We only avoided one showing that we knew would be a tough ticket – the initial showing of “First They Killed My Father” with the director, Angelina Jolie, in attendance for the Q&A. It seems that the festival has started to spread out these desirable Q&A’s throughout the festival rather than concentrating them on the first couple of days. It eases the mad rush and makes the festival more fun since the directors and actors are there throughout, introducing their films, attending others and possibly even walking around on the street.
If there was a theme to this festival it was … Horses! Two films set in modern times (“The Rider” and “Lean on Pete”) had a horse or two as co-stars. The Western “Hostiles”, had a troop of them of course. There were a couple of coming of age stories (“Lean on Pete,” “Ladybird”) but that is about average.
Pretty much everyone’s favorite was “The Shape of Water,” review below. But there was remarkable enthusiasm for “The Rider” in spite of amateur actors and no traditional plot. Is this a new genre? Tumblrcore? Mumblecore but with tumble weeds. Not to be confused with Tumblcore which refers to bands that make it big overnight due to Tumblr.
The reviews are grouped in some combination of my favorites and what you are likely to see showing up in theaters soon. As always, festival photos by Ray Keller, stock photos courtesy of the Telluride Film Festival.
Sally Hawkins (“Vera Drake”) and Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”) are part of the janitorial crew at a secret government facility in the year 1962. Only those with the highest level of security clearance are allowed into a lab where the government is keeping and studying a creature they have captured in South America. Only those with Top Secret clearance, and the clean-up crew of course.
I’m always worried about revealing spoilers, not knowing how much will be revealed by the film’s own commercials and previews but if you look at the photo above, you can see what happens if you haven’t already guessed.
As always, Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals”, “99 Homes”) was perfect as the bad guy, in this case, the CIA Agent looking to study the creature he has captured. And if you don’t love Sally Hawkins, see your doctor.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “The Shape of Water” was the extended Q&A director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”) held outside the theater. Time constraints did not allow the planned Q&A to last even 10 minutes so the director announced that he would be available on the steps of the elementary school (the gym of which is converted to the Galaxy theater for the festival) for as long as people cared to talk. A crowd of about 50 people surrounded this kind and gentle person for about 40 minutes. A stick-it-to-the-man attitude came through with just about everything he had to say.
Some tidbits from the Q&A’s:
-Guillermo said that he wanted to make a movie from the point of the help, the invisible people, not the typical hero.
-“The film is set in 1962 because it’s a fairy tale and fairy tales are made for times of trouble. Also, when people say ‘Make America Great Again’ they are talking about 1962, a great time for White Anglo Saxon Protestant Heterosexuals. It was as close as America got to a fairy tale, after that came the lies and they haven’t f’ing stopped.”
-Saw Julie Adams in “The Black Lagoon” and was sad that she didn’t end up with the monster.
-Amazingly made “The Shape of Water” for less than $20m. Used the set for the TV show “The Strain.”
-The creature design took more than two years. Wanted it to be beautiful but not in such a way that you get it at first. Del Toro was involved first-hand with this, using his own money to finance it.
Richard Jenkins (“Jack Reacher”) was crucial in this movie. He’s really a co-star though the academy would probably call this a supporting role. Del Toro talked about a scene in which Richard Jenkin’s character Giles looks out a window while the creature looks out of a window next door. His point was that whenever you have two characters side by side in this manner, the director is telling you that they are really the same character. Add that with the ubiquitous water in the movie, universal symbol for the emotional realm and needed by the creature for survival, you could say that this film is really about how we (all of us) need to connect on the emotional level. When we do, we are with the gods, the bad guy’s power is void.
This one is fun to say the least. While a lot of biopics or historical dramas are designed to amp up the drama, stretching or re-arranging the actual events to make a movie out of them, that wasn’t necessary in this case. There was an actual tennis match, with a lot at stake for both players. Billie Jean King was fighting for approximately half of the human race and maintaining the viability of her fledgling Women’s Tennis Association. Bobby Riggs, maybe was fighting for the other half – though not really. But he did have a need to prove himself. Not only as a male and athlete but as a promoter, someone who could put on a show and make money. Perhaps more the latter.
