Out of Competition in Venice

Benedict Cumberbatch in Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023)

Often at major film festivals, the Out of Competition programs are eclectic grab bags of films that are, on the one hand, too big not to invite, but on the other hand, less than ideal fits for the main competition or any other section. Where else would Venice programmers slot a thirty-nine-minute short from Wes Anderson, a breezy comedy from Richard Linklater, an infrared whatsit from Harmony Korine, or a chilling documentary on the Taliban from Berlin-based Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim Nash’at?

Out of Competition is also where the hot potatoes usually land. In the days and weeks leading up to the opening of Venice’s eightieth edition, festival director Alberto Barbara kept telling interviewers that he was fully aware that he and his team would catch flak for programming new work from Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. And they did. Polanski’s The Palace, a Y2K comedy set in a luxury hotel, fell dead flat. “I told Roman before the festival that it was weak, but I don’t agree with the critics,” Barbera tells Deadline’s Andreas Wiseman. “I know it’s not a perfect movie, I can see the weaknesses and where it doesn’t work, but it’s not as bad as the critics say. It comes across as mean.”

Coup de chance, Allen’s fiftieth feature, has presented critics with a more complicated challenge because, as Xan Brooks writes in the Guardian, it “turns out to be the best one he’s managed in a decade at least.” Shot by Vittorio Storaro—he’s working digitally here for the first time—and starring Lou de Laâge, Valérie Lemercier, Melvil Poupaud, and Niels Schneider, Coup de chance is the story of a dangerous love affair—in French. The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin calls it “a smoothly efficient but oddly anonymous work that looks like it was made by a French director who is a superfan of Allen, but not really Woody himself.” At Vanity Fair, Catherine Bray has a terrific overview of how Polanski, Allen, and their movies have been received in Venice.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

“So is this a kids’ film or a grown-ups’ film?” asked Erica Wagner when we released Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Wes Anderson’s first adaptation of a story by Roald Dahl. “Who says you—or Anderson—have to choose?” The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the first of four new Dahl adaptations, all of them from shorter stories, and all of them undeniably geared a little more toward an older audience than the one for a tale of an underground rascal in a corduroy suit. Netflix will begin streaming Henry Sugar on September 27 and then successively roll out, one per day, The Swan, The Ratcatcher, and Poison.

Adaptation may not actually be the right word. These films could just as easily be described as staged recitals. The “moment of inspiration” that hit Anderson, as he explains to Netflix’s John DiLillo, came with the realization that he should have his illustrious casts deliver the stories verbatim, albeit in slightly condensed versions. In Henry Sugar, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade, and Rupert Friend juggle multiple roles to present the story of a rich and idle fellow, Henry Sugar, who reads about a guru who can see with his eyes shut. Sugar decides that the talent could come in handy at a casino.

Anderson goes “totally off the leash,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “We’re talking dioramas, rear-projection, an on-screen stagehand, and a fetishistic degree of pleasure taken in all of the literary quirks that film adaptations exist to avoid.” In short, this is “the most visually inventive film that Anderson has made thus far.” For Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage, there’s “a Brechtian feel that never carries a distancing effect.” At RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny is reminded of the work of “the fantastic Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who put live-action actors into animated backgrounds.”

“Walls slide away to reveal new locations,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, and “one step moves us from one scene to another; clocks advance at super-speed; days, years fly by in a sentence; actors double up on roles; simple, transparent effects are presented as sources of wonderment. The result is delightful, but it also suggests a universe that requires our own imagination to be fully realized—which is, of course, the whole point of the story.”

Hit Man

Richard Linklater tells Deadline’s Joe Utichi that he’d been toying with the idea of making a movie based on Skip Hollandsworth’s article “Hit Man” ever since it appeared in Texas Monthly in 2001. Ten years later, he turned Hollandsworth’s 1998 article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” into Bernie (2011), but he still couldn’t get a handle on the story of Gary Johnson, a psychology professor moonlighting as a tech guy for the Houston Police Department. When the officer who usually poses as a hit man to lure prospective clients—some might call it entrapment—can’t make a gig, Gary steps in and discovers he’s got a talent for role-playing.

Glen Powell, who worked with Linklater on Fast Food Nation (2006) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), suggested massaging the facts of the case, and the actor and director wound up cowriting a story in which Gary (Powell) is so taken by one client, Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona), that he tries to persuade her not to hire him in such a way that the officers listening in won’t catch on. “Faster than you can say Double Indemnity, things take a dark turn,” writes Leslie Felperin.

