Venice 2009 Round-Up

This year's Venice Film Festival has just wrapped up. was naturally there to get all the scoop on the hits, the misses and the strangenesses (hello, Nic Cage) from the event.

We've pared it all down to 11 key movies. Here's what we thought of them all...

South Of The Border

A companion piece of sorts to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, Oliver Stone’s latest documentary, following films about Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, began as an attempt by the Wall Street director to challenge the US media’s overwhelmingly negative image of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who, throughout the Bush term, was depicted as a subversive, a terrorist and an enemy of the United States.
Travelling to Latin America, Stone paints a rosy picture of a President loved by his people (although we never hear from them), and a continent on the cusp of radical change, with Chavez at its fulcrum, ready to stand up to its North American neighbours both financially and politically. Chavez himself makes for a dream subject.

Like Stone, a former military man, he’s outspoken and jocular, with a wry sense of humour (“this is where we’re building the Iranian nuclear bomb,” he deadpans on a visit to a corn processing plant); quite different to the anti-American dictator portrayed in some well-chosen and largely hysterical clips from Fox News.

Then again, Stone is hardly unbiased himself, the film neglecting to mention a recent referendum to remove the limit on the length of Chavez’s term in office.

Widening his net to include other South America leaders, Stone also sits down with the Presidents of Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina, where he asks the female incumbent, Cristina Kirchner, how many pairs of shoes she owns. Her comeback is priceless. 

Next: Capitalism: A Love Story



Capitalism: A Love Story
Another helping of Michael Moore’s hugely entertaining cinematic propaganda, this takes as its central tenet the notion that capitalism is inherently evil and thus should be eradicated.
Ultimately less an attack on capitalism per se, than the banking industry in general and, specifically, the US banks who last year forced through a $700 billion handout from Congress, it features the now standard mix of archive footage and interviews, polemic and pranks, with Moore driving an armoured truck up and down Wall Street asking for the money back, and posting yellow Crime Scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange.
Despite returning to themes familiar from his breakthrough doc Roger & Me, and raking over a topic as fresh in mind as the recent global economic meltdown, Moore constructs a compelling, thought-provoking argument, his contentions as convincing and as effective as ever, despite his tendency to oversimplify.

His typically scattershot approach takes in such issues as low pay for US airline pilots; families filmed being evicted their homes; the sub-prime mortgage market; the scourge of Reaganomics; financial deregulation; George W Bush; the undue influence of Goldman Sachs on the US government; before ending on former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unrealised call for a second bill of rights which would have, effectively, ushered in a socialist state.
Sometimes crude, sometimes sentimental but always the master manipulator, Moore makes his case with great passion and persuasion. The film ends with a rallying cry to the working man, calling upon him to rise up against the wealthy.

It’s a worthy sentiment, although one suspects the film might well be another case of preaching to the converted. But at least in Barack Obama, Moore’s finally got an American President he believes in.

Next: The Road


The Road
Equal parts post-apocalyptic horror and arthouse drama, John Hillcoat’s much-delayed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is as unrelentingly grim and grueling as anyone who’s read the book might expect.

But it’s also undeniably moving, a heartbreaking story of parental love and the ends to which a father will go for his son.
In an America devastated by an unexplained catastrophe, a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his ten-year-old Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudge along its scorched highways, foraging for food, all the while heading south, towards the sea.
Every day is battle for survival, an endless, repetitive slog through barren, blackened terrain, in fear of the marauding gangs of gun-totting cannibals that trawl the very same roads on the lookout for someone to eat.
Joe Penhall’s spare, tense script is largely faithful to the source material, save a few too many flashbacks to the Man and his pregnant Wife (Charlize Theron) in both their pre-catastrophe life and after, when, despondent and scared, she advises suicide as their only option.
The film’s vision of a dying world, a ruined land of charred, skeletal trees, perpetual rain, raging firestorms and drab, grey skies choked with smoke, devoid of animals, colour and hope, is a thing of chilling, desolate beauty.
But this is Mortensen’s movie make no mistake. Physically gaunt and spiritually haunted, his raw, convincing portrayal of an anguished man driven on by his undying love for his son anchors what is ultimately a harrowing but powerfully affecting film.

