Robert De Niro Tribute

Robert De Niro at his Tribute (c) Ed Scheid

The recent Chaplin Award tribute to Robert De Niro from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City was a memorable event. The notable guests gave personalized insights into their collaborations with De Niro. Extensive clips highlighted De Niro’s many indelible performances in films like “The Godfather, Part II” (1974), “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980).

Harvey Keitel (c) Ed Scheid

Harvey Keitel who appeared with De Niro in films from “Mean Streets” (1973) to “The Comedian” (2016) spoke of the “excellence” of De Niro’s work and told a highly amusing anecdote of a trip to Rome with De Niro. Paparazzi told police that De Niro and Keitel were members of the Red Brigades and the two were arrested. After De Niro was recognized, the two were released. Newspapers said that De Niro was in Rome with his “best friend Keith Carradine.”

Whoopi Goldberg (c) Ed Scheid

More humor followed. Whoopi Goldberg said that De Niro’s attraction to black women made her feel good about the way she looked. She added that she could tell studio executives “Robert De Niro likes me!” Ben Stiller who appeared in “Meet the Parents” (2000) and its sequels with De Niro, joked about how making “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” hurt De Niro’s reputation.

Meryl Streep (c) Ed Scheid

Meryl Streep who starred with De Niro in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Falling in Love” (1984) and “Marvin’s Room” (1996) said that when she was a young actress, the only person she knew with a film role was Michael Moriarty. She went to see him in “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973) and thought that the man (De Niro) playing the naïve ballplayer from a rural background was so convincing he had to be a non-professional.

When Streep saw Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, she was shocked to see the man she thought was a “hillbilly” in “Bang the Drum” portraying an unstable small-time New York hood. With that acting versatility, Streep said she wanted De Niro to be “my teacher for most of my life.”

Both Sean Penn and Barry Levinson, who directed De Niro in films that include “Wag the Dog” (1997), spoke of their high regard for De Niro and his impressive career.

Martin Scorsese (c) Ed Scheid

The Chaplin Award was presented by Martin Scorsese who has directed De Niro in many of his most acclaimed films from “Mean Streets” early in both their careers, to “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, for which De Niro received the Best Actor Oscar, “Goodfellas” (1990), and “Casino” (1995). Scorsese spoke of the “lasting trust” between the two of them.

Martin Scorsese (c) Ed Scheid

Scorsese mentioned an anecdote that he said illustrates why De Niro is such an outstanding actor. He said that while both of them were preparing “Raging Bull”, they were visited by two United Artists executives. One of the executives asked De Niro in regard to the role of boxer Jake La Motta in the film, “Why do you want to play a cockroach?” De Niro forcefully replied “He’s not a cockroach”.

Scorsese later said the executives had planned to pull financing on the film until the encounter with De Niro. Scorsese added that De Niro “never looks down” on the characters he portrays.

Robert De Niro (c) Ed Scheid

In accepting the Award, and after thanking the previous speakers, Robert De Niro spoke of the importance of the arts and organizations that support the arts like the National Endowment of the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System, particularly in such a “divisive” time with “mean-spirited” government policies.

Robert De Niro (3rd from left) being congratulated by Ben Stiller, Barry Levinson, Meryl Streep and Harvey Keitel (c) Ed Scheid

De Niro joked to the audience that he doesn’t just make films for the “liberal elite”. “That’s what my restaurants are for” he added. He said he makes films “for all of you.”

Barry Levinson, Meryl Streep, Harvey Keitel and Sean Penn (c) Ed Scheid

Robert De Niro, Barry Levinson, Meryl Streep and Harvey Keitel (c) Ed Scheid

Telluride 42: “Son of Saul” with director and actor

“Son of Saul” is a powerful and often shattering Hungarian film about a Saul, a sonderkommando, responsible for cleaning out the concentration camp showers. This film which received the runner-up Grand Prix at Cannes, is a remarkable debut for director Laszlo Nemes who co-write the screenplay.

Géza Röhrig in "Son of Saul"

Géza Röhrig in “Son of Saul”

The film has a unique visual style. Often the images behind Saul (Géza Röhrig) are blurred, reflecting how he has had to block out what’s happening around him in order to survive. Saul’s actions in cleaning out the camp showers are shown to devastating effect. The focus of the film remains on Saul.

Géza Röhrig gives a masterful and often intense performance as Saul. Saul sees the body of a boy he may remember and desperately tries to have a rabbi give funeral prayers. Someone says “We’re already dead.” “Son of Saul” remains an indelible experience.

At the Telluride Film Fesival, director Laszlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig, lead actor of “Son of Saul”, appeared at a wide-ranging outdoor discussion with Meryl Streep and representatives from “Spotlight”. Röhrig was introduced as a poet.

