Monday, May 30, 2016

Villars-Les-Dombes, Ville Arrivée Stage 14

I hear of strikes and demonstrations all over France of workers protesting proposed legislation to take away some of their rights and to give management more power under the guise of decreasing unemployment and giving some pep to the flagging economy, but the only glimpse of protest I have encountered is CGT stickers of the large labor union plastered on Tour de France banners in the city of Montélimar, the Ville Départ for Stage 14.  They weren't protesting The Tour, as the stickers were placed on other banners promoting a concert and randomly stuck elsewhere as well.  They were too high for me to reach and remove, but still only a minor desecration.

Montélimar has been an occasional Ville Étape, so it hadn't gone to extremes as do some Ville Étapes with message boards counting down the days until The Tour makes its arrival or with elaborate displays of Tour love.  First-time Ville Étape Bourg-Saint-Andéol, on the other side of the Rhone, had scattered bike sculptures of metal cut-outs in the colors of the four contested jerseys with cyclists wearing aero helmets, as it will be hosting the first of this year's two time trials, or "contre le montre," as the French call it.

The town's main plaza, from where the riders will set out,  had several sets of riders and also a marker at the starting point.

There were markers out along the 23-mile course, including one on the outskirts of the town at the start of a four-mile climb that will please Chris Froome as it gains over a thousand feet as the riders depart the Rhone Valley.

The riders will then descend to the spectacular Gorges de l'Ardéche and then climb to the finish at La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc, a theme park opened a year ago that is a replica of the Chauvet Caves that were discovered in 1994 full of drawings over 30,000 years old.  Their environment is so fragile that few are granted permission to see them.  Werner Herzog was one of them, resulting in the 3D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."  I arrived too late in the day to give it a look, as it is advised to allow two-and-a-half hours for it.  The huge parking lot, that will serve as the finish area for the time trial, was packed.  The hours of world-wide attention it will receive come July on a multitude of networks will make it all the more popular.  The price tag for such advertising would be in the millions, much more than it is paying The Tour to be its host.  But The Tour is gaining a superlative backdrop that will keep viewers glued to their screens watching rider after rider fly through the glorious scenery, happy for their repeated glimpses of the magnificent sites.

I won't be on the course, as I'll need to be getting a jump on the next day's stage through the rolling terrain on the other side of the Rhone that will follow a route east of Lyon.  I rode it yesterday in the rain.  I got an early start as I was flooded out of my tent shortly after daybreak.  A light drizzle began around midnight after a barrage of lightning and thunder that resounded all around my campsite atop one of the many ridges the peloton will be crossing.  I had pitched my tent on the fringe of a slanted pasture along a forest.  The forest was too thick with prickly vegetation to penetrate.  The ground was somewhat soggy to begin with, so after several hours of rain the water began trickling down the hillside and seeping into my tent.  My sleeping pad kept me somewhat elevated so I didn't realize I was becoming an island in a lake.  Wet feet awoke me.  All my gear was stuffed in my water proof panniers, so it wasn't as disastrous as it could have been.  It's never fun breaking camp in the rain, but I always welcome early starts.  

The rain continued all day forcing me to take my breaks in covered bus stops.  It was a Sunday and in small-town France everything is closed.  Whenever I climbed a ridge the sky seemed to be lightening ahead, but it was just a brief aberration.  I needed a bit of sun or at least a brief respite of the rain to dry my sleeping bag and tent if I wished to camp that night. If I couldn't it would be a challenge to find a hotel, possibly forcing me into Lyon. It was chilly enough that I was wearing my sweater for the first time since leaving Cannes.

Early in the afternoon I began noticing signs for the Lyon airport.  It wasn't that far out of my way.  I figured I could find a corner in a terminal to do some drying near an electrical socket where I could also charge my iPad as long as it wasn't too overrun with security.  The riding suddenly became more pleasant with this to look forward to, as well as the possibility of WIFI and, best of all, a call to Janina.

The airport was bustling with people pouring out, but I was easily able to find a section with no people and rows of chairs to spread my sleeping bag and tent on to dry. There was soon a large puddle around my bike draped with my tent.  I soaked it up with my neckerchief and squeezed it into a nearby garbage can.  Janina had her cell phone with her while she was weeding the kale in her garden. It was a sweltering day so she was happy to take a break in the shade.  She was ecstatic over a Melville double feature she had seen at the Film Center the day before, one of which had taken place in Lyon.  Lyon is the home of Bertrand Tavernier.  He presented a three-hour documentary at Cannes on French cinema, that no doubt included Melville.  It was the film I most regretted missing, though I am confident it will be at Telluride, as Tavernier has been a frequent guest, including Guest Director.

The rain finally dissipated while I sat at the airport. reported it would resume after seven. It was four when I resumed riding, leaving me ample time to get beyond the sprawl of Lyon, France's second largest city, and set up camp before the rain.  An hour later though dark ominous clouds began moving in and half an hour later I was hit by a deluge.  Luckily I was in a small town filling my water bottles by a shelter in a park so I avoided a soaking.  It dissipated to a light drizzle after half an hour.  My only concern was finding ground without standing water.  I had hoped to make it all the way to Villars-les-Dombes, but stopped five miles short to take advantage of a grassy pasture with good drainage.

I continued on the next morning following D2, the route the peloton would be riding hellbent led by the teams with a sprinter for the finish on the outskirts of Villars-les-Dombes at its Parc Oiseaux, a huge park of lakes and lagoons with over 3,000 birds representing 300 species from all five continents. 

The $20 admission includes a daily "Le Spectacle des Oiseaux en Vol" at 3:30 with birds trained to fly acrobatically all over the place.  The French have a long-time fascination with flight, being the earliest of the balloonists and the first to fly across the English Channel and the developers of the Concorde and the Air Bus.  The pilot and author Antoine Saint-Expury is a national icon.  The Lyon airport is named for him as are streets in cities all over the country.  There are several such bird theme parks around the country with battalions of trained birds that put on shows as incredible as the Blue Angels.  Whether any birds will be part of The Tour finish remains to be seen.  The modest tourist office a mile away did not know.  It's only acknowledgement of The Tour was a set of tiny jerseys in a yellow bowl full of sand, a strong indication of a lack of funds for any kind of promotion.  Small though it may have been, it was still a quaint and touching homage to The Tour that I was happy to sit beside while I took advantage of the tourist office WIFI.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Across Provence

Vineyards and roundabout art are just one of the many allures of Provence.  The terrain is also rugged and semi-mountainous, especially up from the Mediterranean.  It affords cozy and picturesque locations for small villages up the sides and atop the more spacious high points, some of which are among "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France."

There are 155 of them, mostly in the southern part of the country.  They are not annually selected by a highly secretive process as with Michelin-starred restaurants, but rather villages apply for the designation to a privately-run outfit.  Not only is there an application fee, but also an annual payment of three euros per resident of the village.  Not any village though qualifies. It must meet several criteria besides being willing to pay.  It must have less than 2,000 residents, be of a rural character and have some significant attraction.   My research didn't reveal if many villages are rejected or how many decide to withdraw after a period of time.  It may be a slightly contrived effort to attract tourists and give residents of a village a little extra air of pride, but I have yet to encounter a Plus Belle Village that wasn't, but I have also encountered many a village that was most beautiful that didn't have a sign proclaiming it.  The great charm of France is that most villages are attractive and alluring.

My first destination after two weeks at Cannes overdosing on five or six or seven movies a day was Seillans, one of those "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" built on a steep ridge just thirty miles from Cannes.  It would have looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance if it weren't blocked by another ridge just up from the coast.  I had passed through Seillans on previous occasions, but only recently learned it had been the adopted home of Fred de Brugne, a Belgium cyclist who accomplished the rare feat of winning the Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year--1957.  He was also a three-time winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of the other of cycling's Five Monuments.  His palmares also included six stages of The Tour de France.  In retirement he became a popular race announcer.  Seillans honored him by naming a small plaza after him.  No one could tell me though if it happened before his death in 1994 or after.

The plaza was now largely a parking lot, though at one time it was a hive of activity as it adjoined the troughs fed by spring water where locals came to do their wash, as most small towns had.

Dadaist Max Ernst also made Seillans his home in the late '60s and early '70s.  A street named after him led to Place Fred de Brugne.  Ernest wasn't a full-time resident though and elected to be buried in Paris, while de Brugne chose a modest, shared burial site in the town cemetery for his ashes.

