Check out Jeremy’s previous reports as he braves the 2004 Cannes Film Festival>>>

From the balcony of the Palais de Festival at the Cannes Film Festival, French union chants and speeches are often audible. The self-employed actors and technicians are protesting cuts in their unemployment benefits, and police vans can be found parked up small side streets that lead to the Croisette. However, none of the turbulent moments from the festival’s history are reoccurring, as films continue to screen despite the peaceful hubbub outside—the strikers were placated with a walk down the red carpet and expressions of solidarity from some filmmakers, although they’re still fighting the fight.

So far, the films themselves have been significantly better than they were up to this point last year, although that could just mean this next week is going to be a rough patch of mediocrity. Six well-made films have screened in competition, spanning in style from existential Korean drama to computer-animated Hollywood comedy.

“Shrek 2” is a delightful, unforced sequel to the great original film, which also played in competition in Cannes three years ago. That film marked an impressive leap in computer animation, and so does this one, as the textures are even more detailed and movement even more thoroughly created.

This is a true example of artistry in animation. I often wished that scenes would last longer, just to get a better look at the brilliantly and cleverly designed sets, which satirize everything from seedy bars and “Cops” to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and corporate development in the kingdom of Far, Far Away.

John Cleese and Julie Andrews voice the King and Queen of Far Far Away, the parents of Princess Fiona, who expect their daughter (Cameron Diaz) to return home as a beautiful storybook princess now relieved of her curse as a part-time ogre, with husband Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) by her side. However, she’s now a full-time ogre and married to the belching, not-at-all princely Shrek (Mike Myers). Of course, there’s a standard bit of “Meet the Parents”-style comedy as the royals are dreadfully embarrassed and disappointed. The comedy, however, maintains the quality of the first film. Andrew Adamson and his co-writers and co-directors come up with a host of clever new material when a lesser sequel would have just relived the the old film’s good moments.

Antonio Banderas joins the cast as Puss-in-Boots, a cat who wishes he were Zorro and decides to aid Shrek, encroaching on the territory of Eddie Murphy’s hilarious talking Donkey.

In addition to the festival’s official entries in and out of competition, three sidebar selections, the festival’s own Un Certain Regard and the independently programmed but affiliated Director’s Fortnight and International Critic’s Week, usually offer some appealing alternatives.

Un Certain Regard got off to a rough opening, but has since unveiled some notable works. The opening night selection on Thursday, “Welcome to Switzerland,” was an attempt to lighten the generally serious tone of the festival’s films with a frothy comedy. A great plan…too bad the film’s not funny.

Writer/director Léa Fazer attempts to illustrate the differences between French and Swiss culture through the story of a Swiss immigrant in France (Denis Podalydes) who has to return to his homeland for his mother’s funeral and to claim his inheritance from old stereotypical Swiss men. The resulting mediocre story is stunted and the plot developments contrived. If the pace had been doubled, the comedy could have reached a zany level of cleverness, but instead it plods along, leaving too much time to think about how idiotic all the characters are.

Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaadé” took on a much more serious topic with more success. It looks honestly at the current practices of female circumcision, aka genital mutilation, in Africa as two traditional beliefs clash with each other while modern thinking enters the town.

As the film opens, a woman named Collé harbors four of six children who have run away from home to
avoid “purification,” or being “cut,” and places a protective spell called a Moolaadé around her house. As long as the children don’t leave the courtyard, the priestesses can’t come in and take the children because the Moolaadé protects them. They can’t betray this belief, but the priestesses and men in charge of the town believe that Islam decrees women must be circumcised, and call off the marriage of Collé’s uncircumcised daughter, Amsatou, in retaliation.

The women are more conscious now because radios have made them aware of progress in the outside world. The traditionalists fear this change, and are willing to resort to violent measures to maintain their way of life. Collé, however, lost two children while giving birth because of the procedure, and will not submit to the males’ authority.

Sembene uses his usual observational style to paint a portrait of a changing traditional town that has yet to decipher between old and new.

In Director’s Fortnight, Jacob Aaron Estes’s “Mean Creek” offers sharp insight into teenage behavior as small junior high student Sam (Rory Culkin) plots with his brother Rocky and his friends to get revenge on a bully who beat him up. They invite the lonely brute on a boating trip with plans to humiliate him. Sam’s would-be girlfriend, Millie (Carly Shroeder), comes as well, unaware of the plan.

Estes observes his young characters as they make the kind of cruel jokes that come from insecurity and a desire not to be the ones receiving the cruel remarks. The trip is doubtlessly doomed, but all of the characters have multiple dimensions, especially as the learning-disabled bully shows that his beatings come more from a quest for attention than vindictive planning.

Each young cast member handles his or her character with mature depth, but Scott Mechlowicz, who didn’t make much of an impression on me in “Eurotrip,” delivers an emotional performance as Rocky’s friend Marty, who is the cruelest member of the group of friends, due in part to a tragic family life. Estes realizes that everyone is a bit more sympathetic when you take the time to try to understand them.
Keep checking back for more 2004 Cannes Film Festival coverage. Until then, let’s hear some Back Talk>>>

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