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At the press conference kicking off this year's Telluride Film Festival one of our fellow reporters kindly suggested some sort of ban on people talking on or texting with cell phones while in line for movies. The reason being that the lines are a great place to socialize and hear about movies. When the other half of the room, who were busy texting at the time, had this proposal re-told to them the uproar was overwhelming, definitive and final. No ban.
Actually the lines seemed fine, there is still plenty of socializing to be had. Besides the lines there is also the gondola which is the only way to get to the Chuck Jones Theater. This year I heard of a bus losing its brakes on the way down from the airport after a private party. Had there been an actual crash you would have heard about it too as Laura Linney was on the bus.
As usual passes were sold out a short time before the festival started. There did not seem to be any major upsets with large numbers of people getting shut out of a particular movie. Perhaps this was because George Clooney was not at the festival. Bill Murray was however, in support of his new film with Laura Linney, Hyde Park on Hudson. I did not see the film but I did inadvertently attempt to create shorter lines at the movies I was seeing by simply suggesting that Bill Murray might be at another theater. Me (to a friend): "We should start a rumor that Bill Murray is at the Galaxy". Person three rows back: "What's that rumor about Bill Murray!?".. you get the picture.
We heard from the festival directors that more and more people are attending the festival without passes at all. Individual tickets, when available, can be had for $25 and they are often available. Especially if it's one of the larger theaters and Bill Murray is not there.
In the past couple of years I reported on some 3D presentations at the festival. There were no 3D films this year.
Each festival seems to have a theme that runs through its movies. The festival directors claim this is inadvertent. This year the themes that we could identify were 'Problems created by the CIA and the like', 'crossing of international borders' and the 1970's in general. A notable trend in the movies is that leading men are getting taller. Directors seem to finally be ok with having them next to their much shorter leading ladies. Michael Shannon, who is over 6'3", is well cast as a big and powerful presence in Iceman. Telluride tributee Mads Mikkelsen of films The Hunt and A Royal Affair is over 6 foot tall. Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust and Bone is a very imposing figure, dwarfing co-star Marion Cotillard.
As always it's not possible to get to all the films that we would like to at Telluride. This is compounded by our faithful attendance to student and shorts programs. This year though one of the 'shorts' was a 78 minute film called Pilgrim Hill. I suspect this will eventually be shown on the Sundance Channel or IFC. It's the story of a bachelor farmer in Ireland. The beginning seems like a documentary because of the solid acting of its lead. In the Q&A the director proved to be an extremely thoughtful young man, no doubt we will hear more from him.
Joe Mullins (left) is the star of Pilgrim Hill.
Gerard Barrett (right) directed the film.
Some of the films that we wish we had attended are:
Stories We Tell - a documentary by Sarah Polley. Many people listed this as their favorite, the same story is told from different angles by Ms. Polley's family members leading to numerous twists, turns and surprises.
The Central Park Five - a documentary by Ken Burns about a group of teenagers wrongly convicted of a Central Park rape in 1970's NY. Honestly, I had enough of Ken Burns documentaries after about 15 minutes of The Civil War. The pan and scan across photographs is just painfully slow to me. But, this doc is reported to have none of that, there were movie and video cameras in the 1970s after all.
The Intruder - a 1962 film by Roger Corman starring William Shatner who shows up in a small southern town just as it's about to begin racial integration. This film is also available on Netflix streaming so I've added it to my queue.
Baraka - the festival had one showing of a new 70mm print. Usually this means the film will be issued soon by the Criterion Collection but I see no mention of this on their web site.
