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Venice Announces Awards

September 6th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (0 Comments)


Well, you gotta give Venice points for originality. Two years ago the Golden Lion went to the odd Korean film, PIETA. Last year it went to the Italian film SACRO GRA (which also won best film at the Seville Film Festival). This year, instead of handing out the awards to BIRDMAN, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for the Silver Lion and Michael Keaton for Best Actor, as I would have, well, take a look for yourself.

Regret in Venice

September 5th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (0 Comments)

Any time you leave a festival there are twinges of regret. You chose this film from a filmmaker you love over another by an unknown, only to find that your director has stumbled while hearing the roar of the crowd as the critics applaud the other work rapturously.

There’s also the films you never even had a shot at in the first place because these films screened late (or early) in the festival’s run.

That’s where I find myself now that PASOLINI has debuted. The film made by Abel Ferrara, depicts the final days in the life of the infamous Italian filmmaker and provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini and stars Willem Dafoe in the title role.

The Hollywood Reporter called it “more interesting in theory than achievement.”

Catharine Bray of HitFix said it was a “biopic-as-arthouse-collage, strictly for those willing to dive headfirst into an immersive, bitty, talky, messy and bold scrapbook of Pasolini’s final days”

I’m also missing out on:

Oh well.

Capsule Reviews: OLIVE KITTERIDGE

September 4th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (0 Comments)

There are many reasons to applaud what HBO has done for us, the audience, and for filmmakers wishing to make quality work. One only needs to look to OLIVE KITTERIDGE for the proof of that. The story, based upon a book by Elizabeth Strout, does not have the epic scope nor the “gottcha” cliff-hangers too often the norm now with popular television series. It’s too short, too complex and too intimate to fit the standard definition of a mini-series so networks would avoid making it. The subject matter, mental imbalance and disease and marital and parental discord, doesn’t seem to fit well with habits among the movie-going public so it’s unlikely a studio would have greenlit it. Caught between two worlds the story needed something like Home Box Office.

But it also needed the principal filmmakers. Director Lisa Cholodenko may have produced her best work yet with KITTERIDGE. She has also enabled the best performances from Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, no small feat considering their respective filmographies.

The story is done in four parts and recounts, by going back and forth in time, the marriage of Olive and Henry Kitteridge in their seaside town in Maine. Henry is a positive, easy-going pharmacist who is polite and conforming to a caution. That’s in stark contrast to Olive, a tense, judgmental school teacher. She berates Henry and, originally, appears desperately unhappy in her marriage. They have raised a surly, smart-mouthed boy, Christopher (played, as a teen by Devin Druid), who has picked up his mother’s trait of delivering acerbic and cruel responses. Life looks bleak for all involved and, not being familiar with the book, I wondered when the DOLORES CLAIBORNE stuff was going to start. It never did.

Instead what unfolded was a tender examination and rich character study of what makes some people, and some couples, function or not. Wonderful and complicated no one is given one-note characters. Each has moments of weakness, of pettiness, of vindictiveness but also of kindness and even heroism. This is especially true of Olive.

McDormand delivers the performance of her life. Olive is a scold, a termagent, the kind of woman that other people talk about in hushed tones. She’s the bad mother-in-law, the mean teacher and the hen who pecks her husband in one package. Yes, she’s blunt but she’s also attuned to the lies and niceties of society, put in place to keep people from talking about and acknowledging the real problems, of depression, insanity, hopelessness and cruel fate. In spite of all this she is truly loved by Henry and, eventually in KITTERIDGE, we understand why.

Richard Jenkins’s Henry is another quality creation by the actor. The pharmacist, so utterly cheery, is obviously not a fool, and Cholodenko and Jenkins dig into what makes a man like Henry behave the way he does. Is he so afraid of confrontation and chaos that he’s unwilling to challenge her? Or, is he so attuned to what she’s feeling, knowing her history, that he understands what drives her radical mood swings. In this series, it’s a bit of that and more.

