Venice Film Festival 2018

For quite a few years now, I have attended at least a portion of the annual Venice Film Festival. This year it ran from August 29th through September 8th. I was only able to stay there three nights this time, but I did see four films and had some terrific meals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the films, in the order I watched them.

The Mountain, directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum and Hannah Gross.

Synopsis from IMDb:  The story of a young man who, after losing his mother, goes to work with a doctor specializing in lobotomies and therapies.

First, let me say that I like quirky movies. That’s one reason I go to a film festival, after all. Second, let me say the last time I walked out on a film was probably 30 years ago. Well, and you might see where this is going, I walked out on The Mountain. I really can’t come up with any mildly positive things to say about it. The story was boring, the acting was unemotional and stilted, the cinematography was poor, and there were just too many long shots of nothing. I mean a shot of doorway with a chair next to it that lasted 25 or 30 seconds. I generally am patient with artsy tricks like that, but not in this case. I sat through about 40 minutes of it and regret that I could have had two glasses of wine in that time.

 

 

 

 

(Picture copied from IMDb)

 

Anons (The Announcement), directed by Mahmut Fazil Coskun and Ercan Kesal. Starring  Ali Seckiner Alici, Tarhan Karagoz and Murat Kilic

Synopsis from IMDb: The night long journey of 4 soldiers discharged from the army.

That synopsis actually is pretty wrong. It was a farce about an attempted military coup in Turkey that failed. I was interested in that story line because I lived in Turkey for two years (a very long time ago, but it is a country I still think about) and well, there WAS as failed military coup not too long ago. Actually, I see that event as more a purge by Turkey’s crazy Dictator-President, but let’s not get political.

This film was good but not great. The depiction of the band of military men who were pretty much screw-ups was at times entertaining, but I think the story got kind of confused. In one scene there might have been a brutal murder, in the next scene a farcical look at how even the best plans can go badly awry. In the end, I was not sure if the film was meant to be sad or funny. Still, I watched the whole thing, so that’s something, right?  This movie was awarded what is called “The Special Jury Prize” in the Horizons Category.

 

Tel Aviv on Fire, directed by Sameh Zoabi and starring Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal and Yaniv Biton.

IMDb: Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man, becomes a writer on a popular soap opera after a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier. His creative career is on the rise – until the soldier and the show’s financial backers disagree about how the show should end, and Salam is caught in the middle.

This was, hands-down, the best film of my weekend. It was funny and poignant and featured a complex intertwining of real action and scenes from the imaginary TV show. The writing was nearly perfect, offering interesting characters, believable conflicts and a very clever ending. At a Q&A session after the screening, director Sameh Zoabi, who seemed a bit surprised by the enthusiastic reception he received, said when he was growing up in Palestine, soap operas was what he watched on TV (because his Mom controlled the remote!), and he wanted to pay homage to that genre. Kais Nashif was awarded the prize for Best Actor (again, in the Horizons Category).

I think it is likely Tel Aviv on Fire will get some international distribution, if it comes to your town, it is definitely worth seeing.

 

The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard and starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

IMDb says: In 1850s Oregon, a gold prospector is chased by the infamous duo of assassins, the Sisters brothers.

The Sisters Brothers Poster

(Copied from IMDb)

I am pretty sure this film will be very popular. The directing is excellent, in particular the gun fight scenes. In fact Audiard was awarded The Silver Lion Prize for Best Director. I thought John C. Reilly was fantastic, and Riz Ahmed was also quite good. Joaquin Phoenix had what I think was a pretty easy part – a savage drunk in a western – but I think he overdid it. Jake Gyllenhaal was not bad, but had a very strange and off-putting accent that I just could not figure out.

I read the book of the same title (written by Patrick deWitt) and absolutely loved it. I think Audiard’s screenplay was why I did not feel the same about the film. Specifically, in the book the dialogue between the two brothers was witty and concise and very entertaining. Not so much in the film. Also in the book Eli (John C. Reilly in the film) developed a touching relationship with his horse that made the character much more interesting. The film made a feeble attempt to show that, I think, and the Eli character suffered a bit in my opinion.

