They call it The Floating City, a moniker particularly apt during Venice’s International Film Festival, when you find yourself hovering between several film screenings a day on half a croissant and no sleep.
Then again, who needs sleep when the lineup is this good! This year’s Festival saw new movies from—deep breath—Noah Baumbach, Andrew Dominik, Darren Aronofsky, Olivia Wilde, Walter Hill, Luca Guadagnino, Paul Schrader, Martin McDonagh, Laura Poitras, Jafar Panahi, Joanna Hogg, Todd Field, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Frederirck Wiseman, and Steve James. Not to mention the arrival of two long-awaited TV series: Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom: Exodus and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy—that’s a combined 10 hours of Scandi entertainment, folks! The following is an attempt to roundup the highs and lows of the Festival, complete with takes of all temperatures: hot, cold, room, you name it!
Things got off to a rocky start as thousands of accreditors were forced to deal with a new online booking system plagued with technical difficulties. Vivaticket, the festival’s online ticket vendor was adopted due to the health rules imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Waiting for hours in cramped queues was a thing of the past. That was until you found yourself waiting in a virtual queue for several hours, or worse, have the site crash on you—a position many (me included) found themselves in during the opening days of the festival. It was a nightmare! Naturally, critics took to Twitter to vent their frustration. My personal favourite quip came from The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, writing: “VivaTicket service just announced as villain in the next Venice-set ‘Spider-Man’ sequel”.
So, with my tickets partially booked, bags packed, Crocs on, and sunscreen generously applied, I took a wobbly step off the vaporetto and onto the dock at Lido, the festival’s venue and my home for the next several days. See ya, Sundance; Auf Wiedersehen, Berlinale; nice try, Cannes—this year belongs to the 79th Venice International Film Festival.
White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s classic postmodern novel kicked off proceedings. A seriously enticing prospect, not least due to its impressive cast: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, and the ever-spectacular Raffey Cassidy.
For months leading up to the film’s premiere, we’ve been hearing reports of Netflix wanting to shift their focus away from funding auteur passion projects like The Irishman and Mank, which proved costly endeavours. White Noise, then, was seen by many to be the last hurrah—a hurrah costing somewhere between $80 to $140 million, if the rumours are to be believed. The film itself proved divisive: some critics were quick to praise its faithfulness to the source material, while others found it overworked and unwieldy. Cinemagoers will have to wait till November 25 to make up their own minds. White Noise will then arrive on Netflix—just over a month later—on December 30.
The Kingdom: Exodus
For me, it was Lars von Trier’s grand return to the small screen which kicked off my festival. The Kingdom: Exodus, the third season of von Trier’s hospital-set satire arrives as a five-part miniseries, fusing soap opera with a Twin Peaks-esque weirdness.
To the delight of the audience, some of the stars of the show were in attendance at the PalaBiennale theatre. But as von Trier appeared on screen to introduce the world premiere of The Kingdom: Exodus, the mood shifted. Seeing the out-spoken, notorious trickster clearly suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease hit hard. Of course, it wasn’t long until the mood swung back again; Exodus is a delightful return to Denmark’s Kingdom Hospital, proving the director hasn’t lost his playful touch.
Alexander Skarsgård, who pops up as a Swedish lawyer whose office is in a toilet stall, is a particular highlight. But even amongst all the high jinks, Exodus still manages to imbue moments both large and small with such strong emotion—due in no small part to the terrific cast; I’m looking at you, Udo Kier. Thankfully, you won’t have to wait too long to enjoy von Trier’s latest treat; The Kingdom: Exodus will broadcast exclusively on MUBI this autumn on a weekly episodic basis.
The Master Gardener
Fans of First Reformed and Card Counter rejoice, for Paul Schrader has more of God’s Lonely Men up his sleeve. The Master Gardener may be the weakest of the three, but it’s so masterfully directed that it’s easy to look past its minor flaws.
Joel Edgerton plays Narval Roth, a horticulturist who, like many of Paul Schrader’s protagonists, has a shady past he’d prefer to keep in the shade. As the Master Gardener at the Gracewood Estate in New Orleans, Roth is a stickler when it comes to detail and organisation. He knows everything there is to know about plants: their wants and needs, their long-winded history, and the exact moment they’re going to bloom. When he’s not wrist-deep in soil or plant-splaining to his assistants, he occasionally attends dinner with his stern employer Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver).
His disciplined way of life is upended when Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s estranged grandniece, turns up at the estate to take up an apprenticeship under the Master Gardener himself. Schrader’s precise direction and Devonte Hynes’ gorgeous score elevate a merely competent script. After a few revelations, I found myself becoming less engrossed in the film. This is ground Schrader has covered many times before, and The Master Gardener doesn’t add any significant new ideas. Thankfully the trio of Edgerton, Weaver, and Swindell deliver strong performances. It’s been a while since Weaver has had a role as fun and meaty as this. The Master Gardener is slated to arrive in Ireland on November 5.
The Banshees of Inisherin
Look, I don’t know, maybe I was feeling homesick or sun-drunk, but Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin was the best thing I saw at Venice. Thankfully I’m not alone: the cast and crew received a 13-minute rapturous standing ovation following the film’s premiere, that’s longer than Cannes’ clap champ, Elvis, which got 12 minutes on the clock.
Set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, The Banshees of Inisherin stars Colin Farrell—who took home Best Actor at the Festival’s award ceremony—and Brendan Gleeson as two lifelong pals living on the fictional island of Inisherin. When one of them abruptly ends their friendship, with alarming consequences, the small town is left reeling from the repercussions.
