The 68th Venice Film Festival

La Biennale Di Venezia – Mostra del’Arte Cinematografica

by Joanna Orland

Venice is a beautiful and culturally enriched backdrop to one of the world’s top three International Film Festivals, rivalling both Cannes and Toronto. The annual film festival takes over a fair chunk of the Venice Lido, an island just east of the main tourist island of Venice. The greater Lido area is home to beaches, residents, restaurants and vibrance during the summer months, but rather dull and inactive off-season. For the film festival itself, Venice Biennale has built “Movie Village”, a contained area of the Lido island where it all kicks off. The venues are grand glamorous and ornate, fit for movie stars whom you see roaming freely. As many of these roaming celebrities are Italian and unrecognizable to me and my colleague, we weren’t caught up in the fame and celebrity aspect of the festival, but it was all about glamour. I’ve not been to Cannes Film Festival as of yet, but compared to Toronto International Festival, I must say Venice emanates glamour in a way not possible in North America.

We showed up on Tuesday September 6th, already 7 days into the festival. So here is our firsthand experience, not including all of the exciting things we missed such as George Clooney’s Ides of March, Madonna’s W.E., James Franco’s Sal, and the Brit hit Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Day 1:

Dark Horse – Todd Solondz
Much like the Director’s previous work, Dark Horse sees Todd Solondz examining and reflecting on inane human worries, issues and insecurities, which inevitably take a turn for the dark.

In my opinion this film was not as grim as his most memorable outing of Happiness, or his last effort of Life During Wartime. There were some lighter moments in this film, led by an amazing support cast including Mia Farrow, Selma Blair and Christopher Walken. It’s really only Jordan Gelber’s lead character Abe that lets the film’s acting calibre down, but he certainly had the right look and attitude of a desperate and insecure man.

The film goes from the real to the abstract, twists and turns abound. Most notably is the film’s ability to provoke self-reflection on the viewer’s life. Through witnessing Abe’s desperation and regrets, one can’t help but think about the choices they’ve made in their own lives.

Not as impactful as Happiness, but certainly a worthwhile watch!!

Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold
We did this one backwards, having sat through the afternoon’s press conference before attending the evening premiere of the film. Also, neither me or my colleague has read the book Wuthering Heights – if you’ll believe that! So I shall be strictly reviewing the film based on its own merits.

The thing that stood out most to me in this film was the sound design. Yes, I am slightly biased as I am a sound designer by day, but with no music and very little dialogue to get the audience through this 128minute long film, the sound design played a key role in telling the story and depicting the characters’ emotions.

What was most prominent with the sound, and with the visuals, was the wuthering wind. It wouldn’t surprise me if each new scene had an wind audio treatment plan put forward before actually designing the soundscape. And accompanying the wind audio and visuals were the amazing and pensive nature shots. Yes, you can probably tell from my description that this is a slow film. Not at all your average Hollywood blockbuster, or even your average period piece.
Director Andrea Arnold decided to cast newcomers Solomon Glave and James Howson as young and older Heathcliff, respectively. This was a risk that reaped many rewards. Solomon as the young Heathcliff was particularly brooding, and emotion exuded from his silent expression.

As enthralling as it is to watch Heathcliff on screen, the character is not likeable, and at times it is difficult to empathize with him as he has a dark aggression and anger to him that seems as though he should and could know to act better, but chooses to act on his impulses in doing the wrong thing. It’s unclear whether Arnold intentionally made Heathcliff a character difficult to empathize with, and this is by far not the only grey area of the film. There is constant struggle to be clear of intentions of characters and story. There is no good and evil, with the exception of Catharine’s surefire villainous brother Hindley. Everyone is teetering on morally corrupt.

One of the main serious grey areas of Heathcliff’s actions was the scene where a young Heathcliff and a young Catharine engage in a sexual act for the first time. Was this rape, or was this consensual? It left an uneasy feeling of not knowing which it was.

This film is certainly not for everyone, and people were walking out towards the end of the film which depicted even darker turns and some further gratuitous animal abuse which was prominent throughout the film. Speaking of, I do hope that no animals were harmed during the making of this film‣. I’m sure PETA would be on it if there were, but there were some seriously graphic and upsetting moments.

