74th Venice Film Festival

74th Venice Film Festival
La Biennale di Venezia
30 Aug 2017 – 9 Sep 2017
Venice, Lido

by Joanna Orland and Richard Hamer

The 2017 Venice Film Festival brought world famous movie stars, auteur directors and outstanding innovation to the Lido di Venezia. Alongside showcasing a handful of the best upcoming films, this year’s Biennale launched a competition strand for Virtual Reality – the first festival competition of its kind.

While the VR section of the festival felt a bit up-and-coming, the films on display were primarily from industry heavyweights. Opening the festival was Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, with stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig in tow. The highlights of the festival included The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s Golden Lion winning fairy tale, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh’s sharp comic drama which took home the prize for best screenplay, Lean on Pete – earning Charlie Plummer the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Young Performer, and Our Souls at Night – reuniting the legendary Jane Fonda and Robert Redford who were both honoured with Lifetime Achievement awards by the festival.

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Venezia 74

Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikis, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Rolf Lassgård

Downsizing is a peculiar film that seems to mesh what feels like three different movies into one sprawling piece of cinema. There are brilliant comedic moments and overt sociopolitical themes throughout, keeping in the same vain as director Alexander Payne’s previous work. While Payne’s distinct sense of humour is evident in Downsizing, the film lacks the soul of his last film, Nebraska, which remains his greatest achievement.

Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Wiig) are bogged down by debt in their effort to buy a bigger family home. Scientific advances have led to people physically shrinking themselves to live in literally small communities, with less impact on both the environment and their bank accounts. At the last moment, Audrey decides not to join Paul as he begins his tiny adventure in the community of Leisureland. This is a coming-of-age tale of a man already in middle age – as he learns how to live his new life, he learns what it means to be alive… read more

Lean on Pete
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn

Andrew Haigh’s follow up to 45 Years is a very different sort of film. Based on the novel of the same name, this Oregan-based story of a 15-year old runaway is as dark and serious a piece of American contemporary cinema as you can get; a thoroughly unsentimental journey through the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

What it does share with Haigh’s earlier work is an unapologetic slow pace, and a steady compounding of small sadnesses. By the time young Charley (Charlie Plummer) runs away from home, so much has already happened: living in relative poverty – his mother gone and father hospitalised – Charley takes refuge in his summer job working for washed-up racehorse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). He grows especially attached to one of the horses, the eponymous ‘Lean on Pete’ – a somewhat crippled sprinter, past his best. With his home-life at rock bottom, once Charley learns that Del is planning to have Pete sold off and killed, something inside him snaps. Charley runs away, horse in tow, to brave the vast and unforgiving wilderness in search of his estranged Aunt… read more

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson and Ed Harris

Is mother! Darren Aronofsky’s worst film to date? (No, but it’s a close second.)

In what can only be described as pretentious nonsense (and that is putting it kindly), mother! is an abstract attempt at metaphysical poetry, much like The Fountain, and Aronofsky’s debut Pi. We should have realized with Pi what we’d be in for with future Aronofsky. But while Pi shows an inkling of what’s to come in the pretentiousness of his later films, there was still something refreshing in it, enough to peak our interest to give this director a chance to develop further. With his second film Requiem for a Dream, he created a masterpiece, in what remains one of my favourite films of all time. With its success came too much artistic freedom for Aronofsky, freedom which had to be reeled in after the disastrous The Fountain, hence his very low key comeback of The Wrestler. Its success allowed a bit less restraint for Black Swan, whose resounding success leads us back to a film much like The Fountain – an unhinged Aronofsky who tries to take on subject matter grander than he can, or even should, take on; it leaves us with a huge antagonistic mess of a film… read more

Written by Joel & Ethan Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney
Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac

My opinion of Suburbicon solidified after reading that the Coen Brothers originally wrote the script in 1986, right after their debut feature Blood Simple. While they would have worked on it since then, something of that fact still speaks volumes to me. Suburbicon feels like a rejected first draft of Fargo: an unearthed bit of old Coen Brothers curio, with some socio-political subtext glued to the sides to give it a sleek, new look… read more

The Leisure Seeker
The Leisure Seeker
Directed by Paolo Virzì
Starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland

Fine performances can’t fully save The Leisure Seeker from its own mediocrity, but they certainly do try. Ella and John Spencer (Mirren and Sutherland) are an elderly couple on the run from their own children, in order to spend the rest of their limited days together on the vacation of a lifetime. Ella has always promised to take John to Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys, and now that his memory is fading due to Alzheimer’s disease and Ella herself is dying of cancer, it’s now or never. The couple take their old 70’s camper van ‘The Leisure Seeker’ on the road for this one last hurrah… read more

