After The Show – Telluride Film Festival Potluck

One of the best kept secrets about the Telluride Film Festival is what happens AFTER the event. The town residents are treated to a 3 day, 6-film sampler with two different screenings at the Palm Theatre each night. The selection is purely random and usually based on which films don’t have to be shipped out immediately to the next film festival such as Toronto or New York. But if you’re a hard core film fanatic, you can hardly go wrong. The price is right – a pass for all six costs $35 for townies or $50 for visitors – plus lodging rates in Telluride drop down to almost half the cost of what they were doing the film festival.    

It’s really an ideal way to experience this stunning mountain town. You can hike, fish, bike, or explore during the day and enjoy the nature and constantly changing high altitude weather and then have a good meal somewhere and end the evening with a sneak preview of two movies prior to their theatrical release. It’s true you don’t get the glamor and buzz of the annual Show. There are no movie stars, directors, film critics or movie bloggers in evidence. In fact, no crowds at all. No introductory speakers, program notes or announcements. Just the films, pure and simple. And yes, they do offer concessions at bargain prices.

This year’s mini-festival featured the animated film CHICO AND RITA, preceded by Jeff Scher’s short THE SHADOW’S DREAM, Errol Morris’s bizarre documentary TABLOID, preceded by Bill Plympton’s clever cartoon THE COW WHO WANTED TO BE A HAMBURGER, Denis Villeneuve’s powerful INCENDIES, the South Korean film POETRY, a true story dramatization set in Kenya – THE FIRST GRADER, which was accompanied by the high speed, time lapse short, STRETCHING,  and Javier Bardem in BIUTIFUL.

Directed by Fernando Trueba (Twisted Obsession, Belle Epoque) and Javier Mariscal, CHICO AND RITA is a love letter to Cuba and its music, rendered in painterly images and vibrant colors which make every frame the most dazzling kind of eye candy. Partially inspired by the music of pianist-composer-bandleader Bebo Valdes, who had been featured previously in Trueba’s Cuban music documentary/concert film Calle 54, the movie paints in broad strokes a 20th century pop culture portrait of Cuba through its title protagonists. Chico is a struggling jazz pianist and Rita is a nightclub singer with dreams of Hollywood fame. While there is nothing particularly original about the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narrative, Trueba and Mariscal simply use it to serve up some of the greatest Cuban (and American) music of the era and to weave in significant cultural references along the way. There are “guest appearances” by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole (voiced by his brother Freddy Cole), Thelonious Monk and others and every scene is packed with loving attention to detail – A poster of The Orlon’s single “Don’t Hang Up” in Rita’s dressing room, An “Elvis Slept Here” sign above the Eden Roc hotel in Las Vegas, the sound stage set of a MGM musical. The film’s few stabs at historical importance don’t register as strongly and are tossed off too quickly to make deep impressions. The Cuban Revolution flashes by in the background and Rita’s on-stage protest against racial discrimination, while undeniably a major issue for performers of color in the pre-Civil rights era, comes off as more of a historical footnote than a dramatic moment. Still, CHICO AND RITA is a feast for the eyes and ears. Trueba and Mariscal’s approach to their subject reminds me a bit of Ralph Balshi’s ambitious animated musical homage American Pop (1981) which attempted to chronicle the history of American music through several generations of one family of musicians. CHICO AND RITA is much more focused and successful in its intentions, however, and was one of the more upbeat and celebratory films in the Telluride line-up, which usually includes more than its fair share of worthy downers and acclaimed examples of miserablism.

TABLOID, Errol Morris’s new documentary, was also a departure from the profound seriousness and gravity of his more recent works such as Standard Operating Procedure (2008), about the Abu Ghraib prison controversy, and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Instead, TABLOID is closer in tone to the quirky, absurdist humor of Morris’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) and Gates of Heaven (1978) and  spins a true life story that becomes increasingly strange as it unravels. Without spoiling the fun of discovery, I’ll just say that the movie dissects a famous tabloid story in the British press involving Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, and her plot to abduct and hold captive in a Devon cottage her Mormon boyfriend who had abandoned her for his church. A mixture of talking heads, archival footage, animated graphics and news clippings, the movie veers off in several peculiar but fascinating directions that are nonetheless relevant to the story and involve the sex industry, Joyce’s numerous false identities and disguises and cloning.

