My Review Of A Festival Of Films
The 40th Telluride Film Festival opened unceremoniously with the first North American screening of “ALL IS LOST” in a fine new high-tech theatre. Robert Redford stood out of the light as director-writer J. C. Chandor told us: “This film is about YOU.” He paused, or faltered, continuing: “About you and the end of your life.”
As Ernest Hemingway (I’ll explain the connection later) might have said, a man must die alone. And, courage is grace under pressure. The man is Redford, playing his usual manly role and playing it very well at about age 75. He is the only person in the nearly wordless film and, Chandor calculated, he is in 98 per cent of the shots.
We know nothing about the character, not even his name. But we don’t need to. He is Redford. Why confuse a pure and simple parable with a back-story? Redford is already, as Chandor put it, “part of everybody’s experience.”
Shipwreck stories go way back (see Homer, Dafoe), but Chandor’s is new. It is American. Unlike Ang Lee (“The Life of Pi”), this young director respects physical reality. The yacht on the open sea is as authentic as the computerized trading room in lower Manhattan in Chandor’s first film, “Margin Call.” Tacking in a sudden gale, furling the sail in a terrible storm, handling ropes, rigging slings, sighting a sextant, charting: Redford does it all with a sailor’s complete attention. Chandor said his sole actor did not act for the camera.
The trouble (and the movie) begins as Redford awakes in the cabin in a foot of water. The hull has been pierced by a corner of a derelict shipping container full of sneakers. It has, implicitly, fallen from one of the top-heavy freighters that glide with unstoppable inertia along the shipping lanes. (They appear later, dark and Satanic.) The yacht is equipped with all the necessary high-tech electronics, but one system after another goes dead. It also has all the necessary survival tools, but they fail, one after another. . .
Like American medicine at the end of your life.
Redford does not give up, even if and when all is lost. It is this theme that has led reviewers to reference Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea.” The problem here: nobody reads Hemingway. I got into a dozen conversations at Telluride about the ending of “All Is Lost.” My contribution was a reference to the ending of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” But without exception nobody, young or old, remembered it.
The film captured the audience at the new Werner Herzog theatre (the eighth venue at Telluride). I suppose part of the spell was the result, again, of technology – a state of the art sound system and clear, clean digital rear projection. The continuity of short takes in this film is the sound – particularly the roar of the fatal storms. Without the big-theatre presentation, it might not be so spell-binding. Except for the parable.
Telluride has a remarkable record of first-showings that went on to win best picture Oscars for the last three years in a row: “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” and “Argo.” Whether the “best picture” was in the program again this year is less probable than the possibility of best actor. It could come down to a fascinating contest between two old actors with Westerns in their pasts: Redford and Bruce Dern.
In Alexander Payne’s “NEBRASKA” Dern plays a failing lifetime alcoholic deluded by a magazine solicitation that suggests he has won a million dollars. Shepherded by a son (Will Forte), he heads for Lincoln to claim his prize, stopping on the way in the small town where he grew up and still has relatives and enemies, some of whom are both. Clever and funny, “Nebraska” is aptly titled because the ethnology of the place is as fascinating as the story. Payne spent a year building a supporting cast of unprofessional locals. This film plus the success of his depiction of the Hawaiian way of life in “The Descendants” and the California wine fetish in “Sideways” writes some new and welcome rules for get-out-of-Hollywood film making in America.
The world comes to Telluride – it’s an international film festival. There were excellent productions from Iran, France, Israel, India, England, Chile and Poland.
“THE PAST” by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) is a deep story of relationships in a broken family. An Iranian leaves Teheran to attend the final hearing for his divorce in Paris, where he stays temporarily with his wife (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”). She has an angry teenage daughter and a jealous lover, who has a troubled son and a wife in a coma resulting from attempted suicide. Everybody fights.
Everybody also has a different version of the common past, in which the woman in the coma takes on increasing importance. The film quickly becomes a psychological detective story in which, as Farhadi put it, “little details can change destinies.” In his Gestalt view you can “re-do” the recent past, changing what you don’t like. Different perspectives make different stories. “In most movies, people know exactly what they’re doing, but this does not happen in ordinary life,” the director said. “The Past” is one of the Telluride movies I want to see again. It is one I wish Ayatollah-obsessed Israeli and American politicians would see too.
