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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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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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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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Love under stormy skies

Sunday dawned with a dark and threatening sky and a chill in the air, continuing the dreary weather trend of the past two days. It's a day of heavy-hitters here at Cannes, with two greatly anticipated films by major directors premiering in competition: "Amour" ("Love") by Austrian Michael Haneke in the morning; and "Like Someone in Love" by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami in the evening. Is the weather an omen or just weather? We'll see.

Neither of today's competition films was made in the director's home country. Haneke made "Amour" in France with French stars, but then he has more frequently worked in France in recent years. Kiarostami made his previous feature "Certified Copy" in Italy with an international cast, but "Like Someone in Love" was made in Japan with a French producer, a first for the globe-trotting director.

Michael Haneke has made his reputation on a uniquely transgressive form of cinema. Films, including "The White Ribbon," "The Piano Teacher," and "Funny Games," cross boundaries and break taboos, all the while drawing the audience into complicity with moral compromises and sometimes vile acts. "Amour" represents a new and more gentle and affecting take on that artistic strategy.

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In "Amour," veteran French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant ("A Man and a Woman," "My Night with Maud") and Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima Mon Amour") play Georges and Anne, a married couple in their 80s. They are retired music teachers who live in a lovely high-ceilinged apartment, and their comfortable lives are steeped in music and the arts. Their adult daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), also a musician, has a busy life of touring with her British husband.

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Georges and Anne enjoy each other's company, and, as the film opens, they are having a happy evening attending the concert of a former pupil, now a successful concert pianist and recording star. Returning from the concert, they find that a presumed burglar has attempted to force the lock on their apartment door. It's a tiny incident never mentioned again once Georges arranges for the repair. However, this is a Haneke film, and he has a way of planting thoughts that refuse to go away. As the film played out, I remembered the assault on the lock and interpreted it as a dark sign that had first passed unnoticed.

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The routine of life is upset when Anne has a stroke that leaves her partially paralyzed. Georges cares for her himself, and over the course of time she has more strokes and her condition deteriorates dramatically, edging her ever closer to death. Self-absorbed daughter Eva breezes in and sits briefly at her mother's bedside, babbling non-stop about real estate investments as Anne lies immobile, hooked up to an IV.

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Threats take many forms in Haneke's work, from the home invaders of "Funny Games" to the mysterious stalker from the past in "Caché" ("Hidden"). The utter debasement and destruction of the victim is usually the result. Old age and death are the invaders in "Amour." Georges and Anne are helpless to prevent the indignities that lie in wait for Anne. Once again Haneke pulls the audience in, not only in acknowledging the frailty that we all share, but in complicity with the course that Georges and Anne will follow.

After "Amour," a film with a less somber tone was a welcome change. I hiked up several flights of steps to the Salle Bunuel, a theater up in the rafters of the Palais, where I sat next to Ann Thompson, author of the stellar blog "Thompson on Hollywood" on indieWire.com, for a special screening of "The Sapphires." It's a comedy/drama based on a true story of the four members of an Australian Aboriginal girl group ala The Supremes, who get hired to entertain U. S. troops in Vietnam in the late 60s.

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"The Sapphires" is packed with Motown numbers and fun to watch, but it also has a serious side, highlighting the fact of Australia's segregation and discrimination against the Aboriginal people that continued into the 70s, and paralleled the pre-Civil Rights conditions that existed for African Americans in the U. S.

Gail, Julie, and Cynthia head for the flyspeck of a town near their Aboriginal reservation to compete in a talent contest with a country & western number. Some of the all-white audience members leave in disgust; others simply ignore the performance, which is clearly the best but doesn't win (no surprise there). They do get the attention of the contest's inebriated loser of an MC--Dave, a down-on-his-luck Irishman.

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Some complicated personal negotiations and a few days later, Dave and the girls are off to Melbourne to round up cousin Kay, who's been passing for white, and to rehearse for the audition with U. S. personnel. Dave, whose passion is soul music, convinces the reluctant girls that their only hope for a future in music lies with Motown rather than with country & western. The audition is a smash, and they can't believe their luck in getting a gig in Vietnam.

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"The Sapphires" is a slick piece of work with a made-for-TV air, but that doesn't diminish the enjoyment of the story. Playing the four girls, Aboriginal actresses Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell are a delight to watch as they pull off the progression from teenage amateurs to seasoned stars belting out numbers and doing dance routines under battle conditions. Chris O'Dowd, who plays Dave (and was also in "Bridesmaids) is a one-man show in himself. The Vietnam portion of the film brings romance into the picture too, and without giving anything away, I can say that it all ends satisfactorily.

