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Latest update : 2008-09-06

As the Venice Film Festival prepares to announce its winners on Saturday night, one of several late-running American entries seems likely to clinch the coveted Golden Lion. The 65th edition of the festival was criticised for its poor quality films.

The Venice film festival was set to announce its winners on Saturday with the buzz growing for late-running US entries following an uneven contest.

US director Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq nail-biter "The Hurt Locker" was tipped for the coveted Golden Lion, while top-notch performances by Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" and Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" put them in pole position for the top acting awards.

In "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow offers a literally explosive portrayal of the harrowing work of a bomb disposal team in Iraq.

Hathaway, who shot to stardom with her role in "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), plays a recovering drug addict who shakes up her sister's wedding with an overdose of honesty about their dysfunctional family.

For his part, Rourke stunned audiences at the Lido with his portrayal of a has-been professional wrestler pitifully loath to throw in the towel.

The gritty actor who abandoned the movies to become a boxer in the early 1990s said he drew on that real-life experience -- as well as regrets over an acting career that he says he "threw away" 15 years ago -- in "The Wrestler."

This year's 65th edition of the world's oldest movie festival, directed by Marco Mueller at the start of his second four-year term, had critics fuming over the quality of the films on offer.

Many panned the much-anticipated thriller by Iranian-born French director Barbet Schroeder, "Inju, the Beast in the Shadow," set in Japan, and a gangster movie set in Brazil, "Plastic City" by Hong Kong's Yu Lik-wai.

After the festival opened August 27 with the glam duo George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the out-of-competition comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen "Burn After Reading," most of the films in this year's line-up "seemed like plain porridge without sugar," in the words of Guardian film critic Andrew Pulver.

Mueller defended the 21 films before the jury headed by German director Wim Wenders, saying they were "the best that are out there."

While US films dominated the closing days of the festival, other standouts include Argentine-Italian director Marco Bechis' "BirdWatchers," exposing the plight of Brazil's Guarani Indians in the face of the biofuels boom, and "Teza," in which Ethiopia's Haile Gerima revisits his homeland under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Another potential winner is Russian director Aleksei German Jr.'s "Paper Soldier," a recreation of the Soviet effort to put the first man in space in 1961 -- Yuri Gagarin -- which centres on the cosmonaut squad's chief doctor.

Two Japanese films are also in with a chance -- Takeshi Kitano's whimsical "Achilles and the Tortoise" and Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated children's fantasy "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea."

"Ponyo" remains the sentimental favourite of a jury of ordinary moviegoers weighing in for the festival newsletter Ciak.

In a ceremony set to begin at 1700 GMT, a Golden Lion will be awarded for best film and a Silver Lion for best director.

Besides best actor and actress, there are awards for best screenplay and a jury prize.

Among the "collateral awards" will be the second annual Queer Lion for "the best movie with gay or lesbian, transsexual or queer elements in it," according to Marco Busato, one of the organisers.

The Italian film "Un Altro Pianeta" by Stefano Tummolini, in which the gay and straight worlds overlap on a beach, will pick up the honour this year, Busato told AFP.

Date created : 2008-09-06