Here is my entire blogging on the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. This all appeared originally on the Advocate Insider Blog.
ADVOCATE INSIDER CANNES 2008 BLOG
By Michael Giltz
WELCOME TO CANNES -- 2008
I'm back at the Cannes Film Festival for The Advocate. I'll keep an eye out for any queer content, of course, as well as my modest stabs at the gay social life and mostly provide a bit of the flavor of attending Cannes, still the most glamorous and fun film festival in the world. It's as if an entire year of movies and the Academy Awards were condensed down to 12 days: you might watch anywhere from 20 to 40 films, plus shorts, parties, and networking and on the last day they celebrate the best. Sean Penn is the head of the jury, which should guarantee Art will reign supreme even more than usual. What I've got my eye on: Argentina's "Leonera" is a woman-in-prison movie, Clint Eastwood's period piece "The Changeling" with Angelina Jolie and Amy Ryan, director Lucretia Mortel's followup to "The Holy Girl," Abel Ferrera's ode to the Chelsea Hotel, the gay teen tennis player in love with his tutor flick "Elevre Libre," Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy," several shorts and above all Terence Davies. The brilliant out British director of modern classics "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives," not to mention "The House of Mirth" with Gillian Anderson, Davies is here with a documentary about his hometown Liverpool. Anyone who has seen his films will know how exciting the prospect of a new one from Davies can be.
CANNES DAY ONE – PANDA ATTACK!
I'm stacking up some of my early posts, which I had technical difficulty in getting up (hey, you try asking in French for WiFi at 3 in the morning).
Day One began with the almost traditional "stunt" of a photo shoot. Cannes is famous for stars and would-be stars angling for attention -- from topless actresses on the beach to more elaborate fare like Jerry Seinfeld dressing up in a bee costume and "flying" over the main drag the Croisette to promote "Bee Movie." This year it was Jack Black surrounded by two dozen people in giant panda bear suits to get attention for "Kung Fu Panda." In stark contrast to this fluff, the Opening Night film "Blindness" was screening. Based on the wonderful novel by Jose Saramago (if you liked Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," you'll like Saramago's "Blindness"), it stars Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and Gael Garcia Bernal. I read the book to prepare for the film and -- in typical Cannes fashion -- instead of seeing the movie I have to watch Black do roundhouses and goofing around with giant pandas while hordes of photographers are screaming his name. Since I don't see the movie, I feel obliged to skip the journalist roundtables and a chance to chat with the lovely Moore and (sigh) Bernal. Welcome to Cannes.
CANNES DAY TWO – WOMEN IN PRISON
Almost every day at Cannes begins with a major screening at 8:30 am in the Lumiere, the biggest screen at the festival. Perhaps hundreds of movies are shown daily at Cannes, from major premieres to cheesey B movies screened on dingy side street cinemas. But the 8:30 am movie is always a must-see for journalists, which cramps your fun the night before. On the way to the film you can pick up the "trades" -- Variety, Hollywood Reporter and five or six international magazines -- to catch up on reviews and news you haven't tracked online. No one very much liked "Blindness," which is a shame since the book seemed so promising as a bleak fable. Then again, Camus's "The Plague" has never made a good movie either.
Leonera -- The first screening of the day is Argentina's "Leonera," which I know is about a woman serving time in prison while giving birth to her son. What I didn't know was that she was serving time after waking up one morning in a bloody mess with her husband murdered and his gay lover awkwardly sharing their bed, severely wounded. Like every man in the film, the gay lover is not to be trusted and our heroine takes the fall, thugh she isn't even sure what happened. I wouldn't say the woman realizes she's queer, but in a classic case of situational lesbianism, she is hit upon aggressively by other prisoners till bonding with an older woman and establishing the first genuine and satisfying relationship of her life. Director Pablo Trapero's wife Martina Gusman is widely acclaimed for her performance as the lead, Julia, and while it's foolish to make predictions so early, she will certainly be a contender for Best Actress given the role and the general dearth of strong female leads (though Angelina Jolie might have something to say about this). I've based this all on reviews and reports from friends who saw the film. I accidentally overslept and never was able to catch any of the repeat viewings.
Later that day, I get a glimpse of a hilarious poster on the Croisette: Jim Carrey is cuddling with Ewan McGregor and the movie is called, "I Love You Philip Morris." Apparently, it's based on the true story of a married father in Texas who was sent to jail, became obsessed with his cellmate and after the guy was released broke out of prison four times to be with him. The poster alone is hilarious, with a style akin to Steve Carrell's "goofy The 40 Year Old Virgin" poster.
Hunger -- Next is the mainstream debut of British artist and avant garde filmmaker Steve McQueen, who has made works playing wth queer themes (his "Bears" shows McQueen and another large man trading suggestive glances) and who cites Andy Warhol as a major influence. His film is "Hunger," about the IRA prisoners who went on hunger strike and died in the early 80s. If you can call a movie beautiful which has scenes of feces-covered prison cells, then "Hunger" is beautiful. It undermines expectations the entire way. The movie begins by focusing on one of the guards who works at the prison, switches to a new prisoner entering the cells and only after a considerable amount of time lights upon the most famous hunger striker of all, Bobby Sands. Very little dialogue is used in the film; in fact, I wondered if people unfamiliar with the story would quite follow one of the key demands of the prisoners -- that they be allowed to wear their own clothes rather than the prison uniform of criminals, which had been the case until the Thatcher government decided to "criminalize" the IRA's acts of violence. Then there's a bravura scene that lasts at least ten minutes if not longer: Bobby Sands and a priest shoot the breeze, debate the ethics of the hunger strike and so on, all with the camera framing the two men face to face, never cutting, never moving until those ten or so minutes have passed and then focusing on Sands while he tells a childhood anecdote that lasts another four or five minutes about stumbling on to a wounded deer and drowing it to put it out of its misery. No glimpses of the outside world or the turmoil the strike engendered, only a brief acknowledgement at the end that Sands had been elected a Member of Parliament while the strike was going on, no depiction of his famous funeral where perhaps 100,000 people lined the funeral route in stark, remarkable silence. Critics were polite if divided on the film, though there's no question McQueen has genuine talent (not to mention a last name perfectly suited to the movies).
Other films today include "Waltz With Bashir," an animated documentary about a massacre in Lebanon in the early 80s (which is effective because of its form not its content) and the Turkic film "The Three Monkeys" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (which is not as accessible as "Climates" but has a wonderfully dramatic final shot).
CANNES DAY THREE – WOODY ALLEN, MIKE TYSON AND THE RUMBA
No, sadly, Woody Allen and Mike Tyson did not do the rumba on the red carpet at Cannes. In a day pretty lacking in queer content, about the best I can offer is old footage of Mike Tyson berating a heckler at a press conference back in his boxing glory days and ironically calling the man a faggot while insisting Tyson will f--- him in the ass in front of everybody.
Un Conte de Noel/A Christmas Tale -- The day began with "A Christmas Tale," an extremely French drama about a family (to call it "dysfunctional" would be redundant, no?) that gathers together for the holiday. Two and a half hours long and featuring Mathieu Amalric of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and the beautiful, enigmatic Catherine Deneuve, about the most amusement one gets from it is the casual way all the characters treat affairs. A very familiar story of long-held resentment, secrets and so on, enlivened somewhat by an excellent cast.
It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks -- The Trial -- A French documentary shot while the editors of a French satirical magazine were on trial for re-publishing the Danish cartoons that poked fun/mocked/defamed Islam and the prophet Muhammed (take your pick) and after much prodding and exaggeration and lies (including the widespread dissemination of cartoons that were NOT created by the Danish cartoonists and which were intentionally created to shock and anger Muslims since the genuine cartoons had sparked no widespread outrage in the Muslim world) ultimately engendered angry demonstations and murders around the world. The film is strictly talking heads, but the heads talking are voluble and entertaining and the subject itself is fascinating (yes, they do show both the genuine cartoons and the false ones).
