The Serendipity of Agnés Varda

Serendipity

ser·en·dip·i·ty/ˌserənˈdipədē/ noun

  1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. “a fortunate stroke of serendipity”

Three film festivals. Three opportunities to celebrate Agnés Varda.

Telluride Film Festival (TFF46) dedicated their festival to her memory. Mill Valley (MVFF42) hosted Mind the Gap celebrating women in the industry and screened a film featuring Varda, Serendipity. Varda would applaud the festival’s (lead by the wonderful Zoe Elton) gender equity mission to have 50% of films feature women directors programmed by 2020. Denver (DFF42) also screened Varda by Agnés and has a great Women + Film program started 14 years ago by Tammy Brislin and supported, and now lead, by Barbara Bridges and her foundation.

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Telluride tribute and screening of Varda by Agnés. What an incredible panel with her family and friends there to speak. Martin Scorsese spoke about her visit with JR to his The Irishmen set. She teased him about his lack of female characters. They seemed to have had a warm relationship and he considers her a great talent. Varda’s daughter and son discussed carrying on her vision and what it was like growing up with a mother who documented their lives wherever they lived. Tom Luddy, a founder of the festival, is actually featured in the documentary! He introduced Varda to her uncle in Sausalito and helped get her crew together to film their meeting–Uncle Yanco, in 1967. He was also instrumental in encouraging her to film the Black Panther movement in Oakland. It was a pleasure to hear him speak and then see a younger Tom Luddy on the big screen.

Those serendipitous moments continued. I traveled to Mill Valley to help manage the Outdoor Art Club for the festival and one of our events was a reception for Serendipity. Prune Nourry’s documentary is her story of how her work as a sculptor and her journey through breast cancer was incredibly intertwined; reflected and refracted. She is a French sculptor married to the art photographer JR. The film includes a sequence filmed by Varda when Prune Nourry shaves her head. During the Q & A after the screening, Nourry revealed that during that filming, Varda had breast cancer too. “She had the young woman’s version of cancer, aggressive and fast”, Nourry said shaking her head. “I had the old woman version, slow to spread and easier to stop.” Agnés would die of her breast cancer a few months later.

The documentary is powerful and beautiful and celebrates the transcendence of art. It was also incredibly personal to me having myself had a breast biopsy and a family that has suffered the ravages of breast cancer. The night of the screening, I had just received news of a new case of breast cancer in my own family. What a sad serendipity. Watching JR, in his sunglasses even at the evening film screening, supporting his wife as she travels with her film, I thought of the wonderful film, Faces, Places (Visages Villages). And again, there was the frission of synchronicity.

Now I’m the Denver Film Festival and the one film that fit into the schedule for my two busy film festival buddies…Varda by Agnés. As we had drinks post-film, I shared the story of Prune Nourry’s connection to Varda and my own relationship to her film, Serendipty. My life is full of serendipity and I’m grateful for my wonderful friends who share my journey. Now I want to get back to SF to visit JR’s photography exhibit at SFMOMA…on thru April 2020.

46th Telluride Film Festival — Racing thru Four Days of Films

A gathering of the luminaries at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival

Film Festivals have their own zeitgeist. Cannes has glamour, Sundance has snow and celebrities, and Telluride has a mountain top cathedral for film aficionados. Programmers fight to have films premiere at their festival and attracting celebrities is very important. Film guests sell tickets but also create a buzz at the event. Some festivals like the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival have less work to do to attract the big names — both events are in beautiful places and more importantly, attract fans that will allow filmmakers and stars to walk the streets sans bodyguards and publicists.

This year’s Telluride Film Festival was graced with the presence of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Philip Kaufman, Bong Joon-ho, Edward Norton, and Renee Zellweger. Long-time Festival favorites, Werner Herzog and Ken Burns brought new works to the Festival and first-time festival attendees like Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) professed their love for the magic of Telluride. Programming was strong. There weren’t as many thought-provoking or life-affirming features as in years past but there was certainly a breadth of subjects covered. From Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker) to Oliver Sacks (Oliver Sacks: His Own Life) to sports (cycling, soccer, Australian football, race cars) and hot air balloons (The Aeronauts); from portrait painting (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to art forgery (Lyrebird).

What was interesting was to hear how many film lovers either LOVED or HATED some of the films. Everyone was excited to see the Hollywood films: Ford v Ferrari, Judy, Marriage Story and Motherless Brooklyn but the more offbeat Uncut Gems? Even with the selling point of having Adam Sandler there for a lively Q & A, Uncut Gems warranted a lot of walk outs. Directors Josh and Bennie Safdie tapped Oneohtrix Point Never who also scored their 2017 film Good Time; both films feature a frenetic soundtrack. Sound and scores were an important part of the the film experience this year and Uncut Gems soundtrack was a cacophany that may have reflected the character’s state of mind — but it was difficult to endure.

