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.”

Telluride 43: Two views of Paris

The Telluride Film Festival screened 2 selections with very different views of Paris. “Frantz”, directed and co-written by Francois Ozon (“Swimming Pool”, “Potiche”) is a very impressive and absorbing film about grief in Post-WWI Europe. The black & white photography emphasizes the somber mood of continual mourning and devastation.

In a small German town, Anna (Paula Beer) makes repeated visits to the grave of Frantz, her fiance killed in the War. One day, she sees Adrien (Pierre Niney), a young Frenchman, tearfully leaving flowers at her fiance’s grave. He tells her he had been close friends in Paris with Frantz before the war.

Paula Beer in “Frantz”

In the town, Adrien faces post-war hostility toward the victorious French. Anna invites him home to meet the parents (Marie Gruber, Ernst Stotzner) of her late fiance with whom she lives. His stories of his time in Paris with Frantz are a deep comfort for his survivors. Intriguingly, Adrien’s reminiscences of Frantz (Anton von Lucke), are in color reflecting a period of deep happiness and a more intense time than the present. One of these flashbacks is set among the art of the Louvre.

Francois Ozon gives the film a deep sensitivity to the human tragedy of war enhanced by the moving performances of the lead actors.

Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in “Frantz”

After Adrien returns home, Anna eventually travels to France to look for him and she discovers new details of Frantz’s relationship with Adrien. Scenes of Anna in Paris are in color, signifying a lively and vital place of new possibilities.

In the very different comedy, “Lost in Paris”, the city becomes a location for some bizarrely humorous adventures. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel are actors, writers and directors (“The Fairy”). Fiona (Gordon), a librarian, leaves her home in Canada to find out what has happened to her aged aunt in Paris.

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel at Telluride

Fiona undergoes severe mishaps after arriving in Paris. This film becomes a series of clever comedic sequences staged with visual flair. Fiona’s belongings fall into the Seine and end up with Dom (Abel), a homeless man who teams up with Fiona.

Fiona’s eccentric aunt is portrayed by Emmanuelle Riva, in one of her last film performances. Riva has received acclaim in films from “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959) to her Oscar-nominated performances in “Amour” (2012). Riva is a delight and part of a uniquely memorable musical number with comic star Pierre Richard.

Pierre Richard and Emmanuelle Riva in “Lost in Paris”

Fiona’s adventures lead throughout Paris, including Pere Lachaise Cemetery and a terrific climax on the Eiffel Tower.

Telluride 43: “Toni Erdmann”

The unique German film “Toni Erdmann” stood out at the Telluride Film Festival. Guest director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) accurately emphasized its originality by describing it as a cross “between Bergman and Borat”. The emotional relationships of the former are combined with the bizarre disguises of the later.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in “Toni Erdmann”

I very much enjoyed a conversation with the film’s lead actor Peter Simonischek at a press dinner sponsored by Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributor. Simonischek described the film to me as about a father (his character) who has drifted apart from his daughter and his attempt to get closer to her. The father uses practical jokes and a fake identity in attempting to reconnect. Simonischek spoke about his extensive stage experience of over 40 years in Germany, including performing in American plays.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

In “Toni Erdmann”, Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced piano teacher who now lacks a student. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is a workaholic corporate strategist. The time Ines has devoted to her career has given her little personal time and little inclination to spend it with her father. Ines’ latest posting is in Bucharest, a city adjusting to modern capitalism. The city now has a modern, generic mall where merchandise is too expensive for most citizens.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest disguised in an unruly wig and over-sized teeth. He tells his daughter’s work contacts that he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach at the same corporation as his daughter. Director Maren Ade who wrote the ingenious screenplay has said the teeth were inspired by a gag set she was given at the premiere of “Austin Powers”.

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in "Toni Erdmann"

Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek (center) in “Toni Erdmann”

Ines is initially shocked at her father’s ruse but is forced to play along. She asks him “Are you trying to ruin me? … Have you gone insane?

As director and writer, Ade does a masterful job of combining eccentric comedy with an undercurrent of poignancy as the father tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. Ade said “Humor is his only weapon and he starts using it to the hilt.” The film is full of clever and unexpected twists. A highlight is a hilarious team-building exercise.

Peter Simonischek  and Sandra Huller in "Toni Erdmann"

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in “Toni Erdmann”

Simonischek and Huller create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. Winifred/Toni’s outrageous behavior contrasts well with Ines’ humorlessness.

“Toni Erdmann” is a remarkable film that remains absorbing and sustains humor throughout a running time of over 2.5 hours.

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival   (c) Ed Scheid

Peter Simonischek at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff had an insightful post-screening Q&A with Peter Simonischek. They mentioned as background that Germany and Romania have a consulting connection as Romania’s socialist economy moves into a capitalist system.

Simonischek said that Maren Ade writes a scene and gives the actors “lots of time to rehearse and make inventions”, adding to the singular style of the film. He added that in 56 shooting days, there was “not one bad day:”

Telluride 43: “La La Land”

“La La Land,” which was very well-received at the Telluride Film Festival, has recently received some Best Film awards. Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) continues his unique use of music with a contemporary film musical. He also wrote the screenplay. Chazelle’s film shows the influence of classic MGM musicals like “The Band Wagon”. It also has the bright colors of “The Umbrella of Cherbourg” and the emotional conflicts of a musician as in “New York, New York”.

