Down From the Mountain

A writer braves treacherous weather, high altitudes, and long lines to reach that mother lode of cinema, Telluride.

The Telluride Film Festival was a place of peril this year. The 2,500 or so film pilgrims braved blistering sun, biblical rain, a freak snowstorm that frosted the peaks ridiculously prettily, a Dumpster-diving bear that roamed the streets by night, and a crazed fan resembling Santa Claus who kicked things and abused ticket takers until he was finally nabbed. Plus, Harrison Ford was there, and considering how irritable he can be at sea level, who knew what would happen if he got a 10,000-foot altitude headache from one of those famous five-shot mojitos at Honga's Lotus Petal Restaurant?

It was all worth it. I can't remember a more consistently stimulating festival. Even movies that were practically guaranteed to be ghastly—a no-budget first film shot by a director named Nimrod in the subways of Hungary, anyone?—turned out to be a gas, and even the occasional failures were ambitious and honorable.

TELLURIDE'S MOST buzzed-aboutpicture was Sally Potter's Yes, with Joan Allen as a scientist going overeducated head over heels for a Lebanese surgeon–turned– immigrant kitchen worker (Simon Abkarian, the haunted Gorky of Atom Egoyan's Ararat). Unlike Potter's intriguing oddity Orlando, this is a stunning epic about a grand passion whose volcanic eruptions cast a lurid light on the collision of male and female, Muslim and American. And almost all of it is in rhyming couplets! At times playfully reminiscent of Vikram Seth's verse novel The Golden Gate, which Potter knows of but apparently wasn't influenced by, Yes sounds its deepest notes in heartbreaking scenes of lost connections. It's uneven, but you haven't seen anything like it.

Better still is Annette Bening's comeback smash Being Julia, about a high-strung and very actressy actress' big comeback on the London stage in the '30s. Working from a Somerset Maugham story, Istvan Szabo (Mephisto) gives us a theater period piece to match Topsy Turvy. Bening's talent has always been too stagey for her own movie-star good, and getting a bit older and a lot richer threatened to take her from us. What she needed was precisely this, a romping drama about a vain theater dame of a certain age who falls for a social climber half her age—an American!

When she gets overtaken by a nubile Eve Harrington–like rival, you think it can't get any better, until the old bat gets even by force of sheer talent and bad behavior. As her apparently (but misleadingly) sexless husband, Jeremy Irons has never been more dazzlingly the Debonair Wimp, and the bright young things are tastily nasty.

Johnny Depp does touching work as Peter Pan's creator, J.M. Barrie, in the festival's other period-theater-piece hit, Finding Neverland (due Nov. 12), abetted by Kate Winslet as the frail mother of the real-life lost boys Barrie immortalized, and by the astoundingly lovely, steely Julie Christie as Kate's crusty mother. The film is glossy, classy, handsome, intelligent, and moving; but it moves slowly, and doesn't give Depp much chance to soar. It's not stagey enough.

Telluride gave you a choice of Laura Linney flicks. In P.S. (Oct. 15), a crude yet fitfully entertaining soap-opera fantasy, she's a Columbia art-school admissions officer who admits a hunky boy artist—and not just into Columbia. That '70s Show's Topher Grace is good at pumping irony, and he's a good enough match for Linney in her tense, fidgety neurotic mode. Much of the film romps along all right, until the plot crashes into a swamp of loose ends and improbable ideas that were stupid in the first place.