Notables at this year's festival: Ben Affleck, Mads Mikkelsen, Marion Cottilard, Laura Dern, Bill Murray, Dave Eggers, Sarah Polley
The films (as always photos by Secret's festival photographer Ray Keller):
The first film we saw this year was a 'Sneak Preview' film - one that already has distribution and in fact will be in theaters in short order. In this case the film was 'Argo', directed by and starring Ben Affleck. In theaters on Oct 12. It was unusual to see a sneak preview film in this time slot on Friday afternoon which is usually reserved for a favorite of the festival directors but it was clear that this film is indeed a favorite. This is a fun, fun thriller based on actual history. It's a little bit of history that most Americans are probably not familiar with. When Iranian students took control of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 they thought they had captured all of the embassy workers with their 52 hostages but in fact there were six escapees. This is the story of their incredible, daring escape from Iran. The film begins with protest and storming of the embassy and follows the escapees as the hold up at the Canadian embassy and are eventually helped by a specialized US agent (Tony Mendez), played by Affleck. Mr. Mendez' role in the escape and the method of escape was kept secret until they were declassified by President Bill Clinton. What makes the film and story so fun is that the means of escape was to pose the six embassy workers as a Canadian film crew scouting for locations in the middle east including Iran. The title 'Argo' is the title of the yet-to-be-made Sci-Fi film.
The idea that they could or would carry on their normal business of movie making amongst the chaos of the first days of the revolution in Iran is perhaps the least believable thing in this story. The idea that anyone would do or could do this would make a fictional film seem unbelievable or farsicle. The fact that it is historical fact I think points to a lesson about the chaos we see in the news every day. Whether it is in the middle east or here in the US, major things happen, sometimes terrible things happen, but for the vast majority of people the business of daily life is daily life. Life goes on.
This film also does a good job of reminding us of a part of the history that by my recollection was not presented thoroughly in the news here. The hostages were being held with the specific demand that the deposed Shah of Iran be returned to Iran for trial. This CIA-installed US puppet had thoroughly pissed off his people while securing access to Iran's resources for the west. I was young at the time (those were the days) but as I recall the news coverage just focused on the fact that the hostages were being held, not the underlying reasons.
To pull off the caper Tony Mendez stressed that the film production be as complete and legit as possible. John Goodman and Alan Arkan almost steal the show in their roles as Hollywood movie producers. It was early in the movie when these two appear on screen but the audience cheered just to see their faces on screen. I suspect we might see one or both of these as the subject of a future Telluride tribute. I was surprised to see Adrienne Barbeau's name appear in the credits - I'm not sure what role she played but clearly a lot of thought went into casting this film. For the hostages themselves Affleck chose actors with a close resemblance to the actual hostages. Their 70's look and some great 70's music are a treat.
(and Tribute to Mads Mikkelsen)
The name Mads Mikkelsen might not be in the forefront of your movie memory, I suspect most people have only seen him as the villain in Casino Royale. The one who bled from his eyeball during the poker game with 007. The fact that bleeding from the eyeball was played as some sort of subtle 'tell' that only 007's keen sense of perception could identify as a sign of stress is somewhere on the far side of ridiculous but we can't hold Mads responsible for the script. He was also in Flame and Citron (highly recommended) and if you're a film buff you've seen him in the modern Film Noir films by Nicolas Refn, Pusher and Valhalla Rising. You can also see him as Hannibal Lector in the upcoming TV series Hannibal. Am I the one only one disturbed by the idea of a TV series based on a serial killer? I know there's 'Dexter' but that's a pay-channel on cable. Hannibal is on CBS.
Mads has a tremendous physical presence. He got his start as a dancer and has made his way in the movies playing imposing physical characters. In The Hunt that presence is still there in this role of an extraordinarily gentle man pushed to his limits. Mads won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as an elementary school teacher falsely accused of child sexual abuse. This is a masterful film by Thomas Vinterberg (most famous for the Dogme film The Celebration) and I highly recommended it. The director has moved on from strict adherence to the Dogme principles but the film still has completely natural look to it, especially with the beautiful countryside of Denmark in both morning and evening light. In this great setting we watch a worst-case-scenario unfold as good-meaning but simple people get an idea in their head that they can't get out. The all Danish cast is spot on, helping this movie stick in your head long after you see it.
Mads was also starring in A Royal Affair which we didn't get to see but people we spoke to in movie lines reported that they liked it.
