Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
by Neil Steinberg Sun-Times Columnist
It started for me with a letter from a Los Angeles filmmaker named Mike Williamson, who contacted me March 7 in outrage about a bait-and-switch involving IMAX. He paid an extra fee to see a movie in Burbank, and wrote the company in protest: "As soon as I walked in the theatre, I was disgusted. This was not an IMAX screen. Simply extending a traditional multiplex screen to touch the sides and floor does not constitute an IMAX experience. An IMAX screen is gargantuan. It is like looking at the side of a large building, and it runs vertically in a pronounced way. It is not a traditional movie screen shape....This screen was pathetic by IMAX standards."
If you will click to enlarge the graphic below, you will see that Williamson has a point. The illustration comes from Jeff Leins of newsinfilm.com, based on one with a useful article by James Hyder, editor of the LFexaminer, devoted to this issue. But documentation isn't really necessary. Most of us know what an IMAX screen looks like, and we instinctively know one wouldn't fit inside our local multiplex. What "IMAX" means in such situations is that the company has taken over the largest screen in the complex, removed a few of the front rows of seats, and moved a somewhat larger screen that much closer to the audience. The picture is not projected through large format 70mm film, but with dual "high end" digital projectors. Every digital projector ever introduced was "high end" at the time.
Now I understand why Cannes 2009 opened with Pixar's "Up." They knew what was coming. Has there ever been a more violent group of films in the Official Selection? More negative about humanity? More despairing? With a greater variety of gruesome, sadistic, perverted acts? You know you're in deep water when the genuinely funniest film in the festival is by a Palestinian in today's Israel, whose material includes a firing squad, a mother with Alzheimers, and a hero with dark circles under his eyes who never utters a single word.
And most of these films were not over quickly. Not that there's something wrong with a film running over the invisible 120-minute finish line, if it needs to, and is a good film. I regret that not all the 21 films in this year's selection were good. And that's not just me. The daily critics' panel for Le Film Francais was as negative as I've seen it, even giving a pas de tout ("worthless") to a film I would defend, von Trier's extreme but courageous "Antichrist."
In the past I have felt the elation of discovery at Cannes, seeing for the first time films like Kielowski's "Red," Lee's "Do the Right Thing," Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," Spielberg's "E.T."--and premieres by Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Chen Keige, Fassbinder, Altman, Herzog, Scorsese. Titans bestrode the earth in those days. This year the only ecstatic giants, love them or hate them, were Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino.
Michael Barker is not only a prime moving force in indie film distribution, but one of the funniest raconteurs alive. He and Tom Bernard, also a funny man, have been the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics since 1992, which qualifies them as the Methuselahs among studio heads. Their films have won 24 Academy Awards and 101 nominations. He knows everybody and takes little mental notes, resulting in an outpouring of stories I could tell you, but then I would have to shoot you.
Like many funny people, he exerts a magnetic attraction for funny experiences. He attracted one just the other day, when he went to see the new Paul Verhoeven film. "I'm looking at the screening schedule and I can't believe my eyes," he was telling us the other night. This was at dinner on the Carlton Terrace with Richard and Mary Corliss, Chaz, and our granddaughter Raven. "I'd never heard anything about this. I mean, Verhoeven just made 'The Black Book,' for chrissakes!
"It's titled 'Teenagers,' and it's screening in one of those little marketplace theaters in the Palais. I figure it must be a rough cut under another title or something. The place is jammed. People are fighting to get in. I'm able to get a seat. There are people sitting in the aisles, standing against the wall, flat on their backs on the floor in front of the screen. You can't breathe.
I think I may have just seen the 2010 Oscar winner for best foreign film. Whether it will win the Palme d'Or here at Cannes is another matter. It may be too much of a movie movie. It's named "A l'origine," by Xavier Giannoli, and is one of several titles I want to discuss in a little festival catch-up. Based on an incredible true story, it involves an insignificant thief, just released from prison, who becomes involved in an impromptu con game that results in the actual construction of a stretch of highway. At the beginning he has no plans to build a highway. He simply sees a way to swindle a contractor out of 15,000 euros. He is sad, defeated, unwanted, apart from his wife and child, sleeping on a pal's sofa. What happens is not caused by him nor desired by him. It simply happens to him.
