Telluride Film Festival #46: A Smoking Hot Weekend Inside - And Out!
“Making a movie is like a journey of discovery to an uncharted planet,” Taghi Amirani, director, “Coup 53.”
The world of the Telluride Film Fest:
Year after year what is out there in the zeitgeist seems to find its way to the silver screen.
Imagine a world in which lots of closed doors are opened and many of our resident fantasies are forced to take a hike.
Opened at the Vatican, where we get to eavesdrop on a tete-à-tete between two Popes deciding the fate of the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers.
Opened on the life of a celebrated director, who reveals his struggles with ill health and his own mortality.
And on a once happy marriage between two rising millennial stars.
Imagine a world in which CIA is not all about White Hats saving us from the Big Bad Wolf hovering just outside our door.
Or one that reveals what can go on behind a white picket fence – or the gates of a manor house – a topsy-turvy world where parents are the predators.
Or one in which Hollywood is seen as the ultimate pusher and pimp, dooming the life of one of its biggest stars.
Or one in which #MeToo plays out as an 18th-century love story between two women, an artist and her muse.
Finally, imagine a world in which fringe-walking Davids repeatedly trounce establishment Goliaths.
Welcome to a world which pulls back the veil of avidya, of illusion, and proves it is hard to judge a book by its cover story.
Welcome to the world of “The Two Popes,” “Pain and Glory,” “Marriage Story,” “The Report,” “Coup 53,” “The Human Factor,” “Tell Me Who I Am,” “Judy,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” and…
Welcome to the world of the Telluride Film Festival.
Buzz on the lines: #46 was one of the best in the history of this celebrated celluloid happening. Directors Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy and their selection committee found, as they almost always do on their globe-trotting treasure hunts, properties that manage to find and mine that elusive sweet spot between great storytelling, superb filmmaking, stars with depth – and yes, escapist entertainment.
Droning on about the existential crisis in The Industry is so last week. But it remains true, perhaps truer than ever, that raindrops keep falling on its head – just as all the umbrellas are selling out. (According to one source, the Industry is on pace to sell the lowest number of tickets since the early ’90s.)
And no wonder. The whiz, bam, bang, POW, blood-and-gorefest that is Hollywood keeps putting out bloated, irrelevant sequels from (formerly) crowd-pleasing blockbuster franchises, featuring mind-numbing plots. There are way too few new stories to share. Truth is La La Land has long since relegated originality to producers like Netflix and Amazon, in town with some of their latest releases for the Telluride. Those two companies and their compatriots appear to represent the new gravitational center of the filmverse.
Clearly and not surprisingly after nearly five decades, in sharp contrast to Tinseltown and its woes, in Telluride, the sun is still shining brightly. In fact, Labor Day weekend 2019 was smoking hot in town, both outside and inside the dark theaters where attendees proved to be very willing to out themselves as voyeurs, ready, willing, and able to be enthralled, informed, and mesmerized by movies that celebrate great writing, bravura acting, and a colorful parade of complicated characters and their struggles with sex, death, money, social and political upheaval, and the many and varied treacheries of the human heart.
Bottom line this year, as every year, the Telluride Film Festival shunned the usual suspects, and went out on a limb to inspire, educate, and delight.
And, as anticipated, Telluride will retain its status on the festival circuit as the mouse that roars.
Original riffs on bromances:
Thankfully, there were only a few capes in sight – and those were confined to quarters at the Vatican, the setting for director Fernando Meirelles’ (and Netflix’s) ”The Two Popes,” a smart (as in literate), intimate, engagingly emotional, witty – to whit, in an early scene we find Bergoglio whistling ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in the loo– gritty spin on the papacy as human drama played out at an historic turning point (in 2012).
The film features virtuosic (yes, Oscar-worthy) performances by its two dazzling stars: Anthony Hopkins as scandal-ridden, dogmatic conservative, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio, a reformer (and Benedict’s successor), who loves soccer as much as God.
Anthony McCarten, (who also penned “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”) wrote this story about the surprising chemistry between those titanic opposites – and the long lost art of listening.
“…The Two Popes” isn’t nearly as concerned with either of these men’s individual pasts as it is with the Church’s future. And when it comes time to consider what’s at stake, the movie goes big, reminding us why the pope can be the world’s greatest ally — a leader in knocking down walls (the movie’s looking at you, Trump), respecting those without resources, protecting the planet and unifying its inhabitants. While its subject may be religious, “The Two Popes” doesn’t want to convert you. Rather, as an extraordinary piece of writing — and an even more impressive showcase for its actors — it eloquently communicates the importance of giving people something to believe in,” wrote Peter Debruge in Variety.
