This time of year, film festivals come in bunches. The 11-day Venice fest began the Wednesday before Labor Day; Telluride straddled the Labor Day weekend; and Toronto started its 10-day run yesterday. Toronto gets the most attention — upwards of 300 features, and stars galore, and the semi-official opening of awards season — but Venice is first, and holds the world premieres of many films that, a week later, will make news on the Toronto-Oscar axis. We saw some of these films in our recent lovely stint on the Lido and offer capsule reviews of six. The first four will be gracing Toronto screens (premiere dates appear at the ends of the reviews); the last two will not. All are worth arguing over, and a few worth cheering. —R.C. and M.C.
Child of God
The insanely multitasking James Franco simply cannot be stopped. As a Hollywood actor, he starred in two recent hits: Oz the Great and Powerful and This Is the End. He’s in a doctoral program at Yale, appeared in a soap opera and, last year, came to Venice for a gallery exhibition of his paintings. All that activity was just busy work to complement his real job: completing the 2013 festival trifecta by directing three feature films shown at Berlin (Interior: Leather Bar, his remake of 1980’s Cruising ), Cannes (the William Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying) and Venice. No director had ever done that before in the same year. So, did all that industry pay off? With Child of God (pictured), from Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel, the answer has to be: Eh.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s review from Cannes of James Franco’s As I Lay Dying)
The early-middle-age wild child Lester Ballard (Scott Haze, with searing blue eyes and a pearly-snowstorm mouthful of white teeth) was loosely based on the atrocities of Ed Gein, the killer and scalper who inspired the movies Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. McCarthy and Franco strip psychopathy to its feral essentials: Lester is a forest creature who excretes huge ropes of snot and gigantic turds. (If you ever wanted to see a man produce a bowel movement, then clean his butt with a stick instead of leaves, this movie is for you.) He roams the woods creating and collecting corpses, including of a young woman with whom he has post-mortem relations. Lester also speaks in a patois so indecipherable that the movie was shown at Venice with English subtitles. Shot in West Virginia, Child of God is a bold portrait of the animal in all humans, and its transgressive elements have their shock value, but Franco’s naturalistic direction makes the film oddly bland and deficient in dramatic impact. This is deranged passion recollected not in tranquility but in ennui. (At TIFF Sun. Sep. 8.) —R.C.
In its way a domesticated version of Child of God — a Southern man with a criminal past wrestles with his demons, and sometimes the demons win — this film of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel returns director David Gordon Green to his rural roots. He made the exemplary indies George Washington, All the Right Girls and Undertow before taking a detour into gross-out Hollywood comedy, including Pineapple Express and Your Highness, both starring James Franco. The ex-con Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage) runs an illegal tree-poisoning operation for a company that plans to fill the land with healthier, more profitable saplings. Most of his employees are bottom-of-the-working-class blacks, but one is Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan), the 15-year-old son of the abusive, alcoholic Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe, who placates his hard life and bad dreams with booze, cigarettes and whores, but is an essentially moral person — a pillar of his community, respected by the shopkeepers and indulged by the sheriff — becomes the father figure Gary never had. The savage Wade takes objection to that.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of David Gordon Green’s George Washington)
Gary is the third film role for young Sheridan, who played similar roles as Brad Pitt’s middle son in The Tree of Life and Matthew McConaughey’s adoring avatar in Mud; in movies, he’s always trying to connect with men undeserving of being his dad. Poulter, a non-actor who died earlier this year, reveals a surly charisma as Wade, a coot so wily and dreadful that he might have spawned Child of God’s Lester Ballard on a drunken toot with a grizzly. Bt the movie belongs to Cage, in a performance that recalls why, before his megastardom, he was considered one of cinema’s most powerful and subtle actors. His eyes reflect the haunt of past crimes in Joe; his torso — large, muscular, tattooed and somehow spent — shows the wear of life on a complicated soul. Rough-hewn and sometimes too garrulous, Joe may not be quite the equal of Green’s earlier films. But it’s nicely judged and, like Joe’s bad dreams, can’t be ignored. (At TIFF Mon. Sep. 9.) —R.C.
In 1977, Robyn Davidson decided to walk 1700 miles across the Australian desert, her only companions being four camels and her faithful dog Diggity. She recorded the trip in a National Geographic article, with photographs by Rick Smolan, and in her book Tracks, a memoir full of observational acuity and, because she accomplished the feat virtually alone (Smolan caught up with her only a few times), a feminist adventure epic. John Curran’s film, starring Mia Wasikowska, captures the ravishing emptiness of the landscape and the elemental perils facing a strong young woman. Curran also summons the pioneer spirit of Australian films in its first golden decade: Walkabout, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and My Brilliant Career.
