The 70th Venice Film Festival

header mostra 2013
La Biennale di Venezia
August 28th – September 7th, 2013
Venice, Italy

by Joanna Orland and Katharine Fry

Every year the Venice Lido is filled with celebrities, filmmakers and film fans as the Venice Film Festival is on annual display, with this year being its 70th.  2013 saw the likes of such celebrities as George Clooney, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, James Franco, Daniel Radcliffe and more.  An array of both Hollywood and International films were screened for audiences from around the world, all gathered to see the latest and best of what cinema has to offer.

Loose Lips attended the festival from August 31st – September 3rd and discovered that in merely four days, the Venice Film Festival bubble can feel like a lifetime.  The bubble of the film festival prevailed with the allure of movie star glamour and the geekdom of film fanatics all in abundance.  This year’s festival was very strong in its film selection with recurring themes throughout, including that of Isolation and Imitation Leads to Creation prevalent in the various films that were screened.

The biggest excitement of the festival seemed to be for the film Kill Your Darlings and the arrival of star Daniel Radcliffe, still known and beloved for his role as Harry Potter in the film franchise.  Fans came out in droves for a glimpse of the star, leading to the need for military personnel to escort him at all times.  While the public was fawning over Radcliffe, the media was fawning over James Franco, the real Darling of the festival with his directorial effort Child of God, and the film based on his book, Palo Alto.  While the weekend belonged to Franco, the controversy belonged to Scarlett Johansson who stars in the marmite of the festival, Under the Skin.  Director Jonathan Glazer has excelled in creating an astoundingly gripping, beautiful, divisive cinematic experience that the audience will either love or resent.

Under the Skin joined an impressive line up of films of which we managed to attend a few screenings.

Directed by Steven Knight
Starring Tom Hardy

Locke is a ship-in-a-bottle film with Tom Hardy at the helm of not only the wheel of a car, but the whole film. If Tom Hardy is not engaging with 90 minutes of screen time in one location, then this film fails. Luckily his performance is as brilliant as the script, with Locke turning out to be one of the most well received films at this year’s Venice Film Festival. So much so, that the press conference question of “Why is this film not In Competition?” garnered a round of supportive applause from the audience full of press.

The script is essentially a radio play filmed on screen in five days, in one location. The subject matter is as mundane as concrete (literally it is about concrete) with lead character Ivan Locke working in high stakes construction. Director and writer Steven Knight reckoned that if he could make something as mundane as concrete seem interesting, then he was on the right path.  Obviously it is not only about concrete – the film title is Locke not Concrete.

Ivan Locke is a construction foreman who gets in his car and begins his real time road trip. His life unfolds over a series of phone conversations he has in his car, and conversations he has with his dead father as he dialogues with himself along the way.  Locke is a man who is intent on doing the right thing, even when the right thing hurts many people, himself included. Even when the right thing isn’t actually the right thing. He is a man on a mission, to be the best he can be. This film is the best it can be and a bonafied hit not only at this festival, but perhaps in the awards season to come.

The Canyons
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk
Written by Bret Easton Ellis

I consider myself to be quite porn naive. I only heard of A-list porn star Stoya a few weeks ago through a friend’s Masters research, eventually going on to read Stoya’s blog that mostly focuses on cats with mentions of her boyfriend ‘Daddy’. Daddy is in fact none other than male porn star James Deen, co-star – though much less than second billing in the credits – of La Lohan’s return in Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons.

I know some of the rudimentary plots of pornos – “The washing machine’s broken, can you send a repair man?”, “Ma’am did you know you were speeding?” “No Officer, I’m sorry.” “Today we’re auditioning for a leading lady.” The Canyons goes with this great “other” Hollywood trope and no further, with dialogue and emoting more wooden than James Deen’s considerable member. There’s a plot, sort of, it unfolds over 3 days with lots of gang bangs, Lohan pouts a-plenty, and a very convenient we-all-dated-each-other-before-at-different-times that’s rather like a Cruel Intentions taking itself far too seriously, or many a season of Melrose Place.

La Lohan and Deen live in his remote luxury pad in the hills. He’s very controlling and not very trusting. She likes to be taken care of but wants to escape. Enter other lovers for each of them. I feel slightly cheapened by my ability to offer these lines of formulaic sex romp drama. I can only assume Bret Easton Ellis had some serious redecorating costs and penned this erotic thriller on a sheet of toilet paper.

There were giggles galore during the screening, generally during ‘emotional’ or violent climaxes. Yes, in a laughing at not with way. The couple sat behind us clearly thought we were in a Soho special – judging by the squeezing, squelching and smooching sounds, they may have got the most out of 90 minutes of drivel so dull it barely merits description.

