Once Again, Matt Cale Goes Way Above And Quite Beyond
There was a whole lotta sex at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival, and no, I’m not talking about my hotel room. The festival, always known for world premieres, cutting-edge cinema, and entries that get people talking, decided to focus on sex this time around, a decision that meets with my wholehearted approval. Initially, I was a bit disappointed with the line-up, if only because it seemed that Toronto secured a majority of the most anticipated releases. But now, in retrospect, Telluride did just fine for themselves, and I can include several screenings as some of the most enjoyable of the year.
The long weekend appeared to be headed for disaster when temperatures dipped and snow actually began to fall. Normally this would be fine, but when most of what one does at Telluride is wait in line, it made for many uncomfortable hours spent in the freezing rain and brisk winds. Nasty weather always puts me in a sour mood; even more so at Telluride, because previous visits featured ideal late summer weather. Nevertheless, the snow quickly melted, blue skies returned, and the focus could once again be the movies themselves.
Telluride decided to honor Laura Linney this year, a dubious choice indeed as her career only really took off a few years ago. They also sent kudos to screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who usually worked with director Luis Bunuel), director Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze, Traveling Players), and casting director Fred Roos. I know, I know — hardly stellar. You might even be asking yourself who in the fuck these people are. I know I did. But as my wife and I were forced to buy the Acme pass this time around (which pretty much limited us to one theater), we weren’t forced to care about them anyway. We did, however, attend Q&A sessions with the likes of Todd Solondz, Ellen Barkin, Bill Condon, and Annette Bening. We also avoided a screening of the newly re-mastered THX-1138, complete with recluse George Lucas in attendance. Needless to say, the screening was a madhouse, and arguably the hottest ticket in town. As I thought the film was dull and uninvolving the first time around, I wasn’t keen on spending two precious hours having such a notion reinforced. Al Pacino was also in town, although he took off for Venice before we could catch sight of him. And of course, the usual rumors made their way through the queues. Isn’t Robert DeNiro here with Pacino? What about Johnny Depp? What’s that about Warren Beatty passed out naked in Roger Ebert’s hot tub? Still, despite the absence of star sightings, most of the filmmakers were in attendance, which always makes for an enlightening experience, even if Lenny Abrahamson is no Pedro Almodovar.
Adam and Paul
An Irish update of Midnight Cowboy, only without the charm, insight, or character depth. The film spends 24 hours with a pair of loveable losers, who roam Dublin in search of money, drugs, and, well, not much else. The first 15 minutes or so had a few laughs, but it went nowhere fast and the two shits quickly pushed me to the brink. In addition, the Dublin of this film is arguably the ugliest city I have ever seen, and after seeing a few neighborhoods, I can understand why those people drink their lives away. Had the film ended on a note of bitter humor it might have worked, but instead the filmmakers decided to force a tragic conclusion that simply didn’t work. Nothing fails so miserably as the attempt to inject importance into a silly farce.
One of the best of the festival, this film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda takes a story that could have easily gone off the rails into Oprah territory (14-year-old takes care of his siblings after the mother splits), and instead refuses to bow to cheap sentiment or pat answers. And while the mother is a reprehensible villain (her four children are by four different fathers and she leaves the kids in order to shack up with a new man), the focus is on pure survival, rather that an indictment of any particular character. Long, but not overlong, the film is anchored by Cannes Best Actor winner Yuya Yagira (as Akira), who uses facial expressions and small gestures to convey his sad determination. He is practical, reasonable, and mature beyond his years, but he is never an object of “aw-shucks” cuteness, merely doing what is necessary to pay the bills, keep the younger kids fed, and give them moments of joy in the midst of tragedy. Because the film takes its time and believes in the power of life as it occurs, it could be argued that it follows in the tradition of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. It’s that good.