But little is at stake here. Unlike the Sandra Bullock character in Gravity, another Venice hit, Robyn risks her life only to be by herself. She is no Lawrence of Australia, for T.E. Lawrence had a mission, Davidson only a whim. When asked why she’s doing her own walkabout, she replies, “Why not?” Wasikowska, usually a most intelligent and watchable young actress, does not flesh out the role beyond a certain blond mulishness. As the intrusive Smolan, Adam Driver (of Lena Dunham’s Girls) is upstaged in usefulness and screen appeal by Diggity and the camel quartet — the finest fellow travelers any Anglo nomad could wish for. (At TIFF Wed. Sep. 10.) —M.C.
The Unknown Known
A decade ago, in his documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris coaxed an apology out of McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, for the escalation of the Vietnam War. Morris’s feature-length interview with Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary who promoted and executed George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, reaps no such headlines, introspection or enlightenment. The only lesson to be gleaned from Rumsfeld, now a hearty 81 and still an impressive debater, is that being a neo-con means never having to say you’re sorry for inventing a war on false evidence and fouling the reputation of the U.S. throughout the Islamic world for decades to come.
If Rumsfeld had sat down with Michael Moore, or David Corn or Ezra Klein, or even Jon Stewart, his almost messianic belief in the rightness of his doctrine and policies might have taken some serious challenges, his steely poise a few dents. The resulting conversation would have contained a few known unknowns. But Morris’s movie is a cat-and-mouse game, and Rumsfeld is the cat, virtually licking his chops as he toys with, and then devours, another rival. (At TIFF Sun. Sep. 8.) —M.C.
The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil stands as a landmark of comic-surrealist cinema, a future-world marvel of Rube Goldberg design and the Orwellian state suppression of a modest drudge named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). That paranoid dreamscape gets an update in The Zero Theorem, which Gilliam directed from an original screenplay by Pat Rushin. This time the harried functionary is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a hairless hacker whom Management (played by Matt Damon with a weasel’s smile and suits that match the pattern of whatever wall is behind him) employs to discover the Zero Theorem, in which, as Qohen’s mid-level boss (David Thewlis) tells him, “Everything adds up to nothing.” Qohen also gets little comfort from his video conferences with Dr. Shrink-rom (Tilda Swinton), a psychiatrist whose advice is as daft as the society that Qohen inhabits and we all may be heading for.
(READ: Richard Corliss’ review of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil)
The new film may not possess the grand view and crazed narrative propulsion of Brazil, but Gilliam crams a similarly dense, repressive and visually splendid nightmare of totalitarian glitz on the screen. Electronic billboards recognize passersby on sight; symbolic signs proclaim the forbidding of walking, biking, dancing, drinking and having a dog. And whereas Brazil could offer Sam only a pallid dream girl (Kim Greist), Qohen meets the blond dazzler Bainsley (effervescent French actress Melanie Thierry), a glorious charmer who could give meaning and fun to any man’s life. At 72, Gilliam still has the cartoonist’s imagination from his Monty Python days, and social rage expressed not in a frown but a giggle. The Zero Theorem is a spectacle that demands to be cherished — as long as the society Gilliam portrays is a satire, not a prophesy. (Not at TIFF.) —M.C.
Last year, the Venice Film Festival announced a program called Biennale College Cinema, in which three emerging directors would be selected and given 150,000 Euros ($200,000) to make a feature film. The three received their premieres at this year’s Venice, and — in a success ratio at least as high as all other films released this year — one was really good: Yuri Esposito, directed by Alessio Fava and written by Leonardo Stagliano. Yuri (Matteo Lanfranchi) suffers from a malady that makes him move at one-fifth the speed of everyone around him, including his loving wife Lucia (Beatrice Cevolani). He eventually takes another drug that allows him to move at normal pace, and loses the solemn grace he revealed in his invalid status. The slow Yuri is a descendant of such minimalist screen clowns as Buster Keaton and Pierre Etaix; and Fava’s assured directorial sense touches on the signal difference between Hollywood movies and art films: pace. The slow Yuri is an art film in the bustle of a multiplex world. And the movie is a signficant find; it should graduate from the Biennale College into wide release. —R.C.