This is one of the history lessons in the film: Mr. Riggs was more showman or clown or (self) promoter than tennis player at the time of the “Battle of the Sexes” match. Riggs had won Wimbledon in 1939 and the US Championships (not “the Open” yet) twice (1939 and 1941) but by 1973 he was a 55 year old showman with a lust for gambling and money in general. Having Steve Carell play this part is something that just seems so obvious that it had to happen. I don’t know if Elizabeth Shue gets enough screen time for an award but her portrayal Riggs’ long suffering wife is masterful.
But the star was Billie Jean King (she received a standing ovation *before* the film). Emma Stone nails the performance as we’ve come to expect. Ms. King’s journey during this time was not straightforward, coming to terms with her sexuality when she was already a public figure and the leader in women’s tennis and for so many young women, athletes or otherwise. Let’s call it “pressure.” All the while dealing with some clown (Riggs) who would like to exploit her. There’s much more to this movie than the tennis match.
Comedies do not get their fair share of attention at Oscar time but it wouldn’t be surprising to see either Stone or Carrell get a nomination.
Sarah Silverman as well, she carries many early scenes single handedly as the chain-smoking promoter of the fledgling WTA, saving the day by winning them their first sponsor: Virginia Slims Cigarettes.
In a stroke of genius, historical footage of the actual match is used, interspersed with close-ups of the two stars and the actual commentary from Howard Cossell and WTA professional Rosie Casals.
During the introduction the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
spoke about how they wanted to show the year 1973. They decided to make the film as if it were shot in 1973, even the Fox Searchlight logo is remade as imagined for that year. I don’t know if this also meant it was shot on film, it didn’t appear that way, but it does have a bit of a vintage look.
This one is in theaters on September 22
We’ve heard that every frame of a movie should be a painting. Okay then, let’s get 125 artists and make 95 minutes worth (65,000 frames). Make them oil paintings in the style of Vincent Van Gogh while you’re at it.
I’m in line to buy the Blu-ray for this one already.
Watching this is like spending 95 minutes looking at “Starry Night.” Van Gogh paintings look like they are in motion anyway. Just beautiful.
The process of making this was more than asking the artists to sit down and paint. A live action film was made first. Physical sets, in the style of particular Van Gogh paintings were constructed. In other cases, green screens of paintings were used. Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), Jerome Flynn (“Game of Thrones”) among others played the parts. The frames of this film were then used as the basis for the paintings. Painting went on for two years after the model film was made. Each painting was 67 by 49cm. Oil paintings lend themselves to re-working so there are not 65,000 paintings in a warehouse somewhere, there are hundreds of them though. The press kit for the film says that some are for sale on LovingVincent.com though I don’t see offhand exactly where that is.
There is a bit of a story, centered on the circumstances around the artist’s death. The commonly reported version is that Vincent shot himself in the chest with a revolver due to a deteriorated mental state. There are many different ideas about that however. The film explores those through the character of Armand Roulin as played by Douglas Booth (“Jupiter Ascending.”) Roulin was a model for three Van Gogh portraits. In the movie he is imagined as having been given the task of delivering a letter to Vincent, just after he had died. The next likely recipient, Theo Van Gogh has also passed. Armand ends up talking to several people who knew Vincent, each with a different perspective on what happened. Through all of this, his own thoughts on the painter are changed.
Amazingly this film had trouble getting into the festival circuit. What the.. ? In the intro the directors reported that it was Telluride Festival co-Director Julie Huntsinger who wanted to show this film because her mother was an artist. Good call Julie!
There has never been a film that was more aptly titled than this. The love for its subject, Vincent Van Gogh, drips from every frame.
Opens in New York on September 22, more theaters on October 6. See the website: LovingVincent.com.
This is a love letter to writer/director Greta Gerwig’s home town of Sacramento, CA, thinly disguised as a coming of age story for both daughters and mothers. Indeed the working title while the script was in development was “Mothers and Daughters.” During the Q&A Gerwig (“Francis Ha”) said she wanted to write this letter from the point of view of someone who doesn’t realize they loved a place until they leave it.
Mothers of teenage daughters everywhere will be hooked by the opening scene, also shown in the trailer, where an argument over college, already heard too many times by the daughter “Lady Bird” causes her to jump from the car that her mother is driving. Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) while her mother is played by Laurie Metcalf (“Rosanne,” “Grey’s Anatomy.”)
