So despite a valiant effort to sway les honchos d'accreditation -- part of which involved having Charles François translate my desperate plea into French, in the hope that an appeal to chauvinism might compensate for the fact that I filed only one brief article on last year's fest -- it seems that I am still in my blue period, press-badge-wise. That means plenty of queueing, which in turn means that I'm not inclined to seek out unknown talent among the sidebars -- especially since the most notable of those films will inevitably turn up at Toronto and/or ND/NF, where my mobility is pretty much unrestricted. Instead, I'll be concentrating once again mostly on Competition and other big-deal screenings, checking out Un Certain Regard during holes in my schedule and trotting down the Croisette to the Fortnight only for established names (Miike, Amalric, Pintilie, McElwee, Michell, Guiraudie -- and if you've never heard of any of those dudes, imagine how obscure the rest of that lineup must be). Daily updates worked out reasonably well last year, but I reserve the right to blow off selected reviews in favor of furtively checking out topless chicks on the beach. No, I will not pass your phone number to Karin Viard or Jiang Wen. Unless you know Sylvie Testud, then we can talk.
Jesus, these guys are hacks. Their sledgehammer approach -- unmotivated close-ups, bombastic music, penny-dreadful exposition -- didn't completely gouge The Eye (coming soon to a theater near you), thanks largely to the atavistic level on which straight-up horror tends to work. This one, by contrast, aspires to be a psychological thriller, and it's every bit as graceful, coherent and nuanced as the press-kit synopsis, which reads as follows: "Big, Dan and Beam, three of dear friends, confronted the thrilling experience, since they met three strangers. They have never known that the unexpected is turning over their own destiny. Coming of the old woman, the garland Seller, and the young lady named 'Aom' into their lives in the sametime, is the sign of the bad omen that one of them will be died soon. Who is that one? What have strangers done with them? And how is the story ending? Here's the questions waiting for solving from this Omen." Uh, yeah, precisely. And whatever tentative hypothesis you come up with at or near the midpoint, trust me: not nearly dumb enough.
Looks intriguing for a while -- at the very least, the transvestite sibling/cohort adds a new wrinkle to the one-final-score scenario -- but ultimately proves thin and deterministic. Many, many shots of the sea, as implacable as the forces (both internal and external) grinding our cast of scrabbling small-timers into the dirt; choice details include the M.D. who scowls disapprovingly at a gay patient, snapping "the bench will do" when a nurse goes to look for a bed and then pointedly telling her to don gloves. Cast is solid, formal elements assured, but Reyero's just too evidently pleased with the vise he's set in motion; he even tries for one of those transcendent French endings where somebody suddenly breaks into a run for no apparent reason, but in this context it feels more calculated than spontaneous. At least the business with the girl's search for her dead father's gravesite doesn't go anywhere.
Ominous whimsy-à-go-go -- some of it hilarious (including what's got to be the year's best sight gag; you'll know it when you see it), much of it merely cute (e.g. the cops' "cramp" shtick). Wouldn't expect Ruiz to embrace the tired notion that the insane are more pure at heart than bourgeois society, but if there's something more subversive going on here it escaped my attention, near-future setting and military omnipresence notwithstanding. Frankly, right now I'm more interested in what it is about Switzerland that makes every movie shot within its borders look so unostentatiously gorgeous. Landscape's nothing terribly special -- it's more like the atmosphere is subtly ionized or something, making everything look slightly more vivid and pronounced. (Godard's '90s work has the same cool shimmer.) At any rate, this is very much in the same vein as Three Lives and Only One Death, so upgrade accordingly if that one struck you as more than just a pleasant curiosity. Those who hopped aboard the Time Regained bandwagon should prepare to signal the driver to stop.
