Telluride Film Festival #38: George Clooney, no "Slumdog," big smaller films

Telluride Film Festival #38: George Clooney, no "Slumdog," big smaller films

Show For the second year in a row, a King George dominated the Telluride Film Festival. Last year, it was King George VI, whose life and stutter were immortalized in director Tom Hooper's golden "The King's Speech." This year was all about a second King George, a man who rose from a humble background, the son of a former Army dj, to rule Telluride – at least for the long Labor Day weekend. I am talking of course about actor George Clooney, a tributee at the 38th annual celluloid celebration of the art of filmmaking. (He threatened to wear the metal medallion he received at his tribute through airport security.) Virtually every other superstar in town – and there were plenty – walked in Clooney's shadow.

George, 1 Turns out one of the sexiest men alive – not just me and you and you and you, but People magazine (twice) – is also one of the coolest: smart, laugh out loud funny, and remarkably grounded. Clooney, whose career schlepped along until age 33, provides one great reason why prepubescent boys might want to consider maturity as an option and real men don't need to mouth off, brawl, posture like peacocks, or disparage women. There was a outbreak of niceness around the guy: Clooney is generous with his adoring public and acknowledges and appreciates his great good luck, qualities that make him an original in the Hollywood pantheon. While some of the movies Clooney makes are standard Hollywood fare, he uses his fame to greenlight more interesting projects such as his two latest, the "Ides of March," which he also directed screened in Venice like minutes before he had to be in Telluride. His "The Descendants," written and directed by Alexander Payne, was easily one of the buzziest projects at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival.

In "The Descendants," Clooney plays against type. Faced with a family tragedy, the cocksure, urbane, buff anti-hero, faster on and off his feet than anyone else in the room, becomes a clueless "schlub," (Clooney's word), a bit soft around the belly and initially in his head when in comes to parenting his two daughters. Add "tender" to the list of adjectives you use to describe Clooney, an actor at the height of his game with miles to go before he sleeps.

With good reason, critics and fans alike loved Alexander Payne's Oscar-winning "Sideways": his writing like his directing is smart and spare. Ditto "The Descendants, " a rare combination of comedy and heartbreak that works as much for what Payne does not show on the screen as for what he chooses to reveal: a scene in which Clooney is meant to address his family over a decision about a major tract of virgin Hawaiian land held in trust since the 1860s is just one example of Payne's understatement, a gift he shares with Clooney. The young actress Shailene Woodley gives a breakout performance in "The Descendants" as an angsty, rebellious teenager. Payne, Clooney and Woodley should all get Oscar nods.

Holland, Insdorf Payne's "The Descendants" was one of the few Telluride's sneak previews about which there was little controversy this year. Another beloved director and film: Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness."

In the run up to his Festival, Telluride's co-director described Holland's "In Darkness" as the director's "masterpiece." He was right. "In Darkness" is a true story based on two books: "The Girl in the Green Sweater," written by Krystyna Chiger, the only surviving member of the episode, now living in New York City, and Robert Marshall's "In the Sewers of Lvov." "In Darkness" features one of the many reluctant heroes gracing the screen this weekend. (Clooney's character is another.) A guy you love to hate. At least at first glance. When we first meet Soha, the remarkable character actor Robert Wieckiewicz, he is a con man and standard issue Polish anti-Semite, who winds up going against his best instincts to save a handful of Jews during WWII. The arc of Soha's journey from the sewer of his mind into the clear light of day parallels that of "his Jews."

"In Darkness" should be on the short list of foreign films to receive an Oscar nomination. That is also true of "A Separation," "Footnote," and "The Kid with a Bike," fine examples of small films that deliver a big punch. These three other foreign films also received a group hug from the Festival crowd. What "Darkness," "Separation," "Footnote" and "Kid" (and for that matter, "Descendants" and the Indian film, "The Way Home") have in common is an Everyman focus: skilled directors show ordinary (read "flawed") people prone to pettiness, jealousy, and anger, rising to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances, a TFF38 theme.

Sellars, Farhadi Describing "A Separation," Festival regular and cineaste extraordinaire Peter Sellars said that the Iranian film breaks the mold: director Asghar Farhadi's work is not about a mystical journey or The Other and it features people in trouble whom we might want to "talk to over dinner." (Note: Sellars did not say "over a beer.") "In Separation," which took Berlin's Golden Bear for best film, pits a well-educated middle class family against the uneducated urban poor in what amounts to a class struggle designed to reveal the clash between secular and spiritual values vying for the soul of a country.

Winner of best screenplay at Cannes, "Footnote"  is Joseph Cedar's complex and poignant satire of Freudian psychology (as played out between a father and son) and the Israeli intelligentsia.

Like "In Darkness," "The Kid with a Bike," the recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, is a profound and compelling portrait of hope and redemption against the odds. Like Holland, Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne direct with compassion and restraint to display the gamut of human emotions and possibility. True to form, the Dardenne's "Kid" is an unsentimental portrait of an abandoned boy on a path to self-destruction. He meets the Big Bad Wolf, but ultimately seeks and wins shelter in the home of a strong woman who offers parental love and acceptance.

