Tag Archives: Cannes

The Month Ahead: May 2012

Welcome to a new, bright and breezy monthly feature in which Permanent Plastic Helmet picks out some of the film-related treats it’s most looking forward to in the next month.

May is Cannes Film Festival month. Still the most prestigious international film festival going (May 16-27), this year’s ‘In Competition’ line-up features a pretty dazzling (though, sadly, almost exclusively male) array of talent. New films from the likes of David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis – pictured), Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), Michael Haneke (Amour) and Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) will duke it out for the top prize: the Palme d’Or. You can take a look at the official selection (including Un Certain Regard) here, and full line-ups for the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week here.

There was no place in the programme for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master (purportedly about Scientology – but who knows?), which makes us wonder if the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October might end up with a pretty mighty premiere on its hands. We can but dream. Sadly, PPH won’t have a presence at Cannes this year, but looks forward nonetheless to hearing all the news and reactions from the Croisette. At least one of our blogging pals will be there, so expect to be pointed in the direction of that site for feedback during the festival.

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The Raid (May 18)

In terms of May’s new cinema releases, we’re hugely excited about Gareth Evans’ The Raid (May 18) – a hyper-violent, Indonesian-set thriller that’s said to draw upon the likes of John Woo’s Hard Boiled for influence. Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In New York (May 18) – the sequel to her earlier 2 Days In Paris – is one that we’d really been anticipating, though are sad to report that it fails to catch fire in the way we’d hoped. That said, it’s definitely worth seeing for Chris Rock’s straight-man performance as Mingus, Delpy’s jazz-and-Obama obsessed boyfriend.

Professional provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen also returns this month with The Dictator (May 16) which, in truth, could go either way.The press campaign leading up to its release has been a touch on the heavy handed side (official statements from his new character, Middle Eatern dictator General Aladeen, no less!), but when Baron Cohen is at his excoriating best, he’s really, really good. So fingers remain crossed. Oh, there is a new Wes Anderson film coming out too (Moonrise Kingdom, May 25), but the oh-so-mannered, almost self-parodic poster alone provoked a near-vomitous reaction in this writer, who will try his darndest to keep an open mind when it hits screens.

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Amongst an ever-eclectic BFI Southbank programme, this month’s African Odysseys screening (May 26) of Ivan Dixon’s super-rare cult film The Spook Who Sat By The Door really stands out. In The Spook…, a black CIA operative returns to Chicago and prepares his brothers for revolution, a conceit which operates both as biting satire and razor-edged provocation in response to the urgency of its socio-politically unstable times. Boasting a highly charged score from Herbie Hancock, it looks pretty much unmissable. The screening will be accompanied by a 2011 documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood – The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which investigates the film’s troubled, fascinating history.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door (BFI Southbank, May 26)

Other BFI highlights this month include a career overview of one of the renowned stars of French cinema, Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather, an extended run of Powell and Pressburger’s much-lauded satire of the English character The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp restored to its full Technicolor glory, part two of the complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective, and the 11th London Sci-Fi Film Festival.

Following its launch with Brief Encounter at the Troxy in February, The Other Cinema returns with a screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’ bracing, brutal and timeless 1995 French film La Haine. The screening (May 4) will feature a live score by the Asian Dub Foundation, and include appearances by local artists. As part of The Other Cinema networks, screenings will also take place at Broadwater Farm Community Centre in Tottenham (May 2) and launch in Paris (May 5). All of the profits from the Troxy screening will pour into the production of the free premiere screening at Broadwater Farm.

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Onto home entertainment, news has broken of the first ever DVD release of a groundbreaking 1986 hip-hop documentary entitled Big Fun In The Big Town(May 21).Directed by the fantastically monikered Dutch filmmaker, journalist and rap fanatic Bram Van Splunteren*, the doc is said to show hip-hop from pretty much every angle, and approach its subjects with a genuine journalistic respect. Highlights include rare live performances, and interviews with a number of key players from the scene’s early days including Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J (interviewed at his grandmother’s house in Queens!), Grandmaster Flash and Biz Markie.

Continuing on a DVD theme, the ever-covetable Criterion collection continues to put out some astonishing stuff, highlights of which include extras-packed, digitally optimized releases of the aforementioned La Haine(May 8), and the welcome return of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich(May 15). Best to have a quiet word with your bank account now to let it know that you’ll be treating it with reckless abandon in the coming weeks.

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Finally, kicking off toward the end of the month is the sixth annual Happy Soul Festival (May 25-June 10), a multi-borough, London-set event which aims to entertain, inform and to engage with black and minority ethnic groups and the wider community to help de-stigmatise mental health issues and promote awareness of wellbeing. Though the festival is multidisciplinary in nature, the programme will feature film strongly, and looks like a really interesting, worthwhile event. To find out more, visit the Happy Soul Festival’s website.

