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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Karlovy Vary: Film festival extraordinaire

July 28, 2008 |  1:01 pm

Lorenzo Semple Jr. is not just my favorite 85-year-old film critic, holding forth on YouTube as one of the Real Geezers reviewing team, but he's also one of the great screenwriters of the "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" era of Hollywood, having co-written such gems as "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Parallax View." Lorenzo is also my neighbor, always full of neighborhood gossip. I'm hugely envious of his carefree lifestyle, but never more so than when he said he was flying off earlier this month to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

The recently concluded festival was playing the rarely seen "Pretty Poison," an oddball 1968 comedy Lorenzo wrote that stars Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Intensely jealous that Lorenzo was jetting off to a swank festival while I was stuck laboring in the Big Picture salt mine, I asked if he'd write us a letter from Karlovy Vary, so I could live vicariously through his experiences. It sounds like he had a blast, getting to see the hot new Czech films, a remarkable documentary about Nick Nolte and such cinematic golden oldies as "Night Moves," Arthur Penn's moody 1975 detective thriller with Gene Hackman and Jennifer Warren.

Nicknolte When Lorenzo says everyone was out boozing and dancing till 4 a.m., you can bet he outlasted them all. Here's his report:   

On the edge of Karlovy Vary, gorgeous spa town located in the Czech Republic where the 43rd annual KV International Film Festival has just wrapped, bloomed an eye-popping sight: a temporary city of some 300 multicolored tents, home to over a thousand young film nuts from all over Eastern Europe and Germany and beyond.  Czech youth is literally crazy about movies: They wait in line for hours to get into one of the theaters where nearly every performance is sold out.   In fact, Central Europeans of every stripe seem movie crazy -- you’d think they were waiting for Brangelina the way they press at sidewalk barricades, hoping to glimpse some Czech movie star or director.

This KVIFF is not small beer: Over 240 films were rolled, the festival staff numbers over 1,000, and the main theater, built by the unlamented Communists during their long dreadful occupation, was to my ancient orbs a dead ringer for Radio City Music Hall.  Formerly known as Karlsbad, preferred watering place of czars and British kings, lately KV has become a favorite resort of the Russian mafia, or “businessmen” in their preferred nomenclature, causing the locals conflicted feelings.  The Russians are profoundly hated for their past brutality and present boorishness, but loved for the zillions they’ve lavished on the town, buying up many villas and dwellings along the central canal and refurbishing the rest to chromatic prewar splendor.

I am just returned myself from this year’s KVIFF, where for no very clear reason a movie I scripted exactly 40 years ago, "Pretty Poison," was shown as part of a tribute to the then “New Hollywood” of the late '60s and early '70s.  Accustomed to the usual scurvy treatment afforded Hollywood writers of that era, I was spoiled to near madness.  Every so-called Honored Guest was provided a personal assistant who attended me and my own guest, my Reel Geezer compere Marcia Nasatir, from wake-up to bedtime, from arrival at Prague airport to KV and the end of the festival.  We were royally quartered at the festival HQ, the wedding-cake Grand Hotel Pupp. A fleet of 60 brand-new Audi A8 limos stood ready to take the privileged, at a mere wave of the hand, to any destination.  As an index of KV’s fan lunacy, even I, an antique writer, was often photographed and constantly assailed for autographs; the thrill of the latter diminished when I realized the point was to trade signatures, any signature, with other demented persons, or better yet to sell one for a dime or so.   Indeed, once I was nearly crushed under the hooves of a herd of paparazzi -- running after a Czech starlet, I must admit, oblivious to any mere mortal in their path.  To top it all, every night saw a smashing party, boozing and dancing till 4 ayem or later.

And oh yes, there were films too.  Competition was limited to films never before shown, which meant a preponderance of items from the Czech Republic and its neighbors, though the pedigrees of some were beyond complex.  The jury, headed by the eminent 1960s “Czech New Wave” director Ivan Passer, gave its $20,000 Special Jury Prize to "The Photograph," an entry parading under the mind-blowing label of an Indonesian-French-Netherlands-Swiss-Swedish co-production.

There were also movies shown out of competition, most notably Robert De Niro’s opening night "What Just Happened?"  The star, in attendance to receive KV’s primo Crystal Globe for Lifetime Achievement, was wildly popular, showing up graciously for all interviews and events, even a wildly applauded 11 p.m. screening of his "New York, New York."  Danny Glover was also in attendance with John Sayles’ "Honeydripper," the title being the name of a seedy music club in the South, owned by Glover.  Aside from its star’s performance, the flick boasts wonderful black music turns, running from gospel to jazz to blues to the potent kick-start of early rock 'n' roll, thus guaranteeing a hit with any European audience.  The same couldn’t be said for De Niro’s opening-nighter, which found the same mixed reception reported from Sundance and Cannes.