Almost something extraordinary...twice. First half, devoted mostly to Skip James (whose "Devil Got My Woman" seduced Enid in Ghost World), doesn't so much blur the line between documentary and fiction as merrily negate it, creating phony archival footage that expertly conforms to vintage recordings, right down to a glitch in which James accidentally bumps the microphone. Meanwhile, expository background info is supplied by narrator Laurence Fishburne, speaking as Blind Willie Johnson, who gets several retroactive music videos of his own. Can't imagine how that must read, but onscreen the sense that a lost chapter of musical history has been conjured from thin air is flat-out magical...or would be, if Wenders didn't continually break the spell by cutting to contemporary acts (everyone from Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt to Beck and Nick Cave) performing cover versions of the same tunes. (I'm guessing this element, along with what I assume will be an accompanying CD, is what got the project financed.) Second half all but ditches the Blind Willie conceit to explore the brief career and untimely death of lesser-known bluesman J.B. Lenoir, whose custom-made zebra-stripe tux, down-home directness and politically pointed lyrics attracted the attention of a white beatnik couple. Their painfully clumsy demo films, shot in the hope of securing Lenoir a spot on Swedish television, are deeply affecting...or would be, if all of a sudden we weren't watching Lou Reed or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion pay pointless tribute. Ratio's roughly 30% experimental genius to 55% solid craftsmanship to 15% stop wasting our time -- not bad, really, especially considering the glib infomercial that was Buena Vista Social Club, but at one point I was sure this would be one of the year's best movies. Six additional entries in Scorsese's The Blues series are slated, one of which will reportedly be directed by Mike Figgis; if he gives each of four legends a quadrant of the screen and lets 'em jam simultaneously, emergency legislation may be in order.
Who fucking gives a shit? Seriously. Stuck it out the standard two reels; many of my colleagues weren't nearly so patient. Deadly.
Pretty sure Shiota was a gun for hire on this woozy sci-fi romance, which comes across like Starman as envisioned by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Compositions typically elegant, narrative mildly elliptical; otherwise pure schmaltz, albeit admirably restrained by Hollywood standards -- only the tinkly score flirts with outright bathos. According to the Asian-movie experts over on Mobius, Harmful Insect barely saw release in Japan, much less anywhere else, so it's hard to begrudge Shiota a little mainstream success. Just so long as his Gerry and Elephant are right around the corner.
Well, now we know why it isn't in Competition. The self-conscious title led me to expect something along the lines of Vanya on 42nd Street, but while Desplechin occasionally uses a bit of rehearsal chatter as a transitional device (to no great effect), this is really little more than a conventional adaptation of Edward Bond's corporate drama, with a few scenes from Hamlet thrown in for good measure. Pungent and well-acted -- Wladimir Yordanoff, as a heavy named Hammer (it's that kind of play), is especially fine -- it nonetheless comes across more like an exercise than a full-fledged movie; atypically, Desplechin shoots with a roving, hand-held camera, and in his hands that kind of Dogmatism seems not so much urgent as simply hurried. Not bad, just kind of unnecessary; if I had to guess, I'd say it came together in a hurry after something much more ambitious fell through.
Thoroughly absorbing, but the central relationship isn't nearly as thorny as it initially appears; after a while there's nothing to do but wait for the simmering sexual tension between Odile and Yvan to boil over already. Still, it's always a pleasure to spend time in the company of a director as assured and economical as Téchiné; scarcely a frame is wasted, and captivating details abound, from the childish way that Yvan splashes about in the bath to the quixotic penchant -- shared by several characters -- for setting broken clocks to the current time. Béart's becoming marvelously imperious in early middle age; I look forward to her coronation as French cinema's Dangerously Vulnerable Ice Queen if/when Ms. Huppert should abdicate the throne.
Sneaks up on you. And that's clearly by design, given the masterful yet unobtrusive way that Ceylan's compositions create a pointed dichotomy between foreground and background elements -- a formal strategy that probably sounds dry and academic if you haven't experienced the film's droll sense of humor. Like the first third of Stranger Than Paradise, it captures beautifully the petty irritations that accrue when one person grudgingly opens up his home to a slight acquaintance or distant relative, though here you're encouraged to identify with both the exasperated host (deliberately switching to the most soporific TV channel available in an effort to narcotize his buddy into bed, whereupon he breaks out the porn) and the adrift visitor (who's ostensibly looking for work but spends most of his time following beautiful women around and trying to summon up the courage to speak to them). Gets a little sentimental near the end, but Ceylan earns it; never exciting, exactly, but the cumulative impact -- final shot's a stunner -- is considerable.
