Telluride 43: Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Annette Bening deserves to be an Oscar front runner for the emotional range and poignancy she brings to her portrait of Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”.

This film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner, the younger actor who became involved with Grahame in 1978 after the actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain. Turner was at Telluride.

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Bening’s portrait of Grahame vividly combines sensuality, romanticism and vulnerability with the charisma of an Oscar-winning actress (“The Bad and the Beautiful”, 1952) who had acted with top stars.

When Grahame collapses before a stage performance, she asks Turner (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”) if she can recuperate at his home. Flashbacks show the different stages of the often intense relationship between Grahame and Turner.

Peter Turner at Telluride

The film would not be as successful without the strong chemistry between Bening and Bell that makes their characters’ enduring emotional connection believable. Jamie Bell is also impressive as the younger man who remains drawn to the older actress.

Julie Walters who appeared with Bell in “Billy Elliot” creates another notable performance as Turner’s sympathetic but realistic mother. Vanessa Redgrave has a memorable scene as Grahame’s mother in a reunion with her daughter.

Annette Bening and Vanessa Redgrave in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Intercutting the central relationship in different time frames, director Paul McGuigan has made an intriguing, absorbing, and ultimately moving film.


Telluride 44: Contemporary Issues in Films From Finland and Russia

Two impressive films reflecting international issues were shown at the Telluride Film Festival.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope”. Kaurismaki has made 19 films over 35 years. His latest is a compelling film about Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland hiding under coal on a barge.

Sherwan Haji (center) in “The Other Side of Hope”

Khaled is beaten up by thugs, but he encounters Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). Wikstrom is an older man who has left his wife and job of selling shirts to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. Khaled joins the staff of the new restaurant.

The deadpan dialog delivery is combined with expressive faces. Kaurimaki combines quirky humor with deep compassion for his characters. As with previous Kaurismaki works like “The Man Without a Past”, this marvelous film has a warm feeling of people on the fringes of society banding together to help each other. Scenes of the makeover of the restaurant to attract new customers are cleverly amusing.

Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen (both at thable) in “The Other Side of Hope”

After the screening Sherwan Haji said that Aki Kaurismaki gives precise instructions, wanting the actors “not to act at all”, and to “drop lines like bricks” for the deadpan style. He added that Kaurismaki gives actors “enormous space to contribute”, so as “not to be a marionette”.

In response to my question, Haji said that there is no improvising on the set, no word of the script is changed.

“Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. At Telluride, Zvyagintsev said that he wants the film set in Russia to have resonance outside of the country.

Matvey Novikov in “Loveless”

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are continually quarreling and about to divorce. Neither wants to find a place for their teenaged son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). In a deeply poignant scene, Alyosha, hearing his parents, cries behind a door in the shadows. The soon to be divorced couple reflect the indifference and emptiness of a self-centered Russian society. Zvyagintsev has filmed many striking scenes of a decaying country falling apart.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” was a highlight of the latest Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. The film tells an absorbing story about Loïe Fuller, born Marie Louise Fuller in 1864, who left America to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Fuller (Soko) performed in the American West and introduced a unique energetic style of dance with flowing costumes. For a time she stays with her mother (Amanda Plummer), member of a temperance league. When a frustrated Fuller sees her dances being copied by other performers, she travels to France, where her stage efforts can be copyrighted.

Soko (center) in “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” shows in intriguing detail how Fuller developed her unique style of dance. She uses detailed plans, light projectors and spotlights. Poles in her arms cause the sweeping movements of her costumes. Fuller gives amazing performances with colored projections.

In her first film, director Stephanie Di Giusto who co-wrote the screenplay, gives “The Dancer” a vibrant sense of the colorful intensity of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Soko, also a singer-songwriter, gives a performance of fierce determination as Loïe Fuller, conveying her intense dedication in taking her stage performances in new directions. In Paris, Fuller becomes acquainted with a jaded aristocrat (Gaspard Ulliel) and finds a dedicated assistant (Mélanie Thierry). She befriends Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) who becomes a rival. Lily-Rose is the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.

Soko in “The Dancer”

Fuller’s driven performances cause her physical strain, particularly from the weight of the poles in her arms. The film builds to an extremely tense climactic stage performance in Paris, as Fuller’s body strives to match her artistic ambitions.

After the film, Stephanie Di Giusto spoke about Loïe Fuller and filmmaking. She said the French Alps stood in for Colorado. The music of Vivaldi was used in the film for “energy and tension”.

Director Stephanie Di Giusto at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Di Giusto described the important way Fuller built her costumes using a secret mathematical formula. She added that for Fuller it was critical how these costumes were cut, as Fuller was secretive, using a different dressmaker for each part. “The Dancer” received the Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Costumes.

