film festivals

The Very Best Films of La Biennale di Venezia 2018

Venice Film Festival had an incredible line-up this year, with films directed by the Coen Brothers, Cuarón,  Greengrass, Guadanino, Lanthimos and Mike Leigh, starring famous actors such as Tilda Swinton, Nathalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly and unexpectedly, Lady Gaga, who debuted in a leading role in a film presented out of competition – A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper who also directed the film, a remarkable debut. 
Bradley Cooper e Lady Gaga

Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga

All in all, it was a thrilling edition. Most screenings have divided the press and the public, a desirable outcome actually since it makes for more passionate conversations. I haven’t seen all the movies in the official competition because I also watched a parallel section, Orizzonti, from which I can recommend this intense drama from Uruguay, The Twelve Year Night. Unfortunately I missed Rome, Cuarón’s Mexico-set drama, a personal film that took the Leone d’Oro this year, awarded by a jury chaired by Guillermo del Toro. Roma will also be screening at London Film Festival in October and will be out on Netflix in December.
From all the movies I saw in Venice, there are three that stood out and that I critically embraced without a shadow of a doubt:
I saw The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos on the second day of the festival and I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites. The visual pleasure this film provides is hard to describe (may Laura Mulvey forgive my saying so!).
I wasn’t at all surprised that it took the Grand Jury Prize. If you’re not a fan of the macabre fictional universe the Greek director got you accustomed to, I understand, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but this film is very different in tone, being based on an original script signed by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara whose screenwriting career I’ll have to follow closely from now on. At the same time the film retains the same technical virtuosity, sublime camera movements and mise-en-scène with which Lanthimos impressed in his previous creations, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And the result of this collaboration is an astonishingly sumptuous and scrumptious film.
In short, the action takes place around 1700 at the court of Queen Anne, played with extraordinary flair by Olivia Colman who took the prize for Best Actress.  Rachel Weisz is Lady Sarah, the queen’s right hand and her favourite, for reasons that become clear after 30 minutes of viewing time (do not read the synopsis!). Lady Sarah struck me as the strongest female character in the history of cinema, her strategic skills in conducting the war with France only surpassed by her cunning in the way she leads her personal life. Lady Sarah is omnipresent in the film and conquers you by always saying what she thinks, to the dismay of most males at the court, whom she humiliates without the slightest hesitation. Asked why she does this so consistently, she answers bluntly: “A lady must have her fun.”
But the fun starts to turn sour when Lady Sarah realises that her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whom she takes under her protection at the beginning of the film, is even more cunning and skilful than she is, something that this powerful character couldn’t have foreseen in her blinding arrogance. What follows is a fierce personal duel between these two different types of femininity for the place of Queen Anne’s “favourite”. We are humorously entertained to see the different strategies the two rivals use to achieve their goal. It’s like a game of chess.  Abigail, more rudimentary, goes straight to the target by directly fulfilling Queen Anne’s physical and emotional needs, while Lady Sarah tries to upstage her by more sophisticated manoeuvres, her tactful deploying of humour in the bathing scene being one example. In the end, Queen Anne seems to regain her strength and mental faculties  and with them, her dignity. Unfortunately, it’s all an appearance as long as there’s a favourite!
stone coleman venezia 2018

Emma Stone & Olivia Colman

I’m not much into Westerns but this film was top of my to-watch list in Venice being a big fan of Jacques Audiard, one of the best directors working today in my opinion.  You must have heard of A Prophet (2009) or Dheepan  for which he took the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2015.
His latest film and the first one in English, The Sisters Brothers, is, at least on the face of it, a Western whose action takes place in 1850 in America, a period known in history as the Gold Rush, a very fertile source of inspiration that makes you think immediately of Charlie Chaplin’s film from 1925, The Gold Rush.
Bu why would Audiard, who is an auteur, be interested in tackling the Western genre? Here’s why I think he was interested. The classical Western is a tool America used to explain itself. Who makes the law and what does the law stipulate? Where is the frontier? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Each Western was a national ritual dramatising the triumph of civilisation, the victory of a socially responsible individual towards the Indian “savages”, a very hypocritical narrative, hence the amount of revisionist Westerns, such as the one under discussion.
In contrast to the classical Western, there is no Indian savage in Audiard’s film. The Sisters Brothers are two notorious assassins working for a mobster in Oregon City known as Commodore. Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the elder brother and the more responsible of the two, while Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rebel and a drunk. Their mission is to catch Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who invented an effective way to find gold, based on scientific methods. But they are not the only ones on his trail, there is also John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-educated detective who writes them regularly. At some point, the letters become implausible and the Sisters brothers start to suspect that something is wrong. Should they go ahead, at  the risk of losing their lives or should they return home and change careers? But what kind of life could they build for themselves, wonders Eli Sisters, very keen on re-inventing himself. Perhaps they could open a shop? Huh?His brother Charlie is not so sure.
audiard reilly venezia 2018

