The movies at the Cannes Film Festival are really bringing the house down — no, actually, that was the thunderstorm.
Having to cope with the elements, of course, makes the press corps think they're Werner Herzog hacking through the jungle with a machete. "Oh, you waited in line for the Resnais for an hour in the rain? I waited an hour and a half for the Kiarostami — and I didn't even have any snacks."
But if being a journalist here isn't exactly roughing it, it does require a fair amount of frenzied problem-solving. There's navigating the maze that is the press area while a press conference is going on, with the festival staff keeping you away from the talent during their entry/exit by rapidly deploying retractable rope lines as soon as you crane your head to see Brad Pitt. (I bet the staff is great at Lemmings.) There are the turf wars that result over the slim amount of available power outlets anywhere. (The best way to make friends here? Carry a power strip.)
And then there are the times when you have to brave the Marche du Film, or Cannes Film Market. Located in the bowels of the main festival building, this trade fair helps pair buyers and distributors for thousands of new movies. Most of these, it turns out, are terrible, making this area a sort of haunted house for film lovers.
Turn the wrong corner and you'll be surrounded by posters for straight-to-DVD candidates clawing at you from movie hell. Piranhaconda! ("Part Snake! Part Fish! All Killer!") Vampire Boys 2: The New Brood! (The gay vampire movie market is apparently robust enough to support sequels!) At least five different Christian Slater movies! (He's moving up in the ranks of straight-to-DVD titans like Tom Berenger and Ray Liotta.)
Luckily, solid films are never that far away at Cannes, as the tight, melancholy mob thriller Killing Them Softly proved in its competition screening. Softly's story, in which a mob enforcer (Brad Pitt) tracks down the hoodlums responsible for knocking over a high-stakes card game, serves as a metaphor for America after the economic crash of 2008.
I know this because the movie opens with Barack Obama speaking about the American Dream, ends with Pitt delivering a speech about what America means, and soundtracks nearly every moment where a character is not speaking with a politician's voice to point out the symbolism. This is never a subtle movie — a scene of heroin use is set to, uh, The Velvet Underground's "Heroin" — but its righteous anger about empty political promises and failures of accountability resonated with me anyway. When the financial system of this mafia enterprise is disrupted, Brad Pitt is there to cut through institutional incompetence, find and punish the wrongdoers, and help things get back to normal — yes, Rambo, we do get to win this time.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik's style is about as subtle as the message-making; his heists and hits are bathed in slow motion, tasteful CGI, impossible-seeming camera angles and vicious sight gags.
But this is more a film about conversation — George Higgins' novel provides a flavorful Boston patois that manages to withstand the inevitable Scorsese and Tarantino comparisons. And Pitt's restrained, economical performance is accompanied by wonderful turns from Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini; the latter in particular provides a stinging portrait of a penniless, inventively vulgar hit man unable to adjust out of his party-hard lifestyle.
There isn't much festival awards heat for Softly — the smart money so far is on Michael Haneke's Amour or the gloriously insane Holy Motors, surrealism from Leos Carax that plays like what you might get if Luis Bunuel had grown up on CGI and Michael Mann movies. (A representative moment: a grotesque bearded man kidnaps Eva Mendes from a fashion shoot and takes her to a sewer lair, where he refashions her haute couture gown into a burqa and eats some of her hair.)
I hope Motors wins something for its consistently awe-inspiring imagination and audacity, and I also hope nothing gets awarded to Walter Salles' tedious adaptation of On the Road. Jack Kerouac's novel, about the cross-country journeys of his thinly fictionalized alter-ego Sal Paradise and his wild friend Dean Moriarty, has had a famously tortured route to screen — Kerouac himself died attempting to get a film made — and writer-director Salles' version is less soulful travelogue than AAA Handbook.
It's all very watchable, with striking prairie vistas, nubile young things — though everyone always seems sweaty, even in winter! — and a lot of sex. But while Salles effectively shows the consequences of the unfettered road life (Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Amy Adams all have a chance to get their Suffering Wife on at length), there's little of the novel's sense of why anyone would want to head out for the road in the first place.
There's nothing particular to like in Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley's bland performances as Dean and Sal, but Viggo Mortensen is two-for-two in portraying esteemed intellectuals lately — he follows his role as A Dangerous Method's Sigmund Freud with an appropriately cracked take on William S. Burroughs here. Dispensing heroin-addled wisdom in a gravelly drawl while firing off a pistol, he injects a spark of life into the veins of a film that needs it bad.