I’ve never been a big McDonagh fan—In Bruges was fine, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was less fine, and Seven Psychopaths was so not fine I turned it off. With Banshees, though, McDonagh finds the perfect tonal balance: the script is sharp, thoughtful and never wears out a joke. McDonagh will be a strong contender for Best Original Screenplay come awards season. The Banshees of Inisherin is scheduled for a theatrical release on 21 October 2022.
The Ghost of Richard Harris
Continuing the Irish theme, Adrian Sibley’s documentary covering the life and career of the great Richard Harris is a treat. Featuring his three sons Damian, Jamie and Jared, The Ghost of Richard Harris is a moving tribute to their late father.
Of course, the documentary is not without its laughs, and Harris’ storied career as a hellraiser makes sure of that. Talking heads include Dick Cavett, Russell Crowe, Jimmy Webb, and director Jim Sheridan in what might be the film’s highlight. The Ghost of Richard Harris is to air on Sky Arts and streaming service NOW later this year, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the late actor’s passing.
For all those on board the Brenaissance train, it’s full steam ahead! The Encino Man himself is back in a starring role. Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher suffering from severe obesity who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) for one last chance at redemption.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale is most reminiscent of The Wrestler. The difference here, however, is a sentimental and hammy script. The only thing bigger than Charlie is his heart; he wants the best for everyone, especially his daughter, whose flair for writing he encourages: “Be honest!” “Be original!”. Shame, then, that the film is so intent on promoting the importance of free-thought and originality in the most unoriginal way possible. The direction is perfectly fine, but what really saves the film are the performances, especially from Fraser, who no doubt will earn an Oscar nomination for his efforts. But particular praise must go to Hong Chau as Charlie’s put-upon caretaker. She brings some oomph to this otherwise underpowered drama. The Irish release date for The Whale has yet to be confirmed at the time of writing, but it’s likely it’ll fall around December or early January.
The fact that Pearl, a prequel to Ti West’s fun, gore-filled X, took the Festival’s midnight slot was already cause for excitement. Sure, X didn’t reinvent the wheel, but its love for schlocky horror tropes and amusing premise made it a delightful watch. That’s why it brings me no pleasure to report that Pearl is a disappointment. Some 60 years before the action of X, Mia Goth’s Pearl, a young dreamer who is working hard on the family farm, longs for the return of her husband Howard who is away fighting in Europe. She’s also obsessed with making it as a dancer in the movies.
The film has two ideas: the first is to pastiche the films of Hollywood’s golden-age. Everything here is sparkling with technicolour pzazz—especially the blood, but more on that later. The second is Mia Goth herself; she gives an incredible performance, the best the festival had to offer—one minute she’s Judy Garland and the next she’s Carrie. Sadly, though, West relies heavily on Goth’s talent, tasking her with carrying the whole movie on her shoulders. The worst offence occurs in the final act, where we’re asked to sit through a dull, several-minute-long monologue. However, all that would be fine if the film was at least fun. Instead, Pearl runs out of steam halfway, and the kills—none of which are very memorable—end up becoming a metric by which we can tell how soon end credits will appear. Spoiler: they don’t come soon enough. Pearl is set to hit select theatres September 16.
Bones & All
Luca Guadagnino and Timothée Chalamet have teamed up once again. Yes, it’s a romance film. Yes, it’s set in the 1980’s. But don’t expect the lush and gentle masterpiece that was Call Me By Your Name—This is a blood-soaked Bonnie and Clyde, with flesh, guts and, you guessed it, bones and all.
I’m usually loco for Luca, hell, I even stomached his Suspiria remake, but I found Bones & All more Chalameh than Chalamet. Taylor Russell (in a star-making turn) plays Maren, a shy 18-year-old schoolgirl with a little secret: she’s a cannibal. Her father has known about these urges for years, but when a recent event causes him to lose all hope, he abandons her. Out of options and on the run, Maren heads across the country in search of her estranged mother.
It all looks great on paper, and things start off promising; in truth, it all goes slowly downhill after a thrilling opening sequence. While they don’t have much chemistry together, there’s no denying the charisma both Russell and Chalamet possess. Mark Rylance, however, is doing a thing, a big thing! Yes, it involves an accent and, even though it doesn’t come close to reaching the giddy heights of Tom Hanks’ Col. Tom Parker, his performance is distracting and at odds with the rest of the cast. Aside from a couple memorable moments from co-stars Michael Stuhlbarg and Chloë Sevigny, Bones & All left me starved.
The Golden Lion award, The Venice Film Festival’s highest prize, went to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a documentary which explores the career of Nan Goldin and the fall of the Sackler family. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to see it. The same applies to Tár, Todd Field’s return to filmmaking after a 16-year break. Cate Blanchet stars as Lydia Tár, a renowned musician and composer who is about to record the symphony that will take her formidable career to new heights. The film received glowing reviews, with many critics already tipping Blanchet for Oscar glory.
So concludes my Venice adventure: 5 days, 11 movies, and countless hours spent wading through Chalamaniacs and Stylers. It’s hard to think of the last time a film festival’s lineup was this stacked, certainly not in the post-covid era. Attention now turns to Toronto, whose own festival (Sept 8 – 18) is set to host the premieres of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the Harry Styles-led My Policeman, and Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated homage to movie magic, The Fabelmans.