request - Filmmaker Magazine
Reports from Cannes and Tribeca [Hot Docs and Aspen Shortsfest available in the print magazine].

Nothing distracts from the beauty of Cannes, the town — save for the state of annoyance after watching too many hohum movies (and I mean films in curated sections, not even the thousands of films of dubious merit playing in the Market). A few pearls, though, were screened in the main strands of the festival: Competition, Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard, Directors Fortnight and Critics Week. The last of these, and the smallest, was proportionally the strongest. American performance artist and director Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know won not only the Critics Week Best Film prize; it also tied for the Camera d’Or for the best first feature in the festival. My favorite films in Critics Week were Phil Morrison’s accomplished Junebug, from the U.S., and 24-year-old Brit Thomas Clay’s fresh Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, both discussed below, as well as Neopolitan Vincenzo Marra’s neo-neorealist Vento di Terra, about a young man who tries to improve himself despite his family’s dire economic straits.

In the official selection, one of the most provocative films was Adam Curtis’s superb BBC doc The Power of Nightmares (Out of Competition). Perhaps the scariest of its multiple revelations is that the leadership of the American neocon movement, in an effort to consolidate power following the fall of the Soviet Union, consciously recreated myths of religion and patriotism — while personally scoffing at them. Perhaps the schizophrenia of these fearmongering years explains in part the large number of American productions in Cannes that focused ambiguously on cowboys and myths of the Old West.

The most overt example is writer-director David Jacobson’s laughable Down in the Valley (Un Certain Regard), set in California’s San Fernando Valley. The film stars, and is produced by, Edward Norton, who by some accounts reedited as well. Norton’s Harlan can’t keep a job, dresses and talks like a cowboy, and even practices his gunmanship in his rented room in an unfortunate Taxi Driver homage. He tries to ingratiate himself with a suburban family, some of whom fall for his shtick, with disastrous results. In Wim Wenders’s misfire Don’t Come Knocking (Competition), Sam Shepard, who also scripted, portrays an over-the-hill movie cowboy, Howard, who escapes by horse from a shoot in Monument Valley to track down the grown son he’s only just learned about. But the best of these Old West homages was Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Competition), which won the Best Actor and Best Screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga) prizes and featured excellent cinematography by Chris Menges. Tommy Lee Jones also stars as Pete, a South Texas ranch foreman who looks and acts like a cowboy, replete with a Stetson. After a border patrolman, Mike (Barry Pepper), murders his best friend, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, Pete flouts the law and dispenses his own form of justice.

In Canadian director David Cronenberg’s shocking masterpiece A History of Violence (Competition), which, incredibly, took no awards, Viggo Mortensen does a star turn as Tom, a café owner in a Hallmark-like small town in Indiana. (Josh Olson adapted the screenplay from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel.) Tom’s cheery awshucks facade is tested when gangland heavies from back East show up at his cozy house and threaten him and his family. In fact he is a man who has reinvented himself after abandoning a life of brutal crime. Mortensen, who was wrongfully deprived of Best Actor honors, shifts easily back and forth between his two personalities. The film’s thesis is unquestionably that violence

is as American as apple pie, but the movie also deals with such red-state issues as man’s right to bear arms and protect his turf. A great number of other Cannes movies, of a variety of genres, were largely about violence. The most startling was The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael. Daniel Spencer plays soft-spoken Robert, a gifted teen cellist who hangs with a sociopathic high-school dropout and another pal in a depressed coastal town. In this work of soft fades and formally blocked long takes, Robert inexplicably pushes the group’s predisposition toward acts of violence beyond the threshold of many viewers. This astute study of boys cursed by ennui updates A Clockwork Orange to an appalling degree.

A North African immigrant whose life has turned into a powder keg commits a sudden, horrifying bloody act in the fine French thriller Hidden, by Austrian director Michael Haneke (Competition), who won the Best Director prize. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche portray a bourgeois couple who begin receiving lengthy surveillance videotapes of the exterior of their home. (Video has always been a Haneke obsession.) In the process of trying to uncover who is see responsible, Auteuil’s successful Georges confronts the innocent Arab, whose chance for a good life he had ruined as a spoiled kid. Haneke is only partially successful in contextualizing their childhood rift against the Algerian war of independence from France; he adds a soupçon of TV news references to Iraq and Kashmir for good measure.

