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Twelve Thumbs-Up Films from the Venice Film Festival

What joy to return to the Venice Film Festival after being absent for so long. Roger had so many fond memories of his time here, particularly the magical screening of "City Lights" at the Piazza San Marco, as part of a 1972 Chaplin retrospective. "A single spotlight flashed out of the darkness," he wrote. "It shone across our heads and onto a balcony on the third floor overlooking the square. We all turned and looked at the balcony. The doorway was opened and an old man walked forward and stood on it. Charlie Chaplin. We did not applaud at once. We stood, still silent, in awe. The hush lasted three or four seconds, a very long time. And then we cheered and applauded and shouted 'Charlie!' He raised his hand and waved to us, and then two people stepped forward to help him back into the room."

That was Roger's remembrance, but this year I am pleased to be invited to serve on the International Critics Panel to discuss the films premiering in the Biennale College Cinema section. It is a workshop program whose aim is to discover the next group of auteurs from around the world who, through the originality of their visions and images, will reinvigorate cinema and help shape a new film language. The workshop is at 3:30 pm today, Monday, September 1, in the Casino building. It will be lead by Peter Cowie, the former International Publishing Director of Variety, and the author of the annual International Film Guide and over 30 books, including the newly published: "Happy 75: A Brief Introduction to the History of the International Film Festival." 

Joining the panel will be film critics, historians and journalists Glenn Kenny, Michael Phillips, David Bordwell, Stephanie Zacharek, Savina Neirotti and Mick LaSalle. The three films chosen for the Biennale College Cinema were awarded grants of $150,000 euros each to help with their productions. They are:  

"This is Not a Burial", It's A Resurrection" (directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, from Lesotho)
"The End of Love" (directed by Keren Ben Rafael, from Israel)
"Lessons of Love" (directed by Chiara Campara, from Italy) 

These and other films will be discussed in greater detail by our correspondent Glenn Kenny in separate articles.

The films in competition or that were screened before today that got my unreserved Thumbs-up are listed below in alphabetical order. 

Ad Astra

I like the big sandbox in which director James Gray plays  He starts with gigantic canvasses--immigrants (The Immigrant), Russian gangsters (Little Odessa), love (Two Lovers) and now intergalactic space--but he micro-focuses on the most interior human emotions to splash across them. Ad Astra ('to the stars") is ostensibly a science fiction space opus about our search for extra-terrestrial life beyond the outer reaches of our solar system. But James Gray focuses on Brad Pitt's character's relationship, or lack of relationship, with his astronaut father, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones has gone missing in space and is presumed dead, but the space agency has reason to believe that he may be behind power surges that threaten the very existence of the universe. They recruit his astronaut son to search for him. Don't let that description throw you off. Most of the film takes on an "Apocalypse Now" feel in the search for the mysterious Captain McBride, with a narrative tone similar to Terrence Malick (in whose film "The Tree of Life" Brad Pitt starred). You can't help but think also of "Gravity." This doesn't matter, however, because Gray, with Brad Pitt's help, manages to make this film his own even amidst all the homages and contemplative narrations. It gets my vote. The film also stars Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga.

"Ad Astra" will be released in the U.S. on September 20th.

American Skin

Three years after his directorial feature debut, "Birth of a Nation," took the top prize at Sundance, Nate Parker returns with his latest work as a writer/director: a tense drama about a Marine veteran, who, after serving two terms in Iraq, seeks to avenge the death of his son at the hands of a police officer who was found innocent without standing trial. There are minor problems with the film as a film that I am willing to overlook if I view it as a "think-piece" because it contains one of the most thorough examinations of the thought processes of each character in how we end up with real life tragedies such as Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, the African-American teenager who was shot 16 times in Chicago by a white policeman. Spike Lee is presenting the film and calls it a crusade. Both he and Parker hope it will be seen by citizens, community groups, local politicians and police authorities across the country. Parker says he is offering a path for constructive change, for reconciliation and for healing. 

