If It’s Sunday, This Must Be Venice

9 Sep

Look familiar? Poster for director Kim Ki’duk’s Pietà [Mercy]. Yep, that seems about right.

Well, here we are right in the middle of film festival season. The annual shindigs in Montreal, Telluride, and Venice  have just concluded while the one in Toronto is just getting started. New York’s fest is still a few weeks away, and these are just a few of the higher profile events. Studio executives and filmmakers love this time of year as they descend upon these fests in hopes of generating significant buzz, especially awards buzz, for their year-end prestige pics, which are typically more complex and adult-oriented than the rote summer blockbuster menu of spectacular action flicks, animated extravaganzas, and wascally comedies. For example, last year Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, starring George Clooney, was screened at both the Telluride and Toronto fests, becoming prime Oscar bait in the process; similarly, Gary Oldman’s Oscar nominated turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy earned early raves at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Two years ago, Oscar’s big winner, The King’s Speech, likewise wowed audiences at Telluride and Toronto. As far back as 1999, American Beauty set the Oscar race in motion by picking up an award in Toronto, and so it goes.. (Thanks, Linda Ellerbe).

The oldest of these film festivals is the Venice International Film Festival, which actually predates the much more famous Cannes Film Festival. The former was launched in 1932; the latter in 1947. As this year’s Venice fest is listed as its 69th annual, my math tells me that it has not always been held annually. The presentation of awards at Venice, as we now know them, did not begin until the late 1940s. (I’ll assume the fest was put on hiatus during WWII)

This year’s Venice winners include:

  • Golden Lion for Best Picture – Pietà by Kim Ki-duk (Republic of Korea)
  • Silver Lion for Best Director – The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson (U.S.A.)
  • Special Jury Prize – Paradies: Glaube [Paradise: Faith] by Ulrich Seidl (Austria, Germany, France)
  • Best Actress –  Hadras Yaron (Lemale Et Ha’Chalal, [Fill the Void] Israel)
  • Best Actor – TIE: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
  • Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Actor or Actress – Fabrizio Falco (Bella Addormentata [Dormant Beauty] and E Stato Il Figlio [It Was the Son], Italy)
  • Best Screenplay – Olivier Assayas (Apres Mai [Something in the Air], France)
  • Best Cinematography –  Daniele Cipri (E Stato Il Figlio)
  • Lion of the Future Award for Best Debut Film – Küf [Mold] by Ali Aydin (Turkey, Germany)
  • Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement – Francesco Rosi (Salvatrore Giuliano, Hands over the City, Lucky Luciano, Three Brothers, Carmen, The Truce, etc.)
  • Jaeger-LeColtre Glory to the Filmmaker Award  – Spike Lee (U.S.A)

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman recently shared Best Actor honors at the Venice International Film Festival for their performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, opening soon. The movie also stars Amy Adams, seen here on the poster with Phoenix and Hoffman.

Most intriguing to me is the shared award for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Seven years ago, these two actors duked it out for the Academy’s Best Actor Oscar. Hoffman, of course, won for starring in Capote, a biopic of writer Truman Capote, while Joaquin Phoenix was similarly nominated for playing a real-life figure, country-western singing legend Johnny Cash (Walk the Line). I would have easily, easily, honored Phoenix any day of the week over Hoffman, but that’s just me. Now, they might both find themselves in yet another Oscar race, though something tells me the studio releasing the film (the Weinstein group) will position the actors in separate categories: Phoenix as the leading actor, and Hoffman as supporting.  The Master is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since 2007’s amazing There Will Be Blood, which starred Daniel Day Lewis in an Oscar winning performance that simply rocks my world.

