A Few Gems Shine in Cannes Lineup

The 50th anniversary of the premier filmfest fields a surprisingly weak pool of candidates

It was an irony huge enough to suit the milestone 50th anniversary of the world's most important film event.

Just when the programmers of the Cannes International Film Festival wanted the greatest lineup of earthshaking masterpieces they could muster, a spate of lackluster moviemaking provided a surprisingly weak field of candidates to choose from. The result was 10 days of cinema ranging from intermittently good to frequently bad and occasionally downright ugly.

True, there was plenty of half-century hoopla to divert audiences from the mediocre screen fare. But even the glitz and glitter were less rousing than predicted.

Clint Eastwood, expected to preside over the screening of his "Absolute Power" on closing night, was a no-show. Terry Gilliam turned down a perch on the festival's jury to start production on his latest picture. Ingmar Bergman, honored with a super-version of Cannes's coveted Golden Palm award, stayed in Sweden and sent a thank-you note to the 50th-birthday ceremony.

Some movie years are obviously better than others, and programmers have to work with the materials at hand. It's just a wry coincidence that several respected figures - Germany's Wim Wenders, Italy's Francesco Rosi, and France's Matthieu Kassovitz, to name a few - turned out minor works just as Cannes was gearing up for something special.

As for the celebrities who stayed home, who knows what fascinating pleasures they're cooking up for next year's viewing, when comebacks could be the order of the day?

It's also important to note that the lineup did provide a reasonable number of successes - good news for moviegoers, since local theaters will be directly influenced by the way pictures were received here.

As in the festival's first half, the films of the last few days fared best when they avoided extravagant effects ("The Fifth Element") and pretentious philosophizing ("The End of Violence") and focused on down-to-earth subjects like home and family.

One certain to impress American audiences is "The Ice Storm," starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver as 1970s suburbanites raising their children amid moral upheavals ranging from Nixon-era political corruption to the spouse-swapping adultery that's become fashionable in their Connecticut town.

Directed by Ang Lee, whose previous picture was "Sense and Sensibility," the film details moral and ethical lapses without making them look attractive. Its sexually precocious adolescents "always seem so clumsy and uncomfortable," as 17-year-old actress Christina Ricci put it over lunch after the movie's first screening. Weaver concurred, noting that she wouldn't raise her own children in such a community because it would shelter them from "the real world" with its pressing ethical demands.

Small-town life also figured in one of the festival's best movies, "The Sweet Hereafter," starring Ian Holm as a middle-aged attorney organizing lawsuits in a rural community shattered by a tragic school-bus accident. Using the folk tale of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" as a metaphor, the story shows how anger and disillusionment can bend people's lives sadly out of shape, and how hope can arise even when a situation seems beyond redemption. The picture was written and directed by Atom Egoyan, an extraordinary Canadian filmmaker whose talent grows deeper and deeper with the passing years.

"She's So Lovely" was directed by Nick Cassavetes from a screenplay by his late father, John Cassavetes, a Hollywood maverick whose stories often focused on families sent reeling by emotional excesses. The picture stars Sean Penn as a mentally unstable man, Robin Wright Penn as the wife who loves him despite his craziness, and John Travolta as the man she marries when her first husband is institutionalized.

The tale is less somber and more exuberant than it sounds, although it lacks the unpredictability the elder Cassavetes would have given it. Speaking to the press, Nick Cassavetes said he'd removed parts of his father's screenplay that he didn't understand - and those rich, mysterious layers of human experience are exactly what the movie might have profited from most. Still, its big-name cast will give it a strong shot at success on American screens.

Several other English-speaking pictures also sparked discussion and excitement here. "In the Company of Men," by newcomer Neil Labute, tells the provocative story of two despicable yuppies who injure the feelings of a randomly chosen woman as revenge for the way feminism has (in their warped view) turned guys like them into victims.

The very different "Mrs Brown," a splendid example of "Masterpiece Theatre" filmmaking, colorfully explores the relationship between Queen Victoria and an eccentric Scotsman who became her confidant after her husband's death. Judi Dench is regal and vulnerable as the monarch, and Billy Connolly is perfect as her bushy-bearded friend.

And then there was "L.A. Confidential," eagerly awaited by critics who hoped for a walloping dose of Hollywood entertainment from director Curtis Hanson, who counts knuckleheaded thrillers like "The River Wild" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" among his popular credits.

His new picture is a competently made yarn with a convoluted story and an impressive number of high-speed action and suspense sequences, dashingly executed by the marvellous Kevin Spacey and the glamorous Kim Basinger.

Beneath its slickly directed surface, the film has serious moral problems. The plot centers on a young cop who thinks he can fight crime without bending society's rules, and the movie approves (maybe even gloats) when he finally decides that "getting results" and "ensuring justice" are more important than obeying the law. Also distressing is the movie's habit of showing every female and racial-minority character as a criminal, a coward, or some other sort of lowlife trash.

This notwithstanding, "L.A. Confidential" earned cheers here, and Warner Bros. will use that momentum to launch it in American theaters. All of which proves once again that at Cannes, the art of entertainment is at least as important as the art of cinema.

* Cannes movies with announced opening dates in American theaters include 'Mrs Brown,' July 11; 'In the Company of Men,' Aug. 8; 'She's So Lovely,' Aug. 15; and 'L.A. Confidential,' Aug. 22. 'The Ice Storm' and 'The Sweet Hereafter' are expected to open this fall.

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