VENICE 2000: Woody Forever, and Brits Bounce Back with "Liam" and "Memento"
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/ 9.7.00) -- Wednesday morning, press and industry professionals attending the Venice Film Festival were fleeing public buses as if they were on fire. They were flinging their bicycles against the curb, forgetting to lock them. Why the hysteria? Clearly an event of utmost importance or, if not, an 8:30 am screening -- the first in Italy -- of "Small Time Crooks" by Woody Allen, the filmmaker possibly most loved by Italians, especially aficionados of the Biennale, which takes pride in having screened nearly every single one of his films.
We Americans all caught Woody's latest weeks ago (or is it months now?) and know that it's nothing to risk getting your bike stolen over. But when your favorite filmmaker's new movie hits the screen, all good cinephiles know to ignore the reviews and get breathless and giddy until they've proven to themselves it's not worth it.
Ironically enough, the Italian press is unanimously in love with "Small Time Crooks." Allen will remain one of the auteurs to continue captivating his European audience where others have failed. Tom Tykwer's "The Princess and the Warrior," for example, had a lot of fans grumbling. See indieWIRE's review yesterday. (On the other hand, those happy to discover a new side to Tykwer have embraced its beauty and stylistic excellence.)
Also disappointing to fans is French master Claude Chabrol's "Merci pour le chocolat" ("Nightcap"), which features a predictably brilliant performance by Isabel Huppert as a psychotic housewife, in an otherwise uninspired psychological thriller, and Barbet Schroeder's "Our Lady of the Assassins." It's a mystery why we continue to have high hopes for the director whose only two notable films, "Barfly," and "Reversal of Fortune," exist amidst a career of flops. His latest effort brings amateurish acting, bloated sentimentality, and trite dialogue to the contrived tale of a gay writer in love with an angelic sixteen-year old hoodlum in Colombia. In what is no doubt an attempt to crack open a society that kills without conscience, Schroeder instead comes across as a guy who knows as much about homosexuality, teenagers and gang violence as he does about Martians.
Steven Raphael, Senior VP of co-productions at USA Films, was one of those who came to Venice believing the Schroeder might be worthwhile. Also on his hit list of films that have not yet found U.S. distribution is Italian director Gabriele Salvatores' hilariously stylized "Denti," about a guy with a fear of abandonment fixation lodged deep in his two front teeth, which Raphael says has "a great buzz on." While he enjoyed "Denti" and shared the general enthusiasm for festival darling "Together," by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, Raphael has yet to go to the negotiating table.
He explains quite simply that a film picked up at a festival, "has to be something that you think can break out." Unfortunately, it's too expensive to buy and release a film that's just going to make a million dollars. We just released "Alice et Martin," the Techiné film," he continues. "It's a lot of work; you put it out there, and it grosses $500,000. It's not that there's not an audience. It's just that the machinery involved to get the posters up, the trailers up. . . it's not worth it."
Raphael also broached the taboo subject of "Series 7: The Contenders," USA's recently acquired film by Dan Minahan, which the company pulled from the festival at the last minute: "We're really supportive of this festival," he says emphatically. "That movie just didn't need to be here. We bought it a month ago. We don't know what we're doing with it yet, we haven't test marketed it. We believe in the movie, but you have to have a strategy when you release a film. You can't just throw it out there, because once you go forward, you can't go back." According to the film's publicist, "Series 7" is shooting for a January release in the States.
Another film that has caught distributors' attention is Stephen Frears' hard-hitting "Liam." At a press conference on Tuesday, the British director was attacked by Italian journalists about his laugh-out-loud depiction of the Catholic church. They also questioned his motivation for making this movie about a cherubic tot with a mischievous streak (eight-year old Anthony Borrows), who's sorting through tough questions of sin, redemption and the existence of pubic hair, while his parents battle poverty and unemployment in 1930s Liverpool. The director of such passionate early works as "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" and mellower recent films like "High Fidelity" simply responded, "I did it because I admire the writer (Jimmy McGovern) and the script. That's all that ever matters."
While the producers of Liam stress that the made-for-BBC movie will have a fulfilling existence even if it never gets beyond the small screen, those responsible for Christopher Nolan's "Memento" assured the press at a conference on Wednesday that they are in the final stages of negotiating a deal with an unnamed theatrical distributor. The psychological thriller that turned heads in the Cannes market and was reportedly acquired by Paramount Classics (but never confirmed) concerns a man with a disorder that prevents him from creating new memories (Guy Pearce) who's on a mission to avenge his wife's murder.
Nolan explained the film's odd conceit: "I was interested in making a film that would put the audience in the mind of a protagonist who is plagued by uncertainty." He continues, "It was my intent to bring a fresh perspective on familiar genres -- the thriller, the film noir. Taking a familiar starting point and telling the story from a subjective perspective will hopefully make the audience look at some of these elements with fresher eyes, not take so many things for granted. There is some desire in the film to subvert the expectations of genre or at least encourage people to not expect the expected." The result is a challenging and innovative film that leaves much of the plot open to interpretation. While compelling, this quality is likely to make "Memento" a hard sell for mainstream audiences.
Most of the films being screened at Venice have received mixed reviews from the press and public alike. Possibly the only films that have been universally well received -- if not loved -- are "Together" and "Before Night Falls," Julian Schnabel's moving portrait of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, played tremendously by Javier Bardem.
At an intimate dinner Wednesday night at the glamorous Hotel Danieli, attended by Raphael, Chris Paton, director of the international press office in Venice, and Vouter Barendrecht, co-chairman of Fortissimo Sales, conversation included the recent sale of "Before Night Falls" to Fine Line and of "Pollock" to Sony Pictures Classics.
Afterwards, in the bar of the Excelsior, festival guests ogled actors Faye Dunaway, Elodie Boucher, Callum Keith Rennie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and directors Atom Egoyan and Tsui Hark and wondered whether the upcoming films "The Circle," "Calle 54" or "The Last Resort" would finally give everyone a movie to fall in love with.