VENICE MAKES ITS ANNUAL SPLASH

The 75th annual Venice Film Festival is scheduled to open today (Wednesday) with a screening of Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Reporters attending the festival have expressed high regard for the festival's selections this year. They include the controversial Ang Lee drama, Lust, Caution, which was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA last week because of its sexual content. Focus Features, which is releasing the movie on September 28, has said that it will not contest the rating -- often regarded as a mark of death, since many newspapers refuse to carry ads for films bearing the rating and many theater chains and individual theaters refuse to show them. However, raising a bigger to-do in Venice has been the decision of the festival organizers to note that the film was made in "Taiwan, China." The government of Taiwan -- often referred to as Nationalist China -- has complained that the designation makes it appear as if Taiwan is ruled by the mainland government -- often referred to as Communist China.

OLIVER STONE'S PLANNED FILM ON IRANIAN LEADER MAY BE A GO

Director Oliver Stone's planned film about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be back on track after the Iranian leader announced on Tuesday that he had "no objection, generally speaking," to the production, "but they have to let me know what are the frameworks." Ahmadinejad's declaration came only weeks after his media adviser rejected Stone's proposal for a documentary, saying that while he recognizes that the American director is "part of the opposition" to the current U.S. government, "opposition in the U.S. is a part of the great satan." Stone responded at the time, "I have been called a lot of things, but never a great satan. I wish the Iranian people well, and only hope their experience with an inept, rigid ideologue president goes better than ours."

MOVIE REVIEWS: BALLS OF FURY

Roger Ebert appears to be getting back into full swing. reviewing not only "important" movies as he has done in the recent past during his year-long recovery from surgery, but also trivial ones as well. Indeed, his latest review, for Balls of Fury, which opens today (Wednesday) is as much a paean to the triviality of ping-pong, which the movie is about, as it is a review of the movie itself. Since playing it in summer camp as a youth, "I have never lost all affection for the sport," he writes, "and am careful to play it at least once every decade." In his review, Ebert also ruminates on performers he has seen in the past using paddles that have balls attached to them with rubber bands; Christopher Walken's appearance in the movie as an Asian; the genius of combining ping-pong and kung fu in a single package; and the special effects used to create the lightning-fast ping-pong contest in the movie. He has little to say about the merits of the film itself, except to resurrect a line he used in his review of Rush Hour 3: "If you're watching [it], you obviously didn't have anything better to do, anyway." But A.O. Scott in the New York Times concludes his review this way: "The movie seems to exist mainly so that some critic might say: If you see just one table tennis martial arts parody this year, make it Balls of Fury. I'm afraid I can't go that far." But Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times does not regard the film in similar good humor, remarking dyspeptically that it's "a lifeless ping-pong comedy that ricochets from one flat gag to the next." On the other hand, Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News clearly esteems the film for all that it is worth (which may not be much). She writes: "If it's not quite the best Will Ferrell movie he never made, Balls of Fury is, at the very least, a lot funnier than it has a right to be. It stars a complete unknown, features cheerfully cheesy effects, and relies on so many hit-to-the-groin jokes, the title should probably have the word 'steel' in it."

THUMBS A TRADEMARK? PING-PONG, TOO?

Roger Ebert, who is in a contract dispute with Disney and claims to have trademarked the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" signs, includes the following note at the end of his review of Balls of Fury, the comedy about a ping-pong tournament: "'Ping-Pong' is a registered trademark of Parker Bros., a subsidiary of Hasbro." No other review of the movie carries that disclosure.

Brian B.