Page last updated at 16:15 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 17:15 UK

Reporter's log: Venice 2008

Neil Smith
George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman are just some of the stars attending the 65th Venice Film Festival.

There are 21 films in competition for the festival's prestigious Golden Lion prize - which will be awarded by a jury headed by German director Wim Wenders.

BBC News entertainment reporter Neil Smith spent a week on the Lido filing regular updates.


Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara star in Natalie Portman's Eve
The 65th Venice Film Festival continues until Saturday. Sadly, though, the time has come for me to take my leave.

I am disappointed that I'll be missing a couple of high-profile US films, among them Rachel Getting Married with Anne Hathaway.

I'll also have to delay the pleasure of seeing Mickey Rourke, in Spandex, in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler.

On the whole, though, it's been a great experience covering this historic event for the first time.

Over the past week, I've heard one journalist after and another bemoan the paucity of Hollywood films and international celebrities.

What they see as a drawback, however, I have seen as a challenge. It's forced me to think outside the box and seek out things to write about, rather than have them handed to me on a platter.

I'm glad to say I'm going home on a high note, having just seen Natalie Portman's debut short, Eve, starring Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara.

A 21-minute piece about a couple in their twilight years, it suggests she has a promising future ahead of her behind the camera as well as in front of it.


Everyone's a critic, the adage goes. At the Venice Film Festival, though, that is literally the case.

While the reviewers have their say in their publications and websites, the public can make their own opinions known on a billboard located in the "Movie Village" that nestles beside the festival site.

Reviews, cartoons and collages make for an eye-catching display that proves Venice to be a city of passionate and good-humoured cineastes.

I particularly enjoyed this drawing, which sums up my own reaction to Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin perfectly.

Shirin critique


All of the screenings I've seen so far have been in and around the Palazzo del Casino, the festival's main building on the Lido.

But other venues are being used too, among them the PalaBiennale - a massive big top erected on a nearby rugby pitch.

I went there on Sunday to catch Goodbye Solo, a US indie playing as part of the festival's Orizzonti sidebar.

The warm-hearted story of a Senegalese cab driver and his relationship with a grumpy old man who is contemplating suicide, Ramin Bahrani's film is a real find.


Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman's short film, Eve, stars Lauren Bacall
As I stood sipping a Bellini on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Des Bains last night, it occurred to me there were worse ways to spend my last evening at the Venice Film Festival.

I was there for work, of course, having been invited to attend the Kineo Italian Movie Awards, which were being held at this legendary Lido landmark.

Natalie Portman was the star attraction, winning a "Movie for Humanity" award for her charitable endeavours.

The petite actress was mobbed by paparazzi when she arrived and was quickly ushered away by her attentive security.

I thought that would be the last I would see of her, so was surprised to find her later queuing behind me at the buffet.

(The former Star Wars starlet chowed down on goat's cheese ravioli with rice, in case you're interested.)

Portman is at the festival with a short film entitled Eve, which is screening this afternoon.

Neil Smith
John Landis engaged in an animated chat, despite his injuries
As I was leaving the awards, I bumped into Hollywood director John Landis, who is serving on this year's international jury.

The poor man was leaning on a walking stick and sporting a plaster on his forehead, having taken a tumble at the opening night party.

"I did a very spectacular fall and cracked my ribs," he revealed.

"I think they're trying to kill me."

It's struck me I haven't been watching many Italian films at this Italian film festival.

I think I've made up for it, though, by seeing Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves.

Screening here in a restored print, this black-and-white classic tells of a humble bill poster who goes on an epic quest with his young son to recover his stolen bike.

Shot through with poetry, pathos and the desperation of Rome in the post-war era, it's the film that defines Italy's neorealist cinema movement.

What was interesting about the screening I saw was that the English subtitles I'd been expecting did not appear.

Yet such was the elegance of the storytelling and the naturalism of De Sica's non-professional leads I was able to follow the film perfectly well without them.


Hayao Miyazaki in Venice
Hayao Miyazaki faced the press and photographers in Venice

The Hayao Miyazaki press conference illuminated the perils of reporting on an international film festival.

Questions raised in English had to be translated into Japanese for the director whose answers, in Japanese, were then translated into Italian.

By the time the British contingent received an English translation of the Italian through their only fitfully functional headsets, there was every likelihood it bore only tangential relation to what was actually said.

