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Cannes 2011. Rushes: "Restless", "Miss Bala"

Gus van Sant attempts to rectify the expressions and evocations of his high-art re-invention...
Gus van Sant attempts to rectify the expressions and evocations of his high-art re-invention, the so-called "death trilogy" (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days), with accessible storytelling in his latest, Restless.  Gone are the long, lingering, absent spaces replaced by the more clipped rhythm of Paranoid Park and the distinctively quirky (as in cutely unusual) protagonists of, say, a more intimate, stiller and moribund Tim Burton film.  Yet Van Sant retains lessons learned from Murnau: emotion in light, tender psychology through visual tone, and the suggestions of joy and death in the very same.  Cinematographer Harris Savides is an asset to cinema on the whole and Van Sant in particular; Danny Elfman (with help from Van Sant!) composes notes that do nothing but distract from what Savides pulls from Portland’s milky glow. 
A very smart filmmaker, Gerardo Naranjo, ditches the distracting cinephilic iconography and the loosey goosey structure of his debut (I’m Going to Explode) for a super-plotted and superbly controlled follow-up, Miss Bala.  Marie has already noted in some detail the plot and pleasures of this film, to which I’ll add a bit, mostly centered on the inspiration of finally seeing a movie that knows how to use the camera and sound.
In Miss Bala each shot contains a discovery of space, light and movement, and then before Naranjo cuts away he lets that camera do something else too—there is always something more, an extra detail, a new reveal, a subtle movement.  Often it’s a slight shift in perspective—the image will start as an objective shot of a space, and when our heroine moves into the frame she re-defines the camera angle as her own, it’s movement as her movement.  It makes each shot a pleasure, a richness, and, sometimes, an event.
 This control is, as Marie’s plot description implies, carried directly from the aesthetics to the narrative, which is about a young woman (Stephanie Sigman) being controlled by Cartel forces whose actions and presence are shockingly off-camera for the majority of the film.  While Sigman is run through the machinations of plot via the demands of a Cartel gunman, the Cartel itself is involved a story on the outskirts of the film's mise-en-scène, which is entirely tied to Stephanie Sigman’s forced movements through space and occasional flights of freedom.  You are in a filmmaker’s hands here, in way which called to mind the similarly forceful and styled films of Paul Thomas Anderson—it is more systematic than his work, but the control is not totalizing, as in a world-restrainer like Michael Haneke.  Naranjo’s film world is structured so that just where you think one shot or idea or the film itself has ended, another is added and the pathway opens one step further.  More often than not it is a step one fails to expect, continues to surprise, and contains a high charge.  This is so far the best film I’ve seen here in Cannes.
I’M GOING TO EXPLODE isn’t Naranjo’s debut. It’s 2004’s MALACHANCE. This is his 4th film.
I know this is unrelated to the post but I’m willing to put my reputation on the line as a critic and soothsayer. I hope I will have to eat my words smothered in hot chile, but the expectations for The Tree of Life have been so inexplicably high that there is bound to be wails of disappointment heard around the Croisette tomorrow. What is it with the mystique of Malick? Just because he has made so few films over so many years doesn’t make him any the more interesting. (Kubrick tried the same trick.) As for ‘long-long-long-awaited’ new film, we’ve only had to wait 6 years since his last languorous epic The New World. I just don’t get it. You’d think he was John Ford, Orson Welles, Kurosawa rolled into one. Out of his 4 films, only one, his first, Badlands, deserves high praise. Days of Heaven sacrificed plot, character, development and rhythm to the making of beautiful images. It could have been called a series of tableaux vivantes if it were not so dead. The muddled, muddied The Thin Blue Line suffered from most of the same problems. I predict that The Tree of Life will be a dead plant. You heard it here first. At least, I won’t be disappointed as my expectations are low. In fact it may be serendipitous.

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