Santa Clara (near San Jose) California this coming weekend, May 24th - 27th.
All the information here: http://www.baycon.org...
CANNES, FRANCE — "Inside Llewyn Davis" tells the story of a folk musician (Oscar Isaac) awaiting a big break that never seems to arrive. Chronically short on cash, mooching off a different friend each night for a couch to sleep on, reluctant to seize promising opportunities or look far beyond the moment, he takes great pride in a level of artistic achievement that probably won't get him anywhere.
That's not the way things worked out for the Coen brothers, who've enjoyed a degree of creative freedom that would be the envy of any filmmaker. But it is a dilemma for which they have sympathy; after all, things could have easily gone the other way.
"We would be the last people to dispute the fact that we've been very lucky," Joel Coen explained in a roundtable interview at Cannes's Carlton Hotel this afternoon. The duo had gathered with Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, T-Bone Burnett, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to discuss their film, currently one of the heavyweights for the Palme d'Or on Sunday.
While the brothers' own career had little bearing on the character or story — largely set in 1961 New York — Llewyn's inability to break through is one of the things that appealed to them dramatically. "Making a movie about someone's who's not successful who isn't very good at what they do isn't very interesting," Joel says. "But making a movie about someone who's not successful who is very good at what they do is interesting."
The movie returns the Coens to the existential-anxiety mode of "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man." Like those films, it puts its protagonist through a wringer of frustrations that might take even Kafka aback. To hear the brothers tell it, the connection to those films is more tenuous than early reviews might suggest. "Barton Fink is just a little too self-important as an artist to get much sympathy," Ethan says. "We like the put-upon people. We like to inflict pain on the characters. I don't know — somehow that just seems a story thing. What happens next?"
"Somebody did point out," Joel adds, "and it was very interesting to us, because we hadn't realized it, that whenever we make a movie about an artist we inflict John Goodman on them." (Goodman has a role as a gasbag bluesman with whom Llewyn Davis shares a long car ride from New York to Chicago.)
The project has made them into amateur historians on the period. When prompted, Joel goes on about parallel developments in jazz and abstract expressionism that were also happening in New York at the time. "There were some points of intersection, and at some times they had absolutely nothing to do with each other," he says. None of the musicians in the film has a perfect real-life counterpart. They were after a feel — or in the case of Mulligan's not-quite-love interest, the "Village girl look."
"There was also a political factionalism we kind of thought maybe the movie would get into, but it never really did," Ethan says.
A colleague asks if the duo has softened — this is certainly a more mellow, low-key Coen brothers movie than we're used to. "There's something I've noticed [that's] very interesting to me," Joel says. "We make a movie, and often people will say, 'This is a Coen brothers movie for people who don't like Coen brothers movies.' And I've been reading that for 15 or 20 years now, as each one successively comes up. What's the originating sort of thing of that? Anyway, it's a little puzzling."
There’s a picture on my bedroom wall that was taken by my fellow Far-Flung Correspondent, Gerardo Valero of Mexico. It shows me shaking hands with Roger at the brunch he and Chaz hosted at Ebertfest 2012. It seemed fitting to hang it above my poster for “Citizen Kane.”
Moments after the photo was taken, Roger and I posed for the classic thumbs-up picture, the one everyone had taken with Roger Ebert. It produced a cute shot, but it’s the photo of the handshake that I keep on my wall. I look at it every day. I used to see it and think “I wish I wasn’t holding my damn cane.” But now I see it and am glad I am.
Even though my wheelchair is out of shot, it is obvious I am disabled and obvious Roger is too. And yet the force of his benevolence, and the force of my determination to meet my hero, was strong enough that we could overcome our difficulties, meet at his film festival and shake hands.
In his last years, Roger became a beacon for the seriously disabled. That was the side of him that meant most to me: the side that demonstrated that almost any physical limitation can be conquered by a combination of willpower and love, talent and technology.
In the thousands of tribute articles that were published immediately after Roger’s death (including mine), I noticed that, while his status as a titan in the film community was universally celebrated, his status as a titan of the disabled community was often overlooked. It was my duty as a disabled person to write a piece about Roger’s significance for us, and I was thrilled when the BBC published it. As thrilled as I was when I shook hands with Roger Ebert.
Cannes is all about the thrill of the new: What makes hundreds of scribes schlep every morning to yet another 8:30am screening is the knowledge that they are the first audience for a slew of the year’s key films. And yet, cinema’s past is very much present on la Croisette. Aside from the outdoor screenings held every night on the beach (“Jaws” was a particularly inspired choice), there’s an entire section designed to honoring the gems of the past: Cannes Classics.
Consisting entirely of new restorations of films widely known or deserving rediscovery, Cannes Classics is a cinephile’s delight. This year, the titles range from “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” to Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata,” with a fiftieth anniversary screening of Joe Mankiewicz’s ill-fated “Cleopatra” (1963) still to come. Yesterday afternoon, marking 35 years that have passed since its Cannes premiere in 1978, a freshly restored version of Billy Wilder’s “Fedora” was shown for the first time. Long available only in faded prints, scratched so severely the image was on the verge of bleeding, the movie can finally get its due as an important late work of a great director (DVD and Blu-ray releases are rumored to follow soon).
