Film's star may be fading, but its gems still surprise
Amid the undoubted glamour of the Venice Film Festival, a jaded JASON SOLOMONS wonders whether a complacent movie industry might dwindle into irrelevance – until he sees a new production which restores his faith in film
Cinema needs its stars. It's what the big screen has stood for since the silent era, after all, and the 74th Venice Film Festival lined up the legends for a nightly red carpet befitting the world's oldest film festival.
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford were honoured on the Lido; Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren were in stately attendance; silver-fox Venice veteran George Clooney sailed in, wife and twins and Julianne Moore in tow; Stephen Frears received a career award; 1970s mavericks William Friedkin and James Toback were welcomed, the latter in a wheelchair; and one of the best films was by documentary icon Frederick Wiseman, an acknowledged master of the form, still creating three-hour-long movies in his 88th year.
The usual crowds came to pay respects but a cynical soul – or simply a slightly younger one – could be forgiven for thinking the Palazzo del Cinema had turned into an old folks' home (or as the Americans call it these days, a Senior Living Center). I kept asking myself: has the art form that undoubtedly ruled the last century got what it takes to stride so confidently through the next one?
The irony was not lost (on me, at least) when director John Landis took to the stage in the festival's second week, to introduce a restored version of and a 'making of' doc about his once ground-breaking Thriller video. Zombies and the undead stirring in the dark, indeed.
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Cinema's future is much in debate at festivals such as this – it's surely their raison d'être. Out of Cannes last May came the furore about Netflix and other streaming services which threaten the fabric of the old distribution models. To its credit, Venice intensified the issue with a section devoted to the growing world of Virtual Reality film (VR), founding the first serious international film festival competition dedicated to this burgeoning form – and its practitioners – which has been prophetically labelled the 'future of cinema'.
Landis himself was on the jury for that section and admitted to me how VR will certainly change the way a film such as Thriller could be made. The viewer could be surrounded by the dancing zombies, even becoming part of the dance itself.
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Yet for all the gestures of acceptance into the industry's bosom, the VR competition was held on a separate island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, once a leper colony and later a home for the unwanted packs of stray cats and dogs that threatened to overrun the narrow streets of La Serenissima. So VR was welcomed by the traditional film community – as long as it stayed quarantined in Lazzaretto, for now remaining cinema's stray.
I braved the short hop over from the back of the Casino to Lazzaretto, and was astounded by what I saw and experienced there amid the crumbling cloisters and patched-up roof. Films and installations in which the viewer is fully immersed, as if floating in the same rooms as the characters, or surrounded by tropical foliage in the case of Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang and his gorgeous, languid VR piece, The Deserter. (It was only four years ago that this unique film artist won the Jury prize in the main competition at Venice with his film, Stray Dogs.)
All around were people in headsets lost in their virtual worlds. Many were turning around slowly, tilting their heads to see or interacting with some invisible characters or creatures. While huge crowds pour into the cinemas of the main festival (PalaBiennale, Sala Grande, Sala Darsena), these VR films play to an audience of one.
Others present on the island included our own National Theatre's Immersive Storytelling Studio (who knew they had one?) which, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada, created an extraordinary piece called Draw Me Close, written and devised by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, that envelops the viewer in an animated space and combines live performance with active participation.
Telling the story of a mother dying of cancer, in just 11 quick minutes it takes the viewer in their headset on a journey back to childhood. Before I knew it, the animated mother figure – played by a real actress who I couldn't see but could hear and sense – was tucking me up in bed and singing me a lullaby. Coming out of that animated room, and taking off the headset was like coming out of the womb. Or therapy. So intense and emotionally visceral is the film experience that Draw Me Close is game-changing; for some, it might even be life-changing.
Talking with the creators afterwards, it was clear this art form is in its infancy and its possibilities have not yet been fully harnessed. It's the future of something, all right, if not cinema, then maybe theatre. All I knew was that the invention and sheer physicality of it made me feel the old movies ('flatties', as one of Draw Me Close's producers jokingly called them) were in danger of being left behind.
Back on the Lido, I wondered where the new stars might come from, the new wave of filmmakers, or even a new Brat Pack of hot, rebellious actors? Not on Venice's red carpet. The Nina Simone song Marriage is for Old Folks kept running through my head, with the word 'Movies' instead.
