Cannes 2004 tries to put the `Bunny’ hop behind it

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Can Cannes bounce back from "The Brown Bunny"? Or will Michael Moore's already controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" dominate the international movie showcase, which begins again Wednesday on the southern coast of France? Last year's Cannes Film Festival -- which I personally enjoyed -- was dubiously described by some American journalists as the worst in Cannes history, perhaps as part of the anti-French fallout that hit the American press after the U.S. invasion in Iraq. This year's, the second under Thierry Fremaux (who succeeded longtime fest head Gilles Jacob last year) obviously has something to prove.

Last year's disappointments were symbolized for some by the widely damned screening of Vincent Gallo's exhibitionistic indie "The Brown Bunny," which many called self-indulgent and pornographic. But this year's festival, the 57th, might see the fuss around Moore's movie as the least of its problems.

The labor turbulence promised by France's striking showbiz workers -- which already made a low-tech mess of last April's Moliere theater awards ceremony -- could render the whole point moot by paralyzing part of the show.It should be a stimulating festival in any case. Cannes, even at its supposed worst, always boasts a strong lineup, with enticing new films, great revivals and lots of the international movie world's biggest names floating around. Despite the various flaps, Cannes 2004 should be no exception.

Supposedly, last year's fest ignored Hollywood. This one doesn't. American bad boy auteur Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") has been picked to head this year's main Palme d'Or jury and one of Tarantino's favorite actors, Tim Roth (Mr. Orange of "Reservoir Dogs") chairs the Camera d'Or jury, which picks the best first film. (The other jury president, for short films, is Russia's Nikita "Dark Eyes" Mikhalkov.)

Scheduled to attend the fest and walk the fabled beachside Cannes promenade, the Croisette, is a raft of Hollywood stars that includes Tarantino muse Uma Thurman, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Ashley Judd, Kevin Kline, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emily Watson and John Leguizamo. Foreign acting luminaries here will include Sweden's Max von Sydow (scheduled to teach a movie acting master class), Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung, China's Zhang Ziyi and Spain's Gael Garcia Bernal.

And Cannes 2004 will bring exactly the kind of big American blockbuster or crowd-pleasing indie critics said was under represented last year, when Gus Van Sant's experimental Columbine-inspired "Elephant" (largely ignored in the States) took the Palme d'Or, over "Mystic River," from President Patrice Chereau's jury.

Big-time competition
Competing for the top prize in 2004 will be the Coen brothers' dark murder-comedy "The Ladykillers" (with Hanks), DreamWorks' reverse-fairy tale sequel "Shrek 2" (written and directed by Andrew Adamson, Leslie Asbury and Conrad Vernon) and Moore's hotly controversial, allegedly Bush-bashing documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."

If Moore wins a major prize, and he might -- the "Bowling for Columbine" award-winner received one of the longest ovations in Cannes history two years ago -- the controversy will heat up even more. His movie, which Disney's Miramax division was prohibited from releasing, was bought by British distributor Optimum Releasing and will open in that country.

There will be special out-of-competition or sidebar screenings of "Troy," "Bad Santa," "Dawn of the Dead" and "De-Lovely" -- and, as you'd expect, Tarantino's and Thurman's "Kill Bill, Vol. 2."

Alongside the U.S. triumvirate competing for 2004's top prize, the Palme d'Or, is the usual stellar multi national lineup: new movies by Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai ("2046"), France's Olivier Assayas ("Clean"), Brazil's Walter Salles ("Motorcycle Diaries") Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda ("Nobody Knows") and the old Yugoslavia's Emir Kusturica ("Life Is a Miracle").

Except for the "Shrek" bunch (who were in competition at Cannes in 2001 with the first "Shrek," ), most of the above are previous prizewinners. All seem to have a decent shot this year. But the Yank entries can't be hurt by the fact that Tarantino heads the jury; when Tarantino won the Palme d'Or, back in 1994 for "Pulp Fiction," the jury was headed by fellow American Clint Eastwood.

Besides "Kill Bill, Vol. 2," the out-of-competition major screenings will include, on opening night, the new movie by Spain's perverse melodramatist Pedro Almodovar ("Bad Education") and, as the closer, another high-profile U.S. film, Irwin Winkler's "De-Lovely" -- an uncloseted musical bio of the great gay pop composer Cole Porter ("Let's Do It" and "Too Dark Hot"), starring Kline.

Newcomers and mainstays
In between, there will be a number of newcomers (11 first-time filmmakers among official selections this year), plus the usual festival mainstays: Iran's austere poet Abbas Kiarostami (showing two films, "Five" and "10 on Ten"), China's Zhang Yimou (with a martial arts epic called "House of Flying Daggers"), Senegal's 83-year-old master of both film and novel Ousmane Sembene ("Moolaade"), Egypt's outspoken populist Youssef Chahine ("Alexandria … New York") , the legendary 91-year-old Italian genius Michelangelo Antonioni (with a revival of the 1966 classic "Blowup" and a new short called "The Gaze of Michelangelo" ) and, finally, the patron saint of all cinematic dissidents and rebels, France's Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard ("Breathless") will be represented by both a new film, "Notre Musique," and "JLG," an elaborate audiovisual presentation in the fest's sumptuous headquarters, the Palais du Cinema.

Unaccountably absent is any mention of "Sarabande," the latest and probably last work of the great Swedish director-writer Ingmar Bergman (now 85): a film I've seen and consider a masterwork.

But just as provocative, especially to true cinephiles, is this year's healthy bill of restorations and revivals. Scheduled to run on the classics programs are "Blowup," the three Buster Keaton silent comedy classics, "The General," "College" and "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket" (from France), Carl Dreyer's "Ordet" (Denmark), Milos Forman's "Hair" (U.S.), Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers" (France-Italy), Tony Richardson's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (England) and "40 years of Cinema Novo," a seven-film Brazilian retrospective including Nelson Pereira Dos Santos' "Barren Lives," Glauber Rocha's "Black God, White Devil" and Carlos Diegues' "Bye Bye Brazil."

Most exciting of all is the world premiere of the director's cut of Sam Fuller's 1980 "The Big Red One," the super-tough, semi-autobiographical World War II movie, starring Lee Marvin, to which 40 minutes have been restored.

Last year's Cannes, I think, got a bad rap, partly because of a genuinely weaker-than-usual lineup of films. This year should be different. You can't accuse Fremaux and his staff of slighting or ignoring American films; neither have they ignored the rest of the world. And that, as always, is the strength of Cannes, queen of the world's film festivals.

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