71st Venice Film Festival

venice film festival
La Biennale di Venezia
August 27th – September 6th, 2014
Venice, Italy

by Joanna Orland & Ruth Thomson

The Venice Film Festival once again took place on the city’s Lido with an array of films and talent on display.  With programming director Alberto Barbera returning for his second consecutive year, the festival which is organized by La Biennale di Venezia aims to promote international cinema as art, entertainment and industry.

The 2014 edition which saw the festival in its 71st year has done all of these things.  The selection of films were artistic, entertaining with many organizing distribution deals due to their involvement with the festival.  As with any high profile film festival, Venice is also about celebrity.  Stars including James Franco and Frances McDormand were honoured for their work in cinema and many other star-studded events took place across the city during the festival’s run.

Primarily, a film festival is about film.  Venice Film Festival chose Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman starring Michael Keaton as its opening film.  By the end of the festival, festivalgoers were still citing this as the festival highlight.  While the opening film is the most important and sets the tone for the festival to follow, Birdman may have actually been too good of a choice to start with as subsequent films failed to live up to the quality bar set by Iñárritu.

Excitement briefly stirred again on Al Pacino day at the festival where Pacino himself was on site promoting both The Humbling and Manglehorn, two films that unfortunately did not live up to their hype, but were still very much a good choice for this festival with Al Pacino being an excellent ambassador for celebrity in Venice.  Acclaimed directors Abel Ferrara, Roy Andersson and Fatih Akin also brought films to the festival, and there was a fine array of Americana from the likes of Ami Canaan Mann, David Gordon Green, Joe Dante and Peter Bogdanovich whose screwball comedy She’s Funny That Way is his first in over a decade.

The films could have possibly been of higher calibre at this year’s Venice Film Festival, but the talent, celebrity and glamour were as strong as ever.  Reviews and press conference coverage from the 71st Venice Film Festival:

Full list of the 71st Venice Film Festival Awards Winners.


Directed by Duane Hopkins
Starring George MacKay

by Joanna Orland

Tim is a decent young man forced into a life of crime as he struggles to take care of his family and himself.  After his mother dies and his older brother is put in jail, responsibility falls to Tim to take care of his family home, his younger sister and his girlfriend as his health suffers and the pressure mounts.  Tim wants to do the right thing, but his situation gets more and more dire in each scene.  His circumstances are mirrored by his declining health which is used throughout as a metaphor for his descent into a life of trouble which he delves so deep into there is nearly no escape.

George MacKay gives a harrowing performance as Tim.  It is no wonder he was nominated for this year’s EE BAFTA Rising Star Award, only to lose out to Will Poulter.  MacKay is still a star on the rise as he single-handedly makes this film gripping.  Other performances in this film are not as strong, with the character of his girlfriend Lilly being an unnecessary role that takes the plot a bit too far for its own good.

Well written and directed, Bypass is a bleak view on broken Britain on a more personal level as director Duane Hopkins allows MacKay to carve out a very empathetic and humanistic character with Tim.  Its few plot-driven flaws aside, Bypass makes a very thrilling drama with an excellent lead performance.


Directed by Michael Almereyda
Starring Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Anton Yelchin, Penn Badgley, Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark and Delroy Lindo

by Joanna Orland

Like much of the great writer’s work, Cymbeline, one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, has been adapted into a film and modernized for today’s audience.  Those unfamiliar with the original play may mistake Cymbeline as one of Shakespeare’s great comedies after seeing this latest adaptation.  Thou art mistaken as Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, albeit with a few comedic moments embedded in its sheer absurdity.

Almereyda’s modern day adaptation takes the story from the royal courts of Britain to the mean streets of America.  King Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is leader of the Briton Motorcycle Club who clashes with the Roman police force.  His daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has married Posthumus (Penn Badgley) while Cymbeline’s wife the queen (Milla Jovovich) is angered by this as she wants Imogen to marry her son Cloten (Anton Yelchin).

Whilst moving this story from Britain to America to create an American Shakespeare in setting, acting and tone, the language is not updated to match the modernization.  Use of technology, gang wars and plot holes stand in stark contrast to eloquent language which sounds very much out of place not just in an American accent, but in this style of film which is more reminiscent of the 1999 film Cruel Intentions than any Shakespeare adaptation.

