Thursday, May 29, 2008

Beziers, France

Friends: I'd endured the exasperating muddle of Montpeilier's traffic clogged streets in year's past, so I gladly opted for the benign bypass around this Mediterranean metropolis. Even if it meant a few extra miles, it would still be a time and mind saver. After I was about half-way around the city I came to an intersection with only two options--to the city center or to a city in a direction opposite to where I wanted to go.

So I was subjected to another mini-nightmare of urban mayhem trying to navigate my way through a French city of windy streets and less than adequate road signs. But I was pleased to shortly find myself on a bike lane and not long afterward came upon a rack of rental bikes similar to those that were introduced with such resounding success in Paris last summer. They seem to be a hit in Montpelier too. I saw quite a few in use and always by someone with a broad grin, delighted to have the opportunity to be riding a bike and passing the bumper-to-bumper motorists. A brand new tram line was another measure city planners have taken to combat the menace of the automobile, though not to much effect so far. Not even gas at over ten dollars a gallon has inspired the car-bound to give up their addiction.

Though I have no qualms of sharing the highways with the cars, especially here in France where the locals are most accepting of the bicycle on their roads, I am looking forward to a little break from the exhaust and the noise. I will ride along the Canal du Midi starting here for 50 miles or so. The Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I will bypass Narbonne, a Tour de France Ville Etape, about 20 miles south of Beziers, waiting to visit it in July. I swung north a bit yesterday up to Nimes, which will be the arrival city for the stage that departs from Narbonne. Nimes is a moderate-sized city that has hosted the Tour quite a few times in its 100 year history, so it was no big deal to it. There were no banners hanging yet, heralding the Tour's arrival, nor had the Tourist office even hung the Tour's official poster or have any information out yet on the Tour coming to town. Still I was able to scout out the city and at least find the main boulevard where the finish will be held and the next day's stage will start. I also visited the city's famed 24,000 seat Roman amphitheater, built in the first century AD. Gladiators did battle there. Now it stages bull fights, just one of a handful of such places in France. Beziers is another.

I also made a slight detour on my way to the Pyrenees to visit the small town of Baux-de-Provence, about 30 miles before Nimes. It was there that bauxite, which is what aluminum is made from, was discovered in 1821. Bauxite took its name from this town. I was curious to see what memorials there might be to its discoverer. I expected a statue of the man and a plaza at the least in his name. But the only acknowledgement of the town's relation to bauxite was a small, discreet plaque in the tourist office. The small town is much more famous for having a thousand year old fortress complete with huge catapults atop its rocky hilltop. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Provence, totally dominating its bauxite roots. The last bauxite mine closed in 1989 and none are available for tours. Nor is there is a bauxite museum, though there have long been plans to develop one. The French have museums for anything and everything from the mundane to the renowned all over the place. That bauxite, a French discovery, doesn't have a museum is quite an oversight, a virtual national scandal.

As I continue to decompress from twelve days of non-stop cinema and continue to digest the 75 movies I saw, there is only one movie that I am truly sorry I missed. It was the French film "Welcome to the Land of Shtis," which played in the market. It had been in release in France for several months and as the Festival wound up surpassed "Titanic" as the most popular movie in French history, not only in money made but in the number of tickets sold. Over 20 million people, about a third of the country's population, have seen the movie. Its popularity wasn't the cause for my regret, but rather a still from the movie that accompanied the story of the film's success showing two French postal workers astride the yellow clunker postal bikes racing one another. Until then I hadn't realized that the film featured a bicycling postman. The film's description in the program just said it was about a postman who requested a change of location and was most reluctantly sent from the balmy south of the country to its inhospitable northwestern quarter. When the bicycle photo ran, the film no longer had any screenings. Word is that Hollywood is already working on a remake.

Later, George

Monday, May 26, 2008

Day 12

Friends: Coming at the end of the festival "The Class" caught everyone by surprise. It was considered just another token French entry rounding out the field of the 22 films in Competition. But no one could quibble with its choice as the knockout winner of the festival. Sean Penn said it was a unanimous choice among the nine jurors. The jury did remain faithful to the unwritten rule to parcel out just one award per film, so its brilliant lead couldn't be acknowledged with an award. But Benico Del Toro as Che was equally brilliant, and another unanimous choice of the jury for best actor. Rare is it that any winner is a unanimous one, so that speaks volumes.

Generally the jury's second favorite film receives the best director award. Last year Julian Schnabel won the award for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The year before it was the director of "Babel,' and the year before that Michael Haneke for "Hidden." This year's best director went to Nuri Bilge Ceylon for "Three Monkeys." I was in full accord with these first three choices. But their four other official awards and two honorary awards were rather mystifying. The Italian actor/director Sergio Castellitto must have been a dominant force on the jury, may be with some mafia clout, as the Italian mafia films "Gomorra" and "Il Divo" won the awards for second and third place. That had to violate an unwritten rule about spreading the awards among countries. Even more senseless was the Dardennes winning best screenplay for "Lorna's Silence." Best actress went to the Brazilian mother in "Linha de Passe." That was more an endorsement of the film than her performance, good as it was. Speculation was Penn's jury would be dominated by political motivations, thus awarding "Che" best picture. That may have happened if "The Class" hadn't come along. But the best actress award bore such undertones. There must have been strong support for Catherine Denueve for best actress dividing the jury, so she was given a token lifetime achievement award as was Clint Eastwood. Eastwood didn't bother to return to the festival to accept, though Denueve did.

The awards ceremony was followed by Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?" starring Robert DeNiro as a big-time Hollywood producer. DeNiro was there to present the best picture award. He got to walk up the red carpet, such as he does in his movie, as a movie he is behind is selected for the festival, though the person putting up the money for the film, Catherine Keener, threatens to withdraw it if the director doesn't change the ending. It is a fierce battle to get the director to make the change, which concludes with the death of a dog and Sean Penn. It is just one of several wars DeNiro is fighting in the movie. Another is to get Bruce Willis to shave his beard for a role he is paying him $20 million for. DeNiro genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself in this fun, light-hearted movie on the rampant egos in the movie industry and what it takes to get a movie made. I declined to stay to the end, as I wanted to see the Argentinian film "Woman Without a Head" by Lucretia Mortel, her third film after "The Swamp" and "Holy Girl," neither of which I cared for though the high-brow critics love her.

I had been joined by Charles of Facets for the awards ceremony and the following film and we both were a little reluctant to leave it prematurely, but we felt duty-bound to pay our respects to Mortel's film. As with Ceylon's "Three Monkeys," the plot is triggered by a car accident. A middle-aged woman hits an object. It seems to be a dog, but she fears it was a person. The movie is her torment that she may have left someone dead. This was much less obtuse than her previous films, but this too has more snob-appeal than anything.

And that wrapped up the festival. As Charles and I were lingering outside the Palais along came Michael Phillips of the "Tribune" and Patrick McGavin of "Screen" magazine. They had just finished filing their final stories of the festival. They echoed our sentiments about the jury's selections. Phillips was particularly incensed about the award to the Dardennes, calling it the worst of their scripts, the last half a travesty. Ceylon's previous film "Climates" had been his favorite film two years ago. He didn't like "Three Monkeys" as much, but was still pleased with the award. He too had had no forewarning of the greatness of "The Class." We were all puzzled why the jury overlooked the Israeli film "Waltz with Bashir." Phillips said someone asked the jury about it in the post-awards ceremony press conference. Three of the jurors spoke up saying that it was in consideration. As we lingered Phillips took a call on his cell and stepped aside. When he returned he said, "It was the BW--beautiful wife. That's how Irv Kupcinet used to refer to his wife."

I had begun my day at nine a.m. for the marathon four plus hours of "Che." It had been so talked up I arrived at the theater before eight a.m. to make sure I got in. There were about 20 people before me, but not too many more showed up by the time they let us in. Del Toro thoroughly captured the charisma of Che. There is very little of Castro and none of Che's amours, not even his wife. Rather the movie concentrates on Che the idealist and why he was so beloved. The first half of the movie ends abruptly as Che is on his way to Havana, the revolution complete. There is one last scene of him reprimanding a soldier for having made off with someone's luxury car. He orders him to turn around and return it. The second half of the movie, or part two, as speculation is the movie will be released as two separate movies, was Che's year in the jungles of Bolivia trying to foment a revolution there. This straight chronological tale, in contrast to the first half, which hops backward and forward in time and place, was particularly riveting knowing the end that awaited Che. What will become of this movie is anyone's guess. There is great clamor for it to be cut and reduced to a single movie. There is also talk that Soderbergh could lengthen it with a third full length movie of the several year gap between the time period of these two movies. Che as a frustrated bureaucrat, driven to escape the office and be out doing what his heart demanded, could be as important as these two bookends.

