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.

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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.

Telluride 44

The 44nd Telluride Film Festival was held, as always, during Labor Day weekend in the former mining town in a mountain canyon of southwest Colorado.

As tradition, the film schedule is not announced in advance. Places like an ice rink and a school gymnasium are converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. During the Festival, nine indoor theaters show films daily along with outdoor panels and conversations with international filmmakers.

Telluride Opening Night Feed (c) Ed Scheid

This year, the Opening Night Feed in the closed off main street of the town had an oriental design. Festival regulars like Ken Burns (showing an episode of his upcoming “The Vietnam War”) and Werner Herzog showed up again.

Some of the biggest crowds were for “Battle of the Sexes” about the Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) tennis match. Both Stone and King were in Telluride for a Q&A.

Angelina Jolie and her film “First They Killed My Father” also attracted large audiences. As director, Jolie brought sensitivity and strong images to the story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. After the screening, Jolie and Loung Ung, on whose autobiography the film is based, had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia and how this country changed Jolie’s life.

Angelina Jolie at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

This year the Tributes were to Christian Bale with his new Western “Hostiles” and the cinematographer Ed Lachman. Lachman’s film “Wonderstruck” was one of the finest at Telluride this year. Directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol”), “Wonderstruck” tells 2 compelling stories set in 1927 and 1977 of hearing-impaired children travelling to New York City on a personal quest. Each sequence has the style of films of the era.

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 the younger actor who became involved with Grahame after the Oscar-winning actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain.

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

Gary Oldman is also award-caliber in “Darkest Hour” as Winston Churchill, newly appointed as Prime Minister, attempts to rouse England in the fight against Hitler.

Ethan Hawke gives an intense performance as a conflicted minister in “First Reformed” which continues writer/director Paul Schrader’s investigation of violence and obsession. Schrader referred to his film as “Diary of a Country Priest” meets “Taxi Driver” (which he wrote).

Ethan Hawke at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

“Downsizing”, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon, was about shrinking human beings in an attempt to solve overpopulation. It received a very mixed reception.

My favorite film at Telluride was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the godmother of the French New Wave”, then 87, and artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films, pasting large photographs on building exteriors and interacting with a variety of people. The film concludes with an unexpected melancholy.

“Faces Places”

“Loving Vincent” was uniquely remarkable. 125 artists animated Van Gogh’s oil paintings. I told one of this film’s directors that I was very impressed that Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes came through in the animation. “Loving Vincent” tells an intriguing story of a postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s last letter and finding conflicting versions of the artist’s last days.

“Loving Vincent”

“Wormwood” directed by Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) was the longest selection at Telluride, gripping throughout the over 4 hour run time. This Netflix series examines a son’s attempt to investigate the death of his father during a government experiment in the 1950s. Morris masterfully combines interviews, home movies, archival footage and dramatizations with Peter Sarsgaard as the man who died under mysterious circumstances. At intermission, 1950s cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served.

Errol Morris at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Other notable documentaries included “Arthur Miller, Writer” made by Miller’s daughter Rebecca who provided unique intimate insights to her father and how his life affected his plays. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was at Telluride with “Human Flow” which documented the harsh conditions faced by refugees throughout the globe.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope” about a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland.

Other films brought a hard-edged looks at their home countries. “Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. When an angry couple plan a divorce, neither wants to find a place for their teenage son. In “The Insult”, a conflict over a drain pipe escalates into a court case that exposes the enduring divisions in contemporary Lebanon.

Past Tributees at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

In “A Man of Integrity”, an Iranian man refuses to become involved in widespread bribery, facing severe repercussions with his family. The film’s writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof whose last film was released without credits, said that none of his films will be approved for showing in Iran. “Hostages” dramatized the desperate attempt of young people to escape from Soviet Georgia in 1983, leading to an airplane hijacking.

The most entertaining show was “The Cotton Club Encore” which was accompanied by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola came across a tape of his original final version of the 1984 film and reconstructed “The Cotton Club” from that. “The Cotton Club” was beset with behind the scenes conflicts, including a murder linked to on one of the film’s producers. Coppola passed out a statement saying he was told “too many black people” and “too much tap dancing” and over 20 minutes of footage was cut.

Coppola restored some terrific previously unseen musical numbers, including a fantastic “Stormy Weather” sung by Lonette McKee, playing a singer who later tries to pass for white. One of the film’s stars Maurice Hines spoke after the screening that it was an honor to dance in the film with his late brother Gregory Hines, playing brothers in a tap dancing act.