My route through Provence also took me through the small village of Lacoste.  Upon its summit sits a chateau where the Marquis de Sade lived in the 1770s until he was forced to flee to Italy to avoid arrest when a number of his young female servants accused him of sexual improprieties.  He spent 31 years of his life incarcerated, including the final thirteen until his death in 1814 in an asylum for the insane.  The cheateau may have grand views, with Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, in the distance, but it looked more like a bunker that Hitler might have designed than anything of magnificence.  What went on in there one can only imagine, as Pier Paolo Pasolini tried to do in his 1970 movie "Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom."

It's interior no doubt must be plush, as it is presently owned by fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Among the sculptures in front of the chateau was one he designed called "Welcome."  Ventoux is under the right arm.  It will be the finish line for the Bastille Day Stage of this year's Tour.

Lacoste hadn't joined the alliance of Les Beaux Villages de France, though it certainly qualified with its labyrinth of narrow, steep, cobbled streets and remarkable setting.  Craftsmen were at work upgrading and renovating many of the buildings, implying this was similar to many small towns that are full of second residences of Parisians and others.

Just beyond Lacoste is Ménerbes, home of Peter Mayle, whose series of books on Provence earned him a Legion of Honor award from the French.  It is a Belle Village and has one of those oddball museums that turn up all over France.  It is devoted to corkscrews.  Bonnieux, just before Lacoste, had a Bakery museum.  The rare museum in rural America is usually nothing more than something devoted to local history, often in a former Carnegie Library. 

I was also able to pass through Pernes-Les-Fontaines, as I am always happy to do, as it is the birthplace of Paul de Vive (Velocio), an early proponent of bicycle touring.  There is a plaque on his childhood home.

Several times in the past couple of days I have come upon gas stations with a long line of cars extending all the way to the road partially blocking one lane of traffic.  I hadn't been keeping up with the news so thought that the station must have had some ridiculously low price that brought people flocking.  It wasn't until Janina, who watches a French news channel, emailed asking if the striking petrol workers had effected me, that I learned of widespread strikes all over the country by workers protesting the government's proposed laws to limit their rights.  Over one-third of the country's 11,500 gas stations have run out of gas.  That's not something I'm going to be too upset about.  
I asked a woman in a tourist office if she might go on strike.  She said she had a responsibility to tourists and would never do such a thing. 

I've been limiting myself to not much more than fifty miles a day as I recover from my sleep deprivation and lack of exercise at Cannes, rarely getting six hours of sleep a night and rarely more than a couple miles of biking.  It was a quick mile ride down from the apartment Ralph and I shared to the Palais for the morning's first screening at 8:30, which I needed to get to by eight to insure getting in.  I could have strained my legs a bit on the mile climb back at the end of the day, often not until one a.m., but I was usually accompanied by Ralph, who didn't have a bike, so I made a walk of it.  I have been through this recovery process before and know my legs will come round by the time The Tour starts in five weeks.  

Now it's on to Bourg-Saint-Andéol, along the Rhone,  start of the time trial stage after the Ventoux finish.  I will then scout out The Tour route into the Alps during its final week.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Day Twelve--The Awards

As the minutes passed and the jury had yet to arrive for its post-Awards Ceremony press conference speculation ran rampant that they'd been abdicted by Germans upset with their total disregard of "Toni Erdmann" or had fled town to avoid having to explain their shocking choices. The press corps was so bored awaiting the arrival of the jury they turned their cameras on Ralph and me asking our opinion of the awards.

Arguments raged over which was the most bewildering of their choices.  Was it Dolan's film receiving the Grand Prix or Erdmann receiving nothing or the Iranian film receiving two awards or Assayas being given the best director award or the choice of the Palm d'Or or the choice of the best actress or Jarmusch being ignored.  The jury had made such a mess of the awards it was being compared to the Sean Penn catastrophe.  Had Cannes fallen into a black hole or Lars Von Trier inflicted it with a curse that had sent it spiraling totally out of its orbit as the most respected film festival on the planet?

When the jury finally strolled in to the press room nearly half an hour late it was all smiles as if unaware of the maelstrom they had generated.  They all gushed at what a fantastic experience it had been being on the jury.  President George Miller called it one of the best experiences one could have.  Donald Sutherland said when he got on the plane tomorrow he'd miss it.  As for their choices, they said they had all been vigorously and rigorously arrived at and felt proud of them all.  "Nothing was left unsaid," Miller said.  

But what about Erdmann someone asked.  Miller pled confidentiality.  He didn't wish to get into specifics on why any film didn't win an award, saying there are twenty-one films in Competiton all of which thought they deserved recognition with an award of some sort and there were only seven on offer.  That didn't explain why they gave "The Salesman" two awards, other than there was an Iranian on the jury who must have been a force to be reckoned with similar to Salma Hayek on the jury that gave Tommie Lee Jones' "Three Burials" two awards.  Shahab Hosseini was certainly worthy of the best actor award, but the screenplay could have gone to any number of the overlooked films. It seemed to have been given more on reputation than merit to the film's director Ashgar Farhadi.

I watched the film a second time today after the awards ceremony as I had been perplexed by some inexplicable elements in the story.  They seemed even more blatantly false on a second viewing.  The husband's rage at a feeble, old man who inadvertently startled his wife seems even more misplaced.  It was inexplicable that he never used a police contact to trace the license plate of the man he was seeking, instead just hoping he'd return for his truck, though he didn't even have a continual watch on it, so when it does disappear he only finds the owner by a miraculous stroke of luck.  It was inexplicable too that the old man would have left his keys and phone in their apartment and didn't immediately return for his truck with another set of keys, especially since his future son-in-law needed the truck for his job delivering bread.  And there is a lot more.

The two awards to "The Salesman" didn't irk people though as much as Xavier Dolan winning the Grand Prix for "Its Only the End of the World."   Manohla Dargis had written in the New York Times earlier in the day that it was among three films she deemed so bad they didn't deserve to be in Competiton.  They others were Sean Penn's "The Last Face" and "The Neon Demon."  I had an opportunity to see Dolan's film a second time before the Awards Ceremony and enjoyed it much more than I had the first time, though I wouldn't necessarily go as far as to say it deserved an award over quite a few other films.  I had stood in line two hours to see it the first time at the end of the day and was too fatigued to fully focus on its barrage of dialogue.  I could much more appreciate Dolan's camera work and what was being said this time.  Jury member László Nemes, who won the Grand Prix last year for "Son of Saul," said he could feel the distinctive voice of Dolan from the very start of the film.  

Nemes too might have been a strong supporter of the Philippine film "Ma’ Rosa" that I saw for the first time today, the only Competition film that I had missed.  I was so awed by the cinema verité by the veteran Brillante Mendoza of this story of a husband and wife who run a small store in the ghettos of Manila selling drugs on the side that it could win the Palm d'Or or at least best director award.  It was a more powerful and heartrending tale of institutional corruption than the Romanian "Graduation" that had been my favorite for the top prize.  The performances of the entire cast were breathtakingly exceptional.  None stood out above another, so it was a shock that it was given the best actress award.  The actress herself was utterly stunned.  Her acceptance speech was a continual refrain of "I can't believe this," and a string of thank you’s, interrupted by another "I can't believe this."  It was one of the all-time great acceptance speeches, comparable to the best at the Oscars.

Ken Loach gave a heartfelt speech as well, half in French and half in English, lamenting these times of forced austerity that are bringing the world to near catastrophe after accepting his second Palm d'Or for "I, Daniel Blske." He castigated the "tiny few with grotesque wealth" and the Right taking advantage of hard times to inflict even more pain on the have-nots.  I stood in line today with a young man who saw the movie earlier in the day.  He said it was the first film he had seen in the festival that touched him and brought him to tears.  It was a sentiment shared by many.

Cristian Mungiu didn't seem happy at all with his best director award for "Graduation" having hopes of becoming a rare two-time Palm d'Or winner.  He has served on the Cannes jury.  He turned to them during his speech and said, "I know it's difficult to make a fair decision, so I thank you for doing your best."  He shared the award with Olivier Assayas, whose supernatural thriller "Personnel Shopper" turned off many, especially among the panel of fifteen French critics who rate the films.  Eight of them gave it zero stars, the most of any film other than Penn's, a near unanimous zero star movie.

I've mentioned all the awards except the Jury Prize, won by Andrea Arnold for the third time for "American Honey." I was hoping she might be acknowledged with a Best Director award for her extraordinary handling of a cast of non-actors galvanating about the American west selling magazine subscriptions, but it was a delight that she received anything as opinion was divided on this movie as well.  I could take small satisfaction too that the jury agreed with my view of "Toni Erdmann" and Jarmsuch's "Paterson" that they were not fully realized films and more audience pleasers than substantial fare.  They had been the two highest rated films by the Screen panel, but as is frequently the case, did not stand up to the scrutiny of the jury.