While trying to Americanize a work of Shakespeare, transposing it onto the modern troubles in American life is not an ill-conceived concept as proven in Almereyda’s 2000 version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke who gives the only good performance of this film.  However, it is the execution that fails this film.  The script should not have been adapted word for word.  The Briton / Roman references are hilarious at times, especially as President Obama is displayed on scenic TV screens.  Surely a story merely based on Cymbeline would have worked much better.  As it stands, the use of Shakespeare’s language heightens the story’s flaws in a modern day setting, and detracts from the story and performances which could have been much more riveting using words to match its style.  This reads as a Shakespearean Gossip Girl.

While Shakespeare’s work may remain timeless, this adaptation of Cymbeline begins and shall remain dated.

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)
Directed by Roy Andersson

by Ruth Thomson

This is only the fifth feature film from intriguing 71-year-old Swedish director Roy Andersson, who it turns out is a unique individual in every way. A man who looks a lot like a Premiereship football manager but who loves life, art, Chekov, and making television commercials (over 400 so far), and who is looking forward to directing the fourth part of this current movie trilogy – he can’t help but share this with a distinct twinkle in his eye. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is part three, hot on the heels of Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2000).

Andersson is in his own words bored by storytelling and boy does it show: as does his love of still visual images – the recurring scene of Limping Lottie’s (don’t even ask) is reminiscent of Edward Hopper to a non-expert eye, but Andersson’s real inspiration is the German artist Otto Dix who depicted the vagaries of Weimar society in the 1930’s. Like its forebears, Pigeon is a series of striking tableaux, some featuring the only two named characters in the film Sam and Jonathan, others featuring recurring minor characters like a voluptuous tango dancer and a confused sea captain, whilst others are wholly incidental.

Andersson’s attention to detail in setting these short scenes is considerable (each one takes the minimum of a month to shoot – the entire film took four years) and the results are striking in the extreme. His colour palette, entirely a range of washed out browns, greens, blues and more browns, and use of makeup (everyone looks close to death or at least sufferers of an extreme Vitamin D deficiency) must have the Swedish Minister for Tourism tearing their hair out.

Sam and Jonathan live in a hostel for single men and are sellers of novelty items along the lines of fake vampire fangs – they just want to help people have fun. This is ironic because they look at best like manic-depressives, at worst entirely suicidal. Around this merry duo Andersson casts a world of glum figures going about their daily business whilst unsuspectingly conveying the great universal balance of tragedy and comedy that infuses all of humanity. Many scenes are hilarious – the crew of a ferry stand over the corpse of a passenger discussing what to do with the shrimp sandwich he had just purchased, the retired sea captain explains that he’s now a hairdresser purely on the grounds that he’s looking after his brother-in-law’s salon, as a waiting customer shiftily exits behind him.

This is without doubt unique and clever stuff, and the critics here are loving it, but Andersson seems to go just slightly too far in his attempt at depicting all of human life by including some overtly political points: a monkey hooked up to electrodes is zapped whilst a bored looking scientist takes a call in the background, and in a particularly disturbing scene black slaves are ushered in to a large rotating steel container by British colonial types who then set fire to it as an elderly privileged crowd look on. These, along with the surreal appearance of the 18th century King Charles XII, muddy the waters of a film already densely crowded with food for thought. The mind boggles at where Andersson will take us in part four – it will no doubt be worth the wait to find out.

Hungry Hearts
Directed by Saverio Costanzo
Starring Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher

by Ruth Thomson

Hungry Hearts, based on the novel The Indigo Child by Marco Franzoso and directed by Saverio Costanzo is an intriguing and original genre crunching film with excellent central performances from Adam Driver and Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. It has a strong pace and for the most part builds a strong sense of tension. It’s only somewhat let down by Costanzo’s heavy-handed methods of conveying the gradual gear changes from romance, to drama, to thriller and beyond – as it strays into comedic clichéd territory, detracting from the whole.

Driver and Rohrwacher are Mina and Jude, a young and hip New York couple who meet in a particularly endearing opening scene and in no time at all are married and pregnant with an artfully dressed apartment complete with rooftop vegetable garden. It’s hard to see at this stage what’s going to put the thrill in thriller, but the idyll gradually begins to splinter and crack as Mina, a diminutive and quirky soul from the start, begins to reject the notions of modern medicine, refusing to go to scans and insisting her instincts will tell her what’s best for the baby. This goes from bad to worse after the child’s birth, with Mina’s refusal to expose him to anything outdoors or to feed him meat (or much else) pushing Jude to take his son to the doctor in secret where his worst fears are confirmed – the child is malnourished and not growing.