Throw in the tendency of some local journalists to make rambling statements rather than genuine inquiries and you have a recipe for confusion.

I suspect my question on whether Miyazaki had been influenced by Finding Nemo when creating his underwater fable didn't even make it into Japanese.

I would love to be able to ask him again in person but the ageing auteur is only doing a handful of face-to-face interviews with pre-selected outlets.

My request for access met with a non-committal response from the film's UK distributor so I don't rate my chances very highly.


Of the 21 films in contention for this year's Golden Lion award, two of them are animated features from Japan.

Having seen the first of these, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, I have a feeling neither it nor director Hayao Miyazaki will go home empty-handed.

I'm not a lover of the veteran animator's fantastical style, but even I was charmed by this delightful tale of a fish who yearns to become human.

Miyazaki's latest has made the equivalent of $93m at the Japanese box office - a testament to the 67-year-old's astonishing popularity on his native soil.


Things being so quiet on Saturday afternoon, I took the opportunity to pop over to the old town for a bit of film-related sightseeing.

Valentino's Venice store has been transformed into an advert for his film
Valentino's Venice store has been transformed into an advert for his film

So many classic pictures have been shot in Venice over the years it really feels like one giant movie set.

I'm not sure, but I think I found the stretch of canal that Katharine Hepburn fell into while shooting Summertime in 1955.

The stubborn star insisted on performing the stunt herself and was left with a life-long eye infection as a result.

I also wanted to see what is Venice's main talking point outside the festival - a new bridge over the Grand Canal.

Built to link the city's train and bus stations, this steel and grass construction has been the subject of much heated debate.

Its lack of disabled access has irked many. Others think its contemporary design is out of sync with the city's historic architecture.

The 94-metre bridge will open next month, though plans for a full-scale presidential ceremony have been scaled back.

As I made my way to St Mark's Square and the vaporetto back to the Lido, I discovered my old friend Valentino was using his store front to promote his documentary.

I can't seem to get away from the fellow.


The mood is relaxed around the Lido on the first weekend of the festival. I may be wrong, but I get the feeling quite a few people are taking the day off.

Not me, of course. Instead I've been catching a couple of the films that are screening outside of the main competition line-up.

One of these is 35 Rhums (Shots), a quiet mood piece from French director Claire Denis.

Set in and around a Parisian apartment block, the film explores the lives of a black single father and his teenage daughter as they face the prospect of a future apart.

It's a little slow and ponderous, but once you get into its rhythm it proves both insightful and gently humorous.

I also saw Vinyan, a psychological horror movie about a Western couple in Thailand searching for the son they lost in the 2004 tsunami.

Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart play the parents in a film that takes some distressing turns en route to an extremely baroque climax.


Charlize Theron was on the red carpet in Venice
Theron plays a troubled restaurant manager in The Burning Plain

Charlize Theron looked amazing on the red carpet last night in a silver Versace gown as she attended the premiere of The Burning Plain.

Having chatted to a few of my fellow critics, the consensus is her film is one of the stronger competition entries to have screened so far.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Plastic City, a Brazilian-Chinese co-production set in the vast metropolis of Sao Paolo.

A crime drama of sorts, it tells of an ageing black marketeer, originally from China, whose lucrative trade in counterfeit goods is under threat from both the authorities and rival gangsters.

I say 'of sorts' because Yu Lik-wai's lengthy saga goes off on a surreal tangent in its second half that lost me completely.

I also couldn't help thinking its subject matter clashed slightly with the dire warning on the possible consequences of film piracy that precedes every festival screening.

Though Plastic City is sure to have its admirers, it does seem strange to find it in the running for the prestigious Golden Lion.

Then again, it's no more unlikely than the execrable Inju: The Beast in the Shadow.


Valentino is promoting his fly-on-the-wall documentary
I've spent the afternoon marvelling at Valentino's astonishing tan. A rich, lustrous orange, it makes the Cuprinol Man look like Nicola from Girls Aloud.

I had plenty of time to admire it during a round table session with the iconic designer in a beachside bar at the fancy Excelsior Hotel.

Valentino, who hosted a glam party last night after the premiere of his fly-on-the-wall documentary, wouldn't be drawn when asked to comment on the scandalously low wages paid in some sectors of the Italian fashion industry.