“The Two Popes,” with its “Odd Couple” vibe and historic world view, was a runaway Festival favorite – and one of several highly unusual variations on the theme of a bromance or buddy flick. Another was “Ford v Ferrari.”
Director Robert Mangold defined film as “a bunch of miracles.’ And his story ostensibly about the legendary racer and visionary car designer/engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and the combustible driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is a case in point – though Mangold sees his latest release, “Ford v Ferrari,” as being as much about love and friendship as about cars and driving, a claim paid off in the relationships the director captures inside Miles’ tight-knit family unit.
Together those iconoclastic Davids challenge the laws of physics, personal demons, and corporate interference to build a now-legendary race car so that the staid Ford Motors could challenge – and win – against Ferrari in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Ford v Ferrari” is a postmodern swashbuckler filled with stuff daddies tend to like: explosions and pulse-racing chase scenes, making it an inevitable, if surprising hit. Meaning woman (like me), who could give a hoot about things that go bump on a track, loved it too.
Pace makes this race. Sound design and cinematography too. “Ford v Ferrari” is a great ride. And, in our political world of incompetents, the film sends a message to the suits (and to the Oval Office): leadership and inspiration is no longer trickle-down. Change must – and will – come from the ground up. (As Paul Hawken suggests in his 2007 “Blessed Unrest.”)
Mangold positions us all in the driver’s seat with good reason.
You have to love a leading man like Ed Norton as Lionel, an orphan who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, a condition which, under tension or over-stimulation of any kind, makes him snap his head to the side and issue forth a volley of odd sounds and incomprehensible pronouncements. The guy, is also a private dick in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. We are talking about the anti-hero also known as “Freakshow” in Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1990 novel, “Motherless Brooklyn.”
The politically driven, stylish (Edward Hopper meets all that jazz), musically beguiling film noir is set in 1957 New York. The death of Lionel’s protector, mentor, and boss Frank Minna – who dubbed his friend “Motherless Brooklyn” – a pitch-perfect cameo by Bruce Willis – is the catalyst for the ensuing action.
It was Norton’s first time in Telluride, a surprise given the filmography of this great character actor known for his high-wire acts – his performance in “Motherless Brooklyn,” no exception.
“Had I lived here (in Telluride) instead of New York, I would have made ‘Free Solo,’” Norton quipped to his rapt audience, before introducing his “Justice League” of producers and his “Wonder Woman” (and Lionel’s love interest in the film) Laura Rose, played by the sensuous Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
The Goliath to Norton’s David is an anti-democratic, racist, take-no-prisoners autocrat known as Moses Randolph, a thinly veiled caricature of Robert Moses, “master builder” of modern Gotham, as described in Robert Caro’s exposé,”The Power Broker.” Moses is played by Alec Baldwin, whose stock in trade is villainous tycoons like this one. Here, the Machiavellian proverb about “absolute power corrupts absolutely” was lost on no one: Baldwin is also famous for his parody of Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.”
Some have damned “Motherless Brooklyn” by faint praise. They say they love the sets and setting, costumes, cinematography, music, and performances by all of the above, as well as other top-tier actors: Willem Defoe, Moses’s brother and the Abel to Baldwin’s Cain; Brooklyn’s business colleague Bobby Carnevale; activist lawyer, Cherry Jones; and Michael K. Williams as the jazz trumpeter who channels Wynton Marsalis.
They also say Norton’s plot is flawed, that it crumbles under its own weight. However, we were captivated by the expressionist mood of the tangled web Norton weaves in his adaptation and the way the film holds up a mirror of the two brothers, Moses and Paul Randolph, that reflects two clear choices in the world today: gain no matter the cost or the potential pain of doing the right thing.
“Motherless Brooklyn” proves the dark, misty world of private investigators still has legs. Unraveling a sweater and unraveling an investigation are two sides of the same coin for Norton’s character.
Silver medallions tributees and getting personal:
Noah Bombach’s “A Marriage Story,” another Netflix pic, is a compassionate, nuanced, deeply felt and personal (it is based on Bombach’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh ) look at a bicoastal relationship on the rocks,
Festival silver medallion tribute Adam Driver plays Charlie, one-half of a divorcing couple and an up-and-coming director. Nicole, his wife, an actress and the star of Charlie’s theater company, is played by Scarlett Johansson. Both deliver understated performances that ring clear and true, going over the top only once for a fight scene.
