Friends: Mike Leigh strikes again with a potent study of a handful of friends, some whole and some quite fractured, told over four seasons--Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. "Another Year" is probably not Palm d'Or material, but it could well earn Leslie Manville a best actress award for her unrestrained portrayal of a 50-year old alcoholic, lonely secretary with enough manic energy to fuel a small city.
She initially seems lively and buoyant, but time reveals her many demons. She thinks her life might be saved when she buys a car, but it proves her final undoing. "I'm fed up with the car," she says after it breaks down once again and after collecting innumerable tickets, adding, "It's been a disaster."
She's not the only lonely alcoholic in the cast. They are somewhat balanced out by the stable and happily married couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. As usual, Leigh solicits deep, fully-realized performances from everyone in the cast, who all seem to relish their roles.
It ought to earn Leigh another trip to Telluride this fall. I'll be eager to ask him if he's much of a bicyclist, as I asked Michael Hanake last year, as both of them include more than passing allusions to the bicycle in their movies. Broadbent's 30-year old lawyer son shows up at his house one weekend on his bicycle, riding some thirty miles to get there. Broadbent suggests to a grotesquely overweight friend that they ought to take a bike ride together. He declines saying he hasn't been on a bike since 1896. Bicycles zip by in the background on occasion. And in his last movie, "Happy-Go-Lucky," the lead character begins the movie with a rollicking bike ride.
I left the theater thoroughly drained, but exhilarated, not wishing to talk or even resume reading any of the trade papers, as I stood in line for my next feature, another Competition entry, "The Housemaid" from South Korea. A beautiful young woman goes to work as a live-in maid for a very wealthy couple who have a young daughter and twins on the way. The husband can't resist seducing her. There are a number of fresh twists to the intrigue that follows. It was most watchable, but nothing of enduring significance.
I was able to catch a much needed nap during "Paris Express," a silly comedy about a motor-bike courier in Paris sucked into the most outlandish delivery of all time. Paris has no concentrated business district, so it is not conducive to bicycle messengers. This movie conveyed some of the courier mentality--always in a rush, not paid much respect nor enough money, battling cops and dispatchers and fellow couriers.
A courier in "Paris Express" is called upon for an emergency delivery on his day off when he and his girl friend are on the way to a family wedding that they are taking the cake to. The delivery requires picking up an envelope from a rooftop parking lot and taking it to a bar. No one is at the bar to receive it. A phone in the envelope starts ringing. When the courier opens the envelope to answer it a wad of 500 euro bills fall out. They are in exchange for a suitcase of diamonds that are payment for a stolen Rembrandt. The courier is chased by several sets of bad guys and all sorts of irrelevant mayhem ensues that allowed me to catch up on my sleep.
Australian director Bruce Beresford, who goes all the way back to "Breaker Morant," found an excellent true story for a movie--a Chinese ballet dancer who defects to the US in 1981 while dancing with the Houston Ballet. "Mao's Last Dancer" is by-the-numbers directing, but still a heart-warming and inspiring tale with flashbacks of his growing up in China.
The young man falls in love with a young aspiring dancer and the US. When he requests to extend his three-month stay, the Chinese government refuses. An immigration lawyer tells him that if he marries, he can stay. He and the young girl are very much in love, so they marry. They and the lawyer and representatives of the Houston Ballet go to the Chinese Consulate in Houston to plead his case. While there the dancer is taken hostage. The lawyer says according to US law it is "kidnapping," the second of the day with the other in "Paris Express." The news media learns of the story and the publicity forces the Chinese to relent and let him stay, though he isn't allowed to return to China for years.
As I walked out of this theater in the Arcades, I was caught up in a mob filing in to see "Robert Mitchum Is Dead" in an adjoining theater. That was one of my next options so I just slipped in with them. There were so many people involved with this French comedy in the audience that it took 20 minutes to introduce them all, preventing me from getting in to the next movie I wished to see.
This comedy was droll enough to have been concocted by Jim Jarmusch or one of the Kaurasmakis. Appropriately enough this road movie ended up in Finland at a clone of the Midnight Sun Film Festival that I have attended north of the Arctic Circle. An agent steals a car and whisks an actor client to the festival to meet an American director who he hopes will hire him. He doesn't speak much English, so along the way they stop at a Polish film school and at gun point force the students to make a short with him to prove his talents. Along the way they pick up a big black hitch hiker with very tall hair.
Charles of Facets had noticed the throngs trying to get in to see the movie. He asked if he ought to see it. I wasn't sure whether to recommend this madcap farce or not, as it needed the final polish of Jarmusch or Kaurasmaki to make it fully watchable despite its many pleasing moments.
I fell 20 people short of getting in to the 10:15 screening of "Heartbeats," a French Canadian feature I greatly wanted to see as it was by the director of "I Killed My Mother," one of my favorite films from last year, a comedy so dark it has never made it to Chicago. At least I'll have a couple more opportunities.
So instead I saw "Bendi Bilili," a French documentary on a group of Congolese street musicians that was the opening night film for the Director's Fortnight a few nights ago. It is the remarkable story of handicapped, very poor street people who hone their talents and cut a record and play for audiences all over the world.
The festival has been star-starved since Russell Crowe and Kate Blancette walked up the red carpet Wednesday night. Expectations were high for the arrival of Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in a few nights. But Penn canceled out so he could attend Congressional hearings on Haiti. He was here two years ago as president of the jury. He may not wish to answer to criticism that he insisted his jury give extra consideration to films of a political nature, surprising everyone by giving awards to two different Italian films on the mafia. Sharon Stone has also elected not to attend the festival, concerned about flying through volcanic dust. For years she has hosted an AIDS fundraiser at the end of the festival.