After twelve days of non-stop cinema I am happy to have two months on the bike ahead of me. Its on to the Pyrenees.

Later, George

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 11

Friends: There were shouts of "Bravo" and sustained applause after the morning screening in the Palais of "The Class," a most moving and impeccably realistic depiction of a classroom of 14- and 15-year old students in a Paris school. If there weren't an unwritten tradition of limiting films in Competition to just one award this could sweep best picture, actor, director and script honors.

First-time actor, Francois Begaudeau, who is the author of the book the movie is based on, can't be denied the best acting award for his extraordinary performance playing himself, a teacher who is part master-of-ceremonies, part stand-up comic, part lion-timer and above all a committed educator. He fully engages his classroom of semi-rebellious students, mostly children of immigrants. He challenges them and treats them with respect, while maintaining his authority and his distance. There wasn't a speck of phoniness or cheap dramatic devices that most such films are prone too in this film by Laurent Cantet, whose previous film, "Heading South," starring Charlotte Rampling, made the Top Ten list of Robert Kennedy of

One of the highlights of this year's festival had to be the promenade up the red carpet later in the evening of the 25 students, amateur actors all, for its formal gala presentation. This was a 130 minute movie that wasn't too long by any shot. The French system of education is astonishingly farsighted. One of the teacher's points is that the students must behave in a manner to "make society run smoothly." A few days ago a young French woman tried to butt in line ahead of me, pretending she was friends of a couple of young women. An older French woman behind me immediately reprimanded her. They exchanged a few words, the young woman holding her ground, but when the older woman used the word "morality," she shamed her into going to the back of the line. "The Class" gives a glimpse of the training that the French receive in schools in such matters. I have seen countless examples of the French concern for the greater good in my travels here the past four years. It is one reason that I have returned year after year. It takes extreme talent and commitment for a teacher to be as good as the one in this movie, but the glimpses of the other teachers in the school show that they have a similar regard, though not necessarily possessing the talent of the featured teacher.

Philip Seymour Hoffman might have been a candidate for best acting honors in "Synecdoche, New York" if it weren't for Begaudeau's performance or the disaster of a movie he ended up. Hoffman plays a theater director suffering from one outrageous physical malady after another and one huge mental disability in a hallucination of a movie that doesn't amount to much more than a heap of masturbatory drivel. Charlie Kaufman, writer of "Being John Malkovich" and other such wildly original and imaginative films, fails miserably in his first directorial effort.

Hoffman's life is disintegrating as his wife, played by Catherine Keener, runs off to Germany with Jennifer Jason Leigh and his young daughter. He wins a MacArthur grant which allows him to put on a grandiose production. He wants to do something of brutal honesty. He can think of nothing better than his very own miserable life. He's still working on it 20 years later with his life and the movie unraveling in parallel universes. Hoffman remains curiously watchable, but as one character comments about the play they are working on, "This is tedious, this is nothing."

The star of "My Magic" by Eric Khoo of Singpore also had people calling for best actor considerations. He too was a first time actor, a magician discovered by Khoo. He plays a drunk single father who is incapable of supporting his young son. He works in a bar cleaning up, and quickly downing any left over drinks. His one talent is the ability to endure pain. He eats glass and razor blades, swallows and spits fire, and penetrates his skin and tongue with nails. He resumes his career on small-time basis at the bar he works at, finally bringing home a few dollars. It wasn't always easy to watch his self-mutilation. The movie was a polished enough effort to be included in the Competition category, but not much more than showcasing this guy's freak talent.

There were only two choices of movies at eight p.m. this night and both were shots in the dark--the unveiling of the best film in The Director's Fortnight and in the Un Certain Regard categories. Since it was easier to get into the Un Certain Regard that is the theater I opted for. I had seen eight of the 20 films in its category compared to three of the 22 in the Director's Fortnight, so it was a greater risk, but since I had liked all of them, if I had to see one again, that would have been okay.

Fatih Akin, who won best screen play here last year with "The Edge of Heaven" was the president of the jury. He said there were so many good films this year they made a special request to award five rather than the usual three films. Their first four awarded were "Johnny Mad Dog," "Tyson," "Cloud Nine" and "Tokyo Sonata," all of which I had seen. And the winner was "Tulpan," which I hadn't. A good many people left the theater after the award. Four of the five directors were still on hand to accept their awards. James Tobeck said he had forewarned Tyson that their film was to receive an award. Tyson was in London announcing a fight and was going to mention the award on the telecast.

"Tulpan" took place on the steppes of Kazathstan. Tulpan is a young woman we never see who is the object of affection of a shepherd. The shepherd's father has tried to arrange their marriage but Tulpan refuses, saying she doesn't like the shepherd's big ears. They try again, bringing a photo of Prince Charles with Diana comparing their ears. That doesn't matter. This German production may not have been as good a movie as "Tokyo Sonata," which was given the runner-up prize, but it received extra credit for its submersion into this gritty isolated world. There is a graphic scene of the birth of a lamb, two young children straddling the naked back of their father squeezing blackheads and showing each off to him.

Tomorrow I'll start off my day with the four hours of Soderbergh's "Che," which seems to be the favorite for the Palm d'Or based as much on its ambitions and subject matter as its quality. It may be my only chance to see it in its entirety as there are calls all round to condense it. I have seen 17 of the 22 films in Competition. Unfortunately three of the five I haven't seen are replaying at the nine o'clock time slot tomorrow and a fourth, Eastwood's, overlaps with the second half of "Che," so I won't be able to see them all, as I have managed in year's past.

Later, George

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 10

Friends: Documentaries are hot. Ten per cent of the films in the market are documentaries, including two that recently played at Chicago's Landmark, "Plant B-Boys" and "Young at Heart," both looking for more distribution. It seems like anybody with a camera these days is making one, except Werner Herzog, who has gone back to feature film-making. Hell, even Madonna had a doc here on orphans in Malawi. She said she would like to have adopted all of them, but settled on just one. Jury President Sean Penn requested a screening of a documentary on volunteers for the tsunami of a few years ago.

Established, veteran feature film-makers are giving the genre a try, as well as nobodies. I saw one of each today, upping my total to 15 of the 68 films I've seen these first ten days of the festival. Abel Ferrera is the latest big name director to go documentary, choosing the Chelsea Hotel in New York as his subject with "Chelsea on the Rocks." This legendary Bohemian hotel is on the rocks because it was recently sold by its long-time owner to a corporate concern.

After his revved-up introduction to the film, I doubted Ferrera could keep his strong, unrestrained personality out of the film. He tries for a while, limiting his presence to only his laughter and some gasped expletives in the background, but then he is on prominent display interviewing and walking around the hotel with Milos Foreman and the former owner of the hotel. Foremen lived there for two years without paying rent as a young director, long before he directed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," because the owner had faith in him, and liked to support artists. Countless artists stayed there on a short- and long-term basis over the years.

Ferrera interviews many of the current long-term residents while recounting the lore of the hotel, even re-enacting the saga of Sid and Nancy with a couple of actors. That was about the most effort he put into the project. This was more proof that making an above-average documentary takes more than just having an interesting subject.

"Marina of the Zabbaleen" was an even stronger example of a failed attempt. The fascinating subject of garbage pickers in Cairo couldn't even save this documentary. There is very little of the garbage picking, as it concentrates on a family that lives in the Village of Recyclers of 30,000 residents alongside the Cairo dump. There is footage of the hard work of various residents sorting the garbage--metal and paper and food for pigs--but mostly it dwells upon the not so interesting everyday activities of a family the American film-makers befriended-- taking their young daughter to the dentist, going to church and so forth.

"Il Divo" by Paolo Sorrentino was far from a documentary, though it recounts the life of long-time Italian premier Giulo Andreotti who was tried for being involved with the mafia. This was the second film in Competition portraying the stranglehold the mafia has on Italy. This highly stylized and dramatized portrayal of the now 89-year old Andreotti didn't please him at all. It does not try to be conclusive as to whether or not he was involved with the mafia during his 40 years as a prominent politician up until a few years ago, but implies that, as that court decided, he was not.

I succeeded in gaining entry to both the Director's Fortnight and the Critic's Week theaters for the first time this year. After failing to get into the Palais for Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" at 8:30 this morning, I zipped up to Director's Fortnight for "Monsieur Morimoto," a whimsical tale about a homeless elderly Japanese artist in Paris. The film begins with Morimoto being evicted from his apartment. He doesn't seem concerned. He hardly speaks any French, just a few phrases ("me wanderer", "no money", "slight perspiring") . He manages every day to befriend some other wayward soul who gives him a place to sleep, though he never stays at one place more than one night. This plays again tomorrow night at 10:30 when there is nothing else playing in the drastically slimmed down schedule. I might actually sit through it again.