When it came to casting this film, as mentioned, choosing newcomers to play Heathcliff paid off greatly. The casting choices for Catharine were equally fruitful, but slightly harder to believe that these two girls were to play the same character. Each wonderful in the role, but so different from each other emotively, it required some suspension of belief. While Shannon Beer was cast as an unknown for the part of the younger Catharine, fans of the UK programme SKINS will recognize older Catharine as Effy from the show, played by Kaya Scodelario. She is a seriously beautiful girl with a huge screen presence and obvious fruitful future in film. During the press conference, she mentioned she was unsure about doing a period piece, but after meeting with director Andrea Arnold, she knew it was the part for her.

Also when discussing being cast in the film, James Howson was quite inarticulate about his feelings to the point where we wondered if he was so uneducated he couldn’t speak! Solomon Glave on the other hand bared his soul to the audience once more, this time as himself rather than Heathcliff. He broke down in tears, legitimate tears, as he was so grateful for the opportunity that Andrea Arnold had given him. He was so genuine and loveble, you can’t help but want to see more of his acting career in the future. He will go far!

Wuthering Heights will no doubt see a wider release in the months to come. It is one to watch in British cinema, as are the young stars. However, it may upset many people due to its content and grey areas of morality, and of course due to its slow pace, lack of music and abundant nature references, which I happened to find engrossing.

Day 2:

4:44 Last Day on Earth – Press Conference
Willem Dafoe and Abel Ferrera. Unassuming, uninteresting, perhaps they said more after we rushed off for the “Film Sopresa” aka the “Surprise” film which was the Chinese film People Moving Mountain People. We entered the cinema assuming this is what we were in store for, but instead we got‣.

Hollywood Talkies – Mia de Ribot, Óscar Pérez
This is a short film that could have just been a magazine article. A film that makes you think that maybe you should submit a film to next year’s Venice Film Festival as clearly any homemade piece of rubbish can get accepted. This film should have been a magazine article!!

We walked out and randomly walked in to see‣

Wo Kou De Zong Ji (The Sword Identity) – Xu Haofeng
A generic martial arts film from China. The plot was vaguely that a martial arts student fond of the teachings of the sword believes so much in these teachings that him and his colleague pose as Japanese pirates to hold a village hostage in order to get their teachings across. There are some other twists and turns in between and a LOT of whooshing sound effects, slightly out of sync with the picture. A fine generic marshal arts film, but nothing innovative or overly memorable.

Another Silence – Santiago Amigorena
A Canadian Film that goes international from Toronto to Mexico to Bolivia, in both English and Spanish. This grim tale was an excellent depiction of humanistic grief-stricken emotion of the main character Marie played by Marie-Josée Croze. She is on the hunt for Pablito Morina played by Ignacio Rogers, as an act of revenge as he killed her son and husband in a drive by shooting in Toronto. She follows his trail to Mexico and then Bolivia and is determined to find him to give him what he deserves. As she is a woman with nothing left to lose, she is extremely volatile and dangerous. The acting in this film was superb, the script believable and the overall delivery was highly emotional. I can see this one being at least in the running for a nomination come Oscar time!

Lancia Party
So we attended our first Venice Film Festival Party hosted by Lancia. The Moet & Chandon champagne was free-flowing, the tunes were pumping and the hot Italian and International film industries were on display with their immaculate tans, fashionable outfits, sexy glasses and jovial selves.

Our main event for the evening was a PhotoBomb competition between myself and my colleague. Rules were, whoever makes it into the most publications wins, unless one of us makes it into Vanity Fair magazine, as that will override all results to be declared the Ultimate PhotoBomb Champion of Italia. Keep an eye out for us in a publication near you! (I reckon I won this won).

After my third glass of Champagne, my party description is likely better depicted through photos:

Day 3:

Killer Joe – William Friedkin
I don’t know how we did it, but we woke up super early after the night before to watch a 9am screening of Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin and starring the adorable Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe himself. We also got some insight into the film from attending the press conference with director Friedkin, Emile, and the screenwriter / playwright Tracy Letts (this was based on a play to begin with).

The director himself said this film is about the characters and even he himself doesn’t really know what the film is about. I felt the plot of the film was straightforward enough, but yes indeed, it was the characters and performances by these wonderful actors that really has made this film so killer!

Juno Temple plays Dottie, a 12 year-old odd little girl who Joe ends up falling for. Dottie is one messed up little gal, but who wouldn’t be growing up with such a hillbilly family? This family includes her father Ansel, played brilliantly by Thomas Haden Church as a bit of a patsy, but genuine solid guy who has some genius comedy moments. Gina Gershon is stepmum Sarla. Now, I haven’t seen Gina Gershon on screen for a while and she is not what I remember. She is still foxy as heck, but a lot more in a Jennifer Coolidge kind of way rather than slightly Eva Mendes as she previously seemed. Either way, she was perfectly cast as Sarla, and props to her for that chicken leg scene (no spoilers!).

