In what has apparently become something of a tradition on the Croisette, this evening saw a select group of journalists forgo tempting Official Selection screenings to attend instead the starry, champagne-fuelled preview of The Weinstein Company’s forthcoming slate. Perhaps not quite as salivating a prospect as last year’s auteur-heavy, brand-new lineup, which included early glimpses of “Django Unchained,” “The Master,” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s still a mark of TWC’s high standing on the awards circuit that what is essentially an invite-only marketing event got so many clamoring to attend. Well, that and the canapes (foie gras toastinis, breaded shrimp and mini eclairs, if you must know). Oh, and the presence of the legendary Harvey Weinstein.
The evening kicked off with a few words from the more public “W” in TWC, with Weinstein taking to the stage to cue up the evening’s previews, but quickly, as the big ace up his sleeve was the introduction of Nicole Kidman, star of “Grace of Monaco” which got perhaps the most substantial push on the reel. Kidman is a juror here of course, and Weinstein had to curtail his opening remarks in order to facilitate her appearance… which then didn’t happen until a couple of minutes later. Still, it’s telling that he used these few extra minutes of pre-Kidman attention to mention “Salinger,” a relatively late addition to their preview lineup, and to talk about how he discovered he was roughly number “9000” on the list to adapt “The Catcher in the Rye” (according to the Salinger estate) with first place going to Elia Kazan, and Mike Nichols also high up in the running. It’s clear TWC have high hopes for the documentary, especially given the glossy, feature film-style cut of the trailer, on which more below. A few gentle jokes and a reference to last year being “as good a year [for TWC] as Miramax ever had” and it was on with the main event.
Out of the lineup of films, the only two that registered big on our richter scale were two that we’ll be reviewing in the coming days: James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” — the latter of which got the only spontaneous applause of the evening. We’ll take you through those two separately, but for now, here’s what sizzled and what fizzled fromt he rest of the lineup.
Out of the gates we got the existing trailer for “The Butler,” the Forest Whitaker-starring biopic of long-time White House butler Cecil Gaines. Boasting the first of two immensely impressive ensembles (see “August: Osage County” for the other) in Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, James Marsden, Melissa Leo, John Cusack, Alex Pettyfer, David Oyelewo, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Lenny Kravitz the trailer played like that trailer has done to date: flatly, despite the determinedly inspirational music pounding out. It seems Lee Daniels may have retreated into the safest of safe territories, to the point of triteness, following the critical opprobrium heaped on his last film “The Paperboy.” Of course it was at Cannes that that film got its initial panning, so we can’t help but speculate that this one got its first-up slot to get it out of the way early. Still, interesting that two biopics of inspirational historical black figures bookended this showreel.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
David Lowery’s film is of course already completed, and showed to a rapturous reception, ours included, at Sundance, as well as screening here as part of Critic’s Week. As a result we got a more substantial taster of it, with the extended scene of the shootout that causes Casey Affleck’s character to be sent down playing out, and showcasing immediately the genuine chemistry between the leads, with, from this glimpse, Affleck looking to be on similar riveting form to that he delivered in “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” and Rooney Mara seeming rawer and more mature than we’ve seen her to date. The beauty of the finished film is also hinted at, and while we hate to launch into a tired Malick comparison, this small sliver certainly delivered on any “Badlands”-esque expectations we may have had.
The first totally new (to us) footage we saw was for the J.D Salinger documentary that Harvey Weinstein had talked up in his intro. And it certainly looks riveting, with the trailer cut together more like a thriller than a biographical documentary, and plenty of emphasis on the mysteries and enigmas that surround Salinger’s life and legacy. It seems to boast well-heeled recreations, as well as talking head footage, and what heads: Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, EL Doctorow, Danny De Vito all show up along with representatives of the Salinger estate. A probing search in to the reasons for his reclusive nature is promised (“He wanted nothing to come between him and his characters — they were real to him” claims one relative), and a whole segment at the end of the trailer is given over to the lurid connections between “Catcher in the Rye” and the murders it supposedly “inspired.” Playwright John Guare sums up that aspect succinctly: “if I had written a book that one person used as justification for killing somebody I’d think, ‘that’s crazy.’ …If three people had done that, I’d be very troubled.” Given the access and research that seems to be on display here, in addition to our pre-existing fascination with the subject matter, we’re definitely anticipating this one now.
