Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cannes 2010 Summary

Multiple forewarning are in order for this post. First of all, I've never been to Cannes nor have I seen any of the films this year. If you are interested in first-hand information, you're probably better off reading indieWire or whatever. All I can offer is some perspective on the director's past works, with recommendations and random opinions.

Which leads me to the second caveat. This post started as an email, a Cannes summary that I've been doing for a couple of years (but almost didn't happen this year because I forgot about the festival) and which grew rather large and started to include pictures. That being the case, bear with the strong opinions and schizophrenic writing style.

Cannes 2010:

This year's jury presidents was an interesting set of personal favorites, all directors: Tim Burton, Atom Egoyan and Claire Denis.

A lot of attention was focused around the director who wasn't there, Jafar Panahi. Panahi is an Iranian directors whose films implicitly criticize the religious, class and gender divides in his country and since his arrest in March on presumably political grounds he's been the focus of attention and support from cinema-lovers, directors and film programs the world over. I've only seen his most recent films, "Crimson Gold" and "Offside," both quite excellent. Now is a great time to get more familiar with the work of a filmmaker who really puts his neck on the line.

This year's golden palm went, only mildly surprisingly, to Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who just goes by Joe if you're not Thai), who probably couldn't stop winning prizes if he wanted to. His latest is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," an arty ghost story of sorts. I've kept up on Weerasethakul's films over the years, but he's one of the few directors who I almost wish would just stop. He has these amazing concepts that never really work for me and drag along in the most tedious manner. Yet I can't help watching his movies. His fans, typically high-brow critics, go into ecstatic fits over every shot and he's generally considered one of the greatest international directors to emerge from the last decade.

YouTube trailer, which accurately conveys his trademark pacing:

The only Weerasethakul film I've genuinely liked so far is "Tropical Malady" which plods along like a typical dreamy queer cinema indie romance until halfway through when one character apparently morphs into a murderous tiger and disappears into the jungle and the other characters follows him on a sort of naked spirit-quest hunt. Or something. I've been trying to get people I know to see the film just so I can have someone to talk about it with. His latest one sounds interesting, but usually that ends up being a evil trick.

Best director went to Mathieu Amalric, everyone's favorite unsavory Frenchman (Quantum of Solace, Munich, A Christmas Tale, The Heartbeat Detector, etc), who only very occasionally steps into the director's chair. His film, "On Tour" is about a travelling burlesque show with Amalric as manager. Enjoy the poster:

Lee Chang-Dong won the screenplay prize for "Poetry" about an elderly South Korean woman with Alzheimer's who discover poetry, for better or worse. The buzz is that it's much better than that sounds, but I can't help thinking Chang-Dong should have won the screenplay prize back in 2000 for his more political "Peppermint Candy." The film is famous for ordering its scenes in reverse, beating "Memento" to the screen by a nose. Chang-Dong sat on the Cannes jury last year, so you just know the whole thing was rigged (just kidding).

The actor prize was split between Javier Bardem in Alejandro Inarritu's "Biutiful" and Elio Germano in Daniele Luchetti's "Our Life." Neither sounds particularly interesting outside of the performances, but most of the press says otherwise.

The actress prize went to Juliette Binoche in Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which has been getting mixed reviews. I love Binoche, but Kiarostami is very hit or miss for me. His work in the 1980's and 1990's from his Koker trilogy to "Taste of Cherry" is excellent, but everything since then has tended to repeat itself and get progressively slower and preachier. I think Binoche has some masterplan to work with every major director in the world: Godard (France), Kieslowski (Poland), Haneke (Austria), Hou (Taiwan) and now Kiarostami (Iran) to name a few. Of her recent stuff, "Summer Hours" by Olivier Assayas is quite good, though her hair is awful. Binoche has the dishonor of being on this year's shockingly crappy official Cannes 2010 poster.

Other interesting films in the main competition:

Takeshi Kitano returns to familiar yakuza grounds with "Outrage." After "Fireworks," "Sonatine" and "Brothers" I'm not sure what he has left to say on the topic, but like Suzuki's yakuza pics and Scorsese's gangster films, it never really gets old.

Im Sang-soo's has remade the crazy 1960's South Korean classic "The Housemaid." I recently watched the original and I absolutely adore it. You can watch it free online at MUBI (formerly The Auteurs). I don't think there's anything the remake can offer, but Sang-soo might be just the right person to try it. His "The President's Last Bang" is a brilliant dark comedy deconstruction of Park Chung-hee's 1979 assassination that shows he knows how to handle serious material with a wry touch. The poster for The Housemaid sucks, so here is The President's Last Bang:

UK social realist Ken Loach continues his penchant for controversial political films ("Land and Freedom" and "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" being solid examples) with "Route Irish" about two pals who join a private security force in Iraq. I love Loach's work so I give him the benefit of the doubt, though I tend to prefer his films about heavily-accented locals living on the brink of poverty and crime ("My Name Is Joe," "Riff-Raff," "Sweet Sixteen"). Route Irish was actually was an early favorite for the top prize (in the Western press) along with...

... fellow Brit Mike Leigh's "Another Year." Maybe they split the vote? Leigh manages to lay bare the private hopes and fears of working class Britain in his semi-improv dramedies like "Naked," "Life is Sweet," "Happy-Go-Lucky" and his masterpiece "Secrets & Lies." Recently he has tried his hand at a variety of historical and biographical topics, but this sounds like a return to his contemporary preoccupations.

Bertrand Travernier, an understated director who doesn't seem to have very many champions in the America, has a new film called "The Princess of Montpensier," a romance set in the 1562 French Wars of Religion. It will probably be pretty good. No one will see it.

The only other director I'm familiar with from the main competition this year is Doug Liman and he doesn't bear talking about. See one reason below:

Un Certain Regard:

Cristi Puiu finally follows up his 2005 arthouse smash "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (a key film in the burgeoning Romanian New Wave) with "Aurora," the second installment of a planned six part series. At over 3 hours long, expect it to be brilliant, but exhausting. From Wikipedia: " Puiu spent five months searching for an appropriate lead actor before deciding to cast himself."

Jean-Luc Godard's lastest film "Socialism" had its debut, after being the subject of some excitement for almost three years. I expect it to be a free-form meditation on whatever topics come into Godard's head, similar to his other 21st century works like "In Praise of Love" and "Our Music." These always tend to be pretty interesting, but I'm on board with 99% of the population in preferring his work from the 1960's. When you get right down to it, I'd probably rather just look at pictures of Godard muse Anna Karina:

Jia Zhang-ke continues to regularly stamp out intriguing works and now has "I Wish I Know." He's regarded as the best of the Chinese 6th Generation and I've recently been exploring his work. "Still Life" would be my recommendations for those who are considering giving him a try. I suspect his importance as a modern filmmaker will only continue to grow.

Manoel de Oliveira, who at 101 is cinema's oldest active filmmaker (no one ever fails to mention this when talking about him, so why should I?), is showing "The Strange Case of Angelica." I wish I could find more of his enormous oeuvre, but it all seems rather rare. I watched "Abraham's Valley" in a mediocre dub and it only just whet my appetite without really satisfying me. As far as Portuguese directors go, I suspect de Oliveira is more worth seeking out than his fellow arthouse favorite Pedro Costa, whose stuff is just mind-numbing.

Out of Competition:

Opening the festival was Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" which has already hit theaters in the US and word is that it is pretty awful. Other films outside the competition are "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," another Woody Allen film on the same old Allen romantic entanglement themes and the usual all-star cast that deserves something better, "Tamara Drewe" by Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity," "The Queen") and Oliver Stone's sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," set during the 2008 financial crisis (I actually kind of want to see it).

Why does everyone love getting Russell Crowe dirty?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of The Desert of the Tartars

“The Desert of the Tartars” (1976) was the last film by Italian director Valerio Zurlini, whose work I’m not familiar with, and although the movie’s reputation has faded, it is still quite capable of fascinating and mystifying. “Fascination” might seem a rather strong word for a film that is so stubbornly slow, long and uneventful, but its measures are divided with thematic and stylistic rhythms in mind with an ambition that I found easy to appreciate. The result is something like an epic story of wasted lives, told amidst the beauty and emptiness of sand and stone.

Lt. Giovanni Drogo takes up his first commission at Bastiani Fortress, an obscure outpost on the fringe of an unspecified empire. The fortress lies between a forbidding mountain range and a vast desert, both of which present such logistical difficulties for a crossing army that the oversized border fortress seems a ludicrous redundancy. Despite rumors of a force gathering in the distant north kingdom (beyond the desert) and of Tartar warriors that ride white horses amidst the sandstorms, no enemy is ever seen except as indistinct figures in the distance.

Yet all the men (the film’s only woman appears but briefly in the first scene) within the rigid hierarchy of officers are, each in their turn, seduced by the paranoia of a mounting threat that never materializes. Drogo finds that military life at Bastiani is not what he dreamed; there is no chance for glory and only an endless restless watchfulness and aching unsatisfying boredom. His first reaction, and his wisest, is to leave, but his sincere regard for courage, commitment and camaraderie cause him to doubt. Opportunities slip by. Circumstances align against him. As the years pass on quicker and quicker, he bids farewell to superiors who lead with varying degrees of success and leave with varying degrees of regret. As he rises through the ranks, Drogo longs for the moment where he can redeem the sacrifices he has made in a tangible confrontation. The moment always lingers just beyond the horizon.

Depending on how existential you’re feeling, the film can be read as a simple critique, even a condemnation, of the sterility of military life or as a more wide-reaching parable about the meaninglessness of human endeavor. The senseless of military discipline and obedience to rigid protocols is exemplified by Mattis (Giuliano Gemma), an officer who marches a sick man to death on a snowy peak, applauds the shooting of a friendly soldier for not knowing the correct password (despite being recognized) and who forces a disobedient platoon to stand without food until they begin to collapse.

The distinctive thing about “The Desert of the Tartars,” however, is that it doesn’t laugh, or even crack a smile, at the absurdity of war in the manner of films like “Catch-22” (1970), “MASH” (1970) or “Oh! What a Lovely War!” (1969). Nor does it emphasize the brutality and violence of war, as no actual combat takes place. The film simply exposes the self-aggrandizing gentility and paranoia of obsessive military vigilance as a sort of psychological illness, where the only battleground is in the mind and the struggle for peace and sanity is much more abstract than what the soldiers are trained to deal with. Again, Mattis, who vents his barely-concealed bloodlust in boar-hunting and sadistic treatment towards his men, is the key example.

[Image: Formal dinners provide an outlet for pomp, albeit in a static, stationary setting.]

The psychological angle, however, remains largely an issue of undertone and understatement. Characters are driven to illness, murder, suicide and madness by the endless waiting, but all in an atmosphere of suppression and aloof dignity that glides quietly over personal crises. The structure of the films fails to sustain ongoing tension and instead mounts upward for a brief episode and then diffuses again (perhaps intentionally frustrating us the same way the officers are frustrated). Zurlini opts for a slow burn, which I respect, but I wish he would eventually turn the temperature much higher than he ever goes. I would have, at least, preferred him to leave the ending more ambiguous, with the audience given more freedom to decide how much of the final developments are purely Drogo’s delusions.

[Images: Perrin does a fine job conveying the way that Bastiani wears away Drogo's mental and physical health, though the film is a little too lopsided in piling the bulk of his deterioration into the last act.]

The subdued tone that the film adopts also tends to squander the ridiculously high-profile cast. For a film that was often overlooked outside of Italy until NoShame put it out on DVD, the cast includes a remarkable amount of international talent: Jacques Perrin (France), Jean-Louis Trintignant (France), Max Von Sydow (Sweden), Fernando Rey (Spain), Vittorio Gassman (Italy), Philippe Noiret (France) and Helmut Griem (Germany), some of whom, like Rey and Noiret, are thrown away on underdeveloped roles.

[Image (from left to right): Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Hour of the Wolf), Fernando Rey (That Obscure Object of Desire, The French Connection), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, Death Laid an Egg) and Jacques Perrin (Z).]

What Zurlini fails to squeeze from his actors, however, he makes up for with landscape. The fort, the mountains and especially the desert are for more compelling than any given character in his film. Luciano Tovoli's cinematography stares down the terrain with mute gravitas and paints it effortlessly with the burning chalk-brown of daylight and the soft purple-grey of twilight. Filming in Arg-e Bam, Iran, Zurlini and Tovoli make spectacular use of the ancient ruins, tapping their labyrinthine desolation as an Ozymandias-esque metaphor for the futility of man in the face of eternity.

[Images: The heavy use of lone figures dwarfed by lonely ruins and receding horizons is said to be inspired by the work of Giorgio de Chirico, which is how I happened to hear about the film.]

Nor does Zurlini skimp on panning across the wind-swept wasteland to awe us with the expanse that nothingness can fill and to humble us with the majesty of nature’s inhospitable frontiers. More so than “Lawrence of Arabia,” this film reminds me of something like “Woman in the Dunes,” with its dreamlike existential atmosphere that invokes horror more often than beauty. Also like “Woman in the Dunes,” I feel irresistibly compelled to read the book, written by Dino Buzzati in 1940.

If the memorable use of widescreen landscapes and the precise choreography of soldiers in spotless attire are easily the strong points of “The Desert of the Tartars,” the major weakness may well be the audio. The usually reliable Ennio Morricone (everything) provides some decent tracks, but they are too mellow and elegiac; nothing as evocative and moody and the film requires. Not only could we use a great deal more brooding, unsettling instrumental music, but a layered soundtrack capturing the ceaseless wind and dry echoes that surely haunt such a place could have gone a long way towards driving the atmosphere and tension that too often remains incomplete. Instead, long silences and a relatively scanty, purely utilitarian soundscape contribute the film’s occasional inability to sustain its powerful concepts. It’s a major opportunity missed.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

[Image: "The Red Tower" (1913) by De Chirico. Used as the cover the novel's English translation.]