I wasn't so lucky with what I saw at the Critic's Week. I went to see the 10:30 p.m. screening of its award winner. I'd only seen two of the seven films in this sidebar, so had my fingers crossed that the odds were with me that the winner would be something I hadn't seen. Unfortunately it was the Bosnian film "Snow." I had seen it, though with just French subtitles. With nothing else available to see, I sat through it a second time, the English subtitles giving a little extra illumination into the very slight story. It was one of quite a few films I've seen whose locations were more interesting than the story.

My big winner for the day was "Adoration." I am delighted to report that Atom Egoyan has rediscovered his unique, slightly perverse voice that he had abandoned in his last few films, buckling to commercial interests. Like his early films that brought him acclaim, though not much money, "Adoration" has an intricate, mysterious plot sprinkled with dazzling Egoyanesque surprises along the way. A high school kid who lives with his tow-truck-driving father writes a story at the urging of his Arabic French teacher, played by Egoyan's wife, about a Palestinian husband who planted a bomb on his pregnant Canadian wife before she was to fly to Israel from Toronto. The incident took place about 18 years before. The student said that he was the child in her womb. The story causes quite a stir among his classmates and beyond when it shows up on the Internet. His teacher had way more motivation that we can imagine for urging this boy, who is way too smart for his own good, to write the story. I don't know if it will win any awards, but I won't object if it does.

Two days to go with the selections greatly reduced. The last day will only be the repeat of the 22 Competition entries along with the closing night film, "What Just Happened," by Barry Levinson with Sean Penn and Robert DiNero. It played at Sundance and wasn't that well received.

Later, George


Friday, May 23, 2008

Day 9

Friends: There is no denying now at this point, deep into the festival, that Cannes 2008 will be remembered for its less than stellar crop of films. There has been much to like, but no real standouts. For the first time ever Sony has found nothing worth acquiring. Last year it picked up "The Counterfeiters" and "The Band's Visit." I was hoping they'd find at least "Tokyo Sonata" to their liking, as Sony's films generally end up at Telluride, but evidently this Japanese film does not have enough commercial prospects for them. Miramax too has found virtually nothing worth its while, only acquiring the opening night film "Blindness."

In my desperation to find some hidden gem I was less patient today with lackluster efforts, bailing out early several times, upping my total for the day to eight films. I was helped by failing to gain entrance to the Tarantino master class, a 90-minute conversation with a French critic on his career, including clips from his films, in the 1,000 seat Debussy. Last year's subject was Scorcese, and it was one of the highlights of the festival. Getting in line 90 minutes ahead of time wasn't quite enough. But being shut out of that allowed me to slip in a couple extra films. If I'd only abandoned "WC" after 45 minutes rather than an hour to get in line for Tarantino, I would have gotten in, as I came within 40 people of gaining entrance.

I actually should have left "WC", an Irish drama about two wash room attendants one male, a recent ex-con, and the other female, a Russian immigrant who had been forced into prostitution, after 15 minutes. It was clear from the start that what I hoped would be a captivating oddity was a waste of time. The cast was riddled with actors impersonating, rather than submerging themselves, into their characters.

It was a stark contrast to "Ballast," an American independent whose African American cast in a small southern town all looked as if they could have been playing themselves, and with passion. A 40-year old guy who has just lost his twin brother and business partner to suicide can't find the will to get up and tend to their business--a small gas station and market. He doesn't even care when his brother's 11-year old son comes around with a gun demanding money for his crack habit. The boy's mother loses her job when she is beat up by the drug dealers her son owes money to. These three lost souls struggle to get their lives back on track.

"Wendy and Lucy" is another American independent, though with a bigger budget and the backing of Larry Fessendon, with first rate performances all around. Wendy is a young woman on her way to Alaska from Indiana with her dog Lucy to work in a cannery. She's stuck in a small Oregon town when her car won't start and Lucy has gone missing while she has been booked and detained for shop-lifting. She is befriended by a security guard.

I aborted "Confession of a Killer" after 45 minutes so I could make sure to get into a documentary on Nick Nolte. "Confession" was exactly that, a hired killer giving a confession to a priest. This American independent by a young French American director/actor was stylish and hip with fast-editing and split screens and upbeat music that I could have endured to the end, but I was most concerned about seeing the Nolte doc. I wasn't expecting Nolte to be there, so I was startled when my reading was interrupted as I awaited the start of the film when someone asked if they could take a picture of the grizzled, pink-faced guy sitting in the aisle in front of me. It was Nick himself. He didn't bother to announce himself before this market screening in the one-third filled 150-seat Bory theater. I was the first one to be seated, 45 minutes before the screening was to start.

Nolte, wearing a Panama hat, interviews himself, wearing an open-necked white shirt. The questions aren't all softballs either. Twice he brings up his arrest for drunk driving and his famous mug shot, considered the "Best celebrity mug shot ever." Nolte doesn't want to respond to the question. Nolte the interviewer says, "Don't get pissed off, I'm just asking the questions." Later he tells the full story. He tells how in the '80s cocaine was considered an acceptable drug in Hollywood and that he'd snort it on the set off the script as he was prepping his lines. Early in his career he was considered the next Brando. Brando was a friend. Nolte's performance in "Q & A" was one of Brando's favorite of all time. The film is interspersed with comments from actors and directors he worked with, including a bit too much of Ben Stiller trying to be funny. He flashes the People magazine cover that declared him the "Sexiest Man Alive," as if he was forced to, as he tries not to take any of this too seriously, while giving a good illumination of his career and what makes him tick.

With the crowds thinning, as Thursday is a getaway day for many after spending a week here, there were spare seats in the Palais for the first time since last Friday for the morning's competition screening of "Frontiers of Dawn," a star vehicle for French heartthrob Louis Farrel directed by his father. Garrel plays a photographer who falls in love with an actress during a shoot in her apartment. Her husband of six months is off in Hollywood working on a film. She explains,"I got married on impulse. I often do stupid things." That's a forewarning of things to come in a film that goes on and on in fairly predictable French fashion with a lot of blah, blah blah and a dollop of surrealism thrown in. The screen goes blank from time to time as the plot jumps forward. After about 90 minutes, someone applauded after one of these breaks, implying he anticipated the credits to follow, though he well knew they wouldn't. He earned laughs from the audience, appreciating his gesture. There was more applause after the next break and the next. And then as if to spite the end-craving audience, the director ended the movie with a much unanticipated and unappreciated conclusion.

If the film had only ended at that 90-minute mark, I would have been able to see "Able Danger" over at the Grey in its entirety. Instead I had to miss its first 30 minutes. I wasn't too concerned, as the only reason I wanted to check out this Brazilian-financed American independent about a journalist in New York City uncovering a 9/11 plot was because the blurb in the program mentioned the journalist "has to cycle like a maniac" to escape his pursuers. I assumed that would be towards the end. But I was rewarded with cycling throughout the movie, as that is how the young journalist gets about the Boroughs, regularly crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. This semi-campy effort, shot stylishly in black and white, actually had some appeal. With luck, it could turn up at Facets.

Later, George

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day 8

Friends: I was looking forward to "The Delta," a Hungarian film about incest in an isolated waterland, as much as any film on this year's schedule. The director's previous film, "Joanna," was easily the most audacious film here two years ago, an operatic tale of a nurse in a hospital who cures terminal patients by having sex with them. And the early word on "The Delta" was that it was another exceptional effort having won awards at Hungary's recent film festival,

In contrast to the outrageous excesses of "Joanna" this was restrained, minimalist film-making with little dialogue and not a great deal going on, just a lot of nail pounding as the young brother and sister, who've only just recently met, build first a long pier in the waterlands of "The Delta" and then start in on a house. Their affection is much restrained and mostly just suggested. Their living together in isolation disturbs the locals. Sometimes such minimalist fare works and often it doesn't. This is more dull and dreary than poetic and poignant. It was a disappointment, not only in tone, but with its occasional flares of violence.

Mike Tyson wasn't the only titanic athlete to attend this year's fest and to be featured in a documentary. Soccer great Maradonna was also in attendance with Serbian director Kusturika's documentary on him. And next year Michael Jordan could be here as Spike Lee announced plans of doing a documentary on him. Lee is here seeking funding for it a WWII pic he just finished, showing eight minutes of it to buyers. He says there will be African Americans in his war movie, unlike Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima pair.

