Thursday, May 30, 2013

Final Thoughts on Cannes 2013

This is coming several days too late - most of us have moved on from Cannes after it came to a close on Sunday, announcing the awards. This year, there was, of course, the major Palme d'Or surprise, but having not personally been there, here's just a few concluding thoughts on the awards and other news that came out of the French Riviera this year.

- Let's talk about Palme d'Or first. I'm impressed that French/Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche's nearly-three-hour-long romantic drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, about a young girl's sexual awakening with the help of an older woman, managed to pick up the prize. Yes, it was the most-talked-about (in a good way) film outside of (considerably more divisive) Inside Llweyn Davis, but based on what I had read from the festival I had Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza winning the prize: it seemed likely to appeal to competition jury president Steven Spielberg, who hasn't been shy about his influence by Italian neorealism. What's more stunning, though, is the decision to give the festival's top prize to not only Kechiche, but also to the film's two stars, Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux, rather than bestowing the Actress prize to them. I think it speaks to how essential they are to the film's success, and I'm personally looking forward to seeing it.

- Well, if we get to see it here in America. I do wonder, given how much has been made about the lengthy and explicit sex scenes in the film, what Blue is the Warmest Colour will look like if/when it makes its way into American theaters. I suspect it will need to be cut down to meet the prudish standards of the MPAA, or it'll run as an NC-17 or unrated film that will only make it into a few theaters. Either way, I'll most likely have to wait for Criterion to release it on DVD/Blu-Ray before I get a chance to see it here in North Carolina.

- One last note on Blue is the Warmest Colour: don't expect it to show up at the Oscars this year. For one, I highly doubt it's domestic release will occur in the calendar year. Also, France is much more likely to submit any number of films for Oscar contention before this one - my bet's on Asghar Farhadi's The Past. It has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but more with the controversial subject matter that'll likely turn off Oscar voters. So don't expect it to continue the two-year trend of Palme d'Or winners becoming Best Picture nominees.

- Mexico's having a good run at Cannes lately: Amat Escalante (Heli) took home the directing prize, following fellow countryman Carlos Reygadas' (Post Tenebras Lux) win in the category last year. The film itself, though, received mostly decent, if not spectacular, reviews.

- The most surprising non-Palme d'Or win, to me, was Bruce Dern's Best Actor win for Nebraska. Of all the winners, his seems to be the most likely to translate to Oscar success, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out (fun fact: three of the last five winners of this prize went on to receive Oscar nominations, with two - Christoph Waltz and Jean Dujardin - adding Oscars to their Cannes prizes).

- Let's talk about Only God Forgives being booed. I never take reports of booing at a film festival as an indicator of a film's quality. For one, it's rude, and often the result of crowd mentality taking over for critical insight. But also because a festival audience - especially at a festival as internationally diverse as Cannes - is not the same as a domestic audience for any given nation; there's no way to tell how a film will be received by general audiences (and critics who couldn't attend the festival) until it plays before said audiences. So I wouldn't start decrying the fall from grace of director Nicolas Winding Refn; having not seen it, I can't judge it, and avoiding the festival-heightened hysterics would be wise.

- For the first time, I've seen a Cannes film around the time of the festival! Of course, it's only because Behind the Candelabra was - according to director Steven Soderbergh - "too gay" to be released in theaters, and therefore debuted on HBO, but hey, I felt like I was a part of the action for once.

Okay, so it was mostly thoughts on a single film that I haven't seen. But I'm curious: what were your thoughts on this year's festival?

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Hud (1963)

*This post is part of The Film Experience's series Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) is a complicated man. He's arrogant and stubborn, sarcastic and deflective, and the only thing he loves more than booze is women - particularly married women. In (then-) contemporary Texas cattle country, he butts heads with his father Homer (Melvyn Douglas), flirts shamelessly with housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal), and takes his nephew Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) under his wing. When disaster strikes the ranch, tensions mount, ultimately reaching a breaking point that changes all of these characters.

