The days become a daze when in the thick of the festival. After eleven movies in three days during the first weekend there hasn't been much time to do anything else but hop from movie to movie, perhaps venue to venue, including the Prince Theater Dash. We know we saw something, but when did we see it? Was it Friday afternoon, or Sunday evening? Did we catch "that clue" in a particular movie, or did we miss it?
It's certain to say if you mention a title you have an opinion about it, you missed it, or you plan to see it. Mentioning a movie we have seen soups up our minds to react immediately as our body starts to tire from the fatigue. Eight hours of movies a day really can be tiring.
To keep me awake and alert I bring my knitting with me. After eleven movies I made nine dishcloths. Unfortunately, I was almost out of yarn so I stopped by the AC Moore next to the Philadelphia Film Center to get a 400g cone of yarn. That should last me for another 15 films or more. We'll see how that pans out!
My first movie Monday was "It Must Be Heaven," another Cannes winner. Perhaps not so many people wanted to see it, or as one of the first screenings on a weekday maybe more people went back to work because there may have been about three dozen people in the theater, if that.
For those who weren't there for the screening, or the screening the day before, missed out on an immensely joyous, funny travelogue of Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian answer to Jacques Tati. Suleiman travels around Palestine, Paris and New York in almost entire silence as he encounters a number of scenarios that may be relateable, or humorously observed from a distant. Suleiman becomes the active participant or passive observer in a 97-minute account of all of the problems and uncommon occurrences he thinks he can escape from across the globe. This ranges from hearing a hunter's encounter with a snake, to a slapstick gag involving seats at a Parisian water fountain (talk about musical chairs!) and an unforgiving dig at America's fascination with guns when everyone in a NYC borough walks around with long guns strapped to their bodies like it's no big deal.
"It Must Be Heaven" was such a pleasure to watch, and one of my favorite films of the festival so far. It had the quintessential Tati touches, but I also saw whispers of Frederick Wiseman's observation style. The moment that sealed the deal for me involves passing trough security at an airport. In that moment, I realized the message Suleiman had for the film: we are the magnetic center of our world and nothing else matters. Take life for what it is and enjoy every moment.
On that note, I dropped a stitch near the end of the film while knitting a dishcloth and came up with an innovative way to save the project! I took a Bic pen cap and made a hook out of it (à la a crochet hook) and drew the dropped stitch back up through the work as though nothing had happened - the fix happened while I ate a slice of pizza so I wasn't fiddling in the dark to make a fix. I was so proud of myself for this MacGyver-esque fix. Perked me right up for the next film, "The Truth."
"The Truth" stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as a mother and daughter whose filmmaking lives clash against the production of the former's newest project. Famed French film star Fabienne (Deneuve) releases her memoirs and her daughter, Lumir (Binoche), confronts her about all of the truths left out. And these aren't things that will ruin their family if made public, little things like picking Lumir up from school or how lacking of a mother she was. They both know what happened in their lives, but as Fabienne notes, it's her life and her book and she'll include what she wants. She would rather be a great actress than a great mother or friend.
Not soapy enough to be melodramatic or earth-shattering enough to be a hard drama, "The Truth" lingers for a steady 106 minutes slowly mending a slightly fractured relationship. It's like getting lukewarm water when what you really wanted was a hot cup of tea (gossip).
Following that was a horrific story about young ladies, I'd say twenty-somethings, sent off to a fairy tale island of hell called "Paradise Hills" as a behavioral institution to breed the perfect woman. Think "The Stepford Wives" meets "Logan's Run".
Emma Roberts stars in a world that seems slightly familiar, but even more unfamiliar. It's a world with floating cars, immersive orbs of visual projections and an island where girls dress in Elizabethean England garb mashed up with punk rock and the elaborate fantastical of Eiko Ishioka. Roberts is a headstrong girl who won't marry a man to keep her family's "upper" status in the world. She loves a "lower" who sneaks a job on the island to help her escape. She was sent to the island for behavioral management to make the perfect woman for the rich man who pines for her. That's not happening, and three other girls also don't want to change. Of course, they find out something is not what it seems in the plan to rehabilitate them.