Kusturica has an ego to match Spike Lee's and Maradonna's and features himself as much in his documentary as he does Maradonna. Its more like hanging out with Maradonna than giving his full story as James Tobeck did so well in Tyson, keeping himself totally out of the way even though he was more a friend of Tyson's than Kusturika was of Maradonna. They don't even share a language. He communicates to him in English with a Spanish translator. The movie is heavy on music, Kusturika's, an entertaining song by Maradonna about his life story and the Sex Pistols. "God Save the Queen" is played repeatedly throughout the movie, partially to ridicule Britain and their claiming of the Falkland Islands off the shore of Argentina. Kusturika spent a couple of years trying to get enough footage to complete this movie, commenting at one point that he almost felt like a stalker. He pads the movie with excerpts from many of his own movies that remind him of aspects of Maradonna's life. It was entertaining and watchable, but all too much of a vanity project that one expects more from unknown directors.

"Snow" explored Kusturika's home region, the breakup of Yugoslavia. Taking place in Bosnia in 1997 it focused on a handful of woman in a rural area that has lost all its men to the war. The women are struggling to survive and live not knowing the fate of their husbands and fathers and brothers. It very well depicts their life and region and adds the drama of developers wanting their land.

Africa is the subject of the Italian documentary "Maybe God is Ill" based on the book of the same name. This began as if it could be something exceptional featuring the music of a South African singer bemoaning the ills of her country. Her and other's music is interspersed throughout and there is lots of beyond the ordinary commentary. I thought it could turn into a Chris Marker film essay, but that was too much to hope for. It was still very worthwhile. Early on the documentarian's driver advises them not to roll their windows up as they drive around Johannesburg, as the windows of their car won't shatter so easily if they are left a crack open. Among other things, the filmmakers take a portable movie theater to villagers and show them an astounding old Italian movie that I would very much like to see myself, "Miracle in Milan" with people flying over the town's renowned cathedral on broomsticks.

I was drawn to "Absurdistan" not only by its title but the blurb describing it as a battle between the women of a town and the men. The men are lazy creatures who only want to drink and have sex and don't do anything when the pipeline of water leading to the village slows to a dribble. The women declare "no water, no sex," and set up a barbed wire fence through the middle of town to separate the sexes. This farcical tale had the pomposity, silliness and flare of a Kusturica film.

Its always a danger that there will be no English subtitles at the Arcades theater. That usually isn't a risk when its showing a French film, but that wasn't the case with "A Faint Trembling of the Landscape." My French is good enough to make sense of a film if I have to read French subtitles, but not good enough to catch more than a word or phrase if all I have is dialogue. This film was supposed to be about a geological incident that causes the locals of a town to reflect on higher issues. I had no sense of that. I could tell though that it was less than a mediocre film.

Subtitles weren't much necessary for "Liverpool" an Argentinian film about a sailor who returns to his home in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to search for his mother. There was virtually no dialogue in this film, just extended shots of the lead doing the most mundane of things--putting on his clothes, eating and perpetually swigging hard alcohol. It was all tedium. It was nice to have another snow-covered landscape to gaze upon though.

Later, George

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 7

Friends: Today was a day of unfulfilled promises, but still a couple of finds. I had to wait a week for a second attempt on the lone bicycling film of the festival--"The Field of Stars." The cyclist, a 17-year old aspiring racer, is the last of the handful of characters and story lines to be established in this Spanish feature that takes place in a small coastal town. He appears twice early on, almost as an apparition, riding hard on his bicycle rising up out of a mountainous mist and one other time sitting in his bedroom with a signed rainbow-striped World Championship jersey of his hero Oscar Freire on his wall.

His riding turns the head of an older man who eventually becomes his mentor. Its not until his sister, who is a social worker at the local home for the elderly and who has a couple of suitors, greets him before he sets off on a prolonged training ride that the movie takes up its bicycle theme. We suddenly have an upbeat music sound track to go with close-ups and aerials of him riding a narrow road through the mountains--just what I was hoping for. After he starts training in earnest under the tutelage of a former racer he wins the local junior championship. But the cycling is just frosting on a movie with too many inconsequential subplots--the love story, the fight over an inheritance, evil developers. It was nice to see some genuine cycling, including video highlights of some of Freire's sprint victories, but this was mediocre fare that will never be heard of.

From the moment this year's slate of films was announced, the foremost question was could the Dardenne brothers deliver another of their powerful stories of every day characters under duress that have twice claimed the top prize here. From the start it appears that they have once again with "The Silence of Lorina." The drama is immediately compelling as an Albanian woman, who has paid a Belgian to be her husband so she can gain citizenship, is plotting with her handler to kill him so she can marry a Russian and collect 10,000 euros for a second marriage of convenience. Her husband is a junkie. It will be easy to give him an overdose. But he's trying to kick the habit and she suddenly feels some compassion for him and prefers to simply accuse him of beating her and divorcing him. Her handler does not approve. But she is a woman with her own mind and is determined to save him. After leaving rehab, her husband decides to buy a bicycle to help him stay off the heroin. "I'll ride all day," he says. "It'll give me something to do." I was thrilled to have a surprise bicycle movie on my hands. But we only see him ride off and never again on his bicycle. And then the movie fizzles out. It had a great set-up, but then dramatically falters. Not likely to be any awards for this effort, nor many Top Ten lists.

"24 City," a Chinese documentary about a huge factory that is being demolished to be replaced by an apartment complex, likely receive any awards from the jury. The eight talking heads of the film, five real and three fictional, are all former workers or people who had lived in the vicinity. This was a stretch to have been included in the Competition category. There are a few striking images, including workers streaming into the factory complex on their bicycles, but the interview subjects, other than the fictional ones, aren't very interesting.

The day's two Un Certain Regard films were both extreme doses of unrestrained, ultra-realistic violence and brutality and terror. The young protagonist of "The Bastards" from Mexico is so sinister looking that when he arrived earlier in the day at the Nice airport 30 miles away the customs officials refused to believe his story that he was an actor attending the festival. He was given three body searches and then a police escort to the festival to confirm that he was who he claimed to be. He is one of a group of Mexican immigrants (most likely illegal) hanging out across the street from a Home Depot in southern California waiting to be picked up for work. He is among six selected for a construction job digging a foundation for a house, and then later that evening he and a friend are off on another most unlikely job, though what it exactly is and who employed them is never revealed. It involves breaking into a woman's home. Michael Hanake would have approved.

The violence and mayhem is so realistic in "Johnny Mad Dog" of juvenile soldiers in Liberia running amok that a representative of Liberia assured the audience before the screening that it was save to visit his country. One wouldn't think so after seeing this. These boy soldiers are so crazed they terrorize one and all, even UN soldiers, and don't hesitate to kill, rape and plunder. This was remarkably well done.

"Grown Ups" would make a nice antidote to "The Bastards" and "Johnny Mad Dog." This pleasant, gentle French comedy of a divorced father and his 17-year old daughter vacationing in Sweden was nice, harmless entertainment. The father, a librarian, brought along his metal detector. He is so proud of it he wants to demonstrate its powers to the two women whose house they are staying at. He asks for one's earring and then tosses it in the weeds, and then can't find it. He's not too happy when he notices another vacationer with a metal detector identical to his own. The girl has a flirtation with a Swedish boy and the father too becomes enamored with the women they are staying with.

It was another seven film day though I certainly could have done without "The Listening Project," a documentary by some young American who travels the world asking people what they think about America. It was sheer drivel.

Later, George

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day 6

Friends: Rare does a film director put in an appearance at a market screening of his film. Its almost an insult that it hasn't been selected for one of the four competitive categories, and he has had to pay to have his film shown here. Its usually the money people, the producers, if anybody, that are there at such a screening, hoping to drudge up some distribution. So it was a surprise to see Paul Cox, the maverick, veteran Australian director greeting acquaintances in the second floor lobby of the Grey Hotel outside the 76-seat improvised theater where his latest, "Salvation" was about to play this afternoon.

He gave a brief introduction to the couple dozen of us in attendance, saying, "you are the smallest gathering I've ever had for a world premier of one of my films." But among us was the wife of someone once considered among the most powerful in the world of cinema and who does still carry some weight--Chaz Ebert. Husband Roger had been an enthusiastic supporter of Cox's last significant film, "Innocence," from 2000.

Like his younger countryman, Rolf de Heer, Cox specializes in exploring the psychosis of characters that is rarely seen in cinema. "Salvation" is no exception. Up for dissection here are a female televangelist and her elderly husband. They are both good-hearted and slightly perverse. Similar to his masterpiece "Man of Flowers," the husband is involved in a non-sexual relationship with a prostitute, a Russian immigrant who is beholden to her not so kindly pimp. Cox offers up his trademark unexpected twists and turns, but unfortunately he doesn't manage to draw very convincing performances from his cast. This was lukewarm fare from a former great talent who would seem to be past his prime. I was glad to have seen it, but unfortunately it's not something I can champion and look forward to seeing again.

