George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. One of
dozens of films the world is eying during Fall Festival season

This time of year presents some unique problems for Living in Cinema. In theory anyway, the whole idea of this blog is to shine a spotlight mostly on movies that haven’t already captured the world’s attention. To that end, covering Sundance and Cannes is a slam dunk. Both have high profile, mainstream films, but for the most part they’re bursting with a lot of great movies that art on the radar of many people. Telluride, Venice and Toronto are a little bit different. Toronto especially has all kinds of smaller films, but coverage of all three festivals tends to be dominated by the bigger Hollywood films jockeying for Oscar attention – films you’ve probably already made up your mind to see (or skip) in the next few months.

While early critical response to these films seems to be endlessly fascinating for most folks and the blog would probably do well to focus on them, I have to admit I don’t much care what the consensus opinion turns out to be for films I’m already going to see. Besides, let’s face it, early festival opinions often turn out to miss the boat entirely. I’ve written before how festival critics are in a pressure cooker where they’re overexposed to too many films all at once under heightened expectations and instant deadlines. Too many of them are also too focused on being first and loudest and they put too much emphasis on whether a movie has the stuff to be anointed by Oscar or not. They’re trying to narrow the experience of loving movies down instead of opening up the enormous possibilities ahead.

Having said that, it’s foolish to pretend critics haven’t already seen and weighed in on George Clooney in his own The Ides of March and in Alexander Payne’s highly anticipated The Descendants, or Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion or Roman Polanski’s Carnage or David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. The fact is, early critical opinion is a part of the whole experience for many movie-obsessed folks. So, rather than ignore the whole mess this year like I’ve most often done in the past, let’s see if I can split the difference.

Treating Telluride, Venice and Toronto as one big festival over the next few weeks, I want to give a nod to the obvious stuff with links to other more thorough compilers of critical reviews (namely David Hudson at MUBI) for those of you who aren’t already living and breathing this stuff down to every Tweet. In between though, I want to hopefully dig out some of the lower profile stuff on my own and let those things have their moment in the sun while we all map out our future movie-going plans.

Of course you can already see where that’s automatically going to limit wider interest in these posts so it remains to be seen whether it’s worth the effort and whether I actually follow through on the plan.

But enough jibber jabber out of me. Telluride and Venice are both well under way so let’s get to Round One. First the biggies:

  • George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March kicked off the Venice Film Festival. Based upon the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, it stars Clooney and Ryan Gosling. It opens in the US on October 7, 2011. Here’s the rundown from MUBI.
  • Also at Venice, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly star in Roman Polanski’s Carnage an adaptation of the Broadway hit comedy (called Gods of Carnage) about two sets of parents trying to resolve a playground dispute between their children. Carnage is also playing the New York Film Festival. It opens theatrically on December 16, 2011. Once again the MUBI rundown.
  • Next up in Venice is W.E., Madonna’s take on the love story between Britain’s King Edward VIII and American divorcée Wallis Simpson. You’ll recall Edward abdicated the throne rather than leave his wife and this set the stage for King George VI as portrayed in the Oscar gobbling The King’s Speech. The truth is, reviews of this thing would have to have been practically glowing for me to want to see it and so far they’re pretty much the exact opposite. For what it’s worth, critics go into these festivals looking for movies like this they can pile on and curb stomp and people love a festival blood bath, but you really have to take them with a whole pile of salt. For better or for worse W.E. stars Abbie Cornish. It opens December 9, 2011.
  • David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the story of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley debuted at Venice on Friday. It will also play the New York Film Festival before opening on November 23. Here’s MUBI.
  • Steven Soderbergh’s multi-threaded, all-star disease thriller Contagion is another Venice entrant, though keep in mind most if not all of these films are also playing at one or both of the other festivals too. The rest of us will get to see the film, which stars Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, on September 9th, 2011. MUBI-fy yourself.
  • And finally, George Clooney lit up Telluride in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. The MUBI-ness.

Ok, now let’s dig in and see what other interesting nuggets we can find.

Alps. d:Yorgos (Giorgos) Lanthimos.
The filmmaker’s previous film Dogtooth proved to be an arthouse sensation and it somehow managed to wrestle away a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. While I wasn’t as high on it as the film’s many fans, I think it would’ve benefited a lot from knowing less about it ahead of time. With that in mind, I’m only going to paste the official Venice blurb and then skim the reviews very carefully: “A nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast and her coach have formed a service for hire. They stand in for dead people by appointment, hired by the relatives, friends or colleagues of the deceased. The company is called Alps. Their leader, the paramedic, calls himself Mont Blanc. Although the Alps members operate under a disciplined regime demanded by their leader, the nurse does not.”

Alps doesn’t have a US release date lined up yet, but it’s also going to hit Toronto and will probably make the festival circuit much as Dogtooth did so keep an eye out of it. In the mean time, check out the teaser trailer.

Covering Venice for In Contention, Guy Lodge gives Alps 4 stars, calling it:

“a dazzlingly dislocated… return that should keep [Lanthimos] on the fast-track to Euro-auteur royalty, even as it lashes out at the merest suggestion of acceptable behavior.” He continues: “Doubling down on its predecessor’s polarizing absurdist humor and chilly formal grace, Alps applies those virtues to a more diffuse, ensemble-driven structure that is in no hurry to reveal its rich thematic adhesives of doubling and substitution. It’d be rash to call it a better film than Dogtooth, but it is, in the relative scheme of these things, a bigger one, and exciting evidence of restless formal development on the part of its director.”

