Monthly Archives: September 2014


2014 Telluride Film Festival Reviews

Here are reviews for all 13 films I caught at this year’s Telluride
Film Festival:

—— “Birdman” (****), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Starring
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Naomi
Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough.

This is the story of Hollywood action star Riccan Thomson (Keaton) who
seeks to buy some acting respect on Broadway by mortgaging everything
to open a show based on the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk
About When We Talk About Love”.

There are a lot of obstacles in his way: his needy mistress
(Riseborough), his exhausted ex-wife (Ryan), his fresh out of drug
rehab daughter (Stone), his lawyer (Galifianakis), an insecure leading
lady (Watts) and a manic over-confident co-star (Norton). In addition,
there’s the voice of The Birdman, himself, coming from inside his
head.

As the show’s opening draws near, things start to look up, but his
sanity starts to falter.

The script has some amazing dialogue and expounds on Carver’s theme of
getting to the truth. The strength of the script (co-written by
Iñárritu) along with Iñárritu’s stellar reputation was likely how such
a talented cast was assembled. And what a talented cast it is. All of
the acting is breath-taking.

Michael Keaton will likely be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal
of the loony star. Edward Norton is phenomenal as the egotistic
actor. Galifianakis, Stone and Watts all give outstanding
performances. How many acting Oscar nominations can one film be given?
We’ll find out.

The cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki is going to be
something that will be talked about for decades. Like Hitchcock’s 1948
film “Rope”, this film appears to be one long continuous take. We
follow the characters around the Broadway theater as time jumps ahead,
but there are no visible edits.

The soundtrack by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez is also something new
and marvelous that will catch people’s attention. The drums keep the
rhythm of the film going. Sanchez himself appears throughout the film
as a street musician, in a marching band and in Keaton’s dreams. Look
for an Oscar nomination/win for him as well.

In the Q&A, Iñárritu said he’s always loved Carver’s work, but knew
that this particular story would be an impossible task to adapt for
the stage, so perfect for Keaton’s character to attempt.

Go see this film.

—— “Dancing Arabs” (****), dir: Eran Riklis. Starring: Tawfeek
Barhorn, Ali Suliman, Yaël Abecassis, Marlene Bajali, Laëtitia Eïdo,
Daniel Kitzis, Michael Moshonov.

A beautiful coming-of-age story about a boy from the 20% of the
population of Israel who are Arab. Eyad (Barhorn), a child genius gets
a scholarship to go to a very prestigious Jewish boarding school.
There he struggles to make friends as the only Arab in school. He
succeeds by becoming buddies with wheelchair bound punk-rocker,
Jonathon (Moshonov), and befriending the beautiful Naomi (Kitsis). But
then politics and racism complicate his life and don’t allow for easy
decisions.

A very well written and well acted story that captures many of the
nuances of the struggle between people of different backgrounds to get
along, understand each other and maybe even fall in love.

—— “Wild Tales” (****)- dir. Damián Szifrón.

This Argentinian film consists of six short films about revenge. It is
side splittingly humorous and a joy to watch. There are some gruesome
parts, but all the shorts stand out as truly amazing.

Find this and see it when you can.

—— “Merchants of Doubt” (***1/2), dir. Robert Kenner.

Director Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) has produced a very well put
together documentary that informs as it entertains.

Kenner uses a magician metaphor to show how large corporations use
deception the same way a magician pulls off his “trick”.

The release of thousands of Big Tobacco documents revealed the inner
workings of their doubt machine. Kenner shows that many other
industries (chemical, auto, oil, coal) have taken tobacco’s playbook
and are using it to great effect.

It is a disturbing view into the cynical pitch-men who use deception
and lies to maximize corporate profits.

The hope in seeing this film is that once you see how their trick is
done, you won’t be fooled again.

—— “Mommy” (***1/2), dir. Xavier Dolan, Starring Anne Dorval,
Antoine-Oivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément.

Diane (Dorval) is a widowed single mother who struggles to raise her
violent son Steve (Pilon) alone until her mysterious neighbor Kyla
(Clément) inserts herself into their household.

This is a film that is tough to watch in places as Steve vacillates
between a functional teen and one capable of nightmarish violence.
Anne Dorval is great as Diane as she tries to live her life, while
trying to save Steve’s.

