Festival falls for Japanese toon 'Cliff'

Play it again, Che.

While Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic “Che” was regarded by many in Cannes as overlong and unwieldy, hurting its prospects for a North American distribution deal, a leaner version of the pic could close a deal before the end of Venice and ahead of its Toronto fest screening.

Soderbergh and Gallic sales, production and distribution entity Wild Bunch are in advanced negotiations with three Stateside companies for North American rights, according to sources close to the production. None of the major studios are believed to be among the bidders, however.

Soderbergh’s four-hour biopic about Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara bowed to mixed response from critics in Cannes. While some found it long and unfocused, others praised its bold ambition. Benicio Del Toro won the actor award at Cannes for his portrayal.

The new version, which receives its North American preem Sept. 9 in Toronto, will be some 17 minutes shorter than the Cannes version. Latest cut is reputedly easier to follow, with a new title sequence that engages auds from the get-go.

Pic’s producers are hoping the U.S. deal will be announced before its Toronto bow.

It remains to be seen what release strategy the pic will engender Stateside. Soderbergh is believed to favor releasing the pic as one long feature after road-showing it in major cities, although the final decision will be taken in collaboration with the U.S. buyer.

Meanwhile, the Venice fest has reached its midpoint amid lamentations about the scarcity of standout pics and hopes that fest topper Marco Mueller has backloaded the selection.

Several buzz titles are still to unspool, including Jonathan Demme’s Anne Hathaway starrer “Rachel Getting Married,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.”

Fest faves so far include Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s toon fable “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” Italo-Argentinean helmer Marcho Bechis’ Amazon-set “Birdwatchers,” both in competition, and Uberto Pasolini’s Sri Lanka-set “Machan,” in Horizons.

Gallic auteur Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rhum,” which was oddly slotted out of competition, has also been warmly received.

While the quality of fest entries has been below par so far, the Venice party scene is in full swing.

Vogue and Vanity Fair threw a posh bash for Matt Tyrnauer’s docu “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a tribute to the Italian fashion designer. Screening was followed by an after-party at the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal with boatloads of celebs, including Diane Kruger, Liz Hurley and Tilda Swinton.

Natalie Portman was feted for her humanitarian work during a ceremonial dinner at the Hotel Des Bains. Thespreceived the Movie for Humanity Award, a new nod for movie stars devoted to humanitarian causes.

A separate S. Pellegrino Hall of Fame nod went to Italo production designer Dante Ferretti.

The Gucci Group held its own cocktail at the Palazzo Grassi for 300 guests, including Isabelle Huppert and Amira Casar.

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