Monday, May 30, 2011
Since he rarely uses it more often than for his weekly drive into the Saturday market in Le Vigan ten miles away, he began searching for a garage to park it in. The Shaws, friends from England, offered up their garage. He'd just have to clean it and reorganize it. It was a jumble of books and gardening supplies and boxes full of Styrofoam and stacks of cat magazines and much else that had been disposed there including twenty year old jars of honey brought over from England, left over from their bee keeping days before they retired to this small village ten years ago at the age of seventy after careers in law.
The cleaning date was the day after I arrived. It wouldn't be the first garage that Craig and I had cleaned out, though this time we had the help of Onni and the oversight of Jeffrey. He was surprisingly quick to make decisions on what to keep and what to throw out. I was the lucky one who got to accompany him on two trips to the recycling center five miles away in his car to escape the dust exacerbated by cat feces. A stray cat that they allowed refuge in the garage utilized a couple of corners as his kitty litter. That came as a surprise to all of us.
The project took up most of the afternoon. The garage was just barely wide enough for the car to fit through, built for carriage and carts, not automobiles. Still, none of us were certain the car would be able to maneuver into the garage from the narrow road in front of it. If not, at least we had performed a good deed in cleaning the garage.
When the time came to fit the car in, there were three of us trying to guide Craig. Jeffrey suggested he try to enter coming from the upside, even though he would always be approaching it from the opposite direction. Craig made an attempt from the direction the car was pointed, but couldn't manage it, so tried Jeffrey's suggestion. That took several tries, though it showed more promise. He finally succeeded. With his courage up, Craig decided to try to see if it would be any easier to back into the garage. That he pulled off as if he had been doing it all his life and without the need of three pairs of eyes on all sides.
I had expected, and was hoping, the operation to turn into a Jacques Tati movie drawing the attention of everyone in the small village offering their advice. Only one other villager happened along and he just stayed to converse. It was the first Craig and Onni had seen him since they returned to their village less than a month ago for their 15th summer and had plenty of catching up to do. Jeffrey's wife brought out drinks for all to celebrate.
Craig was so pleased with the new paint job on his car, he decided to have his friend repaint his Peugeot PX10, a classic bike from the '70s that Bernard Thevenet twice bicycled to victory in The Tour de France. Craig had brought the bike over from the US a couple of years ago after I acquired it from a friend's garage where it was gathering dust, knowing how much he would appreciate it. It is one of ten bikes in his French stable of bikes, including a Bobet, a Frenchman who won The Tour three times in the '50s. Stripping the Peugeot of all its parts was project number two during my weekend with Craig and Onni. Craig and I are even more experienced at working on bikes together than cleaning garages, having revitalized and sold over fifty abandoned bikes the past few winters in Chicago.
Rather than an outing on the bikes, the three of us took a several hour hike to Dead Man's Pass high above their village. If we had wished we could have hired a donkey from one of their neighbors to carry our gear as did R. L. Stevenson in this very region that resulted in his book "Travels With A Donkey in the Cévannes." Early in the hike we passed a guy picking cherries. He asked Craig if he thought it was all right to be picking cherries from this orchard. Craig said he didn't really know. The guy then admitted that he was the owner of the orchard, so he knew it was okay. He offered us some and then talked Craig's ears off for the next half hour.
A dog had joined us at the very start of our hike, much to Craig's dismay. He said that happens just about every time they go off on a hike. I suggested we all go off in different directions and see who it would follow. Craig was the cursed one. The cherry-picker did not recognize the dog. It had a collar and a phone number on it. Craig convinced the cherry-picker to hold on to the dog until we had safely gotten away.
It was the last we saw of the dog until about six hours later when Craig and I were returning from a ride to the local swimming hole across from the area's recycling center. About a mile from Craig's village we passed an English woman he knew and her daughter accompanied by the dog. They said the cherry-picker had passed it off on them. They were trying to escape him now themselves.
We didn't encounter another soul as we hiked until we stopped for lunch in the shade of a tree. A couple of blond haired women, who looked as if they were Swedish, bustled past us saying nothing more than "Bonjour." Craig surmised they weren't French, as otherwise they would have most certainly greeted us with a "bon appetite." As if to prove his assessment, a little while later, a guy passed by, according us a hearty "bon appetite." If he hadn't been in such a hurry we could have rewarded him with some cherries or celery sticks. He was probably saying to himself that we couldn't have been French, as he didn't notice any wine among our spread of cheeses and bread and hard boiled eggs. Craig and Onni save their wine drinking for dinner.
The swimming hole in the river was crowded with swimmers and sun bathers. Craig said when he stopped by last week, there was no one there and was too cold for him to give it an attempt. One of our fellow swimmers was a Dutch friend of Craig's he hadn't seen yet this year. One can often see a few members of the fairer sex bathing topless Craig said, but not today.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Once again I went astray following the signs to the city centre. Unlike most cities there were no signs to the tourist office. I did see signs though to the Mediatech, library. I had already searched out three libraries in small towns before Montpellier, but they had ll been closed, typical of the limited hours of French libraries. The Mediatech might as well have been closed as it didn't allowed non card holders to use their computers even though nearly half of the fifty computers in its Internet room were unattended.
Just as I was biking away from the Mediatech a man shouted at me. He asked if I knew about Warm Showers, a world wide network of people who offer cyclists a place to stay and a warm shower. I did indeed and had taken advantage of it in Turkey a couple of times. He said he lived in a town 70 kilometers from Montpellier and would be happy to have me visit. It was out of my way towards Craig and Onni's but on my route after my visit with them. He was more a vicarious touring cyclist than an actual tourist cyclist. He said when his four children were all grown up he hoped to do some authentic touring. But he was such an ardent lover of cycle touring that he was hosting a four-day conference of touring cyclists and long-distance walkers the beginning of August. There would be sixteen programs of travelers giving presentations.
He was also able to direct me in the direction of the tourist office. It was just beyond the bustling Plaza de la Comedie. The friendly woman I talked with at the tourist office said it would most likely be the finish line for The Tour, but it hadn't been officially settled yet. It would be logistically much easier to have the finish on the outskirts of the city at the sports plaza where the team time trial finished, but it would be much more spectacular to have the finish in the very heart of the city.
I'll have no trouble finding the finish line as I will be following the course markers. I'll just have a challenge finding my way out of the city, though after this latest reconnaissance I have a much better grasp of the city's geography. One secret is to follow one of the several tram lines. That is how I made my exit this time, though I was still befuddled at one point and had to pull out my city map. As I was studying it a cyclist stopped and asked if he could be of help. He said he had once toured through Africa and seeing me on my fully loaded bike brought back many beautiful memories for him. We had a nice chat talking about our respective African experiences.
I had an even greater difficulty the day before trying to find the Bicycle Museum in the small village of Domazan between Avignon and Nimes, as the museum wasn't actually in the village but in a chateau a couple miles outside it. Not everyone I asked for directions to it even knew about it. It wasn't even mentioned on the map in the village square of the town's notable sites--its chateau, post office, church, town hall. I was putting an awful lot of effort trying to find the museum meandering around the town considering I didn't expect it to be open, as I'd heard it was only open on weekends until June. But still I wanted to at least peek in to see what it might have to offer.
After finally being pointed in the right direction and understanding it was quite a ways away I did come upon a small "musee" sign confirming I was on tract. A telephone repair man confirmed it was at the top of a hill and then down a side road. I down a gravel road under an arch . The chateau was surrounded by a small forest and a sculpture garden. There was a car parked off to the side and the door up the steps was open. All my efforts were not for naught, though it wasn't a very significant collection of bikes. There were three rooms of bicycles, three rooms of motorcycles and the third floor of the chateau given up to a children's museum.
I was to discover that the museum was a parasite of the Pont du Gard World Heritage site six miles away. The 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct over the Gard River attracts thousands of visitors. It was the highest aqueduct in the Roman empire. There were many signs around it advertising the Bicycle and Motorcycle Museum. If I had made my approach to Domazan through the Pont du Gard just outside of Roumilin, I would have had no problem finding it.
Most of the bicycles in the museum were pre-1900 many dating to the Draisine era, the earliest version of the bicycle, pre-pedals, invented by a German in 1817. The description of the Draisine declared that discovering one could put two wheels together to glide along was "one of the most beautiful inventions of the 1800s." There was only one room with bicycles from the modern era--bicycles ridden by Poulidor and Anquetil and Hinault in the Tour de France. There was a jersey from Rene Vieto, a French star after World War II and a jersey from the greatest woman cyclist of all time, Jeannie Longo.
There were also a scattering of vintage posters and photographs. The most notable was a photograph of a very well-fed woman, who would be considered obese by modern standards, naked, aside from a pair of high heeled shoes and stockings midway up her calves, with her back-side towards the camera posed in front of a penny-farthing bicycle with her head turned towards the camera and one hand on her hair up in a bun.
There were a couple of other oddities--a helicopter bike with overhead blades that spun with the turning of the pedals, though not with enough power to provide lift off and also a giant wheel that one sat inside and pedaled to roll down the road. A sheet of paper listed the translation of bicycle in languages from all over the wold including Yiddish--rover.
The motorcycle division had several bicycles with motors on them, one from 1902. The first motorized bike dates to 1871 with the first serious manufacture of such bikes by Daimler in 1875.
