Doing the Cannes-Cannes, Part Two

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Gary Meyer of the Balboa is at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Here is the second of his reports.

What a day! They’ve moved things around. Problems with my accreditation badge mean I can’t get into the movies. Offices that used to be in the Palais are at the other end of the Croisette, a 20 minute walk. The lines are huge and don’t seem to move. Finally I get my problems cleared up but every screening is full. Even my friends connected with some movies can’t get me in. The day is almost over and I haven’t seen one film yet. BUZZZZ. “Good morning. This is your 7am wake up call. Have a nice day.” Anxiety dreams are the worst here. I am feeling guilty that I only saw four films yesterday, but that was all there was worth seeing.

The morning started promisingly. Ken Loach’s newest, The Wind that Shakes the Barley , is generally well-received. Cillian Murphy proves that his acting turns in Breakfast on Pluto and Red Eye were not flukes. He stars as a young doctor faced with an offer to practice medicine in London -- or stay in his village and become increasingly involved in forming a guerilla army to fight the “Black and Tan” army from England, sent to squash Irish independence. Set in the 1920s, the film has contemporary relevance. The first half is exciting, playing like a grand adventure with a political conscience, just as we have come to expect from Loach. The second half slows a bit but still worked for me.

Continuing in the history vein, with sociology and myth thrown in, is Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. This Dutch director has developed a small but faithful following with his diverse filmography of under-distributed movies including The Quiet Room, Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project. Ten Canoes was developed with actor David Gulpilil (most known for starring in Walkabout) who was interested in the stories of his own tribe, the Ramingining people. Gulpilil narrates (in English) simultaneous stories related to forbidden love but separated in time by many generations. There is a certain irreverence in his storytelling that is surprising: What is a flatulence reference doing in a story set hundreds of years ago? But then one realizes people have passed wind as long as they have existed. The guilty warrior is moved to the back of the line as they go through the forest -- and more bawdy humor reminds us that dirty jokes aren’t new.

Ten Canoes is an impressive accomplishment on many levels. Though its austerity may be off-putting for some audiences, the fascinating stories, stunning visual delights, and truly unique experiences make it worthy of distribution.

The next two films shouldn’t be watched on a full stomach ... but a viewer might not want to eat afterwards either. Taxidermia is the second feature from Hungarian director György Pálfi, after his astonishing Hukkle. Like Ten Canoes -- another film dealing with several generations in a family -- Taxidermia opens with a story of an orderly masturbating while observing his master’s young daughters, and servicing the man’s rather large wife on a monthly basis. The accidental offspring grows up to become a champion eater, winning contests while becoming a national, very fat, hero. Just as the sexual escapades of his father were graphically portrayed, we are shown huge amounts of vomit following the son’s competitions. The absurdity of it generates nervous laughter from those who haven’t turned away from the screen. He grows older, and becomes so large he cannot move. When he explodes, his son, a taxidermist, does what you might expect -- and then what you won’t expect.

In some ways Taxidermia is a brilliant piece, with incredible cinematography, black humor, and a couple of visual treats. A brief sequence in a pop-up storybook and one exploring the myriad of uses for a bathtub are moments I should like to see again. But this is a hard movie to recommend to most; the gross outs just keep coming, each topping the previous one. Obviously, it’s only for those who can stomach it.

If one hasn’t lost his or her appetite after Taxidermia, the fiction film adapted from Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book Fast Food Nation could move anyone in that direction. The author developed the screenplay with director Richard Linklater (whose animated science fiction film, A Scanner Darkly, screens here next week). The story centers around an executive at a thinly disguised hamburger chain -- “Mickey’s” -- who is sent to Colorado to investigate reports concerning fecal matter in beef. Along the way he encounters a number of characters working at the slaughterhouse and at the chain’s local burger joint.

In trying to cover as many controversial bases as he can, Schlosser may have taken on too many issues (the treatment of illegal aliens, sexual harassment, America’s poor dietary habits, the lack of sanitary conditions in both the meat-processing plant and the retail outlets, corporate neglect for bigger profits, etc). But the over-ambitious narrative rarely makes the impact these issues deserve. Following Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, Schlosser’s investigative book confirmed that things aren’t much better in the 21st century. Though trying to reach a wider audience with a narrative film is a noble idea, it doesn’t succeed as either entertainment or piece of muckraking. The French seemed to generally like Fast Food Nation, probably because it makes for an easy anti-American target. But they also eat fast-food burgers in huge numbers.

