Review Roundup: Venice Film Festival

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Some major new films are seeing their world premieres at this year's festival. Here's a look at some of the more notable entries.

The Ides of March (Sony)
Director: George Clooney

Trying to repeat their success with Good Night, and Good Luck, a critical standout and front-runner among liberal patrons, writer-director Clooney   and co-writer Grant Heslov don't find a way to inject their intimate convictions into this political thriller. Its softer narrative and dingy Midwestern setting, as well as its structural lack of heroics, are likely to keep the popular vote down for Ides, which can in any case bank on tense pacing and a superb cast led by a ruthlessly idealistic Ryan Gosling. Based on a play by Beau Willimon, who worked on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, the story opens with a rush of insiders' momentum before settling into the universal turf of a Hollywood thriller.

Carnage (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Roman Polanski

Snappy, nasty, deftly acted and perhaps the fastest-paced film ever directed by a 78-year-old, Polanski's adaptation of Yasmina Reza's award-winning play God of Carnage fully delivers the laughs and savagery of the stage piece. In a tasteful, comfortable apartment, the aggrieved parents (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) of a slightly injured boy host the parents (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet) of the aggressive kid, a gesture intended to paper over any problems and forestall legal unpleasantries. After all, they're civilized folks, aren't they, able to rise above vengeful instincts and base emotional responses? Not bloody likely.

Director: James Franco

While this heartfelt, rough-edged tribute to largely forgotten actor Sal Mineo from Hollywood polymath Franco isn't without interest, it's too small-scale and sketchy for wide theatrical distribution. Writer Stacey Miller and the director focus only on the period immediately preceding Mineo's demise. While there's no mistaking Franco's engagement and empathy with his subject, by the end we're not really much the wiser about why Mineo warrants a biopic, even one as selective and shoestring-budgeted as this.

Wilde Salome
Director: James Franco

More personal and obsessive than his 1996 Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard, Pacino's long-in-the-making Wilde Salome is both an intriguing exploration of Oscar Wilde's play about the destructive use of sexuality and an intimate self-portrait of the actor-director as he overextends himself by performing Salome onstage and shooting a film -- this film -- at the same time. Playing mostly himself but also King Herod and, in one scene, Wilde, Pacino is the creator and real subject of the work.

Director: Steve McQueen

Driven by a brilliant, ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender, Shame is a real walk on the wild side, a scorching look at a case of sexual addiction that's as all-encompassing as a drug craving. McQueen's second feature, following his exceptional 2008 debut Hunger, might ultimately prove too psychologically pat in confronting its subject's problem, but its dramatic and stylistic prowess provides a cinematic jolt that is bracing to experience.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Focus)
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Huge on period atmosphere and as murkily plotted as its source material, this large-scale European adaptation of John le Carre's 1974 Cold War novel shows a faithfulness that should fully meet expectations of the writer's fans. With Swedish director Alfredson at the helm of his first English-language film, he delivers a story so visually absorbing that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end, when the plot twists are unraveled. This is a solid piece of thinking-man's entertainment for upmarket thriller audiences.

Wuthering Heights
Director: Andrea Arnold

The British director's radical and satisfying version of the Emily Bronte classic casts Heathcliff as a black man and tells the story mostly from his point of view. Meanwhile, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, through minutely close attention to the flora and fauna of a remote corner of Yorkshire, achieves lustrous wonders with HD video as he and Arnold work with a palette of loamy browns, cobalt blues and moss-damp greens. Indeed, so audaciously cutting-edge does this film feel that it deserves comparisons to France's reigning female auteur, Claire Denis, and even Catalan experimentalist Albert Serra.

The Cardboard Village
Director: Ermanno Olmi

The veteran Italian director's Catholic faith has shaped many of his films in a direct way, with mixed results. Filmed from his original screenplay, Cardboard Village lacks the magic touch of fable that made his 1988 Golden Lion winner The Legend of the Holy Drinker soar on golden wings. The story of an old priest who braves the police to shelter a group of African refugees is an uncomfortable mix of overly literal storytelling and Christian symbols.

Director: Shion Sono

The Japanese director had written his adaptation of the 2001 manga comic Himizu, a shrill teenage wail of existential discomfort, when on March 11 an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. His intuition to rewrite in light of those tragic events brings poignant meaning to this movie, and his bizarre overlay of styles and moods is a daring gamble that somehow heightens understanding of Japan's disaster -- as though the only possible aesthetic approach was cinema of the absurd. Fraught with brutal violence and needless repetition that draws out its two-hour running time, Himizu is still not an easy film to like, but the topicality of its message about national pain and rebuilding could attract offshore sales following its Venice and Toronto debuts.

I'm Carolyn Parker
Director: Jonathan Demme

Setting out to make a documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Demme gets happily side-tracked into the engaging character study of a woman who survived the flood to reconstruct her beloved home in New Orleans' poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward. Filmed during a five-year period, Parker is a classic piece of Americana made for television, where it will enter an enlightening piece into the historical record. Much more personal than Spike Lee's epic 2006 study When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Parker is a record of one woman's spirit, a celebration of her courage and determination in the face of personal and financial devastation.