Friday, 15 September 2017

Venice film festival

Our critic views the highs and lows at the oldest film festival in the world

The legends duly paraded on the red carpet: Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren; Stephen Frears was given the Glory to the Film Maker award; 1970s mavericks William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and James Tobak (Fingers, The Pick Up Artist), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) were lauded, and one of the best films came from documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman, 87.

Many of the new movies focused on the dark side of the American Dream. George Clooney showed off Suburbicon, a dark satire set in a 1950s ‘cookie cutter’ housing estate. All is peachy until a black family moves in, sparking protests in the town hall and a race standoff outside the newcomers’ house. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Against this simmering backdrop, an adulterous couple (Matt Damon and Julianne Moore) conspire to murder Damon’s wife, claim the life insurance and run off to Aruba. Clooney has great fun, using the violence, ignorance and stupidity to hammer home his points.

Guillermo del Toro ploughed that same field with The Shape of Water, set in Baltimore in 1962, when outer space was staple TV fare and the US government was paranoid about communists and aliens.

Our own Sally Hawkins is excellent as Elisa, a mute who works as a cleaner in a secret government ‘facility’, where her only friend is another cleaner (Octavia Spencer). When agent Michael Shannon brings in an ‘asset’ in a tank and tortures this aquatic creature, it is up to lonely Elisa to connect with it.

Del Toro slathers on the nostalgia, blending period music and B movies with the fairy-tale tone of his The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

He also introduces violence, masturbation, a frustrated gay character (Richard Jenkins), and inter-species lovemaking – a heady cocktail, but a singular vision. And Sally Hawkins might just get an Oscar nod for it.

Adam Haigh (Weekend and 45 Years), the only UK director at Venice, addressed the ‘American Dream’, with Lean On Pete, about orphan Charlie, and his horse, Pete.

Charlie Plummer is superb as the lead (the horse is good, too, but why the long face?), and the film is at its best early on when Charlie hangs out at the racetrack and meets grizzly trainer Del – Steve Buscemi in one of his best performances – and Chlöe Sevigny’s girl jockey.

However, just when you’re getting used to this unlikely family unit, the film bolts for the open range and it’s just Charlie and his old racehorse under the desert sky, sheltering with drifters and getting by on odd jobs.

It’s a tender film, with heartbreak never far away, but it does drift while Charlie (and horse) try to track down a long-lost aunt in Wyoming. The message? We’re all headed for the knacker’s yard. And we all just want a stable relationship. (I thank you.)

Showering small-town America with violence and black humour is Martin (In Bruges) McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The script zings with absurdities and wonderfully nasty speeches delivered by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.

McDormand is Mildred Hayes, who put up the billboards to ask why her daughter’s rape and murder hadn’t been solved by Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby.

The town turns against Mildred, particularly a bullying cop, brilliantly and comically performed by Rockwell. The violence ratchets up until people are beaten, thrown out of windows and burned alive.

Other movies took a gentler approach. Take Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in a film with the snigger-inducing title of Our Souls At Night. They mustn’t say it in the same way in the USA . Or India, for that matter – the director is Ritesh Batra, of The Lunchbox. Fonda knocks at the door of her 15 september 2017 The Lady 57 Right: The Leisure Seeker Clockwise from above left: The Shape of Water; Our Souls at Night; Three Billboards widowed neighbour Redford. and asks if he’ll sleep with her, for the company. He agrees and the two begin a tentative relationship.

Then her son (Matthias Schoenarts) gets angry about it, although not so much that he won’t dump his eight-year-old son with Grandma while he goes off drinking. So she, and initially reluctant Redford, teach the boy some old-fashioned things such as the joy of train sets and camping.

It’s all very elegant, and both Fonda and Redford are excellent. But it was, well, underwhelming. Not so The Leisure Seeker. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are Ella and John. She has cancer, he has dementia, so they decide to depart for one last hurrah, taking the creaky family Winnebago, called The Leisure Seeker, from their New England home to Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys, a place retired English literature teacher John has always wanted to visit.

Their departure panics their grown-up kids, but Ella and John keep on truckin’ and along the way bicker, chat and unearth secrets. Sutherland is magnificent, his eyes at times twinkling with mischief, at others distant. Mirren is all energy and nagging pain. Directed by Italian Paolo Vrizi, there’s a beautiful honesty and authenticity to The Leisure Seeker. It’s wistful and poignant, but also cute and wise and sad.


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