Lights, Camera, Lido!

A report from the Venice Biennale

It’s that time again in Venice when tourists and locals alike don smart casual and hop on the local water taxi to Lido, an island known for its sandy beaches, excellent views, and of course, the Venice International Film Festival. At full capacity for the first time since the Coronavirus pandemic began, the festival’s blocked-off streets feel cheery, the line for the bar (specifically, for the Spritzes) remains ever-s0-long, and the red carpet is constantly bustling.

To put it mildly, this year’s Biennale–the opening event of the fall film festival season–boasts an incredible lineup, including majorly anticipated films from Andrew Dominik, Olivia Wilde, and Darren Aronofsky, among many others. Sadly, this critic could only make it to the festival’s opening weekend, but that was more than enough time to catch both defining hits and shattering disappointments.

The Must-Sees

In TÁR, the always-fantastic Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, an extremely acclaimed composer whose life slowly unravels after she is accused of verbal and physical misconduct. At a grandiose 158-minute runtime, the film’s pace is slow and captivating, sizzling with tension from start to finish as Tár’s attitude and actions become more hostile. If one thing is clear from the film’s opening minute, it’s that Blanchett is coming for that Oscar.

Watching a five-hour television series in a movie theater may initially appear daunting, but Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom: Exodus, the third and final part of his Kingdom series, moves almost too quickly. Releasing over 25 years after the first two seasons aired, the series introduces a cast of new characters who occupy the Danish hospital haunted by spirits, demons, and lots (and I mean, lots) of workplace drama. Just like the first two seasons, the best part of Exodus is its oddball characters and the eccentric situations in which they constantly find themselves. While the series will likely be more enjoyable for people who have seen the originals (which are streaming on Kanopy now), the show is just Grey’s Anatomy with paranormal activity mixed in, making it quite accessible for all.

Worth Checking Out

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a documentary about acclaimed American photographer Nan Goldin as well as her fight against the Sackler family, the founders of the pharmaceutical company that single-handedly caused the United States’ opioid epidemic. The delicate balance between these two subplots, and its exploration of the devastating effects that the Sackler family has imposed on over 500,000 Americans, creates an experience that is equally heartbreaking, horrifying, and infuriating.

A Man deviously opens as a heartwarming family drama, before two catastrophic events–the death of the family’s stepfather, and the realization that he was lying about his identity–quickly divide the film into three extremely different subplots. On the one hand, the film operates as a procedural detective thriller, as a lawyer tries to uncover the patriarch’s true identity. At the same time, though, the story provides an unflinching look at a family’s reconciliation with the complexity of love and a harrowing look at how the past and present constantly influence one another, for better and for worse. Director Kei Ishikawa expertly weaves these narratives together, making way for a heartbreaking yet fulfilling experience.

Romain Gavras’ Athena is one of the most intense, edge-of-your-seat cinematic experiences in recent memory. The plot may appear simple. After the death of their younger brother at the hands of police brutality, three brothers find themselves in a battle of dangerous civil unrest. The film’s cinematography truly brings the story to life, mainly relying on long takes and smooth camera movements to capture the chaos, and horrifying nature, of the fight.

Good, But Not Great

Luca Guadagnino’s newest film, Bones and All, follows two cannibals (played by Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell) who fall in love while road tripping across the United States. The director doesn’t shy away from including gory and nightmare-inducing visuals, a feat that caused very visceral reactions from the crowd. Regardless, the two leads’ chemistry shines above all else, saving the film even when the narrative feels a little too prolonged and calculated.

Argentina, 1985 is a welcome addition to the elite “courtroom dramas that make you want to be a lawyer” sub-genre. The film captures the Trial of the Juntas, the infamous prosecution of the military members who tortured innocent civilians during Argentina’s dictatorship role. While the film’s topic is serious, its somewhat breezy, humor-filled screenplay makes it consistently easy to digest and enjoyable to watch.

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s acclaimed novel, is a cinematic literary adaptation risk that pays off–in select ways. Those who know about the tone and nature of the book may find more to enjoy in the film, especially regarding its deadpan humor and three different plots shoved into one product. Regardless, the quick-paced and biting nature of DeLillo’s words doesn’t translate perfectly to the screen, making the film feel somewhat overlong and anticlimactic in the process.

Steve James’ A Compassionate Spy, is disappointingly middling. The documentary itself, which tells the story of the man who gave information about the atomic bomb to Russia during World War II, is decently engaging and perfectly passable. The film’s simple construction, relying primarily on interviews and reenactment sequences, bars it from having a greater impact. It’s slightly disappointing seeing something this basic coming from James, who is easily one of the best working documentarians.

Princess centers around a young Nigerian sex worker who works in a forest outside of Rome. Director Roberto de Paolis is influenced by the 1940s Italian Neorealism movement, as the film tosses an overbearing style aside to focus solely on its brutally realistic story, characters and dialogue. It is much more rewarding to think of the film as a prolonged character study, making some of its flaws–mainly, its undeveloped narrative beats and rushed ending–forgivable.

The Disappointments

BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is what happens when you combine Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ into one product…and make it three hours long. Academy Award-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first film in seven years follows a film director (a character clearly influenced by himself) who returns to his home country of Mexico, trying to regain his sense of identity. While the film’s visuals are stunning, underdeveloped themes and an assaulting egocentric tone make the final product tough to watch.

Just one year after The Card Counter, acclaimed director Paul Schrader is back with Master Gardener. The film follows a horticulturalist, played by Joel Edgerton, who meets and falls for a woman while also trying to reckon with his Neo-Nazi past. Schrader’s willingness to take narrative and stylistic risks always creates an engaging viewing experience. Regardless, the film’s undeveloped story, tone and themes make this one a somewhat forgettable dud.

Vera follows a “nepotism baby” who spends her days failing at acting auditions and spending her money on things she doesn’t need. When a chance accident introduces her to a working-class man and his young son, the three instantly form a bond. While the narrative contains some intense twists, particularly in its final stretch, its repetitive nature makes the film feel much longer than its alleged 115-minute runtime.

Monica centers around a woman of the same name who returns home to care for her ailing mother. The film’s straightforward narrative makes it more of a character study, which works for the film and against it. There are a lot of fragile and sensitive moments, especially when characters reconcile with the pain of the past and the fear of the future. But, the film’s sluggish pacing and its incredibly delayed plot twist ultimately make the experience more toiling than rewarding.

Frederick Wiseman, who is known for his incredible three- to four-hour long documentaries about public institutions, returns with his first narrative film in 20 years. Unfortunately, A Couple isn’t very good. Inspired by the journals of Sophia Tolstoy, the wife of the classic Russian author Leo Tolstoy, the 63-minute film is just scenes of actress Nathalie Boutefeu walking around the countryside, delivering monologues. Wiseman taking experimental risks is always welcome, but it all just feels so empty.

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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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