Costanzo effectively conveys the fragility of this small young family against the backdrop of a grim and gargantuan New York, one that seems capable of crushing the endeavors of individuals, whether to grow some veg or raise a child. The director says his own time spent living in the city was a period of particular unhappiness and isolation and this comes across in Mina’s characterization – an introverted foreigner with little support struggling with her mental health.

Whilst a unique and often compelling look at relationships, parenthood, post-natal depression, domestic conflict and the urge to protect, Hungry Hearts sadly does stray too far into melodramatic absurdity. As Mina’s instincts begin to look increasingly sinister, the pop music featured in earlier scenes is replaced by jabbing Psychoesque strings – just in case we don’t realize she’s becoming a bit of a basket case (we do). Likewise, the sudden use of a fish eye lens midway through the action is effective in conveying the claustrophobia of their small apartment but as it rests on Mina’s increasingly emaciated figure, she becomes more and more of a caricature. As a result, in a climactic scene which should have been drenched in tension, there was a distinct murmur of laughter here in Venice.

Well worth seeing for great performances, but slightly off the mark in tone and style.

Our interview with Adam Driver & Alba Rohrwacher.

Our interview with director Saverio Costanzo.

Jackie & Ryan
Directed by Ami Canaan Mann
Starring Katherine Heigl, Ben Barnes and Clea Duvall

by Ruth Thomson

At the heart of Jackie & Ryan, the third feature film from director Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael), is a simplicity and warmth that is surprisingly compelling. It’s a modest story of day to day life and struggle, simply stated and subtly performed against a soundtrack of Americana that’s as central a character as the two leads.

Ryan (Ben Barnes) is a drifter, hiding out in freight trains with nothing more than his pack and guitar in his travels across the mountainous and icy plains of Utah and beyond. Busking in the streets of Ogden his eyes bashfully meet those of Jackie (Katherine Heigl) – a no nonsense single mum whose own successful musical past is now buried deep under financial woes, an imminent custody battle with her Manhattan ex, and the fact that she’s back in her hometown – a sleepy world of plaid shirts, fiddle competitions, and oversized knitwear. Days later an accident in the town centre bring Jackie and Ryan face to face, and so begins a relationship that blossoms (as much as possible in their chilly recession hit surroundings) into something based on mutual support and bound together by their shared musical language.

The honesty of their romance resonates largely thanks to their fresh and naturalistic performances. Barnes (formerly Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia) inhabits Ryan with a gentle goodness (and an excellent accent) whilst Heigl, of Grey’s Anatomy fame, seems to be making an effective bid to escape her Rom-Com past with this quietly dignified but powerful performance. A hint of the spirit of Inside Llewyn Davis hovers distinctly above the streets of Ogden and its surrounding expanse, but Mann’s lightness of touch keeps Jackie & Ryan real, a world away from the comic book Coens. It’s as simple as the title, and all the more powerful for it.

Our interview with director Ami Canaan Mann.

Loin des hommes (Far from Men)
Directed by David Oelhoffen
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb

by Ruth Thomson

In writer/director David Oelhofffen’s Loin des hommes (Far from Men), Viggo Mortensen (speaking convincing French) plays Daru, a teacher in a small village school in the Algerian mountains who has formerly seen military service. The year is 1954 and colonial conflict is imminent as Algeria begins its struggle for independence. Trouble arrives in Daru’s peaceful existence in the form of Mohamed (Reda Kateb), a young man from a neighboring village who has killed his cousin and is to be taken to Tinguit for trial by the ruling French authorities. After initial reluctance to be involved, Daru sets out on this journey with Mohamed, as the only alternative is to let him go on alone and unarmed to a certain death.

As their journey progresses so too does their relationship and we learn that Mohamed’s crime was only committed out of the necessity to protect and feed his own family. He now faces death at the hands of his cousins, which would then require his young brothers to take revenge in keeping with their local customs. In order to prevent these multiple deaths, his only solution is to get to Tinguit and surrender to his execution. Along the way, the two men fall in with Algerian rebels amongst whom are former colleagues of Daru’s – old friends now seemingly on opposite sides of this new conflict despite Daru’s attempted neutrality. The lead characters evolve gently thanks to two quietly moving performances – Mohamed’s youth and naivety are most evident when he asks the older man what it feels like to sleep with a woman – he knows that he will die without first-hand experience. Daru’s increasing protectiveness of Mohamed is subtly conveyed, as is his ambiguous identity: though only twenty miles from his birthplace, his Spanish parents caused the French to see him as an Arab, whilst the Arabs see him as French.