He did, though, talk of his affection for the six pug dogs - Milton, Monty, Maude, Margot, Maggie and Molly - that follow him around wherever he goes.

"We could have made an entire movie about them," said Matt Tyrnauer, director of Valentino: The Last Emperor.

The former Vanity Fair writer revealed he was currently working on another documentary about US writer Gore Vidal. "I have a PhD in difficult people," he joked.


Charlize Theron had to fend off an ardent admirer at this morning's Burning Plain press conference who asked her which side of the bed she slept on.

"Whichever side you're not on," she joked. "How much money do you have?"

The bold gentleman was told he was "cute" but that Theron's partner, Irish actor Stuart Townsend, would have something to say to him if he persisted.

"My boyfriend will kill you," she told him. "He's really hot too."

One gag that didn't go down so well was her co-star Jennifer Lawrence's response to being asked where Kim Basinger was.

"Haven't you heard? She's dead!" answered the 18-year-old newcomer.


Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron stars alongside Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain
I really have been seeing some strangely titled films out here in Venice.

First there was Achilles and the Tortoise, Takeshi Kitano's charming if overlong tale of a wannabe artist.

Then there was Inju: The Beast in the Shadow, which turned out to be a lurid fiasco full of decapitated geishas and kinky sex.

(Thursday's press screening drew the first boos I've heard at this year's event, which probably won't do wonders for its Golden Lion chances.)

Pride of place, however, must go to Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit!, a Japanese creature feature in the Godzilla mould.

Barking mad from start to finish, this wacky parody saw the G8 Summit in Hokkaido hijacked by what looked to me like a giant rubber chicken.

With each of the member countries failing to defeat it, it is left to another intergalactic monster to give it a battering.

I doubt it will feature too highly in this year's awards. For sheer entertainment value, though, I've yet to see its equal.

This morning, though, was reserved for more earnest fare - Charlize Theron's intense family drama The Burning Plain.

A moving saga of buried secrets and bitter betrayals told in three different time frames, it's the first film I've seen here with real Oscar potential.


Every morning I venture into the dimly-lit basement of the Palazzo del Casino and fish a mountain of junk out of my personal mailbox.

I say personal. In truth, I'm receiving exactly the same press releases, publications and production notes as everyone else.

I've yet to get anything that's of any real use - a party invite, say, or a free ride on a gondola. But I'll keep checking just in case.

My other port of call is the festival computer room, which is always certain to be a hive of activity.

It could hardly be otherwise, given the huge amount of press needing to file their copy and the limited number of computers available to them.

I saw someone physically ejected yesterday for daring to use a festival cable to power her private laptop. They don't mess about, these Venetians.


The arresting sight of Juliette Binoche wearing a veil is all I'll take away from Shirin, the new film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

Comprising a series of close-ups of various Muslim women watching a film we can only hear, this perplexing curio takes minimalism to a whole new level.

Admittedly, there is something oddly hypnotic about looking at a cinema screen filled with women silently staring back at you.

It doesn't take long, though, for this austere experiment to become an endurance test - one that was clearly too much for the dozens of people who walked out of this afternoon's screening.

I have higher hopes for Inju, The Beast in the Shadow, a thriller set in Japan from French director Barbet Schroeder that's screening this evening.

The one I'm really looking forward to, though, is The Burning Plain, which is screening bright and early on Friday morning.

Starring Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron, it's the first directorial outing from Guillermo Arriaga, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Babel and 21 Grams.

I'll let you know what it's like tomorrow.


Japanese director Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano's film is one of 21 competing for Venice's top prize
Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano is a Venice favourite, having won the Golden Lion in 1997 for Hana-bi and a special director's prize in 2003 for Zatoichi.

With that pedigree, it's no surprise his latest work, Achilles and the Tortoise, has been tipped as one of this year's main contenders.

The veteran director is playing down his chances, though. "The percentage has been quite high so I wouldn't ask for more," he told reporters earlier.

"I'm grateful to the organisers for always choosing my movies. I don't pay them, honestly."

A tragi-comic portrait of a painter with more enthusiasm than talent, Achilles is a beautifully made, often hilarious film in which people literally die for their art.

Having been told by his late father that he has a gift, the lead character - played by three actors, one of them Kitano himself - spends his life trying to prove that prophecy correct.