“BEFORE THE WINTER CHILL (AVANT L’HIVER)” by Philippe Claudel of France (“I Loved You So Long”) is another psycho-detective story involving a marriage with deep problems. Kristin Scott-Thomas (fluent in French) is the wife. Daniel Auteuil is her respected surgeon husband. It is a complex thriller of the upper class kind involving villainy of the gypsy kind.
“IDA” by Pawel Pawlikowski, set in 1960’s Poland and filmed in black and white, is a direct and uncluttered story of an orphan seeking a heritage just before she is to take vows to become a nun. What she discovers is not the kind of past you can “re-do.” From her only living relative, an aunt who has been a collaborator with the Soviet occupation, Ida learns that they are Jews and that her parents were murdered during the Nazi era. They go looking for where they were buried. In the process the aunt, who is a guilt-ridden lush, tries to drag virginal Ida into the happy circus of alcohol-fueled sex. The ending surprised me.
“GLORIA” by Sebastian Lelio of Chile and starring Paulina Garcia evokes a similar conflict in so far as Gloria, a lonely divorcee about to turn 60, decides to go out drinking and find a man. She succeeds, it seems, but as in most of the Telluride films the relationship has problems (not reflected, however, in the obligatory eldersex scenes). The references to the well armed military dictatorship of the Pinochet era in Chile are subtle but have a bearing on how the relationship comes out. It has an outrageous happy ending.
“THE LUNCHBOX” from India was happy throughout and perhaps for this reason became a surprise hit solely by buzz. A lunchbox delivery service (this in itself would make a documentary) mistakes an address, treating a worn-out claims processor nearing retirement to the delicious cooking of a young, beautiful, housewife whose husband no longer loves her. They correspond by lunchbox and. . .
“THE INVISIBLE WOMAN,” directed by Ralph Fiennes with Felicity Jones in the title role and Fiennes as Charles Dickens, is a Victorian drama based on a biographical story. The great novelist, it seems, had an affair with a young woman named Nelly who could never be recognized because he was married. She kept her love secret long after Dickens died and she married. Fiennes directed this film (his second after Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”) with interludes of stage show, and it is fine and entertaining theatre.
No recent Telluride festival has lacked a film with an Arab-Israeli backdrop. “BETHLEHEM” from Israel is a finely crafted action tale made interesting by the nuances of a friendship between a young Palestinian informer and his paternal Israeli handler. The boy’s big brother, revealed as a Hamas terrorist, is hunted down and killed in Bethlehem by Israeli special forces. Now the boy must choose sides, and someone will die.
Another gritty story from the region is “MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN” by Mohammad Rasoulof, who filmed it in secret and smuggled it out of Iran. Rasoulof was awarded the Telluride silver medallion, largely for his courage in defying the Iranian secret police. Their murderous repression of opposition writers is the subject of the film, which is sometimes disturbingly violent.
But it is not gratuitously violent, as is the politically pointless American feature “PRISONERS” starring Hugh Jackman as a father in a constant rage over the abduction of his daughter and another girl and Jake Gyllenhaal as the police detective trying restore rationality and find the girls. The 2-1/2 hour mystery by French Canadian Denis Villenueve (“Incendies”) has an intriguing though faulty plot that could have been doctored and shortened by someone with the temperament of Alfred Hitchcock.
Still, many pundits more expert than I think “Prisoners” will be an Oscar contender. They think “12 YEARS A SLAVE” by Steve McQueen, also violent, is another contender. I skipped this one because I hate McQueen’s porn (“Shame”) and violence.
Popular movies I’m sorry I missed: “TIM’S VERMEER,” a documentary in which inventor Tim Jenison builds a projector using 17th Century technology, proving you too can be a master painter, without numbers. “GRAVITY,” a space survival spectacle in 3D with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. “TRACKS,” re-enacting a solo journey across 1,700 miles of Australian desert by a woman with four camels and a smart dog.
Popular movies I’m just as happy to have missed: “BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR,” the Cannes erotic sensation that one bright woman called “an instruction manual.” “UNDER THE SKIN,” which some Telluridians classed as a glorified (or Scarlett Johanssenized) vampire film. “LABOR DAY” by Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up In The Air”), about a single mom (Kate Winslet) and her 12-year-old who needs a father symbol just as one shows up in the form of a bleeding escaped convict. “PALO ALTO” by a member of the Coppola dynasty about teenagers in a world where every adult is dysfunctional. “THE UNKNOWN KNOWN,” Errol Morris’ interview with Donald Rumsfeld, almost universally said to be a boring lesson in obfuscation.