I’m super-excited about Anderson’s new film. Not only am I waiting to see Phoenix onscreen again, I’m curious about the look of The Master as Anderson has reached back in time for some old-school film magic. What this means is that Anderson, with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.,  shot his movie on film stock–as opposed to shooting it digitally–and, to up the ante, he actually worked in a true 70mm format. Okay, technically, it’s a 65mm format since the magnetic sound track comprises the other five milimeters. I think that’s right. Though a number of movies have been presented in 70mm for decades–less so now since the advent of digital technology–many of those offerings were not actually photographed in 70 but were simply blown-up from a 35mm negative. The wider 7omm image is generally robust: sharper and more detailed than its conventional counterpart. Of course, 70mm is also more expensive to produce. The Master is reportedly the first true 70mm film since Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet in 1996 (cinematography by Alex Thomson); prior to that, Ron Howard’s Far and Away (1992) was the first film since David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) to actually be filmed in 70. Lean’s usual cinematographer, the great Freddie Young, won an Oscar for the latter–to go along with the Oscars he also won for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).  I can’t wait! Luckily, I won’t have to as the Weinsteins are bucking tradition and rolling out The Master sooner rather than later, that is, the movie is set to open as early as Sept. 14th in some markets as opposed to the usual Nov.-Dec crush of Oscar hopefuls. As such, a potentially difficult movie now has time to generate significant momentum rather than struggle during a season in which a movie about cults (see below) might seem…unseasonable, thereby getting lost in the shuffle. (The downside, as I have learned, is that the 70mm prints will likely not be uniformly distributed across the country–the proper equipment is seldom used, after all–which probably means that the prints will be optically tricked out with special projector lenses to simulate a 70mm look–and this, ladies and gentlemen, is about the easiest way to explain how this stuff works.)

Actor and sometime director–not to mention Oscar winning screenwriter–Ben Affleck is currently garnering praise for this third directorial effort, Argo, an account about a CIA plan to rescue Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis that began there in 1979. Affleck is certainly no stranger to the festival circuit. He won the 2006 Best Actor award at Venice for his moving performance as the late George Reeves, TV’s original Superman, in Hollywoodland, a movie that explored the life and mysterious death of the much loved actor. If you have not yet seen this film, which co-stars Adrien Brody and Diane Lane, you should consider doing so if only to marvel at Affleck’s unexpectedly poignant portrayal of a man at odds with his most famous creation and his place in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Of course, many people are curious about Anderson’s work for none of the above reasons but are curious to see what appears to be a film about the early days of the infamous Church of Scientology. Apparently, Phoenix plays a volatile–troubled–World War II vet whose path crosses that of Hoffman’s charismatic cult leader.  For his part, Anderson freely admits that Hoffman’s character was/is inspired by Scientology’s founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard; however, Anderson is quick to add that the movie is not an exposé of Scientology, per se, but is more focused on the relationship between the two characters. Says Anderson in a recent widely reported interview from Venice:

  • “I really don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now […] But I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters.” [1]

More recently, in Toronto he elaborated:

  • “I don’t consider that we’re dealing with a cult […] The area of this story after the war is like food and drink to me in terms of an opportunity for a lot of good stuff to tell a story. It’s a mix of a tremendous bout of optimism, but an incredibly large bodycount behind you – how can you feel really great about a victory with so much death around you? So it gets you to a spot where you’ve gotta figure out where all the bodies are going and this creates a situation where people want to talk about past lives, about where we go after we die, past lives, and those kinds of ideas that the Master is putting forward – time travel is possible – those are great ideas. They’re hopeful ideas and stuff that was fascinating to write the story around.” [2]

Given a recent tawdry cover story from a seemingly respectable national magazine, maybe I should care more about who is/isn’t a Scientologist, but I think the media’s fascination is mostly crap that preys upon people’s fear of that which is different and unknown, especially when it comes to that old bugaboo, religion. Well, I, for one, am more concerned about the beliefs and policies of, say, someone trying to get into the White House, which does affect me, than I am in hashing out the details of the beliefs and policies of a movie star who has absolutely no bearing on my life, but that’s just me. That noted, I am NEVER in favor of a religion, cult, or other organization that abuses its members and violates their human rights; however, I can’t even say I’m truly sympathetic regarding adults who join cults even though they have every good reason not to–ugh, why am I even writing about this? Is Rock of Ages on DVD yet? Jeeze!

Well, I just want to see The Master: it’s been five years since Anderson has released a movie, and it’s been four years since Phoenix starred in a traditional feature film–seven years since his brilliant turn in Walk the Line, and that’s all the inducement I need.

[1] – http://www.hitfix.com/news/venice-p-t-anderson-acknowledges-the-masters-scientology-connection

[2] – http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/i-dont-consider-that-were-dealing-with-a-cult-paul-thomas-anderson-talks-about-the-master-at-tiff-20120909

A brief Huffington Post piece on 70mm: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/07/paul-thomas-anderson-the-master_n_1862890.html

Venice International Film Festival Official Site: http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/festival/awards/

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