Even though there were mobs of people at the Pont du Gard, none ventured to the bicycle museum while I was there. Many people were drawn to the Pont du Gard on this day to swim in the river beneath it with the temperature in the high 80s. Swimming wasn't allowed directly under the bridge, as it narrowed into a bit of a gorge there. It is truly a magnificent site, a three level bridge that was the highest bridge in the world when it was constructed. There is an adjoining pedestrian bridge built by Napoleon that I bicycled over.
There is an excellent museum describing the vast network of aqueducts throughout the Roman Empire. Water for their bath houses and to facilitate their sewage systems was a high priority for them. Their aqueducts supplied more liters of water per person per day than is used in modern times. The museum included many videos and adjoining the museum was a 200 seat theater with a 25 minute film. There is no charge for bicyclists to the Pont du Gard. Cars pay fifteen euros to park.
On my way across Provence after Cannes I passed several memorials with American flags on them in recognition of the US Army that liberated towns in World War II. I also passed memorials paying tribute to those who died fighting for the Resistance. They were all more significant than the small plaque in Chambon-sur-Lignon acknowledging the extraordinary efforts of the town in saving hundred of Jews during the war.
Monday, May 23, 2011
It would have been a grave, grave injustice if the jury had failed to give it the Palm d'Or. It would have gone down in infamy for such an oversight. And yet, after Kaurasmaki's "Le Havre" debuted the day after "Tree of Life" everyone raced to embrace it and declare it as the favorite to win the Palm d'Or. It was certainly good, but not a film to compare in its ambitions and grandeur. Nor was any other film here even close, despite many, many worthy films. There were easily ten films this year that would have won the Palm d'Or if they had played last year. Yes, it was that great of a year. Truly sensational.
But it was no sure thing to win the Palm d'Or, as juries frequently have personal agendas to make a political statement of some sort or award a film by a little known director or cast that needs the attention of an award, rather than being true to the art of film. When Ralph and I entered the Debussy to watch the broadcast of the awards ceremony from the neighboring Palais, I noticed Pierre Rissient sitting in his customary back row seat.
Usually he's joined by Todd McCarthy and one or two others. But he was by himself, so we stopped by to say hello. He is an advisor to the Telluride festival and also the power behind the throne at Cannes, known as "Man of Cinema," the title of McCarthy's documentary on him several years ago. He has such respect that Telluride named one of their theaters after him--The Pierre. He suffered a severe ankle injury three years ago and is still hobbled by it and hasn't been to Telluride since. I told him we'd missed him at Telluride these past few years and hoped he'd make it to this year's festival in just a little more than three months. He said he doubted he would as he was still struggling.
I congratulated him on this years fine festival. He said he had nothing to do with it, that it was the directors who'd made all the fine films that deserved the thanks. "Any prediction on what's going to win the Palm d'Or?" I asked.
"I know of two possible scenarios, but I'll keep you in suspense," he said. So not even this premier voice of cinema could not flatly say that "Tree of Life" would or even should win. One never knows about juries.
Fortunately this year's jury was relatively free of personal prejudices other than giving the French film "Poliss" the jury award for the third best film, though it slotted down to fourth with two films, "The Kid With A Bike" and "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia," sharing the Grand Prix award for the second best film, a quite original way to give out an extra award with so many films deserving one this year. The jury could have been truly brazen and given five or six films the Grand Prix. Two films have shared the Jury Prize in years past, but I don't know of any films sharing the second place award. Doing so showed great respect to both the Dardenne brothers and Ceylon for their magnificent films and their stature as filmmakers.
French director Olivier Assasays on the jury was no doubt responsible for the "Poliss" award. He began as a film critic and is a quite articulate and passionate devotee of film and thoroughly connected to those working in French cinema. He certainly has many friends and collaborators involved with "Poliss." Getting to know him a bit at Telluride last year I would guess that he was the dominant voice on the jury being able to convince it to give "Poliss" an award.
It was one of two Competition films I did not see, but all reports were that as good as the film was, it was very uneven. It fell into that category of a small film that needed an award to bring it recognition, much more so than Kaurasmaki's film or Ramsey's or Sorrentino's or Miike's. If there were any doubters on the jury as to the greatness of Malick's film, as there were among Screen magazine's panel of critic's who only gave it a 2.8 average out of four and other critics, Assassayas would have been able to persuade them. It was great that the jury gave the best director to Nicolas Winding Refn for "Drive" too, a film that some might have thought was trivial despite its exceptional style and power.
Having seen Kirsten Dunst in the audience and not Tilda Swinton, the other favorite for the best actress award, I was greatly looking forward to her acceptance speech and what she would have to say about all the brouhaha over Von Trier's anti-Semitic remarks. I knew though that she didn't express herself too well. At the press conference following the screening of "Melancholia" she said she wanted to work with Von Trier because he is the only director who writes roles for women. He certainly writes exceptional roles for women, but he is hardly the only director who writes roles for women. So she wasn't capable of giving an impassioned defense of Von Trier for his off-handed Hitler and Israel comments. She only said she was glad Cannes didn't kick the film out of Competition after disinviting him to attend the awards ceremony.
Two of the past three years a Von Trier actress has won the best actress award as have others over the years. This jury did not wish to go against that trend or hold Von Trier's comments against Dunst. Swinton would have been a worthy winner, but she didn't offer up the nudity that Dunst did, and it seems that many women were revolted by her character's behaviour as a mother and that her performance of extreme non-stop anguish was just one note. I don't agree at all. I liked "We Need to Talk about Kevin" enough to watch it a second time on repeat Sunday, and it was just as gripping and powerful as that first viewing. But I have encountered women here who truly hate the movie. Many men like it though, including Ralph. It was one of both of our favorites.
I had the worst luck possible with the schedule of the repeat screenings of the twenty Competition films. There were three I had not seen. The films were repeated in sets of four with batches being shown at roughly 9 a.m, 11:30, 2, 5:30 and 8:00. The three films I hadn't seen, "Melancholia", "Poliss" and "Sleeping Beauty" all were shown at nine, an astronomically high coincidence. It was no difficulty choosing which one to see. Not being able to see the other two opened up the possibility of seeing others of my favorites though. Ralph and I showed up at 7:30 to be sure to get into "Melancholia." Curiously the 400 seat Soixante theater did not fill, though it did for the following screening of "Tree of Life."
Dunst in a wedding gown and her groom are stuck in the back seat of a limo struggling to negotiate a narrow road at the start of "Melancholia." They seem in bliss, but its not long before its revealed she is deeply troubled, possibly mentally ill. They are two hours late for the reception and are greeted with great anger by her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the best actress award for "The Antichrist" two years ago.
Before they enter her stately chateau she gazes up at the sky and is troubled at the site of an object in the heavens. "What's going on?" she asks her sister's husband, adding ,"You're an expert on the stars." "I wouldn't say that," he replies. "Oh yes you would," Gainsbourg venomously snarls at him. This scene sets the nasty tone of the movie and also that there is something in the heavens to be concerned about. It is a minor planet that is floating through the cosmos headed for the earth. It may or may not crash into it. After the disaster of the wedding reception with Dunst's mother, played by Charlotte Rampling sneering in front of all the gathered guests that she wouldn't wish marriage on anyone, and especially those close to her, and that Dunst ought to enjoy it while it lasts, the movie shifts into the impending disaster of a possible apocalypse.
Von Trier did not disappoint and Dunst did go though a range of enough torments to be a worthy award winner. Jean Dujardin's performance in "The Artist" had some torment but also great delight, justifiably earning him the best actor award. He was radiant on stage accepting the award, giving a quick little dance as he does in the movie. Malick unsurprisingly was not there to accept his award. The two people connected with the film blamed it on his notorious shyness. Nor was Joseph Cedar able to be on hand to accept his award for the best screenplay for "Footnote" that he directed. Both Ralph and I were happy to see this Israeli film recognized. We will be rooting for it to make it to Telluride. It is going to be very tough for the Telluride directors to decide what it would like to select from this abundant Cannes crop this year, since it tries to limit them to just a handful.
DiNero made a game effort to speak French commenting on his Cannes experience and announcing the awards, but stumbled horribly, mispronouncing the word for his companions on the jury, referring to them as mushrooms. But he smiled throughout. Ceylan stuck to English in accepting his award for "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia." "I didn't really expect this," he sincerely said. "I thought it would be too long for you," referring to the film's two-and-a-half hour running time, the longest of any of the Competition films and without all that much happening.
The quality of the films was reflected in the awards from some of the other organizations. The film critics FRIBESCI organization gave "Le Havre" by Kaurasmaki its top prize and the Ecumenical Council gave Sorrentiono's "This Must Be the Place" its top prize. Neither of these films received any awards from the Cannes jury, though they easily could have. But it would be impossible to argue with any of their picks, other that "Poliss."
I had plenty to reflect on after seeing seventy films these past twelve days while watching the closing night film "Sur La Plance" immediately following the awards ceremony. I could treat this frolic of a movie with Catherine Deneuve by Christophe Honore as if it were playing on a television set in my living room and I had a book on my lap that I could give equal attention to without losing track of the story of a mother and daughter over fifty years interspersed with periodic musical numbers. I had loads of memories to page through. This was standard French fare complete with a good-hearted prostitute and a menage a trois with two gay guys and a woman.