*his name reminded me of this near-forgotten rap-rock gem (yes, they exist!) from 1996.

If there’s an event you’d like to see featured here in next month’s round-up, feel free to drop us a line at pplastichelmet@gmail.com

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The Tree Of Life

Sean Penn

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigour, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain.” 

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When was the last time you saw a film so overwhelming that you were left in a state of trance when the credits rolled? How often do you get to see a bona fide masterpiece on its release? And when was the last time film-going felt so much like an experience, a live event rather than a passive way to kill time? These were the questions, (amongst other existential interrogations including “what am I doing on this earth?”, “is that really what happens in the afterlife?” and “what does it take to cheer Sean Penn up?”) that I was left to ponder as I exited the French cinema in which I was lucky enough to catch the latest Palme d’Or winner.

So I’m one of the “Malick nuts” I suppose, as a handful of sneering critics dubbed us after they shamefully booed the film at the end of its inaugural screening in Cannes. Naysayers have snidely branded The Tree of Life variously as a preachy, ridiculously self-indulgent eccentricity; a megachurch feel-good clip; an overlong life-insurance ad with an IMAX science documentary squeezed in between two acts of a conservative family drama filmed in saccharine Malick-O-Rama and woodenly interpreted by Brad Pitt’s clenched jaw. Ah, the cynics. If this is the case, I guess it’s fair to describe 2001: Space Odyssey as a tedious pagan absurdity retelling the space travels of a silly black brick, featuring grown-men in cheap monkey suits.

Yes, I’m throwing 2001 in there already: The Tree of Life undoubtedly belongs to that exclusive category of over-ambitious, megalomaniac filmic UFOs, the one-in-a-decade (or maybe less) celluloid miracle. In recent memory, only Enter The Void shares the same dreams of grandeur, the same hunger to explore the limits of the medium and blow apart the conventions of the form, but next to Malick’s meditation, Gaspar Noé’s hallucinated trip, though not devoid of qualities, looks minuscule and puerile.

A dinosaur

The Tree of Life opens with one of the most disorienting half-hours of film you’re likely to see – an abstract maelstrom of recollections and allegories going back and forth in the later stages of a Texan family’s history that constitutes the loose narrative thread of the feature. We learn that the mother had to “give away her son to God” on his eighteenth birthday. What took the beloved scion (war? illness? an unsuccessful trial at Arsenal?) we’ll never know. This divine injustice triggers a lifelong existential crisis in his less-exemplary brother, played as an adult by a severe Sean Penn seemingly carrying the whole of human misery on his weary shoulders as he roams through gigantic steel buildings and corporate rooms – these notorious “non-spaces” that the modern man inhabits in stark contrast with the luxuriant countryside of his childhood. If this doesn’t sound confusing, it’s because everything makes sense by the end of the film.  At that moment, however, it feels like Malick is plunging your head under water and keeping it submerged, like a Baptist preacher half-drowning his new recruit in the strong current of a river. Aqueous metaphors abound through the film from waterfalls to garden hoses, water dually encapsulating the now-famous concepts Malick elucidates: the way of nature – forceful, overpowering, masculine, and the way of grace – soothing, protective, feminine, also incarnated by the antagonistic figures of the father and the mother – “always wrestling inside me” whispers Jack, the conflicted son, at one point.

So where is God in all this? Everywhere, son, everywhere. Malick’s take on religion is unquestionably pantheist, filming the green suburbia like the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life may actually be the most important transcendentalist work since Thoreau’s Walden (an author with whom he shares the recluse ways and the obsession for self-reliance and absolute control), fitting perfectly in that peculiarly American school of thought that combines unapologetic self-involvement and a direct, borderline-pagan approach to the Creator through nature. And what’s more quintessentially American than a Midwestern middle-class family in the 50s? While the O’Briens may be based on Malick’s own roots, they are first and foremost a myth, in Roland Barthes’ sense of the term: the Adam and Eve of the director’s transcendentalist utopia.

This is why I struggle with the recurrent accusation that The Tree of Life is a work of fanatical preaching, as Malick’s transcendentalist inclinations can potentially accommodate most agnostics in the sense that he doesn’t challenge our scientist vision of the world by relying heavily on the Big Bang theory and Darwinism to depict the origins of the universe in the much talked-about cosmogonic segment. There’s no creationist fundamentalism or even a glimpse of a white-bearded dude as The Man Upstairs. Malick simply celebrates the miracle of life, its randomness, its convoluted trajectory from the infinitely big (the sun, Jupiter’s rings) to the infinitely small (the first ever cells duplicating); an exercise in micro/macro filmmaking. He’s a philosopher, not a pastor, and I couldn’t help but think that bizarrely, his representation of afterlife – which may also be Sean Penn’s inner world, it’s not clear – has actually a lot in common with the infinite, post-apocalyptic beach where the rebel clone ends up in the last chapter of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (by any standard, not a very Christian book), which also serves as an allegory for the impossibility of happiness that dooms the human race.