I began my day playing catch up with Competition screenings I had previously been denied. I took a chance on getting into the much anticipated Dardennes brother's "Silence of Lorina" at nine. When that fell through I ventured over to the Star for Walter Salles' "Linha de Passe" at 9:30. I was second in line for non-buyers, who had precedence over all else. I doubted very much that 250 buyers would show up, so I patiently began by perusal of the day's three trade papers--"Variety," "Screen" and "Hollywood Reporter." I always first check the verdict of "Screen's" panel of 11 critics on the previous day's two Competition screenings, both of which I was going to see today. Salle's clocked in with a 2.7 average out of 4, second so far behind the 2.8 of the Turkish film "Three Monkeys." But "Service," my second film of the day, received one of the worst scores ever--a .6 with seven of the critics giving it a 0.

A common element or theme to many of the films so far has been survival--literal and figurative--characters living day-to-day struggling to scrape up rent or food money. "Linha de Passe" was an extreme case of survival for a mother and her four sons in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One son is a motorcycle courier who periodically begs his brother who works at a gas station to let him have a couple of gallons of gas and eventually has to turn to thievery to get by. Another brother is a talented soccer player, who if he wants a position on a team has to hand over a bribe equivalent to three months salary. The mother is about to lose her job as a cleaning lady soon before she is about to give birth to a fifth child by another unknown father. There are reports on television that buses are being attacked by desperate people and that over 10,000 people showed up to apply to be garbage men. An occasional panoramic view of this sprawling city of 20 million is perhaps the most disconcerting part of this film and unfortunately its most powerful commentary on the hell of Sao Paulo. None of the performances rise enough above the ordinary to call this film much more than average fare--something to respect, but nothing to acclaim.

I encountered Milos on my way to the maligned "Service." I thought he might try to talk me out of seeing it. All he said was that after 20 minutes I would have seen enough. He was right about that. Still I could appreciate the artistry of this Philippine feature about a porn theater. What made me want to leave early more than anything was the high decibel soundtrack of non-stop traffic bustling past the urban theater. The title of the movie applies to the service offered by prostitutes to the theater customers. There was explicit sex along with a thief being chased through the theater and a goat being chased out.

I also caught up with a surprisingly delightful little morsel from the Director's Fortnight--"Tony Manero" from Chile. Tony is the John Travolta character from "Saturday Night Fever." A 52- year old guy is obsessed with him, repeatedly going to see the movie and memorizing his lines, even though he speaks no English. He signs up to compete on a TV show for the best Tony impersonator. The impersonator more closely resembles an older Al Pacino from "Dog Day Afternoon" than Travolta, both in look and in personality. He is more crazed than is first revealed, not stopping at anything to get his way, even killing a couple of people along the way. I had no clue how dark this film would be.

My documentary for the day was "Gonzo: The Life and World of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." With such a subject there was no way I wouldn't like this movie. The film offers rare archival footage of this crazed character from when he ran for sheriff in Aspen in the early '70s and when he was on "To Tell the Truth" shortly after he wrote his book on the Hell's Angels. Many friends comment on his life--Jann Wenner, Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Depp, George McGovern, Tom Wolfe, both his wives and his son. Thompson was definitely an extraordinary figure. He was such a prominent journalist in the '70s that when he was covering the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign more people wanted his autograph than Carter's. The documentary, however, is just standard fare. It doesn't rise above the genre as did yesterday's "Man on Wire." That's no reason not to see it, but it probably won't interest any of those who aren't interested in Thompson himself.

I concluded my day with a rehabbed print of "Lola Montes" from 1958, by Max Ophuls starring Peter Ustinov. This classic about a 19th century courtesan who has become a circus performer was a grand spectacular in its day. It is part of a circus performer theme that is also emerging among the films I have seen if you count Houdini and the high-wire walker as acts worthy of the circus. There was also a local circus in "Frozen," the Indian film. And there is an African circus film coming up.

The festival has reached its halfway point and everybody is awaiting a masterpiece. By this time last year we had already had three or four. I doubt it will be a masterpiece, but "Field of Stars", the bicycling movie, awaits me tomorrow.

Later, George

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day 5

Friends: For the first time in my five Festivals de Cannes I sat in the aisle for an entire screening, and in the Palais no less. Those of us in the last minute line for the 8:30 a.m. screening of "Gomorrah" weren't admitted until 8:28. Two minutes was not enough time for us to scamper up the red carpet, have our bags checked, get scanned and find a seat before the lights went dark. Rather than sending us up to the balcony, we were let in on the main floor. It was packed. I found a nice little nook by an emergency exit and could just see the subtitles of this Italian film over the heads of those properly seated.

There was enough padding under the carpet that I survived this two-hour plus saga of the Napoli syndicate without squirming. It wasn't that the movie was so good. Maybe my two weeks of sleeping on the ground has toughened me up as well. This was a very realistic portrayal of the stranglehold the mafia has on Naples and how a great number of people in the community are drawn into. It follows five or six different stories, using professional and non-professional actors. The depiction just rambles along without any strong narrative until a couple of kids who think they are tough guys get hold of a stash of guns and think they can have their say. It was too bad there were not more scenes of originality such as that of the guys in their underwear along the beach shooting off the guns, including a rocket launcher.

My day-long pre-fest close dissection of the program revealed a market screening of an Aaron Eckhardt film called "Meet Bill." It was one of the rare films that had no description, not that they are all that crucial, as most descriptions aren't more than a sentence or two. One of my great festival experiences was seeing the film that launched Eckhardt, "In the Company of Men," at Sundance in 1997. I am happy to see him in anything after that. There were a couple dozen others who joined me in the small Gray theater for this American independent. Eckhardt plays a sorry sap working as an executive in his father-in-law's bank. He hates his job and his life. He munches on candy bars at every opportunity and has developed quite a gut. His wife is having an affair with a local newsman. This feeble comedy was about as sappy as Eckhardt's character.

Nor could the star power of Julia Stiles, Danny Glover, and Angela Bassett rescue "Gospel Hill" directed by Giancarlo Esposito. Its a long shot that this film about racism in a small southern town will make it to the multiplexes. I was drawn to it not only to see Stiles, but that one of the plot strands was about the locals protesting the development of a multimillion dollar golf course in the community. There was very little about battling the evil developers.

"Restless" by Amos Kollek was another of the small nuggets I discovered in the program receiving no attention whatsoever but that was among the films I was most excited to see. It had just two screenings in small market theaters. I so wanted to see this I was afraid to mention it to anyone else, not wanting the word to get out that Kollek had a film here. Thanks to his remarkable "Sue" starring Anna Thompson from ten years ago, he and she have a strong cult following in France and Germany, enough so that his film "Fast Food, Fast Woman" starring Thompson played in Competition here several years ago. But this Israeli-American's
films rarely get much distribution in the U.S. though they are generally set in New York and capture the gritty side of life with tough characters finding some way to survive life's many adversities.

Thompson wasn't in this film, but it was still a most satisfying idiosyncratic film, starring a 50- year old Israeli poet just scraping by in Manhattan. He's three months behind on his rent and his landlord threatens to have him deported, as he's been in the U.S. for 20 years illegally. The poet attacks him with a brick, saying he's mourning the death of his wife. The landlord is evidently accustomed to such behavior and doesn't retaliate. He recites most heart-felt poetry at an Israeli bar about the travails of life and the decline of Israel that would make Bukowski proud. He's a womanizer. He has affairs with a 70-year old and a 40-year old bartender. There are also flashbacks to Israel where his 20-year old son, who he has never met, is just finishing up his three years in the army. This film was a nice discovery and made my day.

"Man on Wire", a documentary about the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Towers in 1974, was another great discovery. The English filmmakers, who also did "Wisconsin Deathtrap," sought out all the principles in the endeavor, "the artistic crime of the century," to recount this amazing, death-defying stunt. This was a documentary just waiting to be made, like yesterday's on the origins of the Che photograph. This too played in a small market screening room and had no mention in the trade papers. I have learned over the years of coming to Cannes that there are many such unexpected delights to be found. Milos of Facets said the filmmakers had sought Facets to distribute it. He wasn't interested, thinking there couldn't be that much to the story. The tightrope walker spent months planning it and had a crew to assist him in hauling the wire up to the roof and to secure it and extend it the 200 feet from one building to the other. He'd previously walked tightropes across Notre Dame in Paris and the Tower Bridge in Sydney.