Di Giusto said that Loïe Fuller’s sketches were patented in Paris, she was the first in her field it to establish a copyright to protect her work. Fuller became a friend of artists like Rodin. Fuller was described as multi-talented by Di Giusto – “dancer, choreographer, filmmaker”.


Telluride 44: “Wonderstruck”

“Wonderstruck” was shown at the Telluride Film Festival as part of a Tribute to its cinematographer Ed Lachman. Like other collaborations of Lachman with the film’s director Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” (2002) and “Carol” (2015), “Wonderstruck”, one of the finest selections at Telluride, has a distinctive period look.

The film is based on the novel by Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay. Another Selznick work was also the source of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. “Wonderstruck” intercuts compelling stories of 2 hearing-impaired 12 year-olds in different eras and their personal quests in New York City. For each sequence, the film impressively recreates the style of films of the era.

Todd Haynes at Telluride

In 1977 Minnesota, Ben (Oaks Fegley) has been orphaned after his mother (Michelle Williams in flashbacks) died in a car accident. Ben’s mother had never responded to his questions about the identity of his father. Ben loses his hearing after being struck by lightning. Among his mother’s things, he comes across a book and the address of a book store in New York City. Ben secretly travels to New York City, hoping his findings will offer clues to his father.

In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a deaf girl, leaves New Jersey to find a famous actress (Julianne Moore). Her section of the film is in the style of a black & white silent.

Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck”

Ben’s story, particularly In New York City, has the deep color of 1970s films, emphasizing the intensity of the change in Ben’s environment.

Both Rose and Ben will discover the Museum of Natural History. Ben’s search is aided by Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose father works at the Museum. The film captures the wonderment and adventure of new discoveries.

Julianne Moore and Oaks Fegley in “Wonderstruck”

Todd Haynes has made “Wonderstruck” with a deep sensitivity to the emotions of the youthful characters. Julianne Moore portrays a different character in the modern section who connects the two stories. The young actors give notable performances as do Moore (Haynes’ “Safe” and “Far From Heaven”) and the adult cast.

“Wonderstruck” continues Haynes’ interest in the search for connection and affection. The film ends at the location of the 1965 Words Fair as characters poignantly deal with memory and loss.

Jaden Michael, Oaks Fegley, and Julianne Moore in “Wonderstruck”


Telluride 44: “Faces Places”

My favorite selection at the Telluride Film Festival was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the Godmother of the French New Wave”, 87 when the film was shot, and street artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport, providing a warm humor as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films.

At Telluride, JR said that once the two first met, they looked for any excuse to meet again. “Faces Places” was the result and was accurately described as life, friends, cinema, and art. The film was made over a 2 year span and was the first time Varda had a co-director.

Agnes Varda and JR traveling in “Faces Places”

In the film, Varda speaks of meeting amazing people by chance. She and JR collaborate on pasting large photographs on building exteriors as they interact with others throughout France.

Photos of coal miners from a previous generation are enlarged and pasted up in a mining area. In an amusing scene, Varda photographs a fish in a store. The giant image of the fish will be pasted to a water tower. Other photos radically change the appearance of an abandoned town and attract visitors.

JR and Agnes Varda in “Faces Places”

“Faces Places” shows Varda’s boundless enthusiasm which is infectious. She maintains a keen interest in new experiences and an enjoyment of life.

This film becomes more serious, with a sense of loss as treatment of Varda’s declining vision is shown. A visit to an old colleague of Varda’s concludes “Faces Places” with an unexpected melancholy.

Agnes Varda was not in Telluride. Her daughter Rosalie Varda was there with JR. Rosalie said she thought that her mother and JR would enjoy each other and introduced them. She added that her mother made her first film “La Pointe Courte” in 1954 and had not seen a lot of films before then. Her first film was made before the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) began.

JR remembering Agnes Varda at Telluride

Rosalie described her mother’s earlier filmmaking as “more modern than the Nouvelle Vague”. She called her mother a “pint-sized iconoclast” with a “great curiosity” and “positive energy” who “speaks constantly”.

On his work in the film JR said “I love pasting” (photographs). He said that he and Agnes Varda have the “same vision”.

Rosalie said that Agnes and her family lived in Los Angeles for a time beginning in 1967. Rosalie added that there were open houses at their home. Agnes became close to Jim Morrison and was present at his burial in Paris. Rosalie said that in “Faces Places”, her mother and JR show there is “No age for art.”


Telluride 44: “Loving Vincent”

“Loving Vincent” is uniquely remarkable. 125 artists animated Vincent Van Gogh’s oil paintings. Before a screening at the Telluride Film Festival, the film’s directors, married couple Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman discussed what Welchman called his wife’s “crazy ambition”. Kobiela said she realized that her original plan of doing all of the animation herself would take 80 years.