Laszlo Nemes and  Géza Röhrig  at Telluride

Laszlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig at Telluride

Nemes said that he did not want to “show too much” in “Son of Saul”, to “give something to view” of “a visceral experience not common in cinematic form” that would be “at the heart of human experience.”

He added that he wanted the film to be “immersive” and “hypnotic”, by keeping the camera “so close to the main character.”

Röhrig described “mainstream” films on the Holocaust as a “falsification, at worst melodramatic”. He added that most of these films center on “survival tales” which were “an anomaly.” He said these films are “so stereotypical” and full of clichés that he called “Holocaust trash”.

Lazlo Nemes and  Géza Röhrig  at Telluride

Lazlo Nemes and Géza Röhrig at Telluride

Röhrig said that most sonderkommandos like Saul would clean the gas chamber and burn the bodies of the victims for a “better food ratio” and to be able to wear their hair long. He said that every 3 or 4 months these sonderkommando were liquidated.

He spoke about “genocide happening in Yemen, Syria, northwest Iraq” from ISIS, adding that “70 years pass and we haven’t learned a bit, governments condemn and can’t stop” the mass killing.

Nemes described cinema as an “intense medium to speak to the subject of what it means to be a human being in the middle of” the tragedy of the concentration camp. He wanted to “explore the subjectivity of it”, adding that “to create empathy was our hope.”

Telluride 42: Meryl Streep and “Suffragette”

“Suffragette” was a favorite selection at the Telluride Film Festival. It tells a powerful story of women driven to desperation to have their voices heard. Before the screening director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) said she had worked 6 years to get the film made. Meryl Streep who again portrays an historical figure, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, was also at Telluride. Gavron said she needed an iconic figure to play the iconic Pankhurst.

Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

In 1912, Maud (Carey Mulligan, “Far From the Madding Crowd”) is working at a grueling job in a laundry with the unwanted attention of her superior. When making a delivery, she looks with sadness at the luxuries behind shop windows. She is shocked to see women breaking windows with stones and shouting “Votes for Women!.” One of her co-workers, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), is among these suffragettes.

Violet introduces Maud to others in the suffrage movement including Edith (Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”) who runs a pharmacy. The women demand the vote because they have no say in their lives. Like many women, Maud works longer hours than men for less pay. And laws always favored men over women. Maud joins the suffragettes, believing drastic change is the only way to improve her life. The women have turned to violence against property to have their voices noticed, they want “deeds not words”, believing “war is the only language men listen to.”

Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter in "Suffragette"

Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter in “Suffragette”

Gavron has staged the film with many vivid historical details. The screenplay by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) includes a variety of well-defined characters of different social classes. Mulligan is superb, showing Maud’s growing anger and determination. She leads a strong ensemble. In a very stirring scene, Streep as Pankhurst gives inspiration to a crowd of suffragettes meeting clandestinely. The women risk being battered and arrested by police, and brutal force-feeding in prison.

Brendan Gleeson (“Calvary”) is formidable as a police official attempting hidden surveillance of the women. The authorities treat the suffragettes with superiority and entitlement. Maud’s husband (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s latest Q) becomes increasingly unsympathetic as her behavior becomes public, leading to a wrenching sequence.

Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette”

Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette”

“Suffragette” becomes very moving and emotionally intense as the women determinedly continue their struggle for change.

After the screening which received a standing ovation, Meryl Streep said that today, “the rights of women haven’t stopped being suppressed”. She added ”Great leaders” are needed “to move things along” as the fact that “women work longer” hours than men “for less” money has not changed. She added that she was “proud to be associated any way” with “Suffragette”.

She said she saw the impact of women not voting in her family. Streep thought there was “no smarted person” than her grandmother, the mother of 3, who would drag her husband off the golf course. But she couldn’t even run for dog catcher. She could only be on the school board.

Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Streep that that doing research for the film, she surprised to learn that the US counterparts to the British suffragettes were “well-behaved in comparison, that’s not how it usually comes out.”

Director Sarah Gavron said that ”Suffragette” had the first film crew to shoot in Parliament for a pivotal scene. An unlike the hostility shown by politicians in the film, she said that Prime Minister David “Cameron and his kids visited us.” Gavron added that ironically, Helena Bonham Carter who plays a prominent suffragette in the film is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister who “fought to keep women from voting.”

Gavron said the suffragettes faced continual “brutality from the state”. They would be released to their families, then put back in prison. Emily Davison, a pivotal figure in the movement who appears in the film, was force fed 49 times.

