At Cannes, sun, stars, but little glow

It's the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. So why is this year's lineup so uninspiring?

Summer always seems to arrive earlier on France's Côte d'Azur than anywhere else. But the sunny atmosphere on this small resort town's perpetually choked beachside thoroughfare isn't necessarily translating into a bright and promising competition program.

In the weeks before the annual mid-May event – the world's undisputed champ among film festivals – Cannes regulars had been hoping that 2007 would be something special. After all, the Festival de Cannes is celebrating its 60th anniversary, with an even greater level of fanfare than typically circulates around the film world's busiest and most anticipated 12-day stretch of the year.

However, as of press time, which roughly corresponds with the festival's midpoint, a sinking feeling is taking over that the Big Six-O isn't being marked by the kind of first-rate films worthy of the occasion.

Things began promisingly enough with the European unveiling of David Fincher's magnificently realized procedural thriller about information overload and obsessions, "Zodiac," along with Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's widely admired "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which intensively observes two young women dealing with an abortion during the death throes of the country's Communist era.

It's a measure of the overall weakness of the field that, several days after its première, Mungiu's film remains hotly discussed as a Palme d'Or (or Golden Palm for best film) candidate.

This chatter has also included two other strongly touted American entries, making 2007 a notably strong year for the US in Cannes: Gus Van Sant's superbly realized "Paranoid Park," depicted from the point of a view of a skateboarding Portland, Ore., teen dealing with the aftermath of an accidental killing, and the Coen Brothers' popular version of Cormac McCarthy's novel, "No Country for Old Men."

But like one dud wave after another rolling into shore – a condition, truth be told, that's typical of the placid French Mediterranean coast – several other bidders for this year's Palm have proven disappointing, or baffling, or both.

The only real mystery involving Raphael Nadjani's "Psalms," an Israeli drama about the disappearance of an Orthodox Jewish father that suffers from having a terrific premise and no follow-through, was why it was in the competition at all. Other entries that have met with a collective shrug (or worse) are prolific and always controversial Korean director Kim Ki-duk's "Breath" and Christophe Honore – not exactly upholding the beloved French tradition of the "chanson" musical form with "Les chansons d'amour."

That's not to say that there isn't some fascinating and thought-provoking work on display. Audacious Mexican director Carlos Reygadas has triggered many a conversation with his latest, "Silent Light," a visually and metaphysically stunning work about the little-known Mennonite farming community in northern Mexico.

Michael Moore returned to Cannes with his most thoroughly assured, crafted, and – horrors! – journalistic documentary "Sicko," which convincingly argues that America needs and deserves a vastly better healthcare plan than today's privatized system.

Faced with potential legal action by the US Treasury Department for transporting American citizens to Cuba, Moore noted at a press conference that he was far more concerned that he has "seen no candidate for President call for removing profit from the healthcare system," than being fined or arrested.

Moore amusingly compares the US system with that of, among other countries, France – whose generous medical care is on display in Julian Schnabel's visually interesting but otherwise standard "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," involving a fashion magazine editor (French star Mathieu Almaric, a frequent face on Cannes screens this year) suffering and striving to recover from a debilitating stroke by writing his autobiography with help from therapists.

Biopics and true-life tales fill the festival's lineup, ranging from Marjane Satrapi's uneven "Persepolis," an animated adaptation of her autobiographical graphic novel series about growing up in Iran under the Islamic revolution; Michael Winterbottom's potent, involving account of the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, "A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie in her richest performance in several years; to Spiros Stathoulopoulos's "PVC-1," based on the case of another actual, bizarre terrorist act.

Even "Zodiac" belongs in this group, since the film is based on the book by Robert Graysmith (a leading character in the film played by Jake Gyllenhaal).

Outside the doors of the festival's huge complex, the Palais, teeming crowds hunt for tickets to screenings, which aren't open to the public at large.

They usually fail in their efforts, but they were in for a weekend treat when U2 performed live on the Palais's red carpet in advance of the premiere of a short version of "U2-3D," a concert film slated to open later this summer.

The mob scene around the red carpet can be so extreme that it seems as if many hundreds of folks actually live there for the better part of two weeks to catch glimpses of everyone from Brangelina to a roster of previous Palm winners invited for the 60th birthday bash, including the world's oldest active filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira, who beats Cannes in the age department by 38 years.

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