Now I will begin movie-withdrawal as I return to the bike as I begin training for The Tour de France five weeks away.  I won't see another movie for two months, but the sixty-six movies I've seen in the past twelve days will be rattling around in my thought for days to come.  

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Day Eleven

This was a day of sports films (rugby, swimming and boxing) that all won awards. "The Happiest Day in the Life of Ollie Maki," the true story of a Finnish boxer who fought the American Davey Moore for the world featherweight championship in 1962 in Finland, was named the best picture in the Un Certain Regard category.  Second was the Japanese thriller "Harmonium," which the jury politely referried to as a family drama, that would have been the choice of Ralph and I.  Three others films were recognized with awards--"Captain Fantastic" with Viggo Mortenson,  which Ralph liked a lot and said I ought to make every effort to see, but couldn't, "The Stopover," a French film about soldiers returning from Afghanistan that I recommended to Ralph, and "Red Turtle," an animated feature with no dialogue that Ralph was able to see and liked.

When director Juho Kuosmanen accepted the award he thanked Thiery Fremaux for liking weird films, even though his film was anything but weird.  It was a very understated, almost drab, portrait of the boxer.  It must have won favor from the five-person jury, which did not include Fremaux, for having been shot in black-and-white.  The boxing and training are very limited.  A large part of the training consists of trying to make weight by sitting in a sauna and vomiting.  It did include the best bicycling scene of the festival, Maki riding through the countryside with his girl friend on his handlebars and also a scene of his girl friend on her bike as he trains running behind her.

The Directors Fortnight gave "Mercenary" one of its six awards--the Europa Award for the best film from Europe.  There is more sports action in this rugby film about a young man who is recruited from his small South Pacific island that is a French territory by a fellow islander who doesn't have his best interests at heart.  He is given a salary of just 400 euros a month to play for a small-town club team that is comprised mostly of local French players but supplemented by other mercenaries such as himself from other countries.  He isn't totally welcomed by his teammates even though he developers into a dominant player. This well-crafted, finely-acted film gave a fine insight into the island culture he comes from and the trials he has adjusting to his new culture.

Directors Fortnight gave its award for the best French film to a romantic comedy featuring swimming, though not of a competitive nature.  A young man takes a liking to a swimming instructor and pretends he doesn't know how to swim so he can take lessons from her. As they are making out for the first time high up on the diving platform at the pool when it is supposed closed, three other people appear at the pool.  One falls in fully clothed and appears to be struggling.  The man who supposedly doesn't know how to swim dives in and saves her.  Rather than being a hero to the instructor, she is incensed at his duplicity and refuses to have anything to do with him.  He is so smitten by her he pursues her to Iceland where she is attending a conference on swimming.  The dramatic Icelandic geography and its host of wacky characters bring the comedy to a boil.  This at first seemed little better than Market fodder, but it developed into genuine entertainment. 

The day was rounded out by the final two Competition films to be screened.  Sometimes the best is saved for the last and sometimes the worst is slipped in at the end to spare it the savagery of the critics, as was the case yesterday with Sean Penn's unfortunate film.  Today's films greatly exceeded that.  Paul Verhoeven's "Elle" could have earned Isabelle Huppert a best actress award if there weren't so many other fine female performances and that juries tend to give the award to unknowns rather than icons.  She heads a large company that makes violent and sexually-charged video games.  Her life mirrors her profession.  

The film opens with her being violently raped by a masked intruder into her home.  She doesn't notify the police as she wants no media attention as her father was a notorious serial-killer and is seeking parole after over thirty years in prison.   She was involved as a ten-year old in destroying the evidence of his crimes and still suffers recriminations from the public for it.  Someone sends out a mass email to everyone in her company of an animated video of her being raped by a large serpent.  She's not sure if that is connected to her own rape.  The plot thickens as she is having an affair with her best friend's boy friend and her mother hints of marriage to her boy toy and her son is about to move in with his girl friend who has him completely under her thumb, glaring at Huppert when she goes him a kiss letting her know he is now hers while demanding a large screen tv rather than a microwave as a gift for their apartment that Huppert will be paying for. She is a no-holds barred bitch.  Feminists will flip out over the rampant misogyny, but those who go for sexist-thrillers will be delighted by this feast of intrigue.

The wife of a school teacher and actor is startled while showering by someone who comes into her apartment in Tehran under mistaken pretenses in "The Salesman."  She falls and injures herself and is greatly traumatized by the event. They have just moved into the apartment and learn the former tenant was a prostitute.  They want out, but it is not easy to find s place to live in Tehran.  The intruder left his pickup truck. The husband tries to track him down.  The plot doesn't thicken to the degree of  Ashgar Farhardi's two previous award-winning Cannes entries, but it is a good companion piece to his work examining the mores of Iranian society and the strictures placed upon women.

One day to go.  The just released schedule of repeat Sunday will allow be two see both Romanian films again along with the lone film I have yet to see, "Ma' Rosa," but not "Toni Erdman."   I could also see "The Salesman" again to try to tie up some loose ends.  Neither Ralph or I could understand why blood on a guy's sock was such significant clue.  The films are rescreened in four theaters ranging in size from the Debussy with 1,068 seats to the Bazin with 280 seats.  The three films scheduled for the Debussy, giving them top seeding, are "Paterson," "Toni Erdman" and "I, Daniel Blake."  There are only three time slots there as the award ceremony and then Palm d'Or winner will be shown on its screen.  Last year for the first time a ticket and formal attire was required at the Debussy.  In the past it was for the press and those with Market badges.  If that is not the case again this year, we'll have to watch the proceedings on a television in the Palais complex.  Either way, it will be reviting and a fine conclusion to another two weeks of the best cinema to be found.

Day Ten

This had to be a day Sean Penn was dreading.  He had to face the music for his absolutely dreadful "The Last Face".  He could have hardly expected mercy from the vulturous Cannes press corps for the sappy, simple-minded dialogue that he oversaw as director despite the noble subject matter of relief-aid doctors working in war-torn African played by Charlize Thoren and Javiar Bardem and their love affair. The audience was in titters through the entire movie.  One had to pitty Thoren and Bardem for the lines they were forced to speak and some of the antics asked of them, the most egregrious a toothbrush ballet before they have sex for the first time.  Penn had to have had an iron fist on the set for no one to stand up to what lines they were forced to utter.  This film will go down in history as one of the most embarrassing to have played in Competition.

Nicolas Winding Rehn's "The Neon Demon," a commentary on the beauty of young actresses and their rivalry in Hollywood, will have harsh critics as well, but it will at least have some defenders who will applaud its innovative slick style. Dozens of scantily clad young actresses with the "look" parade through this movie competing to be discovered.  One newly-arrived, fresh-faced hopeful has that inexplicable special appeal that separates her from the rest, but is she strong enough to survive? The sinister, dark overtones of the movie forbade the worst.

Critics Week was the first competitive category to announce its winners and screen them this evening. I was able to dash up to its distant theater to see the winner "Mimosas" when I was turned away from Jim Jarmush's documentary on Iggy Pop.  I had been particularly curious to see the two of them introduce the film at this special screening, but Ralph said neither were in attendance.  He reported it was a simple, straightforward documentary with no hint of Jarmsuch trying to do anything out of the ordinary.

The harsh Atlas Moutains in Morocco are the star of "Mimosas" the tale of a caravan transporting the dying body of a sheik to be buried.  It was a surprising choice from the jury, as the winner of this category is more often psychological studies of someone in torment.  The scenery and the rugged authentic characters with all manner of beards won out over the films that focused on human nature. 

The Israeli "One Week and a Day," another Critics Week winner, was wholely occupied with the unraveling of a couple over the death of their twenty-two year old son.  They have just finished their week of mourning with neighbors and friends coming by their home with food.  A neighbor they have a feud with arrives after the visitation has ended. They throw them out of their home, the first glimpse at how volatile they are.  The husband steals a bag of medicinal marijuana from a friend in hospice, leading to a succession of wacky and off-the-wall behavior that would have fit in with "Toni Erdman."  It alternates between comedy and deep pathos.

"Divines" from Director's Fortnight offered up more anger and  desperation, this time from two young women, one Arabic and the other African, in a Parisian ghetto rife with violence and drugs. The print had no subtitles, except some occssional French when the characters spoke in their native tongues, but the action was self-explanatory enough that my limited French was enough to follow the story.  Andrea Arnold might have cast these women had she been making a French version of "American Honey."  They bounded with energy fully capturing their characters.  They are untamed and uninhibited.  One becomes infatuated with a dancer and watches him rehearse from high in the rafters of theater adding an extra element of intrigue to the movie.