Rumba -- One of the movies I've most anticipated at Cannes. It's from the team behind the little seen "L'Iceberg," one of my favorite films of 2007. In the spirit of Keaton and Chaplin and Jacques Tati, "L'Iceberg told a nearly wordless tale of a woman accidentally locked into a walk-in freezer overnight who becomes obsessed with icebergs and leaves her family to sail for one. Hilarious physical comedy and a winning, guileless take on the world (as well as the charms of gawky lead actress Fiona Gordon who looks like a Canadian version of Shelley Duvall), "L'Iceberg" is well worth renting on DVD. Having urged everyone I know to watch it, I was thrilled to see their new movie (co-written, co-directed and starring Gordon, her husband Dominique Abel and their friend Bruno Romy) was showing. It may not have quite the breezy charm of their debut film, but "Rumba" is sweet and fun nonetheless, with Gordon and Abel a happily married couple who teach at a school and win every rumba contest in sight. A car accident causes Abel to lose his memory and Gordon her leg, which leads to some amusing bits both with crutches and a weighty replacement for her appendage. They are separated but it's in little doubt that true love will triumph. NOTE: After thinking about the film for a while, I had to admit I was being a bit generous. I would defnitely want someone to see "l'Iceberg" rather than starting with this. It has its charms but there's no engine, no obsession that really drives these characters forward. The rumba comeptitions are also misleading -- though goofy dances serve as time-filling interludes, the dancing doesn't play an important role. For example, once the man's memory is lost, it would have made sense for them to reconnect some way via dance. But that doesn't happen and the damcing falls quickly by the wayside. There is still charm to spare in this movie and it certainly gives you the flavor of what they do. But the plotting and motitvation isn't as tightly worked out this time. Still, can't wait to see their next movie and every time I saw Fiona walking around the fest I wanted to rush up and start chatting because I felt like I knew her.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- The new Woody Allen and this being France the screening is mobbed, despite the fact that Allen has made about one decent film in the last decade. Happily, "VCB" is not bad, almost as good as the solid but not great "Match Point." That alone is a relief for a director who has made so many weak, uninteresting or just plain awful movies since 1992's terrific "Husbands and Wives" that you could actually see his once towering reputation get lowered with each new release. In this romantic comedy that gains a little emotional heft towards the end, two young American women -- Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall -- head to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky (Hall) is uptight and focused on commitment. Cristina (Johansson) is a sensualist. They bump into a tempestuous painter (Javier Bardem) who had a famously violent divorce from the ex-wife he is still obsessed with. They both sleep with him, Johansson moves in and eventually of course his ex-wife arrives in the hilarious form of Penelope Cruz. She plays one of Allen's classic unhinged women (see Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, etc.) and is very, very funny here, jumping back and forth between Spanish and English, which somehow makes her tantrums even more amusing. A menage a troi soon develops and we get a flashback to Johansson and Cruz kissing passionately in a photography darkroom, though they are never seen in bed together. It all flits by pleasantly, even the ever so slightly serious ending. Don't expect to be wowed, but you won't be embarrassed by it either.
Tyson -- A James Toback documentary that presents boxer Mike Tyson as a deep thinker. Beyond the silly shots of the boxer strolling on a beach and offering philosophical musings, the movie is an interesting portrait of the man's life. It humanizes Tyson, who is quite self-aware and self-critical, though calling him noble, as Toback did, or trying to insist he's complicated is a stretch. Tyson isn't remotely complicated. He's a poorly educated kid from a very poor background who became fabulously wealthy and famous and then -- like so many others -- frittered it all away in drugs, sex, boorish even criminal behavior and sheer stupidity (bad contracts and the such). Tyson does take responsibility for his actions, though he still doesn't have anything but bitter words for the woman he was convicted of raping in the 90s. On the other hand, most of the film is just Tyson talking on camera and given his lisp, high-pitched voice and propensity for mangling vocabulary, it is very notable that the film is in fact engaging and interesting. I wouldn't have imagined Tyson could hold forth at length. The deepest he gets in analysis is to say he was surrounded by leeches and that he and Robin Givens were just kids, but still. Among the many boxing and interview clips, we get to see Tyson's harangue at a heckler during a press conference where he repeatedly uses homophobic slurs (because of course that's the worst thing he can imagine), telling a man off camera that he'll "fuck you in the ass in front of everybody, you faggot" and on and on. That makes his cameo in "Black and White" where Robert Downey Jr. hit on him all the more amusing.
Finally, I have to wonder: why was Tyson greeted with a roar of applause by the French crowd at the premiere? Polite applause? Sure. But frankly I expected director James Toback -- who has a distinguished career -- to get more applause from a bunch of cineastes. But fame apparently trumps all.
CANNES DAY FOUR -- BRAZIL
Linha De Passe -- This Brazilian film by director Walter Salles is a look at the hardscrabble life of the urban poor. Salles is always sentimental, but he's getting subtler and quieter. His US breakthrough "Central Station" was drenched in it, "The Motorcycle Diaries" (about Che Guevara) was more sophisticated about its cheery outlook and now "Linha De Passe" is even better. But keep in mind that I apparently liked it much more than most. It follows a single, pregnant mom and her four sons. The eldest has found religion and works a responsible job at a gas station. The next is a motorcycle messenger who has already fathered one child. The next is 18 and just about too old to capitalize on his promising football/soccer skills and the youngest rides the city buses all day long, obsessed with finding out who he father is. (Apparently he was told his dad was a bus driver; the other three perhaps were fathered by another man.) If you've seen any movies, you can guess at some of the plot twists: a desperate son turning to crime, the one with faith having it shaken, the athlete getting a shot at a pro career and so on. But it's done with subtlety and a mostly non-pro cast that really delivers. I can easily see why someone might find it predictable. But I was engaged and frankly, the modest optimism at the end is so low-key if not downright invisible, that I think it is Salles's best to date and a worthy contender for the runner-up prize if not the Palm D'Or or for the ensemble. The young men are pretty darn cute, too.
The Chaser -- After a string of arty films, I went into "The Chaser" with modest hopes that a potential genre piece would entertain me. Mind you, if I never see another film about serial killers again, I won't be sorry. This one puts a few modest spins on the tale: our hero is a cop turned pimp who realizes missing girls have all been clients of one guy, a harmless looking young man who is impotent and vicious. The pimp races against time to try and rescue the latest girl he now realizes is in terrible danger. Lots of running and shouting and slow-motion anguish ensues. Our anti-hero is a good one, which made the film bearable for me. But the way it was structured kept some of the suspense out of it. And the silly cops who have the serial killer in custody, listen to him confess and yet still somehow must release him and then fail to even trail him effectively turn the film into a cartoon. There's a dour twist but it's all very familiar. Someone kill the serial killer movies, please.
Tokyo Sonata -- After press conferences with Woody Allen and Mike Tyson (more on that later), I went to the final movie of the evening, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "Tokyo Sonata." Kurosawa has a great first name for a filmmaker (clearly he was destined for the movies), but I'm just not a big fan of his movies. This one is more low-key and realistic than most of Kiyoshi's horror flicks -- at least for a while. A businessman loses his job but doesn't tell his family. The eldest son ignores them and signs up for the US military to serve in Iraq. The wife is bored. And the youngest son is secretly using his lunch money to take forbidden piano lessons. All fine, if unremarkable. Then the wacky plot twists start piling up, including the husband working as a cleaner of toilets and finding a pile of money, the eldest son switching sides in the war, the wife getting tied up by a burglar and then deciding to run away with him and the youngest son turning into a once-in-a-generation piano prodigy. Oy. I lost all patience with this one, though others whe actually like Kiyoshi liked this one too.
CANNES DAY FIVE – INDIANA JONES
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- Sure, the cineastes who come to Cannes love high art. But except for Godard, we all like pure fun too. And though George Lucas is convinced critics have the long knives out for Indy (maybe because his last three "Star Wars" movies were so awful fans took it personally), the truth is that everyone is very excited for the new Indiana Jones movie. Why not? I don't know if I've ever met a movie buff who didn't think "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a genuine classic. So we get in line an hour early and I'm scared that if I stumble I'll get crushed under the crowd. Everyone is pushing and shoving to get into the Lumiere and I make it, but it sure ain't comfortable. And the movie doesn't suck! It's not actually good and I can never love any film that includes not one, not two, but three reaction shots from a mole. (Or a mole-like creature of some sort. Anyway, it looked like the thing from "Caddyshack.") There are a zillion reviews out there so I won't bore you here. It's painless if you're a fan, but nothing to draw in newcomers. That should leave it with a modest $750 million worldwide gross (at least) with more on DVD. I think they'll be fine and there will be an Indy V with Shia LaBeouf apparently taking the lead and Ford stepping into the mentor-like role briefly held by Sean Connery.
El Dorado -- After a day of preparing for Indiana Jones and seeing Indiana Jones and going to the press conference for Indiana Jones and not getting into the press conference for Indiana Jones and standing by a monitor and TAPING the press conference of Indiana Jones and then rushing home and writing about Indiana Jones for other outlets, I decided it was time to see something else. I was going to have a sit-down dinner for a change, but took a chance on "El Dorado" at the separate Director's Fortnight event at the last minute. Thank goodness. This is the find of the fest so far for me -- a thoroughly distinctive, charming road movie from Belgium. It was written and directed by and stars Bouli Lanners, a heavy-set fellow who would make a good bear and -- I think -- has previously been best known for his novels. I think. Anyway, he's a natural here. Lanners plays a man living in the countryside who restores American cars and then sells them to collectors. He comes home to a burglar, traps the kid under a bed and then they have a lengthy stand-off that hilariously goes on for hours. Ultimately, Lanners agrees to drop the kid off at a crossroads. Hours later, the kid is still there and Lanners agrees to drive him to the border near France so the kid -- a junkie -- can meet up with his parents. It's hard to get across the quirky charm of this film, which has its own internal rhythms. When Lanners is arguing about a car he's selling (the man thinking about it says the car isn't "competition ready," Lanners says what does that phrase mean? "That it's ready for competition." "Well, this is ready for competition." "No it isn't." "Yes it is." "No.' "Yes. "No!" [long pause] "Yes!" "No." And on and on for a few more minutes with hilarious changes in rhythm and emphasis. The film becomes a road movie, with the two men of course becoming closer and having some oddball adventures, like getting drunk with a man who collects cars involved in auto fatalities, being stranded in an abandoned field of RVs, being rscued by a naked old man, having a dog crash onto their roof and so on. What's lovely is how it's all so grounded in natural, but funny dialogue and characters. The thief's father will have nothing to do with him giving the tale an unexpected weight. And even the finale is quite bittersweet and unexpected. I believe this is the film debut of Lanners and it's a gem.
