- Written by Rick Schmidt
- Published on 14 October 2009
The year before last was the last year that longtime Telluride Film Festival founders Bill and Stella Pence were part of the festival organizing team. The rumor last year was that the crop of movies at last year's festival was diminished somewhat due to their absence, the idea being that they had pull in Hollywood to bring the block buster films to Telluride. The alternate explanation was that the crop was weaker due to the writer's strike. This year, the writer's strike is out of the way, so what kind of movies were at the festival this time? There was at least one movie that came to theaters in the weeks after the festival that looked to me like the kind of thing I would expect to have had its premier at Telluride (The Informant). But, there were some blockbusters that did premier at the festival this year (The Road, with Viggo Mortensen, and The Last Station, with Helen Mirren as Leo Tolstoy's wife, there was also Up in The Air, with George Clooney showed as a 'Sneak Preview', meaning that is was not part of the festival proper and will appear in theaters in the next week or two). There did seem to be a consensus among movie goers that the festival did not have any of the 'really amazing' movies of previous years. Personally I thought I was as entertained as ever but I did notice that none of the films left me emotionally drained – like last year's remarkable Hunger did, or Precious which was shown as Push at Sundance this year.
Attendance at the festival was the same as previous years – sold out. But this year that didn't happen until just hours before the festival started. In 2008 festival passes were all taken early in the summer. This year there was however a surplus of volunteers (700 instead of the usual 600). Presumably the difference is folks who would have bought a pass in better economic times. These economic times also caused several corporate sponsors to pull out. In previous years Apple and Microsoft seemed to battle it out to be the premier sponsor, both conspicuously absent this year.
Technically film is still the preferred medium though there are two theaters that are predominantly if not completely digital projection. These theaters have smallish screens and show the more minor festival features. The festival worked especially hard to show the samurai movie Daisan No Kagemusha: The Third Shadow Warrior. This 1963 Samurai film preceded Akira Kurosawa's 1980 version (Kagemusha), and is reported to be more brutal and with a better performance in the lead role. In order to show this film the festival had to piece it together from many different sources. The first two reels were from an archival print but the third reel was unplayable (the celluloid had 'vinegered' and had physically shrunk). They were able to find a Japanese DVD with an excellent transfer of the film but had to resort to a bootleg DVD to get English subtitles. The two DVD's were combined and a new print was created for the third reel.
Twitter started to make an inroad at the festival. About 40 people were providing instant tweets about the movies they had just seen or the length of the line at a particular theater. One twitterer tried to set up an automatic movie rating system but there were not enough participants to make it meaningful. Maybe next year.
Maybe twittering will be able to prevent queuing disasters like the one that happened at the initial screening of Up in the Air the sneak preview of the new George Clooney vehicle, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno). The first showing was on Saturday afternoon at 3:45 in a 500 seat cinema. People started queuing up for this at noon. No doubt the film had wide appeal at the festival because of its lighter subject matter (It's about a guy who fires people for a living – maybe that doesn't sound so light but compared to most Telluride movies this is Mary Poppins). But Saturday afternoon is prime time at the festival and for this particular theater a 15 minute gondola ride is required to reach it. In the end, hundreds of people were turned away, even some that had been told that they would easily be able to get a seat. Because of the long journey back down the mountain, some of these folks also missed the chance to see some other movie. We were at another theater that should have been crowded at that time but it was noticeably not busy.
Even though we managed to avoid being shut out of any shows there is still no way to see everything one would like to see at Telluride. Two movies that we couldn't make but that seemed to be widely praised were:
The Road: Starring Viggo Mortensen who was also the subject of a tribute at this year's festival. The Road is science fiction but centers around the human story of a father and son.
Up in the Air: the aforementioned George Clooney film. At a talk in the park director Jason Reitman reported that in his initial draft of the script the parts depicting people who had lost their jobs didn't ring true but he interviewed 80 people who had recently been laid off and hearing their stories helped him in subsequent re-writes.
