Ken Loach offers essentially a remixed Footloose, set in the rich, honey glow of rural 1930s Ireland. Activist James Gralton (Barry Ward) returns from the States after ten years and reopens his subversive dancehall, provoking the ire of local priest (Jim Norton). A predictable tale of goodnatured youth rebellion, angry Church reproach and inevitable community upheaval follows. Game of Thrones favorite Ward gives a genuine and convincing performance as the activist and black sheep Jimmy, despite a truly awful script, and maybe the most painfully untrained supporting cast at Cannes. While Jimmy’s Hall isn’t exactly watchable, Ward ably beats a few legitimately emotional scenes out of a flat story, most notably when dancing, moonlit, with wan former love Oonagh (Simone Kirby). It’s unfortunate that Ward’s first major post-GoT film role is so lost in treacly sentimentality, but Jimmy’s Hall will surely be widely screened and reviewed after earning U.S. distribution from Sony Classics. Loach’s smooth direction is commendable: he makes a gorgeous film, full of faded velvet colors and cool natural light. Though good-looking, Jimmy’s Hall misses the mark by washing out the fire in Gralton’s story of rural rebellion.
2. Lost River dir. Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling’s directorial début is a masturbatory, pining ode to collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive; Only God Forgives). Though Refn himself has a heavy hand with neon underworld aesthetics, Gosling is ham-fisted. Lost River‘s lead, Iain De Caestecker, is wonderfully fresh and believable as Bones, the impoverished, copper-scavenging son of single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks, doing her best with a severely underwritten part), the last holdout in a Lost River (…Detroit) neighborhood of teardowns bought up by developers. Urban mysticism bathes the fallen city and its inhabitants in the hot colors and cinematic poverty of Gosling’s rather nightmarish imagination. In order to save the house, Billy accepts a job from leering banker Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) at a horror-house burlesque. Mendelsohn gives a strong but unwatchable performance; Dave is depraved, and his insistence on getting Billy into the “shelf”–a woman-shaped clear plastic prison, meant to allow patrons to violently attack performers–left me nauseous. Gosling descends to nadir of filmic misogyny, leaving the delicate line between art and porn far, far behind. Excellent supporting performances by Eva Mendes (murder burlesque queen, Cat), Saoirse Ronan (goth girl neighbor, Rat) and the frankly terrifying Matt Smith (unhinged gang leader, Bully) make the film go by quickly. Lost River has some gorgeous and lasting images–Rat’s ghostly grandmother draped in black lace and lost in time, watching her wedding video on repeat; Bully and Bones playing cat-and-mouse in the overgrown outskirts of the city; the lost city itself, murky under the lake; the healthy dose of burning-house porn that Gosling spreads all over the last quarter of the film. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save this steaming mess, its better parts lost between unjustifiable violence, weak characters, lazy plotting and a general sense of confusion that left Cannes audiences feeling dirty and regretful.
3. Mommy dir. Xavier Dolan
Xavier Dolan, 25-year-old savant turned enfant terrible, presents his second Cannes selection, Mommy, a family tragicomedy about a single mother, her troubled son, and their overcurious neighbor. When Diana “Die” Despres (Anne Dorval) picks up her son Steve (Anton Olivier Pilon) from juvie, she tries her hardest to re-assimilate him to old routines, with the hope that she can care for him better than an institution. Steve quickly reprises bad habits, swearing, yelling and flirting outrageously both with Mommy and his tutor Kyla (Suzanne Clement). Parties, tantrums, and screaming matches abound. Mommy is at first happy at the challenges Steve throws her, but soon she is struggling with his needs and outbursts. A standout scene is Die’s extended fantasy sequence in which Steve straightens out, enters society, and marries, to her delight; the jarring reality is that she has been daydreaming while driving Steve to a mental institution. Dorval gives a heartbreaking and hilarious performance as gum-chewing, tacky Die, her sticky Quebecois French painfully addictive to listen to. With a powerful weft of verboden sexual tension and mental illness, Mommy challenges its audience to question the limits of a mother’s love and endurance when dealing with a violently unbalanced but charismatic son. Mommy leaves a strange aftertaste, a too-bright bitterness, mostly thanks to Pilon’s impressive slippage into his role. Steve is totally out of this world, an unsolvable problem, and Pilon inhabits him with uncanny ease. Dolan’s brilliance is also on display, not only in his treatment of story and character, but also in his shifting aspect ratios that correspond with Steve’s sense of limitation or hope. Mommy is provocative and funny, brilliant and frank, and altogether better than any of Dolan’s four previous films.
4. Leviathan dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
A bleak, contemporary Russia is the backdrop for the financial and familial drama of Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), an aging fisherman and handyman struggling to maintain ownership of a home and wife, both of which are too beautiful for him. Teaser images aside, there is no actual whale in Leviathan other than the overbearing local bureaucracy. Kolya is locked in an existential battle to prevent the heavy handed government from stealing his well-located property out from under him. The corrupt local Mayor (Roman Madyanov) is predictably hypocritical, over-invested in a mystical Orthodox priest and entitled in the extreme. Kolya’s old friend, lawyer Dmitiri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) comes from Moscow to help. His suave attitude injects a bit of style into the film as he and Kolya shuttle from house to court to prison and back, and when he blackmails the mayor, he could be the white hat in a Cold War-era spy flick. If there’s a Soviet taste to the doublespeak, maneuvering, illegal arrests and general outrageousness of Kolya’s trials, it’s certainly intentional and often comedic. It’s clear this vodka-guzzling community hasn’t gotten over its Soviet hangover when they use portraits of Stalin and Co. for target practice. This film has a lot of moving parts; the absurdist bureaucratic comedy is one of the more successful ones. Dmitri, Kolya and Lilya’s stone-faced reaction to a nearly breathless 10-minute long recitation of a court decision drew big laughs. Serebryakov is tragic and effective as Kolya, but the true star of the film is his sardonic and quiet wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), somewhat unbelievable as a fishwife, but entrancing in her total impenetrability and autonomy despite Zvyagintsev and Kolya’s best efforts to use her as a symbol. By the end, however, Zvyagintsev seems to lose track of his main characters, hiding both a critical argument and murder. Leviathan is big, full of ideas and visual space, but perhaps leaves the audience beached on its incredible length and ambiguity.
5. (bonus) Foxcatcher dir. Bennett Miller
Bennett Miller may very well sweep Best Director this awards season for the swinging, mesmerizing dynamism of his wrestlers’ warm-up scene alone. He certainly deserves it for drawing out the true actor in Channing Tatum, gorgeously vulnerable and self-destructive as naïve ex-Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz. Mark Ruffalo is gently dominant as older brother and fellow Olympian David. This family dynamic is extended to Mark’s unbalanced relationship with schizophrenic John du Pont, the patriotic scion of the famous chemicals family who is utterly devoted to coaching a winning US wrestling team. Du Pont invites Mark to build a team with him on his rambling estate, and John’s web of influence expands darkly over brother David and his family. Who knew Steve Carrell in a nasal prosthetic could be so un-funny. Miller’s talent is well-supported by this trio of outstanding performances and an effective script that hits you in all the right places. After several star turns on the festival circuit, Foxcatcher opens in US theaters this November–Oscar buzz is already swarming the film and its leads. Though its emotional weight might strain you, Foxcatcher is an enchanting, tragic winner.