Not sure why I didn't like this more -- as biopics go, it's admirably inventive, and yet many of its inventions feel strangely forced, and even somewhat glib. Like for example why withhold footage of the real Toby Radloff until after we've spent considerable time with his fictionalized counterpart, if not to eke cheap laughs from the revelation that yes he really truly is that bizarre. And Giamatti's performance, while impressively irascible in the abstract, loses much of its force when juxtaposed with the man himself -- never more true than in the bold yet ineffective cut from the former kvetching in Letterman's greenroom to the latter cutting up beside Letterman's desk. (Aside to Andrew Johnston or anybody else who might know: Why don't we see the real-life footage of his confrontational meltdown? Am I correct in thinking that the movie fibs when it implies, via cutaways to viewers, that this segment actually aired? The show is taped, after all.) Often terrific fun nonetheless -- Urbaniak's R. Crumb is a riot, and Hope Davis uses her pinched quality to good effect, creating a portrait of Enid Coleslaw as a grown woman, still bitter but too weary to rebel. (Evidently that bus was headed for Cleveland.) Maybe that's the problem, come to think of it: a movie about Pekar inevitably prompts comparison with Zwigoff's work, and this one, for all its virtues, is shallow and ingratiating by comparison. In the end, I'm not convinced that Pulcini and Berman's intentions are significantly more generous than Letterman's.
Alternate title: The Doormat. Die-hard romantics and hardcore masochists might be able to identify with this drippy melodrama's self-effacing protagonist, who's more than happy to be used, abused and otherwise utilized so long as he can remain within genuflecting distance of his hot-cha-cha beloved (who seems to have arrived in '20s Bologna directly from a Chanel No. 5 ad circa 1969). Everybody else will just want to slap him upside the head and direct him to the nearest hooker. Oh, and did I mention that Cruella de Villa is blind? But not congenitally blind, you understand, it's quite a recent thing, accident or something, she's being treated off and on in Zurich, and it's anybody's guess whether she'll recognize Chaplin -- sorry, I mean Nello -- when he reappears in her life for the film's shamelessly derivative conclusion. More watchable than I'm making it sound -- frequently enjoyable, even, in a daytime-soap kind of way -- but hardly competition material, or even festival fare. Is this the best Italy can manage these days? What happened to Amelio?
Other unanswered questions (since Bambi, the main character, is still very much alive at the end): Can Laurent Lucas do anything with his face besides smirk and scowl? Wouldn't a hospital be obliged to investigate the disappearance of a patient, rather than just shrug and assume she packed her bags and split? Why does Marchand keep writing these weirdly labored thrillers, in which the audience is always about ten steps ahead of both the plot and the protagonist, and watching the film's second half is like staring at clothes tumble in a dryer: plenty of jostling, no surprises. Even the one superlative scene -- the whole "guess my dream" business -- winds up being diluted via a pointless reprise, although its thematic relevance is questionable to begin with since the movie has no theme that I can discern. Looks great, though, and first-timer Sophie Quinton does indeed resemble a startled deer, for what that's worth.
