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.

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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.”

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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