Rust and Bone
and Marion Cotillard tribute
There was an especially silly description of Marion Cotillard's character in Rust and Bone in the Telluride film guide: 'Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a free-spirited, streetwise, dolphin trainer'. Um, ok. Turns out that's not quite right, she was a trainer of killer whales. And by 'trainer' they mean someone who works at an aquatic park as part of the show with Orcas jumping out of the water, doing flips etc. But 'streetwise'? Well it's true I suppose. The film itself is equally silly with many of the plot points also living in the intersection between improbable and grandiose. This is a rather annoying trend I've seen in recent French films. They are seeming to forget that when a film focuses on a particular instance, a plausible example of a real person, in real life, that is the exact moment that it becomes universal. In other words, it's hard to relate to a street thug (the other primary character Rust and Bone) who is closely associated with, if not the center point of three national news stories. The first of those stories is that our streetwise dolphin trainer loses her lower legs in an accident at the aquatic park. It's unclear if they are eaten by an Orca or if they were simply lost due to the collapse of the platform where the 'trainers' perform. The film however has a lot of ground to cover so the expected emotional response to this is covered but covered way too quickly. The relationship with the street thug (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his adventures comprise the rest of the film. What is notable about this film, and perhaps its raison d'etre is the use of digital effects - not to blow things up or fly cars through the air but to show, or more precisely, not show, the missing legs of our Orca trainer. The digital effects make it appear, with no suspension of disbelief, that Marion Cotillard has no legs below her knees. Aside from a wheel chair with a rather large enclosure below the seat there is absolutely no use of clever angles or obfuscation to make it look like she might have lost her legs, rather they appear fully, completely, as stubs at the knee area. Especially amazing is a scene where we see Marion walking in broad daylight on her new prosthetic legs. In retrospect this scene seems to have been structured in order to show off these digital effects, reinforcing my idea that the original concept for this movie was not the story but the digital effect. Your movie time is much better spent elsewhere. This is a rather disappointing follow-up from Jacques Audiard who's previous film, A Prophet was a favorite at the Telluride Film Festival in 2009.
Marion Cotillard was also the subject of a Telluride tribute. She has been in dozens of films, most prominently in the US she starred in Inception, played 'Miranda' in A Dark Knight Rises and had a small but memorable role in Paris at Midnight but the tribute was probably in response mostly to her Best Actress Oscar winning portrayal of Edith Piaf in La vie en rose. These tributes pull clips from many of the actor's previous films and in this case I felt like I saw the entirety of La vie en rose through these clips. The subsequent interview of Marion was horrible however. Davia Nelson, one of the NPR radio producers 'The Kitchen Sisters' acted like she had never seen any movie, especially one with Marion Cotillard. Her most probing question was what sort of things does Marion like to cook. What would have been a good question to ask of Marion, who is known for her environmental activism, is how she felt about the use of whales in captivity for entertainment. Turns out she is against it (as reported in The Telluride Watch).
Adapted from the book by the man himself, Salman Rushdie and directed by Deepa Mehta this extremely ambitious film comes close enough to the mark that I think it's a must-see. The film is clearly not perfect in the sense of every scene and every actor being spot-on.
The enormous cast includes more children than most directors will work with in their entire career and although it was starting to look like every child actor is a star, better than the last, this film proves that's not the case. Still, the movie covers so much story and so much history, those scenes are quickly lost in the soup. The novel and the film tell the story of a group of children with magical powers. The closer the child's birth time to that of modern India, the 15th of August, 1947, the more magical power they have. Two children born right at the stroke of midnight have the most power. One the power to fight, the other has the power to bring all the magical children together. An overly ripe metaphor when it's spelled out like this but in the context of the film it works extremely well. Perhaps because the movie is driven by day-time, non-magical events and has many historical points to cover and even more to say about society and how we live.
