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FEST CIRCUIT
Reports from Cannes and Tribeca. (IFFBoston and Aspen Shortsfest in the print issue).

PENÉLOPE CRUZ IN PEDRO ALMODÓVAR’S VOLVER, WINNER OF TWO PRIZES AT CANNES 2006. PHOTO: JUAN GATTI.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

High/low. Yin/yang. Manic/depressive. For the most part, the superior offerings at the 59th edition of the Cannes Film Festival were either hyper- or hypokinetic. It was a bipolar year. Many of the least successful films were several degrees to the side of the two extremes: too much or too little. And even if the two top winners, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Palme d’Or) and Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (Grand Jury Prize), made anti-military and anti-occupation statements with clear parallels to the situation in Iraq, reporters have made way too much of the political coloring of this year’s crop. Despite the brilliant severity of Flanders (I didn’t see the Loach), many of this year’s finest works came equipped with their ideology subtextual rather than overt. Or they simply dismissed politics altogether. Sometimes good movies say more about the human condition than the state of the union.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus belongs in the superenergetic category, as does Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, which is also political in a campily subversive way. Shortbus’s message — and that’s a heavy word for this irreverent romp — is that sex (and there is plenty of it, no holes — sorry — holds barred) between (or among) men and women, men and men, and women and women is as essential as eating and breathing. Mitchell has become an excellent filmmaker; Hedwig was a sketch compared to Shortbus. He doesn’t hold back on anything. He gives hell to a closeted Ed Koch surrogate for not doing more about AIDS. We see Ground Zero at the beginning of the film, and 9/11 is called “the only real thing that has happened” to the people who go to the orgy salon called Shortbus. While most of the males are well-endowed twentysomethings, Mitchell is inclusive: old and heavy people populate the movie as well. The editing is often fast — the film just pulsates with energy.

Almodóvar’s film is more in a comically feminist vein. Volver is populated almost exclusively by women. The director has always found women more fascinating and empathetic than men — he’s Bergman with verve — but he has rarely excluded males to this extent. Volver garnered Almodóvar Best Screenwriter honors and his cast a collective Best Actress prize. It is quite good, but it is not one of Almodóvar’s greats. The film is darker than many of his works, and, even though the actors’ exaggerated mannerisms and over-the-top dialogue are there, it reflects a passage for the director. Almost all of the characters are involved with death or dying, and he returns to a setting not unlike the village he grew up in. Unfortunately, he feels the need to break up the fluidity with sudden juvenile references to sex. There are two generations of child abuse here, with murder and years of resentment as a byproduct. Penélope Cruz gives an electrifying performance as Raimunda, the Magnani- and Loren-like protagonist.

Another high-energy, anarchic movie is Hungarian master György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, his follow-up to the dialogue-less Hukkle, an entry in the noncompetitive Un Certain Regard. It follows three generations of men in the same family. The first is a sex-obsessed orderly in World War I whose fantasies the director depicts with erections and computer-generated orgasms. The gargantuan second member competes in raucous Soviet Bloc eating championships. Thanks to CGI, he and his equally huge wife can vomit endlessly. The third lives a more languorous life. He is a withdrawn taxidermist, and in a brilliant, outrageous denouement, he stuffs both his obese dad and himself, achieving immortality as an object in a pretentious art exhibition. I love this film, but maybe you have to be there.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL’S SHORTBUS.

The Kaurismäki-esque Norwegian film and Critics Week entry The Bothersome Man, by Jens Lien, successfully synthesizes high and withheld energy. It has a poker-faced lead with amnesia and a rubbery face who is taken to what is either heaven or hell, where he gets a job as an accountant but fails to fit in. Every so often something happens, like his and another man’s frantically digging a hole to escape. Caught, he is dragged by two “attendants” to a bus that takes him back to the desert where he started. This discovery is original in conception and appealingly dry.

The overkill group includes two competition films: Argentinean director Adrián Caetano’s Buenos Aires, 1977 and Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales; and one from Un Certain Regard, Australian Paul Goldman’s Suburban Mayhem. Caetano made a subtle, lovely film entitled Bolivia in 2001, but Buenos Aires, 1977 is expressionistic in the extreme. The filmmaker’s intrusive style overshadows the horrors of the true story of young men kidnapped and then tortured in a large mansion by thugs working for the military regime, before attempting a dodgy escape. The best thing about the film is actor Rodrigo De la Serna. Buenos Aires, 1977 may not work, but at least it is consistent, of a piece. Few would say that about the 140-minute Southland Tales, which is so all over the place that it’s difficult to follow. A satire of an apocalypse in this country, the premise, built around three odd characters, is that Los Angeles is the spot where the world will end. It is the ultimate ADD movie. To tell the story of a dysfunctional family and an amoral teen slut who wants to kill her father, Suburban Mayhem uses MTV-style editing and annoyingly loud music combined with doc-style front-on testimony. It’s a failed attempt to blend Australian camp with the country’s more successful naturalistic tradition.

