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The Choice

The Choice totally botches its central pairing, to the point where you might find yourself hoping the blandly irksome twosome fail to even get together.

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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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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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The bookie for the Palme d'Or

May 22, 2009--Austrian Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is shot in black-and-white and set in an Austrian village in the two years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. A series of increasingly disturbing happenings over a period of months disrupts the otherwise uneventful flow of isolated rural life. These include a planned accident that nearly kills the village doctor, the torture of a child by unknown assailants, and the burning of a barn.

At first it could be assumed that this is a mystery and that Haneke's intention is to gradually reveal the perpetrators of the increasingly bizarre and cruel acts. Instead he seems to be moving into Dreyer territory, unfolding the story of repression and escalating evil in beautifully precise but rigid compositions that echo the sternness of the social mores and moral precepts of his characters.

Large families headed by unbending fathers are at the center of this film, and there are many children. The actions of certain children arouse suspicion, but then nearly everyone in the film arouses suspicion, as this is no ordinary mystery. In the end, the disturbing chronicle circles around to the beginning to find a meaning. The film's narrator began the story by saying that the events he was about to unfold may shed some light on later happenings. Haneke leaves it to his audience to decide what is meant by this, but it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that these are the youngsters who grew up to wear brown shirts and swastikas.

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I have lunch with the mayor

May 20, 2009-The premiere of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" will likely dominate the international press for days. The screening itself was a bit less than a crazy event than I had been expecting. After experiencing the wild, all-out adoration of Tarantino fans at a special Cannes screening of "Kill Bill I and II" some years ago, in which the audience consisted largely of French locals, I was prepared for anything.

The guards opened the Grand Theatre Lumiere a half-hour early, and even though I arrive at 7:55 am for the 8:30 am screening, it was already half full. Mild excitement was in the air, some cheers and applause were heard as the lights went down, and another smattering of applause when Tarantino's name appeared on the screen.

I was waiting for some kind of massive reaction at the end, but there really was nothing out of the ordinary. I've never been overwhelmed by Tarantino's films, although the crazed eclecticism of his work is a lot of fun. "Inglourious Basterds" worked for me as a satisfying whole better than most of his other films. He pulls together everything in his arsenal: action, extreme violence, misogyny, film history, pop music and pop culture, and a plot based on a wild premise that rewrites history.

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Hush now, baby, don't you cry

May 17, 2009--Yesterday's most blazingly good (and funny) film was Bong Joon-ho's "Mother," another dark comedy from Korea. Although he had a cult hit in the U.S. with his 2006 film "The Host," his earlier features "Barking Dogs Never Bite" and "Memories of Murder" have only been seen on the festival circuit or in cinematheques. "Mother" is very likely to open a few more theater doors in the West.

"Mother" opens with actress Kim Hye-ja, a woman beyond middle-age, incongruously dancing in a grassy field, and ends with her even more incongruously carefree dance in the aisle of a tour bus as the full effect of Bong's narrative sleight-of-hand sinks in. He leads us on, plays with our sympathies, and makes us pay big-time for falling for Kim's irresistibly eccentric Mom. Mom owns an herb shop in a small town, practices acupuncture without a license on the side, and lives for her grown, but not grown-up, son Do-joon, a young man blessed with a beautiful face and a dim brain. She's doting and ditzy and given to nonsensical platitudes like "Always eat well after coming back from the police station."

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A precious American girl, a Japanese love doll, Iranian rockers, and a Korean vampire

May 15, 2009--The most gutsy, powerful film I've seen here so far is without doubt "Precious" by African-American director Lee Daniels. "Precious" already had its world premiere at Sundance in February, where it was greatly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. If the comments I've heard today are any indication, it promises to be an even bigger success in Cannes.

Based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, "Precious" is the story of a Harlem teenager who is severely abused by her mother, habitually raped and twice impregnated by her father, and treated like garbage by just about everyone in her life. The one thing Precious's abusers don't succeed in killing is her imagination, and for instance, while being raped, in her mind's eye she sees herself making a grand entrance at a film premiere. The pictures in her photo album talk to her, and this large, awkward girl looks in the mirror and sees a beauty queen with cascading blonde hair. This is not a preachy film, but one that grabs you from beginning to end as Precious comes back from the edge of desolation to discover the immovable force of her own willpower.

After seeing "Precious" last night at an invitational press screening, this afternoon I attended the press roundtable interview event with director Lee Daniels, screenwriter Damien Paul, and actors Gabourey Sidibe, Mariah Carrey, Lenny Kravitz, and Paula Patton. It was held at the outdoor restaurant Beach VitaminWater, which I can't say without laughing. Typical of these events, a lavish lunch is served, and the talent is brought in.

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5/14: Swanky 3-D goggles for the chic cineaste

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The programming director of the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is blogging from Cannes for us.

Thursday, May 14--You can't beat the weather here in Cannes. After the cold rain and dark skies in Frankfurt, where I changed planes yesterday, the perfect, summery temperatures and extravagant displays of flowers makes this town seem even more like a Mediterranean paradise than usual.

The festival kicked off to the world Wednesday night with the first red-carpet walk by the jury, and the Pixar folks with their 3-D animated feature "Up", but for most of us in film-industry jobs, the festival is already well underway with press screenings, market screenings, and press conferences.

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