Postcards from Venice: Movies to Remember

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Catherine Deneuve in Francois Ozon's Potiche.

As the Venice Film Festival heads into its closing stretch, visitors began speculating on the front runners for the awards to be handed out by the Jury headed by Quentin Tarantino. Many hoped that the Golden Lion would go to Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame, Tsui Hark's pinwheeling delight of a Chinese action film. Others noted, with fear and trembling, that Tarantino was seen vigorously applauding the Festival's one squawking turkey. Could A Sad Trumpet Ballad, the Spanish clown catastrophe directed by Alex de la Iglesia (Ferpect Crime), take the top prize? Would Natalie Portman get Best Actress for her harrowing portrait of a troubled prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan? And, on the island paradise of the Lido, would it ever stop raining?

All will be answered on Saturday evening. For now, we offer an interim report on some of the most notable films at the 67th Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica — la Biennale di Venezia 2010. Note to North American movie lovers: most of these works will also be shown at the Toronto Film Festival, which opens today.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame
Tsui Hark, who directed about half of the best films of Hong Kong's golden age (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and produced most of the other half (A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, Iron Monkey), returns in fabulous form with this gorgeous action picture about the intrigue attending the rise of history's first female emperor. Carina Lau is Empress Wu, Li Bingbing her right-hand woman and Andy Lau the seventh-century "detective," Di Rienjie, hired to solve the riddle of high-ranking officials who keep bursting into flames. A nonstop masterpiece of production design, narrative cunning and martial-arts mayhem (choreographed by Sammo Hung), Detective Dee is the first China-Hong Kong coproduction since Hero to make good on the grand promise of epic entertainment. —R.C.

Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is the pretty, pampered, imprisoned wife of an umbrella-factory owner (Fabrice Luchini). She blithely overlooks his rudeness, his infidelities, his ignoring of her birthday. But when he falls ill combatting a work stoppage inspired by the local communist leader (Gerard Depardieu), and reluctantly lets her manage the business in his absence, Suzanne proves that French industry, and a turbulent household, can flourish under the right woman's touch. Francois Ozon dusts off a 1970s boulevard comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy (Cactus Flower, 40 Carats) and turns it into a glittering showcase for Deneuve, still charismatic at 66. Depardieu offers warm support as a man who thinks himself enlightened but has lessons to learn from a housewife; and Karin Viard is a treat as Luchini's secretary and mistress, who discovers the more fulfilling joys of entrepreneurial sisterhood. This bonbon of a film is as colorful as all the umbrellas of Cherbourg. This might have been a soggy Venice, but nothing can rain on Ozon's parade — not with Deneuve leading it in song. —M.C.

13 Assassins
Takashi Miike, who turned 50 two weeks ago, no longer directs six or seven wildly inventive films a year; in 2010 the manic-impressive auteur has slowed down to a snail-like two movies, both of them at Venice. One is a sequel to his 2004 hit Zebraman, about an ordinary man who dons a superhero suit and battles the forces of evil. (Sound familiar, Kick-Ass fans?) The other is this churning, fairly traditional war drama set in the last days of the samurai. How can a dozen dedicated fighters, plus a crazy fellow who wanders into the action, overcome the attack of 200 professionals under the luridly evil Lord Naritsugu? Just watch! The good guys are aided by superior swordsmanship, a stampede of blazing cattle and more dynamite than was exploded in World War II. Miike calls this a "samurai terror film showing the flowers of life and death. Simple, radical, beautiful." Fans of the director know he always makes good on his promises. —R.C.

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