The main character, Lincoln Jefferson, is portrayed by Nate Parker. I asked Nate during an interview about that name. He said it expresses the complexity of the character's identity crisis. He was named both for a president, Jefferson, who owned slaves and fathered children with a slave, and for Abraham Lincoln, a president whose Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. It encapsulates the gray area of being an American who was brought here on a ship, defined as three-fifths of a person, and yet who, in his American skin, is attracted to the same hopes and dreams of other Americans. Lincoln Jefferson did everything he thought was right, he served his country as a Marine, took a job as a janitor so he could earn a living and get his son KJ into a good school, and yet for all his patriotism and high expectations for his son's future,  he still ends up with a son who Is killed by the police. 

For me, the means by which Lincoln Jefferson gets all the other characters in one room in the film is mostly a MacGuffin. The real reason is to allow all parties to air their feelings and frustrations and fears, from the parent whose son was killed, to the officers who said they were in fear of their lives, to the Mexican-American gang member and policeman who blame each other for the way they are seen by society, to the citizens who can only go by what they hear on the news, to the friends who want to help mediate the situation, to the young filmmaker who thinks violence is not the answer, and to others who have been wrangled in to compose an impromptu jury of peers. Some may say this comes across as a heavy-handed, Rambo-like action,  but it is not without consequences. It may also emobody the fantasies of those who feel powerless to demand justice in real life situations. Samuel Goldwyn said if you want to send a message, send a telegram. But after the senseless loss of so many lives in the African-American community, perhaps the way to do it is to make a movie. Parker is putting together a curriculum to be used as a companion to the film.

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#AboutLastNight The World Premiere of #AmericanSkin at #thevenicefilmfestival ended with an 8+ minute standing ovation... Of all the moments in my career so far, this was by far the pinnacle. A magical moment to say the least. So much prayer. So much faith, determination and growth in the face of unimaginable adversity.. #GodsPlan This film WILL save the life of one of our brothers or sisters caught in the crosshairs of our fractured relationship with law enforcement. It WILL progress the conversation into culture shifting action. It WILL facilitate bias training within law enforcement that will inevitably make America safer for our people- an inheritance for our children’s children. Now begins my mission to bring this film to the world. Thank you to all who supported and sacrificed that this piece would exist! #artsaveslives #ifnotusthenwho #iwillneverstop #iwillneverstop #iwillneverstoptellingourstories #philippians413 #jeremiah2911 #aworthycrusade #Legacy #takeabeatsavealife #grazieItalia No #coopts No #okiedokes #ifGodiswithme... #noweapon #itwontwork
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His film was met with a sustained standing ovation at it's premiere here in Venice. 

Here at Venice Parker was also asked about the sexual assault case he was accused of when he was a teenager, and of which he was acquitted. He expressed contrition. As far as I have been able to ascertain, since that time he has tried to do the best thing, and that is to live his life with integrity and purpose. He went through the legal system, expressed remorse,  apologized, used it as a learning experience, established a loving family life with his wife and daughters, and launched an organization to guide and mentor young artists. If he is trying to be the example of taking responsibility for his mistakes, and living life in a way to make it right, when is the time for redemption. "Three years ago I was pretty tone deaf to the realities of certain situations that were happening in the climate. And I've had a lot of time to think about that, and I've learned a lot from it...{T}here were a lot of people that were hurt in my response, in the way I approached things. I apologize to those people...I have gained so much wisdom from people in my circle...and I am continuing to learn."   

Citizen K

Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian of "Taxi to the Dark Side," who has been called the most important documentarian of our time by Esquire Magazine, turns his piercing lens on the rampant corruption in Putin's Russia by chronicling the rise and fall of dissident exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At one time Khodorkovsky was Russian's richest man. He was sentenced to a ten year prison term in Siberia for tax evasion, but many believed it was because he began challenging the then-newly elected president, Vladmir Putin. During his prison term he became a world famous dissident, and now as an exile he lives in London, still challenging Putin. Gibney has over twenty hours of interviews with Khodorkovsky, and also traveled to Russia to interview his friends and enemies. He presents this extraordinary portrait of power in Russia. 