Humiliation is a form of violence perpetrated daily against illegal aliens by smugglers and detention personnel in Italian filmmaker Marco Tullio Giordana’s Once You’re Born (Competition), a beautifully shot and edited movie that carries on the humanist tradition of the neorealists and, more recently, Gianni Amelio. Sandro (Matteo Gadola) is a 12-year-old son of privilege whose life changes overnight after he falls off his father’s rented yacht and is rescued by a Romanian teen, part of the human cargo on a boat packed with desperate people bound for Italy. Seeing firsthand how they are treated becomes Sandro’s rite of passage. Giordana refuses the easy out of political correctness: the refugees also oppress one another in their fight for survival.

In other movies, violence is of the mind. Kyle Henry’s Room (Directors Fortnight), a real discovery, centers on a housewife in Houston who, feeling confined by work and family, begins hallucinating. She runs off to New York, where her delusions increase. Henry makes her delirium artful; time and space merge. Cyndi Williams is brilliant as the frustrated woman. Modeled on the final hours of Kurt Cobain, Gus Van Sant’s minimalist Last Days shows us the over-the-edge state of Blake (Michael Pitt, in a tour de force) after years of drug abuse. The film is all of a piece, comparable to an exceptional work of chamber music. The climax is Blake’s resurrection, a nice touch in a film about someone who has not been earthbound for quite some time.

Less successful works also play the violence card: Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (Competition), a weak attempt at a commercial breakthrough about a Martin-and-Lewis type comedy team who become involved in a young woman’s murder; Dane Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (Competition), the second film in his America trilogy which began with the stupendous Dogville, is ostensibly about slavery still practiced during the Depression but marred by the schoolboy sensibility behind it; Israeli director Amos Gitai’s interesting but redundant Free Zone (Competition), which concludes with Palestinian fanatics burning one of their own villages in the eponymous section of Jordan where Israelis and Arabs do business together (Hanna Laszlo garnered the Best Actress prize); screenwriter Shane Black’s directorial debut, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (Out of Competition), a sickeningly slick slapstick whodunit with gratuitous shootouts; and Mexican expat Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven (Competition), as much a PR stunt as an artwork. Reygadas brackets the film with explicit fellatio performed (for no apparent reason) by a pretty young woman on her family’s unattractive, middle-aged chauffeur, who is also seen making love to his repulsively obese wife. The chauffeur, who has a crisis of conscience after he and his wife kidnap a baby who dies, ends up stabbing the girl who services him so well.

There is some heavy roughhousing in Palme d’Or winner The Child, probably the most minor of the Belgian Dardenne brothers’ four features. Jérémie Renier does a fine job as the amoral delinquent Bruno, who, after he sells their baby to an underground adoption ring, does not comprehend why his girlfriend dumps him. He doesn’t have all of the money the crooks want for its return, so they beat him badly. The ending, a salute to Bresson, rings false: You cannot possibly believe in his redemption. The Dardennes pulled one on a gullible jury. (So did Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai for his exceedingly boring Shanghai Dreams (Competition), winner of the Jury Prize, the story of a young woman who wants to move from country to city after her family’s displacement during the Cultural Revolution.

Not all of the films were so laden with aggression. Some of the most successful were love stories. (One that was not, though strongly anticipated, was Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Un Certain Regard entry The Bow, the repetitive story of an old man who obsessively loves a young woman he holds hostage on his boat.) Broken Flowers (Competition), deservedly the winner of the Grand Jury prize, was American director Jim Jarmusch’s best film in years. Bill Murray, in his sparest acting to date, plays a wealthy retired Internet mogul named Don, who, in a real leap of faith for the spectator, is and was a Lothario. After receiving an unsigned letter informing him that he has a 19-year-old son (shades of Wenders), he looks up four different girlfriends from two decades past in order to determine which one is the mother. We never know exactly in what city or state they each live, but their homes, neighborhoods and mature personae reveal subtleties about class and values in this country. The women are played by some of the best actresses around: Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.