This is one of the rare movies where parents are shown in an entirely realistic manner. Having Metcalf as mom and Tracy Letts (“Indignation,” “The Big Short”) as the father is a big help but what makes it so real is the script, showing us family exchanges that are often brutal fights that are dropped as quickly as they arise, replaced with normal conversation between people who are deeply connected. Families with conflicts are not always in conflict. In the Q&A Gerwig described it as: “You want to kill each other and you love each other more than anything.” Laurie Metcalf chimed in with “I have a16 year old who was trying to kill me so I could draw on wells and wells of experience.”
These are the kinds of portrayals that I would nominate for awards but we’ll see on that, these aren’t the kinds of roles that are usually noticed. Letts and Metcalf have impeccable resumes, both have been members of the Steppenwolf Theater Company for 30 years. Oddly they have never worked together before this.
The film marks a transition from writer/actor to writer/director for Gerwig who remarked on her “Francis Ha” (Gerwig written, Noah Bombach directed) experience at 2012 Telluride. Three other women had a film at the festival: Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”), Sally Potter (“Ginger and Rosa”) and Liz Garbus (“Love Marilyn”) – all of which was inspiring in itself. But Sally Potter especially encouraged her to admit that she really wanted to direct.
A love letter to Sacramento, “Lady Bird” also serves as a love letter to many places in the US that are not New York. Gerwig said that she grew up thinking, like many people do, that important art is made somewhere else. The one exception she could point to in her home town was another woman, writer Joan Didion. Add this film to the list.
Set in 1892 in western states from New Mexico to Montana, an army captain is ordered to transport an aging Cheyanne chief and his family to a burial ground. The journey from New Mexico to Montana is long and dangerous (to say the least) but even before it starts, the captain must come to terms with his past and his attitudes towards the Native Americans. He has made his career from fighting them, dehumanizing them, and seeing his own friends killed in battle in return.
Christian Bale (“The Dark Night,” “Terminator Salvation”) is the captain, Joseph Blocker. Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) is a woman he meets along the way. Both of these two deliver amazing, moving performances.
Some early reviews have called out the brutality and violence of this movie and it’s true, but it wants to make a point about war and this particular one especially where the Native Americans suffered and died in numbers not often acknowledged. The movie does this by killing off character after character. There are emotional consequences to most of these deaths, the lives are not meant to be cheap, but as the bodies pile up less and less time is spent in mourning.
It’s mostly through the character of Joseph Blocker that the reckoning over the brutality is played out. The first 126 minutes and 45 seconds are all in service to the final 15 seconds. Don’t miss it.
Filmed in New Mexico and Colorado this movie has some of the best-looking scenery for an American Western ever. We’ve seen far too much of California as a stand-in for all the other states in the standard Western. In this case Colorado is standing in for Montana but that is a much closer match than California or just about any other state.
Director Scott Cooper debuted his film “Black Mass” about gangster Whitey Bolger at Telluride in 2015 and the tone here is similar.
Christian Bale, as famous for transforming for his roles as Gary Oldman, was seen around town with extra weight and blond eyebrows – preparing to play Dick Cheney in “Backseat.”
Another biopic, this one about Winston Churchill at his most critical point in history – just as he came to power as Britain’s Prime Minister and the battle of Dunkirk was lost. The amazing bit of history that I didn’t know in this case was that Britain called on its citizenry and their fishing boats, private yachts and lifeboats to evacuate the British troops as they evacuated the beaches of Dunkirk. I would have known had I seen Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” which is currently in theaters and depicts exactly that. If ever there was a time for a double feature.
Talking about “Dunkirk”, Nolan is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that he “did not want to get bogged down in the politics of the situation.” For “Darkest Hour,” director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Hanna”) had Gary Oldman in the starring role, playing Winston Churchill, so he was not bogged down. As he said in the Q&A after the film, he wasn’t sure he was interested in this project but when he found out that Mr. Oldman was in, so was he. “I would watch Gary Oldman in anything, I would watch him playing a raisin.”
Staying with the “bogged down” idea for just a minute – Gary Oldman wore prosthetics that weighed half as much as he does. It seems like the man is always unrecognizable in whatever role he is in. “The Fifth Element,” “Batman” and “The Dark Knight” are just some examples. Even when he is without heavy makeup, he just blends into the film, making it real. The make-up was heavy in this case. The application meant that he would arrive three hours before the rest of the crew. This happened on 63 days of the shoot, at one point 57 in a row.
