Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cannes impresses with a War On Drugs thriller and a Hitchcock doc


8:30 a.m. Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (Grade: B+) is another arty potboiler in the vein of Prisoners, but though it lacks the eccentric performances of the earlier film, it’s more accomplished and narratively fluid. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI hostage specialist drafted into a possibly extra-legal inter-agency border task force overseen by Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who claim to be working for the Department Of Defense. Kate is tough as nails, a real capable pro, but within the mechanics of the War On Drugs, she’s nothing but another cog.

Sicario sticks almost entirely to Kate’s kept-in-the-dark point-of-view, before shifting perspective at the climax—a progression of violence and sadism that some viewers may see as problematic, but which pointedly negates any sense of closure or release. The model—visually, thematically, tonally—seems to be Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s vision of the War On Terror as a self-perpetuating technocracy where the “means” part of “the ends justify the means” eventually robs the ends of any meaning. But Villeneuve’s movie is much more of a drug-cartel genre piece, structured around moments of sinister tension that erupt into shoot-outs.


Villeneuve’s style is portentous, all shadowy stares and atmosphere, glistening black SUVs moving across an arid landscape dominated by a wide expanse of sky. He directs Sicario as though it were a horror film—an impression underscored by an opening sequence that finds Kate and her team stumbling upon a house full of corpses wrapped in sheets of plastic. In the end, that baseline physical revulsion—decapitated bodies, corpses hung from highway overpasses, arms blown off by booby traps—turns to moral horror. Perhaps not as powerfully as one would wish, but it still leaves an impression and a black-coffee aftertaste.

10:31 a.m. I head back to Juan-Les-Pins to return my bike to the rental agency. I like biking to Cannes in the morning, but, after a week here, I’ve gotten sick of having to bike back at night. A minute after dropping the bike off, I begin to miss it. This is only the second time I’ve seen Juan-Les-Pins in daytime since getting here, and it is hot, hilly, and full of people with over-boiled-hot-dog tans.

3:44 p.m. Hitchcock / Truffaut (Grade: B), a talking-head doc about one of the best books ever published about film, doesn’t offer much more than the experience of watching smart people talk concisely about art, but it does it very well. Directed by Film Comment’s Kent Jones, it’s a lot more artful than the TV-ready format might suggest, deftly combining clips and archival recordings with sit-down interviews with a who’s who of movie-buff directors, including David Fincher, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, Arnaud Desplechin, Wes Anderson, and, of course, Martin Scorsese. (Said interviews look pretty, which isn’t surprising, given that they were shot by a team of cinematographers that included Mihai Malaimare Jr. and Eric Gautier.)

First published in 1966, Hitchcock—popularly known as Hitchcock/Truffaut—is a book-length conversation between Alfred Hitchcock and critic-turned-director Francois Truffaut, covering the former’s entire filmography in chronological order. It’s one of those indispensables that anyone with a passing interest in movies should own. Jones’ film is similarly pitched at entry-level viewers, laying out ideas about film and filmmaking with admirable clarity.


7:11 p.m. As it turns out, Jia Zhang-ke can’t direct English dialogue for shit, and how much a viewer is able to put up with atrocious acting will probably factor into how much they take away from the last section of the Chinese filmmaker’s Main Competition entry Mountains May Depart (Grade: B / B+).

Mountains is broken up into three parts, each one in a wider aspect ratio than the last. It begins in Jia’s hometown, Fenyang, in 1999, with a love triangle involving electronics store employee Tao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and muse), coal miner Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), and local businessman Zhang (Zhang Yi). The second part unfolds over a few weeks in 2014, as Tao—now divorced and the owner of a Shell gas station—struggles to connect with her 7-year-old son, who’s going to school in Shanghai. The third is set mostly in Australia in the future, and focuses on Tao’s now college-age son (Dong Zijian) as he romances a much older woman (Sylvia Chang), seemingly unaware of how much she subconsciously reminds him of his mother.


In basic terms, this is Jia’s vision of China’s past, present, and future—of wealth growing and going abroad, still drawn back by the memory of home, as though it were an Oedipal urge. Jia plots with the graceful simplicity of a late silent film, focused on objects and gestures: a wedding invitation found covered in dust years later; a Hermes scarf; the significance of spare sets of keys, one pair connecting the first part to the second, another linking the second part to the end; the way Zhang’s used Volkswagen Passat—a symbol of his ascendance to the new middle class—is gently echoed by the Fenyang taxis of 2014, all Volkswagens. Jia also makes inspired use of different formats (including interlaced, standard-def video in the 1999 section) and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” which recurs throughout the film in ways both goofy and touching.

10:12 p.m. I take the train back. It’s packed with filmmakers from Short Film Corner, a kind of open-admission purgatory for aspiring directors. A fiftysomething woman with an industry badge tightly clutches her handbag while telling two visiting filmmakers to always be on the lookout for pickpockets and thieves, “especially in first class.” They are all immigrants, she says. Her tone is very authoritative. “And the gypsy people…,” she begins, just as the doors open at Juan-Les-Pins.


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