I can hardly believe we're at that point in the year already, but it's less than a week until Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" opens the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday -- kicking off a long, busy, hype-filled run of fall festivals, and in turn, priming us for the even longer, even busier, even more hype-filled awards season that lies ahead. As usual, I'll be in attendance at Venice, and this year, we've heard your requests for a more detailed festival preview than usual. Time is too short for me to preview the 20 Competition titles individually, as in my Cannes Check series. Each day for the next few days, however, I'll be casting an eye over a mixed selection of five Golden Lion contenders -- beginning today with the latest from Stephen Frears, James Franco, Tsai Ming-Liang, Philippe Garrel and Merzak Allouache.   

"Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears: "Philomena," of course, is one of the more known unknowns in this year's Competition; the publicity machine is already in motion for this British comedy-drama, with The Weinstein Company having released a trailer that promises a certain laughter-through-the-tears approach. That's something it doesn't have in common with 2006's "The Queen" -- the last Frears film that premiered in Venice -- but in many other respects, "Philomena" fits the profile of that Oscar-winning biopic with canny precision. Also a true-life story serving as a showcase for a revered British dame (Judi Dench this time, rather than Helen Mirren), the film even boasts a no-doubt-tastefully-understated score by Alexandre Desplat to help the association along. And given that "The Queen" won both Best Actress and Best Screenplay on the Lido, opening a virtually unobstructed path to the Oscar for Mirren, that's an association "Philomena" is keen to foster.

Dench stars as the title character, an elderly Irish woman who travels to America in search of the son she gave up for adoption as a teenager, when she was forced into a convent. Steve Coogan, meanwhile, stars as Martin Sixsmith, the political journalist who assists Philomena in her quest. Coogan co-wrote the film, too, capping off a good year for the comedian: he received positive notices for his turn as 1970s porn baron in "The Look of Love," recently topped the UK box office with his NYFF-bound sitcom spinoff "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa," and also turned up aainst type in "What Maisie Knew." If "Philomena" really takes off as an awards vehicle for Dench, perhaps he could nab the odd mention as well -- especially with the BAFTA crowd.

Looking only as far ahead as Venice, meanwhile, it'll be interesting to see how the film, which appears to trade heavily in matters of Catholicism, plays with the Italian crowd. Advance word is that it's a small film, but an affecting one, with a gentle comic undertow throughout. Will it prove too slight for festival honors, or could Dench -- never before rewarded at a major festival -- take the Volpi Cup? We'll see. Frears has a reputation to recover after such recent misfires as "Lay the Favorite" and "Tamara Drewe," but Venice has been a happy hunting ground for him this century: in addition to "The Queen," "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Liam" were also warmly received in Competition. Finally, the presence of cinematographer Robbie Ryan ("Wuthering Heights," "Ginger and Rosa," "Fish Tank") is reason enough to see anything these days.

"Child of God," directed by James Franco: Another festival, another James Franco joint. Venice, however, is the first of the major festivals to go the whole hog and put one of the self-styled renaissance man's directorial efforts in Competition. Maybe, then, this will be the first one to justify festival programmers' ongoing fascination with him (or to persuade distributors to actually release it). Only three months ago, Franco's ambitious, fussy stab at filming William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" premiered at Cannes to middling reviews: it wasn't the embarrassment some poison-penned critics were hoping for, but it wasn't a success, either. Undaunted, he's hitting the Lido with another attempt at adapting a Great American Novelist: this time, Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God."

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