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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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

French Rendez-Vous 2015: Fresh Views of a Familiar Subject

I was pleasantly surprised that two of the stronger films in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York were from the familiar the serial killer genre. Perhaps, these films made such an impression because both are based on real cases.

“SK1” (“L’Affaire SK1”) is a procedural that follows the multi-year search for and trial of a serial killer, nicknamed The Beast of the Bastille. Director Frederic Teller makes a notable feature debut, showing in fascinating detail the determination of the police investigating the murder of women in Paris. Mistakes prolong the hunt.

Raphael Personnaz and Olivier Gourmet in "SK1"

Raphael Personnaz and Olivier Gourmet in “SK1”

The film is extremely well-acted. The focus is on a young inspector (Raphael Personnaz, “The French Minister”). His partner is played by Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet. One of France’s top actresses, Nathalie Baye (“Catch Me If You Can”) portrays a lawyer after the killer is caught and put on trial. Director Teller, who co-wrote the screenplay, maintains tension throughout. The film has some chilling scenes, particularly when the killer (Adama Niane) makes a court confession in front of the victims’ families.

Nathalie Baye at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema     (c) Ed Scheid

Nathalie Baye at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (c) Ed Scheid

Director Frederic Teller and members of the cast discussed the film after the screening. Teller said he had access to a trove of documents for different drafts of the screenplay. Nathalie Baye who had been directed by Teller for television said she really enjoyed him as director, she felt they worked very close together as he understands actors.

Teller said his main influence was from French and American films from the 1970s and 1980s that focused on character like “Missing” and “Taxi Driver”. He described “SK1” as “obsessing, searching for the man behind the monster” and added that it was a “film about people fighting evil.”

Frederic Teller after the screening     (c) Ed Scheid

Frederic Teller after the screening (c) Ed Scheid

Also inspired by history, “Next Time I’ll Aim For the Heart” (“Prochaine Fois Je Viserai le Coeur”) has a very unusual twist in that the serial killer (Guillaume Canet, “In the Name of My Daughter”) is Franck Neuhart, a respected gendarme assigned to the case.

Before the screening, Canet added that because of the complexity of his role, it is the “best part” of his career. He also saluted his “spiritual father” director Jerry Schatzberg who was in the audience, saying Schatzberg discovered Al Pacino (“Panic in Needle Park”, 1971).

Guillaume Canet in “Next Time I’ll Aim For the Heart”

Guillaume Canet in “Next Time I’ll Aim For the Heart”

The film is directed and co-written by Cedric Anger, a former film critic. Set during 1978-1979, it is an absorbing study of a very conflicted character with several gripping twists to the plot as the gendarme attempts to impede the investigation of himself.

Guillaume Canet at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema     (c) Ed Scheid

Guillaume Canet at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (c) Ed Scheid

Canet is impressive. His Neuhart is frightening, deadly violent to his female victims. But his private life, he carries on a tentative romance with his cleaning lady. In torment from the crimes he seems unable to control, Neuhart beats himself, and in unsettling scenes, has barbed wire wrapped around his bleeding arm.