May 17, 2015

Cannes 1995

Update: The complete series, including our roundtable discussion and jury awards can be found here. Do check them out please and chime in with your comments on Nick's website. Below you will my ranked list of personal favourites from the festival's competition lineup. My short reviews for each film can be found after the jump.

Emir Kusturica's Underground, the deserving winner of the 1995 Palme d'Or.

The introduction shall be kept short. You may have seen already on twitter, if you follow me, or at Nick's Flick Picks, if you read Nick Davis's website -- and if you don't, seriously reconsider your life choices -- that Nick has decided to revisit the 1995 Cannes Festival on its 20th anniversary. Furthermore, he's assembled a distinguished group of film enthusiasts, and also me, to accompany him. This page, which will be updated daily, is your reference for my contribution to the series. I will also be tweeting about each film but those will be too numerous to link to individually here. You can read the details of the series here and follow the other contributors' share of the game here.

1995 Cannes Film Festival's Competition Lineup, Ranked:
1. Underground (Kusturica)
2. Good Men, Good Women (Hou)
3. Ed Wood (Burton)
4. Nasty Love (Martone)
5. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
6. Shanghai Triad (Yimou)
7. The Madness of King George (Hytner)
8. Neon Bible (Davies)
9. La Haine (Kassovitz)
10. Sharaku (Shinoda)
11. Don't Forget You're Going to Die (Beauvois)
12. Ulysses' Gaze (Angelopoulos)
13. Land and Freedom (Loach)
14. Angels and Insects (Haas)
15. The Convent (de Oliveira)
16. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Hansel)
17. City of Lost Children (Jeunet/Caro)
18. Jefferson in Paris (Ivory)
19. Beyond Rangoon (Boorman)
20. Carrington (Hampton)
21. Kids (Clark)

La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995, B)
Kassovitz's film is over-determined and over-zealous, and has since been largely ignored due to his subsequently underwhelming directorial career, but this coked-out, high-octane story of fragile masculinity, volatile friendships and the vulnerabilities of life in the Parisian banlieue is undeniably effective, with an ending that never fails to shock even on repeat screenings. 

Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995, B+)
The type of curious, revisionist and progressive film that the Western genre, on its last long breaths for several decades now, needs in order to be revitalized and re-popularized. Jarmusch's uncompromising vision is stark, humorous and wickedly entertaining, and gets the best of Johnny Depp's eccentricities. It's not a film for everyone -- or, indeed, for every mood -- but it's magic if you can on the wavelength.

Ed Wood (Burton, 1994, B+)
A remnant of a time when Burton was still capable of making films that expressed human emotions, full of nostalgia for the simpler times of the past -- the perennial state of Hollywood in any era -- and, like Wood himself, genuine love for the medium. Depp's performance is all pizzazz but it's Martin Landau's heartbreaking performance that elevates this stylized romp to something sublime. No wonder that the film's final minutes falter so roughly in his absence.

Underground (Kusturica, 1995, A)
Kusturica's film is essentially comprised of a series of allegories -- for more than half of the film's running time, these are placed within an overarching allegory -- and yet, unlike most films that try to construct their narrative entirely based around a single trick, it manages never to lose its surprise factor. The symbolism, the allusions and the jokes are increasingly clever. With biting humour and at a relentlessly energetic pace, Underground draws a historical map of Yugoslavia through the 20th century that is at once accessible and precise, heartfelt and bitter, and prescient and timeless. A masterpiece.

The Madness of King George (Hytner, 1994, B)
One of the most entertaining film of the competition lineup of the festival. Hytner's film packs all the punch and pizzazz missing from the other English-language period dramas of the festival. It conveys a sweet love story beneath the opulence of regal clothes and wigs, and offers a comic glimpse into the rituals and relationships of the court and the archaic medical system. Hawthorne is remarkable in this film, impossibly balancing farce with a heartfelt, if unsubtle, portrait of mental illness.