I've been busy telling people that the 2006 movie The Lives of Others is one of the best in recent history. Unfortunately it is still unknown to most people (no one listens to me). If you haven't seen it yet it would be a good one to watch before seeing Barbara which deals with the same subject: the former East Germany (GDR) and what life was like there before liberation in 1989. I recommend seeing The Lives of Others before Barbara only because Barbara drops you in the middle of this oppressive society without any explanation. When this movie comes out it's likely that the press materials and any reviews you read will prepare you for the plot which is that Barbara is in the process of trying to escape to the west. The very fact that she applied for official permission to leave (not shown in the film) means that she is subjected to constant spying and surveillance by her fellow citizens.
The film is quiet and realistic with a meticulous recreation of a 70's world which, while on a much smaller scale, seems even more compelling than that created by the mega-budget Argo. Similarly, the music is very prominent. In this case most of the score is a beautiful Chopin piece but the closing credits are accompanied by a live performance of 'At Last I am Free' by Chic which they wrote after the GDR banned disco and held record-burning events in stadiums. In the Q&A after the film Director Christian Petzhold said that his own father and mother were refugees from East Germany and that many in the cast and crew had similar stories.
This film got off to a rough start at Telluride, the initial screening started with no sound in the center channel (i.e., dialog). Since the movie is in black and white and there was plenty of sound (music) from the side and surrounds the audience didn't quite know whether to think there was a problem or whether the movie was extremely abstract. Fortunately the director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding), was in the audience and he told us that the film was not *that* avant-guard and he got the technical crew working to fix the issue. We watched technicians crawl behind the screen twice to find the right wires to connect to the center channel. Sort of hard to figure out how this happened since a movie (Midnight's Children) had already played in this theater. I of course suspected sabotage. The events remain shrouded in mystery. Anyway, the movie played and at the Q&A after the film Noah said that of all his movies this film was the closest to the vision he had when he undertook the project. His actual words were 'amorphous thing I had in my head' rather than 'vision' but either way this is should be heartening for the director and audiences alike as the film was the favorite of many at the festival. Frances Ha was co-written by its star Greta Gerwig who was also present. She said that it was semi-autobiographical in that she thinks there is a certain age, probably about 27, when people learn to make their way. A passage to adulthood. In this case the title character is a dancer in New York but not particularly successful and not on her way to stardom. There's not too much more to say without giving things away but we watch her continued struggles as she moves from address to address in Manhattan. Ms Gerwig was precisely that age when the film was being shot and like the title character she has been working (in this case in film) for some time with limited success. The pairing with Baumbach is perfect however as he brought a lot of film formality to the production: 'Camera moves were only allowed when driven by a character' and numerous takes to get the perfect take of long continuous shots. One such scene required 50 takes. Noah Baumbach is in a great position in the film industry where he can make this low budget movie, with no studio or publicity or producer involvement and have it go straight to Telluride and then theaters. He said that he saw one report that the production was somehow secret or 'under wraps' but in fact, it's just that no one asked about it. Furthermore, he made the film in black and white simply because it seemed right. Not the kind of thing Hollywood would approve of.
One of the tricks to doing that is to have some of them cooking on the back burner. This is one of those. Shooting for the film took place for only two weeks of the year, for five years running. The goal was to see children growing up rather than hire actors of a different age to depict the aging of children. Michael Winterbottom set out to find one or two kids but ended up with a family of four children. The story has their father in prison and their single mother (Shirley Henderson) struggling to raise them. Part of the filming each of those two weeks was a trip to visit their fictional father in prison. Winterbottom was able to get permission to film inside an actual prison lending the movie an incredible sense of realism. He was able to get this permission by telling prison officials that the film would never be shown. Not sure what fired in their brain to say that made sense but glad that it did. All of this should tell you that this is not an action picture, the movement is deliberately slow but the movie is worth watching.
At the pre festival press conference the Telluride directors said that they didn't have a viable print of this film due to a screw up by the producers and so it was being scratched from the festival. Somehow someone came through and a Monday showing appeared on the schedule. This film is a historical recreation of the conspiracy that led to the death of 17 people at the bombing of a bank in Milan, Italy in 1969. On imdb the title is listed as Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy. The bombing event led to a period of chaos in Italy and has long been a sore point in the Italian psyche. The official story is that a left wing Anarchist group was responsible. It took 40 years to get the facts released to the public and the true story differs significantly from the official story. Refer to the above list of unofficial festival themes for the answer.