The screening was preceded with an appearance by actors Marthe Keller and Mario Adorf, who fondly recalled working with Wilder on the movie that failed upon release, but has now a chance of starting a new life on the festival circuit. “It was old-fashioned then, but seems contemporary now,” said Keller, pointing out the film’s old-Hollywood style, complete with sweeping Miklos Rozsa score. An excerpt from “Swan Song,” an upcoming documentary on the film, was played and featured Michael York reflecting on the extremely hard time Wilder had making “Fedora,” with studios no longer backing him up and money being scarce for the no longer bankable master.
Made more than a decade before “Death Becomes Her,” “Fedora” is a bold allegory of the fear of aging that underlies movie stardom as such. William Holden plays a Hollywood producer down on his luck, who goes to Corfu in the hope of coaxing the eponymous recluse legend to star in an adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” Apparently as youthful as ever, guarded by a sinister Polish countess, Fedora acts as is she was a prisoner of her own villa, and begs Holden to take her away. From then on, the plot thickens, with many a flashback and a framing device that makes it clear Fedora committed suicide. Or did she…?
The movie is filled with objects designed to obstruct the view of the human body — shades, gloves, veils, bandages, wide-brimmed hats (the title, cough) and head scarfs. Fedora is never on full display: partly to facilitate an important plot-twist, partly because her life is an act and everything she wears is basically a costume. Wilder’s movies were often about functioning in disguise: Dressing up as someone else allowed his characters to violate the boundaries of gender (“Some Like It Hot”), class (“Kiss Me, Stupid”), nationality (“Five Graves to Cairo”) and — in the case of both “The Major and the Minor” and “Fedora” — age.
Gerry Fisher’s cinematography is purely functional and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but nevertheless includes some atmospheric touches, especially in the vaguely sepulchral interiors of Fedora’s villa. Most of the film is drenched in sunshine that makes the film look like Wilder’s earlier “Avanti!” It’s great to see the new print doing full justice both to the opulent flower arrangements of Fedora’s funeral and to the summer setting of Corfu, with Mario Adorf hamming it up as a penny-pinching local hotel owner that’s the most openly comedic of all the characters.
The comparison with Wilder’s own “Sunset Blvd.” is inevitable, given William Holden’s presence and the basic plot of a Hollywood hack invading former star’s secluded domicile. Unlike that masterpiece, however, “Fedora” lacks a central performance great enough to anchor its Gothic touches and turn it into a masterpiece. In other words, it lacks Gloria Swanson. Wilder’s original intention was to cast Faye Dunaway as Fedora, and one can only envision what levels of dedication and intensity she would have brought to the role — especially given her deranged antics as Joan Crawford in the 1981 “Mommie Dearest” debacle.
As it is, “Fedora” is a strange, often captivating movie in which Wilder reflects upon the end of the era of studio filmmaking. Some things won’t be helped by any restoration — the terrible dubbing of both Marthe Keller and Hildegard Knef by Inga Bunsch still damages the picture beyond repair. Still, there’s a hypnotic element to "Fedora", which makes it feel at times almost like a séance, complete with whirring tables and flickering lights. Wilder summons up the ghosts of old Hollywood and pays a tribute to, as one character has it, “cheap backdrops and glycerin tears.” He did that in "Sunset Blvd.", too, but here he includes himself as part of the past he summons. As veiled self-portraits go in cinema, this is one of the most moving ones.
CANNES, FRANCE — While the red-carpet crowd at Cannes has been toasting the Coen brothers' tuneful "Inside Llewyn Davis" — you can read Barbara Scharres's take here — the parallel programs have also turned a spotlight on American movies. David Lowery's Sundance hit "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" showed Saturday and Sunday as a special presentation at Critics' Week, a separate festival that focuses on up-and-coming filmmakers.
The event's main location, the Miramar, is a far cry from the glitz one encounters when viewing the main slate. With creaky entrance doors and a screen that's not quite matted properly, the theater gives off the sense of a makeshift location — creating cognitive dissonance when stars like Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck take the stage.
In France, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is being called "Les Amants du Texas" — an elemental title well-suited to the film's wisp of a plot. Mara and Affleck play lovers on the wrong side of the law who are apprehended in a shootout. He's sent to prison; pregnant with their daughter, she raises the child alone. When he busts out four years later, going on the run, the movie ticks down the clock to their inevitable doomed reunion. Meanwhile, sympathetic lawman Ben Foster struggles to articulate his feelings for Mara's lonely mom.
Padded with shots of sunsets and country roads, the movie relies heavily on a woozy, lyrical style that increasingly plays like an affectation. Mara is a forceful screen presence who seems out of place in the '70s setting, while Affleck's character is little more than a moving target. Lowery, who served as an editor on this year's "Upstream Color," has a good eye, but his Malick-lite approach isn't a great fit. This plot calls for the energy of peak Sam Peckinpah.