On to the films we did see, in four days we saw 16 feature films, three short collections (18 total short films) and three shorts that preceded regular films so 37 total. On Sunday night I was telling someone how many movies I'd seen and I said 'nine', I had forgotten an entire day at that point the correct running total was 14. Even though I might not have known what day it was I did take notes about each film, presented here in order of my most favorite to least favorite.
('We' is myself and Secret's Festival Photographer Ray Keller)
Director Jacques Audiard purposefully chose unknown actor Tahir Rahim for the lead role in this tale of transformation so that we wouldn't have any ideas about what this character is or should become. The film is set in a French prison with ample violence and inhumanity. It is luxuriously long, starting with the intake of the Malik (Tahir Rahim) into prison and ending years later with his release. The script is the product of a three year writing process and seems flawless to me. The depiction of the French prison system is realistic and stark and is causing a little upset within France. The title is a little misleading and even the director said he was not too fond of the title in English (in French it has another meaning), he threw out 'You Have to Serve Somebody' as an off the cuff alternative.
Life During Wartime
The latest from Todd Solondz and a sequel to his 1998 film Happiness it might have also been more aptly titled. 'Forgiveness' is the obvious choice. In one of his interim films (Palindromes) Solondzcast multiple actors to play a single character; here he uses different actors to play roles that originated in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. The film deals with and asks questions about forgiveness on many levels and for many transgressions. In a brilliant piece of writing in the center of the movie a young boy asks if child molesters are terrorists. The film is not subtle; 'rubbing our nose in it' comes to mind. But the meticulous construction (Solendz designed the sets, even choosing the books for the bookshelves, all self help books of course); surreal look and hilarious dialogue lure the audience into giving themselves over to this deep and painful subject. To get the most out of this movie (re)watch Happiness beforehand as there are many connections and inside jokes relating the two films.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Still with the debates about the title: In this case director Werner Herzog said he hated the title, wishing he could drop the 'Bad Lieutenant' part. The serious, sobering 1992 film by that title has Harvey Keitel as a rogue police officer, deep into drugs and gambling and ultimately finding religion. This seriously hilarious 2009 film has Nicholas Cage as a rogue police officer motivated by multiple drug addictions, gambling debts, a prostitute girlfriend and that's about where the similarities end as I understand it (I've never seen the Keitel version). In a talk in Telluride Town Park on Labor Day Cage said: "Any time you can play a character that's on crack and go to eleven… GO!". When asked if he ever worried about a performance being over the top he said, "Over the top? Over the top of what? Infinity?". This role was made for him. Indeed, Herzog reported that both he and Cage have wanted to work together for years and both stipulated that they would only do this project if the other was involved. A sixty second phone call was all they needed to seal the deal and the next time they spoke was on the set for the first day of shooting. Herzog was already a master film maker years ago, now he makes films with about the same ease as Martha Stewart makes banana muffins. He had two features and two shorts at Telluride this year. This one was done $2.6M under budget. Shooting days scheduled for eight hours were done in five. For the final take of each scene he would ask Cage to 'go for it', inevitably those were the takes he used in the final cut. There were some in the audience who were not prepared to give themselves over to the non stop craziness of this movie. I can't wait to see it again.
Coco Before Chanel
A biopic about fashion designer Coco Chanel. Actually only a partial biopic as it covers the time from when Ms. Chanel was dancing for tips with her sister in a bar in the early 1900's and ends just as she is on the verge of becoming the fashion giant. This film vastly exceeds the realm of most biopics because there is not a single scene staged simply for the reason of documenting a notable event. Rather each scene has real human values at stake as we see Chanel establish herself as an artist in a man's world. Chanel is played by Audrey Tautou who comes from the same region of France as Chanel and so closely resembles her they could be related. Surprisingly, fashion and its design are not discussed much in the film; it's just something she does. This movie shows us how it was simply a part of her. Nonetheless, if your significant other is a fan of Project Runway, take them to this movie. You're welcome.
