The 69th Venice Film Festival

Mostra Internazionale del Cinema di Venezia

La Biennale di Venezia

By Joanna Orland

In its 69th year, the Venice Film Festival felt it was time for a facelift in the form of re-installing its former director Alberto Barbera. After an eleven year hiatus from the festival, Barbera returned with full force to rejuvinate the festival by dramatically reducing the number of films shown, in order to garner more attention for each and allow for prestige in its exclusivity. In theory, this is a sound idea as many festivals have become bloated as they age, but perhaps the programme was thinned out a bit much, leaving audiences struggling to find enough interesting films to watch to fill the days.

As was the case for us in Venice. With the film programme being reduced by about 20% to last year’s, we found ourselves at a loss if a film we wanted to see sold out as there was no staggering of the schedule. There’s one chance to see a film, whereas last year, if your first choice was sold out, the schedule allowed for you to attempt to see your second choice. This year it seems that all of the films started at the same times, and we were left a bit thin on options. Yes, there were some amazingly high profile masterpieces in the lineup, at least one solid film per day, but when traveling to a film festival, you want to be overwhelmed, not falling short on choice. For locals living in Venice, this is fine, they can see one film a day and it’s a profound experience. For serious festival-goers, they were left wanting.

Struggling to fill our days with films, what we did see has made an impact, for better or for worse. With such high profile directors including Brian De Palma, Harmony Korine, Robert Redford, Terrence Malick, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson and performers including James Franco, Zac Efron, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, Venice is certainly getting the attention it deserves. Of the few films we did manage to see, here are our impressions:


At Any Price

Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Heather Graham, Maika Monroe

There seems to be a trend in recent years of Ambient Rural Dramas filtering into mainstream cinema.  As is the case with At Any Price, likely the most ambient and rural film of the festival.  The narrative focuses on a family featuring Dennis Quaid as the father and Zac Efron as the youngest of two sons struggling with the love / hate relationship he has with his father and life on the farm.  There was very little of interest happening in this film, and even the major plot points got lost in the rurality of the ambience.  Not even Dennis Quaid could salvage this film with one of his weaker performances to date.

When discussing working with Dennis, director Ramin Bahrani decided to name drop his legendary director buddy Werner Herzog and go on to explain how Dennis had everything thoroughly planned playing this character.  Even to the finest minute detail of how he would walk.  Dennis is an old pro, but for some reason, this didn’t translate well into his patriarchal character.

When discussion moved onto the younger cast of this film including Zac Efron and his love interest Maika Monroe, the director had the oddest praise for his two young stars.  Bahrani referred to Zac as the “next Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp”, followed by likening former Kite Boarder, first time actress, Maika Monroe to Meryl Streep!  As my colleague Ruth put it, “All great actresses start off as kite boarders.”.


Bad 25

A Spike Lee Joint

Spike Lee was the 69th Venice Film Festival’s Glory To The Filmmaker Award recipient.  He was on hand to discuss his documentary Bad 25, made in honour of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s album Bad.  Lee is clearly the ultimate superfan.  From seeing him in his courtside seats at a New York Knicks game, to watching him passionately discuss his love for Michael Jackson whilst dressed in MJ paraphernalia, shows you that this film was a passion project.  From watching the well over 2 hour version that was shown at Venice (there will be a TV Edit and Director’s Cut at a later date), this was one of the most thorough music documentaries I have viewed.  It went through each song on the Bad album with back story behind the writing, performance, choreography, short film accompaniments (Michael didn’t like calling them music videos), recording techniques, you name it.  The audience was cheering, dancing and crying throughout.  The next morning, I even awoke to the tune of Bad going round and round in my head.  One week later and I’m playing all the old Michael Jackson songs on my iPod and hearing them in a new light.  To have been so affected by this film proves that it was a success.  Strange that a documentary is the most affecting film in a mainstream feature length film festival.

After Michael’s passing, Spike Lee was as shocked as the rest of us.  Everyone remembers where they were when they found out that Michael Jackson died.  Lee was in Cannes giving a lecture and struggled to believe the news.  He grew up listening to and watching Michael’s career progress as he’s only one year older than him.  After the news broke, Lee immediately checked his iPod and realized he only had MJ’s Off The Wall album digitally, immediately repurchased all of MJ’s collections, and played them on loop for a year, annoying his family ever so slightly.

Michael was a professional artist through and through.  He had creative input into every aspect of his music down to the microphone positioning during his recordings.  He made an obscene amount of demo recordings before deciding on the final collection of songs that was to be Bad.  But to make the cut, the song had to have Michael moving.  Michael studied the greats and strove to improve on their greatness.  His signature “Shamone” was tribute to blues singer Mavis Staples, his classic Smooth Criminal dance moves tribute to Fred Astaire, Michael knew their moves inside and out and built on these already strong foundations.  The only mystery left after watching this documentary is – How did he do the Smooth Criminal lean???  Some things will always remain a mystery!