If the story says anything at all, it is that the line between love and hate can be very blurry. The movie imparts an easily digestible lesson about how, despite a laundry list of great qualities – the kind that get enumerated on dating sites: great with kids, good dresser, good listener, creative gift giver, cries at movies – the best of intentions can go south. But sadly, divorces do not white-out a relationship, especially when there is a strong mutual desire to keep the family together.
Bombach seamlessly reveals all that raw emotion of break-up and still manages to be funny. Humor lies in the flotsam and jetsam of what were once close bonds. The Big Fight Scene is a doozy too. Could be the best Bombach ever.
The strong supporting cast of “A Marriage Story” includes Azhy Robertson as the couple’s eight-year-old son Henry; Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s daffy mother; Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and (a very buff) Laura Dern as the lawyers. Randy Newman wrote the score.
“For all its strife and sorrow, ‘Marriage Story ‘is a generous film. It sensitively acknowledges the ways people fail each other, and the ways they don’t. It’s well worth your time. Maybe don’t watch it with your spouse, though,” observed Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair.
And while we are the subject of directors who make their private stories grist for the public mill, Pedro Almodóvar has never done anything but. However in the autobiographical “Pain and Glory,” the director’s 21st project and a masterpiece, Almodóvar strips naked, musing out loud, in living color and mixed-media, about his retreat from his profession and his lifelong and very challenging health issues, including (but not limited to) addiction, depression, choking whenever he eats solid food, backaches, and migraines.
Almodóvar is played by his buddy and recurring star – yes, in a way the film reflects yet another bromance – Antonio Banderas, who is the director’s beard in the film, Salvador Mallo. Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes for the effort.
At one of the screenings, Banderas confessed to the crowd that he was terrified when he read the script and learned he was to channel his friend and mentor. However, a heart attack three years ago helped open him up, allowing him to reveal his character’s all-pervasive, all-consuming vulnerability.
Mallo is man in a deep slump who has not made anything in years, but who lives in splendid discomfort and isolation surrounded by beautiful works of art. A reunion with one of his earliest stars is fraught with danger, but ultimately shifts the director’s perspective, leading to his salvation.
Cinematographer José Luis Alcane and production designer Antxón Gómez help give the film its richness and warmth. Colors collect and pop in every scene, especially red, which Kandinsky once described as “stimulating and exciting to the heart.” Bright green, red’s exact complement, enters the picture in the form of a leather jacket at the exact moment Mallo/Almodóvar/Banderas shows a renewed interest in getting on with his life.
There are no accidents in an Almodóvar effort.
Throughout “Pain and Glory,” there are euphoric memories of Almodóvar’s devout mother gorgeously played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz and, as an older woman on the brink of death, by another Almodovar regular, Julieta Serrano.
But perhaps the funnest part of “Pain and Glory” is that it is a meta project, a film about the making of a film. The title of a painting by Henri Magritte is as famous as the painting itself: “Ceci nest pas a pipe.” This is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe.
Almodóvar masterful conceit is much the same: “Pain and Glory” is not the director’s life. It is a movie about his life as a maker of movies.
A tour de force and yet another Festival favorite.
The setting for director Céline Sciamma’s spare, sensuous ”Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is Brittany, France, around 1770, the dawn of Romanticism, a movement that focused on a narrator’s inner world and celebrated nature, beauty, and imagination. Romanticism also rejected organized religion, rationalism, and social convention, while idealizing women, children, rural life – and inclusion.
A young painter, Marianne, (Noémie Merlant), is commissioned to do to create a wedding portrait of Héloïse, (Adèle Haenel), a young lady who has just left a convent and is a reluctant bride-to-be – so Marianne must paint her subject without her knowing. At first the artist observes Héloïse by day, secretly painting her subject at night. But intimacy and attraction grow between the two women as they share Héloïse’s first and final moments of total freedom and abandon – just as Marianne paints the portrait that will end the torrid affair.
The film’s title is a double entendre: the portrait of a lady refers not just to Héloïse and her canvas. The movie is also a portrait of the artist Marianne. The slow burn of a candle later becomes a full-blown fire that burns bright and hot, nearly consuming, in a moment literally, one of the two woman.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a film about the power of the female gaze – so no big surprise, Héloïse’s enigmatic smile is a nod to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And although the film is decidedly erotic, Sciamma chose not to focus on genitalia, rather on other intimate parts – curls, hands, eyes, ears – and on all those singular, signature, unconscious gestures that underline mood changes.
Without shouting, without screaming for headlines, in this breathtakingly beautiful film Sciamma shines a light on issues that remain in the forefront of the #MeToo movement today: a dominant patrimony that tends to stifle female talent and ambition; control of our own bodies (there is a subplot about an abortion); simply being seen and heard and not objectified.
