Special Ed Note:
Every year Cale goes to Telluride and covers it for us. And he does a better job than anybody else. This year, like many of us, he found himself poorer than in years past. So, we turned to you, the Ruthless Reader, for help and within two days we raised enough cash to send Cale back to Telluride. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Cale puts as much time into Ruthless as anyone, and he does it all for no profit whatsoever; he only reviews and rants because of his love of cinema, hatred of fellow man and the worsening need to discuss his shattered sex life with you, his public. Anyhow, I’m thanking you for him — those of you who ponied up the cash are fucking fantastic.
It is altogether fitting that the 2005 Telluride Film Festival was nearly swept away by a torrential downpour that paused only to pound the poor saps waiting in line with a brief shot of hail. As always, the long weekend was full of relaxation, star sightings, and the best gyros this side of Athens, but the films themselves seemed possessed by an unusual degree of mediocrity, as if the gorgeous surroundings had to be tempered by a sharp dose of reality; that is, Sturgeon’s Law;90% of everything is crap” — most certainly applies. I do not wish to seem like a grouch; after all, most of this trip was financed by the very readers who berate me on a daily basis, but I’ve never been one to gush inappropriately, although the spirit of Telluride nearly forces one to suck it up and declare the whole thing a smashing success. Because waiting in line constitutes a majority of what one does during these four days and nights, the opinions and attitudes of fellow festival goers cannot help but penetrate one’s skull. Exempting the occasional crab apple that would likely complain about a blowjob or a lobster dinner, most folks praise literally everything at Telluride, which might be the result of having shelled out so much money to attend. After all, this is America, and if it’s expensive, it must be worthwhile.
Standing around getting wet also brought forth the industry types, those obnoxious shits (largely from LA) who insist, despite a total lack of empirical evidence, that they are actors or writers, which have now become the new euphemisms for unemployed or living with mom.While twiddling my thumbs at The Palm, the newest theater that just happens to be the least conducive to a cinematic experience, I overheard a young tart drone on about her experiences as a working actor,although when pressed, she admitted that her work was limited to television, which means you might have seen her on last week’s Law and Order if you hadn’t bothered to blink. These obnoxious, deluded souls might not constitute the majority of patrons, but their presence is sufficient to provoke at least a few dozen eye-rolling episodes or bitter grumbling. A few of these pricks, clad like your typical Abercrombie & Fitch assholes on the prowl, managed to get a large middle finger in their faces, all for having the temerity to believe they could cut in front of my wife. They laughed, but I secretly suspected that they returned to their babe-infested hot tubs and sobbed their little eyes out. Or not.
Among the talented and not-so-talented on hand for the event, I only managed a few face-to-face encounters, although one was certainly for the ages. Dining in a pizza joint, I found the lone bathroom occupied, but jiggled the doorknob just in case. After waiting for at least five full minutes, a disheveled Andy Garcia tumbled out of the shitter, although I will go on record that I did not hear him wash his hands. I also ran into Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart at the Opening Night Feed (delicious Cuban food), although they’re even less impressive than you might think. Given that Helena dresses much like your average bag lady, it would be easy to lose sight of her in a crowd. Leonard Maltin made his usual appearance with his beard of a wife, although later that first night, I saw him with his arm around a much younger and much prettier lady, which must mean that a second woman has taken up the cause to convince the world that a grown man who worships Mickey Mouse is not gay. Ken Burns was there (again) and now I must deal with the image of an already boyish man being reduced to lugging around his infant in one of those emasculating snugglies. Ah, but I did witness the luminous Charlotte Rampling resting on a bench, although she looked haggard and literally beaten down, perhaps because I was sitting a scant few feet away shoveling rice and noodles into my bearded mug, as well as all over my shirt. The best meeting, however, involved my wife, who had the pleasure of driving Roger Ebert’s better half to a screening. My wife was waiting for a parking space when Chazz literally pounded on the passenger side window, hoping to escape the thunderstorm. The chat was brief, but much to my dismay, my wife did not drop the name of Ruthless Reviews.
