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 with Cannes, Coppola

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

Fortnight's gain.

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.

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