Woody Allen Disappoints (Again) but Ken Loach Shines at 69th Cannes Film Festival

'Café Society' wastes the talents of Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, while 'I, Daniel Blake' is a powerful piece of polemical filmmaking.

Woody Allen with cast members from his 47th movie, 'Cafe Society,' which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Valery Hache/AFP

CANNES, France – The French are big admirers of Woody Allen, and that includes the heads of the Cannes Film Festival. The New York director just set a new record when, for the third time, one of his films opened the prestigious event. Every so often, the 80-year-old makes a movie of real heft, like “Blue Jasmine” (2013). But most of his films over recent decades have been trifles, with the shortcomings far outweighing the virtues. Alas, such is the case with “Café Society,” which struck me mostly as a wasted opportunity.

The first part of the comedy-drama is set in 1930s Hollywood. However, anyone hoping to learn something about Tinseltown during that golden age – or about the real essence of Hollywood filmmaking, and Allen’s own art and legacy – will emerge disappointed. The depiction of Hollywood is confined mainly to showcasing opulent homes and glamorous nightspots, combined with far too much name-dropping of stars and directors from the period.

As one might expect the score also features songs from the 1930s, yet even this Allen tradition is starting to grow wearisome.

The movie, Allen’s 47th, tells the story of two men (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Steve Carell) who fall for the same woman (Kristen Stewart), with neither initially aware that this woman is the object of their affections. Had Allen developed this element further, his movie could have become a romantic comedy that says something about the mysteries of love and passion. Instead, the writer-director – who also delivers the film’s excessive and largely unnecessary narration – doesn’t take this part of the story anywhere. I briefly thought he was endeavoring to make a romantic comedy with melodramatic underpinnings, in the style of the great Hollywood romances of the 1930s. But I soon realized that his new film wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to pull this off, and it was going to be yet another example of the easy superficiality he seems to have grown so comfortable with.

I’ve always lamented the lack of feeling in Allen’s movies, and the emotional void is especially glaring in this one. Everything is presented from an emotional distance, functions schematically and says nothing we haven’t heard many times before in his other films. The characters are so formulaically sketched that they fail to elicit the slightest feeling of empathy. However, the movie is gorgeously shot by Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (in his first collaboration with Allen). Storaro’s CV includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”(1970), “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) and “The Last Emperor” (1987). It's so visually stunning that it almost succeeds in reeling us in and distracting from how little else it has to offer.

Indicting David Cameron

British director Ken Loach (center) at the Cannes Film Festival with the stars of his latest movie, 'I, Daniel Blake.'
Joel Ryan/AP

British director Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for his movie “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” but he hasn’t made a really satisfying film in almost two decades. Since the mid-’60s, he has adhered to his socially and politically committed brand of filmmaking. In his best films, Loach – who turns 80 next month – was one of the few directors genuinely continuing the realist cinema tradition, turning a tough yet compassionate eye on the modern reality. When he deviated from this path, though, his films lost their power. But in his latest film, “I, Daniel Blake,” he's back on track. He treads a familiar path, but it’s the path of a stubbornly determined director, and I admire his tenacity.

Like previous Loach films, this one portrays an individual’s struggle within the heartless establishment. This time, the individual is Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter from northeastern England who suffers a heart attack. The film serves as an indictment of the state welfare system in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Britain. The first part of the film has a highly satirical element, but this is gradually replaced by a growing gloom that envelops some of the movie’s most impressive scenes.

The film occasionally strays toward didactic tendentiousness, but I’m all for having more such films in the movie universe – especially if they’re made with the kind of integrity found here.

Ticket-holders arrive for the premiere of  'I, Daniel Blake' at the Cannes Film Festival.
Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Arab Spring in a police van

Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s “Eshtebak” (“Clash”), which opened the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, certainly intrigues – despite some schematic overreaching in its attempt to depict, in one single setting and historic moment, all the jarring elements within Egyptian society.

The setting is a police van that’s large enough to contain all the film's characters. The historic moment is one day in July 2013, amid the riots that erupted following the military coup that drove then-President Mohammed Morsi from power.

First into the van are an Associated Press journalist and photographer. Later, they are joined by anti-Morsi protesters and then Morsi supporters. A rebellious Coptic policeman will also be arrested. Diab proceeds to add a wide variety of representative characters to his social, religious and political cauldron – including a religious intellectual, a young man keen to join the Islamic State group, an elderly man concerned about his son, and two women – one of whom is a nurse (her profession is apparently meant to symbolize the desperate yearning to heal Egyptian society’s rifts).

Of course, as the atmosphere heats up on the streets, so too does the tension inside the van, with the vehicle hit by sniper fire and tear-gas grenades.

The relationships that develop inside the vehicle are not deep, and the same goes for the ideological arguments. True, the movie fails to provide us with a complex view of Egypt’s crisis, but even with its schematic formula, it still feels credible. And any view on what became of Egypt’s Arab Spring is preferable to none at all.

Cultural encounter

South Korean director Park Chan-Wook and South Korean actress Kim Tae-Ri attend a press conference for the film 'The Handmaiden' at Cannes.
Laurent Emmanuel/AFP

South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a clever, twisty melodrama that’s quite entertaining. The movie is set in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. The plot driving the movie – which is much less violent than the director’s previous works – is the cultural encounter between Korea and Japan, and between East and West. It’s the tale of a girl from a poor Korean family who's chosen to serve as the handmaiden to a young Japanese woman, who lives in solitude on a lavish estate owned by her domineering uncle. But that’s just the beginning. To reveal any more would spoil some of the pleasure of this engaging and visually beautiful film.