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Paris Does Cannes

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Paris Hilton, Sharon Stone and Star Wars storm troopers (dressed in gleaming, clanking white plastic armor) all mingled through packed photo calls at the Cannes International Film Festival this weekend, bringing to mind the old Sesame Street song lyric: “One of these things is not like the others…”

The one common thread that brought the disparate group together: They were all hyping upcoming projects. Hilton was here to promote Pledge This!, a yet-to-be-released campus comedy that’s her follow-up to House of Wax. Ditto Sharon Stone, who is finally going to star in the long-delayed Basic Instinct II: Risk Addiction. The Star Wars soldiers, who lined up on the red carpet leading to the Grand Palais, the massive movie multiplex where films unspool during the festival, were trumpeting Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, the final film in George Lucas’s six-part series. The movie screened to cheers on Sunday and was one of the hardest-to-score tickets at the festival.

Wacky celebrity-spotting aside, there is a sense that now, six days into the festival, Cannes is hitting its stride cinematically. The movies that screened in competition the first several days generally were met with unenthusiastic receptions. Director Gus Van Sant’s Last Days proved an inert look at the final days of a Kurt Cobain-like rocker (played by, Michael Pitt, who mumbles unintelligibly throughout the movie. If not for the French subtitles, viewers would’ve had no idea what he was saying). Also in the dud column was Where the Truth Lies, a drama looking at the seamy underbelly of show business that stars Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth. It was marred by the disastrous miscasting of Alison Lohman, who seemed too young and insipid for her role as a ruthless reporter digging into a musty show-biz scandal.

Sharon Stone
The reason things are looking up is the official premiere Monday of A History of Violence, a crime thriller by director David Cronenberg (1996’s Crash) that had viewers at the press screening cheering enthusiastically. The movie stars Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as a happily married couple in a small Indiana town whose lives are turned upside down after he shoots a couple of nasty criminals when they try to rob a diner Mortensen runs. It soon turns out Mortensen may have a more interesting background than his wife, or anyone else in town, knew. The movie, based on a graphic novel, is hard-boiled, often funny, extremely violent, sexy and always compelling. A History of Violence will open in U.S. theaters on Sept. 30. Watch for it.

A trio of smaller films with American settings are also getting talked about. They are:
Factotum, a comedic drama based on writer Charles Bukowski and the dozens of dead-end jobs (janitor, pickle factory assembly line worker, ice deliveryman) he held to support his writing, gambling and womanizing. Matt Dillon gives a swell performance in the leading role.

Down in the Valley, an ambitious drama about a troubled, self-styled contemporary cowpoke (a sensational Edward Norton) who rides horses alongside the freeways of the Valley in L.A. His romance with a teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood) leads to tragedy. There’s much to chew on here.

The King, a dark, not always successful drama about a possibly pathological fellow named Elvis (Gaél Garcia Bernal) who insinuates himself into the family of his long-lost father (William Hurt), now a born-again pastor in Texas.

These, of course, are the prestige entries at Cannes. The mainstays here are the films being sold to distributors in the marketplace, which include hundreds of martial-arts epics, horror movies and silly sex comedies that’ll never make it stateside. Typical title: A Fistful of Zombies.

Natalie Portman
Earlier: May 12
Cannes: May ‘Le Force’ Be with You
The Force is with this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. The final installation in George Lucas’s Star Wars epic, which opens in the States on May 19, is the must-see screening of the famous film fest.

All will be clamoring for a first look at Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, starring Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, when it shows on Sunday. But even more in demand: an invitation to the glamorous Star Wars fete to be held aboard the luxury ocean liner Queen Mary 2, which is anchored off Cannes’ yacht-filled harbor. During the party, Lucas will be honored with Cannes’ “Trophy of the Festival.”

But movies are only half the story at Cannes. There are also the celebrity appearances (witness Scarlett Johansson, who’s here promoting Match Point, the latest Woody Allen flick), parties galore and, of course, silly publicity stunts. On Thursday morning, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Kiera Chaplin, was scheduled to ride down the festival’s main drag on a horse to hype her starring role in Lady Godiva – Back in the Saddle. (Local police halted the stunt before it could happen.)

Also in town to show their latest offerings: directors Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch, Atom Egoyan and Wim Wenders. Making his debut as a big-screen director is actor Tommy Lee Jones, with a drama set in his native Texas called The Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada, in which he also appears.

Scarlett Johansson
Meanwhile, the dollar is down, which means Americans at the festival are suffering from Euro shock. The fancy-pants hotels have held the line on their exorbitant prices ($800 a night for a room is cheap), and eating even a single meal at a mediocre restaurant can empty a well-padded bank account. Heck, even a take-out cup of tea – the same cup that’ll set you back $1 in New York – costs $2.50 in Cannes.

In addition to the bold-faced names crawling all over town, 4,000 journalists received credentials to cover the festival, ranging from critics for such major dailies as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to reporters for tiny Web sites based in newly independent Eastern European republics. And they all want to see the same movies – which is probably why screenings of the films with the most buzz are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. (If you really want to see it, you ll get up.)

Still, the press screenings are often filled to capacity, which is fine – except for the practices of some Europeans when it comes to hygiene. Take it from me, there’s nothing worse than finding yourself at an early morning screening seated next to a continental gentleman who clearly doesn’t believe in the efficacy of a daily shower and who has already worked his way through that first pack of cigarettes by 8 a.m.