At the annual movie-industry convention, Natalie Portman engages in monkey business, Hugh Jackman talks ''Wolverine,'' and more
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Credit: Natalie Portman: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com

Wondering how Natalie Portman spent the eve of V for Vendetta‘s big opening day? Take a guess. Did she:

(a) Have a quiet dinner with friends at a charming little vegetarian restaurant;

(b) Spend a night on the town with Wilmer Valderrama;

(c) Hang out at home in her pj’s, reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; or

(d) Make out with a monkey at a casino in Las Vegas?

If you picked (d), well, you’re a little twisted — but you’re also right. Capping a whirlwind month of publicity, Portman arrived in Sin City Thursday night to accept the Female Star of the Year award at ShoWest, the annual movie-industry convention. ”I’m a little delirious, excuse me, you’re going to get, like, very LSD quotes from me,” she joked to EW early in the evening. No kidding. Just as Portman was answering reporters’ questions backstage, the star of an award-winning short film called The Reel Monkey — an adorable chimpanzee named Cody — came traipsing through and, out of the blue, stole a hug and kiss from the animal-loving actress. Camera shutters clicked. Onlookers cheered. And Portman was left at once thrilled, aghast, and laughing hysterically. ”I’m tripping right now!” she exclaimed to nobody in particular after Cody and his handlers went off to accept their award. ”I have never in my life — I just, like, made out with a monkey! I made out with a monkey! Am I losing my mind?! I can’t handle it! I’m going to have a breakdown right now! I feel like I’m hallucinating.” Well, she wasn’t — and, ya know, we’ve gotta say the two made a cute couple.

That brouhaha made for the unlikeliest finish to what had been a remarkably unremarkable week at the yearly gathering of movie theater owners. Reeling from 2005’s pitiful box office, attendees pointed fingers at everything from the sucky movies coming out of Hollywood to DVDs to the media, who, some argued, totally overstated the slump. (Uh, wanna fight?) Looking forward, the big talk was about digital movie projection, and a wide variety of companies displayed their new technologies and crystal-clear images — in other words, exactly what went on at ShoWest last year and the year before that and the year before that. (Picture an auto show where they’re still boasting about the 2002 models. Kinda like that.)

When in years past studios have spent thousands — if not millions — trotting out all their A-listers for photo-ops with ma-and-pa theater proprietors, this ShoWest installment was disappointingly low in star wattage. Sure, screenings for the upcoming animated flicks Cars and Over the Hedge played to huzzahs, but their respective hosts, John Lasseter and Jeffrey Katzenberg, are hardly the types you’ll find hooking up with Lohan in the gossip pages. In fact, until Natalie Portman’s backstage rendezvous, the biggest sights were the huge snake there to promote Snakes on a Plane, and… Al Gore. Yep, the former future president attended a Monday-evening screening of his fascinating global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and then stuck around for an exciting Q&A session with an audience of a hundred or so. That’s right, I said exciting: The notoriously wooden politico turned out to be super friendly, super self-effacing, super smart, and super totally at ease. And he held the crowd super rapt for over half an hour. (Picture a Bryan Singer harem at Comic Con. Kinda like that.)

Actually, to be fair, there were a few other goodies for the fanboys. The next Batman movie, ShoWesters were told, is coming in 2008. Plus…

Mission: Impossible 3
Director J.J. Abrams gave the crowd a little spiel about how his delicate little picture is ”about character first… spectacle alone doesn’t cut it anymore” — before presenting clips featuring a lot of stuff blowing up and cars being tossed around on top of fireballs and Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames and friends screaming at each other to ”Get down! Get down!” and… well, you know the drill. Philip Seymour Hoffman looks bad bad bad as the bad guy, and the whole mayhem-filled thing — complete with gratuitous Dodge Stratus product placement — seems to be aiming for the highest limits of the PG-13 range.

Lady in the Water
Shirt untucked, sleeves rolled, M. Night Shyamalan took the stage to present a 10-minute clip from his big summer mindf— for this year, which appears to be about a stuttering apartment building superintendent (Paul Giamatti) who, one night in a swimming pool, finds a girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) who calls herself ”Story” and says she comes from ”the blue world.” While the director didn’t offer too many details about the film — surprised? — he did tell EW that ”Lady is more like Signs, in that there isn’t this kind of I’m looking for the big revelation. You know, It’s not an apartment building, it’s inside a vacuum cleaner! Certainly, there are a lot of unexpected moments through the movie — it’s a big idea movie and ideas keep building on each other.” Gee, thanks, MNS.

Superman Returns
Director Bryan Singer was apparently so ill that he couldn’t make the hourlong flight from L.A. to Vegas. But clips from the movie featured your usual images of farmland and crystals and capes and spandex, as well as Kevin Spacey looking a heckuvalot like Gene Hackman. But we digress. The crowd definitely thrilled to John Williams’ familiar score and some voiceover by Marlon Brando. Later, rising star Brandon Routh told EW that he can feel his moment coming. ”It’s always surprising when you go someplace and you see your face on a magazine,” he said. ”And so I’ll go somewhere and I’ll see my face, or even the symbol, the S symbol, and I’m taken aback by that.” Hmph — him too!

Wolverine
Fresh from the set of The Prestige, the magician movie he’s making with Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman popped by to accept the Male Star of the Year award — and to answer a few prying questions from EW about his spin-off movie, whose second screenplay draft, by David Benioff (Troy), is due momentarily. ”Wolverine substantiates a feature film,” Jackman said. ”I mean, he’s a really intriguing, mysterious, enigmatic character, à la Mad Max, Dirty Harry, Han Solo — he’s that kind of screen antihero.” So what’s the movie about? ”I’d love to get into the origins of that character and find out what he’s really made of. So that was always my idea…. Benioff came in with a pitch that was so brilliant, I was so excited, I actually tried to get Fox to make it [before X-Men 3]. But they said, ‘No, no, no, we have a trilogy, let’s finish that.”’ Ah, so that means that Wolverine will survive X-Men 3 this summer, right? ”Well, you never know. Wolverine might be a prequel. Wolverine might be a prequel.” Yeah, we heard him — nudge nudge — the first time.

Prince Caspian
Producer Mark Johnson won an Oscar for producing 1988’s Best Picture, Rain Man, but that’s nothing compared to how his Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe kicked Kong‘s butt at the box office last winter. (Okay, he didn’t say that, but he should have!) The result, Johnson told EW, is that ”we are frantically trying to get Caspian ready for next year. For the end of ’07.” And then what? ”And then, you know, we have a tentative lineup. The question is, How soon do we start them? Do we do them — this going to sound wrong — in a factory assembly line sort of thing, sort of the way the Harry Potters are done? And I don’t mean that in any critical sense.” Oh, of course not. He continued: ”The problem with The Chronicles — it’s both its strength and its problem — is that each book is so different from the other. And with the exception of Aslan, there’s no one character who repeats in all of them.” Well, if he needs any help in casting, there’s a kissing chimp we can recommend.

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