Venice Preview

If you look at the release schedule for the next couple of weeks, it's clear that we're entering the late August/early September slow season. Half-formed young adult adaptations, thrillers that star Ethan Hawke because Nicolas Cage was unavailable, 3D boyband concert movies and a Riddick sequel, with only "The World's End" and "You're Next" to save the day, and a crop of good arthouse fare if they are lucky enough to playing near you ("Short Term 12," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Afternoon Delight," "Drinking Buddies").

But if selections in the multiplexes might be getting thin, most cinephiles don't mind too much, because festival season is getting underway. TellurideTIFF and NYFF are on the way, but first up is Venice, which we're starting to pack our bags for. The last few years, the line-up on the Lido has rivalled Cannes for quality and big names, and while there's nothing as headline-grabbing as "The Master' this year, the 70th Venice Film Festival is still looking like a sterling year. Below, we've picked out ten of the films we're most looking forward to — check back from next Wednesday onwards for our verdicts on all of the below, and much more.

Gravity, Bullock, Clooney

Synopsis: A pair of astronauts on a routine mission are stranded in space after their space shuttle is destroyed.
What You Need To Know: The festival's opening film is probably their biggest coup, and certainly the movie that's going to turn the most mainstream heads this year (at least on the festival circuit). Seven years ago, Alfonso Cuaron premiered his astonishing dystopian sci-fi picture "Children Of Men," which won the festival's cinematography award, and while a commercial disappointment, it has endured as one of the very best films of the '00s. It's been a long hard road to his follow-up, but "Gravity" will finally unspool on the Lido this week, with A-listers Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (a Venice regular) in the lead roles. The film's technical innovations are probably familiar at this point — a blend of photo-realistic CGI and the performances; minutes-long shot lengths that'll rival the extended takes in Cuaron's previous picture; being designed in 3D from the ground up — and it's certainly one of the most anticipated of the year for many. But will it be a thrill ride? Or a "2001"-style existential arthouse film? We suspect we'll be finding out soon, but either way, we can't wait.
When? Opens the festival on August 28th, before going to TIFF (and rumor has it, Telluride) and then opening wide on October 4th.

Joe Nicolas Cage

Synopsis: In Mississippi, a young boy befriends an ex-con.
What You Need To Know: Even those who liked all of David Gordon Green's comedies were, by the time "The Sitter" rolled around, looking forward to seeing the filmmaker return to the kind of territory that made his name, with films like "George Washington," "All The Real Girls" and "Undertow." And after this year's strong "Prince Avalanche" marked a return to form, by bridging his more comic and serious sides, "Joe" looks to be a real push to the dark side for the filmmaker. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, and described by the director as "dark as fuck," it pairs Green for the first time with Nicolas Cage. It's no secret that the latter's been less than picky with his roles, but when he's working with someone like this, and with material like this, he's one of the greats, and there's strong buzz around his performance. He's paired here with Tye Sheridan, the young star of "Tree Of Life," and as a result, parallels with Jeff Nichols' surprise hit "Mud," in which the young actor also starred, are probably going to be inescapable. But even so, we're expecting something quite different, and if nothing else, it'll be great to see what Cage and Green come up with together.
When? The film screens on the Lido on Friday August 30th, then heads to TIFF. No U.S. distribution yet.

Night Moves

"Night Moves"
Synopsis: A rich kid, a high school dropout and an ex-Marine are drawn together into an eco-terrorism plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam.
What You Need To Know: In something of a mini-theme this year, several filmmakers in competition have refused to rest on their laurels, and are pushing into new territory with their latest films. Among them is Kelly Reichardt, who's gone from low-key dramas "Old Joy" and "Wendy & Lucy" to semi-Western "Meek's Cutoff" to "Night Moves," which appears to be a sort of thriller, or as close to a thriller as Reichardt can come. Described as "a tale of suspense and a meditation on the consequences of political extremism," it a more contemporary offering than its predecessor, and features Reichardt's starriest cast so far, with Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard in the three central roles (and Alia Shawkat and James LeGros in support). Whether or not the film crosses over to a wider audience (we suspect not), Reichardt's a favorite at Venice, and we can't wait to see how her latest film fits in the context of her fine work so far.
When? Screens for press on August 30th, has its public screening the next day, and again, goes on TIFF. No U.S. distributor yet.

Locke Tom Hardy

Synopsis: A man's life begins to implode on the eve of the biggest day of his career.
What You Need To Know: Only a few months after his first feature as director hit theaters (the well-regarded-for-a-Jason-Statham-movie "Hummingbird," known abroad as "Redemption"), "Eastern Promises" and "Dirty Pretty Things" writer Steven Knight is back, with a speedy turnaround on a project that only started shooting six months ago. But there's a reason for that -- like another Venice entry, Amos Gitai's in-competition "Ana Arabia," the film was shot in real time, which should make it an interesting technical exercise if nothing else. But we've got our fingers crossed that it'll be more than a gimmick, because one of the most exciting actors around, Tom Hardy, has the lead role, and will seemingly be on screen for every frame of the runtime. There's some hefty support behind him too, with Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson ("The Lone Ranger"), Andrew Scott ("Sherlock"), Ben Daniels ("House Of Cards"), Alice Lowe ("Sightseers") and Tom Holland ("The Impossible") turning up at some point. Knight's got some impressive backup behind the camera too, with "Atonement" director Joe Wright serving as executive producer. If nothing else, it'll be an interesting experiment and a chance to see Hardy on screen for 90 minutes, but hopefully it'll add up to much more than that. (Check out the first clip right here).
When? Look for our review on Monday September 2nd. Right now, the film doesn't have any other festival dates, but Lionsgate will release it in 2014. 

Stray Dogs

"Stray Dogs"
Synopsis: A homeless family in Taipei are joined by a mysterious woman as they head for a sailing trip.
What You Need To Know: It's been too damn long since we had a film from Tsai Ming-Liang. The Malaysian Chinese filmmaker had a burst of activity in the mid-00s, most notably including the superb "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," but all we've had since 2009's "Face" (itself fairly disappointing) are a selection of shorts little-seen outside his homeland. But four years later, he's back with a new feature, which seems to be something of a return to his wheelhouse (comparisons to his earlier "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone" have been made) and we couldn't be more excited. Tsai is one of Taiwan's finest, and one of the great humanists in modern cinema, and hopefully his appearance on the Lido this year will see him back on top.
When? Screens in Venice on the 4th of September, but you'll also be able to catch it at TIFF or NYFF.