“Tale of Tales”, ravishingly grown-up fairy tales.

??? in The Tale of Tales.

Stacy Martin in Tale of Tales.

As is so often the case, there was something mildly unsatisfactory about the prizes meted out at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Though in retrospect, given what happened at this year’s Festival, last year’s winners feel like a vintage batch. If places like Cannes keep giving the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh prizes like that, then obviously they’re going to keep sullying the cinematic landscape with more of the same.

Last year’s Palme D’Or went to Dheepan, at the expense of Carol which got the consolation prize of Best Actress for Rooney Mara. But both left you ever so slightly deflated, the former settling into conventional thriller mode, the latter being too coolly mannered. But the one that got away was Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, which somehow failed to win anything.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Garrone burst on to the international scene in 2008 with Gomorrah, his much praised adaptation of Roberto Saviani’s unmasking of Neapolitan corruption. But you always had a sense that that film had been lauded more for its moral intent than for its artistic merit. And its episodic nature denuded it of any sense of narrative drive.

There’s an episodic feel to his latest film too. But on this occasion and unusually, the separate narrative strands that seem to exist independently of one another, and only eventually meet thanks to a clumsily forced ending, produce a film that feels both natural and earthily alive.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

That’s because Tale of Tales is based on three of the fifty or so fairy tales that were collated by Gianbattista Basile in 17th century southern Italy. And fairy tales are the one genre where narrative drive takes a back seat. Here, for once, it really is all about character. And what emerges is a very different Italian landscape to the one Garrone previously showed us, free here from any sense of moral lessons to be learned, and all the better and more alive because of it.

The first of the three sees Selma Hayek as a queen hell bent on being provided for with child. But the boy that is eventually produced arrives as a twin, and inevitably there’s a price for her determination to have had him.

The second revolves around John C. Reilly as a king whose selfishness results in his failing to more properly administer to the needs of his daughter. And the third, and the most tangibly tactile of the three, follows a magnificently debauched king, played with lusty gusto by Vincent Cassel, as he is led forever by his desire to pursue whatever it is that has momentarily caught his fancy.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Though when that eventually leads him to Stacy Martin draped in nothing more than a cascade of fiery curls that just about preserve her modesty, you could be forgiven for wondering whether selfishness might not be being given something of a bad rap.

Sumptuously photographed and shot entirely on location at various castles throughout Italy, Tale Of Tales is a wonderfully grown up and magnificent beast of a film. And Garrone has that Felliniesque urge to cast as much for an actor’s physical presence as for their ability to deliver lines. Franco Pistoni’s turn as the necromancer is particularly striking, and the wollowy form with hollowed cheeks that bares down on the Queen was never going to be the barer of good news. And so it proves.

Tale of Tales demands to be seen in the cinema, and is released in Ireland and Britain this June. You can see the trailer here.

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Cronenberg’s new Film “Maps To The Stars” is a Poison Pen Letter to Hollywood.

Maps To The Stars.

Maps To The Stars.

David Cronenberg’s new film Maps To The Stars arrives here from this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it was screened in May. Most of the famous satires on Hollywood are secretly in awe of the place. The Player, The Bad and the Beautiful, even Sunset Boulevard (all reviewed earlier here) have an underlying warmth and exhibit a shy love love view of Hollywood. Not this one.

Julianne Moore plays an actress who’s seen better days and has never really come to terms with the death of the mother who brought her up so disastrously. She takes on Mia Wasikowska as her personal assistant. Her estranged mother and father are a famous power couple overseeing the meteoric career of her 13 year old brother.

James Spader in Crash.

James Spader in Crash.

There’s a strong sense of impending doom and Greek tragedy to the film, suggesting the Oresteia. And the air of nemesis, hubris and inevitable retribution hang heavy throughout. All the cast are excellent, and it’s easy to see how Moore won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. But it’s equally easy to see why the film failed to win any of the main prizes.

Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon return from Cosmopolis for Cronenberg's new film.

Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon return from Cosmopolis for Cronenberg’s new film.

