Sunday, September 4, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 2: The Kid With a Bike; Into the Abyss; The Artist

Saturday, the first full day of the 38th edition, was packed with a number of highlights, as well as the first disappointing film of the festival (though I did actually like certain aspects of it). I started the day off with one of the most important and most anticipated features of the year, "The Kid With a Bike" by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tied for second place at Cannes. I'm a fan of the brothers' previous works, especially "The Son." Yet, though some had called it glorious, I was worried by the critiques (such as this one) that the duo had made a bland picture.

Having now seen it, I can say that the film is very interesting and involving, with a plot that's exquisitely put together. It starts in medius res, as we see young Cyril (Thomas Doret) calling his father's apartment for what appears to be the umpteenth time. Left in a foster home, he clings to the hope that his father will pick him back up; yet, as it becomes clear, this appears to be an unlikely possibility. Cyril, though, with his mix of naivete and street smarts, tries again and again to get his father back, breaking out of whatever confinement he finds himself currently in, going back to every place he ever visited with his dad and trying to work out where he's gone to.

Once, being pursued by counselors of the foster home, he attaches himself to a random woman, who turns out to be Samantha (Cecile de France). Though she's propelled into Cyril's life in odd circumstances, she begins to take an interest in his happiness and well-being, letting him live with her on the weekends, getting back the bike he believes was stolen from his father (who actually sold it), and helping him in his search.

Who he ultimately finds his father to be is a man who is having a hard time keeping himself afloat and who wants nothing to do with him. Jeremie Renier, who played the criminally neglectful father who sold his baby in "The Child," is perfectly cast, as you can see a sort of shared history between this character and the other one. This connection makes Cyril's revelation all the more heartbreaking, and, in turn, his search for another father figure (a position he tries putting a disturbingly friendly gang leader) ever the more compelling. Doret, debuting in the lead role, makes the film even more emotionally encompassing, with his constantly shifting and palpable feelings of anger and optimism. Though at times it admittedly does feel a little like it seems to be heading nowhere, and though it doesn't get to the heights that the Dardennes have at some points, "The Kid With a Bike" nonetheless balances watchability and reflection possibly better than anything else so far at Telluride. B+

Coming off of somewhat underwhelming documentaries and features, Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life" is the best film he's made in some time. Examining a case that sent one of the defendants to his death and another to live out most of the rest of his life in prison (hence the title), Herzog develops a study of both the motives for crime and revenge (via capital punishment, which he vehemently opposes).

The film makes it clear early on that the two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, are guilty for the killings with which they've been charged. A couple of people in the film, including the attackers themselves, seem to think they are innocent in some way or another, but the evidence is overwhelming. So instead, Herzog, after showing us (with police footage and interviews with members of the force) exactly what transpired, probes into the environment of the perpetrators and victims.

We come to see Conroe, Texas as a town that passes criminal activity from father to son and from brother to brother. Almost every man interviewed in the film has gone to jail at least once. We come to see how a crime with baffling motives (the three people were murdered over a car) has horrific, staggering effects. And we come to see how one could feel that capital punishment would provide strong catharsis as well as a hypocritical continuation of violence. The film at 106 minutes feels uncomfortably long, but it's very valuable how Herzog takes his time and allows us to see all sides. I was humbled and jarred. A-

The initial run of strong cinema ended, though, when I caught Michel Hazanavicius' appealing but annoyingly derivative "The Artist," done up in black and white and with almost no spoken dialogue. Despite two terrific performances by Cannes Best Actor Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo and some strong montages and ideas, the film wore thin far before it supposed to by having the plot go on autopilot in the final half. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a top performer in silent films, famous for performing with his dog, who can better the mood of a group of people just by flashing his exceptionally charming smile. At the peak of his fame, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Bejo), who gets a small slice of attention by giving him a kiss caught on the cover of Variety. She goes on to audition as a dancer at Kinograph Films, where George works, and would have been fired by the Kinograph's money-hungry studio head Zimmer (John Goodman) were it not for George's intervention.

But soon enough, George loses his power when Zimmer decides to make the switch from silent films to talkies, and Peppy quickly reaches the renown with which George once was blessed. He tries to save silent films by making one of his own on his own money (earning the nickname "The Artist" as a result) but no one is really interested anymore and thus his total decline seems unable to be prevented. Hazanavicius' banal depiction of George's self-destruction through booze made me check out about 3/4 of the way into the film, and thus the end, which is clearly intended to be the most "delightful" thing you ever saw (or so everyone says it is), was at least partially lost on me. With the acting ability available here, and the handful of good scenes, it's a pity that the script lets everyone down. C+

No comments: