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Telluride Film Festival 2008

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The Telluride Film Festival 2007 (A Recap)

For all of the Secrets readers who are as interested and passionate about the Indie Film world, as I am, here is a replay of my 2007 Telluride Film Festival experience.  Juno and Into the Wild are just two of the great films I saw in 2007 and they were hugely successful in the theaters.

Telluride 2007 featured  a very strong collection of films. As is usual in my experience,  they didn't look quite as good at first glance through the program guide, but all of the movies we saw are still vivid in my mind. Of course the program directors try to not give too much away in the program guide and I compound that by trying to not read it too closely. So of course I'm trying to say as little as possible about the movies in these reviews. I recommend all but two of the 16 I saw. Most of these have already or will end up at a theater near you  but 2-3 of them may not make it via that route. I would expect that all of them will be on DVD sooner or later.

One last warning, The Telluride Phenomenon: Seeing a movie in a packed house with people who love movies makes the movie better. When these films are in general release the reviews will take them down a notch. I can't help it if other film reviewers are more cynical and surly than me but if they are, best to stay away from them.

Jellyfish (Israel, 2007)

Telluride's film festival program compared this film to 'Kieslowski at his best'. If that rings a bell for you that's all you need to know. Kieslowski is most famous for his 'Three Colors Trilogy' which is wildly recommended, as is this film 'Jellyfish'. This subtitled Israeli film reminds us that turmoil is not the only thing going on in the middle east. This artful, near-fairy tale story centers on a young woman, already struggling with life and a dead end job at a catering company, she finds herself caring for a little girl. Through water which appears and re-appears throughout the film, and this little girl, we see the interwoven stories of several women, at various stages of life, lovingly portrayed.

The Band's Visit (Israel, 2007)

Another Israeli film, this time reminding us that in some places at least some of the turmoil is over and neighbors can start to be friends again. An Egyptian community orchestra (the "Alexandrian Police Orchestra") arrives in the wrong, remote, Israel village for their scheduled concert. The next line should be 'hijinks ensues' but the humor is decidedly deadpan and ultimately not what the movie is about. The second half of the film draws you in as characters, developed with minimal dialog, are all the more enchanting and multi dimensional for it. The cultural divide between these still uneasy neighbors is bridged in the most human way.

Margot at the Wedding (U.S., 2007)

From writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Jennifer Jason Lee and Nichole Kidman play estranged sisters making another attempt at family unity as Jason Lee's character is getting married. Anyone who knows Baumbach's work knows that he is much more interested in family disunity and the deep human flaws that can create the worst in families. The script and the actors, including Jack Black as the husband to be, are expert in their rendering of the complex mix of humor, pain and history that defines so many sibling relationships.

Jar City (Iceland, 2007)

Iceland has long been the subject of study for geneticists. The isolated population has remained free of the extensive cross-pollination that happens most every else in the world. Now that there is potential money to be made from pharmaceuticals designed with knowledge of the human genome Iceland is also the subject of exploitation or at least, capitalization for its genetic purity. This is of course controversial, who owns the genome? Who should profit? This crime drama, set in Reykjavik touches on the controversy but in the end is mostly tells us that the human genome also contains the elements of the stories of people. Being steeped in biology as this movie is, the director took just about every chance to show the goo and muck associated with bodies, especially dead ones. If you like CSI you'll love how this movie cranks it up to eleven.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France, 2007)

Based on the true story of Elle France magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who after suffering a stroke in 1995 was left completely paralyzed except for the ability to blink his left eye. Painter and part time film director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) continues to grow as a film maker and here uses terrifically inventive camera techniques to convey Bauby's world and predicament. A three-hanky movie and just about everyone's favorite at the festival until 'Into the Wild' (see below) was shown. This film is rich with visual images that will stick with you long after the movie is over as well as heartfelt portraits of Bauby and the women in his life that will do the same.

Persepolis (France-U.S., 2007)

Based on the graphic novel series of the same name Persepolis tells the tale of a young girl growing up first in Iran and then in the west after having left Iran and her family due to the revolution and the fall of the Shah. I'm a fan of the books and except for going a little light on the history this animated film is very true to the books. Telluride was showing the original French version, with subtitles. An English language version will be distributed in the U.S. This is good because it will allow for proper appreciation of the art which is striking and beautiful. The story is fascinating and it is a treat to get such an intimate look at a life shaped by these disparate cultures and the forces of history.

Into the Wild (U.S., 2007)

If you've read the book by Jon Krakauer you probably don't need me to tell you anything about this movie. I tell everyone the same thing though, go see it. I was lucky enough to get into a screening at Telluride with Sean Penn (director) and Jon Krakauer in attendance for a Q&A session. It seemed to me that the only thing that prevented a standing ovation for this pair was the emotional exhaustion that the audience felt after this ten-hanky movie. This is the true life story of Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsh) who fled an emotionally stifling family for a solo life in the wilderness of the western U.S. and finally Alaska. Much of the discussion of this film afterwards focused on the recklessness of youth and 'what can a parent do?' but I see that as a dodge of the harder issues of what drove this young man. Lacking in meaningful connections at home he strikes out on his own, along the way he does make connections with people (and these are what will have you pulling out the first hankies) but he also makes a connection with the wilderness itself. Sean Penn with Director of Photography Eric Gautier bring you into that connection as well with drop-dead gorgeous images shot as much as possible in the actual places that McCandless traveled. Sean Penn got Sean Penn like performances from all of the actors in this film: Hirsh, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, non-professional actor Brian Dierker, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart and Vince Vaughn.