As the festival winds down speculation on the award winners heightens.  I'll be rooting for the two Romanian films, "Graduation" for the Palm d'Or and "Sieranevada" for the Grand Prix, despite the tendency of juries to distribute awards among different nationalities.  Those are the two films I'm most interested in watching again on Sunday when all the Competition films are rescreened and there is nothing else to watch.  Andrea Arnold would be a bold choice for best director for her handling of her cast of mostly non-actors traveling around the western US selling magazine subscriptions.  "Toni Erdman" will no doubt win something.  Arguments can be made for most of the films to be acknowledged in some manner.  There is always a surprise, depending on who has a strong voice on the nine-person jury, so there is no predicting.  Maybe the final film, by the director of the award-winning "Separation," will be the heads-above-all-others masterpiece that we have been awaiting.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Day Nine

Today was the first of two days of repeat screenings of the Competition films that had played so far.  I was having a good year and was only two behind, the Philippine film "Ma Rosa" from two days ago and "Toni Erdman," the German film that was an early sensation of the festival and highest rated film in the history of "Screen's" panel of critics exceeding the record of Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner."  I had a chance to see "Erdman" today along with the day's two latest Compeition films that both had the promise of being sensations as well--Xavier Dolan's much anticipated film and  a Romanian film by a former Palm d'Or winner.  This could be a memorable Great Day of Cinema that might leave me so charged with pleasure that I won't be able to sleep for the rest of the festival.

Christian Mungui, whose first film "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days" made him one of the youngest winners of the Palm d'Or, led off the day at 8:30 a.m. with "Graduation."  It was a grand-slam without even anyone on base.  This highly-detailed, brilliant-conceived, sweeping indictment of the moral decay of Romania firmly places him as an auteur of the highest rank.  A physician known for his honesty, a rare breed who doesn't need incentive (bribes) to do good by his patients, is driven into the moral abyss to insure that his daughter gets a good grade on her final exams so she can earn a scholarship to a university in England.  He becomes entangled in a vast web of corruption that involves a liver transplant.  The fully credible, deeply nuanced plot reveals how horribly corrupt Romania has become with things accomplished only through favors circumventing the law.  That is why the doctor is so determined to free his daughter of Romania.  

It was three hours until the screening of "Toni Erdman."  I'd met two guys who had twice been turned away from seeing it despite waiting two hours in line.  Today all passes were treated equally, so if one was in line early enough there was no concern of a rush of priority passholders keeping one out. I was among the first in line two-and-half hours ahead of time, allowing me to catch up on the trade papers.  Only two women, who said they were financiers for the film, slipped in ahead of us.  Erdman is the alter-ego of a mostly retired music teacher whose daughter is a corporate shark.  He doesn't see much of her so he decides to surprise her where she is on assignment in Bucherest.  

They couldn't be more different.  He is a fun-loving prankster and she is coldly calculating and driven. He is so frustrated by her he asks, "Are you human?"  Later she responds to his crazed antics asking, "Are you insane?"  Thus are the lines drawn in this offbeat comedy with skyrockets of great originality.  It's the third film by Maren Ade.  If she were a more accomplished director she would have considerably tightened up its three hour running time and made it a much more powerful film.  It lacked the full impact of a Palm d'Or winner.  Either of the leads could win a best actor award, especially the daughter for an outrageous and totally unexpected prolonged scene of nudity.  The film received all the accolades it did because it was such a surprise, not so much for being truly exceptional.  It was hardly a disappointment, but certainly failed to live up to being the best film screened at Cannes in the past twenty years.

A true disappointment was Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World."  Not even its stellar cast of Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassell and Gaspar Ulliel among the five players in this play turned into a movie could save it.  A writer returns to his family after a twelve year absence to tell them he's dying.  Everyone's so wrapped up in their own petty grievances with one another and the world he never gets around to why he returned.  The dialogue is so fast and disjointed it's almost impossible to follow.  Cotillard, who is totally wasted in her mousey role, said she never had so much difficulty in learning her lines because they were so obtuse.  Dolan is an inventive as ever with his camera work, but his choice of making it ninety per cent close ups of heads doesn't make it particularly watchable.  No awards for this film, though Dolan was hoping for the first Palm d'Or for his generation, possibly making him the youngest winner.  Ralph and I stood in line for two hours to make sure we saw it. It put Ralph to sleep.

The pair of two-hour waits for films today limited me to just four for the day.  My only non-Competiton film was "The Transfiguration," a small but very worthwhile film that smoothly unfolds in housing project in Queens.  Like many of those selected to play in Un Certain Regard rather Competition it had an uncomplicated plot without any grand ambitions, making it less liable to stumble.  A bright fourteen-year old boy who lives with his ex-military brother, as both their parents are deceased, has an obsession with vampires.  He is picked on by the older gang members who are impossible to avoid.  He is a good-hearted kid who develops a caring friendship with a white girl a little older than him who lives in his building with an abusive grandfather.  There is no sugar-coating or mincing with the difficulties of their predicament, though the film maintains an air optimism.  This was a most satisfying film that justifies this twelve-day submergence into the world of cinema.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Day Eight

There may be a dearth of films directed by women with only three of the twenty-one films in Competition, but there is no shortage of films that are stories of women.  If this continues it will be the men protesting.

"The Unknown Girl" by the Dardenne brothers is the compelling story of a young woman physician searching for the identity of a young African woman who died after she refused to open her clinic door to her when she came knocking after closing time.  She seems burdened by the demands of her profession to begin with, having no life outside her work, but even more so with her issues of guilt.  Only once is her perpetual frown broken by a smile, when she receives a phone regarding another matter. She is in a continual state of anguish, but totally committed to being a responsible doctor.  She lives and works in Seraing, a run-down industrial city outside of Liege that has been a Ville Étape twice in my years of following The Tour de France.  Social issues aren't as dominant of a focus as the Dardennes usually make them, but they aren't much below the surface.  The plot has its facile contrivances, but it serves it's purpose.

The first Brazilian film in Compeittion in years, "Aquarius," is the story of a 65-year woman who refuses to move from her large apartment building that is being renovated by a young developer who has just completed business school in the US.  She is the lone resident of the complex that overlooks the vast beaches of the large city of Recife. Her children encourage her to accept the large offer to move, but she refuses.  This film didn't need to be two-and-a-half hours long other than to indulge in directorial art capturing the beauty of Brasil and the vitality of its people.  It lapses into rousing musical interludes, that don't have much to do with the story.  I could hardly object though when the woman pulls out Queen's "Jazz" album and puts it on her turntable.  I was hoping for the "Bicycle Race" cut, but "Fat Bottomed Girls" was fine too.

A woman is also the center of the Iranian film "Inversion."  Tehran is smothered by pollution, an inversion, and an elderly woman is advised by her doctor to leave the city immediately.  Her daughter is being pressured by her older brother and other family members to go with her since she is unmarried and has no children, though she runs a small sewing shop.  She's not so happy about giving up her life in the city and continually ordered about by her brother.  This continues a long line of socially realistic films from Iran and continues the string of fine films in Un Certain Regard.  There hasn't been a fizzle yet.

My day's documentary also featured a woman--"Bernadette Lafont, And God Created the Free Woman."  Commentary from this French New Wave actress, who appeared in more than 120 films and died in 2013, provides a voice-over for this film recounting her legendary career that began with Chabrol and Truffaut.  She took a break when she was still in her prime to have three children, among her many acts of independence that made her career so exemplary.

My lone Market screening was a virtual one-man performance by the prolific Gerard Depardieu.  He ventures off into the forest with his dog and a rifle in "The End."  He loses them both and himself as well.  He becomes frantic trying to find his way out.  He comes upon a barefoot woman who remains mute.  The eventually encounter a pair of hikers who lead them back to his car.  This might have been inspired by Gus Van Sant, but it was no more successful than his effort to plumb the essence of a lost soul.  

The day of cinema was highlighted by the festival's annual "Master Class,"--a nearly two-hour conversation between William Friedkin and Michel Ciment accompanied by clips from Friedkin's oeuvre. After the two were introduced by Festival director Thierry Fremaux, Friedkin said, "Before we start I'd like to say what a great pleasure it is to be here with Michel Ciment, the greatest living film writer and critic."  Friedkin remained garcious and enthusiastic, like a perfect guest.  Ciment didn't have to ask many questions, as Friedkin had much to say. 

As a previous Master Class subject of Ciment, Philip Kaufman, Friedkin came out of Chicago.  His first film was a documentary on someone on death row in Chicago.  Kaufman had gotten his start in television and made this film to try to save his life.  He didn't attend film school, but gained his skills from "Citizen Kane," the French New Wave and Hitchcock. 