There are also numerous surprises here, of the best kind, both unexpected and organic. To give but one example, when Cholodenko takes us to meet the grown up Chris we expect a petulant, entitled adult. He turns out, however, to be a caring, tender man, a podiatrist by trade, who has worked through therapy to heal the wounds his mother inflicted on him.

To make these revelations work Cholodenko has gotten great performances from all her other players as well. Of particular note is Cory Michael Smith, who plays Kevin Coulson, an abused child who comes back as a haunted young man, and the grown up Christopher, played by John Gallagher Jr.. You can watch Gallagher’s Chris tamping down his genetic inheritance, rage and retribution, in nearly every frame.

Though I would have loved more resolution (there are some characters, such as Kevin Coulson, who essentially disappears) this is a series to be cherished, like a beloved novel, where we are given insight into lives we would dismiss in real life and are richer for it.

Capsule Reviews: LOIN DES HOMMES

September 3rd, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (0 Comments)

LOIN DES HOMMES is writer/director David Oelhoffen‘s captivating tale of friendship, war, and survival which doubles as a thoughtful piece on the conflicted, one could even say crazed, nature of man.

It’s set in Algeria in 1954 at the start of that country’s bloody rebellion against French colonial rule that would engulf both sides, memorably depicted in an urban environment in Gillo Pontecorvo‘s THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and given a fresh perspective here.

Vigo Mortensen plays Daru, who lives by himself in the high plateau and teaches the local Algerian children, about 5 – 8 years old, who adore him. We assume he’s covering a wide range of topics because he’s on geography when the story starts.

But Daru’s teachings are interrupted. As a reservist in the French army he is charged with taking a man to justice in Tinguit, a town a day’s walk away. The man, a local named Mohamed (played Reda Kateb), has murdered his cousin for reasons that are disclosed later. Daru objects to the mission but is coerced into it by a sense of justice, duty and for humanitarian reasons, as Mohamed is a dead man if he stays in the region.

Quickly, the teacher and murderer find out just how wanted Mohamed is when his victim’s brothers, Mohamed’s other cousins, arrive and seek his blood for vengeance. Daru manages to chase them off with his shotgun only to have their group replaced not long after with another. This time it’s Daru’s fellow Frenchman, led by a farmer whose livestock have been slaughtered by Arabs. They want to take out their anger and frustration on anyone who looks like the right race and Mohamed will suffice.

In both cases Daru must act with violence to prevent harm to a man that he ultimately is going to deliver to his death, an irony that is not lost on him. And they haven’t even left the front yard of the schoolhouse yet.

Once they get on the road to Tinguit they are caught in harsh weather and then by the Algerian rebels moving through the foothills. This ragtag bunch takes both Daru and Mohamed as hostages, with the intent of using Daru as a shield against the French. While on the march Daru meets men in the rebel ban he had formerly commanded in expeditions in Italy. These Algerians, who fought beside him and took his orders, greatly admire Daru but as his former comrade says, “I love you like a brother Daru but, if I have to, I will kill you tomorrow.”

That’s a nice summation of Oelhaufen’s approach to the shifting moral code people use and its most graphic expression in situational violence, in life and in this film. It’s pragmatic, used sparingly but used with lethal consequences when employed. This echoes the perspective of violence in another Mortensen film, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE directed by David Cronenberg. In Cronenberg’s film a cafe owner named Tom Stall (Mortensen) reveals himself to be an ex-Mob hit-man whose selected use of a coffeepot, knife and gun saves good people from bad men, although he does so reluctantly.

As with VIOLENCE Mortensen delivers another deep, still-water performance. The actor speaks French and Arabic in the film and, adding to the fact that he is also a good looking actor who played Strider, it’s possible to both admire and envy him at the same time.

Kateb, who was recently one of Variety’s “Ten Actors to Watch” is indeed someone to watch. He has a Jack Elam wall-eye which sets his looks apart from other actors and also lends an enigmatic quality to him. His Mohamed is a worthy foil for Daru and Daru sees in him the spark of decency, mixed with pragmatism of dealing with the world, that reminds him of himself.

