Cannes Competition (UPDATED DAILY)

Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie) B

The follow-up to the French filmmaker's 2013 sleeper Stranger by the Lake might not be as masterfully restrained and mysteriously frightening, but by comparing them you'd be missing the point entirely. Guiraudie seems to be meshing many genres into his new film, at some point even incorporating an element of screwball comedy.

Don't mind the plot, it's just an excuse for Guiraudie to indulge himself in his wildest, most passionate themes. Just like in his previous film, the 51 year-old filmmaker obsesses over the erotic and subconscious unknown. His film is an ambiguous rollercoaster of a dream that contains some of the most well-conceived moments of the film year. Wait until you witness the "assisted suicide" that Leo gets himself into, accompanied by his much-older gay lover, or did I mention the final scene which re-examines everything that came before it. Staying Vertical is an amalgalm of cinematic love, it brims with the notion that anything and everything is possible in cinema. Its plot may be too wayward for some, but those that are just fine with entering a movie that goes by its own wild convictions will be rewarded with a special treat.

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach) B

Although there might be better, more deserving directors to take the honor, Cannes' love for 79 year-old British writer-director Ken Loach's films is entirely endearing. In a career full of art-house hits and misses, Loach has always remained true to his blue-collar spirit and the fest has loved every minute of it, choosing more than a dozen of his films for their festival. Whereas some of his British contemporaries, such as Mike Leigh, have occasionally decided to tackle new territory in some films, Loach has always remained true to his roots.

The titular character (as played by Dave Johns) hops from one government agent to the next with not many answers to his questions. He's just had a heart attack and his doctors are telling him he can't work due to his delicately, risky health condition. The people over at the benefit office for the unemployed want to hear none of that, in fact they don't want to explain anything to Blake, instead they want him to go online and figure everything out. Problem is our hero is computer illiterate, he's never used one in his life, to make matters worse he's a stubborn, hot-blooded, old-fashioned kind of guy.

A chance encounter at the benefit office introduces him to Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother of two with her own monetary struggles. They build a friendship that will last until the movie's very final scene. Problem is the story is a little too familiar to be saved by its impeccable direction and harrowingly effective acting. What we get instead is a competent, watchable, but, at times, harrowing take on socialism.

Slack Bay D+

A few notes of French director Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay, a competition title slapstick comedy, murder-mystery that is very much influenced by Laurel and Hardy, but also silent pictures from the 1910's! You can't fault it for being original, but after an hour or so it grows tiresome, its thin story irrelevant and the acting gets on your nerves.

Toni Erdmann  B+

There is only one movie everyone seems to be talking about and it's Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann. If you're not familiar with Ade's work then please do yourself a favor and catch her excellent, but underseen 2009 film Everyone Else. 

Erdmann, which press screened to enthusiastic applause centers on  Winfried (an awards ready Peter Simonischek) who doesn't seem to click like he used to with his now older, career woman daughter Ines (an excellent Sandra Huller). She wants none of dad, especially after his dog dies and he decides to surprise her with a visit.  The problem is Ines is working on an important project in Romania and is so dead-set on completing it that she shuns her dad off. That's when the nasty fun begins and Winfried decides to annoy his daughter with strangest, most surreal prank, but to him it doesn't really count because he goes undercover as "Toni Erdmann": A ridiculously unsmooth-talking, wig wearing, fake-teeth clinging master of mayhem. A self-proclaimed "life coach", with a business card to prove it.

No need to divulge any surprises of this 162 minute German comedy especially in its second half. Yes, 162 minutes, but they fly by, even when Ade purposely changes the tempo of her film every so often to let the scenes linger on instead of cutting it short and on to the next one. That's fine, the flawed, scrambling, ambitious narrative structure of the film does it no disservice. Instead it's a pure delight and the current top contender for the Palme D'or.


The Handmaiden C+

It was in 2013 the sexually explicit, lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Color justly won the Palme D'or. That same year Park Chan-Wook released Stoker, a gothic murder drama that evoked Hitchcock.  This year at Cannes Park is back with The Handmaiden, a film that seems to be a mix of both films.

Erotically charged and ready to explode at any minute, the film is sure to confuse fans of the director's bloodier works such as the classic Oldboy. Instead of explicit violence, we get explicit lesbian sex. It's a Victorian romance with backstabbing surprises on all fronts. The story of a good-hearted pickpocket artist who is hired to become the maid of a rich heiress is not far off from the mood the 52 year-old director has been in as of late. If you saw his last film Stoker you will know that Park is trying to go in a very different direction as far as his film career goes. He is now more interested in tense, character-driven slowm but building period pieces that contain just an antsy bit of violent bite. No problem there.

Park will push the limits of the American censors board once The Handmaiden gets released. The erotica on display is no doubt very sexy, but, much to the director's credit in the way he shoots these scenes, no full frontal nudity is shown and yet I wouldn't be surprised if the film picks up an NC-17 rating once its released. Suffice to say, that the film is a handsomely opaque, overtly-familiar, sexually evocative romance that never bores you and yet, throughout I felt like something was missing.

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