No wonder they cancelled the press conference, apparently due to talent ‘issues’. Indeed, when we hit cocktail hour and found ourselves next to The Canyons cast, one LL was conspicuously absent. Still, we got to drool over Deen (accompanied by the delectable Stoya) and Nolan Gerard Funk, both substantially more animated and believable as humans off-camera.

There’s a scene early on where La Lohan (or what’s left of her post-face-hatchet plastic surgery) meets a love rival for a drink. A UPS truck looks like it’s heading straight for them. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for their obliteration and my liberation. But no, at least another hour of dead eyes and fake boobs with nary a money shot to make it worth your while.

Cracking soundtrack though.

Directed by Peter Landesman
Starring Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Tom Welling, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton

Americana cinema has a love affair with a piece of American history that will live on in people’s minds for decades to come – the assassination of JFK. There have been various counts of media written and filmed about the historic event, with Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory film starring Kevin Costner as the most prominent piece. Parkland revisits this story of JFK’s assassination, but rather than focusing on the conspiracy or the politics, it focuses on the people surrounding the event and how it affects them each personally.

The film is done in a rather flowing montage style with a consistent soundtrack as accompaniment. In spite of this rather loose flow, there isn’t one character that doesn’t engage the audience. We care about each and every one of them. And there are many of them. This is an ensemble cast to rival the most complex of Robert Altman films.

Parkland is the hospital where both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald were taken after they were each shot. The cast of medical staff trying to save their lives include pretty boy Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden and Colin Hanks. Secret Service staff includes Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Welling. Civilians include Paul Giamatti. Oswald’s family includes the wonderful Jacki Weaver as his mother in a bit of an offbeat role.

This film brought tears to the eyes. It is heartfelt and moving. Who knew that there was still more to tell about this story?

Child of God
Directed by James Franco
Starring Scott Haze

Newsflash: James Franco collaborates with dead authors – One of many endless quotable ideas from the actor, artist and now director of the Cormac McCarthy novel-turned-film Child of God. McCarthy is the renowned author of such classics including No Country For Old Men and The Road, which were both adapted into very excellent high drama films. Child of God is an instance of right story, wrong hands.  (Also, McCarthy was still alive at the time when James Franco delivered this quote. ?)

Franco has good intentions. The problem is, he is a jack of all trades and a master of merely one – acting. I don’t want to be overly critical of the guy because I think he is one hell of a comedic and dramatic actor. It is a rare feat to be a master at both. But the problem with Franco lies in his ambition. Again, not to be one to criticize ambition – good for him. But basically, he should stick to what he knows.

The mood of the film is completely wrong. Where No Country For Old Men and The Road build the mood, the tension and the characters at an enthralling level where you are literally on the edge of your seat, Child of God merely skims the surface. The mood and style of this film is amateurish, opting for a more naturalistic feel rather than highly stylized and dramatized as the other McCarthy pictures. The soundtrack and scape which were used seamlessly in the aforementioned two, notably No Country For Old Men, were not used as dramatic devices in any way, but rather as location setting tools to illustrate that the film takes place in Tennessee. They must like banjos in Tennessee!

The performance of lead actor Scott Haze as Lester Ballard is hollow. Well played on the surface, but lack of shower and 1h45m of grunting does not a performance make. It’s difficult to feel empathy for a character as horrific as Ballard, but if this film is to succeed in having a caring audience, he needs to be engaging. He is unfortunately antagonizing. There have been morally worse protagonists in cinema before Child of God, but somehow Ballard is on his own here.

Franco himself said a lot at the press conference – not only does he not sleep, but he doesn’t seem to stop for air either. One poignant statement of his was regarding how he feels this film, and his previous which was an adaptation of a Faulkner novel, are thematically about isolation from society and trying to make social connections in spite of being in such an isolated state. Perhaps this film is a thematic autobiography for Franco who seems to be isolating himself more and more from the film community.

Audiences were walking out of not only the film, but the press conference. The rest of us soldiers who stayed behind were in fits of giggles at points. This man, while an amazingly talented actor and charismatic good-looking individual, seems very pretentiously full of himself. Sure, he may be in on the joke as his starring role as himself in This Is The End suggests, but the man even put himself in Child of God in the most arrogant fashion possible. He modestly declined the starring role, but as a civilian in this film, he cheapens it even further. This film isn’t tongue in cheek like a Tarantino where a director cameo can be a highlight. This film is attempting to be gritty and serious, instead it is antagonistic in all the wrong ways (yes, I believe cinema can be affectedly antagonistic in the right ways) and amateurish. McCarthy’s work deserves so much more respect than this.

Palo Alto
Directed by Gia Coppola
Starring Emma Roberts, James Franco

James Franco’s next career move after his collaboration with dead authors may just be his saving grace. After a disappointing presentation of Child of God and the cringe-worthy press conference that coincided, Palo Alto, the other James Franco film at the 70th Venice Film Festival, redeemed the actor/director/artist/author/ghost-whisperer and pleased the audience with a wonderful piece of cinema.