Leave it to Todd Solondz to provide the most provocative film of the festival, in addition to the best. In fact, don’t be surprised if this is very high on my list of the year’s best. Typically (and thankfully), Solondz pushes the limits of good taste and presents scenes so outside the bounds of the “acceptable,” that I would imagine a good 99% of the American public would actively seek to banish this film outright. Solondz tackles abortion, fundamentalism, rape, suicide, and murder, but there’s more at work here than shock for its own sake. The central character, Aviva, is portrayed by no less than seven different actresses, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and a 300-pound black woman. As a character says late in the film, people don’t really change as they age, and they are at the end of their lives much the same as when they began their journey (hence the focus on palindromes). As Solondz himself said in the Q&A session, he decided to present different physical forms for one character because he wanted us to focus on the “essence” of who she was and how she remained throughout. It’s an inventive way to present a character, and it works because we immediately accept the director’s vision (as a misanthrope, I have no choice).
And of course, there’s the usual gallery of freaks and weirdos, best expressed by the “Sunshine Singers.” Housed in an isolated retreat, these singers are a collection of young children only Solondz could dream up: a retarded boy who hails greasy food, a blind albino, a kid with cystic fibrosis, a young girl with spina bifida, and another girl without arms or legs. And then there’s Mama Sunshine, an overly cheerful Christian wacko who runs her domain like a well-oiled machine. As many laughs as there are, however, it is amazing how sympathetic these people become, if only because they are so defiantly themselves. By turns mean-spirited, outrageous, and illuminating, it works best as entertainment because it never fails to keep you involved. And how could it fail given that it opens with the funeral of Welcome to the Dollhouse staple Dawn Weiner (or that she killed herself after being date raped)? And just wait until you hear an apple-cheeked youngster discuss, in great detail, the “victims” of abortion. Brilliant!
Bitchy, nasty, and great fun, Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia concerns the life of a great 1930s London actress (Annette Bening, in an Oscar Ruthie-worthy turn) and her twisted love life. For some reason (my wife might say my repressed homsexuality), I always enjoy behind-the-scenes theater stories, mainly because witnessing the process of creating an illusion, at least for me, amounts to a form of eavesdropping. But this is more than a “how-to,” as we watch a crafty, savagely intelligent woman manipulate everyone around her in order to remain at the top of the theater food chain. In a particularly great exchange, Julia cries, “I’m a slut and a bitch through and through.” “Nevertheless,” her husband (Jeremy Irons) notes, “You’re a great actress.” Amidst the performances on stage, there’s no shortage of backstabbing, plotting, wild sex, and assorted pursuits of perverse self-interest. It might be a crowd pleaser, but it never suffers from an unearned self-importance.
Laura Linney plays a college admissions director at Columbia University who falls for a much younger student in Dylan Kidd’s follow-up to his equally disappointing Roger Dodger. Mind you, the film is well-acted, competent, and hits its marks with great efficiency, but it all adds up to a big “so what?” The May-December romance is always difficult to bring to life, as it rarely says anything new, and this is no exception. Linney’s character is lonely and far too obsessed with an old flame (whom she believes might be reincarnated as this new kid), but the film proceeds too cautiously down a well-worn path. I wasn’t bored, but neither was I stimulated, as “relationship pictures” need to advance the cause beyond “that chick’s needy.” Columbia looks great (as usual), but I didn’t care enough about these people to get overly upset. It’s the sort of film I might watch for a few minutes as it plays at 2 AM on HBO, but I doubt I’ll need to see it again in full.
Another film with wall-to-wall sex, as it is the life story of controversial scientist Alfred Kinsey, the “father” of modern sexuality. Depending on your point of view, Kinsey is either a heroic defender of liberation, openness, and glorious hedonism, or a Marx-loving tool of the devil. And while I don’t imagine that Bill Condon’s film is the whole story, what I did see left me giddy with excitement. Condon is never subtle with his interpretation — Kinsey, though socially awkward and the victim of a repressed upbringing, launched a scientific revolution in human sexuality that believed honesty was always preferable, regardless of where that led us. Some would say that it led us down the dark hole of teenage pregnancy, pedophilia, divorce, and disease, but those people are surely forgetting (deliberately, I would argue) that such things have always existed, most prominently in overtly religious societies.
