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There was a minor email kerfuffle amongst the press corps just prior to this year’s Telluride Film Festival. We received an announcement that there would be no photography at the George Clooney tributes. I immediately announced back that Mr. Clooney couldn’t take my picture either. Turns out it was a miscommunication, the proper message was ‘no flash photography’ and it wasn’t specific to George Clooney events. No flash photography is the normal policy anyway so this was a no-news announcement. The fact George Clooney would be there, as the subject of one of the tributes, that was news. The other tributes were to Tilda Swinton and Pierre Etaix. As is usually the case with tributes the subject has a new movie to show. In this case Mr. Clooney’s new film was The Descendants (review below) while Ms. Swinton’s new film was We Need to Talk About Kevin. We didn’t get a chance to see the latter film but the comments from fellow festivers were positive about the film but with warnings that it was very hard to watch. Indeed this was one of the darker festivals in years with many films dealing with tough subjects.
Attendance was as it’s been in previous years, very nearly sold out of the main festival passes about a week before the festival. Some people were shut out of certain movies. Invariably this happens with movies the festival shows as ‘sneak previews’. These are movies that already have distribution and are expected in theaters soon. In this case the movie was Butter starring Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackman. Ms. Garner was in attendance, amplifying the overcrowding. We didn’t get to see Butter but reports were quite positive. Something like a butter carving contest as a metaphor for the current political situation in the US with characters in the movie perhaps having obvious analogs in today’s headlines.
Last year I wrote an extensive section on 3D at Telluride. This year there was only one 3D presentation, the movie Pina by Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club). See the full review below. There were other technical overhauls this year though with many theaters getting a sound upgrade courtesy of Meyer Sound. The sound was really good, not sure I can say it was better than in previous years, my aural memory isn’t quite that good. The ratio of digitally projected films to conventional 35mm prints seems to still be on the rise with some directors specifically asking for digital and even exotic projection rates such as 25 fps. Telluride is also showing more documentaries each year it seems, nowhere near the number that Sundance shows however but Sundance is a much larger and longer festival. This year every feature was preceded by a short film, almost all of them excellent.
Even though we were able to get to 18 screenings (three of them being shorts programs) there were as always, films we would have liked to have seen but couldn’t get to. Besides Butter and We Need to Talk About Kevin there was Living in the Material World a four hour documentary on the life of George Harrison by none other than Martin Scorsese. Widely praised by all who saw it, it is slated to be on HBO in mid October.
Notables at the festival: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Glenn Close, Jennifer Garner, Shailene Woodley and directors Wim Wenders, Alexander Payne, Warner Herzog.
The latest film from director Alexander Payne (Sideways), this one based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings has George Clooney playing a father, becoming a widower, while simultaneously presiding over a cadre of his wealthy cousins that must agree on what to do with a parcel of pristine Hawaii that has been passed down to them. That all sounds a bit contrived I suppose but the premise gives ample room for commentary and interpretation about the environment, land rights and wealth as well as family of course. Thankfully the movie makes these statements subtly, as part of the story. The pleasure in this movie is seeing Mr. Clooney in one of his purely dramatic roles. He clearly deserves the tribute paid to him at this year’s Telluride. Shailene Woodley (tv: The Secret Life of an American Teenager) plays the daughter and anchors the many fine performances at the heart of the movie. There are many, many characters in the film which was of course shot on location so some of the performances on the periphery a little rough but that is not uncharacteristic for this director. The music is 100% Hawaiian, much of it by famed slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui and this alone is worth the price of admission. The film is well worth seeing.
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley
At the Q&A George Clooney joked that he was able to summon the tears needed for one scene by remembering that Director Alexander Payne refused to cast him in Sideways. I wish we could see some of these movies made with the alternate casting, or maybe just a short with some of the key scenes. It would be like when a band does a cover song. Both tribute and re-interpretation that add to the original. Clooney sat in the audience for the screening I attended and I was able to meet him at a party for the press during the festival. If you were wondering if he’s really like he seems, he is.
