After a great experience at my first Cannes last year, I’m back for the sequel with some new wrinkles. I’m not just seeing films and writing reports of my experiences, but also getting a first-time, first hand look at what it’s like to have a film in the market. My companion on this trip is my movie THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE, and we’re going to find out our chances of being in foreign territories and continue our bumpy journey along the filmmaker learning curve.
Upon arrival, I head over to the Splendid Hotel to meet friends and run into Chaz Ebert first thing. So – good sign, I think since meeting her last year was a very cool moment for me. The hilarious thing is that after meeting her last year I had also seen her at the Toronto Film Festival and yet I had to be re-introduced to her again here. Uhmm, so much for that “leaves a strong first impression” thing I got. (Note to self, try to more memorable to people that you think are cool.)
My festival badge and bag were waiting for me at the hotel courtesy of my friends, so that couldn’t have been more easy, and we head off to the annual informal get-together of film fest programmers that takes place on opening night each year. I get to go to this by association of who I am with (former AFI-er and Lincoln Center-er, Rose Kuo) and this year, I can also claim I’m doing some scouting for my wife Justina Walford’s fledgling Women Texas Film Festival set to hit the ground running in August this year. I can’t do anything unless I’m obnoxiously wearing a bunch of hats apparently. It’s a great time including conversations with people from AFI, Vancouver FF, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia FF, Miami International FF, and Beijing FF, among others. I even have a nice exchange with my erstwhile film festival nemesis, and make a point to see if we can chat and stop our mutual silliness. So, already there could be something great beyond the movies seen as part of this year’s experience. Dinner follows and we run into the legendary Tom Luddy from Telluride. A promise is made that I will attend THAT fest for the first time this year. I’m overdue to go, but also under-funded, so we’ll see if that happens.
The next morning and the screenings begin. My early start leaves me with so few immediate choices to get a bite to eat that I actually desperately succumb to the lure of the Cannes McDonalds. I tell myself that I’m just trying to survive as I nibble on French fast food and head off to a couple market choices, the first being THE MASTER CLEANSE. We had the film at the just-concluded Dallas International Film Festival, but I was unable to see it there and had also missed it at Sundance, so now thanks to the market, I finally get a chance to do some catching up.
THE MASTER CLEANSE
Bobby Miller’s THE MASTER CLEANSE follows Paul (played by Johnny Galecki), who seeks to restart his life after struggling to overcome being left at the altar years earlier. A late-night TV commercial leads him to a mysterious retreat/cleanse program that promises to literally flush away his despair. While having some concerns about the safety of the program, his attraction to Maggie (played by Anna Friel), also seeking healing, leads him to give it a whirl. Once there, they discover that the release of their toxins takes on an unlikely and unexpected form making the act of confronting those emotions and the demons they conjure, a more daunting and even frightening experience than your run-of-the-mill lemonade diet.
THE MASTER CLEANSE is an odd duck of a film. This is certainly very much by design, but best laid plans don’t always come to the hoped for conclusion and I think this one does. Of course, that makes it a tricky “recommend”. Miller plays with a classic concept: Poor schlub trying to pull himself out of a rut and get the girl is forced to confront challenges that are well beyond his comprehension. Galecki could corner the market on that character, and Miller does a solid job balancing the WTF humor and reveals with earnest heartstring tugs to give the weirdness some meaning. However, the film is not a laugh riot and doesn’t seek to be, so the audience it aims for is one that wants to be placed in a surreal world where your romance is side by side with the silly and a very real – if measured – threat. That makes me a fan, but one that understands that not everyone is going to eagerly sign on for the same bizarre trip.
After THE MASTER CLEANSE, I decided to immediately get in line for another film and see what the movie-roulette would bring me, so…
THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
Bill Purple’s THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA is a serio-comic drama about a distracted architect (played by Jason Sudekis), who faces an emotional mountain to climb after his quirky fun-loving pregnant wife (played by Jessica Biel) is killed in an auto accident. The path taken to rebuild his life is done so by helping a street-wise New Orleans teen (played by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) build a raft out of garbage so she can sail across the sea to find her long lost dad.
THE DEVIL AND THE DEE BLUE SEA should come with a warning label on the film’s poster: “No cynics need apply.” The film wields a whimsical hammer, bludgeoning anyone and everything in its path as Biel, via flashbacks, plays the most relentlessly upbeat and perfect manic pixie dreamgirl ever dreamed up ever in forever. From the grave, she pushes our hero and his sidekick to “Be Bold” while they are surrounded by adorable comic characters and knee deep in tragedy at the same time. The only way the film succeeds is if the audience member is able to give it up completely and cry uncle to the positive, life-affirming message delivered with a mug of hot chocolate and Lucky Charms. And I’m being literal with that last part – which is to underline my point. There is an audience for the film, but that audience has to be ready to embrace the conceits of the film wholeheartedly with nary a single eye roll, otherwise it will be a tough sell.
With a couple films under my belt, I make it over to the market to check in on the sales booth hawking my film, THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE, and meet the guys trying to get the film out into the big world. The market is overwhelming with multiple floors and countless – and I do mean COUNTLESS – booths, film posters, banners, standees, people… Seriously, it is a lot to take in. But it was incredibly cool to see the poster for my film right out front at the seller’s check-in desk and discover that they were actually putting it front and center among all the other films on their roster. Of course, I’m taking all of it with huge grains of salt, but there seemed to be legit enthusiasm for the film. Our cannibal strippers could actually be terrorizing men in multiple languages in the not-too-distant future. The thought would warm the heart of any lethal pin-up in a sexy bustier.
