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Exberliners in Venice: Heavy hitters, sidebar sensations and festival fracases

Our Exberlinale Bros wrap up their time at this year's Venice Film Festival.

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Photo by Bart Ryker (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Our Exberlinale Bros wrap up their time at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Heavy hitters On paper, this 75th edition of the Venice Film Festival looked set to be one for the ages, with a particularly enticing line-up of heavyweight auteur projects and mainstream awards bait. Things got off to a solid, if unspectacular, start with opening night offering First Man, Damien Chazelle’s suitably bombastic biopic of reluctant all-American hero Neil Armstrong. Spanning most of the 1960s, it’s an engrossing, technically impressive account of the lead-up to the first moon landing, one which is laudably light on flag-waving jingoism. But Chazelle’s handling of the tragic death of Armstrong’s young daughter is a touch heavy-handed, and I consequently struggled to connect with the film emotionally. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, on the other hand, is a knockout on every level. Shot in crisp black and white, it’s a sweeping, Fellini-esque family saga set in 1970s Mexico and viewed largely from the perspective of meek housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). This is Cuarón’s most intimate feature since his exuberant 2001 road movie Y Tu Mamá También, but a slow-burning opening act paves the way for an unexpectedly action-packed second half, with some long-take set pieces that are as thrilling as anything in his dystopian sci-fi opus Children of Men. Let’s just hope that distributor Netflix makes good on its pledge to give the film a proper theatrical release before dumping it on its servers – with extraordinarily immersive sound design and sumptuous 65mm cinematography, Roma begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I also adored Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s unapologetically overwrought follow-up to his austere first directorial feature The Childhood of a Leader. Opening in horrifying fashion with the unflinching depiction of a Columbine-style high school massacre, it swiftly swerves into darkly comic territory, as we learn that one of the survivors grew up to be a Katy Perry-esque millennial pop princess named Celeste, as a consequence of writing a syrupy ballad inspired by her near-death experience. Played as a fresh-faced teen by Raffey Cassidy, and as a booze-addled industry veteran by Natalie Portman, Celeste emerges as a grotesque symbol of 21st-century capitalism, whose personal downward spiral seems grimly inevitable from the outset. Channeling the frostiness of Madonna and the nihilism of Amy Winehouse, Portman delivers an over-the-top but entirely riveting performance, gradually imbuing an initially detestable character with more sympathetic attributes. And as an audio experience it’s positively cacophonous, with breezy pop tunes penned by Sia pitted against Scott Walker’s ominously discordant orchestral score. In many ways, Vox Lox is the evil twin of Bradley Cooper’s rather more earnest directorial debut A Star is Born, the third remake to date of William A. Wellman’s 1937 romantic drama about an aspiring starlet and her doting male mentor. Cooper casts himself as aging alcoholic rocker Jackson, who discovers a major musical talent in Ally (Lady Gaga), a downtrodden waitress and club performer. Gaga is a magnetic screen presence, making every step of Ally’s journey from nervous novice to polished pro feel convincing and relatable. But the real revelation here is Cooper’s deft direction, with the first-timer proving equally adept at delivering flashy spectacle and understated character work. I was also pleasantly surprised by Yorgos Lanthimos’ ripe period romp The Favourite, having been decidedly mixed on the offbeat Greek auteur’s previous English-language films, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Set in 18th-century England, it tells the delightfully twisty tale of two devious women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) competing for the affection of a sickly, emotionally volatile Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Working from a wordy, witty script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos reins in his self-indulgent tendencies, allowing his trio of remarkable leading ladies to take centre stage. Colman has fun with the showiest role, throwing ridiculous temper tantrums and writhing around in gout-inflicted agony. But Stone is equally compelling as the more composed Abigail, who enacts a Machiavellian scheme while hiding behind a façade of sweetness. Naturally, some of my most hotly anticipated titles failed to live up to lofty expectations. Luca Guadagnino’s remake of cult horror classic Suspiria has some exquisite elements – Thom Yorke’s haunting score, a handful of jaw-dropping dance sequences – but the overall experience is narratively convoluted and flat-out unscary. I found the Coen brothers’ ambling anthology western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a similarly uneven experience. At its best. it showcases the siblings’ ability to slide smoothly between goofball comedy and gloomy existentialism, but two of the six chapters felt to me like inconsequential asides. And I was utterly enraptured by the first half-hour or so of Sunset, László Nemes’ follow-up to his harrowing holocaust drama Son of Saul; but this disorienting tale