Monday is traditionally the day at Cannes when people start making qualified assessments of the year’s overall strength or weakness—usually finding it wanting compared to previous years that were themselves considered hugely disappointing at the time. It’s all a bit silly, as we’re only at roughly the midpoint, with plenty of potential riches ahead; at this time last year, Holy Motors, the runaway favorite of much of the press corps, hadn’t yet screened. Still, I confess to feeling a bit discouraged that there’s been no U.F.O. so far, by which I mean a film so audacious and unexpected that it seems to hit the reset button on what the medium can do. The Past is a terrific movie, sure to rank high on my year-end best-of list (it was just picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, who’ll likely give it the same late-December release that A Separation had), but it’s very much in keeping with what Asghar Farhadi has done before—a wonder, but not a surprise. Likewise, even those who think Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens’ best films would have to allow that it’s reminiscent of everything from Barton Fink to O Brother, Where Art Thou? to A Serious Man. This year’s equivalent of Dogville’s chalk-outline Brechtian set or Tropical Malady’s mid-film rupture has yet to surface. Blindside me, somebody.
To be fair, nobody was prepared for the onslaught of unapologetic schlock that is Takashi Miike’s improbable Competition entry Shield Of Straw. That’s not meant as an insult—schlock is fine by me, so long as it’s reasonably skillful and inventive, and it’d be hard to go too far astray with a premise as deliriously high-concept as this one. Opening with a news report about the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl, the film speedily sets up its essential conflict: the murderer vs. every single person in Japan, with the populace attempting to collect a $1 billion yen bounty (about $10 million) offered by the dead girl’s obscenely wealthy, terminally ill grandfather. The details of Grandpa’s offer, which he disseminates on a website located in Colombia (“It can’t be shut down!”), don’t entirely make sense—one condition states that the killer’s death must be sanctioned by the Japanese government, which isn’t something your average citizen could effect no matter how desperate they may be for the cash—but it doesn’t much matter. The result is still what you’d expect: Everybody, including most of the cops assigned to protect the suspect (who quickly turns himself in), wants to kill the guy, leaving only a handful of honor-bound Tokyo police officers standing between due process and vigilante justice.
Sounds like a Hollywood action movie, doesn’t it? And for a while, Miike treats it like one—applause broke out at the end of the first big setpiece, in which someone attempts to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerin into the convoy escorting the prisoner from Fukuoka to Tokyo. (Distance: 550 miles.) That sequence apparently ate up most of the budget, however, as the film subsequently downshifts into a more intimate register, with fewer unhinged assaults and more emphasis on the question of which team member is secretly feeding information about their whereabouts to the rogue website, which tracks their movements practically in real time. Toward the end, it becomes clear why Cannes honcho Thierry Fremaux felt Shield Of Straw belongs in the Competition lineup, as the film attempts to pose serious questions about what price society should be willing to pay to protect the rights of known scumbags like this killer, who’s not merely unrepentant but actively, gratuitously evil. (See also: Dirty Harry.) Philosophical speculation isn’t really its strong suit, alas, and the third act gets bogged down in anguished self-doubt, prompting nostalgia for the fleet efficiency Miike demonstrated early on. There’s a nifty, preposterously entertaining 90-minute thriller buried in this two-hour-plus behemoth, and I suspect that we’ll see that film, in English, somewhere down the road. In the meantime, though, enough of it is discernible in the original version to provide an exhausting good time. Grade: B+
An American remake of Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, a midnight selection (out of Competition), seems altogether unlikely. For one thing, it does virtually nothing with what would seem a high-concept premise—its titular detective (Andy Lau) may be blind, but only occasionally does that factor into his deductive genius, which mostly involves Sherlock Holmes-style bursts of insight that a sighted person could equally achieve. (He does sniff out evidence now and then, notably when on the trail of a perp who’s been attacking people with sulfuric acid.) For another, it’s fundamentally a comedy, and if you have any experience with Hong Kong comedy, you know that it’s often broad enough to make Adam Sandler look like Oscar Wilde. Here, Lau teams up with a female cop (Sammi Cheng) to solve a number of cases that had been abandoned years earlier, and their methodology is more Laurel and Hardy than Crockett and Tubbs; there’s so much head-bonking and stair-tumbling that Cheng spends much of the movie either wearing a helmet or with padding stuffed beneath her clothes. Like Shield Of Straw, Blind Detective runs far longer than necessary (129 minutes), and a little of Lau’s mugging goes a long way; after initially being put off, though, I eventually adjusted to the film’s antic rhythm (a world away from stoic To flicks like PTU, Exiled, and Election), enjoying the two leads’ go-for-broke enthusiasm and the convoluted plot’s nutty digressions. It’s dispiriting, though, that even in a movie about a blind man, women are deemed utterly without value unless they’re smoking hot. The scene in which Lau touches the unconscious Cheng’s face and realizes she’s not the mannish butterface he’d assumed, then instantly decides he’s in love, made me want to gouge my own eyes out. I mean, come on. Grade: B-
Tomorrow: Michael Douglas plays Liberace, with Matt Damon as his much younger lover, in Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film (for now, anyway), Behind The Candelabra. Also, the latest insanity from Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, back working with Toni Servillo after a detour with Sean Penn.