The Best of Film Festival Early Reviews: Part One

With the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals premiering some of most highly-anticipated and acclaimed films of the coming season, TIFF just beginning, and NYFF on the horizon, we’ve been watching as the early reviews—both of excessive praise and harsh aversion—roll on in. But such examination can be treacherous territory. So many of the initial reactions appearing over the weekend related the impression and quality for the films seen strictly in terms of how they thought the feature would fare come award season.  

But is that really the mark of how great a film can be and lasting impact it will have? No. Personally, I rarely find myself reading a heavy bit of criticism until after I allowed myself to absorb the film fully and formulate an opinion for myself unfettered by the inflection of other’s words, no matter how compelling. The point isn’t to walk in the theater with an agenda or with a preconceived notion of its greatest or to exit the theater with shame in absolutely falling in love with a film. But let’s be honest, it’s hard to resit seeing what some of our favorite writers had to say thus far.  

And when it comes to festivals, reviews can make or break a long-waited anticipation—squashing the thrill or hyping in into an unnecessary realm that will only lead to let down. With the an impressive line-up of films having already debuted this past week, long-lead reviews may not have the ability to hinder your perception as powerfully as it might if you knew you were seeing the film tomorrow, so for those you not attending the festivals for yourself, check out our collection of snippets from the early reviews coming in—featuring some of the most anticipated films of the year from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Xavier Dolan’s Tom A La Ferme.   

 

12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen 

The recent popular revenge fantasy Django Unchained notwithstanding, there have been so few good and strong films about slavery in America that, for this reason alone, 12 Years A Slave stands quite tall. With director Steve McQueen dedicating himself to detailing the “peculiar institution” with as many dreadful particulars as he can, Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a fine cast with a superior performance as the real-life Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into Southern slavery until being miraculously rescued. Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish.

Despite the upsetting and vivid brutality, Fox Searchlight has a winner here that will generate copious media coverage, rivet the attention of the black public, stir much talk in political and educational circles and appeal to film audiences who crave something serious and different. Ejiofor is terrific in a demanding character who’s put through the wringer physically, mentally and emotionally. One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn’t talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope. —THR

This radiant aesthetic, coupled with the rousing use of spiritual songs, provide a beacon of optimism amidst so much hate, once again proving cinema’s place as the ultimate human-rights medium. It’s a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long — 12 years for Northrup and nearly 250 for those less fortunate — and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face. —Variety

“Amistad,” meet the Marquis de Sade, in the form of slavemaster Michael Fassbender, who puts his victims through more tortures than Mel Gibson ever could have imagined for Jesus. As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes. If McQueen could forge a career working arthouse moments into multiplex movies, that’d be a case of mistaken identity we’d be happy to live with. —The Playlist

 

 

The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam

That’s the major bum note to the film, but if you can look past it, there’s much to like, from Waltz’s performance to the typically rich production and costume design. It might not be a return to the form of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King” and “ Twelve Monkeys,” but it’s a lot better than what we’ve had from Gilliam in the last decade, and we sincerely hope there’s plenty more to come. The Playlist

Those who made it to the end of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” or “Tideland” will be amazed to find Gilliam sinking even further here than those low-water marks. The production notes, as if trying to forestall inevitable criticism, make many mentions of the quickness with which the production was executed and the challenges of the low budget, all of which is all too apparent onscreen.Variety

It doesn’t really add up to much, beyond a timely reminder that it would be better for everyone to stop uploading and downloading and just unplug and be human. The dialogue and ideas in Pat Rushin’s stuffed screenplay can be quite funny, and the cast carries them off well. Gilliam’s frequent DP Nicola Pecorini bring a strong sense of continuity with the look of the director’s previous work, though the choice to shoot on 35mm film in 2D rather than digital is counter-intuitive. Composer George Fenton, in contrast, creates a romantic-sounding score out of electronic music. The special effects have some high points too, like the rotating Rubik’s cubes that sail across the computer screen to complete a Tower of Babel construction. —THR

For all that, the film has a ragged charm, a Tiggerish bounce, and a certain sweet melancholy that bubbles up near the end. It is a wilfully iconoclastic film from a wilfully iconoclastic man. And it shows, for better or worse, that Gilliam is still in the game and eyeing the prize, despite his spectacularly ill-starred recent career. At the age of 72, Gilliam obviously retains an enormous capacity for hope. In this respect, he’s a little like Qohan, who sits waiting for a phone call that will definitively explain the meaning of life. Of course, there’s no phone call; it’s all a delusion. Yet still he sits, because there’s hope in the waiting and what else is the point?The Guardian

Tom a la Ferme, Xavier Dolan

And indeed, the film marks his growth in all kinds of ways. We’ve found him a little awkward as a performer in his own previous films, but he gives a strong and even likable turn here (matched blow for blow, often literally, by the excellent Cardinal). And it’s his most expansive and impressive work visually too, with the photography by "Incendies"’ Andre Turpin taking full advantage of the rural landscape and claustrophobic interiors. We might not unreservedly love the film, as has been our experience with previous Dolan films (confirmed fans may well have a better time with it). But it’s certainly his best film, and if he keeps growing at this rate, it’s only going to be a matter of time before he comes up with something we really cherish. And in the meantime, it’s great to sit back and watch a fascinating filmmaker continue to find his voice.The Playlist

It’s a short leap, of course, from Highsmith to Hitchcock — not that “Tom at the Farm” has anything in common with “Strangers on a Train,” barring the obvious homoerotic ancestry. Though he shows an unexpected knack in the film’s opening and closing stages for razor-cut suspense, Dolan fosters the Hitch connection mainly through the lush strings of Yared’s almost ever-present score, one so uncannily in thrall to Bernard Herrmann that viewers familiar with Dolan’s previous output — hitherto reliant on tastefully curated jukebox soundtracks — may initially assume he’s sampling extracts from lesser-known film scores from the Golden Age of noir. So overwhelming and insistent as to constitute a narrative voice in itself, Yared’s work constitutes a significant formal risk, but its sweeping intricacy stands in sufficiently stark contrast to the film’s otherwise contempo-chic construction to make it a thrilling one. —Variety

With his fourth feature completed at the tender age of just 24, Dolan has established a reputation for himself as a director of original and entertaining queer cinema. Tom at the Farm is confidently delivered, its shots composed with a careful eye, and its occasional stylistic flourish – ratios change in moments of danger, for instance – hint at someone pushing at the possibilities of cinema, if not quite breaking through. CineVue

 

 

The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki

Naturally the animation is a joy to behold. The film’s crisp colours and commanding lines summon up a ravishing portrait of pre-war Japan with its puffing steam-trains, huddled neighbourhoods and lulling nocturnal tram-rides through town. Some of the setpieces (most notably the apocalyptic earthquake that leads to the burning of Tokyo) are the equal of anything the director has produced in Spirited Away or My Neighbour Totoro. But the film itself is genteel to a fault. It’s too polite, it needs more bite. It lets enigmatic Horikoshi off the hook, bobbing out to the clouds, forever out of reach. —The Guardian

But even beyond the love of planes, this feels like perhaps the director’s most personal film. He’s careful to portray the designers as artists rather than just engineers, and it’s easy to find parallels between Mitsubishi and Studio Ghibli at work. In many ways, Jiro’s obsessive attachment to his work feels like Miyazaki’s Kunstlerroman—his portrait of the artist as a young man. It’s a touch disappointing that the film’s biopic structure proves as constraining as it does; most of the story beats play out as you’d expect them to in a film like this one. But if the story itself is conventional, the way it’s told is anything but. There’s a lot to unpack here, with debate likely to continue long past its eventual U.S. release (and it should be noted that it’s fairly surprising that Disney have picked up a film that features as much smoking as half a season of "Mad Men," even given the long association between the two studios). It might not be the director’s most immediately accessible films, but it’s among his most fascinating and beguiling.The Playlist 

Power-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, friends of "Miyazaki-san" who have helped his films secure better North American distribution in recent years, introduced The Wind Rises. Kennedy said that a Horkioshi film has been on the director’s to-do list for years, and that he even considered making it as a live-action film. She also noted Miyazaki’s retirement announcement — which was met with gasps from many audience members who hadn’t heard the news — and Marshall added, "In our opinion, he saved his best for last." THR

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Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang

“With its constant focus on dripping faucets, leaky houses and driving rain, this is unmistakably a Tsai Ming-liang joint. Here, the water that surrounds the characters at every turn – rough weather, bogs, drains, buildings, public restrooms – takes on an almost biblical presence, as if even the inanimate elements bare a grudge against their modest existence. Though Stray Dogs boasts that rare quality of being unlike anything else out there, the film it bares closest comparison to is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The similarities only begin to reveal themselves in the climactic stages where the film takes a turn for the poetically existential. The characters appear to have been naturally gravitating towards their own iteration of The Zone, that unusual space which, once inside, professes to offer answers to profound spiritual conundrums.Little White Lies 

The mix of tenderness and dereliction, the constant presence of rain and wind, the eerie sense of a life on the fringes in which other humans pass by like ghosts in the background (or are we watching a family of ghosts?), the possibility that the cabbage, the mountain mural and a patriotic Chinese song the father sings at a certain point may add up to a lament for a lost rural lifestyle, and the other-worldly melancholy that pervades the whole exercise, are the scraps we cling on to in the absence of story. Not enough for a square meal – but sometimes at the movies, hunger is more memorable than satiety. —ScreenDaily

 

 

The Unknown Known, Errol Morris 

“Yet, the film’s failure to offer any big revelations is just as much Morris’ fault as Rumsfeld’s, as he too often feeds questions to his subject in a jokey, barroom manner which highlights a potential intellectual chasm between interviewer and subject. One irony of the film is in its deep focus on torture tactics used in American military prisons, many of which were sanctioned by Rumsfeld himself. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Morris’ opted for a ‘what’s good for the goose…’ methodology, and blasted Christina Aguilera tunes at him in a darkened prison cell in order to get him to blab. The format the film adopts is having Rumsfeld rifle through his old memos (referred to internally as ‘snowflakes’), reading them out and then reflecting on them with Morris. The tone of the film is probably more instructional than investigative, as Rumsfeld clearly thinks he’s in front of the camera to merely talk through his political decisions rather than justify them. There are perhaps one or two occasions where Rumsfeld feels the ropes lightly pressing against the small of his back, but he’s always quick with a counter-attack or nifty dodge.” —Little White Lies

It may just be that not enough time has passed—there’s a big difference between the forty years that went by before McNamara sat down for “The Fog Of War,” and the ten between the start of the Iraq war and “The Unknown Known.” And with Rumsfeld in his 80s, you can see why Morris was keen to get him on record when he had the opportunity. From a procedural perspective, the film is an insightful look into the life of a Secretary Of Defense, but as an exploration into how the war in Iraq was allowed to happen, it’s much, much less satisfying.—The Playlist

 

 

Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier

Of course, perhaps Saulnier’s greatest asset is his lead actor – Macon Blair was faced with the unenviable task of making Dwight at once both childlike and savagely capable, a feat made all the more demanding by how the narrative requires him to resist caricature at every turn. While Saulnier is happy to indulge in the pulpier side of things (perhaps even a tad too much at the very end), Dwight’s adventure only works if his flexible morals and slippery sense of purpose remain relatable so that viewers can be allowed to appreciate the character’s struggle with his dissolution into violence. Blair, who makes a memorable bid to become the Joe Lo Truglio of the genre world, is more than up to the challenge, combining wide-eyed deadliness with the disarming lucidity of his conviction to create a memorable antihero worthy of Saulnier’s exquisitely crisp cinematography (continuing the recent trend of polymath filmmakers, the director shot the movie himself). —Film.com  

Saulnier’s first film was the underseen but wickedly funny “Murder Party.” That picture was a lark; a comedy about a group of hipsters who were torn between natural sadism and the thought that killing innocents was passé. That ironic distance is absent from Saulnier’s much more accomplished second feature, one that never leaves Dwight’s perspective, and therefore his broken prioritization of what will keep him out of danger. There are no moments of safety once Dwight has committed his first sin, and as such there are no moments of safety in “Blue Ruin.” Saulnier has made a film of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs (the brief moments of violence are convincingly staggered and upsettingly abrupt), but for what’s waiting just off screen at every turn. It’s easily the most suspenseful American film of the year, a thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky; sudden, terrifying, and excitingly singular. —The Playlist