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Next, came another comedy, "In Another Country" by Hong Sangsoo, but a comedy of a unique sort. This is the thirteenth feature for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate, and he's been a fixture at Cannes with films including "Ha Ha Ha," "Like You Know It All," "A Tale of Cinema," and "Woman Is the Future of Man."

Hong's films are usually self-referential, and a filmmaker is often the protagonist. He has a droll sense of humor, and the comic aspects of his films grow out of awkward social interactions in which his characters are guilty of a great range of personal blunders that result from misinterpreting the intentions of others. His films have an off-hand feeling that at first seems unscripted, but clues and intentions always accumulates to surprise the viewer in the end.

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Isabelle Huppert stars in "In Another Country" alongside a Korean cast. A young woman and her mother facing financial ruin are holed up at a seaside resort where the daughter begins writing a script. The three incidents that follow are those she is imagining and writing complete with variations and alternate versions. The same small cast is reshuffled in each episode, and Huppert's character is named Anne in all three.

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In the first story, Anne is a French film director on holiday to visit a Korean director and his pregnant wife. His erotic overtures to Anne are blocked, and she has an odd but pleasant encounter with a lifeguard at the beach, who composes a song for her. In the second story, Anne is a married woman waiting at the resort for the arrival of her Korean lover; her conversation with a lifeguard inadvertently inspires jealousy. In the third story, Anne is a married woman whose husband has left her for a Korean woman. She arrives at the resort with a female friend and they discover that a famous film director is staying in the apartment next door.

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By the time I got out of the Hong Sangsoo film, a storm had moved in for real, and the streets of Cannes were awash in torrential rain for what's predicted to be an all-night soaker. The itinerant street vendors had switched their wares from sunglasses and trinkets to armloads of striped umbrellas, and high winds put any one of those in danger. Cannes is a great place to be in the sun, and a lousy place to be in heavy rain.

The lineup for the evening press screening of Kiarostami's "Like Someone in Love" was well underway in the downpour an hour before it was scheduled to start. Umbrellas were crammed so close together they almost made their own multi-colored tent. Tempers were short, especially when it developed that the festival was running late in opening the Debussy Theatre for seating. Guards were shouting "Ne bouge pas! (Don't move!) and "Doucement! (Gently!) to the wet, seething crowd of us, who were very wet indeed by the time we got seats.

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Abbas Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or in 1997 for "Taste of Cherry." Star Juliette Binoche won Best Actress for his "Certified Copy" in 2010, his previous film to compete at Cannes. The bare details of the story of "Like Someone in Love" don't begin to describe the actuality of Kiarostami's realization in this enigmatic film about things lost or unattainable.

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Akiko, a sullen, passive and pretty college student who moonlights as a call girl, is sent by her boss to a special client despite her excuses to beg off. These range from boyfriend trouble to a visiting grandmother. The client turns out to be a very elderly professor whose expectations seem to be conversation, wine, and dinner. Akiko's attempts to lure him into bed fail, and she sleeps the night away alone. Early the next morning he drives her to the university where she has an exam. A chance meeting between the professor and her jealous, controlling boyfriend, an auto mechanic, results in the mistaken impression that the old man is her grandfather.

This is not a conventional narrative. Characters are seldom seen speaking to each other face to face, and many key events are seen from a distance, partly obscured by trees, light poles, cars, or other people, making these images as elusive as ghosts. Kiarostami also makes use of reflections in mirrors, windshields, and windows or things glimpsed through open doorways. Truth and intentions are as hazy as the obscured view the professor's nosy neighbor gets spying though her filmy window curtain.

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Kiarostami has used cars as vehicles for drama in his films like no other director past or present. Films including "Taste of Cherry" and "Ten" are entirely structured around the use of the car as the primary set. Even "Certified Copy" had an important sequence set in a car. In "Like Someone in Love," the car becomes a confessional of sorts. The only time Akiko exhibits visible emotion is in a taxi on the way to her assignation. The only time that Akiko or her boyfriend, reveal something of themselves is in the car with the professor, and yet, ironically, each person is maintaining a facade or laboring under false illusions.

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"Like Someone in Love" is a hall of mirrors with an ending of sorts but an open-ended conclusion. Judging by the reaction in the Palais, it did not find the kind of favor with the tonight's damp crowd that is more usually accorded Kiarostami's films. The boos were loud and hearty, and the applause was weak, although reaction in the press screening is not always an indication of which way the reviews will go when the trade papers come out tomorrow. I'd say the jury's still out on this one as far as the majority reaction by international critics.

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