Venice infused with 70s spirit

Sex, war, politics dominate festival

VENICE — The spirit of the 70s is firing up the Venice Film Festival, where — just past the midpoint — sex, war, politics, corporate evils and spiritual quests, depicted in star-driven Yank passion pics, are the talk of the Lido, alongside similarly themed global offerings.

After the steamy sexual acrobatics in Ang Lee’s erotic espionage pic “Lust, Caution” conjured comparisons with Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” the repercussions of U.S. military action in Iraq took center stage with Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” and Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah.”

“Redacted,” a gritty docu-like depiction of U.S. troops deployed in Samara, divided critics despite making a big splash for its hot-potato theme and drawing comparisons with the U.S. media’s Vietnam war coverage.

“Unlike Vietnam, where we saw images of destruction and soldiers brought back in body bags, the media hasn’t shown this with Iraq,” said De Palma.

“Our main attempt is to bring the reality of what happened in Iraq to the U.S. people.”

Concurrently, Haggis’ hard-hitting drama about the violence that erupts during the Iraq vets’ “Coming Home” phase, was more solidly received, driven by strong perfs by Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron.

Theron said about the vets: “I’d like to see them come home to be looked after and nurtured — I just want to see them back.”

George Clooney, on the Lido with first-time helmer Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” about a Manhattan lawyer who takes on a nefarious multinational called U/North, compared their thriller to “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA conspiracy classic by Sydney Pollack, who is both a producer and a thesp in “Clayton.”

“The studios used to make ‘Harold and Maude’ and ‘Network’ and ‘All the President’s Men,’ ” lamented Clooney.

“We want to try and use the things we learned from foreign films and from independent films in the 90s, and try and infuse that back into the studio system — which is how it used to be,” he added.

Brad Pitt called “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” in which he plays the legendary bandit, “a very complex and complicated film that is not part of the current zeitgeist of filmmaking.”

“It’s more of a throwback to some of the greater films of the 70s,” Pitt said, by way of an explanation.

Many critics found “The Assassination,” by sophomore New Zealand-born helmer Andrew Dominik, striking — though some thought it too long — the same beef also being cited with Lee’s Mandarin-language “Lust,” which has an NC-17 rating Stateside. The sex scenes will be snipped for Chinese auds.

Another Asian title generating steam is Taiwanese helmer Lee Kang Shang’s “Help Me Eros,” about a suicidal fellow who becomes entangled with a help-line operator. Italo helmer Paolo Franchi’s “Nessuna qualita agli eroi,” a cerebral drama spiced up with oral sex and masturbation, instead left audiences limp.

As the Lido heads into its final stretch, consensus is that, despite a few clunkers, Marco Mueller’s lineup is living up to its strong expectations.

Fest opener “Atonement” by Blighty sophomore helmer Joe Wright spearheaded the strong Brit contingent and is still a frontrunner for a top nod, while “It’s a Free World,” Ken Loach’s blasting of British economic inequity toward immigrant workers, also went down well.

“There is an alternative. It’s important that we not let them get away with the idea that other people can get exploited,” beseeched Loach.

Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” remake was less well-received.

Hot Gallic helmer Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain,” about the travails of a 60-year-old immigrant contending with hardships of work and family in France also delivered, despite its 151 minute running time. Revered compatriot auteur Eric Rohmer’s pastoral “Les Amours d’Astree et de Celadon” instead failed to impress most critics.

Reaction to Woody Allen’s black comedy “Cassandra’s Dream” — out-of-competition — was ho-hum, while “The Nanny Diaries,” sans star Scarlett Johansson in tow, went by making barely a blip.

But the star most missed on the Lido was probably Owen Wilson, who plays the oldest of three grieving brothers on a satirical journey in India in Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” which many found pleasant but slight.

“Obviously he’s been through quite a lot this week,” Anderson said at the start of the pic’s presser Monday, pre-empting questions about Wilson’s reported suicide attempt.

“But I’m here to tell you that he’s doing very well, and making us laugh — and when he’s ready, he’s going to speak for himself much better than any of us could.”

Also unspooling on Monday out-of-competish was Richard Shepard’s well-received “The Hunting Party” in which Richard Gere plays a U.S. journo hunting down a Bosnian war criminal.

“The fact that there are so many films playing here at this festival that are engaging in social issues — the third-world situation, the Iraq War and other conflicts — attests to the fact that my friends in the creative community are still very active,” said Gere.

Derek Elley contributed to this report.

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