Nonetheless, I believe The Sisters Brothers will be well received by audiences and urge you to see it when it gets wide release.

Now to the meals!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep in mind the Film Festival in Venice is out on the island called Lido. It is mostly residential, but has a very long, very nice beach that attracts thousands of visitors during summer season. Like the main part of Venice, the many restaurants serving tourists on Lido can be both horribly overpriced and terribly under quality. Not these three.

Bio Sound System Vegan Vegetarian Bistrot

I get that is probably the worst name ever for a restaurant but don’t let that fool you. The food here is quite simply amazing. Yes everything is either vegan or vegetarian but the guys in the kitchen (which is open for you to watch what they are doing if you are interested in that sort of thing) really know what they are doing. I have dined here many times and will continue to do so as long as I am a regular Venice visitor. The picture of the salad on the left, above included quinoa, feta cheese, basil, loads of finely chopped bell peppers, three kinds of tomato and more. Fantastic.

Ristorante Tavernetta

Located right across the street from Lido’s ultra chic Hotel Excelsior (you can not afford a room there, no), this family-run restaurant serves Tuscan specialties. The middle picture is a pasta dish served with mixed mushrooms and assorted veggies. You might be able to pick out a chili pepper in the photo, as well. Because Tavernetta is located in such a convenient spot for the Film Festival, I always eat here. The food is excellent and in spite of its popularity with a high-maintenance movie crowd, the service is relaxed and spot on.

Trattoria Trento La Cantinita

This spot, very close to one of the cinemas where films are screened used to be a simple Italian trattoria. About a year ago they changed the menu for evening meals to feature Burgers and Tex-Mex fare. I am always on the look out for good Mexican cuisine over here. It has been a long time in coming, but Europe is finally starting to get a few excellent Mexican restaurants. Frankly, this is not one of them. The chips and salsa were very good, as was the guacamole that came with it. But the tacos missed the mark. I also tried the veggie burger (another thing I research frequently) which was not bad but not great. During non dinner hours, they serve standard Italian dishes here.

Sadly, this might be the last time I attend the Film Festival in Venice as it seems pretty likely I will be moving back to the USA next year. Nothing is certain on that front, but if it happens I guess I will just start writing about the Sundance Film Festival!

 

I Did it Again! Venice Film Festival part 3

This is my third and final review of movies I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival. I have saved the best for last. Of the 18 movies I watched (don’t get excited, 14 of them were short films – each only about 8 to 12 minutes long), this was by far the best. I am not alone in that thinking, this movie scored Best Director and Best Actor honors by the jury at the festival. I am pretty sure it will also get some Oscar buzz as a nominee for Best Foreign Film. And I would not be surprised if a Best Supporting Actor nomination happens, as well.

“Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza”

That translates to “No Date, No Signature.”  Directed by Vahid Jalilvand.

This is an Iranian film and I loved every aspect of it. The synopsis from the Venice Film Festival catalog reads: “The forensic pathologist Dr. Nariman, a principled and virtuous man, has an accident with a motorcyclist and his family, and injures the 8-year old son. He pays compensation and offers to take the child to the clinic nearby, but the family declines. The next morning, he finds the same little boy has been brought in for an autopsy. Dr. Nariman faces a dilemma now: is he responsible for the child’s death due to the accident or did the boy die due to food poisoning according to the other doctor’s diagnosis?”

More to the story: the boy’s father had been buying cheap chicken for his family from the local slaughterhouse, and that did cause food poisoning in the child. The boy’s father, frantic and distraught, goes to the slaughterhouse and confronts the man who illegally sold him the bad chickens. That man later dies in the hospital so the father is arrested and charged with murder.

Now what does the good doctor do?  A moral dilemma, for sure, and a really terrific, tightly written story.

Excellent camera work throughout this nail biter really brings home the mood of despair and confusion of the characters.

Finally, absolutely superb performances by Amir Aghaee (Dr. Nariman), Navid Mohammadzadeh (the father), and Alireza Ostadi (the mother). All told, this is a really superior movie. If it comes to a cinema near you – GO SEE IT!

Until Next Year.

