Scanning the dozens of Italian films playing in and out of competition this year in Venice, Vallanzasca was always going to be the must-see.
The story of real-life Milan mobster Renato Vallanzasca, currently serving four consecutive life sentence for an escalating series of crimes across the 1970s and ’80s, it has all the ingredients for a bloody gangster classic.
For starters, there’s actor-director Michele Placido (who made the 2005 crime saga Romanzo Criminale) behind the camera.
Then there’s the magnetic Kim Rossi Stuart (who featured in Romanzo Criminale) in the lead, an actor more than capable of embodying the cocksure swagger of this hoodlum on the rise.
With an international support cast including the likes of Paz Vega and Moritz Bleibtreu, an electric score and lashings of violence, it has to be good, right?
Wrong. Vallanzasca is a messy film at best, lurching from bank robbery to prison stint to street-side murder with a chaos that echoes its hero’s own lifestyle on the lam.
The best scenes are certainly near the beginning. “I was born to be a thief,” Vallanzasca tells us, and Placido’s depiction of his early ‘punk’ years is gripping.
But as turf wars with rival gangster Turatello (Francesco Scianna) escalate, it becomes increasingly hard to care about Vallanzasca or his cronies.
It doesn’t help that all the characters, in their terrible ’70s suits, sunglasses and perms, spend most of the film squabbling with each other. When they begin to meet their makers,
What does linger long in the memory is Kim Rossi Stuart, whose performance burns almost as brightly as his blue eyes - reminding me of when Robert De Niro first blazed on the screen as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.
As a carefree Robin Hood-style saga, Vallanzasca just about covers it. But what the film really lacks is any great emotional depth. Give me Gomorrah any day.
Is it a hoax or not? That was the question on everyone’s lips today.
Trouble is, after seeing Casey Affleck’s wildly outrageous documentary I’m Still Here – and hearing him speak afterwards at the press conference – nobody could decide.
Rumours have circulated for months about this warts-and-all portrait of Affleck’s brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, who announced his retirement from acting in the autumn of 2008 to concentrate on a hip-hop career.
As he says in the film, “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore.” Yet is Phoenix just playing a different character here?
Taking us through to March 2009, Affleck follows Phoenix on a downward spiral, as he gains weight, grows a ridiculous beard and becomes more and more isolated from his friends.
He spurns advances from agents and actors (including an offer from Ben Stiller to play the Rhys Ifans role in Greenberg), while trying to pester Sean ‘P.Diddy’ Combs to produce his debut hip-hop album.
After he starts performing on stage (badly, I might say), Entertainment Weekly breaks a story that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
“I can tell you there’s no hoax,” said Affleck, who wasn’t joined by Phoenix (in town, and apparently looking respectable) at the press conference.
Indeed, if this is a hoax, it’s one of the most elaborately staged pranks of all time. Think of Sacha Baron Cohen’s own brand of performance art on Borat and multiply it by a million.
Affleck refused to be drawn on whether certain moments – notably, the shocking scene where Phoenix’s furious assistant defecates on the actor’s head while he’s asleep – were faked.
“I’m a little bit reluctant to speak about specific scenes because I feel like it will influence other people’s experience of the film,” he said.
When one reporter admitted she was “curious” whether the P. Diddy sequence had been staged in some way, Affleck wryly commented “I bet you are” before telling her it was a leading question.
Of course, Affleck’s well aware this will only further the mystery surrounding this portrait of Phoenix, whose surly behaviour across the film goes someway to explain his crazed appearance on the David Letterman show (featured fully in the film).
Other scenes destined to shock include him chopping up and sniffing a white powder of some description and then partying with two naked prostitutes.
In truth, so compelling is this documentary, you want to believe it’s all real. In particular, Phoenix’s post-Letterman come-down (“I’m just going to be a goddamn joke forever,” he rages) is highly touching.
Making his directorial debut, Affleck has certainly delivered a well-made work – full of pace and pathos, craft and care.
Funny, tragic, moving and just jaw-dropping at times, it’s arguably one of the films of the festival so far. Indeed, even if Phoenix’s career is over, Affleck’s has only just begun.
Not having made anything since James Grey’s 2008 film Two Lovers, there’s little chance Phoenix will ever return to the big screen – certainly after this gets seen.
But as a final performance, it’s one hell of a way to bow out.
There was a feeling of déjà vu when Vincent Gallo’s third film Promises Written In Water unspooled this afternoon.
Just like the Cannes screening of his last directorial effort, 2003’s The Brown Bunny, the moment the credits ‘Edited By’, ‘Music By’ and ‘Written, Produced and Directed By’ all revealed the name ‘Vincent Gallo’, cat-calls came from the audience.
Seventy-five minutes later, after dozens of walk-outs, the muted applause was drowned by a series of boos and slow hand-claps.
It’s not hard to see why. Promises Written In Water is arguably a worse film than The Brown Bunny, its saving grace being that it’s mercifully shorter.
At one point early in the film, after Gallo nervously shuffles around an apartment, pacing back and forth, fiddling with various items of clothing, he lets out a sigh of boredom – a moment that saw much of the audience grunt in agreement.
Shot in black-and-white, its flimsy story follows concerns a friendship between a guy named Kevin (Gallo) and a girl named Mallory (Delfine Bafort).
Beautiful yet promiscuous, it seems the only person Mallory doesn’t sleep with is Kevin, who is still wrapped up in a former girlfriend named Colette, who is now dating a 55 year-old guy and heading to Thailand.
A particularly pretentious scene early on sees Kevin explain this to Mallory three or four times (even changing Thailand to Taiwan at one point), almost as if he were doing several ‘takes’ on a movie set.
Interwoven with this are scenes of Kevin dealing with a dead girl (Hope Tomeselli) – propping up her corpse at one point to take photographs – which is never fully explained.
There are isolated moments that grab your attention – such as the scene where Kevin rages against Mallory for calling Colette behind his back or the tender almost-kiss that they share.
To be fair, Balfort, a Belgium-born supermodel, comes out of the film with some credibility – even if Gallo allows his camera to leer over her naked body in a scene of clinical creepiness towards the end.
But, sad as it is to say, Gallo isn’t quite the one-man band he thinks he is. Perhaps his fine debut Buffalo ’66 was a flash in the pan after all.
“This is going to be a slow burner,” a pre-warned colleague informed me, moments before the lights went down on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.
He wasn’t kidding. Think of a tortoise tiptoeing through treacle and you may get close to describing the pace of this 19th Century Oregon-set western.
Of course, Reichardt is no novice. If the energy of the film could be described as leisurely, it’s only because it accurately reflects a way of life 150 years ago.
The story sees three families traveling across the Oregon Trail in covered wagons, being led by experienced mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood).
From the moment one carves ‘Lost’ into the side of a wagon, you know things aren’t going to end happily – though Meek insists “We’re not lost, we’re finding our way.”
Yet after a short-cut leads them into difficulties, discontent starts brewing – in particular via the forthright Emily (Michelle Williams, the lead in Reichardt’s last film Wendy and Lucy).
Events do, however, gather momentum in the second half – partly because the water supply is running dangerously short, partly because Meek captures a scout from the Cayuse tribe (Rod Rondeaux).
In a film where just two shots are fired (little wonder, given how long it takes to load the barrels), Reichardt’s understanding of this era is far removed from the Wild West of Sam Peckinpah.
But while the film may be short on action, its director knows exactly how to eek out tension – notably when the families are trying to gradually lower a wagon down a steep slope, with every creek of the wheels utterly agonizing.
Featuring a credible support cast (Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano and Will Patton), who all look suitably dirty and disheveled, the film reeks of authenticity throughout.
But what really impresses is Reichardt’s feel for the Great American landscape – a skill we’ve already seen to some extent in Wendy and Lucy and its predecessor Old Joy.
Shot in the 1.33 aspect ratio, which presents the harsh and dusty desert vistas in a square frame, natural light illuminates the scenes, lending a suitably bleak look to proceedings.
Yes, its old fashioned. But expertly crafted, Meek’s Cuttoff is the work of a major filmmaker whose just found a larger canvas to paint on.
Next: More Venice 2010