The Convent (Manoel de Oliveira, 1995, C-)
One of the prolific director's lesser efforts. Although there are interesting experiments with the musical score of the film, its formal rigidity -- whereas de Oliveira's austere formal approach can at times feel liberating, here, it is rather drab -- and the literary nature of the dialogue trap the film, preventing its metaphysical elements from feeling, well, metaphysical.

Don't Forget You're Going to Die (Beauvois, 1995, B-)
The rare experience of a film that is exactly my neutral: innocuous enough not to actively dislike -- though innocuous might not be the best word to use about a film about sex, drugs and military violence -- but so unexciting that it's difficult to find the positives. Beauvois promises a strong directorial career ahead of him, exhibiting a powerful grasp of mood and colour palettes, but his film fails to register the emotional responses it aims for. We know a scene is meant to shock but it doesn't; we know the character wants sympathy but he gets none. It would be more than a decade before Beauvois would direct another film that also concerned itself with "the morality of man" and knock it out of the park. 

Ulysses' Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995, B-)
The experience is akin to reading a novel, written in an old historical iteration of a language we speak, but find rather outdated. The dialogue doesn't feel as though it's comprised of normal conversations, but prose taken from archetypal texts. There is a theatrical quality to the film's look, a stiffness to the movements of the camera that, combined with the literary nature of the script and the indulgent running time, certainly test the patience. The film is deeply and intimately rooted in its milieu, but maybe three-hour lectures on Balkan history are not everyone's idea of a rewarding university course film experience. The sequences wherein A (Harvey Keitel) seamlessly interacts with the past are the best passages in the film.

Shanghai Triad (Yimou, 1995, B+)
Yimou does what Yimou does best. An ostentatiously stylized, traditionally narrated story, set in the Chinese crime world of the 1930s. The gorgeous cinematography is the highlight of the show. The film's intricacy only hits in the last couple of scenes, but when the loose ends of the story are finally tied up, the intense finale overshadows much of the slowness in the preceding buildup. Gong Li is heartbreaking in this final scene.

Neon Bible (Davies, 1995, B)
Anatomy of violence; a gripping experience that incisively charts the roots and consequences of religious oppression and sociocultural monotony in white Middle America on a grand scale, but also finds moments of bitter, moving truth in each individual person it keenly observes. As expected from Davies, it looks gorgeous, too, though the emotional experience lacks that indescribable quality that made Davies's earlier in works in Britain so transcendent.

Nasty Love (Martone, 1995, B)
There are surely aspects of Italian culture at play here to which I'm not privy. I recognize that is my shortcoming, not the film's; and Martone's film is visually captivating, with several individual shots that linger on far longer than the film. Yet, the sense of mystery in Nasty Love doesn't fully translate to suspense before the loose knots are tied in the end, and the film never successfully sells the history of the characters' troubled relationships.

Salaam Cinema (Makhmalbaf, 1995, B+) (review)
"A timeless rumination on the process of filmmaking and, paradoxically, a time capsule for the director himself, a bewilderingly unique persona caught at his artistic peak, immediately following the end of his religiopolitical sermons and a short while before beginning a process of rebellious emancipation."

Good Men, Good Women (Hou, 1995, B+/A-)
This critic's notebook tends to be left blank at two types of screenings: when the film is not worth the effort of scribbling in the dark, or when it is so transfixing, it simply breezes by without allowing a moment to be spent looking away from the screen. Hou's film is of the latter variety. Composed of three(?) different stories on various time and mind frames -- film within in a film, past reminiscences, figments of imagination -- Good Men, Good Women is not consistent, or even coherent, and makes one wish each thread had received its own separate treatment. Yet, each section is almost hypnotic in effect, and intensely powerful as an individual experience. Hou's precise, atmospheric direction -- he really doesn't let a single frame go to waste -- means that any moment resonates in isolation, even if the entire picture requires repeat visits to fully reveal its thematic facets. This is a work of formal and emotional grandeur.