 

 

I Did it Again! (Venice Film Festival part 2)

This time I’ll talk about the disappointing movies I saw at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago. I don’t like to dwell on negatives, so promise to be brief.

In the meantime, the pictures I have included in this post are shots of various pieces of graffiti I have found in Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

Normally I love short films. Unfortunately, unless you live near an art-house cinema they can be hard to find. One of my favorite features of this terrific film festival is access to many, many shorts. This year I watched 14 of them but I was not impressed. Here is a list (title, country where it was made, director’s name).

By The Pool, Lithuania, Laurynas Bareisa

Aria, Greece, Myrsini Aristidou

Tierra Mojada, Columbia, Jaun Sebastian Mesa Bedoya

Mon Amour Mon Ami, Italy, Adriano Valerio

It’s Easier to Raise Cattle, Malaysia, Amanda Nell Eu

The Knife Salesman, Australia, Michael Leonard

8th Continent, Greece, Yorgos Zois

Astrometal, Greece, Efthimis Sanidis

L’ombra della Sposa, Italy, Alessandra Pescetta

Ant Killers, Brazil, Joao Maria

Gros Chagrin, France, Celine Devaux

Himinn Opinn, Iceland, Gabriel Sanson

Death of the Soundman, Thailand, Sorayos Prapapan

Futuro Prossimo, Italy, Salvatore Mereu

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friends appreciated “L’ombra della Sposa” citing the special effects and the artistic filming. The dialog is a poem written to pay homage to the victims of a boat that sank between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily during WWII. I felt it was over dramatic to the point I stopped feeling sympathy for those victims and just wished they would shut up. But that’s just me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one I liked most – or more accurately disliked the least – was “The Knife Salesman.” It was comical, dealing with a door-to-door knife salesman visiting a the home of a frustrated housewife and mother. Plenty of clever sexual innuendo to keep the story fresh and interesting.

All told, though, the shorts this year were less than mediocre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also saw “Into the Night,” part of honoring the great director John Landis (“Blues Brothers” “Animal House” “American Werewolf in London” etc.). Made in 1985, it starred Jeff Goldblum and Michele Pfeiffer, with cameo appearances by Dan Aykroyd, Paul Mazursky, David Bowie and many others. While it was fun to see those actors young again and there were some funny bits, the story was really pretty stupid. I never cared much for Goldblum as an actor and this movie gave me no reason to change that opinion. I do think Pfeiffer is quite good, but this had to have been one of her first big roles and she was just OK. Best part of “Into the Night” was the soundtrack that featured lots of songs performed by the late great B.B. King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEXT:

Part 3 (the last one!): The Best Movie I Saw

I did it Again! The Venice Film Festival (part 1)

As I do pretty much every year in late August – early September, I headed to Venice for the annual “Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematographica” or Venice Film Festival. Over the last nearly 20 years I have attended, the festival has grown more glamorous (measured by the star power present), more important to the industry (measured by the number of big studio premiers), and more expensive (measured by violent wallet shrinkage). Nonetheless, as a film festival Venice continues to deliver.

I’ll be writing three separate posts about my experience this year. In them, I’ll add gratuitous pictures of Venice or of the food I ate while there. I do that not because it has anything to do with movies but because I get how lucky I am to live less than an hour away from that beautiful place.

In this, my first post, the focus is on the big release films I saw.

 

 

 

 

 

DOWNSIZING” written and directed by Alexander Payne (best known for “Sideways”), starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chou.

This film deals with an interesting solution to global problems of overpopulation, depletion of resources, and environmental deterioration.  First, shrink people to about six inches tall, then set them up in Utopian societies where resources are plentiful and problems are few.

I rate the movie as pretty good.

Needless to say, the things that make humans interesting, irritating, endearing and – well, human – exist if we are six inches tall or six feet tall. Fortunately the story in “Downsizing” does not get preachy about social consciousness themes and sticks instead to the character traits (or flaws?) that make us who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

Technically, Payne has put together a proficient movie. The special effects that juxtapose downsized people into a full sized world are seamless and clever. Look for the delivery of full sized wedding rings to a small Matt Damon.