Yes it’s extraordinarily caustic, and unremittingly bleak (and often very funny) about the sorts of lives that those who inhabit Hollywood live. And, it has to be said, all too believably so. But more than that, there’s a clinical coldness to the film’s final quarter. Unlike Crash, which gives an equally dystopian overview of the modern world, Maps To The Stars sinks to its conclusion instead of rising to an emotional crescendo. Its spirit is Apollonian rather than Dionysian, and it ends up being a film that you greatly admire instead of being one that you’re devastated by.

Nonetheless, together with the recent Cosmopolis (reviewed earlier here) it’s another impressive addition to Cronenberg’s august back catalogue. And he continues to be one the very few serious film makers around. You can see the trailer to Maps To The Stars here.

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Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made outside of his native Iran.

After the huge and entirely merited success of his previous film A Separation, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keenly awaited films at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. But it only ended up getting the consolation prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite correctly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot better than that would suggest. Bejo has asked her estranged husband to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, without filling him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slowly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daughter is so unhappy with her mother, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Separation, Farhadi’s ability to carefully tell his story, slowly revealing its meticulously positioned plot points is unrivalled. And all the performances are outstanding. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inexplicably lauded The Artist reviewed here, is a revelation. Ali Mossafa is superb as her former husband, but most remarkable of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three children – the two children plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extraordinary performances that French cinema somehow excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tradition of films from the likes of Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of children, rendering their vistas all the more moving  because of the performances they manage miraculously to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disingenuous to pretend that The Past weren’t ever so slightly disappointing. The momentum dissipates in in its final quarter as the focus shifts from the former husband to the new man. And instead of building to some sort of conclusion, it quietly comes to a halt.

By any other standards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farhadi, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trailer for The Past here.

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“The Artist”- Michel Hazanavicius

This year’s smash hit at Cannes… Silent and in black and white… Classically French…  Charming performances… And the dog…! Hmmn, what? Oh I’m sorry, I think I might have dozed off there.

There have of course been some genuinely wonderful films about Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (’50), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful (’52), Robert Altman’s The Player (’92) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (’01) being the four most memorable.

All depict a pitch black world bereft of a moral compass, where blindly driven characters devote their lives to sacrificing their talent on the altar to personal ambition. The result is a landscape where anything can happen, and everyone’s careful calculations are forever undermined by the whims of the non-existent but mischievous Gods. They are all in other words European films, that just happen to use Hollywood as their backdrop.

They reek of the Old World, with its ironic insouciance and casual cynicism, and are free entirely of that unshakable certainty and boundless optimism that make the New World so appealing and give it its veneer of invincibility.

Mulholland Drive might look like Hollywood, but its correct title, as David Thompson so perceptively pointed out is Mulholland Dr., and the that Dr stands for “dream”, as in nightmare. The powers that be that govern this world are nebulous, nefarious and hopelessly inscrutable. This might be the dream factory, but these are the wrong kinds of dreams.

The Artist is the exact opposite. It’s an all too conventional Hollywood film clumsily dressed in European art-house chic. Sure, if you’ve never seen, say, a Madonna video (it’s in black and white!!) or a foreign film (what, subtitles!!! (well, titles actually)), then you might but briefly mistake it for something mildly un-conventional. But you’ll very quickly tire of the film’s un-rippled progress, as all the characters dutifully make their way down all too well worn paths.

The fact of the matter is, The Artist isn’t a pastiche of those early Hollywood films, it’s one of them. And it’s every bit as dull, dreary and predictable as those kinds of films have always been. That’s why, both then and now, we gravitate towards the likes of Méliès and Eisenstein, Lang, Murnau and Chaplin. Their constant invention and dazzling brilliance are a glorious corrective to the barrage of endless tedium we’re forever forced to put up with from mainstream Hollywood.

Still. There is of course one part of the world where they’ll see The Artist as a fantastically courageous attempt to buck the prevailing trend of drowning everything in a cacophony of wide screen, surround sound 3D Technicolor noise. Roll on the Academy Awards.