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Thesssaloniki festival grand debut

Barely recovered from the road fatigue suffered on an arduous 26 hour bus trip through six intervening countries down from Poland, 2000 Km. north of here and -- Whiz-Bang -- we're already three days into the festival. Friday, opening night, was a mighty gala with good vibes inside and outside of the stately cavernous OLYMPION theater, in spite of a heavy sprinkle from the skies above Plateia Aristoteles (Atistotle Square). For once on an opening night the speeches, ably translated from Greek for the foreign delegates via headphones, were actually interesting, with a rousing drum procession marching in from the rear of the auditorium and the release of forty-eight large white baloons out on the square to mark this as the 48th annual installment of this rather remarkable Greek festival.

Among film celebrities in the assemblage were American director John Sayles, to be honored here with a full retrospective of his works, and actors David Strathairn and Chris Copper, who are part of the Sayles entourage. A few seats down from me was Turkish-German director Fatih Akin (Berlin Golden Bear Winner two years ago for "Against the Wall"), and a Who's Who of Greek film dignitaries. The opening film, "My Blueberry Nights", by Wong Kar-wai, was introduced in English by actor Strathairn, who plays one of the main roles in the film, and was nearly unrecognizable in a thick white beard, a major departure from his clean-cut Edward R. Murrow image in "Goodnight and Good Luck" which very nearly won him a 'Best Actor" Oscar two years ago (he was nosed out Seymour Philip Hoffman's "Capote").

"Blueberry Nights", Hong-Kong director Wong's first effort with an all English speaking cast (Jude Law, Norah Jones, Strathairn, Rachel Weiss and Natalier Portman) is an excercise in style employing all the devices which have made Wong the darling of the critics -- giant facial closeps, semi-stop-motion lapse photography, garish surrealistic color and lighting, and a generally unique filming method -- the characterizations, however, except for some strong moments here and there, left me yawning and glancing at my watch, and put my companion at the screening, Mr. Abbas Yari, Teheran film critic and film magazine publisher, completely to sleep. I had a hard time buying Jude Law as a greasy spoon snack shop operator, or cutie-pie Natalie Portman as a Nevada casino gambling addict, although it was rather interesting to watch multiple music awards laureat, songstress Norah Jones, in her screen debut. Jones is the daughter of Indian Sitar maestro and composer Ravi Shankar, although her Indian genetic component is not at all apparent. She's just a nice looking dark-haired young lady with a generous endowment of screen presence. We'll probably be seeing more of her in the movies of the near future.

The title of the film comes from a blueberry pie in Law's eatery that nobody wants -- which he offers to Jones when she comes in to his shop late at night to cry on his shoulder about an unhappy love affair --clearly symbolic of something, but lost on me, as blueberry pie happens to be one of my personal favorites -- in the pie line... Strathairn, incidentally, plays an alcoholic cop who refuses to let go of the strayward wife (Rachel Weiss) who has dumped him -- pulls a gun on her in one scene, and finally kills himself. Heavy going if that's your kind of cup of tea. It wasn't mine. Nevertheless, because Wong is now a prestige director, because this is his first film in English, and because it has an all-star cast, all in off-beat counter-to-image roles, it might come in for some Oscar consideration in March, but I seriously doubt that it will make the turnstiles hum. The post screening party in the vast C-warehouse on the waterfront was a humdinger as far as food, drinks and friendly Grecian hospitality goes, but no crowned heads were spotted there. The celebs obviously held a shindig of their own in more discrete surroundings elsewhere in town.

