REVIEW ROUND-UP: ‘Shield of Straw’, ‘Borgman’, ‘The Great Beauty’

Shield of StrawWe’re hurtling forward towards the end of Cannes now, which makes the subject of review round-ups all the more stressful. Do we really want to see an end in sight for this amazing festival of features? It’s the feeling that greets the tailend of any major, or even minor, festival. It’s almost comforting when a film opens to a mixed-to-negative response, because at least we’re not intensely anticipating yet another film.

Enter Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw which, as it turns out, is not another martial arts film set in ancient times, but a modern day action thriller about the police defending a fugitive from an onslaught of assassins trying to collect a price on said fugitive’s head. It’s like a metropolitan western of sorts. Peter Debruge of Variety certainly sees something engaging in the film, but it’s made murky by the script’s twisty turns.

Tighten the film to a sleek 80 minutes, and it could be a white-knuckle experience. Instead, the script plays head games, implying that there may be a traitor among the five cops. That action-lean, talk-heavy approach might still have been the way to go, as it was in the timeless Hollywood classic “3:10 to Yuma,” though the characters would have had to be clearer and the actors stronger to pull it off. Instead, the governing motive here seems to be a code of honor, as decent cops risk their lives to protect an ungrateful scumbag — a realization that forces each of their resolves to waver at least once during the mission. It’s encouraging to find a strong woman on the team (played by Nanako Matsushima), though what happens to that character is one of the film’s greatest miscalculations.

For Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian, Miike’s film is even more of a mess, plodding along endlessly until it can’t any longer.

Basic logic is cheerfully or rather cheerlessly ignored and we get a sort of Assault-on-Mobile-Precinct-13-meets-The-Taking-of-Pelham-123-meets-Reservoir-Canine-Cops. Which would be fine, up to point: after all, it is, in Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal words, only a movie. But if it wasn’t also so boring and ridiculous, then the audience would feel it easier to forget that their collective intelligence had been massively insulted. Well, after two long hours, the crude and absurd movie finally expires. Thrillers, however far-fetched, need some plausibility. This has none.

BorgmanA different kind of intensity greeted critics bound for Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, where the titular character breaks the facade of a wealthy family by holding them hostage in unsettling fashion. I get the feeling that learning any more than that would ruin the fun that lies in store, and positive word has vindicated that assessment. In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge talks of the unexpectedly humour that gives this dark film a sly edge.

For the sake of descriptive economy, it’s tempting to classify “Borgman” (named for its oddly passive-aggressive chief villain) as another entry in the increasingly popular subgenre of the home-invasion thriller, but that would misrepresent the film’s more complex premise. “Home inveigling” or even “home infection” would be closer to the mark: Many of the most horrific domestic violations in this story occur with the permission of the family under threat, lending a Pinter-esque slant to van Warmerdam’s slow-burning narrative.

Shaun Munro of Film School Rejects is also astonished by van Warmerdam’s careful concealing and unveiling of relationships amidst the tense atmosphere.

Van Warmerdam keeps us in the dark for most of the picture, which is rather amusing in of itself, as increasingly absurd things happen to the central family unit. To the director’s credit, he doesn’t clue us in too much as to the family’s relationships with one another prior to the invasion, such that when Marina begins to dream of being violently abused by her husband, we have no idea whether this is a memory or simply something that has been implanted by the malevolent entity presently residing in her home.

A Castle in ItalySwitching gears more significantly is A Castle in Italy, the only competition film from a female director. The synopsis to Valeria Bruni Tedesci’s film is scrambled to say the least. “Louise meets Nathan, her dreams resurface. It’s also the story of her ailing brother, their mother, and the destiny of a leading family of wealthy Italian industrialists. The story of a family falling apart, a world coming to an end and love beginning.” The critical response is also rather scrambled. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter finds the film’s sincerity drowned by its own self-consciousness.

There’s clearly a deep personal investment and considerable self-exposure in Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (Un Chateau en Italie), but that doesn’t make its precious affectations any easier to take. The third feature from the Italian-French actress-turned-director is a semi-autobiographical reflection on love, death and a retreating world of privilege that signals its debt to The Cherry Orchard with the unsubtle thud of a falling tree — literally.

Few critics seem to be hiding the film’s falling tree climax, if it’s a climax at all, including David Sexton’s equally disdainful review for London Evening Standard.

In an excruciatingly symbolic end, a giant chestnut tree in front of the castle, which is called Il Castagno, is dramatically felled, because it is diseased, but, on the other hand, young Nathan, who had apparently defected from Louise, comes running, to be caught in freeze-frame, actually leaping towards her for the final shot. It is the great charm of so many French films that they don’t step far away from the realities of life as the French understand them to be (this is yet another one, by the way, structured by spring, summer, autumn and winter). But sometimes, as here, it’s also their complete undoing.

The Great BeautyLastly is The Great Beauty, whose trailer hit well over a month ago and ensured something rather… well, beautiful. It’s a work indicative of Paulo Sorrentino’s talents, though some question how good of a thing that is. Jay Weissberg at Variety sure is enchanted by Sorrentino’s vision of Rome.

Rome in all its splendor and superficiality, artifice and significance, becomes an enormous banquet too rich to digest in one sitting in Paolo Sorrentino’s densely packed, often astonishing “The Great Beauty.” A tribute to, and castigation of, the city whose magnificence has famously entrapped its residents in existential crises, the pic follows a stalled author gradually awakening from the slumber of intellectual paralysis. Very much Sorrentino’s modern take on the themes of Fellini’s “La dolce vita,” emphasizing the emptiness of society amusements, “Great Beauty” will surprise, perplex and bewitch highbrow audiences yearning for big cinematic feasts.

Lee Marshall at Screen Daily also takes much pleasure, as well as fascination, with this occasionally sexual odyssey.

Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to This Must Be The Place is an alternately elegiac and world-weary cinematic fresco of contemporary Rome that references both the melancholy hedonism of La Dolce Vita or Fellini’s Roma and the decadence of the latter days of the Roman empire. It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking featuring a magnificently jaded Toni Servillo as a journalist who, like Mastroiainni in Fellini’s masterpiece, drifts listlessly from party to party and interview to interview, wallowing in the waste of his writing talent as in a warm bath.

More competition films are on the way, so don’t you dare go away, or Grand Central and Blue is the Warmest Color star Lea Seydoux will judge you! (i.e. your daily bit of gorgeous!)

Lea Seydoux, apparently being photographed by J.J. Abrams.

Lea Seydoux, apparently being photographed by J.J. Abrams.

PREVIOUS CANNES ROUND-UPS:
Heli (Dir. Amat Escalante)
Young & Beautiful (Dir. Francois Ozon)
The Bling Ring (Dir. Sofia Coppola)

The Congress (Dir. Ari Folman)
The Past (Dir. Asghar Farhadi)
Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Dir. Arnaud Desplechin)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Like Father, Like Son (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

The Selfish Giant (Dir. Clio Bernard)
Blue Ruin (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Grand Central (Dir. Rebecca Zlotowski)

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