FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1
Following our drive into Telluride through the literally and figuratively breathtaking mountains of the San Juan National Forest . . .
. . . . we faced our first difficult choice: whether or not to attend the Colorado Avenue opening “feed”? This event is hard to skip, but DARKEST HOUR was being screened in the large Palm Theater just one hour after the start of the food event. Realizing that the line for this film would be long, we headed straight to the Palm, and are still thanking ourselves ourselves for doing so.
Directed by Joe Wright, whose work includes the wonderful ATONEMENT, and with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, DARKEST HOUR depicts the 20 days in May 1940, when France fell and England’s government, led by the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had to decide whether or not to seek peace with Hitler. The Churchill so brilliantly played by Gary Oldman is unlike any you’ve ever seen. I’ve read much about this great man and even published a chapter of a book about leadership on him. Watching Oldman’s Churchill, I felt as though I was privileged to be taken back in time and led to witness the real Churchill in action. Jowly, grouchy, with flares of anger, but sometimes also astonishingly compassionate and reflective, Oldman has given us a Churchill for the ages. His delivery of Churchill’s great speeches gives them new life. Above all, what shines through is Churchill’s uncertainty and doubt about the proper course of action and his resolve and courage in championing his course of resistance in spite of that doubt. The supporting cast of Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup as the continuingly weak Neville Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as the menacing Lord Halifax, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clementine, all give outstanding performances that serve to illuminate Churchill at the center.
Having made the decision to foreground this film in our Festival, we had the good fortune of an opening night Q&A after the film with the producer, director, and most of the lead actors, including Oldman. All were greeted with a standing ovation from the hundreds in the audience. The contrast between the younger, slender Oldman seated before us . . .
. . . and the Oldman we had just witnessed as Churchill was striking. Screenwriter McCarten also helped dispel a concern I had about whether several of the important scenes in the film, most notably one that takes place in the British Underground, have any historical basis. McCarten explained that these historically uncertain scenes were introduced to convey deeper truths about the events, in this case Churchill’s strong connection with the feelings of the English people themselves in contrast to the remoteness of the cowardly leaders of the previous government.
On the way out of the Palm, there was talk among our little knot of theatergoers about how striking it is that DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR are both appearing at this time. I offered the thought that both in England and the US, democracy itself is in peril. More than ever, we need reminders that we are here today because of the courage and integrity of previous leaders. I was greeted with “Amens.” Another observation: on the way back to our condo in Mountain Village we shared seats on the gondola with a young family from Arkansas. Their eight-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy both raved about the film. Isn’t it important that in the dark times in which we are now living cinema can give young people familiarity with leaders and followers worthy of respect?
DARKEST HOUR is one of the finest films we’ve seen in twenty-plus years of Telluride attendance. Don’t miss it at the multiplex. RON’S GRADE: A+
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 2
As Mary Jean went off to a film at the nearby Mountain Village Chuck Jones Theater (a Chilean film, A FANTASTIC WOMAN by writer-director Sebastián Lelio), I took the gondola down the mountain to the town’s library, converted for the Festival into a small theater, to see HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Director Rüdiger Suchsland’s documentary traces the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 through the Third Reich’s cinema. Under the control of propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis used film as weapon to marshal followers’ allegiance and also as a dream factory to divert their attention from the regime’s brutal repression and the devastation caused by the war that Hitler started. My oral German is not very strong, so I found it challenging to watch these fascinating films while following Suchsland’s fast-paced narrative in subtitles. Furthermore the drift of that narrative and the ordering of films was not always clear, but the films themselves were fascinating, from an early (1933) black and white propaganda narrative of a working class boy who turns against his “corrupt” Communist family and friends to join the Hitler Youth, to the two extravagant Agfa color films made by director Veit Harlan during the last two years of the war. I had seen one of these (OPFERGANG, “The Great Sacrifice”) some years ago at Telluride. Using the romantic plot of a tragic love triangle, it subtly prepares Germans for the personal sacrifices looming in the wake of the growing losses on the battlefield. The second Harlan film, KOLBERG, is an epic war story employing 10,000 extras that was Goebbels’ call to suicidal resistance in the face of certain defeat. In different ways, these films expose the presence of the regime-long Nazi death cult. RON’S GRADE: A-
Postscript. Somewhat shocking is the appearance of Ingrid Bergman in DIE VIER GESELLEN (“The Four Companions,” 1938) where she plays a young career woman who in good Fascist style gives it all up for marriage: a glimpse into the darker past of our leading anti-Fascist heroine.