As they get closer to their destination and because Daru knows how tenuous life is he’s all the more upset with Mohamed for wanting to follow through on his appearance in Tinguit. Like the root stock they eat while on the journey life is “bitter but it fills you up.

Oelhoffen and his cinematographer, Guillaume Deffontaines capture a blasted landscape that appears to be lifeless and utterly set against anyone surviving on it. And, put a railroad here and a wagon train there and it would remove all the reasons not to call this film a post-modern Western. Oelhoffen seems to have been greatly influenced by the genre, particularly the bridge scene from THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and the very setup from 3:10 TO YUMA too.

Also to be noted, and like YUMA and GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY Oelhoffen also manages to keep some sense of humor about him for such a serious subject and setting. But the levity is contextual and in keeping with character. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to search out the director’s earlier works (1 feature and some shorts) because this is someone who might be around for a while.

Capsule Reviews: THE CUT and THE HUMBLING

August 31st, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

Director Fatih Akin has poured his heart and soul into THE CUT, a film that has the kind of scope not often seen in films this delicate.

Tahar Rahim, terrific in A PROPHET and THE PAST, plays Nazaret Manoogian, an Armenian blacksmith with a wife and twin daughters. It’s 1915, the first third of the bloody first World War and they live in Mardin, in the southeastern corner of Turkey. Nazaret is conscripted by the increasingly desperate Turks to do manual labor for the army. As the Ottoman Empire shudders in its death throes the Turks take their frustration and bigotry out on the Christian Armenians. Nazaret’s road gang is summarily executed by having their throats’ slit by the Turks but Nazaret is saved by one conscientious objector who merely pierces his neck.

The charade saves his life but leaves him unable to speak. To compound his woes he discovers that Mardin has been sacked and his wife murdered. He never learns the fate of his daughters.

Despising God and aimless he is saved by a Muslim soap-maker who takes him in alongside other refugees. After the war ends Nazaret joins a village showing of Charlie Chaplin‘s THE KID, where he is told by another former resident of Mardin that his daughters are still alive. Thus begins a quest to find them that takes him from Jordan to Cuba, to Florida, to Minnesota, to North Dakota.

Rahim carries the film on his often motionless, but never emotionless, face while Akin manages to keep the audience enthralled in this tale of animalistic cruelty and inhumanity which easily could have become repellant.

For all that I had hoped for a more cathartic ending then the one Akin is prepared to give and seems to admire from Chaplin, as he shows the final heart-rending, ultimately uplifting ending of THE KID. To spend so long with one man’s search, watching rape, stonings, and mass murder it would have been more like a movie and less like real life, to have had a more triumphant finale.
7.9/10

Much like the THE HUMAN STAIN and ELEGY, the Philip Roth adaptations that precede it, THE HUMBLING is a May/December romance that mixes powerful characters with a seriously creepy vibe.

Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, a famed actor who takes a header off of the stage and decides to retire. Not allowing him to go gently into that good night, or anywhere else for that matter, is his goddaughter, Perdeen, played by Greta Gerwig. She’s long idolized Simon and she takes it from mere admiration to sex, even though, as we’re repeatedly told, she’s a lesbian.

Like STAIN, where Nicole Kidman character, Faunia Farley, played the hyper-sexualized seductress talking so dirty that poor Anthony Hopkins‘s character, Coleman Silk, has to stand to and be a man, there’s more than a bit of “it’s not my fault” at play here.

Certainly there are some winning moments from director Barry Levinson and cast. A sequence where Simon has to take dog tranquilizers and is left nearly incomprehensible to Perdeen’s parents and his old friends, is quite funny.

But the movie is still quite creepy and that overshadows everything else.
7.5/10

Review Capsules: THREE OF HEARTS and HUNGRY HEARTS

August 31st, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

Director Benoit Jacquot has made all kinds of films from 1995′s widely lauded A SINGLE GIRL (which was, for me, a tedious extended tracking shot) to 2012′s Versailles drama FAREWELL, MY QUEEN.