And now I'll go a couple of months without seeing a movie as I train for The Tour de France and then follow The Race, until I meet up in Paris with Ralph after The Tour. Ralph splits his time between Telluride and Paris. Getting to fully know Ralph has been one of the highlights of the festival. We had amazingly similar tastes in cinema and similar stamina in seeing as many as we could. Plus I learned that his accent isn't English, but rather Scottish. When I get to Paris I'll have several days before I fly back to Chicago. Paris is the ultimate city of cinema, so we'll be able to put together a grand private film festival of our choosing from its many small art houses.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Most of the films in Competition receive at least a smattering of applause."The Source" received a thunderous ovation from a good portion of its audience, by far the most favorable reaction of any audience I've been a part of. But there were also a few hearty boos as well. If the lights had been on, one would have seen a strong male-female divide among those expressing their opinion, the women dominating with their thrill at seeing the women of a small village in an unnamed North African Arabic country standing up to the men in the village. The couple of boos would have been from possible Islamic males in the audiences.
An independent-minded young woman intrudes upon this village as the wife of the local school teacher. She is appalled at the women doing all the work and the men sitting around drinking tea all day and organizes a sex strike. What might have been a comedy was actually a starkly frank and realistic drama. There was not a false step in this credible story. It may have seemed sharply one-sided in the women's favor, but such is life in such an environment. An older woman helps spark the strike by giving a lengthy monologue on her life as not much more than chattel and a beast of burden. She said she was once asked by someone from France what her happiest time was. She says up until she was 14 and was forced to marry a 40-year old who had recently lost his wife. He had two children, 11 and 8, that she immediately became the mother to. She had quite a few children herself afterwards, not all of whom survived. She never loved her husband. It was the standard life for women in such villages.
The men at first don't believe the women are serious or can stick to their vow of not having sex with them until they install a pipeline so they don't have to make a long, strenuous hike for water to "The Source." When they persist, some of the men start beating them and making all sorts of threats. At a certain point they threaten to disavow all their wives, kick them out of the village and acquire new wives. The Islamic elders try to reason with the women, citing passages from the Koran. The women have viable responses. If the four women block on the nine person jury band together, they might make this their Palm d'Or. It certainly deserves to be recognized with one of the seven awards they are allowed to parcel out to the twenty films.
"Beauty" took me back to South Africa, though not the South Africa I experienced. There was hardly a black to be seen in this movie, possibly only one for just a brief glimpse. A man brings him to a gathering of several husky Afrikaners and is immediately rebuked for bringing him and ordered to send him out. "The rules are no blacks and no faggots," one says. Not that they are anti-homosexual. The men are all closet gays of the "Bear" persuasion such as were depicted in the exceptional documentary that played at Cannes last year, "Bear Nation," on the gay sub-culture of bearish males who do not fit the limp-wristed gay stereotype.
These men all lead normal lives with wives and children, but get together for sex. There is only this opening scene though of their sex, other than a climatic rape scene, the most brutal by far of the festival, of a young man who is a friend of one of these older men. He assaults him in a hotel room. The film did give glimpses into life in South Africa that I could relate to, with comments such as life is much more dangerous there now since the end of apartheid.
The latest film from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the final film in Competition. The two-and-a-half hour running time indicated he thought he had a masterpiece on his hands. He won the best director award for his last film at Cannes. This was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing having just returned from Turkey and the Turkey depicted in this film "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" in rural Turkey on the somewhat barren Anatolian plain that forms the heart of the country.
The first ninety minutes of the film takes place at night as a trio of police cars drive about with a confessed murderer seeking out the body of the victim. He can't quite remember where he buried him, and driving around at night doesn't help. Along with the police are a prosecutor and a doctor. The prosecutor intercedes when the officers grow frustrated with the murderer and start beating him as they struggle to find the burial sight. The prosecutor says that such behaviour is unacceptable with Turkey trying to get into the EU. That was certainly a prominent theme while I was there, the Turks frustrated that they are continually being rejected by the EU even as they try to abide by its standards.
I was pleasantly surprised that most everyone in the Palais stuck with this slow-moving story. The handful of characters are all superbly portrayed and captured the various strains of Turkish characters that I encountered. There is much truth and insight into present day Turkey in this simple, bare bones movie that is not without some comic relief. There are so many good films this year though, that there may not be enough prizes to give it one.
I sacrificed a Cannes Classic to make sure I got into the screening of the4Director Fortnight winner "The Giants." It was my first attempt on the distant Croisette Theater as it sells a pass of its own and can be difficult to get into. I need not have worried now that the majority of the 30,000 people attending the festival have left. The theater wasn't even half full.
Ralph and I spotted Tom from Telluride and a couple of empty seats beside him. It is always a privilege to have a few words with him, one of the founders of the Telluride Film Festival 38 years ago and as knowledgeable and well-connected man is there is in the world of cinema, a true film guru. As a former jury member at Cannes in 1992 when Louis Malle was the president of the jury, he was the perfect person to ask about what this jury might give awards to. He knew enough to say that there is no predicting.
I wondered if DeNiro might have personal preferences that could influence the jury. Tom said that Malle wanted to give an award to one of his friends, but no one on the jury had liked the film so they overruled him. He added,"Bobby is very soft-spoken," and didn't think he would be overly assertive in having his way on any of the choices. Tom won't be around for the awards ceremony as he flies out of Nice tomorrow morning at 7:45 for London and then on to San Francisco, where the Telluride Film Festival has its home office.
"The Giants" was featured on the cover of the Film Festival pocket guide, so it was a much anticipated film by Bouli Lanners, a Belgian-French co-production. The giants are a trio of young boys, two of whom are left on their own for the summer by their mother at their summer cottage. Their third is a neighboring boy. They get into quite a bit of trouble. I found it rather mundane. I never connected with the boys and didn't care what they did or where this movie was headed.
Before the final screening of the festival at 10:30 Ralph and I ducked into the Palais conference center to see if the Un Certain Regard winners had been posted. We sacrificed going to the announcement ceremony by going to see "The Giants." Everyone anticipated the Mexican film "Miss Bala" to win. The jury handed out four awards and none of them went to "Miss Bala." I was thrilled that Kim Ki-Duk's documentary "Arirang" shared the top award. Many people had reviled this harangue of all his grievances against the world and confession of why he hadn't made a movie in three years, showing how he had been living in a dilapidated shack in rural isolation. Emir Kustirica was the president of the jury, a fellow bad boy of cinema who doubtlessly championed this movie. There were certainly those on the jury who opposed it, as Ki-Duk shared the top prize with "Stopped on the Track" about a man with brain cancer. The film begins saying he has two months to live and shows him dying. I had no interest in this movie. Ralph and seen it and said it was good.
"Sur La Plance" could have made a perfect bookend for my day. As with the first movie, this one took place in Morocco and was about women, these a pair in their early 20s. They are struggling for independence, or a way of living independently, but this did not compare to the potency of "The Source." It was a movie I could have done without.
And tomorrow is the final day. I'll get to see "Melancholia" and the much-anticipated award ceremony. It will be an injustice if "The Tree of Life" does not win the top prize. There are ten others films that could easily win awards, much more than usual in this exceptional year. It has just flown by.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
The film abounds with great delights such as the scene with David Bryne after getting to see him perform one of his signature songs in concert. If it didn't go astray here and there it would be a contender for the Palm d'Or. Even so it was just the second film of the festival to make me go "wow" at a certain point, responding to its bold stokes such as did "We Need To Talk About Kevin."
Penn is a near horrific, pathetic site with shaggy long black hair which he is continually blowing at to get out of his face wearing eye liner and red lipstick and speaking in an effeminate voice. He lives in a stately mansion in Dublin with his wife, Frances McDormand, who beats him mercilessly at handball in their empty swimming pool and also volunteers for the fire brigand.
This is a film that resulted from Penn meeting the director Paolo Sorrentino of Italy at Cannes three years ago when Penn was the president of the jury and Sorrentino's film "Il Divo" won an award. Sorrentino directs with his usual flair a script rich in profundities and asides. The array of odd-ball encounters would make Jim Jarmusch proud--a tattoo artist, a gun-shop owner, a wealthy Texan obsessed by his pick-up truck, a Nazi-hunter and on and on. Penn at first seems a helpless, bumbling fool, but is in fact almost a sage. He is a remarkably original character. I can't wait to see this again.
Malcolm MacDowell also gave a most impressive performance a couple hours later on stage interviewed by Michel Ciment, the premier French intellectual film critic, interspersed with film clips. MacDowell's first film "If" won a prize at Cannes in 1969. It was that performance that caught Stanley Kubrick's eye and won him his career defining role in "A Clockwork Orange." After clips and conversation on "If" and his second film "Figures in a Landscape" by Joseph Losey co-starring Robert Shaw, Ciment said,"And that brings us to your third film "A Clockwork Orange."
"Not so, Michel," MacDowell interrupted; "I can't believe I caught you out. I had another film first that totally disappeared." Ciment was embarrassed but recovered saying, "We have a saying in France, skip the third act and get on to the fourth." That brought laughter and applause from the packed theater and a "Nicely done," from MacDowell.
