TELLURIDE FILM FEST #39: EQUAL PARTS OLDIES BUT GOODIES AND OSCAR BUZZ
The 39th annual Telluride Film Festival began with a crude knock-knock joke. Here goes:
Arrr.Go f–k yerself.
And the joke – or at least the last line – was a laugh line in Ben Affleck’s inventive film “Argo,” the only sneak peak at this year’s Festival. The movie which generated instant Oscar buzz also established two distinct festival through-lines: terrorism and political strife in general and true stories that underline the taut connection between art and life.
“Argo,” a political thriller and social satire (with laugh out loud one-liners) is based on a true story that took place during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which ultimately brought President Carter down. (That and cardigan sweaters.) When the case was declassified by President Clinton, it became fair game for the silver screen.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA spook who managed to secret six State Department employees out of Iran, a group who managed to escape the siege of the American Embassy by militants who held their hostages in the building for 444 days – and were feverishly hunting down the ones that got away.
Mendez’s hat trick: the six would become part of a team scouting exotic desert locations for a bogus sci-fi fantasy entitled – you guessed it – “Argo.” To pull off the outrageous cover story – “the best bad idea we’ve got” – per Bryan Cranston, who plays Mendez’s hard-nosed, ultimately soft-hearted boss – Mendez enlists the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman at his irreverent best) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, ditto) who help him establish a convincing backstory that ultimately fools Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guards.
While there are plenty of bang bangs in the film, “Argo” is a refreshing alternative to typical guns and gore fiestas. “Argo” is also no-holds-barred spoof of the town that helped build it, Hollywood, and a spy thriller with enough cliffhangers to rival “Thelma and Louise,” the ultimate cliff hanger.
Our bet? Nominations for Best Pic for Affleck and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chris Terrio, whose script snapped, crackled and popped with acerbic satire and rapid-fire patter that always hit the bullseye.
“Argo” was not a typical action adventure flick that pits white hats against black hats. The script has no ax to grind – both sides are equally right and wrong. That is the same objective observer position Ziad Doeiri takes in his powerful psychological thriller “The Attack,” a perspective lends further credibility to both films by not spoon-feeding the audience, left draw our own conclusions.
“The Attack” is an explosive (sorry!) story of a suicide bombing that leaves 19 dead, at the same time shattering a marriage and the myth that we ever really know anyone. Without pointing accusatory fingers, the film, based on an acclaimed novel by Yasmina Khadra, manages to get to the heart of the Arab-Israeli epic, a classic horns-of-a-dilemma problem if ever there was one.
And growing worse by the day, according to the former heads of the Shin Bet in Dror Moreh’s eye-opening doc, “The Gatekeepers.”
Writer/professor on foreign affairs and conflict, who introduced the screening and led the Q&A, described the film as “truly historic, unprecedented and important,” a fact reinforced by the nearly universal positive buzz.
The Shin Bet, ominously described as the “Defender That Shall Not Be Seen,” is Israel’s feared internal security organization whose pull-no-punches tactics make a cameo in “The Attack.” In November 2003, former directors of the organization – Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon – called upon the government of Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Never happened. And won’t. At least not right now, say the six interviewed on the record by director Dror Moreh. Why? Because, add the group, outspoken critics of the elected officials who have led the Jewish State into the maw of unending conflict, the greatest conflict is from within. Right now the “tail (the right wing) is wagging the dog.”
How important are such films? Ask Affleck, who during a Sunday seminar, contended that, no kidding, films are the way many Americans learn their history.
In his Q&A, director Moreh chalked it up to good luck and timing, but to get the so-called “Gatekeepers” to speak openly and candidly on camera was a victory. (And Moreh has enough on tape to a create a TV series with five or six additional episodes.)
When “The Gatekeepers” is released by Sony Classics Winter/Spring 2013, take a vow of obedience to awareness and don’t miss it.
All the conflict films at TFF39 suggest an incovenient truth: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Conflict resolution is only possible if we use our brains, not just brawn, and most of all “put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.” (Director Michael Winterbottom of “Everyday” at Sunday’s seminar, “Injustice, Reconciliation and Cinema.”)
Trouble is, generally we don’t try to understand. The knee-jerk response is to act out of fear, the central problem – and shame – in directors Ken and Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s maddening and intelligent documentary, “The Central Park Five.” The documentary tells the story of five black and brown youth wrongly convicted by the courts and the media of the vicious rape of a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park in April 1989.
The Telluride Film Festival is not, like life, all dark. The directors provided a number of antidotes to films reflecting the zeitgeist: a program of animations, comic shorts like “Boo!” and one featuring a singing bass, words of wisdom from Chuck Jones, whose centenary was celebrated during the event, silent films accompanied by music and features like “The Sapphires,” the Telluride debut of freshman director Wayne Blair.