Liam Neeson is a one-man powerhouse as Kinsey, providing depth and sympathy, as well as great respect for his bold risk-taking in a culture that was never quite ready for his revelations (it still isn’t). And believe me, Kinsey was no saint, as he “dabbled” in extra-marital homosexual relations, wife-swapping, and increasingly bizarre forms of masturbation. But that’s why we love him, right? The film works as a bio-pic (although Kinsey’s father, as portrayed by John Lithgow, is a bit one-note), a social document, and a scathing indictment of the prudish, religious forces that always fight a thoughtful examination of human biology. And it’s so very heartwarming to see that such forces have already begun the fight once again, as the director informed us that Fox News has labeled Kinsey “sicko flicko,” obviously without having seen it. That alone should get your ass to the theater.
Michael Tucker’s fundamentally dishonest documentary about American forces in Iraq tries desperately to appear anti-war, but instead comes across as state-sponsored propaganda, or the sort of thing that might air on Oliver North’s FOX program War Stories. Consisting mostly of verite (the filmmaker follows the soldiers around Baghdad, conducting raids and the like), although the occasional bland comment springs forth on the soundtrack. Mind-numbingly repetitive, it provides no less than three-dozen encounters with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), although none are shown actually exploding. When asked why the film did not show any casualties, the filmmaker replied, “I consider that ambulance chasing.” In reality, the gutless bastard was most likely denied permission to show the real effects of war, as it would have been impossible to ride along with soldiers unless he agreed to the Pentagon’s rules and regulations of sanitizing combat. Moreover, the soldiers — despite displaying their ignorance, vulgarity, and racism at every turn — are depicted as walking saints, even though we never see anything that would prove such an assertion. My belief is this: one cannot simultaneously denounce a cause and support the agents that carry out that policy.
And are these really America’s finest? You know my take (read my rant “Fuck the Troops“), although Tucker is convinced that these boys are the pearls of wisdom amidst chaos. The film would like to believe that these sweet young men and women are “just following orders” and as such deserve our full support. But I ask you — could the same thing not also be said of the Iraqi insurgents? The deluded teenagers who strap bombs to their chests don’t come up with that shit all on their own, either. And when the director was challenged (by my wife, thank you very much) on the inclusion of an especially distasteful scene (a dippy soldier plays dress-up and mocks Arab culture), he responded with self-righteous rage and a standard non-answer. As a man shouted quickly thereafter, it would have been no different had a soldier put on blackface and sang “Mammy.” Funny, but I doubt that would have brought about the same chuckles from the audience.
Usually, films from Eastern Europe are the surest way to bring about my mad dash for a steep cliff. But in the case of this Hungarian entry from first time director Nimrod Antal (yes, his real name), I was given more than enough reason to remain seated. In fact, I actually enjoyed myself. Unlike most films from that region, Kontroll is packed with a pulse-pounding energy, both in terms of the action and the musical selections. Filmed entirely in the Budapest subway system, the film concerns a group of workers who must deal with a murderous “spirit,” a humorless supervisor, and violent passengers who simply refuse to buy tickets. While dark and somber in many ways, there’s also a sly wit to be found, which makes it a fun ride and not simply a preachy parable about post-Communist chaos. I saw this film as the last screening on a Sunday night, which was flirting with danger (as my heavy eyes would not abide the static imagery of the former Warsaw Pact nations), but stay awake I did, much to my joyful surprise.
(La Mala EducatiÃ³n)
A somewhat disappointing follow-up to Talk to Her (then again, what wouldn’t be?), Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is yet another showcase for the director’s effortless command of the medium, but its inconsistent tone proved too much to bear. Overall, the film’s approach (a film within a film within a film) keeps it alive, but I couldn’t help but think that had it been played straight, it would have crumbled apart. As one would expect, Almodovar’s usual obsessions are all present and accounted for: sex (usually of the homosexual variety), transvestism, memory, and confronting the demons of the past. Framed as a film noir, Bad Education is delightfully melodramatic; filled with generous helpings of longing, regret, revenge, and passion. The film is literally bursting with Almodovar’s imaginative use of color and camera movement, but I got the impression that he was coasting at times, despite the fact that the subject matter had preoccupied him for nearly two decades. And what of the subject matter? Pedophile priests, heroin-addicted cross-dressers, oral sex performed on the unconscious — it’s all so very Almodovar, but the film elevates its praiseworthy style above and far beyond anything else. In the end, there was a disconnect that wasn’t present for Talk to Her. With a bit of time and even more distance, I’m certain that a second viewing will change my mind. Almodovar’s previous masterpiece is simply too fresh.