The Iceman

Directed by: Ariel Vromen
Starring: Michael Shannon, Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans

Michael Shannon IS The Iceman!  You may not know the actor by name, but he is one of the most interesting actors of the moment.  You will probably recognize him as Special Investigator Nelson Van Alden from Boardwalk Empire, if not for his stunning performance in another less than interesting Ambient Rural Drama, Take Shelter.  Shannon is perfectly cast as the Iceman, real life mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski.  His build, his voice, his stern demeanour, all make him the default choice for this role.  The support cast is just as interesting with Winona Ryder as his wife, Ray Liotta as his boss, an unrecognizable Chris Evans as his partner, James Franco as victim number 58, and Stephen Dorff as The Iceman’s brother.  The standout support performance however was David Schwimmer as Josh Rosenthal, the unlikely Jewish mafioso with the worst 70’s tracksuits, handlebar moustache and ponytail to boot.  I didn’t recognize him as David Schwimmer for about twenty minutes of his screen time.  If the Oscar doesn’t go to The Iceman for costume and makeup, then I don’t know what will win it!

There was a lot of gratuitous violence that was not needed to enhance the plot at all, but the strangest and grimmest item was the end credits.  Kuklinski’s fate was written up on screen for the audience to be informed, but after showing the staggering number of hits done by Kuklinski (he murdered well over 100 people), a photo of Kuklinski took center screen with his birth and death dates displayed underneath.  Why not just write “RIP you dashing murderer you”?  It completely ruined a lot of the mood set by the film itself.


The Master

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Oh… The Master…. Where do I begin?  There is just too much to say.  Not much of it good I’m afraid.

Let’s start positive, shall we?  This film was beautifully shot with fantastic cinematography.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to use the rather troublesome format of 70mm film in order to get the beautiful images he managed to capture in spite of an inane story filled with gratuitous crass and vulgarity.  A painful waste of a beautiful thing.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we did this one backwards, attending the press conference before seeing the film.  The press conference baffled us beyond belief for various reasons.  Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t seem to offer a straight answer about his intentions, Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed quite blase about the entire experience, and Joaquin…. well, Joaquin was there in physical presence only.  And even then, he left the room for about 5 minutes to likely do something unsavoury.  He managed to mumble out one incoherent answer that left journalists shouting “Speak Up” and more confused than ever. The journalists themselves were just as baffling with their very leading questions that would always reach a dead end once it reached director Paul Thomas Anderson.  What could it all mean?

We believe it means that this film has no substance or deeper meanings, in spite of the journalists desperately wanting it to do so.  The questions asked were far deeper than any answers given or anything actually depicted in the film.  The film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s character Freddie, a seriously disturbed drunken sexual pervert.  No acting necessary for Joaquin Phoenix.  In fact, he was so much like this character in person and vice versa, we really could’ve used subtitles any time he spoke mumbled on screen or off.  Perhaps he’s striving to be the next Bob Dylan? Either way, he was perfectly cast in a sick twisted way.  His main character flaw was not his perversion, addiction or obsessions, but rather that his character had no evolution or clear back story.  Why was he so messed up?  Why does he not progress?  What is the point of telling his story?  The audience has no empathy for such an unlikable character, especially without the understanding of why he is as he is.  This was obvious as the floods of people continued to walk out during the public screening.

The film primarily focuses on Freddie’s relationship with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character of Lancaster Dodd, who is supposedly loosely based on Scientology founder Ron L. Hubbard.  Now a question for PT Anderson – why bother claiming to base this character on Ron L. Hubbard when the film has nothing to do with that?  The film is solely about the relationship between the vulnerable Freddie and the manipulative Lancaster.  As soon as you go promoting that this is a film based on Ron L. Hubbard, you’ve completely falsified the audience’s perception.  This film could be about any cult leader, or person of power.  It was irrelevant.  So for those who are expecting to see a biopic on the life of Ron L. Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology, you’re better off watching Tom Cruise couch jumping on Oprah.

While audiences had no empathy or understanding of Phoenix’s Freddie character, the same can be said for Hoffman’s Lancaster.  What was his motivation?  Why was he so manipulative and authoritative?  None of this is examined.  There is much potential, but this film just could not reach it!  This film is clearly a vanity project for the pretentious Paul Thomas Anderson.  Nothing more, nothing less.


Cherchez Hortense

Directed by: Pascal Bonitzer
Starring: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Kristin Scott Thomas

Move over Harry and Sally – this film had by far the funniest restaurant scene I have seen on screen.  Otherwise a mediocre film, the restaurant scene featuring the most beautiful Japanese waiter in existence (SATOSHI!) and a few rather comic moments really made this film as charming and enjoyable as it was.  Jean-Pierre Bacri was an exceptional leading man, while Kristin Scott Thomas continues to take on a number of French film roles which have defined her as an intellectual Euro cougar.