While we did find an inexpensive alternative to the usually high-priced hotel rooms of Telluride (using the internet, we found a woman who regularly rents out a spare room to tourists), it was not very comfortable, given that the colossus that is yours truly should never be asked to inhabit a mere full-size bed with another human being. This cramped sleeping arrangement did produce a solid laugh, however, as I suddenly woke up during the night spewing forth a blood-curdling scream, the result of having one of the worst cramps I have ever experienced. While no one else in the house showed any concern, my wife did at first believe that my long overdue heart attack had finally come home to roost. And I will never again share a bathroom with strangers, especially one that fails to contain a working shower. Needless to say, because I went four full days without bathing, my penis was avoided with a previously unparalleled vehemence.
And yet, there are the films. While I was privileged to see at least three films that stand a good chance of inhabiting my year-end top ten, I also sat through mind-numbing junk that could just as easily reach my my year-end worst ten. In all, I saw ten features and three shorts, although I had no choice with those, as they came before the main course. I pretty much saw everything I wanted to see, although there was a documentary about Cameroon that I regret missing. My wife did mange to catch that one, and of course it was the highlight of her weekend. Because it’s a film of great power and substance, there’s a good chance that it will never come to a theater near you (or me). I also missed the three tributes — Charlotte Rampling, Mickey Rooney, and the Dardenne brothers — although from what I heard, Rooney did little but praise everything he’s ever done in front of a camera. It’s good to see that eighty-five years haven’t tempered one of Hollywood’s most unjustified egos. There were selections from South Korea, Israel, Iran, Taiwan, and Hungary, as well as the expected treats from the United States and France. Telluride also debuted a restored print of Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I would have seen were it not for the DVD release in a few months. And, as per tradition, a surprise selection not featured in the program made a one-time appearance, although it just happened to be Martin Scorsese’s four-hour documentary on Bob Dylan. Prohibitive length aside, the film will be on PBS this month, as well as hitting DVD. Thanks, but I can’t. Given its running time, I just might wait indefinitely. But enough about what I didn’t see. For good and for bad, here’s how I spent my time:
As one of the privileged few that satisfied from start to finish, Bennett Miller’s debut feature is misleadingly labeled a bio-pic, when in fact it exclusively tells the tale of Truman Capote’s landmark non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. The narrow focus works, as the film doesn’t try to bore us with a greatest hits package that always fails to fulfill its stated promise. From the initial inspiration to the executions of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hicock, we witness Capote’s obsession in full flower; a quest that was usually more about Truman’s ego than either the men or the victims. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a revelation as Capote, not only nailing the voice and mannerisms of the famed eccentric, but also becoming a complex figure with depth and substance (this is acting, not mere mimicry). As presented, Capote was unquestionably a great talent (he truly did change the craft of writing and in fact, journalism itself), but also a narcissistic crybaby who used manipulation and cunning to further his own interests. And if the attention turned away from himself for more than a moment, he was most likely to be found in the corner; a drink in hand and another self-absorbed anecdote at the ready.
David Mamet can often be brilliant, but usually when he forsakes the director’s chair and lets someone else transform his unique (and often annoying) language. While Stuart Gordon takes the helm, he has apparently worshiped too long at the altar of Mamet, as the speak is on full display. The story involves Edmond (William H. Macy), a peculiar malcontent who spends an evening leaving his wife (the reliably awful Rebecca Pidgeon), getting mugged, stabbing a pimp, hurling racial epithets, and, most grandly, slicing Julia Stiles to ribbons. Billed as a modern noir, it is instead an excuse for Mamet to uses coarse language and extreme violence to explore manhood as he sees it — a buried rage that, when unchecked, is bound to lead to criminal behavior. At only 75 minutes, the film doesn’t waste any time with uninvolving subplots, but a puzzling so what? seemed to permeate the surroundings. Edmond is curious indeed in that he desires sex with a whore, but is always thwarted by his insistence on not paying the going rates. Perhaps this is what American men become without purpose and a sense of self, but I was content to watch Edmond’s hatred boil over into a nasty brew of racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
Conversations with Other Women
Essentially a two-person play, Hans Canos’s exploration of a contemporary relationship is often revealing, even if we’re not quite sure why it had to be presented in split-screen. Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter are Thomas and Elizabeth (listed as Man and Woman in the closing credits), two articulate, intelligent people who appear to meet for the first time at a wedding, but are slowly revealed to be on much more intimate terms. The acting is superb — natural, dignified, and deeply felt — and while the film isn’t the grand statement on modern amour it surely seeks to be, it does explore regret, loneliness, and neediness with effectiveness and even a little charm. At its best, the verbal tango demonstrates that despite our best wishes, we can never really let go, even if what we are holding onto is the bitterness of failure and lost opportunity.