The main event on Saturday, day number two, was the gala screening at the OLYMPION (it was still raining) of the new Greek and Spanish co-production, "EL GRECO", a hagiographic bio-pic of this most famous of all Greek artists, whose elongated figures are instantly recognizable in just about every major art museum on planet Earth. Directed by Ionnis Smaragdis (born 1946) a veteran helmer of many TV series and films since 1975, and featuring a mixed Greek and Spanish cast, this is a handsomely mounted picture in standard classical style and is based on a fictionalized novel about the life of the painter and his life itinerary which took him from his native Crete to Venice, and finally to super celebrity in Toledo, Spain. On the way he studied at the school of Titian in Venice and seduced several women, fathering a child out of wedlock with one of them. The second half of the picture is taken up with his battles against the Inquisition in Spain who accuse him, among other things, of pornography! Titian is played by the popular reek actor Sotiris Moustakas, who died of cancer soon after completion of the picture. Dmitra Matsouka, a very popular Greek actress, plays his true love, Francesca, who becomes a nun when her father refuses to let her marry the artist, and (oddly enough) the central role of Domenico Theotokopoulos, later to become famous as "El Greco" (The Greek) is played by an English actor, Nick Ashdon. (Whassamattah -- no Greek actors available for the role of "The Greek"!) -- Well, to make a long story short, this film is already a medium sized hit here in Greece -- the subject matter alone being enough to pull in the crowds -- but I think it would be a minor miracle if it ever escapes to the west. We're too used to having the likes of Anthony Quinn portraying larger than life Greeks, and, frankly speaking, the picture itself just doesn't pack very much punch and is pretty much a by-the-numbers piece of work with none of the stars likely to have any cultural crossover appeal. We don't even see any good shots of any El Greco Masterpieces -- like "Toledo", for Instance. Too bad nobody ever thought of making an El Greco in Hollywood in the hey-day of the Hollywood biopic -- with Cornel Wilde, or, better yet -- Victor Mature as Theotokopuolos!

Sunday, November 19: The sun is finally out and this is Malkevitch Day in Thessaloniki.
The press conference was also attended by Independent producer Russell Smith, who has produced a number of Malkovich films and is an old friend from Illinois. (We were roomates in college) -- Smith was actually the more interesting speaker and had great comments on the process of making independent films in Hollywood, the addiction of fame, (it almost ruined Johnnie Depp), and the mistaken "bad guy" image of Malkovich. Malkovich has lived in France for a long time now and is directing his second theater piece In French, in Paris, at the moment. Regarding the difference between stage and screen acting: Malkovich: "They're like distant cousins" -- The big difference is that theater is live -- it changes every night -- film is "dead" -- once it's made it never changes -- you can't go bacvk andfdo it over -- yet, the basic process of acting is the same --
Smith: "I once made a film with Richard Gere, who only makes films -- no theater -- And I asked asked him the same question --He said "In film it's all "from here to here" -- (putting one hand under his chin, the other on top of his head) -- in other words, you act with your eyes in film -- In the theater you need to use your whole body because the audience is too far away to see your eyes -- That's the big difference -- Theater acting is Body Language --Movie acting is much more Eye language, and facial expression --
On putting a film package together Smith used the "sandbox metaphor" --It's like you have this big sandbox and you have certain rules -- parameters -- to play with --on one one side you need certain actors - on the other a script, a director --etc. But it all comes down to economics -- to raise the money, if you want a studio to back you, you have to compromise -- like in "Juno". (to be presented here during the festival) -- We had an extremely talented but unknown 16 year old actress (Ellen Page) for the main role, but we had to hire a well known TV star (Jennifer Garner) in a supporting role to "sell the package" -- or we wouldn't have had the money to make the movie --
"Independent" is a term that has changed drastically in the past five to ten years -- -- The minute the studios see some talent out there that could make some money for them, the buy it right up -- Absorb it into the system -- The only way to really be independent these days is if you have lots of money of your own to make your film with --

Malkovich, with completely shaved head, presented a rather austere look at the conference table -- He speaks in a soft voice and in extremely measured phrases -- weighing each word carefully -- almost like a scientist considering the question from all possible angles -- His answers to questions were very much to the point -- with no attempt to be funny or "charm the audience" as so many actors do at these press conferences -- (the George Clooneys, et al.) -- He obviously takes his profession very seriously and, considering the kinds of off-beat films he makes -- does not seem to be in the movie game "for the money" -- The impression he makes is that of a serious artists who knows all the games of fame, fortune and celebrity too well to bother fooling around -- Been there, done that --Got better things to do with my time ....

Off to see a film about Greeks living in the German city of Wuppertal ....
to be followed by the Career award to be given Malkovich on stage in the big hall -- Malkovich is definitely the Big Fish of the festival at this point --
Stay tuned -- more to come ...
Alex Deleon in the Press Room, and it's a good one with Free Coffee!

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