Literature also looms large throughout the frames. The two women want to be read out loud and understood.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is, for sure, about burning desires, but beyond just the obvious sexual variety. Clearly the project is not the latest variation on the theme of “Blue is Not the Warmest. Color,” which also had its North American premiere in Telluride back in 2013.
As a director, Sciamma herself is clearly on fire.
Somewhere over the moon is silver medallion tributee Rene Zellweger, who nails Judy Garland’s signature song in the biopic titled “Judy” in which she stars – and soars by nimbly navigating the frontiers of campy overstatement and a sad, sordid reality.
The villain in this tale of woe directed by Rupert Goold is the Hollywood machine, in particular MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who discovered a talented young teen from Minnesota named Frances Ethel Gumm, then transformed her into a Big Star using drugs (to keep her slim, calm her down) and other forms of mental and physical coercion (to keep her in check).
Zellweger delivers a heart-breaking performance as a woman on the verge of nervous breakdown. We meet her Judy in London in 1968, at end of her rope – and life – forced to sing for her supper.
Though the film travels back and forth in time,“Judy” is not meant to be a comprehensive biography. It is instead a case study in Tinseltown image-making.
And that is not a pretty picture.
Myth-breaking or the shadow side of “Leave It to Beaver” and the dark underbelly of Pax Americana:
What if you woke up one morning to discover you have forgotten every detail of your life? Alex was just 18 when a motorcycle left him in a coma, robbed of all his memories. His only link with the past, the only hope for his future, is his identical twin Marcus who, as it turns out, spins a tale to protect his brother – and himself – from the sordid truth of their childhood and family.
Directed by Ed Perkins for Amazon, the true story of “Tell Me Who I Am” is sparingly, tastefully told through expressionistic recreations and simple interviews.
“This is a story about memory loss, brotherhood, and the things we do to survive,” Perkins told his audience at the doc’s second screening ever.
It is a story about child abuse that needs to be told to help protect other innocents.
Just ask the twins who were in the room, reliving their horror for the greater good of the reveal.
Paraphrasing one of Film Fest’s eloquent talking heads, Mark Danner, “torture is tantamount to severing a person’s nervous system.”
“It is not who were are,” said Obama, “but it is what we did,” referring in a speech to the CIA’s use of torture in its Detention and Interrogation Program in the wake of 9/11.
Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, “The Report” stars Adam Driver in another powerful performance as Daniel J. Jones, a former staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, was working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, played by wholly credible Annette Bening in a tour de force performance as an Iron Lady with a soft center. It was Feinstein who assigned Jones to head up a Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Burns, who also wrote “The Bourne Ultimatum” and produced “An Inconvenient Truth” makes his directorial debut in Telluride with “The Report,” a story he tells with restraint, letting a mountain of damning factual details speak for themselves, then trusting his audience to reach the sad, obvious conclusion: all too many of the “good guys,” our protectors around the globe, became the Men in Black (hats). Over 7,000 pages, (the real report, not the script), Jones proved torture did and does not work – except as the ultimate recruiting tool for radical Islam.
Burns described his white-knuckle political thriller as “a struggle for transparency,” adding, “but hopefully not a vitamin pill.” Still its message is hard to swallow: though highly entertaining, “The Report” is also a deeply, darkly troubling wake-up call for a nation in need of hard facts.
Dror Moreh, the director of “The Gatekeepers, also a Telluride launch, returned to town to release a doc about the see-saw that was the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that started in the 1980s and continue (in theory anyway) to this day.
“The Human Factor” is a nostalgic look over our shoulder to the days diplomacy was actually a thing. Too bad Moreh chose to focus on five diplomats who admitted to being biased towards Israel and only one, Gamel Helal, who is an Arab. Still moral relativity does the Full Monty, just as it did in “The Report,” and in Taghi Amirani’s much more powerful “Coup 53,” also about the Mideast, in particular about lost opportunities in Iran.
Introducing the film, Danner quotes Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”
Then he went on to describe the secret coup d’état of August 1953, a joint venture of the CIA and MI6 that overthrew the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh to reinstall the Shah and reestablish control over oil interests. He then connected the dots between that intrigue and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, also the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah and established a theocratic regime in ’79.
The world is still grappling with this largely forgotten slice of history and the details surrounding what turned out to be a pivotal political event. Close your eyes and imagine a democratic Iran – then weep.
To make his documentary which took 10 years, Amirani had to sift through hundreds of archives, his “creative godfather,” the legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch, always by his side.
Twenty-two festivals turned Amirani down cold. Thankfully Julie and Tom did not.
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