For nearly two hours the two of them engaged in a warm and insightful dialogue. MacDowell was reminded of incidents unrelated to the subject at hand that he couldn't resist sharing. He brought gasps from the audience when he told of performing in a Pinter play with Olivier, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren directed by Michael Apted. "Olivier was electrifying," he said. "He's the only actor I've worked with who made my hair stand up."
He told of playing ping pong with Kubrick, the day's second incidence of ping pong, as I'd seen Penn bat the ball around in a small diner with a young guy with the cost of his meal as the stakes. It was another crowd-pleaser, as was Mac Dowell's anecdote. He said Kubrick called him back for two weeks of work after the shooting of "Clockwork" to do the voice overs. They'd take occasional breaks to play ping pong. A while later his agent told him that Kubrick never paid him for those additional two weeks of work. When MacDowell brought it up with Kubrick, he pulled a slide ruler out of his pocket and slid it back and forth finally saying, "I'll pay you for one week. The other we spent playing ping pong."
He cringed when Ciment said the next clip would be from "Time after Time" where he met his second wife Mary Steenburger. MacDowell said the marriage lasted seven years, but he got two beautiful children out of the marriage. It also began his period of exile in Hollywood so he could remain close to his children. Not only was it thrilling to be in on this conversation but also to be sitting one row behind and three seats over from Kubrick's wife Christiane and his brother-in-law, who made the definitive documentary on Kubrick ten years ago. When it played at Chicago's film festival, I introduced him and handled the Q and A afterwards. I didn't intrude to ask if he remembered me.
"Take Shelter," a two hour Russian film with just a page of dialogue provided the perfect space to reflect back on this pair of spectacular programs. This portrayal of a pig farm that employed women prisoners from a near by prison didn't need much concentration. Its most arresting scenes were those with huge wild boars that the farmers occasionally hunted, remembering being charged by one in my tent a couple of years ago here in France. A Hollywood producer was quoted in "Variety" saying that the wall paper was often more interesting than the characters in all too many of the films at Cannes. I was concentrating on the wall paper in this movie thinking how right he was.
Ralph and I made the long haul up to the most distant of the theaters to see the award winning film in the Critic's Weekly not knowing what it was. I hadn't seen any of them aside from the Israeli film "Slut," purposefully avoiding this sidebar of just a handful of films learning from past experience that there is usually only one of merit. A French film is a frequent winner. We were both hoping it would be "17 Girls" about 17 French teens who conspire to all get pregnant at the same time. And if not that then the documentary "Walk Away Renne" by Jonathan Cauette the director of "Tarnation," my favorite film from eight years ago.
This was his first film since, also about his relationship with his mental patient mother. It was my gravest mistake of the festival not to have seen this film when it played. Neither of my wishes were granted. "Take Shelter" was the winner, an American film about a 35-year old husband with an eight-year old deaf daughter. He begins to have nightmares of a hallucinatory nature that make him fear he is going insane as his mother did when he was ten years old. He also sees lightning storms and swarms of birds that no one else sees. He fears an apocalypse is coming and takes out a bank loan against his house to build a shelter. He is going insane. Both our reactions afterwards was that the other films truly must not have been very good if this film was the best of the lot.
I'd brought my bike up to the Miramar theater so I could make a quick ride the mile back to either the Debussy or the Arcades theaters for a final movie of the night depending on how long the award winner ran. It took Ralph twenty minutes longer to get to the Debussy, but just in time for the start of "Oslo, August 31st." This Norwegian feature started out as if it were a documentary with night time scenes of Oslo with random voice over comments. I wouldn't have minded at all if it had been a documentary, though this study of a young man just released from drug rehab was nearly so. This was the first movie to put Ralph fully to sleep. He admitted that trying to see as many films as we have is "hard work," though definitely work of a sort that he enjoys. The subject of this film was hardly original, but it was well worth seeing. I didn't notice the wall paper at all.
I haven't had time to comment on the Von Trier brou-ha-ha. I actually saw the press conference as it was being televised on the small televisions stationed all over the Palais corridor of screening rooms. It was a shockingly tepid press conference. This movie hadn't riled the critics at all, unlike "Antichrist" two years ago. It wasn't until the end of the press conference that Von Trier made an off-handed light-hearted comment about Hitler. When that mildly stirred the press corps with some chuckles he went on for some more laughs by tossing a jibe at Israel. He realized that these were both somewhat taboo subjects even for a provocateur such as him and might get him in trouble, so he immediately backed off.
It was a surprise to hear later what a huge story it had become, fanned by the press looking for some controversy. There were threats to pull his film from its final screening on Sunday. Thankfully they didn't go that far and I'll have a good shot to see it. It sounds as if it will take courage from the jury to give it any kind of award. They certainly won't be desperate to find worthy films this year.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Today was another exceptional feast of cinema with three noteworthy Competition films, a shining documentary, a pair of first rate Uncertain Regard offerings from South Korea and Romania and a recently restored classic 1950 Italian film.
The least satisfying of the films of my day, though for many others it would have been their favorite, was Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In." Almodovar proves himself once again as a plotmeister extraordinaire. Antonio Banderas plays one of the world's foremost plastic surgeons. He has performed two of the planet's face transplants, operations that thrilled him he tells an audience he is lecturing at the start of the film.
He performs another on a man he is holding hostage as an act of revenge for the man's rape his daughter, which led to her suicide. Before the transplant he has replaced his penis with a vagina and spends months transforming him into a woman. The face he elects to give him is that of his wife. He eventually falls in love with this idyllically beautiful new person, an utterly preposterous and outlandish transformation. There is not a shred of psychological legitimacy to this repellent farce. Yet those who love Almodovar have accorded this four star reviews.
Finally on Day Nine for the first time in this year's festival I gained entrance to the Palais, the latest ever in my eight years of attending Cannes, for the 11:30 a.m. screening of Takashi Miike's "Hara-Kirir Death of a Samurai." There was such minimal interest in this film I was even able to sit on the main floor rather than the balcony. I wasn't much interested myself, not being a fan of Miike's martial art films noted mostly for their stylized violence and multiple fight scenes. But he surprises his audience with this film holding off on the action until the very end of this most engaging tale of ritualized suicide among the samurais in the 1600s.
A young man in distress goes to an enclave of samurais and asks for permission to commit hari-kiri in their courtyard. He has heard that the samurais are known to have sympathy for such a person and will refuse his offer but come to his aid. One of the younger samurais is tired of these "suicide bluffs." Wishing to put an end to it he persuades the elder samurai not to have sympathy for this young man and force him to go through with it. The young man was so desperate to aid an ailing wife and baby that he had had to sell his sword and brought a fake bamboo sword within its sheaf never expecting to have to use it. The samurais force himself to disembowel himself with this flimsy wooden sword making it all the more agonizing. His father-in-law learns of this travesty and wishes to avenge it.
Miike's direction is so assured and the story so well told that even the concluding dramatic fight scene of one man against fifty seems convincing. It will be very hard for Robert DiNero not to give this movie of honor and ideals an award.
Ralph and I lucked into the end of the day press screening for the second time. This time it was tomorrow's Competition film "Drive," the only other American film in Competition besides "Tree of Life" by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. This was also an immensely pleasing, highly stylized film of honor and quiet strength. Ryan Gosling, oozing boatloads of charisma, brilliantly portrays a Hollywood stunt driver who also works as a mechanic in a garage and moonlights as the getaway driver for criminals. He is a loner and a man of few, few words.
He becomes enraptured with Carey Mulligan and her young son, who live on the same floor of his apartment building. When her boyfriend is released from prison, Gosling has to back off, but then comes to her rescue, assisting her boy friend in a robbery that he needs to pull off to pay off debts from prison. Things go disastrously awry. Gosling leaves a trail of bodies all over LA. This movie had a plot that would have made Quentin Tarantino proud, and Almodovar envious at its plausibility. Albert Brooks adds luster to the movie with his portrayal of a mob boss who wishes to sponsor Gosling as a race driver before all hell breaks loose. This movie is too slick and commercial for it to win an award in this exceptionally strong field this year, but it will be a film that will receive plenty of recognition in the months ahead. If the jury needs a compromise choice in the best actor category, Gosling would be a deserved winner.
The other great movie for the day was a 52-minute French documentary on "Clockwork Orange." Since Stanley Kubrick died in 1999 just after completing "Eyes Wide Shut" the film relied on his wife and his brother-in law and Malcolm MacDowell for much of its commentary. Kubrick gave few interviews, but the film manages to include a few of those. The film is largely on the making of "A Clockwork Orange" and its impact on cinema, but it comments on Kubrick's entire life and his nature. His wife said his two passions aside from making movies were reading and watching tennis on television. He had a projectionist on 24-hour call to play him any movie that might strike his fancy. Kubrick influenced legions of film-makers. The film allowed Gaspar Noe to represent them in heaping praise on Kubrick. Noe said he has a poster of "A Clockwork Orange" in his bedroom.
MacDowell had many telling anecdotes on his year with Kubrick making "Clockwork." They became great friends. He didn't appreciate though having his eyes held open for his brain-washing scene. He protested at first. A doctor was on the scene dropping water into his eyes every 20 seconds during the filming of the scene. He's had enough at one point and flung his arms to break free. He was sedated with pain-killers during the scene so he didn't know he tore his cornea until later that evening when the sedatives wore off. It was the worst pain he has ever felt.