Even so, the movie's outlaw portrait bounced pleasingly off of one of yesterday's Fortnight movies, "Blue Ruin," directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Shortly after we meet him, an unshaven vagrant (Macon Blair) knives a just-released convict in a men's room. Over the course of his spectacularly inept getaway, a back story comes into focus. Suffice it to say this is another movie that imagines contemporary America as a new Wild West — or at least the potential setting for a modern Hatfields–McCoys feud. Laced with dark humor (the protagonist struggles to attend to his gushing wounds without visiting a hospital), this mildly glib thriller also has a hot-button point to make. It's quite clear the body count would be lower if these characters had fewer guns.
Mordant comedy and social commentary also make for strange mix in the French comedy "Tip Top," directed by Serge Bozon, a practicing film critic here in Gaul. Art house aficionados may recall his "La France" (2007), an unclassifiable World War I fable that features Sylvie Testud in drag, spontaneous Beatles-like sing-alongs, and the kind of oblique editing one associates with Robert Bresson.
"Tip Top," showing in the Fortnight, is even wackier. Isabelle Huppert plays an internal-affairs detective assigned to uncover which of her fellow police officers ratted out a murdered Algerian informant. The mystery segues into buddy comedy with Huppert's dowdy new partner (Sandrine Kiberlain) and tangents involving their kinky personal lives. While Huppert's bad-cop routine is a hoot, broad jokes involving voyeurism and giant bruises acquired during rough sex coexist uneasily with the movie's ostensibly serious commentary on Algerian life in France.
At the Q&A, Bozon said through a translator that he never wanted the audience to feel too comfortable with the movie's actors or its tone. Still, he said, "My first impulse is not to disconcert the audience. It's to please them." Mission intermittently accomplished.
On a day when the sun is finally shining and it doesn’t even look like rain, Cannes doesn’t automatically inspire dark thoughts of criminal masterminds and evil-doers prowling the streets and owning the night. But, just as film people from every nation on earth are gathered here for two weeks, so are the pickpockets, the cat burglars, the jewel thieves and the con artists, beggars, and grifters of every stripe.
Just yesterday, the trade papers carried the story that more than a million dollars in Chopard jewels that had been brought to Cannes to loan to stars for their gala appearances had been stolen from a hotel safe. This is only the big stuff. Every year, those of us who come here regularly trade our latest stories of purse-snatchings, holdups, child pickpockets, and those brazen nocturnal thieves who climb neon signs, awnings, and gutter-pipes to reach open hotel windows to snatch any valuables left within reach. It once happened to me, so I know, and never slept with an open window again.
Evil ran rampant in the Grand Théâtre Lumière this morning, with the Dutch competition entry “Borgman” by Alex van Warmerdam (“The Last Days of Emma Blank”), but the over-arching scheme of the director’s dark intentions never became fully clear. Appearing to be very much influenced by the themes of Michael Haneke films including “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon,” “Borgman” features an exceedingly privileged upper-middle-class family bedeviled by the arrival of a sinister figure and his henchman, who infiltrate and destroy their way of life.
In the film’s opening sequence, a priest celebrates mass, then grabs a shotgun and joins assistants with sharpened spears to hunt several bedraggled men living in leaf-covered hidey-holes in the forest. The men escape, and their leader Borgman seeks the use of a bathroom by ringing doorbells at secluded homes. At one, the husband ferociously assaults him but the wife later takes pity on the injured man, giving him a bath, food and a place to sleep in the garden shed while her husband is at work.
So far, audience sympathy is with this battered loner, and the natural assumption is that he represents some ethnic or political minority being hunted for extermination by authority figures. The assumption is gradually dispelled as Borgman gains a strange power over all but the husband. He does away with the family gardener and succeeds in replacing him. The wife — who is troubled by violent nightmares which include erotic images of Borgman — the au pair girl, and the three children come under his spell. The husband develops an odd X-mark on his shoulder.
Sinister clues are dropped everywhere, but it’s never clear to what end. When Borgman’s cohorts, who are busy perpetrating murders elsewhere, phone him for instructions, he often ends the conversations with “It’s not time yet.” A pair of emaciated long-snouted hounds appears out of nowhere to roam the house one night, sniffing the young nanny as she sleeps, then disappear. Borgman whisks the kids off to visit an underground bunker and gives them some kind of Kool-Aid to drink.
Portentously, the wife says, “We are the fortunate, and the fortunate must be punished.” The implications are satanic, and a global takeover, one family at a time, is hinted at, but the accumulation of hints and sinister happenings never comes together into something larger. Call it Haneke-lite or Haneke-wannabe, but it’s an odd choice for the competition, except for a possible political need to represent a diversity of European nations.
The dark side was manifesting itself today, and final solutions became the theme for the rest of the day. Two films, “The Missing Picture,” a French/Cambodian co-production, and “Death March” a Filipino film, both premiering in Un Certain Regard, addressed the subject of real-life evil in stylistically extraordinary ways. The horrific reign of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge is the subject of Rithy Panh’s personal essay documentary “The Missing Picture.” Panh, much of whose earlier work is in the human rights vein, previously distinguished himself with “S21, The Khmer Rouge Death Machine.”
