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45th Karlovy Vary IFF - Aged Brit Dracula Wows Czechs with Aria from "The Battered Bride" at Karlovy Vary

Senior American superstar actor Robert De Niro (65 in August) was the trophy guest of the 45th Karlovy Vary film festival where he received a crystal globe career award for his "extraordinary contribution to world cinema" at the opening ceremony on July Fourth. But the real star of the festival here in the Bohemian valley of eternal thermal springs has turned out to be 86 year old British actor Christopher Lee who dazzled the Czech press and fans with his exraordinary knowledge of Czech culture and first-hand acquaintence with Czech history.  Himself the product of a musical family and a dedicated opera lover, Mr. Lee really wowed the Czech audience when he broke into song with the aria "Znam jednu divku..." from the famous Czech opera "The Bartered Bride" by Bedrich Smetana.
 
Lee is best known for his roles in Hammer Horror films, such as Dracula and Fu-Manchu, but he has been nothing but busy in recent years playing  "Saruman the White" in the recent Lord of the Ring films,  while also appearing in the latest Star Wars entry. In all Mr. Lee has appeared in well over 250 films since 1948 and shows no signs of slowing down with another six or seven pictures in post-production!   During World War II in London he was personally acquainted with two Czech patriots and war heros, Gabcik and Kubis, who  parachuted back into Czechoslovakia to assassinate Gestapo chief Heinrich Heydrich in one of the war's most spectacular underground strikes against the Nazis in central Europe. Finishing his talk with the words "You can be proud of your country", the tall energetic octogenarian received a thunderous ovation lasting which seemed like it would never end. Several of Lee's horror classics are on view here, appropriately at midnight shows. Toweringly tall with long white hair and a trimmed full white beard, Christopher Lee is truly an imposing 86 year old figure of a man, by himself worth the mid-summer trip to the hot springs this year. At the closing ceremony on Saturday Lee will receive the festival's prestigious President's Award from Festival direcor, the charismatic Czech actor Jiri Bartoshka (a mere 61).
 
Britain was also represented here during the week by two highly engaging actresses of diverse generations, tall willowy Saffron Burrows, 35, and veteran actress Brenda Blethyn, 62, who was last seen in "Atonement". Brenda is one of the few non-glamorous older actresses who can hold an entire picture together through sheer talent and screen charisma, as she demonstrated in "Saving Grace", 2000, a rib-tickler wherein she played a respectable widow forced to raise marijuana plants in order to pay off the debts her husband left her with. Saffron is on her third visit to Karlovy where she stars  in the American competition film, "The Guitar", directed by Amy Redford.
 
A second echelon festival like Karlovy needs to attract a certain number of big names every year in order to "keep up with the Joneses", which is to say other festivals of similar ranking such as Locarno and San Sebastian, and usually does manage to snag a handful of big and middling names every summer (the likes of Robert Redford and Lauren Bacall, for example, in recent years), but the festival has often been victimized by last minute cancelations.  This year, De Niro was as big a name as you can possibly get, and a feather in the Karlovy Vary crown, however, three other biggies which would have truly studded the crown with stars, sent in their orders for a rain check. This year Nick Nolte, 67, who would have been another trophy guest, announced his inability to make the scene just prior to opening day, and by mid-week actor Randy Quaid, 57, recently seen in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain", and supersar Russian director/actor Nikita Michalkov also pulled out, slightly dampening the festive proceedings.  One other American star did show up, Danny Glover, the dean of Afro-American character actors, along with his director John Sayles, to present an ode to the early days of the blues, "Honeydripper" (2007), which premiered at Thessaloniki in November.  Glover also appears in "Be Kind, Rewind", a comedy about filmmaking on the cheap, with co-stars Jack Black and Mia Farrow.  The film is directed by Frenchman Michel Gondry who scored big a few years back with "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004).  Glover, who is very well known here from the "Lethal Weapon" series partnering Mel Gibson, will also pick up a career award.
 
The big Czech film of the season is "Bathory", a sanguinary tale based on the legends surrounding the life and deeds of Countess Elizabeth Bathory known as the greatest murderess in the history of mankind, who reportedly massacred young virgins and bathed in their blood to preserve her own youth. The director is Slovak veteran Juraj Jakubisko, 70, and was produced by his actress wife Deanna Horvathova, who also has a major part in the film. With a budget of the Czech equivalent of 20 million dollars -- ten times the budget for an average Czech film --this is by far the most expensive and lavish production in local film history.  There is also a considerable foreign participation, the title role being taken by British actress Anna Friel, and Hungarian king Mathias being played by Italian Franco Nero.  This film has been getting tremendous press here and is being shown locally in two versions, Czech and English with Czech subtitles.  Juraj has been cutting a high profile figure on the festival grounds looking much like an aging hippy with his long white hair and wide-brimmed black leather western style bad-guy hat.  Critical reaction to Bathory has been mixed so far with one Czech headline, "The Biggest  -- but not the Best", sort of summing up current local opinion.  However, there has been much more verbage about the money spent than on the qualities of the film itself.
 
As for the Crystal Globe prize for best film in the main International Competition section, American hopes are pinned on the rather modestly budgeted film "Guitar", starring Saffron Burrows as an attractive young woman who finds out she has only a few months left to live, and goes on a credit card and bi-sexual binge while teaching herself the guitar.  Reportedly shot in three weeks on New York City locations, this is definitely a dark-horse, but first time director Amy Redford is the daughter of a guy named Robert -- or shall we just say "Mister Sundance" -- so you never can tell ...
 

45th Karlovy Vary IFF
Aged Brit Dracula Wows Czechs with Aria from "The Battered Bride" at Karlovy Vary
by Alex Deleon-Farba

 Alex, taking the waters at Strahov Spa
July 11, 2008

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THE FESTIVALS BLOG by Alex Deleon. Watch for festival coverage from the circuit.

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