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Stars Come Out to Venice Film Festival, Which Opens With Buzzy ‘Downsizing’

VENICE, Italy – A bevy of Hollywood talent — including Oscar winners George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Lawrence and Octavia Spencer — is heading to the Venice Film Festival, which opens its 74th edition Wednesday evening amid growing confidence in its role as an awards-season launching pad.

Leading a robust roster of studio pics premiering on the Lido is social satire “Downsizing,” the festival’s opening film, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Damon, Kristen Wiig and Hong Chau, who will all be on the red carpet for the opening ceremony Wednesday evening.

At a press conference earlier in the day Damon said that “Downsizing,” in which he plays a man who agrees to have himself shrunk down in order to live luxuriously in a government resort, “shows a likeable character whose life is different from our own, but whom we can find common cause with” and called it “an optimistic film” even though “it has the apocalypse in it.”

Damon will be doing double duty in Venice. In “Downsizing,” he plays a man who agrees to have himself shrunk down in order to live luxuriously in a government resort, while in Clooney-directed “Suburbicon,” he stars as the father of a well-to-do suburban family that finds itself caught in a spiral of violence. Moore, who last came to the festival in 2009 for Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” also stars in Clooney’s dark take on 1950s suburbia.

A third title from beleaguered Paramount is in competition in Venice: Darren Aronofsky’s horror thriller “Mother!”, for which Lawrence is Lido-bound along with Javier Bardem and Michelle Pfeiffer. All three Paramount movies will segue from Venice to Toronto.

Fox Searchlight will launch two Golden Lion hopefuls: Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War-era fantasy “The Shape of Water,” for which Octavia Spencer is jetting in, and dark thriller “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” directed by Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”), whose stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell will also grace the red carpet.

Universal International is bowing Stephen Frears’ period piece “Victoria & Abdul,” about the real-life friendship between a young Indian Muslim clerk and Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, who will be present in La Serenissima for the world premiere.

While Venice’s Golden Lion is certainly coveted, the hotly anticipated Hollywood offerings are hoping that the Venice fest will help propel them to the Oscar glories of “La La Land,” “Gravity,” “Birdman” and “Spotlight,” all of which launched from the Lido. Those awards-season successes have bolstered Venice’s leverage in trying to ensure that it’s the first stop for Oscar hopefuls during the Venice-Telluride-Toronto festival crunch. By contrast, this year’s Cannes Film Festival did not feature any studio titles.

However, although the star wattage is high, what characterizes the fest’s upcoming competition lineup is not the presence of potential Oscar bait but rather “a whole other range of different types of movies that are being made today around the world, which are not promoted and sustained, and that need Venice for this,” says artistic director Alberto Barbera.

Barbera notes that, in a bold break with the past, 15 out of the 21 titles in this year’s Venice competition are by directors who have never competed for a Golden Lion before.

These films include Australian Aboriginal frontier drama “Sweet Country,” a sophomore work by Warwick Thornton, who in 2009 won the Cannes Camera d’Or with his “Samson and Delilah” but has since been under the radar; “Angels Wear White” a second feature by relatively unknown Chinese director Vivian Qu; and a debut work, French newcomer Xavier Legrand’s divorce drama “Jusqu’a la garde.”

The biggest novelty at Venice this year is a new competitive section dedicated to works made for virtual-reality-viewing, the first-ever competition for VR works at a major film festival. It will be held in refurbished buildings on a tiny island close to the Lido that was a leper colony in the 15th century and has never before been open to the public.

The fest runs through Sept. 9.

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