Under the Skin, Jonathon Glazer

Johansson is nothing short of iconic here; her character is a classic femme fatale in the film noir tradition, down to the plump red lips and deep fur coat, but with a refrigerated nothingness at her core. She looks at her fellow cast members as if they are from another planet – which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Even the Scottish landscape looks alien: dawn mist rolls across lochs like curls of space dust.   Glazer’s astonishing film takes you to a place where the everyday becomes suddenly strange, and fear and seduction become one and the same. You stare at the screen, at once entranced and terrified, and step forward into the slick.The Telegraph  

And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of “Under the Skin” isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting. The world as seen through alien eyes, it turns out, looks much like the world as seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic  (“Repulsion”), a paranoiac (Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane”) or a sociopath (Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora”) — which, if it’s Glazer’s point, is one he makes early and often, Johansson doing her best to convey varying degrees of blankness and incomprehension at her own actions and those of others.

Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, “Under the Skin” becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the pic’s tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible. —Variety

Whether or not there’s much feeling to take away in the end is another story. Eerily scored throughout by Mica Levi, “Under the Skin” is a deliberately oblique piece of work that prizes rhythms and textures above hows and whys. If that very notion makes your skin crawl, then don’t bother, but more curious audiences may find that Glazer’s film does that well enough on its own.Film.com      

Los Angeles Openings: Superba Snack Bar, The Colonial Wine Bar

Back down by the beach, Superba Snack Bar opens today in Venice. It’s a modern pasta bar that’s got one things others don’t: spiked pasta. Yes, we said it and we’ll say it again: spiked pasta. And along with spiked pasta, the Snack Bar also offers a bunch of other homemade pastas, mini snacks (like chorizo and ricotta meatballs), and lots of vegetables straight from the backyard garden. The outdoor patio is perfect for people-watching and bonding over too much sangria and charred watermelon and burrata.  Open for just dinner now, with brunch and lunch on the horizon.

Just a year later at 7166 Melrose Ave., TiroVino Wine Bar is gone and The Colonial Wine Bar is here. That means no more black and white films played on the back wall–which is fine because you’re at a wine bar to drink and converse and not be told to sit down–and it also means a brighter, more regal room that’s focused on small and large plates that pair perfectly with the beer, wine, and sake menu. We suggest the lamb burger, the rigatoni, the deviled eggs with pickled jalapenos, and the wine.

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Travel Dispatch: Inside Venice’s Punta della Dogana

Most travelers don’t go to Venice for the art. After all, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is in Milan, The Creation of Adam is in Rome’s Sistine Chapel, and the world-famous Uffizi gallery is in Florence. Venice’s major draws have always been riding gondolas on the intricate canal system, getting lost in the labyrinthian alleyways, and enjoying the incredibly fresh seafood. But a contemporary art movement is steadily taking shape—perhaps as an antidote to Italian Renaissance saturation—with the Punta della Dogana museum leading the charge.

Owned by Francois Pinault (known for his other museum in Venice, Palazzo Grassi, his incredible fortune, and for being Salma Hayek’s beau), Punta della Dogana is housed inside a former 15th-century customs house on the tip of the Grand Canal, an icon on the Venetian waterfront. The Francois Pinault Foundation commissioned Japanese architect Tadao Ando to renovate the building, and he restored it beautifully.

Inside the year-old contemporary museum, the art is just as commanding as the building. Mapping the Studio is the inaugural exhibit, featuring works by highly acclaimed artists, including Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Takashi Murakami, Paul McCarthy, and Matthew Day Jackson.

While I had much more to discover in Venice, my short visit to Punta della Dogana could have lasted hours, which, now that I think about it, would have helped justify that hefty 15 Euro entrance fee. Eh, totally worth it though.

Travel Dispatch: Celebrities & Fresh Fish at Venice’s Carampane Trattoria

For gourmands (or paparazzi) visiting Venice, there’s always Cipriani and the legendary Harry’s Bar for a star-studded clusterfuck. But if you venture off the beaten path, you’ll find Antiche Carampane trattoria, where the food is satisfying in equal measure and celebrities — Natalie Portman, Yoko Ono — run for cover.

But it’s not all about celebrities at this family-run restaurant. The cuisine is so special that a two-month waiting list for dinner during high season isn’t absurd (one should also consider the fact there are approximately 9 tables, excluding a smattering of outdoor seats). Like most restaurants in Venice, seafood is the specialty, and owner Francesco Agopyan makes sure that the best catches are hauled in daily from the Rialto Fish Market. The food is so fresh that when they run out, everyone panics — and if it’s any indication of the back-bending service at the restaurant, you wouldn’t be surprised to see employees running out with fishing rods.