The film has some amazing cinematography, but is almost entirely
filmed in what could be called “NARROW-VISION”, where the image is
taller than it is wide. In a few shots they widen it out to fill the
screen and we feel like we’ve been let out of film prison (which may
be what 25 year-old director Xavier Dolan wanted, as it shows what
Steve is feeling on-screen).

Antoine-Olivier Pilon, who plays Steve, keeps us on edge the entire
film waiting for him to blow up. The film is in French with subtitles
so it isn’t likely to attract a large U.S. audience which is too bad.
I’m looking forward to more films from this young director.

—— “‘71” (***), dir, Yann Demange, Starring, Jack O’Connell, Sam
Reid, Sean Harris, Sam Hazeldine.

Gary Hook (O’Connell) is a 17 year-old British soldier who is sent to
Belfast, Northern Ireland, to help keep the peace during “the
troubles” in 1971. When his unit is overrun by Catholic IRA
protesters, he is separated and must run for his life and has a hard
time knowing who to trust.

The story has many twists and turns and shows us the complexity and
confusion of war and why peace can be so elusive. There are many well
done action sequences filled with powerful suspense.

O’Connell gives a great performance as Hook. We are put in his shoes
and feel for his situation as it degrades from bad to worse.

The cinematography gave the film a very gritty look. The director said
that the daytime shots were shot on 16mm film whereas nighttime shots
were digital (to keep from needing extensive lighting). These were
paired together very nicely.

Overall, it was too violent and the story was a bit too convoluted to
follow (most of us never figured out exactly how all the parts went
together). However, it was a tense and powerful film.

—— “Foxcatcher” (***), dir: Bennett Miller, Starring: Channing
Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo.

Based on the true story of Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark Schultz
(Tatum) and his brother David (Ruffalo) who lack funds to train
properly and the billionaire, John du Pont, who gives them use of his
private wrestling compound at his sprawling Foxcatcher Farms home.

Mark finally can’t stand du Pont’s odd obsession which is then
transferred to his brother David with unforeseen circumstances.

Steve Carell does a very impressive job as the creepy du Pont and is
nearly unrecognizable in the part. There was a good mix of showing du
Pont’s dichotomy as part patriotic wrestling aficionado, part pervy
macho wrestler wanna-be. The film provides some insight to how
billionaires get just about anything they want.

Overall, it was slow in spots. There’s too many tedious wrestling
scenes and excessive shots of du Pont acting weird.

—— “Wild” (***)- dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, Starring Reese Witherspoon
and Laura Dern.

The true story of troubled young Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) who,
after her mother (Dern) dies, decides to put her tragic life back in
focus by hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail.

The film has some very nice moments where Strayed overcomes her
inexperience and grows. Witherspoon could possibly get an Oscar
nomination. Her performance was powerful in places, but not the
caliber of her work in “Walk the Line”. The screenplay (by Nick
Hornby) can’t decide if it is slapstick comedy or serious drama and
has some stiff dialogue.

Also, there should have been ample opportunity for amazing
cinematography of the Mojave and Sierras, but that is somehow missing.

Overall a nice film, but it could have been a lot better.

—— “Rosewater” (***)- dir. Jon Stewart. Starring Gael García-Bernal.

This is the first film from Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show”. It
tells the true story of Iranian-born Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari
who leaves his pregnant wife in the U.K. and goes to Iran to cover the
controversial 2009 presidential election. When his video discloses
police violence, he’s arrested and thrown into solitary confinement as
a “CIA-Zionist” spy, part of the evidence used against Bahari is his
appearance on The Daily Show.

The film moves from thriller, to black comedy, to a story of
redemption and power over oppression. The film isn’t perfect and bogs
down in a few places, but overall it works and is a very good film.

—— “The 50 Year Argument” (***), dirs: Martin Scorsese, David
Tedeschi. Starring: Timothy Garton Ash, James Baldwin, Mary Beard,
Michael Chabon, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Rae Hederman,
Norman Mailer, Robert Silvers, Susan Sontag.

A very interesting documentary about The New York Review of Books. The
magazine’s mission was to foster intelligent debate between top
writers on controversial topics of the day. Here an argument is a very
good thing because both sides of an issue learn from it.

I loved the historical footage from an old Dick Cavett show where
Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag insult each other in the
most intelligent and sophisticated way.

I felt it dwelled a bit too much on the magazine’s founders and their
nostalgic reminiscing at their 50th anniversary party, but was otherwise
a very interesting film.

