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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Pre-Cannes

May Contain Spoilers

On Wednesday, May 15th, the 66th Cannes International Film Festival will open with the international premiere of Baz Lurhmann’s extravagant “The Great Gatsby.” There will be stars; there will be crowds pressing tight for a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan; there will be all the usual Cannes hoopla. What a great many of us will miss is the irreplaceable and irrepressible presence of Roger Ebert, either in person, as he was for decades, or via the web, as he was in recent years, his curiosity and passion for the unfolding events still inspiring him to put the spotlight on the festival that had long been his natural habitat.

One typical Cannes opening night many years ago, I ran into Roger and Chaz at the come-as-you-are spaghetti dinner that the Toronto Film Festival folks used to throw at their rented apartment on a quiet street a few blocks off the Croisette to kick off the festival. Guests always included a cross-section of industry people, from festival and venue programmers to assorted critics and independent filmmakers. Most everyone would be newly arrived in town, jet-lagged, and maybe more than a little grungy. 

Imagining that Roger and Chaz would at that moment be strolling down the red carpet in evening dress, I was surprised to spot them comfortably camped out on the couch at this dinner. Naively, I asked Roger if they wouldn’t rather be among the glamorous crowd at the Palais. He just smiled as if the answer were obvious, and indicated that being surrounded by friends in jeans eating pasta from paper plates was just where he wanted to be on that inaugural night. He was that kind of guy.

Roger took delight in every aspect of Cannes, from the highest high art to the cheesiest promotion. I especially recall his reaction to the novelty press kit for the 2006 Russian film “Taxidermia.” It was a paper replica of a beefsteak shrink-wrapped in a Styrofoam tray. Roger found this entrancing, and took a snapshot with his cell phone to gleefully show everyone he knew up and down the aisle at a screening before e-mailing it to his Sun-Times editor Laura. This is the critic I like to remember: a man with a huge sense of humor and a boundless capacity for getting a kick out of even the smallest things.

In the several years that I’ve been writing for RogerEbert.com from Cannes, Roger was the first reader and the essential pen pal across the internet ether. I’d send off my daily report just before going to bed around midnight, and as soon as I got up the next morning I’d check my e-mail for Roger’s reaction. His comments were rarely more than a sentence long, and sometimes only a word, but they were always encouraging and kind. I’m realizing just how large that hole in the ether will be this year. But, I’ll be there and I hope that all of you readers will be with me. We have the 66th Cannes ahead of us. Let’s start together in the spirit of discovery that Roger would have brought to it.

American star power will be in evidence this year, from Hollywood royalty including Steven Spielberg, who heads the jury, to high-profile independents and mavericks including the Coen brothers with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” starring John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake, “Behind the Candelabra” by Steven Soderbergh, featuring a much-anticipated performance by Michael Douglas as Liberace, and Sofia Coppola with “The Bling Ring,” starring Emma Watson. Veteran star Kim Novak will be on hand to be honored for her landmark performance in “Vertigo” when a digital restoration of Hitchcock’s masterpiece is debuted.

Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) served on last year’s jury, but he’ll be back in Cannes being judged in competition this time around, with “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, and Will Forte. James Toback, who tends to be a critical favorite, premieres the documentary “Seduced and Abandoned,” featuring Martin Scorsese, Alec Baldwin, and Roman Polanski discussing personal film projects that died for lack of funding.

Some films sure to generate excitement just by virtue of the recent track record of their directors and/or stars include: “The Past,” the new film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar in 2012 for “A Separation”; “Only God Forgives,” a revenge thriller from Nicolas Winding Refn, who had a cult hit in 2011 with “Drive”; and “The Immigrant” by James Gray, starring Marion Cotillard and James Renner.

I’m always in search of new Asian films, so I’m especially excited that “Blind Detective” by Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To will have a midnight screening. Mainland Chinese director Jia Zhangke (“Still Life,” and “The World”), another artist whose work I greatly admire, will screen “A Touch of Sin” in competition. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has had several films at Cannes over the years, including “Air Doll” in 2009, will likewise premiere his “Like Father, Like Son” in competition.

Doing a little preliminary research on the titles selected for competition, I’m intrigued by the stunning cast lineup combining popular and cult actors for “Michael Koolhaas,” a 16th-century drama by Arnaud des Pallières. Included are: Danish star Mads Mikkelson (“A Royal Affair”); Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor best known for “Wings of Desire;” Denis Lavant, Leos Carax’s malleable alter-ego, most recently in “Holy Motors;” Sergi López (“Pan’s Labyrinth”); and, most oddly, American Paul Bartel, who began his career working for Roger Corman. The film could be brilliant or it could be a mess, but the thing about Cannes with this and every announced film is that it’s all in the hope and the bright potential promise of each premiere.

Last but not least, I’ll once again be on the prowl at Cannes for Best Feline Performance, to award my just-pretend Palme de Whiskers at the end of the festival, when cat stars of the world gather in my imaginary Palais de Kittycats for the glittering awards ceremony.  Dog-lovers beware—cats will rule the Croisette!

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