The politics that are featured in the film may have been the most pivotal of the last century. Britain was on the verge of negotiating a settlement with Hitler. Surrendering for all intents and purposes. Churchill was elected Prime Minister with little enthusiasm from his own party, the opposition and even the ruling monarch (King George the VI). The US was still not involved in the war and 300,000 soldiers were in need of rescue. Nothing was easy during this time, all the more for the man tasked with figuring out what to do. In introducing the film Joe Wright said, “This is a film about doubt, doubt is important because it’s through doubt that we gain wisdom.” Churchill is remembered for his wisdom but also a tremendous wit and that is portrayed in the film. I’m really not a big fan of biopics but this one is an achievement on many levels.
In theaters November 22.
Reaction to the movie was mixed, there are two kinds of people it seems, those who can keep their wits about them while watching science fiction and those who can’t. The sci fi premise in “Downsizing” is pretty mild and has been seen many times – a technology that would allow us to shrink ourselves. In this case the reason for inventing it is to save the planet. If people are smaller, the amount of resources each would consume is greatly reduced.
Like any good movie, the premise is a launching point for a human story and that is certainly the case here. Director Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants”) is known for this. In “Downsizing” it is about the transformation of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) through the process of downsizing. That is, shrinking to 1/12th his former size.
Actress Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran in the film, one of the first to suffer the non-humanitarian consequences of being shrunk. It’s not shown in the film as its part of the backstory only but she is shrunk against her will by political enemies in Viet Nam and eventually finds her way to being a servant in the planned, small, community that Paul lives in. Her earnest attempts at helping humanity, wherever she may be, is exactly what Paul has needed all his life.
Christophe Waltz’s (“Inglourious Basterds”) performance is easily worth the price of admission as his aging Serbian playboy character penetrates the world of the small and especially the world of Paul Safranek with his world-weary and wise cynicism, schemes and appreciation of finer things. Can you win an Oscar for “Best Grin”?
A couple going through a divorce must team up to find their son who has disappeared during one of their bitter arguments.
There were 2-3 Russian films at the festival, this one by Director Andrey Zvyagintsev whose “Leviathan” was a Telluride favorite in 2014. I am of the opinion that the “don’t give the audience a chance to breathe” ethos of American films has gone a bit too far, it ends up reducing too many movies into an opening act plus a long chase scene. But, many foreign films seem to go too far in the other direction. I was thinking that “Loveless” was one of those but that changed.
In “Loveless” a couple that is hurling towards divorce take little heed of the emotional needs of their young son. He runs away. A search ensues and it is here where the movie can drag. However, I want to see it again to see if there is something hidden in those scenes that might not be obvious. Very near the end, we see the child’s mother exercising on a treadmill while wearing a Russian-Olympic-Track-Team suit, emblazoned with too-big-to-miss “RUSSIA” across the chest, while she is looking straight into the camera. Aside from the occasional slowness mentioned above the film works as a compelling personal drama so I wasn’t looking for anything like this (almost) final scene but since it was there it throws the rest of the film into context – it is sending a message to the director’s home country about what is missing in their lives and perhaps politics.
This one reminded me of films by the Dardenne brothers (“Two Days, One Night”, “The Kid With a Bike.”) It aims to compel the viewer not with plot turns but with steadily worsening circumstances for the main, all too human, character.
In “Lean on Pete,” Charlie Plummer (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays 15 year-old Charlie Thompson, a boy who has raised himself while living with his ne’er-do-well and philandering father. Looking for the odd job, Charlie ends up working at a horse track, helping an acerbic old horse trainer and owner, “Del,” played by Steve Buscemi (“Boardwalk Empire.”) Charlie ends up caring especially for a Quarter Horse, “Lean on Pete.” He can identify with this horse, who having outlived his usefulness to Del, is not valued in the world. As the movie progresses, Lean on Pete is all that Charlie has.
Like Dardenne movies, this one is light on plot so it’s hard to say much about what happens without giving away things that are better discovered while watching. The subject is a 15-year-old boy and how he makes his way, making decisions like a young person would. A young person who has only ever been on his own, finally finding someone to care about, a cause and a connection. It is gripping and warming in the end if it is your kind of movie.
