We’re more than ready to put this festival to rest, so here are the blurby remnants of our review backlog. We’ll be back as regularly scheduled on Tuesday, jury duty gods willing.
"The Axe in the Attic": In an understandable but dire move, filmmakers Ed Pincus and Lucia Small put themselves in their own doc about the displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina. The wheels-within-wheels urge that’s begun to plague a segment of documentaries comes from a good place â€” what’s more veritÃ© than including your own process, struggles and qualms in your film? â€” but is rarely warranted and in the case of "The Axe in the Attic" is something of a deal-breaker. Pincus and Small aren’t likable presences on camera, and their squabbles, their discomfort over the fact that their subjects keep asking them for money and their feelings of inadequacy seem piddling enough next to the massive losses the pair are documenting to make the fact that such things are given screen time at all insulting.
"The Last Mistress": Catherine Breillat, that dedicated, humorless raconteur of tales of how essential and horrible love and sex are, has actually produced something that’s, for a while, fun to watch in this period piece set in 18th century France. It’s all thanks to Asia Argento, playing Vellini, the courtesan in question, who’s been thrown over by Ryno de Marigny, her impoverished rake of a lover, for a young heiress he plans to marry. Shrieking her orgasms to the sky, flashing period-appropriate armpit hair, glaring over Spanish fans and bursting into a room to lick blood off of a wounded man’s chest, Argento turns in a performance that’s either brilliant or woeful; we’ve yet to decide. The best part of the film is a lengthy flashback chronicling how Vellini and Ryno met, became involved and went off on a very strange furlough in Algeria â€” after that, the film loses momentum as Breillat hammers in her usual themes with a heavy hand.
"The Man From London": To be honest, we’ve never acquired a taste for Hungarian director BÃ©la Tarr, so we can’t really speak to whether "The Man From London" is good Tarr or, as seemed to be the majority opinion at Cannes, bad Tarr. It is Tarr, with some extraordinary mise en scÃ¨ne â€” a ten (plus)-minute opening shot of a crime taking place, as observed from the watchtower of dockworker Maloin (Miroslav Krobot); a brilliantly beautiful image of Maloin undressing for bed, the night shift over, as sunlight streams in through the open window; a pan through the local tavern that reveals two men dancing. The story, as it is, involves Maloin stumbling onto a load of stolen cash and deciding what to do next (the camera often lurks behind his head like a weight on his shoulders) â€” that plot is secondary to the patience-testing pacing and long takes, which allow plenty of time for you ponder morality and existence or what you’re going to have for dinner.
"Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project": If you’re fond of Don Rickles, and it’s hard not to be, there’s plenty to enjoy in John Landis‘ documentary, which weaves footage of the comedian on stage with vintage TV clips and interviews with friends and admirers. Still, it’s a standard talking-head doc and a strange presence at the festival â€” the only exceptional thing about it as a film is the exceptional comfort some of the often guarded interview subjects, which include Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro and Sidney Poitier, show on camera.
"The Orphanage": Scary and silly, Juan Antonio Bayona‘s
debut film is not this year’s answer to "Pan’s Labyrinth," despite the push it’s getting from producer Guillermo del Toro. Under the gloss of Spanish gothic, it’s just the kind of horror film that gets dumber the more you think about it. "The Sea Inside"’s BelÃ©n Rueda plays Laura, a woman who, with her husband and son, moves back into the building that once housed her adored childhood orphanage despite the fact that it’s now so haunted it all but has "Ghost children rool!" spray-painted on its walls in blood. Soon her son is claiming to have made some new imaginary friends, and then vanishing, leaving Laura devastated and looking toward the occult for answers. Three segments had us covering our eyes, one with a raspy-breathed child in a scarecrow sack-mask, another with a really disgusting moment of violence and a third that introduced frightening supernatural take on Red Light, Green Light. The rest of the film had us rolling them.
"Paranoid Park": Gus Van Sant, working mainly with nonprofessional actors (as he did in "Elephant"), has come close to achieving what must be many a director’s dream in removing acting from his film’s equation entirely. "Paranoid Park"’s star, Gabe Nevins, exists as a beautiful blank, the film creating a richly detailed, conflicted inner life for him via Leslie Shatz‘s exceptional sound design and cinematography from Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li. Nevins delivers a halting voiceover of text lifted from Blake Nelson’s young adult novel, the basis of the film, and the artificiality of the narration only emphasizes how eerily and wonderfully the film itself captures adolescence.
"Persepolis": In the press notes we immediately lost, "Persepolis" co-director Marjane Satrapi said something to the effect that she didn’t want to do a live action version of her acclaimed graphic novel because then it would just be a film about foreign people and their problems. She has a point â€” "Persepolis"’s stylized cel animation makes her story both more accessible and more personal because it’s a constant reminder of subjectivity. The film sees the Iranian revolution and the country’s subsequent shift toward fundamentalism through the eyes of the then-prepubescent Marjane, who’s eventually shipped off to school in Vienna by her liberal parents for the sake of her education. Homesick for a country that no longer exists as she knew it, Marjane struggles to find her place in the world, but "Persepolis" maintains a marvelously lighthearted tone â€” Marjane is sharp-tongued, self-deprecating, fallible and funny, and the animation follows her narration (she’s voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) fluidly through digressions, anecdotes and one very off-key version of "Eye of the Tiger."
"Secret Sunshine": We went into Lee Chang-dong film knowing nothing about it except that lead actress Jeon Do-yeon won the acting prize at Cannes. It was a good way to see the film, and if "Secret Sunshine" had any prospects of making it to a theater near you, we’d suggest you stop reading now. Jeon plays Shin-ae, a widow who moves with her son, Jun, to the conservative small town in which her husband grew up. She’s not quite right, something we get a sense of in careful increments as she meets her neighbors and is paid a visit by her brother from Seoul. And then something terrible happens, and Shin-ae comes crashing apart under the force of new and repressed grief, finding abrupt but unstable solace in born again Christianity, which she clutches onto and which lends her a feverish radiance and an ill-advised bravado that spurs her to a devastating encounter at a prison. We admire "Secret Sunshine" more than we like it; Jeon puts herself through incredible paroxysms of emotional pain and suffering and never seems less than genuine, but the film itself can seem isolating and ungenerous in its steady observation of her character through darker and darker times. "Secret Sunshine" essentially takes a melodramatic tale of tragedy and plays it straight and unsentimental, and while we never knew where it would lead, we often didn’t want to know.