Possibly the most powerful film of the six shown was INCENDIES, directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and set during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s in which both Muslims and Christians suffered horribly amid the landscape of ethnic cleansings and random violence. Presented in chapters depicting two parallel stories, the film first introduces us to a pair of twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who receive a troubling post-funeral request from their late mother via the executor of her estate, Jean Lebel (Remy Girard). Jeanne is instructed to deliver a sealed letter to her father while Simon is entrusted with a letter for his brother. The problem is that the twins were told their father was dead and never knew that they even had a sibling. As Jeanne and Simon proceed separately to carry out the unusual requests, the movie moves into thriller territory with disturbing clues revealed to the sister and brother along their journey into the unknown. The second narrative is equally gripping and much more disturbing as it reveals the tragic, violent life of the twins’ mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), a woman who kept her past life a complete secret from her children.  

INCENDIES is emotional dynamite and Villeneuve keeps the tension taut and riveting as he effortlessly moves back and forth in time between the two stories, never losing his way in the convoluted and complex storyline. It all builds to a shocking resolution on the grand scale of a Greek tragedy. Despite the fact that INCENDIES is a Canadian production, the dialogue is in French and Arabic with much of it filmed on locations in the Middle East. The film is bound to end up on many movie critics’ top ten lists and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it emerge as an Oscar contender for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Korean director Lee Chang-dong had previously screened his film Secret Sunshine at the Telluride Film Festival in 2007 and it was much admired. I had never seen any of his movies, however, so his new film POETRY was an impressive introduction to his work. Like INCENDIES, POETRY has two stories to tell, both involving Mija (Yun Jung-hee), an economically strapped grandmother who is entrusted with raising her daughter’s son. One narrative thread follows Mija’s slowly dawning awareness that her grandson is one of six high school boys who repeatedly raped a female schoolmate, driving her to commit suicide.  The other storyline details Mija’s daily ritual-like routines (she works as a part-time maid to earn money) and her attempt to break out of her humdrum existence by taking a poetry course. Mija’s journey to self-discovery is the whole movie and Yun Jung-hee, who is on screen in almost every scene, is a remarkably subtle and moving actress. The film walks a fine line between tragedy and low-key humor and, despite the leisurely 139 minute running time, never becomes dull or aimless in its intimate observations of Mija. POETRY demonstrates that the path to justice can sometimes be a slow, arduous trek, just as learning to recognize and express the creative impulses trapped deep inside you can takes years as well. In this story, the yearning for both are one and the same. Like the title, Chang-dong’s film has achieved the beauty and simplicity of a sijo (a Korean poetic form similar to the Japanese haiku) by the time it closes on a final image of a rushing river, the same image that opens the film.

Stories about the underdogs of society and oppressed individuals who have triumphed over great odds to realize some personal goal always make great screen subjects. And one of the big crowd pleasers at this year’s festival was THE FIRST GRADER. This is the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, a former Mau Mau and political prisoner, who was tortured and brutalized for his part in resisting the British occupation of Kenya in the early 1950s. When the film opens in 2002, Maruge is an 84-year-old man who decides to take advantage of the Kenyan government’s promise to offer free education for everyone. But when he tries to register for school in his village, he is turned away for being too old, with the explanation that free education is for children only. Stubborn and persistent, Maruge (a soulful performance by Oliver Litondo) eventually persuades the school teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) to let him attend despite opposition from her superiors. What follows is an often touching and inspirational character study on the order of Stand and Deliver (1988) and Akeelah and the Bee (2006).

The film doesn’t flinch from the tragic details of Maruge’s past which are revealed in bits and pieces, often triggered by something as simple as the sharpening of a pencil. We learn that Maruge had his toes amputated; his wife and child were executed in front of him, he was hung upside down and beaten, sharp pencils were driven into his ears. And he faces new obstacles  in his current situation when the media stirs up controversy over his distracting presence in a classroom full of children. Yet, despite some intense scenes, THE FIRST GRADER is, in essence, a heartwarming family film and even sentimental by the usual Telluride standards. One can’t help but wonder what some Hollywood studio would do to this tale if they remade it. I suspect they would turn it into a comedy and cast Eddie Murphy or maybe Jamie Foxx as Maruge.