Jacques Audiard & John C. Reilly

What’s interesting about this movie is not what happens on the screen, even though the action does not disappoint for a second. What really captivated me is the characterisation of the brothers of the title. Their psychological profile is the opposite of what you expect and it gradually emerges from their incessant chatting and mutual teasing in times of peace on screen. Although they come across as two macho males armed with all the arsenal of guns and pistols to decimate an entire brothel within seconds, the last scene of the movie marvellously captures their psychological essence: the two skilled assassins are in reality two tired  little  boys who can’t wait to go home to their mum! And with this very funny story of two homesick brothers that challenges obsolete notions of masculinity in cinema, Audiard took the Best Director Award at Venice Film Festival this year.
This extravagant, baroque creation from Brady Corbet (who distinguished himself on the Lido in 2015 with The Childhood of a Leader and whom you saw as an actor in Haneke’s Funny Games as well as a host of independent American films) is the most daring piece of cinema I saw in a while. The film could have been a total fiasco due to the unusual narrative techniques it adopts and the tendency to combine somewhat disparate ideas. But it’s not, quite to the contrary, it’s phenomenal!
Structured as an opera, with a prologue, two acts and epilogue, Vox Lux is the furthest away from classical cinema, with its strict rules of building a story. The film actually seems to draw more from literary techniques. The result is seductively agile, highly effective and surprisingly cinematic. Just when you expect the movie you’re watching to engage in a certain direction, it suddenly changes course and drags you down a different, but equally delirious, path.
With a stellar cast (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin), the film tells the story of Celeste, a child with an innocent air and musical talent, who, after a traumatic event in childhood, becomes famous overnight and turns into an extremely anxious diva / pop star with a behaviour that borders on the ridiculous. But the film has a greater ambition than to trace the birth of a celebrity in the making. The director uses Celeste’s character to illustrate how key events of contemporary history impact her personality. These events are succinctly dealt with, Corbet doesn’t bore you with a detailed socio-political dissection. Moreover, he carefully selects a handful of contemporary events that intersect the story. Thus, the narrative is punctuated by numerous intrusions in voiceover and filmed in fast-forward, from a commentary about Abba’s importance on the Swedish music scene, to the shock of 9/11, a terrorist attack on a beach in Croatia, in relation to which Celeste is being interviewed by journalists in a memorable scene in the film. It all culminates in an adrenaline-inducing music performance worthy of Grace Jones and you leave the cinema dizzy and enthralled.
Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin e Raffey Cassidy

Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin & Raffey Cassidy

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I would have also liked to include Guadanino’s Suspiria, with a superb Dakota Johnson in the main role and a most powerful performance from Tilda Swinton, but something was a bit awry in it – the film is so overloaded with symbolism, it brought to the mind’s eye a heavily adorned Christmas tree that’s about to fall over.
I also had high expectations from Werk ohne Author (Never Look Away) from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck but it lacks the impact of his debut film, The Lives of Others and it also packs in some strange inconsistencies in the portrayal of some of the characters.  I enjoyed watching it though, and this was mainly due to mesmerising performances from Tom Schilling Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.
Tom Schilling

Tom Schilling

 

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Zero Motivation wins Best Narrative Feature at TRIBECA 2014

zero motivation poster

A smash hit in Israel and winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014, Zero Motivation is a unique, sharply observed, sometimes dark and often hilarious portrait of everyday life for a unit of young, female soldiers in a remote Israeli desert outpost.  Pencil-pushers in the Human Resources Office, best friends Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) spend their time playing video games, singing pop songs, jousting with stationery and dreaming of Tel Aviv. If this sounds boring, the film is anything but. With shifts of tone that go from slapstick to satiric to horrifying with fluid ease, and with a superb supporting cast of characters, Zero Motivation is one of the most original films of 2014.

Below is an interview with writer-director Talya Lavie taken in LA in January 2015 on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release in US cinemas.

Zero_Motivation_web_1

Dana Knight: Congratulations on a very funny, witty and refreshingly unusual “army film”. Where did the inspiration come from? I suppose it has a lot to do with your own service in the military?

Talya Lavie: During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and the epic proportions of classic war-films, but about the gray, mundane service that my friends and I had, with hardly ever getting up from our office chairs. I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns and Solitaire in order to create a female response to the Israeli male-dominated army-films genre.

Knight: Although set in the war-zone, the action is restricted to the administrative office, the sealed world of secretaries who don’t risk their lives although they could easily die of boredom. What elements of the characters’ lives were exaggerated for the purposes of comedy and which aspects are more true-to-life?

