“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
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.
Walking down a narrow side street from my hotel to the Palais at 7:55 am every morning involves running a gauntlet of persistent petitioners, who appeal to those rushing to the 8:30 am press screenings for spare admission tickets. Press get in by showing their badges, but those whose accreditation is only through the film market sign up online for tickets, which they sometimes don't need. Spare tickets must float around frequently enough to justify cinephiles of all ages honing their approach techniques, from aggressive and confrontational to polite and needy. Some hold little handmade signs with the name of the day's film, and close in no matter how fast you walk or how diligently you avoid eye contact.
Left: Im Sang-soo's remake of "The Housemaid."
The volcano gods were in a snit on Monday, and I arrived in Cannes on Tuesday six hours later than planned, following some frustrating encounters with ticket agents in Frankfurt Airport. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips was on my flight from Chicago, having had his entire original reservation canceled due to drifting volcano ash. I heard delay stories everywhere, and figured I got off easy.
After fast dash to the Palais des Festivals five minutes before the office that issues accreditation badges closed, I picked up my press badge and film market badge. The Cannes skies were dark and threatening, with fog hanging over the distant mountains. I hoped that this wasn't a sign of weather gloom to come.
With departure for Cannes only days away, the specter of drifting volcano ash inspires its own shivery anticipation of the festival, and not in a good way. Cannes is a convention city year around, and a new festival or international congress moves in pretty much as soon as the previous one moves out. It's not like you could extend your hotel stay on the spur of the moment, and at Riviera prices, who would want to?
I'm hoping the only eruptions are of the cinematic kind. For two weeks every May, the Cannes Film Festival is like a volcano blowing its top, spewing new movies day and night. In view of this massive flow, it's a rather silly insiders' game to speculate on good years vs. bad years. With hundreds of films to choose from, taking into account the official selections and the film market, this huge festival is what you make it. Every year is a good year. Looking for great art? There's always some to be found. Looking for low-down-sleaze? There's more of that than you even want to know about. Looking for new films from Latvia, for instance? Take your pick, and get the scoop on the state of the Latvian film industry from an eager sales agent while you're at it.
Every year as Cannes looms, I'm reminded of the puckish advice of British director Mike Leigh ("Happy-Go-Lucky," "Vera Drake"), pronounced many years ago when he was on the festival jury. At the jury press conference, Leigh was asked about his expectations. "The festival is like a lemon," he said, "you just have to suck it and see how it tastes." As luck would have it, Leigh will be premiering his new film "Another Year" in the competition. I'm looking forward to seeing what flavor this one adds to the festival.
May 22, 2009--One of the trade papers on Thursday was touting the French film "A Prophet" by Jacques Audiard, which received excellent reviews early in the festival, as a hot contender for the Palme d'Or. Rumors of this sort seldom mean anything here, but to me this was one of those scratch-my-head moments. "The Prophet" is a well-crafted, well-acted prison movie, but I feel like of seen variations on this story and its predictable trajectory too many times in too many other movies.
Malik, a young, vulnerable Arab-French man arrives at prison to serve a six-year sentence and is immediately targeted by the ruthless Corsican gang that controls virtually everything in the establishment, including who lives and who dies. Forced under threat of death to do the gang's dirty work, including a murder, he waits and learns to better his oppressors at their own game.
Tahar Rahim, star of "Un prophète"
As good and mainstream as this film is, there were few variations on the expected details: the body searches and humiliations of prisoners; the cruel intimidation of the weak by the strong; and Malikís inevitable rise to power as a force within the prison and as a drug lord on the outside. I guess I always hope that films in competition will be extraordinary in some way, and "A Prophet" just didn't seem to have that quality.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.