Cannes: The lineup blends the playful and provocative

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For his first year as the Festival de Cannes' official delegate general, Thierry Fremaux is repeating the something-old, something-new approach -- veteran auteurs mixed with fresh blood -- that worked like a charm at last year's event.

Cannes 2008 can't hope to match the sheer star power and razzle-dazzle of last year's 60th anniversary blowout -- though Stephen Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and Dreamworks' animated "Kung Fu Panda" should provide some Hollywood flash -- but a look at the In Competition lineup suggests Fremaux has got the balance right between newcomers and established names.

Clint Eastwood's 1920s kidnapping thriller "Changeling" and Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour Ernesto Guevara epic, "Che," are this year's 800-pound gorillas -- or perhaps, guerrillas: the early-bet front-runners for the Palme d'Or. But Soderbergh's marathon movie, which combines his two Che biopics, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," could test the limits of the jury's patience and bladders. Both Eastwood and Soderbergh are rushing to finish their films in time for Cannes, leading to the inevitable speculation that what screens on the Croisette might be a first draft.

Another Cannes regular with a strong shot at the top prize is Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose detective tale "Uc Maymun" marks a stylistic departure from his previous, more cerebral work. "The Palermo Shooting," the latest from German cine-statesman Wim Wenders, also adds a genre touch to his auteur palette with his romantic thriller about a photographer, played by German punk rocker Campino, on the run in Europe.

Given the political uproar surrounding the Beijing Olympics and unrest in Tibet, the one Chinese entry, "24 City," from established sixth-generation veteran Jia Zhangke, is certain to attract plenty of attention and plenty of copy. Although Jia's tale of the relocation of factory workers in southern China is not as overtly regime-critical as Ye Lou's Tiananmen Square drama "Summer Palace" (2006), the "Will they ban it?" question will hang over the film.

Much of the prefestival buzz surrounds new films from established names: "Linha de passe," from 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries" director Walter Salles (with Daniela Thomas); "Le silence de Lorna," from two-time Palme d'Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; and "Adoration," from Canada's Atom Egoyan. But lesser-known directors may have the upper hand this year.

Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" -- an animated documentary about the director's experiences during the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war -- will be one of this festival's hottest tickets. It is also a dark horse candidate for the Palme d'Or. Another is certain to be "Synecdoche, New York," the debut film from screenwriting superstar Charlie Kaufman (2002's "Adaptation," 1999's "Being John Malkovich"). Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director trying to create a replica of New York City in a huge warehouse, the film promises large dollops of Kaufman's trademark postmodernism.

Other newcomers to the Cannes premiere league include Singapore's Eric Khoo, whose Tamil-language "My Magic" focuses on body piercing; Hungary's Kornel Mundruczo, a Cannes first-timer with his incest-themed drama "Delta"; and Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, whose "Foster Child" screened in the Directors' Fortnight in 2007 and who is back this year In Competition with "Serbis."

Although the Korean film business is on the ropes boxoffice-wise, Cannes has still managed to find slots for two Korean titles generating major buzz. The first is "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," a Western set in 1930s Manchuria from Kim Ji-woon, which screens Out of Competition. The second, "The Chaser," from director Na Hong-jin, is a serial killer drama already being billed as the next "Oldboy" (2003). The remake rights for the film, which is certain to pack them in for its midnight screening, have already been snapped up by Warner Bros.

Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra," an adaptation of the best-selling mafia expose from journo-in-hiding Roberto Saviano, headlines an especially strong showing from Italy this year. Also In Competition is Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo," about shady former prime minister Giulio Andreotti. And Marco Tullio Giordana's "Sangue pazzo," a look at a famous Italian acting couple during the Mussolini era, will show in a Special Screening. The focus on Italy's turbulent political and criminal history is perhaps no surprise as the country prepares for the third reign of controversial media baron Silvio Berlusconi.

Lovers of French cinema have complained that the 2008 lineup is sadly lacking in local talent. Having three French films -- including Arnaud Desplechin's Catherine Deneuve starrer "Un conte de Noel" and Philippe Garrel's "La frontiere de l'aube" -- is considered the absolute baseline for Le Grand Nation.

But Fremaux's determination to track emerging cinema talent has wisely taken him outside his home territory. And let's face it: The movies of the moment habla espanol more than they parle francais. In addition to Soderbergh's Spanish-lingo "Che," Cannes has selected two Argentine dramas for Competition: Lucrecia Martel's psychological drama "La mujer sin cabeza" and Pablo Trapero's "Leonera," set in a women's prison. Even Woody Allen's Out of Competition comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," with its Catalan setting and co-stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, is a nod to Spain's increasing importance to world cinema.

Unfortunately for fans, this year Cannes will have to go without its favorite Spaniard. Pedro Almodovar won't start shooting his latest, "Broken Embraces," until early May.

As any Cannes regular knows, the real breakout titles are often found hiding in the festival sidebars.

Un Certain Regard this year boasts an impressive list of art house vets. Highlights include the three-part fantasy omnibus "Tokyo!" featuring the directing trio of Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho and Leos Carax; "Wolke 9," a drama about senior citizen sex from German auteur Andreas Dresen; and "Soi Cowboy," from Britain's enfant terrible Thomas Clay (2005's "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael").

Standout titles in the Directors' Fortnight section include Bertrand Bonello's "On War," starring Mathieu Amalric and Asia Argento; "Four Nights With Anna," a claustrophobic drama from Polish directing legend Jerzy Skolimowski; and the Romanian drama "Boogie" from up-and-comer Radu Muntean (2006's "The Paper Will Be Blue").

The 2008 Critics Week selection offers up a typical art house melange of first and second features, including the debut "Better Things," from Britain's Duane Hopkins, which zooms in on the sex and drugs scene in rural England, and "The Stranger in Me," from Emily Atef, about a young woman thrown into emotional turmoil after her daughter's birth. Fernando Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," the discovery of this year's Berlinale, will also get a screening at Cannes.

Finally, for those looking for relief from both auteur angst and Hollywood glamour, there are new documentaries on two of sports' most dramatic train wrecks: "Maradona," a portrait of the infamous Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona by Emir Kusturica, and James Toback's "Tyson," which looks at the heavyweight-champion-turned-ear-biting-professional-wrestling-jailbird.

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