The first shot of “The Missing Picture” depicts a great pile of 35mm film heaped on a concrete floor. The deteriorating footage is symbolic of the lost, fragmented or hidden images of actions that willfully destroyed a nation. The filmmaker seeks specific evidence of mass murder.
Utilizing small, painted clay figures, the film presents the home village of Panh’s childhood before the Khmer Rouge came to power. The dollhouse-sized markets, schools, and rice paddies soon give away to other scenes of black-clad clay prisoners in the work camp where, as Panh narrates, he was taken with his family at the age of thirteen.
To his own powerful memory-driven narration, Panh alternates increasingly elaborate scenes of his clay figures in the camp environment with sequences of archival footage or those in which his cartoon-like figures are juxtaposed against filmic backgrounds. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
The figures are static, and as intricately formed as they are and as elaborately staged, they don’t move, so their scenes are static. The juxtaposition is most effective when they have something to do: In the foreground of the frame, a little clay cameraman aims his camera at the dictator Pol Pot, seen in archival Khmer Rouge footage in the background, and the film’s merging of memory and historical record comes to life.
As I left “The Missing Picture,” I was startled at the sound of blood-curdling screams on the Croisette. Then I realized that it was only the costumed stooges of Troma holding a fake street demonstration to once again promote “Return to Nuke 'Em High” or some other exploitation masterpiece.
Screams were an apt lead-in to “Death March” by Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr., a film that evokes the Bataan Death March in a surreal, stylized drama set entirely in a studio against painted backdrops, cardboard trees, and a sea fashioned from plastic bubble-wrap. Shot in black-and-white with Filipino, American, and Japanese actors and much fog and smoke, the film is an eerie meditation on the psychology of men facing incomprehensible brutality.
“Death March” is conceived as a group experience, but filmmaker Alix zeroes in on several soldiers who periodically come to the fore, including a Filipino who hallucinates dead companions, an American trying to nurse his dying captain, and a compassionate Japanese guard who imagines himself hovering above the men as a glowing angel with enormous white-feathered wings. Swift and exceptionally cruel executions single out others for brief recognition as individuals.
Alix’s method is surprisingly effective, although this isn’t a film for everyone. It is best appreciated almost as a dance of seething, scrambling, stumbling bodies, to the cacophonous chorus of groans, pleas, and exploding shells. Periodically, faces and eyes are fixed in sudden still moments that underline the horror and chaos.
Eighty-seven-year-old director Claude Lanzmann of “Shoah” fame was welcomed to the stage of the Salle Debussy tonight by Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux, to a standing ovation. Lanzmann profusely thanked his crew and all who helped make his new film “The Last of the Unjust” possible, and the two joked about previous discussions regarding whether the film was to be presented in or out of competition, before the genial director planted a huge kiss on Frémaux’s cheek.
Lanzmann’s place in film history is assured by his landmark “Shoah,” and "The Last of the Unjust” grew out of the hours of unused interview footage that he shot of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council of Elders in the Theresienstadt ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia. In the lengthy rolling text that begins the film, Lanzmann makes it clear that his film will exonerate Murmelstein, who has long been a controversial figure whom some had accused of collaboration with the Nazis.
In characteristic fashion, Lanzmann is meticulous and thorough in establishing the time, the places, and the progression of events in Murmelstein’s seven-year relationship, from 1938 to 1944, with Adolf Eichmann, who in every way his overlord and the arbiter of the fate of the community that the Jewish Council administered. The film intercuts lengthy sequences of the interviews with Murmelstein, which were conducted in Rome in 1975, with Lanzmann’s present day visits to relevant locations in Vienna and the Czech Republic.
Although at Eichmann’s war crimes trial it was claimed that his participation in Kristallnacht could not be established, Murmelstein provides his direct eye-witness account of Eichmann personally smashing sacred objects with a crowbar as he directed SS men in the ravaging of a Vienna synagogue. Murmelstein refutes Hannah Arendt’s famous statement about the banality of evil, saying in reference to the trial, “The corrupt Eichmann was never shown.”
I felt no aura of the day’s specters of evil in the streets of Cannes as I walked back to my hotel. A new bistro has opened along the narrow pedestrian passageway I take up to the rue d’Antibes from the Palais, and revelers with drinks in their hands were mixing with the people who just gotten ice cream from the gelato shop a few steps away. A rock band was playing on a temporary stage in front of the nearby church, Notre Dame de Bon Voyage. It’s Sunday night and it’s not raining.
Cannes is so many things at once it all but creates a dimension of its own. Simultaneously an art festival and a jumbo-sized machine for cranking out media buzz, it’s a red-carpeted stage for movie buffs, business folks and assorted wackos alike. Half-naked cuties traverse the beach, hardcore fans organize parties to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Troma studios (I just said hi to a Toxic Avenger), and tuxedoed civilians stand for hours hoping to get a ticket from a benevolent insider. It’s a frenzy, and it’s fun — but boy, do I need to get some sleep.