This is one of those movies that catches you in its spell. It's a hell of a story. There's a difference between caring what happens in a movie, and merely waiting to see what will happen. The hero, who calls himself Phillip, ends by bringing about an enterprise involving millions of euros, hundreds of workers and tons of massive earth-moving machinery, falling in love with the lady mayor, and becoming a good man, all without ever saying very much. I was reminded of Chance the Gardener In "Being There." Phillip is shy, socially unskilled, inarticulate, apparently the opposite of a con man. To repeat: There is a true story involved here. Some facts are offered at the end. The highway, which which the workers essentially built on their own, with the con man as "management," was completed on time, under budget and up to code.
Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to find a climax unique in the history of war movies. Also trust QT to get away with a war movie that consists largely of his unique dialog style, in which a great deal of action is replaced by talk about the possibilities of action. His "Inglourious Basterds," which premiered Wednesday morning here at Cannes, is a screenplay eight years in the writing, and you can't fill 148 minutes with descriptions of special effects. At least not if you're a motormouth like Tarantino.
My review will await the film's August 21 opening. I know, I wrote a lot about "Antichrist," but with this one I'd like to hold out until opening day. No, that doesn't mean I disliked it. It means it inspired other kinds of thoughts--about Cannes, Tarantino, and the way the movie industry seems to be going these days.
Lars von Trier's new film will not leave me alone. A day after many members of the audience recoiled at its first Cannes showing, "Antichrist" is brewing a scandal here; I am reminded of the tumult following the 1976 premiere of Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" and its castration scene. I said I was looking forward to von Trier's overnight reviews, and I haven't been disappointed. Those who thought it was good thought it was very very good ("Something completely bizarre, massively uncommercial and strangely perfect"--Damon Wise, Empire) and those who thought it was bad found it horrid ("Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist"--Todd McCarthy, Variety).
I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing. Its images are a fork in the eye. Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound. Von Trier has a way of affecting his viewers like that. After his "Breaking the Waves" premiered at Cannes in 1996, Georgia Brown of the Village Voice fled to the rest room in emotional turmoil and Janet Maslin of the New York Times followed to comfort her. After this one, Richard and Mary Corliss blogged at Time.com that "Antichrist" presented the spectacle of a director going mad.
By George Anthony
There's electricity in the air. Every seat is filled, even the little fold-down seats at the end of every row. It is the first screening of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," and we are ready for anything. We'd better be. Von Trier's film goes beyond malevolence into the monstrous. Never before have a man and woman inflicted more pain upon each other in a movie. We looked in disbelief. There were piteous groans. Sometimes a voice would cry out, "No!" At certain moments there was nervous laughter. When it was all over, we staggered up the aisles. Manohla Dargis, the merry film critic of The New York Times, confided that she left softly singing "That's Entertainment!"
Whether this is a bad, good or great film is entirely beside the point. It is an audacious spit in the eye of society. It says we harbor an undreamed-of capacity for evil. It transforms a psychological treatment into torture undreamed of in the dungeons of history. Torturers might have been capable of such actions, but they would have lacked the imagination. Von Trier is not so much making a film about violence as making a film to inflict violence upon us, perhaps as a salutary experience. It's been reported that he suffered from depression during and after the film. You can tell. This is the most despairing film I've ever have seen.
If, as they say, you are not prepared for "disturbing images," I advise you to just just stop reading now.
There are few prospects more alarming than a director seized by an Idea. I don't mean an idea for a film, a story, a theme, a tone, any of those ideas. I'm thinking of a director whose Idea takes control of his film and pounds it into the ground and leaves the audience alienated and resentful. Such a director is Brillante Mendoza of the Philippines, and the victim of his Idea is his Official Selection at Cannes 2009, "Kinatay." Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.
After extensive recutting, the Gallo film was redeemed. I don't think editing is going to do the trick for "Kinatay." If Mendoza wants to please any viewer except for the most tortured theorist (one of those careerists who thinks movies are about arcane academic debates and not people) he's going to have to remake his entire second half.