"In certain circumstances art can become a drug," said Kitano through a number of interpreters.

"This is a story about cruel art. It is not necessary for an artist to die, nor should he sacrifice his family."


Brad Pitt had a surprise gift waiting for him at last night's gala - the Volpi Cup he won last year for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

So did George Clooney, as it happened - a flower from glamorous host Ksenia Rappoport.

There was a real buzz about the Palais du Cinema last night, a sure sign that the festival is up and running. This year's film line-up might not be the most exciting on record but the crowds are flocking to the Lido all the same.

Water taxis were queuing six deep outside the Excelsior Hotel, location of the glitzy opening night party.

Me? Well, I would have gone, honest I would. But there were a couple of films I thought I'd see instead.

The first was Jerichow, a lean and broody German drama about a discharged soldier turned delivery man who begins a steamy affair with his employer's wife.

The other was Valentino: The Last Emperor, a fascinating look at the fashion icon's career featuring cameos from Gwyneth Paltrow, Joan Collins and Sir Elton John.

It's a vivid portrait of a legendary designer, only marred by a terrible sound mix that rendered much of its dialogue unintelligible.

Here's hoping they get it fixed before he sees it. As the documentary shows, he's not above throwing the occasional hissy fit.


The blistering heat hasn't stopped hundreds of locals gathering outside the Sala Grande for tonight's big premiere.

In the meantime, they can amuse themselves watching footage of George Clooney arriving last year for a screening of his legal thriller Michael Clayton.

The festival's set-piece venue is covered in white cloth at present in preparation for a major - and long overdue - makeover.

Three winged lions, the traditional emblem of Venice, poke their heads through the cladding. In honour of Tilda Swinton, I've dubbed the biggest one Aslan.


Brad Pitt and George Clooney
Brad Pitt and George Clooney sparred with the Venice press pack
A moment of levity at the Burn After Reading press conference when a young woman approached the stars asking if they wanted to join her running club. "From the looks of it we might need to run from you," quipped George Clooney.

Having queued 20 minutes to get in and another 30 for the talent to arrive, I was hoping I'd have something more substantial to report at the end of it.

But with up to 500 reporters present from who knows how many countries, it was always destined to be something of a dog's dinner.

The film itself I found great fun, if a little lightweight - a comedy of errors involving some AWOL CIA memoirs that fall into the hands of two opportunistic gym instructors.

I also felt it ran out of steam well before the end.

It does, however, feature a Brad Pitt performance to savour as a gum-chewing exercise nut as thick as his dumbbells.

John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton also stand out as an alcoholic CIA operative and his cheating shrew of a wife.

I can't say it's Clooney's finest hour, though, even if he does sport the same beard he won an Oscar with in Syriana.

There are more films to come today, among them a new documentary about Italian fashion legend Valentino. Let's hope there isn't a dress code.


A worker prepares the red carpet at the entrance of the cinema palace
A worker prepares the red carpet at the entrance of the Sala Grande
My first full day at the Venice Film Festival begins with a screening of Burn After Reading, the new black comedy from the Oscar-winning Coen brothers.

I'm a big fan of their work so I'm keen to see what it's like - as is one of its stars, British actress Tilda Swinton.

The two of us flew in on the same plane yesterday, separated only by about 30 rows of seats, 200 passengers and a retractable curtain.

But I got the chance to say hello at Venice airport while we were waiting for our luggage to appear on the baggage carousel.

Tilda is only in town for a few days but is hoping to catch Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the latest feature from Japanese anime guru Hayao Miyazaki, while she's here.

Watching her get so animated about his work has made me want to see it too.

I doubt I'll be able to get quite so up close and personal with George Clooney and Brad Pitt later at the Burn After Reading press conference.

But at least I know where it's taking place, having spent my first few hours on Italian soil yesterday familiarising myself with the festival HQ.

Located on the Lido, the thin strip of land and sand that separates ancient Venice from the Adriatic, the Palazzo del Cinema is an imposing edifice that dates back to Mussolini's day.

I suspect, though, I will be spending most of my time in its neighbour, the no less dramatic Palazzo del Casino.

This is where the morning press screenings are held, and also where the festival organisers put on their famously disorganised press conferences.

Will today's be any different? I'll let you know later.

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