Next: Tetsuo: The Bullet Man



Tetsuo: The Bullet Man
An English-language reboot of Japanese writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto’s two-decade-old black-and-white body horror nightmare Tetsuo: The Iron Man, this doesn’t deviate much from the template laid down by the original, nor, for that matter, its 1992 colour sequel, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, offering an even more frantic fusion of man and machine to the same headache-inducing affect.
Prone to regular bouts of anger, soothed only by singing “Hush Little Baby” to himself, Anthony (Eric Bossick), a half American, half Japanese salaryman living in Tokyo with his Japanese wife Yuriko (Akiko Monou) and young son Tom (the wonderfully named Tiger Charlie Gerhardt) finally understands why his former bio-researcher scientist father (Stephen Sarrazin) has been so interested in his health when Tom is murdered and his body starts to transform into a metal monstrosity, a human weapon capable of firing bullets from his chest and head.
Sharing with its two predecessors its manic editing style, an eardrum-splitting soundtrack, sledgehammer action sequences, and an old-fashioned approach to special effects, this has all the subtly of a runaway freight train. The acting may be mediocre, but with the film often approaching near sensory overload, that scarcely matters.

Next: Accident


Yet another Hong Kong movie ripe for a Hollywood remake, this Johnnie To production revolves around a quartet of professional assassins who murder their targets by concocting elaborate, perfectly staged chains of events that culminate in fatal accidents, thus eradicating any suspicion of foul play being involved.

 After an arresting opening involving a slow motion car crash, the film proper begins with the spectacular murder of a Triad boss by flying glass, and introduces the four members of gang lead by Brain (Louis Koo) whose paranoia spirals out of control when another job leaves one of his team dead.

Convinced it was the work of another “accident choreographer”, Brain focuses his obsession on an insurance investigator (Richie Jen) who was at the scene, moving into the flat below and setting up surveillance.
 While the concept of an accidental hit man may be familiar from an old 2000AD comic strip, director Soi Cheang’s film takes the idea and twists it into a stylish, taut exercise in trust that grips right up until its ridiculously ending involving a solar eclipse, which succeeds only in undermining all that’s come before.

Next: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans


Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
Less a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult classic than the tale of another crooked, junkie cop going spectacularly off the rails, with Nicolas Cage finally blessed with a suitable vehicle for his increasingly over-the-top acting shtick.
After an-on-the-job injury, Cage’s cop swiftly graduates from his prescription drugs for chronic back pain to snorting cocaine, sniffing heroin and smoking crack.

From there, it’s an easy descent into crime, stealing evidence, ripping off punters for their dope and screwing their girlfriends, then later making a deal with the same drug lord he’s been trying to put away for the massacre of a Senegalese family in order to pay off his gambling debts, as well his high-class hooker girlfriend Frankie’s (Eva Mendes) pissed-off pimp.
It’s all completely loopy and surprisingly entertaining, as Herzog eschews the Catholic guilt and Christ visions, and notoriously hard-edged, grubby tone of the original, for black humour, and absurd lunacy involving hallucinations of iguanas, and a dead man’s breakdancing soul.
Cage’s sleep-deprived, drug-addled performance is suitably energetic, all madcap facial ticks and coked-up psychosis, although his demented, self-destructive cop never plumbs the depths of depravity and menace that Keitel’s did, even if the scene in which he threatens two elderly woman, screaming “I should kill you both, you fucks!” while brandishing his gun at one and ripping the oxygen tube from the nose of the other, comes closest.

Next: The Informant!


The Informant!
The exclamation mark is all-important, since it sets the tone for what is essentially The Insider by way of Richard Lester, a bright and breezy, and downright goofy examination of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in US history, topped off with a poppy, retro score by the legendary Marvin Hamlisch.

