Telluride 43: Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

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 Peter Turner, the younger actor who became involved with Grahame in 1978 after the actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain. Turner was at Telluride.

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

Bening’s portrait of Grahame vividly combines sensuality, romanticism and vulnerability with the charisma of an Oscar-winning actress (“The Bad and the Beautiful”, 1952) who had acted with top stars.

When Grahame collapses before a stage performance, she asks Turner (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”) if she can recuperate at his home. Flashbacks show the different stages of the often intense relationship between Grahame and Turner.

Peter Turner at Telluride

The film would not be as successful without the strong chemistry between Bening and Bell that makes their characters’ enduring emotional connection believable. Jamie Bell is also impressive as the younger man who remains drawn to the older actress.

Julie Walters who appeared with Bell in “Billy Elliot” creates another notable performance as Turner’s sympathetic but realistic mother. Vanessa Redgrave has a memorable scene as Grahame’s mother in a reunion with her daughter.

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

Intercutting the central relationship in different time frames, director Paul McGuigan has made an intriguing, absorbing, and ultimately moving film.


Telluride 44: Contemporary Issues in Films From Finland and Russia

Two impressive films reflecting international issues were shown at the Telluride Film Festival.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope”. Kaurismaki has made 19 films over 35 years. His latest is a compelling film about Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland hiding under coal on a barge.

Sherwan Haji (center) in “The Other Side of Hope”

Khaled is beaten up by thugs, but he encounters Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). Wikstrom is an older man who has left his wife and job of selling shirts to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. Khaled joins the staff of the new restaurant.

The deadpan dialog delivery is combined with expressive faces. Kaurimaki combines quirky humor with deep compassion for his characters. As with previous Kaurismaki works like “The Man Without a Past”, this marvelous film has a warm feeling of people on the fringes of society banding together to help each other. Scenes of the makeover of the restaurant to attract new customers are cleverly amusing.

Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen (both at thable) in “The Other Side of Hope”

After the screening Sherwan Haji said that Aki Kaurismaki gives precise instructions, wanting the actors “not to act at all”, and to “drop lines like bricks” for the deadpan style. He added that Kaurismaki gives actors “enormous space to contribute”, so as “not to be a marionette”.

In response to my question, Haji said that there is no improvising on the set, no word of the script is changed.

“Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. At Telluride, Zvyagintsev said that he wants the film set in Russia to have resonance outside of the country.

Matvey Novikov in “Loveless”

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are continually quarreling and about to divorce. Neither wants to find a place for their teenaged son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). In a deeply poignant scene, Alyosha, hearing his parents, cries behind a door in the shadows. The soon to be divorced couple reflect the indifference and emptiness of a self-centered Russian society. Zvyagintsev has filmed many striking scenes of a decaying country falling apart.

Telluride 44: “Faces Places”

My favorite selection at the Telluride Film Festival was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the Godmother of the French New Wave”, 87 when the film was shot, and street artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport, providing a warm humor as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films.

At Telluride, JR said that once the two first met, they looked for any excuse to meet again. “Faces Places” was the result and was accurately described as life, friends, cinema, and art. The film was made over a 2 year span and was the first time Varda had a co-director.

Agnes Varda and JR traveling in “Faces Places”

In the film, Varda speaks of meeting amazing people by chance. She and JR collaborate on pasting large photographs on building exteriors as they interact with others throughout France.

Photos of coal miners from a previous generation are enlarged and pasted up in a mining area. In an amusing scene, Varda photographs a fish in a store. The giant image of the fish will be pasted to a water tower. Other photos radically change the appearance of an abandoned town and attract visitors.

JR and Agnes Varda in “Faces Places”

“Faces Places” shows Varda’s boundless enthusiasm which is infectious. She maintains a keen interest in new experiences and an enjoyment of life.

This film becomes more serious, with a sense of loss as treatment of Varda’s declining vision is shown. A visit to an old colleague of Varda’s concludes “Faces Places” with an unexpected melancholy.

Agnes Varda was not in Telluride. Her daughter Rosalie Varda was there with JR. Rosalie said she thought that her mother and JR would enjoy each other and introduced them. She added that her mother made her first film “La Pointe Courte” in 1954 and had not seen a lot of films before then. Her first film was made before the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) began.

JR remembering Agnes Varda at Telluride

Rosalie described her mother’s earlier filmmaking as “more modern than the Nouvelle Vague”. She called her mother a “pint-sized iconoclast” with a “great curiosity” and “positive energy” who “speaks constantly”.

On his work in the film JR said “I love pasting” (photographs). He said that he and Agnes Varda have the “same vision”.

Rosalie said that Agnes and her family lived in Los Angeles for a time beginning in 1967. Rosalie added that there were open houses at their home. Agnes became close to Jim Morrison and was present at his burial in Paris. Rosalie said that in “Faces Places”, her mother and JR show there is “No age for art.”


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.


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.


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.”


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.”