When you’re a journalist, Cannes is all about hierarchies. The press pass is free and quite easy to get. However, if you happen to be a rookie (as I was last year), you end up with the weakest badge of all: the dreaded yellow pass, which makes it hard to get into the most-awaited screenings. It also forces you to sit at the very top of the balcony, making the screen below so tiny you could practically hold it at the end of a toothpick. The more coverage you do, the more regularly you come and the bigger your publication, the better badge you get. Going up the ladder of importance, there’s blue, pink, pink one with a yellow dot and then the all-powerful white pass that reportedly helped Moses part the Red Sea.
No matter what your pass looks like, though, lines are always huge. This year, it doesn’t help that it’s been raining cats and dogs at Cannes for the past couple of days. Last night, I spent an hour and fifty minutes queuing up before the new Coen brothers movie, which was actually shorter than the time I stood in the rain, sheltered only partially by my raggedy old umbrella. The crowd was so tight, drips from adjoining umbrellas formed little waterfalls, one of which found its way straight under my jacket’s collar. It’s a good thing my film critic buddies were there to keep me company — at one point, we turned our shared predicament into a sing-a-long, starting out with selected verses of Billy Joel’s “Goodnight, Saigon” (“Yes we would all go down… together…”) and ending with a Sondheim marathon (“I’m Still Here” kicked off entire series).
Standing in lines forms bonds and enables new friendships. One of the great things about Cannes is that you can safely assume everyone around is at least as movie crazy as yourself, so it’s safe to open a conversation in a way that would normally earn you a slap in the face or a weird look at the very least (“Say, what do you make of the new Kiarostami?” is a terrible pick-up line anywhere except Cannes). And even if you have something less than seduction on your mind, you’re sure to leave the festival with more friendships you came here with. Most of the folks you won’t see until next year, but it doesn’t matter. Next time you’re here, you will bump into each other in front of Grand Théâtre Lumière and say: “Isn’t this just crazy? I almost didn’t make it to the new Jia Zhang-Ke!”
The ultimate goal for many is to make themselves visible at Cannes. To stand out is to earn a badge of honor that trumps all official colors. Costumed fan boys and girls aside, there’s a tribe of beautiful people looking their best and roaming the fest turf in the hope of being spotted by a big-time producer and play out “A Star is Born” in their real lives. Then, there are the hipsters and the fashionistas, as well as mutations of both. Just the other day I saw a gorgeous girl wearing stilettos at 11am, lining up for a screening and totally immersed in her copy of “On the Road,” the movie version of which played in last year’s competition. Talk about new cool.
After each screening, it’s time for a Twitter-palooza. Hundreds of minds share their first-time impressions, giving the movies their very first critical spin, which will stick for better or worse (unless there’s a backlash in opinions). Reviews are written in matter of minutes, opinions abound, and all this in the press office packed so tightly even the floor serves as a desk. It’s the closest thing to working in an old-fashioned news room and waiting for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to show up and trade verbal blows, before they yell "Stop the presses!"
As tiring as it is, it’s also a kind of heaven. Its denizens pride themselves on their exhaustion, but they all end up here the next year, and the next — possibly hoping for their pass to get bumped up to a flashier color. How can you not love a place in which reports of a stolen necklace are making news just like in the good old days of “To Catch a Thief”? Only yesterday a bitter letter from a Jerry Lewis-supporter and fan got leaked, and it felt like a real-life version of Martin Scorsese's “The King of Comedy.” As naughty, gaudy, bawdy and sporty as 42nd street used to be before the reign of Simba, Cannes is truly something else and it doesn’t give a damn if you love it or hate it, as long as you talk about it and keep the buzz going.
Families create their own narratives. Stories are passed on from generation to generation, and in this way the past continues to live, but it can also be obscured or distorted. Joan Didion famously wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Family arguments often come down to who "owns" the narrative, or which version is decided upon as the "true" one. Sarah Polley's fascinating documentary, "Stories We Tell," is ostensibly about her mother, Diane Polley, who died in 1990. A powerful and thoughtful film, it is also not what it at first seems, which is part of the point Polley appears to be interested in making. Can the truth ever actually be known about anything?
In speaking about "Stories We Tell," it is important to avoid revealing the surprises hidden within the film, surprises of fact and surprises of Polley's structure, because the discovery of said surprises is where the film packs its greatest and most indelible punch. The surprises do not operate as cheap "Gotcha" moments, but instead draw back veils to show levels, shades, nuances. Diane Polley comes to us in fragments, and we are forced to re-adjust our interpretation of her throughout the film as new details are revealed. At one point, one of Polley's interview subjects balks at the idea of having everyone tell the same story. As far as he is concerned, only two people have the "right" to tell that story, and it is the two people involved. Otherwise, he says, "you can't ever touch bottom." Inadvertently, in his criticism, he expresses Polley's whole theme.
