Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wrapping up the rest of comp...

Eric Khoo’s My Magic (53) was apparently shot in 9 days, and it shows, both in its shoddy sound design and its blotchy cinematography. Nonetheless, there is something inherently fascinating about watching the film’s lumbering protagonist get subjected to a barrage of tortures in the name of fatherly love. Ironically, the movie never manages to present much more than the carnival sideshow appeal that’s inextricable from the subject matter. This is quite insubstantial, especially compared to Be With Me, and thankfully short at 75 minutes. Had it gone on any longer it would have grown downright mawkish.

Soderbergh’s Che (50) is substantially longer (4 hours, 38 minutes), yet not that much more substantive, amazingly enough. Eschewing typical biopic conventions, Che probably cuts too close to the bone, essentially presenting only two extended, documentary-style recreations of Guevara’s Cuban and Bolivian insurgencies. Soderbergh perversely minimizes our ability to sympathize, or even identify, most of his cast (Matt Damon, however, is all too recognizable in his cameo), which simultaneously discourages jingoism and encourages apathy. The battles from the first film is distractingly interrupted with context-setting voiceovers from an audio interview and flashes forward to a U.N. session in which Che argues for Cuba’s newfound “freedom”. In an audience-punishing move, the first segment ends, just as Che is about to storm into Havana, stymieing any sense of victory… Then two hours of slow-burning defeat follow, as the pompous Che turns up in Bolivia, to attempt an impossible repeat performance of his former glory. The HD footage that Soderbergh shoots in those jungles is gorgeous, and the perversity of so intricately detailing the attempted Bolivian revolution’s downward spiral is palpable, making the second half considerably more intriguing than the first, but it’s tough to imagine the movie appealing to anyone beyond the most ardent of art film aficionados.

Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta (39), like Johanna, cites Bela Tarr in its opening credits. Although Mundruczo’s new film isn’t as distinctively slow-paced as Tarr’s work, it does make several visual allusions to it, and presents a similar vision of small-town malaise as it drifts inexorably toward violence. Unfortunately, without Tarr’s distinctive torpor, the movie settles into the realm of art house clichés. Some critics compared this to Malick’s Days of Heaven, and while I understand why (the sunlit nature photography, the outdoor chamber drama that drives the sparse plot), it simply failed to a cast a spell on me, leaving its thematic musings about incest, society and taboo behavior feeling all too academic.

In my estimation, Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn (59) seemed almost capable of overcoming its unmistakable engagement with art house clichés, though the hostile reaction at the press screening was hard to ignore. Garrel seems the contemporary filmmaker most indebted to the New Wave movies of the ‘60s. His self-absorbed characters, stark black-and-white visuals, and unapologetic romanticism return here, and once again I find myself somewhat unable to discern if the resulting film is self-parodying or self-serious. It scarcely matters, though, whether or not I was able to identify with the self-pitying protagonist. The attractive cast, skillful photography, and playful directorial flourishes (e.g. camera tricks from the silent-film era and well-placed narrative ellipses) more than held my attention.

Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (46), on the other hand, started out with a blast of energy before quickly settling into a repetitious cycle of guilty confession and representational questioning. Though it’s admittedly novel to see a film that features Israelis grappling with the possibility that they played a part in a genocidal slaughter, the animated approach taken here minimizes the horror behind that act. Even more egregious is the quality of the animation that’s used. Though occasionally capable of presenting striking graphical contrasts, it ultimately looks cheap and stiff. The political bravery on display here resulted in plenty of fans for the film, but what I saw on the screen seemed unavoidably amateurish and half-baked.

In contrast, one could only could accuse Charlie Kaufman’s incredibly dense Synecdoche, New York (65) of being overbaked. After a witty, promising first act, it becomes a bit too burdened by its incredibly hefty amount of thematic baggage. Though one could suggest that Michel Gondry’s video for Bjork’s Bachelorette covered this ground far more concisely, the endlessly inventive script and surprisingly dour outlook found here distinguish Kaufman’s work. For an hour or so in the middle, watching the movie is a real chore. Fortunately, in its last half hour, it delivers a strong closing act that redeems what has come before, making me think that it probably has realized more of its great ambitions than not. This is definitely something I’d like to see again in an atmosphere where I have more time to process it.

I am a bit late in posting, but I figured I’d toss out some general impressions about my time in Cannes this year.

From the looks of it, this was a less than amazing year for the competition… Almost every movie managed to find a few passionate partisans to support it, but very few, if any, managed much universal support. It’s almost appropriate, then, that the Palm went to something as completely inoffensive (and unexceptional) as The Class. Even if few loved it outright, it managed a degree of broad, solid acceptance, which was a rarity this year. I fully acknowledge that The Class’ kind of docu-realist social drama isn’t my cup of tea at all (by its end, it doesn’t feel much more honest or complex to me than something like Freedom Writers), but its Palm victory seems to be a popular decision, making me think that I might not have missed much in those 8 comp. films I couldn’t see.