Kids (Clark, 1995, F)
It is rather remarkable that a film of such low ambition and even lower achievement made its way to the competition lineup of the Cannes festival. The biggest question this film poses is whether the title refers to the insufferable protagonists within the story or Larry Clark and Harmony Korine themselves.

Land and Freedom (Loach, 1995, C+)
Individual moments of brilliance -- such as the execution of the priest in the first half of the film, certain moments of debating and strategizing amongst the activists -- are highlights in the film, but the whole is much less than the some of its parts. Land and Freedom has a clear political agenda, but Loach's lethargic tone fails to bring the audience to the side of the protagonists. If your audience doesn't want to win the war with you, what is the point?

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Hansel, 1995, C-)
Mind-numbingly monotonous and despairing; any moment with the potential to make an emotional impact comes across as amateurishly forced -- yes, as the wife of the sea-sailing protagonist tells us in a voice-over that she's cold and needs an embrace, we are shown an image of the protagonist embracing a lonely cat. Worse yet, the arc of the film's narrative -- a budding friendship between a Belgian sailor and a young girl on the ship -- can be predicted within seconds of their first encounter, leaving little to the imagination or anticipation.

Carrington (Hampton, 1995, N/A)
So poorly cut together that all causal, logical and emotional links between events, characters, and the audience and characters are diminished. On three separate occasions I tried to finish this film but something just didn't click. Evidence from reviews suggests there is more beneath the surface that merits a fourth try, and this is certainly not the worst film in the Cannes competition lineup. Maybe some other time. 

Jefferson in Paris (Ivory, 1995, D+)
One expects no less of a Merchant/Ivory production in the visual department, and the design of this film is reliably elaborate and ostentatious, but the less spoken of the film itself, the better. The intricacies of the French revolution are understandably the background, but the fact that the complicated story of Jefferson's relationship with his slaves is treated as a sideshow is inexcusable. Nolte's performance falls flat, too; he's unconvincing as a conflicted lover and implausibly meek as a future president.

The White Balloon (Panahi, 1995, A)
A remnant of Kiarostami's pre-90s socially conscious concerns with children's stories, The White Balloon is an exercise in deceptive simplicity. A rich, delightful combination of Kiarostami's sparse, observational writing and Panahi's verve on his first try behind the camera; and one of the most memorable films about the Iranian Nowruz celebration, too.

Angels and Insects (Haas, 1995, C+)
Nasty Love would have been a more appropriate title for this film. The opening passages are rather tedious, and what begins as a touchingly melancholic performance by Rylance teeters dangerously on the brink of repetitiousness, but Angels & Insects bursts into life with the revelation of that relationship, and with it so does Rylance's performance, offering gut-wrenching sincerity. Kristin Scott Thomas's work is exemplary, too, though we have seen various reincarnations of this very since.

Beyond Rangoon (Boorman, 1995, D)
It's hard to think a film can simplify its politics to the extent that Rangoon does and still qualify for a competition slot at Cannes. Immediately positioning the locale as "The Exotic East" -- the idea is explicitly verbalized -- Boorman's film only slips further downward. On-the-nose political allegories and cheesy emotional beats form the entire film, and the unnecessary voice-over narration makes it nearly unbearable.

Sharaku (Shinoda, 1995, B-)
Immaculately designed like the tender portraits of Sharaku himself, and curiously funny like the grandiose Kabuki performances, Shinoda's film has the ideal execution, but at the service of a story that is limited in appeal and too restrained, culturally and historically, to connect with today's modern audience.

The City of Lost Children (Caro/Jeunet, 1995, C-)
Much ado about nothing. An aggressively over-stylized work without any of the emotional resonance or flighty pleasures of Amelie. The off-kilter humor falls flat in the absence of any human connection, which the makers of the film seem completely intent on never pursuing. Such a niche aesthetic experience has very limited appeal unless it engages the audiences on an emotional level. The City of Lost Children misses that point entirely.


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