La La Land

What is it about festivals that can make critics write as if they’re dictating pull quotes? Twitter formalizes the practice, but the temptation to blurb has long existed for those sending dispatches from the highly exclusive front lines of the release calendar. See a movie, leave your mark, and maybe, just maybe, you can make or break the film’s career and be present at the birth of glory (which you helped create). I’m not describing some new phenomenon here by any means, but the attempts to fast-track films to stardom and shock-and-awe their way past critique remain tedious.

In Venice, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the festival opener, furnished many critics with the opportunity to perform their enthusiasm. Far sadder specimens of the contemporary musical have elicited similar manufactured ballyhoo, so yes, again, nothing new. But the sonic shambles of the film’s opening number (a traffic-jam hoedown) set a low bar and display a tin ear, and the artistic-underdog story told by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling felt more and more like pandering. Instead of being gleefully transported by any given number, I began to cringe when a character could clearly feel a song coming on. When it came to footloose romantic comedy, a better bet was Through the Wall, the second feature by Fill the Void director Rama Burshtein. The late-blooming Israeli filmmaker upturns the traditional convention of marriage as comedic climax by having her jilted heroine go ahead with a planned wedding ceremony and find a new groom along the way. The cornball is leavened with constant questioning of motivations, with lead actor Noa Koler bringing unheralded and unguarded warmth to what could have been a stock oddball lonely hearts.



When it came to studio product in Venice, the intergalactic sentiment of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also beats out La La Land, showing derivation done well. It’s essentially Interstellar plus Contact (or Close Encounters, depending on your demographic) but powered by Villeneuve’s sensuous audiovisual feel for what might be called emotional claustrophobia. The stakes could not be higher: the fate of the world hangs in the balance after spaceships appear across the globe, enormous slivers resembling Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures. Amy Adams is indispensable as a linguist charged with translating E.T.-speak, and she becomes a kind of pure vessel for emotion, increasingly and poignantly transparent as the squid-like aliens exert a mysterious, Nolanian hold on her unconscious. Alongside Tom Ford’s overdesigned Nocturnal Animals—which gives Adams far less to do—that made for two films at Venice in which her character is called upon to reflect upon herself. Arrival also offered the bonanza among the festival’s cephalopod sightings, but I’ll let Jonathan Romney do the honors on The Untamed

Finally, speaking of the realm of the unearthly, a new Nick Cave documentary appeared at Venice, Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling. Instigated by Cave, the black-and-white film appears a year after his son Arthur’s death and right around the debut of his latest album—all of which might lead one to expect a fairly excruciating experience, at once promotional and confessional. Although Dominik initially futzes about with a reflexive approach, Cave’s haunting hypnotism takes over through his drone-lined songs (captured in a staged studio set) and through some soul-searching interviews and journal-like voiceovers. Without the film ever growing coy or facile, the musician seems to circle himself as he struggles to understand his post-traumatic mindset and find his artistic footing. A shamanic aura hovers over the proceedings, as when Cave’s wife, designer Susie Bick, describes a prophetic childhood drawing by Arthur that someone had framed in black—while she sits with Cave in front of a portrait of the couple, framed, too, in black.