The Shape of Water
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer

After the unintentional knockabout comedy of Crimson Peak, and the slick blandness of Pacific Rim, it’s a pleasure to see Guillermo del Toro return to form in such triumphant fashion. While its creature design and staging evoke memories of Pan’s Labryinth or Hellboy, The Shape of Water is no retreat to past glories. Instead, it’s the work of a director who is still evolving, in a film imbued with qualities I wouldn’t necessarily associate with him: romance, sentimentality, and an almost lyrical storytelling… read more

Sandome No Satsujin (The Third Murder)
The Third Murder (Sandome No Satsujin)
Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring Fukuyama Masaharu, Yakusho Kōji and Hirose Suzu

This is director Hirokazu Koreeada’s 12th feature film, but his first foray into the crime genre. While The Third Murder is not without issues in pacing and dialogue, it is still an interesting example of what an experienced director can bring to a genre outside their normal purview.

Koreeada is primarily a dramatist, concerned with how families are shaped by social structures out of their control. The Third Murder is no different: the ‘murder mystery’ itself is somewhat unimportant – in fact, that is the entire point. This is a movie concerned less with solving a crime, as it is demonstrating how the justice system doesn’t care about solving it… read more

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Peter Dinklage

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is by far Martin McDonagh’s finest film. It retains McDonagh’s classically cutting dialogue, but has a maturity about it that his previous films lack. This is a uniquely wonderful film, showing McDonagh truly coming into his own as a filmmaker.

I have long been a fan of Martin McDonagh’s work from stage to screen. His directorial debut of In Bruges was a breath of fresh air, darkly comic and highly worthy of the cult status it’s garnered since its initial release. Seven Psychopaths may not be as widely beloved as In Bruges, but is still a wonderful showcase for McDonagh’s talent at writing dialogue. The script is key in any Martin McDonagh piece, and while his subject matter is more serious in Three Billboards, his style of dialogue is not… read more

Out of Competition

Brawl in Cell Block 99
Brawl in Cell Block 99
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas, Udo Kier and Fred Melamed

At first, I thought that Brawl in Cell Block 99 didn’t have enough brawls. Or if there were enough brawls – and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of brawls – it’s that the average length, and number of opponents per brawl doesn’t ramp up over time in a sufficiently satisfactory manner. But in fact, the ratio of brawls to non-brawls isn’t a problem; it’s all part of a masterfully crafted trick. It’s the same trick that director S. Craig Zahler pulled in his previous outing Bone Tomahawk, and it’s the reason he’s one of the most exciting horror directors in Hollywood today: he takes his time.

While Brawl in Cell Block 99 is undoubtedly a ridiculous explosion of gratuitous violence, it’s also a movie that understands the importance of investing in a character emotionally, before you plunge them into peril – no matter how crazy or cartoonish that peril may be. And so, the events that lead Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) into a life of crime in order to support his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn child, is given the time it deserves. It’s not until nearly a full hour in that we see Bradley in any kind of cell block… read more

Our Souls at Night
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Starring Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern, Matthias Schoenaerts and Judy Greer

In small town Colorado, Addie Moore (Jane Fonda) nervously approaches her neighbour Louis Waters (Robert Redford) with a proposition. As the two have been mourning the loss of their spouses for some time now, living their later years alone, Addie requests the company of Louis in her bed as she finds nights are the hardest part of the day to get through. There is nothing sexual in her initial proposal; Addie is merely looking to ease her loneliness, and the company of a man she’s always known and found to be nice to talk to and look at isn’t the shabbiest way to do so. Addie and Louis find comfort in each other while they reminisce about their past, happy times and regrets. The characters unfold through their bedtime conversations, and their relationship blossoms into more than mere companionship… read more

Michael Jackson's Thriller 3D
Michael Jackson’s Thriller 3D by John Landis
Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller by Jerry Kramer

Michael Jackson’s Thriller 3D has made its world premiere at the 74th Venice Film Festival. Using the original 35mm film negative, the film was neither reedited nor recut – original Thriller director John Landis used the latest technology to convert the legendary music video to 3D. The modernized visuals also needed some shiny new audio to accompany it, so the score and sound effects have all been updated to 5.7, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos standards. But it really doesn’t matter, because it was perfect in the first place – I’m just happy to have seen it on a big screen alongside other Michael Jackson fans, enjoying it again, many years after it was first created… read more

Venice Virtual Reality

Venice Virtual Reality

This year, Venice Film Festival brings us a competition exclusively for films made in Virtual Reality. Approaching it with the question ‘what can VR bring to cinema that is truly unique and inspiring?’ brings mixed answers, and begs larger questions.

What’s clear is that the VR-literacy of its creators is hugely varied. VR is no longer a truly ‘young’ medium. In the last few years, much has been explored by the videogame industry, and site-specific art and design. In that context, much of the work at Venice feels somewhat naive… read more




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