Rounding out the family is Emile Hirsch’s Chris. He is the hook character for this film tying everything altogether. He owes a loan shark $6000, which gives him the bright idea to kill his natural mum for the insurance money which would all go to Dottie, which him and his family as mentioned above would end up splitting four ways. Four ways after giving a lump sum to Killer Joe that is‣ for doing the deed. Enter Matthew McConaughey.

As Emile himself put it in the press conference, “This isn’t exactly Fool’s Gold”. Matthew took the sleazy tough character of Killer Joe and made it his own. He was excellent in this role and it was nice to see him in a darker role rather than his normal romcom fare.

Now this film was grim. A very dark comedy for which at some points you almost feel guilty laughing at. Even the playwright himself was shocked by some of the material that came out of his head. Especially that chicken leg scene. Oh when you see the film, you will know exactly what I’m talking about with the chicken leg.

Overall this is a fantastic character driven film with very fine performances. It’s not for the faint of heart as it can be quite violent and grim, but thoroughly engaging and well worth a watch.

4:44 Last Day On Earth – Abel Ferrara
So a day after attending the press conference, we finally got to see the much hyped about Abel Ferrara film 4:44 Last Day On Earth. This film is about, well, the last day on earth. The earth is to end at 4:44am and the world is counting down. The story focuses on a couple played by Willem Dafoe and Natasha Lyonne. It starts off well enough and begins as a believable compassionate film about preparing for the end. After a while it’s all a bit too much sex and painting. Finally a real moment of compassion when a Chinese delivery boy enters the scene to skype with his family as he delivers food to Willem and Natasha. This was the only moment in the film I felt any emotional reaction.

The rest of the film was a bit self-indulgent, preachy and whiny. In addition to the pretentiousness, a major flaw in this film was Ferrara’s portrayal of women. Willem was definitely the alpha male in this story and his female counterpart was a childish whiney brat. If you’re only going to have one female character in your film, make her strong and likeable‣. This film is not about sexism‣ it’s about human interaction when the end is nigh. Poor form sexist Abel!

Overall, I don’t recommend to see this film, but I didn’t hate it outright. Redo the female role and perhaps you can work with the material you’ve got – Especially the Chinese boy. Actually, if the entire film was about the Chinese boy’s adventure during the last day on earth, you may be onto a winner!

Day 4:

Another early start.

Texas Killing Fields – Ami Canaan Mann
This film is directed by Ami Canaan Mann‣. Yes, that is Michael Mann’s daughter. The famed director Michael Mann also acted as producer for his daughter’s film Texas Killing Fields, which is apparently inspired by true events as the disclaimer at the start of the film states.

A very good, yet underused cast is involved with this film. Chloe Moritz is solid and used a fair bit, but I’m used to seeing her in even meatier roles since her outstanding performances in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. Jessica Chastain was unrecognizable as Pam, the ex-wife cop of Sam Worthington’s Mike. Jessica was STUNNING in Tree of Life, but here she was a very ordinary female cop.

Sam Worthington doesn’t really strike a chord with me. He did good in playing the cop figure in this film, but nothing to write home about.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the central character and Sam Worthington’s cop partner was the real star of this film in spite of being the least well-known of the cast. I did spend the entire film thinking he was Javier Bardem, but based on the lack of Spanish accent, I eventually figured otherwise. He was brilliant in the lead role, a detective who will stop at nothing to solve the case of the Texas Killing Fields serial killer(s).

Overall, this is a slightly-better-than-run-of-the-mill murder mystery film. The acting is solid, the characters central to the story and well, there is nothing wrong with this film. It was thoroughly good, strong and enjoyable. It was however lacking that bit of spark, which Simon Cowell may refer to as “The X Factor”. While this film was indeed highly merited, it’s just missing that je ne sais quois.

Faust – Aleksandr Sokurov
I skipped the Texas Killing Fields press conference so I could check out this much-hyped production of Faust, performed in German and directed by Russian Director Aleksandr Sokurov.

