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Venice kickstarts Oscars jousting – Stars, VR and migrants dominate fest

VENICE, Aug 30, (Agencies): The 74th Venice film festival gets underway Wednesday with Alexander Payne’s sci-fi satire “Downsizing” in the high-profile opening slot that is increasingly coveted as a launchpad for the Oscars.

Starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, “Sideways” director Payne’s latest quirky creation is a tale of a lower middle class couple in the US midwest.

But the downsizing of the title is not a reference to job losses or selling off the family house: instead the pair are considering signing up for radical new surgery that would allow them to be shrunk to tiny versions of themselves, on the promise of a better life.

Written by Payne, a two-time Oscar winner for his screenplays, and Jim Taylor, the film will be seeking to emulate the success of “La La Land”, “Birdman” and “Gravity”, all Venice openers in recent years which went on to bag a bunch of Academy Awards and other prizes.

Whether it does is likely to depend on how critics react to the film’s intriguing plot, which Variety described as “Honey I Shrunk the Kids with a deeper social message”.

Also being unveiled on the opening day is “Nico”, a bio-pic focusing on the final years of the Velvet Underground singer and Andy Warhol muse which is being shown in the festival’s “Horizons” section dedicated to cutting-edge productions.

Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli, with Danish actress Trine Dryholm in the lead role, the story catches up with one of 1970s New York’s iconic figures in 1987 and 1988, the last two years of her life.

It finds her battling a heroin habit but also finding fulfilment through her music and her relationship with her son.

“Downsizing” is one of 21 films competing for Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, which will be handed out on Sept 9, along with a string of other awards including the first for films in a new competition for virtual reality productions.

As usual the international film line-up at Venice ranges from big-budget Hollywood productions, like George Clooney’s sixth directorial outing, “Suburbicon”, to new works by indie favourites Andrew Haigh and Warwick Thornton, via documentaries such as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s epic look at the global refugee crisis, “Human Flow”.

British director Haigh will be presenting “Lean on Pete”, his first film since the acclaimed “45 Years”, while Thornton arrives in Venice next week to promote “Sweet Country”, a Western set in 1920s Australia that deals with the treatment of the country’s indigenous peoples.

In total, 71 new full-length films will be shown over the next 10 days, along with 16 short films and two TV series.

Along with Clooney, the major stars due on the red carpet include Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, here to pick up lifetime achievement awards while plugging their new film “Our Souls at Night”, a Netflix drama about an unconventional romance between two elderly neighbours.


The theme of love after a certain age is also addressed in “Leisure Seeker”, in which Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as an independent, free-spirited couple coming to terms with Alzheimer’s.

Spanish superstar duo Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz team up again for a new drama about Pablo Escobar, “Loving Pablo”, in which Bardem plays the Colombian drug baron and Cruz his long-term mistress.

Bardem is also to be seen playing opposite Jennifer Lawrence in “mother!”, a new film by “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky, that is one of several thrillers vying for honours.

Promoted by a Mother’s Day-release of a poster showing Lawrence holding her own bloodied heart, the film tells the tale of a couple thrown into turmoil by uninvited guests.

Another spine-chiller features Ethan Hawke in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”, which turns around a dark secret harboured by members of a church who are tormented by the deaths of loved ones.

Also expected to make waves, with an out-of-competition world premiere, is “Victoria & Abdul”, Stephen Frears’ treatment of the true story of the elderly Queen Victoria’s later-life friendship with an Indian clerk.

British director Frears is to be honoured on Sunday for his innovative contribution to cinema, ahead of the screening of his new work, in which Judi Dench stars as Victoria, opposite Bollywood actor Ali Fazal.

A refugee documentary by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a horror film starring Jennifer Lawrence and George Clooney’s latest directorial effort are all tipped as must-sees at the Venice film fest set to open on the Lido island on Wednesday.

Top Hollywood talent and auteur directors will be vying for the Golden Lion at the world’s oldest film festival which, after a period in the doldrums, is again considered a launching pad for the industry’s award season, after it premiered Academy winners in its last four editions.

Space drama “Gravity”, clergy sex-abuse film “Spotlight” and last year’s musical “La La Land” secured Oscars after featuring in Venice. Those wins have helped attract talent to this year’s festival, said artistic director Alberto Barbera.

“Finally all the majors, the big Hollywood studios, realised that coming to Venice … it really changes the perspective of a film”, Barbera told Reuters on the eve of the festival, which runs till Sept 9. “It’s much easier to get the films that we want”.

“There are a lot of movies with strong Oscar potential”, said Ariston Anderson, a film critic at the Hollywood Reporter. She lamented the fact that only one female director featured in the main competition, but complimented the organisers for being the first major cinema event to feature a virtual reality competition.

“It sends a strong message for a platform like Venice to have a competition for VR, that this is a new art form, we are going to judge it, we’re going to accept it and see what comes out of it”, she said.

Concrete slabs were positioned at entrances to control vehicle traffic, and arrivals were screened at the festival venue as security was beefed up following violent attacks across Europe.

Current affairs also feature in the lineup with the Ai Weiwei’s hotly anticipated “Human Flow”, the Chinese artist’s first film and “a daring documentary”, Barbera said, adding that bringing the film to Venice was a political statement as well.

“It’s not just a festival, we are a festival which deals with the problems of the contemporary world”.

One of the highlights this year is Clooney’s return to Venice with “Suburbicon”, a dark comedy starring Damon and Julianne Moore. Clooney, who tied the knot in a huge celebrity wedding in Venice in 2014, has since made Italy his second home.

“Venice loves Clooney, Clooney loves Venice … Jennifer Lawrence is obviously a huge fashion icon, she makes a presence wherever she goes, but I don’t think anybody commands a room like Clooney does in Venice”, Anderson said.


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