Early in the film, Daru chastises Mohamed for having no courage or honour, both of which ultimately run deep in the protagonists as they journey together and finally face the choice of dying for honour or living with courage.

Based on the Albert Camus short story ‘L’Hote’ (which can be translated as both ‘The Guest’ and ‘The Host’), Loins des hommes is a western, a buddy movie, an action adventure, and a relationship drama all rolled in to one: but most of all it’s a beautifully told and deeply moving story. With an evocative ambient score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and stunning cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines, it takes us back in time to a distant uprising in North Africa whilst reminding us of the moral ambiguities and questions of identity that infuse so many current conflicts.

Directed by David Gordon Green

Starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter & Chris Messina

by Ruth Thomson

It’s Al Pacino Day at the Venice Film Festival and the great man himself, looking every inch the part in black denim, man jewelry and aviators, is here on the Lido to promote two new films – Barry Levinson’s The Humbling and David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn in which he plays the titular character – a man who could learn a thing or two from Al on the sartorial stakes.

Manglehorn is an ageing small town Texas locksmith stuck in a humdrum lonely life with only his cat Fannie for company. As he scratches away at letters to an enigmatic ex called Clara we realize that he is haunted by his past and this lost love which he foolishly let slip through his fingers as a young man. A subsequent failed marriage produced an urbane son Jacob (handsome everyman Chris Messina) who Manglehorn disconnects with relentlessly at every opportunity. The only flicker of light in this bleak Southern tableau of regret is warm-hearted bank clerk Dawn (played magnificently by Holly Hunter) whose kindness towards Manglehorn offers him and us a glimmer of hope…

The film is a patchy one. There are a couple of very strong scenes but it takes at least forty five minutes to get to the first one – as Dawn serves Manglehorn a bank customer spontaneously bursts into song holding a bunch of handpicked flowers, the embarrassment of all present – ‘uh oh crazy man alert’ – gradually dissipates as we realize he’s the pretty darn romantic husband of another employee who joins him with some slick harmonies. When Dawn and Manglehorn finally make it out on a date their awkward vulnerability is beautifully matched. Even as the evening teeters precariously on the brink of disaster (we should have seen it coming with his early attempt at a compliment; ‘you look like a race horse’) you can’t help rooting for them.

It’s refreshing to see Pacino in a role that doesn’t involve a lot of macho shouting – his subtle performance is really the only reason to see this film. Despite some nice touches – the optimistic presence of a local mime, the warmth of his relationship with his granddaughter – overall the tone is confused and there are too many distractions. The presence of a multiple car crash seemingly involving a lot of watermelons and handwringing in the back of one scene is no doubt supposed to evoke Manglehorn’s despair at life but serves only to irritate. The hammy voiceover as he writes each letter to Clara sets us firmly in the territory of Hollywood schmaltz and detracts from the sadness of his situation – as does much of the soundtrack by post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. David Gordon Green has certainly succeeded in creating an impressive character piece for Pacino – no mean feat in itself, but beyond that Manglehorn is too far off the mark to really move.

Directed by Elchin Musaoglu
Starring Fatemeh Motamed Arya, Vidadi Aliyev, Sabir Mamadov and Farhad Israfilov

by Joanna Orland

A film festival would not be complete without a selection of ambient rural dramas depicting bleak drama in pastoral surroundings.  If you’ve been to enough film festivals, you will be well-versed in this genre, as am I.  Nabat follows the story of a woman of that name as she struggles to survive in her desolate village in Azerbaijan.  The other villagers are abandoning their homes, but Nabat remains resolute as she cares for her ailing husband, mourns the loss of her son, and tries to protect her only cow from a wild lone wolf who metaphorically is fighting her own battle to survive.

