May 15, 2005

Cannes Dispatch. 3.

Quinzaine Realisateurs At the Cannes Film Festival, FilmStew contributor J Sperling Reich catches Bent Hamer's Factotum, Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Gus Van Sant's Last Days, Michael Haneke's Caché and David Jacobson's Down in the Valley.

Year after year, Cannes boils down to tough choices. Do I wake up early enough to catch the daily 8:30 am press screening or do I go for an extra hour or two of sleep? Do I go see the Chinese film that's playing in Competition, or do I go see a film that's playing in the Director's Fortnight at the same time? Do I cover the obscure Bosnian film (and the year that question came up, it was No Man's Land, which went on to win the screenwriting award in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film)? By the third day of the festival each year, these are the questions that every journalist (and probably every festival attendee) begins to ask.

This year the decision was to pass up Johnnie To's Election in lieu of Factotum, screening as part of the Directors Fortnight, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer and adapted from Charles Bukowski's novel of the same name. Those who know Bukowski know that plots can be tenuous at best.

Factotum "You shouldn't try to make films out of Bukowski's stuff. I mean, they contain everything you can put into a script but nothing to hook onto. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to do it," explained Hamer, whose previous film, Kitchen Stories, also appeared in the Director's Fortnight. "It's very easy to retell the cliché in his kind of life and his kind of writing. I really wanted to try and find the poem."

Indeed, Hamer peppers quite a few of Bukowski's poems throughout the film as he follows Henry Chinaski from one dead end job to the next. You see, Chinaski has a problem keeping the same job more than a few days, weeks or hours, thanks to a heavy drinking problem. When he's working, he usually moves into a flea bag hotel. When he's not working, Chinaski has no problem living on the street. As long as he can cruise the bars, sleep with every woman on skid row and continue writing his short stories.

In the end, it is unclear whether Chinaski (Matt Dillon) actually manages to learn anything. The character, as written by Bukowski, was meant to be somewhat autobiographical and, given the author's own life, the steady sameness of Chinaski's life may have been intentional. "I think for him drinking was part of who he was," said Dillon of Bukowski, whom he had never met. "To him, those few hours in a bar were worth all the hangovers. He loved that atmosphere. The danger often with artists and with poets is that they think, Bukowski did it and William Burroughs did it and Keith Richards did it, so I can do it. In reality, Bukowski showed up every day as a writer. He was committed to that lifestyle."

Factotum also stars Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei, who play two of the woman Chinaski beds, though it is Dillon who runs away with the film. No doubt, should this film find an American distributor who gives it a proper release before the end of the year, I wouldn't be surprised to find the actor on a few awards lists.

Another film premiering in the official Cannes selection in need of an American distributor is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the directorial debut of screenwriter Shane Black. You might recall him as the writer who was scored $4 million for his screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight. At the very least you'll remember him as the writer behind Lethal Weapon. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was produced by Joel Silver, so finding a distributor isn't going to be too much of a challenge. That the notices have been particularly good since it first screened here in Cannes won't hurt, either. In short, it's turning out just as Silver hoped. "We felt that people would really respond to it at the Cannes Film Festival," said Silver. "We thought it was a good place to introduce the movie. And frankly, we need the buzz and excitement that could be provided if the picture played as well as we thought it would."

Though there were a few mixed reactions from journalists who saw the film before its official press screening, for the most part, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is enjoying positive buzz. Black was so happy with all the reviews he was determined to acknowledge the press personally. "Thank you guys for responding as wonderfully as you have," he said. "I am overwhelmed at how kind you have been to the picture. It may sound like pandering, but truly I am just grateful that you guys got the joke."

Ah yes, there are jokes in the movie. And murder and action and sex... it's got everything a Joel Silver movie needs to have. In my opinion, it had a little too much of everything - to the point where it became somewhat unfocused. Even so, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang returns Black and Silver to their beloved buddy movie genre while paying homage to classic film noir. Robert Downey Jr stars as Harry Lockhart, a petty thief who accidentally stumbles into a potential acting career. While in Los Angeles to be screen-tested for an upcoming movie, Harry runs into a beautiful struggling actress who, as it turns out, he had gone to high school with. It's around this time that dead bodies start turning up by what seem like the busload. With nowhere else to turn, Harry teams up with "Gay" Perry (Val Kilmer), a private detective he was introduced to so he could "research" his movie role. Together, all three become embroiled in a real-life murder mystery.