Expect nice twists on local favorites like schieh — thumb-nail sized fried gray shrimp that you eat like popcorn — and the John Dory, which is slightly fried then baked and crusted with bread and served with zucchini and portini mushrooms. Don’t get me started on the homemade pannacotta.

As the restaurant itself has been around for almost 100 years, expect a rustic, no-frills feeling with original wooden beams, nautical-themed art, and antiques adorning the walls. So long as you book well in advance, it’s like you’re part of the family.

Travel Dispatch: Meeting the Elusive American Painter Lawrence Carroll in Venice

Lawrence Carroll is an American painter whose work graces the permanent collections of top museums like the Guggenheim, New York and the LA County Museum of Art in Los Angeles. Carroll, who’s also been featured in exhibitions all over the world, moved to Venice, Italy about three years ago with his wife to teach for three months. Three months became six months, which then turned in to basically forever (if you’ve been to Venice, chances are you’ve fancied the idea of never leaving yourself). He’s set up camp on Guidecca Island at an artists’ studio that’s open to the public. Typically, he opts for a J.D. Salinger-type brand of notoriety — nobody has ever really seen him — but on a recent visit to the studio, he’s the first person I met. Friendly, with wild hair and beady eyes, Lawrence never once gave off the impression of a man trying to hide. With a show opening on October 9 in Lugano, Switzerland, he’s just working all the time.

Birreria Dreher, the artist studios at 796 Guidecca, is housed inside a former beer brewery and a key industrial heritage building. Not only is it an architectural jewel, it’s also home to a handful of other prominent local artists, approximately 20 in total. That it’s a public space means visitors can glimpse artists at work on their paintings and sculptures. No one seems to know about this gem of an attraction, but that might soon change. Birreria Dreher recently held an open-studio event two weeks ago where more than 700 people came to check out the space and mingle with the artists.

Vincent Gallo No Less Self-Absorbed

Vincent Gallo’s last directorial outing, The Brown Bunny, earned boos at Cannes and sparked an exchange between the director and Roger Ebert wherein Gallo wished the critic death by colon cancer. At stake was a very precious art film in which Gallo meets a series of women before the inevitable getting-blown-by-Chloe-Sevigny denouement. Though not without at least a few fleeting moments of interest, it made Buffalo ‘66 seem densely plotted, and made much less of an impact critically and commercially. Now an early review from Venice has it that Gallo’s latest, Promises Written in Water, is even more self-indulgent.

“Gallo’s drama puts the ‘i’ in solipsism” says Xan Brooks of the Guardian. “Promises Written in Water is a ‘Vincent Gallo Films’ production, with music by Vincent Gallo. It is ‘written, directed and produced by Vincent Gallo’ and opens with a 10-minute shot of none other than Vincent Gallo, who pads about a hotel room, chainsmoking like a bastard and pausing occasionally to eyeball himself in the mirror.”

In other words, true to form. Only Asia Argento has proven Gallo’s equal with her monumentally personal and insane Scarlet Diva, but I feel like Gallo is somehow the more vain of the two. Recall that in Buffalo 66 there’s a scene where a kid looks at Gallo’s crotch and exclaims “It’s so big!” And to think that people say James Cameron is conceited.

City of Venice Celebrates Lingering Municipal Demise

Over the weekend the citizens of Venice, Italy, hosted a mock funeral for itself. The centerpiece of the tongue-in-cheek service was a hot-pink coffin decked with flowers pulled around the city in a gondola. Onlookers hooted and hollered at the fakery as the brass-handled sedan made its way over to rest nearby Venice city hall. The reason for all the fanfare stems from the steadily dropping Venetian population, which has now dipped under 60,000 residents. In fact, Newsweek predicts that there won’t be a single full-time resident in the city by 2030, a sobering prospect given the 18 million tourists who visit the sinking city each year.