First of all, there is a flaw in the PalaBiennale, the cinema in which this film, and many others screened. If the film you are watching is in your native tongue, there is no issue. If you need to read the second set of subtitles however, they are impossible to read from anywhere further back than the front row. The theatre itself slants downwards away from the screen making the view obstructed to the point of impossibility. I gave it a good go though. Until I realized the film was not at all worth the effort.

What the eff was this film??? The acting was hammy, which I could tell even when all dialogue was in German; the dimensions were 4×3 better suited for a television production as this was not cinema quality cinematography, the story was a silly adaptation and basically I can find no redeeming qualities in this film. I am not the only person to have walked out. Not at all by far.

After walking out of PalaBiennale, I made my way to The Excelsior Hotel to have myself a Macchiato Fredo. Mmm. I look up to see none other than Adam Brody walking towards me with a horde of fans in tow begging for autographs! AGH! I quickly zoomed in to get some pics, but just as he left his fans and was walking towards me properly (shades on, all the while texting on his Blackberry), what happens??? My Camera batteries die. D’oh! Still, I got a full on close up view of the Jew of my dreams. *Swwwoooooooonnnn*

Day 5:

Damsels in Distress – Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman’s return to cinema starring Greta Gerwig and the lush Adam Brody. It’s not a film for everyone, and I know of some fellow journos who proclaimed they had walked out of the original press screening. I sort of liked the film, although I can plainly see how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There are few people to whom I would actually recommend this film.

Vaguely reminiscent of Heathers or Mean Girls, Damsels In Distress sets up the girl clique premise on a University campus where three gals take in the newbie girl at school and try to get her to conform to their bizarre and self-imposed “idealistic” ways. The dialogue is ever-flowing from Greta Gerwig’s character Violet. It’s often stunted and very unnaturally spoken, but I do believe that is the intention, in which case Greta does a stellar job. She’s a bit of a cross between Scarlett Johansen and Zoey Deschanel overall.

Anyway, the film quickly crosses into the absurd realm with some genuinely funny moments. While this film will not be well received by critics or audiences on a grand scale, I can see this becoming a cult hit. Perhaps this is the new generation’s Heathers or Pump Up the Volume? I don’t think Adam Brody is a modern day Christian Slater, and to be honest, his role in the film was really not at all hefty as it was more about the Damsels than their “Distresses” as the opening credits ingeniously introduce the male cast.

As you know, Adam Brody got his big break on teen drama The O.C.. Another teen dream heartthrob has an even heftier role in this film than Adam, and that is that prince of Monaco guy prince who was wooing Blair on Gossip Girl. You know the one? Well, seems he really is French, or just can’t shake that silly accent he put on in Gossip Girl.

Also with a hefty part in the film is Analeigh Tipton. She was at the press conference with Whit, Adam and Greta and oh my goodness is she lovely. She even posed for a picture for me‣.

Here are some more pics from the press conference. Note how handsome and beautiful the cast of this film is! And I’m not even just talking about Adam (for once) !!! Also, Adam just can’t stop signing autographs for his fans!!! awww….

Io Sono. Storie Di Schiavitù – Barbara Cupisti
We chose this Italian film at random mostly because it fit perfectly into the time slot we had available between the Damsels in Distress screening and press conference. With no prior warning, we had sat down to a very intense documentary by Barbara Cupisti about people trafficking in Italy. This shit just got real!!!

This was a very well done documentary that spoke to people who had been trafficked and quite a few who are still in the process of it all. It is grim. It is not pretty. The most harrowing bits were the prostitutes at the end. Don’t even want to describe to you the tranny prostitute situation. Grim grim grim. How come this film festival didn’t have more comedies on the bill? Damsels in Distress and Killer Joe were as close as you got and believe me, one was super-cynical and the other was seriously dark. Grim!

Final Thoughts:
This is a wonderful film festival about FILM (and going to the Beach in between films). There were lots of dark subject matters at hand for this year’s festival, but overall a solid enough bill. Sadly, the Golden Lion Award for best film of the festival went to FAUST by Aleksandr Sokurov, which was so awful, this happening can only be explained by the fact that former genius turned awful director Baron Darren Karen Aronofsky leads up the Venice Film Festival Jury. Darren – you are rubbish, please quit the film industry. Not only have you only made awful films post your fluke of genius (Requiem for a Dream), but you are now rewarding awful films for being awful. The Fountain is Shit.

Venice Film Festival was still thriving in spite of this mega fail on the Jury’s part. Hopefully we make it back for the 69th!

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