Telluride 43: “Toni Erdmann”

The unique German film “Toni Erdmann” stood out at the Telluride Film Festival. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately emphasized its originality by describing it as a cross “between Bergman and Borat”. The emotional relationships of the former are combined with the bizarre disguises of the later.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in “Toni Erdmann”

I very much enjoyed a conversation with the film’s lead actor Peter Simonischek at a press dinner sponsored by Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributor. Simonischek described the film to me as about a father (his character) who has drifted apart from his daughter and his attempt to get closer to her. The father uses practical jokes and a fake identity in attempting to reconnect. Simonischek spoke about his extensive stage experience of over 40 years in Germany, including performing in American plays.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

In “Toni Erdmann”, Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced piano teacher who now lacks a student. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is a workaholic corporate strategist. The time Ines has devoted to her career has given her little personal time and little inclination to spend it with her father. Ines’ latest posting is in Bucharest, a city adjusting to modern capitalism. The city now has a modern, generic mall where merchandise is too expensive for most citizens.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest disguised in an unruly wig and over-sized teeth. He tells his daughter’s work contacts that he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach at the same corporation as his daughter. Director Maren Ade who wrote the ingenious screenplay has said the teeth were inspired by a gag set she was given at the premiere of “Austin Powers”.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in “Toni Erdmann”

Ines is initially shocked at her father’s ruse but is forced to play along. She asks him “Are you trying to ruin me? … Have you gone insane?

As director and writer, Ade does a masterful job of combining eccentric comedy with an undercurrent of poignancy as the father tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Ade said “Humor is his only weapon and he starts using it to the hilt.” The film is full of clever and unexpected twists. A highlight is a hilarious team-building exercise.

Peter Simonischek  and Sandra Huller in "Toni Erdmann"

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in “Toni Erdmann”

Simonischek and Huller create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. Winifred/Toni’s outrageous behavior contrasts well with Ines’ humorlessness.

“Toni Erdmann” is a remarkable film that remains absorbing and sustains humor throughout a running time of over 2.5 hours.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff had an insightful post-screening Q&A with Peter Simonischek. They mentioned as background that Germany and Romania have a consulting connection as Romania’s socialist economy moves into a capitalist system.

Simonischek said that Maren Ade writes a scene and gives the actors “lots of time to rehearse and make inventions”, adding to the singular style of the film. He added that in 56 shooting days, there was “not one bad day:”

Telluride 43: “La La Land”

“La La Land,” which was very well-received at the Telluride Film Festival, has recently received some Best Film awards. Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) continues his unique use of music with a contemporary film musical. He also wrote the screenplay. Chazelle’s film shows the influence of classic MGM musicals like “The Band Wagon”. It also has the bright colors of “The Umbrella of Cherbourg” and the emotional conflicts of a musician as in “New York, New York”.

The film begins with a terrific and energetic large scale musical number set during a Los Angeles freeway morning traffic jam. “La La Land” centers on Mia, a would-be actress (a charismatic Emma Stone) and Sebastian, an uncompromising jazz pianist, (Ryan Gosling). As in other movies, after some hostile introductions, an attraction develops between the two.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Stone and Gosling who have worked together before have a strong on-screen chemistry and bring deep feeling to their characterizations. Stone is a better singer than Gosling. Mia keeps hoping for her big break while Sebastian struggles to continue to play the kind of music he loves, a jazz he’s told is dying. John Legend plays a musician friend of Sebastian.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in "La La Land"

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land”

Chazelle is far more inventive in the elaborate song and dance scenes than with the with the predictable and often derivative screenplay that follows a lot of film conventions like the struggling heroine who shares an unbelievably large and colorful apartment with her room-mates, big enough for an spirited musical number that leads up to a lively party scene.

The clever and varied songs were composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Chazelle is effective in staging the charming and more intimate musical numbers between Stone and Gosling, including a magical sequence set in the Griffith Observatory planetarium that reflects the characters’ soaring emotions.

Emma Stone at Telluride     (c) Ed Scheid

Emma Stone at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

The film ends with a clever, extremely well-edited sequence, finishing the film on a note of poignancy.

Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone participated in an outdoor panel at Telluride. Chazelle discussed using storyboard in planning the complicated musical numbers.

Damien Chazelle at Telluride    (c) Ed Scheid

Damien Chazelle at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid


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Telluride 43: Isabelle Huppert in “Things to Come”

In “Things to Come”, Isabelle Huppert gives another masterful performance in a continually impressive career.

Unlike many of her roles which had a bizarre aspect, her character in this French film is Nathalie, a professor and author leading a calm and comfortable life which is unexpectedly thrown into turmoil. Her husband (Andre Marcon) leaves her, her mother (Edith Scob) is moved to a nursing home, and she is forced to confront more changes. Nathalie visits a commune where a former student resides.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Huppert brings an emotional depth to Nathalie. Her close-ups are particularly expressive and intense. A scene where she unexpectedly views her ex-husband and his new partner is memorable.

Director Mia Hansen-Love, who was chosen Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival gives a potent sense of the details of Nathalie’s life, like her strong attachment to her favorite books. Hansen-Love, who also wrote the screenplay, effectively contrasts the crowded urban life of Nathalie with the quiet rural setting of the commune where she can contemplate her new life.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Indorf  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Indorf (c) Ed Scheid

At an outdoor panel at Telluride, Huppert said that her job as an actress is to show the emotional state of the character at a point of time and it is up to a film to connect these points. Both she and Hansen-Love are extremely successful collaborating in “Things to Come”, making the transformations of Nathalie’s life very compelling.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Telluride 43: Tribute to Casey Affleck and “Manchester by the Sea”

My top selection at the Telluride Film Festival was “Manchester by the Sea”, written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”, “Lobby Hero” on stage) and shown as part of a Tribute to its leading actor, Casey Affleck.

During his tribute, Affleck who had acted in one of Lonergan’s plays said there is “none better than Kenny.” He spoke of getting to understand himself better during filmmaking as he understood the character better. He added that actor and director have the “most profound relationship.”

Casey Affleck at Telluride   (c) Ed Scheid

Casey Affleck at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Affleck joked about falling in love with Rooney Mara making “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013). He said that he shows “scripts I like” to “people I like” including friends and family, and “Kenny constantly”. He added “my kids have never been wrong.”

After high school. Affleck moved to Los Angeles. An early film was “To Die For” (1995). He said the film’s director Gus Van Sant guided him because “I hadn’t the slightest idea” what to do. He became a close friend of Joaquin Phoenix, a co-star in the film. Affleck added they “bonded more” when he married Phoenix’s sister. Affleck also directed Phoenix in “I’m Still Here”, passed off as a documentary on Phoenix’s leaving acting.

Kenneth Lonergan at Telluride    (c) Ed Scheid

Kenneth Lonergan at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Affleck added that it can seem like “a nightmare” playing a character living a nightmare. He added that an actor has to be patient and not too thin-skinned.

“Manchester by the Sea” is about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a janitor leading a solitary life, who returns to his home town after a family tragedy and finds that he has been given custody of his teenage nephew. Lee is forced to confront the consequences of his past.

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

This powerful film is exceptionally directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan who has created a variety of complex characters that are portrayed by an impressive cast that includes Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick.

Affleck gives a superb, award-caliber, intense performance, movingly conveying his character’s conflicts. Lee who had considered himself “just a backup” must face new responsibilities, leading to volatile fights with his young nephew (Lucas Hedges) about a future disruptive for both. Affleck gives Lee a haunted appearance as he relives the pain brought on by his visit home. Lee and his ex-wife (Williams) have a devastating scene of raw emotion.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

Both Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck participated in an outdoor panel. Lonergan said that the setting of a film become an integral part of the story. Affleck who is from Massachusetts said that the Manchester location is close to where he grew up. He added that it can be disorienting while filming if you don’t know the location.

Telluride 43: “Moonlight”

“Moonlight” received a strong response at the Telluride Film Festival. Before a screening, stage director and Telluride regular Peter Sellars effusively praised the film and its treatment of a rare subject.