Gregory and Maurice Hines in “The Cotton Club”

Maurice also told an amusing anecdote. He said the film’s star Richard Gere asked him how he was able to bring so much emotion in his first film on the first take of a scene where his brother tells him he’s doing a solo act. Maurice told Gere he was thinking of the difference between Gere’s salary and what he was making.

It was so misguided to take out the musical acts in 1984 as these scenes are what are unique to the actual Cotton Club. Too much emphasis in the original release was on the well-acted but conventional gangster plot.

Ai Weiwei at Labor Day Picnic (c) Ed Scheid

A unique aspect of the Telluride Film Festival is the possibility of casual encounter with international filmmakers. At the Labor Day Picnic, I saw Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He smiled when he saw that I was wearing a T-shirt with his name and a Zodiac face from his exhibit in Pittsburgh. He said he had never seen the shirt.

Future posts will cover key films in more detail.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “Nocturama”

In “Nocturama”, shown at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a provocative subject of young terrorists in Paris is weakened by generic characterizations and a lack of contemporary context.

Bertrand Bonello at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

The film’s director/writer Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) introduced his work. He said the film was inspired by the “crazy” events in France and throughout Europe. Bonello described himself as “obsessed” with the “contemporary period”. He said the script started in 2010-2011, before many recent events, and that “Nocturama” combines “ultra-realim and abstraction.”

“Nocturama”

“Nocturama” begins as a group of young people methodically go through their planned routines to create large-scale destruction throughout Paris, including assassination and explosions in buildings and cars. The famous statue of Joan of Arc burns.

The characters as written are one-dimensional without any insight or much interest. The film doesn’t give any reason for the young terrorists, they include children of immigrants as well as members of the upper class.

“Nocturama”

The terrorists retreat to a large-scale department store and return to typical juvenile behavior. They get caught up in the surrounding luxury goods, trying on designer items and riding electric cars. This sequence is a very obvious statement on consumerism. One young terrorist declares his hidden love for another. As their hideout is discovered, they repetitiously meet their fates, without emotional effect.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: Marion Cotillard in “From the Land of the Moon”

“From the Land of the Moon” (“Mal de Pierres”) was the best selection I saw at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. In the film, Marion Cotillard gives a masterful performance as an extremely romantic woman with thwarted longings.

This film is impressively directed by Nicole Garcia who has acted in several films like the classic “Mon Oncle d’Amerique” (1980) and “La Petite Lili” (2003).

Gabrielle (Cotillard) is driving with her husband and son to an event where her son will perform at a piano competition. Gabrielle suddenly recognizes an address their car passes, and suddenly gets out. The film flashes back to a younger Gabrielle In 1950’s rural France.

Marion Cotillard and Àlex Brendemühl in “From the Land of the Moon”

Cotillard gives Gabrielle a passionate intensity, making for a gripping film. Gabrielle remains unfulfilled. Her mother (Brigitte Roüan) says her daughter has her “head in the clouds”. After an improper attraction from Gabrielle, her mother arranges a marriage with José (Àlex Brendemühl), a worker on the family farm. The marriage is described as “bought you off”. Gabrielle looks dazed after the wedding ceremony.

The screenplay, co-written by Garcia, develops sympathy for José as he tries vainly to understand or relate to his wife.

Gabrielle visits Switzerland for a rest cure. She becomes intensely drawn to Lieutenant André Sauvage (Louis Garrrel, “The Dreamers” (2003)), a sensitive veteran also in the sanatorium for care. He plays the piano. Marion’s developing relationship with André brings a fulfillment that has been lacking in her life. Andre will continue to dominate her life. The screenplay takes some unexpected twists.

Marion Cotillard in “From the Land of the Moon”

The photogenic scenery of Switzerland, emphasizes the healing aspects of the location. Director Nicole Garcia effectively builds tension from the raw emotion of Cotillard’s portrayal. Garcia also elicits fine performances from her supporting cast. Garcia’s other films as director have had notable performances. Her “Place Vendôme” (1998) contained one of Catherine Deneuve’s best.

After the film screening, Nicole Garcia discussed “From the Land of the Moon”. She said that the film is a free adaptation of a book by an Italian novelist set in Sardinia. She added that the subject “fit my manner”.

Nicole Garcia at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Garcia described the main character as “a woman who wants what everyone denies her”. She said that Marion Cotillard is “one of the very best”, and the “best” actress for the part, which is “particular to what she does”. She added that Cotillard brings something “unpredictable” to her characterization. Garcia described the casting as a “great actor” in a “great role.” She added that the strongest roles are ”roles that reveal as we go along.”

