Michael Jackson was in the spotlight for music instead of eccentricities, Zac Efron wowed the crowd and won some raves, and Michael Cimino found a measure of redemption in the first three days of the 69th Venice International Film Festival.
Venice is the first of a three-festival barrage, with a Wednesday kickoff that came two days before Telluride and eight before Toronto.
And while the fest is more of a trek for U.S. filmgoers than Telluride and doesn't have the industry presence or sheer number of movies that Toronto does, it is a carefully curated event with a good track record: Last year's opening film was George Clooney's well-received "The Ides of March," while the 2010 opener was the Oscar-winning "Black Swan."
This year, Venice kicked off with "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" from "Monsoon Wedding" director Mira Nair. An international drama starring Riz Ahmet, Kiefer Sutherland, Live Schreiber and Kate Hudson, the film received mixed reviews; Time magazine liked it, Variety didn't, and Guy Lodge of In Contention called it "a commendably argumentative but airlessly diagrammatic plea for parity in the still-ragged post-9/11 dialogue between Islam and the West."
But Lodge raved about "At Any Price," Ramin Bahrani's drama starring Zac Efron as an aspiring NASCAR driver and Dennis Quaid as the father who wants him to take over the family's embattled agricultural business. The film, said Lodge, is a "classically involving and unexpectedly robust drama of heartland morality spread thin amid the cornfields of Southern Iowa."
On the other hand, he admitted that the end of the Venice screening was greeted with a small number of lusty boos, and that some European viewers had trouble with the sheer American-ness of the movie, which features a complete rendition of "The Star Spangled-Banner."
That obviously will be less of a problem when Sony Classics releases the film in the U.S. – and judging by a smattering of comments out of Venice, Quaid stands a chance to get some attention from awards voters … even if his co-star Efron drew most of the flashbulbs when he arrived at the premiere.
But while Efron drew the crowds and got some screams, a bigger pop idol was on display on Friday night with the premiere of Spike Lee's documentary "Bad 25," a look at the making of Michael Jackson's 1988 album, "Bad" – which, Lee pointed out at a press conference, was released exactly 25 years ago to the day.
"I'm not trying to sound trite, but to me this is a love letter to Michael Jackson," said Lee, who wore a Jackson T-shirt to the Venice press conference. "I was born in 1957, Michael was born in 1958 … So when I saw … the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, I wanted to be Michael Jackson.
"I had the Afro, the look. But singin' and dancin', that's where it stopped."
The film uses rare footage and new interviews to delve into the making of the album, Jackson's follow-up to the bigger-selling "Thriller."
"I think that for too many years, we — and I'm going to include myself – we concentrated on stuff about Michael Jackson that had nothing to do with the music," said Lee of his approach.
According to Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian, Lee's approach worked. "Michael Jackson revisionism gets a huge boost with Spike Lee's new film, a terrifically warm, affectionate and celebratory study of Jackson's 1987 album 'Bad,'" he writes. "Lee wants to clear away the tabloid smoke and spite, and bring the focus back to Jackson's professionalism, his craftsmanship, his artistry and his pop genius; the movie defiantly insists that Jackson was and is superior to his detractors."
Venice also provided a showcase – and, perhaps, a modicum of redemption – for somebody who knows a lot about detractors. Michael Cimino, whose expensive and unsuccessful 1980 film "Heaven's Gate" became a symbol of directorial excess and led to the collapse of United Artists, presented a restored version of the three-and-a-half-hour epic on Thursday.
At 73, looking nothing whatsoever like the pudgy man he was at the time of the movie's filming, Cimino said he initially resisted working with producer Joann Carelli on a restoration of the film.
“I’ve had enough rejection for 33 years,” he said onstage. “I don’t need more. Being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself.”
But the New York Times' Dennis Lim, reporting from Venice, wrote, "Time has been kind to 'Heaven's Gate.'" And when the movie was received with a lengthy standing ovation, Cimino told Lim, "I thought my heart was going to explode."
Other premieres at the festival included the well-received "The Iceman," with Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder; "Wadjda," the first film shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia; and "Superstar," which sounds as if it is a French variation on the Roberto Benigni section in Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love."
A big weekend awaits in Venice, where Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" will have its world premiere (if you don't count the four sneak screenings in the U.S.) on Saturday, and Terrence Malick (who is not expected to attend) will unveil "To the Wonder" on Sunday.
Michael Mann chairs the Venice jury this year.