There were 30 main film programs, three tributes, shorts programs, retrospectives and outdoor screenings. Guest Director Pico Iyer selected five International film highlighting women in film. With this year’s focus on sound, there was a tribute to Dolby Laboratories, two silent films and many films about musicians. Ken Burns unveiled his series on Country Music, documentaries included Billie (Billie Holiday), Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin), Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Tex Mex music (Chulas Fronteras) and The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. Two themes were evident in the 2019 program — music, there were some unusual scores this year — and long screening times. Of the 30 main film programs, 20 were at or over 2 hours.

Waves, 2019 — A24

One of the longer films that was also divisive is Waves. I spoke to people who walked out, a few people who ranked it as a favorite, and others who felt it was trite and the soundtrack annoying. Trey Edward Shultz (It Comes at Night, Krisha) uses a few unusual filmmaking techniques to put the audience in the mindset of the characters. Not everyone was a fan of the spinning Go Pro shots in the car (used repeatedly) or the full-screen color waves to represent emotions. The soundtrack also acts like a character in the film. It’s a hard-driving mix of hip hop and rap by Trent Reznor‎ and ‎Atticus Ross and while the characters are listening and singing to music, the soundtrack is playing something different for us. It was jarring at first and like the color blocks on the screen, took some adjusting to.

Taylor Russell plays the daughter in Waves

A tragedy told from two focal points, the acting is strong particularly from the two young actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and especially Taylor Russell as the young woman who transforms from a background player who’s withdrawn, to the focus of the narrative. Waves is getting a lot of critical acclaim and though I felt it had some beautiful moments, a little judicial trimming would’ve gone a long way to transforming the film.

Working the festival as a Volunteer (love the Sheridan Opera House crew!), there were many films I didn’t get the opportunity to see. So I’m thankful for the After Festival screenings and happy that I had to opportunity to catch Parasite and The Two Popes. Thank you Telluride Film Festival. What a gem of a festival!

“VARDA BY AGNÈS”

Nothing is trite if you look at it with empathy and love. — Agnès Varda, from her last film, Varda by Agnès

a darling illustration of Varda from a bag I was lucky enough to score from the film’s publicist
Tom Luddy, Rosalie Varda, Martin Scorsese, Mathieu Demy, moderator Annette Insdorf

Agnès Varda, the Belgian-born French filmmaker died in March and the Telluride Film Festival dedicated this year’s festival to her and celebrated her life and work with special guests. Bringing in her friend Martin Scorsese and her two children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy and the founder of the festival, Tom Luddy to discuss her ground-breaking work and then screening Varda’s last film, Varda by Agnès. An instant film-studies classic, her film is a beautiful overview of her work and collaborations with actors and cinematographers. Varda is shown giving talks to students in both France and the US with clips of her work, then the film jumps to new footage of Varda speaking with her actors in the same locations where she filmed.

Martin Scorsese spoke about having Agnès Varda visit him on the set of The Irishman (Opening at the NY Film Festival where Varda’s film will also screen). She chided him on his politics and he soothed her with saying the film was about unions since she’s was all about the working man. It was touching to hear how he sought her approval and valued her opinion. Rosalie and Mathieu spoke about their unusual upbringing when famous directors and stars were guests at their home and they traveled to LA with their father, Jacque Demy and their mother. She was always busy making films. Indiewire has a lovely interview with Rosalie in Agnès Varda’s Daughter On Her Mother’s Death and the Future of Her Archive.

from the 46th Telluride Film Festival Program

I was so glad I got to be at the Tribute screening of this film because Tom Luddy spoke of his relationship with Varda from his years in San Francisco. He introduced her to Jean Varda, who turned out to be a relative of hers and she immediately decided to make a film about their reunion. Luddy is in the film as she recreated her introduction by him in the short Uncle Yanco…and it’s featured in Varda by Agnès. The short also screened at the festival with Black Panthers, another film that Tom Luddy assembled the crew for and encouraged Varda to make so she could document an important movement in US history. It was great to her about her filmmaking process and how her creative energies; her joie de vivre made her someone that no one wanted to say no to.

Agnès Varda was a true genius, working right till the end of her life and it’s so inspiring to see her work and celebrate her life. Faces Places (Visages Villages) brought her a resurgence of popularity and the film was nominated for an Oscar and won many International awards. I hope this film will also get the acclaim it deserves.

Say Hello to “The Farewell”

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won Audience Favorite. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about the family matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; she plays a stand-in for the director. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. The film poster reads “Based on an actual lie.”