The film is as bleak as it sounds.  Long, quiet ambient shots of desolation enhance the feeling of solitude that Nabat is experiencing.  Amongst the bleakness are some stunning nature shots that must be a cinematographer’s dream.  The sound as well must be a joy for a sound designer to work on.  Very sparse music with a strong focus on ambience and the minimal means that sound is a very strong tool in telling this story and setting the mood.

This film is essentially a mood piece with a message.  An atmospheric portrayal of a resilient woman and her struggle to survive.

Near Death Experience
Directed by Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern
Starring Michel Houellebecq

by Ruth Thomson

This film does exactly what it says on the tin. Forty-five minutes in we were losing the will to live so much we followed the example of many others in the screening, took the plunge (since the protagonist wouldn’t) and exited the building.

French author and poet Michel Houellebecq stars, if that’s the word, as Paul, a middle-aged, puny and depressed call centre employee with colleagues and a family who are only seen in the early stages of the film (as far as we know) from the neck down, no doubt to heighten our sensitivity to his extensive isolation and misery. One day he tells his wife he’s going out for an hour and, lycra clad, heads off into the hills on his road bike. He proceeds to wander aimlessly around whilst musing on killing himself and dramatically stands on steep ledges arms outstretched without actually doing the deed. At the time of our departure he appeared to be stuck to a rock face, limbs outstretched, Spiderman style.

Directed by the seemingly fairly pretentious Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine, Near Death Experience may of course have turned out to be a masterpiece, but given that unlike Paul we do actually value our time on earth, we didn’t stick around to find out.

Nymphomaniac Volume 2 (Long Version) Director’s Cut

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell and Willem Dafoe

by Joanna Orland

You may wonder why Lars von Trier’s two-part film exploration of female sexuality is playing at the 2014 Venice Film Festival as it was already in cinemas in February of this year.  Well, Lars has brought back his Nymphomaniac film adding hours to the anthology which now includes even more mature subject matter.  The director’s cut of Volume 1 had its premiere in Berlin, while the longer version of Volume 2 graces us with its presence at Venice Film Festival.

You can read our original Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 & 2 film review here.

As with any good Lars von Trier press conference, the Venice one did not happen without its share of showmanship.  Actor Stellan Skarsgård represented the film’s cast and also acted as the main link to director Lars who joined the rest of his panel via Skype.  Charlotte Gainsbourg, in Venice for the film’s premiere and her other film 3 Couers, did not attend the press conference as “she feels that her performance speaks for itself”.

The audience of press were allowed 3 lifelines to Lars, with Skarsgård in control of reaching out by phone to the elusive director, creating hype and a stir where none actually exists.  Think of him what you will, but Lars von Trier never shies away from trying to do the unexpected and different.

In addition to rehashing their filmic intentions with Nymphomaniac, Lars’ producer also used the Venice press conference as an opportunity to announce von Trier’s next project which will be an English-speaking television series featuring an epic cast.  She promised it will be like nothing we’ve seen before and like nothing we will see again.  From my brief encounter with the world of Lars von Trier, I can’t help but believe this could possibly be true.

Olive Kitteridge
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher Jr. and Bill Murray

by Joanna Orland

Frances McDormand bought the rights to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge just as the nomination for author Elizabeth Strout’s work was announced.  McDormand says her reasoning behind this purchase was that her son was 13 years old at the time and so she would have much more time on her hands 5 years down the line.  Now at age 57, Frances is determined to create interesting roles for herself in her career as she is tired of being asked the question of if she’s worried about not being offered significant roles as an aging actress.  And so begins the HBO saga Olive Kitteridge which had its premiere at Venice Film Festival but will air on the cable channel in November.

McDormand throws herself into her work and throws herself into the embodiment of title character Olive Kitteridge, proving to be a worthy recipient of this year’s Venice Film Festival Persol Tribute to Visionary Talent Award.  The novel is a collection of 13 short stories which create a portrait of a small New England town.  The HBO series uses this model as inspiration and creates 4 hour-long episodes spanning across 25 years, all focusing on the characters of this town, of which Olive herself is a citizen.

Olive is at the heart of every story.  The episodes examine the impact she’s had on various lives and what they have had on her.  She remains ever-stoic, harsh, cynical and a bit of a curmudgeon throughout.  Her relationship with her husband Henry is the heart and soul of this drama as it evolves over the years.  With Olive the perpetual cynic and Henry the romantic, perhaps they were never the best match, but as with any good and long-lasting marriage, they compliment each other and find their way through their ups and downs.