Strange world, this, in which the same people who angrily stormed out of Irreversible a year ago sit placidly and attentively through its loathsome, vile mirror image -- a film wholly dedicated to the creation of blissful innocents, whose impending slaughter we await with mounting dread. Ironically, Van Sant's tender humanism proves far more offensive than Noé's incendiary nihilism; the harder Gus works to invest these doomed kids with feeling and promise (not very successfully, I might add -- the improvisatory performances are swallowed whole by Van Sant's elegantly choreographed camera moves), the more horribly sadistic Elephant becomes. I haven't seen the Alan Clarke short from which this feature borrows its title, but my understanding is that it consists of one senseless murder after another, all of them utterly context-free; here, by contrast, we're asked to spend an hour anticipating the violence we know will come (there's a shot very early on of the Harris and Klebold characters -- gay lovers in Van Sant's version of the story -- entering the school with their weapons), after which we're "rewarded" with a sensational bloodbath. Might have been justifiable (albeit still pretty glib) had the film explored the social milieu that produced such a fucked-up pair of kids -- I think that's what Van Sant thinks he's doing -- but a single shot of one of the killers getting covered in spitballs does not incisive analysis make, and if ever there was a movie that didn't require bravura Steadicam work and clever jumbling of chronology (various moments seen repeatedly from different points of view, etc.), this was the one. Moment I knew I despised it: the sad, painfully shy library girl who's too self-conscious about her body to wear gym shorts hears the SNICK-SNICK of a rifle being cocked, turns around -- and Van Sant cuts away to a different time frame, turning her fate into a moment of cheap suspense. (This is before the carnage proper has begun.) Skillfully made, gets your attention; sure to have its defenders, if not passionate advocates. I say it's pornography, and I say Fuck it.
Tolerable enough, but it was the last film of a trying day and I was too tired to indulge this year's overhyped noir exercise. How many times can that damn postman ring, anyway? Is this worn-out scenario supposed to be revelatory simply because it's set on a Scottish barge? I'll probably wind up giving it another chance someday -- reviews have been ecstatic -- but the two reels I saw were singularly uninspired.
Uptight English author seeks saucy French libertine for creative inspiration, routine Felix 'n' Oscar bickering and hesitant mutual growth. Corporeal existence optional. Nudity will be required (in virtually every scene, Sagnier fans). Knowledge of Resnais films that plow similar terrain with much more fertile results a plus. Employer provides room, board, use of enormous symbolic pool (shallow end only). Imagination not included.
I trust that's the Japanese word for "bugfuck." Craziest Miike film I've seen yet, marrying the fish-out-of-water surrealism of After Hours ("you're not from here, are you?" people keep asking the beleaguered protag) to the anything-for-a-laugh non sequiturs of Schizopolis, all while maintaining the director's trademark preoccupations: shocking-funny bursts of violence, lactating women, quasi-incestuous weirdness, etc. Doesn't make a lick of sense, and at more than two hours the film's shaggy-dog randomness can't help but become wearisome; ideally you'd watch it in 3-5 minute segments over a long series of movie-clip parties, appreciating each gag for its own sublime inanity. Typical bit: Our hero speaks to a statuesque American blonde, whose halting speech and confusing eyeline prove baffling...until it's revealed that she's reading her dialogue phonetically from the ceiling (at which point the Japanese characters read the rest of her monologue themselves to speed things along). Also, Show Aikawa turns into a hot chick about midway through. Need I say more?
Where did I get the idea that this was going to be a hard-hitting exposé of horrific Brazilian prison conditions? Climactic riot/massacre packs a belated wallop (mostly because it's based on a real-life 1992 incident in which 110 unarmed prisoners were killed), but virtually everything else in this interminable ordeal (2.5 hours) is pitched at sitcom level, with various "wacky" inmates -- the smooth lothario, the love-starved queen, the paranoid junkie -- wandering into the doctor's office and narrating an expository flashback sequence featuring all the authenticity and depth of a true-crime anecdote in one of Leno's dorky Tonight Show routines. ("Theft doesn't get much pettier than it did for the poor schmuck in this next headline...") After twice seeing the haunting, reverse-negative "any jail in Rio" scene in Bus 174, it's hard to take seriously a movie in which the M.D. walks into his office and exclaims "Lulu, you can't smoke crack while you're taking stitches!" (Cue laugh track.) If this is life in a genuine Brazilian prison, I'll take five years and the accompanying residuals, please.
Simple, magical, ferocious, visionary. Inevitably, Von Trier's spartan aesthetic has American critics citing "Our Town," but in both method and spirit Dogville has much more in common with Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan" (written in Denmark, ironically), another sorrowful disquisition on the mercenary aspects of human nature. Anything this ostentatiously artificial demands to be read as allegory, of course, and charges of anti-Americanism aren't entirely groundless -- certainly the film is very, very critical of the way that the U.S. treats its underclass, and to argue that Von Trier isn't entitled to feel that disgust without having set foot in the continental 48 is patently absurd. Still, I was unprepared for the cathartic force of the closing credits, which make a sudden leap from the absurdly abstract to the lyrically particular, and pushed your stoic correspondent over the edge into tears. All this and it's just a humdinger of a yarn, exacting and relentless -- the three hours whiz by, and it's a shame that most folks will have to make do with the distrib-friendly 140-minute cut the producers are now shopping around. John Hurt: greatest voice since Welles.
Okay, stop with the Laurent Lucas. Just stop. Not that a contemporary, naturalistic retelling of this particular myth would likely have wowed me under the best of circumstances -- divorced from an Olympian context, it all seems rather silly, really -- but casting France's smarmiest actor in a dual role (first as a psychotic, then as a priest -- cue raucous laughter from those who assumed it was the same character) is hitting below the belt. Best prosthetic dick since Boogie Nights (the one in Sex Is Comedy never really convinced, which was kind of the point); pity everything else is so pretentiously phony. Sample voiceover dialogue: "Roses full of thorns. Fake scents. Better than real ones. The original is vulgar. Because of its past." Oh shut up.
More than almost any other filmmaker I can think of, Kurosawa really needs the discipline of a genre framework -- in its absence, his woolly philosophical speculations tend to swallow everything in their path, and the only possible reaction is basically "Huh? Whaa? Kiyoshi you so crazy." File this one alongside License to Live and Barren Illusion under Terminally Vague Portraits of Youthful Angst; I watched in a baffled daze, unable to make heads or tails of even the most mundane details. Fantastic final shot -- if only it seemed to belong at the close of this particular movie. To summarize: I didn't get it. At least jellyfish are pretty cool to look at, just undulating slowly.
Peaks early, with a breathtakingly nightmarish shot in which the only sources of light are an improvised torch in the foreground and a distant bonfire that registers as a tiny pinprick in the night, like a star that's fallen to earth. Once Huppert and her brood arrive at the train depot, alas, all sense of urgency ebbs away -- probably by design, knowing Haneke, but it still makes for a strangely muted viewing experience, especially when the sole bit of drama he deigns to interject winds up going nowhere (by design). Plus the whole scenario's a little too On the Beach for my taste -- less speechifying here, thankfully, but the coy refusal to explain what the hell's going on amounts to another, more arrogant form of didacticism, really. Always absorbing, but it's the first Haneke film I've seen that failed to get a rise out of me...and I hate to say it, but what else is he good for?
What. The. Fuck. Thought I knew what to expect here, since Guiraudie's previous film, That Old Dream That Moves, was as precise, measured and economical as a graduated cylinder; this one's closer to a fever dream, and heaven help the misguided soul (guess who?) who insists on trying to make sense of its irrational bobbing and weaving. So incoherent as to be maddening, but also frequently laugh-out-loud funny -- best bit struck me as a sly dig at the master-shot school of cinematic ennui, with our hero pacing to and fro before his bedroom window, peering out intently every 30 seconds, only to finally blurt (offscreen) "I can't believe how bored I am." (Don't know how that reads, but it brought down the house -- you couldn't hear the next minute of dialogue.) Like Schizopolis, it comes across as a frantic upchuck of years' worth of random notebook jottings -- the artist's equivalent of spring cleaning. Can't wait to see what comes next.
Wan commercial comedy with a handful of decent one-liners; it feels less like a movie than like two half-hour TV episodes strung together. I got what I came for, though. Wonder if they're screening it again...