This was a good fantasy/horror film that was shocking to think that such an island/premise would exist. What's scarier is to think girls should be Stepford-esque, to lack individuality. This is a Spanish production by the director/co-writer Alice Waddington who said it was originally written in Spanish but then translated into English. The themes, she said, are universal no matter if the film was in Spanish, English or Chinese. Unfortunately, she's right. "Paradise Hills" scratches the service of what women go through everyday at the hand of their oppressors, but what could be further down below is even less palatable.
After this I had a few minutes to kill so I walked around Old City to pass the time. What got me is how quiet that area can be in the fall around 8 p.m. on a weekday. The Saturday night bar patrons dressed in an array of Halloween costumes cleared way for a quiet weekday scene including a lone pair eating al fresco at a restaurant that was bustling over the weekend. I walked down another street and a restaurant that I like appeared to be closed. "Really?" as I walked passed. Housed in an old bank, I never saw that place rotating a new eatery every year or two. It was a constant and was a great spot. I checked online when I went home and it appears to be open still, ready for Halloween weekend antics. Alas, maybe it was just missing the flag banters outside that I had usually seen on a normal day. (A few weeks later I realized I was merely walking on the wrong block of that street. [shrug])
Elsewhere, the homeless had already started finding a perch to rest on in parks and near entrances to apartment buildings knowing that the dark would cloak them in their spots (some were hidden quite well in a park). Seeing homeless people throughout all of Center City is nothing uncommon. I saw (and smelled) their presence walking through a concourse to the train around 10:30. Most were sleeping, one appeared to be playing on a phone crouched in a corner. They don't usually bother you or directly approach you, a different approach than seeing them on the subway when a homeless person walks from car to car with a sign asking for help. Two different times I saw two different people get money from two passengers on the subway. Then I started thinking, "How much do they get per subway train they're on?" Maybe $10, $20 per trip if they ride the whole line? If they're that successful, they would make more than I do each day after (even before!) I pay taxes as a full-time journalist.
What a dismal realization.
These thoughts are a by-product of the festival. Well-to-do persons have the allowance to sit in the movies all day while around them people struggle (If I didn't live at home I would certainly be one of them). It's a grim reality and we flaunt our festival badges around without a care in the world, uninterested in others.
Getting back on track with the movies, the final film I saw Monday was "Porno," a gruesome horror film proving that stringent religious views and repressed sexuality will probably kill you. After the Friday night rush in Anywhere, USA, a religious theater owner leaves the keys to a bunch of somewhat religious teens to watch whatever film they want while the theater is theirs. Between "Encino Man" and "A League of Their Own", no choice is appealing.
In a hidden cellar someone finds a haunting canister of film, it was the '90s after all, and they play what looks like a sexually violent religious cult ceremony. Because of this all hell brings loose, unleashing the sexual urges of our young theater operators and a explicitly graphic violent streak that hits them all.
"Porno" is unabashedly violent, funny and sexual, a perfect mix that lends the film into grindhouse territory if they ever bring that back (Rodriguez and Tarantino, do another double bill!). It was so ruthless in executing its teenage horror story that I felt connected to these young, curious creatures, as any movie should allow you to feel with its main characters. This is exactly the type of film that they would want to watch, and I feel great luxuriating in its gory goodness!
On top of a great finish to the day, I hit a personal best by seeing 15 films in four days. That might still be a small number to some, but for me that's the most concentrated multi-day moviewathcing experience I've had! At that point, I still wasn't halfway through my forecasted slate of pictures, or even halfway through the festival.
So after that triumphant end to the day, I made my way to the pee-smelling haven of the Suburban Station/15th Street Station concourse to head home.
But my SEPTA encounters didn't start or end by crossing a throng of homeless people Monday night.