The film explores the daughter’s feeling of conflict. Should the grandmother be told the truth so she can say proper goodbyes and get her affairs in order? The Chinese family knows that this is not the case and that this is a “good lie” and one that lets the matriarch, Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) retain her dignity and possibly prolong her life by not focusing on the illness. It’s unusual to see so many older actors be the focus of a story and it’s a view of China and Chinese culture that’s likely new to most people. Instead of a sad movie focusing on death, the story has funny moments and focuses instead on the resilience of family bonds.  Awkwafina’s expressive face showcases a wide-range of emotions: fear, anguish, joy and finally, acceptance. After her hilarious turn in Crazy Rich Asians, it’s interesting to see her playing it straight in a drama.

You’ll enjoy the ending with the “real” Nai Nai. The Farewell will warm your heart, but do yourself a favor and book dinner (or lunch) at a really good Chinese restaurant for after the movie…because The Farewell will also leave you hungry!

Awkwafina, center, surrounded by her movie family in China

Drinks With Films Rating

The Farewell – 4 shots of Baijiu (Chinese liquor) out of 5 — to celebrate family

Once Upon a Time in…Tarantino-land

Quentin Tarantino has a recognizable filmmaking style. A Tarantino film is sure to feature certain actors that he works with regularly like Kirk Douglas or Michael Madsen, quirky conversations in cars, a cool retro setting and violence…lots of graphic violence. Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood has all of that and a talented cast. The story centers around a well-known television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s career in Westerns is coming to an end and his sidekick and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The setting is 1969 Hollywood in the months leading up to the Manson Family Murders and the scenario is the interactions the two have with each other and with the people they come in contact with — day-to-day life for a television actor and his aide-de-camp.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have a wonderful chemistry. Watching DiCaprio struggling to give an honest performance that impresses his young co-star walks the line between exaggerated and comical to genuinely moving. Brad Pitt is the straight man to DiCaprio’s emotional artist. This is the first film that I’ve seen that lets the actor look his age with close-ups of the lines on his face. He still looks fantastic with his shirt off and Pitt exudes an easy charm and warmth that’s sexy.

In his ninth film, Tarantino has finally let his foot fetish out to dance. Each character is introduced through their footwear. Rick Dalton confident in cowboy boots, Cliff Booth in moccasins, our young starlet Sharon Tate skips into the scene in white gogo boots and there are lots of bare feet for our hippy girls. It’s a quick way to establish the characters. Of course the actress would wear fashionable footwear and Pitt’s stunt double, who’s so chill and secure in his masculinity, can rock moccasins…but it seems out of character for Margot Robbie’s character to take off her boots and have bare feet in a movie theater. And maybe the young hippy chick, played by the luminous Margaret Qualley, would remove her sandals and prop her feet up on the dashboard of the car but it looks awkward and lasts too long in the shot.

There is a tension to the story as the characters go about their lives when the audience anticipates the horrific murders that will shatter their world. Tarantino plays with this tension having Kirk Douglas narrate the timeline on the night of the killings. But first there’s a lots of conversations and driving in cars and a trip to Italy and a new wife…some of it interesting, much of it feels like an excuse for Tarantino to get to create fake movie posters. Having established Sharon Tate as this lovely young woman, now pregnant, and her hip friends hanging out at their home, the tragedy of lost lives will be even greater. Tarantino plays with expectations and then delivers on the graphic violence he’s known for.

You can almost feel Tarantino’s glee at shooting an extended scene of young people being killed in such gruesome manner: close-ups of a dog crunching down on an arm, the dog dragging a body across the floor, a young woman getting her face smashed repeatedly into multiple surfaces and the grand finale of the flame thrower used to torch a still twitching murderous woman. For Tarantino fans, I think the violence is so over-the-top and gratuitous that it becomes comical. As someone who finds violence, especially against women and children, very upsetting — this was torture for me to watch.

If you’re a Tarantino fan, the two-hour running time will be just perfect. You can enjoy his imaginative camera moves and recreation of that time period with cameos by some talented actors. There are brilliant bits of dialogue and lots of cool cars to enjoy. If you’re squeamish over the violence, may I suggest you leave in the long set-up for the killers to make it up the driveway? You’ll have plenty of time to wander the lobby and return for a brief touching moment between Pitt and DiCaprio…and you won’t have to endure the brain scar from the violence.

Drinks with Films Rating: 2 blended margaritas served in retro margarita glasses (out of 5)

And Now For Something Completely…similar to the previous remake…

Did we need a remake of Aladdin?

