Despite the apparent prestige involved, films selected to open Cannes tend to be clunkers, as if the festival seeks to dampen expectations right off the bat. Three years ago, for example, jetlagged journalists were forced to endure Ron Howard’s leaden adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, after which even the most perversely withholding Eastern European anomie-fest seemed like a comparative breath of fresh air. So when the brass announced some time ago that the new Pixar movie, Up, would kick things off in ’09, I’m afraid I immediately assumed that it must be more Cars than WALL·E, quality-wise. That Up is also Pixar’s first stab at the suddenly resurgent 3-D format didn’t help matters, since I’ve long despised the grade-school-diorama effect that even newfangled processes inevitably serve up. And then, you know, the story involves a crotchety old geezer who ties a gazillion ballons to his rickety house and tries to fly it to a South American paradise he’d dreamed about as a small child, accompanied by a precocious Boy Scout and (I somehow gathered) at least one talking animal. Skepticism pretty much reigned, I gotta say.
Admitting I was wrong gives me ulcers, so let me say this first: 3-D is still mostly useless. As employed here (and in Henry Selick’s recent Coraline), it’s not quite the eyeball-gouging distraction that it once was, but it doesn’t really add much to the experience; the slight pressure of the oversized nerd goggles on the bridge of my nose was far more powerful than the vague sensation of being among the clouds or whatever. It was a dumb gimmick in 1953 and it’s still a dumb gimmick. This marvelous film doesn’t need it.
Oookay, so I was wrong. Up does occasionally succumb to a slight case of sappiness—it’s a tale of dreams deferred, and there’s an Aesopian reminder that the grand adventure you’ve sought was always right there in your own backyard—but nobody in Hollywood right now can touch primo Pixar for lunatic comic invention and sheer visual splendor. Like WALL·E, this wry parable continually and confidently shifts from absurdism to pathos and back again, beginning with a lovely, dazzling montage in which, after meeting our hero, Carl, as a boy in what looks like the ‘30s, we see the entirety of his adult life flash before our eyes. When we finally settle in the present, Carl, now wrinkled and gray and despondent over the death of his beloved wife, resembles Spencer Tracy squashed into the shape of a fireplug and speaks in the querulous voice of Ed Asner. (This may be briefly disconcerting to fans of a certain WB cartoon series of the ‘90s, who’ll keep expecting the old coot to say, “Hey, Freakazoid, wanna go see a three-headed mule?”) But while Carl embarks on pretty much the Journey of Personal Discovery you’d expect, the narrative keeps veering off course in surprising and surreal ways. Like, yes, there are talking dogs in this movie, but they are like no talking dogs in any animated film in history. There’s also a giant unknown bird that seems to have wandered in from a Max Fleischer picture, and a climactic duel between two dudes with major back problems, and various other incongruous details I don’t care to spoil for you. What’s more, the overall look of the film, with its breathtaking aerial views of South American landscapes and its symbolic interplay of squares and circles, puts every other animation studio to shame. My concern now, in fact, is that Cannes ’09 has begun on such a high note that what follows will seem gravely disappointing by comparison. Keep the bar steady, guys. Grade: B+.
(Remember, I’m a ridiculous skinflint when it comes to the grades. My B+ is equivalent to at least an A- from Scott Tobias or Noel Murray or just about anyone else on the AVC staff. Up will almost certainly appear on my year-end top ten list.)
Day One at Cannes is devoted exclusively to the opening film and to a press conference with the jury, which this year is headed by Isabelle Huppert and also includes folks like smoking hot actress Asia Argento, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, smoking hot actress Shu Qi, British screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, aging but still smoking hot actress Robin Wright Penn (noticing a pattern?), Korean director Lee Chang-dong, etc. Consequently, the only other film screened for the press today was Spring Fever, the latest torporfest from China’s Lou Ye, which is of so little interest that I’d just ignore it were there anything to report on. I sort of liked Lou’s Suzhou River (2000), which was a knowing and sensual Vertigo riff, but everything he’s done since has been as gorgeously inert as the giant redwoods Scotty and Madeleine admire. Both Purple Butterfly (a passionless simulacrum of a spy thriller) and Summer Palace (‘80s college student experiences political + sexual awakening, audience falls asleep) have a handful of defenders, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone getting behind this deadly soap opera, which involves endless anguished humping and plate-smashing recriminations among a young factory worker, her aloof husband, the arrogant drag queen her husband is fucking behind her back, the amateur private dick hired by the wife to follow the errant husband, who turns out (the amateur dick does) to be bisexual, and the dick’s petulant girlfriend. I think there’s meant to be a tender love story buried somewhere in all this remote melodrama, but none of the five major characters makes the slightest impression; when one eventually commits suicide, you get the sense it’s mostly just a means of getting the hell out of this boring movie. Most Cannes press screenings conclude with at least a brief round of polite applause, but the poor soul who tried to get it started at the end of Spring Fever found no takers whatsoever and gave up after three or four halfhearted claps. Grade: C-