The film begins with a terrific and energetic large scale musical number set during a Los Angeles freeway morning traffic jam. “La La Land” centers on Mia, a would-be actress (a charismatic Emma Stone) and Sebastian, an uncompromising jazz pianist, (Ryan Gosling). As in other movies, after some hostile introductions, an attraction develops between the two.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Stone and Gosling who have worked together before have a strong on-screen chemistry and bring deep feeling to their characterizations. Stone is a better singer than Gosling. Mia keeps hoping for her big break while Sebastian struggles to continue to play the kind of music he loves, a jazz he’s told is dying. John Legend plays a musician friend of Sebastian.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in "La La Land"

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land”

Chazelle is far more inventive in the elaborate song and dance scenes than with the with the predictable and often derivative screenplay that follows a lot of film conventions like the struggling heroine who shares an unbelievably large and colorful apartment with her room-mates, big enough for an spirited musical number that leads up to a lively party scene.

The clever and varied songs were composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Chazelle is effective in staging the charming and more intimate musical numbers between Stone and Gosling, including a magical sequence set in the Griffith Observatory planetarium that reflects the characters’ soaring emotions.

Emma Stone at Telluride     (c) Ed Scheid

Emma Stone at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

The film ends with a clever, extremely well-edited sequence, finishing the film on a note of poignancy.

Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone participated in an outdoor panel at Telluride. Chazelle discussed using storyboard in planning the complicated musical numbers.

Damien Chazelle at Telluride    (c) Ed Scheid

Damien Chazelle at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid


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Telluride 43: Isabelle Huppert in “Things to Come”

In “Things to Come”, Isabelle Huppert gives another masterful performance in a continually impressive career.

Unlike many of her roles which had a bizarre aspect, her character in this French film is Nathalie, a professor and author leading a calm and comfortable life which is unexpectedly thrown into turmoil. Her husband (Andre Marcon) leaves her, her mother (Edith Scob) is moved to a nursing home, and she is forced to confront more changes. Nathalie visits a commune where a former student resides.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Huppert brings an emotional depth to Nathalie. Her close-ups are particularly expressive and intense. A scene where she unexpectedly views her ex-husband and his new partner is memorable.

Director Mia Hansen-Love, who was chosen Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival gives a potent sense of the details of Nathalie’s life, like her strong attachment to her favorite books. Hansen-Love, who also wrote the screenplay, effectively contrasts the crowded urban life of Nathalie with the quiet rural setting of the commune where she can contemplate her new life.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Indorf  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Indorf (c) Ed Scheid

At an outdoor panel at Telluride, Huppert said that her job as an actress is to show the emotional state of the character at a point of time and it is up to a film to connect these points. Both she and Hansen-Love are extremely successful collaborating in “Things to Come”, making the transformations of Nathalie’s life very compelling.

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival  (c) Ed Scheid

Isabelle Huppert at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Telluride 43: Tribute to Casey Affleck and “Manchester by the Sea”

My top selection at the Telluride Film Festival was “Manchester by the Sea”, written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”, “Lobby Hero” on stage) and shown as part of a Tribute to its leading actor, Casey Affleck.

During his tribute, Affleck who had acted in one of Lonergan’s plays said there is “none better than Kenny.” He spoke of getting to understand himself better during filmmaking as he understood the character better. He added that actor and director have the “most profound relationship.”

Casey Affleck at Telluride   (c) Ed Scheid

Casey Affleck at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Affleck joked about falling in love with Rooney Mara making “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013). He said that he shows “scripts I like” to “people I like” including friends and family, and “Kenny constantly”. He added “my kids have never been wrong.”

After high school. Affleck moved to Los Angeles. An early film was “To Die For” (1995). He said the film’s director Gus Van Sant guided him because “I hadn’t the slightest idea” what to do. He became a close friend of Joaquin Phoenix, a co-star in the film. Affleck added they “bonded more” when he married Phoenix’s sister. Affleck also directed Phoenix in “I’m Still Here”, passed off as a documentary on Phoenix’s leaving acting.

Kenneth Lonergan at Telluride    (c) Ed Scheid

Kenneth Lonergan at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Affleck added that it can seem like “a nightmare” playing a character living a nightmare. He added that an actor has to be patient and not too thin-skinned.

“Manchester by the Sea” is about Lee Chandler (Affleck), a janitor leading a solitary life, who returns to his home town after a family tragedy and finds that he has been given custody of his teenage nephew. Lee is forced to confront the consequences of his past.

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

This powerful film is exceptionally directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan who has created a variety of complex characters that are portrayed by an impressive cast that includes Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick.

Affleck gives a superb, award-caliber, intense performance, movingly conveying his character’s conflicts. Lee who had considered himself “just a backup” must face new responsibilities, leading to volatile fights with his young nephew (Lucas Hedges) about a future disruptive for both. Affleck gives Lee a haunted appearance as he relives the pain brought on by his visit home. Lee and his ex-wife (Williams) have a devastating scene of raw emotion.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea”

Both Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck participated in an outdoor panel. Lonergan said that the setting of a film become an integral part of the story. Affleck who is from Massachusetts said that the Manchester location is close to where he grew up. He added that it can be disorienting while filming if you don’t know the location.