72nd Venice Film Festival


by Katharine Fry

The 72nd Venice Film Festival returned to Lido for two weeks of sunshine, celebrities, glamour and film , film, film. Directed once again by Alberto Barbera, the festival opened with Everest. In 3D. This style of blockbuster epic did not set the trend for what was to follow with the rest of the festival featuring an idiosyncratic selection of actor-led films, notably Christopher Plummer in Atom Egoyan’s Remember.

I missed the early hits of the festival, including Francophonia and Spotlight, as well as any of the inevitable excitement that follows Johnny Depp doing, well anything, even if Black Mass wasn’t considered a hit. I did catch the arrival of Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton for A Bigger Splash as well as another red carpet evening that seemed to capture everything in one go: hottie-patottie Alexander Ludwig arriving for Go With Me, a shoeless silent performance protest for refugees, timed with documentary Torn, and the shiny PVC punk pop celebration of Vasco Rossi, sort of the Rod Stewart of Italy.

Other than Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s moving stop motion animation that has been capturing hearts wherever it goes, my Venice favourites this year were of a more niche bunch and include Laurie Anderson’s meditation on life, death and everything in-between, Heart of a Dog, that takes her rat terrier Lolobelle as a loose starting point, and The 1000 Eyes of Doctor Maddin, a short documentary celebrating the singular genius of Guy Maddin. This was not a dud-heavy festival but I did very much enjoy the crashing oddness of The Childhood of a Leader.

Venice may have felt a little quieter than usual but the key ingredients were there: super stars and damn fine stories.

Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan

by Katharine Fry

Anomalisa is the latest offering from Charlie Kaufman’s idiosyncratic mind. Our protagonist is Michael Stone – a name whispered on many lips as he touches down in Cincinnati and checks into the Fregoli hotel. What manor of celebrity is this grey, portly yet shrunken man who appears withdrawn and irascible?

Michael, it turns out, is a motivational speaker and bestselling author of How May I Help You Help Them? And the trick it seems, remember that every customer is also a person, unique with a day, and a hope and an ache of their own, and company productivity increases 90%. But who is allowed to be unique in Kaufman’s incredible stop-motion animation? (And you’ve never seen puppets like this before, real, sad, flabby, world weary and wanking) The cast consists of just three actors – David Thewlis (Michael Stone), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lisa, a sales rep from Akron) and Tom Noonan (everyone else whether wife, former lover, hotel manager or sex shop worker).

The film unfolds for the most part in the claustrophobic environment of the hotel. Michael quickly moves from calling his wife and child to trying to reconnect with a lover he abandoned 11 years earlier. Neither of these options seem to satisfy him. Everything feels the same, everyone is the same – in line with the psychological Fregoli complex – until one voice rises above the others with all of its qualities of difference.

Cue Michael chasing through the hotel to track down the owner of this siren voice, the plain and gentle Lisa. What follows is the most beautiful and tender seduction scene known to puppetry, featuring a rendition of Cyndi Lauper that brought about rapturous spontaneous applause. It seems that once in a lifetime real love is finally at hand but Michael’s grey perspective dominates every scene and soon Lisa is just another of the same voices.

Originally a sound play with the same cast, Anomalisa deftly uses its puppets with identical faces and interchangeable bodies to play out the struggle for authenticity in a sea of mechanical people. At the press conference, many tried to find links between Kaufman’s turn to puppetry and what he might be trying to say about people. Is the use of the Fregoli complex a metaphor for self-involvement? Do the puppets’ removable faces speak to a rift between communicating with the mouth and following other instincts? To each prompt for insight, Kaufman only replies, “it’s a beautiful idea, it’s your experience, I’m not going to say anything.”

Strange, beautiful and moving.


Go With Me
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Julia Stiles, Ray Liotta, Alexander Ludwig, Hal Holbrook, Steve Bacic and Lochlyn Munro

by Katharine Fry

Go With Me, directed by Daniel Alfredson (Millennium Trilogy: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) plays out in a small logging community in the Pacific Northwest.

Lillian (Julia Stiles) has returned to her hometown following the death of her mother while conveying the sense that she hasn’t been able to make it anywhere else. In a couple of fast and jumpy opening scenes, Lillian is threatened by an unknown man who beheads her cat. Taking its corpse with her, she sets off to see the sheriff who only advises her to leave town. His hands are tied, he is seemingly powerless to do anything to protect her from her assailant, now identified as Richard Blackway (Ray Liotta) a former deputy turned jack-of-all-crimelord. Her only hope is apparently in seeking out help from some of the men at the sawmill who might also have scores to settle.