If there's anything to rave about in particular, it would have to be Downey's rambling self-referential narration. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is definitely a movie that knows it's... well, a movie. At times, Downey actually addresses the audience, bringing up references to the last installment of the Lord of the Rings saga. In fact, it was the writing that initially sparked Downey's interest in the project. "When the script is good, you have to roll up your sleeves and potentially crank it up a little more because you don't want to rest on your laurels," he said.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Val Kilmer was also in Cannes to attend the gala screening of the film at midnight on Saturday. Kilmer, who has a notorious reputation for not answering journalists' questions, was more than happy to talk about the sexuality of his character. "I just called all my gay friends and asked what would be offensive and tried to accommodate them." As for his long, onscreen kiss with Downey: "I've only kissed two men in my life. One was Colin Farrell in Alexander, and Colin is not as good."

Many Hollywood studios would have considered it too risky to premiere a film at Cannes if it has not yet been released domestically for fear that, if it bombs on the Croisette, that's that. Silver doesn't see it that way. "All movies are risks," he shrugged. "They are all gambles."

One film that's managed to divide critics' opinions is Gus Van Sant's Last Days. Several journalists streamed out of the press screening on Thursday evening and, of all the journalists I've asked, only one has said he likes it: Roger Ebert.

Van Sant managed to surprise everyone at Cannes in 2003 when he won the Palm d'Or for Elephant. The cinematic style of Last Days picks up where both Elephant and Van Sant's previous film, Gerry, left off. With a narrative that double backs over itself at several points, the film tells the story of a young rock star named Blake living in a non-descript region that looks a lot like the Northwest. He has chin-length blond hair that is constantly in his face and seems to be quite enamored of flannel shirts and ripped jeans. And he's struggling with a heroin addiction. Last Days meandors along, documenting Blake has he takes a walk through the woods, goes swimming, cooks macaroni and cheese, passes out in a drugged stupor. Of course, you'd have to be living under a rock to not know how the story, or lack thereof, comes to an end.

Van Sant did not try to deny that the main character in Last Days is modeled on Kurt Cobain. "The first thought was to make a biopic about a guy named Kurt Cobain," Van Sant said. "I sort of entertained that for just a brief moment. Then I thought it would turn into just a regular biopic."

There are very few people in the world who could say whether Van Sant's film accurately portrays Cobain. One of them actually appears in the film. Kim Gordon, one of the founders of Sonic Youth, knew the musician when he was still alive. Unfortunately, she wouldn't confirm or deny anything. "I think everyone had their own ideas and thoughts about who Kurt was and what happened," said Gordon. "I think part of the idea of the film is that you can never really know somebody and that disparity between image and what goes on in a person's life day to day is very different."

Michael Pitt, who plays Blake, showed up at the photo call and press conference acting as if he might have become an addict himself. Unkempt and in need of a shower, the actor mumbled answers to questions in incoherent sentences. But when Pitt performed some of his musical compositions at the post-screening party, he looked much more at home with a guitar in his hand than he did walking up the red carpet.

The screening schedule is heating up in Cannes, at least for the press. Saturday had most journalists seeing three films, starting with Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden). Most everyone liked the film but found its ending, or should I say, the absence of an ending completely baffling. Charles Ealy of the Dallas Morning News summed up Caché appropriately when he referred to it as a Hitchcock film without the punch line.

As for two films from Un Certain Regard, the evening screening of James Marsh's The King was quite crowded, at least when it started. It didn't take long - I think it was right after the half-brother and sister slept with each other for the first time - before nearly a third of the audience was heading for the doors. If you think that's bad, consider the screening of the Edward Norton vehicle, Down in the Valley, and directed by David Jacobson - only a third of the audience stayed.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 15, 2005 1:42 PM