High-water mark for Venice films

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VENICE, Italy -- As the Venice Film Festival starts its second week it begins its transition into a more Italian fest as high-profile execs make the leap from the Lido to the Toronto International Film Festival, which gets under way Thursday.

But even as that shift starts, much of the buzz in Venice remained centered on the high-quality lineup Venice artistic director Marco Mueller and his team assembled for this year's edition, with most attendees united in the opinion that the in- and out-of-competition selection this year delivered a slew of films likely to be on next year's Academy Awards nomination list.

The weekend on the Lido was highlighted by three well-received films, all from the heavy English-language selection in the program: Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" -- both in competition -- and Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream," which screened in the Venice Masters sidebar.

Dominik's 155-minute opus, which stars Brad Pitt as Jesse James, attracted the Golden Lion's share of attention from critics and even more so from fans along the red carpet who lined barriers 10 deep in some places to catch a glimpse of Pitt and girlfriend Angelina Jolie, who made the trip even though she did not have a film screening.

The press briefing for "Darjeeling" was lighthearted even though the film screened under a pall after Owen Wilson, one of the film's three main stars, was hospitalized last week. Anderson began the briefing by telling the packed press room that Wilson was recovering fine and cracking jokes at home; soon, the rest of the cast began cracking their own jokes.

Bill Murray stole the show, telling people that his two minutes of screen time in "Darjeeling" was "the role he always wanted."

"I fly to a fascinating place like India for a week, work one day and spend the rest of the time shopping and sightseeing, then I fly home, rest, relax and then fly to beautiful Venice for a week to spend my time eating and drinking and resting, interrupted by work for just one hour," Murray joked. "Not bad, right?"

Anderson was asked whether he had plans to expand Murray's cameo role in any possible sequel to the film. The director said there were no such plans, to which Murray pounded his fist on the table, feigning an angry "Damn it!"

Allen, making his 10th appearance in Venice, appeared to an enthusiastic reception on the red carpet with "Cassandra's" stars Colin Farrell and Hayley Atwell. But the film attracted some unexpected attention when three of its five screenings were canceled because of worries about film piracy, the festival said.

Also during the weekend, much of the cast of Spike Lee's upcoming Italian-based film "Miracle at St. Anna" was announced, with Pierfrancesco Favino -- who Sunday was presented with a Diamanti al Cinema (Cinema Diamonds) best actor award for his work in "Saturno contro" (Saturn in Opposition) -- will play the lead among the Italian cast. The film, which will begin shooting this year, tells the story of a group of black U.S. soldiers in Italy during World War II.

Businesswise, things have been slow in Venice, with Toronto perceived to be the place to sign deals and Venice the place to set them up with relaxed and casual meet-and-greets over Bellinis on the terrace. But with top-flight executives including Universal's David Linde, Focus chief James Schamus, the Weinstein Co.'s Harvey Weinstein and Pathe head Francois Ivernel on hand and the glitz of the storied festival boosted by red-carpet appearances by George Clooney, Michael Caine, Richard Gere, Jude Law and Susan Sarandon -- in addition to Murray, Pitt, Jolie and Allen -- all seems well in Venice.

As many of the most exclusive hotel rooms on the Lido free up and executives fly to Toronto, the shift will turn toward Italy, with the competition film "Il dolce e l'amaro" (The Sweet and the Bitter) from Andrea Porporati among the native films set to screen during the period when domestic dealmaking takes center stage.

Asia also is well represented in the festival's final days, with "Taiyang zhaochang shengqi" (The Sun Also Rises) from Jiang Wen, Miike Takashi's "Sukiyaki Western Django," Lee Kang Sheng's "Bangbang wo aishen" (Help me Eros) and "Tiantang kou" (Blood Brothers) from Alexi Tan -- the festival's closing-night film -- all set to premiere.

The still unnamed surprise film slated to be the 22nd film in competition will screen Wednesday. Last year's surprise film -- Jia Zhangke's "Still Life" -- took home the Golden Lion for best film.

Lee also was on hand to support the launch of an online short film festival set up by Web portal Babalgum. The director will make the final decision on who wins what from the festival's six categories, which comes with a €20,000 ($27,500) cash prize to each of the winners.
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