Acne -- On the other hand, Acne is a typical coming of age tale. Sure, it's about a 13 year old Jewish boy in Uruguay who has already been to a brothel but is naturally obsessed with achieving his first real kiss. But been there, done that. Despite the relatively exotic setting, this is nothing new, though the lead boy is appealing and holds the screen. Awkward transitions and a bizarre twist don't help, though the divorce of his parents is handled in a subtle, admirable manner. But the shiksa girl of his dreams is clearly out of our hero's reach, just as turning this standard story into something unique is beyond the filmmaker's.
CANNES DAY SIX – BELGIANS, BRITS AND JOAQUIN PHOENIX
The Silence of Lorna -- The day begins with one of the movies I've anticipated the most this fest, the new feature by the Dardenne brothers. They're Belgian directors and I basically love everything they do. Typically, their movies are shot with handheld cameras and stay right on top of the actors in not a you-are-there style but a you-are-there-and-about-to-bump-into-them style. They've triumped at Cannes with "Rosetta" in 1999 (the year before I started coming) and again with "L'Enfant." Their characters are invariably down and outers who make one small decision and then watch helplessly as the repercussions pile on. I suppose their earlier stories were pretty extreme -- including the selling of a baby to get some cash -- but this film struck me as melodramatic. A woman from Albania is in the midst of marrying a junkie and thus gain Belgian citizenship. The junkie will then be killed so she can marry a Russian mobster so HE can get Belgian citizenship. She has regrets once the junkie starts kicking his habit and tries to go clean but trying to get out of such an arrangment is never easy. And of course anyone who thinks people who will kill someone to speed up a marriage by a few weeks will then leave someone else alive with the knowledge of that murder simply isn't very bright. And that's my main problem with the film: the woman at the center does seem bright and decent and I could never buy into the idea that she had agreed to such a murderous scheme in the first place. Their trademark style still appeals but an even wackier plot twist at the end really ruined it for me.
Of Time and the City -- And here's ANOTHER film I've been hotly anticipating. It's the first new film in eight years from out British director Terence Davies, the man behind two of my favorite films of all time, "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes." It's a 72 minute documentary about his childhood town of Liverpool, though documentary isn't quite the right word for this very personal reverie. Docu-poem, perhaps? Fans of Davies will feel right at home from the get-go: it begins in a movie palace with the curtains parting for a show and some grand old music on the soundtrack. But two things are new: much of the film is composed of found footage and we get the addition of wry, wickedly funny narration by Davies himself. And who knew he wasn't a Royalist? I would have assumed the pageantry would have won him over, but Davies is scathing about "The Betty Windsor Show" and Betty & Phil, disparaging the Queen for living so lavishly while Britian had some of the worst slums in Europe. I loved his quote from an old court ruling condemning two men for naughtiness which said not only were they guilty of gross indecency but they had done so it noted with dismay "under one of London's most beautiful bridges." Davies also refers to horrible public housing architecture and the "British genius for the dismal." Later he amusingly recalls fetes in the better neighborhoods where they "sandpaper their H's" and a race where a runner collapses from heatstroke because the temperature rose "a few degrees above zero." Catholic guilt, furtive homosexuality, old movies and afternoon teas all put in a show. Newcomers should still begin with "The Long Day Closes" (preferably on a giant movie screen) but this is a fine addition to his body of work.
Serbis -- Then I caught up with "Serbis" aka "Service," a Filipino film that -- it's safe to say -- has received the worst reviews of any film in Competition. So why did I go? Because I slept in (till 9 am, mind you, after getting to sleep at 4 am), only to find out it was filled with queer action. Indeed it was. Set in a crumbling movie palace that is truly rambling and houses an extended family, the movie shows a constant stream of rent boys, old queens (really, there's no other way to describe the busload of older men who flounce about so aggressively that they're flaming even by flaming queen standards) and transvestites all getting it on in one way or another at the movie theater. There's one son who gets a blowjob from a prostitute that certainly looks like a girl but is referred to as a "faggot" and another who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant but is more concerned about a big boil on his butt. People run up and down the countless stairways again and again and again and it all becomes very wearing. It doesn't help that the location they shot at is apparently in the middle of the loudest intersection in Asia -- most of the soundtrack contains an overwhelming amount of street noise and honking cars, with the characters sometimes shouting their dialogue. It had a compelling sort of awfulness about it. But good? No, 'fraid not.
Sanguepazzo -- Up next is an Italian film by the director of "The Best Of Youth," an Italian miniseries that played triumphantly at Cannes and remains one of my happiest viewing memories here. I keep seeing his movies, but this melodrama (which is putting it politely) is the latest sign that Marco Tullio Giordana's skills don't compress well into a two hour movie. Set during World War II, it follows three people: a beautiful woman from a simple background who wants to be a star (Monica Belluci), the gay producer/director who makes her a star and loves her in his way and the wildly hammy actor who makes passionate love to her when not doing drugs. The gay director (who is never seen with a man or even acknowledges his gay-ness) joins the Italian resistance. The actress and the actor are swept up by the Fascists and mingle with them but don't really care for them. The movie begins with the actors captured by the resistance towards the war's end and facing trial and execution for being collaborators. We flashback to get their stories. Luca Zingaretti is notably awful as the hammy actor. In one scene, he's supposed to be goofing around at a dinner party, mocking and taunting the other guests with his hilarious Chaplinesque cavorting and it's so embarrassingly unfunny I had to turn away. He acts loud, louder and (usually) loudest, making this the most Italian film I've seen in a long time. They scream at each other when they're happy and scream even more when they're sad. It descends into soap-y ludicrousness by the end. Throughout the ENTIRE film we watch the actor carry around rolls of film he shot, which we soon discover is documentation of the cruel colaborator who did torture patriots and the whore-ish woman who apes the famous actress's every outfit and taunted the men who were dying. (In one scene, the actress sleeps with her rabid fan to get more drugs for the actor.) You might think that at some point during the trial -- in which the actor and actress are accused of the very crimes he has footage showing others committing -- the actor might say, "Hey, let's look at this footage that exonerates me and my lover completely." But no, he says not a word and the footage is lost in the rubble of Italy as partisans take revenge. It's that kind of absurd movie.
Two Lovers -- The final film of the night was a raucous free-for-all. The Italian film started half an hour late, throwing everything into turmoil. "Two Lovers" -- the James Gray film starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vinessa Shaw -- was playing in two theaters next to each other. The larger, more comfortable DeBussy was supposed to begin first but that got switched to the Bazin when the Italian film ran so late. People mobbed the DeBussy, then rushed over to the Bazin, only to find the guards saying absolutely nothing and not revealing until the last moment that the theater was full and then everyone rushed back to the DeBussy, crushing each other underfoot, kicking and biting to get into a theater...that had hundreds of empty seats and could have easily held everyone. But it was all so mismanaged that everyone was on edge and frantic. The film itself was an improvement on the woeful "We Own The Night" and Gray continues to attract top talent and make good-looking movies. Best of all, he's ventured beyond the criminal world that had offered diminshing returns from his solid debut "Little Odessa" to the mannered "The Yards" and the total misfire of "We Own The Night." This movie has the same quiet intensity and eye for detail while telling the story of a bi-polar suicidal (but damn good looking) young man who lives with his parents and suddenly finds himself juggling two women. One (Vinessa Shaw) is the daughter of his father's future business partner, warm, stable and wonderfully understanding; the other (Gwyneth Paltrow) just wants to be a friend because she's a drug addict live wire having an affair with a wealthy married man who pays for her apartment. No bonus points for guessing which one Phoenix falls harder for. All too obvous where it's headed, the film fails to generate any tension or interest or even believability. Paltrow, a good actress, has nothing to play here with this one-note character and everyone else is adrift. We're not sure what to think at the end -- not because the movie is particularly ambiguous but because it's handled so vaguely.
