Tag Archives: Venice Film Festival

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!

The Shape of Water

What did we ever do to deserve Guillermo Del Toro? The man is willing to crack his head open and allow his most beautiful dreams to spill out, onto the big screen, for our viewing pleasure. The Shape of Water, a delicious period piece with fantasy elements, is just about as sumptuous and satisfying as it gets at the movies.

Sally Hawkins, an inspiring casting choice, plays Eliza, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a top secret government facility. She and her cleaning partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer in a role she was born to play, because between Hidden Figures and The Help, MV5BZDU0NmU1NDUtNjMyNi00YTMyLTgwNWUtNTVmMzQ3NzJjNTJmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk1MzcwNTI@._V1_she already has) stumble upon agent Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) latest capture, a humanoid sea creature reportedly worshiped as a god by the Amazonians. Set against the Cold War era, the Americans hope this scaly curiosity will give them a leg up against the Ruskies are and prepared to torture the secrets out of their prisoner – and worse. But sweet Eliza spots the creature’s humanity and her kind heart urges her to save him. She enlists a scientist at the facility (Michael Stuhlbarg) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) in her daring escape plan, but Strickland isn’t going to let this career-defining prize slip through his rotting fingers.

The Shape of Water is poetic and beautifully stylized. I fell in love during the opening shot, an ethereal scene that establishes the fairy-tale quality of the story. The whole film is richly textured; it feels like a story book you’ll want to step inside. Full credit to production design and art direction for creating a living, breathing piece of art that feels grounded in reality but often has this other-wordly, heightened reality feel to it that you just don’t find in your average film. The script, a Guillermo-Vanessa Taylor hybrid, is a phenom. It so smartly sets up all that is to come with careful, quiet nods. This is a movie with many small pleasures, many delights to savour. Because our heroine is non-speaking, the score plays a major role, and composer Alexandre Desplat is more than equal to the task. Del Toro weaves magic into threads of monster movie – love story – musical – spy thriller – comedy. I’m not sure which of these is more surprising, but all are very welcome. You may hear from others that this is Del Toro’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth, but they’re lying. I believe this is his best, full stop.

The Shape of Water wouldn’t be nearly so special without Sally Hawkins’ grace and measured precision. She’s wonderful, full of light, communicating much with little. Eliza is a woman of small parameters. Her life is ordered and banal. She’s suffering in her loneliness when she meets her merman, and her outsider status allows her to view him not as a monster but as a kindred spirit. Richard Jenkins meanwhile is restrained as the starving artist next door. Michael Shannon is anything but as the man who gets the job done at any cost – unless his vanity gets in the way. He’s awfully fond of the trappings of success. You might be starting to get an idea of what makes this script so lush: all the characters are brought fully to life. This is the clown car of movies, a film filled to the gills with interesting ideas and perfect little moments and scene-stealing details.

You don’t just watch a movie like The Shape of Water, you feel it, you experience it. We saw its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week but it’s coming to a cinema near you this December, and you won’t want to miss it. Hawkins’s name will be on the Oscar ballot and I’m guessing Del Toro’s will be too – maybe even twice.

Downsizing

downsizingThe world is overpopulated and in the very near future it will become untenably crowded: fact. We don’t have enough space to comfortably house all these people, we don’t have the ecosystem to support them, or enough resources to fund the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. The rate at which these 7 + billion people consume means we are making waste and pollution like there’s no tomorrow – and if we continue doing so, there won’t be.

Luckily for fictional Matt Damon, a Norwegian scientist will come up with a revolutionary bit of science that’s going to sound nutty at first, but hear me out. He calls it downsizing. A medical procedure will taking a willing human being and shrink him down, to about 5 inches. These small people will live in small towns – dollhouses, practically, taking up little space, generating little waste. A typical person might liquidate all his assets, pay off all his debts, and find that the $150 000 he’s left with is equivalent to about $12 million in the small world. Live like a millionaire by becoming a fraction of your former self!

Occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are the kind of people to whom this kind of deal appeals. They work but never seem to get ahead. Sure this downsizing is billed as a way to save the earth, but it’s also a way to personally wipe the slate clean, and live the life you could only dream of as a normally-sized person.

