrey Bogart’s eyes and his eyes aren’t telling the story of man who wants change, but the story of a man who wants to continue doing what he does best: watch film and write about it.

It’s easy to see blogs as litter in the landfill of the internet and one of the net’s biggest disclaimers –It’s not because you have an opinion that you must share it– has so far prevented me from setting up this blog. But as every film has taught me ; love and passion will always prevail, so I finally decided to launch this blog as a place where I can muse, talk, ponder about Cinema, what it does to me. I Love  Cinema and if I can paraphrase Woody Allen ‘Love’ is too weak a word to describe my relationship with the Big Screen.  – I lurve it , you know, I loave it, I luff it.   This blog is a place where I give this passion the platform it deserves.

This blog is a project that demands proper dedication and I will try to post my views on films, opinion pieces about cinema’s current climate and love letters to The Ghosts of Hollywood Past.  ‘This blog is a gift for life  and not just for christmas’ reads this blog’s bumper sticker so I will try and stick to that mantra.

That’s it for now. The usherette has closed the door, the curtains are drawn and if you listen carefully you can hear the most beautiful sound one can imagine ; an old film projector rattling to life. Enjoy the show.