SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, CANNES, 2009
MAP OF THE SOUNDS OF TOKYO
MY ENEMY, MY NEIGHBOUR
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS
SAMSON & DELILAH
SILENT ARMY, The
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
TIME THAT REMAINS, The
WHITE RIBBON, The
(Philippines, 2009. d. Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr. Special screening)
Raya Martin directed Independencia and co-directs Manila, keeping his preference for filming in black and white.
We are offered two stories of hardship in contemporary Manila, entering Brillante Mendoza territory without the explicit treatment.
The first story is of a young addict, his search for drugs, and the story of his mother, a respectable church-going matron (who is revealed as having a shady past) who attacks and disowns her son, leaving him in drug destitution.
The second story is longer though it takes place over less than 24 hours. Philip (Piolo Pascual, the same actor as the previous addict) is chauffeur and bodyguard to a spoilt playboy would-be politician who takes his girlfriend and an associate to a night club, is involved in a drunken brawl where Philip, to defend him, produces a gun and shoots an assailant. The rest of the story is Philip on the run, dropped by his patron, taking refuge in a refuse dump and pursued by the police.
Vivid presentation of the city of Manila in all its aspects, rich and poor. But pessimistic.
And, for those who stay for the credits, after them there is another brief tale of a young man trying to reconcile with his nurse girlfriend, allowing audiences to leave the cinema with more hope than the end of the film led them to expect.
MAP OF THE SOUNDS OF TOKYO
(Spain, 2009, d. Isabel Coixet. Competition)
The sound of noodles.
As David (Sergi Lopez) remarks to Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi), who shows her relish by loudly slurping her noodles, that this would be impolite in Spain but essential in Japan. The noodle sound is one of the ingredients for the title of this film.
Isabel Coixet has made films in Spanish and in English. Here she opts for a Japanese production and the use of Japanese and English.
The film can be called an erotic thriller. It opens with Japanese and foreign businessmen exploiting women by eating sushi laid out on their bodies. However, by the end of the film, Coixet is prepared to sacrifice (in a lower key than, say, Lars Von Trier in Breaking the Waves) the woman for the sake of the man.
After the business meal, an elderly sound recordist begins to narrate the story of Ryu, an enigmatic young woman whom he befriends. She works in the fish market. However, she becomes entangled with David who runs a wine shop in Tokyo. While their encounters become more and more erotic (he is grieving the suicide death of his girlfriend), the issue is whether she will kill him as she has been hired by the dead girl's father.
What is it about Tokyo for foreign film-makers, relationships, being lost, sex and the love hotels? Gaspar Noe offers a far more pessimistic outlook on these issues in Enter the Void. This is a slight Last Tango in Tokyo with a semi-happy ending.
(Korea, 2009, d. Bong Joon- Ho. Un Certain Regard)
When the Koreans go for broke in horror and/or absurd scenarios, they make films like Mother (and this director's The Host).
Mother, who shows she is quaintly peculiar (at least) dancing in a vast field during the opening credits, is ultra-protective of her mentally impaired son. After he is injured in a hit-run incident and, with his friend, follows the car to the exclusive golf course for revenge, he is accused of the murder of a promiscuous student, arrested and imprisoned. Mother cannot believe it and goes on a crusade and some detective work herself, turning up evidence and information about extra elements of abuse and violence. Some of this information has a powerful effect on her for the worst.
Mother takes its place among a continually increasing number of crime/absurdist/horror touches Korean films.
MY NEIGHBOUR, MY KILLER
(US, Rwanda, 2009. d. Anne Aghion. Un Certain Regard)
Anne Aghion has made a film about Nicaragua in the past and Antarctica in the present. In the meantime, for nine years, she has been filming on and off in Rwanda and produced three hour-long documentaries on the aftermath of the1994 genocide. This time she has made an 80 minute film on the Gacaca Tribunals set up by the Rwandan government in 2001 where open air hearings bring the accused and the survivors together, with 'citizen-judges who try their neighbours and rebuild the nation'. Is this possible?
The crew spent much of the time between 2003 and 2008 in the village of Gafumba taking 350 hours of footage. Clearly, there is a great deal of material where the women remember and still grieve. One woman says that her seven children were killed in front of her and her baby torn from her back and beaten to death. They let her live because she had become a person of suffering and sorrow and would die. How can this be forgiven?
Several of the Hutu killers also speak, describing their guard tours around their villages to suppress the Tutsis or admitting the atrocities they committed. We hear some of the sentences and the reasons, the appeals for clemency and the release of those who had served their sentences.
Where this film is more powerful and horrifying than most is not in the presentation of violence – no visuals, only verbal descriptions – but in the reality of gazing with the camera lens at the testimonies of the men and women on both sides, listening to the stories, knowing that nothing can be undone and always puzzling on how the burdens of grief and the burdens of guilt can be reconciled.
No white person appears on screen. There is no voiceover. Yes, it is edited, but it is also well-documented testimony.
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS
(Iran, 2009. d. Bahman Ghobadi. Un Certain Regard)
It seems that pets should neither be seen nor heard in Tehran. But, that is a symbol for the underground music movement in the country, neither seen nor heard. Definitely underground.
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobodi has made the fine, award-winning films, A Time for Drunken Horses and Turtles can Fly. However, a project he was working on for two years did not meet with government approval and the project collapsed in a waste of time. Should he make a film about that experience? A lover of music, he decided to make a film about the contemporary music situation (rather than music scene) in Iran, the suspicion of music by Islam and women's singing being prohibited.
With a digital camera and a type of guerrilla filming in 17 days, he has produced a film that dramatises the situation, introduces a number of groups and their song performances (and music video styles) and creates characters who have been imprisoned but who want to sing, who want to leave the country but are unable to get passports and visas, who are the mercy of agents who are at best deviously successful or, at worst, con men who themselves are conned or fall foul of the law.
There is a sympathetic lead, Ashkan. There is one of the most irritating leading ladies, the always suspicious and whining Negar, and the most exuberant amateur entrepreneur with non-stop patter, a way with persuasion and a claim to be knowledgable about the movies and movie stars.
The film basically follows the rehearsals, the planning, listening to other groups – with great exuberance despite the pessimism.
(Romania, 2009. d. Corneliu Porumboiu. Un Certain Regard)
One needs to take good notice of the title, both words, otherwise some might expect all police whereas the really interesting part is adjective, since the film is concerned with words and language.
While there is a basic, slight plot about police work in Porumboius' home town of Vaslui (the setting for his Camera D'Or winning film about the day Ceacesceu was deposed, 12.08 East of Bucharest,), most of the action (used loosely because much of it is long shots of Cristi, the central character, on surveillance) is in routine police work, checking information, writing reports and discussions with bosses. Cristi becomes convinced that the pot-smoking student he tails, denounced by another student, is not the source of drugs for the group and does not want to arrest him and have him imprisoned on less than solid evidence.
Not heart-stopping or adrenalin-pumping action. No, this is routine work presented objectively, sometimes like an observing documentary, set in ordinary streets with ordinary people, rather than extras, passing by. One feels that this is entirely authentic.
But, one night when Cristi has a late supper and his wife is listening to a popular song on the internet (loudly), he questions the meaning of the lyrics, for example, 'what is a field without the flower?'. He is generally an imagination-free policeman. The discussion moves to the meaning of images and symbols. Cristi doesn't get it but, on going into the bathroom to clean his teeth, he realises 'what is a toothbrush without the toothpaste?'! Another time, he and his wife discuss some spelling and how the Romanian Academy can define the norms for words. Much of the dialogue consists of people correcting others about what they exactly mean when they say something.
The culmination is Cristi's meeting with the boss and his refusal to set up a sting on the unsuspecting student. It is a matter of conscience. The final scene, one long take, plays like a theatre piece with words and silences as the boss asks Cristi to define conscience and then demands a dictionary so that conscience can be looked up, then law, then morality and then police, so that Cristi will understand, if possible, the relationship between morality and law and the necessity of law prevailing over 'conscience'. And that is what we are left with.
An 'arthouse' film that will please those who love language – and precision in language.
(US, 2009, d. Lee Daniels. Un Certain Regard)
Based on an award-winning novel by poet and essayist, Sapphire, from her time as a social worker and teacher with deprived and abused children, Push, this is a very moving film about a subject with which moviegoers will be familiar. But, here it is presented so well and movingly.
The basic narrative is straightforward: the late 1980s, a completely dysfunctional family in the Bronx, where the pregnant 16 year old Claireece Precious Jones (already the mother of a daughter who has Downs Syndrome) by her father, lives with her indolent and abusive mother. One of the distinguishing features of the film is that at moments of deep hurt and crisis, Precious retreats into her imagination where she is beautiful, successful and admired. These imaginings the audience is privy to. But Precious is a very big girl, very big and this causes insults to be poured on her.
Praised by her maths teacher and supported, though at first quite ungratefully, by the principal, Precious is advised to go to a special Each/Teach organisation run by Miss Blu Rain, an elegantly beautiful, intelligent and sensitive woman.
The rest of the plot might be anticipated but it is seeing Gabourey Sidibe's performance and her eliciting our interest and sympathy that makes the film worthwhile. The other performances are also strong: comedienne Mo'nique as the slatternly mother, Paula Patton as Miss Rain, singer Lennie Kravitz as a male nurse and Mariah Carey as the social supervisor.
The screenplay pulls very few punches: school behaviour, violence at home, incest, teenage pregnancy and motherhood, childbirth, choices for adoption or opportunity for development, illiteracy, lack of self-esteem, lesbianism, racism. But, this is all presented with such conviction and compassion that it wins audience hearts and minds.
(France, 2009. d. Jacques Audiard. Competition)
He's not that kind of prophet. Some Marseilles criminals declare him a prophet when he calls out that there are animals on the highway before their car strikes a deer. But, a prophet as proclaiming God's message, no way. Rather, he is a thorough example of an Italian Renaissance prince as described by Macchiavelli.
For Malik el Djebena it was not always thus!
In Jacques Audiard's bold, graphic and intriguing film, Malik is 19, an orphan who has grown up in juvenile centres and has been arrested for attacking police.
We enter, as an audience does in the tradition of prison films, with Malik, the examination and search, the prison garb, the cell... Once he has been supervised, he is settled into his own cell. We sea meals, showers, the yard and an immediate attack on Malik for his sneakers and to show him who is boss.
What follows is the saga of Malik's life and growth in prison – and the film runs for two and a half hours – and he takes the first of different and unforeseen turns.
He is cajoled by Cesar, the kingpin of prisoners, head of the Corsican contingent in jail, a strong force who have an antipathy towards the increasing number of Arabs into killing another prisoner or Cesar will have Malik killed. Initially reluctant, he does slash the victim's throat. Then, in a stylistic flourish, along with the visualising of Malik's dreams, the man's ghost appears to Malik periodically, warning him, a counselling presence.
This is the tale of an illiterate youth who uses his wits to learn at prison classes, including economics, who serves the Corsicans but is always listening, finds himself trusted by Cesar to do jobs for him on his day releases but who uses the opportunity to set up his own hash smuggling enterprise, does deals with various rival gangs and finally manipulates crises (and a massacre) that leaves him on top of the world. Can it last? (In fact, a sequel would be interesting.)
Audiard has made some striking and stylish dramas (Sur Mes Levres, The Beat My Heart Skipped). Tahar Rahim as Malik, from young to confident adult, changes physically and psychologically (and immorally) before our eyes. Niels Arestrup as Cesar is a powerful foil to Rahim.
A brutal but effective depiction of the world of crime.
SAMSON & DELILAH
(Australia, 2009. d. Warwick Thornton. Un Certain Regard)
A fine film from Australia by an indigenous writer-director and cast that should be seen widely at home and abroad.
Warwick Thornton has found the right pace, tone and empathy to make this a significant story about a young man and a young woman whom many would judge as insignificant.
At the beginning of the film, the same daily routine is emphasised as day-by-day, Samson wakes up, listens to music, sniffs his jar of glue then sits waiting for something to happen. Delilah wakes, rouses her Nana and gives her her tablets, joins her in dot painting, wheels her to the infirmary and to the chapel. They live in a small town-settlement in the Northern Territory bush.
Samson doesn't talk but Rowan McNamara? makes him an engaging mischievous character who one day kills a kangaroo by chance and proudly carries it past all the houses. But he falls foul of his brother who plays in a little band on the verandah all day. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is wrongly accused by the aunties of the town of neglecting her Nana and is beaten. Samson and Delilah leave in the communal truck.
This first part of the film shows conditions in the town, some poor and dingy, some mod cons and some music and painting – and a lot of boredom.
The second part of the film takes Samson and Delilah to Alice Springs where the comfortable lifestyle of middle Australia is taken for granted, kerbside cafes, supermarkets, art dealers selling Nana's paintings for $22,000 each. Delilah wanders through a church, gazing at the images, while an eager young priest watches but is not able to say anything.
Samson and Delilah take refuge under a bridge in the dry Todd River bed where they are befriended and fed by a an alcoholic drifter, Gonzo (Scott Thornton) who has a sense of humour and loves singing.
Things go from bad to worse, Samson almost incessantly dependent on glue and petrol fumes. But, the final part of the film does offer hope, especially with the energies, initiatives and care by the woman, by Delilah. Women are the hope for the men.
The leads are naturals and Nana and Gonzo offer telling glimpses of the older generations. The white community is not presented in any complimentary way.
In the last eight years, there have been a number of films about, with and by aboriginal people, some using local language as does this one. One hopes there will be many more and as persuasive as this one.
THE SILENT ARMY
(Holland, 2008, d. Jean van der Velde. Un Certain Regard)
Director Jean van der Velde was born in the Congo and educated in Rwanda and Burundi. He clearly has deep feelings about Africa today, its independence and prosperity, the rebel movements with armies of children who have cause massacres and migrations.
A film can be cinema, judged by the highest artistic standards. Or a film can be a movie, an entertainment made for a mass audience and to be commercially successful. With its straightforward plotting and practical craft as well as its earnest message for the widest audience, The Silent Army is a movie.
Filmed in South Africa but, particularly in Uganda, a country notorious for its abduction of children to fight, the film wears its heart on its sleeve. It opens with bonds of friendship between a black boy, Abu, and a white boy, Thomas, everything normal in a 21st century African town until the rebels raid and Abu is taken in a sequence that is shocking and makes the point about this use of children as appalling. When the rebel leader appears with his genial but deadly speech to the children, already brainwashing them to call him (and shout), 'Daddy', the children's cause is lost.
The film combines scenes of the children trained in weapons and killing as well as a raid on a church in a village, with the search by Tom's father for Abu.
Perhaps the plotting is too simplistic and the ending a bit too heroic for strict analysis, but the film is intended to rouse the reactions of a public who may not be familiar with these issues.
(US, 2009, d. Ang Lee. Competition)
Ang Lee always surprises: great Chinese films, Jane Austen adaptation, graphic novel and a survey of US society and culture from the Civil War (Ride with the Devil) to specialist films about the 1960s and 1970s (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and now, Taking Woodstock).
2009 is the 40th anniversary of the momentous cultural (and counter-cultural) event which drew half a million Americans to a concert where the stars of the time played and hippiedom reached its peak. The first television interview this reviewer ever did was in 1970, talking with director Michael Wadleigh about his cinema covering of the event, Woodstock.
What has Woodstock to say to audiences in the West today? What does Ang Lee think and James Schamus the writer of this film and several other Lee films?
For those over 60, it is a memoir, a nostalgia trip (for or against), a reminder that there were causes in those days, that the 1960s saw some of the greatest changes in the way we behaved and thought. It was the time of the Vietnam War and what that did to the consciousness of the United States. It was Richard Nixon's first year as president, the year after student riots in Paris and other European cities, of the Russian spring invasion of Prague, of the Catholic Church's encyclical letter on birth control. Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for 1969. The times were definitely a-changing and the flower-power movement and similar stances for free love, for drug induced states, for protest, for same-sex relationships. Much is taken for granted now. And the question always rises: what are the movements now, what are the causes, and do they generate the enthusiasm and energy these days that they should?
Are young people today as liberated as they think they are? Do they take causes to heart as they might? There was hedonism then. How does it compare to the more knowing and self-indulgently affluent hedonism now?
Which are questions for the under 20s who may be made aware through this film of stances of their parents and grandparents.
This story takes in the concert, but at a distance. It is interested in the more personal story of the family that took on the project and the locals who let out the land – and all the consequences, the 500,000 who came, the attitudes and behaviours, the logistics for control and security, for food and drink, for hygiene facilities, the rain and the mud.
At the centre is a young man who is trying to help his parents run a run-down motel. The screenplay spends a lot of time on his story. He is well played by Demetri Martin and his parents by British Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton (doing a caricature of a Jewish mother that demands attention). Also featured are Eugene Levy as the owner of the land, Emile Hirsch as a returned Vietnam veteran with problems and Liev Schreiber as a transvestite security guard.
Very American but brought to life by Ang Lee.
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
(Romania, 2009, d. Christian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Joana Maria Uricaru, Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu. Un Certain Regard)
Christian Mungiu won the Golden Palm in Cannes 2007 with his 4 Months, 3 weeks, . Now he has co-ordinated this portmanteau film with four other directors. They are urban legends – from the so-called 'Golden Age' of the Ceausescu regime, as his publicists would have the world believe.
The five short stories (others were made and can be interchangeable for screenings around the world), underline the serious 1970s and 1980s, but with a light touch.
We see a village imposed on by bureaucrats to prepare for an official visit with rather ludicrous expectations and false pomp, newspaper photographers squabbling as how to present the president during a visit of Giscard D'Estang, a truck driver forbidden to open his sealed cargo and experiencing a breakdown on the road and prison, a family trying to slaughter a pig with butane gas in their apartment kitched and two young people with a scam to get people to give water and air samples for pollution tests – so that they can sell the bottles.
Funny and serious – and a retrospective on a repressive era.
THIRST: Ceci ets mon sang
(Korea, 2009, d. Park Chan- Wook. Competition)
Whew! (and that's an understatement). Another word that springs to mind is 'Bonkers'! And then one reads in the final credits that Thirst has been inspired by Emile Zola's Therese Raquin. Not that one would immediately notice.
Park Chan- Wook's reputation, and a strong one it is, does not depend on reticence or ordinariness. Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance..., not exactly restrained. He goes for the full, hard-hitting melodrama.
Thirst is full of themes that will have analysts buzzing for a long time. One of the difficulties of making a film which glories in genres, conventions (and breaking them) and the absurd is that if you spend a quarter of the film in a very, very serious tone, pondering on illness, mortality, the role of the Catholic priest, self-discipline and self-sacrifice even to medical martyrdom, the transition to (or descent into) what Park Chan-Wook? labels as vampire melodrama, you can just go whoosh or you can lead your audience where you want them to go. Thirst opts more for the whoosh.
Spoiling plot development a little, we can say that the priest dies a saint, and people want healings from him. But an unknown injection of blood turns him into a vampire. To be fair, he knows that he has been transformed even damned, and while he does not want to kill anyone, his vow of celibacy becomes more than a stumbling block.
Before he died, the priest was a sympathetic pastor. On his return a mother wants him to cure her son of cancer. The son is an old acquaintance, as his wife, who was also an orphan like the priest.
To avoid describing how the priest and the wife become unnatural born killers, suffice it to say that there is a lot of blood lust and the ordinary lust. Which gives the director the opportunity, not to offer us refelections on faith, commitment, sin and free will, but to explore these themes through the melodrama and the tantalising symbol of a priest unwittingly and unwillingly turned devil-figure and his moral struggles, all in the context of contemporary Korean society with its traditional religions, unbelief and the presence of Christian minorities.
The film goes on for thirty minutes or more after it has virtually ended, the director playing with horror and vampiric images, ready for a laugh as well as a gasp, the film becoming (intentionally) sillier. Finally, the sun comes up, the priest and the wife have no cover....
THE TIME THAT REMAINS
(France/Belgium, Italy, 2009. d. Elia Suleiman. Competition)
Elia Suleiman was born in Nazareth, one of the minority Arabs living in Israel. His films are semi-autobiographical. His film previous to this one, Divine Intervention, received awards at Cannes and was distributed around the world. He does not want to be labelled 'the Palestinian director'. Rather, he wants to entertain his audience with stories that come from life, humorous as well as serious incidents. This, he hopes, will give a personal picture of life in Israel and Palestine without emphasising the ideologies.
He succeeds with The Time that Remains, although the jocose tone of the film in the last section when Suleiman portrays himself changes the tone of the film a great deal, more surrealistic in its jokes and its selection of non-sequitur episodes than the more 'historical' narrative.
The film opens in the present as he comes from the airport in a fierce thunderstorm and his driver is lost – and keeps repeating 'where am I?'. This leads to remembrance of Nazareth in 1948, the takeover by the Israeli army, the mayor signing an accord, the attempt of the mayor, Suleiman's grandfather, to leave for Amman and the arrest of his father, Fuad, a gunmaker, and his brutal treatment by the Israeli soldiers.
There follow episodes in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, based on his father's diaries and his mother's letters. While there are disturbances and protests, life in Nazareth is rather more quiet than in Gaza. Fuad has a workshop. The family lives quite comfortably. Aunt Olga is the principal of the Arab school (even winning a competition for Hebrew singing schools and watching Spartacus) – and the young Elia is corrected by a teacher for saying that America is colonialist (and later again for saying it is imperialist).
Fuad has to go to hospital several times, the result of his beating. He goes night fishing in the Mediterranean over the years and the patrols recognise him – though he is arrested for allegedly smuggling arms from Lebanon by sea. His depressed neighbour pours gasoline over himself from time to time and Fuad stops him each time. Aunt Olga calls in and watches a lot of TV. Elia grows up and there is nothing much for him and his friends to do except hang around and watch odd characters pass by.
When Elia returns, Nazareth is modern. Aunt Olga has a Filipino maid. His old cronies still sit in the street drinking coffer watching people go by. Elia travels to Ramallah and watches the youngsters dancing at a club like anywhere else where there are clubs. A sequence where a huge tank has its barrell focused on the young man who crosses the street to put rubbish in the dumpster and then answers his mobile phone, the barrell tracking his every move as he chats and walks.
But Olga is unwell and Elia visits her. His own performance is of the silent movie comic style, the sad sack personality with stooped shoulders, smile-less. He lets the camera dwell on his face, his stooped stances and his observing of life around him.
During the final credits, there is a local version of the Bee Gees Stayin' Alive, a recipe for the Middle East.
(Russia, 2009, d. Pavel Lounguine)
In the middle of this film, some of the Tsar's soldiers are put in an arena to fight an enormous bear. The bear is filmed towering above the men (and the audience), a spectacular, vast, powerhouse of energy with the potential to overwhelm all who stand in its way (and it does). It is an apt metaphor for this huge Russian powerhouse of a film, one that overwhelms its audience.
The Tsar in question is Ivan the Terrible (already the subject of Eisenstein's classics). It is the middle of the 16th century, that terrible century for religious upheaval and persecution, Catholics and the Reformed, in Western Europe and in massacres in the New World. It seems from The Tsar to have been even more horrific in Russia and for victims in the Orthodox Church.
The plot of this film is reminiscent of the story of Henry II of England and Thomas a'Beckett. Here, Ivan has been dominating Russia and fighting the Poles with the help of his ruthless special army. The Metropolitan Bishop flees for his life. Ivan appoints Felipp, a monk who was a childhood friend, as his successor and expected puppet cleric.
The film is divided into chapters, opening with the Tsar's prayer, an apocalyptic reading of the Book of Revelation and the last times. It continues into the Tsar's sacrifice and an alarming section where the Tsar inspects a fairground of inventions of torture. Felipp is welcomed as Metropolitan but has to stand by and witness Ivan's atrocities and blood lust (with more than a mad glint in the Tsar's eye), including the arena and the murderous bear. Felipp has to take a stand and, like Becket, he will be persecuted and killed.
The film, widescreen, is huge, colourful, spectacular, full of religious imagery, sequences which are iconic, drawing on the art traditions of Orthodoxy and the Russian masters. The score is forceful-orchestral. These are horrible, legendary times and this is communicated over almost two hours.
In that sense, the film is not for the fainthearted – and yet, it communicates this phase of history, the violent use of power and the challenge of religion better than any history lecture.
US, 2009, d. Peter Docter and Bob Robertson. Opening film.)
A cinema delight. The American lady next to me broke into laughter many times and declared at the end that it was 'adorable'. A great choice to open the 2009 Cannes Festival in a time of recession. Money does not make the world go round!
Why a delight? An endearing plot that leads to many zany developments. Sympathetic characters: a grandfather-figure and a boy who needs a male role model. A hiss-the-villain. Bright Pixar animation and excellent voices for the characters. Some birds and animals that can take their place amongst the best of animated creatures. A thoughtful and funny screenplay with plenty of verbal and sound jokes as well as its deeper human feelings. There is 3D but, as Pete Docter noted, it is meant to be a window on to the events, not a 'lion in your lap', objects 'comin' at ya' exploitation of the technique. This is beginning to sound like a rave review – and, well, why not?
A warning. While there are some smiles in the first 20 minutes with an introduction of a 40s-style Movietown News and an introduction to two gawky kids, silent bespectacled Carl and chattering, gap-teeth, spiky hair Ellie who want to live lives of adventure when they grow up, one begins to think that this won't be a funny Pixar film at all and, we might wonder, how will the kiddies react? There follows a most moving collage of episodes in Carl's and Ellie's marriage and how they were not able to live their childhood dreams (which is reprised beautifully towards the end as Carl looks at the album of photos of their lives, the adventure of their marriage). And now that Carl is old, is it the nursing home ('Shady Oaks') for him and will the developers be able to take possession of his old house which is in the centre of a building site?
At this point, the film literally takes off, or at least Carl's house does, in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, with the myriad balloons he had sold to children over the years wafting him away. But, he is not alone. Russell, aged eight from down the street, needs another badge to become a senior in his cub-like organisation. He needs to help someone elderly. Carl has sent him on a wild goose (rather snipe) chase to get rid of him. But, Russell is hanging on to the verandah wall for dear life. He joins and shares Carl's adventure, to go to South America where Carl and Ellie wanted to go but never did.
The laugh quotient now begins to intensify. Carl has become a curmudgeon with the voice of Ed Asner. Russell is an earnest tubby little boy, voiced by Jordan Nagai. Together, they become an engaging odd couple in their flying, getting through a storm, landing in South America and dragging the house through the jungle and over rocks to get to the water fall, the hoped-for destination of the house.
And the laughs increase as we find a huge, colourful bird which Russell befriends and calls Kevin. This doesn't matter when he discovers, Kevin has chicks. Kevin is in the tradition of the Road Runner (and later could get a cartoon series of his/her own). Then there are the dogs, the funniest crowd of dogs for a long time, all able to speak, all doing the bid of the old explorer we saw in the Movietown News who now lives in his dirigible – and has been stalking Kevin for years, the villain (Christopher Plummer).
If this has not tempted you to see Up, then just take it on faith. It is a fine blend of the sweet and the funny and shows a great deal about friendship, family, helping others, and that material things, finally, are far less important than relationships. Of course, we know that, but here is a delightful reinforcement of those views.
(Hong Kong, 2009. d. Johnnie To. Competition)
Possibly the best Johnnie To crime drama. To is a prolific film-maker and, in recent years, most of his films have premiered at festivals in Cannes, Berlin or Venice. His international reputation is high and strong.
It was surprising the number of times that Shakespeare's name came to mind while watching vengeance. Of course, so many of Shakespeare's plays are revenge tragedies, a genre popular amongst the Elizabethan and, especially, Jacobean playwrights. But, it was not just the revenge. The audience had to ask questions about the reality and meaning of the bloodbaths, to look beneath the conventions of revenge tragedy for the human elements. Johnnie To's film is not one that glorifies the vengeance (which some other films from Hong Kong tend to do). The plot device of having a central character suffer memory loss with the hired killers asking what the meaning is of vengeance when the initiator does not know what is happening.
It was a very smart move to have a French connection for this story which takes place in Macau and Hong Kong. It offers greater access than usual to Western audiences. Sylvie Testud appears briefly as the widow of a man who is victim of hitmen. Her father is played by Johnny Halliday (in a role intended for Alain Delon who declined). Johnny Hallyday at the best of times can look alarmingly sinister. By coincidence, he witnesses three other hit men doing their deed in his fashionable Macau hotel and hires them to find his family's killers.
Johnnie To knows how to do action and intrigue and is never at a loss here. But the style, craft and polish of the film show an even greater flair than usual. The film looks very good. The opening killing has strong shock value. The recreation of the crime as Hallyday and his hired men examine the house works very well.
There are allusions to other films with a striking umbrella sequence, the hero losing his memory and taking photographs and labelling them in the same way as in Memento. It is Macbeth that comes to mind in a shootout as the hired men are surrounded by large bales of compressed garbage which hide the attackers, look as if they are moving by themselves and are moved like the trees of Burnham Wood advancing on Dunsinane. At the end of the revenge tragedy, there are very few left standing but the important thing is that order is seen to be restored. While it looks like a last man standing here, the film goes on to provide a pleasing hope for normality.
It is neatly written, well-acted and a very satisfying example of this kind of vengeance film.
(Italy, 2009, d. Marco Bellocchio. Competition)
Vincere, To win, to conquer, was a catch cry of Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, which rallied millions of Italian nationalists during the 1920s to the end of World War II. The film opens in 1914 with unionist, Mussolini, giving God five minutes to kill him. It took over 30 years for the partisans to do this.
After an awkward start, time and placewise, introducing Mussolini and Ida Dasler who became his lover and mother of his son, the film builds up the passion between the two, especially Ida's obsessive commitment to Mussolini, and the future Duce's personality, arrogance, bullying rhetoric, founding Il Popolo and his war service as well as being wounded on the front in 1915. Actor Filippo Timi portrays Mussolini in manner rather than in looks. However, after he assumes power and government, the film uses a great deal of actual footage of Il Duce himself rather than any performance. This becomes an extraordinary reminder of the histrionic style of Mussolini's speeches and self-confidence.
The film, while tracing Italian history during the era, including the Concordat with the Vatican and Italy's empire ambitions of the 1930s, is really about Ida Dalser. Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives an arresting and nuanced performance where she has to age thirty years.
Jealous of Mussolini's wife and paranoid about persecution and with delusions about Mussolini's love for her (so lengthily and intensely portrayed early in the film), she is confined, staying with a family in Trento, then deprived of her son (who dies in an institution aged 26), confined to asylums until she dies in 1937 of a cerebral haemorrhage. She insisted to the end that she was married to Mussolini and that he had acknowledged his son but she never produced the documentation.
So, this is a very sad film, not only with Mussolini's ultimate ruining of Italy and the alarming presentation of a nation embracing Fascism, but in the cruelty of Ida Dalser's internment, separation from her son and continued humiliation. Her story provides another, more personalised perspective on this significant period in Italian history.
(France, 2009, d.Tsai Ming- Liang. Competition)
Tsai Ming- Liang is a great favourite with critics and festivals. He has won many prizes. His style often comprises long takes and intensely serious and silent interactions. One of his constant themes is sexuality.
Commissioned by the Louvre to make an art film, he has gone to France and constructed a work that would be seen to more advantage by an audience taking its time, re-viewing certain sequences, stopping to reflect, then moving on, were it an installation in a gallery. Each sequence is a single fixed camera take, a succession of moving image panels.
Plot is not important at all. Basically, a director (Tsai Ming-Liang's protege in all his films, Kang Sheng-Lee) is making a drama of Salome, Herod and the death of John the Baptist, emulating the art styles of how this Gospel sequence has been portrayed over the ages. Some panels focus on the director, his mother and his work for the film. Others focus on his actor for Herod, Jean-Pierre? Leaud, a fragile character who needs communication and support. In the meantime, Fanny Ardant is acting as a producer. The model chosen to play Salome (Leetitia Casta) is getting into her role and cavorting provocatively.
This is a film for patience and surrender (which at the press screening at Cannes many refused to contemplate and made for the Exit). The scenes are composed, as one would expect, meticulously and artfully. Some of them, especially with Leaud, are quite moving and powerful, especially one of the longest takes where Fanny Ardant cares for him and a scar on his nose and Leaud finally speaks the words of Herod to Salome.
For an acquired and artistic taste.
THE WHITE RIBBON
(Austria, 2009, d/ Michael Haneke)
Ascetical is a word that springs to mind to begin describing The White Ribbon. Director Michael Haneke has imposed on himself some very strict disciplines for this film. Set in the year before the outbreak of World War I, in a village in northern Germany, it is almost two and a half hours long. Filmed in crisp black and white, it uses the classical craft of films from decades ago.
Often, in look and theme, it reminds us of the older Ingmar Bergman films: a village, children, a pastor, a landowner, intense interactions. It also looks like many a French film, or even a Fox period film from the 1940s, though not studio bound. The takes are often long, static, with many reactions shots. It is not the swiftly paced material of today's films.
Michael Haneke makes films that are sometimes impassioned but which are also cool, even detached Many audiences may well find this the case with The White Ribbon. We observe unusual and cruel things going on in the village. We look at the characters and listen to them but, apart from the young local teacher (who is narrating the story in his old age) and his fiancee, it is difficult to empathise with them.
There are mysterious accidents in the village, some cruelty towards children, which still remains a mystery by the end. This is a village of olden days funny games which may involve the rather malevolent children. The Baron is a cold man. The pastor is even colder, stern in discipline with his children (which may be a cause of their actions). The doctor has some of the cruellest insults on screen as he dismisses his mistress and his midwife for his work.
The film indicates the beginnings of World War I and leaves us with the memories of strange times, strange people, strange behaviour.
Winner of the Palme D' Or, the International Critics Prize and a commendation from the Ecumenical Jury, Cannes 2009.