Over at The Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton likes it too though he’s careful to affirm you’re better of not knowing much about it in advance:

“The film is in many ways a piece with its predecessor. They share a similar approach, a similar frank, uncomfortable sexuality, a similar matter-of-fact violence. There are certain thematic concerns in common too, although we’ll leave you to figure those out for yourself. It’s probably a more accessible film than its predecessor, accessible being a very relative term here. It plays up the jet-black comedy, while retaining the humanism—as strange a world as Lanthimos creates, he genuinely cares for his characters, even as they do incomprehensible things.”

Screen Daily’s Lee Marshall writes:

Alps denies us such traditional cinematic handholds as rounded characters with backstories; a plot with an identifiable moral arc; neatly tied narrative ends; an easy-to-read ‘message’. Yet the film only very occasionally feels like a piece of self-indulgent arthouse mystification: most of the time, this story of a team of melancholy, oddball characters who help (or profit from) the bereaved by standing in for departed loved ones holds us emotionally and intellectually – and ends by saying something profound about a world in which ‘reality’ is just another TV format.”

Update: Xan Brooks in The Guardian:

“With 2009’s acclaimed Dogtooth, Lanthimos earned a reputation as the laughing mortician of contemporary Greek culture. This splendidly icy, opaque picture goes further still, showing a world nudged off its axis and an emotional topography where the signposts are backwards and the satnav scrambled.”

Crazy Horse. d:Frederick Wiseman
Following his looks at Paris’ Comedie Francaise and the Paris Opera Ballet, the noted documentarian (Titticut Follies, Hospital) turns his lens on the famed Parisian adult cabaret club as the latest nude revue takes shape. Check out the French trailer for the film. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival. No release date yet in sight for this one.

Variety’s Jay Weissberg:

“The creative act takes a backseat to the performance, and the pileup of numbers feels repetitive… In many cases, numbers are shown with the dancers’ heads cut out of the frame, the focus firmly on torsos and buttocks. Feminists will be outraged by this piecemeal treatment, and at times it’s difficult to tell how much is the actual staging and how much is Wiseman’s viewpoint… Typically, with a Wiseman docu, even without explanations or direct interviews, he provides a well-rounded look at an institution. Together with his usual ace d.p. John Davey, the helmer makes auds feel as if every nook and cranny is familiar, giving the impression that individual judgments are being guided rather than manipulated.”

Dan Fainaru in Screen Daily:

“It is certainly a painstaking, carefully assembled and highly professional affair, so much so, that some of the curious who will imagine they’re in for a prurient, sexy collection of strip tease acts, might end up being disappointed… There are plenty of girls in the buff parading through the film… [but] if you expect them to embark on introspective interviews and revelations about their intimate nature and their eventual reticence to disrobe every evening before an audience, forget about it. That’s not the subject of this film. It’s more about how hard everybody works to put together the show and how much effort is involved in it.”

Xan Brooks in The Guardian:

Crazy Horse is languid, impressionistic and perhaps a shade overlong at 134-minutes. At times I would have liked more signposts along the way – more sense of an overriding narrative structure – though this is surely to miss the point of Wiseman’s visit. The director is not here to celebrate the cabaret, nor even to critique it, exactly. Instead, he comes to observe the process and audit the workload. In fact, if Crazy Horse contains anything so crude and reductive as a message it is probably that work is hard and is therefore deserving of respect, whether that work be in the corridors of local government or beneath the lights of the Paris cabaret.”

That Summer. d:Philippe Garrel. s:Louis Garrel and Monica Bellucci
Debuted at Venice. No US distributor. The filmmaker (and father of star Louis Garrel) has won his share of awards at numerous film festivals in the last 30 years or so, but if critics are to be believed, it he doesn’t look to repeat with his latest story of two couples, one who separates and one who stays together.

Stephanie Zacharek in MovieLine:

“Already certain to be one of the week’s certified stinkers. I had to fill in some of the plot points for a fellow critic who’d fallen asleep, though I’m not sure how I managed to stay awake through it myself.

Jonathan Romney in Screen Daily:

“Even Rome in high season fails to warm up the turmoil of amour fou in That Summer, the latest chamber piece from veteran French director Philippe Garrel. The film’s French title Un Eté brûlant translates as ‘A Burning Summer’, but for all the awkward smouldering done by Monica Bellucci, the drama proves a dispiritingly tepid experience.”

Deborah Young in THR:

“Like an old rock song that used to be a favorite and now sounds past its prime, or an apartment that used to be swinging and now badly needs a paint job and new furniture, watching Philippe Garrel’s That Summer has a sweet retro taste of the Nouvelle Vague that soon turns insipid.”

Responses are just starting to come in for Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss and there are a bunch more films already in the shoot. I’ll have another survey of festival reviews when I can dig up at least three responses to the Herzog flick.

2 Responses to “Festival Falderal: Digging for Gold Between the Heavy Hitters”

  1. W.E. sounds so bad it’s gotta be good!

  2. I’m kind of thinking the same thing. I’ll be disappointed if the critics are overreacting (which they often do. Exhibit A: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist)

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