300: Rise of an Empire
In comparison with "300", this insane film is more engaging by dint of being absolutely impossible to take even a little bit seriously.
Barbara Scharres is the Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In this capacity she is the artistic director for one of the largest cultural exhibition programs of world cinema in North America. She has published articles and criticism in film magazines and journals including American Cinematographer, Film Comment, Chicago Reader, Variety, and the Chicago Sun-Times, and has contributed to books including Hong Kong Babylon, edited by Fred Dannen.
Scharres was named a "Chicagoan of the Year in the Arts" by the Chicago Tribune three times, in 1989, 1991, and 1999. In 2006, the French government awarded her one of its highest honors by designating her a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her role in advancing French culture through cinema.
Following a heavy rain in the late afternoon yesterday, this morning in Cannes was gloriously sunny, the sky becoming more perfect and cloudless as the day progressed. I was hoping for a group of films to blow away yesterday's prevailing images of poverty, oppression, and child abuse. "The Artist" by Michel Hazanavicius, screening in competition, seemed like it could do the trick. It's a romance set in Hollywood; and strangely enough, it's conceived as a silent film.
"The Artist" has the most self-congratulatory press kit I've ever seen--55 glossy illustrated pages of in-depth interviews with all the key figures involved with the production, everyone congratulating and complimenting everyone else for their fabulous work. Could the film measure up to this? Not hardly. It is indeed a black-and-white silent film with musical accompaniment. Director Hazanavicius has attempted to revive the techniques of the silent cinema to tell a story entirely through acting, with text intertitles replacing spoken dialogue.
It's another cool and overcast day in Cannes, but one that promises to be dominated by pirates and outlaws in the morning, and kids in the afternoon. The out-of-competition premiere European screening of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" was scheduled for the Grand Theatre Lumiere at 8:30 am. This meant that European critics would flock, but Americans like me were freed up to roam elsewhere for our viewing. For my first film I opted to walk down the Croisette to see a pirate of a very different kind in "Porfirio," a Colombian film by Alejandro Landes, in the Quinzaine (Directors Fortnight) section of the festival.
"Porfirio" is a scripted and lightly fictionalized account of the life of a man the Latin American press had dubbed "the air pirate." Actual events reenacted in the film by non-professional actors, including the original central figure in the story, Porfirio Ramirez Aldana. Porfirio made headlines in 2005 for hijacking a plane to Bogota.
What attracted Landes to the case after reading a sensationalized newspaper account was the fact that the hijacker is paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair, and was wearing diapers at the time. The director spent five years working with his subject and his family to develop their trust, and only revealed to the man a few days before shooting began that he would play himself.
It's Friday the 13th in Cannes, and that has got to mean something good. An overcast sky threatening rain means that there couldn't be a more perfect day to stay inside and watch movies.
The morning began with the 8:30 am press screening of Nanni Moretti's "We Have a Pope." Hmm...a comedy/drama about the Vatican by a self-professed Italian atheist? Moretti is known primarily for his wry, intellectual, and largely autobiographical approach to comedy in films including "My Diary" and "April, " but also for serious drama in films including his 2001 Palme d'Or winner "The Son's Room." Subjects he has often lampooned include leftist politics, psychoanalysis, water-polo, and the cinema itself.
In "We Have a Pope," the funeral of a dead pope has just taken place and the College of Cardinals is convening to elect the new pontiff from among their number. Moretti goes to great lengths to represent this ritual gathering with great accuracy, but injecting an escalating number of comic moments as the film traverses from the ceremonial pomp of its opening scenes to take on a lighter tone.
As if the voting for a pope were an elementary school spelling test, the prelates cross out names on their ballots, look to heaven for guidance, and even cheat, some slyly spying on what a neighbor seated to the left or right is writing. After a few rounds of voting, the winner is revealed to be a candidate who was not even in the running, a stunned Cardinal Melville (surely Moretti's tip of the hat to iconic French director Jean-Pierre Melville), played by veteran French star Michel Piccoli.
As I approached the Festival Palais early this morning, a light breeze wafted down the fabric of the immense billboard-size banner of this year's festival poster over the facade. The glamorous photo of a leggy Faye Dunaway, by director Jerry Schatzberg from his 1970 film "Puzzle of a Downfall Child," was rippling and creasing in a way that made the sleek legs appear to be covered by a pair of ill-fitting tights. Little did I suspect that Faye's wardrobe malfunction was a bad omen for a seemingly promising day on which three out of the only four films by women selected for this year's Cannes competition were scheduled to screen.
British actress Tilda Swinton, who gravitates to daring roles, plays Eva, a conflicted New York mother "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver. Eva's son Kevin is portrayed as having a deep animosity toward his mother, virtually from the moment of his birth. As an infant, he shrieks hour after hour when alone with her. As he grows, he exhibits a fierce, focused inclination to evil, and that bent will ultimately make him a Columbine-style killer. Kevin might have been a demon child in another kind of movie, but this is not a supernatural story. "We Need to Talk About Kevin," is a psychological drama centered on Eva's guilt.