Lavie: The setting of the administration soldiers is very true to life. Although the film has some imaginary and surrealistic elements, it’s actually very authentic. The characters are not exaggerated, but they are extreme. Being in the desert area far away from civilisation can sometimes change your perspective about things. The conflicts between the characters, who are so different from each other and yet stuck together, is what makes it funny.

tayla lavie

Israeli writer-director Tayla Lavie

Knight: I think you made a very brave and risky choice in introducing the subplot of the suicidal girl into a film whose tone is generally satiric and light. How did you manage that feat?

Lavie: The film is defined as a “dark comedy”, but while writing the script, I didn’t want to lock myself into a specific genre. I put a large scale of emotions in it, and was interested in mixing the different spirits. Ultimately my greatest challenge was to maintain the specific subtle tone of the film; to balance the transitions between humour, sadness, nonsense and seriousness. I felt like an acrobat in a circus walking on a rope, trying not to fall off, while keeping the film’s free spirit.

Knight: This is an army film with an almost all female cast, which is very unusual and also very ironic. How did the casting go?

Casting this ensemble was quite a complex puzzle. I had the privilege of working with one of the most accomplished Casting Directors in Israel- Orit Azulay. We auditioned over 300 actresses and ended up with extremely talented comedians and actors.

Dana Ivgy, who won the Israeli Academy Award for leading actress for her role as Zohar, is a very well-known actress in Israel- It was her third Academy Award. The other actresses were a little less known before the film, but now they are stars. Nelly Tagar (Daffi) and Shani Klein (Rama) were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Award (which was given, by the way, to Dana Ivgy for an appearance in another film in the same year).

All the actors of Zero Motivation were extremely devoted to it. It was nice to see that although the film is all about ranks and hierarchy- none of that existed on set. They helped each other and created a terrific ensemble.  

Knight: Could you talk about your creative process of writing this film and the aesthetic choices you had to make along the way?

Lavie: After 2 years of writing and rewriting the script, I was very lucky to have my project selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors’ Labs. Beyond being a significant experience for me as filmmaker, I believe it also helped secure the funds later on.

The hardest part in bringing the project to life was, naturally, raising funds. Many of the first readers had a hard time accepting a black comedy taking place in the Israeli army, while having little mention/ excluding references to the of occupation, combat, or other aspects of the tough reality – and so had difficulty putting the film into a specific category.
But it was important for me to keep the story confined to the walls of an office, apparently disconnected from the world outside and even escapist, but actually giving an authentic glimpse into the characteristic-militaristic society from a different point of view.

Another interesting challenge was creating a low-budget army film without any actually help from the army, nor any possibility of using any of the real Israeli-army bases for filming. The assembly of all details and locations to seem like a single and specific desert base was a complex effort that required all the crew’s creativity. Also, since the story takes place in 2004, we were surprised to discover how many things had changed over the last decade, but most were gadget-related, or had to do with older computers etc. The feelings and personal stories and dramas didn’t seem to change at all.

Cinematically, I wished to keep the monochromatic palette of the army base, its grey structures, crowded offices and rundown living quarters, set against the beautiful desert scenery of the south of Israel, with its warm colors, constant changing weather, and sense of freedom.

I can’t talk about all that without mentioning the wonderful crew I had on board: Eilon Ratzkovsky the Producer, Yaron Scharf the Cinematographer, Arik Lahav-Leibovich the Editor, Ron Zikno the Production Designer, Ran Bagno the Composer and many others. And of course the wonderful cast I mentioned before.

Knight: I had the impression that the mise-en-scene was very well thought-out and that you left nothing to chance, is that correct? What is your preferred manner of working on a film?

Lavie: We rehearsed a lot, also on location. We had a very short time for the shooting so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Years ago, before I went to film school, I dreamed of becoming a comics-artist. So I guess I’m very influenced by graphic novel aesthetics, in terms of squeezing many details- stories, jokes and information- into every frame, as if somebody’s going to pause on each shot and take a longer look at it.

Knight: The film was enthusiastically received on the international film festival circuit. How was it received at home?

Lavie: Zero Motivation was released in Israel six month ago and was very well received, much more than we could have imagined, it broke box-office records in Israel and won 6 Israeli Academy Awards (for best script, best director, best leading actress, best editing, best casting and best original score) and the Israeli Critics’ Award for best Israeli film. It has a strong effect in Israel and I’m happy about it. Now we’re very excited to have it shown in the USA. The mandatory military service is a very local aspect of the Israeli culture but it’s used in the film as a platform to tell a universal coming of age story, about friendship and about being a young woman.

Knight: What is next for you and is there anything you would like to add?

Lavie: I’m working on my next feature film, which is a contemporary free interpretation of a short novel by Sholem Aleichem, transferring its plot from 19th century Eastern Europe to present-day Brooklyn. We’re now starting to raise the budget for its production. As I learned, those things can take a while, so in the meantime, I’m very proud and excited that Zero Motivation is shown in LA, I believe it could be interesting and entertaining for the American viewer and hope that people give it a chance. I know I like to walk into the cinema next to my home and find myself in a whole different world.