The Loneliest Planet begins with close-up trained on the body of a beautiful woman, naked and trembling. It's not what it sounds like. Nica (Hani Furstenberg), on a pre-marriage honeymoon with fiancé Alex (Gael García Bernal) in rural Georgia, is in the midst of a makeshift shower. As Nica pogoes up and down on an unseen platform in an attempt to keep warm, her slim, androgynous body, doused in milky-white soap suds, becomes a blur of motion set to the violent beat of her feet. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust, to register what we're seeing: Is this body male or female? Is this a mundane act or some strange, exotic ritual?
Off the map: Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze, and Hani Furstenberg
"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," admits Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics played, in career-best form, by Brad Pitt in Bennett Millers' Moneyball. This line, from a screenplay by Stephen Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, happens in the home stretch of a film about the push-and-pull between traditional methods of baseball team building and player evaluation, and the experimental methods Beane put into practice beginning in 2002, after a heartbreaking pennant series loss to the Yankees--a team with a payroll four times the size of Oakland's.
Tired of being beaten and having his players poached by wealthy bigger-market franchises ("We're organ donors for the rich," he complains, with Pitt giving the middle-aged former player a touch of brass tacks anti-establishment swagger reminiscent of his Tyler Durden from Fight Club), Beane hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to shake up the As with the aid of math. A fictional figure based on Paul Depodesta (Beane's assistant at the A's who graduated to the general manager post at the LA Dodgers, from which he was fired in 2005 by Frank McCourt after a Depodesta-rebuilt team finished the second worst season in LA history), Brand is a Yale graduate and disciple of Bill James, the former security guard, writer and current Red Sox employee who essentially invented the advanced analysis of baseball statistic known as sabermetics.
|Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress|
Tragic romance is a big TIFF theme this year. Soured love tied to death and/or suicide and/or beautifully-lit misery has popped up in eight of the nine films I've seen since I last blogged. At the festival midway point, I've seen so many movies hinged on mad/bad romance, rejection and infidelity, that they all threaten to blur into one massive, incredibly melancholic scare campaign. You have been warned: open your heart at your peril.
Some of these films (like Philippe Garrel's That Summer, or the long-awaited Whit Stillman romantic-musical-comedy Damsels in Distress) really deserve more careful consideration than I can give them whilst under the scheduling demands of a film festival. Others (like, say, Alexander Payne's The Descendants) don't. With that caveat, and the promise that I'll dig deeper into few of these movies when time allows, here's a notebook drop from my last 48 hours in Toronto.
Friday was Foreign-Born Documentary All-Stars Tackle Powerful Symbols of America day at TIFF. The scarily prolific Werner Herzog (whose first foray into 3D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, premiered at this festival last year before its blockbuster theatrical run this summer) is back with another new feature, Into the Abyss, which considers the different fates of two young men accused of collaborating on a murder: one was sentenced to 40 years in prison, the other to die at age 28 via lethal injection. The press screening of that Texas-set story preceded Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, an attempt by British documentarian Nick Broomfield (whose work has long circled infamous American women, from Heidi Fleiss to serial killer Aileen Wuornos to Courtney Love) to "find out about the real Sarah from the people who know her best."
Film festival coverage tends towards hyperbole. If you're at home experiencing something like Cannes through blogs, you'll likely get the sense that there are masterpieces and travesties and nothing in between. In fact, the middle is huge--it's just hard to find space and time to talk about it within the on-to-the-next festival culture. What follows are brief notes on three Cannes films that fall squarely in central percentile of what I was able to see.
As a formal stunt, this (mostly) silent film love letter to the last days of the silent film era "works," in that it adapts some basic tenets of pre-talkie visual storytelling to suit a modern gaze. But since there's little here other than form--director Michel Hazanavicius has nothing to say about the massive transition at the dawn of sound other than that it happened--that process of adaptation feels like a cheat. If you're making a silent film just to make a silent film, why employ a performance style that mimics not silent film acting nor naturalistic behavior, but the mid-century mugging of musicals like Singin' in the Rain (The Artist's most obvious influence)? Why filter silent style through multiple layers of remove?