CANNES DAY SEVEN – CLINT EASTWOOD, ANGELINA JOLIE AND THE DISAPPEARED
Changeling -- The day starts off disappointingly with a new drama directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie as a single working woman in the late Twenties whose son disappears one day from Los Angeles. Months later, the cops turn up with a little boy but she immediately says, "That's not my son." What do they care? The cops have had a wave of bad publicity and are thoroughly corrupt. With a crowd of reporters ready to shoot photos of the happy reunion, they bully her into taking the boy home. As the evidence piles up, she complains more and more. Stunningly, the cops just have her committed to a psych ward to shut her up. Naturally, she fights back. We also start to see the comings and goings of a serial killer, making the fate of her boy far more frightening. The title was translated into "The Exchange" in French, which isn't much better. But "Changeling" is all wrong. A changeling is from folk tales where fairies kidnap a family's child and replace it with a changeling that looks exactly the same but is...different. My favorite movie about a changeling is Agnieszka Holland's "Olivier, Olivier." This movie isn't about a changeling -- there's no doubt form the get-go for Jolie or us that the boy isn't her son. It's really a story of injustice involving a crusading preacher (John Malcovich), wrongful imprisonmnet of women who make a fuss (the psych ward is filled with sane women like a hooker who complained when a cop/client kept beating her), police corruption and so on. It's more "Norma Rae" or "Erin Brockovich" than the title implies. The movie looks good and Jolie is solid. Remarkably, the film is based on a true story and very few of the facts have been changed in any way -- much of the public comments in the movie come from the public record at the time. But this ain't "LA Confidential" by any stretch. The cops aren't cartoons, but they aren't exactly fascinating or complex, either. Jason Butler Harner steals the show as the serial killer Gordon Northcott. He's vile, weasly, pathetic and absolutely fascinating. Jolie's big scene comes in a prison when she practically throttles him demanding an answer to what's happened to her son. Malcovich is miscast as the preacher -- I kept thinking the man (who is basically good and nobly inspired) was just looking for publicity or something, just because of what Malcovich brings to the table. The trade papers give it very strong reviews, but for me it's yet another movie that is fine, but not memorable.
"Changeling" Press Conference -- Next comes a "Changeling" press conference where the foolish questions are fewer than usual. When one reporter asks Eastwood if he's gonna tackle Dirty Harry one last time, he says, "The rumors are incorrect." Jolie jumped in, saying, "I am!" And Eastwood mused, "Dirty Harriet!" Eastwood -- like Woody Allen -- is a bit hard of hearing now. It's sweet to see Jolie casually translating the garbled, confusing questions (even I have trouble tracking some of them and what they're asking) for Eastwood during the event. She looks absolutely lovely, baby bump and all.
Elevre Libre -- The press kit led me to believe I could expect some sort of sexual identity, adult-teenager shenanigans and that's certainly what I got. The story centers on Jonas, a 16 year old very committed tennis player (though not, apparently good enough to go pro). He's at a standstill in every aspect of his life: he's not match tough (which is to say, he gets tense during tournaments and doesn't go for the juggler), he's failing at school after already being left behind a year or two because of the tennis interfering with his studies, his parents are divorced and his mother often away with new boyfriends, and he's lost his virginity with a girl but worries he's not satisyfing her or doing it right. On the plus side, he does have a very good-looking older brother, who doesn't get nearly enough screen time. The main adults in his life are a trio of people -- for a while I thought they might be in a menage a troi. But ultimately they resolve themselves as a man and a woman dating in an open relationship and another slightly older man whose apartment Jonas practically lives at. They all seem to watch over him and his tennis coaching while mom is away. During dinners, the adults ply Jonas with questions about his sex life. At first, their blunt comments seemed laughably French -- are adults really this blase about love and explicit with boys? But as the film progresses and the questions get blunter, they seem maniplative and almost cruel, though I never got the sense the adults planned any of it. They really believe what they're saying and don't really think about what they say and how it might affect a kid. Really, though they seem to be complimenting him, almost everything they say undermines his confidence and screws with his mind. How long did the sex last his first time, they pester him. Five or six minutes. The woman immediately says her first lover lasted five or six minutes and she never even got wet. She had to have sex with an older man, the woman says, before she knew how to make love. Don't confuse love with sex, they say. They belittle the girl he's dating and likes by immediately bringing up the boy's insecurities when meeting her for the first time, driving her away. Does Jonas want to have sex with the woman, just to make sure everything is workng right? Does he want to watch the couple have sex? What if one of the men gave him a blowjob? And on and on. It's really fascinatingly perverse how they manipulate him, saying things like he's a lot more mature than other kids his age and so on. I'd like to see it again, soon. But this was a very interesting movie. I went to the press conference, but unfortunately it was all in French with no translation possible. I'll try to track the director down. NOTE: Several emails to the publicist got no response so I never spoke with him.
La Mujer Sin Cabeza -- After interviewing British director Terence Davies, I head off to the final movie of the night, "The Headless Woman." Directed by Lucrecia Martel, it's one of the few movies at the fest directed by a woman. Unfortunately, it's too diffuse and abstract to do more than frustrate any but hardcore cineastes. In Argentina, an upper class woman runs over something while driving and fumbling for a cell phone. Is it a dog? A boy? She's too scared to find out and drives away. Having hit her head, she goes to a hospital to get an x-ray and wanders off before hearing the results. At first, this 87 minute movie seems to be about a woman who has lost her "head," her memory. Our protagonist wanders around in a fog, not seeming to know who anyone is or what she should do. When people call out to her, she never responds, perhaps because she doesn't know their names? Even when watching a video of her own wedding, she doesn't seem to recognize the guests. Finally she admits her fear of having killed someone and slowly the upper class world she moves in takes care of everything and slowly disappears the evidence of the accident by getting rid of her x-ray photos, the registration at a hotel the night she had the accident and couldn't drive home, the dents in the car and so on. Surely it's some sort of commentary on class and the like but I had already lost all interest.
CANNES DAY EIGHT – DAY OF CHE
It was all Che, all day today. No early morning screening so everyone slept in for once. And with "Che" apparently the last great hope of the festival for a masterpiece, anticipation was running high. Or so I thought. Actually, a number of people just couldn't be bothered to deal with a four and a half hour movie (how sad is that, when you're at Cannes?) and I heard numerous stories of people saying, "Naw, I'll see it when it comes out in the US" or "I just gave away my tickets." Nonetheless, because the press is only getting to see it in smaller venues, it'll still be a hard one to get access for. I line up two hours in advance and a friend with a weaker badge lines up four hours in advance because we cannot miss the film for our outlets. They've announced we shouldn't think of the movie as two separate films but as one long film with an intermission. In a first, they even provide sandwiches, Kit Kat bars and water during the 15 minute break. The first half shows Che helping Fidel Castro come to power in Cuba. The second half shows Che recklessly, almost foolishly, trying to duplicate that success in Bolivia with tragic results.
I'm completely ready for this film: I've read Jon Lee Anderson's excellent biography, Che's diary of his Cuban adventures and I'm halfway through his Bolivian diary. And thank goodness. The first film cuts back and forth between the guerrila warfare in Cuba, Che meeting Fidel for the first time in Mexico City and Che's memorable speech at the United Nations. The second film plunges murkily into the struggles in Bolivia. Everything in the film is presented with care and thought. The first half is shot in CinemaScope it seems (rather a bourgeois aspect ratio for a film about a revolutionary, don't you think?) and the second is boxier. Both were shot on a brand new digital camera that's incredibly light and captures a terrific image. Director Steven Soderbergh used mostly natural light and the result is a documentary film's sense of you-are-thereness without the grainy drawback of most digital cameras. Really striking.
But frankly, if I hadn't been so prepared via the book, I would have been quite at sea at times, especially the Bolivia half where so many of the fighters could blend together. One small point: Che is shown in disguise, meeting his own children in Cuba before taking off for Bolivia (he'll never see them again and during this visit, he daren't risk saying he's their dad). I found the scene emotionally intriguing in the book. On film it barely registers and I'm certain 99% of the people who watch it will be wondering what's going on and why Che felt the need to be in disguise in Cuba, of all places. (The fact is that Che didn't want anyone to know where he was and also wanted to give Castro deniability when it came to fomenting revolution in Latin America. He also was embarrassed about the fiasco of the Congo -- for all those reasons and more, he kept his brief return to Cuba secret and didn't want to risk his little kids mentioning to friends that their dad had been home and thus blowing his cover. Virtually none of this is transmitted in the movie, so at best viewers might just think Che was testing out his disguise, which is true to a degree but misses the complexity of the situation.)
Every potential negative side of Che is ignored, even during these two periods when the negatives were so few and far between. His romance with a fellow fighter (Catalina Sandina Moreno) occurs off camera between the two films. His most famous famous bit of writing is the story during the Cuban revolution when Che ordered a fighter to kill a small dog they cared for that had followed their movements and might have betrayed them to nearby Batista troops. It's a wrenching little story and I was certain it would be in the film. Nope. We see a "trial" in the field of a guerilla who killed another revolutionary. Che and Fidel wanted the guerilla spared though many called for his execution and it was put to a vote. (Che's desire for leniency was notable since he was particularly ruthless about those he felt should be punished.) Oddly, the crime the guy is charged with is changed. In the book, he tells a recalcitrant soldier to do something and when the guy ignores him he pulls out a gun and puts it to the guy's head when it accidentally goes off. In the movie, the guy describes the other man coming at him and fearing for his own life -- more a case of self-defense than stupidty. Why change even that?
At many, many other points, brief scenes and throw-away lines had great significance to me because I knew the background but I was certain they wouldn't, indeed couldn't register with viewers who weren't immersed in Che's story. The filmmakers had so much knowledge at their fingertips, I think they forgot how little most people would know. It's well shot, intelligent and Benicio Del Toro is very good as Che, adding flashes of humanity and fear and care and humor whenever possible to the matter of fact action.