The final film in the program was BIUTIFUL, which was directed and co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the filmmaker behind such acclaimed dramas as Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). Advance reviews of the film’s premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival led me to expect another gut-wrenching exploration of human behavior and while Inarritu is again focusing on characters in desperate situations, there is a sense of immediacy, a certain magnetic electricity on display that prevents the movie from succumbing to despair and hopelessness. One thing that sets BIUTIFUL apart from Inarritu’s previous films is a narrative structure that abandons the multiple storyline fragmentation as in Amores Perros or 21 Grams and concentrates instead on one character, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), and the day to day details of his manic existence. Uxbal supports himself and his two children through a variety of odd jobs, all of them involving illegal activities and in most cases the trafficking of Chinese and African immigrants. Although set against a grubby, claustrophobic urban landscape – you’d never know this was Barcelona except for a brief shot of the Sagrada Familia - BIUTIFUL is bookended by a dream sequence that is both prophetic and sets the fantasy/spiritual tone of the movie. And Uxbal is a fascinatingly complex character, a tormented man (recently diagnosed with cancer) who is both exploiting other human beings for his own profit while also trying to help them. Javier Bardem is extraordinary in the film, proving yet again that he is one of the finest film actors working today. With a little luck, all of the above films will receive theatrical distribution in the coming months.

6 Responses After The Show – Telluride Film Festival Potluck
Posted By Suzi : September 11, 2010 3:24 pm

I also saw TABLOID–which I liked but did not love. It inspired conversation in my group about the morality of Morris making fun at his subject. Still, the story of Joyce McKinney is a stitch. I am sorry to say that I missed BIUTIFUL. I had a choice between that movie and BLACK SWAN. Unfortunately, I chose the latter, and now I am kicking myself.

Posted By Suzi : September 11, 2010 3:24 pm

I also saw TABLOID–which I liked but did not love. It inspired conversation in my group about the morality of Morris making fun at his subject. Still, the story of Joyce McKinney is a stitch. I am sorry to say that I missed BIUTIFUL. I had a choice between that movie and BLACK SWAN. Unfortunately, I chose the latter, and now I am kicking myself.

Posted By morlockjeff : September 12, 2010 12:43 pm

Yes TABLOID has the same characteristics of Morris’s earlier work GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON,FLORIDA in which the interviewees are presented in a way that can either invite derision or empathy depending on your own point of view. I don’t think McKinney would mind either way if people laughed at her or took her seriously, since she is clearly an exhibitionist and enjoying another late career burst of fame. If nothing else, she’s a born entertainer and storyteller.

I heard nothing but good things in the press about BLACK SWAN and wanted to see it. You didn’t care for it, I assume. BIUTIFUL is a very rich, emotional experience and one of the few films that I want to see again right away.

Posted By morlockjeff : September 12, 2010 12:43 pm

Yes TABLOID has the same characteristics of Morris’s earlier work GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON,FLORIDA in which the interviewees are presented in a way that can either invite derision or empathy depending on your own point of view. I don’t think McKinney would mind either way if people laughed at her or took her seriously, since she is clearly an exhibitionist and enjoying another late career burst of fame. If nothing else, she’s a born entertainer and storyteller.

I heard nothing but good things in the press about BLACK SWAN and wanted to see it. You didn’t care for it, I assume. BIUTIFUL is a very rich, emotional experience and one of the few films that I want to see again right away.

Posted By Suzi : September 12, 2010 5:45 pm

There were 12 people in my group at Telluride. Most of us saw BLACK SWAN–only two people liked it. The rest of us had the same reaction/question: “Is that all there is to it?” I found it trite.

Posted By Suzi : September 12, 2010 5:45 pm

There were 12 people in my group at Telluride. Most of us saw BLACK SWAN–only two people liked it. The rest of us had the same reaction/question: “Is that all there is to it?” I found it trite.

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