Saturday, 30 May 2015

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,

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

CANNES 2015: Carol – 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.

Friday, 29 May 2015

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 . . .


Thursday, 28 May 2015

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. And, 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-won asks 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.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

CANNES 2015: The Measure of a Man – Dour

Days after George Miller echoed in a new age of action cinema with the 2.67 second average shot length (cutting-rate) in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, ‘La Loi du Marché’ (English title: ‘The Measure of a Man’) serves as a reminder that not everyone’s making films with such urgency.

If this low-key drama about the trials and tribulations of middle-aged manhood is anything to go by, Stéphane Brizé (director) is still wary of upping the pace.

Vincent Lindon stars as Thierry, a 51-year-old husband and father to a disabled teenage son. After he’s laid off from his factory job, Thierry finds it increasingly difficult to support his family financially and he’s left with a single option, supermarket security.

But, oh, how the film would’ve benefitted from such concise storytelling. Instead, Brizé drags out the 90-minute running time as if it were 120 and leaves us with a sincere, but unsatisfactory, drama.

The film has an able lead in Lindon and his honest performance is by far the film’s strongest suit. Thank god, quite frankly, because Brizé strange reliance on close-ups means that the vast majority of the running time is spent lingering on Thierry’s world-weary face. And, while this detail-focused approach suits the lead, in the end, Brizé seems more interested in the contents of strangers’ shopping baskets than in his supporting characters.

This mistreatment of side characters is most obvious during two important exchanges, which are left dominated by a pair of weak performances. In another film, they would be hidden, or at least softened, by the energetic editing. But, Brizé’s long takes let it all hang out – both the good and the bad – and the fact that the two actresses are so obviously ‘acting’ also ensures their work sits jarringly at odds with the naturalistic performances from the rest of the cast.

These two weak links also result in an otherwise jarring dramatic beat falling hopelessly flat. It’s a moment that came by at a time when a real surprise was long overdue, but, alas, the disappointment continued.

That being said, the film does have its moments, albeit fleetingly – Christmas in the supermarket hit particularly close to home – but the interminable length of Brizé’s shots/scenes ensures they’re far too infrequent.

Also problematic was the film’s ‘comedic’ side. Now cultural differences may have played a role here, but I seemed to be the odd one out when left stony faced by the ‘laughs’, and much of the audience seemed to get behind the cynical humour in a way I simply couldn’t.

Thierry Tagourdeau is a promising character brought to life by a fine performance from Lindon, but he deserves a better movie than this. Tough is fine, but ‘The Measure of a Man’ too often comes across as punishing.