Two standout moments: his final death scene (shot at times POV) and a great moment when the guerillas realize the federal troops are closing in (it's a classic shot of two fighters peering up at a ridge and seeing one person appear, and then another (this one with a rifle slung over their shoulder) and then another and another...and then a whole MESS of soldiers that makes you think, 'Uh-oh'). I can't praise it the way I would like but I certainly can't disparage it. Certainly this is no warts and all portrait, though Soderbergh will argue that's just a result of the two areas he focused on. Technically fascinating and thoughtful if unemotional and remote. Just like Che, later in life.
CANNES DAY NINE – SUICIDAL LOVE, TRAINS, ITALIAN POLITIC AND A GIRL AND HER DOG
The Frontier of Dawn -- I'm a little shaky on the English language title of this French film, which is properly called "La Frontiere De L'aube." It's directed by Philippe Garrel and stars his son Louis Garrel in the gloriously disastrous, deeply French story of a photographer, the doomed starlet he falls in love with and the romance that haunts him -- literally -- for the rest of his life The starlet is married, but her husband is away and this is France so of course she and the aspiring photographer make sweet love -- in glorious black and white; if nothing else the film does look beautiful, in a New Wave sort of way. Her husband returns; they break up. Her husband leaves; she begs him to return. But she drinks and takes drugs and is mad, I tell you, mad. Would he still love her if she were mad? He doesn't answer but she forces the question by going really mad and burning down her apartment and being institutionalized where electro-shock therapy is quickly resorted to. (It has made a comeback, but I doubt it's the first step for beautiful young actresses with substance abuse problems.) She tries to escape with him and is eventually released...only to commit suicide in the most glamorous way imaginable. One year later, he is about to get serious with another girl when the actress starts haunting him, literally popping up in mirrors to the sound of a bong-ing death knell that sent the critics over the edge with derisive laughter. It only got worse, for the most booed film since "Serbis." This one is even more lamentable since it has such talent involved. And a moment of praise for Louis Garrel, the current It Boy of French cinema. With his mop of curly hair and craggy, awkwardly beautiful looks, he is a magnetic movie star. I'm not quite convinced he's an actor yet, because every role seems a variation on the same verbal, wounded, dangerously charming young man. But how else would you cast him at this young stage of his career?
O'Horten -- After a Che press conference and rushing home to write up my manifesto -- I mean my article -- I move on to "O'Horten," a charming trifle by the director of "Kitchen Stories." I'd missed the first screening and while no one claimed greatness for this tale of a train engineer who retires and is immediately thrown for a loop by the lack of structure in his life, most everyone said it was welcome light entertainment. They were right. Baard Owe is a stone-faced delight as Odd Horten, the retiring train engineer. The scene where his fellow workers give Odd a goodbye party sets the tone nicely. They stand up, move their arms in a "chugging train" motion, make train noises and then all toot their horns in unison. Then they sit around and identify trains by audio recordings of them or guess the number of bridges between such and such a city. (372? I could have sworn it was 371!) Who said train spotters weren't fun? Odd's odd adventures soon include stumbling into an apartment where a little boy holds Odd hostage for the night by threatening to wake up his parents, falling asleep in a sauna and having to leave in high heels, and spending time with an eccentric ambassador who insists he can drive around town blindfolded and never hit anything. Sweet, gentle, with notes of melancholy (did I mention it's Norwegian?), this film by Bent Hamer is straightforward, unassuming entertainment.
Il Divo -- One of the most admirable traits of Cannes is loyalty and patience. Sure, that means having to sit through the latest Wim Wenders movie, even if he hasn't made a truly good film in 20 years (obviously, I'm referring to his masterpiece "Wings of Desire" from 1987). But it also means sticking with young talent like James Gray and Kelly Reichardt (who will both come through some day with great films, I'm sure of it) and Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who has come through right now with both guns blazing. Between this and Gomorrah, Italy sure seems like a corrupt, violent place -- but as long as the movies are this entertaining, it can't be all bad. I first heard about Sorrentino when he made "The Consequences of Love," a film that was technically beautiful and had a strong central performance by Toni Servillo but was basically inert emotionally. "Friend of the Family," a film about a stingy money lender that also impressed, also played the fest. But neither prepared me for this ballsy, hyper-confident drama about Italian politics, a world so complicated the movie actually begins with a glossary of terms like "Red Brigade." But then the fun begins. Like "GoodFellas," Sorrentino is on fire here, using every trick in the book -- freeze frame, slow motion, wacky camera angles, graphics -- to introduce a seemingly endless stream of characters. The use of pop music is also stunning, from familiar Western songs to a goofy whistled refrain that introduces some of the corrupt politicians heading in for a meeting in between glimpses of assassinations of businessmen and the like. At the heart of it all is real life politico Giulio Andreotti, a master player in Italian politics since the 40s whose party suffered major defeats during one of countless waves of scandals. With his hands folded over his chest almost as in prayer, Andreotti glides through rooms like Nosferatu and delivers droll one-liners like Oscar Wilde. We're seeing Andreotti as his power fades and the courts close in (though never in for the kill -- he always survives). But despite the profusion of names -- the movie literally never stops introducing people -- it's all crystal clear: these people are deeply corrupt, playing one off the other and all of them in it to save themselves for as long as possible. And the acting is so vivid, I may not remember their names but I know them all by sight: the fleshy toady who complains Andreotti never shows him affection, not even once; the fast-talking baldy who is a master at building coalitions, the Cardinal who represents Rome; the Shark who abandons ship when he sees Andreotti's number is up and so on. "Pulp Fiction," "GoodFellas," "Three Kings" -- those are all supremely entertaining movies whose directors seemed to have an endless supply of "tricks" on those films to deliver their stories in fresh, exciting ways. That's what "Il Divo" feels like to me, crowned with Servillo's brilliantly still performance at the center. And when he's given an explosive five minute monologue to defend himself (or confess), it's shatteringly good. Even people who like it seem to think it'll never play outside of Italy. But I don't know a damn thing about Italian politics and I thought it was a blast. This is everything "Che" failed to be: a biopic that used a slice of a controversial figure's story to bring him to life. Bursting with memorable characters and incident, you get a complete feel for the man and his world and want to learn more. I defy most people who saw "Che" to even describe some of the fighters who stood by Che's side in Bolivia. I read an 800 page biography and still had trouble telling them apart. Not so, here. Usually the best films at Cannes have screened by now and late Thursday and Friday are saved for the dregs. Thank goodness in a weak year we got the pleasure of a really great movie. Too bad so many critics have already left.
Wendy and Lucy -- The night ends with a new movie by Kelly Reichardt, the auteur behind the indie darling "Old Joy." I wasn't as excited by "Old Joy" as others, but I certainly thought it revealed a talent worth watching. Reichardt here delivers another modest tale -- this one slightly more accessible and thus I imagine slightly less thrilling to her previous supporters. But I'll eagerly look forward to her next film. This one stars Michelle Williams as a young loner who is traveling to Alaska with her dog Lucy and hoping to work in a fishery and basically escape her life. Quiet and withdrawn, Wendy sometimes forgets to even say thank you or offer up the other niceties that "normal" people depend on. Disaster strikes quickly: her car breaks down, she's caught shop-lifting and taken to jail and Lucy has disappeared when Wendy returns. Dealing with all these crises when you only have about $500 to your name and no family to speak of (a sister Wendy calls immediately and suspiciously wonders what Wendy wants) is not easy. Nothing remarkable here, but it's compelling on a scene to scene basis. And I really do love Williams -- she is truly devoted to acting and consistently appears in independent films by promising talent. If I were a young filmmaker, she'd be the first actor I'd want to read any script I wrote. If it were good, she seems almost certain to say yes to appearing in it. Williams showed up for the debut, her first major public appearance since Heath Ledger died. (She also has a role in "Synecdoche, New York," which debuts on Friday.) She looks lovely in a vintage cream dress and pocket purse and why am I suddenly delivering a fashion report when I know nothing about fashion? But I do know a serious artist when I see one and that describes director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams. I hope the Martin Scorsese movie she's filming ("Shutter Island," based on the crime novel by Dennis Lehane of "Mystic River" ) gives her even more juice. We'll all be better off the more movies she can get made.
CANNES DAY TEN – NEW YORK CITY, TEACHING KIDS AND SOME BAD MAGIC
Synecdoche, New York -- Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is a typically convoluted, high concept tale about a theatrical director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose wife (Catherine Keener) runs off to Berlin with their daughter and becomes a famous painter (while their daughter grows up off screen, gets a full body tattoo and starts dating Jennifer Jason Leigh). Hoffman gets a MacArthur grant and heads to New York City where he finds a huge warehouse and builds a full-scale replica of the city and peoples it with actors playing himself and everyone in his life and directs them all, along with ultimately millions of others. They rehearse this play for decades while outside the warehouse the world seems to descend into chaos. I'm always aware it's an artificial construct rather than getting caught up in the tale, though affecting moments -- like Diane Weist speaking into Hoffman's ear via mike and directing him, Tom Noonan hovering over Hoffman while studying Hoffman and so on -- can be found. Only for devoted fans, I think. The critic next to me was surprised no one booed it. Generally gets mixed notices.
