A dispatch from the New York Film Festival on the latest from Arnaud Desplechin, Justine Triet, Lou Ye, and Martin Scorsese.
The 2014 Cannes Film Festival continues with reports on the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night" and Zhang Yimou's "Coming Home."
As Roger Ebert noted in February, film festivals have become so ubiquitous that there's almost certainly one within driving distance of most film fans in the US. And lots of them are sprouting world-wide. Three years ago, I'd pitched Roger with an "FFC" piece on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. He advised that I provide a sense of the town and its atmosphere, the people, as well as what the festival itself was like.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival's eleven days of prediction, wild speculation and gossip, some of it centering on the notoriously cranky personality of this year's jury president Nanni Moretti, came to an end Sunday evening in festival's business-like awards ceremony (or Soiree de Palmares, as the French call it) that traditionally lacks the extended let's-put-on-a-show aspect of the Oscars. The jury was seated onstage in a solemn group, and the awards given with a modest amount of fancy-dress formality, a bit of unrehearsed fumbling, and acceptance speeches that were short, dignified and to the point.
The foul weather that has marred the usually sunny festival continued to the end, and elite guests and movie stars alike walked a red carpet tented by a plastic roof as the rain fell on the multi-colored umbrellas of the surrounding crowds. Festival director Thierry Fremoux personally held an umbrella for Audrey Tautou, star of Claude Miller's closing night film, "Therese Desqueyroux," as she headed up the famous steps in a calf-length ivory lace gown with a bodice heavily embroidered in gold.
Actress Berenice Bejo, an international sensation since her starring role and subsequent Oscar nomination for "The Artist," performed mistress of ceremonies duties in a white, bridal-looking strapless sheath with long train, her only jewel an enormous heart-shaped emerald ring. Just about the only prediction this year that turned out to be accurate was the one that advised that all was unpredictable under the jurisdiction of the pensive and often-scowling Moretti.
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
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 begin with a confession of ignorance. Before the Olympic Games, I had a confused and narrow vision of China. It was assembled from many movies, some of them historical dramas like "Raise the Red Lantern," some of them biopics like "The Last Emperor," some of them powerful slices of life like "The Blue Kite," "To Live," "Ju Dou" or "Story of Qui Ju." But all of them depicting the distance, the strangeness, the difference of China. Along with those images came a heavy overlay from the Cold War, the reign of Mao, the idea of China as a hostile superpower. I saw photos of the Shanghai and Beijing skylines, but I also pictured tens of millions living in poverty and age-old conditions.
Who's that black guy in between the blonde Jack Black and the tattooed Ben Stiller? It's Robert Downey, Jr.
One of these days I'm gonna play it black Play it black One of these days... -- misquoted Elvis Costello song from "My Aim is True"
What will the Jim Crow "one-droppers" who didn't think Angelina Jolie was "African enough" to play Dutch-Jewish / Cuban-black-Hispanic-Chinese Mariane Pearl make of this? The actor in the center of the accompanying image is Robert Downey Jr., a white German-Scottish / Irish-Jewish actor. He's playing a white actor who is cast in a part originally written for a black actor, so he decides to play it black. The movie, "Tropic Thunder," is a satire of Hollywood actors making an epic war movie. It's directed by Stiller, co-written by Etan Cohen ("Idiocracy," "My Wife is Retarded" -- note that the "h" is not in the first name but the last; he's no relation to Joel) and Justin Theroux (who played a director in "Mulholland Dr." and an actor in "Inland Empire"). Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel and Steve Coogan also star -- along with some big names in cameo appearances.
As Downey told Entertainment Weekly, "If it's done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago. If you don't do it right, we're going to hell." [...]
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl
"A Mighty Heart," Michael Winterbottom's film based on Mariane van Neyenhoff Pearl's book about her husband Daniel, a journalist who was kidnapped and executed in Karachi, Pakistan, opens this weekend. I've had my say about the casting of (Czech / Haudenosaunee / American) Angelina Jolie as (Dutch / Cuban / French) Mariane Pearl. And so has Mariane Pearl, who told Newsweek: "This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her. Aren't we past this?"
Marianne Pearl as Marianne Pearl.
Well, some people are. And some aren't. Like, I guess, the people who hired Halle Berry to play white Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill in the upcoming "Class Act." (Berry's at least as much white as she is black. But will she wear "whiteface" in the movie? Do you care?) Or, perhaps, the ones who hired John Travolta to play a woman in "Hairspray." Or even those who think it was just wrong for Marriane Pearl to have married a white Jew in the first place. (Miscegenation!) Let's take that logic to its inevitable extreme. Some people are sticklers for racial, cultural and gender purity. If only race, culture and gender were really that monolithic and clear-cut...
And we're talking about actors here. I'm not advocating blackface or whiteface minstrelsy (that implies bad acting, doesn't it?), but these people are supposed to be able to play characters other than themselves. That's what they do.
Maybe Jolie is terrible and totally miscast in the part. I don't know, I haven't seen the movie yet. But a commenter at the site concreteloop.com succinctly summarizes my own feelings about the matter at this stage: At first it does seem a bit odd, because I am sure there are women of African American or Afro-Cuban descent who could play that role but I would not say this is modern day black-face. If it were some blond-hair, blue-eyed non-talented actress, I would really have a problem. However, I do think Angelina is a great actress and as a matter of fact Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina to portray her in the film. So shouldn’t her wishes be respected?Producer Brad Pitt, who hired his honey for the part, said he was nervous about doing it, but he felt it was the right decision for the movie: "I knew the part had to be played by someone with Mariane's strength and understanding of the world, but I didn't know how to broach the subject. It feels a little like Wolfowitz trying to get his girlfriend a job. [...]
"I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles (for people of color), but I think they've picked the wrong example here."
Halle Berry plays Tierney Cahill (pictured -- either the one on the left or the one on the right) in an upcoming movie. You see the resemblance. Gotta problem with that?
I guess it also depends not only on whether you think Mariane Pearl has a (moral? contractual?) right to approve who plays her in a movie made from her own book, but whether you consider Angelina Jolie an actress or just "Brad's girlfriend" — you know, half of "Brangelina." (Or even whether women are capable of making such important judgments, since those who cry "racism" here insist that Jolie and Pearl do not have the personal or professional credibility or authority to make such decisions for themselves.)
And whether you consider the fact that both share Northern European / Caucasian heritage. Much of the criticism I've seen has focused on the tabloid "Brangelina" phenomenon (as if that were real anywhere beyond the supermarket checkstands), or has tried to tie this casting into the history of racist portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood movies. (In that regard, I recommend Donald Bogle's book, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks.") But is that really an appropriate conclusion to draw in this particular instance?
I agree that actors of color should be offered more and better roles — including those that weren't originally written to be one race or another. (Sigourney Weaver played a man's role in "The TV Set" without changing a word. Other parts have been re-written for the actor selected for the part.) But is the problem really one of casting people with the same racial make-up as their characters? Or is it more significant that writers and directors and casting directors are not making films with enough characters of color?
On the practical side... well, a star is a star. Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry are Oscar winners, marquee names, not struggling unknowns. (Not that struggling unknowns or semi-knowns don't deserve a chance, but they're unlikely to get one in such a high-profile project.) Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina Jolie to play her, sought her out, and sold the rights to Brad Pitt's production company. Based on this "package," the film was able to get a greenlight from Paramount Vantage, with the expectation that they would make a profit. The question becomes: Is the only form of "good casting" to make sure the racial balance of the character matches that of the actor?
Is Beyonce really too light — or too dark — to have played a character based on Diana Ross in "Dreamgirls"? Is Denzel Washington really too dark to have played light-skinned, reddish-haired Malcolm X? Was it racist to have cast Chinese actress Gong Li as a Japanese woman in "Memoirs of a Geisha"? Were Al Pacino — or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio or Robert Loggia — terrible in "Scarface" (1983) because they are not Cuban? Was it wrong for Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican-American) to play a Mexican cop in "Traffic"? If these actors were good or bad in those movies, was it because of their racial background, or because of the roles and their performances in them?
I wonder what happened to a sense of proportion here. This isn't exactly Mickey Rooney playing a grotesque caricature of a Chinese guy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Doesn't the performance itself count for anything — or is it all about appearances? (OK, if Jennifer Aniston had been cast as Pearl, I'd be a lot more skeptical. Even though she's only two years younger than Pearl, while Jolie is seven years younger. But if Jolie is playing Pearl in 2001-2002, then she's just about the perfect age, no?)
Latest Contrarian Week News:
In his New York Observer year-end wrap-up (and ten-best list), Andrew Sarris attempts to steal the thunder of one of his New York "alternative weekly" rivals.
Sarris writes: Fortunately, modern technology makes it almost impossible for a good movie to get “lost” because of end-of-the-year mental exhaustion. So, with the proviso that I still have a great deal of catching up to do, here are my considered choices for the various 10-best categories, and one of my patented 10-worst lists under the provocative heading of “Movies Other People Liked and I Didn’t.” I am not at all deterred in dishing out my annual supply of negativity by the correspondent who informed me last year that he preferred all the films on my 10-worst list to all the films on my 10-best list. I have long ago become resigned to my fate as a reviled revisionist ever since my first column in The Village Voice in 1960 hailed Alfred Hitchcock as a major artist for "Psycho," and inspired more hate mail than any Voice column had received up to that time. That clinched my job at the ever-contrarian Voice, and I have simply gone on from there.So, how contrarian is the "reviled revisionist" 46 years later? Let's see:
"The Departed" as best film of the year. (Only in New York!)