Because of long lines and scheduling we were able to get to only one more film today. DOWNSIZING, director Alexander Payne latest film, is a considerable departure from his famous romantic comedy, SIDEWAYS. But it, too, is a love story. In a very near future, a team of Scandinavian scientists announces a technique that allows them to shrink human beings down to three inches in size, a miraculous solution to the problems of overpopulation and environmental damage. Soon, tens of thousands of people, moved less by eco-concerns than the attraction of retirement to luxury after selling their larger assets, are joining “small” communities around the world. Among them are Paul and Audrey Safranek. (Matthew Damon and Kristen Wiig). Paul, a medical-school dropout working as an occupational therapist for Omaha Steaks, dreams of a better life, but his journey into the small world initially proves far less satisfying than he had hoped. Disappointment follows disappointment. Paul’s life is eventually turned around by another small person, Gong Jiang, a Vietnamese immigrant beautifully and often hilariously played by Hong Chau. DOWNSIZING has one clear message: science and technology won’t help us escape our personal and social problems. On the positive side, the film’s images of small people and their small worlds are terrific. On a critical note, I wish that the editors had taken a good pair of scissors to the work. An entire concluding section based in Norway could have gone to the cutting room floor. RON’S GRADE: B+
The film was followed by Q&A with Alexander Payne and Hong Chau present:
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
Our day began with a tribute to Christian Bale. An excellent retrospective prepared by our Dartmouth friend Chris Robinson revealed the extraordinary range of Bale’s acting. As he explained during the Q&A that followed the clips, Bale has avoided publicity throughout his career, fearful that a celebrity identity would replace the characters he plays. And what a range of characters they are, from Trevor Reznik in THE MACHINIST, a role for which Bale lost 60 pounds, to the pudgy, balding Irving Rosenfeld in AMERICAN HUSTLE. No wonder we don’t know Christian Bale: all we recognize are the extraordinarily diverse and unforgettable characters he has played.
The retrospective and Q&A were followed by the premier of Bale’s latest film, HOSTILES. Tautly directed by Scott Cooper, this wonderful film is an answer to the question, “How do you make a Western today that isn’t racist?” It tracks the long journey in 1892 from New Mexico to Montana of a small contingent of army soldiers led by Captain Joseph Cooper (Christian Bale) who have been ordered to deliver the long imprisoned and dying Chief Yellow Hawk (well played by Wes Studi) to his home territory in Montana. There’s a new spirit about Native Americans in Washington, and Cooper is tasked, against his will, with helping an enemy he has fought against his entire career. The troop soon encounters Rosalie Quaid (very well played by Rosamund Pike), the sole survivor of a ghastly and shocking episode of Indian violence with which the film begins. The contingent traverses breathtaking wildernesses, assaulted at almost every turn by surviving Indian bandits and wrathful white people who cannot comprehend the team’s mission. Both Mrs. Quaid and the chief and his family become deeply affected by Cooper’s stoic integrity as he strives to fulfill his orders. During the preceding Q&A with Leonard Maltin, Bale remarked that as an actor he finds his silences often the most important part of conveying the depth of his character. This was evident in HOSTILES, one of the finest films we’ve seen this Festival. RON’S GRADE: A
Our next film, in mid-afternoon down at the Sheridan Opera House was FOXTROT, directed by writer-director Samuel Maoz (LEBANON). Michael (played by Lior Ashkenazi, last seen as the Israeli premier in NORMAN), is a successful architect whose son, Jonathan, is standing guard at a remote military outpost. After a dramatic opening scene announces the family’s impending struggle with grief, we watch the devastating events unwind. FOXTROT moves about as slowly as the lone camel for which Jonathan’s unit must daily open their crossing gate. But it is this pace that renders FOXTROT an honest portrayal of the human toll taken by fifty years of war and occupation. A neck-wrenching conclusion punctuates the narrative of suffering and guilt experienced by this one family, by Israelis, and by their Arab neighbors. In its implied criticisms of the Israeli army, this film is a striking example of the political independence of Israeli film today. GRADE: A-
