Friday, September 7, 2012

Ah, Venice: Here's the festival buzz - San Francisco Chronicle

Venice, --

Italy - With scores of films playing in at least 10 venues, the Venice Film Festival is a different experience for everyone who comes here. Yet this year, as in every year, there are several points at which almost everyone's experience overlaps - films that everyone who comes here wants to see, if only to have a voice in the vigorous discussions that spill out into the restaurants and cafes around the island of Lido, where the festival takes place.

This year the films getting the most attention and discussion are "The Master," by Paul Thomas Anderson; and "To the Wonder," the latest from Terrence Malick.

"The Master" is an impressive visual tour de force, centering around the story of a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix), in the 1950s, who becomes the devoted disciple of an L. Ron Hubbard-like religious teacher, played winningly by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Anderson shot the film in 70-millimeter, a form that barely exists these days. Alberto Barbera, the new artistic director of the festival, told me that something like 18 theaters in the entire United States have the ability to project at 70-millimeter.

Fortunately, I did get to see it here in this format, which combines the crystalline clarity of digital with the warmth and depth of 35-millimeter.

For a while, "The Master" plays as well as it looks, and it's almost certain that Hoffman and Phoenix will be in contention for critics' awards come December.

But in the last hour of the film, the story more or less grinds to a halt, and a film that had profound potential becomes a chore to sit through.

Reaction to "The Master" is mixed around town. Some love it, some don't. But Malick's "To the Wonder" was greeted with boos and only polite applause at its premiere, and the consensus has been pretty uniformly negative. The film tells the story of a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko), from the blossoming of their relationship to its disintegration.

The film is presented almost entirely in dreamy, depressive voiceovers, as we see the lovers either twirling or tickling each other or cavorting merrily. And although there are moments when this strategy is rewarding, the film is mind-fryingly dull - even for a Malick fan such as myself.

But the most disappointing thing is the film's lack of visual interest. "To the Wonder" is pretty, to be sure, but there are no moments of profound insight or psychological penetration. It may have been passionately conceived - one never knows - but it plays like a cold exercise in style.

Of the American films playing here, I found "At Any Price," a Ramin Bahrani film about the struggles of a modern farmer (Dennis Quaid) far more interesting; likewise, Henry-Alex Rubin's "Disconnect," which I had to leave after 80 minutes to go to a press luncheon, but I really had to tear myself away.

It's a multi-cast drama (headed by Jason Bateman and Paula Patton) about various people whose lives are negatively impacted by the Internet. (Think "Contagion," only with the Internet being the disease.) I can't wait to see the rest of it.

Among the foreign films, I particularly liked "Cherchez Hortense," a French film starring Isabelle Carre, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jean-Pierre Bacri, the best yet from its director Pascal Bonitzer.

Aside from individual films, there is a feeling throughout Venice this year of a revitalized festival, under Barbera's leadership. Plans and funding are in place to add upwards of a thousand seats to the various venues, and a film market has been installed here for the very first time, where 200 movie buyers and sellers do their business.

Most promisingly, the festival is initiating a program called Biennale College Cinema, a competition in which three budding filmmakers will be chosen and given 150 thousand euros each to start and finish their films in time for next year's festival.

To me the most impressive thing about this is not the 150 thousand euros. It's the guarantee of exhibition at the coming festival. Imagine going from nowhere to having your work shown in Venice, to critics and audience all over the world. That's an opportunity to be made for life.

In the meantime, this year's festival, a good one, closes Saturday.

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