Polley calls her interview subjects "The Storytellers," and they include her older sisters, Susy and Joanna, and her older brothers, John and Mark, and other important figures in her mother's past. Polley has said she was not interested in being an "omniscient" presence, and we can hear Polley's questions and laughter from behind the camera. Her father, Michael Polley, is an actor as well (familiar to anyone who was a fan of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, where, incidentally, Sarah Polley had a role in the third season). "Stories We Tell" begins with Sarah setting up her father in a recording booth, to do the narration for the film, which (we find out later) he wrote. So there is already a distancing element in place. It's a film about making a film, and, as Polley tells her father, she sees the interviews as a kind of "interrogation process."
She asks each storyteller to "tell the story from the beginning until now," and as they begin, hesitantly at first, Polley supplements the story with old photographs and home movies: beautiful footage of her mother, cavorting on the beach, laughing at parties or around the pool, and, fascinatingly, singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in what looks like an old black-and-white audition tape. Diane Polley is described by one and all as a woman who wanted to live life to the fullest. One person says that her walk was so emphatic "she made the record skip," an eloquent image. One family friend admits in an interview that she always sensed that Diane "had secrets," which turns out to be true. She was an actress, but she gave that up to have her family. The marriage to Michael was happy at first, but discontent grew. Michael was a solitary type of guy, and Diane loved crowds and excitement.
The storytellers talk about her life, her acting, her children and her marriage, and Polley doesn't privilege one version over another. She is not interested in protecting her version (whatever it may be), or protecting her mother. She is more interested in how her family members interact with their own memories, and where they might intersect or diverge. Polley's touch here is gentle and yet insistent. At times, her siblings ask her, speaking to her behind the camera, "Well, what do you remember about that time?"
Sarah Polley got her start young in Canadian television, but she showed a rebellious streak early, dropping out of acting altogether as a teenager to focus on politics. Her role in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) was hailed by American critics, who treated her as a newcomer (although she had been working for years in Canada by that point). Polley resisted the call of stardom, doing what interested her, and making short films through the Canadian Film Centre's prestigious director's program. Her first feature, "Away From Her," was a heartbreaking tour de force, showing Polley's breathtaking confidence as a first-time director. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (Julie Christie as Best Actress, and Polley for her adaptation of Alice Munro's short story). Polley's second feature was 2011's "Take This Waltz," starring Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby (Kirby, like Polley, was treated as a newcomer by American critics, but he had been riveting in the first season of Slings and Arrows as the American movie star playing "Hamlet" in Canada).
In both of these films, and now in "Stories We Tell," Polley experiments with the expected narrative structures, pushing us to consider not just the meaning of stories but how the way we tell the story can change its impact. The interviews in "Stories We Tell" are amazingly intimate. This is a family talking to each other. Everyone still misses Diane. The loss they have suffered is incalculable. The questions Polley asks are not always easy. The answers aren't simple either.
Diane Polley was, in some respects, a trapped woman. It's a common story with a common narrative thread, familiar to us all: she wanted more out of life than just being a mother and a wife, but she was hemmed in by traditional responsibilities. But life is not that simple, and when you learn more about Diane, when you learn some of those "secrets," and one in particular, the cliched narrative thread falls apart. Diane Polley seemed to be an extroverted fun-loving person, and she was, and yet obviously the well was deep (so deep you "can't reach bottom"). Life is messy and Diane Polley's narrative is messy. Stories told again and again have a way of neatening things up. Stories have a way of ironing out the wrinkles. Polley lets the wrinkles remain. By the end of "Stories We Tell," I am left with the feeling that there's still so much I don't know about Diane Polley. And what a fitting eulogy that is.
Every day at Cannes, a great volume of promotional emails pours into my in-box, because every day is about selling something in this convention town, whether it’s a film or a product. The pitches range from businesslike to bizarre and hilarious or just downright go-figure. For instance, take this email blast from one particularly notorious distributor/producer: “Troma Entertainment to hold secret screening of Lloyd Kaufman’s ‘Return to Nuke 'Em High: Volume 1.’” Make that secret as in “secret.” The date and time for this opus about glee club mutants was prominently posted in the profusely illustrated missive.
How about this one: “Re-create the Cannes Film Festival opening night gala dinner menu,” complete with photos and recipes, courtesy of Electrolux (don’t they make vacuum cleaners?). Yes, you too could eat what Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Nicole Kidman had for dinner last Wednesday night if you have the patience for these recipes. The entrée, “white sea-bass cooked with rhubarb and celery, light-green apple broth, cinnamon leaf and green anise,” calls for eight stalks of rhubarb and a cup of Granny Smith apple juice, among other things.
Today did not start out well, and I should have known that the worst lashings of rain yet were a bad omen for a morning of dud screenings. Even shopkeepers around here casually mention climate change as they lament the bygone years of an all-sunny festival.
What could possibly go wrong with “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” a new film by Arnaud Desplechin ("A Christmas Tale") starring Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro and French mega-star Mathieu Amalric? Well, just about everything, in fact. Adapted from the book “Reality and Dream” by controversial French-Hungarian anthropologist and psychoanalytic researcher Georges Devereaux, this Palme contender is a very strange amalgam of well-intentioned bio-pic, buddy-bonding drama, and misconceived off-kilter comedy.
The film is set in Topeka, Kansas, in 1948, where Native American WWII veteran Jimmy Picard is brought by his sister to a military hospital, exhibiting symptoms including temporary blindness, hearing loss, and debilitating headaches, possibly owing to his wartime head injury. After a battery of tests, he is found to be in perfect health physically, yet clearly suffering. The staff specialists confer, and decide (whew, I kid you not) that maybe his problem is just being an Indian. Since they’ve never before treated one of those, they’ll call in a renowned anthropologist/psychologist with an expertise in native cultures.
Enter Amalric as Georges Devereaux. Up to this point, “Jimmy P.” is a straightforward, if awkward, serious drama. The appearance of Devereaux heralds the introduction of a wacko farcical tone, with little comic bits constructed around his character. We get that the doctor is supposed to be an eccentric who’s been transformed by his passion for Native American wisdom and knowledge, but Amalric plays him as a goofball with a bug-eyed I’m-on-drugs intensity.
A process of analysis ensues, with Jimmy P. admitting that he’s not so familiar with the traditional ways of his ancestral culture, and Georges acting as shaman, dream interpreter, and instructor. To get around the fact that this experience consists almost entirely of two men talking face to face, the film becomes very literal in cutting away to the images of Jimmy’s narration.
For instance, when Jimmy describes his adverse reaction to the characters in a puppet show, we see every move. When he re-lives the suspicion that his first love was cheating on him, we see her dashing out from behind a haystack with another man. Desplechin’s delight in recreating the American and Native American milieu of these sequences is evident in the exacting detail.
Del Toro brings a massive, lumbering quality to the role, making Jimmy P. a believable presence, but the script gives him little to do beyond react. Jimmy is eventually pronounced cured once the doctor enlightens him that his headaches come from the pressure of oppression and his fear and anger relating to women. Jimmy resumes his life on a new plane and the good doctor undergoes his own psychoanalysis.
Rain didn’t deter hundreds of local teenagers, who shared the theater with the accredited film industry folks at the premiere of French director Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Grand Central.” The influx of teens and senior citizens at selected Un Certain regard and Directors Fortnight daytime screenings is a function of the festival’s outreach program to Cannes residents. Their uncritical approval and thunderous applause can be predicted for almost any film.
Predictable was the byword for me when it came to “Grand Central,” the story of a young guy who qualifies for a dangerous job at a nuclear power plant, and, just as dangerously, falls in love with his boss’s fiancée. Zlotowski sets the film in the ragtag encampment of plant workers that has sprung up in the fields in the shadow of the cooling towers, and in a real nuclear power plant.
Tahar Rahim is definitely a rising international star following his acclaimed 2008 role in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” and, most recently, in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” here at the festival. After a string of films that don’t allow him to even crack a smile, it’s interesting to see what this handsome young actor can do with a role in which he’s a high-spirited, genial guy who can coax a bar crowd to applause while he puts a mechanical bull through its paces.
Rahim is multifaceted as Gary, the newly hired plant worker who gets nicknamed Cherno (for Chernobyl). He’s soulful, romantic, smart, and quick to laugh; at ease among men but women love him. Léa Seydoux (“Midnight in Paris”), his co-worker and clandestine love interest Karole, is styled as smoking hot and voluptuous. The plant itself, with its bulky safety gear, elaborate procedures, and intricate operation, holds genuine viewer interest.
All of these elements deserved a less trite script. There wasn’t a single surprise in this story, as every development was broadcast well in advance. When Gary stops in to borrow some cash at the mobile home of Toni, the rough-and-ready older worker who’s his team leader and mentor, a telling shot from Gary’s point of view, of the unmade bed through a doorway, and of Karole’s hairbrush holding a single gleaming blonde hair, signals which way this is going.
The constant danger of radiation exposure for all the workers, and the increasing number of large and small crises in the plant, comprise a ready setup against which suspicion, jealousy, and retribution will grow when Karole becomes pregnant with Gary’s child.
It’s good to see the Coen brothers back in competition at Cannes, but I have to wonder if the other competing directors are shaking in their shoes, just by virtue of the formidable Coen track record. Since the brothers cleaned up here with “Barton Fink” back in 1991, when they took home Best Actor, Best Director, and the Palme d’Or, they’ve been invited to compete on a regular basis, also winning Best Director for “Fargo” in 1996, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in 2001.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” made the day for me. It’s a film that’s equally rich in pathos and crackling smart-ass humor, as well as a feelingly accurate portrait of a time and place, right down to the nubby Fifties couches and the Haeger lamps. That the Coens are able to move swiftly and seamlessly between the pathos and the satire gives the film depth without taking away from any of its unforced ease in the storytelling.
The first time we see struggling folksinger Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), he’s onstage at a small basement-like Greenwich Village folk club in 1961, where he’s putting his heart into a soulful rendition of “Dink’s Song” (made famous in real life by performers including Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Jeff Buckley). Off stage, he’s an arrogant jerk with a smart mouth; a guy who burns the bridges of every friendship but keeps asking for favors. The married folksinger friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) whom he’s gotten pregnant delivers this assessment, “Everything you touch turns to shit; you’re like King Midas’s idiot brother.”