This film brought about the most heated debate between me and my wife, other than the time I insisted that I simply had to have a fifth Gyro for lunch. While she hated it from start to finish and would have stormed out had the director not been sitting behind us, I was utterly enchanted, if I may be so bold as to sound even more gay than usual. Starring Joan Allen as a coolly rational scientist, director Sally Potter’s film is told in dialogue that consists entirely of rhyming couplets. Needless to say, such a strategy will either drive viewers to madness, or bring them into the film’s world with unquestioning acceptance. My experience of the latter could just as easily have been the former, as any reaction relies almost exclusively on one’s mood at the time of one’s screening. In other words, had I seen Yes the day before or even three hours later, I might have hated it, but at that exact moment I was prepared to enter its beautiful absurdity. On the surface, the plot is little more than a woman’s affair with a Lebanese immigrant (the story takes place in England), but through the dialogue — between characters, via interior monologues, and directly to the camera — we learn much more. Whether it’s the nature of desire, the essence of existence, or the clash between East and West, I felt at every turn that I was hearing new and inventive expressions of the human condition, given more impact by the unique manner of delivery. Regardless of one’s final position, a great deal of respect must be afforded Ms. Potter, as she has taken the great risk to appear ridiculous. Such ambition, even if it leads to failure, is what drives the cinema forward. Here, though, there is only the wonder of success.
The Merchant of Venice
Michael Radford’s adaptation of the Shakespearean classic was a wonderful way to wrap up the festival, despite Pacino’s absence. Speaking of Pacino, he is spectacular as Shylock, giving him a dignified rage that makes him not only the most tragic, but also sympathetic, character on screen. Not being a Shakespearean scholar on the level of Harold Bloom, I cannot speak to many of the subtexts this play presents, but I feel compelled to comment on the play’s alleged anti-Semitism. The original play may in fact have been antagonistic towards Jews, as Shylock is no doubt intended as a villain. The filmed version provides a prologue that puts into context the treatment of Jews by Christians in 16th century Europe, but outside of that “lesson,” I was simply moved by Shylock’s unfailing logic. He is eventually undone by his rigid adherence to “the letter of the law,” but his initial motivation for revenge seems quite reasonable. Rather than acting as a source of mockery, he is the most complex and fascinating character we meet. As for the film, it is clear that some of Shylock’s relationship with his daughter Jessica has been excised for time, and this may in fact be a weakness (I’d have to read the play to know for certain). Still, I was quite impressed by the production, filled as it was by respectful, yet passionately engaging performances. It usually takes me ten minutes or so to settle in for filmed Shakespeare, but once I did, the rhythm of the language made me once again feel like a beloved member of the family. After several iconoclastic “updates” of the Bard’s work, a return to the “old school” seemed downright revolutionary.
Matt Cale’s Special Ruthless Telluride Ratings:
- Best: Palindromes
- Worst: Gunner Palace
- Missed Screening I Most Regret: Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque
- Why’d You Miss It? Dude, it was like four hours long
- Closest Celebrity Encounter: Eating lunch next to Buck Henry
- Why You Weren’t Impressed What the fuck has he written since The Graduate?
- Something to Cheer: I only had to suffer through one short film
- Something to Jeer: The film itself, the incomprehensible Ryan
- What Made You Mad? Hearing that Palindromes was hissed by a hostile crowd
- What Made You Smile? Overhearing someone in the line for The Merchant of Venice dismiss my wife’s question at Gunner Palace by saying, “Ahh, she’s nuts.”
- Smile, Not Pissed? Remember who I write for. I’d sooner get a letter bomb than a compliment, even if it involves the wife.