He said singing "Singin' in the Rain" during the rape scene was his idea. The cast and Kubrick were sitting around trying to decide how they would film the scene when Kubrick asked MacDowell if he could dance. He said sure, and then came up with the song. Shortly after the film came out he was at a party in LA with Gene Kelly. When someone introduced them Kelly gave him a dirty look and walked away.
MacDowell will be in conversation tomorrow with the pre-eminent French critic Michel Ciment. If I manage to get in that will be another highlight of the festival. "Clockwork" was screened shortly after the documentary, but I fell forty people short of getting in.
"The Day He Arrives" was the second of two films in Un Certain Regard by South Korean directors stagnating unable to make another movie. The first by Kim Ki-Duk was a torrent of rage and malaise. This by Sangsoo Hong was whimsical neuroses that was almost charming.
"Loverboy" was more on-the-money gritty realism from Romania, this by Datalin Mitulecscu. It is the story of a young punk who seduces young women into a human sex trafficking network. He falls in love with one.
Having been turned away from "A Clockwork Orange" I filled in the time slot with Roberto Rossellini's 1950 masterpiece "La Macchina Ammazzacatuvi." His son and several of those involved with its restoration were on stage to introduce it, all speaking Italian. This was a comedic look at a small Italian coastal town and all the petty rivalries of its citizens. A trio of American tourists are part of the fun.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Ralph and I made our usual pre-eight a.m. arrival for its nine a.m. screening and unlike for Malick's film, where we were the first two in line, Ralph was number ten and I was ten spots behind him. I could have followed the trend here and budged ahead to join him, but I felt no need to do that. But after eight or nine people slipped ahead of me to join someone else I was very tempted to follow in the slipstream of the next and stop with Ralph. Ralph said if I had he would have given me a dirty look. He's even more irritated by the line-budgers than I, accustomed to politeness and order after having lived in Tokyo for fifteen years. Enough so to think about buying a tazar. "You know you can buy them here in France," he said.
When the spill over from the Palais screening began flocking over well before its 8 :30 screening I began to regret not having moved up in line, though it could still be academic. Ralph admitted to counting the people entering the theater ahead of us. When he got up to over 300, within 100 of the seating capacity, he knew it was over for us. Only once before in the five years since they opened this 60th Anniversary theater has it filled with press and invitees denying those of us with market passes entrance. That was for Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
So we had the chance to see a ten a.m. screening of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," the film we had gained entrance to in the Debussy and opted out of when we saw the chance to slip into "The Kid With A Bike" on the sly, a very good choice. I've been less conscientious this year than in others about seeing French films, so this gave me an opportunity to make up for that. Ordinarily when I've had openings in my schedule a French film has generally been my choice as filler, happy to soak in whatever elements of the culture I may, knowing and appreciating it so much. But this year more films than usual reached out to me instead.
"Kilimanjaro" did not fail to give me occasional moments of recognition of things that make me like being in France so much, comments about Jean Jaures, their favored Socialist who was assassinated that many streets and plazas are named after, kids thrilled to being given Nutella when their destitute father comes into some money, and the usual French gabbiness and social consciousness.
An older dock worker and union leader loses his job along with 19 others. One of the others is much younger and just scraping by and has a couple of younger brothers to look after. He is driven into robbing the departing gift the union leader is given. By a wild coincidence the union leader discovers who the thief is and then has the moral dilemma of turning him in. Both he and his wife are life-long idealists who try not to feel guilt for almost becoming middle-class. They have sincere debates about what their lives have become and what they should do in their dilemma. The husband suffers an initial rage that surprises both himself and his wife before the questioning begins. I was very happy to have been able to see this, knowing I will have a chance to see "Melancholia" Sunday.
Next followed a pair of films about promiscuity--"The Slut" from Israel and "The House of Tolerance" from France. The slut is a thirty-year old woman with two daughters working on a chicken ranch who gladly sleeps with the many men she comes into contact with. The first is a guy who repairs her bicycle. She attracts the attention of the local veterinarian. He falls in love with her not knowing her reputation and takes up residence with her and her daughters. He is a perfect mate, but she can't resist her dalliances. This had the Sundance Institute stamp of approval on it. This was a capable film, but far from essential viewing.
"The House of Tolerance" debuted in Competition a few days ago and had the lowest rating from "Screen's" panel--1.1 out of four. Not even the non-stop parade of bare breasts in this story of a French brothel in 1899 could win critical approval. It started out like a well-researched doctoral thesis on what life in a brothel was like but it has a weak plot and goes on for well over two hours. I did appreciate an off-handed comment about the Dreyfuss Affiar early on, a seminal event in French history that indirectly led to the founding of The Tour de France.
A movie with Eric Stoltz and Seymour Cassell, two actors always well worth seeking out, set beside a NAZI POW camp in Wisconsin during WWII based on a true story sounded like a movie that couldn't miss. Stoltz is a barber with a heart condition preventing him from enlisting and Cassell a preacher in "Fort McCoy." Rather than centering around their lives or the POWs, the movie focused on a mundane love affair between Stoltz's daughter and a soldier recently returned from Italy. This was directed by the woman who plays Stoltz's wife. She had no idea what she was doing, though when she introduced the film she said it was based on events that happened to her family. I pitied Stoltz and Cassell being mired in this awful nonentity of a movie.
The lasts two days I've seen docs on actors Belmondo and Rampling. Today's cinema figure documentary was "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel." Roger Corman and his wife and Peter Fonda were there to introduce it. Many great luminaries whose careers Corman launched glowingly lauded him--Nicholson, Sayles, Scorcese among them. Nicholson said he worked exclusively in Corman pictures the first ten years of his career. At one point he is so overcome with emotion saying how much he means to him that he breaks into tears and covers his face to hide his crying.
This was an exceptional film that was entertaining and highly informative. It reveals Corman to be a true titan of cinema and not just an exploitation schock meister. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in engineering and got his start in cinema by workings as a messenger. He graduated to script reader and when a script he approved and made improvements on was made into a successful movie and he was given no credit he decided to make movies on his own. His one serious movie and master piece "The Intruder" about race in the South starring William Shattner in his first role is his only movie not to have made him any movie. When it initially bombed it was rereleased as "I Hate Your Guts," and still couldn't attract an audience.
When Gary from Telluride, a man who has been attending Cannes since 1972 joined Ralph and I for "Days of Grace" at ten pm my expectation for the film immediately rocketed. I knew that Gary with all his connections would only go to something that had been recommended. I wasn't sure though at first when this Mexican drug film, the second of the festival, failed to establish a coherent story line. But it was early evident that the action scenes were first rate. Gary stuck with it for its entire two hours and fifteen minutes, won over by the exceptional film-making, though he too like Ralph and I couldn't separate the multiple story lines around the World Cups of 2002, 2006 and 2010. With some editing this could have been an award-winner.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I was wishing I had opted for the market as I sat through "Hanezu" by Japanese Competition regular Naomi Kawase and "Pater" one of the four French films in Competition, the usual quota. "Pater" by Alain Cavalier was just filling out that quota. It was more of an exercise than anything with the director and actor Vincent Lindon inhabiting a real and fictional world pontificating on politics, economics and shoes. "Hanezu" too was of the exercise and experiment category rather than an actual film following three withdrawn characters living out their lives in rural Japan preparing meals, eating and bicycling through the picturesque countryside. Both these films will disappear into obscurity.
But not the day's opening Palais feature, the latest from Finnish master Aki Kaurasmaki, the major-domo of droll, another director with a style unlike any other. "Le Havre" will rank among the best of his films. It is set in the French city of the same name. Hearing French coming out of the mouths of his usual cast of characters made this an especially charming curiosity. Generally when French speakers start talking there is no shutting them up. Kaurasmaki does not depart from his trademark style of single short sentences with long pregnant pauses separating them.
An elderly shoe shine man comes to the rescue of a young African boy who is an illegal immigrant the police are trying to track down. He enlists the help of his neighbors. Meanwhile his wife is in the hospital being treated for cancer. An inspector is hot on his tail. My friend Ralph had never seen a Kaurasmaki film and wasn't sure what to make of it. As I was explaining Kuaurasmaki to him after the film Julie came bounding up to us beaming. "Wasn't that great," she gushed.
The uninitiated often respond to his films as those unfamiliar with Van Gogh react to seeing a painting of his for the first time. They think they are amateurish, if not childish, and anyone could do that. Though the film didn't quite win Ralph over, it swept the Screen panel with no one giving it less than three stars. Two of the ten critics granted it four stars, elevating its average to 3.2, the highest of the festival so far. That doesn't mean it will win the Palm d'Or, but the jury ought to recognize it with something. The Hollywood Reporter review began with the observation that it is rare to have a film in Competition that is a sheer pleasure. This is the second this year after "The Artist."
My fourth Competition film of the day, "Michael," premiered several days ago. I was among the last to gain entrance to this auxiliary screening in a 63-seat theater thanks to my baseball cap, a Telluride Film Festival staff hat. The person representing the film first went through the line giving buyers priority. Then it was press. Next were representatives of film festivals. As one of the highest regarded film festivals in the world, Telluride worked like a charm.
