James Franco, Judi Dench and a JFK drama at Venice

Venice Film Festival

British actress Judi Dench and American writer-director-actor-heartthrob James Franco thrilled Venice festivalgoers the past few days. But did they deserve the accolades? Meanwhile, JFK assassination drama “Parkland” fell short of expectations.


The 70th Venice Film Festival has been underway for five days now, and everyone in attendance has a favourite among the movies screened so far.

For me, nothing has been as gripping or hauntingly beautiful as Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves”, which premiered Friday night. But the biggest competition crowd-pleaser – the film that generated the most laughter, tears and applause – has been British director Stephen Frears’ “Philomena”, starring Judi Dench as an Irish woman who enlists former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to help find her long-lost son.

The film is based on a true story: Philomena Lee was one of many “fallen” Irish women in the 1950s shamed into giving up babies they had out of wedlock to nuns, who, in turn, sold them to wealthy American couples looking to adopt.

Frears gives the story a slick makeover, blending melodrama and comedy with brisk professionalism and a hearty helping of schmaltz. Despite moments of wit (the director wrings odd-couple humour from the relationship between working-class, devoutly Catholic Philomena and posh, cynical atheist Sixsmith), “Philomena” is essentially a tearjerker, complete with a cloying score from Alexandre Desplat.

Dench and Coogan sell it well, occasionally cutting through the high-minded sentiment to dig up some real emotion. But coming from the director who gave us films like the nimble, imaginative “The Queen” and the delicious noir “The Grifters”, this is far from Frears at his best.

Franco fever on the red carpet

Meanwhile, the biggest attraction for the Italian fan girls camped out next to the red carpet was US actor-director-writer-provocateur James Franco. His arrival for the screening of his competition entry “Child of God” (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) drew screams and even a collective lunge, deftly contained by a couple of good-humoured security guards.

It was the most rapturous response to a star that I’ve seen here yet – tied, perhaps, with the stampede of fans who nearly ran me over while chasing a limo bringing Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) from the festival premises to his hotel.

Scott Haze in "Child of God".
Scott Haze in "Child of God".

As for Franco’s film itself, the reception was cooler. The story of Lester Ballard, a roving, raving outcast prone to bursts of violence and necrophilia in 1950s Tennessee, “Child of God” is shot with rough, raw energy and steeped in a suitably barren Southern atmosphere. It’s also a chore to sit through: a dramatically shapeless movie which demands that we accompany the scowling anti-hero while he wanders, rapes, defecates and yells until he froths at the mouth for 104 very slow-moving minutes.

The little-known Scott Haze sinks his teeth into the main role with theatrical glee, doing everything short of grabbing the camera and swallowing it whole. His is the kind of grating, fully committed performance that the jury may choose to reward.

Much to the excitement of his autograph-hungry groupies, Franco showed up a second time to help present “Palo Alto”, the debut film from Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter), which is based on Franco’s book “Palo Alto Stories” and features the actor in a supporting role.

The film treads no new narrative or stylistic ground; it’s a look at the lives of unhappy, privileged white teens in the northern California suburb of the title, and Coppola is clearly going for the dreamy lyricism that characterizes her aunt Sofia’s work.

But “Palo Alto” is an example of how to turn been-there-done-that material into something luminous. Following the obnoxious Fred (Nat Wolff), his quieter sidekick Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), pretty, pensive April (Emma Roberts, niece of Julia) and boy-crazy Emily (Zoe Levin) through the usual rites of smoking, drinking, hooking up and hanging out, Coppola crafts fresh images that are alive both to her subjects’ churning sexuality and their inner lives.

The filmmaker proves especially empathetic toward the female characters, who learn some hard lessons through their dealings with the men that surround them (including the seductive soccer coach played by a very good Franco).

Coppola also displays a sure hand with her cast, most notably coaxing a radiant, star-making turn from Roberts as an object of desire still learning how to articulate what she herself wants.

If the impact of “Palo Alto” is significantly limited by the familiarity of the story, its depiction of adolescent behavior – the forced apathy, the impulsiveness, the tendency to do things that can’t be explained rationally – rings true.

Coppola is a talent to watch.

JFK assassination film ‘Parkland’ disappoints

Another first film, Peter Landesman’s “Parkland”, was less impressive.

Marcia Gay Harden and Zac Efron in "Parkland".
Marcia Gay Harden and Zac Efron in "Parkland".

A reconstitution of the three days following JFK’s assassination in 1963, the film, which screened in competition on Sunday, starts off well. The director makes fine use of handheld camerawork and quick editing in scenes of secret service agents scrambling in the wake of the shooting, while hospital-set sequences, in which a shell-shocked young resident (Zac Efron) and head nurse (Marcia Gay Harden) try to resuscitate the president, are tense and stirring.

But once Kennedy is pronounced dead “Parkland” goes downhill fast, with a tone of TV-movie solemnity, epitomised by James Newton Howard’s heavy-handed score, taking over.

Things get flat-out weird – and not in a good way -- when the usually reliable Jacki Weaver (“Silver Linings Playbook”) enters the picture as Lee Harvey Oswald’s kooky mother, Marguerite. Her howler of a performance – shrill voice, erratic accent, cartoonish facial expressions – nudges the film toward camp, which is unfortunate for what is meant to be a portrait of a wrenching American moment.

“Parkland” isn’t bad, exactly. But the director hasn’t found a way to make his glimpse at the immediate aftermath of one of the defining traumas of contemporary US history feel urgent. On the contrary, the film ends up feeling unnecessary and undistinguished. Aside from the fact that November will mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, why make this movie now?


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