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From Al Pacino to zombies, 5 things to watch for at 71st Venice Film Festival

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VENICE, Italy - It has Al Pacino and zombie girlfriends, Owen Wilson and Lars von Trier.

The 71st Venice Film Festival opens this week, bringing 11 days of high art and Hollywood glamour to the canal-crossed Italian city.

Twenty films are competing for the coveted Golden Lion prize — 19 of them world premieres — and several dozen more will jostle for the attention of critics and audiences at an event that mixes adventurous fare from international auteurs with mainstream movies seeking awards-season momentum.

Here are five films, trends and themes to watch for:

BIRDMAN TAKES OFF

The festival — and the annual awards-season battle — kicks off Wednesday with the world premiere of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's twisted comedy "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)."

Anticipation is high for a film that promises to mix the bold, surrealism-tinged sensibility of Inarritu ("Babel," ''21 Grams") with inspired casting — former "Batman" star Michael Keaton plays a past-his-prime actor struggling to move beyond his best-known role as an iconic action hero. Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts also star.

"It's very original, very personal and at the same time it's very entertaining and surprising," festival director Alberto Barbera said Tuesday, as workers painted, hammered and laid red carpet at the festival site on Venice's Lido resort island.

Last year's Venice opener, space thriller "Gravity," went on to win seven Academy Awards; Barbera hopes "Birdman" will also be a high-flyer.

PACINO DOUBLE-TAKE

The revered veteran stars in two Venice films, handily screening on the same day and both infused with bittersweet longing.

In David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn," Pacino plays a small-town Texas locksmith pining over a long-lost love. In Barry Levinson's "The Humbling" — adapted from a Philip Roth novel — he's an aging actor having an affair with a younger woman, played by Greta Gerwig.

Also doing double duty are Ethan Hawke — starring in Andrew Niccol's drone-warfare drama "Good Kill" and Michael Almereyda's Shakespeare adaptation "Cymbeline" — and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who appears in Benoit Jacquot's romantic drama "Three Hearts" and von Trier's explicit "Nymphomaniac."

AMERICA'S UNEASY CONSCIENCE

Two competition entries look at issues troubling America's soul: war and economics.

In "Gattaca" director Niccol's "Good Kill," Hawke plays a drone operator who grows disillusioned with remote warfare.

Another sort of battle is waged in Ramin Bahrani's subprime mortgage drama "99 Homes." It stars Andrew Garfield ("The Amazing Spider-Man") as an evicted man battling to get his home back. The cast also includes Michael Shannon and Laura Dern.

UNPREDICTABLE AUTEURS

Like its rival Cannes, the Venice film fest embraces actors and directors who are adventurous, unpredictable or down-right ornery. This year the festival is honouring James Franco, presenting the prolific American actor-director with the heroically titled "Glory to the Filmmaker Prize."

Franco also will premiere "The Sound and the Fury," his second adaptation of a William Faulkner novel, at an out-of -competition festival screening. It has an impressive cast that includes Seth Rogen, Tim Blake Nelson and Jon Hamm, but Franco's screen version of the Southern scribe's "As I Lay Dying" received a decidedly mixed response from critics.

Barbera said the festival wants to recognize a "peculiar and creative talent," even if not all Franco's creative risks paid off.

"He's a writer, scriptwriter, filmmaker, stage director," Barbera said. "He is not able to stop and have a rest, and he is creating all the time."

Other directors sure to provoke include Abel Ferrara, competing for the Golden Lion with "Pasolini," a film about the outrageous life and violent death of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe.

And Danish bad-boy von Trier is likely to bore and thrill in equal measure with the director's cut of his over-the-top sexual odyssey "Nymphomaniac."

HIGH ART MEETS HOLLYWOOD

It's the blend of big-name stars and cinematic surprises that makes festivals like Venice special.

New features are on tap from exciting international filmmakers, including Russian director Andrei Konchalovksy's "The Postman's White Nights"; Turkish-German director Fatih Akin's "The Cut"; "Red Amnesia" from China's Wang Xiaoshuai; and "Tales" by female Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad.

And if there were a prize for best title of the festival, it would certainly go to Swedish director Roy Andersson's "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence."

But it's not all art and existentialism. The schedule also includes Joe Dante's "Burying the Ex" — a zombie rom-com starring Anton Yelchin and Ashley Greene — and "She's Funny That Way," a Peter Bogdanovich-directed Broadway comedy with Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots and Kathryn Hahn.

___

Follow Jill Lawless at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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