But back to the movie watching.
I make my way over to catch a “sexy vampire in the big city” movie, and while waiting for the theater to open up for me and me alone, I notice a huge line to get into another theater. I check my film schedule and see that nothing was actually listed for that particular screen. Interesting. My instinct said something was up so I get in that line as everyone files in. It looks like an “invite-only” screening. Interestinger! So I do what you do in Cannes: act like I’m supposed to be there. The girl checking people in looks at me expectantly, I say my name, she scrolls down her list of guests on her iPad and without hesitation lets me in. Ah, feigned confidence and determination wins again. The screening room is packed with every seat accounted for, the lights go down and the mystery film is…
John Lee Hancock’s THE FOUNDER tells the true-life story of how Ray Kroc (portrayed by Michael Keaton) forged the fast food empire known as McDonald’s. The film begins with Kroc as a middling travelling salesman with multiple business ventures attempted and failed, and a life lived striving to achieve that one golden ticket: the McDonald brothers’ restaurant in San Bernadino and their innovation of fast food service. Kroc seized that idea, and eventually even their name, to create the worldwide force that McDonalds is today. The film details the genius of his vision, the contributions of fate, and Kroc’s unwavering persistence. And maybe most notable, the film doesn’t shy away from his willingness to put aside ethics to succeed.
THE FOUNDER is yet another notch in Keaton’s belt adding to his recent Renaissance run of great performances. He, Hancock, and writer Robert Siegel achieve the goal of shining a light on the players in the McDonalds story, the inspiration that struck Kroc, and the elements in his personality that led to his success. What makes the film engrossing beyond simply being an entertaining, or even educational bio-pic, is the very careful balance struck between giving everyone their due as people with personalities, but also shining a light on their weaknesses and insecurities that led to fateful business decisions. More often than not, it is those weaknesses that Kroc was able to exploit as he didn’t just co-opt the McDonalds way of running their restaurant, but actually claimed it all as his own. The message is that genius and great ideas on their own don’t win the day. It is the persistence and refusal to give up that rule the day in the end. This film illustrates that truth in a complex and compelling fashion.
Heading over to the Locarno party, I notice one of my friends exiting just as I’m arriving. So much for that party. Instead, we head to the Opening Director’s Fortnight screening of SWEET DREAMS. There are multiple long lines and while I have a market badge, she has a priority market badge (with the coveted purple stripe on it), so I basically say, “Save yourself and get in the priority line!” because I’m a film fest martyr like that. She does so and after a little while, as I stand there in line by myself, I realize that behind me, only three or four people back, is the only person at Cannes that I would have an impossible time mustering up any kind of civil interaction with. I can pull off the even-mannered social interactions with the less than savory in almost every case, but I also can’t fake it, as they say. I’m in line, so I can’t just ghost my way out (because I would miss the film), and I’m by myself, so I can’t deflect conversation to someone else and then clear out (because I would miss the film), and I can’t engage in any kind of assault because I would be taken away by security (and I would miss the film). So, I resist any urge to look behind me, lest there be the slightest chance of making eye contact and the potential of some kind of Medusa-type reaction, and hope, hope, hope, that the line doesn’t contract, forcing awkward-time on the French Riviera.
Fortunately, I dodge the confrontation by never looking away from the head in front of mine and make it into the movie. Since it’s Opening Night, there are lots of speeches and presentations which were all kinds of pseudo-entertaining. The filmmaker Aki Karismäki was being celebrated, but couldn’t make it there so instead we got a scripted Q&A with someone on stage more-or-less playing the role of Aki Karismäki being interviewed by someone else on stage. That was a first. Then, another guy during presentations went off-script and began a fiery denunciation of the state for not financially supporting artists. I think. I say that because everything was in French and only some of it was translated to English. I thought the revolution had more to do with DCP versus 35mm around these parts, but this was more old school class/artist warfare, it seemed. Anyway, after about an hour of all that (and I’m not really exaggerating by much at all), the film began.
SWEET DREAMS (FAI BEI SOGNI)
Marco Bellocchio’s SWEET DREAMS begins in Turin, 1969 as nine-year-old Massimo’s childhood goes through a seismic shift following the sudden and mysterious death of his mother. Fast-forward to the 90’s where he has grown up to become an accomplished journalist, yet is still tormented by unresolved issues and feelings concerning his mother’s death that are now causing him to have severe panic attacks. With the help of a compassionate and attractive doctor, he seeks to find out the truth and resolve his conflicted emotions once and for all.
SWEET DREAMS is a familiar exercise in a person’s attempts to uncover the truths of their childhood and finally lay restless ghosts to sleep, so the central character can finally move forward with their life. Bellocchio takes us back and forth from Massimo’s memories of his childhood, to his experiences as an adult working through relationships and trying to connect on an emotional level with someone despite his self-imposed hurdles. Frankly, we get the gist of the whole endeavor very quickly which cuts into the sympathy for the character the longer the film continues. It is all executed very romantically with nuance and style, but it also significantly indulges in the whole process which could make the film a trying viewing experience for anyone that has places to go or people to see, if you know what I mean.