Mystifying in the extreme, veteran director Monte Hellman’s Road To Nowhere is a baffling film noir set in the world of moviemaking.
While Hellman may be best known for his cult road movie, Two Lane Blacktop, this latest effort treads a more oblique path – from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina via, Rome, Verona and London.
If you were being cruel, you might say that it’s an apt title for a story that goes nowhere too – though there’s enough here to warrant a second (and hopefully more enlightening) viewing.
Admittedly, the prologue is spectacular – as star Shannyn Sossamon contemplates a lake view from her car, only to see a small plane crash into the water. So unexpected is it, the audience in the screening I saw burst into spontaneous applause.
Fake credits follow for a film-within-a-film, entitled ‘Road To Nowhere’. Bearing the legend, ‘A Mitchell Haven Picture’, it stars ‘Cary Stewart’ in a tale based on a true-life crime story about politics, corruption and suicide.
With Stewart (Cliff De Young) cast as leading man Rafe Tachen, the cocksure Haven (Tygh Runyan) is now looking to find his female protagonist, the wonderfully named Velma Duran.
Enter Lauren Graham (Sossamon), an actress with just one vampire flick to her name. Despite having the likes of Scarlett Johansson interested in the role, Haven wants her. “You are Velma Duran,” he says.
From the casting couch, they swiftly move to the bedroom – but from here on, the confusion really starts, with Hellman cutting between off-camera moments and scenes from Haven’s picture.
What’s real and what’s not become increasingly difficult to define – with the film reminding you of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, with its cocktail of sex and celluloid.
As you might expect for a film about filmmaking, there are some in-jokes. With the script written by Steven Gaydos, an executive editor at Variety, his colleague Peter Bart features as himself, interviewing Haven on camera.
Hellman also posts some blatant movie reference points – everything from Nicholas Ray’s classic noir In a Lonely Place to Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve and Ingmar Begman’s The Seventh Seal.
If the story can be maddening for much of the time, it’s pleasing to see a strong lead for the oft-overlooked Sossamon, whose dark hair and beguiling brown eyes make her the perfect femme fatale.
Likewise, it’s also nice to see Dominique Swain (she of Adrian Lyne’s Lolita fame) on screen again – in a role that sees her play a blogger who becomes embroiled with the filmmakers.
While Road To Nowhere doesn’t come close to Hellman’s early classics, it’s such a strange viewing experience, it seems pre-ordained to gain a cult following – even if it will probably pass out of Venice unnoticed.
The highly prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike may well be the hardest working man in showbiz, with over 70 feature credits to his name in a twenty-year career.
His latest 13 Assassins is an ultra-violent samurai film, a remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white movie, Jusan-Nin No Shikaku.
Set in feudal Japan, it begins with the rise to power of the sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who rapes and kills with disturbing abandon.
Privately, the highly courageous and respected samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is called upon to defeat him.
To do so, he assembles a crack team of 13 assassins with the intention of ambushing Naritsugu and his massive entourage – in what can only be regarded as a certain suicide mission.
This band of blindly courageous warriors – a dirty baker’s dozen, you might say – do get some help, in the shape Koyota (Yusuke Iseya), a feral creature with a healthy disdain for all samurai.
What follows, as you might expect when Takashi Miike gets a samurai sword in his hand, is carnage on a massive scale. Or “total massacre” as they call it.
Some of the sequences are downright jaw dropping – in particular when several bulls are set on fire and used as flaming battering rams (don’t worry, animal lovers, it was all CGI).
Once the stabbing, slicing and chopping gets underway, there isn’t much below the surface of 13 Assassins, though Takashi’s approach is so relentless, you just get swept up in it.
By the time it ends, corpses littering the landscape as far as the eye can see, you can practically smell the stench of rotting flesh in the air.
It won’t win him any converts but fans of his uncompromising style will love it.
Arguably the biggest Hollywood film of the festival arrived today – Ben Affleck’s second film as director, bank robbery drama The Town.
Certainly there was a buzz in the press conference, as Affleck and British über-producer Graham King led the actors on stage.
Alongside Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner, the biggest round of applause was reserved for Jon Hamm, presumably due to his current popularity as the louche ad man Don Draper from Mad Men.
Affleck, back in Venice after winning Best Actor here for his turn as George Reeves in 2006’s Hollywoodland, led the charge in explaining just why his second effort as director after Gone Baby Gone was again set in Boston.
