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THESSALONIKI FORTY-EIGHT - THE GRAND OPENING WITH BALLOONS ON HIGH

THESSALONIKI FORTY-EIGHT
THE GRAND OPENING WITH BALLOONS ON HIGH.

By Alex Deleon for www.filmfestivals.com

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 Πλατεία Αριστοτέλους (Aristotle 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 balloons out on the square, each bearing a big red number "48", to mark this as the 48th annual instalment of this rather remarkable Greek festival.

Among film celebrities in the assemblage were American director John Sayles, to be honoured 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 look 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 Natalie Portman) is an exercise in style employing all the devices which have made Wong the darling of the critics -- giant facial close-ups, semi-stop-motion lapse photography, garish surrealistic colour and lighting, and a generally unique filming approach -- 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. (zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...)

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 laureate, songstress Norah Jones, in her screen debut. Jones is the daughter of Indian Sithar 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 favourites -- 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 his service revolver 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. This is the biggest production in Greek film history with a budget of 10,5 mil$ and was directed by Iannis Smaragdis (born 1946) a veteran helmer of many TV series and films since 1975.

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 Greek 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 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 much cultural crossover appeal. We don't even see any good shots of 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 Theotokopoulos!

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About AlexDeleon

Deleon Alex
(www.filmfestivals.com)

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

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