A high school girl is being strictly groomed for admission to Oxford but meets a man twice her age and finds his worldly lifestyle much more to her liking. The man in this case is played superbly by Peter Sarsgaard but the star is Carey Mulligan in her movie debut. The movie is focused on her face and for the male half of the audience, that is all we need. She is mesmerizing, not just as a beauty but with expressive eyes and emotions and intelligence that come straight through. I'm gushing yes but see for yourself. The screenplay was by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, Love Actually), he was quoted before the movie as saying "I may have written many books and screenplays but the thing I'll be best known for is writing the screenplay for Carey Mulligan's first movie". The movie has lush production with beautiful shots of London and Paris.
Another partial biopic, this time covering the final days of Leo Tolstoy and based on the 1990 Jay Parini novel by the same name. Tolstoy was a powerful figure in pre-revolution Russia, his writings and philosophy of non violent resistance were an influence on Ghandi and later, Martin Luther King. Christopher Plummer impresses as the powerful nobleman but it's Helen Mirren as his wife (Sofya) who will likely receive an Oscar nomination. By this time Tolstoy's estate and writings have become a hot property. That very notion is at odds with the anarchist philosophies that Tolstoy wished to support. Sofya wants to secure some of the fortune for the family. Meanwhile, younger people involved in the movement are having trouble with the celibacy rules that are also part of the doctrine. It is this parallel between the passions In a young relationship and those in the mature relationship of the Tolstoy's that are the heart of this movie.
The White Ribbon
Proving once again that there are no bad child actors anymore, a small German village experiences escalating acts of cruelty and vandalism by an unknown culprit in the months before WWI. The mystery is solved by the end of the film but that is not the message. The mission of this film is to depict the conditions that lead to these cruel acts. This film won three awards at this year's prestigious Cannes film festival including the top prize, the Palm D'Or. This was the top pick for many folks at Telluride as well. It was for me when I first saw it but it started to move down the list as I thought more about the narration which keeps reminding the audience that WWI is on the way and then things will be really bad. As it turns out, WWI is barely noticeable in this film. Perhaps that is consistent with the films larger mission; we all know WWI was bad, more important at this point is 'how did we get there?' The director is Michael Haneke who also directed Cache which was at Telluride in 2005. The direction and editing here is every bit as tight and engaging.
Similar to The Lives of Others this movie shows the large political events of the cold war reflected on the lives of individuals. In this case, the events are international rather than local espionage, the people are real and they were much more than simple pawns in the spy game. The story was unknown until a recent release of French government documents and reveals some key history that we all should know. President Reagan has been widely credited with accelerating the demise of the Soviet Union by ramping military spending in the US. What is shown here is that the move was based on intimate knowledge of the state of the Soviet Union and their intimate knowledge of us. Indeed, the real revelation here is how thoroughly the Soviets had infiltrated the US with its own spies. This was the information that motivated the French and especially the US to keep the secret until now. The political figures of the day, including Reagan are portrayed by actors in heavy makeup which comes across as somewhat comical. If history is given its proper due though, Colonel Serguei Grigoriev will not be soon forgotten.
I'm lumping three films into one review here because if you see one you'll want to see them all. Based on four novels by David Pearce and originally produced for BBC TV, I heard that that they were available on DVD already in the UK. Given that many folks who saw the trilogy evaluate it as 'better than the Godfather' I presume they'll be available in the US as well. The story revolves around the disappearance of young girls and has a fair share of hazy flashback and mystery so to my mind Twin Peaks would be a better comparison. Each of the three films had its own director, Red Riding: 1974 was directed by Julian Jarrold who has a long list of TV credits but most recently directed a remake of Brideshead Revisited, Red Riding: 1980 was directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), Red Riding: 1983 was directed by Anand Tucker (When Did You Last See Your Father). The jumps in time provide distinct characters for each of the films and the directors provide distinct flavors. The series does an excellent job of capturing the differences in those years. Red Riding: 1974 especially shows a difference between then and now not only with the look and the old cars but with the protagonist, a journalist, dedicated to the profession and refusing to be corrupted or beaten out of it. Red Riding: 1980 skips over one of the novels (1977) and uses dialogue to catch us up on the story. A police team from a bigger city is called in against the will of the locals. In Red Riding: 1984 a lawyer is roped into the investigation, against his better instincts. This one has extensive flashbacks and does provide resolution to the primary plot line, leaving some other points unsolved. These are so well made and so well acted the satisfaction level for the viewer is high. The setting is Yorkshire in the north of England. Some of the accents are hard for Americans to resolve, some are not at all. For this reason the films are subtitled.