Well, maybe everyone except Hud. What's interesting about Hud, Martin Ritt's 1963 adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel "Horseman, Pass By," is the way that Hud is the eponymous character, but functions as the main antagonist. You could even call him an anti-hero, that Tony Soprano/Walter White type that's dominated cable television and film for nearly 15 years now. Back then, he became a hero to the youth counterculture, and it's not hard to see why. He's rebellious, disillusioned, and antiestablishment. That's to say nothing of Newman's powerhouse of a performance; he oozes charismatic sexuality that's as intoxicating as the Jack Daniels Hud's constantly sipping on. It's easily one of the best performances of career that was embarrassingly rich with them.

Before we get into a discussion of my choice for best shot, I want to discuss the film's Oscar reputation. Somehow, it missed out on a Best Picture nomination (but Cleopatra, of all things, did) despite seven nominations. But it did pick up three trophies: black-and-white cinematography for a more-than-deserving James Wong Howe (who, as I mentioned before, also participated in last week's Best Shot selection), supporting actor for Douglas, and lead actress for Neal. It's the lattermost that's most astonishing to me. She's surprising underrated today: when people talk about the best Best Actress performances, you hardly hear her work in this movie come up. Yet she would easily make my top ten all-time wins in any acting category, not just Actress. She's nothing short of phenomenal here, imbuing Alma with motherly affection, self-assured independence, and playful sexuality without ever overselling any single aspect. From her very first frame, it's clear that Alma is a fully-realized character, not an archetype or symbol. And her line readings are indelible, as in this scene, shortly after Hud not-so-gracefully attempts to bed her. As Homer and Lonnie discuss whether or not to go into town to see Hud wrestle with pigs, Alma remains in the foreground, scrubbing dishes without ever changing expressions. As they decide to go, she deadpans:

"I don't like pigs."


Her performance is an unbelievable balancing act, and one that I hope will become more appreciated in time.

Now, on to the best shot. For those who haven't seen it yet, spoilers lay ahead. It comes at the end of the film, as Lonnie has packed his things to leave the ranch for good. After everything that's been lost, Hud tries to convince him to stay, but Lonnie won't hear it. Frustrated, Hud calls out:

"You know something, Fantan? This world is so full of crap, a man's gonna get into it sooner or later whether he's careful or not!"

Which leads to my best shot:

Hud is alone in the house, cracking open yet another beer. His father's dead. Alma's left. Lonnie's leaving. There are no more animals left alive on the ranch. The front of his Cadillac is busted. Ultimately, it's Hud, not Lonnie, who has nothing yet. And for a brief moment, he seems to be comtemplating this. But then he smiles, lights a cigarette, and continues on. Despite it all, Hud's still Hud: too bullish and narcissistic to realize how totally, completely alone he is, with almost nothing left.
It's a devastating end, all the more so because Hud doesn't even know it.

Other great shots:

Your Paul Newman's physical form appreciation shot, classic Western pose edition.

This would have been my second choice for "best shot." It's the moment when Hud cuts off the lights, shedding his human visage and becoming the monster within.

I really like the juxtaposition of the classic Western image of a man on a horse beneath an open sky and the bulldozer perched on the hill, looming over the impending destruction (financially-speaking) of the ranch.

Can we agree that studios should ditch 3D and revive the pre-movie sing-a-long?

A beautifully composed shot that showcases how simultaneously charming and sinister Newman could be in this role. He truly was one of the most gifted movie stars of his generation.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Fantasia (1940)

*This article is part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

The best word to describe Fantasia is "audacious." It's a film with a curious reputation: one that's widely admired among critics, but usually only merits a casual mention from those who love Disney, and most audiences only know it for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." It's respected, but I wouldn't necessarily say that it's loved the way other Disney animated films become treasured memories of childhood.

There's two major reasons for this, I would say. The first is that it is, essentially, an anthology film, and as with any such film, there are some segments that are naturally stronger than others. The second is that this is an awfully experimental, pretentious film, unlike anything Disney or any other studio has ever made. Think about it: if you were to pitch to any studio today a film that's set completely to classical music, with no dialogue and segments with no plot, do you think you could actually get it bankrolled? The film itself was something of a box office failure in 1940; it didn't recuperate its budget until after a few reissues. It's not exactly a film that was going to be a blockbuster, especially since classical music was finding itself being replaced by the success of jazz and pop music in the national culture.