High concept

The Marche is a massive film market that happens simultaneously with the film festival. More junk that you ever imagined is produced all over the world, and thousands of films are being sold here. Some are finished and others are in development. Many will never be finished.

We can always expect ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters. There is no description for Sacrament Code or Stealing the Mona Lisa in the ads because the makers are probably hoping for some down and dirty direct-to-international video and cable sales. I’ve seen ads for at least three pirate movies, each looking very much like the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean II, with supernatural elements floating through the art work and featuring casts of total unknowns who look a lot like Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley.

One of my favorite things at Cannes is seeking out the most ridiculous titles for movies selling in Marche. Are you ready for a horror film about "hair extensions that attack the women that wear them?" Japan’s Toei is selling it here. Exte will star Chiaki Kuriyama, the crazy chain-swinging schoolgirl in Kill Bill.

And how about Motor Home Massacre? No description offered and none is needed.

Whatshisnamesnewfilm

The masses gathered at Cannes rarely refer to upcoming Festival movies by their title. We are asked, “Are you going to see the new Almodovar?” or “Did you see the Turkish movie?”

We say: “I liked the first feature from the director of that short Wasp,” and “Don’t miss the Indonesian documentary about the tsunami aftermath.”

This puts the film in a context that is easier to explain than “Are you going to see Volver? Iklimler? Red Road? Serambi?”

What do those titles mean? Until enough people have seen or heard about them, they are merely strange words or odd phrases. Volver is the new film from Pedro Almodovar; it’s a bit more subdued than some of his over-the-top recent entertainments. Penelope Cruz, who returns to her roots in Spanish cinema, plays a mother dealing with a teenaged daughter, a lonely sister, and an aging aunt. When the aunt dies, her dead mother appears, first as what the women assume is a ghost -- but, maybe she never died in the fire that took their father? Initially the filmmaker continues his homage to Hitchcock with a surprise murder (and Bernard Herrmann-like music) before moving more to melodrama. While not a great film, Volver is wonderfully entertaining, full of surprises, and features a performance by Cruz that made me an instant fan. The buzz is great.

Iklimler has an English title of Climates, an appropriate description of the hot and cold relationship between a man and a woman who break up during a beach vacation and meet again in the snow. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous film Uzak (Distant), the Cannes Grand Prix winner in 2003, this film could be best described as contemplative. On the surface it is a simple story of a relationship, but the emotions and motivations dig much deeper. The characters are believable, the emotions real, and the performances powerful. With virtually no camera movement, the filmmaker beautifully composes each shot; so impressed with his work, the camera stays in that one position for long sequences. Some raved about this “work of art,” but gorgeously composed images don’t make a movie. For me, this slowed too much midway. I stayed with it and appreciated the ending, but as with so much at the festival, Iklimler is an acquired taste. No doubt I will be damned for my comments.

Red Road is another story. Scottish director Andrea Arnold’s first feature is a tense and original thriller. Working from a concept proposed by Lars Von Trier’s team, three different filmmakers set out to create original stories based on the same main characters. Each were given notes; the same two actors will star. Red Road is the first to be made. A woman works for a security company watching various video monitors for possible troublemakers in a rough neighborhood. She concentrates on a man recently released from prison for a crime obviously committed against someone close to her. This variation on Hitchcock’s Rear Window grows increasing more tense as details are carefully revealed. Despite a few missteps, the film works well and Arnold is a talent to watch (her Oscar-winning short, Wasp, was a knockout).

In a given day there will rarely be a logical pattern to the order of film-watching -- and the segue from one to the next can be very strange. Following Red Road with Serambi was such a radical shift. This documentary explores the aftermath of the tsunami, following children, young adults, and adults who search for their friends and relatives while coming to the realization they must rebuild their lives and city.

Another documentary, Boffo! Tinsletown’s Bombs and Blockbusters proved a good way to end a day that also included a program of shorts and a long Korean film about young soldiers that left me cold (The Unforgiven). Boffo! is by onetime Bay Area director Bill Couturie. Packed with film clips and great interviews, it tries to help us figure out why a movie is a hit or flop -- even if people from filmmakers to studio heads come back to writer William Goldman’s quote: "Nobody knows nothing."

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