I get it. You have little ones at home. Summer Camp is out. You’ve made so many trips to the ice cream place that you’re hoping you don’t have to put on a swimsuit again till next year. There are many families that will look forward to going to see the NEW Aladdin; a family film that can be enjoyed together. This might replace the worn out DVD at home and give someone in the family ideas for a Halloween costume. Dad and Mom might appreciate that the casting is more ethnically-appropriate and the animation is lovely. Everyone can enjoy the songs that are now so well-known. Directed by Guy Ritchie, I expected a more updated version of this tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. The story sticks pretty close to the 1992 version featuring Robin William’s Genie. Will Smith is a good replacement, there’s a Bollywood number and beautiful sets and Aladdin is a good end of summer film to enjoy.

If however, you’re itchin’ for Fall Films and something that’s a little more challenging or unique than this summer’s spat of sequels, superhero films and remakes…there’s hope for you. Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has already been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the film won Audience Favorite. This delightful film, based on a true story, presents a Chinese family hiding the truth about the grandmother’s diagnosis. One of the most popular Indie Films of the summer and I’ll review it next week.

There are lots of great films released this summer that fit the bill as entertaining but also breaking the mold of the typical summer fare.  For a twist on the high school party film, see the female-centric comedy, Booksmart. The young stars are self-assured in their nerdiness and it’s a great portrait of true friendship even if it’s for mature teens with fumbling teen sex and crass language. If you’re an action film lover, I’d suggest Stuber, the fight scenes are funny, the actors, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista have great chemistry and though the plot is ludicrous the concept of an Uber driver fighting crime is original.

Looking for an unusual and lyrical take on San Francisco’s gentrification? A great cast was assembled to tell this tale of two men trying to find home and family. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is artfully-shot and directed. Local childhood friends, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails wrote this paean to SF and to male friendship. It’s a quiet film with an insider’s look at some thorny issues and I’m betting that it’ll win some awards. The NY Times published a “The Best Movies of 2019 So Far” list as have many other publications. Look for lists that don’t consist of blockbusters and Disney films and you’ll find many great films you may have missed. Many of these films are now available to stream and there are some new films and series for Fall Season on television now.

I’m looking forward to the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day Weekend. I often see some of my new favorite films of the year…that likely won’t be released till NEXT year. Oh Hollywood…

Music: On the Stage and On the Screen

Summer in Telluride means music festivals. From Bluegrass to Blues and Brews, from RIDE to Jazz Festival — our little town is invaded by music fans. This summer, music lovers with a taste for nostalgia can also get their music fix on the big screen. Rocketman, with it’s amazing musical and acting tour de force — Taron Egerton channeling Elton John — seems to have started a rock music biopic craze. It’s still playing in some theaters. Perhaps it was actually Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by the same director as Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, that started this music film craze. This summer there are many films featuring musicians or their music in biopics, documentaries and romantic comedies.

There’s a great documentary that celebrates the music that came out of LA’s Laurel Canyon, Echo in the Canyon and a look back at David Crosby’s career; the story of how he survived four decades having dealt with addiction, prison and heartbreak called Remember My Name. August brings Blinded by the Light, a coming-of-age film set in India. It’s inspired by the true tale of a Muslim teenager who finds himself through the music of Bruce Springsteen. There’s even a trailer for a behind-the-scenes look at the K-Pop band BTS on tour (Bring The Soul).

Yesterday has a simple premise: what if there was a world-wide power outage and when the lights came up, only one man remembered The Beatles and their music? Director Danny Boyle spins this charming tale of struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malick and what he does with this gift. Jack is played with warmth and a great deal of befuddlement by Himesh Patel, the British actor and writer best-known for his role on the EastEnders films. When his unexpected good fortune makes him a superstar, he must learn to navigate fame, a greedy manager (a brittle Kate McKinnon) and receiving advice from Ed Sheeran.

There’s a joy in watching people “discover” The Beatles songs and the snippets of the songs are played with great gusto. It’s interesting to think about how these songs were received back when they were hits and if modern audiences would be as enamored of them. Jack’s close friends are shown supporting him even in his failing sets at the local pub and his parents have the realistic hope that his songwriting and performing career will end. When his career takes off, it’s sweet to see their whole-hearted support.

The key relationship with his biggest supporter and first manager, played with sweetness by Lily James, is where the film loses it’s footing. Instead of weak excuses to keep them apart, a stronger storyline would’ve let Jack tire of his small-town love or stray into temptation’s path…but this sweet fairly tale, story by Richard Curtis of Love Actually fame, doesn’t dig deep. It’s nice that the action moves at a good pace, but there’s not enough time spent on conflict or introspection.

If you’re a Beatle’s fan or a British Rom Com fan, you’ll find this a fun diverting film. Himesh Patel transitions from a woebegone lad playing for a few friends in a chips shop to an International superstar without sacrificing his innate niceness. The relationships ring true, the songs are performed with real heart and there are some laughs along the way.

Drinks with Films Review: Two pints of British lager (out of five)