Telluride 43: “Graduation”

“Graduation” is a gripping depiction of pervasive corruption in contemporary Romania. Cristian Mungiu, who also wrote the screenplay, received the Best Director Award at Cannes. This film is even stronger than Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”.

Cristian Mungiu at Telluride

Before the film’s screening at Telluride, Mungiu said the inspiration of the film was the process of his “being a father”. While some of his fellow citizens have left Romania, Mungiu believes it is better to stay and attempt to change conditions.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a rare doctor who has remained honest in a system where even doctors are bribed for service. He is hopeful that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will receive a scholarship for the UK, and thus have options unavailable to him and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). A violent act against Eliza may affect her performance on the examination that determines if she will be able to study outside Romania.

Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in “Graduation”

As a father, Romeo is determined to do whatever is necessary for his daughter to have an education abroad. There is also family discord as Eliza begins to develop an independence from her father. Adrian Titieni gives a powerful performance as the highly conflicted father. Mungiu builds an acute tension as Romeo becomes involved in a web of complications and he must face the choice of compromising his integrity by making secret deals to give his daughter a better life. “What does all we taught her count?” is asked.

Maria-Victoria Dragus and Adrian Titieni and in “Graduation”

Telluride 42

The 42nd Telluride Film Festival was held during Labor Day weekend in the photogenic former mining town in the mountains of southwest Colorado. Quentin Tarantino had recently shot his upcoming “The Hateful Eight” in the area. 

Telluride

Telluride

As always, the film schedule is not announced in advance, adding a unique mystique to this Film Festival. The ice rink, the high school gym, and a library room are among places converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. One director told me that the sound at the new Werner Herzog Theater (over the ice rink) was the best he had ever heard.

With so many choices at nine indoor venues, along with outdoor options, it’s frustratingly impossible to see everything.

One of the most high-profile films, “Steve Jobs”, shown at a Telluride Tribute to its director Danny Boyle, divided festivalgoers. I was disappointed. Michael Fassbender, portraying Jobs as a charismatic egomaniac, leads a strong cast including Kate Winslet (as the marketing exec) and Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak. Aaron Sorkin’s clever, fast-paced dialog doesn’t get beneath the surface. The screenplay’s structure of events leading up to three product launches, seemed like the same scene repeated three times. Sorkin, Winslet, Rogan, and Wozniak were among those representing the film at Telluride.

Michael Fassbender in "Steve Jobs"

Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs”

“Carol”, directed by Todd Haynes, was screened during a Tribute to Rooney Mara. The film, about the attraction and growing relationship between two very different women (Mara and Cate Blanchett) in the 1950s, and Mara’s performance lived up to the Cannes Film Festival hype. Mara received the Best Actress award at Cannes.

The third Telluride Tribute was to British documentary maker Adam Curtis.

A unique event happened after an opening day screening of the documentary “He Named Me Malala”, directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”). This film captures the warm and spirited personality of the remarkable young Nobel Peace Prize winner. At age 11, Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan for her public support of schooling for girls. This documentary also tells the compelling background story of her father and his complicated feelings toward the life he encouraged for his daughter.

After the film, Malala appeared on screen for a conversation with the audience that included Telluride regular Ken Burns, Guggenheim, and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai. Malala was not at Telluride because she was taking tests in Britain for university entrance.

Malala onscreen at Telluride over director Davis Guggenheim, and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

Malala onscreen at Telluride over director Davis Guggenheim, and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai

My two top films at Telluride:

“Son of Saul”, a powerful and shattering Hungarian film about a man responsible for cleaning the concentration camp showers. He desperately tries to have a religious burial for a young boy.

“Suffragette”, vivid historical details and a strong cast in a moving film about a young laundry worker (Carey Mulligan) who becomes involved with the suffragettes. Because of government inaction, these women are turning to violence in their quest to gain the vote. Meryl Streep plays the real-life suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

There were other notable film from around the world.

“Spotlight” is a gripping view of the newspaper investigation of clerical abuse in Boston. A top group of actors (including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo) portray the investigative newsmen.

Telluride outdoor panel. Front row: director Sarah Gavron ("Suffragette"), Meryl Streep, moderator Annette Insdorf; Back row: director Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight"), Rachel McAdams

Telluride outdoor panel. Front row: director Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”), Meryl Streep, moderator Annette Insdorf; Back row: director Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), Rachel McAdams

“Beasts of No Nation”, directed by Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”), is an intense and disturbing film about child soldiers in an African civil war. Idris Elba is forceful and frightening as the rebel leader.

From France, “Marguerite”, based on a real incident has a terrific performance by Catherine Frot as a wealthy woman who sings publicly, but with no talent. Frot is amusing and also poignant.