“I was a little bit hesitant to do this because I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as the Boston-director guy,” said Affleck. “But I liked the part. I wanted to play the part. And I believed the story was good.”
Adapted from the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, this story is a solid, if a little unremarkable tale of professional bank robbers from the city’s Charlestown suburb.
Affleck, directing himself for the first time, plays Doug MacRay, the self-styled leader of the gang, which also features The Hurt Locker star Renner as loose-cannon Jem.
Hall is Claire, the manager of the bank that the gang robs at the outset who unwittingly becomes romantically embroiled with Doug, while Hamm is the FBI agent trying to track them down.
There’s also a nice turn from Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively as MacRay’s former white trash girlfriend, now an alcohol and drug dependant single mother.
While it unfolds at a decent clip, the film that immediately leaps to mind is Michael Mann’s Heat, and The Town never comes close to that.
Of the three robberies that act as the film’s beginning, middle and end, it’s the middle-sequence – with the team dressed, bizarrely, as nuns – that injects some fierce adrenaline into proceedings.
Affleck does a better job as director than he does as actor though – proving just how smart he was to cast younger brother Casey in Gone Baby Gone.
Hamm, at least until he gets his scene with Blake Lively, is largely wasted, while Renner doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders.
Slick and glossy, there’s nothing wrong with The Town as a pure example of Hollywood entertainment. But it doesn’t live long in the memory.
Nine years on from winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for No Man’s Land, Danis Tanović returns to its Bosnian setting with his new film Cirkus Columbia.
Playing in the Venice Days strand of the festival, it’s set two years before No Man’s Land, in 1991, in the weeks running up to the war that tore the region apart.
Based on the novel by Ivica Đikić, it tells the story of Divko Buntic (Emir Kusturica regular Miki Manojlović), who returns to his home town after a 20 year absence.
With a sexy new girlfriend Azra (Jelena Stupljanin) in tow, he arrives to evict his estranged wife Lucija (Mira Furlan) and their 20 year-old son Martin (Boris Ler) from the family home.
Despite this, Divko makes an attempt to reach out to the son he barely knows, infuriating Lucija in the process, while his increasingly erratic behaviour starts to drive Azra away.
Amid all these squabbles – not least Divko losing his beloved cat Bonny – the clouds of war gather in the background, as the Serbs start to bomb Dubrovnik and the townsfolk are forced to take sides.
While No Man’s Land was a parable, dealing with two enemy soldiers trapped with each other, Cirkus Columbia is more of a domestic drama that alleviates the darkness with some finely judged moment of humour.
Tanović’s script, co-written with Đikić, builds up gradually, blending the personal and the political with a natural rhythm that never feels contrived.
By the finale, as Divko finds it in his heart for an act of generosity that’s somewhat out of character, you’re left with a tremendously moving piece that quietly reflects the madness of war.
The girl with the dragon tattoo is back – and her scars are clearly still there.
Swedish star Noomi Rapace, best known for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the ‘Millennium’ trilogy, has been on the Lido promoting Beyond, a bleak tale of domestic abuse and alcoholism.
The sort of film that should come with a prescription for anti-depressants, it marks the directorial debut of Pernilla August (known to millions as Anakin Skywalker’s mother in The Phantom Menace).
Rapace plays Leena, a mother-of-two with a devoted husband, Johan (played by Rapace’s real-life husband, Ola).
When she receives a call from the hospital one morning just before Christmas, informing her that her mother is dying, it triggers a series of memories she’s long since buried.
Flashing back to her childhood, we learn that she and her younger brother Flisan grew up with a Finnish father, Kimmo (Ville Virtanen), who frequently took his alcohol-fuelled rages out on their mother Aili (Aki Kaurismäki regular Outi Mäenpää).
Cutting between the past and present, as Leena journeys across country to see her ailing mother, August builds up a picture of a childhood you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
While Kimmo and Aili live like a more violent version of Wayne and Waynetta Slob, its little wonder that Flisan retreats into his shell and becomes a virtual mute while Leena is left to clear up her drunken father’s excrement from the kitchen floor.
Indeed, August’s depiction of this dysfunctional family make the clan in fellow Swede Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole In My Heart look like the Waltons.
Uncompromising and fearless, there’s a typically tough turn from Rapace, whose breakdown near the finale is as mesmerizing as it is heart-wrenching.
As for August, who came to prominence in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, you might say she’s done her old mentor proud.
Next: More Venice 2010