Based on a true story–Films at the 45th Telluride Film Festival

43 films screened over 4 days for the 45th Telluride Film Festival. 10 of those 43 were excellent documentaries, but another 12 were films based on true stories. The most Hollywood of these, First Man is the star-spangled story of Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by the talented Damien Chazelle (La La Land). It was very well-received. Trail by Fire, directed by Ed Zwick  and driven by amazing performances by Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell, was absolutely riveting. I’m so glad I saw it before it starts being dismissively described as the anti-death-penalty film. It deserves a wide audience.

Alfonso Cuaron wrote, directed and shot most of his autobiographical film, Roma. Eric Kohn of Indiewire described it as “writing his personal story with a camera”, which seems quite apt. It’s a lovely black & white period piece revealing an upper-middle class family’s daily struggles through the eyes of their caring maid. Each scene is populated with so many details of their lives — we get to visit a turbulent time in Mexico City and in this young woman’s life. There’s so much drama and tension that the 2 1/2 hours flies by. I’m thankful that it’s a Netflix film and I’ll be able to watch it again.

Standing in the rain for an hour sharing an umbrella with a stranger was worth it to see The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery). It was a treat to see Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek in person. They have delightful chemistry in this sweet film about a bank robber and escape artist who can’t retire from the thrill of the chase. Redford stated that this is indeed his last acting role, though he’ll still produce and maybe direct. That gave the film a lovely sentimental feel as there are photos of a younger Redford used to illustrate his character’s past. Casey Affleck is particularly good as the detective trying to catch the bank robbers who develops a rapport with the gentleman criminal.

If you’re a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, you’ll to get a kick out of The Favourite. Queen Anne rules the 18th Century English Court but it’s her consort who’s making the real decisions. Played with petulance, emotional neediness and disdain, Olivia Colman is a powerful and fickle Queen. Vying for a place in her bed and in her court are the penniless lady, Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to the powerful Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Great roles for three powerful performers and I enjoyed the wicked banter and court intrigue. There are many extended close-ups of Olivia Colman’s face and it’s amazing to watch the emotional storms sinking her sanity. I could’ve done without the showy camera flourishes as it took me out of the story but the costumes (Sandy Powell) are sumptuous.

My final film of the festival was Boy Erased. This family drama is based on Garrard Conley‘s memoir brought to the screen by another multi-hyphenate talent, Joel Edgerton. He directs the screenplay he wrote; he also has a starring role as the director of a religious gay conversion center.  Lucas Hedges, portraying another damaged young man (Manchester by the Sea, Ladybird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) gives another emotionally revealing performance. When he’s forcibly outed at college after a traumatic incident, his Baptist preacher father (a solid Russell Crowe) convinces his mother (Nicole Kidman) to admit him to the conversion center. The loving relationship between mother and son is sorely tested when she learns what’s happening as staff try to sublimate the sexual urges of the clients. It’s an emotional journey with another great Nicole Kidman performance as she reconciles her love for her son with her love and duty as a Baptist wife. I’m looking forward to seeing The Miseducation of Cameron Post for the female viewpoint (directed by Desiree Akhavan) on conversion therapy set in an earlier time but still dealing with this shameful practice.

More Telluride reviews coming soon…

“to the Wonder” : long-winded discourse with few words

photo_06How long have you spent time in someone’s company before one of you speaks, or checks your cellphone, or quietly whistles or hums?  In Terrence Malick’s beautiful film poem, “to the Wonder”, our characters spend most of their time together in silence.  The opening scene of the young lovers traveling by car, touring a landmark on the French coast and walking along the beach, all in silence, was finally relieved by a little laughing.  The stilted, surreal nature of this film is off-putting to such a great extent that even with determination to put aside preconceived notions of plot and character development, it’s still hard to relax into the poetry of images.

This is not a film that’s concerned with narrative.  Yes, there are lovers and there is conflict but resolution is not the goal.  This is an attempt to explore the larger truths of love, faith, trust and a study of one man’s inability to commit.  Ben Affleck’s character, Neil, is so conflicted that he can’t seem to even furnish his house.   Scenes of physical intimacy are shown in tight, close-ups but rarely communicate satisfaction or resolution.   Instead, these intimate scenes show a wistfulness or inability to connect and end with one of the character’s turning away or leaving.

This exploration of larger themes is told through the male gaze.  Both Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko are photographed from behind as if the audience is posited in Ben Affleck’s place.  Both women are extremely fond of twirling; spinning in long skirts across a field or dancing around the house with flowing scarves, even bouncing on the bed; the Wonder women are like pinwheels blown about by their feelings.

Terrence Malick’s films make nature a character.  In this film, the wind has a featured role.  There is wind blowing through drapes, wind-swept reeds, wind blowing on the water.  Nature is a place to escape to, to flee the confinement of suburbia but also a place to reflect and renew.  Neil tries to connect with the daughter by talking about the sunset as they walk outside.  There is a beautiful scene of buffalo shot in the golden hour, Rachel McAdams hair glowing in the setting sun. Nature also needs to be protected.  Neil’s job is taking soil and water samples of the toxins created by construction and he’s shown interviewing people suffering pollution’s effects.  The limited amount of dialogue that is heard on the soundtrack (as opposed to the long voice overs from the characters), is mainly from these outsiders; the people in this small town.  The daughter is also given spoken dialogue and it’s used to criticize the relationship and to persuade her mother to return to Paris.  She tells her mother, “This doesn’t feel right”.

The words are not used to explain motivations or further the plot and the soundtrack drowns out some of Rachel McAdam’s voice over and in it’s discordance, acts as a distancing device for her character.  At this point in the film, many in the audience began to leave the theater.  Frustrated by the lack of plot or character motivation or lack of resolution?

The who, why and where are left unexplained.  The film is focused on images of nature and our main character’s struggle for intimacy and the priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his lose of faith. the priest intones, “Love is not just a feeling; it’s a duty” and tells Neil, “You are afraid to commit; to risk failure, to risk betrayal”.  If there’s an epiphany in the film, it’s the moment when each of the characters seems to find the divine in nature, particularly in the form of light: a sunset, the light on a fence, the light coming through the stain glass window.  Ahhh, but if only this divination didn’t take almost two hours to reveal itself!

Rating:  1 glass of sacramental wine