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At Cannes, big stars and heavy subjects

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008

CANNES, France - Glitz and gloom are the yin and yang of the Cannes Film Festival. Here, it's possible within a few hours to see both a grueling film about the IRA's Bobby Sands starving himself to death in a British prison and Angelina Jolie, pregnant and resplendent in low-cut green evening wear, ascending the red-carpeted steps of the Palais des Festivals while paparazzi shriek and fans jam the streets. Out of this annual incongruity, bizarrely, often rises some of the best films of the year.

The stars - Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jack Black, and Dustin Hoffman - are here to launch the premiere of "Kung Fu Panda," an animated family film with their voices, that hits US theaters in June. In keeping with Cannes tradition (at least one absurd PR stunt per festival), Black and 40 kickboxers in panda suits jumped around the beach under the Croisette promenade yesterday morning. A massive "Kung Fu Panda" fireworks display lit up the coast last night. In a few days, the Spielberg mother ship will land and it will start all over again when the director and Harrison Ford arrive to show off "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Also on tap are new films from Woody Allen ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona," set in that city and starring Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz), Clint Eastwood ("Changeling," with Jolie again as a 1928 mom unsure whether her son is her son), Steven Soderbergh (a two-part biopic about Che Guevara), and "Synecdoche, New York," the first film directed by meta-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation").

Yet despite all the Hollywood (and off-Hollywood) firepower, the festival retains its status as the keeper of the flame of High Cinema. Most of the films screened here aren't from America, few of them have stars, and all of them are very, very serious. Which doesn't mean they can't play in America. On the contrary, Cannes can and has served as the starting gun for the Oscar race. Last year's buzz centered around two dark movies: The Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards, and Romania's "4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days" ended up on many year-end 10 best lists.

It's early yet, and Cannes 2008 hasn't turned out any instant must-sees on that order. Serious of purpose is the order of the festival: The jury for the main competition is headed by Sean Penn, who'll also present a documentary by Alison Thompson about rescue workers in Sri Lanka after the 2004 typhoon. Yet there's also a sense of taking stock after the strong lineups of previous years, of casting the stones and seeing which way they fall.

Until then, everyone's a little lost, like the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, who could be seen buttonholing security personnel in an effort to locate the theater showing his movie "Four Nights With Anna" ("Cztery Noce z Anna"). "I'm the director," he pleaded before he was shown the nearly hidden entrance to the Palais Stephanie cinema, where films in the Director's Fortnight series are screening.

The hype drums beat as strongly for some art films as for Hollywood filmmakers, and the opening night movie, "Blindness," by the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") was much awaited. As with many opening night movies, it was a disappointment - a heavy-handed treatment of an idea Rod Serling might have had fun with. The inhabitants of an anonymous city (and by extension the world) are stricken with a plague of blindness, and when the afflicted are quarantined by a panicky government, the new sub-society breaks down into chaos, crime, and madness.

The cast is strong - Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Julianne Moore as the one character who can see (another brave Moore performance, and a good one) - and the apocalyptic production design is superb, but the director never chooses a good idea when a more obvious one will do. Danny Glover serves as a minor character and narrator, and his opening lines are "I don't think we went blind; I think we always were." You pray "Blindness" will turn out to be more clever than that, to no avail.

The forecast here has been for clouds and rain, but the Croisette has been blessed with three days of blue skies and tropical sun. Instead, the gloom has been inside and on the screen, as one film after another describes the awful things man does to his fellow man. Luckily, some of the movies are very good. "Waltz With Bashir," from the talented Israeli director Ari Folman, confronts his country's complicity in the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon; what makes the film unusual is that it's animated, much like the recent "Chicago 10" and "Persepolis" (whose creator, Marjane Satrapi, is serving on the festival jury with Penn).

Using a mixture of traditional drawing and awkward Flash animation, Folman brings to life the memories of his fellow conscripts in the Israeli Army at the time of the massacre; they didn't partake (Lebanese Christian Phalangists did the killing) but they were nearby and could have stopped it. "Bashir" is about memory and the bonds between men, but it's mostly about how close you can get to atrocity before you have to claim it as your own.

Perhaps the strongest festival entry during these early days has been "Hunger," by the British artist Steve McQueen (no relation). Set within the walls of the government's Maze prison during the early 1980s, it flits around between guards and inmates before settling upon Bobby Sands, played in a physically astonishing performance by Michael Fassbender.

The IRA soldier, fed up with being a pawn in the game between "the leaders" and Margaret Thatcher (heard but never seen), decides to go on hunger strike; the heart of the film is a brilliantly conceived scene between Sands and a priest, shot in one long take, as they argue over the morality of what he's about to do. "Hunger" makes a case for Sands without making him a martyr, a thin line that director McQueen dances along with grim finesse. The film's good enough that it was impossible to go out for a bite afterward without feeling really guilty.

As always, new directors arrive while last year's new directors get a second, more jaundiced look. The Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan landed big with "Climates" in 2006, but his latest movie, "Three Monkeys" ("Üc Maymun") fell with a shrug. It's not bad, just muted to a fault, with huge passions that are daubed on the film's canvas with overly minimalist strokes.

Ceylan will be back in future years, of course, and he'll return to form. The great wheel of international cinema karma always comes around. Glimpsed walking down the Croisette shortly after Jolie and Pitt had gone up the red carpet Thursday night was a Hare Krishna clasping a gold Buddha and a tattered panda doll. That may be the best metaphor for Cannes of all: suffering and earthly reward in one dazed package.

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