Our day concluded with THE INSULT by the American-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (THE ATTACK), co-written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma. In the course of an altercation over an out-of-code drainpipe, a Palestinian construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), calls Toni (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian garage mechanic, a prick. Despite the pleadings of his boss, Yasser refuses to apologize for this grave insult, and is soon provoked to a physical assault after an unappeased Toni hurls racist anti-Palestinian slogans at him. The dispute soon goes to court, where we see a drama unfold that evokes the terrible history of Lebanon’s 1970s civil war. Behind the two men’s curses, blows, and stubbornness lie decades of hatred on both sides spawned in a genocidal conflict and never really resolved. Soon, as partisans on each side pour into the courtroom and the streets, the trial threatens to unleash a new civil war. In the Q&A following the film, Doueiri explained its enigmatic and powerful conclusion. I observed that THE INSULT is a warning to America. Will we allow our emerging tribalisms to grow? Will sparks of verbal assault lead to more violence, as in Charlottesville, and will that violence somehow lead to a second civil war? THE INSULT is a remarkable film for our time. RON’S GRADE: A
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
The last day of the Festival began for us with a tribute to cinematographer Ed Lachman, whose credits include everything from DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) to the beautiful recreation of the 1950s in CAROL (2015). In the Q&A Lachman said that the cinematographer is like “another actor” with whom the director must work. He also offered a contrast between the novel with its interiority and cinema with its largely external images. The challenge before the cinematographer, he said, is to evoke interiority through such images.
Director Todd Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK, which followed, illustrated Lachman’s second point. A tale of two deaf youngsters separated by half a century in time, it’s up to Lachman to convey the inner life of both children by means of what they (and we) are seeing. Images also carry the narrative, with the 1920s Manhattan scenes all shot in black and white and the 1970s ones in brilliant disco colors. WONDERSTUCK’s greatest strength (like CAROL) is the evocation of the tone and values of an era. But a complex and at times wildly improbable plot (based on the novel by Brian Selznick) makes this a less than completely successful cinematic experiment. RON’S GRADE: B
Our afternoon began with THE SHAPE OF WATER, the latest film by director Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH). It stars Sally Hawkins who carries the film as a very plain Jane whose inner beauty emerges through her deeds (as was true of Hawkins in last year’s outstanding MAUDY, which is just now circulating in US art cinemas). Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady working in a threatening 1960s federal research laboratory where she’s called on to clean up the mess after the brutal treatment of a creature captured in the remote waters of South America. This mute creature has been tormented as a “Godless animal” by an obsessive federal agent (menacingly played by Michael Shannon), and his usefulness (and thus his life) is nearing its end. Del Toro brings a Latin American cynicism about American military and political institutions, as Elisa’s championing of the creature becomes a conflict of human compassion against pure, speciesist evil. The creature itself is a remarkable feat of costuming. He wins our hearts —and Elisa’s. THE SHAPE OF WATER is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meeting ET, with an added, charming and sexualized romance. Both the film and Hawkins are deservedly heading toward Oscar nominations. RON’S GRADE: A.
Our day—and Festival—ended with FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Directed by Matthew Greenhalgh, the film is based on Peter Turner’s memoir of his torrid youthful romance with the Oscar award-winning actress Gloria Grahame. Grahame is movingly played by an Annette Bening, whose beauty and sexual ardor shine through despite her aging skin and the pain from the cancer that will soon kill her. While touring in Liverpool, Grahame’s illness forces her to seek refuge with Turner (well played by Jamie Bell) and his supportive family who reside in a lower middle class Liverpool neighborhood. Flashbacks take us through the couple’s previous torrid romance and their breakup, sacrificially forced by Grahame without telling Turner when she learns of her illness. As the pair is reunited near the end of her life, we see that an intense love can endure despite dramatic differences in age and health. Presenting an unusual take on a May-December relationship, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL upsets our gender stereotypes in new ways. RON’S GRADE: A-
This year continued the mix of world-cinema and possible Oscar contenders that marks the recent Telluride Film Festival. Though there were many foreign films we had to miss (LOVELESS, TESNOTA and HOSTAGES from RUSSIA, and A MAN OF INTEGRITY from Iran), we saw nine films of undiminished quality. As we walked back to the gondola from the theater, we caught this final view of moonrise over Colorado Avenue.