Venice Film Festival capsule reviews

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

It’s hardly surprising that the most anticipated movie of the festival and the talk of the Lido so far has been the opening film, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. A complete shift for the director, Iñárritu leaves behind his melodramas full of sentimentality and heavy-handed human interactions, making the scale of the story smaller – focusing on his lead character – but approaching the film much more ambitiously.

Indeed, the way the film is shot – manipulated to look like a single shot for most of the film – is simply astonishing. It’s not only impressive to watch but also drives the film very efficiently, taking on a large thematic scope and a dynamic screenplay and packing it up seamlessly, giving the film a constant fast tempo that only slows down towards the ending where the director inserts a weirdly assembled montage, intended to keep the suspense, but sort of killing it instead.

But the main reason why the experiment and the whole film really work as well as they do is Michael Keaton’s lead performance. He takes what is basically a self-parodic character and creates a fascinating portrait of an actor trying to return to his glory days, succeeding in both creating this big, showy character as well as toning it down for the contemplative moments. A prominent critic informs Keaton’s character that Broadway doesn’t want him there and the contrast between Hollywood and Broadway is also cheekily incorporated into the film itself. It’s written on the scale of a theatre piece but using all the possibilities of cinema, becoming an ode to the grandeur of theatre as well as the bombastic spectacle of the big screen.

Flawed as it is, with problematic plot development in the second half and only semi-successful incorporation of surrealism, Birdman is still a grand, rich cinematic achievement and experience.

 

One on One (Kim Ki-duk, 2014)

One familiar with Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s recent work will not be surprised by his latest film which opened the Venice Days section. It’s as violent as expected and just as empty and pretentious.

It already fails to work on the first level as the screenplay is contrived, pretentiously complicated, full of repetition and ridiculous dialogue. The over-styled directing and the over-the-top acting only make it worse. There is a considerable amount of socio-political commentary, but it never goes deep enough to tell us something we didn’t know and at times, it’s simply too obvious (“At least it’s not as bad as North Korea”). The film does have some passionate defenders here on the Lido, but unless you’re up for torture (not only on screen), I advise skipping it.

 

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)

Revisiting the subject of The Act of Killing (the Oscar-nominated documentary from 2012), The Look of Silence is less a follow-up and more a companion piece or perhaps simply a look from a different perspective. Once again it deals with the killings of supposed communists (who are actually just normal citizens) in Indonesia in the late sixties, but it focuses on a single story of a man confronting the killers of his brother. As the topic is less ambitious, so is the filming technique. This time, Oppenheimer adopts a more traditional style, based on interviews and recollections. Nonetheless, the film still triggers a visceral reaction as the personal experience of the survivors is just as affecting and shocking as the portrait of the killers. The two central characters, the victim’s brother and mother, are intriguingly explored and the slow reveal of their story really burns.

What separates this one from its predecessor is the smaller scale and more direct focus, but they’re distinctly connected by the visual style, somewhat rare in documentary cinema, leaving behind the usual naturalistic aesthetics and opting for long silent shots and bright colours. The style makes the film incredibly cinematic and in a way also more contemplative.

 

The Price of Glory (Xavier Beauvois, 2014)

Xavier Beauvois’ new film tells the story of two immigrants who decide to steal Charlie Chaplin’s corpse in order to make some money. While the synopsis might promise an original, exciting film, the end result is surprisingly conventional. The two lead characters are developed quite well but the story doesn’t let the characterisation go too far and the film just fails to ever take off. It throws in all the expected plot turns: the precocious daughter starting to like the weird uncle, the charming love interest, the arrest, the happy ending.

All these conventional elements still come together to a coherent whole that is actually kind of refreshing in the middle of all the intellectual material here in Venice, but it’s also quickly forgettable. One element that does stay in mind a couple of days later is the music that is very catchy and charming by itself but doesn’t really fit the film that well. All in all, the film is an enjoyable watch, but after it’s finished, it doesn’t leave you with much more.

 

99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, 2014)

Reflecting on the average person’s experience of the financial crisis, 99 Homes follows a conventional, predictable story. A young man loses his home and then joins forces with the villain figure, the evictor, to get it back. It’s not particularly fresh but it’s handled with honesty and dedication, avoiding spelling out its moral points or putting it in a larger context.

Ramin Bahrani’s screenplay never stops at a single point to explore its themes (which would’ve been interesting to explore) as deeply as it could, but it’s more successful with the characters, allowing for a natural, lived-in performance by Andrew Garfield as well as a more mannered and just as effective one by Michael Shannon. It has a distinct American feel which might have made it less appealing for the Venice crowd, and indeed it fails to stand out among the more ambitious and accomplished films, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered a success.

 

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, 2014)

In a way, Manglehorn feels like a typical American indie about a grumpy, lonely old man who finds love again and re-evaluates his life. But taking that into account, it never feels quite that simple. Manglehorn is grumpy and lonely, but he’s not an empty person, it’s just that what fills his life is a long lost love, a love that he still considers the one right thing in his life, a love that disables him from living as well as he could. The recurring motif of the baggage of his past is done very delicately and not explicitly at all.

Manglehorn also does expectedly find a new love interest, but surprisingly that turns out to be the best part of the film as the character of Clara is fascinating with her affection for Manglehorn and her honest perspective on the past. The reason why the character works so well is the brilliance of Holly Hunter’s performance. This screen goddess has mostly been missing from the big screen for years, but with Clara, she almost makes up for it. Al Pacino is also very good in the central role, playing it with more subtlety that we’ve recently come to expect from him (and certainly more than his predictably hammy performance in The Humbling, screening here out of competition).

While the screenplay and the acting are a perfect mix of subtlety and drama, David Gordon Green’s direction brings the film down a couple of notches. Too often he doesn’t let the story speak for itself and doesn’t trust the audience. For example, he follows up the best scene in the movie, a very natural conversation between the two leads (in which he brilliantly focuses mostly on Clara’s reaction to Manglehorn’s reflection of the past), with a terribly executed scene in the massage parlor where he mixes the actual scene with an out-of-context close-up of Pacino as well as a meaningless voice-over monologue. But while Green doesn’t really let the film breathe, he doesn’t suffocate it, and his take on this rather standard story is charming and refreshing.