As residents move out of the waterlogged metropolis and into mainland neighboring cities, services like medical offices, childcare facilities, food stores, and even cobblers are closing up shop. Soon, it’ll just be a Disneyland-Venice, with the tour operators coming in on the same trains as the tourists. The organizers of the floating funeral are hoping to raise enough attention to the issues of the shrinking population and the rising rents to stem the outbound flow of residents and even encourage new residents to make Venice their home. “It might be the beginning; it could even spur a rebirth. Now we just have to create a Venice [people] will want to stay in. We have to give them a reason not to leave.” This sentiment was evident in the funeral finale. As the coffin came to rest near city hall, an actor emoted: “Venice, you aren’t dead, you’re just tired.” They coffin was then smashed and bottles of spumante were opened and sprayed on the crowd. Out of the coffin came a flag bearing a phoenix. Subtlety is more of a Florentine specialty, apparently.

2009 Venice Film Festival Selections: Promising Indeed

Although the official announcement won’t be made until next week, the roster at this year’s Venice International Film Festival is by all accounts swelling with significant American premieres. Journalists who last year carped that the Lido was thin on star power should have Ø to complain about, as among this year’s possible big names are directors Stephen Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog, and Michael Moore. The (presumed) greatest hits are as follows.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – This picture sounds delightfully insane: Werner Herzog directing Nicolas Cage in what looks to be a transplanted remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cop-shocker! Only Herzog insists it’s not a remake, saying, “It only has a corrupt policeman as the central character and that’s about it.” Ferrara, for his part, is unamused. When asked for his opinion about the project, he replied “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”

The Road – Its release date already twice delayed, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of the celebrated Cormac McCarthy novel will finally, finally materialize. The pic stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Although pushed releases are rarely an auspicious sign, the advance word has been positive. Esquire’s Tom Chiarella has already called it as “the most important movie of the year”.

Capitalism: A Love Story – Expect controversy. Michael Moore’s new documentary explores the root causes of the global economic meltdown and takes a comical look at the corporate and political shenanigans that culminated in what Moore describes as “the biggest robbery in the history of this country” — the transfer of U.S. taxpayer money to private financial institutions. Although the film was still in production as of last month, you can check out the snarky teaser trailer here.

The Informant! – Steven Soderbergh’s dark-comedy-thriller stars Matt Damon as an executive at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland turned whistleblower in what became (at the time) the largest price-fixing scheme in history. Based on the 2000 nonfiction book by journalist Kurt Eichenwald.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation is the Roald Dahl classic about a wily fox on the run from three embittered farmers. The vocal cast includes Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray. Although the project was obliged to switch studios and underwent some significant change-ups in technical personnel, this is still rightly one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2009.

Life During Wartime – There’s been almost zero advance word on Todd Solondz’s latest, except that it’s a sequel to 1998’s Happiness. The official synopsis reads, somewhat unimaginatively: “Friends, family, and lovers struggle to find love, forgiveness, and meaning in a war-torn world riddled with comedy and pathos.” Knowing Solondz, it’s likely a lot headier than that.

(Note: All films subject to change until the final announcement is made on July 30.)

Women’s Lib Reaches Venetian Gondoliers

imageGiorgia Boscolo, a 23-year-old wife and mother of two, is breaking glass ceilings in Venice, Italy, as the first woman gondolier to navigate the musty waters of the be-canaled city. It seems a little hard to believe, but in the last 900 years, every striped-shirted, rose-toting, gondolier-steer-er has been a dude. Giorgia, the first woman gondolier (gondolieress? gondolina?) is no stranger to the business, as her father is a gondolier, and she’s spent the last several years preparing to take the helm. She passed the official gondolier exam in 2007, but has had to spend the last two years as an apprentice before going it alone.

The process for becoming a gondolier owner is no cheap thrill. You’ve got to “learn how to steer the banana-shaped boats from the back and the front … take English courses, study sailing law and demonstrate perfect knowledge of Venice’s canals and landmarks.” This long-awaited victory is particularly sweet as she beat out two other women who were vying for the “first woman in the canals” title. The other two women repeatedly failed the exam, which they blame on the patriarchy — examiners were “overly strict.” The men aren’t thrilled to have a woman in their midst; even Giorgia’s father has misgivings. “I still think being a gondolier is a man’s job,” he admitted, “but I’m sure that with experience Giorgia will be able to do it easily. My guess is that Giorgia, with her long blond hair and big grin, might end taking the lion’s share of business for being such a novelty.