THREE HEARTS is an immensely watchable French potboiler with three excellent leads in Benoit Poelvoorde (also seen in Venice in THE PRICE OF FAME), Charlotte Gainsbourg (also here in the extended cut of NYMPHOMANIAC I and NYMPHOMANIAC II), and Chiara Mastroianni (also in THE PRICE OF FAME).

Poelvoorde plays Marc, a tax auditor who, stressed out, is pacing the streets of Lyon one night when he runs into Sylvie (Gainbourg). They have an immediate attraction towards one another but, instead of rashly acting out on it, they promise to meet in Paris the next Friday, at 6:00PM. Sylvie goes home to her long-suffering boyfriend and announces that she’s fallen in love with someone. The next week Sylvie makes the rendezvous but Marc suffers a minor heart attack and is late. Sylvie goes back to her boyfriend who announces that he’s been reassigned to America and he wants her to go with him, which she does.

A few months later Sylvie’s sister, Sophie (Mastroianni) seeks tax advice. Sylvie had run the books at their mother’s antique store but some irregularities were found. Marc offers to help Sophie and they strike up a romance that blossoms into a marriage and, later, a child. Though Marc is unaware that his new bride is the sister of his passionate one-night romantic encounter he clearly feels he had missed out on the love of his life and has settled, a fact not lost on the girls’ mothers, played by the stately Catherine Deneuve (who, incidentally, is Mastroianni’s real mother). Sophie and Sylvie, dearly beloved sisters, have no idea that one is married to the man that the other nearly left her boyfriend for.

Slowly, though, and this is where Jacquot has the most fun, Marc begins to suspect a possible connection between his wife and his near-fling. Certain phrases are used by both. Certain gestures. Most delicious is the spiral staircase in the girls’ mother’s home. The base has photos of their sisters when they were girls. Marc fears going up the staircase to see the age progression.

When Marc and Sylvie finally reconnect, on Skype of all things, they set in motion a series of events the Greeks would be proud of. Well, the French should be proud too.

8.1/10

The first stinker, out-and-out stinker at Venice is HUNGRY HEARTS about a new mother, played with creepy effectiveness by hot, new Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. The young woman’s theories of impurities and her son’s faultlessness are symptoms of the mental illness that causes her to nearly starve her newborn baby to death. Hot young American actor Adam Driver plays her increasingly concerned husband, and both actors convincingly portray a couple fraying at the ends. You play the increasingly annoyed audience member.
4/10

Review Capsules: 99 HOMES and MANGLEHORN

August 31st, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

Strong performances by Andrew Garfield and particularly Michael Shannon make Ramin Bahrani‘s 99 HOMES a real estate WALL STREET. After Rick Carver (Shannon) evicts Dennis Nash (Garfield), Nash’s son and his mother (Laura Dern) out of the house that has been in their family for years Nash strikes a Faustian bargain. He becomes Carver’s right-hand man, succumbing to the chance at easy money and the possibility of buying back his repossessed home.

Bahrani depicts this world of greed, of broken promises, and loss extremely well. But, as we all know, a change of heart must occur and Nash must be thoroughly motivated to do so. Thus, when Mom and his boy evince horror at his new profession and reject the McMansion he’s bought for them, over the evictee hotel they’ve been living in, it doesn’t wash. The final act of the film layers it on even thicker, which takes away from the very good film that came before it. 8.2/10

I’ll never give up on director David Gordon Green but MANGLEHORN definitely had me wanting to move back to my mother’s for a while. Al Pacino plays the titular character, a locksmith who has locked his heart away. He’s awful to everyone including his son played by Chris Messina and even the cute teller at the bank, played by Holly Hunter, who for reasons only screenwriter Paul Logan must know (cause Green doesn’t), thinks this bitter, distant old man is a real catch.

The straw that had me packing my bags and putting the kids in the station wagon was the carwreck/watermelon scene, followed closely by the message parlor scene, which features Harmony Korine. 5.8/10

Review: SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY

August 31st, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY is a silly, old-fashioned, sometimes cringe-inducing, endearing comedy from long-dormant director Peter Bogdanovich. It’s also surprisingly, though infrequently, extremely funny.