Secret Sunshine (South Korea, 2007)

Telluride challenges the movie goer in two ways, one is making it from one movie to another, the other is emotionally challenging movies. Secret Sunshine director Lee Chang-dong was in attendance both before and after this showing. Due to the first challenge I was not able to stay for the Q&A session after but the little bit he said through an interpreter before the film served as fair warning for what followed: 'I hope you can all find secret sunshine – inside yourselves'. Apparently my movie-going mates were not able to do so as they found themselves fed up with emotionally challenging movies. I guess they can be excused as we had all seen 'Into the Wild' earlier in the day and that movie will stick with you for a month or two. In Secret Sunshine a recently widowed young woman quickly finds even more grief as she moves with her young son to a small town. The culture there is um let's say, 'less than supportive' for the deep suffering and questions that haunt this woman. With many lighthearted moments, excellent performances and an ending that with one move of the camera seems to have something to say about grieving and perhaps the Korean culture I heartily recommend this movie.

Rails and Ties (U.S., 2007)

The expected strong performances from Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden weren't enough to get me past the overly contrived script and sometimes clunky directing in this the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood (daughter of Clint). Most of the Hollywood movies I see at Telluride I expect to be in theaters sooner rather than later but my prediction for this one would be straight to DVD.

When Did You Last See Your Father? (U.K., 2007)

I was against going to this one as it looked to be too saccharine for my tastes (I liked Secret Sunshine for Chrissake!). But, at another movie (perhaps it was Secret Sunshine), we happened to sit near and chat with the director (Anand Tucker) and he seemed intelligent enough. Turns out that he is. This movie is pretty saccharine and it is pretty much a postcard picture of fatherhood but with enough shadows thrown in to keep it interesting. Also beautifully recreated scenes and sets of 1960s English countryside.

The Counterfeiters (Austria, 2007)

This and Jellyfish were the only movies that seemed to win universal approval from the Telluride audiences (but clearly the ones who complained about 'Into the Wild' had issues). I could sum up this movie in one line: This year's 'The Lives of Others'. Based on the amazing true story of counterfeiters and artists held in concentration camps by the Germans during WWII and forced to counterfeit world currencies as part of the German war effort. The director made a brief statement before the film: (paraphrasing): "All of the things that you'll see in this film, they actually happened." By all means, see this movie.

Zubeidaa (India, 2001)
(d. Shyam Benegal)

This was the last film we saw at Telluride this year, chosen because we needed a break from what seemed to be the unofficial theme this year, families losing children. Zubeidaa did provide emotional relief but that unofficial theme was still present in this movie. Director Shyam Benegal was one of the persons receiving tribute at Telluride this year (the others were actor Daniel Day Louis and director George Kuchar). Benegal's movies occupy the space between Bollywood and Satyajit Ray. There are dance numbers but not without context and they fall away as the human and historical drama play out. Zubeidaa is of Muslim decent, she aspires to be a Bollywood actress, eventual marries a Hindu prince as his second wife. This 2001 movie won't be in theaters but the DVD is on Netflix and I recommend it.

Wind Man (Russia-Kazakhstan, 2007)

We chose this movie because of the stunning still photo used in the Telluride program guide. A winged man, no longer able to fly is found and cared for by villagers in remote Kazakhstan. The visuals in this movie were as good as that photo led us to believe. The film also makes some sharp and often funny commentary about traditional and modern Russian life. This one may be hard to find but its worthy of your time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007)

Winner of Cannes' Palme d'Or, set in Ceausescu's Romania this film presents a vivid picture of life under dictatorship as a young woman attempts to help her friend obtain an illegal abortion. The visually grinding cityscape and emotionally grinding society make an already bleak tale about as bleak as it can be. While the film is fiction there can be little doubt that it is made up of real experiences shared by untold numbers of women that have lived in such societies and like 'The Lives of Others' or 'The Counterfeiters', that is what gives this movie its power.

Juno (U.S., 2007)

A decidedly different take on unwanted pregnancy, Juno was presented as a 'sneak preview' at Telluride. This is a film that is not part of the regular program but is added at the last minute. It's called a sneak preview because it's a film that will be in theaters in the near future. Even though I see many of the Telluride films that are clearly headed to mainstream release, I still try to avoid the sneak previews as it can literally be the following week that it shows up in theaters. In this case that hasn't happened yet, imdb shows that this film will be in limited release in the US in December. This is an amazingly smart script by first timer Diablo Cody, directed by Jason Reitman (Thankyou for Smoking) but perhaps there is some fear about the distribution? An emotionally mature teenager and some frank sex talk and an unwanted pregnancy. Yes there probably are some high level discussions underway. It's an excellent film, very funny and as you know it went all the way.....to the Oscars!

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (U.S., 2007)

Finally we have arrived at the moral dilemma that keeps me from writing movie reviews. I didn't like this movie and I'll tell you the reasons in a minute but most of the people who saw it did like it. They loved it in fact. If you think you might like a tender story about an aging Chinese father, visiting his daughter in America, by all means stop reading now and give this movie a chance. For me though, this movie seemed to exist solely for the purpose of showing how cute old people can be. There is also the predictable culture clash which I would indulge and not complain about if it weren't for the bigger problem that the film doesn't seem to have much to say about it except, man those old folks can sure be cute. Director Wayne Wang was in attendance and thanks to his talk after the movie I found out some things that made it somewhat more interesting, such as his use of non actors basically just playing themselves for some minor roles but you wouldn't know this without him there to tell you about it. Not recommended.