Just about every review of Hit Man so far has included a declaration that it’s high time Powell, who has appeared as a supporting player in such films as Hidden Figures (2016) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022), landed a starring role. This one “gives Powell the opportunity to put on an array of accents and don a bunch of wigs and false teeth,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “He’s a creepy British assassin with a red bob, a stern cigar-smoking Russian, a good ol’ boy looking to fuck some shit up. His most successful, and enduring, persona is Ron, a cool customer who is essentially Gary with the confidence and suavity turned up.” Powell “shrewdly keeps the differences between Gary and Ron subtle, but distinct enough that a sudden switch back to Gary after many scenes of Ron arrives as an amusing shock. It’s nimble work, sexy and sweet at once.”

Hit Man “trips along on great writing, Linklater’s witty, light-touch direction, and a rich sense of place,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “but what makes it especially pleasurable is Powell and Arjona’s naturally steamy rapport. Here is a screen couple who look like they really do want to take each other to bed—and since that makes them easy to root for, you find yourself happily overlooking the duo’s own mounting misdeeds. Well aware how the game works, Linklater ever-so-casually pushes his luck on this front right to the limit, but not a millimeter more. What slippery fun it is to watch him get away with it.”

Aggro Dr1ft

Another movie, another hit man. In Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft, he’s Bo (Jordi Mollà), who’s out to slay a Floridian crime lord (Joshua Tilley). The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer suggests that Aggro Dr1ft is “not really a movie at all, but more like a cross between a movie, a video game, and a flow of hallucinatory images that could play in the background of a live show by rapper Travis Scott—who costars here as a gun-toting, philosophizing killer surrounded by a swarm of twerking booties. Korine calls this new style ‘gamecore,’ which, well, why not.”

“With human figures and landscapes rendered in infrared’s trademark pooling of contours, like day-glo gasoline slicks, the movie is less a matter of story and character than it is about keyed-up headspaces and raved-up palettes,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Sight and Sound. “A Korine creation, generally speaking, is trying to break your brain and free it at the same time with a liberating wrongness.” But “Korine is also an expert mixer, or clasher, or casting agent for reality: a fundamental move of his has been to match American skater-video anarchy with the craft of European cinematographers,” and Aggro Dr1ft is shot by Arnaud Potier, who is known for his work with Mélanie Laurent and Thomas Bidegain. Rapold finds that “the novel world of mashed-up media that Korine envisions as part of his future work still has some ways to go before it feels as nightmare-fuel-ish as a destabilizing hour spent bingeing TikToks.”

“Of all Korine’s decisions,” finds Wendy Ide in Screen, “the least successful is the one to do away with a screenplay, leading to a disjointed, incoherent structure and requiring his largely nonprofessional cast to improvise their lines. This results in something that is not dialogue in the conventional sense but rather darkly ominous phrases repeated in a monotonous, nihilistic mantra until eventually the words lose meaning and it all gets rather tedious.”


When the Biden administration announced that the U.S. was ending its involvement in the longest war it had ever fought and that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the government in Kabul collapsed so quickly that the last soldier was flown out on August 30. The very next day, Ibrahim Nash’at began shooting Hollywoodgate.

A journalist for Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera, Nash’at had sent a list of world leaders he’d interviewed to Taliban representatives, who embedded him at Hollywood Gate, an abandoned airbase outside of Kabul and just one cluster of military equipment—planes, helicopters, radar, the works—worth around seven billion dollars that the U.S. left behind. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor notes that one Taliban general in the film says, “The Americans left us an enormous treasure.” O’Connor observes that “Nash’at’s film offers a worrying insight into what they might decide to do with it all.”

Nash’at is instructed to stick with newly appointed air force commander Malawi Mansour and Lieutenant M. J. Mukhtar as they wander Hollywood Gate, tour the gym, try out the treadmill, check out the booze-stocked fridge—they won’t be touching the stuff, naturally—decide what can be salvaged, and threaten to kill Nash’at if he steps out of line. “Nash’at’s approach, dry and darkly comic, at times feels closer to John Wilson than Laura Poitras,” writes O’Connor.

“Those expecting a general account of Taliban atrocities should look elsewhere,” writes Jay Weissberg at the Film Verdict. “Nash’at was constrained by extremely limiting restrictions, and yet within that cage, he managed to do the opposite of what [the Taliban] wanted by showing not so much their triumphs but their inexperience, blind fanaticism, and incompetence.” Weissberg worries, though, that “underestimating their potential by representing them as dangerous but stupid threatens to turn them into a bad joke and an easy enemy to combat, when neither is the case.”

The Taliban are “unusual amongst reigning regimes in not even paying lip service to the idea that a government should cherish the people,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety, “and this remarkable film shows in stark terms the sheer contempt they have for anything beyond the perpetuation and enlargement of their own influence.” The “sledgehammer impact of Hollywoodgate comes from director Nash’at peering into the Taliban leadership’s inner circle for a year and finding not even a glimmer of goodness. Finding, in fact, nothing—a terrible emptiness.”

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