The first clip was from "The Birthday Party," a Pinter Play.  The next was from "The Boys in the Band," an early representation of gays in cinema.  It was Friedkin's fourth film and as Ciment pointed out, his fourth commercial failure.  "Why did you bring that up?" Friedkin joked.  "I didn't come here to be insulted."

Ciment brought it up because his next film was the monumental "The French Connection," followed by the equally momentous "The Exorcist."  Until then it took a considerable effort for him to make a film.  Every studio turned town "The French Connection," some twice.  But it was the same with "Forest Gump" and "Star Wars."  After "The French Connection" he said he could have made a movie of his son's bar mitzvah.

Friedkin also set the record straight on Howard Hawks.  Hawks claimed that he urged Friedkin to make "The French Connection."  Hawks daughter, Kitty, was Friedkin's girl friend at the time he made "The Boys in the Band."  Hawks wasn't surprised that the film made no money.  He told Fiendkin that the public wants action movies.  That wasn't what made Friedkin make "The French Connection," though Hawks wanted to think so.  Friedkin's stories on Brando and Hackman and others were so lengthy that Ciment couldn't play all the clips he wanted to, but no one could be disappointed.  When they finally had to end their talk, many in the audience rushed the stage to ask Friedkin questions of their own. Any film festival would be lucky to have him as a guest.  It'd be a great treat to have him at Telluride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Day Seven

One of the axioms I adhere to as I select my films for the day is, "When in doubt go with a French film," not only out of respect for French cinema but also for the opportunity to gain some insight into the ways of the French.  Thus a couple days ago the lackluster comedy about building an indoor ski slope in French Guiana earned some merit for the commentary that France is run by interns in the summer months when everyone is on vacation.  I wasn't so lucky today, though, in learning anything about the French from two French films in the Market other than that the French can make comedies as lamebrained as Hollywood.

In "Pattaya" two guys hoodwink a dwarf to get a free trip to Thailand where they hope to let their hormones go amok.  They have responded to a challenge by a fight promoter in Thailand for a dwarf to fight its champion dwarf.  All expenses will be paid.  The two French doofuses who try to pull this off entice an Islamic dwarf they went to school with but had only ridiculed that they have won a trip to Mecca and would like him to accompany them.  They try to ditch him when they get to the airport, but he manages to get on their flight to Bangkok, which he thinks is a connecting flight to Mecca.  The plane is packed with rowdy guys excited about all the sex they're going to have in Bangkok.  This was idiotic enough for Hollywood to steal the idea and do a remake.

"We Can Be Heroes" at least had a pertinent and serious subject matter, though it's wasn't necessarily material for a comedy--a single father trying to raise two young daughters.  He is a shumck and is making a mess of it.  He has been reported to the social services for repeatedly being late in picking up one of his daughters from school.  When a woman comes to their home to interview them and size up their situation, the daughters reveal how much they like their Saturday outings to the supermarket when there is free food so they can have a picnic and that the smell of vinegar in the apartment is the ointment their father has been applying to their hair to combat lice and how their father lets them sleep in when they don't want to go to school.  The daughters are clearly cheerful and happy, but that doesn't matter to the woman.  She orders the husband to attend parenting classes.  Those too are a vehicle for shtick making a mockery of these issues.

The deadly serious "The Stopover" came to the rescue for French cinema. A plane load of French soldiers is flown to Cyprus at the conclusion of their tour of duty in Afghanistan for three days of readjustment before returning home.  They have all been shaken by their war experience.  As they drive to their luxury hotel two women express their relief at not having to worry about bombs on the road.  They engage in debriefing sessions trying to ease the pain of their time at war.  There is considerable friction between the three women soldiers and their male cohearts.  One of the women puts a knife to the throat of one of the men harassing them.  This was an authentic portrayal of a relevant subject.

Not so relevant was my forth French film for the day, the Compettiton entry from Olivier Assayas, "Persoanl Shopper" starring Kristen Stewart in a role similar to the personal assistant she served as to Juliette Binoche in 2014's Competition film "The Clouds of Sils Maria," also by Assayas that won her a French Cesar.  She is equally captivatig here though in a comtinual haggard and bedraggled state.  She shops for a wealthy, famous socialite, who we see little of, while trying to cope with the recent death of her twin brother.  They are both psychics.  Her brother vowed to give her a signal that there is an afterlife.  It's been three months and she's still waiting.  At last there are some possible hints--water faucets suddenly spurting water, glasses dropped and mysterious texting on her phone.  A stalking element is drawn into the plot compounding the tension.  

All the mysticism earned this film laughs of ridicule from my audience and two zero star reviews from "Screen's" panel.  There have been thirteen Competition films screened so far and there has only been one zero star review, setting this film well apart from the others, even though enough critics liked it to spare it the lowest overall score.  The film is hardly worthless, but the deeper it trespasses upon the supernatural, the less credible it becomes.

Jim Jarmusch's frivolous "Paterson" earned high marks from all of "Screen's" eleven reviewers, down from twelve after Manojla Dargas bowed out, except for the two from France.  As with me, they found this restrained story of a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey who writes poetry more drab than droll. There is an immediate danger sign that this movie has problems with the brief glimpse of a cute dog sitting on a chair.  He becomes a recurring character--the last refuge of a screenplay desperate for material.  The dialogue was little more than a dashed-off rough draft.   This had none of the zing and quirkiness that mark so many of Jarmsuch's film. The inane conversations of bus passengers and innocuous banter of husband and wife are an embarrassment for the man who gave us "Coffee and Cigarettes."

Pedro Almodovar is equally bereft of having much of a story In "Julieta,"  my third Competition film for the day.  This movie defies the theory that everyone has an interesting story.  What caused the estrangement of a daughter from a mother could certainly make for a good movie, but Almodovar put little effort into elevating this story told in flashback beyond the ordinary.  One can't help but to continue to ask, "Why should I care about this?"

Day Six

At the half-way point of this twelve-day extravaganza my body has finally adapted to my regime of six hours of sleep a night augmented by little naps when a film lags.  I can now rest my head back on the highlife seats of all the theaters and not feel too concerned about disappearing into slumberland.  Only once today did I nod off during a film--the macabre, all too inert, comedy "Train Driver's Diary," a Serv/Croatian oddity about an engineer on the verge of retirement who proudly recounts his career of killing people deaths who have placed themselves on his tracks. Shortly after the film begins he is in session with a pair of psychologists who want to make sure he isn't traumatized after running into a van of gypsies, killing three of them.  When he delightfully recounts the grisly details of the carnage, it is the psychologists who are traumatized. The engineer's adopted son is six months into his career as an engineer and has yet to have a suicide, so his father decides to place himself on the tracks so he can get his first notch into his belt.

Putting to death others is also the subject of "The Apprentice" from Singapore.  An ex-soldier goes to work as a prison guard in the prison where his father was executed.  He is soon recruited by the long-time guard in charge of the hangings, the man who hung his father, to be his assistant, as no one else wants the position.  His past is a secret.  When and how it will be revealed was almost as effectively portrayed as the secret of the ex-con in the superb Japanese film "Harmonium" that played two days ago, also in Un Certain Regard.

This was my first day without a documentary, but I saw two films that were based on true stories of significance that could have been made into documentaries.  The first was the Competititon film "Loving" by Jeff Nichols. In 1958 in Virginia an interracial couple goes to Washington D.C. to get married, as such unions are forbidden in much of the South.  When they return to their small rural town to live they are arrested in the middle of he night.  They have the option of prison time or exile from the state for twenty-five years.  They go to live in DC, where the husband works as a bricklayer.  They dare to return so the wife can give birth to their first child in the comfort of her rural black home.  They are arrested again.  Only by the benevolence of the judge are they not thrown in jail, but will be if they return again.  Several years later a young lawyer working for the ACLU convinces them to let him pursue their case.  It eventually ends up at the Supreme Court.  Nichols doesn't  stray from the straight forward, unlike his previous films.  He lets the magnitude of the story carry the movie, similar to "Spotlight," with only minimal appeal to the emotions. It is a solid film almost immune from criticism. 

"The African Doctor" delves into racism in rural 1970s France.  A physician from the Congo, recently graduated from a French medical school, becomes the local doctor in a small town in northern France that has had great difficulty in recruiting a doctor.  It took quite a while for this to turn into a feel-good movie as the town refuses to accept him and his wife and two small children.  The doctor is actually reduced to working on a farm when no one will take advantage of his services.  This film needed a much surer hand at its helm to more effectively tell the story.  The family's travails are told with comic overtones, undermining the authenticity of this true story.

