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VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2005 - WRAP

Australian actors looked in good form at this year’s Venice Film Festival, with Heath Ledger in three films, including the Golden Lion winning Brokeback Mountain, and Russell Crowe, while Spanish horror and Bjork’s new film with her American partner, were less impressive, reports Helen Barlow.

In the first days of the Venice Film Festival there was no doubting that Heath Ledger was the talk of the town. That was not just because he had three movies in the program, The Brothers Grimm, the Venetian frolic, Casanova, and Brokeback Mountain, but because in the latter movie he truly excels and delivers the performance of his career.

"a strong contender"

The emotional force of the love story between Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, as two ranch hands isolated in the wintry Brokeback Mountain, was so strong that critics were shell-shocked after the screening and admitted the film was a strong contender for the major prize, the Golden Lion, which indeed it won - even though Ledger missed out on a personal award.

Certainly the Perth-born 26-year-old concedes the role shows a new level of maturity in his work, and he was grateful that Ang, a director he had long wanted to work with, gave him the opportunity.

"I knew I'd have to step up to the plate and grow as an actor and as a person," he said in our Venice interview. "I was aware that if I could get though this story I'd really have a sense of accomplishing something."

In Casanova, which has that same swashbuckling youthfulness as The Three Musketeers, Ledger plays the world's greatest lover who has sex with a different woman each day--until he becomes unstuck and falls in love with Sienna Miller (who sports long reddish dark hair and impresses in her first lead role). An irresistible comedic romp, the film is directed by Sweden's Lasse Hallstrom, who knows his way around a cinematic bedroom and is clearly a Monty Python fan. The film was widely embraced by even the most hardened critic, while younger women responded to Ledger's deep voice and cuteness.

In many ways his flamboyant turn harks back to his earlier roles in A Knight's Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You.

"After the excruciating experience of filming Brokeback Mountain, it was like a working holiday to come to Venice for four months to make Casanova," he says.

The Brothers Grimm is more lightweight fare again, and is the least successful of Ledger's three Venice films, even if his brotherly coupling with Matt Damon is kind of fun.

"In the Festival's second week it was Russell Crowe's turn"

In the Festival's second week it was Russell Crowe's turn as the Australian star attended the premiere of Cinderella Man with his arm around his wife Danielle Spencer, who wore a shimmering grey halter-neck dress.

Crowe also posed for photos with his on-screen wife, Renee Zellweger, and director Ron Howard, who made a fleeting visit from the set of his controversial film, The Da Vinci Code, to launch the film outside of the US.

Crowe told one interviewer that it was not the hope of winning an Oscar next year for his performance as 1930s underdog boxing champ, Jim Braddock, that currently concerned him.

"I'm more interested in seeing how Cinderella Man is received as it is released in the rest of the world," he said. He clearly hopes the film will fare better abroad than in the US when this relatively modest drama was strangely released around the time of blockbusters like Batman Begins. The film will soon be re-released in the US to be given a second chance.

Earlier in the day, the gum-chewing actor told the assembled press that the film was more about a man who was devoted to his family than about boxing. Crowe of course was able to draw on his own recent fatherhood, and said that becoming a dad (to Charlie, who will be 2 in December) "has been the most illuminating and fantastic experience in my life and on a daily basis it's an exceptional thing that I would recommend to anyone."

Even if journalists were told not to mention the legalities regarding his phone-throwing incident, one wag asked regarding his interest in boxing. As an actor he said he has "more in common with a schizophrenic mathematician than with a boxer".

In a separate interview Howard said he was greatly saddened when he heard of Crowe's New York troubles, though he did not believe the incident had any bearing on the poor US box office of the film.

Maybe it's just that the film is a little old fashioned? Might there be too much boxing to keep women interested? Or is Ron Howard way too sentimental for his own good? The one thing critics agree on is : Crowe delivers another stunning performance that is worth the price of a ticket.

Howard, who has worked with the "great Australian actors", Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Crowe, now twice, says "there's a quest for truth that I find in Australian artists and it's very refreshing and it's captured on film very often.