Infinitely better, though flawed and clunky in places, is Kinsey (Nov. 12), Bill (Gods and Monsters) Condon's biopic about the, um, seminal sex researcher. Linney and Liam Neeson were fresh from starring as man and wife on Broadway in The Crucible, so they're wonderful at plunging into the sizzling crucible that was the Kinseys' marriage and career. It's not very groin raising, but definitely eyebrow raising, with remarkably explicit (if clinical) sex scenes for an R-rated movie, and an astounding tale to tell. Kinsey was a bland, sobersided Republican nerd biologist whose interviews with ordinary Americans blew open the Pandora's box of the sexual revolution. He was also a bisexual wife swapper who felt obligated to try out some of his interviewees' more outré practices on himself. The same intense blankness of personality that made Neeson ideal as Schindler qualifies him to be Kinsey, and Linney does the same thing Mrs. K. did: She warms and humanizes him. "It's already been called a 'Sicko Flicko' by Fox News," Condon told the audience of Kinsey. "Ironic, since it's being released by Fox Searchlight. So Rupert Murdoch covers all sides of the debate." And pockets all profits.

A fierier debate may be ignited by Seattle-area filmmaker Michael Tucker's documentary Gunner Palace, an amazingly intimate look at the life of the U.S. soldiers camped out in Uday Hussein's bombed-out palace: fishing in his still-stocked trout pond, sunning by his pool, going on patrol, getting murdered by Iraqis, doing Cops-style break-ins to hunt for insurgents. "This unit was very exceptional," said Tucker, "because they let [us] accompany them on any missions, [even] an interrogation. I don't think there's anybody who has anything close to that." His film brings you truths you won't be seeing on Fox News, nor probably even on real network news. The grunts pour out their hearts in rap, defy death, and roll on the desert street laughing at the farcically life-endangering truck armor that numbskull Rumsfeld provided them with. Meanwhile, Tucker reports, "You see civilian contractors driving around in $250,000 Mercedes G wagons." Avowedly apolitical, Tucker views his film as "a Trojan horse" to get the average, support-our-troops American to think realistically about the war.

Oscar nominee Jan Hrebejk's Up and Down is about another war, between average Czech citizens and the indigent immigrants from the East, and the eternal war between husband and wife and father and son, especially when complicated by the Iron Curtain's collapse. It's a wonderful picture, mordantly funny and unexploitatively sad.

On the heels of his Hero comes yet another Zhang Yimou martial-arts movie that could hit No. 1 in America around Christmastime: House of Flying Daggers. I'm torn as to whether it's better than Hero, though. It's far more coherent, focusing on a young couple instead of a pack of assassins in a tale that keeps getting retold. It's basically one long, sensational chase scene, and the acrobatic action boasts eye-popping new tricks— including Zhang Ziyi flinging her silken sleeves and her own Olympics-worthy body around a palatial room against a circle of huge, resonant drums. But Hero probably has the edge in sheer rainbow gorgeousness; and for a Westerner, the finale of Daggers is too much like watching a Victorian ham actor dying onstage, then staggering up to declaim some more, over and over. (In China, though, I'm told it kills.)

If you haven't read Ian McEwan's searing novel Enduring Love, you'll likely swoon for Roger Michell's adaptation (due Oct. 29), starring Daniel Craig, the craggy (if shortish) Ted Hughes of Sylvia, Rhys Ifans as his deranged stalker, and Samantha Morton as his traumatized wife. It's a tour de force of sensitive acting, and the action isn't bad, either. The only problem is that the book is a philosophical drama and a largely epistolary novel. Michell cleverly adds characters to stage some of the smart arguments, but the hard fact is, movies aren't as smart as books. There was a star-studded Telluride panel that posed the question: Can film adaptations be better than the books that originated them? Not this one.

As for that Hungarian subway movie I mentioned, Nimrod Antal's Kontroll, it's the kind of debut that gives you faith in moviemaking humanity. Antal's gang of ticket takers face scarier customers than anyone who ever got turned away from a sold-out Telluride screening, and with more rude brio than the junkies in Trainspotting. Mildly gory high jinks alternate with genuinely interesting existential paradoxes, mortal footraces down dank tunnels, and visions of a beauty in a big bear suit. Everything in their subterranean world is out of control, but the young director is in absolute control. In a vintage Telluride year, Antal may have been the bubbliest talent.

tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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