Neither the self-indulgent cataclysm some claim nor the eclectic masterpiece I'd been hoping for. First hour or so is surpassingly lovely -- mostly just shots of Gallo as he drives cross-country, listening to old Gordon Lightfoot songs and looking haunted and sad; once you realize it's not a narrative film (and that becomes clear pretty quickly), it's not difficult to settle into its mood of frustrated enervation, especially if you've ever lost somebody you'd hoped to spend the rest of your life with. But just as one can only endure the anguish of a heartbroken pal for so long before seeking out less solipsistic company -- no matter how empathetic one might be -- eventually one longs for Gallo to vary the monotonous rhythm a little bit, make contact with something outside of his own sense of loss. (Apparently Manohla Dargis has compared the film to Two-Lane Blacktop, but try to imagine Two-Lane Blacktop minus Warren Oates. Or even Dennis Wilson.) And when the time finally comes for an emotional epiphany -- well, let's just say that Ms. Sevigny isn't the only thing that commences sucking. (Speaking of which: is it gratuitous? Yes. Is it a dream come true for yours truly? Also yes. I'm not proud.) Brave and honorable, but also increasingly tiresome and, in the end, embarrassingly maudlin. The quintessential breakup movie, really, for better and worse.
Anybody else find that the quality of a Morris doc tends to be inversely proportional to the notoriety of his interview subject(s)? Turn him loose on eccentric Floridians, death-row inmates or naked-mole-rat specialists and he'll return from the field with something heady and bewitching; plonk a Stephen Hawking, Fred Leuchter or Robert McNamara in front of his Interrotron and the result is apt to be "merely" fascinating -- and, of course, "only" several orders of magnitude more visually alluring than any other nonfiction film released that year. Here, he's talking with somebody who's surely been interviewed hundreds if not thousands of times over the past five or six decades, and while McNamara proves candid, eloquent and still sharp as a tack at 85 (please let me be this vital should I last that long), much of what he says has a suspiciously practiced ring to it; after a while, I began to wonder if I wouldn't learn more by reading one of his several books. (Bear in mind that I'm too young and ignorant to have a strong sense of the man's public image -- he resigned as Secretary of Defense before I was born. So if the film is intended in part as a corrective, which I get the impression that it is, some of that stuff was inevitably lost on me.) Didn't really care for the pedagogical structure, either, which feels like something Morris cobbled together in a last-ditch effort to give McNamara's freeform rambling ("but let me go back a minute") some shape. Quibble quibble quibble -- guy's never made a mediocre film, much less a poor one, and you can't even say that of Wiseman. Unexpectedly topical sound bite (referring to Vietnam): "If we can't persuade other nations with similar values that our cause is just, we should reconsider our actions." So, yeah, he did learn something. Pity the current administration didn't.
You know, after three films I have to say I just don't think she's got it workin' -- not at feature length, anyway. (Her segment of last year's otherwise rancid 9/11 omnibus film was first-rate.) Visually flat I can tolerate, dramatically inert I've learned to live with, but the emotional/psychological naïveté is starting to get on my nerves. Surely there's a more incisive way to explore post-Taliban Afghanistan than through the eyes of a moony-eyed young woman who's eager to become President...and even if not, surely an intelligent, determined young woman with lofty ambitions wouldn't simply wander around the village asking everybody what politicians say in order to get elected. At its best in its use of formal repetition, e.g. the repeated shots of Nogreh stepping out of her dusty moccasins (or whatever the Middle Eastern equivalent may be) and into a pair of smart white pumps. Burning question (literally): Why does her backward dad set the family's wagon on fire? Was it an accident that happens offscreen, or is he just a loon?
Can't decide whether it wants to be a lush, old-fashioned wartime melodrama or a fashionably modernistic study in urban alienation, and winds up offering neither the shameless pleasures of the former nor the aesthetic rigor of the latter. Conversations today suggest that many people had considerable trouble just following the basic plot; pretty sure I got the gist, but even more certain that I don't really give a damn one way of the other. Hate to resort to the obvious image, but this one has indeed been choloroformed, impaled and mounted for our remote delectation. Zhang Ziyi looks smokin' in two-fisted John Woo assassin mode, though, for what I sorely hope will be future reference.