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Venice Film Festival 2015: 'Neon Bull' + 'Looking for Grace' + 'Beasts of No Nation'

Neon Bull

The 72nd Venice Film Festival kicks off with Neon Bull, Looking for Grace and Beasts of No Nation

Ok, so the title in this first diary entry from the 72nd Venice Film Festival, the oldest surviving of its kind, is slightly misleading. As I didn’t arrive on the Lido until day 2, you’ll find no update on opening day shenanigans. I can tell you that disaster epic Everest provided the initial glamour, and that Jake Gyllenhaal looked rather fetching in a dishevelled way, staring down from the massive billboards littering the area surrounding the Sala Grande, Venice’s main screen. From early reports, it doesn’t sound like I missed too much either. A serviceable, if hardly spectacular opener, it seems unlikely to follow in the footsteps of recent years which saw the likes of Black Swan, Gravity and Birdman get things underway.

Anyway, enough of what I wasn’t there for. For the duration of the festival, running through until the 12th September, I’ll be giving you a little taste of what Venice has to offer, hopefully in an entertaining style, although oppressive heat and vaporetto induced sea sickness might put paid to that. So without further ado, what did the second day bring? The short answer is mixed fortunes ranging from dull Brazilian rodeo to Netflix’s first foray into feature film distribution.

The rodeo came in the shape of Neon Bull, an often bizarre account of a bizarre world. The film jumps around as it feels fit, but mostly centres on a small grouping that includes Maeve Jinkings’ redneck and Juliano Cazarré’s fashion designing bull wrangler. Director Gabriel Mascaro has an eye for the little details that build out this world on the margins of Brazilian society. When Jinkings and her daughter shower, they do so behind a couple of sheets tied to a large vehicle, while Cazarré falls over himself to brag about his experience with cologne when a saleswoman surprisingly rocks up as they work with their bulls. There’s even a little X-rated slapstick as a horse is excited before a bucket can be reached.

It’s all too detached though. Rodeo life rolls on too separate from our own to form any real connection. Perhaps this is what comes from incongruous cutting that takes the film from eroticism to the pastoral and out again to a heady nightlife in the blink of an eye. All this creates the real problem; it’s simply too dull. Stretching out interminably, a guilty sense of relief comes with the end. Neon Bull tries, but not with any real success.

Looking for Grace

There was similar drift in the first of my evening double-bill, and my first film in the main competition this year. Looking for Grace, the fifth feature from Australian director Sue Brooks is marred by some pretty major tonal shifts, and an all too clever POV approach that adds nothing to an otherwise entertaining drama. The characters are all in search of grace, and in a do-you-see-what-they-did-there moment, are in search of teenage Grace (Odessa Young), off cross-country with a wad of cash her father shouldn’t have been storing at home.

Brooks has a way with witty observations, peppering scenes with amusing dialogue exposing the vanity of her protagonists. Radha Mitchell does a good job as the uptight and plainly upset mother, while Richard Roxburgh’s father gets a few knock-out scenes with old PI Tom (Terry Norris), and possibly the most incompetent seduction attempt I’ve witnessed in some time. If we’d have stopped there, it would have been gravy, but Brooks tries to reach for dramatic weight in a story that doesn’t have it, stretching moments far beyond breaking point. And then there’s the decision to show the same events from multiple viewpoints. It disrupts the flow, and seems mainly to have been introduced to give a big bang ending that can’t avoid feeling like a cheap trick. Oh well, it was still an enjoyable enough ride while it lasted.

Beasts of No Nation

Enjoyable doesn’t really apply to Beasts of No Nation, also competing for the Golden Lion this year. I’m only going to mention Netflix once more. Yes, this upstart is distributing, yes, it will ruffle feathers, and yes, it’s all anyone has talked about in the build-up to release. Now the film has screened, hopefully we can focus instead on a rather impressive achievement. Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of the 2005 novel of the same name centres on young Agu who lives in a war-torn and unnamed West African country. He starts out in a safe zone, but this is soon violated, and after the murder of several family members, he finds himself indoctrinated into Idris Elba’s rebel militia.

It’s a frequently horrific experience, as one would expect given the subject matter, all handled with an unflinching gaze. At times, such as the obligatory training montage, it could be a superior Vietnam film, but just when things get too military, little scenes watching the kids play are thrown in, a stark reminder that they are children. It’s hard to maintain innocence in the face of cold-blooded murder, drugs and rape. Agu goes through the lot, killing his first man, a restrained prisoner, by machete to the head. Abraham Attah is brilliant as the child warrior losing his spark, and Elba elevates what could have been a caricature into something much deeper, a man both helpless and sinister, always falling short of his own ambitions.

Ending the day on that nightmare is hard going, and certainly added perspective to my mundane difficulties in finding the right boat home. I don’t think I’ve seen the competition winner – there were a few niggles around an unneeded voiceover for me – but I’ll settle for merely very good. More of the same on day three please.

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