Streep said that one way to increase the female voice in the film industry is the awarding of grants to screenwriters over 40. She wondered why just “1% of the top 100 directors are women.” She added that “who directs, defines the film.”

Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Michael Keaton, Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep later appeared at an outdoor panel at Telluride with representatives of other films. Gavron said the history of the suffragettes is untold and not part of school history lessons. She believes “Suffragette” offers a “perspective not seen before”. She said the filmmakers got a handle on the screenplay by making Maud the central character to give the film a working class perspective. Originally the character was a servant in the home of an aristocrat played by Romola Garai.

Streep said that she has “more license” and “creativity” when playing fictional characters than historical figures like Emmeline Pankhurst. She discovered that Mrs. Pankhurst, who would be arrested if caught by British authorities, traveled to America to raise funds. She was introduced in Hartford by the mother of Katharine Hepburn who was active in the US suffragist movement.

Streep described the British suffragettes as “strategically violent” to affect change. She said that in 1913, women could be in a legal marriage at age 12. She added that Margaret Thatcher, whom she received an Oscar for portraying in “The Iron Lady”, “couldn’t get a credit card in 1980 without her husband’s signature.”

Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Meryl Streep at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

“Suffragette” was described by Streep as a “modern story, really.” “The vote can still change lives”, she said, adding that by not voting we “waste it” if we “don’t realize we can still change” things with our vote.

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: Hilary Swank Tribute and “The Homesman”

At her Telluride Film Festival Tribute, a relaxed Hilary Swank joked that she didn’t feel old enough for a Tribute. She recently turned 40. After she received her first Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999 without many notable credits, Swank was called an overnight success. She said amusingly, that it was “one long night.”

Swank said she doubted such success could happen, but her mother believed in her. She began acting at 8 years old in school plays like “The Jungle Book.” She said she enjoyed making characters come alive.

Unlike her most celebrated films, Swank started out in comedy. She had a role on TV in “Beverly Hills 90210”, but her character was cut from the show. She said she felt she was “not good enough for 90210”, but 2 months later came “Boys Don’t Cry”.

Hilary Swank (left) in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank (left) in “The Homesman”

Swank described her collaboration with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on “Million Dollar Baby” (2002), for which she received her second Oscar, as a highlight of her life. She said her role of a boxer coached by Eastwood, who also directed the film, paralleled her off-camera relationship with him.

In both of her Oscar-winning performances, Swank’s characters died before the end of the film. She said she would like roles where she can “live to see the credits”. On films, she added “I love what connects us all” and that the quality of the script is important for her in making choices.

Hillary Swank’s latest film “The Homesman” with Tommy Lee Jones, another actor/director, was shown as part of her Tribute. She believes the film is “richer and better because of Tommy Lee” who also co-wrote the screenplay. She described Jones as “so specific” and said he “stands apart” because he is both “book and people strong.”

In preparation for a film, Swank always writes a sentence about her character on her script. Of Mary Bee Cuddy whom she portrays in “The Homesman”, Swank wrote “she goes where angels fear to tread” and also described her as “so selfless.”

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in "The Homesman"

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in “The Homesman”

Swank said it was “a dream come true” for her to work with Meryl Streep, but they have no scenes together in “The Homesman.”

Like Jones’ previous directorial effort, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), “The Homesman” depicts a Western journey, but though well-acted, lacks the freshness of the earlier film.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) lives alone and independently in Nebraska. The film begins as Mary Bee prepares a meal for a neighboring landowner, with disappointing results, as she’s considered “too bossy and plain.” Swank gives another impressive dramatic performance, showing her character’s calm and forceful determination which is unable to hide her disappointment.

The plot has the unusual starting point of a trip to take three young women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter), severely traumatized by life in the remote West, back East to a church where they can receive care. The 3 actresses are very compelling. Gummer is Meryl Streep’s daughter.

While none of the local men will agree to take the women East, Mary Bee who considers herself “as good as any man” volunteers. Early on, she spies the grizzled George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on his horse, with his head in a noose, punishment for claim jumping.

Hilary Swank and  Tommy Lee Jones in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman”

Mary Bee rescues him, as he agrees to join her on her quest to help the damaged women. Jones gives a colorful performance. Initially his character looks like comedy relief, but he is formidable in the trail and a dangerous opponent.

The film contains striking scenes of the desolate Western landscape as Mary Bee and Briggs continue on, with the constant threat of any of the young women trying to run away. As director, Jones maintains a lively pace.

The different characterizations of Swank and Jones play well off of each other and enliven the somewhat conventional Western plot. Though the setup is uncommon, during their travels Mary Bee and Briggs encounter familiar Western characters like Indians and greedy businessmen. The sexism of the era depicted is overlaid on the film, particularly in a key scene.