Garcia added that she wants “characters to be unpredictable” and that as a director, it is “nearly a duty to forget the script and invent something else.”

Garcia said that some people may see the pain Gabrielle puts her husband through, and “may dislike her, I hope not.”

Nicole Garcia at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Her background as an actor is the “strongest” thing that Garcia believes she brings to directing, to “show actors” aspects of their characters, adding “I don’t tell (them) how to say” the dialog.

When asked to explain the title of her film, Garcia declined, adding that unlike her colleague director Francois Ozon (“Frantz”)  who told her he has approval of foreign titles of his films, she “inherited” the title. She added that a critic told her the landscape in the final scene “looks like the desert, like the moon.”

Telluride 43: “Wakefield”

“Wakefield”, based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow, has a very effective role for Bryan Cranston. With ominous music, a power outage delays his nightly trek to his suburban home from his job in the city and Wakefield (Cranston) decides to radically change his routine. He hides in a storage attic from which he gets a view of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and children, observing how they react to the increasingly long disappearance.

Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Much of the film focuses on Cranston’s voice-over of Wakefield’s thoughts, well-written by director Robin Swicord (“The Jane Austin Book Club”). He considers the suburbs a place “apart from nature”. Wakefield laughs as the “plot thickens.”

The focus stays with Wakefield and this film maintains interest from the wide range of emotion Cranston conveys in his character’s impressions, from sarcasm, to jealousy, to mystification at how well his family is adjusting without him, while missing contact with them. Wakefield reassesses his relationships.

Jennifer Garner, Bryan Cranston, Robin Swicord, moderator Leonard Maltin at Telluride Festival
(c) Ed Scheid

Wakefield’s appearance changes radically as he moves onto the suburban street for secret foraging. Garner is a likable presence as the wife mostly seen from her husband’s viewpoint.

After the film screening at the Telluride Film Festival, Robin Swicord, the writer/director of “Wakefield”, described the film as getting into the mind of this man. She said the Doctorow short story, in which the “serious and comic intertwined” had “haunted me”. The story was written in the first person. Swicord added that the film explores what makes a marriage.

Jennifer Garner, Bryan Cranston, Robin Swicord at Telluride Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Bryan Cranston described the film as an “intriguing journey, very challenging.” He said the 20 day shoot was collaborative, that Swicord gave him the freedom of a “wonderful permission to try.” He said that an “actor has to trust the director.”

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “Heal the Living”

The recent Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series again brought a wide range of French films to Lincoln Center in New York City. For extra insight, filmmakers appeared to discuss their work. The series opened with “Django”, a well-acted but rather conventional film about gypsy jazz musician Django Reinhardt and his conflicts with the Nazis.

Reda Kateb as “Django”

The finest films included “From the Land of the Moon” with a superb performance by Marion Cotillard as woman with a romantic obsession, “150 Milligrams”, a fascinating film based on true incidents about a female doctor fighting a large pharmaceutical corporation because of a defective drug, and “The Dancer”, a biography of Loi Fuller who left the American West to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Other films ranged from young terrorists in Paris (“Nocturama”), Natalie Portman as part of a touring spiritualism act (“Planetarium”), and a bizarre comedy about attempts to import a French ski resort to the South American jungle (“Struggle for Life”).

Gabin Verdet in “Heal the Living”

“Heal the Living” begins as a teenage Simon (Gabin Verdet) leaves to join his friends on a surfing expedition. Director Katell Quillévéré has shot visually stunning scenes of the young men surfing, capturing their euphoria on the waves. Simon is seriously injured in an accident and the film becomes an emotionally powerful study of unexpected connections that can result from a tragedy.

Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen in “Heal the Living”

The screenplay, co-written by Quillévéré, sensitively depicts the variety of characters joined by Simon’s accident. The film is extremely moving due to uniformly strong performances, particularly from Emmanuelle Seigner (“Venus in Fur”), devastating as the injured man’s anguished mother. There are other compelling portraits by Anne Dorval as a musician with a degenerative disease and Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”) as a compassionate medical professional working with transplants.

Flashbacks show Simon’s exuberant high spirits, emphasizing his loss.

Quillévéré builds acute tension in showing the steps leading to a heat transplant, climaxing with an unflinching view of the surgery.

Future posts will cover more Rendez-Vous films.