Den Skaldede Frisør (Love Is All You Need)

Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyrholm

Much like a French Kristin Scott Thomas film met our expectations, as did a romantic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan.  All of the typical plot points existed in this love story, but it didn’t matter as this was a great film.  Director Susanne Bier created this Danish/English love story set in Italy and made it charming and her own.  During the press conference, writer Anders Thomas Jensen explained how not much drama happens in Denmark, so often Danish dramas will look within the family, as demonstrated brilliantly in Love Is All You Need.  Worryingly, Susanne Bier stated that the main husband character was actually based on a true person, and with a cheeky smile suggested that it was someone rather close to her.  Whoever it is, that poor wife!



Directed by: Jesper Ganslandt
Starring: Helena af Sandeberg, Alexandra Dahlström, Carolina Gynning, Marie Göranzon\

Much as a typical Danish drama, Swedish drama Blondie continues the Scandinavian tradition of looking within the family to find a dramatic story to tell.  In this case, the story of three sisters and their relationship with each other and with their mother.  The two eldest sisters’ characters were very well defined, and while we loved the youngest sister, her issues were never fully explored.  During act two of the film, some of the plot felt superfluous, but its strong characters were enough of a hook to hold the piece together.  The quirky Wes Anderson style shots depicting the various acts of the film were also unnecessary and out of place, but was a nice homage to the director, whether intentional or not.  Overall, a very good watch, leaving me wanting more of this Scandinavian family drama in my life.


Outrage Beyond

Directed by: Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Beat Takeshi

A Takeshi Kitano film can go either way.  The director has some very offbeat arthouse film ideas and is admittedly often held back by his producers in order to find an audience for his films.  In Outrage Beyond, a sequel to Outrage but a standalone film in its own right, Kitano further explores the inner workings of the yakuza – Japanese organized crime.  The start was a bit tiresome as the audience tried to familiarize themselves with all of the various characters and their names, and just when we got used to it, these characters would get killed off and new ones would arise.  It was when Otomo, played by Beat Takeshi (Kitano), arrived on scene that the film geared up to be the brilliant piece that it was.

Beat Takeshi has an unmatched screen presence, to the point of Ruth desperately hoping Otomo would be at the press conference the next day, not realizing it was Takeshi Kitano himself.  Takeshi brings a dark humour to an otherwise serious and violent subject, preaching that laughter is key even in the most grim situation.  And believe me, there were some grim situations in this film.

Whatever happened throughout this film was irrelevant as the ending was so strong that it is all I can remember.  Possibly the most satisfying ending in cinema, the narrative, character situation, timing and framing all combined to make the audience cheer joyfully at its conclusion.  To echo the sentiments – WOO HOO Takeshi!

Takeshi Kitano actually admitted to having former ties with the yakuza in Japan who at one point in time expressed their empathy in the reality of his filmic yakuza depictions.  But this is no longer I’m afraid as laws have changed making it illegal for anyone to associate with members of the yakuza.  I suppose we’ll never know what they think of Outrage Beyond, but I will just assume that it is as grim as this in their own realities.



Directed by: Henry Alex Rubin
Starring: Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgård, Frank Grillo

Sadly I missed the screening of Disconnect, the debut feature film from the director of documentary Murderball, Henry Alex Rubin.  I did however attend the press conference and found every word Henry and star of the film Frank Grillo said to be gripping.  With his background in documentary film-making, Henry Alex Rubin approached his first fictional feature with the intention of telling the Truth in the story, even though it was a pre-written narrative.  He wanted this film to feel “documentary real” with the actors talking over each other, not finishing their sentences, repeating their ideas, not finishing their sentences, just like real life!

Rubin found real life character counterparts for all of his actors to study or converse with if they chose to, all with the intention of finding the truth in the story.  The story itself is an exploration of the way we communicate with each other and a reflection of things that are happening in today’s society.  One motif that Rubin used to evolve the characters in the film was the use of eye contact which gets progressively longer in its gazes throughout the film.  A director with a clear attention to detail and the truth of a situation.

“I don’t direct, I just allow.” – Henry Alex Rubin


To The Wonder

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams

To our dismay, we didn’t manage to see To The Wonder even though it was on while we were there.  But we did see these posters everywhere which seemed to depict one of the running gags of the festival.  Malick is a wonder himself!


Venice Film Festival is one of the world’s leading film festivals for a reason.  Even with a stripped down programme, it manages to draw the biggest and most influential filmmakers of our time.  I can’t wait to see what’s on the bill for its 70th.


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