Thirst” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Adored by geeks for his stylish violence, lauded by the arthouse for his immaculate camera, and beloved by all for his "Vengeance Trilogy," South Korea's resident idiosyncratic auteurist Park Chan-Wook took a minor misstep in his oeuvre with the 2006 romantic comedy, "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK," but with the grim sounding vampire film, "Thirst," he seems poised to regain any lost footing. Having won the Grand Prix in 2004 with the sequel in the vengeance triptych, "Oldboy" – a film that then-jury head Quentin Tarantino adored – obviously he and his work are no stranger to Cannes and "Thirst" is apparently already a big hit in Korea. Some synopses give the entire film away, this one -- a man of the cloth volunteers for an experiment that goes wrong and accidentally turns him into a vampire -- just scrapes the surface.

Falling somewhere between the whimsical nature of 'Cyborg' and the more brutal attributes of his previously lauded work, "Thirst" is somewhat a disappointment and a not entirely successful melange of many of his various visions, tones and quirks. Suffering from a muddled narrative, an overextended, dragging last half, and disparate tones, the film is also somewhat confused, never quite nailing down what it’s trying to say or achieve. As a religious screed, it isn't invective, as a morality tale, it works only in moments and has little bite, and as a love story, it has its amusing moments as well as its hang ups. It's also much more comedic than you'd expect, which is perhaps, at times, the one saving grace that makes the film (somewhat) enjoyable, despite its flaws (though Sam tells me he, "hated it," and I can understand why).

Popular South Korean actor Song Kang-ho ("The Host," Park’s "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance") plays Sang-hyun, a priest who is respected for his compassion and altruistic dedication, but his faith is seemingly tested when a patient and friend lapses into a coma in front of his eyes. Tireless in his efforts to help the lesser, and seemingly galvanized by the grave incident that has befallen his friend, he travels to Africa, volunteering as a guinea pig for an experiment that could act as a potential cure for a deadly and infectious disease. During the testing he is infected and dies, but the blood used to attempt to save his life appears to be tainted and he is raised from the dead, chanting a strange mantra (like a leper rotting in flesh, let all avoid me, like a cripple without limbs, let me not move freely, Remove my cheeks, that tears may not roll down them, etc. and so on).

News travels of this "miracle," and the priest becomes a much sought-after religious savior, with a small cult of devotees. Desperate citizens beseech him to bring good fortune to their ailing family members, and he tries to dismiss any rumored healing powers as simply a psychological panacea, though he eventually relents to visiting a few homes out of empathy. One such trio, the Ra family, has a sick son, Kang-Woo (Shin Ha-Kyun, the mute from 'Mr. Sympathy'), who coincidentally was a childhood friend of the priest when he was an orphan. He repays the long-forgotten friend by "curing" his cancer which goes into remission (though seemingly through nothing of the priest's own doing). He is instantly magnetized to the introverted and sullen daughter Tae-Joo (Kim Ok-Vin), who he also remembers from childhood and she too is drawn to him.

Adopted into their family, but still marrying her brother (though not by blood), Tae-Joo is treated like an indentured servant and hates her miserable existence, her overbearing vodka-sozzled mother/mother-in-law and her dimwitted goofball husband. Simultaneously, the priest, Sang-hyun, who has become a welcome family friend, is starting to feel the awakening hunger pangs of his nascent bloodlust, going as far to clandestinely drink the blood of his coma patient. Doing so keeps his infection at bay -- which manifest in blistering lesion outbreaks when he hasn't fed -- but he is already passed his moral crossroads before he considers the consequences.

As the pastor abandons his moral compass -- not without some conflict -- he too succumbs for his lust, lust, lust of Tae-Joo. The two swap spit, fluids and eventually, blood types, making her too the owner of supernatural powers and the curse of immortality (the visual effects of which are not always dazzling to say the least).

While the priest attempts to temper his vampire desires with his still existing value of life, an ethically flawed idea of feeding on the lesser victims - unsuspecting patients, whose unconsciousness precludes them from being aware of any missing plasm, and suicide patients on the way out -- rather than going for all out carnage, Tae-Joo becomes more nihilistic and rapacious, insisting her ineffectual husband (who couldn't hurt a fly) is beating her and soon tricks the jealous and obsessed priest into plotting his murder. All the while their love grows more fractious, as she evinces contempt for Sang-hyu's "compassionate" ways to stay alive -- a slippery slope with dubious rationalizations, but he clings to some kind of humanity.

The film then takes a ridiculous and surrealist detour that moves the already-existing absurdist tenor past the point of simply amusing quirk (or half-hearted comic allegory) and into the off-the-charts credulity straining realm of no return (even for this fantastical story). The already strange rhythm and pace of the film, which feels idiosyncratically peculiar initially, becomes almost all but confused. The picture should wrap-up, but it persists with a Kubrick-ian section where the Ozzie & Harriet-like couple's vampire love gets ugly as they bicker over who has had their fill of blood and their rules of non-murder quickly fly out the window (all shot within a very Stanley-looking cynically-white painted house).

The narrative essentially collapses under the weight of its ambitions and various strands, not to mention it changes focus from the priest to Tae-Joo, which disconnects us further (and we've barely mentioned the overbearing mother and the priest's blind father who he seeks absolution from). Ultimately, the films fails to reconcile or articulate its themes of love, lust, faith and temptation (and/or how they truly connect) beyond any tenuous levels, and it struggles to remain coherent in its last half (by the end its has flailed all over the map). It also spends entirely too long to reach its rather excellent climax of conscience and sacrifice that does have its moments of quintessential Chan-Wook awe-inspiration - but by then it all feels a little too late. MIDDLING. Rodrigo Perez

“Antichrist” [The Playlist]


Review by Sam C. Mac: "Antichrist" is an exorcism of the foulness and unmitigated hatred stewing inside notorious provocateur Lars von Trier. It's production follows a crippling depression which stifled the Danish master's output for two years, following completof what could be described as the filmmaker's only conventional film, 2006's office comedy "The Boss of it All." This new work finds von Trier coming out the other side of the woods and leading us in: "Antichrist" is set in the heart of a forested landscape known ironically as "Eden."

The film's proverbial Adam and Eve (the cast lists them as "He" and "She") are played by the willowy Charlotte Gainsbourg and previous von Trier collaborator (in 2005's "Manderlay") Willem Dafoe. The couple recently lost their only son (a tragedy depicted as the couple has unbridled sex in the film's heavily-stylized black and white prologue, arguably the most accomplished passage of film this director has ever produced), and the wife has been stricken with inconsolable grief. Her husband (who is also a therapist that arrogantly decides to treat her) attempts to console and rehabilitate his spouse, repelling her sexual advances and embracing her firmly each time she awakes from vivid nightmares. But after the Doc's usual tricks prove largely ineffective ("make a list of what scares you" and "exhale on the count of five," he instructs) it's decided that he must pursue a more severe approach and face her terrors head-on. He leads his wilting wife into a cabin in the woods - into the forest of Eden, the place she fears more than any other.

Unsurprisingly, what the couple find in their foliage-ensconced retreat is nothing less than hell on Earth; a fiercely primal series of brutal acts which She inflicts upon Him in some kind of possessed fury and misguided vengeance. Lars isn't fooling around: within the first five minutes, brief penetration is shown on screen (goodbye R-rating), and later on, one character is forced to ejaculate blood and another takes a pair of sheers to their genitals (hello NC-17). All this ultra-violence is given some context through Gainsbourg's pained whisper of a warning: "Nature is Satan's church."

Sentiments like these are more than appropriate considering that von Trier has dedicated "Antichrist" to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky (a dude who seems really popular all of a sudden) whose films were always heavily influenced by their natural environments. Acts of carnality and physical abuse are suggested to be provoked by the influence of Eden's foreboding landscape, which complements the film's primal urgency (especially in regard to the un-sexy and desperate sexual encounters, of which there are many). It's frustrating then that von Trier introduces a more academic motive for the wife's horrific behaviors: we learn that she was working on her Masters Thesis regarding the mistreatment of 18th century woman, suggesting that all this mayhem is the result of some kind of demonic possession (and or just some good ol' misogynistic statement on his part).

And then there's 'the three beggars,' a trio of recurring woodland creatures (a deer, a fox and a crow) who pop up in horrific succession during the film. Their implication here is riotous: a fox actually talks at one point (the only point, "Chaos reigns!" he groans, covered in blood from eating himself alive) which understandably was met with hysterical laughter at the premiere screening (and all others for that matter). This is a consistent failing of "Antichrist": the more serious and provocative moments are too ridiculous to be taken as such, and thus often come off as comical, and we have to assume that's not what von Trier was aiming for (though who knows with this guy).

Yet however dubious the usually on-point von Trier's symbolic implications may be in this equally dubious return to the horror genre (isn't he past this phase of his career?), his craft is still undeniably accomplished. Both the opening and closing sequences of "Antichrist" have an elevating quality to them that could easily excuse whatever comes between, but von Trier further stuns with his impressionistic therapy sessions, which find the husband instructing the wife to visit the forest in her mind and let it absorb her body-- a sort of catharsis before the storm.

When the tempest of brutal, unrelenting violence does hit (like a brick to the dick-- no, literally) von Trier's depiction is just as arresting as it is in his more leisurely sequences. It's a nasty bit of business for sure, frankly depicted without an ounce of irony, and sure to be the cause of many a sleepless nights and heated debates between cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike (that is, if people are actually given a chance to see this thing; I can't imagine "Antichrist" scoring much of a domestic release, what with its likelihood of making the straight-laced MPAA lose their shit).

We've been known to bemoan the popularity of the torture-porn genre fervently, so we would feel hypocritical endorsing "Antichrist" and excusing it of similar transgressions. However, the fact is, this is moving cinema; whether you're moved to love it, moved to hate it, or it just churns your stomach with wretched bile, "Antichrist" will undoubtedly inspire a passionate reaction among those who see it.

So even if Lars von Trier isn't the "best film director in the world," as he so boldly and, we would assume, tongue-in-cheekily proclaimed in a recent press conference, he's still unquestionably the boss of it all-- a unique artistic force who plays by his own rules and answers to no one.

"Antichrist" is, appropriately, an exorcism of hatred and malice from the grimiest bowels of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, ending a career stifling depression. One question: if this is the aftermath of the director's episode, how fucked up was the real thing?

“Taking Woodstock” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Ang Lee has already stated that after his dark (and relatively mirthless and listless) WWII-era’d picture “Lust, Caution,” he was seeking something much more light on its feet. Enter “Taking Woodstock,” a picture about the nascent beginnings of the seminal ‘60s rock concert in Woodstock, New York that many assumed would be a drama, but turns out to be a comedy (or at least by the trailers, a fairly goofy-looking one) much to everyone’s surprise. Deadpan comedian Demetri Martin stars as Elliot Tiber, a sexually-coming-of-age, aspiring Greenwich Village interior designer who became integral to pulling off the zeitgeist-shaping flower power musical festival. Other cast members include Paul Dano, Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Keli Garner, Imelda Staunton and Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing transgressive.

Expectations are everything and ours were very low. It didn't help that the early reviews of Lee's new '60s-centric feature seemed poor; Variet, we believe called it something like, "mild bud" with little kick, and while this is on the mark -- 'Woodstock' is rather benign, even toothless -- it's also quite warmer and tenderhearted than we expected and not the goofball/whacky "comedy" that the early trailer suggested. Let's demarcate it as a light dramedy for now.

Still, it seems to be a weird picture to be accepted to Cannes, but this is sort of indicative of this years cinema crop, which seems not as potent as previous years (at least so far).

Lee's congenial tale centers on Tiber and his almost-accidental role in helping pull the legendary rock concert off and much less on the counter culture movement that surrounded the festival. Sure, those elements are inescapable and touched upon, but ultimately it’s a mostly personal story about Martin, the relationship to his family, his community and rising to the challenge of Woodstock (becoming a man, inadvertently illuminating one's path, your classic bildungsroman story, etc.). The story's engine starts with Tiber's family "resort," a dilapidated motel in Upstate New York that is threatened with foreclosure. The young man has to choose: his career or help out his aging, ailing parents from insolvency and he seems to have no choice. The narrative shifts into first gear and soon, fortuitous concert permit problems bring the concert to his front door and the keys to his family's monetary issues seem to be in sight. Of course, Woodstock, the concert, soon balloons into an overwhelmingly mammoth event that no one expected or is equipped to handle. The influx of people brings out the contempt (and anti-semitism) of the locals toward Tiber, his family, and Woodstock farmer Max Yasgur who agreed to host the concert (played by a convivial Eugene Levy).

Martin is capable in his first leading role, playing it understated and simple and most of the performances in the film salvage what are fairly one-note, one-dimensional characters who could have been awful in less accomplished hands (a less sure-footed director would have botched them even further). Emile Hirsch plays a young Vietnam vet, suffering from flashbacks, shellshock and readjustment to the "world," and the character would be a complete cartoon if the solid young actor weren't so competent in his craft. Likewise, Liev Schreiber -- who we're often not huge fans of -- takes a tranny turned head of Tiber's Woodstock security from being a caricature into a contoured and full-bodied person with soul and dimension -- in fact his warm presence is very emblematic of the film's overall tone. Newcomer Jonathan Groff who plays the uber-relaxed concert promoter Michael Lang is also a true find, and one to keep an eye on. Relatively new Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter, on the other hand could use some work.

Some are less successful -- Imelda Staunton as Martin's selfish and oppressively domineering Jewish mother is a shrill one trick pony that becomes increasingly frustrating as the picture moves on. Perhaps this is how Tiber's mother really was in real life, but all audiences need reprieve from obnoxious characters. Dan Fogler, as always, plays Dan Fogler, this time as the leader of a hippie theater commune, but at least his role is small enough not to disturb, but everyone else rises to the occasion, taking thin material and elevating it to something richer and tender (though note: Paul Dano and Keli Garner's roles as a hippie couple that introduce Tiber to LSD, are basically cameos).

There are gestures towards the zeitgeist-changing times -- Vietnam in full swing, draft card burning protests, establishment discord, and growing discontent towards this hirsute and unknown generation -- again, the story is less grand scale and more an intimate look at the Woodstock generation through the filter of Martin's family.

While the aesthetic of the film is mostly summery innocence, with a few evocative cut-aways here and there, the film occasionally does take on the multi-screen chaotic emphasis of the famous "Woodstock" concert documentary when trying to channel the anarchic maelstrom surrounding the lead-up to the festival (where Tiber's family motel becomes the epicenter and the HQ).

Due late in August, in limited release, it's doubtful "Taking Woodstock" will light up even the indie-arthouse or rouse critics to resounding levels by the sounds of it -- it's spirited, but much more innocuous than similar period, age stories, i.e., it's no "Dazed & Confused" -- however, there is a warm-hearted essence to the picture that perhaps captures the soul of the peace and love generation, and makes the picture not a total loss. At best, it gently transports you to that world for two hours (overlong like most Cannes films so far), and at its worst, it's harmless reefer without much kick. But you can do worse at Cannes ’09. MIDDLING. RP

“Tetro” [The Playlist]

(Special Screening)

Review by Rodrigo Perez: Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth" didn't do his career many favors. At least not from audiences and critics that were confounded by the seemingly incomprehensible nature of the film's metaphysical doppelganger themes of everlasting life, etc.

However, it facilitated Coppola's return after a ten-year sojourn tending to his vineyards and struggling to complete his ambitious and still-uncompleted magnum opus "Megalopolis" (the semi-similar 'Benjamin Button,’ with its similar looming clock, might have killed it all together), and we welcomed his return.

For the unimaginative stiffs that couldn't hang with 'Youth' (which wasn't as convoluted or cryptic as some thought), "Tetro," seems more appealing: a family drama about a young man (Alden Ehrenreich) who travels to Argentina to find his estranged brother (Vincent Gallo) who has changed his name, become a poet and has seemingly done everything in his power to separate all ties from his family. Shot mostly in black in white, the goodwill buzz engendered with the trailers (from the lyrical and amusing qualities) and scenes showcased so far all indicate a second point of entry for his cinema homecoming.

We digress... Charming, scrappy and ultimately uneven, reports calling Coppola's "Tetro," not a return to form and not as unsuccessful as "Youth Without Youth" (again, if a failure, an interesting one) are pretty much on the money, but still as frustrating as its theatrical flourishes can be, there's many endearing qualities to the film, including moving resonance in the complicated family fabric.

Neither the Fellini-esque whimsy or the Italo-comedy hinted at in the trailer, while the film does contain those qualities, at its core, it's a family drama about a man (Gallo) who's acrimoniously divorced himself from his family and cannot reconcile his buried affections with his bilious bitterness. Characterized by scenes mostly shot in black and white, color flashbacks, stylized daydreams and existing footage of old school cinema (remembering scenes of watching Powell & Pressburger's "Tales Of Hoffman," and references to the Archers' "The Red Shoes"), "Tetro," sometimes takes on more style than it can chew and the mixed medias don't necessarily strengthen the picture.

When cruise ship waiter Bennie (Ehrenreich) arrives in Buenos Aires unexpectedly, his ship moored in Argentina for a week due to engine difficulties, he tracks down and finds his perennially irritable brother Angelo (Gallo), now going by the name Tetro (which fittingly means brooding and gloomy in Italian), and refusing to discuss the past despite Bennie's myriad questions. He's a writer of respect, but known as someone who hasn't fulfilled the promise of his talents, he's a "genius without accomplishment."

While Miranda (Maribel Verdu), Tetro's live-in girlfriend, is welcoming to the naive 18 year old, perhaps eager to know his curmudgeonly older sibling, she too is in the dark about the past and hints to Bennie that deep discovery might be a lost cause. On his first evening, Bennie, who clearly looks up to his brother, reveals his heartache, a tattered letter from his youth written by a then 20 year old Tetro apologizing for abruptly leaving home, but signing off with a promise -- obviously never fulfilled -- to come back one day and "rescue" him from their overbearing and unctuous famous composer father.

Despite Tetro's "rules" and insistence at stonewalling his brother's queries, the ever-curious Bennie keeps burrowing for more and goes as far as to rifle though Tetro's personal things, and finding a coded, cryptic story about their father, which reveals how the patriarch learned everything he knew from his older brother, Alfie. After he became famous he treated him like diseased deadweight.

As Bennie digs deeper into his past -- the knowledge of which he feels entitled to, "it's my story too," he protests to Tetro -- the more vexed the querulous and outraged Tetro becomes. "Love in our family is like a quick stab in the heart," he spits with venom when Miranda asks if he loves his family. Without giving away too much, serious injuries, major miscommunication and a revived Tetro story with a now completed ending come to pass (against his wishes of course) and Bennie soon discovers a deep, dark family secret that leaves him completely disarmed.

Some have already called Ehrenreich a revelation, which is on the mark -- he's the heart of the picture's nostalgic and wistful tone, but Gallo is equally impressive, conveying a wonderfully complex and wounded man who carries a burden of anger, emotional scars and yet has a generous, loving heart beneath the baggage. Coppola says he wants to tell personal stories, yet he slightly undermines his intentions with the impersonal, almost fantastical operatic flashbacks cum dream sequences that, while seemingly part of the grand nature of the story, feel a little alien. In its final act, the picture takes on elements of a Greek tragedy, but fortunately Coppola reigns its conclusion in, saving itself from wanton melodrama that it threatens at. Again, the venerable filmmaker has said the film is not autobiographical, so it’s to his credit that most of it does feel so warm and very personal.

A solid cast of Spanish all stars including Carmen Maura ("Volver") and Maribel Verdu ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Pan's Labyrinth"), plus Argentinean actors like Rodrigo De La Serna (the best friend of Che Guevara in "The Motorcycle Diaries"). The performances and players are certainly the film's greatest strength and lesser actors might not have been able to sell every scene with such palpable emotion and passion.

Still, while largely uneven, there's a spark and charm to Coppola's "Tetro" that some will unlikely dismiss, while others will hopefully see it for what it is, a flawed little jewel, hopefully pointing to a fully realized gem sometime in the near future.

“Looking For Eric” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Ken Loach's 2006 film "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" won the Palm d'Or that year, but we didn't know much about this one going in other than it was apparently a "comedy" -- not the most obvious genre for the naturalistic, kitchen-sink dramatist -- and that it revolved around football (soccer for the yanks).

Joyous, philosophically-minded and brimming with a zealous, but mannered lust for life, 'Eric' stars Steve Evets as Eric Bishop, a 50-year-old postman facing a midlife crisis, which manifests itself in an opening-scene breakdown and car crash (naturally, we counted like 4 car crashes in Cannes films at least). Eric's life is miserable and appropriately London-gray and initially, the picture feels worrisomely pallid and remarkably drab, which suggests a slog. His insolent step-sons are a parent's worst nightmare with their wanton disrespect and impudence is hellish. And it's also incredibly English and sometimes characters' butchering of the language (them thick accents) is hard to discern making the introduction a little rough going for non-Brits, but minor patience soon rewards with a hilarious, loving and celebratory framework.

Somewhat chameleon-like, the film starts out (albeit after the aforementioned opening) as a comedy with surreal elements that slowly escalates into an intense family drama; Loach really does throw in all the emotional textures from the kitchen-sink.

Eric is free-falling in his own self-made emotional tailspin, and what he can't face is the return of Lily (
Stephanie Bishop), his ex-wife/love of his life that he hasn't seen in three decades. Their 30-something daughter Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is having school issues and needs her parents to babysit her child which means meeting to pass off the child and confronting some of his greatest, swept-under-the-carpet fears.

The sense that Eric is slipping is apparent to his mates and postal co-workers and their misguided attempts to cheer him come from a good place, but are unhelpful. However, the well-read, though perhaps still dimwitted Meatballs (
John Henshaw) does have an interesting self-actualization idea; reading aloud and forcing the group of pals to imagine someone who loves them and other self-help book psychobabble (it's hilarious seeing a group of portly middle-age working class Brits attempt this obviously). It doesn't work and a distraught Eric is brought to the brink and begins to speak of suicide. Desperate, he goes into his son Ryan (Gerard Kearns)'s room and finds a spliff to calm down or simply melt away reality.

Out of nowhere -- of perhaps from that puff of smoke -- appears his hero: real-life '80s football (soccer) star and Frenchman Eric Cantona, famously known for his pugilism turned soft and philosophical (and often nonsensical) musings in interviews and press conferences. He was also the beloved star of Manchester United for some time which earned him the eternal admiration and respect of many Brits (Eric's room boasts an almost lifesize poster of the footballer, Cantano infamously once dropkicked a fan in the stands during a match he was so incensed).

Eric is flabbergasted at the presence of Cantona, but soon the two are bro'ing down, talking about life and the philosophy of the sport (which of course is usually a metaphor for our existence; strive, achieve, succeed). Conversations soon turn to Lily, but Eric can't cope and reels at the very thought of her. Sharing spliffs, the postman and his imaginary friend/new life-coach chat at length with Cantona talking about his achievement in sport as allegories for life--there is no winning without risk, he knowingly suggests ("He who is afraid to throw dice will never throw a six," he says, "He that sows thistles shall reap prickles," is another, perhaps umm, more obtuse maxims).

These late night talks taking stock of the day are hilarious and heartfelt as the two new "friends" bond over shared experiences. They're also obviously absurdist and unreal, but the simple unstylized manner in which they're shot work terrifically. From there Lily and Eric get closer to meeting, and the step-kids chaotic behavior exacerbates and chafes, the narrative shifting between these two stories, while always taking a time-out for Cantona and his amusingly profound life lessons.

The mid-plot storyline of Ryan's (Eric's uber-insouciant step-son) involvement with a local
Chav-y thugs is the film's biggest problem. Its jarring, abrupt tone takes the film from its whimsical serio-comic flights into an intense drama realm and the disparate sections don't always gel congruently. The family cannot go to the police, an attempt to reason with the thugs finds pit-bulls sicked on poor Eric and a police raid in the house looking for an illegal pistol interrupts a family dinner and freaks the fuck out of Lily. The scene is just brutal and heartbreaking. An almost devastating setback for Eric who is repairing the relationship with his family and ex-wife. Not at all heavy-handed or milked, but as an audience you nearly weep for Eric for such a misfortune to befall him.

Still, it does give Eric conflicts and the chance to rise to the occasion as Cantona has been urging him all along, taking him out of a fitness regime and trying to bolster his self-esteem and outlook on life. When all seems lost, Eric, with Cantona's help, hatches a plan to hurt the thugs where it pains them the most: their pride and their reputation. Their wildly concocted scheme embarrasses the jackass, wannabe (while still truly dangerous) gangsters and makes them lose face, culminating with a hysterical crescendo of an army of friends -- teammates in life, natch -- who descend on the bastards with cameras (for blackmailing YouTube posterity), red paint filled water pistols and Cantona masks.

Cantona is obviously a figment of Eric's imagination, but nevertheless, their friendship is deeply heartfelt and poignant, so when the football star gives him his final nod of approval, it's an emotionally moving moment. Loach refuses to use the denouement with Eric's family to wrap things up in a nice Hollywood bow, but you're still left with an optimistic and hopeful mood. "Looking For Eric" is essentially a lighthearted, feel-good picture in many ways, but with an emotional heaviness, as done so by England's preeminent realist, and the winsome film sports a tremendously genuine and life-affirming sweetness that's too honest to ever taste syrupy.

“Face” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Sam C. Mac: Like many ambitious and striking films at Cannes '09 (ala "Antichrist"), Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-Liang's "Face" was met with mass walkouts and a smattering of boos following its Grand Lumiere premiere. And, like the Von Trier film, "Face" is idiosyncratic, as Tsai relies on our ability as filmgoers to become immersed in the experience his film offers. Commissioned by the Louvre Museum, Tsai's latest is ostensibly a series of arty deadpan vignettes, often recurring, forming only the vaguest semblance of a narrative: A Taiwanese filmmaker comes to Paris to shoot an adaptation of "Salome" at the Louvre, but the production (the 'film-within-a-film') is plagued by interruptions, most distressing being the death of the filmmaker's mother, whose ghost haunts the troubled director's dreams. "Face" won't please everyone (and it clearly hasn't), but those who can settle into its staid pace and rhythmic repetition may find a bursting water pipe, or, a ghostly hand from offscreen stealing an apple from Fanny Ardant (one of many French actors who appear here, including Jean-Pierre Leaud and Mathieu Amalric) to be riotously comedic moments in a festival severely lacking in humor. In any case, one can't deny that "Face" is this master filmmaker's most visually accomplished film to date, with images so carefully crafted and striking that they're likely to haunt me for some time to come. SEE IT. SCM

“To Die Like A Man” [The Playlist]

(Un Certain Regard)

Capsule by Sam C. Mac: What do you mean you don't like Portuguese films about transsexuals?!? For shame. It's true that the subject of Joao Pedro Rodrigues' third film (second shown in official Cannes selection) isn't exactly light and airy. Neither is the filmmaker's staid pacing, which could be likened to the deliberately slow tempo of many Asian filmmaker's work (Hou Hisao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang). But, then again, little playing at Cannes this year could be easily described as "accessible," and very few films display the level of craft and emotional intensity of Rodrigues' "To Die Like a Man." Another unique and powerful artistic statement for the New Queer Cinema, Rodrigues' latest could just as easily have been called "Requiem for a Drag Queen," as it elegiacally chronicles the demise of Lisbon transsexual performer Tonia (Fernando Santos, in one of the festival's most moving performance), who struggles with her spiritual convictions as they relate to her sexual identity. The single most elevating scene we saw during Cannes: Tonia and her compatriots are serenaded in the forest by Baby Dee's lilting ballad "Calvary," an appropriately theatrical and dramatic way of announcing Tonia’s tragic death as a woman. SEE IT. SCM

“Tales of the Golden Age” [The Playlist]

(Un Certain Regard)

Capsule by Sam C. Mac: Split into five sections (or "legends"), each depicting life in Romania during the titular "golden age," 'Age' centers on the waning days of communist rule. Quite a few of these are very funny: one finds a group of small town residents stuck on a haywire merry-go-'round, while another sees a family try to cook a live pig in their house. Saving the best for last, "The Air Sellers" concerns a young couple who scam people out of glass bottles, claiming to be conducting tests on the quality of the air. The short feature is simultaneously a coming-of-age story, a comment on then-relevant environmental issues, and (most pleasingly) a nod to "Bonnie And Clyde," which the young couple watch on a tiny TV at a party. The whole of 'Golden Age' is pretty great, but 'Sellers' in particular, with its haunting conclusion and Neo Realist stylings, stands up to anything the Romanian New Wave has yet produced. That includes modern cinematic triumphs such as "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "12:08 East of Bucharest" and of course "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," whose director (Cristian Mungiu) spearheaded this film’s production. SEE IT. SCM

“Precious” [The Playlist]

(Un Certain Regard)

Capsule by Sam C. Mac: A big hit this year at Sundance, picking up virtually every award the festival has to offer, "Precious" (previously and awkwardly titled "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire," but changed due to a similarly titled lame duck sci-fi film) arrives at Cannes as an Un Certain Regard selection amidst some amount of controversy – the film is being warred over by the Weinstein Company and Lionsgate, the former believing they have dibs while the latter claims to have "officially" bought it, so a lawsuit is brewing. Of course, that shouldn't have much bearing on the film's quality – many of our favorite films at Cannes went largely unnoticed by the jury, and some of the most critically reviled were honored.

"Precious" is a tough-as-nails tale set in the heart of Harlem, circa 1987, where the titular, very overweight 16-year-old African American (Gabourney Sidibe, in a pretty excellent break out role), copes with deplorable parenting (her father has given her two children), hazing from classmates, and not a single friend in sight. It's tough material to be sure, and Lee Daniels (he behind the obnoxious, thoroughly pretentious "Shadowboxer") doesn't have the delicacy to navigate the more tender moments of Damien Paul's adapted screenplay. With a strong push from Oprah (a producer on the film) and the urban community perhaps desperate for cinema that doesn't involve an overgrown man in a dress, "Precious" should do well. And it's not without its merits: both Sidibe and, much to our surprise, Mo'Nique as Precious's vitriolic, hateful mother, give commanding performances that just make Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz's light-weight work look that much more out-of-place by comparison. MIDDLING. SCM

“Fish Tank” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Sam C. Mac: A.O. Scott noticed a growing trend in cinema toward what he deemed "Neo Neo Realism," and he angered some people who couldn't comprehend what's so special about films like "Goodbye Solo" and "The Class," for instance. What it comes down to is that you either find cinema's potential to observe the banalities of everyday life to be fascinating or boring. Scott won't change your mind any more than we will, but from this vantage British director Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" is compelling cinema. Not quite on the level of either of the aforementioned works, but certainly in the same vein, the protagonist of "Fish Tank" is a very real, very unpleasant teenage girl living in a slimy region of England, mouthing-off to everyone, head-butting posers and pretty much fighting anything that moves. She's not that intimidating either – she's a skinny little white girl with attitude, but one definitely gets the feeling that she may run into someone twice her size to teach her a lesson some day (hint, hint).

Like many films in-competition at Cannes '09, the home life of our young protagonist is pretty scummy, with mom a known floozy who displays little interest in her kids and little sis seemingly trying to one-up her sibling's foul language. These aren't particularly pleasant people to spend any amount of time with, and though the introduction of a good natured boyfriend at first seems like some kind of saving grace for the group as a familial unit, it's all too obvious that it won't last. But "Fish Tank's" biggest issue is its turn to thriller tropes towards the end (with a pitch not unlike this filmmaker's last film, "Red Road"), undermining the more level-headed depiction of its aimless characters and feeling tonally off from the rest of the picture. Still, see "Fish Tank" for the remarkable, controlled lead performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis, whose a magnetic screen presence despite her character being so venomous, and miraculously makes us care about what happens to her. SEE IT. SCM


“Mother” [The Playlist]

(Un Certain Regard)

Review by Sam C. Mac: Following his crowd-pleasing, box office record-breaking monster movie "The Host," which premiered at Cannes in 2006 as a Midnight Screening, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho returns to the genre of his second feature film, the "Zodiac"-esque mystery thriller "Memories of Murder." The director's latest Cannes entry (premiering in Un Certain Regard) is another procedural, this time concerning a widow's attempt to clear the name of her mentally handicapped, 28-year-old son, who is accused of brutally murdering a young woman.

All of Bong's films (even the director's loopy rom-com debut, "Barking Dogs Never Bite") are notable for their riotous entertainment and their equally pointed socio-political commentaries, and while "Mother" certainly brings the entertainment (like Bong's other films, it's brisk and breathlessly suspenseful, with twists manifesting at all the right moments to sustain the tension) it doesn't seem to be pushing any broad message or moral. Instead, the picture's primary theme is one of maternal devotion: As the title suggests, this is a film about a mother, one whose role as such takes precedence over anything else.

"Mother" sometimes recalls Akira Kurosawa's early noir "Stray Dog," as it surveys a small town rote with secrets and latches on to the desperate, human struggle of its inexperienced detective. Our gumshoe is the titular mother, Hye-ja, played startlingly by middle-aged actress Kim Hye-ja, whose facial contours and wide, sad eyes communicate her character's exasperation. It's a performance that channels the ferocious femmes of Pedro Almodovar's best films with fervent, melodramatic intensity.

Another South Korean genre film at Cannes this year, Park Chan-Wook's noxious vampire thriller "Thirst" (which is infuriatingly in the competition section at this festival), dumps heaps of self-serious exposition in effort to explain the motivations of its protagonist. Bong, too smart and skilled a craftsman to waste a second, opens "Mother" with a surrealist sequence (the first of two bookending passages) which tells us all we need to know about his fickle heroine-- her strength, grace and even her loneliness-- absent the heavy-handed lecturing of Park's film.

From here, "Mother" immediately kicks into high gear, leading into a hit-and-run incident which sends characters scurrying about their small, rural town and sows the seeds of a hard-boiled procedural.

Do-joon (Korean television star Won Bin), Hye-ja's mentally handicapped son, is hit by a passing Mercedes Benz and convinced by his headstrong friend to take revenge. The two track the automobile to a golf course, where they think they've found the culprits (a group of unsuspecting yuppies), and then proceed to bash their faces in. This understandably earns the attention of the police, and when a later crime is committed (the death of a promiscuous schoolgirl), Do-Joon, who was even seen at the scene of the crime, is convicted and jailed.

Convinced of her son's innocence and angered by law enforcement's unsympathetic response to his condition, Hye-ja turns to a pricey lawyer and a friend on the force for help. But when no one seems to give a damn about her and Do-joon, all it takes is some bold advice to make Hye-ja take matters into her own hands: "Don't trust go out and find the real killer yourself." Bong's film then quietly segues into the realm of a vigilante picture, akin to Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (a Cannes official selection last year) but with much more narrative focus and a decidedly sharper characterization of its distressed parent.

"Mother" sits well alongside Bong's other films and acts as a sort of compromise between the absurdist fantasy elements of "The Host" and the more plot-driven social-realism of "Memories of Murder." It's not this talented Korean auteur's best film to date, but it does help solidify his status as one of the most gifted directors of his generation (even with only 4 films to his credit). Bong looks to the age-old genre of the film noir for inspiration, but unlike so many filmmakers who obsessively recreate the look and tone of the noir, Bong instead applies his own thoroughly modern aesthetic, but taps in to the same moral gravity which invested Kurosawa's most effective genre films ("Stray Dog," and also one of our favorites of the Japanese master's works, "High and Low").

Bong's "Mother" isn't flawless (it's probably a few scenes too long, with one too many plot twists piling-up towards the end), and its depiction of the mentally handicapped (or, rather, Won Bin's bug-eyed and cartoonish, one note rendering of his imbecilic character) takes away from the resonance of the film's central relationship. Still, as always, Bong's filmmaking skill is totally on point; his sweeping camera movements and evocative colorization complement the overall seething atmosphere of this often Hitchcockian thriller. And one scene, in which a major revelation takes place as a character stumbles backwards out of the frame, punctuated by a goosebump-inducing scream, is actually worthy of the overused Hitchcock comparison.

In any case, especially compared to the other films we've seen at Cannes '09 -- again feeling like a weak year so far -- "Mother" probably should have been accepted into the official competition selection. SEE IT. Sam C. Mac

“Antichrist” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Oh, Lars Von Trier what have you done? Gone too far into the brink and burned what starts out as an incredibly evocative and creepy psychological horror but that goes off the rails and into button-pushing histrionics and ridiculousness? In a word, yes.

Chaptered into four acts, with a gorgeous bookending prologue-epilogue, "Antichrist" is arguably successful for three of these four sections, and at times stunningly bone-chilling, genuinely horrifying and acridly despairing.  However insanity and the temptation to provoke gets the best of the visionary Danish director, and what eventually transpires just feels childish and unnecessary.

When we ran into AMC critic James Rocchi yesterday, he described the picture as being like a child -- an enfante terrible, naturally -- not just button pushing, but maliciously hitting every button on the elevator as a crowd has surged aboard and he's done his trip, which pretty much nails it. Von Trier constructs a supernatural fable gone wrong, almost gracefully leads the audience to the theater and then impishly cackles in the last act for the audience to choke on this bilious and outrageous finale.

Anyone who finds the film detestable is fully within their rights and anyone who finds the imperfect film a masterwork has probably been intoxicated by its sheer, batshit audacity, and/or the energy of Cannes (or just simply too much imbibing); but if it happened to win the Palme (which it won't), the Palais Royale would likely implode into a violent riot the likes of which have never  been witnessed at the Croisette (one would assume the building would be burned down and the festival would be canceled for one year to rebuild, rethink their jurors and implement a new rigorous mental health screening process for all judges).

It's unfortunate (and disappointing) that Von Trier cannot stay with the moody and hauntingly atmospheric film of the first half which depicts grief as an amazingly visceral and excruciating experience and suggests the director's immature provocative days are behind him.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is outstanding and her pain - and the foreboding forest cutaways that tremble with an ominous, storms-on-the-rise quality - are much more exacting and powerful than any blood leaking penis can achieve. In a more focused picture, a deeper, more honest examination of disparity would have surely scored Gainsbourg an acting award as her performance is raw, naked (literally and figuratively) and open-nerved. But this is a Lars Von Trier film, perhaps his darkly twisted version of Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage" so there are declarative statements to be made and audiences to recoil.

We digress. A black and white
prologue commences in glorious slow-motion to a beautifully operatic Handel aria. A couple (Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) enjoy a flesh for fantasy tryst that oozes eroticism. They writhe away on one another while their child slowly gets up from his crib, dangles upon a snowy ledge with a teddy bear and, well, you can imagine. While this prologue is rather arresting, it's fetishized slow-motion nature -- enjoying every last thrust, moan and snowflake that falls while a child, smile on his face, falls to his doom -- is also borderline ludicrous. However, this is the madcap genius of Von Trier that is wildly cinematic and intensely creepy stuff (the teddy bear gently crashing to the ground first is the piece de resistance).

Cut to
Chapter 1: Grief. Gainsbourg's "She" character (no names please) has been hospitalized for a month subsequent to her son's funeral. Playing the role of a doctor although he's only a therapist (or wait, is he playing God?) Dafoe's "He" decides his wife is hopped up on too many meds and discharges her, hubristically deciding he'll treat her himself at home. Gainsbourg's anguish is hard to watch and gut-wrenching, and the therapist attempts to surface her pains by asking her to discuss them at length which leads to hurtful and bitterly resentful words. He's a practical, almost ice-cold machine, whereas she is full of rage at the world. Throughout these scenes, the picture keeps cutting back to the forest, foreshadowing the terror therein with ominously surreal imagery and a tremulously eerie soundscape score (it's more sound design than "music," but lord, it burns and seethes with evocative disquietude; hat tip to Kristian Eidnes Anderson credited with sound).

Gainsbourg's She cannot face any emotion, let alone frank discussions of fear, and uses sexual abandon as her escape, much to Dafoe's chagrin. He decides to escape to their cabin in the woods, dubbed "Eden," because she has admitted that it is her greatest fear and in his mind confrontation is the only psychological remedy (in a recent Dutch interview we can't find, Von Trier says of the character, "like all my male characters, he's an idiot"). The idea is to mend their broken hearts and succor a full-on psychic collapse. Of course, it only gets worse.

Chapter 2: Pain (Chaos Reigns). On their way to the woods, Dafoe's character begins to see troubling visions or have nightmarish day dreams that are angelically dream-like and profoundly creepy. A wounded fox eats away at itself (and, umm, talks), a doe greets him in the forest, and her unborn fawn grotesquely hangs out of her behind. The couple begin to try little exercises together, talking about the hierarchy of fears, imagining painful scenarios, etc.; all the while the forest seems to be encroaching, raining acorns on them at night from the trees and leeches attacking a hand that drowsily hangs out a window. The handheld camera moves with an unnerving, quivering quality that's not quite shaky, and the sound still scratches, wails and whooshes like a creature trapped in a furious inferno.

The film then kindly makes an announcement at the end of chapter two which basically says: "hold on, we're about to jump the shark soon," when the fox in another vision creaks to Dafoe, "Chaos reigns!" These moments, and a few others later on, are so preposterous they produce unintentional spurts of laughter.

Chapter 3: Despair (Genocide). In trying to discover the source of Gainsbourg's fears by discussing human nature, she suddenly reveals to Dafoe that "Nature is Satan's Church," and shortly thereafter declares herself "cured" of her despondency. Unconvinced, the psycho-analyst begins digging for clues which leads to numerous pictures of their child with his shoes consistently on backwards as well as Satanic, day of reckoning imagery of She's dissertation, revealed to be on the 18th century cruelty towards women. And this is where the picture really begins to run off the rails and perhaps whatever Von Trier is trying to say begins to coalesce, though perhaps rottenly congeal is the better term for it. And what he appears to be saying is...women are evil? There are definitely allusions to witchcraft and specific misogynistic moments, but the statement is muddled and ambiguity doesn't cut it here. He doesn't hide from the misogynistic tones of what transpires, including violent sex where Gainsbourg asks, no begs to be hit and suggests she's been asking for it all along (a misogyny consultant is actually given a film credit, as Vulture points out, and mad, gynophobic scrawls are found in Gainsbourg's characters notes).

Chapter 4: The Three Beggars. Somewhere along the lines of her growing insanity or perhaps demonic possession, Gainsbourg spots off the line, "when the three beggars arrive, someone must die." And these beggars turn out to be the aforementioned fox, the doe and a crow who appears later. One can't really get into the details of the film without spoiling it (though some have suggested Vulture already has in their headlines), but suffice to say, and as you've probably read, there's masturbation in the woods and genital mutilation (both masochistic and sadomasochistic). This section of the film is just too outrageous and contemptible to contain any of the resonant, stunning shock of Von Trier's best work (there's also moments that border on torture porn, but they're way less fetishized). These provocations are facile, absurd and juvenile and they expressly betray the masterful touch evinced in the first half of the film. It's disappointing and even disheartening. Von Trier is a wonderful agitator in cinema, but he loses the plot with aplomb in this final act.

The Epilogue: The end, depending on how you read it, is either the coupe de grace for his distrust of women and grief manifesto or it's actually some kind of mea culpa that suggests, because we are all born from the suffering of the female womb, the female form (nature, eden, women, etc.) will inherit the earth. And or make you rue the day, you stupid fucking men. Who really knows what the fuck Lars Von Trier is trying to say at this point. One can only shake their head or shed a tear. Or perhaps like many other less forgiving critics, completely eviscerate the film. Not something we're about to do, but like justifiable homicide, we fully understand the defensible temptation to do so. MIDDLING. RP

“Bright Star” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: It’s been more than a hot minute since Jane Campion had buzz behind one of her pictures or even a film premiering at Cannes. The Croisette gave her international acclaim in 1992, bestowing the much-coveted Palme d’Or on her evocative period masterwork, “The Piano” (still as lovely and striking a picture as ever, Michael Nyman’s magnificent score making one wonder why she’s ever bothered to work with anyone else since), but audiences and critics haven’t been as kind or receptive to not-entirely successful, but still engaging ventures (“Holy Smoke” with Kate Winslet) or total misfires (“In The Cut” with just-botox-mangled Meg Ryan; has there ever been a better case for aging gracefully?).

Still, by returning to a period piece – the ill-fated love story between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw from “I’m Not There") – and with the in-competition endorsement of Cannes, we must all assume from the evidence at hand that this is her best picture in years and a potential comeback.

And, so far, there have been whispers along Le Croisette that "Bright Star" has a good chance of taking home the Palme d'Or again this year. And rightly so. The film is an exquisite piece of cinema, gorgeously sewn and lovingly realized, it's easily the best film of the festival we've seen so far (though as some will have probably noted, it feels like a weak year so far). Featuring Campion's delicate touch, a sensuous aura and a tenderly handcrafted framework, "Bright Star" is evocatively rendered and gorgeous in its aesthetic scope.

No one does forlornness quite like the New Zealander and the picture has a wonderfully tremulous and arresting hearts-a-flutter tenor. Campion feels incredibly at home in the period piece milieu, as if a lost soul from this era. Her effortless ease in this environment makes the picture feel replete with full-bodied life and sanguine, emotion-flushed assuredness.

Abbie Cornish stars as Fanny Brawne, a brassy fashion student in the 1800s who is not one for keeping her tongue. Ben Whishaw is the then-unrenowned romantic poet John Keats in early mourning for what appears to be the impending death of his sickly younger brother. Their tentative-toed attraction and flirtations meet obstacles immediately. First and foremost, Ms. Brawne comes from a poor family and is expected to marry well, Keats' boorish friend Charles Armitage Brown (an excellent Paul Schneider, who mostly pulls of his thick Scottish brouge) who is seemingly jealous of his poet friend's unrecognized genius, wants him all to himself and behaves scornfully, and with suspicion, towards Brawne's motivations (though Keats has no two schillings to rub together).

Longtime Campion player Kerry Fox ("An Angel At the Table") plays Brawne's caring, but concerned-for-her-future, mother and Thomas Sangster ("Love Actually," "Nanny McPhee") also appears as her little brother, Samuel.

Should we call the Best Costume and Art Direction Oscar noms now? And Maybe even a nomination for Cornish? (who's sure to be in the running for the Best Actress Award at Cannes). Surely the beautiful and lush Brawne-designed dresses and raiments will earn three-time Oscar nominated costume designer Janet Patterson a fourth nod that, you can probably bank on (again the Palm d'Or seems within reach and this is the type of film the Academy traditionally loves -- at least the old school guard did).

Marked by crisp, sometimes sun-dappled cinematography, the look of the film is sumptuous, demonstrating thoughtful and carefully observed dulcet tones that feel incredibly feminine. The cast is exceptional, but Cornish is superb and steals the show, revealing inner monologues and oceans of emotion with furtive glances and quivering eyes.

Marked by a haunting score, the narrative is not weighed down with music, as Keats poems often guide scenes emotionally, but when there is music, it is a thrilling, anxious violin, a brilliant depiction of the intense and desperate love affair that must be kept a secret, because of Brawne's mother, but it admittedly becomes a poorly-kept one. Brown's advances at Brawne only add another layer of confusion to their blossoming relationship.

The lovestory, while impassioned and callow is never overwrought and Whishaw and Cornish convey a drunken-kisses fervor minus the melodrama (and voice-overs of his letters to Brawne and her ritual of reading them in bed are also quite palpably intoxicating). The crestfallen mid-section is wonderful, Campion makes curtains softly blowing on ones face, butterflies swooping around a room, and a brisk spring picnic seem so expressively alive, quivering with emotional electricity and of-the-moment profundity.

Ethereal and evincing the elements of a plaintive Nick Drake song or a pretty apple orchard, the pillowy picture however is not dainty to the point of fragility, and its impressionistic qualities are counter balanced by wry humor, the querulous verbal jousts between Schneider and Cornish, plus the dark, heavy-weighted emotional browns of conflict, sorrow, betrayal and tragedy. The weepy conclusion is a little conventional, but we suppose we can forgive that since it basically follows a historical trajectory you can't deviate from. Period pieces can be stuffy affairs, but "Bright Star" transcends that tea-cup laboriousness with a vivid and inspiring portrait of the punch-drunk ache of love. SEE IT. RP

“Broken Embraces” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Spanish éminence grise filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces" is his 17th feature in a stellar, 30-plus year career, the third film to play in-competition and fourth to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite his oeuvre par excellence, he's never won the Palme d'Or, but he and his films have won many Cannes awards over the years, including, Best Director for "All About My Mother" in 1999. 'Embraces' reunites him with his recent muse, Penelope Cruz, in a four-way tale of dangerous love, which was shot in the style of a hard-boiled 1950s American film noir. Reviews in Spain and the trades so far have not been stellar.

One could make a very persuasive case for his status as the world's greatest working filmmaker. At the very least, no director has so profoundly tapped into the gay experience, imbuing every colorful, carefully composed film with sexual tension, Hitchcockian levels of dense plotting and suspense, fervent Sirkian melodrama, and a dash of '30s screwball comedy.

However, 'Embraces,' which contains all the aforementioned qualities, is definitely not one of Almodóvar's best works. Largely competent, but ultimately soulless (the film lacks the heart of his previous pictures) yet still rife with the expected convoluted secrets and plot twists. The subject matter is slightly more fluffy compared to "
Talk To Her" or "Volver" (our recent personal faves), centered around a film production and a love triangle between a director (Lluis Homar from “Bad Education”), a wannabe actress (Penelope Cruz) and a wealthy financier/producer (Jose Luis Gomez). One could argue his campy, gay son (Ruben Ochandiano) is the fourth piece in a fractious quadrangle, though whether he's in love with the director is left up to subjectivity. Blanca Portillo plays the director's trusted production manager and Tamar Novas her son, Diego.

Jumping in time between 2008 and 1994, 'Embraces' revolves around a reclusive writer (Homar) who once suffered a car accident that cost him both his vision and the love of his life. The man is Mateo Blanco (the former director), who signs his various stories and scripts with his pseudonym, Harry Caine. But, after the accident, Mateo abandons his real name and clings to only his
nom de plume, insisting that any other life he once had died the night he lost his beloved Lena (Cruz). The film then tries to reconcile the events of 1994 and how they apply to present day, weaving back and forth, often into an emotionally lukewarm knot.

Cruz's character as a secretary and part time call girl (who really just wants to be an actress) does a capable job, but the role doesn't give her sufficient opportunity to shine. The secrets-and-lies mystery twists and turns with Hitchcockian knowingness, but the web of plots starts to become entangled in itself, leaving little room for the emotional reveals in the conclusion to feel more than passing feelings of guilt, forgiveness and redemption rather than the true profundities of previous Almodóvar work.

Perhaps the Hitchcock obsession is too pronounced, as the film feels more interested in plot than characters, (after all, what Hitchcock film ever made you cry?) and there's a skimming the surface feeling of depth. Essentially it's a genre film without the versatile textures that make his films usually something much more rich and often divine. The film within a film recalls "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," especially the camp of this movie's picture within, “Girls and Suitcases,” and there are many cinematic references (Rosellini and noir films of the '40s), but they don't have much more affect than "Where's Waldo?" cinephile spotting.

Though Homar and Novas are adept, the only real standout performance of the film is
Portillo (the woman with cancer in "Volver"), and the Spanish filmmaker might want to consider giving her a lead performance one of these days.

Though the director and his editor always do an admirable job of jumping forward and back through the story's timeline hoops, the ambition trips up and the overlong length doesn't help (a real sticking point for almost all the films of Cannes '09 – far too long for their stories). "Broken Embraces" has many terrific individual elements, popping color cinematography and lovely framing, amusing melodrama, and an evocatively moody score (Alberto Iglesias as usual), but the whole just doesn't add up to anything particularly marvelous.

The story was evidently inspired by some serious migraine headaches Almodóvar recently suffered that forced him to wear dark sunglasses (the reason why the main character is blind), and a line of poetic dialogue at the end of the picture says, "one must finish the film even if he has to do it blindly," perhaps giving a nod to his pains on and offscreen. Either way, this vision isn't fully or entirely cogent.

Ultimately, "Broken Embraces" is a slight work from the Spanish director that never quite clicks or finds a solid rhythm and harmony - the constant time shifting robbing itself of momentum. The picture can't anchor itself to a single emotion, and falls into the realm of straight-forward genre film, rather than the multi-layered Almodóvar works we’ve come to know and cherish.

“Inglourious Basterds” [The Playlist]


Review by Rodrigo Perez: Neither, the Eli-Roth actioner hinted at in posters and trailers, nor the comedy some have suggested, not even the post-modern pop-art piece of outrageous history-changing fiction, 'Basterds' felt uninspired, as if the audacious words that jumped off the page, could not leap themselves onto the screen in any kind of dynamic shape or form aside from a few brief moments. Surprisingly understated and muted, both stylistically and cinematically (at least for Tarantino), in theory, that's what we were looking for -- not a campy, goofy "Kill Bill," set in a Tarantino-built WWII film -- and while there were some stylistic flourishes -- chapters, title sequences, some brief slo-mo, arrows pointing out to characters, David Bowie anachronisms, and a brief blaxploitation-like character-intro set to Billy Preston -- the picture is mostly what you've heard: a heavy talk fest that is not as delicious and wickedly sharp as Tarantino writing usually is. In fact, much of the talk, what should be the saving grace of the film, falls flat and the story propeller rarely juts forward with much verve or spark.

Closest to "Jackie Brown" in that respect (or the chattiness of "Kill Bill 2"), even a trimmed 'Basterds' (2.30 by our clock, though that's with credits, so 2.27 seems to be on the mark) is overlong and yet doesn't give enough time to spend with characters to flesh them out adequately. Some are onscreen for so little time, their appearance feel like an edit, a hatch-job afterthought. The film can be marginally engaging, but infrequently a glued-to-your seat level of compelling storytelling.

And the stilted performances rarely rise above average interpretations of the material and some of them feel largely horizontal. In fact, at times 'Basterds,' feels downright dull. Diane Kruger is terrific, one of few who acted with zeal that doesn't feel like she was phoning it in (or was so rushed in their shooting days, they didn't have time to make any impact). Likewise, Daniel Bruhl's smitten Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller is incredibly annoying, as his character was intended to be. But others are simply miscast and eyesore mistakes that everyone knew would be such from the beginning, including Eli Roth, the presence-less Omar Doom as a Basterd who gets far more screentime than he deserves and Mike Meyers, whose appearance plays out more like an Austin Powers cameo.

Melanie Laurent also puts in an admirable effort, but no one is genuinely exceptional aside from Waltz (who again is not as perfect as some suggested). There's also a lot of changes and cuts to the script, so some of the characters feel even more paper thin as they hardly have anything to say or do (is Sam Levine happy he flew to Germany to be onscreen for all of four minutes with one or two lines of dialogue for example?). You can't even call some of the caricatures, because they're almost non-existent. But something had to go, and therefore the film feels truncated and terse despite its slow pace and exorbitant length. Tarantino's first instinct to make the film a mini-series would have served the characters and story better, as he cannot seem to reconcile his need for clever wordplay and action as he did so winningly in "Pulp Fiction."

At his best, the beloved American director provides exhilarating, thrilling cinema, but there's nary a truly stunning sequence in the film. Action sequences are over in s flash and one suspects there's a tremendously longer cut of the film out there somewhere, that frankly we'd love to see. Neither as funny, dramatic, or compelling as it hopes to be, the rhythm of the film coasts at an idle one, with a few outbursts of violence that fail to ignite with the explosiveness of the past. Even "
Kill Bill," not at all our favorite Tarantino film, is much more enjoyable, adroit and quick on its feet.

Many have worried about Brad Pitt's campiness in the trailers, but it's his vacillating accent and squinting mannerism tick (evident in practically every scene) that's the most distracting. He's neither fun or charming on the screen and again, there feels like depth missing or cut, but then again, his rapid-pace delivery of the material didn't help. Another problem with the film is it lacks a solid anchor. While it's certainly an ensemble piece, Melanie Laurent's Shossana character is ostensibly supposed to be the emotional center of the film which is essentially motivated around revenge, but with Hans Landa (a lighthearted and preening Christophe Waltz, who might be the most interesting actor of the film, his queeny primping aside, but rarely feels fierce as a formative foe, aside from his preternaturally strong detective skills), and Pitt as the slow-drawlin' Raine all receiving almost equal screentime, effectively canceling one another out -- it's difficult to find an axis to affix the narrative on other than the plot-driven goal at the end.

The film illustrates, once again, that the director's best talents lie in writing as the direction of the film rarely tends to enliven and perhaps that's because the film is so filled with jabber, tête-à-têtes and verbal showdowns -- there's only so much one can do.

Note: we're about 90% sure that
Harvey Keitel does an uncredited voice cameo near the film's explosive conclusion (Samuel L. Jackson's jarring, out-of-nowhere narration which pops up twice is also uncredited, which does finally build up tension, but not to the nerve-wracking levels the film needs to really bang the finale into the fireworks display one expected).

Musically, the film fails to shine as well with the best song in the film being the rousing,
Ennio Morricone track in the closing credits, "Bastero Gondors Rabhia e Tarantella" from the 1973 Italian drama, "Allonsanfàn," which brims with a passionate and military-like clip that the picture is sorely missing.

'Basterds' smells like it could be a grower, which is probably its best longtime hope, but it's visibly apparent that it's not the "masterpiece" Tarantino hoped it would be, in fact far from it. One conversation we had with a friend before Cannes, mutually suggested the film was the do or die moment for Quentin's career. Either reclaim your mark now or forever be pigeonholed as a contemporary B-movie director, but 'Basterds,' despite its constant Spaghetti Western and cinema
movieness quotes and references (G.W Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, '20s German cinema) is too much the genuine article to be dismissed as simply a genre film. Instead, "Inglourious Basterds" is Tarantino's idiosyncratic take on, but not wild and ludicrous,  WWII films and merely a minor misfire in his oeuvre. Surely, he will reload to live another day and is not dead in the water. A misstep for sure, but not a disaster. MIDDLING. RP

“Agora” [The Playlist]

(Out of Competition)

Capsule by Rodrigo Perez: Alejandro Amenábar's latest swords and sandals drama is quite a departure from his previous works, such as "The Others" and "The Sea Inside." His epic, but hardly classic film about the ungodly rise of Christianity (pretty sexy subject, huh?), "Agora" is a long-winded (a grueling 2 hours and 20 minutes), un-gratifying portrait of history set in Roman Egypt in 391AD, a lot like history class while eating raw vegetables and dry oats. It's greatest strength is having powerhouse Rachel Weisz portray the feminist astrologer and atheist Hypatia, but her storyline — obsession with figuring out Earth's place in the universe — while mildly interesting on its own, is not nearly as compelling as the religious feuds going on at the time, and ultimately distracts from and diminishes the historical drama's core. The love triangle between Hypatia, her personal slave Davus (Max Minghella) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) had dramatic potential but is ultimately unfulfilled when the three characters go their separate ways midway through the film. The picture has all the basic necessities of an epic – the impressive set design and the swelling operatic score – but what's missing is a strong personal storyline that might have brought the whole saga together. Unless, it's (mis-)sold as a "Gladiator" this thing is fucked commercially. SKIP IT. RP

“Vincere” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Rodrigo Perez: How perverse (and perhaps retardedly misguided) is our commitment to cinema? We skipped out on a chance to hit the "Inglourious Basterds" party in favor of seeing a film about Il Duce — a biopic about the secret life of Italian WWII fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Initially the film was a hard-road slog, assaultingly operatic and unsubtly expressive, but eventually this tale about Mussolini's secret (polygamous) marriage and the son he sired — acknowledged then denied — was salvaged by the excellent performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno (the Italian Marion Cotillard in beauty and skill). The aptly over-the-top Filippo Timi as Mussolini himself was pretty grand as well. Marco Bellochio's “Vincere” was actually favored to win the Palme d'Or — which seems greatly overestimating the film's overall worth, good, but not that good — but in the end came up empty handed. SEE IT. RP

“Vengeance” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Rodrigo Perez: While not perfect, the uber-prolific Hong-Kong action-crime director Johnny To’s – the heir apparent to John Woo now that he's gone Hollywood and become essentially worthless – 50th-plus film, “Vengeance,” is super digestible. It's a story about revenge (duh), that immediately kicks off when a French restaurateur's daughter is shot and her family killed. But it turns out the epicurean Frenchman (the iconic Johnny Hallyday) was a hitman of sorts 20 years ago. He sets out for vengeance by hiring a triad of assassins he fatefully crosses paths with (To mainstays Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Lam Ka-Tung), and they not only become hired goons, but build a wonderful brotherhood built on trust, loyalty and respect. Even at 1 hour and 45 minutes the picture goes on for too long. The memory-loss device that enters late in the picture feels a little clunky, and the operatic and ballet-like action isn't anything new for To, but it's still – for the most part anyhow – tremendously watchable. SEE IT. RP

“Don’t Look Back” [The Playlist]

(Out of Competition)

Capsule by Rodrigo Perez: If there's a mighty lesson we learned at Cannes this year that will always stick with us, it's most films in the Out Of Competition section are out of competition for good fucking reason. Perhaps because they suck ("Agora" was in this dubious section too). Marina De Van’s doppelganger identity mystery starring Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci was laughably bad. A poor excuse for a French movie-of-the week, the picture is about a woman who seemingly goes mad after writing about her childhood unlocks horrible memories and yields strange visions of a young girl (ghost?). Then her husband's face — via hysterically poor CGI — starts to morph into the visage of a stranger she doesn't know and her family, children and the world around her seem totally alien. Clues lead her to Italy where the mystery unravels, and or hilariously falls apart in loathsome melodrama. SKIP IT. RP

“Kinatay” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Rodrigo Perez: Let's not mince words and/or lie. We practically fell asleep through Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay," his eighth directorial effort in four years (holy shit that's fast), about a dumb kid who somehow gets roped into a "job" for extra scratch which turns out to be riding along in a van to witness the murder of a stripper -- then, no joke, we walked the fuck out (30 other people, at least, did the same thing at the same vile and pointless moment, this was about the 1 hour 20 minute mark). The film was routinely reviled at Cannes, but when Mendoza won the Best Director prize at Cannes, we thought ‘Were we asleep?’ ‘In a dream state?’ ‘Did we miss something brilliant?’ We thought what we experienced was 45-minutes of a car ride (looking like it was shot on a butt-ugly camcorder) that went fucking nowhere, but we weren't completely sure afterwards. Then Cannes jury member Asia Argento confirmed what we saw: "It felt like the director had no idea how to do it and picked up a camera and was shooting the first movie in history," she told Vulture. "The 45-minute scene in the car where nothing happens I thought was incredible." Translation: the director had no idea what he was doing. Ok, that's a lie. His last film, "Serbis," was quite good, but honestly, you probably couldn't pay us to sit through that again. By all accounts Mendoza winning the Best Director prize at Cannes was the most contentiously argued award of them all. RP

“Les Herbes Folles” [The Playlist]


Capsule by Sam C. Mac: What bliss this Alain Resnais film is – that's right, "bliss," not exactly a word you would expect to hear applied to the work of the man that brought us such challenging cinematic puzzles as "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Hiroshima Mon Amour." But in a competition slate at Cannes filled with films about maiming, self-maiming or otherwise, Resnais' "Les Herbes Folles" was a pretty welcome breath of fresh air. Not all that surprising either: if you've been following the man's late-period, you would know that his last film, the Altman-esque mosaic "Private Fears in Public Places," is just as wry and comedic as this new one. Of course what makes "Les Herbes Folles" particularly laudable is its likelihood of being the now 86-year-old French master's swan song.

“Les Herbes Folles” is gracefully fluid but altogether a pretty irreverent romantic melodrama, and it feels decidedly minor even in comparison to the uneven but kinda sprawling 'Private Fears.' Like that film, there's generous, almost Godard-ian application of color (becoming a signature of late-period Resnais' aesthetic), but the unfocused and often slap-dash film doesn't seem to be saying anything new or anything particularly clear about the nature of love. Instead, it contemplates the nature of coincidence, and how very coincidental life is in rather whimsically and implausibly silly ways. Nothing revolutionary, but for the sheer fact that we can count a tried-and-true rom-com among the Cannes elite, and one by fucking Alain Resnais, now in something like his 50th year as a filmmaker, makes "Les Herbes Folles" worthy in some sense.

And then there's the cast, a veritable whose-who of delicious French icons: Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell & The Butterfly"), Emmanuelle Devos (Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings & Queen" and "A Christmas Tale") and Anne Consigny (of both 'Diving Bell' and 'Christmas Tale'), among others. SEE IT. SCM


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