"other cinematic treats on offer"

There were other cinematic treats on offer in Venice, from the long-awaited Proof, to the small independent gem, Brick, to the gripping studio thriller, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

Proof, based on David Auburn's successful stage play, is a poignant and powerful story, and again demonstrates, as did Closer, that plays can be made into movies quite effectively. Gwyneth Paltrow and director John Madden, who had worked together on Shakespeare in Love, and on the theatrical production of Proof, clearly feel comfortable in each other's company. Paltrow demonstrates an emotional depth and surprising restraint in her role as the daughter of a mathematical genius (Anthony Hopkins) who has just died. To an extent she must have been drawing on the death of her own father, Bruce Paltrow (Proof was filmed several years ago) but she may have also been feeling in touch with more positive emotions as she became pregnant with her daughter, Apple, during filming. Hopkins praised Paltrow as one of the two best actresses he has worked with; the other is Jodie Foster.

The American noir mystery Brick, a favourite at Sundance earlier this year, was directed by Rian Johnson and was filmed on a micro-budget, raised mostly by his family. It stars rising talent Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin) as a super smart student who becomes obsessed with finding his ex-girlfriend, played by Australia's Emilie de Ravin, best known as the pregnant young woman in television's Lost.

Orlando Bloom was in Venice as the leading man in Cameron Crowe's satire on smalltown America, Elizabethtown. It's a kind of test for the young actor, who plays an American businessman who must suddenly face unemployment and the death of his father as he returns to his provincial Southern hometown for the funeral. What helps him cope is meeting an airline stewardess (Kirsten Dunst) on the way. The film's hokey humour might fly in America, though it will be interesting to see if it works with Australian audiences. I doubt it.

Nothing has been quite so badly received however as the Spanish-made horror movie, Fragile. Starring Calista Flockhart as a therapist in a children's hospital, alongside Australia's Richard Roxburgh as a British doctor, the film left critics sniggering in disbelief as they left the cinema. After Van Helsing I expected Roxburgh to turn into a werewolf or something. No such luck.

At least Flockhart's Venice-loving beau Harrison Ford was there to hold her hand as she walked up the red carpet. (He also knows what it's like to have a flop or two.)

Bjork was also in Venice to talk up her first musical collaboration with her American artist-filmmaker partner Matthew Barney (also the father of her child) on Drawing Restraint 9. Unfortunately the utterly pretentious film, about the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity is close to unwatchable, but just to be in the same room as Bjork, who talks and moves in the staccato manner of her music, is a treat.

Happily George Clooney's second film as director, Goodnight. And, Good Luck, is more coherent. Filmed in black and white, it explores the evils of Senator Joe McCarthy, using actually footage of him speaking at the House of un-American Activities Committee. It's a tribute to journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), the trailblazer of current affairs television who stood up to McCarthy, and whose program led to the creation of 60 Minutes. It's also a tribute to Clooney's former anchorman dad, and Clooney plays Murrow's producer in the film.

Laura Linney, in town to promote The Exorcism of Emily Rose, says she was attracted to the film because its mix of courtroom drama and paranormal thriller presented such a challenge. Based on an actual case, Tom Wilkinson plays a priest who performs an exorcism on a young girl who then dies.

"The Festival's surprise film"

The Festival's surprise film, Takeshi Kitano's Takeshis, where the Japanese writer-director-actor-comedian plays the duo roles of himself and a convenience store owner, was a major disappointment. The Japanese multi-talent probably needs a break from filmmaking as he plans, and he promises to do film classic stories - with no gangsters - when he returns. The Festival's Hong Kong opener, Tsui Hark's Seven Swords likewise failed to impress viewers, so it was left to South Korea's Park Chan-wook to provide the most impressive Asian entry with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the third film in his trilogy after Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Old Boy.

It was very touching in Venice to see Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter take to the podium for the Corpse Bride press conference holding hands - even if Burton joked that his loved one voices a corpse in his beautifully crafted animated movie. Johnny Depp voices the husband. They keep it in the family, so to speak. As usual Bonham Carter was asked regarding her playing period roles - yes, even The Corpse Bride is set in the past.

"I actually don't mind playing period roles," she replied, "but I've also played an ape, you know. Some actresses have it worse than me."

John Turturro's working class musical Romance & Cigarettes divided the critics, with its song and dance numbers mixed with crude language - coming mostly from Kate Winslet as James Gandolfini's bawdy mistress. Winslet has been keen to change her fresh-faced image since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and … well, she has succeeded. Light-footed Christopher Walken is naturally a scene-stealer as Susan Sarandon's enforcer cousin, who comes to check up on her unfaithful husband, Gandolfini.


THE WINNERS
Ang Lee is a man of few words. Ever-humble, even if he must have sensed he was about to win the main Venice prize, the Golden Lion, as he walked along the Venice Festival's red carpet, he graciously thanked God for his talent and said how he loved making movies.

Then of course he won, for his film, and the prize was handed to him by Japanese animation master, Hayao Miyazaki.

"It's an honour to win the major award at this auteur-oriented festival, where Asian films are so prominent and where great Asian directors like Akira Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou have also won."

As a small film with unusual subject matter, Ang knew that a festival platform would help bring it to the masses. "I'd never made a romantic love story before and it's the kind of film I didn't think a lot of people would see. This prize will certainly help," he says of his second gay themed-movie to win a main festival prize - The Wedding Banquet took out Berlin's Golden Bear, while his biggest success, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, screened out of competition in Cannes. "That was also appropriate for that more commercial film," he said. (Critics all concurred; Crouching Tiger would have won, had it competed.)

Brokeback Mountain was actually about to screen at the Toronto Festival as Ang accepted his Venice prize.

"This is my Toronto look, he joked pointing to his smart grey-green suit. "I had just arrived at the hotel in Toronto and was told I had to come straight back," he said, all smiles. Clearly the trip was worth it.

"George Clooney was in fine form too"

George Clooney was in fine form too, prancing around for the cameras before the ceremony. His second film as director, Good Night. And Good Luck, had already won the critics prize announced in the afternoon, and in the evening he shared the screenwriting award with his longtime friend and collaborator, Grant Heslov.

"Much of this screenplay was written 51 years ago by Edward R. Murrow who taught us many valuable lessons about responsibility and to always question authority, because without it, authority going unchecked oftentimes corrupts," Clooney said in his acceptance speech.

The son of a news anchor, Clooney dedicated the prize to the journalists based in trouble spots like Afghanistan, Africa and New Orleans. David Strathairn, who plays Murrow in the film, took out the acting prize.

At the following press conference I asked Clooney if there would be a party back at his Italian hacienda and if we were all invited. "Everyone at my house tonight for drinks," he said emitting his trademark grin. "I'm buying."

Another current Italian resident, eccentric New York director, Abel Ferrara, took out the Festival's Jury Special prize for Mary, a film, which, given that it examines the mystery and legend of Mary Magdalene (Juliette Binoche), went down well with the Italians.

"It's the first time I've ever won anything," said a jubilant Ferrara. "Maybe it was a good idea to leave New York for a while and gain some distance.'

"Isabelle Huppert won her third Venice Lion"

Isabelle Huppert won her third Venice Lion, after two best Actress Prizes for two Claude Chabrol films, La Ceremonie (The Ceremony) and Une Affaire de Femmes (Story of Women) in a Special Lion category that hadn't been given in 20 years. "It's not only for career achievement but also for Gabrielle," she said in her forthright manner. Patrice Chereau's film, like his previous Berlin winner Intimacy (which starred Kerry Fox) is an intense exploration of a cruel and tender relationship, only in a period setting.

The official Best Actress prize went to Italy's Giovanna Mezzogiorno for La Bestia Nel Cuore (Don't Tell), an overly melodramatic story about the legacy of child abuse, while French director Philippe Garrel took out the Best Director award for Les Amants Reguliers (Regular Lovers) a black-and white evocation of the 1968 protest period in Paris.

Strangely enough, Fernando Meireilles screen adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, The Constant Gardener, one of the festival favourites, went away empty handed - but that is not to say the film won't figure in next year's Academy Awards, as has already been suggested. In fact one suspects that's why it was left out of the Venice prizes. Rachel Weisz gives one of her best performances as a headstrong woman refusing to ignore injustices against the local Kenyan people by drug companies, while Ralph Fiennes is impressive as her weak garden-obsessed husband, who finally musters the courage to take action. Africa has never looked so beautiful, with cinematographer Cesar Charlone lending vivid colours to the Kenyan landscapes as we've never seen
before.

Published September 15,2005
 

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Brokeback Mountain


Casanova


The Brothers Grimm


Fragile


Drawing Restraint 9







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