Michael is a 35-year old working for a large insurance company. He is holding a ten-year old boy hostage in his house for sex. He is locked in his basement behind two barricaded doors. We are spared any of their sexual shenanigans except in a most understated way in this generally understated Austrian feature that managed to be quite engrossing and compelling. Michael is a nice guy who doesn't seem particularly repellent. He takes his hostage on outings and lets him come out of the basement for meals. The tension doesn't necessarily build, just the curiosity of how this will end.
A nearly five minute standing ovation for Jean-Paul Belmondo preceding the documentary "Belmondo, Itinerire..." and the introduction of a couple dozen of his fellow actors delayed the start of the movie for 45 minutes. It took a couple of minutes for the white-haired Belmondo to hobble on stage with a cane in one hand and a very tanned buxomest companion holding his other arm. But his smile was as radiant as ever.
The documentary was a high-pitched tribute to his career starting with "Breathless" in 1959. He was renowned for doing his own stunt work. There were quite a few scenes of his daring escapades often drawing applause from the audience as he dangled from a helicopter and clung to the top of speeding trains and airplanes. The film was laced with glowing comments from many of the actors who had joined him on stage before the screening. One said that Belmondo loved talking about boxing, diving and biking. If the movie had only included him talking about his love for The Tour de France and the titans of the peloton he knew this could have been the best film of the festival. As it was, there was little commentary from him. Instead there are occasional cuts to he and his graying son laying prone on a couch listening to replays of the interviews, an odd choice.
The delayed start set back the final screening of the night in the Debussy by over half an hour. On stage was anther 75-year old legend, Japanese manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi. This animated feature "Tatsumi" was a tribute to him directed by Eric Khoo of Singapore. It covered his entire career and was a superb representation of his art.
It was the sixth film of the day for Ralph too, his first six-film day, and the deepest immersion he's ever had into the world of cinema, his only other previous festival experience being at the four-day Telluride festival the past five years. He's growing stronger as the fest crosses its half-way point and is already talking about returning next year, unlike my friend Julie who accompanied me last year and reached her saturation point early on and made an early departure.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
From the very start this meditation on the meaning of life and who knows what else could be accused of straining to be the greatest film of all time with a Biblical quote and then a hushed whispered voice over and film images of great majesty. I reminded myself to relax and let it develop, though knowing that it would be easy for critics with a negative bent to savage this as pretentious, pompous phooey, especially when Malick ventures off with a prolonged collage of shots of the universe and spewing lava and rushing water and dinosaurs on the loose reminiscent of the heroin collage in Gaspar Noe's much maligned "Enter the Void," a film too straining for greatness.
As the film gradually swept over me and settled into a semblance of a narrative largely dwelling on a family of three young boys growing up in the '50s and brief glimpses of what became of one of them, Sean Penn, in his glitzy Houston high-rise office, Malick won me over. This was High Art, a film that lovers of cinema will be happy to see again and again, not only to fully fathom it, but to appreciate it more and more.
Penn has just a bit part. Brad Pitt is the dominant figure of the film, a demanding father with another of the defiant, rebellious teens that have become a theme of this festival. His son hates him so much, wishing him dead at one point, that he has to resist the urge of knocking the jack out from a car that Pitt is under working on. The film ponders a wide range of issues, from a mother handling the death of a son to a father irked by the injustices of the world. The commentary ranges from the profound to the cynical. Pitt tells his son, "The world has gone to the dogs. Everyone is getting greedy and and its getting worse." Later he comments, "The world lives by trickery. One can't be too good to succeed in this world."
This film immediately becomes the front runner for the Palm d'Or, though the film does have its detractors. It only polled an average of 2.8 from the "Screen" panel, though four of its ten critics gave it four stars, better than any other film. I will be eager to see it again Sunday.
Bruno Dumont is another veteran award-winning film-maker along with Bela Tarr and the Dardennes and Malick and Ki-Duk and a few others with films at Cannes this year branded by a distinctive style that doesn't agree with everyone but has attracted an impassioned corps of devotees. And like the others, he has delivered another film that will make them happy, though not necessarily those beyond with "Hors Satan." It is another of his rural Flanders films with a grizzled male who is either saintly or sinister, coming to the aid of the wayward, raising the dead and having sex at the invitation of a young backpacker in a field who thinks he is cute. I have friends who think Dumont is repugnant and others who think he can do no wrong. This film will not change the regard of any of them.
With at least a dozen films in the market with a soccer theme to them, I had to see at least one. I had an opportunity finally today with "Lessons of a Dream," a commercial German film. It is the true story of the introduction of soccer to Germany in the 1870s by an English teacher at a private school. The teacher, played by German star Daniel Bruhl, is having difficulty getting the attention of his students. They're not all that happy about having to learn English, as they have no respect for the country. Germany has just conquered France and England is next. So Bruhl gets them out of the class room and introduces them to the team sport of soccer, quite a contrast to the individualism of the prime German sport at the time gymnastics. The authorities do not appreciate Bruhl's methods. And the boys resist at first, but they can't help but to be won over.
After the lack of history in yesterday's documentary on Bollywood, I was hoping "Sound of Heaven: The Story of Bal Gandharva," an Indian bio pic about the actor-singer-female impersonator from the early days of Indian cinema would give me the history I wanted. It did not. A distracting SCREENING COPY at the top of the frame for the entire movie helped make this a less than desirable film.
"The Look," a documentary on Charlotte Rampling took an artful approach to telling her story. Rather than plopping her down on a chair and interrogating, the young Italian woman director posed her in a variety of settings, from sitting in a stairwell to laying in bed with a couple of women friends pontificating more on her world view than on her career. There are a few clips from her films thrown in, but not in any particular order. None of the people she has conversations with are identified. It was a worthy attempt at transcending the typical documentary on someone's career, but not fully satisfying.
A group of Arabic and Christian women in a small village in an unnamed Arabic country are trying to save the village and its men from a distant war in "Where Do We Go Now?," a film that was actually a highly energetic and entertaining comedy complete with a fabulous song and dance number celebrating hashish as the women cook up a batch to sedate their men folk. A troupe of five blond Russian cabaret singers enliven things.
Monday, May 16, 2011
"The Artist" by French director Michel Hazanavicius was this morning's 8:30 a.m. Competition entry. It is a superbly crafted recreation of a silent film taking place just as the silent era is drawing to a close. The career of a star of the era is about to see his life come crashing down with the advent of sound, while a young starlet's career is about to be launched. This was the first film in Competition to receive any four star reviews from Screen magazine's panel of ten critics, and the first film to break the three star barrier for its average score.
Though the film has its dark elements, it is generally a crowd-pleaser with dancing and a cute dog. There is only an uttered word or two of dialogue and essentially no sound other than music, though a feather hits the ground with a resounding crash when the old silent star realizes sound has arrived. It may not gain entry to the multiplexes, but it will be a hit at film fests and on the art house circuit.
The day's other black-and-white, mostly silent film was an award-winner at Berlin earlier this year, playing in the market here, the latest from Hungarian master Bela Tarr. It was vintage Bela Tarr with prolonged scenes with a minimum of dialogue set against bleak and desolate rural backgrounds. This two-and-a-half hour film could have easily been half its length, but then it wouldn't have been a Bela Tarr film. There was a mob waiting to see it at the 63-seat Riviera three screening room. I was in line with Patrick McGavin, critic for Screen magazine and free-lance Chicago sports reporter. We were talking Bulls as much as cinema while we sweated out getting in. This was a film where my market pass gave me precedence over Patrick's press pass. I was let in before he was, but he managed to get in as well. Every seat was filled, largely by Bela Tarr fans. If this film had been playing in Competition here, it would have easily been the most walked out upon film of the festival. In our screening only two or three people left early, though I did notice a few people nodding off, including me.
A documentary on Bollywood cinema, "Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told," clocked in at barely 90 minutes, half as long as it could have been. With literally thousands of dance scenes to choose from this film could have gone on and on indefinitely. It had to be a monstrously impossible task to edit and to choose selections. It was a film that couldn't go wrong, other than leaving viewers wanting more, much, much more. There were only a handful of short snippets from directors and singers talking about their craft. I was hoping for choreographers explaining their craft, and critics commenting on the evolution of the grandiosity of the dance numbers, but the numbers were just left to speak for themselves. This was all entertainment with little enlightenment, just a few historical inserts of Gandhi, Mahatma as well as the assassinated premier, and other historical figures.
I finally managed two see two Competition films in one day. I'm averaging barely one a day this year, leaving me a lot to catch up on he last day of the Festival when they're all replayed, though the ones I've missed so far have all been sub-par. "Footnote" was my second for the day, and as enjoyable as "The Artist," though in an entirely different sense. While the silent film was whimsical and light, this was quite serious fare, the study of the rivalry of father and son Talmudic scholars in Israel. The father is a bitter, unappreciated, friendless old man whose studies have gone largely unacknowledged, while his son is much celebrated. The film opens with the son giving an acceptance speech for an award. His speech is dedicated to his father, who sits in the audience pretty much in anguish, the camera focusing on his face during the entire telling speech. This was a highly intelligent film with an original premise and an unflinching, brutally honest study of academic rivalries. The moral dilemmas raised provide some of the festival's best fodder for post-film discussion.
