Studio bosses are scratching their heads wondering why profits are plummeting this year and attendance is eroding. The answer is simple: it’s the movies, stupid. So in what has got to be one of the most appallingly awful years for movies in recent memory, the organizers of the Telluride Film Festival have accomplished a near miracle: they’ve been able to pull off the coup of putting together one of the most diverse and compelling slates of films to unspool anywhere in a year of otherwise vacuous and insipid fare. “Battlefield: Earth,” anyone?
Combining the usual brilliant retrospectives (the sensational “Seven Men from Now,” an incomprehensibly overlooked western classic with Lee Marvin and Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher, slayed the audience), silent films (the moving William Wyler feature, “Hell’s Heroes” (a/k/a “Three Kings and a Baby”), about three outlaws who end up saving a baby in the desert, and a new print of “Nosferatu” to the accompaniment of Telluride regulars The Alloy Orchestra) and some of the year’s most interesting independent and foreign fare.
Willem Dafoe showed up to tubthump his new film, [ “Shadow of the Vampire” ](***), which has the brilliant conceit of postulating if director F.W. Murnau only told people that an actor named Max Schreck was starring in “Nosferatu” when in actuality the truth was somewhat more sinister. “Begotten” director E. Elias Merhige starts with this inspired premise and it’s all downhill from there. Dafoe is sensational as Nosferatu, er, Schreck, but the film never really surprises from there and plays out in a fairly traditional way. Lion’s Gate no doubt hopes to capture the same lightening in a bottle as it did with “Gods and Monsters,” but “Shadow of the Vampire” never transcends its own clever high concept and lacks the former’s heart and metaphorical depth.
Phillip Kaufman’s latest film which is a fanciful extrapolation on the real life of the Marquis de Sade, [ “Quills” ] (***), is an intriguingly cerebral exercise which has almost as much to say about the nature of censorship as it does moral hypocrisy. For a period piece, it’s surprisingly contemporary. Michael Caine is at his sinister best as a Kenneth Starr-like persecutor who makes the Marquis himself look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. At times, sexy and sinister, the film bogs down towards the end and thinks it’s a little too clever for its own good, but it’s another wonderfully ambitious attempt by Kaufman to transcend the conventions of yet another genre for him. “Quills” is among the best of Geoffrey Rush’s and Kate Winslet’s many fine performances as well.
Oh, and guess what? The best “Star Wars” film since “The Empire Strikes Back” is here…and it’s directed by Ang Lee, one of this year’s Telluride Silver Medallion honorees. A gem which puts “The Phantom Menace” to shame, [ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ] (****), features Chow Yun Fat as, for all intents and purposes, Qui-Gon Jinn, a self-aware warrior. The film features the most remarkable and balletic action sequences put on celluloid since “The Matrix”. This may very well turn out to be the best, most spectacular – and most enjoyable movie – of the year. Equally animated as fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping’s incredible action sequences was the documentary [ “Chuck Jones: Extremes and In Between” ] (***), a delightful and snarky look at the life at innovative animator Chuck Jones which showcases a coterie of Hollywood heavyweights along with Jones himself tumelling in top form.
On the heels of last year’s Telluride fave, “The Girl on the Bridge” (***1/2), endearing director Patrice Laconte returned to Telluride with the exquisite [ “Widow of Saint Pierre” ] (***1/2) and noted in broken English, “You may think I’m the only director in France. I assure you, there are four or five others.” Despite his tongue being planted firmly in his crème brulee, I must wonder if there’s a little truth here that Lancote is the only one that matters as “Saint Pierre” showcases Laconte as a first-rate visual craftsmen who tackles his themes with amazing perspicuity and ironic detachment.
[ “Dinner Rush” ] (***) is a slight, but delightful confection from commercial maestro Bob Giraldi, in which Danny Aiello must come to terms with the gangland slaying of his partner in a trendy New York restaurant while also confronting his son’s aversion to traditional Italian cooking – giving him an almost equal amount of grief. Frenetic, witty, well acted and assuredly directed, “Dinner Rush” marks the beginning of the second phase of what will no doubt be an impressive directing career for Giraldi. As for [ “Chinese Coffee” ] (**), directed by Screamin’ Al Pacino, one of my favorite actors of all-time, all I can say is he shouldn’t quit his day job.
[ “Forever Mine” ] (*) is an unintentional laughfest from director/writer Paul Schrader who pays lip service to making a film in the tradition of Douglas Sirk which is the most ridiculous assertion of all given its chock full of gratuitous bloodletting, Gretchen Moll’s lovely, and frequently displayed, nipples and Roy Liotta’s unrestrained smirking. A far more accomplished look at the nature of the inexorable pull and sacrifice of true love is Paul Cox’s [ “Innocence” ] (***1/2), a gorgeously shot, poignant and extremely incisive look at the reunion of two lovers in their mid 70’s who pick up where they left off nearly fifty years after they first fell in love. Not just for the septuagenarian set, “Innocence” is amazingly relevant and vital to audiences of all ages. And speaking of carnal knowledge, [ “Better than Sex” ] (**1/2) is a more pedestrian romance set among late twentysomethings featuring two amiable performances from David Wenham and Susie Porter. Director Jonathan Teplitzky apparently has a lot on his mind, but not much to say. It’s a perfectly agreeable drama with some highly charged sexual gymnastics and some low-wattage plot twists, but the surprises are few and far between. We’ve just tread this ground one too many times, but are no worse for wear by the time it’s over.
So leave it to 80+ character actor Norman Lloyd to steal the show. A raconteur of the first order, Lloyd had enough amazing anecdotes about working with Chaplain, Welles, Hitchcock and Renoir to fill the entire three day weekend although he was confined to only a few hours. Lloyd was one of those classic Telluride surprises at a festival whose charms never cease to impress – although I had to stifle laughter when one of the rare, but abhored, autograph seekers came up to him with a copy of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode which he guest starred in, prompting the genial actor to blurt out, “I get more fan mail about this mediocrity than anything I’ve ever done.” Sad, but true. Hitchcock…Welles…Chaplain…Renoir…Jean-Luc Picard. Thank God, for Telluride!
[ MARK A. ALTMAN ] is a former entertainment journalist and film critic. He is currently a writer/producer in Hollywood. The Specials, starring Rob Lowe and Jamie Kennedy, which Mr. Altman produced, will be released in theaters September 22nd.