Flanders was my favorite film in competition. It is Dumont’s most accomplished work since La vie de Jesus. Using as is his custom non-professional actors, he tells the story of a large farm boy in Flanders who makes love regularly with the local girl before he is drafted and taken to a war zone in a desert fighting Middle or Near Easterners. While he is away, the young woman takes a lover, becomes pregnant, goes insane and has an abortion. Meanwhile he participates in a gang rape and leaves a comrade to die before he is sent back home. Dumont is the most unpretentious of filmmakers. The drama is in the everyday, though it doesn’t prevent him from taking a swipe at what our military is doing today.

Flanders, Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk (both in competition) and the French-Algerian production Bled Number One (Un Certain Regard) by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche are fine films of a quieter bent. Lights in the Dusk is not among the gems in the Kaurismäki oeuvre, but it is typical of his work and therefore...I was going to say engaging, but that goes against the director’s comic Brechtian approach. How about inventive? It is darker, more noirish than his earlier films, but the same signature crisp photography remains constant. The film tells the story of a small, nerdy security guard who succumbs to the temptation of an archetypal femme fatale and aids a group of jewel robbers. A revelation, Bled Number One reminds me of some of the early D.W. Griffith shorts, in which you can enjoy the movement of the wind through the grass and against the trees, and here, against the long robes of the Arab women in an Algerian village. Ameur-Zaïmeche plays the lead, a man who has returned to the village of his birth because he has been deported from France for robbery.

Just as some movies are too speedy, others are too boring, without the catharsis or purity to justify their ennui. Two of these were in competition: Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s follow-up to his superb Distant, The Climates; and, from the U.K., Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. Not everyone agrees: The Climates won the International Critics Prize, and Red Road, a first feature, a Jury Prize. The other two, Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma, from Argentina, and the American M. Blash’s Lying, were both in the Directors Fortnight, which this year offered some unbelievably bad films. Was someone in the French directors’ association sabotaging the festival as the young filmmakers who founded the sidebar had in 1968? This was the alternative they were seeking?

Ceylan mistakenly cast himself and his younger second wife, attractive though they are, in the roles of an older man and a younger woman. Very little happens between them; I found it a sleepy vanity production. With its endless surveillance monitors, Red Road is monotonous and derivative. A woman lives vicariously through the people she watches in a central control room in Glasgow. Fantasma was a major disappointment after the troubling, sublime Los Muertos. In fact it is a solipsistic follow-up: the lead actor in Los Muertos gets lost in a large Buenos Aires building trying to find the screening room where he is to see...Los Muertos. This is a self-admitted filler film while Alonso arranges financing for his more substantial next project. I will never understand the inclusion of Lying (which got the meanest review I’ve ever seen in Variety). Was it so that Chloë Sevigny and Jena Malone could wave from the stage in the basement of the Hilton? The film, an amateurish attempt to create a Chekhovian atmosphere at an American country house, is badly photographed, even occasionally out of focus. I would like to be generous and call it an anti-aesthetic, but the truth is it’s just plain incompetent. There are so many better indie films from this country that could have been invited.

I’d like to mention a trio of competing films that had potential but were hurt by major narrative flaws. Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye’s Summer Palace would have worked better had it not used Tiananmen Square as a mere backdrop for a pair of on-again, off-again student lovers. Mexican filmmaker and Best Director winner Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s American polyglot project Babel is comprised of three interconnected stories, one in North Africa, one in Mexico and California and a third, the most tenuous, in Japan. Perhaps the flutter of a butterfly’s wings does affect the actions of someone across the world, but in the hands of Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the ripple effect feels forced and trite. I am no blind patriot, but the potshots against the U.S. in this film are cheap, especially from a filmmaker who, unlike his countryman Alfonso Cuarón, is only making Hollywood movies with certified Hollywood stars.