The Class/Entre Les Murs -- After an amusing press conference for the documentary about the Chelsea Hotel by Abel Ferrara, I realize that one of the last two films in Competition is playing at noon and rush into a very crowded screening (it's playing the next morning at 8:30 am and many people will be gone or, like me, don't want to get up that early. Directed by Laurent Cantet, it's based on a best-selling nonfiction novel by Francois Begaudeau, a teacher who documented one year at a tougher (ie poorer) Paris junior high school filled with kids from all different races and backgrounds. Begaudeau is also the star of the film, which takes place entirely in the school. Cantet is one of the best and least heralded directors working today, with several good to great films to his credit: Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South and now this. In fact, "The Class" is probably my favorite film in Competition. Subtle, funny and emotional, it's got a cast of kids equal to the kids who appeared in season four of HBO's "The Wire," which was also set in a school. As with Il Divo, I might not remember all their names but I know six or so of these kids (in a class of 24) very very well and the teacher most of all. He's clearly dedicated and smart, gently butting heads with another teacher who always wants to enforce the rules and sees the kids as the enemy. This description is already blunter and less shaded then the film itself, which has no villains or heroes (not even our teacher) and is always wiling to look deeper to empathize with all the characters. Some of the teachers snap under the pressure of trying to educate unruly kids who talk back and see no future and therefore no reason to learn. We see teacher meetings and parent-teacher conferences and disciplinary hearings but above all our teacher in his classroom with these kids, teaching them grammar and writing. His constant balancing act of trying to hear them out and let them express themselves naturally without losing control of the class is engrossing in and of itself. And the kids are so vidid. One smart girl with a wicked tongue always challenges the teacher ("Why do you always use such white names?" she said when he puts a sentence on the board that begins "Bill likes..." "Why not Ahmed?") (In a sign of how subtle and real the film is, I really liked this girl while my friend Stephen couldn't stand her and thought she was a troublemaker.) A cute gay kid who is always hanging out with the other girls. The new kid Carl who was kicked out of another school for misbehaving. Boubacar, who loves football/soccer, and can be cajoled into contributing after making a funny comment. Wei, a sweet, friendly Asian kid. The girl who feels the professor has it in for her and says she's going to sit in the back and not speak to him for the rest of the year. And Soulemane, a student who constantly gets into trouble with other teachers and who Francois really makes an effort to encourage -- praising a self-portrait done with photographs, dealing with his parents and so on. Heartbreakingly, an offhand comment in a teacher's meeting (where student representatives attend) gets back to Soulemane, which shames him and leads to a cascading series of events where everyone -- including the teacher -- makes tragic mistakes. A film like this makes "Dead Poets Society" and "To Sir With Love" and "Blackboard Jungle" seem simplistic in comparison. It deals with gender and class and intelligence and immigrants vs citizens in the most natural, unaffected way by simply looking carefully at these characters. Gripping, moving, and painfully real, it's surely the film to turn Cantet into a director with a worldwide audience.
My Magic -- Following "The Class" is no easy task, and this Singaporean film dumped at 4:30 p.m. on Friday certainly isn't up to it. The most entertaining part of the movie is getting in: they don't admit the journalists until the lights are down and they're herded into the balcony. The balcony is dangerously steep and extremely dark -- you can literally be ready to sit in a seat without realizing it's already taken. All the journalists pull out their cell phones in the vain hope that the tiny light emitted by the screen will glow enough to give them a sense of where they are. It doesn't, but you do get to see the vivid image of all those phones waving frantically in the air like some sort of spastic rock concert where a line of fans heads up into the rafters. The film itself should not be in Competition. A small slot in a smaller fest category might be kind for a movie from a country that makes so few films, but even there it would need a generous audience. It's the story of a giant man, a drunkard, who comes home hopelessly ill every night after weepingly calling his ex-wife. Their little son cleans him up, angry and confused. The boy does homework for other students so they can have a little money, while the father just busses tables and gets wasted again and again. The dad also casually does magic tricks and feats of skin piercing because he has an exceptional tolerance of pain. When the boy isn't cleaning up vomit, he's sitting on his grandmother's grave crying and saying he misses her and is angry at his mother and father. The dad gets the not-so-bright idea of getting himself beat to death by thugs who will pay for the pleasure, thus giving hs orphaned son a chance at a better life. Ugh.
CANNES DAY ELEVEN – SPAGHETTI, I MEAN “NOODLE” WESTERNS
The Good, The Bad and The Weird -- I've seen a good to great film during the last three days of the fest and that's extremely unusual. With the market shutting down on Wednesday and the journalists heading out Thursday and Friday, the end of the fest is often saved for space fillers -- movies that round out the fest's lineup (maybe tipping the hat to a region of the world not well represented) but it almost never contains actually good movies unless the film just wasn't ready till then. But I've seen "Il Divo" and "The Class," both of which will be on my best of the year list. And now this fun bit of goofiness as one final gift. It's an unabashed homage to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and unlike say Tears of the Black Tiger from a few years ago, this one isn't a sendup but just the best damn western that the Koreans can turn out. Set in Manchuria, it's all about the military and rival gangs of crooks racing to get their hands on a treasure map first. At the heart of it all is The Good, a dashing bounty hunter with a way with a rifle; the Bad, a nasty villain who kills with relish and wants to square off with the others to prove he's the fastest gun around; and the Weird, a goofy ne'er do well who has stumbled on the map and would like the treasure but would like even more to stay alive. It's all done in a lavish, pop style, like Leone crossed with Tarantino. The actors are vivid and fun and the modest mix of martial arts and mostly gunplay is satisfying. The finale is a Mexican stand-off -- just like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Lots of humor throughout and fun over-the-top battles (the military gets thrown in for good measure). if the finale were a knockout instead of just fine, I'd praise this even more. But it's certainly a lot of fun and a real delight for the end of the fest.
Tomorrow, they repeat all the films in Competition. But it looks like the scheduling conflicts with my travel plans and I won't be able to catch up on the few I missed but heard were good.
CANNES SMORGASBORD – HIGHLIGHTS OF 2008
Okay, here's a collection of highlights from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Below are the top award winners, favorite quotes, queer moments, ratings of all the films, the movies I missed but heard were good, fights in the line with French festgoers, insane questions from the press conferences and more.
CANNES AWARD WINNERS
Palm d"or (Top Prize) -- The Class/Entre Les Murs
Grand Prix (Runner-up) -- Gomorrah
Jury Prize (Third Place) -- Il Divo
Best Director -- Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Three Monkeys/Uc Maymum
Best Actor -- Benicio Del Toro for Che
Best Actress -- Sandra Corveloni for Linha De Passe
Best Screenplay -- Dardenne brothers for The Silence of Lorna
Un Certain Regard -- Tulpan
Camera d'Or -- Steve McQueen for Hunger
Director's Fortnight Winner -- El Dorado (which received several other awards from outside groups)
Critics Week -- Snow
Special Prize(consolation prizes) -- Clint Eastwood/Changeling and Catherine Deneuve/A Christmas Tale
What a great year for me as far as awards go. There are two ways to think about it: one, you hope to see the films that get awards, whether you like them or not because you want to be able to say you've seen them and two, you hope that of the movies you saw and really liked that the jury really liked them too. On both counts, I got very lucky this year. My favorite film -- The Class -- won the Palm d"Or. Two of my other favorites which were not as widely embraced by international critics -- Il Divo and Linha de Passe -- also scored big wins. The directorial debut (Camera d'Or) I liked most won that award -- Hunger. My second favorite film of the fest -- El Dorado -- won the Directors Fortnight and a raft of recognition from other groups that announce their favorites of the fest. I knew that missing Gomorrah was a bummer and so it proved. And ironically I'm a huge fan of the Dardenne brothers but I thought the screenplay of their new film The Silence of Lorna was the weakest aspect of that movie and yet they won an award for it. O the other hand, I was mixed on Uc Maymum but thought the direction was the strongest aspect and it won for that. Overall, the films I was most enthusiastic about did really well.
CANNES GETS A WOODY FOR INDY AND MONSIEUR ALLEN
Two of the splashiest highlights of the fest were the world premiere of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and Woody Allen's menage a troi romantic comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Indy had a queer spin for two big reasons. First, the delightful Cate Blanchett had a ball playing the nasty Russian villainess with a fabulous page boy haircut and an outrageous Boris & Natasha style accent. She's constantly barking out orders and looking extremely dominating and best of all showing no interest in Indy whatsoever. An even gayer moment occurs when Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) makes his first appearance. Riding a motorcycle through the smoke, LaBeouf is decked out in leather to look exactly like Marlon Brando in "The Wild Ones." But given his age and general demeanor, LaBeouf looks less like a rebel and more like one of the Village People. Really, his cap is tilted at such a jaunty angle and he looks like such a boy in that leather jacket that a few people (ok, me) burst out laughing.
