Venice floats on U.S. pics, 3-D, genre fare

VENICE — It looked good on paper, and proved OK-to-good in practice.

Most importantly, the 66th Venice Film Festival signaled a bounceback by Lido a.d. Marco Mueller, following an edition in which many thought he’d lost the programming smarts displayed in his first four years (2004-07).

Unlike the previous year, when he kept the best for the last — after many had exited for Toronto — in this edition’s Official Selection, Mueller spread the goodies pretty evenly during the fest’s 10 days, keeping interest simmering throughout. Even many of the clunkers were the kind that generated discussion rather than plain apathy.

Mueller’s gamble on an armada of U.S. pics pretty much paid off, some more than others. Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” and Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border” predictably got a warm welcome from Euro auds, with their mixture of showbiz-documentary and questioning of American values. On the feature side, Grant Heslov’s sophomore outing, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” topped many people’s Yank lists with its finely sustained, loopy satire of the U.S. military. (Tom Ford’s debut, “A Single Man,” was to unspool at the end of the week.)

John Hillcoat’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation, “The Road,” generally went down well, with reservations (especially on the commercial side), while Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant” generated nods of approval but little real enthusiasm. Much more split was the reaction to Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime,” with some feeling the writer-helmer had gone to the same well once too often.

The same could be said for many other well-known names and vets: Jacques Rivette (“Around a Small Mountain”), Patrice Chereau (“Persecution”), Giuseppe Tornatore (“Baaria”), Shinya Tsukamoto (“Tetsuo the Bullet Man”), George Romero (“Survival of the Dead”), Werner Herzog (“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done”), Abel Ferrara (“Napoli Napoli Napoli”).

In terms of discoveries and/or surprises it was mostly a young Venice — or at least, directors still in the upswing of their careers.

The crix’ darling from an early stage was Austrian helmer Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes,” a finely honed, enigmatic study of a woman (beautifully played by Sylvie Testud) undergoing a “miracle” at the religious site in the Pyrenees. Pic hardly ever reveals its authorial p.o.v., and may have a lesser life outside the fest bubble, but Hausner’s third feature stuck to the ribs throughout the fest.

Equally formalistic, though packing a visceral rather than spiritual punch, was Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s semi-autobiographical “Lebanon,” a Kammerspiel entirely set in one tank during the 1982 invasion.

And rediscovering the rough brio of his early “Short Sharp Shock” was Turkish-German helmer Fatih Akin, returning to his native Hamburg with the pacey ensemble comedy “Soul Kitchen.”

Mueller’s decision to mix a sizable amount of genre fare into the main competition produced only one hit, Hong Kong hitman-caper movie “Accident,” by the so far little-known Soi Cheang.

His equally risky decision to include more Italian pics throughout the Official Selection than usual also paid thin dividends, starting with overblown opener “Baaria” and continuing with the jejeune new sidebar, Controcampo Italiano.

Best of the Italo pack were twisty thriller-mystery “The Double Hour,” a first feature by musicvid director Giuseppe Capotondi, and — hidden away in the Horizons sidebar — Tilda Swinton starrer, “I Am Love,” by Luca Guadagnino.

Horizons also hosted at least one other feature that could have stood proud in the competition — Mainland Chinese helmer Guan Hu’s black wartime comedy-cum-parable, “Cow.”

With the Intl. Critics’ Week below par, the only other non-official section, Venice Days, headed by Giorgio Gosetti, produced a small number of standouts, from Claude Miller’s offbeat family drama, “I’m Happy That My Mother Is Alive,” co-helmed with son Nathan; amped-up zombie-splatter movie, “The Horde,” also from France; and Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic’s “Honeymoons.”

Most crix will remember the 66th Venice Film Festival as a certainly worthwhile — though not classic — edition in which everyone took home at least half a dozen or so titles to remember. And by today’s fest batting averages, that ain’t half bad.

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