Posted on Wednesday May 27, 2009, 11:58 by Sam Toy
Apologies for not having bashed all this out sooner, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day while videblogisoding at a festival. Second priority is of course actually getting to see a least a few films, an activity which this year that proved rather time-hungry, with none of my choices coming in under 2 hours (or at least it felt that way). But delays or no, I feel compelled to share my experiences, not least because I promised I would after successfully pleading my case for a better grade of press pass, but also because I had a remarkably lucky streak: not a single dud film!
First was Taking Woodstock, which I dug, man. As you’d expect from team Shamus/Lee, it’s a subtle, gentle-spirited film, and it puzzles me as to why its reception was so muted. Perhaps Cannes isn’t the right place for a simple, pleasant film – audiences at this festival are hungry for something to feel (and write about) in any direction – Lars von Trier provided the outrage with Antichrist, Michael Haneke had the highbrow luvvies fawning, but Taking Woodstock just doesn’t inspire that kind of reaction. It’s a warm dramedy about a Jewish kid (comic and ex-Daily Show reporter Demetri Martin, who is shockingly 36 in real life, and who unshockingly had in his girlfriend the most beautiful woman I saw during the entire festival) from upstate New York who serendipitously becomes responsible for Woodstock being what it was (firstly, in his back yard, and secondly, free). What it’s not – and this may be where it disappointed some – is a music film. The impressive soundtrack is so skilfully deployed it’s almost subliminal, while not once do we see the stage from anything closer than about 500 metres, and at times Lee seems to be making a joke out of blocking our view of it. When we interviewed Lee, the explanation for this was that, monumental Scorsese-edited documentary aside, this was the experience of most people who were actually there, and fair enough. There are terrific performances across the board, and even if it feels like some of the character trajectories have been edited down from an earlier cut, there’s much to enjoy, with a light smattering of impressive set pieces here and there. Man.
Next was Wake In Fright, the 1971 Australian film about the harsh realities of life in the outback, directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff (yes, he of First Blood). I’d been waiting half my life to see this, and was tremendously excited when I discovered that the new print which had been being painstakingly cleaned up for years was finally done and being included as part of Martin Scorsese’s restoration programme within the festival. This is one of those films that if you grew up in Oz and had more than a cursory interest in movies, you learned about quickly but were rarely, if ever, afforded a chance to see. It’s most famous for including footage of kangaroos being killed (shot – in both senses of the word – during a licensed cull, according to a disclaimer in the end credits), and 38 years after the film’s premiere at this very festival, the scene still prompts walk-outs, rightly so: strong stuff. British TV actor Gary Bond is fine in the lead as a teacher who is, as he describes it, in slavery to a system which can place him in any part of the big brown land they see fit until he’s paid off his thousand dollar bond for a teaching license. He’s unlucky enough to have landed Tiboonda, a shed next to another shed (the pub) on a railway line in the middle of a desert. He wants to get to Sydney and his girlfriend, but only gets as far as the country town of Bundanyabba before things spiral nightmarishly out of control amid a cast of spectacular supporting characters, including a young Jack Thompson as one of Australian cinema’s greatest dickheads, Chips Rafferty (in his final, brilliant role), and Donald Pleasence as an educated degenerate with pretensions towards ancient Greek philosophy. And beer. If you have any interest in Australian film, put this one at the top of your list. On that subject, I was very happy to see Aussie Warwick Thornton pick up the Camera d’Or for Samson And Delilah, and look forward to checking it out ASAP.
Due to videblogisode faffing about, Chris and I didn’t arrive early enough to be at the afternoon screening of I Love You Phillip Morris, which was introduced by Jim Carrey, but instead went to the repeat screening later that night, and thank God we did. From the guys who wrote Bad Santa (they this time also direct), if you like that, you’ll love this. Of course it’s too early to call, but Carrey is certainly worthy of an Oscar nod for his turn as bu8ttoned-down cop-turned gay con man (based on a true story, believe it or not), and Ewan McGregor might get one for best support as the titular character. It’s got the same gutsy dark humour as Bad Santa, the same “I shouldn’t like this guy” qualities, and at times it’s genuinely touching. Hopefully the cat won’t be let out of the bag by the time it comes out, but in the meantime I can only recommend staying away from spoilers, as it’s a doozy. And ‘Cleavon’ is getting my vote as the best character of 2009 – I’ll take his word (it’s his bond) over the United States Postal Service any day...
Much has already been written about the response to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and by no stretch of the imagination is all of it good. The assault against it seems to be being led by The Guardian, and while everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I have to say I’ve rarely Hulked-out at a review the way I did when I read Peter Bradshaw’s trouncing. His colleague Catherine Shoard’s report that “there were tuts and walk-outs” may have been true in the screening she was at, but it certainly wasn’t the case at either one I attended (the very first screening, and then again on the final day of the festival); on both occasions it received solid applause and a few cheers - not a jeer to be heard. To call it an “armour-plated turkey” is just ridiculous. There’s loads to like in Basterds, which seems to be an exercise in subverting expectations, perhaps the most shocking of which is that it’s not an action movie. For after years of indicators (the Stallone/Schwarzenegger rumours, and his early labelling of this as his ‘guys on a mission’ movie, bringing to mind The Dirty Dozen and his genre favourite, Where Eagles Dare), Tarantino has sidestepped the stories - which he may well at one point in the distant past have started - and delivered something quite removed from most of that. The action in Basterds isn’t sustained, as you might expect from a devout John Woo/Sam Peckinpah disciple, but arrives (sometimes, not always) in short, messy bursts after long, absorbing, tense build-ups.
The performances which Bradshaw saw fit to sluggishly stretch to as ‘nice-ish’ are fantastic. Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Melanie Laurent, Til Schweiger and Denis Menochet (who shares the mind-blowing opening scene with Waltz) are outstanding, Brad Pitt is fine, and the screenplay gives them plenty to work with. The cinematography is outstanding, the soundtrack won’t be to everyone’s taste, but again I loved it. Is it Tarantino’s best film? No - but anyone who gives this one star should be retired on general principle.
Finally, I managed to squeeze in one last screening on the last day of the festival to see Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophete, which had amassed very good word since its first screening early in the first week. It’s about the harshness and racial divisions between gangs in the French prison system – which for some reason was instantly appealing to me (yes, cue Airplane! jokes, tee hee), following a young convict, Malik (Tahar Rahim), as he serves a six year sentence, graduating from nothing to kingpin. This offered up the most wince-inducing scene of anything I saw in Cannes (kangaroos included), and you’ll know it when you get there. It’s perhaps a little long – or I could just have been exhausted – but by the time I emerged from the screening I was sure the remarkable Rahim was going to pip Christoph Waltz to the post for best actor. It may be a little heavy on the shaky-cam verite style, but it does have a fantastic, tense and claustrophobic shoot out. This year’s Gomorrah, it’s certainly one to look out for if you’re a fan of the genre.
So that happened. Edinburgh, anyone..?