With the autumn festivals coming thick and fast, Venice’s heat and mosquitoes seemed a long time ago. But the world’s oldest film festival served up some cinematic gems, even if it operated at a lower voltage than usual.
The Writers Guild and SAF-AFTRA strikes combined to create a lacklustre red carpet at the festival. While fashion models usually only hold the glamorous fort on the premiere carpet until the big stars arrive, they had to run the whole thing alone this year. It looked lovely for a few minutes but soon felt like a delicious starter without the main course. Local Italian talent, meanwhile, made the most of the Hollywood absence, often choosing to walk the short distance from the Excelsior Hotel to the Sala Grande, knowing they would be mobbed by the crowds waiting to see movie stars. Otherwise, many disappointed fans didn’t see the likes of Bradley Cooper or Emma Stone. A few films, such as Priscilla, managed to obtain SAG-AFTRA dispensation for their teams to walk the carpet and promote the movie, but most didn’t.
I missed the festival’s opening days but quickly gathered that popular opinion: Poor Things is incredible. Emma Stone is likely on target for a second Best Actress Oscar for the sheer depth and expanse of her role across the film. Maestro was either ‘perfect’ or ‘a little disappointing’ depending on who you spoke to. Carey Mulligan was widely praised as a likely awards contender. Ferrari, starring Adam Driver, received mediocre reviews.
Films I saw
The first of two films about boxers I watched at the festival, this is the true-life story of Italian-American boxer Willie Pep, a former featherweight champion, long past his glory days in 1964 when the film is set. The film is as exuberant, cocky and demanding of your attention as Willie himself played with relish by an impressive James Madio, giving off distinct Joe Pesci vibes. The themes are familiar: a man facing a midlife crisis, having once been King of the Hill, a mismatched marriage to a much younger second wife disintegrating, and a drug-addicted adult son paying for the sins of the father. Still, it’s all handled assuredly by the director and empathetically by a solid cast to produce an engaging, likeable meditation on life after you’ve grasped and held the dream in your hands, only to let it slip away. 4/5
Inspired by Henry James’ novella The Beast in the Jungle, this science fiction romance drama stars Lea Seydoux and a (mostly) French-speaking George MacKay (and very well and dreamily does he speak it, too)!
In the bleak future of 2044, when human emotions are considered a threat to the smooth functioning of society, Gabrielle (Seydoux) embarks on a process to purify her DNA. She enters a machine that will immerse her in her previous lives and help her eliminate the powerful feelings that still engulf her and make her unhappy. Even as she undertakes the process, she meets Louis (MacKay) and feels strongly connected with him, as if they’ve known each other.
They have lived as near lovers over three distinct periods and lifetimes. We follow the earlier incarnations, including the first in Belle Epoque era Paris (the best and most tender coupling). Though their connection runs deep, it has remained unfulfilled until now. Will it finally bloom, ironically, in the era of the machines when emotions are deemed dangerous?
Both leads are utterly beguiling in their various guises; Mackay particularly shines. The Beast is unsettling, visually gorgeous, terrifying, and seductive while also chillingly distant. An exquisitely crafted, beautiful nightmare. 5/5
It is a frantic, funny, painfully accurate depiction of creating a fantasy for the screen while mired in anything but off-screen. Written and directed by Cédric Kahn, Making of is three projects in one. There’s the story of factory workers fighting to stop their factory from being relocated, the film that is being made about the workers by Simon, a celebrated French filmmaker and the Making of documentary about Simon’s film. The latter has fallen into the hands of a wannabe filmmaker who only came on set as an extra so he could pass a script he’s written to his idol, Simon.
Each project quickly becomes beset with seemingly insurmountable problems as the participants squabble amongst themselves, divide into opposing camps and worry if there will be a paycheck at the end. Between the professional obstacles, the main characters all have to battle with the personal problems that have raised their heads at the most inconvenient time.
Kahn so expertly and deftly handles the ensuing chaos in each project that you feel you’re seeing behind the scenes. 4/5
A riot of fun, sexiness, sharp banter, double-crossing and impossibly attractive people falling in love with a true kick-ass story, possibly the audience hit of the festival and could be a crowd-pleaser on the broader market. Glen Powell and Adria Arjona sizzle with seductive chemistry and the kind of romantic back and forth that golden-age Hollywood couples devoured for breakfast.
The story centres around what happens when the office nerd gets sent out on the road to pose as a brutal, lethal hitman and, along the line, meets his irresistible match, who may or may not have a few killer skills of her own.
Linklater’s latest offering might have scored top marks if it hadn’t raised an uncomfortable ethical issue at the end about who decides whether someone should live and what criteria they set for it. 4/5
A painstakingly earnest, well-constructed, well-acted and topical film that could have been more persuasive if it didn’t seek to bludgeon the audience with its politics. Delving into the complex issues of displacement, refugees, migration, changing demographics of European countries, divisive moral positions and human lives, the film follows a disparate group of refugees navigating the hardships (natural and human) at the Polish-Belarusian border. The refugees, who are not referred to as migrants, are sympathetically drawn, as are the activists who risk their own lives trying to help them at the border and bring them into Poland. The good guys include a psychologist who joins the activists and a young guard whose conscience begins to wrestle with his training. Everyone else who doesn’t want to get involved or objects to large numbers of migrants/refugees coming into the country is given short moral shrift. That makes for an uneven and somewhat judgmental exploration of a multi-faceted topic with many jagged edges. 3/5
Day of the Fight
Although largely predictable and arguably cliched in parts, this was one of my favourites at the festival. It’s moving, engaging and strangely comforting despite the harshness, pain and regret it depicts. It’s essentially the life, captured in one day, of boxer ‘Irish Mickey’ Flanagan, a former middleweight champion, as he takes a chance on one last fight, which could be to the death.
Before he steps into the ring, Mickey spends the day visiting essential figures from his life, seeking or offering forgiveness, making amends, paying his dues, and just remembering. Mickey is on a journey of introspection and understanding from the mother who died when he was eleven to the daughter he can only wave to from a distance as she enters the school gates.
Michael C. Pitt is electric as the one-time champion who messed up in life and now wants to do right by those he wronged and come to terms with those who wronged him. Under Jack Huston’s direction, this is a gritty, warm, sentimental, old-fashioned way film that will have you quietly sobbing in parts. 4/5
A debate-provoking examination of the notion of caste, a hierarchical system under which one group is posited as superior to another, Ava Du Vernay opens up discussion about issues of race, slavery, the holocaust, inter-racial relationships and the myths of inferiority and superiority between humans. It’s hot, heavy and demands concentration. But it’s also very human and moving. 4/5
The low-key, understated, slow and reflective antidote to Baz Luhrmann’s showy, frantic, fabulous Elvis, this is the story of Mrs. Presley. 3/5
In the Land of Saints and Sinners
What about rural Ireland makes both the epic landscape and the people such a magnet for filmmakers? Well, the epic landscape and the people, for starters! Following last year’s big hit, The Banshees of Inisherin, In the Land of Saints and Sinners takes a more political path. Set in the 1970s, it follows Finbar Murphy (Liam Neeson), a quiet man leading a gentle life in the remote coastal town of Glencolmcille. He’s even planning on taking up gardening. Seemingly far removed from the political troubles, Murphy has a secret past that comes back to violently claim him when a thuggish group of political killers led by Doirean (Kerry Condon)invade his peace.
From then, the vast expanse of peaceful beauty around him becomes the setting for a brutal action thriller, which remains a meditative reflection on following your dreams and grasping happiness where you can. One of my favourites from the festival. 4/5
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