“Rams” is a unique Icelandic film about two brothers living nearby who don’t speak. A disease caught by one brother’s sheep causes complications and contacts between them, often is deep snow. Lots of surprises, visually striking and with photogenic sheep.

The energetic rarely-shown “Cocksucker Blues” was Robert Frank’s 16mm recording of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 US tour. Dynamic stage performances alternate with excessive behind-the scenes behavior including naked airplane sex and casual drug use. Backstage visitors include Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Tina Turner.

A highlight for me was an outdoor panel including Meryl Streep, her “Suffragette” director Sarah Gavron, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams with their “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”), and the director Lazlo Nemes and lead actor Geza Rohrig of “Son of Saul”.

Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron, Meryl Streep

Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron, Meryl Streep

The conversation got lively after a discussion of contemporary issues raised by “Suffragette” when a young woman asked Meryl Streep about inequality for woman in the film business. Streep answered that she could sense an “exasperation” among most of the males in the audience at the question. Michael Keaton replied “Bullshit”, adding that his three sisters are as tough and bright as his brothers. Keaton said that he thought “things were getting dull”.

Future posts will cover the films in more detail, along with insights from the actors and directors.

Photographs (c) Ed Scheid

Telluride 2014: Volker Schlondorff Tribute and “Diplomacy”

The Telluride Film Festival Tribute to German director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) was one of the most memorable in the 20 plus years I’ve been to Telluride. Schlondorff wept when presented with his Silver Medallion Tribute, saying it was given by friends. He added “Old men have emotion.”

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff told fascinating anecdotes of his of his development into a celebrated international filmmaker. Born in 1939, Schlondorff grew up in Wiesbaden, Germany under US occupation and was exposed to American culture, including Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the films of Marlon Brando.

At age 16, he thought, “I can’t stand it here” (in Germany). He intended visiting France for 2 months, but stayed 10 years. He wanted to “escape from childhood”. He believes that because of his country’s history, “guilt befell” the Germans, “whether we wanted it or not.” What he wanted was to “become a little Frenchman.”

Schlondorff told a very amusing story about doing live spoken translations of German films at the Cinematheque in Paris. He described it as freely translated, making up probable lines In French. He said this was “how I learned to write dialog”.

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff worked as assistant director on a “Zazie dans le Metro”, a 1960 film by his Parisian film school classmate Louis Malle. He also assisted directors Alain Resnais (“Last Year at Marienbad”) and Jean-Pierre Melville, before returning to Germany to direct his first feature, “Young Torless” in 1966. He described his 1976 “Coup de Grace”, about unrequited love during the Russian Civil War, as his “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

His most celebrated film “The Tin Drum” (1979), based on the Gunter Grass novel, received the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There was difficulty in casting the lead role of a boy who stops growing as a protest. 90% of the film would be the presence of the boy, according to Schlondorff, who said he stayed with the film because of the insistence of the producer. In LIFE Magazine, Schlondorff read about the physical condition of young David Bennent who was cast In the film. David ended up being the son of Heinz Bennent who portrayed a lawyer in Schlondorff’s 1975 “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.”

American films made by Schlondorff include a 1985 TV version of “Death of a Salesman” with Dustin Hoffman and “The Handmaid’s Tale”(1990).

Schlondorff has dedicated his latest film “Diplomacy” to his friend Richard Holbrooke, deceased US diplomat whom the director said was ‘a privilege to know.” Schlondorff said he met Holbrooke through playwright John Guare. They were fellow theatergoers.

Schlondorff said “Diplomacy”, screened as part of his Tribute, shows that “words may be more powerful than weapons.” The film is also a tribute to his beloved Paris.

“Diplomacy” is set in August, 1944, when World War II is turning against the Nazis. Hitler orders General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) to set bombs around Parisian monuments and bridges and to detonate them when the Germans retreat. The bombing of the bridges would cause severe flooding, leading to untold casualties. Von Choltitz has loyally followed orders before, reportedly even to killing Jewish civilians. The General gets an unexpected visit through a secret stairway from Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier, “Wild Grass”)

Niels Arestrup in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup in “Diplomacy”

Schlondorff collaborated on the screenplay with Cyril Gely, based on Gely’s play. The film is an imagined meeting between the 2 historical characters who knew each other in the period of the film. “Diplomacy” shows a master filmmaker in peak form. Focusing on some engrossing conversations between the general and the diplomat, Schlondorff skillfully builds tension.

The clever Nordling desperately tries to save Paris, appealing to von Choltitz about all that Paris represents, even as the German capital of Berlin is in ruins. Hitler had threatened the families of his officers if orders weren’t followed, so von Choltitz considered his family as hostages to Hitler.

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in “Diplomacy”

Even thought the fate of Paris is known, what makes the film fascinating is dramatizing what led to the outcome, and revealing what happened to von Choltitz, his family, and Nordling. Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier, 2 of Europe’s top actors give masterful performances of a remarkable battle of wills.