Another U.S. offering was "Nick Nolte: No Exit," a remarkable portrait of the actor by noted documentarian Tom Thurman, built on the conceit of having Nolte interview himself.  That’s to say, Nolte-the-Interviewer sits on one side of a table, respectably attired with panama hat and jacket, facing Nolte-the-Interviewee on the other side, this one the Nolte we know and love in his famed dishevelment.  His philosophy of acting and its relationship to the hard-boozing life are candidly explored, interspersed with glowing tributes from Jackie Bisset, Mia Farrow, Ben Stiller and others who’ve worked with him, the whole fascinating film advertised as offering a unique voyage to the inside of an actor’s head. Speaking of actors, every festival must have its little scandale, provided at this one by a here-nameless American actor, an Honored Guest who allegedly took the festival’s $10,000 first-class tickets and flew with his wife to Venice instead of KV, only to be next heard from when he phoned that he was back in L.A.; he had suffered mild food poisoning on the Rialto, he said, and, mistrustful of Italian medicos, had flown directly back home. 

Bad dog.  Bad bad dog.   But in truth he was hardly missed at the panel press conference in which he was skedded to have taken part, a panel that in the event included me and Marcia, Paul Mazursky, director Nick Roeg, Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and the ever-delightful Brit actress Rita Tushingham. As most of the conferees were Czech and understood scant English, our wise observations about how Hollywood changed in the late '60s/early '70s bore little fruit.  Roeg, once noted for unpredictable conduct, has matured into a charming and witty old master and was the subject of a retrospective tribute, including 1980’s "Bad Timing" and his most recent, "Puffball." "Bad Timing" was shown at KV to great applause, a far cry from the verdict of its original U.K. distributor; the suits at Rank were appalled, one exec reportedly tagging it "a sick film made by sick people for sick people," and accordingly the Rank logo was deleted from all U.K. prints.   

Another acclaimed movie from the past was Arthur Penn’s dark mystery  "Night Moves," starring Gene Hackman as a private eye and Jennifer Warren in a memorable gig as a beautiful tough-talking ex-hippie.  Actually, KV audiences were highly receptive to all the older American movies shown, since of course none of them were viewable during the long Soviet occupation.  Time has transmogrified some.  Mazursky’s hit "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" remains a delicious and incisive comedy of manners, but the wife-swapping that was considered  an envelope-pushing shocker in 1969 is now just hilarious.  In contrast, my own script "Pretty Poison" was a 1968 box-office flopperoo for many reasons, but a big one was the unacceptability of high-school cheerleader Tuesday Weld cold-bloodedly murdering her mom and framing a besotted Tony Perkins for the foul deed.  At KV today, such a thing was accepted by the enthusiastic Czech audience as admittedly extreme, but well within the parameters of American teenage behavior.  Also featuring questionable behavior by its leading lady was "Bathory," at a tab of $30 million the most expensive Czech movie ever made, a costumer about a 16th century countess who bathed in the blood of virgins to preserve her beauty.  Despite what would seem this most crowd-pleasing premise, it was universally derided.

At the other end of the scale were a dozen wonderful Czech and other European movies, all of which cost in total less than "Bathory" alone.  Grand Prix winner was the Danish "Terribly Happy," directed by Oscar-nominated Henrik Ruben Genz, a self-described “grotesque drama” about a cop who is sent to a small town for disciplinary reasons and finds himself embroiled at every turn in the town’s secrets.  Another popular winner was "The Karamazovs," a tale of an odd little theater troupe rehearsing a play loosely based on the classic novel, wherein the line between the characters and the actors who play them becomes blurred, leading to complex emotional switches.  "Terribly Happy" could well turn out to be the Danish Oscar nomination for best foreign film and thus shown at the academy; but thanks to the near catastrophic state of foreign film distribution in the U.S. today, the brief log-lines here are as close as anyone in this country is likely to get to any of these deserving European films.   

In a striking change of tone, the 43rd KVIFF closed with a gala showing of the musical "Mamma Mia!"  The critical feeling was much as it has been elsewhere.  Considering direction, editing, continuity and choreography, among other cinematic aspects, "Mamma Mia!"  is a serious contender for a spot on the list of worst movies ever made.  Yet ... when that glorious ABBA chewing-gum music, that absurd parade of the Swedish quartet’s No. 1 hits, infects your consciousness and won’t let go, all critical reason is vanquished.  The movie becomes a lunatic delight.  I, for one, will probably see it again.
And so the colorful tents outside Karlovy Vary are now all struck, sated movie fans on their way back to whence they came, the organizers of KVIFF already thinking about next year’s 44th.  It was a great festival for movies -- and, of at least equal importance, surely lived up to its billing as “the greatest summer party in Central Europe.”

Photo of Nick Nolte by Valerie Hache / AFP / Getty Images