No critical mass

Venice fest competish close; Lion up for grabs

VENICE — As the 56th Venice Intl. Film Festival crosses the halfway mark, the competition lineup so far appears designed to show that unanimous critical acclaim is a concept that no longer exists, and fest pundits continue to wait for a clear candidate to win this year’s Golden Lion.

Several high-profile releases and eagerly anticipated films premiered in competition over the holiday weekend, including Mike Leigh’s period piece “Topsy-Turvy”; “Holy Smoke,” Jane Campion’s journey into religion and relationships; and former Cannes Palme D’Or winner Abbas Kiarostami’s latest meditation, “The Wind Will Carry Us.”

In other sections, Woody Allen’s comedy about an eccentric 1930s jazz guitarist, “Sweet and Lowdown,” was unveiled, as was Australian director Stephan Elliott’s “Eye of the Beholder” and horrormeister Wes Craven’s first conventional drama, “Music of the Heart.”

No critical consensus

While all these features galvanized attention on the Lido, almost none of them met with a consistent opinion throughout the critical caucus. The main exception has been Spike Jonze’s much praised “Being John Malkovich” from Universal Pictures Intl., which screened in the fest’s opening days.

Perhaps the film that came closest to pleasing everyone was “Sweet and Lowdown,” which Sony Pictures Classics will release in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, given the Venice regular’s loyal following here, Allen’s latest was greeted as a small but satisfying return to form after “Celebrity,” highlighted by a breakthrough performance from actress Samantha Morton, who flew in to promote the comedy.

Prompting by far the most critical discussion on the Lido is Miramax’s “Holy Smoke,” which has cleaved audience opinion neatly into passionate support and fierce opposition, seemingly bypassing any middleground. Many feel that star Kate Winslet, who accompanied the film here, is a front-runner for acting honors.

Also from Miramax, “Music of the Heart” drew a lukewarm response from press. Detained on the set of “Scream 3,” director Craven was unable to make the Venice premiere, but star Meryl Streep was on hand to promote the drama about a Harlem music teacher.

A USA Films release, Leigh’s look at English operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of their “Mikado” drew a fairly favorable response tempered by concern about its length. Wider — though still not unanimous — praise went to Iranian auteur Kiarostami’s film, seen as beautiful and enigmatic by most of the pundits here but judged a dull retread of previous themes by others.

Contrary to expectations, given that the film was turned down for official competition at Cannes, Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s contemporary parable “Not One Less” drew one of the warmest responses of the competition films so far. Columbia TriStar Intl. financed the film.

Elliott’s “Eye of the Beholder,” a Canadian-British co-production going out through Destination Films in the U.S., failed to stir much support and was dismissed as a minor commercial entry that sat oddly in the fest lineup.

‘Affair’ to remember

Of the lesser-known names screening in competition, Belgian director Frederic Fonteyne’s drama about the weekly hotel-room trysts of a middle-aged Paris couple, “A Pornographic Affair,” drew considerable appreciation from older European critics, while Korean entry “Lies” by Jang Sun Woo was discussed more for its scabrous sexual content than for its critical merits.

With only a few days of intensive screenings left, festgoers are hoping for a revelation in pics like “Jesus’ Son” from Alison Maclean, which recently was picked up by Lions Gate; or Antonio Banderas’ directing debut, “Crazy in Alabama,” from Columbia. Anticipation also is running high for Friday’s out-of-competition world premiere of David Fincher’s “Fight Club” from Fox.

Of the sidebar sections introduced this year by new fest director Alberto Barbera, attention has focused mainly on Cinema of the Present, an interesting stream of stimulating, often challenging films that many are comparing with Cannes’ Directors Fortnight.

Among titles getting positive word-of-mouth are Fox Searchlight’s gender-bender “Boys Don’t Cry,” by Kimberley Peirce; Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bleeder,” from Denmark; Italian Gabriele Muccino’s youth pic, “But Forever in My Mind”; and “Barren Illusions,” by Japanese maverick Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose work will be spotlighted at the Toronto fest.

Less fruitful so far is the New Territories section housing cutting-edge film, video and documentary work, which many feel has failed to deliver any worthwhile surprises. It is cluttered, they say, with marginal work that has no place in a major-league event like Venice.