"Blood Diamond" as #5.
Best Supporting Actresses: 1) Jennifer Connelly, "Blood Diamond" 2) Gong Li, "Miami Vice" 3) Maggie Gyllenhaal, "World Trade Center"
And then there's this: Other striking male performances were provided by: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin and Anthony Anderson in The Departed; Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones in The Painted Veil; Wim Willaert in When the Sea Rises; Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths in Venus; Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Inside Man; Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase and Shido Nakamura in Letters from Iwo Jima; Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine; Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell in The Illusionist; Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Gregg Edelman and Ty Simpkins in Little Children; Keanu Reeves, Christopher Plummer and Dylan Walsh in The Lake House; Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena and Stephen Dorff in World Trade Center; Tim Blake Nelson, Pat Corley, Jeffrey Donovan, Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson in Come Early Morning; Ryan Gosling and Anthony Mackie in Half Nelson; Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, and Danny Huston in Marie Antoinette; Matt Damon, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Keir Dullea, Timothy Hutton, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Ivanir and Joe Pesci in The Good Shepherd; Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones and Ben Foster in X-Men: The Last Stand; Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Simon Abkarian, Sebastien Foucan, Jesper Christensen and Tobias Menzies in Casino Royale; Ebru Ceylan and Mehmet Eryilmaz in Climates; Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Bob Hoskins in Hollywoodland; Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Keith Robinson and Hinton Battle in Dreamgirls; Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes, Trevor Fehrman, Kevin Smith and Jason Lee in Clerks II; Justin Kirk and Jamie Harrold in Flannel Pajamas; Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker and Adrian Grenier in The Devil Wears Prada; Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hulce in Stranger Than Fiction; Samuel L. Jackson, Curtis Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Sam Jones III and Brian Presley in Home of the Brave; Harris Yulin, Ty Burrell and Boris McGiver in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; Max Minghella, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Matt Keeslar, Ethan Suplee, Joel David Moore and Nick Swardson in Art School Confidential; Joseph Cross, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes and Alec Baldwin in Running with Scissors; Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Ciarán Hinds, Justin Theroux, Barry Shabaka Henley, Luis Tosar and John Ortiz in Miami Vice; Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam and Tim McMullan in The Queen; Samuel L. Jackson, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe, Anthony Mackie, Marlon Sherman and Clarke Peters in Freedomland; Vin Diesel, Peter Dinklage, Linus Roache, Alex Rocco, Ron Silver and Raul Esparza in Find Me Guilty; Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley in Lucky Number Slevin; Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Chris Klein, Shohreh Aghdashloo, John Cho, Tony Yalda, Sam Golzari and Willem Dafoe in American Dreamz; Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane in A Scanner Darkly; Adam Beach, Ryan A. Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, John Benjamin Hickey, Jon Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker and Robert Patrick in Flags of Our Fathers; Chow Yun-Fat in Curse of the Golden Flower; Sergi López, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo and Federico Luppi in Pan’s Labyrinth; Bill Nighy in Notes on a Scandal.Take that, A----- W----!
Q. If this was such a great year for movies, why are box-office receipts so far down from last year, even though admission prices are at an all-time high? Do you feel that there is such a growing disconnect between Hollywood and America that Hollywood had better wake up or face serious consequences? Cal Ford, Corsicana, Texas
Q. I have read more than one review mentioning Tim Blake Nelson's "brilliant" speech about corruption in "Syriana." The speech has been compared to Michael Douglas' speech in "Wall Street" (1987) that defends greed. I haven't seen the movie yet but I'd love to just be able to read the speech.
Q. I just saw "The Dying Gaul" and really liked it. I am a Buddhist, as is Robert, the character played by Peter Sarsgaard. Robert believes he may have encountered his dead lover in a chat room. You mentioned that you had two big problems with the film: "(1) There is no reason to believe Robert particularly believes in the supernatural, and (2) Would it not occur to Robert that he had, after all, told Elaine about his favorite chat room?"
CANNES, France -- The Force was with us Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. So was the Queen. The Queen Mary 2 anchored Saturday in the Cannes harbor, making the yachts of the millionaires look like bathtub toys. Sunday we were piped aboard to celebrate the Cannes premiere of "Star Wars," and George Lucas was presented with the Medal of the Festival.
CANNES, France -- The Cannes Film Festival heads into its second weekend, still without a likely Palme d'Or winner, unless we have already seen it, and it is Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother." We have been here a week, and that entry, first screened Saturday, is the film most people mention when you ask them what they liked the most.