Telluride 2013: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival from a Jury headed by Steven Spielberg. Instead of the usual practice of awarding the Palme solely to director Abdellatif Kechiche (“The Secret of the Grain”), the Palme was shared with lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. All three were at the Telluride Film Festival with the film, based on a graphic novel, which has received controversy for its explicit lesbian sex scenes.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos, “The Roundup”) is a fifteen year old student from a working class background. Scenes of Adele’s literature class over-emphasize the idea of “love at first sight” which will soon become crucial to Adele. She begins a relationship with a boy from the school. The early scenes of this nearly three hour film are overlong and familiar from other films, only stressing Adele’s conventional student life.

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

Adele sees a girl with blue-tinted hair (Lea Seydoux, “Midnight In Paris”) walking by with her arm around another girl. Eyes meet. Adele’s sexual fantasies are not of her boyfriend but of the blue-haired girl. Adele contrives to meet her fantasy object.

Eventually they hook up. The blue-haired girl is Emma, an artist. The intimate and frank love scenes between the two women emphasize the passionate nature of their attraction and the intensity that will suffuse their relationship. Both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos give deep performances. The pacing of the film improves considerably when both actresses are on-screen, playing off each other. Adele and Emma become a couple. Adele, who becomes a teacher, is also Emma’s muse, posing for her paintings. The fervor of their feelings toward each other also affects the stability of their bond.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche appeared with Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux at an outdoor panel at Telluride.

Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos at Telluride

Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos at Telluride

Exarchopoulos spoke about “confidence and trust” while making the film and added that, with love and passion, the relation of flesh is important. They did not want the frank scenes between the two women to be choreographed, they all trusted one another, gave everything, totally involving their bodies and emotion.

Kechiche said he did not want music during the intimate scenes and wanted things on film to happen naturally. He considers rehearsal as “kind of a safety net”.

Seydoux said “We had to forget the camera”, it “takes time to let oneself go.” She added that Kechiche prefers long takes and that all three (director and actresses) were “generous with one another” to convey the magnetism that makes the love story.

Telluride: Mads Mikkelsen and “The Hunt”

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen received one of the three Tributes at the Telluride Film Festival. Mikkelsen’s international roles include the villain with bloody tears threatening James Bond in “Casino Royale” (2006) and the male title character in “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”.

In an often amusing on stage interview, Mikkelsen discussed the development of his career before a screening of the Danish film “The Hunt” for which he received the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Mads Mikkelsen with his Telluride Tribute medallion

Mads Mikkelsen with his Telluride Tribute medallion

His performing began as a gymnast doing somersaults. He was invited to join a dance troupe. Because of his middle-class Danish background, he faced what he called ‘”Billy Elliot” stuff’ about becoming a dancer. His career choice was better received when he described the dance troupe as “nice gays, one straight guy, and beautiful women.” He met his wife as a fellow dancer.

Mikkelsen said he was “in love with the drama of dancing” and enrolled in drama school in Denmark. His first film was “Pusher”(1996), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”). It was the first feature for both. The two collaborated on a variety of films including “Valhalla Rising” (2009) in which Mikkelsen portrays a mute Norse warrior. Mikkelsen said that when he and Refn socialize, Refn “only talks about film”, while he “only talks about sports”, so their “nights out are short”.

Mads Mikkelsen at Telluride

Mads Mikkelsen at Telluride

Mikkelsen said he is able to move between Hollywood epics like “Clash of the Titans” (2010) and smaller-scale Danish films because of “one person seeing different stuff in you.” He likes the “energy of films”, relying “on script and director”, as “each film is own project.” When asked if he lives with the problems of his characters while shooting, Mikkelsen said he lets the stress of the character “go when I go home.”

“The Hunt” Is one of the year’s strongest films. Mikkelsen portrays Lucas who works as a kindergarten aide after a teaching job ended. Divorced, he is popular in his community. After he returns a card with a heart to Klara, a young girl at the kindergarten, her untrue accusation about Lucas bothers the head of the kindergarten. After parents are told, hysteria grips the town and Lucas is treated as a child molester. His declarations of innocence are disbelieved. Klara is the daughter of Lucas’ best friend.

Mads Makkelsen in "The Hunt"

Mads Makkelsen in “The Hunt”

Director/co-screenwriter Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”) expertly builds tension as Lucas faces hostility from most of his former friends. A rare ally is his young son. Retributions include a rock thrown through a window and physical violence in a market. Vinterberg describes the film as “a modern day witch hunt”. Mikkelsen gives an exceptional performance of a man whose life is falling apart out of his control, a change of pace role demonstrating his acting range. Lucas’ desperation leads to a gripping confrontation in a crowded church.

 "The Hunt"

“The Hunt”