Any Dead Head attending the festival would have had "The Music Never Stopped" at the top of their list of films to see. This American feature is based on the essay "The Last Hippie" by Oliver Sacks. It is the true story of a 35 year old who had a brain tumor removed in 1986 leaving him largely an amnesiac. The only memories he can recover are those associated with his favorite music, mostly rock and roll songs from his teens when he was an aspiring musician.
The film abounds with music by the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and The Grateful Dead. The film concludes with the amnesiac and his 65 year old father, who is a cardiac patient, attending a Grateful Dead concert. The father, played by J.K. Simmons, kicked his son out of his house when he was 17 for burning an American flag on stage at a rock concert and hadn't seen him for nearly twenty years until he returned home needing the operation. It wasn't so easy for Simmons to break from the warmth of his "Juno" father to play the role of a hard-ass. Only the music made this largely inept effort tolerable. It was nearly impossible to look at the son's ghastly beard.
Ralph and I made another attempt at the end of the day for the ten p.m. press screening of one of the next day's Competition films but this time the ushers wouldn't let us in even though there were empty seats, typical French arbitrariness, such as the occasional overly-officious rookie usher who denies me entry into the Debussy for wearing sandals, until he is overruled by a superior.
I rushed over to the Debussy for "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and got in just as the lights were turned off. A usher guided me down an aisle and folded down an auxiliary aisle seat for me, not the most comfortable of seats. The movie didn't help me forget my discomfort. Martha is a young woman who has just escaped a cult in upstate New York. Her older, quite affluent sister comes to her rescue and puts her up at her luxurious lakeside vacation home with her husband. Martha is quite traumatized. The sisters haven't seen each other in two years and never seemed to be very close to begin with. Martha only tells her sister that she's broken up with a boy friend. She suffers nightmares and flashbacks and becomes a nightmare for her sister. Everyone in this woefully unrealized movie is creepy and unsettling, the straights as well as those in the counter-culture. They're all testy, insensitive, insistent on having their own way and most unlikeable, just like the movie itself.
It will be an early rise tomorrow to bike in plenty early for the 8:30 screening of the long-awaited Terrence Malick film, "Tree of Life," with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, a film that was scheduled to play at last year's festival. Patrick even with his press credentials giving him priority to the screening intends to get in line before 7:30. I will go directly to the auxiliary nine a.m. line, though even if I am first in line will have to stand aside until all the press overflow from the 2,000 seat Palais are let in. I'm not all that confident of being able to see it until Sunday when all the Competition films are replayed for those still lingering.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
A young boy with supernatural powers kills his father with his fastball after catapulting it from the heavens. He resolved never to play baseball again. He turns into a youthful samurai doing good deeds and bad. He's wanted on 54 charges including dropping televisions on people. When he's placed in prison he's forced to play on the prison baseball team by the crazed woman superintendent for a grudge match against a prison of young women whose uniform is black halter tops and and black leather short shorts supervised by men with swastika armbands. This movie piles on the campy elements and lapses into horror with frequent scenes of gushing blood. But its energy and inventiveness kept it alive.
Its been three years since prolific South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, master of audacious cinema, has made a film. Turns out he has been a recluse all this time living in a tent inside a rundown shack without running water or a toilet, overcome by the near death of an actress on his last film and also by the betrayal of two of his assistant directors. He finally finds the courage to make another film, the only thing that brings him happiness. The film, "Arirang," is a documentary, though he calls it a drama, of how he has been living and also a confession and a lament and a howl over his break down and his many grievances with others and life in general.
Much of the film is a monologue with him pouring his heart out, breaking into tears on occasion. He enlists an alter ego at times to fire questions at him and even his shadow, who asks, "What is life about." He concludes that life is sadism, self-torture and masochism, just like his films. His shack has posters of his previous 15 films and also many of the awards that he has won from festivals all over the world and from South Korean for bringing honor to the country. Seeing his first film that brought him international attention, "The Isle," at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000 is one of my all-time favorite film festival moments and one of the reasons I keep attending film festivals, to make such discoveries. This is another remarkably original film just like all of his others that will please his many fans.
A ten year old aboriginal boy living in an aboriginal community where the norm is alcohol and drug abuse seems doomed to the life himself in "Toomelah." He's already dropped out of school and is smoking. His grandmother is mostly upset that he is smoking, as he will be just another who will try to steal her cigarettes. He has no positive role models. His parents life apart. His father is a drunk and tries to get him on the right track so he doesn't end up like him, but he has no respect for his father and refuses to live with him. His mother isn't much better. Much of the cast is non-professional. Not much happens in this all too realistic portrayal."Bonsai" was a made-to-order film for Cannes, according to its young Chilean director, taking on the challenge of Cannes Thierry Fremaux who promised him he would program a Chilean film if he would make one. He had the formula down--a polished, arty film, with convincing performances about some young struggling writers. The film flashes forward and back between their student days and their young adult hood. The film looked nice, and was a palatable film-going experience, but didn't amount to much.
"Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times" was my documentary for the day. The film maker seemed to have begrudging access to the editors of The Times, who had a lot more on their minds trying to run a newspaper and remain alive in these turbulent times, than catering to a camera being in their faces. A key story during the filming was the first Wikileaks leak of the video of American soldiers on the attack. The editors have to decide if Wikileaks is a credible source or if it is a competitor in these transitional times for newspaper with the internet taking away their readers and advertisers. Comparison is drawn to The Times releasing the Pentagon Papers. If the Internet had been around then, Ellsberg could have released them all on a website of his own choosing. The film raised worthwhile points, but didn't fully know where it was going.
I was all set to end the day with "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" at the Debussy when I ran into my friend Ralph from Telluride, attending Cannes for the first time. I have been mentoring him on the ins and outs of the festival. He's got it pretty well figured out, while making discoveries of his own. One was that there was a press screening of the Competition film "The Kid With A Bike" by the Dardenne brothers, a film we were both very eager to see, starting momentarily next door that he thought we might be able to get into. He was right.The "bike" in the title was not just an incidental mention. The kid in the movie rides his bike a lot and is very desperate to get his bike back at the outset of the movie. He has been living in a foster home after his father abandoned him. The kid knows his bike is still at the apartment building where they lived. He manages to escape the foster home to try to get his bike and also to find his dad. The authorities at the foster home know enough where he is headed. When the frantic chase continues into a doctor's office, the young boy latches on to a young woman in the waiting room. It takes all their efforts to pry him off. The young woman is so moved by the incident, she tracks down his bike and takes it to the boy at the foster home. He pleads with her to let him come stay with her on weekends. She agrees.
She helps him track down his father, who wants nothing to do with the boy, who is a somewhat out-of-control delinquent. The young woman, a hair-dresser, discovers she has more on her hands than she realizes, but she is too golden-hearted to give up. He gets into deep trouble and is almost as belligerent and disobedient as the young boy in Lynn Ramsey's "We Need To Talk About Kevin" as well as the aboriginal boy in "Toomelah" an emerging theme of the festival.The Dardennes specialize in social realism. This doesn't match their two Palm d'Or efforts, but it is another significant contribution to the world of cinema.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
French stalwart Michel Piccoli plays a just elected Pope who doesn't care to accept the position. Before he can reveal himself on the balcony as the new Pope to the awaiting world of one billion Catholics he manages to escape his handlers into the city of Rome. Moretti plays a psychiatrist who has been brought in to counsel him when the Pope's handlers realize they have a problem on their hands. He can't talk to him about sex or many other of the usual elements in a shrink's bag of tricks. All the Cardinals are in attendance as he tries to analyze him, one of many greatly comic but poignant scenes.
The Cardinals, as well as Moretti, are all being held hostage until the Pope can be announced. They don't know he is on the loose. To kill time Moretti organizes a volleyball tournament among the Cardinals by their region as if it were a World Cup soccer tournament. The elderly Cardinals in their vestments batting around a volleyball is a sheer delight, as is much of this movie, a good start to the day, though once again the Palais was too packed for any of us in the last minute line without tickets to get in, stealing a half hour from my day being delayed to its follow-up nine a.m. screening.
I sacrificed the day's next Competition film "Polisse" to see the lone market screening of the documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World" and was very happy to have seen this thorough biopic of the great chess champion. He was one of the most prominent figures on the world stage in the 1970s. His world championship match that went on for nearly two months against Boris Spassky in 1972 in Iceland was often the lead story on the nightly news even with Watergate and the presidential election going on.
Fischer was born in Chicago, moved to Brooklyn with his Russian mother, who had communist sympathies and a 900 page FBI dossier, when he was six, became US national chess champion at 15. He hardly played any chess after winning the world championship at the age of 29 until a rematch with Spassky ten years later in Yugoslavia that violated US trade laws. He was a recluse and a man without a country, ending his days broken and not quite sane in Iceland. The sports writer Dick Schapp said he didn't have a sane bone in his body.
"The Devil's Double" was another market film of a topic that was hard to resist--the story of the double of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, a truly diabolic figure. This Belgian film was directed by Lee Tamahori of New Zealand whose first film "Once Were Warriors" is an overlooked masterpiece. Though he hasn't matched the brilliance of his first film, his skill as a film-maker shines here. The man Uday recruits to be his double is a former school mate who wants nothing to do with Uday, knowing his reputation for reckless belligerence, especially when it came to woman. But he has no choice in the manner. Uday got his way in all matters. He would drive the streets of Baghdad picking up school girls, taking them back to his villa, raping them and sometimes killing them. A bride just after completing her nuptials is another victim. His monstrosities have no limit. Even his father can't control him.
