Continuing our preview of the 20 titles in the running for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which kicks off next week. Today’s selection includes new films from Hayao Miyazaki, Peter Landesman, Errol Morris, Alexandros Avranas and Gianni Amelio.
“The Wind Rises,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki: It’s been five years since the last Miyazaki-directed feature, “Ponyo,” premiered in Competition at Venice — and honestly, that sweet but unapologetically minor children’s film wasn’t enough to satisfy Miyazaki fans’ cravings for over half a decade. Since the veteran Japanese animator ascended to festival auteur status (a promotion sealed when eventual Oscar-winner “Spirited Away” won the Golden Bear at Berlin), his work has arrived with crossover expectations that “Ponyo”‘s gentle maritime charms couldn’t quite fulfil. That looks likely to change with “The Wind Rises,” a significant change of pace for the director, and one of the most ambitious projects of his big-dreaming career.
Downplaying — if not entirely forgoing — his customary fantastical storytelling in favor of history, this fictionalized biographical drama (based on Miyazaki’s own manga) is inspired by the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a designer of Japanese fighter planes in the Second World War. Covering Horikoshi’s life from small-town boyhood through to professional triumphs and the loss of his wife, the 126-minute film reportedly uses elaborate dream sequences to portray it subject’s inner life — and, presumably, as an outlet for Miyazaki’s unfettered imagination — but otherwise sounds like one of Studio Ghibli’s more grown-up efforts. This change in direction, however, hasn’t hurt Miyazaki’s latest in its homeland, where it’s been another commercial smash for him. The film has also drawn its share of awestruck reviews (as well as a smattering of local controversy over its factual liberties.)
We already know that an English-language version of the film will not be ready this year. The subtitled, Japanese-language version that premieres at Venice will also be the same one that is entered this year for Oscar consideration in the Best Animated Feature category. (It remains to be seen whether Japan enters the film as its submission in the Best Foreign Language Film race.) Whether or not the Academy bites, it’s not hard to imagine the Venice jury welcoming Miyazaki back with a major award. This is the third time he’s vied for the Golden Lion — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which won a technical achievement prize from the jury in 2005, precedes “Ponyo.”
“Parkland,” directed by Peter Landesman: It’s hard to read any blurb about this American biographical drama — the last addition to the Competition lineup — without Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” springing to mind. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that’s a good thing or not, but the on-paper similarities between the two are obvious: Peter Landesman’s debut feature may cover the already amply-covered assassination of JFK rather than his younger brother, but it appears to use a comparable all-star ensemble to revisit the old “where were you when you heard” meme that still surrounds his death.
Zac Efron (returning to Venice after “At Any Price” premiered there last year) has received the bulk of the publicity so far for playing Jim Carrico, the first doctor to attend to John F. Kennedy after his shooting. Jeremy Strong (“Lincoln”) stars as Lee Harvey Oswald, the ubiquitous Jacki Weaver his mother Marguerite. Others in the ensemble include Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, James Bade Dale and Colin Hanks. indeed, it’s a Hanks family effort: Tom Hanks, apparently not quite busy enough this year, co-produced the film with three others, including Bill Paxton.
Landesman is best known as a writer and journalist; he was at the center of a minor media controversy a few years ago when he was accused of fabricating research for a New York Times piece about sex slavery. Biographical drama, of course, can fudge as many details as it pleases; the question is whether Landesman can be as crisp as persuasive in a visual and aural medium as he is on the printed page. Luckily, he has brilliant Britain cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard along for the ride. Hit or miss, this doesn’t look like the kind of film festival juries reward as a matter of course; reviews at Venice (and later Toronto) will help determine whether or not this has future awards potential.
“The Unknown Known,” directed by Errol Morris: Or, to use its full, self-explanatory title, “The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld.” Not that you need the full title to know what this is about. Veteran documentarian Morris won his long-awaited Oscar for 2003’s “The Fog of War,” an astute, clear-eyed portrait of former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. Ten years later comes what appears to a companion piece to that film: a feature-length interview with a certain more recent Secretary of Defense, delving deep into his controversial role in the Iraq War. Morris is a measured, unflinching interviewer, so this promises to be a valuable addition to the growing library of post-9/11 cinema, though it will probably find Morris on less playful form than in 2010’s media scandal study “Tabloid.” (Danny Elfman, however, provides the score, as he did in 2008’s “Standard Operation Procedure.”)
It’s still rare for documentaries to appear in Competition at the major festivals. Morris’ Abu Ghraib-themed feature “Standard Operating Procedure” did so in Berlin in 2008, while this is the first year he’ll be competing for the Golden Lion — moreover, his is one of two docs in this year’s Competition lineup. It won’t exactly be the most propulsive film in the running, but it could win something if jurors are in a rather austere mood, and keen to highlight the growing presence of non-fiction filmmaking on the festival circuit. The Weinsteins’ Radius label will distribute the film in the US.
“L’intrepido,” directed by Gianni Amelio: 68-year-old Italian veteran Amelio is, along with Tsai Ming-liang, one of only two former Golden Lion winners in the running this year: he won in 1998 for his Sicilian family saga “Così ridevano,” and has competed on three others occasions, winning non-jury awards each time. (He also won the Grand Prix at Cannes for his best-known film, 1992’s “The Stolen Children.”) He’s therefore a name to reckoned with, though still perhaps more highly regarded at home than elsewhere. Judging from the rather confusingly worded festival blurb for the film, his latest seems steeped in Italian cultural and political reference points that may not translate as well to outsiders. Antonio Albanese (“To Rome With Love”) plays an irregularly employed jack-of-all-trades trying to eke out a living in contemporary Milan; his plight is contrasted with that of his musician son.
“Miss Violence,” directed by Alexandros Avranas: One of the Competition’s real wild-card selections, this Greek drama is the second feature from Avranas, whose 2008 debut “Without” didn’t travel very far even on the festival circuit. His follow-up, however, caught the eye of Venice and Toronto alike: opening with the shocking suicide of an 11-year-old girl from a comfortable, middle-class household, this reportedly chilling film digs into not just the familial fallout from this tragedy, but the domestic history that led to it. Greek cinema is in the midst of a mini New Wave at the moment: Venice gave it an additional boost two years ago by programming Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Alps” (which eventually won Best Screenplay) in Competition; here’s hoping this one is similarly striking.
Join me tomorrow for another roundup of five Venice Competition titles, as we count down to our festival coverage — which kicks off on Wednesday. What films are you most looking forward to?