Produced by James Franco and his company Rabbit Bandini, based on his own novel of short stories, and of course featuring the man himself in a small role, Palo Alto was put in the hands of Gia Coppola as she wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Starring Emma Roberts and an array of teenage actors, the film tells the story of what it is for these young teens to grow up in Palo Alto, drink, drugs, sex, drama and all. There are also a few paedophilic overtones and plot points that are thrown into the mix, featuring actor Chris Messina who is in everything these days, and James Franco who is not only in everything but who is also everywhere. How nice to see he cast himself in the role of a paedo.

The teenage cast in this film is excellent. Very low key but true teen performances. Some of the adult cameos are also excellent, notably Val Kilmer as Emma Roberts’ character’s stepdad, a bloated, video game obsessed, pothead of a father figure. Coppola’s directorial style also works very well, using more abstract shots or voiceovers to detail the more explicit scenes without being graphic in its depiction. There is however a questionable narrated moment that left us a bit confused, but it was long forgotten once the character action came back into play.

This film is about the characters. It is engrossing, they are endearing. James Franco clearly has some substance to him, but it seems he needs a bit of a babysitter. Giving his work to someone else, whether it be his stories into the hands of a new screenwriter/director, or giving his performance to someone else’s film, he may not be all talk as our previous presumption. In spite of this new light being shed upon the career of James Franco, we couldn’t bear facing another press conference with him in full control of the microphone. Perhaps we missed some further insight into the odd mind of Franco?  Or perhaps it was a lucky escape.

Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Judi Dench and her twinkly eyes star in Philomena, a film based on a true story about forgiveness versus cynicism.  Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) pieces together the human interest story of Philomena (Judi Dench), a woman who in her youth was forced to give away her son and live in a convent.  As the content touches on some of the ill conceived ideas of religious institutions, director Stephen Frears mentioned repeatedly in the press conference his desire to show this film to the Pope.

On the surface, this film seems unoriginal in its journey to find a son, but once you remember that this is a true story and there will be no surprise twist of Coogan’s character turning out to be the son, it becomes much more sentimental and the interesting human interest story that it sets out to be.  Sentimental it does not remain as even though Philomena waivers her faith and her power to forgive and to remain strong, even when truth after terrible truth come crashing down on her, it is Coogan’s Sixsmith who is angry and the quickest to call hypocrisy on the catholic church and its unchristian behaviour.

I don’t like tearjerkers or feeling like I’m easily manipulated by swelling music and sap, but Philomena is an undeniably sentimental yet interesting story.  One wonders why Frears, the self-confessed cynic who aligns himself with the savvy world-weary privileged Sixsmith character rather than the more life experience Philomena, chose to tell it. Does he just smell a winner on his hands with plenty of simple minded soft hearted punters to seduce with sobs and sympathy?  Or does he just know this is a bloody important story to tell?

Tom à la ferme
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal

Last year, Xavier Dolan directed one of my favourite films of recent – Laurence Anyways. His follow up one year later is Tom à la ferme – an ambient rural thriller which sees star Dolan as Tom, who is held emotionally, and somewhat physically captive on the farm of his dead boyfriend’s family.  The audience is  held captive alongside Tom as this film is gripping yet frustrating, and can also stray into dangerous unempathetic territory.

This film plays out with tension and genuine engagement with the characters, notably Tom. Xavier is so captivating as an actor and director, he cannot help but eminate talent as the nearly teenage prodigy that he is. At age 24, Tom à la ferme is his fourth film and he is already an award winning talent and top director to come out of the thriving French-Canadian film scene.

Tom à la ferme does not triumph in spite of Dolan’s blatant talent and engaging method of story-telling. There are some character flaws so great that the audience cannot quite understand their motives, which can often break the cinematic illusion and lead to comedic moments intended as drama.  Dolan’s signature style prevails with his flair for painting visual pictures and soundtracks likened to watching the most beautiful and epic of music videos. He interweaves thematic subtleties into his films that only a fine tooth comb could overtly access.  For instance, the ferme (farm) address is number 69, but not in a sexual manner – it represents the two parallel characters of Tom and Francis dealing with their grief in both unison and opposite forms – one through sadness, one through rage.

Dolan is a talent to watch. At the top of his game, yet still on the rise. Tom à la ferme is merely a small bump in the road of his career and he will no doubt find his way off of the farm and back to the city.

Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster and Jack Huston

I love seeing a film when I know nothing about it.  Kill Your Darlings. Daniel Radcliffe. I instantly assume some late-teen coming of age love in the sun life is both hard and beautiful journey to self-knowledge and manhood.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the tween fans stalking the former wizard were expecting something of that ilk too, but, boy, were we all off the mark.