'Vincere' is Italian for 'Win' and was one of the slogans used by the fascist government under Mussolini. This film shows us the actions and consequences of that government by telling the story of Ida Dalser, a girl friend and early supporter of Mussolini who bore him a son but was cast aside and locked away when she became an inconvenience. The film mixes archival footage and beautifully shot scenes in melodramatic fashion. It swept me up and I'm finding it hard to believe that I have it so far down on my list. The difference between the movies at the top of my list and the bottom is quite slim this year.
Another one that could easily be higher on the list. Fish Tank is made possible by the terrific camera presence of Katie Jarvis. She plays 15 year old Mia, living in rough circumstances in public housing in a small Southeastern English town. Hip Hop music and dancing are her only pleasure, family life with her single mother and younger sister is so rough she keeps this pleasure private. When mom finds a new boyfriend things begin to look up. The boyfriend is played by Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglorious Basterds) who is quietly becoming the best actor of his generation. For a short while this movie looks like it's going to be one of those 'dancing movies' but that quickly takes a back seat to a much rougher story.
This little horror movie was presented as a sneak preview which means it should be coming to theaters soon. I hope so. Made for $11,000, it borrows the conceit of The Blair Witch Project – all of the action is filmed through a video camera being run by the characters. In this case a young couple is running the camera to document and hopefully solve what seems to be a haunting of their house. There's really not much reason for me to say much more about it, if you like getting scared this will do the trick. I saw the Red Riding trilogy immediately after and there was the occasional loud 'wham' sound, immediately it would transport me back to Paranormal Activity and make me terrified all over again.
This may be near the bottom of my list for my favorites at this year's Telluride but consider this, at the conclusion of the showing, star Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies) and one of the films producers joined about half the audience in shedding serious tears. This film deals with the aftermath of the 7/7/2005 subway bombings in London. Blethyn plays a mother who can't find her daughter, Oscar nominee Rachid Bouchareb plays a Muslim man from Africa who can't find his son. Bouchareb has a striking presence on film, watching his odd rhythmic gait as he slowly makes his way about London would be enough for a film on its own. Brenda Blethyn is just an extraordinary actress and I really wonder why she was not the subject of a tribute at this year's Telluride. The film suffers a bit early on from excessive coverage of menial details (there she is buying the ticket for the ferry, there she is getting on the ferry, there she is sitting down on the ferry, there goes the ferry across the water). Still, a good film, dealing with the pain caused by these kinds of acts in a way that we have yet to see in a US film on 9/11.
The French New Wave classic from 1961 was shown as part of a tribute to Anouk Aimee. I'm putting it last on the list not because it was my least favorite but because far be it for me to add anything to the volumes already written about it. But I want to tell you why I plan to buy the DVD: I want to show it as the first part of a double feature with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Both written and directed by Jacques Demy with a common character (Roland Cassard played by Marc Michel) they belong together. Cinephiles out there probably already knew this, hey I'm catching up.
At the Labor Day picnic a panel discussed humor in film 'The Edge of Humor: When Does the Laughter Start and Stop'. Seated to the right of Nicolas Cage is George Gittoes, director of The Miscreants of Taliwood'. Remember Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? At the end of that movie Spurlock stops at the border of the 'Tribal Territories' in Pakistan. This is reportedly where Bin Laden is and it is also right where Miscreants starts. George Gittoes goes straight in there and finds people making movies! There was no way to fit this movie in but I'll be first in line to see it when it's in theaters.