Hollywood hits on a Grande scale

Maire's U.S. focus proving a hit at Locarno Film Fest

The Locarno Film Festival's historic and picturesque Piazza Grande is starting to feel a little like Hollywood.

Halfway through the 60-year-old festival, much of the buzz has been coming from U.S. films that at one time were a rarity in Locarno — including back-to-back sold out nights on Saturday and Sunday in the 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, which came with Tinseltown productions heading the evening program both nights.

The trend is a contrast to previous years, when the festival was known for screening weighty and intellectual films from up-and-coming auteurs. Those films are still showing in Locarno, but under second-year artistic director Frederic Maire, Hollywood is finding a home at the venerable festival as well.

"We haven't specifically sought out Hollywood films, but the truth is there are a lot of good films coming from Hollywood and they're the kinds of films people enjoy in a great venue like the Piazza Grande," Maire said in an interview last month.

The weekend screenings in the famous Piazza Grande are the proof in the pudding. Of the four full-length films screened in the Piazza Grande on Saturday and Sunday, three — Paul Greengrass' thriller "The Bourne Ultimatum," Frank Oz's black comedy "Death at a Funeral" and the campy horror film "Planet Terror" from Robert Rodriguez — have a Hollywood pedigree. And those two nights have been the festival's only sellouts so far.

More U.S. titles are on the way, with Adrienne Shelly's romantic comedy "Waitress," Mikael Hafstrom's horror and suspense film "1408," the musical comedy "Hairspray" from Adam Shankman and the competition documentary "Chicago 10" from Brett Morgen all set to screen in the Piazza before the festival ends Saturday.

The trend started last year, Maire's first at Locarno's helm, when "Miami Vice" opened the festival and the comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" became one of the festival's most talked-about films.

That doesn't mean that Maire's Locarno is losing touch with its roots. Monday night's screening in a mostly full Piazza Grande, for example, was led by "Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge" (The Red Balloon), a French-Taiwanese film about a young boy and his babysitter who imagine a red balloon is following them.

And on Tuesday, the Piazza Grande will feature "La Eta Knabino" a Swiss short written completely in Esperanto, followed by "Une Journee," a French and Swiss psychological drama from Jacob Berger about a family crisis stemming from an accidental murder.

In other festival news, Monday saw the opening of the Open Doors co-production lab, with 13 projects from the Near and Middle East seeking co-production partners and other financing and technical help.

The most-represented country among the selected projects was Lebanon, with four: "Halal" by Assad Fouladkar, Mai Masri's "Eye of the Phoenix," "The One-Man Village" from Simon El Habre'd and "I Can't Go Home" by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas.

Israel was the next best represented country — with "Justice Must Be Seen" from Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, Sameh Zoabi's "Man Without a Cell Phone" and "Tanathor" by Tawfik Abu-Wael.

Providing two each are Syria (Hala Alabdalla's "He' ! N'oublie pas le Cumin" and Meyar Al-Roumi's "Le Chemin des Figuiers") and Egypt (Daoud Abd El-Sayed's "Messages from the Sea" and "Harag we Marag" from Nadine Khan). The final selection is "Fix Me" from Palestinian director Raed Andoni.

In addition to helping facilitate technical and financial help, Open Doors will award three grants. At the end of the workshop, two grants of 50,000 Swiss francs ($43,200) each will be awarded and another €10,000 ($13,800) is allocated to one director in the sidebar with his or her first feature film.
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