#Venice2013: In review

There’s a lot to take home from Venice, not least a bit of sun tan and the pesky mosquito bites we’ve been subjected to for the last week. There’s also my uncharacteristic optimism to the state of upcoming cinema that I didn’t have last year. Granted, this is only my second trip to Venice and, even more granted, I didn’t even see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master when it screened on the Lido 12 months ago, but to think my favourite films last year were Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, A Hijacking, or a lesser Brilliante Mendoza film, is startling. Perhaps because I’m more initiated, or more likely because the films were just better, this year was a huge improvement. A strong showing from the Brits in Under The SkinPhilomena and Still Life, Nicolas Cage, Lukas Moodysson and Stephen Frears back on form, Tom Hardy finally proving himself, Terry Gilliam making a good (if not great) film again with The Zero Theorem, a handful of strong docs, and of course the endless (and very good) free coffee in the press room, made a sterling year.

And that’s even when I’ve been informed that audiences at the press screenings were down on last year, but many of the public screenings I attended (all my accreditation would allow) were full or brimming to the edges. We didn’t get into Daniel Radcliffe-starrer Kill Your Darlings (despite the screening room holding 1,300 people), nearly had to stand at the 1,600-seater PalaBiennale for Philomena, and found ourselves having to settle for the overflow screenings of Night Moves, Child of God and even the trashy schlock of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons.

What’s changed over the last few years is the rapid rise of both Telluride and Toronto, which overlaps the end of the Venice festival, and to where a lot of delegates had taken flight by the end of the festival. That’s why many hadn’t even seen the eventual Golden Lion winner, Sacro GRA, a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Rome’s ring road, which screened on the penultimate day of competition.

Sacro GRA, respected but not highly praised, was emblematic of the festival with its top-prize win. Lots of films here were well-reviewed, but few had universal acclaim. Under The Skin, which received rave reviews from British critics, was booed and torn apart by Europeans, while festival favourite and Grand Jury Prize winner Stray Dogs, the Tsai Ming-Liang slow-burner, split audiences. Others such as Tom à la Ferme and Night Moves were liked by many, but rarely out-and-out loved. Only Stephen Frears’ Philomena communicated to the masses, a great big crowd-pleaser that Italians lapped up even more so than the British, but most viewed it as too safe an option to win the top prize, although it did win Best Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It meant there was something for everyone – indeed, the friend I took thought Philomena was his best film, while it doesn’t register in my top five. A good deal of people I met really liked Night Moves, but to me it didn’t feel the breath of fresh air that I wanted from a top film. I found that in Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary Under The Skin, which hugely impressed me right until its rather clumsy conclusion, but my favourite was Miss Violence, still the only film I’ve been brave enough to call a five-star movie here (although I can see that changing in future for UTS), a bruising, challenging, stunningly constructed that highlights the great art coming out of Greece’s tortured society.

Rounding out the top five is the heartbreaking British drama Still Life, starring Eddie Marsan as a council worker who traces relatives for those who have none, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet but hard-edged We Are the Best, and this festival’s winner of the Ed Frankl Batshit-Insane Award, the penis-chomping madness of Moebius.

So here’s that #EdFrankl Top 5:

1. Miss Violence
2. Under The Skin
3. Still Life
4. We Are the Best
5. Moebius

Also shoutouts to PhilomenaJoeTom à la FermeLocke and The Unknown Known, all of which I’d heartily recommend when they’re out in cinemas; or catch Under The Skin, We Are The Best, PhilomenaTom à la Ferme and Locke at next month’s London Film Festival, where reviewed films Night MovesThe Armstrong Lie, plus Venice-favourites which I didn’t see, Gravity and Kill Your Darlings will also be showing.

And the worst film? Undoubtedly Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, but dreary costume drama A Promise starring Rebecca Hall, which I saw on the last night, comes a close second.

#Venice2013: Round-up Time!

Moebius (dir. Kim Ki-Duk) 
The Canyons
(dir. Paul Schrader) 
The Armstrong Lie
(dir. Alex Gibney) 
Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme)
(dir. Xavier Dolan) 


Ooh ‘eck, we’re only a couple of days from the end of 2013′s festival, and since I’m not going to get the chance to review everything in full before I’m back, have a gander through some of the other films I’ve taken a chance on.

Last year’s Golden Lion winner Pieta is released this week in the UK, but already director Kim Ki-Duk has revealed his newest ultra-violent mindfuck at Venice, Moebius.

It was briefly banned earlier this year in South Korea for being too extreme, and from the opening frames, you’ll be getting to know the brace position. We’ve got castration, rape, incest – it’s all there – but remarkably it’s actually rather funny. With no dialogue but full of rounded, emotional characters, it’s clearly directed by someone who knows what he’s doing, threading discordant notes about the male psyche around an orgy of deliously violent images. It’s definitely a wild ride that’s not recommended for anyone except the most hardy, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded.

More madness comes in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons a spiteful erotic thriller-cum-Hollywood satire that comes across more as a way to leer over Lindsay Lohan’s dying career.

The acting is poor across the board, including porn actor James Deen as Lohan’s boyfriend, a vile, sex-pest movie producer, who’d be laughably ridiculous as a character if Brett Easton Ellis’ dreadful script hadn’t reduced the movie to po-faced characters and stuck as a b-movie without ridiculous artistic pretensions.

But most of the pity should remain for director Schrader, who made such touchstone American movies as American Gigolo and Cat People, but has descended to this dreck at the twilight of his career.

On the other hand Lance Armstrong’s career is already consigned to the waste heap, hopefully as a footnote to the sport of cycling that has been drained of credibility since revelations of his doping were confirmed.

Alex Gibney’s documenatry The Armstrong Lie takes its title from a 2005 L’Equipe headline “La Mensonge Armstrong”, which alleged the cyclist had taken EPO in 1999. It’s findings have now, of course, been vindicated.

Armstrong Lie

Gibney began filming Armstrong in 2008, as he was about to make his comeback to the sport for 2009 Tour de France after seven wins between 1999-2005. But when the doping accusations hit in 2012, that film was shelved. Gibney’s documentary shown follows closely that 2009 tour, a insightful, although certainly not extensive, look at Armstrong’s remorseless, vicious drive to win, and his even more intense desire not to lose.

It’s a snappy, entertaining documentary that will enlighten newcomers to the story but leaves little new to report for those already initiated. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping news value of Gibney’s Enron film, nor the harrowing must-be-told story of 2007′s Taxi to the Dark Side, and I felt Gibney wasn’t angry enough at Armstrong. All that the director gives us that’s new is a recent, post-confession sit-down interview where Armstrong is allowed to give his polished, media-prepped narrative that we can see through, but aren’t give to chance confront.

In Tom at the Farm, confrontation is the name of the game. The fourth film by 24-year-old Xavier Dolan, something of a wunderkind in arthouse filmmaking, is a meditation on queer themes, unsurfaced masculinity, all wrapped in a thriller set on a rural Quebecois farm.

Dolan is Tom, visiting the funeral of his lover Guillaume. When he arrives, he discovers that Guillaume’s mother hasn’t heard of him, nor does he even know her son was gay, and Guillaume’s violent brother Francis wants to keep it that way.

It’s primary pleasure is in the sheer unexpectedness of the film, which twists and turns deliciously as Tom’s relationship with Francis starts to develop in mysterious ways. I wondered whether its depiction of homosexual repression was painted too broadly (“gay self-loating” as the Hollywood Reporter put it), but it’s otherwise a taught, Hitchcockian domestic thriller that reminded me, in content if not form, of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen.

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