France racism was also the theme of "French Tour," one of five films here featuring Gerald Depardieu. All are in the Market except for this Director's Fortnight entry.  A Muslim rapper takes on the assignment of driving Depardieu around France to various ports where he can recreate the paintings of an 18th century painter.  The rapper is doing it as a favor to Depardieu's son who is his agent and also because he needs to go underground for a spell after a fellow rapper threatens to kill him.  Depardieu has no use for Muslims or rappers.  He feels as if he's become a minority in his own country.  But they of course grow to like each other and even go to jail together when Depardieu interferes when he is detained by gendarmes for being an Arab.  It may be formulaic, but Depardieu is always a pleasure.

The day ended as it began in the Debussy with an American film on the periphery of Hollywood fare.  "Hell or High Water" stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who rob banks in rural Texas to pay the mortgage on their family ranch.  Jeff Bridges is the cop trying to track them down.  The undertones of their plight and all the cinematic flair somewhat compensate for the wayward storyline.  This popcorn escapism left Ralph and I plenty to shrug our shoulders at as we made our mile-long post-midnight trek back to the apartment we're staying at.  We'd be retracing our trek in just a few hours for another full day of cinema beginning at 8:30 in the thousand seat theater we'd just left, barely in time to process all we'd ingested the past day.  And we felt lucky to have the experience.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Day Five

Wild, exuberant, unpredictable, volatile youth highlighted my day's two winning films, one taking place in Russia and the other in the US.  A small tribe of them galvanate across the US in a van selling magazine subscriptions and partying in "American Honey" by the fifty-year old Brit Andrea Arnold, who understands their mentality as if she is one of them.  The latest recruit to the bunch is Star, a rambunctious young woman who claims to be eighteen, but may be younger.  The film opens with her scavenging food from a dumpster with two children she is looking after for a friend.  Her daredevil spirit is attracted by a van of lively characters who moon her as she is trying to hitchhike and then pull into the Walmart across the street.  She tracks them down and is then invited to join them.  

She is taken under the wing of a fast-talking guy who is the best salesman of the bunch and the lover of the woman who orchestrates their movements, finding motels for them to stay at and locations for them to take their act to.  Star tries to remain herself and not make up the stories the others resort to saying their father died in Afghanistan or they are raising money for their college.  It loses her some sales but wins her others.  The energy of this three-hour film does not flag.  The acting is remarkable as well as the camerawork.  This may stray into the fancible, but it is a film to admire.  It is a film Harmony  Korine or Gus Van Sant could have made, except with a feminine sensibility.  It would a daring, but worthy choice, to award Sasha Lane Best Actress honors.  The festival appreciated her performance to such a degree that it put her on the cover of the program.

The Russian Bible-spouting student in "The Student" would be appalled by the antics and the attire of what he would consider the heathens of "American Honey."  He knows the Bible backwards and forwards and like some Shakespearean character is continually spouting lines from the book that are annotated on the screen as they appear.  He rails against the bikinis and skimpy attire that the students wear in swim class as fostering lust.  He takes great affront to the sex education class demonstrating the use of condoms on carrots, and strips naked in protest.  The Bible preaches to go forth and multiply, not to use condoms he says.  The Bible quotations flow so naturally off his tongue, one might not recognize them as coming from the Bible if it were not for the quotation marks around them in the subtitles.   He is wild and rambunctious enough to be one of the Americans selling magazine subscriptions, but he is a rebel of an entirely different stripe.  His performance is as powerful and entrancing as that of Star and he is equally committed  to his ideals.  They are rare original cinematic characters.

The always brilliant Marion Cottilard, in the first of the two Competition films she appears in, carries "From the Land of the Moon." She is a slightly mad young woman living a century ago who hasn't found a husband and who her parents make wed a bricklayer they hardly know.  He is a good man and accepts she does not love him and is willing to visit prostitites for his needs.  When she learns what he is paying them she says to leave that amount on her dresser and join her in bed.  He keeps hoping he'll win her over.  He sends her to a sanatorium in Switzerland, where she falls in love with a fellow patient.  He doesn't answer her letters when they are both released.  The movie goes on for decades more before it reaches a not surprise denouement. Ho-hum.

The rest of my day was three average documentaries whose running times and theaters they were playing in fit my schedule.  The first was the Danish "Bugs," asking the question of whether bugs could answer the planet's dietary needs.  It doesn't reach a conclusion and is more interested in following a couple of young proponents of insects as food to Australia and Africa and Mexico where they dig for ants and tempted and other insects and give them a taste.

"Uncle Howard" was a polished enough effort to have been selected to play at Berlin and Sundance, though it was in the Market here. Howard is the filmmaker Howard Brookner who died at the age of 35 in 1989 after making an acclaimed documentary on William Burroughs and was in the process of making his first feature starring Madonna when he died of AIDS.  He inspired his nephew Aaron Brookmer to become a filmmaker and this is is ode to him, beginning with the discovery of reels of his films in Burrougs' bunker.  Jim Jarmsuch knew Howard.  He produced the film and joins the young filmmaker when he is finally given access to the treasure trove.  This is no "Finding Vivian Meier," as the producers might have hoped.

"Shadow World"  indicts the weapons industry for having its way with government leaders around the world.  It's chock full of clips of Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, Obama and many Saudi princes.  Even though it begins with the pronouncement that WWI created 21,000 millionaires thanks to all the weapons sold, it doesn't purse this or identify them other than a few of the corporations.  This film needed Michael Moore to give it some impact.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Day Four

Koji Fukada maintains a simmering tension from start to finish in his Un Certain Regard entry "Harmonium."  The tension is initially when will the wife of the owner of a small manufacturing firm learn that the man he has just hired and invited to live with them is an ex-con.  Her first reaction is not happy at all with the arrangement, but then she takes a liking to him, especially when he develops a strong relationship with her young daughter.  The tension escalates when the ex-con reveals himself not to be the docile, reformed murderer that he appears to be.  All the intricate plot twists and nuances of this story are perfectly credible, as if it were recounting actual events.  This was the most riveting of the twenty-six films I have seen so far.  Ralph agreed that it stood above everything he has seen so far as well.  

"At Your Doorstep," a Spanish film about the mortgage crisis, is packed with legitimate tension as well.  Since 2008 there have been more than 500,000 evictions in Spain, an average of 170 a day.  This is the story of a young family dealing with the issue.  They have two days to come up with their latest payment or the parent's of the wife, who they have been forced to live with, will lose their home as well.  With such a deadline, which the Loach film lacked, this film had a genuine sense of urgency, and in some ways was a better film, though it won't be recognized as such since it has a smaller platform.  Yesterday's Loach film received only a mixed reaction, with an average score of 2.4 on a four point scale from "Screen" magazine's panel of twelve critics.  One of the two French critics thought it so contrived he gave it zero stars.  The lone four-star review came from the British critic Nick James of "Sight and Sound."

There was some tension in my day's lone Competition film, the lusciously stylistic "The Handmaiden" by Park Chan-wook.  It is the first South Korean film in Competition in four years.  His "Old Boy," which Spike Lee did a remake of, won the Grand Prix in 2003. The tension would have been more palpable if the con being perpetrated had been more evident.  It is only fully revealed in subsequent retellings of the story of a young woman enlisted by a con man to be the servant of a wealthy woman he's seducing.  The con goes awry when the women fall in love.  Their couplings are more graphic and luscious than those of the Palm d'Or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color."  The sex scenes are the dominant feature of the film, earning it the label of an "erotic thriller."

I allowed the casting of Mathieu Amalric, who has been a big draw in France since "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" won the best director award at Cannes in 2007, to lure me to see "Struggle for Life," a French farce about building an indoor ski resort in French Guinana.  Amalric is a bureacrat in Guinana and only has a small role in the film.  The lead is a young man who is hired as an intern to assist with the project. He has way more authority than he can handle and is a bungling fool, getting lost in the jungle.  He's 27, the same age as the average age of Napolean's generals, but in the present age, much too young for such responsibility.  

"Welcome to Norway" transported me from the tropics to the arctic.  A guy with a run-down hotel decides to convert it into a home for fifty refugees.  The state subsidies can make him a wealthy man.  The refugees arrive before he has made it fully habitable.  The refugees from all over Africa and the Middle East range from being helpful to being demanding.  One has been a refugee for over ten years and has high expectations on how he ought to be treated, as do most of them. This less than fully-realized effort was more of a comedy than a portrayal of real issues.