The Telluride Film Festival's two period pieces were "Albert Nobbs" and "A Dangerous Method."

Remember "The Crying Game?" That was b
ack in the day gender-benders were not vying for equal rights under the law. Actress Glenn Close began campaigning her movie, a passion project if there ever was one, after she performed in the stage version of the story in 1982. Impassioned and tenacious as a pit bull, Close finally convinced the talented director Rodrigo Garcia to join in her efforts. Together they succeeded in getting "Albert Nobbs" to the silver screen. Close starred in the movie and also co-wrote and co-produced "Albert Nobbs," the story of a cellophane woman who lived a cloistered life as a waiter/butler in Chaplinesque drag in a socially repressive 19th-century Dublin. Although the film is a bit bloated around the middle, performances across the board are stunning and understated: Close, who described the role as a "somewhat surreal experience," is powerful in her reserve as a sexual, social naif. Broadway veteran Janet McTeer dazzles as a strapping, broad-shouldered painter and Nobbs' "sister" in solidarity. Mia Wasikowska is lovely as a seductive servant girl looking for a leg up the social ladder. All three woman should get Oscar noms.

Like "Nobbs," David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," a Freud/Jung biopic, is adapted from a book and like 'Nobbs," the film earns high praise for performances, sets and costumes, though the feeling is Cronenberg pulled back too far from his mad scientist persona to create something a bit too straight-laced and academic.

In "A Dangerous Method," Keira Knightley is Sabina Spielrein, the daughter of wealthy Russian Jews, diagnosed with acute hysteria. I disagree with the naysayers who claim Knightley went way over the top in the role. I found her performance as a uniquely intelligent, highly sexual woman compelling and convincing. Remember Christopher Hampton who wrote the screenplay had access to the original notes on Sabina's case, including the ways she acted out (which were over the top) and the fact she was masochist. So the spankings were not gratuitous bids for audience attention. Viggo Mortensen disappears artfully into the role of Freud and Michael Fassbender is strong as Freud's acolyte turned adversary, the mystical intellectual and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. Fassbender is equally strong, maybe stronger in Steve McQueen's "Shame," but despite great performances by Carey Mulligan as well and heaps of praise out of Venice, I found that film all hat, no cowboy. "Shame" is intellectually pretentious, self indulgent, nightmarish. Its one truly redeeming moment is Mulligan's gut-wrenching rendition of "New York, New York." Encore. Oh, and the dark underbelly of New York City is beautiful in all its danger.

In contrast to the mixed reactions received by "Albert Nobbs" and "A Dangerous Method," Michael Hazanavicius's delightful singing, dancing, mugging  "The Artist," was a universal crowd-pleaser. The project being nurtured along by the irrepressible Weinstein brothers could well be the first silent film since the 1930s to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

In the Best Documentary category, my bet is on "Pina" and "Island President." (That is if "Island President" is actually put out for Oscar consideration, which is in doubt.)

"Pina" is a feature-length documentary about the iconic German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. Director Wim Wenders explained to Telluride audiences that he attended his first Bausch performance under duress, but wound up "crying helplessly (for joy) the rest of the evening," extolling Bauch's "liveliness" and "existential energy." The two met back then in the 1980s and agreed to one day make a movie together. When Bausch died unexpectedly mid-project in the summer of 2009, the documentary switched gears, becoming a worthy tribute instead of a biopic. "Pina" is a visually sumptuous journey of discovery into the world of Bausch's dancers and apostles, which travels out of theaters onto city streets and even into the countryside of Wuppertal, central ops for Bauch's creativity for 35 years. The 3-D extravaganza is destined to change the face of dance films forever. "Pina" is a tour de force, which director Ken Burns declared his "favorite film of the festival."

While we on the subject of favorites, high on the list of my favorite leading men of the weekend is Mohamed Nasheed, the charismatic young leader of the Maldives and the star of John Shenk's wonderful and important "The Island President." Nasheed emerges from the trenches, jail and exile to become the first democratically elected president of an all-Muslim country. But his victory is short-lived: climate change emerges as a threat far worse than the repressive regime which ruled the country with an iron fist for 30-some years. Despite Nasheed's "eternal optimism," "The Island President" offers a rather bleak picture of the future – unless…  As for the future of this important film. That's a whole other story. (See above.)

Palm Theatre I want to starting spreading the good word about Jennifer Garner's "Butter." OK as socio-political satire, the movie is not Big or Important. At times, it is downright silly. And ok, "Butter" flaunts Midwestern stereotypes. Also stereotypes about religious freaks and right wingers. But "Butter" slams earnest liberals, used car salesmen and people who judge butter sculpting contests as well. Even strippers. Wouldn't life would be a whole lot more pleasant and fun if we could all learn to laugh at ourselves rather than rattling sabres? That includes flatlanders. And people who attend the Telluride Film Festival in search of variations on the theme of emotional catharsis. Call me crazy, but I find a butter sculpture of Da Vinci's The Last Supper a real knee slapper.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.