I had hoped to see an Isabelle Huppert movie about a Swiss family coping with the construction of a highway in their back yard playing in the Critic's Week section, but there was too much of a mob when I arrived. So I zipped a mile down Antibes to the Star theaters for "Cloud Nine" a German film that had played earlier in Un Certain Regard. I arrived just in time to get one of the last seats just as a 66-year old woman was disrobing on screen and crawling into bed with a 76 year old. The woman had fallen in love with the guy after doing some sewing for him, even though she was semi-happily married. The film examines the sex life of the elderly, proving that the interest doesn't wane with the years. Her husband of thirty years isn't happy about her affair, but she can't help herself. It is love and she can't help but give herself up to it. Her lover still rides a bicycle and is a fan of racing. They have one rendezvous at a velodrome, though we see little racing and mostly just their longing looks at each other, he in the infield assisting with the racing and she in the stands. Some are calling this a courageous, ground-breaking film. There is too much sex and not enough character development.

Films fit well enough today that I was able to have my first seven film day of the festival. My 31st film of the festival was "Being W" a French documentary ridiculing Bush. My screening was its world premiere. The director had delivered the print from Paris this day, a print still with the time-codes on it and no credits. A Bush impersonator narrates his life story intercut with all his speaking plunders that have been played and replayed countless times. He seems so foolish and pathetic, he almost becomes a sympathetic character. It was the first film that put me to sleep. Enough already. The trade papers have all had two page ads promoting Oliver Stone's soon to be shot film on Bush seeking distributors.

And tomorrow I have a Paul Cox film awaiting me, another film under the radar.

Later, George

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Day 4

Friends: There was enough interest in the Brazilian "Linha de Passe" by Walter Salles this Saturday morning that even people clutching those prized glossy Invitations were turned away. That allowed me to see "Light and the Sufferer," starting at ten a.m., in its entirety. I felt an obligation to give it a look as it is the first effort by Chris Peditto, brother of Paul Peditto, friend from Chicago and award-winning playwright. But first, after being denied at the Palias, I zipped the half mile on my bike to the former Noga Theatre, now the "Palais Stephanie," for a nine a.m. screening of the first Director's Fortnight offering of the day. It seats 500, but I could tell the twin lines already exceeded that capacity. So it was around the corner to the Star Theater for 40 minutes of "Road to Dawn" from China, a historical drama about Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, "the Father of Modern China". It was clear from the start, after a very clumsy portrayal of a woman on a bike being hit by a car, that this was a shoddy bio-pic. I had no difficulty bailing out of it prematurely. It was a few blocks down Antibes to the cluster of five screening rooms in the Gray Hotel.

If I hadn't made the effort to pay my respects to friend Paul, there would have only been one person in attendance at the lone screening of this American independent seeking someone to distribute it. Its not likely to happen, even after Peditto lucked into the film's lead, Paul Dano, being cast in "There Will be Blood" after filming this. Still, this story of two brothers, one a drug addict and all round fuck-up and the other straight and all too normal, has some appeal. When an alien masquerading as a panther type creature with a semi-human face makes its appearance galloping behind the taxi the two brothers are taking to the airport to escape to LA from New York after robbing Dano's drug dealer, I feared the movie was doomed to idiocy, but it actually enlivens the plot. No one they come into contact thereafter seems particularly alarmed by the panther, "Tony the Tiger," as Dano calls him. There is some signature Peditto crisp, snappy dialogue. The story moves along and is wrapped up in a tidy 70 minutes. I have seen much, much worse here over the years.

One of the most anticipated films of the festival is Soderbergh's two-part four-hour saga of Che Guevera. It screens Wednesday. An excellent companion piece will be the Netflix produced doc "Chevolution" telling the story of the photograph of Che that has become the most reproduced photo ever. It screened at noon today in the 150-seat Palais K screening room to a less than half-full theater. The photograph was taken by the Cuban fashion photographer Alberto Korda in 1960 when Che was on stage in Havana's Plaza de Revolution to mourn the loss of many Cubans in a terrorist explosion of armaments being unloaded off a Belgian ship in Havana. The film is as much a biography of Che as the story of the photo and the photograph. The photographer is long dead, but his daughter is one of the featured subjects. Its not clear when the photo was first printed, as it was not for months after it was shot. "Paris Match" may have launched it world-wide in 1968, though it had already been appropriated on posters for demonstrators. This was a most fascinating subject, very well told.

I couldn't resist "Transiberian" a Spanish film starring Woody Harrelson taking the legendary week-long train trip from Peking to Moscow. Harrelson is a hardware store owner from Iowa who hasn't had a very adventuress life. His wife has, so the trip is a gift to her. There is, of course, a murder committed along the way. Ben Kinglsey plays a police detective from Vladistock looking for drug traffickers. This was sumptuously shot, with scene after scene of the train passing through the vast snow-filled forests of Siberia. This was my first standing-room only market screening of the festival, though I was early enough to get a seat.

This ended just as the second Competition screening of the day, "24 City" from China was to start at the Palais. I could see there was no hope of getting in. That allowed me to see "Captain Abu Raed" a Jordanian film about an elderly airport janitor who is mistaken for a pilot by some kids in the neighborhood where he lives when he returns home one day wearing a pilot's cap that he retrieved from the trash. He goes along with the story after resisting it for a while, and enthralls the kids with stories of what it is like to fly the world. The plot veers from that, but it remains a heart-warming story. He befriends and looks after a handful of characters, including a woman pilot. He is well read and fluent in several languages. The woman pilot asks him why he is a janitor. He says, "There is a saying, 'He who chooses the humble life has guidance in his heart.'"
The Australian Gillian Armstrong went to Edinburgh, Scotland to film, "Death Defying Acts", a ravishing and riveting story about a woman, played by Catherine Zeta Jones, who tries to swindle Houdini, played by Guy Pearce, out of the $10,000 he has offered to any psychic who can communicate with his recently deceased mother. I wondered, as someone sitting behind me commented before the movie was to start, why the 71-seat Star 4 Theater wasn't packed.

I concluded my day with my only non-market screening of the day, "Tokyo Sonata," the second film in Un Certain Regard featuring Tokyo. This superbly tells the story of a man who has just lost his job but keeps it a secret from his wife and two teen-aged sons. He discovers a whole colony of salarymen such as himself who go off to work every day in suit and briefcase and have to find some way to occupy themselves. He takes advantage of a noon soup line for the homeless and hangs out at the library and just wanders. Not only his character, but his wife and son's are fully flushed out. The multiple story lines are well integrated. For awhile it looks as if the director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, doesn't have an ending, but then he delivers a knockout punch. This film offers great insight into many, many facets of Japanese culture.

Later, George

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Day 3

Friends: Twice yesterday and twice today I succeeded in gaining entry to the Palais Competition screenings without an Invitation (ticket) by taking advantage of the last minute entry line. Five minutes before the screening is to commence we unholy ticketless souls are let in if there are any seats remaining in the 2,300 seat theater. Unlike years past my credentials do not entitle me to Invitations. It was always a time-consuming hassle to acquire those Invitations, so this is working out better so far. I don't know why, but the balcony hasn't even been half full for the Competition screenings. It could be attendance is down due to the woefully weak dollar, or it could be the screenings so far haven't had much appeal.

Yesterday's two very worthwhile films were by not so well known directors. Today's were by accomplished, well-recognized directors, known for their slow-paced, minimally plotted fare with appeal to few. Starting the day off at 8:30 with Arnaud Desplechin's two-and-a-half hour "A Christmas Tale" was going to be an early test in the festival of whether I've been getting enough sleep. Mathieu Amalric of last year's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was among its array of French stars in another movie featuring someone with a very serious medical problem. It isn't him this time, but rather his mother, Catherine Deneuve. She seems perfectly fine, showing no signs of the cancer that could claim her within months unless she receives a bone marrow transplant. The problem is she has an extremely rare blood type. Her doctors have been searching far and wide for a donor. Amalric is a prospect but he had been banned from his family five years previously, so isn't so eager to cooperate. There are no earth-shaking plot twists, just a French movie with a lot of conversation that remarkably maintains interest. This movie won't win any prizes, just the affection of French audiences.

"Three Monkeys" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan of Turkey, however, is a good candidate to go home with an award. Unlike his previous two Competition entries, "Distance" and"Climates" this Turkish film has more than a bare-bones plot. Things actually happen and there is more than one or two characters of substance. A politician enlists his driver to take the fall for a hit-and-run accident he is responsible for just before his election. The driver serves his nine-month sentence in exchange for a chunk of money. His wife and son make a mess of things while he is serving his time. The lies cause everyone much anguish.

A car accident also leads off the Swedish "Suddenly," involving a family of four. The mother and younger son die. How the father and 17-year old son cope follows. They don't do so well, and the father less so than the son. They go off to their summer home on a remote Swedish island. The father drinks a lot and the son broods. The son is befriended by a local girl who works at the market and likes to go swimming topless at the same isolated bay that the boy favors. This film did not have any cinematic grandeur to it as characterizes the films in the competitive categories, but it gave an excellent portrayal of Swedish life and culture, including the local celebration of the solstice. I was glad to have stumbled upon it.

I was also happy to have noticed "Running the Sahara" in my thorough perusal of the program, a documentary that had two showings in the small Gray Hotel
screening rooms. It followed three men (two Americans and a Taiwanese), who take 111 days to run 4,500 miles from Senegal on the Atlantic to the Red Sea just past Cairo. They pass through Timbuktu. They had hoped to complete the run in 80 days, but they had problems getting a visa to run through Libya, which they acquire at the last minute, and have to alter their route. Their other options were to run through Chad and Senegal, but they were both too dangerous. The desert scenery is spectacular and their tribulations many. There is conflict among the crew and the runners and physical woes demanding IVs. They are using the film to raise money to dig wells for the isolated nomads. Water shortage is a subject of a handful of films here. The film concludes with an appearance of the three runners on Jay Leno's show.

It was a two sport film day for me, the other "Tyson" by James Tobeck, playing in the Un Certain Regard category. Both director and star were on stage to introduce it. Tyson received a standing ovation. The film covers Tyson's career from his day as a kid thief to his final fight in 2005 not avoiding any of the unseemly events in his career--his marriage to Givens and the Barbara Walters interview with the two of them, his three-year prison term for rape, beating up Don King, biting the ear of Holyfield and his great promiscuity. Tyson is a garrulous interview subject. Tobeck embellishes the film with artistic flourish. There are a handful of other films in the market on boxing, including a feature film on Sonny Liston starring Vince Rhymes.

I encountered Patrick McGavin, formerly of the "Reader" and the "Tribune," and presently of "Screen" magazine, at the day's first screening. He recommended "Summer Hours" by Olivier Assayas in the market. I hadn't been planning on seeing it, but knowing that Assayas can be interesting, I altered my day's schedule to include it. It was a surprisingly bland, yet typical, French film about three siblings, one of whom is Juliette Binoche, who have to divide the estate of their 75-year old mother. Assayas must have just gone through the experience himself. It was palatable, but nothing exceptional.

Later, George

Friday, May 16, 2008

Day 2

Friends: Cannes isn't official until a Depardieu film has been screened. There were two today, up against each other, both in the market. One was a disco dancing movie and the other a Jew-returns-to-Israel movie--Hello Goodbye. That was an easy choice, what with Israel fresh in my travel experience. Plus I shuddered to imagine that whale of a man on the disco floor. But the off-to Israel movie put Depardieu on the tennis court for a quick scene, though only from the waist up and in close-up as he whacked a couple of balls while playing doubles with his wife Fanny Ardant.

Depardieu plays a gynecologist, a not so uncommon profession in cinema these days, with grown children. His wife is bored with their Parisian existence and suggests they immigrate to the homeland. Depardieu isn't so excited about the idea but he goes along with it. What follows is a comic series of mishaps. The job he had been promised is not available. There is an abundance of gynecologists in Israel so he is reduced to washing cars. The house they had put a 25% deposit on hasn't been built and the contractor is bankrupt. Depardieu's wife is falling in love with the rabbi who is teaching her Hebrew and Jewish history. The container with all their belongings was damaged in transport and was pitched into the sea. They are given 322 euros in damages. It was nice to see various historic sites in Jerusalem and the beaches of Tel Aviv, but the highlight of the movie was seeing Depardieu interrogated by the actor who played the Egyptian band leader in "The Band's Visit" when Depardieu elects not to board a fight leaving Israel to return to France. The movie would have been a lot more worthwhile as a drama than as a comedy.

This was the third Israel-themed movie I had seen in two days. The first had been the first half of a documentary on Israel's prime minister Sharon, who is presently in a coma, that I squeezed in on Day One. The best of the lot was the Competition entry "Waltz with Bashir" that Milos liked so much, the second film I saw in the Palais today. It was exceptional, not only in its animated style, but in its substance, the lead reliving his nightmare experience as a young soldier 25 years previously.

The theme for the day was prison experiences. It was the subject of three of the six films I saw. "Lion's Den" from Argentina offered the story of a 20-year old pregnant woman who is placed in a special prison for mothers with young children after she has been charged with the murder of her boy friend. She denies it, though she can't remember the circumstances of his death other than finding him in their bed with a guy. Both she and the guy are injured, but it isn't clear who has done the killing. The film unflinchingly portrays what such prison life is like and how the women look after each other. Its far from a pretty experience, though heart-warming at times as well. She comes from wealth. Her mother returns from overseas to look after her, but her help isn't particularly welcome. The lead is the wife of the director. She is an early contender for the best actress award.

"Hunger" was an even more graphic portrayal of prison life--this one of IRA prisoners in 1981. It is the true story of a hunger strike that left ten prisoners dead. Its lead also gives an extraordinary performance, starving his body to a virtual skeleton. There is extreme violence, guards beating prisoners, and extreme abuse of bodies. This a not a movie for the faint of heart. There is minimal dialogue the first half of the movie, concentrating on the pain of prison life and then an extraordinary scene of non-stop dialogue done in one shot between the leader of the strike and a priest, as he tells the priest what he is about to undertake--not suicide, but martyrdom.

One of the three segments of "Tokyo", each by a different director, featured a prisoner. A man-monster who has been terrorizing Tokyo is finally caught, imprisoned and put on trial. He speaks a language that only two other people in the world can understand. Godzilla is the most popular character in Japanese cinema. Fascination with monsters, scarce and cramped living quarters and the neuroses of the young confining themselves to their apartments and never leaving are common themes of Japanese life and were the three subjects featured in this movie. They were each well done.

"Freezer Burn" was my wacky throwaway movie of the day. I knew I was taking a chance seeing this Canadian feature on global warming with Crispin Glover playing an alien who dresses in black and speaks with a Dutch accent, but I was wiling to give it a chance. Glover and a cohort have come to earth to accelerate global warming so they can turn earth in a Club Med for aliens. They choose to set up their operation in Canada because the people there are so polite and follow orders, they will make good attendants for the Club Med. It is November and the temperature is still so hot the ice is melting in the indoor hockey rink, a genuine catastrophe for the Canadians. One local frets, "It is hotter than two gophers fucking a wool sock." All but one person in this market screening bailed within 15 minutes seeing that this movie was more tacky than wacky and that Crispin Glover was only a minimal presence.

Later, George

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Day 1

Friends: As usual, the first day of the festival offered nothing but market fare (films that have paid to be here, rather than receiving invitations) other than the gala Opening Night Film--formal attire required. Among the 60 or so films I had to choose from, about a quarter of what would be on tap in the days to follow, was the lone bicycling-themed film of the festival, "Field of Stars," a Spanish film that had been the Opening Night film of Chicago's Latino Film Festival. Among several strands of its story was that of a teenager who is being groomed to be racer. The film takes place in the Pyrenees. Its promotional material featured a couple of evocative photos of the young man out training. This film could be the highlight of the festival for me.

It would be my third film of the day at two o'clock in the 73-seat Palais I screening room. My first two films were also sports related, the Thai feature "Dream Team" about the country's annual national tug-of-war competition for kindergartners and the U.S. "Deep Winter," a Warren Miller-type ski genre film with a bit of a story. It wasn't long into either of these films that I was eager for them to be done with. Neither had little appeal beyond their niche markets--children and ski fanatics. At least "Deep Winter" had some spectacular Alaskan scenery and Michael Madsen playing a helicopter pilot. It may be the only film of the festival whose credits I will see. Normally I'm in a rush to get to the next screening. Today I wasn't and since the film had several Telluride mentions and even a quick shot of its main street, I was curious to see if I knew anyone who had worked on the film. I hadn't.

I snuck in half an hour of an exceptional Indian film, "Frozen," in an adjoining theater before slipping out for my bicycling fix, only to receive the tragic news that the print had failed to arrive from Chicago. But the news wasn't all bad as the film's representative said they expected a print for the film's other screening in five days and as a consolation he was passing out its DVD, almost better than seeing it. And it allowed me to return to "Frozen" and its stunning black and white cinematography in the high Himalayas with breathtaking shot after shot of birds and frozen ice on barbed wire and indigenous faces that had me going "wow".