I thought I might see Milos of Facets at "The Green Fairy," a documentary on absinthe, as Vincent Van Gogh was mentioned in the program blurb as a character in the film.  Milos had recently given a presentation at Chicago's Art Institute on the portrayal of Van Gogh in cinema, culminating with a twenty-minute short by Alain Resnais.  Janina had attended the talk and said it was excellent--"a triumph."  If Milos had attended this film he would have been perturbed by the overbearing sound track.  I had seen him earlier in the festival after he had seen the documentary "The First Monday in May" and he had complained how documentaries so often fail with their sound tracks.  

Absinthe was created in he late 1700s but it's period of fame came a century later when it became popular as a cheap and inspiring drink among the artistic set.  The film includes reinactments of Van Gogh and Gaughin using it and Oscar Wilde as well singing its praises.  It was at one time banned in the US but is now regaining popularity.

"X" is a Japanese heavy metal band that has been a phenomenon in its country since the '80s, "the greatest band you have never heard of" according to the program.  Gene Simmons of Kiss maintains that if it were an Americsn or British band it would be recognized as one of the best in the world.  "We Are X" traces their history and includes a climatic performance at Madison Square Garden.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Day Three

Today's menu of films included substantial fare from three pre-eminent filmmakers with films in Competiton that left Ralph and I plenty of fodder to digest and discuss.  Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake" is an unrestrained indictment of England's social service system.  Blake, a cantankerous but warm-hearted older working man, has a heart ailment that has him out of work.  His personal doctor disagrees with the government's doctors on whether he should go back to work or not.  His attempts at arbitration cause him no end of frustration between his lack of computer skills and dealing with the bureaucracy.  He erupts with fury multiple times at the social service office.

On one occasion he defends a young single mother with two young children resulting in all of them being evicted from the offices.  They strike up a friendship and he becomes their guardian angel fixing up their flat, helping them get food and drawing the young boy from his shell.  When the young woman is caught shoplifting and is drawn into work that upsets Blake their friendship ends and Blake spirals downward.  He has to sell his furniture and commits an act of protest that gets him arrested.  

The film maintains a fine balance of the struggling and downtrodden looking after one another and offering hope  and the desperation they find themselves in.  Loach says this is his last film, the thirteenth time he has been in Competiton.  Some of the plot twists may be a bit facile and not fully earned diminishing the full power the film could have had, but it is an excellent effort to go out on.

The three-hour long Romanian "Sieranevada" by Cristi Puiu, whose first film "The Death of Mr. Lazaruscu" was the art film of the year in 2005, making more Top Ten lists than any other, is much meatier fare.  It is a small gathering of friends and family in a modest apartment to commemorate the death of the patriarch of the family.  We don't learn much about him, but rather of the lives and torments of those gathered.  The conversation ranges from 9/11 conspiracy theories to how life had been under communism.  Some of it is well-reasoned but it can veer into explosiveness, especially an argument over a parking spot.   Secrets and old grievances are bared including a woman who devastates her husband with the knowledge of all his infidelities.  Each character is convincingly played and has more than a superficial veneer.  As Ralph predicted, this is an early favorite for best screen play. He is eager to see it again to fully appreciate its depth and many nuances.  Me too.

Not so with Bruno Dumont's outlandishly absurdly comedy "Ma Loute".  The setting along the rocky seashore of northeastern France is most beguiling but the story of cannibalism and levitation and a grotesquely obese detective continually falling appealed to a sense of humor I do not share.  Dumont's cinematic skills make it watchable, but the senseless shenanigans of the impoverished locals and effete airs of the wealthy on the bluffs, who have to be carried across the lagoons by those who want to make a meal of them, hardly even leant itself as an allegory.

The rest of my day was comprised of a strange mix of documentaries.  I didn't realize that "Cheer Up," a Finnish film about high school cheerleaders was going to be a documentary.  I had hopes of this being the wackiest film of the festival, but it was a dud, with not enough of the acrobatic, highly cinematic cheerleading routines and too much examination of the mundane lives of the cheerleaders.

I had hopes that "Peter and the Farm" about an idealistic counter-culture refuge of the '60s who had lived the last thirty-five years of his life maintaining a farm in Vermont could be an inspirational affirmation of my ideals.  Half way through the documentary we learn that he is an alcoholic who the filmmakers fear will kill himself and ruin their film. We do get a sense of life on the farm looking after sheep and bailing hay, but this was another example of a seemingly interesting person who on the surface seems worthy of a documentary, but needed more accomplished filmmakers to make him so. 

Sunny Leone, as the most googled person in India, is certainly worthy of a documentary. Hers is "Mostly Sunny."  She is a young woman of Indian heritage who grew up in Sarnia, Canada, moved to LA with her parents in her teens and by happenstance ended up in Penthouse and went on to be the Penthousue Pet of the year in 2003, which led to a career in pornography.  She married one of her fellow porn stars, who became her manager.  She was drawn to India to appear on a reality show and has become a megastar there, forsaking her porn career to become a Bollywood star.  She conveys an innocence and sincerity that has won her widespread popularity.  Her videos were found in Osama Bin Laden's lair.  The film includes an appearance on Howard Stern's show where she describes her porn antics. 

Day Two

The lone bicycling film had one of its two screenings today--"Blood Road," a documentary about ultra-endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch bicycling the Ho Chi Minh trail in search of the crash site of her father while serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War in 1972 when she was three years old.  I had recently read her autobiography, "Queen of Pain," written before she undertook this ride.  

The screening was by invitation only, but that didn't scare me off, as I knew from past experience that if there were empty seats I could well be let in.  And so it was today.  Only four of the invitees showed up for the film, which was just a 36-minute rough cut.  It gave a good taste of her ride on paved and dirt roads and single track through mountainous terrain.  I could fully appreciate the early part of her ride on paved roads with all manner of traffic, having ridden Vietnam's Highway One myself from Hanoi to Saigon, the opposite direction which she was riding.  

She was joined by the premier Vietnam female cyclist, whose father also served in the war and was still alive.  They rode mountain bikes and only carried small packs on their backs as they had a support crew, which included Rusch's fire-fighter husband.  Their budget also was adequate to provide for aerial shots of their ride.  The producer who introduced the film said it ought to be completed by November.  

This was the fourth of a string of documentaries I packed my schedule with today, sandwiched between the first Competition film on the schedule and two Un Certain Regard films at the end of the day.  My first two docs were about legendary soccer players--Bobby Moore of England and the Ukranian Valerie Vasilievich Lobanovskyi.

Bobby Moore was the captain of England's lone World Cup champion in 1966.  The film, simply entitled "Bobby," could well have simply focused on the fiftieth anniversary of that momentous event for England.  The Cup was held in England and included footage of a young Queen Elizabeth opening the tournament and also attending the championship game in Wembley Stadium against Germany with the team marching up to her after the win.  It was just twenty years after the war, adding to the intensity of the game and magnitude of the victory.

Moore was a most dignified and elegant leader as well as a great talent on the field, respected by all.  Pele called him the best defender he played against.  Not only did he score and assist on goals, he made extraordinary steals from opponents.  He was an iconic figure at the time, ranking with rock and movie stars.  His post playing career though was an extreme let-down.  He was not enlisted to coach higher profile or the national team, despite his high standing.  He divorced his wife and died from cancer at the age of 51 in 1993.  His second wife campaigned for a statue of him in front of Wembley.  Both wifes speak glowingly of him in the film as do ex-teammates as well as football officials, some of whom regret how he was neglected in his post-playing career, especially that he was never knighted.

Lobanovskyi, in contrast, was both an extraordinary player as well as coach, reflected in the title of the documentary--"Lobanovskyi Forever."  It too portrayed the game as transcending the world of sport.  He was the star of the Ukraine team Dynamo Kiev that was considered the best team in the world in 1975.  Football was the lone area where it was permissible to manifest nationalism during the Soviet era.  After his playing career he became a highly driven coach who was rarely known to smile but brought out the best of his players.

Every year there seems to be at least one documentary by someone traveling around France showing the beauty of its countryside and talking to locals.  This year's version by Raymond Depardon was simply entitled "Les Habitants," though translated to "France" for the English version.  The French title was more appropriate, as the film is conversations between two locals that the filmmaker happens upon sitting at a table in the caravan that he is pulling around with him with a window in the background looking out upon a town square.  The conversations are all about everyday matters--boy friends and girl friends and personal relationships and the anticipation of having a baby and where to vacation.  There are about twenty of them in sixteen different towns.  It included road footage traveling between towns through the magnificent scenery I know so well.  This didn't have a transcendent quality I was hoping for.