It’s surprising because those laughs come in the middle of the film after a lugubrious first 15 minutes, which seems like watching an old Catskill comedian running through his opening. We meet fabulously successful actress Izzy, played by Imogen Poots (still looking for the role that will fit her obvious talents), being interviewed by a journalist (Illeana Douglas). Izzy recounts her meteoric rise to fame, dishing some kiss-and-tell, and talks about old Hollywood stars (nostalgia, the tip-off of any older person). Judy, for her part, must secretly be peeing her pants with excitement because she is getting access and asking questions that no publicist in their right mind would ever allow their client to answer. Not even a Kardashian.

See, Izzy, before she became a fabulous actress, was a prostitute (inset rim-shot). Even with her heavy NewYaaak accent she must be particularly good at what she does because she has a judge (Austin Pendelton) so smitten he’s hired a gumshoe to tail her and a famous film director so enamored after one night with her he offers her $30,000 to leave her life of easy virtue.

The director is Arnold Albertson and he’s played by Owen Wilson. Arnold’s a serial philanderer whom you’d think would have other things to do. He’s directing his wife, Delta, played by Kathryn Hahn, in her return to Broadway and she’s bringing their kids along.

Arnold’s also managing a high strung lead actor, played by Rhys Ifans, whose taking the lead role in what sounds like a truly awful play, “A Grecian Evening,” written by a nebish screenwriter named Joshua (Will Forte). Joshua is dating the worst psychologist in the world, a foul-tempered, scolding woman named Jane (Jennifer Aniston), who sees both Izzy and her judge as clients, though neither of them knows this.

When Izzy decides she’s going to take her windfall and pursue her dream of acting it has her auditioning for “A Grecian Evening,” running lines against Delta as Arnold squirms in his seat. Hilarity ensues.

Actually, for several stretches, hilarity does ensue. Aniston hasn’t been this funny since the start of the Obama administration. Screwball spitfire delivery, a grandparent of sitcom patter, suits her. A rondelet at a local Italian restaurant, where all the principals are in attendance, has great comedic momentum as does a hotel sequence anchored with another great performance by Lucy Punch, as an Eastern Bloc prostitute.

But there are still a number of moments that stop the movie cold or least make its back seize up. Izzy’s accent would have made Jean Hagen‘s Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain plug her ears. The appearance of Cybil Shepard and Richard Lewis, as Izzy’s parents, also seems like Bogdanovich calling in old favors, those he’s doing himself none by having them. Lewis is particularly painful to watch as he seems ill.

But, for all its cinematic lumbago there are enough laughs, that SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY strikes one as Bogdanovich’s wistful delivery of the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.

7.5/10

THE PRICE OF GLORY and TALES reviews

August 28th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Uncategorized | Venice - (Comments Off)

The Price of Glory (La Rancon de la Glorie) is based on the bizarre but true story that took place in the waning days of 1977, right after Charlie Chaplin had died. In this forgotten saga two men came up with the hare-brained idea to dig up his corpse and attempted to to ransom it back to his family. The two criminals here are Eddy, played by Benoit Poelvoorde, and Osman, played by Roschdy Zem. Neither Eddy nor Osamn are very good as kidnappers. Osman is a family man with a young daughter and a sick wife, which makes him desperate to figure out a way to cover her medical bills. Eddy is a seemingly dim bulb who comes up with the scheme.

The film is directed by Xavier Beauvois, who is best known for Of Gods and Men, which is a much more somber picture. But Beauvois has managed to make Price of Fame tender and sweet. It is however, also overly long at 114 minutes, isn’t terribly funny, for a film that bills itself as comedy, and it is absolutely drowning in an otherwise quite pleasant score by Michel Legrand. Scene after scenes has the score ladled over it and dripping down the sides. 7.2/10

TALES, directed by Rakshan Bani-Etemad and written by her and Farid Mostafavi is a compilation of personal stories of people struggling with the day-to-day travails of living life in Teheran, Iran. There are no jihadists or honor killings in the film but there are a lot of adulterers, druggies, and illiterates. This may come as a minor shock to others besides me but heroin and meth are talked about more here than I would have thought supportable.