Lillian enlists the help of Lester (Anthony Hopkins) and Nate (Alexander Ludwig). This unlikely band of three – old man, city girl and big-but-slow – set off to track down Blackway, taking us deeper and deeper into the mountains across his various nefarious business interests until the final reckoning.

Though this is an edgy thriller shot with all the visual stylings of a Scandi noir, I really had to ask my self why this is an important story to tell. Blackway just comes off as wall-to-wall bad, but for no particular reason and, as such, is almost cartoonish. Our heroes’ characters aren’t much more developed than that, just a posse willing to go past the point of no return together.

I went to the press conference in search of enlightenment. Alfredson describes the film as a classical western set nowadays. Indeed Hopkins had them all watch Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. They were not looking to make a film that was too intellectual or complicated. Well there you have it. With this new frame, all the parts become clear. We have the hero, his sidekick, a damsel in distress, goodies vs baddies in saloon scenes, on the edge of town, across the tracks and in almighty shoot outs. The desert is replaced by the cold grey disorientation of dense forests but there’s still a campfire.

Go With Me functions as a tense thriller with strong acting from its cast in an evocative setting, nothing more, nothing less.


Heart of a Dog
Directed by Laurie Anderson

by Dana Jammal

Heart of a Dog is Laurie Anderson’s latest work, an homage to her beloved dog Lolabelle, who passed away in 2011. This is Anderson’s first feature film since her 1986 concert film Home of the Brave and she certainly does a remarkable job at writing, directing, narrating and composing music for this film. While the film centres on Lolabelle, it explores broader themes of love and death, integrating many topics such as surveillance in a post 9/11 state, storytelling and Buddhist teachings of life after death. Laurie narrates the film in a way that feels both personal yet profoundly relatable – something that is quite rare in experimental film. As she recounts memories of her childhood and Lolabelle, her voice is soothing and her words are poetic, the atmosphere is haunting, lighthearted, melancholic and dreamlike.

There is a scene where hawks encircle a vulnerable Lolabelle and Anderson draws parallels to the dangers in the air to that of the dangers of 9/11 that came from the sky. Even her approach to such a historically talked about subject feels abstract and individual. Through a series of fragmented animation (which Anderson sketched herself), videos and stills, Heart of a Dog offers a unique window into Anderson’s consciousness.

Humor is woven into the narrative as she discusses Lolabelle’s career as an abstract painter, sculptor and pianist. Lou Reed is remembered as he appears in one of the scenes and his song “Turning Time Around” plays over the closing credits. Anderson also recalls her mother’s death as well as the near death experiences of her two siblings. During the press conference at La Biennale di Venezia, Anderson contrasts the westernised approach to death to that of eastern philosophies, in that the western perception is that one should feel no pain nor be in a state of consciousness. This comes up in the film where she recreates a scene of a veterinarian telling her that she should put a blind and ill Lolabelle to sleep in order for her not to feel any more pain. However she chooses to take her home and care for her instead during Lolabelle’s remaining time in this world. As Anderson references the Tibetan Book of the Dead, striking illustrations she had drawn of Lolabelle in the bardo begin to appear.

While the film is saturated with dense material, it also flows with a lucidness that feels meditative and even elevating at times. Anderson has managed to create a film that feels much like a series of visual anecdotes of her personal history, while at the same time one that poses important universal questions about love, loss and the afterlife.


DENMARK - APRIL 19: Photo of Janis JOPLIN; Janis Joplin, posed, smoking cigarette (Photo by Jan Persson/Redferns)
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Directed by Amy Berg
Narrated by Chan Marshall aka Cat Power

by Katharine Fry

The 27 club keeps adding to its list of illustrious members. Alongside Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison sit newer members Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. These later members both share something in common with another of the cohort, Janis Joplin. They are all recent subjects of big screen documentaries put together using archival footage. Janis: Little Girl Blue, written and directed by Amy Berg traces Joplin’s life and career from her childhood in Texas to her death at age 27 from a heroin overdose in what has appeared to be a peaceful and productive time of her with addiction behind.  Though some of the archival footage may suffer in quality through its digitization, Berg cleverly weaves together a near seamless narrative. TV interviews, recording sessions and concert performances are interspersed with talking head spots from those who knew, loved and worked with Janis, while Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power breathes life into Janis’ words, an apt choice with her husky Southern accent and sense of understanding due to her own collisions with substance abuse and mental health problems.

We learn about Janis’ liberal radical views beginning with her passion for racial integration that made her the school bullies’ target until for her senior years to her days of sexual experimentation in the Haight area of San Francisco. She is drawn to the home of the Grateful Dead that becomes an epicenter for all runaway creative misfits and for the first time she feels like she is among her people. One night at a party, almost by accident, she starts singing and the results astonish everyone including her.

Janis’ passion is suddenly clear to her and she sets about singing any time any place any how for the next few years at folk drop in nights. She knows who her idols are and carefully learns the craft of the blues from the likes of Odetta and Otis Redding. Her burgeoning talent is nurtured and supported by her time with Big Brother and the Holding Company. While they appear as goofy quippy boys, her seriousness about music’s potential is evident. For Janis, music is an energy exchange and a connection between musician and audience. She wants people to “Get off your butt and feel things!”

Her music is also the place that all of Janis’ hurt feelings are laid bare. In every song there is a sense of her being abandoned by a man, of being not quite right, not quite chosen. One reporter describes her songs as ‘desperate mating calls’ while Janis herself points to the donkey that stupidly follows the carrot on a stick all day, never realising the reward will always be out of reach. The donkey, for Janis, is a woman.

Though she is not pushed around by record industry insiders, there is still an uncomfortable display of Janis’ fragility when interviewers lead her to confront her past. She was voted ‘Ugliest Man on Campus’ at University and when cameras follow her to her ten year high school reunion, all Janis’ beads, boas and bravado cannot protect her from the pain of admitting that she never really hung out, had a crowd, went to games or was invited to prom.

Bad memories and lingering insecurities notwithstanding, her exuberant lust for life jumps off the screen in every spine-tingling live performance captured on film. The intimacy and rawness of her music and presence is heart stopping, and spending this time with Janis is like taking a bath in honey. Dive in.


Directed by Atom Egoyan
Starring Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow, Heinz Lieven, Dean Norris and Henry Czerny

by Dana Jammal

Remember is a “contemporary fable” according to director Atom Egoyan (Ararat, The Sweet Hereafter), a present day story of a dark period in modern history. The story is told from the perspective of Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), who suffers from early onset dementia, as he sets out on a revenge journey with the goal to find and murder a Nazi guard whom he believes killed his family at Auschwitz many years ago. Following the death of his wife Ruth, Zev is instructed to go on a mission in the form of a letter by his friend Max (Martin Landau), who claims to have found the person responsible for the death of both their families.

Zev’s journey is repetitively interrupted by his memory loss, which is presented with scenes of him waking up with the belief that his wife Ruth is still alive, often calling out her name. Upon waking, the letter is always somewhere in sight, which serves as a reminder and guidance of his mission.

Egoyan highlights the originality of Zev’s character, someone who sees himself as very innocent and because he is perceived to be a kind man, he is helped by the many characters that come his way. The pace is unique in that while it is a thriller, it also seems to parallel the pace of Plummer’s elderly and fragile character yet almost every scene is filled with tension. While the plot is one of revenge, themes of post-holocaust trauma and memory loss come into play as the viewer goes on a unique journey through the present state of Zev’s mind. Egoyan also stresses the important difference between the process of trauma and memory loss as a result of dementia and while both topics appear to play big roles in the film, there is a feeling that they may be approached in a seemingly one dimensional perspective from a psychological viewpoint.

Overall, Plummer does an excellent job at portraying Zev’s character and his interactions with the characters played by Heinz Lieven, Bruno Ganz and Martin Landau – while brief – are still quite powerful. Egoyan points out that “This is the last story that can be told about this period in our present day,” and despite a shocking and unexpected twist, there is a sense that this is where the film’s strength lies most.


The Childhood of a Leader
Directed by Brady Corbet
Starring Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham and Bérénice Bejo

by Katharine Fry

The Childhood of a Leader was the film I chose to open my time at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. This is director Brady Corbet’s debut that borrows its title and some key themes from Jean Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story. The mini synopsis promised insight into the birth of a terrifying ego in a chilling fable about the rise of authoritarianism.

Duly warned, I went in prepared and from the first chords of Scott Walker’s brilliant pounding score the film looked likely to be a slightly less demonic, more serious take on The Omen. We start with a long shot of a series of little boys drifting past a church window dressed as angels. We are pulled in closer and closer, focusing on one floppy haired blonde with big wings (10 year old Tom Sweet making a remarkable debut). He’s going to turn and look, he’s going to give us the death stare, I think. I’m ready, almost gripping my armrests, the score is grinding, pounding, pulsing, screeching. But no, he passes calmly with nary a glance and so begins a film completely at odds with its own set-up and pacing.

Divided into three chapters (chapters are big in films right now) each one is labelled after one of Prescott’s tantrums. These tantrums, though they do escalate slightly in violence and defiance of his parents, don’t really suggest anything out of the ordinary for any child acting out and getting out of control. So far so disconnected from the premise and again that pulsing score that screams psycho kid psycho kid psycho kid.