This film’s writer/director Barry Jenkins had first been to Telluride as part of the student program and returned as a volunteer. Jenkins joked that it was “eight fucking years” since his first film “Medicine for Melancholy”.

Peter Sellars and Barry Jenkins at Telluride

Peter Sellars and Barry Jenkins at Telluride

“Moonlight” is a uniformly well-acted film about Chiron, an African-American boy living in Miami with his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris, James Bond’s current Moneypenny).

Chiron, a lonely silent boy (Alex R. Hibbert) is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”) who becomes a supportive father-figure. Juan’s girlfriend (Janelle Monae) welcomes Chiron into her home whenever he wants to stay in a less stressful environment. Juan’s relationship is complicated as he is a drug dealer for Chiron’s mother.

Andre Holland, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali at Telluride

Andre Holland, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali at Telluride

The film is based on a play by Tarell McCraney. Both McCraney and Jenkins grew up in Miami with mothers having a crack problem. Harris is extremely vivid as a woman under the ravages of addiction.

Chiron tries to figure out why he feels different from others. He grows into a bullied teenager (Ashton Sanders) who explores his homosexuality.

Ashton Sanders in "Moonlight"

Ashton Sanders in “Moonlight”

“Moonlight” is compelling and often poignant, written and directed with sensitivity by Barry Jenkins. A reunion between a very different young adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland), his sole boyhood friend, is particularly effective.

Telluride 43

The 43nd Telluride Film Festival was held, as always, during Labor Day weekend in the former mining town in the mountains of southwest Colorado.

As usual, the film schedule is not announced in advance. Places like the high school gym and an ice rink are converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. Nine indoor theatres show films daily during the Festival, besides several panels and conversations with international filmmakers.

The main street of the town is closed off for the Opening Night Feed. This year’s Feed serving French food was the best I had been to.

French twist to the Opening Night Feed of the Telluride Film Festival       (c) Ed Scheid

French twist to the Opening Night Feed of the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

The biggest crowds were for Tom Hanks, in Telluride for “Sully” with director Clint Eastwood and co-stars Laura Linney and Aaron Eckhart. Hanks also participated in an outdoor panel with other actors.

My top selection at Telluride was “Manchester by the Sea”, directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”, “Lobby Hero” on stage) and shown as part of a Tribute to its leading actor, Casey Affleck. The film about a janitor (Affleck), leading a solitary life, who returns to his home town after a family tragedy and faces the consequences of his past actions is powerful and emotionally intense.

Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

Two other films stood out. From Germany, the unique “Toni Erdmann” concerns a father who uses practical jokes and a fake identity to reconnect with his workaholic daughter. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately describes it as “Ingmar Bergman meets Borat.”

“Graduation”, from Romania was a gripping look at pervasive corruption as a father is determined to do whatever is necessary for his daughter to study abroad. The director is Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”).

Gael Garcia Bernal at Telluride    (c) Ed  Scheid

Gael Garcia Bernal at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Another Tribute was for Amy Adams with her science fiction film “Arrival”. The other Tribute was to Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain who showed his intriguing new film “Neruda” about the celebrated poet who goes into hiding because of his leftist politics and his pursuit by a determined policeman (Gael Garcia Bernal, also at Telluride).

Larrain also showed promising scenes from his new work “Jackie” with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy returning to the White House after her husband’s assassination.

Pablo Larrain and Isabelle Huppert at outdoor panel at Telluride    (c) Ed Scheid

Pablo Larrain and Isabelle Huppert at outdoor panel at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert was in Telluride with “Things to Come” in which she gives yet another notable performance as a woman facing unexpected changes to what she thought had been a comfortable life.

Pablo Larrain and Isabelle Huppert at outdoor panel at Telluride    (c) Ed

Pablo Larrain and Isabelle Huppert at outdoor panel at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Bryan Cranston and Richard Gere were also in town with films that showed them to strong advantage. In “Wakefield”, Cranston plays a man who fakes a disappearance to secretly watch how his wife (Jennifer Garner) reacts to his absence. Gere stars in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” a man passing himself as a business “consultant” who gets involved with Israeli politics.

