By Steve Greene | Criticwire May 23, 2012 at 8:38AM
Cannes 2012 is more than half over and critics have had plenty to say about this year's movies. (For those interested in the complete range of Cannes-related attractions, you can see our entire coverage from Indiewire and the other blogs here.)
Some of the festival’s heaviest hitters have yet to screen for critics: Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" and Jeff Nichols' "Mud." But a bevy of feedback on films that have already screened is starting to solidify in our Criticwire network. Many of Criticwire members at Cannes have been submitting grades for films they have seen, giving us an increasingly clear view of the quality from this year's lineup.
Here are some of the triumphs, shortcomings and otherwise notable selections from the first half of Cannes 2012.
The Familiar Faces
At this early venture, the two films with both clear approval and significant amount of feedback are from filmmakers with previous Cannes experience.
Michael Haneke is the seasoned vet, having found Palme d’Or success at Cannes with his 2009 outing, "The White Ribbon," and drawing acclaim with "Caché" and "The Piano Teacher" before that. This year, "Amour (Love)" is Haneke’s story of an elderly couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) confronted with the perils of aging and the emotion that guides their choices as they recognize the imminence of each other’s passing. The Film Stage’s Raffi Asdourian singles out the lack of Haneke’s usual detachment as a key element of the film’s success, resulting in "his most humane film to date." Indiewire’s Eric Kohn also acknowledges Haneke’s atypical approach to the subject matter, but acknowledges that the film "derives its central power from the two lead performances. Riva in particular deserves singling out for her credible transition into mental disarray, but Trintignant's ongoing resolve registers loudly in his subtle expressions."
The other film with stirring notices out of Cannes is Pablo Larrain’s "No." Larraín, whose "Post Mortem" just hit theaters a few weeks ago after a two-year festival run, found success at this venue back in 2008 with "Tony Manero," the tale of a murderer bent on idolizing the "Saturday Night Fever" protagonist. "No" also takes place in Larraín’s native Chile, during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an ad man recruited to lead the public outcry against Pinochet’s oppressive rule. Larraín’s most significant achievement with "No" (besides coaxing the dependably great performance from Bernal) is the visual style he uses to reflect the late-80s atmosphere. "His use of outdated video, initially harsh on the eyes, eventually becomes the movie's biggest coup," Kohn writes. “As 'No' cuts between the scripted scenes and real footage of the campaign infomercials, the two layers of narrative blend together to create a seamless period piece that inhabits the campaign's message.”
While not receiving quite the same level of positive feedback, Jacques Audiard’s "Rust and Bone" has marked a solid return to Cannes for the director. In 2009, his "A Prophet" won the Grand Prix (and topped our end of the festival poll). What seems to set apart Audiard’s 2012 offering from its predecessor is the permeation of "melodrama," a categorization that seems to dot a majority of "Rust and Bone" reviews. The tale of a whale trainer who loses both legs would seem to lend itself to that classification, and the degree to which the film succeeds within that framework seems to dictate how it’s being received. Jon Frosch argues that "though 'Rust and Bone' could have been disastrously overwrought (and, let’s face it, probably would have been if it had been made by an American director), Audiard handles things with great sensitivity and considerable – if not quite enough – restraint." However, some critics like Hammer to Nail’s Michał Oleszczyk are a bit harsher on Audiard’s latest work, which in Oleszczyk‘s estimation is "a bloated and contrived piece of violent melodramatic trash...yet managed to sway the press screening audience into a round of hearty applause once the credits rolled."
The Less-Successful Follow-Ups
As some filmmakers are enjoying general positivity with their re-entries into the world of Cannes, others aren’t having quite as much luck. "Uncle Boonmee (Who Can Recall His Past Lives)," the 2010 Palme d’Or winner and one of the highest vote-getters in our Best of 2011 poll, earned acclaim for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His even more experimental answer to "Uncle Boonmee" is "Mekong Hotel," a chronicle of the titular location that blends reality and fiction. Although the film does have its tepid supporters, a majority of the Criticwire feedback has sidled it with a C+ average among grading members.
Somewhat more curious is the dropoff for Abbas Kiarostami, after his "Certified Copy" enthralled so many viewers last year. Many of the reviews for "Like Someone in Love" draw its artistic merit in relation to "Certified Copy," including Kevin Jagernauth. In his write-up for The Playlist, Jagernauth explains that "Kiarostami spends the picture toying with idea of image and identity, but unfortunately, 'Like Someone In Love’ lacks the intellectual depth and forward momentum of 'Certified Copy,'" adding that this offering is "enigmatic and dull to a maddening degree." Whether to its detriment or benefit, this Kiarostami work seems to still be within the director’s recognizable bag of difficult-to-penetrate tricks.
Mekong Hotel: C+
The Auspicious Debut
Brandon Cronenberg premiered his first feature at Cannes: "Antiviral," about a young man who works to infect paying customers with the same diseases that afflict their favorite celebrities. A twisted, observational-yet-futuristic tale worthy of the family name (Brandon’s dad is the legendary David), critics seem cautiously optimistic of the new Cronenberg’s future, even if their praise for his work isn’t exactly effusive. The Hollywood Reporter’s Megan Lehmann explains that "an overly mannered approach throws the pacing off, however, and some ungainly tilts at exposition are more jarring than the conventionally repellent close-ups of needles piercing skin. But it’s early days. Brandon Cronenberg is the scion of a phenomenon, working in the same freaky field, so the curiosity factor is high."
Anna Bielak ends her Smells Like Screen Spirit review by saying that Brandon "is more like a maturing boy who is halfway to the doorstep, yet his is still turning back, checking to see if he is traveling in the right direction. Is he?"
The Downward Trajectory
Cannes 2012 is a place where diminishing returns seem to have come to a head for a pair of filmmakers. Michel Gondry may have failed to rebound after his ill-fated studio effort "The Green Hornet" with "The We and the I," a ride-along with a busful of high-school students in the Bronx. James Rocchi took the film to task at The Playlist, deriding it for, among other things, its bizarre sound mixing. "It may seem unkind to suggest that a French filmmaker on the cusp of his 50s is not the best choice to depict the social milieu of high school in the Bronx, but it's more unkind to suggest that you see the film for yourself to make up your own mind," Rocchi explains.
Also, these are tough times for the Italian horror director and cult favorite Dario Argento. His "Dracula 3D," co-adapted by Argento from the Bram Stoker original, is one of the most poorly received films at the festival, despite the director’s pedigree.
The We and the I: C-
Dracula 3D: D
The Returning Favorite
Although Cannes hosts plenty of high-profile debuts, it’s also a place for rediscovery. The Sundance documentary hit "Room 237" has received a few more positive entries to its name, including Jagernauth’s glowing review at The Playlist.
And, since this is a festival round-up being published in the early half of 2012, we are legally obligated to mention that, yes, people still do love "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Room 237: A-