And what of his parents? His father, unnamed played by Liam Cunningham is an American working for President Wilson on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles while his mother, also unnamed, played by Bérénice Bejo is the multilingual piously religious daughter of German missionaries. Their marriage it is suggested is not that happy. They may both be having dalliances, her with old friend and her husband’s colleague Charles Marker (Robert Pattinson) and him with Ada, Prescott’s sweet French teacher, but these suggested leads lead us nowhere. The dialogue is sparse and though all actors play their parts well, the feeling is that they don’t have enough material to really bring any meaty sense to the unfolding saga.

The final denouement offers a gearshift, dramatically shifting visual styles and sending us into total disorientation. A ham-fisted juxtaposition of images does nothing for the final result and it’s unclear from whose perspective we are undergoing this unravelling. There is one neat part where Liam Cunningham’s character talks about the rise of evil. It stems, it seems, from the courage be to true to yourself. One man is courageous enough to be true to himself as evil, it is the rest who are lacking the courage to be true to themselves as good.

Corbet talks about being influenced by Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Raul Ruiz and, ambitious though you might term this project, such a confluence of guides does not lead him towards powerful storytelling. The films key tantrums don’t seem enough to herald the birth of a new dictator. Does Corbet then want to warn us that any attempt to discipline any wayward child could lead the rise of a new world order? It seems a weak premise. This is not the 90 minute advertisement for contraception that We Need to Talk about Kevin was.

Go to swim in the sumptuous series of heavy draped sets rendered swoon-worthy by DOP Lol Crawley and drown in the dizzying depths of Walker’s score. Just don’t try to connect them to the slow paced underwhelming story.

(1 for cinematography, 1 for music)

The Endless River
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring Nicolas Duvauchelle, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Clayton Evertson, Darren Kelfkens and Denise Newman

by Katharine Fry

The Endless River by Cape Town-born Director Oliver Hermanus was my second Venice foray into a film broken down into chapters, here three, each dedicated to a different protagonist Gilles, Percy and Tiny.

We open with diner waitress Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) collecting her husband Percy from prison and taking him back to her mother’s house. Their family meal is strained; Tiny and her mother Mona are clearly hard-working God-fearing women both hoping that this time Percy can be a good husband to Tiny following his four year stretch for rape and assault as part of a gang. Cut to Tiny and Percy’s first night together. This is no passionate reunion, his performance is lacklustre and her eyes are empty with sadness.

Cut to another a family living in the town of Riviersonderend – the endless river of the title – this one French and living in a large farmhouse. The wife / mother is all sensual big lips and slender limbs, a housewife of effortless sexy glamour. She calls her two button-cute sons in for the dinner she has lovingly prepared. Husband / father Gilles wanders in for dinner and the prefect family illusion is shattered. Through sparse dialogue and series of glances and withdrawals the strain of their marriage is revealed though no clues are offered as to the cause.

So far, so miserable in both camps.

Gilles quietly wanders out for the night, for no more nefarious reason than to be away but, in his absence, the unthinkable happens. In a scene silent except for its harrowing score, a gang enters Gilles’ farm and his family dispatched in every standard and ghastly brutal way.

We learn very little else about his wife and children. I’m not sure we ever even hear her name mentioned. Their murders serve really only as a catalyst for the major portrait of the film – a man clobbered by grief, anger and trauma, played superbly by Nicolas Duvauchelle.

But how does Gilles’ story join together with our other protagonists and why do they each take a chapter lead? Over dinner Percy recounts events at Gilles’ farm to Tiny and Mona, assuming it to be some kind of gang initiation, similar to those he had known in the past. Percy is silenced on this subject but it seems he hasn’t quite emerged from prison with a clean slate. He is soon drawn back into gang culture with serious implications.

Contrary to Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ it appears to be the shared feelings of anger, loss, sorrow and misery that ultimately unite Gilles and Tiny. Their cultural and social differences are shown up, he confesses that he prefers beer to wine but his wife didn’t want him to become a boer. He asks Tiny if she likes Italian food. Yes, pizza, she says. There’s more to Italian food than pizza, he gently laughs back.

Nothing much more is revealed about their backgrounds but actually more personal information about them isn’t really needed as The Endless River plays out a relationship of separate yet shared grief. With very little dialogue, superbly nuanced acting from Roberts and Duvauchelle, accompanied by an exquisite score and key song from Americana-inflected folk duo Hidden Highways, the tension just keeps ratcheting to an ending that left the audience divided between applause and booing.

Excellent, gripping stuff.


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