But at the time, it was the sort of bold film that Disney could make: coming off the success of 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, itself the first feature-length American animated film, Walt Disney decided to open the realm of possibilities within animation by marrying art with classical music, allowing animators to come up with whatever they wanted to illustrate various pieces. Conductor Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in recording the music, while composer Deems Taylor introduced each segment (those interstitials, by the way, were lensed by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe).

To go back to my introductory point, I was raised on Disney, and I can remember watching Fantasia several times as a child. I was mesmerized by certain images, but it was far from my favorite film to watch (that would be Beauty and the Beast, discussed here). Revisiting it now for the first time in well over a decade, I was surprised at how quickly I was transported back to that state of mind. I still don't think of it as any kind of masterpiece, but I found myself visually engaged with certain segments and enthralled by what was presented.

As this week's selection in Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has issued a challenge: pick one shot from the "Rite of Spring" segment, one shot from "Rite of Spring" and one from the movie at-large, or one shot from each individual segment, totaling six. I've deigned to undertake the final, "sorcerer's" challenge. Let's begin our musical journey, shall we?

Toccata & Fugue

This one wasn't necessarily part of the challenge, but how interesting is it that the film begins with it's most abstract piece? There's no plot, nor is there anything bearing a resemblance to tangible objects: just colors and shapes that prove surprisingly moving. Of any of the segments, this one is the truest to the idea of representing hearing music at it's most basic, using colors to evoke emotion in tandem with the music. 

As for the above image, well, isn't that just a great bit of photography? The maestro of sound and image, not unlike a director of a film.

The Nutcracker Suite

I know I've been all about reflections in this series (it's a syndrome), but I love this shot of the flowers falling onto the surface of the water. Honestly, there's enough beautiful shots in this film to make you lament the end of Disney's hand-drawn animation department even more. The choice to match each dance in the suite with various aspects of nature (including fairies, which look like prototypes for Tinkerbell) is interesting, but this is one of those segments that's merely pleasant, not necessarily groundbreaking.

Other shots:

This is another very elegant, anthropomorphized-nature example: seeds as dancers in elegant gowns.

And of course, this wouldn't be early Disney without some sort of racist caricature.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

This is, of course, the segment that everyone knows about. Its popularity can be owed not only to the fact that it stars Mickey Mouse, but also to its narrative, in which the Apprentice tries to use magic to make his tasks easier, only to get his comeuppance for skipping out on hard work (an era-appropriate theme). Of all the segments in Fantasia, this one has the most straightforward plot (based on a symphonic poem by Paul Dukas, itself based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), but it also strikingly uses light and shadow to great effect. Throughout the segment, we see the difference in lighting of inside and outside, and the shadows play almost noir-ishly across the walls. In the above shot, we see the Apprentice's situation (literally) spiral out of control, while the never-ending army of brooms marches onward in it's mission (which I never completely understood?). It's a stunning example of the use of shadow to suggest something almost nefarious about the use of magic.

Other shots:

Because how many other times has Mickey wielded an axe?

I love how almost pop-art this is. You could almost expect it to be used in some propaganda poster in a Communist nation.

The Rite of Spring

Given that it's a famous Stravinsky ballet (I have a soft spot for him, thanks to high school band) and deals with dinosaurs (because who doesn't love dinosaurs?), this had all the elements to be my favorite segment. And yet I'd say it's actually my least favorite of the film. It certainly doesn't lack for ambition, attempting to tell the story of life from the formation of the universe to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The problem is that, though the music is affecting (Stravinsky reportedly hated the arrangement used in the film) and the animation striking, it doesn't really muster up the feeling of wonder that it should. It even has a showdown between a stegosaurus and a T. Rex, for Pete's sake, and it doesn't quite get the pulse racing. The above shot, though, feels like a wicked moral coming from the Studio Where Dreams Are Made; the T. Rex has been felled by hunger and thirst, while his former prey staggers toward their inevitable deaths. The segment begins with birth, but as every spring leads to fall, so does every life wane into the twilight of death.

