Cannes So Far: Sean Penn's Festival of Response

Cole Smithey

Maui Time | May 19, 2008
CANNES, France -- Sean Penn has great taste in film. 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 virtuoso actor/writer/director should become the 9th 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. So 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 was a dud) 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 its previous on-again-off-again years that swung between soaring highs and mediocre lows. There may never again be a Madonna moment, as in the '80s when the singer worked the red carpet with her Madonna/whore shtick that shocked and seduced the world, but then again the world seems much smaller these days.

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 LaBeof, 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 of 15 months free of alcohol and drug addiction, Mike 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 (British newcomer Rebecca Hall as Vicky, and Scarlett Johansson as Cristina) on a summer vacation complicated be 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 blond 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, Louisiana, and Michael Moore's revelation about his upcoming Fahrenheit/911 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.

At the festival's halfway point, Palme d'Or contenders included Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (a graphic novel approach to his haunting recollections of an Israeli Army mission during the Lebanon War of the early '80s), and the Dardenne Brothers' Lorna's Silence (about a young Albanian woman's involvement in a Mafia plan to marry for Belgian citizenship and murder her junkie husband). It seems highly unlikely that James Gray's Two Lovers (starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Isabella Rossellini) will make a dent on the Jury's short list, while Clint Eastwood's The Exchange (a '20s era period drama about a woman (Angelina Jolie) whose kidnapped son returns as a different boy) meets with high expectations. Steven Soderbergh snuck in a two-for-one with Che, a two-part, four-and-a-half-hour Che Guevara biopic (Benicio Del Toro does the honors) that promises to test the bladders and attention span of Cannes' ever-increasing number of film journalists, which increases by 6 percent every year.

It wouldn't be a proper festival without the selection of Cannes Classics that play in the Palais' Salle Bunuel screening room every night. This year's assortment of noteworthy treasures included David Lean's This Happy Breed (a Noel Coward drama about a lower middle-class family's feuds during three decades leading up to WWII), and Joseph Strick's radical vision of late '50s America as experienced through the eyes of a lonely divorcee who moves to Los Angeles.

Cannes is much more than an all-you-can-watch buffet of world cinema (more than 2300 films are shown during its 10 days), it's a bellwether of cinematic, economic, and global social values. But to weigh these new values, we have to wait until the climactic awards ceremony on Sunday, May 25th.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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