Film reviews: Venice Film Festival

Tom Ford segued smoothly from fashion to film-making but Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the siblings behind Rodarte, prove less successful with their debut feature, Woodshock (*). Wispy and nonsensical, it stars Kirsten Dunst as Theresa, who helps her ailing mother die using a joint laced with an unidentified chemical. Thereafter she spends most of the film moping around the house, spiralling towards a drug-induced psychosis. Or something. There is barely any story, and although Woodshock often looks gorgeous, it's meretricious and empty.
Frances McDormand is electric in Martin McDonaghs brilliantly written,flawlessly acted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriFrances McDormand is electric in Martin McDonaghs brilliantly written,flawlessly acted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand is electric in Martin McDonaghs brilliantly written,flawlessly acted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Various venues, Venice

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (***) puts Vince Vaughn convincingly at the centre of a brutal action film that methodically follows his jailed drug courier as he stomps on skulls, snaps bones, gouges eyes, and pulps faces, during a mission to kill a target in a maximum security prison. And he is the good guy, doing what he has to do to save his kidnapped wife from having their unborn baby forcibly aborted. If you like your films gory, sick and unflinching, this twisted effort from S Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) is for you. Everyone else, beware.

When Jim Carrey played Andy Kaufman in Man On the Moon, right, a camera followed him around documenting how he stayed in character as either Kaufman or his abrasive alter ego, Tony Clifton, for the entire shoot. Some of this footage, unseen for almost 20 years, now features in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (****), a fascinating documentary by Chris Smith (American Movie), in which a new and expansive interview with Carrey explains how channeling Kaufman opened him up to new ways of thinking and performing, changing his life. The result is a fascinating and thought-provoking look at celebrity, identity, and how getting what you want is not always what you need.

Helen Mirren in The Leisure SeekerHelen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker
Helen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker
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Israeli director Samuel Maoz won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2009 for Lebanon, his semi-autobiographical soldier’s-eye-view of the 1982 Lebanon War from inside a tank. He is in competition again this year with Foxtrot (*****), another film inspired by his experience as a soldier, but a very different beast formally and tonally. Dividing the film into three parts, Maoz explores the ramifications of war and the inherited trauma of the Holocaust on Israeli society, through a single family. Intelligent, provocative and masterfully crafted, the film should be a contender for next year’s Best Foreign Language film Oscar, if politics don’t get in the way of its selection in Israel.

Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly written and flawlessly acted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (*****) looks like an Oscar winner-in-waiting. Frances McDormand is electric as a mother who goes to war with the police – including Sam Rockwell’s violent racist – over their failure to find her daughter’s killer. She could have been a one-dimensional avenger but McDonagh is too clever and skilful a writer for that and gives even his secondary characters arcs that lend them depth, nuance, and moments of grace. There’s violence, as you’d expect from the director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, while the cast lap up McDonagh’s sharp and salty dialogue with relish.

Manhunt (**) is like a John Woo karaoke movie in which the director sings some of his greatest hits, only not quite as well as he did the first time. The silly plot involves a lawyer framed for murder, a dogged cop, two female assassins (one with a broken heart, of course), a shady pharmaceuticals company that’s developing a drug to create super-strong fighters, and a budding bromance. Woo winkingly references himself, ticking off such familiar (and by now rather stale) signature touches as flying doves, black clad motorcyclists, and balletic gun-play. It’s reasonably fun but feels like something Woo could do in his sleep. And possibly did.

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has been making art about the refugee crisis for years. Human Flow (****) now takes his concern to the big screen with a visually breathtaking documentary that attempts to convey the global scale of the problem. With footage shot in over 20 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Greece, and France, Weiwei documents the mass movement of people across land and sea, visiting refugee camps and chronicling how in Europe, refugees find themselves blocked by border fences erected as more countries close in on themselves. The problem is mind-bogglingly big, and the film offers no solutions. How could it? It is, though, an urgent call for empathy, and a powerful reminder of the saying “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Jim Carrey as Andy KaufmanJim Carrey as Andy Kaufman
Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman

Helen Mirren, below, and Donald Sutherland are a delight as Ella and John, a married couple on a last hurrah to Florida in an ageing Winnebago, in Paolo Virzi’s adaptation of Michael Zdoorian’s novel The Leisure Seeker (***). She’s in charge as he’s in the early stages dementia, but despite a sunny disposition and a mouth that runs ten to the dozen, Ella has problems of her own. Will they both make it to their destination and then back to their concerned offspring? There are few surprises, but the veteran leads make this leisurely drive a trip worth taking.

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