Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Athens, being  the cradle of Western civilization and all, might overshadow its northern rival, Thessaloniki. But the  less touristy Thessaloniki is still the second largest city in Greece. Historically it's nothing to sneeze at, either, founded back in the 4th century BC by Cassander, one of the late Alexander's generals, who named it after his wife, the world conqueror's half sister,  perhaps to make up for the fact that he murdered her mother to take over the throne. Those Greek tragedies were not just something someone made up. In addition, Thessaloniki hosts a film festival listed by Variety as one of the 50 in the world you must attend.

Thessaloniki also boasts of the most beautiful women in Greece, and most of them were mobbed into the lobby of the John Cassavettes Theatre waiting for the "John Malkovich Master Class." One of them, a 6 foot tall powerful looking blonde woman with an agenda, kept shoving my companion YH, and so to avoid any injury, we decided to pass on the class and wait for the reception later in the evening where John Malkovich would be awarded the festival's "Golden Alexander."

And so, on to the movies. The four I have seen so far seem all deal with disaffected youth, more or less. "Valermil," an Israeli film, follows the intersecting paths of three Israeli kids -- an Ethiopian, paint-huffing, Rastafarian/Jewish dreamer, a bullet-headed, coldblooded Russian emigre, and a native-born, pissed off and insecure brother of  a local mob enforcer. To avoid expulsion the first two are all kept after class to play for the soccer team on which the native-born guy is the captain. Unnervingly, the coach looks exactly like WBZ sportscaster Bob Lobel. As for the story, let's just say organized crime and amateur sports don't mix. Though it tends to the programmatic, the film evokes a real world and real people.

The hot American indie "Juno" by Jason Reitman also makes an appearance in Thessaloniki. I found Reitman's first film "Thank You for Smoking" overrated, smarmy, superficial and hypocritical. "Juno," on the other hand, combines all the worst aspects of the biggest Indie hits of the last few years. The self-conscious tweeness of "Napoleon Dynamite," the sentimentality and stereotype disguised as artiness in "Little Miss Sunshine," the reactionary politics pushed as hipness  of "Knocked-Up." "Ghost World" is also a heavy influence. Plus the young actress who plays the overbearingly tough and precocious, pregnant 16-year-old protagonist has all the charm of a pint-sized Janeane Garafolo.

Still, "Juno" looks good next to the perky Polish existential romp "Wednesday, Thursday Morning," in which a disaffected young man hooks up with a kookie blond girl for a 24-hour spree in Warsaw. These kids are just trying too hard to be free-spirited, subversive and wacky. Kind of like "Juno" but with allusions to Polish films like Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds."

Finally "Elli Makra - 42277 Wuppertal 31", the film that sounded dreariest in the catalogue description (Greek immigrant in depressing German city decides to return home) proved to be the most engaging, authentic and human. Plus, it's teenaged non-comformist heroine Niki has it all over Juno.

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