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Film: Americans in Cannes

Checking in on the U.S. filmmakers at the world's most prestigious film festival

By Cole Smithey · May 28th, 2008 · Movies
  Penelope Cruz in Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Steven Soderbergh

Penelope Cruz in Vicki Cristina Barcelona

Cannes, France -- Sean Penn has great taste in movies. He championed Russian director Elem Klimov's 1985 Come and See long before most critics had ever even heard of it. So it's fitting that the talented actor/writer/director should become the ninth American to preside over a Cannes Film Festival jury, behind such cinema greats as Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese.

As with any group, institution or country, the president sets a tone that people respond to, thus it's not surprising that an atmosphere of clear-eyed focus, aided by intermittent rain on the usually sunny Riviera, permeated screenings of films ranging from less-than-impressive (Fernando Meirelles' Blindness) to the sublime (Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, which hit nearly every note on its broad emotional range).

In recent years Cannes has become a more consistent festival, as opposed to a previous tendency to swing between soaring highs and mediocre lows.

Hollywood's annual dog-and-pony croisette show included Jack Black doing goofball kung fu poses for his enjoyable kids' movie Kung Fu Panda. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Cate Blanchett, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, John Hurt and Ray Winstone took up a day of everyone's attention with the surprisingly satisfying Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its obligatory press conference where Harrison Ford got choked up about putting on the Indiana Jones costume once again.

There's been plenty of cinematic meat to chew on, as with James Toback's candid Mike Tyson documentary Tyson. Greek tragedies don't play any better than watching and hearing the once-great boxer openly tell his warts-and-all-story to Toback's accompanied use of archive footage and home movies. Proud that he's been free of drugs and alcohol for 15 months, Tyson and three of his children attended the film's premiere and were met with an ovation by its enthusiastic audience.

Woody Allen once again stormed the Palais in methodical fashion with a sultry if rushed romantic trifle set in Spain. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a postcard romp about two American girls (played by British newcomer Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) on a summer vacation complicated by the amorous attentions of local painter Juan Antonio (mischievously played by Javier Bardem) whose bi-polar ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) brings danger into the mix. The movie compulsively hits fast-forward every time Woody interrupts the action with voice-over narration from an irrelevant male narrator, but is nonetheless an improvement over his last film, Cassandra's Dream.

Although he didn't have a film at this year's festival, David Lynch lorded his enigmatic presence with this year's 2008 Cannes Festival poster image of a mysterious blonde woman's slightly out-of-focus face made anonymous by a black rectangle covering her eyes, as if to signify a pornographic sin for which she will forever pay.

The constant flood of production announcements included Oliver Stone's George Bush narrative W, which began filming in Shreveport, La., and Michael Moore's revelation about his upcoming Fahrenheit 9/11 sequel. Moore promised a thoroughly researched documentary about America's path to its current state of fear and suspicion. Uniquely bizarre was the revelation about Werner Herzog's upcoming remake of Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, set to feature Nic Cage in the role originally played by Harvey Keitel in a tour-de-force performance.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is a profound, funny and inevitably surreal love letter to death and its flesh-collapsing reality amid the hopes, fears and desires of normal people. The ever-dependable Philip Seymour Hoffman plays community theater director Caden Cotard, whose family life with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and 4-year-old daughter in Schenectady is falling apart. Nagging health issues eat away at Caden as he uses a McArthur grant to build a sound stage version of Manhattan inside a gigantic warehouse to write and direct a second life version of his pained existence.

Synecdoche (pronounced sin-ec-ta-tee) rhymes with Schenectady and denotes a part of something used to refer to the whole thing, or the other way around. Kaufman's high-concept narrative is an evocative and empathic way of looking at the inevitability of death, and it features a concentrated use of great female actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams and Diane Wiest star).

The biggest buzz of the festival was Steven Soderbergh's unconventional two-for-one Che Guevara biopic that runs more than four hours. "The Argentine" begins with Che's famous 1964 speech at the United Nations and finishes with Batista's overthrow at the hands of Che's well-organized guerilla troops. The second half, "Guerilla," picks up after Che's lost year in Africa when he slipped into Bolivia to help lead a doomed revolution.

Problematically, the two sections will be released separately, drawing into question tonal differences between them. Soderbergh doesn't attempt to consolidate the story of Guevara's life, but rather to concentrate on the way the rebel leader attempted to build on his success in Cubato to spread revolution around the world. Benicio Del Toro is predictably mesmerizing as Guevara, and however flawed the concept, Che was the most gratifying screening experience in Cannes. ©

Benicio Del Toro is Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's epic biopic Che, which made its debut at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.



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