“Grace of Monaco”
The most substantial cut of the evening was from Nicole Kidman’s “Grace of Monaco,” directed by “La Vie En Rose”’s Olivier Dahan (whom Kidman, according to her brief breathy speech “adores”). And perhaps similarly to how the Edith Piaf biopic was certainly Marion Cotillard’s movie, it seems TWC hope to do much the same thing here for Kidman — it is, after all her seventh film produced by Weinstein. Kidman is seemingly in every scene of the film, and certainly was in every scene of the trailer, but how much she truly resembles Grace Kelly is still up for debate. Tim Roth appears too as her husband, Prince “Ray” Rainier, but the film teases a more salacious story than perhaps the one we’re used to, with Grace’s desire to go back to work (specifically on “Marnie” for Hitchcock) apparently causing a deep rift in the marriage, to the extent that she contemplates divorce. There are a few tricks on display here too, though — the trailer has her repeating “If you touch me again, I’ll die” over and over again, but since that’s a line from “Marnie,” it’s clearly Grace rehearsing rather than anything more sinister. Ultimately, from the clues we can piece together here this is about Grace’s struggle to “be myself” within the confines of a Royal marriage, despite the fact she “still loves” her husband. It’s all very handsome and stately and will no doubt do very well for TWC, but on this evidence it probably won’t break much new ground.
A trailer was also shown for Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” which we already reviewed following its Berlinale premiere, and only served to remind us of our disappointment with that film. Cool trailer, though.
“August: Osage County”
Again pretty much the trailer that’s already out there, but my God, the combination of champagne and big screen really brought it home to us just how ridiculously stacked the cast for this one is: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Ewan MacGregor, Dermot Mulroney.
There are many things that baffle us about this biopic of UK reality TV opera-singing “sensation” Paul Potts, (not the genocidal Cambodian dictator), and we have to say, having had an early glimpse at it, there still are. Perhaps hoping to capture that ‘Full Monty’ kind of vibe, the footage we saw was mainly of the endearing James Corden not being able to believe his luck at being in Venice, and singing nervously in front of Pavarotti, who tells him he lacks confidence. With the insistently inspiring music and singing, a bunch of “overcoming things to find your dreams” and a gentle, sweet sort of love triangle in the offing, we really weren’t at all sure what we were supposed to feel, but thankfully the film’s subtitle is something like “An Inspirational Story of Triumph,” so then we got it.
Ryan Coogler’s big Sundance hit showed its trailer here too — we reviewed it earlier. Weinstein joked, “I told them all if the film flopped in France I’d disown it immediately, but then the team got a ten-minute standing ovation…”
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Finally on the reel was a trail for the Justin Chadwick-directed “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic that claims, somewhat clunkily “behind the leader you know, is the man you didn’t.” And indeed the slant that is taken here does seem to be a different aspect of Mandela from the more Morgan Freeman-y version we might be more familiar with, as it deals largely in Mandela’s early days (at least this footage did), when he was a firebrand revolutionary and not the symbol of peace, fortitude and wisdom he now represents. If this cut came off a little “Nelson Mandela: Vampire Hunter” as a result, perhaps that’s no bad thing: Weinstein assured us afterward that the stories shown were drawn directly from Mandela’s biography, and honestly, we couldn’t face another “Invictus.” Naomie Harris seems to blossom in the role of young Winnie Mandela, from the little we saw, while Idris Elba, one of our very favorite actors, certainly has an imposing enough physical presence to challenge our notions of the stately older Mandela. However his accent is a bit of a worry, as the soundbites that played throughout just didn’t, to our untrained ears, sound authentically South African, let alone authentically Mandela. Still, there was not a huge amount of dialogue featured, with the trailer laying emphasis on action and freedom fighting and emotional turmoil, so we hope to be proven wrong on that one.
At the conclusion of the evening, Weinstein again took the stage, this time to usher on some of his famous friends, and so he was joined by a shy, microphone-refusing Rooney Mara (in an interesting and strange tuxedo jacket with slashes in the back of the sleeves, fashion watchers!), Michael B Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz and Ryan Coogler from “Fruitvale Station,” Valeria Bilello from “One Chance” (who also features in Un Certain Regard entry “Miele” which we’ll be reviewing soon), Naomie Harris and producer Anant Singh from “Mandela,” and most unexpectedly, recently announced director of the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” sequel, Yuen Woo Ping. Yuen is the famous martial arts choreographer of such films as “The Matrix,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” and “Kill Bill,” but according to Weinstein it was a viewing with Quentin Tarantino of Yuen’s directorial effort from 1993, “Iron Monkey” that initiated their relationship.
And that was that for another year. Frankly, this year’s TWC selection was a little prestige biopic-heavy for our tastes, and while of course some of these will come snarling out of the gates come awards time (there’s no doubt a push will be made for Kidman in ‘Grace,’ for example) the majority of them left us a little cold. With the noted exceptions of “The Immigrant”and “Only God Forgives” which we’ll tell you about very soon…