What the three prominent American films at this year's Venice Film Festival have in common, is that while they might focus on male characters that at times are unsympathetic, but we grow to like them, appreciate them or at least be fascinated by their underhand deeds. In other words, they are complex portrayals, which have given actors—particularly Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Shannon—a chance at Oscar glory.
In Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Hoffman's cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, is indeed charismatic, yet there's something very creepy about the way he smiles benevolently and dishes out his own brand of wisdom, especially to his new disciple, Freddie Quell, a damaged World War II vet played by Phoenix. Arguably the film's star, Phoenix conjures facial ticks and postural mannerisms for his gnarled portrayal, which is incredibly effective, even if it's a little painful to watch. The brains behind the men is The Master's pregnant wife Mary Sue, played by Amy Adams, who threatens on several occasions to steal the movie from the male-bonding leads in a puritanical role that in some ways resembles her nun (alongside Hoffman's priest) in 2008's Doubt.
In Venice Anderson said he had based Dodd on a young L. Ron Hubbard while he drew inspiration for his cult (called the Cause) from the beginning of Dianetics. Though he admitted he is not acquainted with their practices today. He says he remains friends with Tom Cruise, who made one of his funniest appearances in Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia, and the director said he'd shown him the film. “We're still friends; the rest is between us,” he told a crowded pressroom. As always, Anderson's film is beautifully shot, with the camera frequently in close-up on his characters and presenting broad vistas of rural post-war America.
At Any Price, set in contemporary Iowa, is a story of male bonding too, between a struggling farmer, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and his son, Dean (Zac Efron). The bigger picture here though focuses on the aftermath of the financial crisis and on Quaid's farmer being under the control of a company supplying genetically modified seeds.
“Probably like everyone else I want to know where my food comes from,” cites director Ramin Bahrani (the US-born son of Iranian parents) as his reason for making the film. “So I went to Iowa corn country, because that's where most processed food comes from and spent six months with farmers who are so much about legacy and passing things down. It's a man's world in many ways, and the story's a lot about fathers and sons.”
Quaid, who at 58 remains fit and handsome (as viewers will witness in the October release, The Words), renders himself almost unrecognisable as the surprisingly upbeat farmer and delivers one of his best performances to date. Efron's portrayal as a talented stock car racer dreaming of making it to NASCAR likewise represents a meaty role for the star. After his impressive turn in Cannes in The Paperboy the 24-year-old admits he wants to be seen as far more than a teen idol. Still, the Italian girls screamed just as girls do everywhere.
Two consummate bad guy actors, Michael Shannon (pictured) and Ray Liotta, teamed for Ariel Vroman's gritty gangster thriller, The Iceman, the searing real life account of New Jersey hit man Richard Kuklinski, who is spending his life behind bars after killing over 100 people before his arrest in 1986. We see him with his adoring wife (Winona Ryder, surprisingly youthful at 40 and still at the top of her game) and how he seemingly kept her in the dark regarding his actual vocation. Naturally, he had a tormented background and while there isn't a lot of new ground covered here, the film is well crafted and like The Master and At Any Price, is ultimately an actor's piece.
Perhaps most cinematic of all was the opening film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by the New York-based Indian-born Mira Nair and based on the 2007 novel by British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It tells of Changez (London-born Riz Ahmed from In A Better World), a young Pakistani man with a brilliant mind for finance, who after rising to the top in New York, reacts to the backlash against him during the 9/11 attacks.
“I don't believe that we have ignored the religious aspect of fundamentalism,” Nair said defensively when accused of such at the film's press conference. “In fact, a very important idea in the film is the parallel of the economic fundamentalism that we know is practised in the firm Changez works for, with the fundamentalism that is practised in religious circles in Pakistan. It's very clear that when Changez falls out of love with America and returns to Pakistan he becomes privy to people who believe that he has come back to serve and some of them are deeply fundamentalist in terms of asking him to become part of the engine of terror. He rejects it because he sees that in both the world of economics and the world of terror the same fundamentalism is practised.”
After the first female athletes from Saudi Arabia were allowed to compete in the London Olympics, now comes Wadjda, the first ever film shot in the troubled nation, and it's directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. Telling of a 12-year-old rebellious girl who wants to buy a bike, it's unapologetically feminist in its desire to shed light on the lives of Saudi women. The film has been so well received that several Australian distributors were interested, with Hopscotch winning out.
Disconnect marks the impressive dramatic feature debut from documentary filmmaker Henry Alex Rubin, who won an Oscar for 2005's Murderball. A so-called Crash for the web era, it follows three interweaving stories of people whose lives are affected by various online experiences. Andrea Riseborough is a television journalist desperate to film a story about a man who sells himself for sexual pleasures over the web, Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton are a married couple who lose a considerable amount of money due to cyber fraud, while Jason Bateman's artistic teenage son is bullied by classmates via his mobile phone. What's unusual here is that Rubin filmed three separate films, which his editor put together in the manner of making a documentary.
Disconnect's festival publicist, Premier PR's Jonathan Rutter, says a smaller independent film of this kind benefits from world premiering in the more intimate Venice program, whereas it might have been lost in the throng of a bustling festival like Toronto.
Breaking from cinematic conventions has always been Gummo director Harmony Korine's way, and at first sight, Spring Breakers starring Selena Gomez (Justin Bieber's girlfriend) and Vanessa Hudgens (Zac Efron's ex from the High School Musical films) seemed like the 39-year-old might be reigning in his outlandishness. That is absolutely not the case. From the first close-ups of the bobbing breasts of gyrating young women dancing on a sun-drenched beach as they suck on colourful phallic ice blocks, to the sight of James Franco as the rasta-style drug dealing Al the Alien with silver-capped teeth, audiences are forced to go with the flow as the violence and just about everything else escalates as Al takes the four young vacationing bikini-clad women under his gun-toting wing. The festival finally buzzed with energy as journalists reached for their mobiles upon leaving the cinema last night and it probably took a youth-oriented film to do it. There should be more of them in Venice.