Director Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire) had met dancer Pina Bausch twenty years before making this movie and for twenty years he had been telling her that he would make a movie about her. He just had to figure out how to adequately capture dance on film. The answer finally came when he saw U2 3D. Yep.
The filming for Pina commenced just as Ms. Bausch was diagnosed with a cancer that would claim her life before she could see the film. This of course makes the film that much more of a tribute to the career of this important choreographer. In the Q&A after the showing Mr. Wenders said that this was the first 3D film shot in real locations. I don’t know if that’s entirely true – I think some of the Harry Potter films used some outdoor locations but I get his point. However, to me these locations showed the continued limits of 3D. The backgrounds, even though they were actual planet Earth locations, often looked fake. The 3D technology is still not convincing enough to make something look real. Still, for these purposes (trying to capture and portray dance performance), it works famously. The Telluride audience was thrilled. I’d like to see a 2D version before I say that the film absolutely would not work in 2D but I’m leaning that way. If your wife is a fan of dance but is not sure about your expensive 3D-capable home theater, buy this movie.
This is Glenn Close’s baby. Based on a novel by Gordon Steel, Close first helped to write, produce and then starred in the play. It took her 18 years to finally get enough backing for the movie (what is up with that Hollywood? Honestly). For the film she again has writer and producer credits as well the starring role and she helped to write the song played over the closing credits (sung by Sinead O’Connor). Ms. Close plays Albert Nobbs, a woman posing as a man in order to get work in 19th century Ireland. The film is as much about class differences as it is about sex discrimination. The costumes and sets are flawless and the acting is great throughout the cast. Mia Wasikowska plays a younger maid in the hotel with a strong Irish accent of course and I absolutely did not recognize her, she played Joni in The Kids Are Alright, one of my favorite films from last year.
Ms. Close sat in the audience for the screening on opening night of the festival and stayed and talked with audience members in the aisle well past the closing credits. Look for Glenn Close to get a best actress nomination for this one. Mia Wasikowska should get best supporting.
The Forgiveness of Blood
Director Joshua Martin Marston must have a travelling gene. His first feature, Maria Full of Grace was about a woman working as drug mule, travelling from Columbia to New York. For this film Marston went to Albania for the duration. Intrigued by news reports of blood feuds where eye for an eye justice is carried out family to family as it has been for centuries, he wondered how this works and what it looks like in the age of the internet and cell phones. Using a 100% local Albanian cast and crew this film is another example of the amazing acting talent that is available to directors working outside of the Hollywood system. Not that it was particularly easy, the director spent 6 months finding and training the actors he wanted. Then, in a supreme display of irony, the production was almost shut down on two occasions when fights, which then became blood feuds themselves, broke out amongst the crew. The driving force that seems to perpetuate these feuds is machismo. Women have some sway in these situations and in Albanian society in general but only behind the scenes. They can increase their status by renouncing their woman hood – becoming a ‘sworn virgin’. Like Maria Full of Grace, this film doesn’t attempt to comment on or solve these factors, it simply wants to show what it’s like for people. As such it doesn’t follow any of the accepted Hollywood precepts for action or script timing but if you give it a chance it will take you there.
Director Joshua Marston
Telluride showed this director’s first short (Box of Queens) in 1998, Maria Full of Grace in 2004. Joshua Marston has returned to Telluride on his own, purchasing a festival pass, each of the other years.
Goodbye First Love
This film was selected for Telluride only weeks before the festival, knocking something else from the program. A French film through and though, it seeks to find the motivations of its characters. A young girl and a young man are deeply in love. He has a penchant for travelling however while she seems to seek out stability. While she is still in high school, he is taking off to spend a year in central America. We stay with the girl and watch as the tides of the relationship change. The film does a great job of establishing the motivations for some dark behaviors but the director didn’t agree. She said that her goal was to explain how one person could have extremes of light and darkness but that she didn’t quite succeed. No arguments though that the film has a poetic quality and soars on many other counts, for a while I was considering it my favorite at this year’s festival.