And then something amazing happened. I saw a film called The Leisure Seeker.
On the surface it was almost one to avoid, a creaky old vehicle starring Dame Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as a long-married couple, Ella and John, making a final pilgrimage of a road trip from New England to Hemingway's house in the Florida Keys, driving all the way in the titular creaky '75 Winnebago. He is prone to bouts of dementia; she has cancer. Their son is horrified to find them not at home. He rings his sister: 'Mum and Dad are gone – and so is the Leisure Seeker.'
You could practically smell the cheesiness. But, directed by Italian Paolo Virzi, The Leisure Seeker has a redoubtable engine. It trundles on with growing charm and gusto, with heart and soul and Mirren and Sutherland milk it like the legends they deservedly are. There was nothing experimental or fresh here but it was old-fashioned road-trip cinema, beautifully judged, tender and twinkling with Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan on the radio. Suddenly, I found myself crying as I trembled and recognised my family, your family and all life (and death) was there.
And I came out, blinking back the tears into the late Italian summer sunshine and I thought: when the acting, the story-telling and the emotional currents are right and true, then yes, the movies have still got it. And they always will.
Jason Solomons is a film critic, broadcaster and author of Woody Allen: Film by Film
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Four stars out of five
Venice has recently taken back the international spotlight, reclaiming for Europe an increasingly pressurised slot in the autumn calendar against the threat of more upstart North American jamborees in Toronto and Telluride.
One of the instrumental tactics has been to showcase the films that then go on to be major figures in the 'awards conversation', film that everyone talks about all the way up to the Oscars next March.
Martin McDonagh's fire-cracker black comedy should be right up there. Certainly the screenplay from this lauded playwright (whose previous movies include In Bruges) zings with gags and grandstanding speeches, a couple of which received rounds of applause from the audiences here.
When you get great dialogue delivered by actors of the stature of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, you have to sit back and admire and wait until the Oscar nods roll in.
That strange title stems from the actions of McDormand's character, Mildred Hayes, who pays for three roadside billboards to be erected on the way into the small town, alerting townsfolk and passers-through to the fact that the awful murder and rape of her daughter still has not been solved by the local police chief Willoughby (superbly played by Woody Harrelson).
What ensues is a cascade of violence and recrimination that McDonagh manages to play for surreal laughs and dark violence. You'll be reminded of the Coens, particularly of Fargo, but there's a gleeful mischief at play throughout, a film about revenge and hate spiralling until you think it might never stop.
Four stars out of five
The darkside of the American Dream was a constant theme at Venice, and George Clooney's adaptation of an old Coen brothers' script was the most naked assault on its current state.
I loved it, though there were plenty who felt it unsubtle. Clooney directs Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in a pastiche tale incorporating Hitchcock and films noirs (Double Indemnity etc) as well as the real-life events of a race stand-off that took place in Levittown in 1957, when a black family moved into a white 'cookie-cutter' housing estate.
The escalating racial protests provide the backdrop here for a story in which Damon and Moore fake the murder of his wife in order to claim the insurance money.
It's all seen through the eyes of Damon's child, who witnesses murder, lies, sex, brutality and bloodshed, but for whom a nice game of catch and throw baseball with the black kid over the fence could still solve it all.
I liked Clooney's approach here – funny and scabrous, surreal and stylised. Moore is excellent (one flashes back to her more subtle work in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven which had Venice in raptures back in 2002 and won her Best Actress here) and so is Oscar Isaac in the few scenes he has as the claims investigator. I can see why people claimed it was patchy and felt like two films stitched together and tonally inconsistent – but for me, it all came together deliciously.
Three stars out of five
Damon also starred in the festival's opening film, Downsizing – by that laid-back auteur of American dreams Alexander Payne – in which his character is shrunk and leaves Omaha to go and to live in a micro-community where everyone's small, thus taking up less space in our ecologically and economically squeezed world.
It's an enjoyable concept, with some lovely touches of surreal humour, but (for a film about being small) it goes on way too long and is ultimately underwhelming.