The President’s Last Bang
Merely good when it could have been great, this pulp-ish mix of comedy and extreme violence might be South Korea’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, that is if QT had the balls to inject the political into his pop culture-obsessions now and again. Based somewhat on fact (to what extent, one never knows), the story involves the real-life assassination of Park Chung-hee in Seoul, South Korea, circa 1979. While the film lost a bit of steam near the end, the set-up and execution of the crime were handled with a master’s touch, managing to be both chilling and hilarious at the same time. At its core, this is a comedy of errors, as the South Korean government (and intelligence agency) were so disorganized and mismanaged that, in the words of one of the conspirators, the top security guard was left without a firearm. The dictator’s inner sanctum is defined by perversion and fear, but most often sheer incompetence ensures a bloody climax. Director Im Sang-soo has no trouble exposing his own country’s ineptitude, and he earned a round of applause when, immediately before the screening, he likened Chung-hee’s reign to that of George W. Bush.
Everything is Illuminated
A huge disappointment, although I’d be lying if I said I was actually looking forward to it. Liev Schreiber’s directorial debut was one of the hits of the festival, but it sat in my stomach like rotten fruit. While I found the whole thing dull and insipid, its tone was most offensive of all, as it veered from Garden State-style absurdity to so-called tragedy, without pausing to ask if it had earned such sentiments. Based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel that I am now certain to avoid, the story concerns a young man (Elijah Wood) and his journey to the Ukraine to investigate his grandfather’s encounter (and escape from) the Nazis. I might have cared, but the moment I saw young Jonathan collect a potato from the floor and place it in a Ziploc bag (he has a wall of memories that is, well, a sign of insanity), I knew I was in for a heaping portion of irritating whimsy. Whether it was the ear-splitting score, the “blind” grandfather with the dog he called his “seeing-eye bitch,” or the woman who collected dust, these people were so unreal and the obvious creations of a young upstart, that I couldn’t help but loathe them to the point of hoping time could be reversed, the grandfather executed as planned, and this whole goddamn story avoided.
Like so much of Telluride 2005, a great beginning was crushed by a screenplay that went off the rails. The first act of this film is so provocative and compelling that it must have intimidated the filmmakers into abandoning the effort. How could they possibly end it? Charlotte Rampling is Alice, an icy bitch that shows up to the dinner party of Alain with so much hostility and disdain that it can’t help but result in insults and a glass of wine to the face. Alice wants her husband dead because of his infidelity, and she isn’t above asking Alain to bed as well, despite his seemingly happy marriage. The plot and characters unfold with such mystery and tension that the film threatens to explode. Which it does, only in the worst possible way. Alice blows her head off in the happy couple’s spare bedroom and once she disappears from the story, all interest is gone. There are strange happenings involving lemmings, clogged faucets, and what might be the spiritual exchange of physical bodies, but it all leads to indifference, given the set up. When a film kills off the only person we could possibly care about, the contempt for the audience is obvious.
Leave it to Michael Haneke to bring forth the best of the festival; a fascinating roller coaster of mystery, suspense, politics, and possible madness. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) is a highly regarded, and slightly self-involved book critic who suddenly starts receiving surveillance tapes at his doorstep. Someone is clearly watching him, but to what end? As evidence mounts, the situation seems to make even less sense, especially when Georges confronts a familiar face from the past. I’m always about ruining surprises and blasting away the contemptible “spoiler alerts” that clog the web, but in this case, I will let the unknown guide you. And yet, this is much more than a “whodunit” or the unmasking of some silly twist. The characters breathe and react before our eyes, and so much is left unsaid that we find ourselves pouring over the past to help us make sense of what we’ve seen and have yet to discover after a single viewing. Close attention during the closing credits will “answer” a particularly vexing question, but even with such information, we are left dumbfounded. Ah, but in the best way possible. Whether it’s guilt, morality, colonialism, trust, class, race, or the rifts between fathers and sons, there is enough here to keep even the most committed viewer busy for several rounds of conversation.