The three feature films of the day, all selected by the festival organizers for the two top competitive categories, transcended the mediocrity of the market, exemplifing cinema as an art form. "Staying Vertical" by Alain Guiraudie of France was arty from the start, with the top of the head of the lead character, a screen writer, cut off as he talks to a young man standing along a country road asking him if he'd like to be an actor.  It is the first of a series of strange encounters with outsiders that have a sexual, mostly homoerotic, bent.  The encounters grow stranger and more implausible as if the film is intent on being original and outrageous, culminating with an act of sodomy.  

The opening film for Un Certain Regard was likewise very artfully filmed, but it had a genuine sense of reality and purpose and importance.  "Clash" takes place virtually inside a police truck full of demonstrators arrested in Cairo in 2013 protesting the military coup of the Islamic president.  This Egyptian film fully captures the chaos and claustrophobia of the experience.  The twenty or so people crammed into the truck range in age from children to the elderly, men and women. They don't all get along initially, but then they have to band together as they are shot at and stoned and need water and need to urinate.  It's only ninety minutes long, but seemed to go on interminably, both for those in the truck and those in the audience.

The day concluded with the Israeli/Palestinian film "Personal Affairs."  This took the time to develop personal relationships, mostly the bickering of an older couple and also their children with their spouses and girl friend.  The older couple have three grown children.  One lives in Sweden and has been trying to get his parents to visit.  His father would very much like to but the mother adamantly refuses.  The two other children try to convince her to go.  But that plot line is almost incidental to the discord in all the relationships, including a writer son and his girl friend of three months.  The writer's sister is encouraging them to marry, claiming she's happily married, though it certainly seems otherwise.  The director and writer of the film was a woman.  It left one wondering about her regard for male/female relations.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cannes Day One

Unlike years past this year's program did not specify a film's genre, which had allowed me to quickly skim those identified as horror or animation just to see if they had a bicycle element. That slowed my process of wading through all the blurbs on the better than thousand films being screened over the next twelve days that I have yet to complete it.  I did read up on all 110 films shown today to make sure nothing important slipped past me.  Many films only play once.  I would have been very disappointed to have missed "S Is for Stanley," a documentary on Kubrick, though it does have a second screening and was worthwhile enough that it could turn up at Telluride in the theatre it devotes to films on cinema.   

It was an Italian production focused on Emilio D'Alessandro, an Italian who worked with Kubrick for thirty years up until Kubrick's death in 1999, initially as his driver, then as an all round factotum and confidante. He wrote a book in 2012 about their time together "Stanley Kubrick and Me."  Much of the movie is an interview with him sitting in his garage surrounded by boxes of Kubrick memorabilia.  It was a perfect setting for this still very simple and unpretentious guy who moved to London as a young man and married an English woman.  

He was an aspiring race car driver who worked part-time as a cab driver. He won Kubrick's favor when he delivered a large prop for "Clockwork Orange" in a snowstorm--the large penis that barely fit into his cab.  He called upon him for more work and then hired him full time.  Even though D'Allessandro was around for the filming of his movies and worked with all the cast, he never watched a completed movie until he briefly retired from working for Kubrick and moved back to Italy in 1991 at the age of fifty.  When he did watch them, he recognized that Kubrick was a genius.  Kubrick asked him which was his favorite.  He told him "Spartacus," which made Kubrick groan, as it was his least favorite.

Kubrick came to rely on him so much that he put aside his work on "Eyes Wide Shut" when he left him.  Only only resumed it when D'Allassandro missed Kubrick so much that he retired from his retirement.  Kubrick named a cafe for him in the movie and gave him a role as a magazine stand seller and gave his equally unpretentious and down-to-earth wife a role as an extra in the movie as well.  The rest of the cast thought she must have been someone important when Kubrick treated her so well on the set.  

D'Allesandro had no idea what the white powder was that Jack Nicholson sniffed when he drove him around during "The Shining."  He was equally mystified that such a rich man would roll his own cigarettes.  He'd never breathed such fumes before and they stunk up his cab and made his head explode.  He was most distraught that Nicholson would make him slow down when he spotted a pretty girl and invite her into his cab.  He told Kubrick he didn't like him and didn't want to have anything to do with him.  Kubrick obliged him. 

There are at least three other documentaries on filmmakers playing in the market.  The others are on Ken Loach, who has a film in Competition, which he says is his last film, and Richard Linklater and Johnny To. No subject seems too trivial for a documentary.   There is one from Denmark called "Bugs" on insects as food and another on the six back-up dancers in Madonna's "Truth or Dare" from twenty-five years ago.  The oddest on today's schedule was "The Founders," about the thirteen amateur women golfers who founded the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) in 1950.  Only four are still alive.  Babe Didrickson, the most prominent of them, died long ago of cancer at the age of 42, but she featured prominently in the ample archival footage. The LPGA fully acknowledges the Founders with an annual tournament in their honor. It was a fascinating history lesson following the LPGA to the present.  Althea Gibson, a two-time Wimbledon winner, joined the LPGA, breaking the color barrier at many tournaments.  There wasn't much interest in this, as there is in the sport in general.  There was only one other person in the audience and he left before it was even half over.

Brie Larson, recent Oscar winner for "Room" and Donald Sutherland, on their year's jury, star in "Basmati Blues," an American version of a Bollywood film with song and danc.  It largely takes place in India after opening in Manhattan. Larson is a brilliant scientist who has designed a strain of rice (Rice 9 in a seeming homage to Vonnuegut's Ice 9) that produces 22 per cent more per acre.  She is sent to India by the evil CEO of her company, Sutherland, to promote it, not knowing that when farmers sign up to use it they will be indentured to buying it for five years, as it will not serve as a seed for the following year's crop.  Staying true to its Bollywood nature, it is also a love story, as two Indians vie for Larson's heart, one who wears a suit and works for Larson's company and the other an idealistic son of a farmer who had to drop out of college due to lack of funds.  There are occasional board room scenes back in Manhattan. In one Sutherland sings a song about the "greater good" with the lyrics "got to loosen up the child labor laws and get the kiddies off the street" and "the lion takes the lion's share."

This was my first movie of the day and I might not have gotten to see it if the staff hadn't bungled it's starting time, moving it up to 9:30 rather than the posted 9:45 in the schedule in the 63-seat Leirins One screening room as it could well have filled with buyers and people with priority badges.  People streamed in after it started and filled the aisles. 

The Dutch film "Hope" taking place in Manhattan also indicted the corporate world.  An iealistic forty-year old Dutch woman banker decides to move to New York to try to reform the greedy banking system.  She is fired from her job and then tries to change the ways of a high profile banker who heads one of the largest banks in the world and also happens to be Dutch.  She seduces him and is given a special project at his bank to make it more socially responsible and profitable.  Her proposals, including pay cuts for the executives, are not well accepted.  Her affair spirals out of control.  When she gives the story to a reporter the object of her desire has her arrested for stalking him.

"Good Luck Sam" is also a commentary on our economic times.  A small French factory that makes skis is on the brink of bankruptcy when the Swedish skier it was sponsoring for the Olympics is forced by his federation to use skis from another company.  The company tries to save itself by sponsoring the first ever Algerian to ski in the Winter Olympics and that skier is one of the company's owners, well played by Sami Bouajila, who shared a best actor award at Cannes in 2006 for "Days of Glory."  He is of Algerian heritage but he has never lived there and doesn't speak Arabic and has never been a competitive skier.  Qualification from smaller countries isn't as strict as from larger countries so he has a chance to do it.  He can also earn a $20,000 stipend from the international Olympic committee for his efforts, which his company desperately needs.  When he goes to Algeria to collect it, the national committee only gives him $2,000 of it.  When he begins training he doesn't tell his wife what he is doing.  She is appalled when she learns.  There are many other obstacles to overcome.  The winter scenery is spectacular and the skiing cinematic.

The only film I saw with Ralph, who once again is letting me put my sleeping bag down in his accommodation, was the last screening of the night, a Japanese thriller, "Himitsu, The Top Secret."  Its plot was a secret as well, as the program had nothing to say about it.  There was only one other film in the final time slot of the day, other than Woody Allen's Opening Night film which I couldn't consider as it required formal attire, a horror film that neither of us had any desire to see.  

Ralph lived in Tokyo for over ten years and I spent a couple months bicycling it, so we are always drawn to Japanese films. We weren't sure if we would stick with it as it was 149 minutes long and we didn't care to fall into sleep deprivation too soon into the festival, but this police thriller held us and most of the audience until the very end even though it's multiple story lines weren't fully resolved.  It was a sci-if police thriller with a special unit solving crimes by searching the memories of corpses.  The science hasn't been perfected, so the evidence it produces can't be used in court, but it greatly assists the police in solving crimes.  This was stylishly directed and acted and a somewhat satisfying final dose of cinema for the day before the meatier fare begins on Day Two.