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Cannes 2016: Steven Spielberg’s The BFG gets upstaged by Park Chan-wook’s comeback The Handmaiden

Ruby Barnhill in The BFG.
Ruby Barnhill in The BFG.

CANNES, France — Sometimes, even the greats stumble, and while it happens to Steven Spielberg less frequently than it happens to many of his peers, he’s not exempt from disappointing now and again. After heading up the Cannes jury three years ago, the legendary filmmaker returned to the festival on Saturday with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children's book The BFG.

Outside of 2011's motion-capture-animated The Adventures of TintinThe BFG is the sort of family film Spielberg hasn’t tackled since Hook 25 years ago. During the official press conference for the picture, Spielberg described working on the film as a very freeing experience.

"It was revisiting something that I've always loved to do, which is tell stories that are just from the imagination," he said. "When I do history movies, the imagination has to be put aside to vet the history and to do it accurately. So, there's not a lot of imagination in interpreting a performance or planning the right camera angle to illuminate the storytelling, but with [The BFG] there were no barriers. They were gone. I felt like I could do anything with this."

Just like the book, the movie begins in 1980s London when a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, right out of central casting) steps out onto her balcony and is shocked to witness a giant peeking around the corner. Before she knows it, the BFG a.k.a. the "Big Friendly Giant" (Mark Rylance in a fine mo-cap performance) has taken her back to the land of the giants, afraid that if he doesn’t, she’ll reveal their existence to the entire world.

Sophie soon discovers the vegetarian BFG is something of a mixologist, but for dreams (he collects them in jars). He's constantly bullied by a set of cannibalistic peers, led by the evil Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).

Unfortunately, The BFG is a mixed bag of uninspired storytelling that will feel very familiar. The G-rated film is meant for young kids — but at almost two hours long, with some very leisurely pacing, it will try the patience of its intended audience and their parents alike. Moreover, the move really doesn’t really come to life until the last third, when Queen Elizabeth II (hilariously played by Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton) becomes the catalyst to deal with the BFG's less-friendly peers, those evil giants who are kidnapping and eating children all over the world (crimes thankfully not depicted onscreen).

The BFG’s primary problem, however, is that it never seems like Sophie is really interacting with the BFG himself. The character animation on the giant is superb for the most part, but it's difficult to believe that she’s wandering alongside the massively designed Giant because Barnhill often appears as though she’s acting against a 70s-era blue screen.

The BFG was produced by longtime Spielberg collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, but it marks the first time he’s worked with screenwriter Melissa Mathison since the 1982 classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial — a film which, coincidentally, premiered at Cannes 34 years ago. The new film is dedicated to Mathison, who passed away in November at the age of 65.

At the press conference, Spielberg recalled, "When I heard Kathy had hired Melissa to adapt the book, I think at that moment there was a little voice whispering in my ear, 'Wouldn't it be a dream come true if this came together and I got to be the director?' This was a wonderful reunion and very bittersweet for all of us."

After the disappointing Stroker, Park Chan-wook makes a comeback with The Handmaiden

It’s still early, but one of the big surprises of Cannes so far has to be Park Chan-wook’s wildly entertaining The Handmaiden. Adapted from Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park has moved the Victorian-era story to 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation, and it might have only accentuated the material’s melodramatic origins.

On the surface, The Handmaiden looks like a simple thriller about two con artists who attempt to scam a rich heiress by marrying her and having her committed to an insane asylum. However, the story contains a number of twists and turns you won’t suspect unless you’ve read the book (no spoilers here). Park keeps the novel’s three-part structure, but tweaks the perspectives just a bit.

The first part is from the point of view of young handmaiden and former pickpocket Sook-Hee (charismatic newcomer Kim Tae-ri), the second from the rich Japanese heiress and would-be victim Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), and the last from the scheming Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo). All three are fantastic at portraying their characters' not-so overt duplicity.

On the whole, The Handmaiden's production design, cinematography, costumes, and original score are simply gorgeous. But Park Chan-wook has been known to occasionally put his characters through some "imaginative" horrors — perhaps torture is a better word — and he judiciously uses that tendency to cut some revenge into the end of the picture. He also doesn’t shy away from some very intense love scenes between Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko that are only slightly gratuitous.

Suffice to say, if it wasn't for the blatant sex and one particularly gruesome scene, the film would already be touted as a major player in next year’s Foreign Language Oscar race.

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