—— “The Homesman” (**1/2), dir. Tommy Lee Jones, Starring, Hilary
Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader,
Meryl Streep.

Tommy Lee Jones has chosen a western for his directorial debut. It’s a
story of 19th century sod-busters in Nebraska territory. Life is very
hard and three local farmer’s wives have gone insane. Since the
menfolk won’t do it, spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) volunteers to
take the women back across the prairie to Iowa. When she comes across
a nearly hanged claim-jumper George Briggs (Jones), she forces him to
assist her. They embark on a dangerous journey and run into many
obstacles.

Before the film’s debut, Hilary Swank was awarded a Telluride Silver
Medallion for her body of work. She is an amazing actress and when she
is on the screen the film moves well. When she isn’t, it seems to lose
all direction.

The story is fairly straightforward, but there isn’t much to drive it.
It seemed quite disjointed. The editing seemed to be mostly at fault.
There were jumbled flashbacks that were oddly inserted in later scenes
breaking the flow and several scenes that should have been shortened
or cut.

The biggest shame is that the one scene late in the film with Meryl
Streep moves painfully slow and is devoid of any reason to be in the
film (save for seeing Streep who does the best she can given what she
has to work with).

Tommy Lee Jones’ acting is good in the film, but the main reason to
see it is for Swank’s performance. Otherwise it is easily forgotten.

—— “Madame Bovary” (**), dir: Sophie Barthes, Starring: Mia
Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Paul Giamatti, Logan
Marshall-Green, Henry Lloyd-Hughes.

Madame Bovary is bored with the provincial life she married into. In
seeking out luxuries, material and otherwise, that she can ill-afford,
she destroys her and her husband.

Mia Wasikowska is very good in the lead role and Paul Giamatti is
always fun to watch. Ezra Miller is pretty awful. The costumes and
cinematography make for lovely visuals, but the story is so shallow
and boring, we don’t ever really care about Madame Bovary.

—— “Two Days, One Night” (**), dirs: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc
Dardenne. Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Phil Groyne,
Simon Caudry, Catherine Salée.

The plot is simple, perhaps too simple. Sandra, a young working mother
played by Marion Cotillard has a weekend to convince at least half of
her 16 co-workers to give up their bonus so her company can hire her
back after a bout of depression. The film consists of her going each
of the 16 to make her plea. That may sound repetitive, because it is.
Some of the co-worker’s reactions were interesting, but that was about
all that was. The directors seem to relish in seeing the boring
minutia of daily life from her putting on her seat belt, to making her
children’s beds, to buying bread for her family.

——

As usual there were many great films and not enough time to see them
all. Other films that were at the festival that were rumored to be
good were:


—— “The Imitation Game” –
The true story of WWII British code
breaker Alan Turing who broke the Nazi’s enigma code, then went on to
suffer persecution for being gay. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and
was raved about by all who saw it. It won the People’s Choice Award
when it played in Toronto.

—— “Leviathan” – A dark tale about how Putin’s Russia is messed
up. Several people spoke of how great this film was, but how dark it
was.

—— “Red Army” – A documentary about the Russian National hockey
team. One of the most highly raved about films of the festival.
Everyone just loved it, even if they didn’t like hockey.

—— “99 Homes” – Many liked this film about the 2008 housing market
collapse. It stars Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield.

—— “Mr. Turner – A Mike Leigh film about British mid 19th century
painter J.M.W. Turner. Some loved the characters and visuals, others
thought it too slow.

—— “The Look of Silence” – Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the
amazing, but extremely disturbing “The Act of Killing”. Also about
Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, this film was very well received,
but sounds like it is also a bit disturbing as expected.

—— “The Salt of the Earth” – Wim Wender’s new film is a
documentary about Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado who
photographed working class people in their daily struggles. Several
people really liked this film.

—— “The Gate” – A true story about the only white man who was
ever released from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields. One viewer said
“Once you see ‘The Gate’, you are ruined to see anything else for the
rest of the day.”

—— “The Price of Fame” – Another true story, this one about a
madcap plot to steal the coffin/body of the newly deceased Charlie
Chaplin. Several people thought this film was hilarious.

—— “Seymour” – Ethan Hawke’s documentary film about piano teacher
Seymour Bernstein. Many said this was their favorite film of the
festival.

—— “Keep On Keepin’ On” – A documentary about jazz musicians
Clark Terry, a 90-year-old trumpeter and blind piano player Justin
Kauflin. It is supposed to be amazing.