Kill Your Darlings opens with two enigmatic scenes. A topless young man, one of life’s natural Narcissus, cradles an older, beardier, wearier man in water. There are traces of blood on the young man’s chest. We are told about circles in life; when you push someone far enough away from you, they return to you. Next our Narcissus is behind bars and Daniel Radcliffe enters. ‘Allen’ has a document that ‘Lu’ says will finish him, Allen, Lu claims, also wanted ‘him’ gone.

We follow Radcliffe back in time. He is none other than Beat legend Allen Ginsberg, about to leave his poet father, Louis, and mentally unstable mother for the adventures of youth promised to him by Colombia University and Harlem.

At Colombia he is shown the sacred cornerstones of writing, books displayed like the dead in sealed library cases. He learns the fundamentals of poetry, rhyme and metre, which he dismisses as boring and easy. He is searching for something else and he finds it. Following the sound of a record playing Brahms, the Freshman encounters the beautiful and experienced Lucien ‘Lu’ Carr. Over Yeats’ Vision and cheap wine, a promise is made. These eager men will tear down everything that has gone before and blow away all institutions with their New Vision.

The film shifts from traditional period style and sounds to stop and starts, frozen motion and pounding music as Ginsberg and Carr join forces with William Borroughs and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg is as much seduced by mind-altering sounds and substance as he is by the manipulative allure of Lu.  Radcliffe shines as a young man tasting life for the first time.

The fruit of seduction can taste bitter and a fruit’s stone can be poisionous. Poison has certainly taken root in Lu’s benefactor, ghost writer and lovestruck stalker, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) as a man on the edge not equipped to dispatch his demons as Dexter might. We follow the entangled group of young writers, full of promise and insecurity to a messy climax on a dark night that has somehow not overshadowed the careers and legacies of a Beat Generation, but that clearly took hold in all of them.

Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli has taken this opportunity at the 70th Venice Film Festival to announce his retirement.  His work with Ghibli and its beautiful classic anime style and stories have fascinated and moved audiences for nearly 30 years.  After nearly 20 films, Miyazaki bows out with his final effort Kaze Tachinu (As The Wind Rises).

After such a prolific career, it is sad that this will be his last, not only because he has done such honorable work in his time, but also because this film is not of the same calibre as his previous work.  In fact, we both fell asleep and left the cinema before the screening had finished.  I did not expect this to happen as I am generally a fan of Studio Ghibli’s work, but this film’s slow pace, lengthy duration and lack of plot had us suffering.  There are beautiful moments as one would expect from a Miyazaki film with the visuals and audio working together artistically stunningly.  Alas, it was not enough to keep us going, and sadly, I am no longer wanting more from Miyazaki, and wish him well in his retirement.

The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Starring Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon

I knew I wouldn’t like this film.  Out of Terry Gilliam’s film directing work, I am only a fan of Twelve Monkeys.  I could not even get through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas despite 3 attempts – I remember it fondly for the nap time I achieved.  For some reason I thought that what Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis did for Twelve Monkeys, Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon could do for The Zero Theorem.  I was so wrong.  I have no idea what these A-list Oscar calibre stars are doing in this absurd sci-fi film.  All of the acting is hammy, the script flat, the cinematography cartoon-like, and outside of a few fun moments, this film is a ridiculous piece of work.  Avoid Avoid Avoid!

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson

A beautiful ambient thriller that has elements of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Tree of Life, AI and The Man Who Fell To EarthUnder the Skin epitomizes the festival themes of isolation and without imitation, there is no creation.  This ambient and beautiful film will find itself to be the most divisive of the festival.   One must go into it with an open mind and find meaning rather than be spoonfed.

Jonathan Glazer adapted this film from the 2000 Michael Faber novel of the same name.  It is not for the faint of heart or the closed-minded.  Very little dialogue is used in this ambient, abstract visual and aural feast.  Scarlett Johansson does not need even to say a word as her physical performance speaks louder than words ever could.  The plot is never realized as we are never informed of what Johansson’s character is, or what she is doing.  But she does it so captivatingly well.  The genre is not easily identifiable – part horror, part arthouse.

While using ethereal imagery, director Glazer decided to use real people rather than actors as the support cast to Johannson’s main alien character.  Set in Scotland, the film could not be any more gritty and grounded in reality, yet in parallel, it is overtly otherworldly. While the main character and the story all seem alien, it is in fact a story that has been told many times before.  Frankenstein and AI are prime examples of a humanoid character turned against society who actually wants nothing more than to belong.  Under the Skin is potentially the best telling of this classic story, for mature audiences only.

One Response to “The 70th Venice Film Festival”

  1. Don’t blindly!We must believe ourself.

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