Lean On Pete
Three stars out of five
By Andrew Haigh (whose last work was the poignant 45 Years) this latest finds him - as all British directors feel necessary, it seems - making his American movie, a tender, deftly-handled tale of a boy and his horse.
As with Downsizing, I wish this movie – the only British entry in competition – had stuck with the rich promise of its first half, where the action is around the race-track where an orphan teenager (lovely performance from Charlie Plummer – his smile could light up the desert night sky) gets a job mucking out and finds a new family in Steve Buscemi's grizzled trainer Del and Chloe Sevigny's bruised jockey.
Just as we're invested in this unlikely family unit – I'm including old nag Pete in the equation – Haigh makes a bolt for the wide open spaces and it's a bit of slow puncture from there, although Plummer's weathered young face is enough to ensure our hearts will break with every chance encounter along the way – after all, in a tough world where we're all for the knacker's yard, he's just a poor kid looking for, er, a stable relationship.
Two stars out of five
French cinema looked like it was about to deliver a break-out hit in La Melodie, about a glum and frustrated concert violinist, Simon Dauod (Kad Merad), who takes a job teaching music to the rainbow nation of cute kids in an inner-city school.
Sure enough, Simon soon has previously uninterested and bickering 12-year-olds coming together to prepare a promised concert at the Philharmonic and pretty soon, Arnold, Samir, Baboukar, Yael et al are fiddling on the roof of their high-rise council block with the Eiffel Tower glittering in the distance.
There's even a scene of their multi-racial parents all coming together to rebuild the rehearsal room after a dramatically convenient fire. It could have worked, like Dangerous Minds and Music of the Heart meets The Class, but there just isn't enough there (Merad's performance is uncharacteristically dour, especially for one of these 'inspirational educator' movies) to herald a new success to watch out for in the crowd-pleasing mould of, say, Les Intouchables. S
till, you'd need a heart of steel not to feel something as chubby, shy little black kid Arnold delivers his solo at the climax.
The Shape of Water
Three stars out of five
The Shape of Water seems an apt title to premiere at Venice, particularly one which endured it's share of biblical downpours this year, and Guillermo del Toro's latest gothic, fairytale fantasy is of a piece with the Mexican director's earlier work such as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Although this one is in English and set in America, it still uses a naif's point of view to find human connections amid the monstrosities of war.
Here, the war is the Cold War gripping 1962 America, a land of government agents in hats, Russian spies in back rooms and musicals on the TV. Sally Hawkins plays a mute called Elisa who lives in the sort of rickety, snickety rooms only characters in Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet films inhabit, above a picture palace called the Orpheum.
She works in a top secret Government facility, as a cleaner, a black cleaner played by Octavia Spencer her only friend. But her interest is piqued when a dangerous 'asset' is brought in one day, a fishy, scaly creature in a tank that Michael Shannon's scary agent Strickland begins to torture.
Of course, Elisa and the Creature (the 'Thing', as Strickland calls him, ramping up the B-movie references) strike up a friendship over hard boiled eggs and Benny Goodman records played on her portable gramophone. She overcomes her muteness and he overcomes his, well, fish-ness and a they develop a tacit understanding.
It's all twee and quirky, with shades of everything including Woody Allen-style nostalgia and musical fantasy (Sally, herself a Woody alumna of Cassandra's Dream and Blue Jasmine, reminded me also of Samantha Morton's turn in Sweet and Lowdown), but there are some fine set pieces and quite superb production design from Paul D Austerberry (Oscar nominations assured).
It has oomph and heart and is in love with cinema as much as with the notion of love itself – a very romantic tale, as tender and strange as it is kooky, all about hidden desires, both sexual and political, as well as the lies, myths and legends in the stories we tell.
I found it charming and brilliant in parts - the instinctive, fascinating, ethereal performer Sally Hawkins is certainly as you've never seen her before, naked and masturbating and then having sex with a bloke in a ropey B-movie costume. That's when I was reminded of that old WC Fields gag: 'I never drink water. Fish fuck in it.'
Others at this Venice were in raptures over what can be read as yet another dark metaphor for current American fears and mistrust of the alien. It's not, for me, a complete success it's also cloying and silly in other moments, like a naughty child. But this is, ultimately, uniquely of this director's vision, a film that refuses to be nailed down or contained, just like the shape of water itself.
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