“Moonlight” is a sensitive and well-acted film about a gay African-American boy living in Miami with his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris, the current Moneypenny) who grows from a silent child into a bullied teenager. This film’s writer/director Barry Jenkins had first been to Telluride as part of the student program. He came back as a volunteer and spoke of popping popcorn, cleaning bathrooms, and building a nearby concession stand.

“La La Land” was popular at Telluride. Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) combines elaborate song and dance scenes with a predictable screenplay about the relationship between an uncompromising jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and a would-be actress (a captivating Emma Stone).

Emma Stone at Telluride     (c) Ed Scheid

Emma Stone at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Wine and cheese seemed very appropriate for serving between parts of the Pagnol Trilogy, three French films from the 1930s based on the works of writer Marcel Pagnol. The films “Marius”, “Fanny”, and “Cesar” are about love on the waterfront of Marseilles. Alice Waters, owner of the celebrated Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, loved the Trilogy in the 1970s when she saw them with Tom Luddy, the Festival’s director. Her restaurant is named after one of Pagnol’s characters. Luddy told her to name it after Panisse, the only character “who made money.”

Another French film was Bertrand Tavernier’s marvelous documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” with remarkable insights on films the director (“Round Midnight”) has seen throughout his life. Tavernier joked about the small attendance at the screening I attended, saying that 40 years of French film history can’t compete with Richard Gere (who was at a competing screening of “Norman”).The film was over 3 hours long. Afterwards I told Tavernier, his film could have gone on all day for me.

Telluride guest director Volker Schlondorff

Telluride guest director Volker Schlondorff

One of the most entertaining films at Telluride was Fritz Lang’s 1928 German silent “Spies” (with live accompaniment) selected by guest director Volker Schlondorff who had a lot of fun facts. He told the audience that “Spies” was made after the studio lost a lot of money with Lang’s now-classic “Metropolis”. Schlondorff said “Spies”, with its evil mastermind in a wheelchair, femme fatale, double crosses, and the Orient Express, made James Bond possible. He added that an earlier science fiction film directed by Lang had designs by Wernher von Braun and introduced the countdown before its rocket launch.

A very absorbing documentary had an unlikely title – “California Typewriter”. The film, named after a family-owner repair store, covers the history of the once ubiquitous machine, an artist who makes sculptures from typewriter parts, and why Tom Hanks (a collector), Sam Shepard and John Mayer prefer the typewriter.

Future posts will cover the films in more detail.

French Rendez-Vous 2016: Award-winning “Fatima” and Louis Garrel’s directorial debut

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema had early screenings of “Fatima” which received the Cesar, the French Academy Award, for Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. With its short 79 minute running time, the film is more of an overview than a deep study of its characters. But this film remains a compelling portrait of Fatima, a middle-aged single mother (Soria Zeroual) and her two much more assimilated daughters living in France. The older daughter (Zita Hanrot, Cesar for Most Promising Actress) is a medical student.

Soria Zeroual and Zita Hanrot in "Fatima"

Soria Zeroual and Zita Hanrot in “Fatima”

The not always appreciated mother tries to fit into a different culture, even facing scorn from some Muslim neighbors. The film builds to a poignant conclusion as Fatima frankly expresses her intimate feelings about life in an adopted country.

Louis Garrel (“The Dreamers”) was at Rendez-Vous with his directorial debut, “Two Friends” (“Les Deux Amis”), an engaging if not original film about the conflict between two male friends that develops when one (Vincent Macaigne) becomes attracted to a female convict (Golshifteh Farahani) on work release in a railway station. Garrel plays the worldlier friend. Surprisingly the film was co-written by Garrel and Christophe Honore who directed Garrel in more unique and intense films (“Love Songs”, “Ma Mere”).

Louis Garrel at Rendez-Vous

Louis Garrel at Rendez-Vous

After the screening Garrel called his film a short “Rules of the Game” and added that the menage a trois is a “gold mine” for conflicts. He said the film shows the “transfer of power” between the two friends after the complication of a third party.