The director is Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”.) Chloë Sevigny (“ Beatriz at Dinner”) plays Del’s favorite jockey, a partner in his schemes, mostly due to her own limited options.
As mentioned above I’m calling this Tumblecore. Set someplace where everyone wears a cowboy hat, made without a full script (it seems), and amateur actors. It was an enthusiastic favorite of many at Telluride, it also won the Art Cinema Award at this year’s Cannes Director’s Fortnight.
I don’t share the enthusiasm, it isn’t bad for what it is but there is just so much more possible when a movie is well thought out and executed. The audience can read a lot of feeling into the handsome face of the lead actor Brady Jandreau, but we could have done the same even if there was more going on around him. I also think the path to that award at Cannes may have been made easier by the language difference between the non-professional actors and the audience at Cannes. The cast is entirely made of first-time film performers and most do fine though not great. But the stiff delivery of each line spoken by a key performer really drags things down for me.
Brady Jandreau plays Brady, a young man for whom the rodeo is everything. A severe head injury makes it impossible for him to continue. The film depicts him coming to terms with that. The character of his father (played by Tim Jandreau) is the one with the stiff delivery.
The fact that director Chloé Zhao can take a camera, little or no script, go to a place, any place, and make a movie that wins awards and audiences is sure to get some notice. Look for a film with some budget on her next effort. The incredible high quality images that a modern digital camera can capture in natural light is also part of what makes a movie like this work. If we are to be compelled by the inner process of our rodeo rider, good to have some lovely images to keep us watching. Most of the movie is made up of close-ups of Brady Jandreau.
Based on the true story of movie star Gloria Grahame as captured in the book of the same name by Peter Turner. Annette Bening plays Grahame and Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) is Turner. Bell’s performance is Oscar-worthy, I can’t wait to see him in some other roles. The film is in theaters in the US on December 15, 2017, an Oscar-timed date for sure.
Grahame had a high level of success in the 1950’s, including winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in “The Bad and the Beautiful.” A short clip of her acceptance non-speech is shown in this film. I haven’t been able to track down an explanation for her brisk grab of the trophy and only a more-than-quick “Thankyou” though it appeared to simply be in fun. This fits the personality displayed by Bening as Grahame ages out of favor but with love for Hollywood, acting, plays, fame, everything, seeks to keep it all going. Falling ill while about to go on stage for a play in Liverpool, she ends up meeting local actor Peter Turner. Though he is 19 years younger, the two form a relationship, one that brings Grahame back to Liverpool when illness befalls her again.
There were times, especially early on, when I wasn’t sure Bening was the best choice for the role, Grahame had a high, almost squeaky, voice which Bening imitates consistently if not convincingly. But, there are some scenes where powerful emotion and acting a story within the story are called for. These scenes might earn Bening an Oscar nomination as well.
(With props to Bill Maher): New rule! Filmmakers have to admit that CGI’d backdrops of cityscapes or a beach are not fooling anyone! Maybe it was the fact that we were sitting close to a big screen – I have not had this problem with other films – but in the case of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” several backdrops looked absolutely phony and amateurish.
Based on the book of the same name, directed by Angelina Jolie and filmed entirely in Cambodia with an all Cambodian cast.
Cambodia is a beautiful country and Cambodians may be the best looking people on earth and their kids the cutest (with the exception of my nieces and nephews and the children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews of anyone I know or anyone who might be reading this, of course). This makes it all the harder to see their lives suddenly overturned when the US abandons Cambodia (where we never were in the first place) and the Khmer Rouge takes over.
The Ung family father is also an Army captain and so all of them are in special danger once the regime changes. They do a remarkable job of keeping his identity concealed but that can only last so long. The family splits up with the hopes that at least some of them can survive if they are not in an identifiable group.
Take this with a grain of salt as this was the last movie we saw at the festival – so the twelfth movie in four days: While there were moments when I was on the edge of my seat, by-and-large I wasn’t feeling as much for these characters, children even, as I should have. These particular children didn’t seem able to convey the full range of (strong) emotions that would exist when someone is ripped from your family and your comfortable life is replaced with war. Not that anyone should ever have to endure such a thing or even reenact it. Also, I think there may have been some director’s tricks, not employed here, that could have amped up the suspense.
That’s it for the movies we saw! An even dozen. See you again next year Telluride!