I'll say it right from the start, I was sold on Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the Joker in what is being called a stand-alone origin story. Todd Phillips, a director best known for helming comedies like "The Hangover," tries his hand at psychodrama for DC's most popular villain. As there has never been a story explaining how the Joker became the Joker, Phillips had almost free reign in shaping the character, but said he wanted to include certain elements of the canon. He succeeded. Played here by Joaquin Phoenix as a Mama's boy who is a children's birthday clown by day and an aspiring stand-up comedian by night, he is disregarded by society and lives in a fantasy world of television, like Rupert Pupkin, the character played by Robert DeNiro in Scorsese's "King of Comedy." (In a clever nod to Scorsese, Robert De Niro turns up as the late night host, Franklin Murray, with whom the Joker is obsessed). But Arthur Fleck, on his way to becoming the Joker, is also afflicted with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh maniacally when he is experiencing stress or pain. And due to many more early life traumas he does not fit easily anywhere in society. He is habitually picked on and made fun of. And one day he finds out a secret about his birth that just pushes him over the edge. I was expecting a goofy comic book movie, but got something a bit deeper, and surprisingly sadder. I still consider it in the comic book genre, so will not comment on whether I thought the psychological events for him were valid or not. I'll leave that to others. 

"Joker" opens in the U.S. on October 4th.

The Laundromat

I think of Steven Soderbergh's new movie as a think-piece too because it seeks to explain to us ordinary citizens why the Panama Papers that were leaked in 2016 affect us too. He effectively uses Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas to take us step-by-step through vignettes to show us how the mega-rich play by different rules when they want to avoid paying taxes. We even get Meryl Streep as a widow investigating insurance fraud when the insurance company refuses to accept responsibility and pay up for the death of her husband during a tour boat accident. She traces the ownership of the insurance and re-insurance companies and find they are but empty shell companies set up in Panama by lawyers at Mossack and Fonseca to help corporations hide their assets. This is eye-opening. It is adapted from the book by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Jake Bernstein, "Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite."

"The Laundromat" debuts on Netflix on October 18th.

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach has deservedly earned some of the best reviews of his career for this study of a couple (played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) struggling to keep their family afloat amidst their impending divorce, and it is one of my favorite films of the festival. The opening scenes pack a punch because they lovingly exhibit the endearing mannerisms, habits, words and deeds that caused the couple to fall in love with each other, and just when you wonder what sweet heavenly trip this couple is taking next, you realize they are in the office of their divorce therapist. Pow! Right in the gut. So we begin the analysis of a portrait of a divorce. At his press conference, Baumbach said you can sometimes find out best about something approaching it from the other end. For instance, if you approach a door and find it is locked, you begin to learn about the door and the lock and how it works. Before, when the door was open, you just took it for granted. So at the point of the divorce, you may begin to learn more about the machinations of the marriage and how it worked and why it isn't now. But the film also works because it has warmth and humor thanks to the writing and the great supporting actors like Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as the divorce lawyers, and the inimitable Julie Hagerty as Johansson's mother who loves her son-in-law and doesn't want to give up her own relationship with him. Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are superb.

"Marriage Story" debuts on Netflix on December 6th.

The Mayor of Rione Sanità

Mario Martone's crime drama centers on the self-professed mayor, Antonio Barracano (Francesco Di Leva), who plays by his own rules in Naples. He represents the face of the new younger Camorra, gangsters who administer justice in their parts of the neighborhood so that the outside courts don't have to intervene. In his words, he is the protector of the ignorant, so they are not subjected to the harsher legal system. He sees himself as a man of honor who restores order in the community, a mini-Godfather. Sometimes his "justice" is tempered with mercy and sometimes it is harsh. But it is always swift. I have not seen previous films by this director so I don't know if the stilted unnaturalistic style of talking and moving for the actors in this film is usual for him, but it added layers of both humor and an esoteric quality that seemed right. When the Mayor decides to intervene in a family dispute between a father and son, it becomes a bit confusing to decipher by whose rules he is playing, but he is obviously fully committed to doing what he thinks is right, and the ending is a tableaux right out of a twisted Last Supper. Actions sometimes take place with hard-hitting rap music in the background. I found this film entertaining.