This film is very dense with characters and intersecting and overlapping story lines that would be hard to follow even if it were in English. Much easier of course for Italian speakers who are familiar with the story. This and the lack of courage amongst US film distributers that was mentioned by the Telluride festival board member prior to the film will likely keep it away from theaters near you. If you do manage to find it on disc you'll see some lovely night time photography and excellent acting (the film has won many awards for acting at other festivals) and learn some history.
If Piazza Fontana was the eventual reveal of the inner workings of a covert plot to control a population, The Gatekeepers promised to be an even deeper look into these covert methods. That's what was promised by the blurb in the festival film guide anyway. In reality it was a series of talking heads revealing not much new. The population in this case is the Palestinians living in The West Bank. The talking heads are former leaders of the Israeli intelligence organization the Shin Bet. They list some details of many operations, mostly assassinations, which they carried out against various alleged terrorists. There is a small amount of hand wringing over civilian casualties from these adventures but that is about all that is new here. This film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics so it should play at some theaters, not necessarily near you but in any case you won't be missing much.
This is the second Palme d'Or winner in three years for Austrian director Michael Haneke. The last was 2009's The White Ribbon. In this film Haneke reduces the focus down to the apartment of an aging couple and their last days. There was every expectation that this would be a 10-hanky movie and indeed there was some crying in the audience, but the pace was so deliberate and loving the overall feeling is one of peace rather than loss. The couple is played by 85 year old Emmanuelle Riva (Anne) and 82 year old Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges) who so wonderfully played the judge in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red. The couple is thoroughly enjoying their retirement from teaching piano with their former students now enjoying success of their own. The end begins when Anne quietly suffers a stroke during breakfast. The film takes us through the long long process of subsequent strokes and her decline with Georges caring for her along the way. Everyone should see this film.
At Any Price
It's quite unclear why this movie was at Telluride. Certainly the subject matter, a family drama revolving around GMO crops in the Midwest sounds appealing. And the director (Ramin Bahrani, Man Push Cart) is alleged to be.. something. But the script and the execution of both directing and acting in this film fall squarely into B movie territory. I usually avoid giving any spoilers in movie reviews but in this case I'll include this minor one because the best thing I can do for you is keep you from seeing this movie. Dennis Quaid's character, Henry Whipple has been pulling some fast ones as a sales agent for GMO seeds manufactured by Liberty Seeds. Someone in the farming community has tipped off the company to the activity and indeed agents show up and start investigating. Henry's plan to get them to stop? Find out who tipped them off in the first place, talk to that person and convince him or her to "call off the agents". Excuse me, once Monsanto, I mean Liberty, finds some reason to investigate (and they do) you can't "call them off". My head was about to implode as I sat and watched this especially since this was only one of many silly events in this film. The festival was paying tribute to B movie king Roger Corman this year, maybe someone thought this film would be a future so-bad-it's-good classic.
The Iceman (review by Ray Keller):
Everyone handles intense experiences differently. The Iceman is an intense film. In an introductory note read before the showing, director Ariel Vromen wanted the audience to know that it was OK to laugh. Even if nobody else was laughing. The film opens on an awkward, Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") on a first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder). You know from that first meeting that, Kuklinski is a tough guy to get to know, but Deborah is up to the task. Based on the true story of Kuklinski, who local gang boss, Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta), hires as a contract killer, Shannon give a phenomenal, nuanced performance as the unmoving rock of a killer, who doubles as a loving family man with a wife and two daughters living in the suburbs. Although a bit gruesome in places, the film has humorous performances by James Franco, Chris Evans and especially David Schwimmer with a giant cheesy '70s mustache. Overall this is a raucous rollercoaster ride of a film that keeps the audience constantly engaged. Many people at the festival listed this one as their favorite.
Next year's Telluride Film Festival will be the 40th, an extra day will be added in celebration and I can't wait!