I could end the blurb with the fact that this film is based on an Oprah book selection, but that would be letting it off too easily. Perhaps the worst film I’ve seen in five years of attending the festival, this nonsense about spelling bees, spirituality, and one helluva demented woman (Juliette Binoche) is so insulting and self-righteous that it all but shamed me into falling to my knees in prayer. I’d like to believe that Richard Gere’s Saul (the sort of man Woody Allen would label “a professional Jew”) is a commentary on religion run amok, but as the young girl who uses Kabbalah to win a string of spelling tournaments actually experiences a transcendental moment before our eyes, I must conclude that it’s not God it’s after, but merely overbearing parents who drive their children into the arms of the Hare Krishna. And Saul’s explanation of language and how it can be used to reach the ear of God? Fucking Christ, Richard, you’re a Buddhist — you know better than this. Or maybe you don’t. Call me narrow-minded if you will, but the minute a film takes religion seriously, I’m checking the fuck out. Oh, and as for your more benign spirituality? It’s simply the madness of religion, only without the rigid hierarchies. And if you’ve seen The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, you know how this shit ends.
Walk the Line
Unlike the far superior Capote, Walk the Line tries to present Johnny Cash as a man in full, which is another way of saying that we’ll be subjected to an endless reel of big moments and turning points, as if any life could be so simplistically regurgitated. Joaquin Phoenix does a good job as Cash (and even sings in his own voice), but what we see of him is so obvious and clichéd that the effort quickly becomes a chore. What’s more, I simply refuse to believe that every actor, singer, artist, or mere celebrity has led exactly the same life, from the childhood trauma (in Cash’s case, the death of a brother), to the strained relationship with a parent, to the immersion in cheap sex, even cheaper liquor, and the contents of your average pharmacy. Enter June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), a toothy ol’ gal who hates, then likes, then hates, then finally loves Johnny, but only after seeing him through assorted phases of addiction. Name the moment: the bitter revelation at a Thanksgiving dinner, the character in shadow who turns out to be someone we all know (in this case, Elvis), the big break, the backstage tantrum…. it’s been done to death, frankly, and should no longer be tolerated by anyone who looks to the cinema as a great educator. As competent and well crafted as it is (director James Mangold has ability), it lacks a reason to exist and more importantly, fails to make a case for Cash’s place in the history of popular music. The solution? A film about nothing more than his famous Folsom Prison concert — the how, the why, and the immediate aftermath. Now that’s a story worth telling.
It’s what we always knew to be true: beneath the tight jeans, sweaty chaps, and weathered countenance, the American Cowboy is an ass-pounder waiting to be born. Like the impressionable teenager who joins the army or the youngster who insists on a stint with the wresting team, the cowboy willingly spends every waking moment in the exclusive company of men, hoping to catch that glistening, yet forbidden patch of butt cheek, or feel the heavy, scratchy breath of masculinity. Obvious truths aside, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain shocked the hell out of me. It’s a gracious, tender film of such depth and dignity that were this nation not packed to the gills with homophobic creeps, it would go down as the year’s most powerful love story. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger give Oscar-worthy performances (you heard me) as Jack and Ennis, two lonely ranch hands who meet during a shepherding job in the mountains of Wyoming (filmed in Alberta, Canada, however) and form a lifelong bond that yes, involves sex. A whole lotta sex, in fact. Ennis remains in Wyoming while Jack moves to Texas, yet they continue to meet several times a year for friendship and outbursts of passion. Visually, this film has the texture of a Terence Malick piece and in some ways, the same overall tone. There’s nothing lurid, or exploitive, or even shocking about this relationship; in fact, it’s handled with such quiet power that gender all but slips away. These are two simple, inarticulate men, yet they are driven by complex emotions and longings that even they could not hope to explain. But as Woody Allen has said, the heart wants what the heart wants, and what better case could be made for letting love take its course? One of the year’s best.
Matt Cale’s Telluride Ratings:
- Best: Cache (Hidden)
- Worst: Bee Season
- Missed Screening I Most Regret: Paradise Now
- Piece of Shit My Wife Saw that Saved Two Hours of My Life: Three Times
- Why Did it Suck?: Do you like watching people eat noodles for 35 minutes straight?
- Best Food that Wasn’t a Gyro: The Labor Day Picnic’s Omaha Steaks
- Worst Food that Wasn’t Raw Sewage: A chicken burrito that left my sphincter reeling
- How Many Short Films?: 3
- Total Number of Minutes?: 19
- Which You Would Liken To?: Ever pass a kidney stone while undergoing a prostate exam?
- Why Didn’t You Jerk Off On Charlotte Rampling’s Leg?: I have the sinking, horrible suspicion that I will never be able to properly answer that question.