By Dennis Lim
One easy conclusion to draw so far: the Americans are having a good year. The films of David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and the Coens have been among the most warmly received competition entries. Down the Croissette, the Quinzaine is screening two of the best films from Sundance 07 Robinson Devor’s “Zoo” and Gregg Araki’s “Smiley Face” and has world-premiered two more fine American indies: Tom Kalin’s unerringly intelligent true-crime provocation “Savage Grace” and Ramin Bahrani’s Queens-set street-kid slice of life “Chop Shop.”
My favorite film by an American director so far although it was shot and financed in Italy is Abel Ferrara’s “Go Go Tales,” screening out of competition as a midnight selection. A wild and wildly allegorical comedy, it’s set in the course of one long, eventful night at the declining Paradise Lounge strip club. Beleagured proprietor-emcee Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) is behind on the rent (landlady Sylvia Miles is threatening to turn the premises over to Bed Bath & Beyond) and facing a nearly mutinous crew of go-go dancers (among them Asia Argento, who gets to tongue-kiss a dog). But he continues to dream big, holding on with a mix of tenacity, blind optimism and belief in community that are, more than ever, the necessary traits of the struggling artist.
The charmingly sleazy cabaret ambience evokes “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” but with its overt melancholy and warm communal vibe, this could almost be Ferrara’s “Prairie Home Companion,” ending not with a graceful fade-out but on a note of crazy defiance. Ray’s funny, rousing final speech peppered with heart-on-sleeve avowals (“I love to gamble!” “I played to win!” “What do you want from me? You wanna kill my dream? Take my heart?”) is, of course, Ferrara’s own manifesto, a message to audiences and investors who may have lost faith. American distributors take note.
Another film that will hopefully have a U.S. home before the week is out, “Paranoid Park,” Gus Van Sant’s first film after the Death Trilogy that recharged his creative batteries and relaunched his arthouse career, is both modest and masterful, the work of a wholly relaxed filmmaker in peak form. The formal experiments of “Elephant” and “Last Days” trippy subjective audio, fractured chronology, obsessive Rashomonic replays are further refined here and by now seem like second nature.
Based on a novel by Blake Nelson about a teenage skate kid who accidentally kills a security guard, the story would seem to locate Van Sant in predictable territory (not to mention in the vicinity of Larry Clark). But every element of this supremely intuitive film the credible cast (recruited via MySpace), the lovely, moody cinematography (credited to Rain Kathy Li and Christopher Doyle, who has a brief cameo as “Uncle Tommy”), Leslie Shatz’s delicately textured soundscape, the emotive soundtrack (heavy on Nino Rota and Elliott Smith) is designed to tune you into the wavelength of its young protagonist (Gabe Nevins). Few films have ever conveyed so keenly the panicky dread and numb estrangement of adolescence. As a coming-of-age story, it’s at once incredibly specific and cosmic in scope.
A Palme d’Or favorite judging by their past win (for 1991’s “Barton Fink”) and three director awards, not to mention the critical response, Joel and Ethan Coen’s skillfully directed adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel “No Country for Old Men” is, without a doubt, their best since “The Big Lebowski.” It’s also shaping up as the most overrated film of the festival. The Coens have fully exploited the cinematic potential of McCarthy’s tense, tersely described action sequences, but they’ve also exacerbated the book’s tonal problems and questionable politics (i.e., its apparently face-value conservatism). It’s hard to give credence to the late bid for seriousness (which takes the form of a few windy philosophical bouts), given the expert flippancy and nastiness of what came before.
Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” on the other hand, could have done with a little more seriousness. Not that the filmmaker doesn’t convey the urgency and gravity of his subject. Moore hammers home his basic, inarugable thesis that the profit-motivated U.S. health care industry is immoral and inhumane with a lack of finesse that can be both cathartic and frustrating. Considering what’s at stake, you can’t help feeling this should have been a less reductive, more scrupulous film.
Strictly in terms of information, “Sicko” does little besides confirm what most reasonably well-informed Americans already know. With its glib, utopian views of foreign health care systems, it’s also a feel-good palliative for Moore’s overseas fan base. Given that his central argument is pretty much a no-brainer, he tips the balance toward tearjerking manipulations. “Sicko” is sometimes enraging, often upsetting, but as a polemic, it could have used less mawkish sentiment, more lucid outrage.
[Photo: Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” MK2 Productions, 2007]