The Pastoral Symphony

The middle portion of the film is the one that really sags. This follows Rite of Spring, and though it's colorful and loaded with mythological beings, it never really musters much beyond a "aw, how cute." There is a strong study in coloring here, and the courtship of the centaurs paired with a literal bacchanalia is an imaginative interpretation of the music. Which is why my choice for favorite shot comes from an abrupt storm, caused by the king of the gods, Zeus, in a bit of inspired dickery. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the segment's soft colors, and the silhouettes against the purple storm clouds are appropriately gloomy.

Dance of the Hours

As a kid, this was my favorite segment. In fact, the above image is deeply ingrained in my memory (what that indicates about me is up to you and perhaps a therapist to decide). Despite the selection of animals on parade (ostriches, hippos, elephants, crocodiles), all of the dancers are surprisingly graceful, which of course is the joke here. It's the most humorous segment in the film, and I think this impossibly elegant shot is representative of that.

Another great shot:

This is just great shot composition. And oddly elegant as well.

Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria

On this viewing, though, this was by far my favorite segment. A study in the profane and the sacred, the first half takes us to Walpurgisnacht, where a massive demon reigns free for one night. Reportedly, artist Salvador Dali offered to do work on the film, and though his work wasn't used, this segment, as evidenced in the above shot, is very informed by his style. The off-kilter designs of the demons unsettling enough, but paired with that truly frightening beast of a demon controlling them makes it even more terrifying.

On the other side, there's this solemn, peaceful shot of the pious drifting through the forest, as the haunting sounds of "Ave Maria" play. It's a gentle, uncomplicated way to end a film that was ambitious, beautiful, and sometimes frustrating.

Another shot:

This could (*did*) give me nightmares.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

*This post is part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

One of the most exciting things to see Oscar-nominated directors is what projects they choose as the follow-up to their nominated films. Some will stay in the Oscar wheelhouse (a recent example being Alexander Payne's The Descendants, while those who have long, established careers (Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood) will just keep making the kinds of films they always have, with a surprise here and there. But the most fascinating ones are those who have worked outside the mainstream, using their newfound clout to make films no one would expect. Sometimes this works out great (Peter Jackson's underrated King Kong remake), sometimes it doesn't (Ang Lee's Hulk, Gus Van Sant's very misguided Psycho remake).

In 1996, director Anthony Minghella broke through with The English Patient, his Oscar-dominating romantic epic set in WWII. For his follow-up, he decided to try his hand at a Hitchcockian thriller, and the result was The Talented Mr. Ripley. Needless to say, the film falls in the realm of "fascinating follow-ups;" like most twisty thrillers of its kind, it strains credulity in its third act, but it has a lot of great things going for it, from the raw sexual energy between Matt Damon and Jude Law (and Damon and Jack Davenport, and Law and - weirdly - Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Damon and Cate Blanchett, and Law and Gwyneth Paltrow...) to composer Gabriel Yared's tinkling score to that brilliantly haunting final scene.

It's a visually gorgeous thriller, as well. Keeping with the Italian setting of last week's HMWYBS selection, Summertime (my post was sadly derailed by a computer issue), the film features no shortage of gorgeous Italian landscapes. But what's more interesting is the way Minghella - with the help of cinematographer John Seale - frames the central conflict, as Tom Ripley (Damon) stops at nothing to have the life Dickie Greenleaf (Law) leads.

I wrote about the use of mirrors and reflections before in this series, but the motif reflects (see what I did there?) the thematic question of Tom's identity. He's a master liar and manipulator, but seems to have worn so many different disguises that the real Tom Ripley has disappeared. There's no question that Dickie stirs something in him, a desire for more than just Dickie's lifestyle. He wants, deep down, to be apart of Dickie's life, perhaps even become as one with him. There's a powerful erotic tension between the two, and neither one of them seems to know what to do with it.

