Venice Week 1 Round Up

Jesse James, Elah, The Nines all impress

by Amar Vijay |
Published on

The shadow of Iraq hangs heavy over this year's festival, which features two American films dealing starkly with the country’s

involvement in the war there and more specifically with the issue of war crimes. Brian De Palma's Redacted was the first up, a somewhat contrived but certainly powerful polemic that tells of a (fictional) double rape and murder carried out in Samarra by two rogue American soldiers. Typical for a De Palma movie, the acting takes second place to the visuals, with the director constructing an elaborate post-modern patchwork to propel the narrative forward.

Initially we see things through the eyes of a young soldier with dreams of film school, carrying a DV camera to record his thoughts and to document the daily grind. We then see extracts of a rather pretentious French documentary, some CCTV clips and finally webcam footage as another, tense day on the front line becomes something dark and out of control.

Because all this footage is faked, and artfully so, it's hard to get

too deeply involved in such a harrowing story, especially when certain shots don't make too much sense (since when did CCTV cameras have sound?). But since it's based on actual events, Redacted has a grim impact that stays long in the mind, and its unorthodox construction - no music, effects done in camera - prove De Palma's technical prowess, if not his way with actors.

If Redacted was a jolt to the audience, Paul Haggis' In the Valley Of Elah definitely took things up a notch. While never as combative as De Palma, Haggis has a quiet but tenacious style that will definitely cause a stir when his follow-up to Crash is released here and in the US. It's probably best to say as little as possible about this beautifully crafted, intelligent thriller, other than it begins with a father (Tommy Lee Jones) looking for his son, who has gone AWOL after returning from a stint in Iraq. The father's quest takes him to the army base where his son was stationed, and also to the nearby police station where a struggling detective (Charlize Theron) reluctantly gets involved in the case. Retaining Crash's slick visual style, Elah is a much more ambitious and satisfying film, with two great performances and a script that keeps the audience guessing right to the downbeat, shocking reveal.

Haggis would kill us for drawing attention to this, but the last scene will almost certainly go down in history as one of the most provocative in recent memory: not only is it heartfelt, it will resonate with even the most patriotic American.


Next on the agenda was Blade Runner: The Final Cut** - or Today's Cut, as it was satirically retitled. We're happy to report that the experience was a happy one: Ridley Scott hasn't rejigged his 25 year old masterpiece yet again, he's simply tidied up some of the effects and technical aspects.

Anyone expecting more of the is-Deckard-a-replicant-or-isn't-he

debate, then, will be disappointed, although Rutger Hauer did tell us later that, of all the permutations available in the five existing

cuts, he preferred to think the story was boy meets robot, not robot meets robot.

After that it was off to see a sneak preview of Andrew Dominik's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as the infamous outlaw and Casey Affleck as the turncoat who shot him. This is a classic example of the kind of film that major studios still do make but don't know how to handle any more, so if you want to see more movies in the vein of Zodiac, get in line for the opening weekend for this to make your voice heard. Jesse James will no doubt get a specialty release but it deserves a much wider audience.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, with plenty of story and not much plot, it's exhausting as a popcorn flick but remains truly rewarding for anyone prepared to invest some serious time.

At its core are two sensational performances – Brad Pitt hasn't been as good as this since Fight Club. Square-jawed and steely eyed, with a psychotic temperament that boomerangs from glad-handing to murder, Pitt is pitch perfect as James, but his standout acting is evenly matched by Casey Affleck, growing ever more as a talent to watch.

Playing Robert Ford, Affleck is a haunted and haunting presence, whose complex motives flow like a shifting river throughout the movie. The score adds to an old-world dreaminess, but it's Dominik's languid confidence behind the camera - his work is leaps and bounds ahead of Chopper – that make this unmissable.

So far Venice has thrown up little in the way of leftfield surprises,

which meant that John August's The Nines caught us pleasantly unaware. We'd heard about the film from Sundance but the word was mixed there, and the film itself sounded truly bizarre. However, The Nines may turn out to be the cult film of the year, a dazzling mix of absurd comedy and philosophy that plays like a Todd Solondz remake of The Matrix. Ryan Reynolds stars as a wild-man soap actor who crashes his car while whacked out of his mind on crack. Alone under house arrest, he begins to find strange messages and hear odd noises, not to mention see a

couple of guys who look very much like himself. It would rob The Nines of its wonderful ability to twist on a pinhead to tell you any more, but suffice to say this is a cult in the making.

More to the point, it's also a film that proves how much Reynolds has to give when pushed in the right direction, handling multiple roles with an understated ease, right up to the glorious, head-scratching finale.

The elephant in the sitting room at the festival this year has

undoubtedly been Owen Wilson, whose beaten-up face stares out from posters all along the Lido. It's an awful irony that his character in The Darjeeling Ltd has just come OUT of hospital, after a near-fatal car crash, and having seen his superb performance in Wes Anderson's latest bittersweet comedy we'd like to wish Wilson a speedy recovery.

Here, he plays Francis Whitman, the elder of three brothers who is shepherding his two siblings Peter and Jack (Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) along on a pilgrimage to India, where he hopes they will rediscover their family bonds. As followers of Andersons's work will guess, the adventures that follow there are mostly slight and very picaresque, but there's a level of adulthood creeping into his work that creates new depths of emotion, most notably when the brothers jump into a river to save three drowning peasant children.

Less starry and proper than Tenenbaums and less willfully goofy than The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Ltd may be Anderson's best film since Rushmore, a lovely study about filial affection that contains all the director's hallmarks but gives leg room to a perfectly suited cast too. The cinematography is similarly amazing, and the Bollywood set dressing - including some remarkable intense shades of blue - create a

warm, otherworldly environment that is only briefly interrupted by an intentionally jarring flashback. One gripe is that the version here was shown with a lovely short, starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, that may not accompany the film on its UK release. If not, it'll be a shame, as the film only really makes sense as part of the whole trippy Darjeeling experience, but we'll keep you informed of its progress.

Finally we come to I'm Not There, Todd Haynes‚ dazzling

not-really-a-biopic of Bob Dylan. Haynes is an acquired taste, and this elegant, enjoyable film from the director of the equally

experimental Velvet Goldmine perhaps won't win too many new admirers, just as it will undoubtedly offend hardcore Dylan fans expecting something a little more literal and reverential. But while his film may be irreverent as regards the musician, Haynes is extremely respectful of the music, and this, one suspects, is why Dylan happily colluded with the project.

At times, the music actually becomes the narrative, and it's fairly clear that Haynes has moulded this film as a time capsule, a work so rich in detail that it will continue to reveal new elements for years to come. Happily, it' not quite as bash-on-the-head didactic as Haynes‚ earlier work, but it still won't be an easy ride for casual viewers.

Dylan is embodied by six actors, each playing a different aspect of him, hence we have a young black newcomer as a youthful troubadour, Ben Whishaw as a rebel poet, Christian Bale as a protest singer, Cate Blanchett as a stick-thin, wiry haired rock god, Heath Ledger as a mature soon-to-be-divorced actor and Richard Gere as a reclusive, western-hero maverick who ultimately returns to his old-American-frontier roots.

Though it may sound ghastly in principle, the result is an avant-garde triumph, a truly affecting journey through Dylan's back pages that reinvigorates his legend in an entirely fresh way, without leaning too much on his obvious classics. Blanchett is unexpectedly great as the sneering rebel of the 60s, but special mention must go to Bruce Greenwood as Keenan Jones, a smarmy British TV presenter whose attempts to demolish this sneering Dylan alter-ego only fire up her restless, aggressive intelligence.

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