In 1992, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) was a rising star at agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland when he suddenly turned FBI whistleblower, wearing a wire and carrying a hidden tape recorder in his briefcase, in order to expose his company’s multi-national price-fixing conspiracy.
So far, so laudable. The problem being Whitacre wasn’t all he appeared to be. Delusional and dishonest, he may have seen himself as one of the good guys, a de facto secret agent (he dubs himself 0014 “because I’m twice as smart as James Bond”), yet wasn’t above sticking his hand in the corporate coffers, siphoning off $9.5 million to fund his lavish lifestyle.
What could have been a po-faced, serious examination of corporate greed becomes something altogether more fun and wry, with Soderbergh, visually and tonally, adopting a jaunty, absurdly comic style that brings to mind both Peter Sellers and Richard Lester, while Damon, who gained 30lbs and sports an unflattering moustache, is a simply excellent, his brilliantly comedic performance nailing the complicated inner workings of the unreliable and wildly imaginative Whitacre, but never losing sight of the man behind the lies.

Next: Lebanon


Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz’s stunningly assured debut is set during the first 24 hours of the 1982 Lebanon War and, bar three shots, takes place entirely within the confines of an Israeli tank. Tense, claustrophobic, incredibly harrowing and totally gripping, the film, which I’ve taken to calling Das Tank, is based on Maoz’s own experiences of that conflict, and is, quite evidently, the work of a man still exorcising his emotional demons.
As the film begins, a new gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat) joins the tank’s existing crew of Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander, Yigal (Michael Moshonov) the driver, and assistant gunner, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen). Sent to accompany a paratrooper unit on its way to a Lebanese village, the four dirty, sweaty men inside the tank are told to expect no resistance but things don’t work out as planned. The troops are trapped, the tank’s hit by a missile, and the crew, already panicky and paranoid, succumbed to shock and fear, bickering amongst themselves and with their commanding officer Jamil (Zohar Strauss).

Almost immediately, Maoz succeeds in trapping the audience inside the tank with the four soldiers, restricting the outside world entirely to views through Shmulik’s viewfinder. In many ways, this could be a film about any war, any four soldiers.

Maoz isn’t interested in making any big political statement, nor does he offer a radically new take on the futility of armed conflict. Rather, this is an intimate and visceral slice of his life, as he remembers it. Not necessarily a true story, but a truthful one.

Next: The Men Who Stare At Goats



The Men Who Stare At Goats

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson, this purports to be the “60% true” story of a secret division of the US military trained in psychic powers after the Vietnam War. These “Jedi warriors” were taught how to pass through walls, burst clouds, read enemy minds, and even kill goats by staring at them.

George Clooney, channelling his best Coen Brothers’ slapstick, is Lyn Cassady, the most gifted of these psychic spies, Jeff Bridges, back in Big Lebowski mode, plays the secret unit’s new age hippy chief, while Ewan McGregor stars as the journalist investigating the New Earth Army.

Jettisoning some of the darker elements present in Ronson’s book in favour of something altogether more light and frothy, the script runs out of gas about two-thirds in, but it scarcely matters since the performances are, to a man, a blast and the gags come thick and fast. And, for the most part, are very funny.

Next: George Romero's Survival Of The Dead



George A Romero’s Survival Of The Dead

For the sixth instalment of his ongoing zombie franchise, George A Romero’s offers up a zombie western, a gory riff on William Wyler’s The Big Country.

Not a direct sequel to 2007’s Diary Of The Dead, although it shares with it one scene and one character, renegade National Guard sergeant Nicholas “Nicotine” Crocket (Alan Van Sprang), this begins six days after the dead have started to walk and is set mainly on the fictional Plum Island where two warring families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, are engaged in an escalating battle, with both “Dead Heads” and Crocket’s unit caught in the middle.

Typically gory with some inventive new kills, this lacks the social commentary of previous Deads, but is no less entertaining for it.


Next: White Material



White Material

Set in an unnamed African country where Isabelle Huppert’s coffee plantation owner struggles to harvest her crop and hold onto her land as a civil war rages around her, Claire Dennis’ complex, atmospheric film represents a return to the subject matter of her debut, Chocolat, namely French colonials in Africa.

Headstrong and ruthlessly driven, Huppert’s Maria doesn’t exactly engender much sympathy as she ignores calls from the retreating French army to leave, putting her extended family at risk for the sake of the harvest and her dependence on the land, ultimately unable to prevent the inevitable tragedy as the plantation is overrun by child soldiers. Powerful stuff.

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