With no bicycling films in the program this year for the first time in a few years I gave the motorcycle racing film "TT3D: Closer to the Edge" a chance to give me a semblance of two-wheeled racing. It was a documentary about a race on the Isle of Man, home of the world's best bicycle racing sprinter, Mark Cavendish. He had certainly biked the 38 miles of the race course on this scenic island off the coast of Great Britain.
Its a dangerous course with two hundred turns and the racers hitting two hundred miles per hour. Over two hundred racers have died on the race course, two in the 2010 race the documentary profiles. Death is accepted. The wife of one of those killed in this race hardly sheds a tear. She said she loves coming to the race so much she'll be back with her two young children, who are already riding mini-motorcycles.
The racers bundled in their armor and helmets gave no hint of the extraordinary effort that bicycle racers give. This was a film that I could have done without. Being in 3D didn't even much enhance the experience.
My thorough perusal of the program unveiled a German film directed by and starring Til Schweiger, the star of one of the best bicycling movies of all time "Phantom Pain" that I discovered at Cannes several years ago. The subject matter of the film didn't interest me in the least, but I felt such a connection to Schweiger, who also starred in Taratino's "Inglorious Basterds" and is considered Germany's Tom Cruise, I feel that I owe it to see him on the big screen whenever the opportunity arises. An added bonus was the film was co-starring his young daughter, who also had a small role in "Phantom Pain." This movie, "Kokowaah", could almost have passed as a Hollywood romantic comedy. Schweiger is a womanizer and screen-writer who has dozens of toothbrushes in his loft for the many women he seduces. He doesn't know he has a daughter until an eight year old shows up on his doorstep needing to be looked after while her mother has to go on a trip. Bonding and complications ensue.
I was able to sneak in the first hour of "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" a documentary on the late night comic just after he is fired by NBC from The Tonight Show. O'Brien evidently was desperate enough for attention to allow somebody to follow him around with a camera as he recovered and then decided to go on tour. O'Brien fans will be happy with the intimacy of the film, but not too many others. O'Brien is still quite angry at NBC but begins to overcome it when his fans flock to his performances.
As usual I ended the day with an Un Certain Regard selection, the Mexican film "Miss Bala" in the second largest of the festival's theaters, the Debussy. Young director Gerardo Naranjo takes on the foremost topic in today's Mexico, the power and terror of the drug loads. He gives it a most humanistic face, approaching the subject through a young beauty pageant contestant who inadvertently falls into the clutches of a high-powered drug gang and is forced to do their bidding. She is a young innocent who has great strength. The film does not sensationalize or go overboard on the violence in this honest and original film. It was a nice final film to dwell on as I biked the four miles back to the campground after midnight.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Friends: By now anyone following the reviews of Cannes Competition fare or anyone who is aware of the book it was based on knows "We Need To Talk About Kevin" is the story of a mother dealing with a son who becomes a high school mass murderer and their extremely combative relationship, but going into the film I had no clue as to its subject matter. From the moment the film began it was clear this was a film of note that would earn Lynn Ramsey invitations to film festivals all over the world and year end award programs as well, and if not for her as director, most certainly for her star Tilda Swinton for her devastating performance of a mother coping with a son who has a deep-seated antagonism towards her from his earliest years, even before he can speak, or chooses to finally start speaking.
As a former photographer, Ramsey has a keen eye for stirring images. An early astonishing scene with Swinton doused by tomato sauce in a mob of people at a tomato festival in Spain promises that this is going to be a great film experience. Swinton too delivers a breathtakingly magnificent portrayal of a woman dealing with a great traumatic event. John C. Reilly as her husband is perfectly cast and contributes to the magnitude of this film, as do the three young actors who play the son over a period of twenty years. The film is told in flashback, slowly unraveling its mystery, though the mystery will be known to those who read the reviews. Knowing little about a film is one of the innumerable joys of attending a film festival. This is a film that justifies those who like to limit their daily intake of films to three or four at the most per day, to fully absorb and recover from each. If I were of such a mind, I might have taken the rest of the day off, though this is a film that might take an entire festival to recover from.
Despite its great impact, I didn't hesitate in the least to plunge into the next, "Project Nim," a documentary by a director who promised another fine film, James Marsh, who directed "Man On Wire," my favorite film at Cannes a few years ago and my favorite film for that year and maybe the decade. Nim is a chimp who was part of a Columbia University study in the l970s to determine if chimps could be taught sign language or speech. Nim was placed with a hippie family of seven children two weeks after he was born and was treated fully as a member of the family, the mother even breast feeding him.
After two years the chimp is placed in a more structured environment in his own private chateau with students who have daily one-on-one sessions with him trying to educate him. He learns some, but it only goes so far. As he matures he becomes more rambunctious. When he bites a young woman clear through her cheek, it is time to return him to the chimp center he came from in Oklahoma, where he is placed in a cage and used as a subject to test medicine. He is five years old at the time. The film is rich with archival footage of him and his caretakers and interviews with many of them. He is eventually rescued from the inhumane testing center. As with "Man On Wire," Marsh has discovered an extremely interesting topic and makes it into a highly entertaining film.
Werner Herzog's 3D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" had a lone screening in the market today. Since I left Chicago just before it opened, I knew this was a rare opportunity to see it in a theater and in 3D. There was a mob outside the 63-seat Lerins screening room when I arrived several minutes early. Luckily I was told my pass had precedence over many of those waiting and got one of the last seats in the theater.
This too was a masterful documentary by one of the best in the business complete with Herzog's trademark commentary. I nearly stopped by for the filming of this documentary last year as the cave wasn't too far out of my way on my ride to the festival, and was aware that Herzog was there, but I was delayed by nasty weather. The cave contains art going back over 30,000 years, twice as old as any other known cave art. It was discovered in 1994 and is limited largely just to researchers to protect it from deteriorating from the exhaled breath of too many people. Herzog was very fortunate to be given access to it.
I was equally looking forward to my next movie, an Israeli basketball movie, "Playoff," a true story about a legendary Israeli basketball coach who led Israel to the European championships in the late '70s and then became a national traitor by becoming the German national coach. Unfortunately, the distributor at the last second decided to restrict the screening to buyer's only, even though there were loads of seats available. There were only a couple of us non-buyers wanting to see the movie, but there was no relenting. The program always lists films that are for buyers only or that no press is allowed in or films my invitation only. There aren't too many of those, but I am careful to avoid them. It was doubly aggravating since this was playing at the distant Star Theater on Antibes, so it was a bit of a hike to get to another theater.
My backup was "33 Days," one of quite a few Iranian films in the market. It looked as if Iranian cinema might be making a comeback, but if this film was any reflection, it is in dire straits from all the government restrictions on filmmakers, and I can gladly x out any other Iranian film I might be tempted to see. This one-sided, heavy-handed portrayal of an Israeli-Lebanon skirmish was an absolute joke with no value whatsoever. The Israeli officers were utter buffoons. The Israeli major in charge had a gruesome scar on his face. He's been having an affair with a junior woman officer. He wants to end their relations, but she doesn't. She's angry enough with him to start siding with the Lebanese, saying how she respects their idealism and loyalty to one another. It was ironic I was forced to see it because of some autocratic Israeli.
When I joined the line for the opening night film in Un Certain Regard, "Restless" by Gus Van Sant, it was longer than any Debussy Theater line I had seen. It was 45 minutes until show time and I had the three dailies to read, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Screen. They are bulging with studio advertising once again this year after being fairly thin the last couple of years, though I learned from Milos earlier in the day that they have cut the pay of their free lance reviewers to fifty pounds per review. The crowds too are much thicker than the last couple of years. I was turned away from the Palais this morning and had to see the Ramsey film in the back-up theater, something I've never had to do this early in the festival.
I didn't get to within a couple of hundred people of gaining entrance into the one thousand seat Debussy. According to the Todd McCarthy review, covering the festival for the Hollywood Reporter this year rather than Variety has he has done for years, I was lucky. He called this latest of Van Sant's study of troubled kids "banal, indulgent, agonizingly treacly and annoying." That was no great surprise. If the film had much merit it most certainly would have been in the Competition field what with Van Sant a former Palm d'Or winner with "Elephant" and other of his films having played in Competition.
Being turned away from "Restless" allowed me to see a Peruvian drug prison movie I was hoping to work into my schedule, "The City of Gardens," a true story about a young American surfer who is teaching English in Lima in 1980. He is picked up for overstaying his visa and then has a couple of kilos of cocaine planted on him. The prison authorities hope he'll give them ten thousand dollars to be let go. He refuses to even let his parents know about his arrest. He suffers considerable torture, and gets little assistance from the US embassy, but holds firm.
It was no challenge getting into the Debussy at 10:30 for the final screening of the night. So few people were interested in this Un Certain Regard entry, "Hard Labor" from Brazil, there was no need to open the balcony. This feature about the economic struggles of a young middle class husband and wife was certainly better than the Van Sant film that everyone was desperate to see; The husband has recently lost his job and goes months without being able to find another. His wife has just opened up a small grocery store and has one problem after another. The film concludes with a brilliant howling scene at a job seminar for male executives that could be one of the seminal moments of the festival.