This is a very human story with very human performances.  Richard Jenkins in particular is naturalistic as Henry, and the vast supporting cast which includes the likes of Bill Murray colour the New England town with further character depths.  Depression, suicide, parental relationships and loneliness plague the characters, uniting them, driving them apart, all in all making them more human and empathetic to the audience who remained completely engaged for the 4 hour filmic experience of Olive Kitteridge.

She’s Funny That Way
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis and Jennifer Aniston

by Ruth Thomson

Acclaimed writer/director Peter Bogdanovich has brought his first film in thirteen years to this year’s Venice Film Festival and has clearly had a good deal of fun with it along the way. Billed as a screwball comedy it certainly has a strong whiff of the past about it – as well as much that brings Woody Allen to mind, from the romanticized glow of New York City to the heart-warming presence of an endearing hooker, and his most convincing twenty first century leading man; the endlessly charming Owen Wilson.

Wilson plays theatre director Arnold Albertson – or Derek Thomas as he’s known to the many young prostitutes (or call girls as they’re called here just to take the edge off) that he has bedded and benefactored. The one that causes his comeuppance here is Izzy, or Isabella as she likes to be known when inevitably pursuing an acting career – an impressive as always Imogen Poots who is only slightly undone by her attempt at a broad Brooklyn accent. Needless to say the day after their night of passion Izzy unexpectedly arrives to audition for Arnold and has to read against his wife Delta (the brilliant Kathryn Hahn) whilst leading man Seth Gilbert (Rhys Ifans) who happens to be in love with Delta looks on with glee having seen Izzy depart Arnold’s hotel room in the middle of the night. Playwright Josh (Will Forte) falls for Izzy despite having a girlfriend, manic therapist Jane (a brilliant Jennifer Aniston) who struts out of one scene with the memorable line ‘I need to change my tampon’. Jane’s latest clients coincidentally include the previously mentioned Izzy and an elderly Judge who can’t get over his obsession with a beguiling young call girl (guess who) and has taken out a private investigator to follow her. There’s plenty of inevitable set pieces – all involved end up in the same Italian restaurant on the same night (cue hiding behind menus/trying to escape out of bathroom windows), call girls (yes more of them) arrive at the wrong hotel rooms and have to hide behind shower curtains, you know the drill.

The film is firmly rooted in the past with Derek/Albert’s repeated line to his conquests, which culminates with the phrase ‘squirrels to the nuts’, having been plucked directly from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1946 satire Cluny Brown and it’s true that Bogdanovich, who mastered the art of screwball many decades ago (1972’s What’s Up, Doc?), hasn’t broken any boundaries here. But his ensemble cast – particularly Wilson, Aniston and Ifans – are all doing exactly what they do best, and with a host of other entertaining cameos (Richard Lewis, Cybill Shepherd, Quentin Tarantino) this is a highly enjoyable tribute to comedic times past by a man who has every right to indulge himself and us in a hearty dose of cinematic nostalgia.

The Humbling
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig

by Ruth Thomson

The Humbling, written and directed by Barry Levinson of Good Morning Vietnam/Rain Man fame, stars Al Pacino as aging thespian Simon Axler: a man whose career has hit the skids after concluding an illustrious Shakespearean stage performance with an ineffective suicide attempt – launching himself face first into the orchestra pit. After a spell of rest in a rehabilitation facility where he meets Sybil, a disturbed woman who wants him to kill her child abusing husband, he returns to his cavernous country home to contemplate his future. Enter the strangely named Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old friends who is now an attractive young lesbian but, as she’s had a crush on Simon since childhood, is here to offer herself up to him. It’s not a massive shock to discover that this charmingly masochistic scenario is based on the novel by a 76 year old Philip Roth.

The film opens promisingly with Simon backstage preparing for his entrance by reciting lines to his reflection before cutting to an amusing dream sequence in which he is accidentally locked out of the theatre – failing to recognise him as the star of the show, the security staff refuse to let him back in. But despite another compelling if slightly camp performance from Pacino (given his more nuanced title role in David Gordon Green’s Manghlehorn it seems Al at 74 is having a late resurgence), the scenario disintegrates from this point onwards largely due to the assortment of unsympathetic characters throughout – not even a cameo from Dianne Wiest as Pegeen’s mother can save the whole thing from tasting weirdly bitter and soulless.

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