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.

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Telluride 43: Richard Gere as “Norman”

The title role in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a strong fit for Richard Gere as a man trying to pass himself as a business “consultant”. Norman continually tries to cultivates insiders, attempting to insinuate himself to prominent people with whom he can make the latest “business opportunity”. He uses contacts, however tenuous, for getting into prominent social events.

Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in “Norman”

In Gere’s skillful performance, desperation comes through Norman’s fast talking. Norman remains driven, hopeful that his mostly futile luck may change. Not as successful as he pretends to be, Norman is shown taking his “office” calls on a cell phone in an alley, even sitting on garbage bags.

The impressively varied supporting cast includes Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) as a sympathetic relative of Norman, Steve Buscemi as his rabbi, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (“Nymphomaniac”) as a fellow passenger.

Richard Gere in “Norman”

The film is written and directed by Joseph Cedar who made the memorable Israeli film “Footnote” (2011). Cedar directs this absorbing film at a lively pace with visual inventiveness. The screenplay takes some clever turns, particularly after Norman befriends an Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi) who becomes Prime Minister, giving Norman some unexpected opportunities.

At an outdoor panel at the Telluride Film Festival, Cedar said it was “amazing” that so many gentile actors “resembled my family.” He added in the “most crowded” New York City, “nobody cares” when you’re shooting a film, describing the location as “vibrant…dizzy…amazing.”

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.