The Woody Allen movie was more annoying than fun when it came to the press coverage of the film. In the movie, Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson kiss passionately in a photography dark room and later have a threesome relationship with Javier Bardem (though we never see the two women or they and Bardem in bed together). The very first question for Allen referred to the threesome as a "classic male fantasy." How about the classic female fantasy of two women who desire each other in which the man is the furthest thing from their mind? Next came Cruz, who gave such an indifferent answer to the inevitable questions about kissing Johansson. She answered in a bored voice, "I’ve had that question four times today. I didn’t give any answer because I didn’t have a good answer. I’ve been wondering what would Woody say in that situation and I’m still not inspired." Are we supposed to be so post-gay that asking about being physically intimate with aother actor for a film is too boring to broach? First, actors always get asked about what it's like to kiss a co-star of the opposite sex. Second, actors get asked about imaginary things (like shooting guns, beating up bad guys, flying through the air) they pretend to do in movies. Third, when actors have a sex scene, it's (usually) just pretend. But when they kiss, they really kiss. They really do it. So why not have some sort of playful, friendly answer rather than just acting as if the question is too boring or provincial or juvenile to respond to? Frankly, it's hard to tell whether they're too sophisticated or the issue actually makes them uncomfortable. And I'm sure that's the last thing a worldly actress and friend of Pedro Almodovar would want to imply.
THE MOVIES I SAW AT THE FESTIVAL (from best to worst)
Entre Les Murs/The Class **** (out of four)
El Dorado *** 1/2
Il Divo *** 1/2
Linha De Passe *** 1/2
Waltz With Bashir *** (out of four stars)
The Good, The Bad and The Weird ***
Of Time and the City ***
Elevre Libre/Private Lessons ***
It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks -- The Trial ***
Che ** 1/2
Wendy and Lucy ** 1/2
Vicky Cristina Barcelona ** 1/2
Uc Maymum ** 1/2
Rumba ** 1/2
Synecdoche, New York ** 1/2
Tyson ** 1/2
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ** 1/2
The Changeling/The Exchange **
Un Conte de Noel/A Christmas Tale **
Two Lovers **
The Silence of Lorna **
Tokyo Sonata **
The Chaser * 1/2
Sanguepazzo * 1/2
La Mujer Sin Cabeza/The Headless Woman * 1/2
La Frontiere De L'Aube/The Frontier of Dawn * 1/2
Tokyo! * (three shorts; stayed for two)
My Magic *
What Just Happened? *
Serbis -- no stars
Movies I Missed and Regret:
Gomorra, Leonera, 24 City/Er Shi Si Cheng Ji, Snow, Afterschool, Maradonna By Kusturica, Tony Manero, Better Things, La Sangre Brota, Summer Hours, Tulpan
Theater I Saw in London before and after Cannes:
Yazmin Reza's "God Of Carnage" in London with Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer ***
"Fram" at the National *
Fucking Men at Finborough * ½
Piranha Heights * ½ at Soho Theatre
The Pitmen Painters *** at National
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ** ½ at Shakespeare’s Globe
The Common Pursuit ** at the Chocolate Factory
The Lord Of The Rings * ½ at Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Books I Read:
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Hero by Jon Lee Anderson ****
Blindness by Jose Saramago ****
Reminiscenses of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara **
Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike by David Beresford ***
The Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara * 1/2
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie **
What Just Happened by Art Linson ** ½
A Pound of Flesh by Art Linson **
The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien ** ½
The Complete Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling *** ½
WACKY PRESS CONFERENCE QUESTION #1: INDY AND COMMUNISM
Among the delights of the festival are the press conferences. They're free for alls with everyone from serious writers to rabid fans/"journalists" who wait for the event to end so they can rush the podium with scraps of paper and beg the stars to give their autographs. Combine that with journalists from all over the world who have their own obscure agendas ("Angelina, would you consider having your twins in Sweden?") and you just never know what to expect. But you always know the stars will get some head-scratching puzzlers they try to answer as politely as possible, no matter how odd or obscure the question may be. Case in point, Steven Spielberg's first question after the world premiere of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" from an Asian reporter for an outlet called "Epic Times." After 19 years, the first Indy movie -- which probably cost $180 million or so to make -- has just debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the very first question asked at the press conference.
Reporter: Epic Times has declared that the Chinese earthquake people warned the authorities a week before the drama. The authorities decided not to pay attention to these warnings. They have decided to review their own findings from these experts. As for your experience Spielberg, you have experience with communism. Did you get pressure on you that impeded your liberty and freedom, and what about the work that some of you have done about good and evil…uh, I apologize. Do you know whether today there are new Schindlers?
Spielberg: Do you actually want me to try and answer that question?
"Leonera" aka "Lion's Den" was a women-in-prison flick with prisoners aggressively hitting on our heroine. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" featured Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson making out (though the women I spoke with felt Cruz wasn't convincing -- they thought her character would have been much more aggressive and passionate). Mischa Barton of "The OC" had a film in the market about two girls falling in love at a T.A.T.U. concert. Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth -- two actresses I'm unfamiliar with -- are apparently making a career of lesbian romances. Their previous film "The World Unseen" is in the market paired with a new drama called "I Can't Think Straight," which has the tagline, "Just another British, Indian, Muslim, Arab, Christian, lesbian romantic comedy." But they were all trumped by real world events: when Lindsay Lohan kissed a girl at Cannes, it immediately exploded onto gossip pages all over planet.
THE BEST PARTY I WASN'T INVITED TO
Actor Alan Cumming was apparently at Cannes and staying on Denise Richards' yacht. Naturally, there was a party. Not being fabulous, I wasn't invited.
DIRECTOR TERENCE DAVIES RETURNS TO FILMMAKING
Out British director Terence Davies has made two of my favorite films of all time: "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes." His two other features are "The Neon Bible" and acclaimed period film "The House of Mirth" starring Gillian Anderson. Davies has been struggling to get financial backing for a number of projects ever since then, including the period film "Sunset Song," another movie that's a murder mystery or noir (I think) set in New York City and says he's now just about ready to shoot a romantic comedy. But it's been eight years since "Mirth," so it's a delight to have something from him, in this case "Of Time and the City," a documentary, or really a docu-poem to his hometown of Liverpool. I covered the film below on Day Six. At roundtables for the film, Davies was amusing and friendly, though clearly delivering his usual routines for the various reporters. (It's inevitable that you depend on a few well-chosen lines when you speak to dozens if not hundreds of reporters and they all invariably ask the same questions.) But one moment stood out. In the film, Davies speaks about a boy he liked and longed to emulate -- a masculine boy named Jimmy Preston who once rested his arm on Terence's shoulder and -- as Davies narrates in the film -- "I didn't want him to take it off." I was going to ask Davies what it was like to use the real name of a boy you'd had a crush on in childhood when he mentioned that after 48 years and quite out of the blue Jimmy Preston contacted him last week. Davies said Preston was going to see the film at an event in Edinburgh. "Does he know you fancied him?" I asked. "He will after he watches the film," laughed Davies.
NAZIS ON THE MOON!
There's an entirely different festival -- the business side of Cannes -- that most journalists like me never cover beyond the big announcements, such as the Weinstein Company saying they're gonna make Paolo Coelho's "The Alchemist" with Laurence Fishburne directing and starring. I always make at least one or two trips to the lower level of the Palais to stroll the aisles and check out the endless posters of B movies that will go straight-to-DVD (if that) in the US. But a little bit of the market came to my apartment building since on a lower floor, the Blind Spot/Wreck A Movie companies had set up shop to plug two films. One is a horror movie with grim gothic imagery depicting a man drowning in (or rising up from) a lake in a gloomy forest. The title is "Sauna" and the tagline is "Wash Your Sins." I giggle every time I see it. But more intentionally funny is "Iron Sky," a comedy which insists that the Nazis built a rocket and fled to the moon at the end of World War II and now they're coming back! Now that's a movie I want to see.
PRESIDENT BUSH AT CANNES
The Bush administration popped up at Cannes in two ways. First, with five people stuffed into a one bedroom apartment and three reporters constantly using WiFi to file stories, we each set up camp at different corners of the place. Stephen wrote his reviews for Esquire.com on the couch or the table on the patio. Sperling delivered his pieces for Film Stew from the lone desk and I perched my laptop on a counter in the kitchen area which was within arm's reach of the fridge and a power outlet and looked out on the balcony. Sperling offered several times to make room for both of us at the desk, but I was fine. However, since there was no bar stool available, this did mean I was standing up for hours at a time doing my typing. My nickname during the fest? Rumsfeld.
Even better, director Oliver Stone plugged his upcoming movie "W: The Improbable President" with a two-page spread in Variety that included a greatest hits compilation of Bush quotes, along with casting announcements like Josh Brolin as Bush, Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld (but we look nothing alike!), Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Toby Jones as Karl Rove (great choice, that one). The list of Bush quotes never fails to brighten up my day. Among my favorites: "I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein." "I welcome you all to say a few comments to the TV, if you care to do so." "They misunderestimated me." "I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be...hold hands." "Families is where our nation finds hopes, where wings take dream." And, "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."