Damon and Waltz both give adequate performances. A disappointment to me was that Kristen Wiig is only on screen for maybe 10 minutes. Hong Chau, on the other hand, is terrific. She has a great role and simply nails it. I predict she’ll earn a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She really carries the movie.

Again, pretty good.

 

 

 

 

 

LEAN ON PETE” directed by Andrew Haigh, starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigney, Steve Zahn.

This is a film about a 15 year old boy (Plummer) who wants a home, some food, and to be on his High School football team. Stability is hard to find though, and he ends up taking a summer job with a washed-up horse trainer (Buscemi). He befriends a kind jockey (Sevigney) and a failing race horse named Lean on Pete. Based upon the novel by Willy Vlautin, the story is about refusing to give up hope.

I also rate this one as pretty good.

The story is moving, at times difficult and at times tender, but never too sentimental or sappy. Director Haigh cites a John Steinbeck quote, “It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome. But if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.” I don’t know what that has to do with this movie, but if John Steinbeck said it, it is worth repeating, right?

The directing is good, but (not being a film maker) I don’t think it was too challenging – most of the film is short scenes with the boy talking either to an adult or to the horse.

As for acting, don’t get excited about seeing Steve Buscemi or Chloe Sevigney, or Steve Zahn. This is a movie for Charlie Plummer. I had not seen him in anything before, but have looked up his body of work and say this: he has really strong potential. For me, the young actor is not ready to take on a role where he is in every single scene, but he does indeed have talent. Look for him in a few years to be a big Hollywood star.

 

 

 

 

 

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT” directed by Ritesh Batra, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

Two elderly folks living alone across the street from each other decide to hook up. Really.

I rate this as OK.

Let’s face it. The story does not matter, the directing does not matter. This is a vehicle for Redford and Fonda to once again light up the screen. They both have had extraordinary careers and have earned respect for their work.

The writing is too sentimental and sweet for my taste, almost saccharine. Nothing special about directing in this one, just point the camera at the two actors and stay out of their way. Of course these two have made a number of really terrific movies together, and I am happy to say they still have it. The chemistry between them works and you believe they care for each other. Their performances are very good indeed.

A friend of mine who saw it with me (widow, in her late 50’s) said she could relate to the need for companionship, so she liked the movie. Me (early 60’s, married), I think it isn’t much more than a sappy film with two great actors.

 

 

 

NEXT UP: what wasn’t very good…

Three days at the annual Venice Film Festival is not enough.

Truth is I catch this festival pretty much every year. Usually I am there for five or six days, but this time I had to cut it short. However, it was a pretty lucky three days as only one of the five films I saw was one I recommend you miss.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Before I get to my comments on those movies, there are three new discoveries to mention.

First, (almost) affordable accommodation is becoming more and more common in Venice. You can find decent apartments through many of the on-line services such as Booking.com or Tripadvisor.com. We found ours through Booking. It’s on the island called Giudecca, so it is spared the mass of tourists. The place was called Approdo and it was pretty nice. Good location, easy access to water bus lines, and it was clean. The kitchen was missing a can opener and a cheese grater (in Italy!) but other than that, everything was good.

Second, not far from the apartment we found a ristorante/pizzeria called “da Sandro” (Calle Michelangelo 53/C). Very good, but don’t order their prosecco. Sandro and his wife were very nice and the food quite good.

The pizza at "da Sandro" is very, very good!

The pizza at “da Sandro” is very, very good!

 

Finally, on the island of Lido, where the films are shown, we found a vegetarian restaurant called Bio Sound System. I know, weird name, but it is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant with a real chef in the kitchen. Wide assortment of dishes, three of which we tried, all excellent. Even if you are not vegetarian, this place is worth it.

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

 

OK. Now let’s talk about the films. They are listed in the order I saw them.

Sobytie (The Event)

This is a Russian documentary about the failed coup attempt in 1991. The film is all archive footage taken over the course of a week in August of that year. Since there was very little explanation or back story, I was compelled to research the event after watching the film. But the documentary is a terrific testimony to the strength of a unified population and the real power of democracy. It is the kind of movie you’ll find only in art house cinema and it is worth the effort to go find it.

