CANNES 99: Handicapping Early Comp Pics - Almodovar Dazzles; Dark Films "My Best Fiend" & "Fever" Strong Out Of Competition
by Anthony Kaufman
As Monday begins, so does the real work week - even on the French Riviera. Though the parties, screenings, and press onslaught will continue without relent, the business of Cannes - the buying and selling of movies - will likely shift into higher gear. Sunday, however, brought bright sunshine and many hung over faces - as the "Austin Powers" party shagged well into the wee hours of the previous night at the mammoth Palm Beach Casino, replete with 60's psychedelia, a Jimi Hendrix band, and big beach balls. Though names like Salma Hayek, Val Kilmer, and CEO Richard Branson (with product tie-in Virgin "Shaglantic") attending and Mike Myers and Heather Graham partitioned off from the V.I.P. section with their own V.I.P section., the fete felt low in star-power, lending one attendee to describe it as a "crashing bore." Yeah, baby.
Sunday also witnessed a critical look back at the last 5 days of the festival. Far and away, Pedro Almodovar is in the lead for the Palme d'Or with "All About My Mother." International critics heralded his 13th outing as one of the director's best works and the first solid film in the festival among a series of sore disappointments like fest-opener, "Barber of Siberia," Leos Carax's "Pola X" and Alexandre Sokourov's enigmatic "Moloch." Though indieWIRE may have overestimated the critical response to Winterbottom's "Wonderland" (LA Times critic Kenneth Turan slammed it), the film still remains a favorite of many, but chances of a major award look slim with the unanimous response to "Mother" and Monday's highly anticipated screening of Atom Egoyan's "Felicia's Journey."
Competition screenings on Sunday also proved no match for Almodovar's tale of a mother's recovery over the death of her son. Raul Ruiz's "Time Regained" and Chen Kaige's upcoming Sony Pictures Classics release "The Emperor and the Assassin," both epic films in length (at over two and half hours each) will likely fall flat with audiences. Ruiz's telling of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" is an ambitious and beautifully surreal film with an all-star French cast (Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Perez, and John Malkovich) but was certainly short on narrative drive. Kaige's film, though an epic story with exquisite cinematography, was not powerful enough to sustain its length. For more on the film, read indieWIRE's review today.
Screening out of competition was Werner Herzog's refreshing documentary "My Best Fiend," about his relationship with the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski, the acclaimed German actor who appeared in four of his films. In a festival swarmed with movies, it should be noted that there is one thing Cannes lacks and that is documentaries. "My Best Fiend" is a welcome addition. "You're a megalomaniac," accused Kinski on the set of Herzog's classic epic fable "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," their difficult journey into Peru's Andean mountains. Herzog replies, "That makes two of us." With talking head interviews by Herzog himself, the camera takes a trip to the locations of many of his films, including "Aguirre," "Fitzcarraldo," and "Woyzeck," and splices together footage from the films and other interviews into a patchwork history of their rocky relationship (both threatened each other's lives on more than one occasion). Sure to please Herzog fans, "My Best Fiend" (not a spelling error, but an irony) is more in the vein of his last documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" with glimpses into the dark and strangely comic roots of the style and persona of one of our most distinctive directors.
An even darker vision - though less effective -- could be found in Alex Winter's Directors Fortnight entry "Fever" which also screened on Sunday. Winter's slow and haunting first feature shows incredible promise for the NY director, writer ("Freaked") and actor (the Bill & Ted's movies), with strong performances from his leads, Henry Thomas and Scottish newcomer David O'Hara, and a stunning, shadowy cinematography by Joe DeSalvo giving the film that "neo-noir" look. Thomas plays an artist living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who cracks one day after a murder takes place in his building. Ambiguous in that "Angel Heart" kind of way, Winter takes his time with his debut effort, propelling several audience-members to walk out - though take note, Winter's images are more stark and evocative than most American independents out there. According to a source close to the film, international seller J & M Entertainment (who helped finance the film) held an international buyers screening where several domestic acquirers snuck in, including Michael Barker (Sony Classics), David Dinerstein (Paramount Classics), Jeremy Barber (Artisan), and Amy Israel (Miramax). Also sustaining buzz around the pic, Screen International announced that director Winter and producer Christian Martin will team up again for the $20 million "Weed" about marijuana farmers in the Appalachian mountains, with many of the same proficient technical crew jumping on board.
If "Fever" doesn't sell in the States, Cannes is an international festival renown for its recoupment through foreign business. At a panel at the American Pavilion yesterday, entitled "Make it or Break it: Will it Sell Across the Pond" industry insiders dove into this very question. Moderated by Bonnie Voland, president of B. Voland Int'l, panelists included Heidi Lester (Summit Entertainment), attorney/film rep/producer John Sloss (Sloss Law Office), Jerry Ulmer ("The Ulmer Scale"), Howard Cohen (UTA), and Michael Bischoff (Tele-Munchen). As "Fever" stars Thomas, in addition to such name actors as Teri Hatcher and Bill Duke, the question of whether or not talent helps a film sell overseas seemed immediate. Commented Cohen, "There's interest in actors, but it usually needs to be cemented by box office." However, commented Sloss, "There are some actors who are exponentially larger in certain territories [and] if you happen to have the right person attached to your project, you can basically close [the deal]."
Closing the deal was on the minds of several screenwriters who attended "Live! Ammunition!" Variety's Sunday pitch panel which gave fest-attendees two minutes to convince the likes of Jeremy Barber, Ruth Vitale (Paramount Classics), and Sergio Aguero (Endeavor Talent) to buy their project. More often than not a series of humiliating moments for the pitchers (complete with one guy being gong-ed out), the panelists grew weary of the stories (everything from a modern-day Macbeth called 'The Wind Cries Mary' to a famous 19th century Slovak gypsy singer). Basically repudiating the whole process, Vitale declared, "Very rarely do we buy pitches anymore. Especially in our business, in the art-house business. You have to have a script and it has to be great." She continued later, sobering up any hopeful writers: "Just remember, it's not just art, it's commerce. . . . Hundreds of films are released in the States every year and how many of those really work and how many are derivative of what you're already doing. You got to be original, you got to have a hook and you actually have to think about whether you're audience will give a damn about the story you're telling." The winner of the pitch session was Brussels-based Andrea Mrena, for her "romantic comedy about astrological predestination" garnering 2500 FF ($500) and a complete snubbing from the panel who jetted quickly after the announcement. So much for live ammunition.