Cannes fest’s first half mellow, mixed

Coen brothers, Mungiu lead the pack

CANNES — The artistic rollercoaster that is any film festival has at least provided a few good highs through the first weekend of the 60th Cannes fest.

By any reckoning, the Competition pack is led by quite a wide margin by two films, the Coen brothers’ superb crime thriller “No Country for Old Men” and Cristian Mungiu’s withering abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Both pictures elicited widespread critical support from all corners and have to be considered leading awards contenders at the five-day point in the fest.

Not far behind is David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” already well received by critics, if not by large audiences, in the U.S. and mostly embraced on the Croisette. All three of these top entries put across exceedingly grim stories and themes with bracingly precise technique, just as they strongly evince a sense of time and place.

After these comes the dropoff. Wong Kar Wai’s competing opener, “My Blueberry Nights,” received a smattering of kind notices, mostly from French supporters, but the esteemed Hong Kong director’s English-language debut, a decorative love tale that displays not the slightest interest in its New York City and American West settings, seemed far too unambitious to trigger strong feelings one way or the other.

Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiou Hsien’s Western debut, the French-language “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” also received two cheers from his longtime fans but cut a similarly slim profile in opening Un Certain Regard as it reworked 50-year-old French classic “The Red Balloon.”

In the competition, the general anticipation for “The Banishment,” the first feature from Andrey Zvyagintsev since his highly regarded “The Return,” quickly succumbed to an awareness that the Russian helmer has become far too impressed with his own seriousness and genuine visual talent. “Pretentious” was the adjective most commonly heard.

Raphael Nadjari’s Israeli entry “Tehilim” spurred mixed reactions, and something less can be said of idiosyncratic South Korean helmer Kim Ki-duk’s “Breath,” which was reckoned a minor competition entry.

Biggest national split was occasioned by French helmer Christophe Honore’s “Love Songs.” This arch, excruciating “musical” with lame tunes and an unbearably mannered leading character had the home team holding the flag high against a chorus of critical braying from all other quarters.

Out of competition, Michael Moore’s “Sicko” grabbed the spotlight over the weekend, as the world’s leading showman among documakers delivered a film that moved many and convinced even some of his previous detractors.

Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners’ environmental shocker “The 11th Hour,” and Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington’s concert pic “U2 3D,” did what they set out to do in connecting with their intended audiences.

In Un Certain Regard, two films by female first-time directors scored well: Estonian Kadri Kousaar’s “Magnus” and Celine Sciamma’s “Water Lilies,” from France. More measured responses were elicited by Barbet Schroeder’s docu “Terror’s Advocate” and Li Yang’s Chinese entry “Blind Mountain.”

In the Directors’ Fortnight, the pack still appears to be led by the sidebar’s opener, “Control,” Anton Corbijn’s look at Ian Curtis, the suicidal lead singer of Joy Division.

Overall, fest has gotten off to a mixed, if agreeably mellow, start, with some significant names on deck for the next few day