The apartment doors that accidentally lock shut behind Llewyn become a running joke, but along with all the other closed doors and slammed car doors, they become the metaphor for his life and career. When the Greenwich Village gigs dry up, he hitches a ride to Chicago to audition at the legendary Gate of Horn. This road movie section of the film is distinguished by a hilarious, raunchy, tour-de-force monologue by John Goodman as the obese junkie who’s being driven who-knows-where by an ex-actor in a beater.
In Chicago for only a matter of hours before hitchhiking back to New York, Llewyn strikes out again. His impromptu performance for the Gate of Horn owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) on the floor of the empty, darkened club is stunning, but, as with a number of the film’s other entrancing performances, the Coens elect to break the spell of this fleeting beauty. Grossman stares at the singer for a long moment and dryly growls, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” revolves around the music. Sometimes the Coens are playing straight with the delivery, as in the Chicago audition, and sometimes they style the performances with a slight satirical edge. Llewyn’s friends who comprise the folk act Jim & Jean (Justin Timberlake and Mulligan, respectively) , sing exquisitely, but with the trance-like mannered reverence that injects a hint of comedy. An unnamed group in Irish fisherman sweaters, obviously fashioned after Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, also gets the too-serious deadpan treatment that makes you want to laugh.
Becoming persona non grata at every turn in his life through his own actions, Llewyn is ready to throw in the towel on Greenwich Village and the music. He declares the whole scene over and one night disavows folk music in a loud fracas at the club where he’s playing. Following his final number of the film, which is actually a continuation of the film’s first scene, another young singer who looks and exactly like Dylan, takes the stage.
CANNES, FRANCE — In one of the biggest surprises of the festival so far, the new film from Alejandro Jodorowsky can be watched and enjoyed without the influence of recreational drugs.
That may seem odd considering the source, the Chilean-born director of such hallucinatory cult classics as "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." But the filmmaker's first feature in 23 years — an autobiographical fantasia based on his own memories and books — plays less like his midnight staples than an unhinged variation on Fellini's "Amarcord," down the big-breasted women and son Adan Jodorowsky's jaunty score.
Set in the author's hometown of Tocopilla, Chile, the movie follows both the androgynous, initially golden-locked young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) and his Communist father (played by another of El Maestro's sons, his now-grown "El Topo" costar, Brontis Jodorowsky). Jews of Russian extraction in a remote community, the family stands out. The older man dresses like Stalin and obsesses over toughening up his son, even urging his kid to undergo dental surgery without anesthetic. ("You are a Jodorowsky!" he crows when the boy succeeds.)
It's the kind of film in which men who've lost limbs in the mines populate the periphery to provide comic relief and the filmmaker intermittently turns up in an ice-cream suit to serve as an onscreen guide. Jordorowky's mother (Pamela Flores) sings every line, and at one point urinates on her convulsing husband in order to heal him. (Between this and last year's "The Paperboy," the restorative piss is becoming an annual Cannes motif.) The father wanders off on a half-baked quest to assassinate the wealthy Chilean president, eventually discovering that he identifies more with tyrants than with the common man.
Despite a sometimes slapdash look — the low-fi seagull effects are just this side of "Birdemic" — it's hard not to find this sort of controlled chaos endearing, certainly not when it's peppered with as much affection and warmth as it is here. At the Q&A, one fan actually asked to kiss the director, ascending the stage to embrace him. For his part, the 84-year-old filmmaker, speaking in French, seemed less mad than modest. "I did not create it," he said of his new film. "I received it."
The Directors' Fotnight screened "The Dance of Reality" back-to-back with "Jodorowsky's Dune," a documentary directed by Frank Pavitch on Jodorowsky's legendary (and legendarily unsuccessful) 1975 attempt to bring Frank Herbert's sci-fi tome to the screen. Among other tidbits, it's surprising — given the auteur's famously stoned audiences — that he wanted the movies themselves to provide all the altered state that was necessary. "I did not want LSD to be taken," he explains. "I wanted to fabricate the drug's effects."
The "Dune" of Jodorowsky's imagination would have been epic, with music by Pink Floyd, designs by Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and acting collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger — several of whom the director claims to have encountered simply by chance. The movie features ample explication of his designs, including an opening shot designed to top Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil" and a spectacular Harkonnen fortress that, artist H.R. Giger admits, wasn't actually in the novel. Director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive"), invited by Jodorowsky to sift through the storyboards, wonders what the film landscape would have looked like had "Dune" made it into theaters before "Star Wars."
This is the type of quixotic project that no longer exists, conceived in an era when money for artistic ambition was considered no object (although, ultimately, it was — Hollywood's reluctance to foot the remainder of the bill is what finally prevented the movie from being shot). And although we'll never get to see the results — Jodorowsky confesses to feeling relief when David Lynch's 1984 version turned out to be bad — the documentary suggests the collaborations and creative ferment Jodorowsky fostered leave a legacy that lasts to this day.