Director Mia Hansen-Love
In the Q&A the director Mia Hansen-Love said that she considered this film a completion of a trilogy with her first two films: Father of My Children and Tout est Pardonne
We’ve all heard about Indian farmers committing suicide in part due to financial ruin brought on by the questionable business practices of Monsanto which is forcing the use of their non-reusable, genetically modified seeds. Now you can see it. Filmed entirely in rural India, we follow one farmer in particular and see the workings of Monsanto on the entire village. For thousands of years these farmers grew cotton from natural seeds, fertilizing them with cow dung. The natural seeds were available from their own plants if they harvested for that or from their neighbors in the next village. With heavy handed marketing and questionable claims Monsanto gets everyone to switch to their expensive, non re-usable seeds in the same year. The justification for the higher cost is higher yields which invariably don’t pan out. The genetically modified plants are designed to have immunity to one bug or another but are highly susceptible to fungi (for instance). But, since everyone in the area has switched, there are no natural seeds available. These farmers are not rich and so have to take loans to try with the same questionable seeds the next year. The movie doesn’t say what the end game might be but it seems as though having this multitude of small farmers take themselves out of the game might open up a land buying opportunity for big agribusiness. The movie is well made and should be seen by all.
“Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small” Henry Kissinger. This Israeli movie was born when director Joseph Cedar got a phone call that he thought must have been meant for his father. The call was from the Italian embassy in Israel. They were wanting to celebrate the 60 year anniversary of the founding of Israel. While Cedar is a well known director in Israel he thought they must have meant his father who as a bio-chemist won the prestigious Israel Prize. The person making the call said, “Oh… ummm.. let me check”. Nope, they had the right man. The premise got him to thinking about father-son dynamics and got him started writing a script after a long drought. Study of the Talmud, the central text of Judaism, is a huge and well-followed field in Israel, seemingly populated by Asperger Syndrome candidates who meticulously analyze numerous examples of hand copied versions of the book, scouring them for minute differences. This is the ingenious setting for a riveting father-son drama. It’s hard to describe how a movie can take such a seemingly unfilmable premise and draw you in so deeply. My one quibble with the movie is the music though you might view it as a strength. There is a rather overbearing soundtrack of classical-inspired music. The director had the problem that he wanted the overall tone to be light but the emotions are intense, he installed the music like another character to lighten things up. It works, but I found it rather heavy handed, it reminded me of Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoons. (I’m not a classical music fan so that might color my opinion).
If you’ve seen any of the previous films by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (The Man Without a Past) you don’t need me to tell you to go see this one. For everyone else, I’m telling you, see this movie. The movie is set in modern day France in a small town called La Havre but it looks like it was filmed in the 1960’s or earlier. The only clues that the times are modern are the cell phones and the opening scene where a single boy escapes from a police raid on a cargo container full of people attempting to smuggle themselves into England. Two distinctly modern problems. The film goes on to play out a beautiful and heartening picture of a community with few resources coming together to help out one of their own. There are numerous sight gags and situations that make the movie hilarious as well. It will stick with you long after you see it. Well worth owning.
Actor André Wilms
The director wasn’t available at the screening I attended but the star of the film, French actor André Wilms, after complaining about having to be there for a 9 am screening, demonstrated how the director overcame their language barrier by whistling and pointing where he wanted the actor to go.
The Kid With a Bike
The Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) are Telluride favorites. Their previous film l’enfant (also titled ‘The Child’) played at the festival in 2005 and like The Kid with a Bike, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. L’enfant mopped the floor with audiences at Telluride in 2005 with its intense emotional journey as an irresponsible young father decides to sell his infant son into the black (adoption) market. While not explicitly stated this film seems to be the continuation of that story as the actor who played that father is now the father of an 11 year old boy. Again he abandons the boy, leaving him in an adoption agency and refusing contact. The boy is as full of life as his young father was and is not easily left behind. I’d love to go on about what happens next but you should see this film (and its predecessor). While both l’enfant and The Kid With a Bike are ripe with emotion both are ultimately very positive about humanity and human nature. The ride is so intense you don’t always get that until you reflect on what you’ve seen. The kid playing the kid, first time actor Thomas Donet is so good, he could have carried the film all on his own if needed. What is it with kids these days?
See more reviews including my favorite film from Telluride 2011 in part two...