Texan Richard Linklater offers a more realistic view of the plight of illegal Mexican workers in this country in Fast Food Nation, also in competition. In fact he goes too far. Yes, Eric Schlosser’s fine nonfiction book does describe in lurid detail their horrible working conditions in the meatpacking industry, but it is in the context of the corporatization of that industry and, by extension, of the whole country. Linklater shortchanges the role of the corrupt, exploitative industry monopolists in the fate of the “illegal aliens” by disproportionately focusing on the latter. Theirs is a horrid life, but unless you expose the underlying problem, you’ve missed the boat.

The warm weather, sea, and — glamour? — are not enough to keep you going at Cannes. After Day One in the Salle Debussy or Salle Lumière, what’s up on the screen determines the success of the trip. I had the

pleasure of spending a small fortune to be among the first people to see a lot of stuff I would probably have fast-forwarded on the little monitor in my own merely functional apartment. — Howard Feinstein

TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL

Celebrating its fifth year, the Tribeca Film Festival — running from April 25 to May 7 — continues to fight an uphill battle for respect. Stacked with 174 feature films, including studio blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon, while trying to lure more industry attention with its 90 world premieres (the most ever for Tribeca), the fest is still known more for its quantity than quality.

Desperate for more screens to showcase its supersized slate, the festival branched out of lower Manhattan this year to include screenings in midtown and uptown. Though some felt the move would blur the festival’s mission of bringing business downtown, the expansion proved to be a success, with estimates showing a record attendance of 465,000, annihilating last year’s tally of 275,000. “There are only a limited number of cinemas now downtown, so we’re hoping that situation changes in the near future,” says TFF executive director Peter Scarlet on the fest’s extension, adding, “I don’t know what to say — we’re the Tribeca Film Festival, and we ain’t never going to leave Tribeca.”

TFF also laid the groundwork to be a market in the future, with industry attendance up 33 percent from last year. How large that market will be is anyone’s guess. Though two films were picked up during the fest — Strand Releasing nabbed the French drama Backstage; First Independent Pictures took the dark comedy Mini’s First Time, starring Alec Baldwin — most distributors weren’t interested in opening their checkbooks, stating the films weren’t good enough or waiting for a surer thing at Cannes a week and a half later. Needless to say, there were a handful of films that will likely be acquired in the future.

On the narrative side, my favorites were I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, the directorial debut from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin. An Albert Brooksesque comedy about an overweight actor (Garlin) and his misadventures with women and career, this simple film highlights Garlin’s talents and has a great ensemble cast that includes Sarah Silverman and Bonnie Hunt. The heartfelt Snowcake follows an ex-con (Alan Rickman) who befriends an autistic mother, played superbly by Sigourney Weaver, after getting into a car accident with her daughter. John Malkovich is hilarious in Colour Me Kubrick as a con man impersonating Stanley Kubrick in England during the ’90s. And The TV Set, a satirical comedy about the Network-like absurdity during TV’s pilot season (starring Weaver and David Duchovny), garnered so much attention that 80 people were turned away at its last screening.

But like many fests nowadays, the docs had the biggest buzz. The most talked about was best doc prizewinner The War Tapes. Determined to capture an inside look at war, director Deborah Scranton declined an invitation to be embedded with the New Hampshire National Guard, asking instead if she could give soldiers small DV cameras to record their time in Iraq. Three accepted and captured amazing footage from the front lines. But what makes the film great is Scranton’s look at the struggles of the wives and girlfriends back home, followed by the soldiers’ readjustment to civilian life. Scranton decided to self-distribute the film in June but felt a sense of pride having the world premiere at Tribeca seeing the fest began “because of an act of war.” (Numerous films tackled the subject of war, including the fest’s top prizewinner, Blessed by Fire. Many festivalgoers, in fact, felt the lineup was too war heavy.)

Other impressive docs include the beautifully done but ethically questionable The Bridge, about people jumping to their deaths off the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most popular places to commit suicide, by showing the actual suicides. And Rock the Bells, which follows a grassroots concert promoter trying to reunite the legendary rap group the Wu-Tang Clan. The filmmakers had extraordinary access to their subjects, and the uncertainty of the Wu’s arrival leads to a Gimme Shelter–like conclusion that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Though the fest takes its licks for being too large in scope — and some filmmakers felt the expansion made it harder this year to casually interact with their peers — this year may have been the best run yet, and filmmakers rave about the respect the fest gives them and the opportunities their films have to be seen by the right people. So perhaps there’s a silver lining after all. – Jason Guerrasio

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