Cannes Roundup: Gong Li in ‘Coming Home,’ Josh Charles in ‘Bird People’ and ‘Alleluia’

CANNES – The Cannes Film Festival is certainly easier than some of its North American cousins in regards to the sheer number of movies screened and how they are scheduled (two major films rarely premiere at the same time). That being said, too many 8:30am screenings and it's easy for the whole festival to get away from you a bit. With that in mind, here are three quick capsule reviews from this year's fest.

“Coming Home”
Over the past 15 years, master film director Zhang Yimou's work seems to have settled into two distinct styles. He's best known for visionary epics such as “Hero,” “Curse of the Golden Flower” and, most recently, “The Flowers of War.” Alternatively, Yimou has also crafted small, intimate dramas that rarely show any hint of his great cinematic eye. That is the Yimou audiences will experience in his new drama “Coming Home,” starring longtime muse and legendary Chinese actress Gong Li.

The story is a simple one. A political prisoner (Chen Daoming) escapes from prison during China's Cultural Revolution. He attempts to return home just to see his wife (Li) and daughter (Zhang Huiwen), but is stymied by the local party officials who warn his family of dire consequences if that occurs. Eventually, he's captured and returns three years later to discover his wife has had some sort of post-traumatic disorder and no longer recognizes him. And yet, she still waits for him to come home even though he's standing right in front of her. Frankly, the film's biggest problem is that its second half repeating the same beat again and again and again. Unfortunately, the fact that Yimou is pushing a much simpler visual aesthetic doesn't help. The film's sound stage sets often look like sound stage sets (never a good thing) and so many scenes take place in one apartment; the picture almost descends into the dreaded “filmed play” oeuvre. Moreover, Huiwen is so horribly over-the-top that she almost torpedoes the movie on her own volition. The only saving grace is Li, whose moving performance reminds everyone why she's still one of the world's great actresses. Unfortunately, it's just not enough. (Grade: C)

“Bird People”
Pascale Ferran has only directed four films in her career, but her last, 2006's “Lady Chatterley,” just happened to win five Cesar Awards (France's Oscar) and was even nominated for an indie spirit award in the Best Foreign Film category. She returns eight years later with the very odd and unexpected “Bird People.” The film is ostensibly two stories. The first centers on Gary (“The Good Wife's” Josh Charles), an American business executive who decides to completely quit his job, leave his wife and move to Europe in the middle of an important business trip for his company. The audience goes through every excruciating detail of his breakup with his former life, mostly as he chats on the phone in his Hilton hotel room at Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport. One scene in particular finds Gary having a 10-minute discussion with his wife (Radha Mitchell) about his plans to leave her and their children. Neither character's reaction is easy to believe and it's not a language issue (Charles and Mitchell speak English). It's just a terribly written scene. Then, bizarrely, half-way through the movie switches to the perspective of one of the Hotel maids played by Anaïs Demoustier. Heading to the hotel roof her character — no joke and without explanation (SPOILER) — transforms into a sparrow. The bird then flies all around the airport (inside terminals and out) interacting with hotel guests and attempting to avoid being eaten by owls and cats. It's certainly more cinematically compelling than Gary's story, but it just feels like another movie. (Grade: C)

Belgian director Fabrice du Welz has some inspired ideas for his horror thriller “Alleluia,” which debuted Friday at Cannes as part of the Directors' Fortnight. The always amazing Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas plays Gloria, a middle age-ish morgue worker who has little social life outside of caring for her young daughter. A friend forces her to go on an internet date with Michel (Laurent Lucas), a charming businessman who immediately sweeps her off her feet. It turns out, however, that Michel is a professional swindler. He charms women with money, convinces them to provide him a “loan” and then bolts before they even know what hit them. But that was before he met Gloria. Madly in love with him, she scours the city's clubs until she finds him and eventually convinces him to let her assist in his scams. Inspired by Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck in “The Honeymoon Killers,” du Welz makes the story captivating with a distinct visual style and appropriate moments of humor. Dueñas and Lucas are game for all of it, but du Welz fails them with a major clunker of an ending. It's so jarring you might think it's a cliffhanger setting up a sequel only to find the “real” ending play out over the closing credits (we think). That being said, the film's unique imagery and bravura performances might help it find a US distributor for a limited theatrical/VOD release. (Grade: B-)