Sunday, October 01, 2006

of any piece about the annual Telluride Film Festival is a reference to the altitude -- 8,725 ft. for the several movie venues on the streets of this old mining town, 9,545 ft. for one theater at the top of a gondola ride. Equally important, though, is attitude -- what a movie lover brings to the festival, and takes away from it.

Attitude brought this year: The long-term prospects for movies as we know them are uncertain. The mainstream movie business, having lost its memory, heart and much of its mind, is in danger of losing its audience, while independent production is struggling for its life.

Attitude taken away: The long-term prospects for movies as we know them are uncertain. Yet fine features and documentaries are still getting made, actors can be sorcerers, the heritage of our film culture is rich and the movie medium retains its singular power to excite, inform and delight us.

The most powerful sorcerer's spell was cast by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in "The Last King Of Scotland." The movie itself, a first feature by Kevin Macdonald, is remarkable for its verve and density of detail. But Mr. Whitaker's portrait of the mad Ugandan dictator is enormous, mercurial, terrifying and endlessly seductive. More simply put, it's one of the great performances of modern movie history.

"The Lives of Others," a political thriller from Germany, is also a first feature, though that's hard to believe. The writer-director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has managed to illuminate one of the darkest corners of East Germany's history -- the activities of the Stasi, the secret police -- with a dramatist's zest for complexity, and a showman's instinct for a terrific tale. The story is as timely as it is timeless, since it's all about eavesdropping and surveillance. My only problem with this brilliant film is that I'll have to wait so long to write more about it; the national release isn't until February.

The Telluride Film Festival prides itself on connecting a loyal audience with undiscovered or forgotten treasures of the cinema's early days, along with the new or notably novel. This year's program included Paul Fejös's "Lonesome," an outwardly simple, lyrically human evocation of big-city life, made in 1928, in which a young man and young woman find and then lose one another. The French filmmaker J.P. Gorin presented three landmark narrative features by Jean Grémillon. One of them, the 1943 morality tale "Lumière d'été" (Summer Light), evoked Jean Renoir's peerless "The Rules Of the Game" with its mordant criticism of France's haute bourgeoisie, and its climactic masked ball. (Grémillon, like Kevin Macdonald, came to feature films from making documentaries, and the dramatic elements of "Lumière d'été," like those of "The Last King of Scotland" six decades later, are all the stronger for being grounded in the real world.)

Simplicity, humanity and curiosity about contemporary life are desperately lacking in the movies that currently fill the multiplexes. Yet those are the qualities that lent distinction to Telluride premieres both big and small. Mira Nair, the Indian director of "Monsoon Wedding," showed her new film, "The Namesake," and it is a glory on a huge, colorful canvas. This dramatization of the immigrant experience -- from India to America and then back again -- is strikingly original (even though the technique is conventional), heartfelt, superbly acted and profoundly satisfying. A Russian drama called "The Italian" was made on a much more modest scale, though it's still affecting in its almost-but-not-quite-sentimental account of a six-year-old orphan's quest for the mother who abandoned him.

Good Idea

A shortish word of praise is in order for a short called "Carmichael & Shane," which showed on the same bill with "The Russian." The co-directors, Alex Weinress and Rob Carlton, claim to have made their 5-minute-long mockumentary on a budget of $20, with a garden-variety camcorder and editing software on a personal computer. Even if the filmmakers have inflated their budget to make their film sound important, "Carmichael & Shane" -- a hilariously twisted treatise on child-raising -- stands as proof of what everyone knows and many forget: Good entertainment starts with a good idea.

I'm glad I missed a screening of Jacques Tati's 1967 "Playtime" in its original 70 mm format -- not because the experimental film isn't intriguing (I'd seen it before, in the same fullness of its wide-screenness), but because the screening was disrupted by the wide-sprayed stench of a skunk that had been lurking in the darkened theater.

I'm glad I didn't miss a tribute to Penelope Cruz, a vividly gifted Spanish actress who used to live in Telluride with Tom Cruise. He was nowhere in sight -- neither in town nor in her tribute reel, which wisely omitted any clips from his "Vanilla Sky," one of her several misadventures in English-language films. Ms. Cruz speaks English fluently. The most important thing for her work, she told an enchanted audience, was "staying in the game and learning." Still, she is most fully herself in her native Spanish. This was demonstrated yet again by her work in Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver," a lovely film, populated almost entirely by women, in which she shines as a force of nature breaking free from a culture of death.

Lifeless 'Fur'

Lest I lead you to believe that Telluride was pure pleasure, the festival had its share of stinkers, below and beyond the furry, four-legged guy that plagued "Playtime." Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. did what they could with their starring roles in a film called "Fur," a surreal take on the life of the photographer Diane Arbus, but the film's beauty-and-the-beast conceit is as lifeless as it is pretentious.

By contrast, "Babel," which was directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu from a script by Guillermo Arriaga, has energy to burn, and a stylistic elegance that sustains itself through 142 minutes of explosive action, a surfeit of ideas and an intricate triptych of a plot turning on a single moment of random violence. That's not to say that this feature, from the same filmmakers who gave us the phenomenal "Amores Perros," as well as "21 Grams," is an unmixed blessing. I was in and out of its narrative stream, sometimes feeling enthralled, and sometimes feeling manipulated quite shamelessly, albeit cleverly.

Charismatic Kisses

Two kisses in two very different films titillated, or possibly exhilarated, Telluride's movie-smitten throngs. One film was "Infamous," Douglas McGrath's problematic though certainly interesting dramatization of the same events covered in last year's "Capote." This time around Truman is played, with wonderfully weird brio, by the English actor Toby Jones, while the killer Perry Smith is played -- extremely well -- by another Englishman, Daniel Craig. Truman and Perry are kisser and kissee, which raises the question, among others, of how audiences may greet Mr. Craig when they see him as James Bond in the forthcoming "Casino Royal." (Warmly, one would hope; he's a splendid actor, whatever the role.)

The other film was "Venus," a witty and endearing comedy, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, with Peter O'Toole as an aged but valiant actor named Maurice, and Leslie Philips as his equally creaky old mate. The kiss in this case is bestowed by Maurice on the raffish Venus of the piece, a teen-age working girl played by Jodie Whittaker. Young enough to be Maurice's great-granddaughter, she has aroused in the old coot a twilight surge of erotic longing. O'Toole's performance is tough-minded, funny and meltingly tender. "Venus" is a nosegay to acting, and to not acting one's age.

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