of endemic corruption in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire is ultimately a little too opaque and formally indebted to its predecessor for its own good. But even these relative misfires are worth checking out as they hit German screens over the coming months. –P’OC Sidebar sensations Many of this year’s surprise standouts emerged from the Orizzonti and Fuori Concorso (Out of Competition) sidebars. Emotionally punishing Italian drama Sulla Mia Pelle (On My Skin) opened Orizzonti, and proved to be one of its most hard-hitting watches. Writer/director Alessio Cremonini painstakingly chronicles the real-life events behind the last days of Stefano Cucchi, a young man arrested in 2009 for a minor crime and who was the 148th death in an Italian prison that year; his now infamous court case would prove to be one of the country’s most controversial. Other memorable Orizzonti entries were Mikhaël’s Amanda, a drama about the fallout from a terrorist attack in Paris, which impresses in its exploration of the emotional aftereffects of life-altering tragedy; Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of my Body), an Indonesian fever dream from Garin Nugroho which amuses and confuses in equal measure; and Ni de lian (Your Face), in which Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang lets his camera unflinchingly linger on many faces, which tell stories either with words or with subtle facial gestures. It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, but one that becomes a transcendent and moving meditation on lives lived and regrets accepted. Another one to look forward to is Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary Aquarela, a sensory experience about the beautiful and destructive power of water. Filmed at 96 frames per second, its crisp visuals and frequently abrasive sound design make this an unusually artful reminder that humans have directly contributed to the destruction of the planet. And Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s debut feature Kraben Rahu (Manta Ray) was a worthy winner of the Orizzonti Best Film prize. It’s an otherworldly tale of a Rohingya refugee who slowly assumes the identity of his Thai rescuer when the latter goes missing. It’s a thrilling piece that has echoes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s style and uses silence to an unsettlingly hypnotic degree. The Fuori Concorso section was also strong this year, with La Quietud (The Quietude) scratching all itches for those in need of a ridiculously entertaining melodrama, and Nick Hamm’s Driven closing the festival in a suitably entertaining way. This true story of how motoring designer John DeLorean became embroiled in a forgotten court case overcomes its generic tropes thanks to brilliantly charismatic turns from Lee Pace and a never-better Jason Sudeikis, who have charm and comic timing to spare. But is was a pair of eagerly anticipated docs that unsurprisingly hogged the out-of-comp limelight – Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana and Errol Morris’ extremely timely American Dharma. The latter tackles Trump’s presidency and the current shitshow we all face through the controversial figure of Orwellian-nightmare-made-flesh Steve Bannon. Morris interviews Trump’s former advisor and stylishly orchestrates a film that disturbs and provides insight into how the far-right managed to infiltrate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Wiseman’s latest is an altogether more soothing experience, which deals with small-town America, and sees his unobtrusive and non-judgemental camera observe lodge meetings, weddings and mattress sales. It focuses on the 1400 residents of the titular town in the rural Midwest and lingers on small communities with great empathy and heartwarming authenticity. –DM Festival fracases While this year’s festival was a largely celebratory affair, it wasn’t without its share of headline-grabbing controversy. The first bit of drama swiftly followed the opening night screening of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, when overly reactionary pockets of conservative America demonstrated that the country that once took a giant step for mankind has taken several steps backwards during the last few years. The Neil Armstrong biopic incurred the wrath of right-wingers – including members of the current US government – when word spread that the film doesn’t depict the precise moment when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon, despite that fact that it’s clearly visible in several shots. Another upset was the manner in which the premiere of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the only female-directed title in this year’s competition, was overshadowed by an unsavoury event at its press screening. The film, an angry diatribe denouncing racist and sexist violence, ended with a moronic member of the press screaming “whore” and “you suck” when Kent’s name appeared in the credits. The perpetrator was promptly identified and his press credentials were justly rescinded. Kent issued an extremely dignified response, stating that it is “of absolute importance to react with compassion and love toward ignorance”. Speaking of toxic masculinity, the most egregious display of shameful behaviour this year came from right-wing Italian filmmaker Luciano Silighini Garagnani, who decided it was fine and dandy to pose for photographers on the red-carpet in a t-shirt that read “Weinstein is innocent”. He got the attention he so desperately craved and we were all left wondering who the hell invited him in the first place. –DM