Based on another true story – co-written by the son of one of the protagonists – “The Sapphires” is a musical comedy drama about an Aboriginal quartet who toured Vietnam in the late 1960s. The film’s crossover appeal, set in motion at Cannes, was confirmed in Telluride this weekend, where it played to rapturous packed houses.
An Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor Chris O’ Dowd? At Cannes, Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing the film, was quoted as saying “‘The Artist” just happened again.”
Maybe. But for sure “The Sapphires” is the musical version of “Rocky” and this year’s “Strictly Ballroom.”
Another Telluride Film Festival 2012 theme was Everyman, people who are holograms of themselves, only half there until a light bulb moment makes them whole. Among the best in the category was Noah Baumbach’s (“The Squid and The Whale”) black-and-white, bare-bones production of “Frances Ha.”
Writers are best when they write about what they know, in Baumbach’s case, that’s Gen-Xers. His heroes and heroines tend to work long hours just to afford tiny apartments, which they have to share. In “Frances Ha,” the roommate and BFF is Sophie. Frances describes the two of them as “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore” adding,”We went to college together, but we’re the same person.”
That’s too close for comfort.
When Sophie leaves for the greener pastures of Tribeca, Frances, a hapless, hopeless misfit and would-be career dancer, becomes further unhinged. In her words: “undatable.” At 27, the age “youth stops being youth” (per Gerwig), she keeps tripping over herself – often literally – on a march to get ahead in life.
Frances is Greta Gerwig, also a co-writer. The film is smart and funny; its characters fully formed individuals, not sociological stereotypes.
Don’t be surprised if like me you see the face of your rudderless, reckless past reflected in its glass.
Xavier Giannoli’s “Superstar,”stars real-life French comedy star Kad Merad in a convincing performance as a man who becomes a celebrity faster than you can say “Facebook” – but he wants no part of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame on steroids. “Superstar” accelerates out of the gate, slowing down and becoming more predictable towards the boy-gets-girl ending. A serio-comedy and window into mob mentality in our realtime, cyber world.
“Rust & Bone” is the story of two improbable lovers. Alain – Belgian newcomer, Matthias Schoenaerts – is a classic bad boy and street thug who can barely feed and clothe the young son he has rescued. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a free-spirited, self-confident trainer of killer whales, who experiences a catastrophic accident. Their characters’ struggles reveal their warts, which ultimately heal in the film’s Hollywood ending.
The buzz around “Rust & Bone” was decidedly mixed. Some found Alain totally unsympathetic; its conclusion therefore grafted on. Where the detractors saw only armor, we saw the chinks, imagining a backstory of a loveless childhood and worse. Through the chinks, we saw signs of the man who emerges in the end: moments of real tenderness towards his child and, through his attention, however half-baked in the beginning, he managed to pull Stephanie down off the ledge. The arc of Alain’s story is about developing trust, mostly in himself and his ability to love.
“A Royal Affair” is another of the Festival’s films based a true story of political conflict. It tells the true story of the medical doctor and idealist Johann Friedrich Struensee and his efforts to promote Enlightenment ideas in 18th-century Denmark, a country in the vice grip of feudal lords living high on the hog. Something was definitely rotten in the state…
When the good doctor falls for the queen, hope springs eternal, – until all hell breaks loose. Strong performances by Festival tribute Mads Mikkelsen as the doctor, Alicia Vikander as the reckless Caroline, but as the manic depressive King Christian VII, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard steals the show. Such as it is: though the film showcases some of Denmark’s greatest talent, including Nikolaj Arcel from the writing team of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” it ultimately fails to hit the sweet spot it was seeking, where messy politics and true suspense meet a poignant tale of star-crossed lovers.
Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson,” also based on a true story, is meant to be this year’s answer to “The King’s Speech”: both films feature a stuttering King “Bertie” and stunning production values. But “Hudson,” though charming and really nice to look at, lacks the gravitas of “Speech.” Capitalizing on a scandal, the film has more in common with “A Royal Affair” – only the “royalty” in question happens to be FDR, played with the usual insouciance by actor Bill Murray. Laura Linney, a chameleon on the order of Meryl Streep and a local hero – a Festival tributee in 2004, the charming actress met husband Marc when she returned to town and the couple has a second home in Telluride – turns in a wonderfully believable performance as a mousey sixth cousin who blossoms when she becomes one the president’s many mistresses – and a witness to history in the making. “Hyde Park” is both naughty and nice: turns out good old FDR collected more than stamps.
Films we missed that generated lots of buzz include Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa,” Christian Petzold’s (“Lives of Others”) “Barbara,” Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” Pablo Larrain’s “No,” Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.” One friend, a filmmaker, said “Beau Travail,” (1999), part of Guest Director Geoff Dyer’s program, was one of his favorites.
The 39th annual Telluride Film Festival: oldies but goodies and lots of Oscar buzz. Overall, another feather in the cap of directors Huntsinger, Luddy and Meyer.
Do not pass Go. Return to the punchline of the knock-knock joke.