WACKY PRESS CONFERENCE QUESTION #2: WOODY AND RUSSIA
Reporter: Question to Mr. Woody Allen. I'm from Uzbekistan and I'm sure this film is going to have huge success over there in Central Asia because in our [world] we still have many women in the family as wives. [General laughter.] I really hope that next film you will plan to do in Russia or Central Asia. I hope you have story to do with Russian actors. We have beautiful actresses.
Woody Allen: You're asking me if I plan to be shooting in Russia?
Moderator: Or Uzbekistan or Kazakstan.
Woody Allen: I have no plans at the moment. [laughter] The thought had never occured to me, I'm sure. I'll tell you an interesting story. Years ago, I visited Russia with my family. I was planning to be there in Leningrad for five days. I was there for about two hours and I went to the travel agent in the hotel and said, ‘Get me the first reservation out of here. I don’t care where it goes.’ [huge laughter -- reporter shaking her head in dismay] That was my memory of it. It was a terrible, terrible time when I was there. I haven’t been back since then and I’m told that it’s greatly changed. But it would take a lot because I’m a fearful traveler and it would take a lot to get me back to Russia.
MY ANNUAL FIGHT WITH SOMEONE ON LINE FOR A FILM
Europeans in general seem to think a line for a movie was meant to be jumped -- especially when they're French and the line is at the Cannes Film Festival. (This does not include the British, who of course love to queue up at the drop of a hat.) Combine that general attitude with an in-demand movie like "Che" and you've got a recipe for tension. Invariably, one movie at the fest is high in demand and located in a small location, making it impossible for even half of the 4600 journalists to get in to the first screenings. The result? Angry words, tension and a fight or two. This year, it wasn't even someone cutting in line that I butted heads with. My friend Stephen got in line four hours early and I got in line two hours early (with a much better badge, I didn't need to be as cautious as him). We were both at the front of our respective lines, standing next to each other with a barrier dividing us and discussing Che. Behind us piled in more and more people, all desperate to see the movie, angling to keep their space. Then, with just a few minutes to go before everyone starts pushing in, a young French woman suddenly spots a friend, a handsome man coming out of the previous screening and standing about a foot in front of me past the line. She shoves her way to the front and I politely stand awkwardly to one side (there's no room to move and I'm really contorting myself to give her a moment with her friend). She of course just pushed in between my friend Stephen and I to chat gaily away. And chat and chat and chat. I'm getting uncomfortable in the yoga-like position I've adopted (Standing Cat, I think), when after literally five long minutes I see the guards moving into position, which is the last signal before the chaos begins of letting us in. I say, "Si-vous plait" to her and gesture/ask her to move back again. Astonished, aghast at my insolence, she barks at me, "I'm talking to my friend!" turns back and starts talking again. I say, more angrily, "Si-vous plait!" and gesture firmly that no, the conversation is over. She is, if anything, even more astonished, says something to her friend like, 'This fat American is such an ass!' and with many sighs and shock over my crass behavior pushes her way back to her line and starts gesticulating at me and speaking to the people around her in a loud voice about the insanity of my request. "Desole," I say half-mockingly as she continues. "I was talking to my friend!" she says. "Yes, and I was talking to my friend and I waited five minutes and finally asked you to move back again. They're about to let us in and everyone is tense." The key issue is that whenever there's a major line, people get anxious and annoyed when others stroll up to talk with friends or seem to be cutting the line in one way or another. She continued to act aggrieved, making snorting noises for several minutes and talking to her friends. Finally, when her attention was elsewhere, the people around me leaned in and one after another thanked me in low-key whispers. (They were behind me but ahead of her in line so they would have been the ones most affected by her cutting ahead and believe me, time and time again you can be the last person to get into a screening or miss out by being two or three people away from the front when the doors are shut in your face and the sign syaing "Complet" is posed. "I think you were right," said one woman. "Don't tell me; tell her," I laughingly responded. But of course no one wanted to start her up again. Then we all rushed in, I grabbed two seats on the far right for my friend and I and we spent the next four and a half watching "Che"...with the French woman I fought with sitting right in front of me.
SEARCHING FOR THE GAY
The entire festival, I'm always on the lookout for movies with any queer content, whether obvious or subtle. While I'd prefer to ignore the plot summaries provided in fest catalogs, I usually glance through them searching for any gay (sub)plots or hints of something same-sex erotic. Those plot descriptions are often terribly vague -- not to mention translated into English after being translated into French from say Spanish or German -- so good clues can also be found in the photos. I also badger friends every day about gay content in the movies they see. (With hundreds of movies on tap, we're often at different screenings.) Then they can tell me not to miss such and such a film. One day, my schedule opened up and I was looking forward to a relaxed sit-down meal before the evening movies began. Then I glanced at the film playing in the Directors Fortnight, "El Dorado." The plot description of the Belgian film said, "Yvan, a quick-tempered 40 year old vintage car dealer, surprises young Elie trying to burgle him. But he doesn't beat him up and develops a strange affection for him." Damnit, I thought, that sounds vaguely gay. I really wanted to relax but dutifully trooped off to see it. It wasn't gay in the least (though writer, director and star Bouli Lanners would make a fine bear), but it turned out to be my biggest find of the fest. And since no one else I talked to saw the film, it would have remained unknown to me if I hadn't checked it out.
I stayed at that location for the next film, "Acne," which was the last movie of the night and one I planned to meet a friend for. (One more reason to check out "El Dorado.") I didn't expect any gay content and there wasn't really, though perhaps a gay subplot had been excised. The film is about a 13 year old Jewish boy in (I think) Argentina. (The film is listed as Uruguay/Argentina/Spanish/Mexican so damned if I know where it's set.) In the film, our hero has another slightly older kid at school who always says "Hi" to him in the hallway. His buddies say, "Here comes your friend" when the other kid walks by. The guy definitely pays attention to our hero, though he barely has five lines of dialogue. But at one point, they're both away at summer camp of some sort when late at night our hero goes to the communal bathroom after everyone is asleep. The older kid shows up. (Was he watching to see if our hero would be out and about alone?) Then he offers a cigarette and lights them both up at the same time with his lighter in a Paul Henreid gesture that stirred my gaydar. My fellow movie-goer leaned over. "Is it about to get gay?" he asked. "Could be." Then the older kid said he liked the hero's hair and then asked if he wanted to get stoned. Now my gaydar was off the charts, but the hero declined and the scene ended and the other kid was never heard from again. Was some subplot cut from the film involving the older kid making a pass? I wouldn't be surprised or it could be completely my imagination. But that's the effort I go to just for you.
WACKY PRESS CONFERENCE QUESTION #3: CHARLIE KAUFMAN'S GAY AGENDA
Reporter #1: Would you say that you understand loneliness?
Charlie Kaufman (writer-director of "Synecdoche, New York"): Um, I'm not sure I understand anything. I've experienced loneliness.... But to understand it, I'm not sure what that means.
Reporter #2: How should we consider homosexual relationships are...are heroes in your film? Is it some kind of critic or irony or whatever or is it some story, that's all?
Charlie Kaufman: Is it just a story?
Reporter #2: Is it just a story or is just we should think of some kind of message you want to say about....
Charlie Kaufman: No, no. I don't have any message. I don't really have any message about anything but what happens in the movie.
Reporter #2: OK. Thank you.
THE YEAR OF MARINA
A personal note to end on. People come to Cannes with a million movie proposals and ideas and dreams and most of them are lucky to make it to the basement of the Palais with some straight-to-DVD flick that never really sees the light of day. So this year is delightfully surreal to me. I've been going to Cannes since 2000 and one of my roommates for several of those years was Marina Zenovich. She's a good friend of my roommate Stephen and I at first wasn't quite clear what she did. But over the years she would mention she was working on some documentary about Roman Polanski and no, she didn't expect or need to get his cooperation to make the film. Imagine my surprise when her film "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" made its world premiere at Sundance, got rave reviews and will be seen on HBO June 9. To qualify for the Oscars, the film had a one-week run in New York City, but they buried it at a run-down cinema on 183rd St. I trekked up there and paid my $10 to see it. At first I was relieved it didn't suck. (You know how awkward it is when you have to watch your friend's play or see their band or read their book -- you just hope you can find something polite to say without struggling too hard.) Then I was pleased and finally jealous: the movie was really, really good. Now Marina has returned to Cannes and the film is making a specialized, prestigious debut in the main batch of films Out of Competition. Filmmakers and producers and agents and hangers-on circle her the entire fest, she spends endless hours giving a head-spinning number of interviews, goes to parties, dresses up for the big premiere and gets introduced on the big stage as "realisatrix Marina Zenovich!" and walks out to huge applause. She's so busy I barely see her and I couldn't be happier -- it's a sign of what a big opportunity this is for her and the admiration everyone has for her film. People really do come to Cannes and succeed tremendously. It may have been a slow fest for most people, but watching her triumph has made it one of the happiest yet for me.