The crème de la crème, however, was Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (Competition), the last competing film shown and, many assumed, a shoe-in for the Palme. Wrong: it got nothing. So much for juries. Shu Qi and Chang Chen play a different couple in each of three segments. The first, set in 1966, is the poignant, chaste tale of a young man on military leave who goes on a mad search for the girl who worked in his favorite pool hall. The second, which takes place in 1911, plays as a silent film. Chang is the rich son of a tea plantation owner, and Shu Qi is a courtesan he has impregnated but cannot keep. In the last section, set in 2005, Shu Qi portrays a bisexual and Chang her lover, a photo-shop employee who drives her around a charmless Taipei on his motorcycle. The recurring shots of computers and text messages make palpable the sense of isolation of young people today, especially following as it does the first two episodes in which repressed feelings of attraction are so strong that the characters look as if they are bursting at the seams. No myth here: Hou distills love into a state of purity. — Howard Feinstein



The Tribeca Film Festival has spent its infancy dealing with the growing pains start-up festivals go through to find their identity. But when your festival is backed by multibillion-dollar corporations (American Express, Budweiser, NBC) and founded by one of the greatest living actors (Robert De Niro), each year the pressure to succeed magnifies.

That’s what TFF was up against in its fourth year. Running from April 19 to May 1 — a week earlier than last year after industry players complained of its calendar proximity to Cannes —mostwillagreethatthisyear’slineup(boasting over 250 films) was the most impressive to date, especially in regards to the foreign titles. Having the North American premiere of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (reedited since last year’s Cannes premiere) was impressive, while The Beat That My Heart Skipped and I Am a Sex Addict gave Americans a taste of what audiences enjoyed at the Berlin Film Festival and Rotterdam, respectively. Walking away with the festival’s top prize was Li Shaohong’s Stolen Life, marking the third time in a row a Chinese film was awarded the Best Narrative Feature Award. Péter Forgács’ El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War took home best doc.

Other films that received high praise include Rikers High (awarded the NY Loves Film Documentary Award), about New York City’s largest high school, Island Academy, inside Rikers Island; How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which explores the renaissance life of Melvin Van Peebles; and Bearing Witness, a fascinating look inside the lives of five female war correspondents. But the one that stayed with me throughout the festival was Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares. Originally a three-part BBC miniseries, it chronicles the rise of two groups that would shape the current state of geopolitics: American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists (the film has since been cut down to a two-and-a-half-hour feature-length doc). Curtis argues that the fear of “hidden terror cells” and even al Qaeda’s existence (which he shows isn’t as powerful as the Bush administration would have us believe) has protected Bush and Blair from losing their positions in office.

There were only a few noteworthy films among the American narratives, and interestingly enough, they all revolve around family turmoil. Late entry Lobster Farm, starring Danny Aiello, is a heartfelt story about a family’s struggle to keep the business that’s been in their name for generations. Alexandra Brodsky’s Bittersweet Place looks at a dysfunctional family who must band together when the family patriarch (Seymour Cassel) becomes ill. (The film received a special mention in the Made in New York Narrative Feature category). And Transamerica, which was one of the most popular films at the festival, is a funny but poignant story that follows a transsexual (played brilliantly by Felicity Huffman) who realizes he/she has a son and is forced to reconnect with him before being permitted to have the final surgery to become a woman. (Hoffman was named Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film.)

But amid the swarm of film festivals today, how does one finally characterize Tribeca? Does it want to be a market-driven festival or one with a treasure trove of films for Lower Manhattan cineastes? “That doesn’t really concern me,” says TFF executive director Peter Scarlet. “I think the festival will grow into its identity.”

But one festival filmmaker I spoke to felt the industry hype around Tribeca was misleading. “It seems buyers were holding off,” he told me. “Smaller distributors feel no rush to come and look at my film. They’re going to Cannes to see what they can find there. Because of its proximity to Cannes, I’m unsure if Tribeca will ever evolve to be more of a market.” (According to Scarlet, there are no plans to move the festival’s start date.)

Picturehouse president Bob Berney, on the other hand, disagrees with the popular notion that festivals need deals made for it to be deemed a success. “[Tribeca] opened differently,” he says. “It was to help a community first and then worry about growing to become a market second. I think that will come naturally.” And it’s starting. Two deals were made during the fest (New Yorker Films acquired the doc After Innocence, and Strand Releasing acquired the Dutch drama Simon), and deals were announced at Cannes concerning films that played at Tribeca (Picturehouse bought the Israeli pic Ushpizin, and the Weinstein Company nabbed domestic rights to Transamerica). — Jason Guerrasio


Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →
© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham