Up with Cannes, Coppola
The best film to open the Cannes Film Festival in the seven years I've been attending, and just a lovely film all around, the Pixar studios' Up (which opens in wide release next Friday, May 29) suggests what Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino might have looked like if, instead of standing his ground, Eastwood's Walt Kowalski had simply attached a few thousand helium balloons to his ramshackle craftsman and lifted off into the atmosphere. That's precisely the course of action taken by Up's own cantankerous septuagenarian widower, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner, channeling Walter Matthau), after a physical altercation with a man half his age threatens to land him in a retirement home for the rest of his days.
Carl even comes complete with his own Asian-American protege in the form of pudgy, diminutive Russell, an 8-year-old Junior Wilderness Explorer who finds himself on Carl's porch at the exact moment of liftoff and ends up accompanying him on his intercontinental journey. That journey winds all the way to the jungles of South America, where Carl plans to deposit his flying house at the edge of the very waterfall he had always planned to visit with his late wife Ellie -- an act of noblesse oblige that recalls the cross-country tractor journey undertaken by the title character of David Lynch's The Straight Story.
Up, which was directed by Monsters, Inc.'s Pete Docter, doesn't put forth an entire sociological worldview like the films of Ratatouille director Brad Bird or employ the sort of formal invention of last year's WALL-E,
but it is hardly without its own novelties and pleasures. For starters,
it is one of the only animated films in which the main characters are
all ordinary human beings who inhabit a recognizable real world devoid
of superheroes, fairytale princesses and giant green ogres. It's also
unexpectedly ambitious in its use of period, with an opening act that
stretches from the 1930s to the present, neatly encapsulating the
triumphs and tragedies of Carl and Ellie's marriage (including what I'm
quite certain is the first Pixar miscarriage) in one particularly
dazzling montage sequence.
Even Up's somewhat more
programmatic second half, in which Carl and Russell square off against
an eccentric explorer (Christopher Plummer) hellbent on capturing an
exotic species of local fauna, proves to be a far more rousing Indiana
Jones-style caper than last season's Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
And there is one flash of authentic comic genius: a pack of hunting
dogs equipped with high tech collars that translate their thoughts into
human voices. Finally, the film emerges as a gentle hymn to adventure
of both the soaring, storybook variety and the smaller, less obvious
kind -- the perilous, unpredictable and richly rewarding journey
of ordinary, everyday life.
South America -- not the jungle this time, but rather the cosmopolitan
city of Buenos Aires -- also serves as the setting for Francis Ford
Coppola's Tetro, which screened in the opening night slot of Cannes' renegade parallel festival the Directors Fortnight, where it has recently been announced that veteran Fortnight programmer Frédéric Boyer will succeed outgoing artistic director Olivier Pere at the conclusion of this year's edition. As reported last month by Variety,
Coppola's film was initially offered a non-copeting slot in Cannes'
Official Selection, at which point Coppola, who wanted to be in
competition, broke ranks for the Fortnight instead. And this is one
case where big Cannes' loss has turned out to be very much the
When I interviewed Coppola
two years ago, as he was putting the finishing touches on his first new
film in a decade, I remained somewhat skeptical of his insistence that
the Godfather movies had fatally altered the desired course of his career, and that all he ever really wanted to do was make small, personal art movies in the vein of The Rain People and The Conversation. Later that year, when I saw Youth Without Youth, the film Coppola heralded as his return to "personal" filmmaking, I was even more skeptical. Whereas the Godfather films
were nothing if not personal in their transformation of Mario Puzo's
cheap pulp novel into an operatic contemplation of success, failure,
paternalism and sibling rivalries, the undeniably ambitious Youth Without Youth felt overly cerebral and inert -- one from the head rather than one from the heart.
In retrospect, Youth feels like little more than a warm-up, a flexing of the celluloid muscles, for Tetro, which I take to be Coppola's most ambitious, richly satisfying and, yes, personal film in the 20 years since another coded autobiography, Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
All of the vintage Coppola themes are out in force in this story of a
quixotic aspiring writer (Vincent Gallo) who has fled from the family
nest for Argentina, where he is visited by his adoring half-brother
(terrific 18-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich). Both men have lived
their lives in the shadow of a domineering conductor father (Klaus
Maria Brandauer) who believes there is only room for one artistic
genius in the family.
When the film opens, Tetro (Gallo) is a
literally and figuratively broken man, with a thick cast on his leg and
his abandoned writing sealed away in boxes on a high closet shelf.
Living with the dancer Miranda (Y tu mamá también star Maribel Verdu), who he met during
a stay in an asylum, he now mostly sulks about feeling sorry for
himself, and running the lighting design for a local avant-garde
theater. Bennie, meanwhile, is wide-eyed and ready to take on the
world, his puppyish enthusiasm an instant source of annoyance to his
elder sibling. Then, a strange physical and psychological transference begins to occur, with Bennie
becoming, by turns, a writer and a cripple too (a possible reference to
Coppola's own childhood bout with polio), endeavoring to finish the
work that Tetro himself can not. Before the end of this constantly shape-shifting movie, the family tree itself will have been rewritten several times over.
The entire film, which
Coppola expanded from notes he found in a 40-year-old notebook, has the
feeling of something close to the bone, not just in its sense of
family, but in its depiction of the pain and exaltation of art-making.
Shot in lustrous, widescreen black-and-white, it affects a
dreamlike, timeless feel (despite the contemporary setting), augmented by multiple actual dream sequences and flashbacks
(some shot in color and a different aspect ratio), homages to the filmmaker Michael Powell and the late Chilean
novelist Roberto Bolano, and a literary critic character, known only as "Alone" (played by Spanish actress Carmen Maura) who appears in the film's final act to tell Tetro that he has finally lived up to his unfulfilled promise. "Your opinion doesn't matter to me anymore," he replies, though it could just as soon be Coppola himself. And indeed, Tetro is the work of a filmmaker who clearly doesn't need anyone's confirmation that he has finally gotten his groove back. Like the protagonist of Youth Without Youth, Coppola himself seems to have been reborn.