In one scene, for example, Tom plays chess with Dickie as the latter relaxes in a bath. Tom asks if he can get in; they glance at each other, sizing up the possibility, before Dickie declines. Tom mutters that he didn't mean while Dickie's in it, but Minghella cuts to a shot of Tom's reflection in the water: he's already in there.

But my choice for best shot is on the train to San Remo, as Tom rests his head on Dickie's chest while Dickie sleeps, then looks up to see their merged reflection. Not only does this foreshadow the film's second half, but it also hints at the homoerotic subtext: Tom and Dickie are one, unified into a single being.

Of course, this union doesn't last: Dickie begins to grow weary of Tom, and Tom lashes out violently. Which sets up my second-favorite shot; it really was difficult to choose between the two.

It's picturesque: a boat on the crystal blue Mediterranean. But inside that boat lies the remnants of the doomed couple, tragically cuddled together at last. Tom loves Dickie, but Dickie can no longer love Tom.

A few other choice shots:

It's kind of obvious, but it's a great visual representation of Tom's fractured psyche, which is only becoming more and more cracked.

Tom prancing around in Dickie's clothes is, without a doubt, a delightful and totally GIF-able scene.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Skyfall (2012)

It begins as it always does: a chase. James Bond (Daniel Craig) emerges from the darkness, checks on a downed agent, then continues his pursuit of a man who's stolen an important hard drive. The chase takes him and a fellow agent (Naomie Harris) through the streets of Istanbul, taking motorcycles over rooftops and using a crane to get across a moving train. It all leads to a fistfight atop said train, where Bond's partner is forced to take a critical shot. She fires. He falls.

Within the first twenty minutes of Skyfall, James Bond is presumed dead.

Of course, he isn't: that wouldn't make much of a movie. But he is reborn, both as a character and as a film franchise. Skyfall had a long road to development: it arrived four years after Quantum of Solace, which was marred by reshoots and the 2007 Writer's Guild of America strike (it's director, Marc Forster, hasn't faired well since, with his World War Z also going through hell to get made). The film was maligned by fans, who were expecting more after 2006's Casino Royale, which had reinvented Bond for the Jason Bourne era of action films. Then came MGM's - the rights owners to the franchise - bankruptcy woes, and after a while it seemed as if we may never see Bond in theaters again. And if he did make it back to the big screen, would he be able to shake off the rust?

The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Sam Mendes, who had some action experience in Road to Perdition and the underrated Jarhead, signed on as director. Neal Purvis (a Bond regular), Robert Wade (another regular), and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) collaborated on a screenplay. The release date in 2012 would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr. No. And the result was a film that not only celebrates the history of the franchise, but also manages to push it into new places while also somewhat hitting the reset button necessary for the franchise to continue.

The plot sees MI6 under attack by an unknown assailant, later revealed to be technological mastermind/hacker Silva (Javier Bardem). It's up to Bond to stop Silva from releasing the identities of all active field agents, and determine why he is specifically targeting M (Judi Dench). M is also facing the heat from a government minister (Ralph Fiennes), who's investigating the going-ons of MI6.

Mendes has crafted a terrific film that reinvigorates the franchise. The action sequences are breakneck, and possibly some of the most impressive the series has achieved to date. Craig is, as always, terrific in this role. Though Berenice Marlohe's Severine is a bit of a thin character, the real "Bond girl" of this film is M. The film spends a good chunk of time exploring the relationship between her and Bond, with a few nods to his origins that deepen both characters. Though Bardem is fantastically sinister as the most memorable villain in some time, it's Dench who steals the film, giving a phenomenal performance as the woman who made Bond who he is, for better or worse. Also great: Adele's lush theme song (if anyone was born to sing Bond themes...) and Roger Deakin's typically-innovative cinematography.

Skyfall's ultimate mission, though, is to answer a simple question: why do we still need James Bond? Bond himself asks as much in the film, and it goes to great lengths to show us why: to paraphrase the film, now more than ever, those who protect us have to work in the shadows, because that's where evil operates now. What's more, though the darker Bond of Casino Royale was a refreshing change from the cheese that had come to define the franchise, Skyfall breaks free of Jason Bourne's shadow to come back, in full force, as he should be: the death-defying hero saving the world, one plot at a time.

And I, for one, am glad he's back. A

10 Films from Cannes I'm Most Excited About

It's my dream to one day go to the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, this year is not going to be that year, so I, like most of us, will be watching from the other side of the pond and breathlessly waiting to hear how the various films are received. With Steven Spielberg presiding over a jury that includes Ang Lee and Nicole Kidman in the Main Competition, and Thomas Vinterberg heading the Un Certain Regard jury, it's going to be exciting to see which films end up taking home prizes this year.

Here are the ten films, in no particular order, that I am most excited about in the competitions, along with one film that I'm cautiously interested in. I've left The Great Gatsby off this list since I'll certainly have seen it before the festival opens.

This year's festival is scheduled to run May 15 - 26.

Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

This one made my top ten most-anticipated list at the beginning of the year, and for good reason: it's the first film from the Coen Brothers in three years, since their interesting-but-kind-of-disappointing 2010 remake of True Grit (don't get me wrong, I enjoyed that film, but it's certainly one of their lesser efforts). This film, based in the folk music scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, stars Oscar Isaac - who had a big year in 2011 - in the title role, and costars Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Coen regular John Goodman. It also looks like a return to the Coens as obtuse filmmakers, reminiscent of Barton Fink and A Serious Man. It will be premiering in competition at Cannes this year, and will hopefully make it's way stateside before the end of the year.

The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)

I'm a Sofia Coppola fan. Even though she's become increasingly more maligned for being an "elitist," focusing only on the travails of the rich and bored (never mind that her male counterparts receive little criticism for having the same focus), she remains a sharp director with a keen eye for atmospherics and visual splendor - just see the sumptuous Marie Antoinette. What's more intriguing than the premise - the true-life story of priveleged bored teenagers who decide to rob the mansions of celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan - is the star turn from Emma Watson, who, so far, has done a splendid job of shedding the Harry Potter franchise that made her famous and developing into a fascinating actress. Debuting in the Un Certain Regard competition, it should be interesting to see if the film world re-embraces Coppola.

Fruitvale Station (dir. Ryan Coogler)

This film, competing in Un Certain Regard as well, made a big splash at Sundance, being picked up by The Weinstein Company for a late-July release. Based on the true story, the film stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old in Oakland who was shot to death by a transit officer on New Year's Eve, 2008; the film takes place on the last day of his life as he interacts with friends and family. It sounds like an intimate portrayal of a young man's life and an examination of our nation's gun-and-violence problem, and I've been a huge fan of Jordan's since his time on Friday Night Lights. Hopefully this film will make him a household name.

The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Two years ago, Farhadi's A Separation was released, and quickly became known as a masterpiece, a deft stroke of storytelling and acting that was, without a doubt, one of the best films of the year. Needless to say, it's going to be a tough act to follow. His new film, The Past, follows a married couple (Ali Mossafa and Berenice Bejo) in trouble; he returns to his native Iran, she wants a divorce after she begins seeing another man (Tahar Rahim). It does sound a little like A Separation, but if Farhadi can mine the same territory and find results as exciting that film, this should be another brilliant film for him. This film is part of the main competition.

Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Like Inside Llewyn Davis, this one made my initial top-ten most-anticipated list this year. I was enormously impressed by his previous film, Drive, which won the director's prize here two years ago. Here, Refn is reteaming with Drive muse Ryan Gosling for a film that involves Bangkok's criminal underworld and Thai kickboxing, co-starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansingarm. Based on the first trailer, this looks like another visually cool genre exercise. It remains unclear if it can copy Drive's Cannes success in this year's main competition, but regardless, I'm sure to be first in line for it's US release in July.

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

Payne seems to be right in Oscar's wheelhouse right now: Sideways was a big hit (deservedly so), and The Descendants was even more so, despite being a rather disappointing movie (Payne's first true misfire, in my book). Nebraska seems to be a much simpler film, more in the vein of Sideways: a father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte, in a bit of inspired casting) take a road trip from Montana to Nebraska, stopping in the father's hometown along the way. If this is indeed a return-to-form for Payne, it should have plenty of panache, and though Dern will certainly be great, it should be interesting to see how Forte, perhaps best known for Saturday Night Live, fares in this. This film will debut in the main competition, with a US release set for November.

Behind the Candelabra (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

It's not often that we see a made-for-television movie premiere at Cannes (actually, has any American made-for-television film done so?). Set to debut on HBO later this month, the film is the behind-the-scenes romance between Liberace (Michael Douglas, who looks superb) and his much-younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). More notably, this is the last film Soderbergh has made before his retirement from filmmaking (though doesn't seem like he's been retiring since forever?), and it remains to be seen if this is a fitting swan song for an endlessly fascinating and talented filmmaker. Curiously, Soderbergh's first film, sex, lies, and videotape, won the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Could this film also win in the main competition, making Soderbergh the only director in history to win Palme d'Ors for his first and last film?

Omar (dir. Hany Abu-Assad)

Palestinian director Abu-Assad already has two fantastic films under his belt: 2002's Rana's Wedding (an underrated gem) and 2005's Paradise Now, plus a handful of films that never made it stateside. His latest, Omar, is being billed as the first fully-funded film to emerge from the Palestinian film industry, and it stars newcomer Adam Bakri in the titular role, following the tale of three childhood friends and a woman who are torn apart by the current Israel-Palestine conflict. If it's anything like the aforementioned films, it should be spectacular in it's appearance in Un Certain Regard. Hopefully a stateside release will follow.

Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

This one is a late addition to the main competition, but it sounds like the kind of film oddball director Jarmusch would be drawn to. Tilda Swinton - a personal favorite - and Tom Hiddleston star as a pair of centuries-old vampires who have grown bored with modern society, with Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-starring. It's rare to see vampires show up in the Cannes main competition slate, but the most recent example was Chan-wook Park's Thirst (2009), and if Jarmusch's film maintains his unique touch, it could make a case for more arthouse bloodsuckers in the future.

Jeune & Jolie (dir. Francois Ozon)

Ozon's a curiously underrated French director: he began the Aughts with a trio of great films (2000's Under the Sand, 2002's 8 Women, 2003's Swimming Pool), then curiously fell out of the limelight with subsequent releases. 2010's Potiche was an odd delight, thanks in part to the great Catherine Deneuve's performance. At the moment, his latest, which translates to "young & beautiful," is described as only "the portrait of a 17-year-old girl, through four seasons and four songs." The film stars relative newcomer Marine Vacth, and Charlotte Rampling supposedly has a role as well. Time will tell what the film's really about, but it's certainly one of the more intriguing offerings in the main competition.

As I Lay Dying (dir. James Franco) BONUS FILM

In high school, I was introduced to William Faulkner through his novel As I Lay Dying. As someone who enjoys both 20th century literature and Southern literature, I have to say that I really, honestly, fucking hated it (as a point of reference, my reaction was similar to Pat Sorantino, Jr.'s to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in Silver Linings Playbook). I haven't picked up anything by Faulkner since, and I don't really want to anytime soon. That being said, James Franco wrote, directed, and starred in this adaptation of the novel, playing in Un Certain Regard, along with Richard Jenkins, Tim Blake Nelson, Beth Grant, and Danny McBride. I won't say that I'm particularly excited about this film, especially since so much of the novel is the characters' inner monologues, but I will say my interest is piqued.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Short Takes: Perks, Frankenweenie, and More

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Every couple of years, there's a coming-of-age film that's destined to become a classic, speaking to a new generation of teenagers and telling them, "yeah, the world is bullshit, but that doesn't mean it isn't intolerable." Perks is one of those films. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the screenplay and directed), the film follows Charlie (Logan Lerman) as he navigates his first year of high school, making a new friend in Patrick (Ezra Miller), falling for Pat's sister Sam (Emma Watson), and struggling with depression after a trauma in his past. It could be very melodramatic, but Chbosky never lets the film lose it's joie de vie, namely with the help of the excellent cast. Miller, in particular, is a firecracker; hopefully we'll see more of him in the future. B+

Frankenweenie (2012)

You can go to just about any film blog and see pieces about how Tim Burton's films have been mostly lackluster in the past decade (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd excepted, in my mind), and how Frankenweenie is his freshest film in ages. But what about it makes it a better film? Part of it comes from Burton revisiting his early animated short of the same name, part of it comes from paying tribute to the Vincent Price horror films and creature features he grew up on, and part of it surely comes from the fact that neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter are involved (note to Burton: do that more often). Instead, this stop-motion animated feature follows a basic Frankenstein tale: Victor (voiced by ) reanimates his dog, Sparky, after a tragic accident. He then tries to keep it a secret, but once the truth is revealed, mayhem ensues. What really makes it so delightful is how simple it is: Burton's returned to his "outsiders/weirdos save the day" motif from the early days, and it reminds us of what a singular talent he is when he tries. B+

Pootie Tang (2001)

At the time of it's original release, this film was a major flop. Conceived as an extension of the character from The Chris Rock Show, the film follows indecipherable crime fighter Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther), who tries to foil a plot to make kids smoke, drink, and eat nothing but fast food. Featuring a cast of terrific comedians - including Rock, Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smooth, and Dave Attell, as well as spots from Jennifer Coolidge and Robert Vaughn, the film wants to be a parody of blaxsploitation films filtered through the alt-comedy lens of writer/credited-director Louis C.K. (the film reportedly was re-edited by Ali LeRoi), and in that regard mostly succeeds. In our post-Adult Swim world, where anti-comedy is more accepted, the film has gained more of a cult following. It's an enjoyable, puzzling, bizarre piece of major-studio cinema, and a peak at what C.K. would become a decade later. B

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Give director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance credit: he's chosen an ambitious tale to follow up his intimate 2010 breakthrough Blue Valentine. The film traces the lives of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorcycle rider who discovers he has a son, and Avery (Bradley Cooper), a small-town New York cop, and the ways their lives intersect. The film really breaks down into three smaller, interconnected vignettes: the first, focusing on Luke's efforts to take care of the son he never knew he had with the woman (Eva Mendes) who wants nothing to do with the ne'er-do-well, is the best, thanks to Gosling's steely magnetism (no doubt Luke is a long-lost relative of the Driver from Drive). The other two segments, one in which Avery struggles with police corruption, the other centering on Luke and Avery's sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively), don't fare as well, with the lattermost suffering from contrived storytelling. Still, the actors shine, elevating a messy script into a interesting (but still messy) film. B-

Double Indemnity (1944)

Noirs don't get much better than this: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance man lured into a nefarious scheme by Phyllis Dietrechson (Barbara Stanwyck), who wants to kill her husband via unusual circumstances so she can claim the double indemnity clause in his accident insurance policy. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a perfect murder, but Stanwyck delivers a flawless performance in a career full of them. As directed by Billy Wilder - who's career is also an embarrassment of riches - the film is gorgeously shot and staged, making full use of shadow and light. It's a marvel all-around. A- (Best Shot post here)

Summertime (1955)

Katharine Hepburn shines in this breezy romance from David Lean, who would later be known for sprawling epics such as Lawrence of Arabia. Hepburn stars as Jane Hudson, a lonely American on vacation in Venice when she falls in love with Renato (Rossano Brazzi), a shopkeeper who also happens to be married. The film is carried by Hepburn's magnificent performance, showcasing Jane's loneliness in a city where she barely knows anyone - aside from a few other (quintessentially) American tourists - as well as her conflicting desire to experience the thrill of passion with Renato. Heightening that desire are cinematographer Jack Hildyard's gorgeous shots of Venice, as the entire film was shot on location. It may not be among Lean's or Hepburn's most famous films, but it definitely deserves a look. B+