The second shoe dropped--or rather exploded--this morning in Cannes. A combination of luck and programming genius contrived to have Lars von Trier's Melancholia screened for the press a mere 48 hours after the first showing of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. On Monday I characterized The Tree of Life as a train wreck--I was wrong. It's Von Trier who has contrived the spectacle impossible to turn away from.
There will surely be people who don't much care for either of these monumentally, even monstrously, ambitious movies--both family dramas drenched in classical music and played against the most cosmic of circumstances--but I cannot imagine there will be many who care for them equally. For when Von Trier obliterates the world in Melancholia he also destroys Malick's worldview, or at least puts it in perspective.
I saw Tree of Life on Monday morning when everyone else saw Tree of Life, but instead of writing about it right away, I went straight into a screening of Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan. By the time I emerged two hours later, many of my colleagues had already posted their Tree of Life reviews, which I thought was astonishing for a few reasons, but mostly because several times during Hors Satan I had to close my eyes because I was still so physically and psychologically overwhelmed by the experience of Terrence Malick's gorgeously form-defying film that trying to take in Dumont's blunt, brutal one actually hurt. I didn't know how to translate that feeling into an evaluative response.
24 hours later, I think I still don't, but before the negative response to the film from some of my colleagues calcifies and liking this movie starts to look like a deliberately oppositional stance, let me state for the record that while I have questions and reservations, I am on Team Tree of Life.
CANNES, FRANCE. Much improved since I last posted, the Cannes Film Festival celebrated its midpoint in train-wreck fashion, its wagon to hitched to The Tree of Life.
The first screening of Terrence Malick's long-awaited new movie, three years in the editing, ended with in a moment of near total silence, followed by short fuselage of irate boos and an answering burst of applause--thin, but impassioned. Were the international critics gathered early Monday morning to bear witness to The Tree stunned or stupefied? (To judge from the instant raves found in the trades, the answer is both.)
Malick goes one on one with God, not to mention Stanley Kubrick, and on both counts comes up short--very short. Tree of Life, which opens with God addressing Job from out the whirlwind ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"), is nothing if not overweening in its spiritual ambition. It's essentially a religious work and, as such, may please the director's devotees, cultists, and apologists. I doubt however that it will make many new converts.
My week in Cannes is just about half over, and while I haven't yet seen a film that I would champion without reservation, there have been a few near misses. Gerardo Naranjo is a hell of a director, but I'm not quite as high as Hoberman
on Miss Bala. It's probably the most visually exciting film I've seen here -- more than one masterful, unbroken wide-angle steadicam shot in this deadpan violent saga that calls to mind Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (an interesting trajectory for Naranjo, whose last feature, I'm Gonna Explode, recast Pierrot le Fou as a kind of punk romcom of class-crossed Mexican teens). But Stephanie Sigman's would-be beauty queen character is barely developed, making it difficult to invest in her escalating punishment. As she's shuttled between increasingly bizarre stages of exploitation, her receding personality seems increasingly like a deliberate strategy to set up one woman's suffering as a stand-in for the rape of a nation--a suspicion bolstered by Bala's gratuitous film-closing on-screen titles, reminding us that The War On Drugs is, like, bad, especially for women.
My Cannes 2011 began with a kind of American teenage death trip double feature: the world premieres of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Gus Van Sant's Restless.
The non-linear Kevin, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, stars Tilda Swinton as Eve, the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), a teenage boy responsible for a rampage at his suburban high school. The film flows between Eve's dreary, post-incident present-day reality (data entry job, dirty dishes, booze, pills, panic attacks) and fragmented, hyperreal flashbacks to her old life as a glam travel writer (her actual work is never as well-defined as her asymmetrical haircut), and eventual wife to photographer Franklin (John C. Reily), raising two kids--Kevin has an angelic younger sister, Celia--in a cold, minimalist-modern Connecticut dream house. Kevin's pre-meditated killing spree changes everything, leaving Eve plagued by associative memories, forced to contemplate where she went wrong.