However, if there any flaws to find in The Tree Of Life, they would be in these two segments: the creation of the universe bit (an old Sisyphean project originally called Q and previously envisaged as a companion piece) and Sean Penn’s character existential walkabout. These two gloriously eccentric sidetracks do not ruin the whole, far from it (I must admit my inner 10 year old got quite excited when the CGI velociteraptors appeared), but, in fine, they’re not essential – a bit like the curiously incidental third brother in the O’Brien family. The film could stand alone consisting solely of its angular central stone: the family drama, undoubtedly its most magnificent and memorable part.

Brad Pitt

What’s so brilliant about this visceral portrait of a relatively common father and son Oedipal relationship is how Malick sublimes this commonness into a vivid reconstruction of the universal pain of growing-up that unites all little boys (the religious types will probably read it a metaphor of our own bond to God, that unkind disciplinarian Father). Almost every shot – all breathtaking, the camera having an eerie weightlessness, always mobile, always fluid, organic even, an invisible force of nature that carries you away like the torrents of water dear to the filmmaker – contains a Proustian moment that will reignite a long-forgotten sensation. This elliptically paced accumulation of unearthed souvenirs, perfectly captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s sharp photography, Jack Fisk’s superlative set design and Alexandre Deplat’s haunting score had a truly dizzying effect on me, and I don’t think I was the only one. It’s even weirder when you realize that a twenty-something man such as myself ends up agreeing with old Roger Ebert about the film’s uncanny ability to connect immediately to your own personal experience. This identification is facilitated by the young Hunter McCracken, equally bringing incandescent rage and disarming fragility to a performance described by Bret Easton Ellis as the best by a male child since Henry Thomas in E.T.

This avalanche of literary name-dropping is not uniquely triggered by a self-conscious need to impress my potential reader, but mostly because The Tree of Life, despite its formal mastery, is the work of a director almost obnoxiously oblivious to what’s been done before in his chosen field, uninformed by its recent history and only referring to his previous oeuvre. The Tree of Life is truly an humbling lifetime achievement.

One the most popular formula used to patronize The Tree Of Life in the media has been to describe it as “sublimely ridiculous”, a tag reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s dismissal of transcendentalists as tree-hugging idealists “lapsing into mysticism for mysticism’s sake”, which earned them the not-so-kind nickname of frogpondians. There is indeed a pivotal scene in the film involving a frog out of its pond that could serve as fitting concluding analogy. Captured by a group of kids indulging their early sadistic impulses, the reptile is attached to a miniature rocket, which is set ablaze. That little creature, snatched from its idyllic pond to embark on a cosmic journey, may well be the mysterious Terrence Malick.

Guillaume Gendron runs the culture and music blog Le Double G and can be followed on Twitter @ggendron20.

Looks like someone has been watching The Wire…

Here is a sequence from Poliss, a new French crime drama about the child protection services, presented yesterday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

I’m pretty stoked about the film for a couple of reasons besides its realer-than-real trailer. Firstly, Maïwenn Le Besco (who usually goes by her first name only) is one the quirkiest film personalities in France. Formerly engaged to Luc Besson in her young and idle years (she’s in Leon: The Professional for a couple of seconds and plays the blue, bulbous-headed diva in The Fifth Element), she became a true polymath once he left her, writing and performing comedy stand-up, directing an auteurish film (the ferocious Le bal des actrices / The Actress’ Ball, a painfully honest autofiction on female thespians) and appearing in oddball B-movies, such as the homegrown lesbian slasher High Tension, by Alexandre “Pirahna 3D” Aja. Versatile, I’m telling you.

Maïwenn Le Besco

Secondly, the main part, Fred – a taciturn cop on whom a posh journalist (played by Maiwen) writes a profile piece – is performed by one of France’s most emblematic rappers, Joeystarr of NTM fame. Don’t laugh, France used to have good hip-hop, and he’s truly an icon, sort of the local Nas (speaking of which, they collaborated on a pretty awesome remix together). It’s a bit of an Ice-T move for him, as NTM (for Nique Ta Mere, “Fuck Your Mom”) were sued and fined in the 1990s for “inciting violence against the police”. But the man can really act; his turn in Maïwenn’s previous film Le bal des actrices earned him a nomination for the Best Newcomer Cesar. Moreover, he has a tremendous presence; an animalistic masculinity rivalled only by Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) in the country with 365 kind of cheeses.

I haven’t yet seen the film, but from what I can see on this teaser, Maïwenn, who’s neither trying to make Paris looks like New York nor delivering another Eurotrash action-thriller (yes Luc Besson, I’m looking at you again), may have got things right and the hype building around the film could well be worth it. We’ll see in a couple of months.

GG

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