Complaining about The Class’s win seems silly, though, especially when Gomorra & Il Divo were so highly honored. The former is less interesting than Garrone’s last two films, to be sure. It spends so much energy demonstrating the depth of the corruption surrounding the Italian mob, but I’m not sure why anyone would enter the film with a different expectation of the mob’s behavior. It’s got some interesting character quirks throughout to keep it engaging, and Toni Servillo gives a genuinely moving performance (he’s my choice for the Best Actor award, easily…), but it tends to lose momentum when it switches between its disparate plot threads and ultimately doesn’t amount to much, except in its refusal to glamorize its subjects.

Il Divo is less impressive still… Sorrentino once again directs the fuck out of a movie, to distracting effect. It’s as operatic as the title describes… Servillo is the lead here, too, but he’s extremely fenced in by his director, playing Andreotti as some sort of grotesque goofball. The whole thing is a parade of insufficiently contextualized violence, garish color, and completely random musical cues (e.g. the baffling Beth Orton bit)… Imagine watching Oliver Stone's JFK in fast forward, with no idea who JFK was, and you might get some approximation of my response to this thing… Somewhat impressive because of its sheer force of will, but ultimately puzzling.

Personally, I would have given the Palm to Eastwood, even if I think The Exchangeling is less of a great work than Iwo Jima, Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby. It’s somewhat lazily and risibly plotted at times, but it still packs a punch once it sets about dismantling our societal comforts. Eastwood's direction elevates the material, to be sure, visually expressing far more than the script manages to.

The one truly great new film I saw in Cannes this year, though, was Wendy and Lucy. All of the annoying shit in Old Joy (i.e. the political radio broadcasts, the on-the-nose dialogue scenes, the relationship between the one guy & his wife, etc...) is completely absent here. Stripped down, but thematically rich, filled with reverberations that help it extend beyond its ultra-specific scenario... It is a small movie, but it is a great small movie, truly worthy of comparisons to the best of the Dardennes (of which Lorna's Silence clearly was not... 58)....

Sunday, May 25, 2008

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane - 87
The Class - 54
Synecdoche, New York - 65
Il Divo - 41
My Magic - 53
Tulpan - 55
Che - 50 (i.e. 38/57)
Waltz With Bashir - 46

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wendy and Lucy - 82

Just some grades...

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - 45
Tokyo Sonata - 63
Ashes of Time Redux - 69
Gomorra - 51
Changeling - 77
Delta - 39
Private Lessons - 45
Changeling - 77
Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired - 52
Surveillance - 13
Frontier of Dawn - 59

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) 58 [Exquisitely rendered emotional suffering, visually spellbinding in its use of digital video, yet somewhat thin... It clearly wants to be a great film, but it's too neatly conceived to feel like one. The pat ironies of the plot are far too easily resolved, the metaphorical sound design too on the nose, and the performances rely too much on inference (don't expect much in the way of clear motivation). Certainly a step forward in a lot of ways, but at the same time less than it wants to be. In many ways it reminds me of Tarr's The Man From London. Both films use dazzling visuals and slo-mo noir plotting, but there's no question in my mind that I prefer Tarr's work.]

Linha de Passe (Walter Salles) 36 [Inadequate melodrama, with a mild neo-realist bent. Contrived plotting and cross-cutting that lowers the energy level conspire to sink this one before it's far out of the gate. I fully admit that I'm not the target audience for a movie as blatantly populist as this one, but at the same time, I fail to see who really could find this stuff to be emotionally gripping.]

Tyson (James Toback) 55 [Toback's approach here initially seems like a recipe for disaster... he has Tyson himself tell his tale, only occasionally stopping for brief moments of archival footage. Through some miracle of editing, the gambit works, though, and the boxer emerges as a genuine, if genuinely sad & genuinely delusional, storyteller. Never for a moment is any perspective other than Tyson's offered, but the sheer amount of his perspective that comes through makes the movie mildly gripping.]

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lion's Den (Pablo Trapero) 64 [Extremely well-shot woman-in-prison film... Interesting mostly in how Trapero eschews the predictable pleasures of that genre, always opting for introspection and diffusion over dramatic force. The key scene might well be the prison riot, in which we focus less on the raging prisoners than on the meeting with the warden that argues for emotional control. It feels strongly like a companion piece to El Bonarense. I do wish it weren't so actively distancing, all the time...]

Tokyo (Gondry/Carax/Bong) 54/50/36 [Disappointing, especially given the sources... Gondry's short is well-observed, but slight. Carax's is an overextended rude joke. Bong's is basically a total wash, despite being pretty to look at. Significantly, this is no Paris je'taime...each of the segments here far weirder than any short included there...]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche) 68

The Gift (Greg Marcks) 35