I love SEPTA, there's no doubt about it. It gets me where I need to go and I've been using it since high school to go to the Ritz. Had it not been for SEPTA I never would have seen the first US release of "Army of Shadows" back in 2006. My parents don't drive in the city so SEPTA is how I got to the art house cinemas, sometimes skipping school on Wednesdays when films were $6 each all day.
So on Tuesday afternoon I had an encounter that would have complimented Elia Suleiman's feature I saw the day before.
As I waited for my train into the city I saw another dropping passengers off on the platform across the tracks from me. The train departs and I see my train incoming. In my right eye's peripheral I see this middle-aged fella hopping clumsily over the protective fence that is supposed to prevent people from crossing the tracks (Amtrak trains also use these tracks). He makes his way to a locked up bike and rides off. How hard would it have been to cross the bridge right above him and walk right back down to get his bike? I think this is the same kind of incident Suleiman would have quietly judged with his expressive face, his full expression restrained by nuance.
So I ride the train in and make my way just in time for a pair of Cannes competition titles: "Oh Mercy!" and "Young Ahmed." I decided to see these two instead of "The Aeronauts" as I had wanted. The switch was voluntary.
In "Oh Mercy!" the police in a poor French town near the Belgian border deals with all sorts of crimes from domestic incidents to robberies, and even the murder of a geriatric, which is the focus of the film. This is a more highly involved episode of "Law and Order," and not trying to discredit the film, but it's not anything intensely thrilling, either, as the cops try to find the murder suspects.
There are a handful of cases we follow before the film centers its focus on the murder, which comes about 45 minute into the two-hour film. There are so many paths the film could take and many end up as afterthoughts, whether it be the cases or describing the race relations aspect of the jurisdiction. Knowing what a busy police department goes through, I appreciated that the film tried to juggle so many stories at once. That's exactly what a real department does. However, for film it was tangled, and when it straightened out I was left with a bunch of interrogation. Not much of that was interesting, but the film was an honest effort.
I followed that up with "Young Ahmed," the Cannes winner this year for best director for the Dardenne Brothers. I love the Dardenne Brothers and I haven't seen all of their films. "The Unknown Girls" showed a few years ago at the festival and I liked that just as much. "L'Enfant", which won them their second Palme d'Or, was one of those art house films I saw at the Ritz via SEPTA when I was 16 years old. They're so good at detailing ordinary people and the harsh circumstances they (in)voluntarily get themselves into. To boot, their stories are universal.
In their latest film, a young boy named Ahmed becomes more integrated into his Islamic studies under the tutelage of an extremist Imam. After a liberal interpretation of his teachings he attempts to kill his teacher who teaches the Arabic language in a way "less pure" than learning it from the Q'uran. Ahmed goes to a detention center to mitigate his extremist ways.
That's the crux of the story. The Dardennes' films don't have a big story to them, and not a lot of plot to disclose unless you want to know how characters evolve... or fall deeper into their problems. "Young Ahmed" is no different. I like following the main protagonist (whether they're good or bad) as they realistically work through their dilemma. For a deliberately-paced 84 minutes "Young Ahmed" tries to establish the redemptive abilities of a person to quell their own problems. The wrench thrown into it is how does one's religious beliefs influence that? Are we better off with religion, or not? That was the same question posed in "Porno" the night before, and for both, their questions are answered in the end.
The fragile and easily influenced minds of the kids in "Porno" and "Young Ahmed" open a conversation about the persuasive powers of people older than them, not even their peers. Can too much of an extreme religious view be beneficial to young people? When is one child to think for themselves a bad thing? When is too much influence too much?
There are such strong messages coming out of this year's festival and it's really making me think more about the state of our society.
The Whistlers: Very Good
The Lodge: Poor
A Hidden Life: Fair/Good
Deerskin: Very Good
Varda By Agnes: Good
Les Misérables: Excellent
It Must Be Heaven: Excellent
The Truth: Good
Paradise Hills: Good
Porno: Very Good
Oh Mercy!: Good
Young Ahmed: Very Good