It was one of three of my day's selections that featured dramatic alpine terrain. Besides the skiing film there was "Climber's High" from Japan, one of several movies here about plane crashes. This one focused on a newspaper's coverage of the worst airline crash in history that left 520 dead. It was overly ambitious, two hours and 15 minutes, trying to be a psychological study of the lead newsman and his torments as an aging climber and being the bastard child of a GI, as well as dwelling on the trauma of the event and the paper's coverage of it.

"The Caller", starring Frank Langella and Elliot Gould, suffered the same shortcoming. Langella is a corporate CEO with a conscience. He files a report to the detriment of his company that is his death warrant, literally, and he knows it. But for some reason he is given several days to live before he is assassinated. Both he and Gould are a pleasure to watch, but the story greatly begged credibility, especially the Langella flashbacks trying to explain his character. One of the highlights of the movie was Langella getting a pedicab ride in Manhattan.

While the formal-attired masses were watching "Blindness" starring Julian Moore and Mark Ruffalo by Fernardo Meirelles, the Brazilian director of "City of God" in the Palais, I was in the packed 142-seat Arcades Theater watching "The Warlords" an epic with a cast of thousands from Hong Kong that had recently swept the Hong Kong Oscars winning best picture, actor, director, cinematography, make-up. It was two hours of swords and arrows and cannon balls piercing bodies. Mel Gibson would have loved it.

I finally met up with Charles and Milos from Facets outside the theater on Rue Antibes, just a block from the waterfront. Milos was steamed over how awful the Opening Night film was but was very enthusiastic about "Waltz With Bashir" an Israeli animated feature in Competition that he had just seen at a press screening. He said it was much better than "Persopolis." The director of "Persopolis" is one of the nine members of the Competition jury. She must have been most welcome by jury president Sean Penn, as she asked to light up a cigarette for medicinal purposes at the day's earlier jury press conference. Once she lit up, Penn immediately lit up, as did one of the other women jurors. All the photos of Penn in the program and the various publications on the festival show him with a mustache, something he has given up. We were joined by a couple of Swiss women who Charles and I invariably sit with at the Palais Competition screenings. One had seen the Madonna directed "Filth and Wisdom" at Berlin. It was playing tomorrow in a 35-seat theater. I feared it could be mobbed. The woman said it was dreadful and to be avoided at all costs.

There was lots of news to catch up on, including that Werner Herzog will be doing a remake of Abel Ferrera's "Bad Lieutenant" from 1992 with Nicholas Cage replacing Harvey Keitel. Shooting is to commence in July, which could keep Herzog from Telluride. "Screen" magazine had an interesting story on how last year's Palm d'Or winner, "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days" had fared at the box office. It took in seven-and-a-half million dollars world-wide, one-third of that in France. It only made 250,000 dollars in Romania, as the country has only 35 theaters despite a population of 22 million. It grossed 1.1 million in the U.S.

Later, George

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cannes, Year V

Friends: Three small villages within twenty miles of each other, about 200 miles directly south of Paris, each claim to be the center of France based on the calculations of different cartographers.  The lack of agreement lies in whether or not one includes assorted islands in the Mediterranean and the English Channel to define the borders of the country.

These villages were my first destination on this my fifth annual Cannes/Tour de France summer. Though I have come near these villages in my previous meanderings about the country, I was unaware of this rivalry, or that a center to the country was to be searched out, until I read the recently published "The Discovery of France" this winter. This excellent book by Graham Robb, an English university professor, who has spent years exploring France, some of it by bicycle, was chock full of fascinating lore and tidbits. He added a new dimension to the sound of chiming church bells thanks to his dissertation explaining that many were minted from a collection of plates and goblets and candlesticks of the locals.

I could well have stumbled upon Bruere-Allichamps, one of the towns asserting itself to be the center of France, later this summer, as it is on National Highway 144 just north of Saint-Amand-Montrond, the Ville Arrive for stage 20 of this year's Tour, the climactic time trial, the day before the race finishes in Paris and three days after the final mountain stage finishing atop L'Alpe d'Huez. It is the most accessible of the three towns claiming to be the center of France. The other two, Saulzais-le-Poitier and Vesdun, are off on small, lightly-traveled rural roads.

None of the three villages are large enough to have a tourist office to state their case, though their monuments were all erected with the hopes of attracting tourists. Three miles from Bruere was a "center-of-France pavilion" (arches over a four-lane superhighway at a rest stop with gas station and restaurant). Saulzais-le-Poitier offered a modest obelisk just off the road in a clump of trees. Vesdun designated itself as the center of France with a six-foot wide map of the country made up of some 60,000 tiles.

From this cluster of villes claiming to be the center of France I climbed up onto the Massif Central and headed for a region known as Vulcania featuring the Puy de Dome, a legendary Tour de France climb where I had hoped to meet up with Craig, the friend I biked with last summer to Mont St. Michel. We planned on an early morning climb when bicyclists are allowed on the toll road to its summit, followed by a couple of days of cycling together towards Mont Ventoux. Craig's summer residence is just 150 miles to the south of the Puy. He had returned to France April 15 after wintering in Chicago.

But unfortunately, Craig bowed out due to "lack of training" and cat-sitting duties. There's still a chance that he may join me after Cannes for a ride to the Pyrenees, but he may have a conflict preventing that too, so all those who were eager for more Travels With Craig may have to wait. We already had one friend from Chicago, who was all gung-ho to tackle the Tourmalet and other Pyrenean climbs this summer, opt out. So it goes with such things--people have lots of desire, but little commitment. It's all too easy to find an excuse to stay at home when it comes time to act.

Vulcania is an other-worldly region dotted with a wide assortment of pimple-sized volcanoes. The Puy de Dome is the most majestic, though pint-sized enough that the road to its top corkscrews around it, rather than switchbacking to its summit. The locals are so proud of it that the departement it resides in, one of the 90 some districts that comprise France, bears its name. It is one of the rare departements named for something other than a river.

A day's ride beyond the Puy de Dome was the city Le Puy en Velay, dominated by a pair of tight, tiny puys more like spires, one bearing a cathedral dating to 960 and the other a 70-foot tall statue of a woman cradling a child erected in 1860. The woman and child could have been mistaken for the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but the woman is known as Notre Dame de France. The cathedral was inspired by a Catholic bishop who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela over a thousand years ago. The marvel of the construction of the cathedral atop this puy made Le Puy en Velay one of the four traditional starting points in France that converge upon St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees for the final 500 miles of the pilgrimage route to the church that contains the remains of the apostle James.

I plan to follow the route after Cannes. I have met a few cyclists over the years who have been on such a pilgrimage. Thousands of people do it every year, though its not as popular as it was back in the Middle Ages when tens of thousands of people undertook the adventure every year. A book describing the route published in the 1200s is considered the first travel book ever written. Countless books have been written on it since, including one by Shirley MacLaine.

After two days on the Massif Central, the least populated region of France, with still snow-streaked peaks here and there, I plunged over 4,000 feet in 25 miles down to the flat lands of the Rhone Valley. Not all the cemeteries had their water turned back on up on the Massif. Prices were cheaper too back down in the more populated regions. Gas was over 1.5 euros on the Massif--ten dollars a gallon, about a dollar more than elsewhere.

Signs giving the price of gas are more of a warning than an advertisement. Its hard to say if its reduced automobile use, as there never seems to be much traffic in rural France. But it hasn't increased the amount of bicyclists. All I see are an occasional older guy in Lycra out getting some exercise, always a heart-warming site. What I have seen more of though are hitch-hikers. I've seen many sideways thumbs, about as many as upraised thumbs from those delighted to see a touring cyclist. The French still warmly respond to the touring cyclist, though few are to be seen.

For the first year ever I didn't experience a drop of rain on my 600 mile ride to Cannes from Paris. Instead, I experienced four days of more than gentle headwinds, half of my days on the bike--not necessarily a welcome trade. One day on the Massif Central I wasn't even averaging nine miles per hour for the first 30 miles of my day. I feared not arriving in Cannes early enough to rest up for the 12-day marathon of movies and the day I needed to go through the schedule of nearly 2,000 films screening.

But I arrived on schedule, early Monday morning, 48 hours before the films are to commence. I am primed to enjoy what are easily the year's 12 best days of cinema, other than the four days of Telluride. I know the vast majority of those on this mailing list are more interested in travel and bicycling than cinema. I'll spare you the two weeks of Cannes ramblings unless I hear otherwise. Likewise, any who have no interest in another two month batch of France and Tour de France dispatches can hit the unsubscribe icon or respond to this address with a subject of "unsubscribe."

Later, George