Two Van Gogh paintings combined in “Loving Vincent”

Kobiela said she was drawn to Van Gogh because his history showed her that you can choose paths in life when grown up. Van Gogh’s first painting was at age 28.

The film contains stunningly beautiful images of Van Gogh’s masterworks animated. I told Welchman I was very impressed that Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes came through in the animation. The film is a must for admirers of the artist to see on the big screen.

Pere Tanguy in “Loving Vincent”

The film begins in 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death and tells the intriguing story of a postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s last letter. Actors portraying characters familiar from the artist’s works were filmed and then animated into paintings.

Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), painted several times by the artist, wonders “How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?” He asks his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver the letter to Vincent’s brother. Armand reluctantly agrees.

Postman Joseph Roulin and his son Armand in “Loving Vincent”

The film becomes extremely compelling, as Armand finds conflicting information on Van Gogh’s final days and his mental state. Flashbacks showing Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) are in black and white. Armand meets Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), one of Van Gogh’s most recognized subjects, who treated the artist and the doctor’s daughter (Saorise Ronan) who said Van Gogh was “happy here.”

Dr. Gachet and Armand Roulin in “Loving Vincent”

At an outdoor panel, the film’s directors said that 65,000 frames were hand-painted during a 7 year process. Welchman said that because of the unique style of “Loving Vincent”, the film has a conservative structure.

Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

A new theory has developed about Van Gogh’s death that was incorporated into the film. Welchman said the act of suicide was unexpected since the artist had just sold a painting, had no fits at the time, and had stopped his heavy drinking. He added that the investigation of Van Gogh caused by the delivery of the letter was a good way into his life story.


Telluride 44: Angelina Jolie and “First They Killed My Father”

“First They Killed My Father”, directed by Angelina Jolie, is now showing on Netflix. As director, Jolie brings sensitivity and vivid images to the true story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The film is based on the memoir by Loung Ung who was a girl during that tragic time. She said that “From 1975 to 1979—through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population.” Ung and Jolie collaborated on the screenplay.

“First They Killed My Father”

Young Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) lives a comfortable life in the city of Phnom Penh with her parents and siblings where her father is a government official. The family dances happily to modern music. Jolie shows her experience with children with casual details like dripped fruit on a girl’s dress that add to the realism of the film.

After the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot take control of Cambodia, they force the evacuation of the citizens of Phnom Penh to the countryside for forced labor.

Jolie keeps the film on the point of view of Loung. Sareum Srey Moch has an expressive face conveying the girl’s incomprehension and shock as her life is painfully disrupted. Loung’s father is arrested by the authorities and she is separated from her siblings.

“First They Killed My Father”

The children are forced into exhausting work such as carrying buckets on poles. Jolie stages intense scenes conveying the harrowing life under the Khmer Rouge. A dead body is seen floating in the water during the children’s labor. Blood is swept up in a hospital.

The photography shows the natural beauty of Cambodia, where Jolie shot the film. But this beauty can hide something ominous, like deadly land mines throughout an area Loung and other prisoners attempt to pass in a tense sequence.

“First They Killed My Father”

After the screening at the Telluride Film Festival, Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia. Jolie said that while filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia, she bought a $2 book on a street corner, Loung Ung’s memoir.

Jolie found Cambodia “extraordinary”. She became a Special Envoy for the UN and met Ung. Jolie told her she wanted to adopt a child and asked her “Could I adopt? She would abide by Ung’s decision. She said Ung’s response and the adoption of her son Maddox from Cambodia “changed my life.” Jolie spoke with Ung on making a film of her memoir, but wanted to wait “until Maddox is ready” to understand. Maddox is listed as executive producer.

Angelina Jolie at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Ung spoke with Jolie about the “incredible beauty” of “my Cambodia”, “very green” which is reflected in the film.

Jolie thought that with a young girl as the focal character, she would have to move the camera away from the girl to show her point of view. The performance of her young lead actress was so effective that she kept the camera on her “more than anticipated”.

Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Jolie said that with all the children appearing in the film, the “crew had to be good at games” and be “goofballs”.

On a more serious side of the filming, Jolie said that there was therapy as well as a spirit house with incense on the set to help with PTSD from survivors of the Khmer Rouge.

The film had a premiere in Cambodia. Jolie said she hopes her film will help build up the future of Cambodian cinema. Ung and Jolie spoke about the Cambodians collectively not being vengeful.

Ung married a man from Cleveland. She said that because of the “generosity of America”, they own 3 restaurants and 2 microbrews there.