For me, this was a one-note film. Kevin is thoroughly bad; Eva is thoroughly angry, self-hating and stoic. I longed for some shades of subtlety, but this is a story that relies on blood-red coding in dreams and flashbacks, and a soundtrack that emphasizes grating irritants. Ramsay, who acquitted herself very well with films including "Ratcatcher" and "Movern Callar," seems an ill match for an American setting, letting raucous bluegrass numbers and stereotyped characterizations of Eva's small town neighbors and co-workers stand in for insight.
Arriving in Cannes by bus from the Nice airport provides a thumbnail tour of the town, from the more seedy homes on the outskirts to the swanky hotels on the waterfront. The palms lining the Croisette, the festival's de facto main drag, may be the ubiquitous symbol of city, but a few blocks away the plane trees, cypresses, and the prolific climbing roses of Provence are a more common sight. Walk a short distance from the Festival Palais and there are conspicuously un-chic restaurants where local cops congregate for dinner in the back room and retired couples hang out for a smoke and an evening beer, more often than not, with a fluffy mutt under the table.
In a way, my first reminders yesterday of everyday life in everyday France were a bracing counterpoint to this morning's press screening of Woody Allen's romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris." The festival's opening night film is a colorful valentine to Paris, indulging and gorgeously illustrating the director's every memory and cherished illusion of the city. I've never been a big Woody Allen fan, but "Midnight in Paris" is loads of fun.
The film opens with a morning-to-night sequence of views of the city's most iconic sights: Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees, the narrow streets of the Left Bank, and the Eiffel Tower. That opening alone is a tourist board's dream. At the press conference later, a journalist asked Allen, who mentioned that he thought of the title long before he had a story, whether these postcard-worthy views were his own impressions of Paris, or were meant to represent the point of view of his characters. Perhaps the French questioner was hoping for the latter, but Allen replied, "I learned about Paris the way all Americans do--from the movies. I wanted to show the city emotionally, not realistically, but through my eyes.
As the opening night of the Cannes International Film Festival approaches, a host of Riviera amenities and services hope to lure my business via solicitous e-mails. Would Madame perhaps like to hire a helicopter for the journey from the Nice airport to the Festival Palais? Rent a limousine with a multilingual driver? Charter a yacht or rent a fully staffed villa with swimming pool (photos handily attached)?
Me, I'm just in the market to rent a no-frills mobile phone with a European SIM card, and I'll be taking an inter-city bus from the airport, but you get the picture. The sparkling goodies of this playground of millionaires are dangled before the thousands of accredited journalists, theater programmers, film buyers, and filmmakers soon to be heading for the legendary festival. Most of us will be pinching the Euros until they scream, but nonetheless enjoying the nonstop spectacle provided by those who get to ride around in helicopters.
The festival opens the night of Wednesday, May 11 with Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." "Monsieur Woodee," as the French are wont to call him, made his first visit ever to Cannes in 2002, when his "Hollywood Endings" opened the festival. Although the film was disappointingly lackluster, it certainly made no difference to his French fans, who hailed him like an emperor. I watched Allen on that occasion from a seat among the hyper-excited audience, marveling at his frail stature, almost inaudible voice, and the shrinking body language that made him seem an incongruous god of cinema.
Entry to the Grande Theatre Lumiere for the press premiere of Rachid Bouchareb's "Outside of the Law" was considerably delayed on Friday morning by heightened security. Heavily-armed members of the French National Guard were stationed in the street and on the red carpet. Water bottles were confiscated by guards; men got full-body pat-downs from head to toe; and women had bags exhaustively inspected at two different points. This was in addition to the usual electronic wanding that we are all subject to upon entering any part of the Palais.
There's a slide that appears on the big screen in the Debussy Theatre while audiences file in for screenings for the A Certain Regard section of the festival. Two figures in profile, one of them with horns on his head, are shown in silhouette against a light background. It's actually a photo of this year's Cannes jury president Tim Burton with Batman, but I continue to see it as an angel and a devil.
May 18 -- Some Cannes traditions never die. In the years I've been coming to the festival, the same music has been playing in the Grand Theatre Lumiere before the early morning press screening. It's always jazz, and it always seems to be the same selection every morning, every year. I've started to imagine that there's some ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder in a distant control booth, and that a guard is assigned to rewind and start the old tape at 8:00 am each day.
Sound or more specifically, language is central to Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialism." Roger has commented so thoroughly on that film that I'm not going to add much, except to say that Godard remains one of the grand tricksters of world cinema. With his French dialogue, minimal and cryptic subtitles in so-called "Navajo English" (this in itself seems a tongue-in-cheek fiction on his part), and bits of a few other languages thrown in, he creates a Babel that I believe was made to baffle and intrigue one and all, no matter what your native tongue. It's a kind of rarefied fun to try to decipher, and maddening at the same time. Meanwhile, Godard the magician, like the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz," gets to hide behind his screen, sending out big ideas and big images.
Above: Abbas Kiarostami (AP photo)
May 16 -- Sunday was a day of highs and lows, of new discoveries and dashed hopes. Bertrand Tavernier and Takeshi Kitano, two directors whose films I had most anticipated here, did not live up to my expectations with "The Princess of Montpensier" and "Outrage," respectively. Hungarian Agnes Kocsis, a director who had only made one previous feature in 2006, blew me away with her insightful "Adrienn Pal."