The New Pope

Episodes 2 -7 of Paolo Sorrentino's upcoming HBO series, a follow-up to his acclaimed 2016 show "The Young Pope," were previewed at Venice, featuring Jude Law reprising his role as Lenny Belardo, a.k.a. Pope Pius XIII, the first American Pope in the Catholic Church's history. I have no idea what people in Italy think about the poster of Jude Law showing the Pope in a speedo, but the audience in the screening at 8:30 am applauded it. The exhibition of cable series at film festivals will happen more and more because of the  proliferation of platforms and companies that can afford to do it. This series also stars John Malkovich as Pope John Paul III. Besides the lush look of the series, however, the writers do consider serious topics as miracles, and the administration of the Vatican. I had not seen the previous episodes and was able to follow it well enough. I want to see more. 

No. 7 Cherry Lane

Chinese filmmaker Yonfan has written, directed and produced all 14 of his previous films, as well as gave Maggie Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat some of their earliest roles. Now he is making his debut animated film about a student at a Hong Kong University who falls in forbidden love with the mother of a teenager he is tutoring. One of their activities involves going to the movies, where they watch relationships blossom between older film noir femme fatales and young handsome men. Yonfan calls this film his love letter to Hong Kong because it takes place in the 1960s during a period of political unrest. The muted colors he uses to decorate 1967 Hong Kong are inventive and beautiful. But please don't confuse "animation" with "family cartoon." These characters have sexual fantasies and sometimes actual sex. 

Pelican Blood

This astonishing film by German director Katrin Gebbe about an unmarried horse trainer who adopts two girls, one of whom may be possessed, is partially reminiscent of "The Exorcist." But it is ultimately a story about how far a mother, especially an adoptive one, will go to redeem the soul of a child she loves. The title refers to the Christian image of the mother pelican who pierces her breast to draw blood to feed her dead child, that is then brought back to life. It stars Nina Hoss, the riveting star of Christian Petzold's "Phoenix." The little girl who plays Raya, the exceedingly difficult five-year-old is amazing to watch. As we witness her transformation from docile orphan to an aggressive "bad seed" her mother and sister begin to wonder whether they made a mistake in the adoption. An added bonus are the scenes in the horse-training barns that show us how police horses are taught to withstand harrowing situations. The mother ponders whether difficult humans can be handled like difficult horses if you give them enough care and love and attention.  

The Perfect Candidate

One of Ebertfest's cherished past guests is director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who became the first female filmmaker of Saudi Arabia with her 2012 triumph "Wadjda," and the first filmmaker of any gender to shoot a full-length feature film entirely in Saudi Arabia. With "The Perfect Candidate," she brings another inspiring female story to the big screen. This is a drama about a young Saudi doctor determined to be her town's first female candidate in the municipal election. She wants only to practice medicine, but finds that by running for office, she can perhaps get the road fixed that leads to her clinic. Her family, even her own sisters, are ambivalent about her ambitions. This is an intriguing enough story, but what really drew me into this film was witnessing the daily living activities of the Saudi women. I related to the relationship between the sisters, and was astonished to learn that there are fashion shows for the different styles of abayas and niqabs worn by them. Also, when the sisters held a political fundraiser for the candidate, even though it was well attended by their friends, some openly confessed they would never vote for a woman if their husbands or fathers did not approve. The director is hoping that her protagonist's persistence in the face of heavy obstacles will be inspiring to bring about change by other Saudi women. "The hardest part now is for women to look beyond the antiquated social standards and limited goals they had previously seen for themselves, to shatter the taboos that hold them back and decide to blaze new trails for themselves and their daughters."  

The Truth

The latest work from revered Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda ("Shoplifters") stars screen legend Catherine Deneuve as an actress who has a contentious reunion with her daughter (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law (Ethan Hawke) when they return to Paris to help her celebrate the publication of her memoir. Binoche seeks to settle a score with Deneuve over her childhood, but must confront what is literal truth versus memory, and when is it acceptable to substitute the blunt truth for a softer lie. This is the first film Kore-eda has made outside of Japan and in a language not his own. It opened the festival. 

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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