Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Telluride Film Festival 40

If there was one theme for the 40th Telluride Film Festival it was that of survival. Most obvious were J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost with Robert Redford isolated on a doomed sail boat out in the Indian Ocean, Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney careening through space [in 3D] after an accident, Tracks with Mia Wasikowska playing Robyn Davidson who trekked across Australia with camels and the documentary about a group in the 1930's who got more than they bargained for in The Galapago Affair: Satan Comes to Eden.

Less obvious but with noticeable survival traits were 12 Years a Slave [a free black man is enslaved and tries to escape], Labor Day [lonely single woman with son attempts to survive an escaped convict who has invaded her home], Palo Alto [teens surviving upper class malaise, drugs, sex and each other] and Bethlehem [a Palestinian teen and Israeli agent trying to survive the violence endemic to the Middle East].

One could find any general theme if they think about it enough but when you're at a festival who has time to think? It's just go, go, go. I managed to see 14 movies between 7pm on Thursday and noon on Monday, which is a pretty good feat considering I did not have a festival pass. I just chose the right films at the right times.

A Few Highlights:

Ida [pronounced eeda] - Shot in black and white with an Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and rather subtle on emotions this unassuming Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski, was one of the better films I saw. A nun [Agata Trzebuchowska] learns about her past from a cousin who takes her to her birthplace. Set in 1962 - with World War II still an active memory - the nun is suddenly faced with life changing facts. Her cousin is the complete opposite; a middle aged, lonely alcoholic woman who was a former Stalinist judge. Directed with great precision and skill the film could pass for actually having been made in 1962 and few would know it wasn't. Ultimately, a great film about identity and fate.

Tim's Vermeer - A documentary that - if true - could change art history. The theory that Vermeer painted his masterpieces using optical, mirror or camera obscura tricks is not new but the concept has always been a theory. Until now. Tim Jenison a Renaissance man, inventor and all around decent guy decides to see if he can paint a Vermeer using a mirror technique. Directed by Teller of Penn & Teller fame the film sets out to debunk the concept that Vermeer painted with miraculous, supernatural skill. Like some extended magic trick the film delights and surprises. There are those who may think the message is that Vermeer cheated but, in fact, it shows he may actually have been an inventive genius.

Bethlehem - This is an intense Israeli movie, by first time filmmaker Yuvol Adler, about an Israeli agent who has befriended a teenage Palestinian whose brother is a terrorist suspect. Who’s using who? Who’s betraying who? Many conflicts ensue as it emerges from a convoluted beginning to an effective ending with good action and solid characters.

The Lunchbox - This film, by Ritesh Batra, was one of the hits of the festival. Its a good romantic comedy about a lonely wife in Mumbai whose lunches she cooks for her husband end up going to another man. He, an older gentlemen soon to retire, falls in love with the food and then - after exchanging notes in the lunchboxes each day - falls in love with her. Will they meet? Should they meet? What’s for lunch? [Salman Rushdie called it 'The best Indian film in a long time."]

All is Lost - Robert Redford sails. Sailboat sinks. We can’t let an icon die! This is a very engaging film despite no dialogue and one actor. Director J.C. Chandor uses the wide expanse of the ocean to - as one friend noted - ironically create a claustrophobia effect. Is it lenses, directing or Redford's skill? Who knows? Just go along for the ride. One tag line I heard was that it is Life of Pi without the tiger or Castaway without the volleyball.

Before the Winter Chill - A French film by Philippe Claudel - with Daniel Auteuil and Kristin Scott Thomas - that is so subtle it will scare away everyone except lovers of sophisticated French films. Middle-aged husband, doctor, father bored with life becomes intrigued with a young woman who isn’t what she appears to be. Is he entering a new phase of love or the danger zone? I loved it. Its complex, has intriguing mystery and interesting plot parallels throughout that leave the more discerning viewer thinking about what has happened and why.

Nebraska - Alexander Payne delights and depresses in equal measure in this film about an elder guy who is convinced he has won a million dollars from a publisher clearinghouse sweepstakes ad. Bruce Dern plays old and confused really well. I would have liked to see a bit more acting on his part because he has the talent. But it is good to see him working. Good guy. Good film.

Ralph Fiennes, Bruce Dern, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos

Good But Problematic:

Labor Day - Jason Reitman has been on a roll but his new film is a bit of a stumble. This one, based on a best selling book by Joyce Maynard, is Reitman's first foray into drama / suspense / romance. The acting is top notch, the editing, pacing, direction and overall design of the film is very good. But the plot is one that suffers a bit if you stop to think about it too long. It's a film that will make some people cry because of its romantic angle and yet others may cry due to the waste of good talent and a potentially better story that could have been made from the same material.

Gloria - This Chilean film by Sebastian Lelio is about a lonely 50 something woman, mother of two, who drinks too much, dances too late into the night and has relations with too many men. Problem is, despite all this, the film is somewhat dull for the first hour. Then suddenly it picks up nicely in the last half hour as she deals with a boyfriend who is much older than her but far more immature. The central performance by Paulina Garcia is very good [she won best actress in Berlin].

Palo Alto - Gia Coppola, much like her aunt Sophia, has a real gift for capturing poetic images, naturalistic mise-en-scène and blending them with a great soundtrack. She also gets a lot of good performances out of a film that falls somewhere between American Graffiti and Kids yet remains rather unsatisfying as a character study of two lonely teens - amid a bunch of other disaffected teens - who just can't manage to hook up. Emma Roberts stars along with James Franco and Teddy Kilmer.

Prisoners - This one, by Denis Villeneuve, is well worth your time if you like terrifying suspense thrillers that expertly use red herrings to make you jump. However, like Labor Day, if you stop to think about it too much you'll find holes all over the place. It's also got Hugh Jackman on a slightly ridiculous testosterone high whereby he kidnaps a kidnap suspect and tortures him for a week. This is a film that asks; When are we justified in taking the law into our own hands? Jake Gyllenhal is the one who gives an amazing performance here - like he did in Zodiac, with which this one has similarities. On the plus side, at two-and-a-half hours, most will actually not want the movie to end.

There were many other good films I missed but hope to see eventually such as Blue is The Warmest Color, 12 Years a Slave, Manuscripts Don't Burn by tributee Mohammad Rasoulof, Fifi Howls From Happiness, Gravity and Under the Skin [which seemed to be universally hated], The Past and Inside Llewyn Davis by tributees Joel and Ethan Coen - along with T Bone Burnett.

As always there were a good number of older films presented over the weekend but a many of them - such as The Big City (Mahanagar) [Criterion] and L'enfance Nue [Criterion], Portrait of Jennie [MGM] and The Terminal Man [Warner Archive] are available on home video. Of course, the main interest in them was that they were presented by famous former guest directors such as Salman Rushdie, Phillip Lopate, David Thompson and Buck Henry. The one really rare film was the Cuban film One Way or Another which was presented by B Ruby Rich. I would have liked to see that one but couldn't fit it in. Then of course, there was Mark Cousins with his idiosyncratic intelligence who had two films playing; A Story of Children and Film and Here Be Dragons.

Two rare silent films played to live musical accompaniment; He Who Get's Slapped - a silent Lon Chaney film directed by Victor Sjöström and A Simple Case - a rare [and very messy] Pudovkin film. In years past I mainly only see the older films. But this year I felt it was time to get in on preview wagon. Either way it's always worth it just being in Telluride, seeing old friends and talking about movies.

Photos by Matt Langdon

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