Black Mass

This is the new Johnny Depp film. I was a little disappointed. It ended up being a typical gangster movie: lots of F-bombs, lots of blood splattering against walls and windows, inept cops, psychopath gangsters. This one is different because it is based on a true story — the life of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mob boss in the 1980’s. Johnny Depp is usually terrific, but he’s done this kind of part before and seemed uninspired. Ladies, he put on weight for this movie, cut his hair, messed up his teeth and looks nothing like the Johnny Depp you want. Still, if you like gangster movies go see it.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

A fantastic documentary directed by Amy Berg that tells the story of Janis Joplin’s rise to and fall from fame. Let me put it this way, this was a documentary movie, and after it was done the audience gave the director a ten minute standing ovation. She deserved it. Go see it.

Soory about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

Sorry about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

L’attesa (The Wait)

An Italian movie shot in a beautiful villa in Sicily. Painfully slow story, plenty of very nice, artistic camera shots that had nothing to do with the story, many scenes with actresses staring off into the distance with a blank look. Really, not a good movie at all. Do not bother.

Pecore in Erba (Sheep in the Grass)

Another Italian movie, this one a “mockumentary” that satirizes intolerance, bigotry, and senseless hatred. Many references to Italian popular culture and cameo appearances by Italian celebrities and news people. Funny and moving and poignant. Yes, there is a pretty obvious message but it is delivered in a clever and witty film.

 

 

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

All in all, I consider the last three days a successful, but too short visit to the Film Festival.

Ask A Local: Venice

Well, OK. full disclosure here.

I did not actually stop a random local on a Venetian street and ask where to have a decent meal.  That is exactly what I have done in the other “Ask a Local” blog entries, and will continue to do things that way – it’s just that I go to Venice pretty frequently and have learned to accept the advice of Michela Scibilia.  She is a local author passionate about the search for high quality at a fair price.

While I have not had (yet) the chance to meet her, I have read some of her books. After using them for about 20 years now, I get the feeling she (like me) is unhappy with the theme park atmosphere Venice takes on, particularly during summer months.

When I say theme park atmosphere, I am talking about crappy souvenir stands, the junk in stores that pretends to be Venetian or Italian, but so clearly comes from someplace – let’s just say to the East – and restaurants or osterie or even bars where not a single person working there is Italian, let alone from Venice.

But good quality and fair prices do exist in Venice, and Michela is likely the best source to find that rare combination.

So today, with her book “Venezia Low Cost” in hand, we stopped by two new (to us) places, and had lunch at an old favorite.

First stop was at Vecio Biavarol (Fondamenta dei Tolentini 225). Two glasses of prosecco and four classic Venetian cichetti (fancy bar snacks) set us back only 10.20 euro. I know a place in Venice where a single glass of prosecco costs 10 euro. Outside, the owner’s son (maybe 5 years old) was working with the owner’s father (in his 60’s is my guess) attaching little tables to the railing along the canal.

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

We then went to lunch at one of our old favorites – Trattoria Bar Pontini (Cannareggio 1268). We’ve probably been here ten or twelve times now. Plates are pretty simple, but always good. They have a terrific wine list, and the service is warm and welcoming and friendly.

This little trattoria is right off what we call the Tourist Death Route – the wide street leading from the train station. It’s always crowded and busy and full of not very good but overpriced restaurants. Both sides of the avenue are lined with way too many sleazy looking guys selling schlocky looking souvenirs.

But do not despair; cross the first bridge (called Ponte Guglie) and turn left. You’ll find it in about 50 meters.

 

 

After lunch we needed a coffee, of course. Right around the corner from Trattoria Pontini is Torrefazione Cannareggio (Cannareggio 1337). It is the last authentic coffee bean roaster in Venice. Yes, almost every bar in the country serves excellent espresso, but for me nothing beats the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans! They have 8 or 10 different blends available, which will rotate occasionally (giving me reason for a return visit!)

 

torrefazione 1

 

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

 

They also sell beans (whole or ground) so you can take this treasure home with you.

 

In fact, I take a treasure home pretty much every time I visit Venice – especially if I ask advice from Michela Scibilia.