As you can imagine, being only 5 inches tall comes with perks, but also some drawbacks. As writer-director Alexander Payne imagines it, there are social and economic impacts to all these people retiring from “normal” society. Illegal immigration and terrorism are facilitated. Downsizing can be used as punishment, against someone’s will. And even if you’re one of those people living in luxury, you’re suddenly vulnerable to insects, birds, even high winds.

Downsizing is a well-timed satire, science-fiction that manages not to feel too fictiony. Credit Payne’s wit for packing as much detail as he does, and if sci-fi feels a little outside the wheelhouse of the guy who did Sideways and Nebraska, he actually manages it with a lot of humour and humanity. Though the film is at times unabashedly absurdist, it stays away from easy sight gags. This is a thinking film that abounds with ideas – you’ll need to digest afterward. It’s an indictment of the American dream, people so disenfranchised that they’re willing to undergo a risky procedure just to find fulfillment. But miniaturization isn’t really the answer it’s cracked up to be, with people’s problems seeming shrinking down to follow them.

Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a nice guy who’s just a bit of a loser. But for Sean, it was Christoph Waltz as his playboy neighbour who really stole the show. He plays a Serbian sleazeball who figures that what the small community needs is a small black market, and he’s there to profit. I, on the other hand, was blown away by Hong Chau as his cleaner, Gong Jiang, a one-legged Vietnamese dissident who shows Paul there’s more to life than just keeping up with the Jason Sudeikises (he’s the classmate at his high school reunion who inspired Paul to go for the Big Shrink). When Oscar season starts heating up, I hope her name is mentioned.

Downsizing is a unique film with a lot of style. Despite being the opening night film here at the Venice Film Festival, it likely won’t be a best-picture contender for me, but it’s a film full of ideas that I found immensely enjoyable.

Venice Film Festival

Sean and I are on our way to the Venice Film Festival (by way of Philadelphia, oddly enough). Founded in 1932, the Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest. It has the distinction of being one of the “Big 3” alongside Cannes and Berlin, and also one of the three festivals that kick off Oscar season, alongside Telluride and of course TIFF (these three festivals occur nearly simultaneously, but Venice ekes them out by a hair).

venice-film-festivalThe very first film to be shown at the festival in 1932 was Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A couple of years later they made it competitive, offering up the “Mussolini Cup” for best foreign film and best Italian film. [As you can guess, the festival underwent some bumpy times. Prior to 1938, political pressures distorted the festival. In the 1940s, there was pretty much a monopoly by movies and directors from the Rome-Berline Axis. But by 1946, things were back on track, the Mussolini Cup renamed once the dictator was ousted.] More recently, the prize takeaway is a Golden Lion (Leone d’Oro) for the best film screened in competition; the Silver Lion (Leone d’Argento) awarded to the best director; and Volpi Cups (Coppa Volpi) for best actor and actress. These are awarded via jury, this year presided by Annette Bening. Bening will be supported by Baby Driver director Edgar Wright; British actress Rebecca Hall; Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi; Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco; French actress Anna Mouglalis; film critic David Stratton; Italian actress Jasmine Trinca; and michael-jackson-thriller-3d-billboard-EMBEDTaiwan-born filmmaker Yonfan. John Landis will preside a jury judging the virtual reality competition. He’s also debuting something of his own – a 3D version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (also screening at TIFF).

The Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award is dedicated to personalities who have made a significant contribution to contemporary cinema. This year’s recipient is to be Stephen Frears, who is screening Victoria and Abul at the festival. Past honorees have included James Franco, Brian De Palma, Kitano Takeshi, and Spike Lee.

Venice holds a lot of prestige because it screens a lot of movies that make a big splash come awards season. Last year it hosted the world premieres for La La Land, Arrival, Jackie, and Nocturnal Animals — all of which would go on to either win or be nominated for Oscars (and all of which we saw a week later, at TIFF). What will this year’s Big Movie be? Hard to say, but Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is the festival’s opening film, and not to be missed.

osan_unit_02098_r_crop-embedActually, the programming is such that there are tonnes of not-to-be-missed films, including Netflix’s Our Souls At Night. Its stars, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, will be receiving Lifetime Achievement Golden Lions at the September 1st screening.

As long as Sean and I can tear ourselves away from this beautiful Italian island, we’ll be watching several exciting titles and reviews will be plentiful. Matt will be heading off to TIFF almost as soon as we return from Venice, which means Assholes Watching Movies will runneth over with exciting new stuff. As always, please tune into our Twitter @assholemovies for live updates. Plan on seeing lots of gelato there.