Though some of the stories are compelling much of it makes you feel like you’re working the front desk at the Iranian Customer Complaint Bureau and these particular arcs in the film outstay their welcome. 6.7/10

BIRDMAN Review

August 27th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s ambitious, existential, stream-of-consciousness, comedy/farce BIRDMAN is an audacious gamble and a grand stage for actors, particularly for those who have never had a chance to show their serious chops on the big screen. (Any big actor who has fallen from grace should be ringing Inarritu’s agent this weekend for his next film.)

First and foremost among these is Michael Keaton. He plays Riggan Thomson, a movie actor who walked away from a successful superhero franchise entitled “Birdman” (any similarities between this film and the “Batman” character that Keaton assayed in the ’90s is purely coincidental. Purely.). In a full-throttle performance Keaton upends most of what we’ve ever thought of him and his toolkit as an actor. He doesn’t appear to be baring his soul, he appears to be working his ass off, using an arsenal of intellect and empathy to create a character from whole cloth. Where we’ve formerly seen humorous, improvisational riffing we can now see deep understanding, where we once saw responses to a situation we now see a man in character, where we once saw a jester, we now see a king.

But there is a wealth of opportunity in Inarritu‘s innovative, collaborative screenplay. A rich, funny take on the desperately hard act of creating art, a critique on current societal norms and our possibly bankrupt culture, and a fascinating character study, credit is shared with three others: Nicolas Giacobone (who co-wrote Inarritu’s last film, the searingly painful, beautiful BIUTIFUL), Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, who also co-wrote BIUTIFUL). It must be noted that, were this a true super-hero film, the presence of more than two writers would likely be mocked.

Keaton’s Riggan is trying to mount a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver‘s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that he himself adapted, is directing and is starring in. When we meet Riggan the rehearsals are going so badly that he arranges for a stage light to fall on one of his actor’s heads to get the hack off the stage. But that’s just one of Riggan’s many problems. He may have impregnated his co-star, he’s in debt, he’s fighting addiction, and, worst of all, battling against the super-ego voice in his head that sounds a lot like the gravely voice of Birdman. And, in a classic example of sticking with “the devil you know,” his injured actor’s replacement, is the trained stage actor Mike, played with playful energy by the phenomenal Edward Norton. Mike both disrupts and improves the preview performances but has no respect whatsoever for Riggan, which, really, is what the former movie star craves most of all.

In the press conference for the film Inarritu stated that the inspiration for this entire enterprise was Phillipe Petit, the performance artist who walked a tightrope from one World Trade Center building to the other, documented in the film MAN ON WIRE. That can be seen in nearly every frame. Numerous scenes are gasp-inducingly long takes, with tracking shots in tight corridors that seem impossible, while these tightrope walkers are turning in the performances of their lives. Inarritu breaks this style up with short, shocking, visionary moments of Riggan imagining he truly has super-powers, that he sees a Wormwood like destruction of the world while his own personal Birdman flies behind his shoulder filling him the worst advice possible. You can almost see the pole bending and Inarritu steadying himself and his cast and crew several times in the film.

Also allowed to show a grittier and less oafish side, in a small but critical role, is
Zach Galifanakis, who plays Riggan’s producer. Galifanakis is comic relief but in a way that he’s never been before. He’s not aping another, nor swishing his way across the screen. He’s a scared, lifelong friend of Riggan’s whose career is on the line.

But every actor here is in top form. Naomi Watts and Emma Stone give possibly the performance of their lives and Andrea Riseborough continues to prove herself one of our most compelling actresses.

BIRDMAN is indeed a tight-wire act between the towers of creativity and acting and the film ends up on the other side with both hands high in the air in triumph.

9/10