Telluride Diary 1: 'La La Land' steals the show, 'Sully' underwhelms


Are you ready to put a lifeless summer at the movies behind you? You'd better be, as Venice-Telluride-Toronto, the trifecta of richly programmed fall film festivals, has already kicked off, with the former two well underway. And once again, many mouthwatering films that are about to mark an exciting stretch of time at the movies are in store for filmgoers everywhere. For the fourth year in a row, I am on the ground in a breathtaking mountain town in The Rockies called Telluride, to sample and report on some of this year’s crème de la crème cinematic offerings early on.

Now in its 43rd year with another stellar lineup of films (kept “secret” until the last minute as per tradition), Telluride remains one of the most unique and singular film festival experiences in the world. Imagine you’re at a weekend-long picnic, surrounded by breathtakingly picturesque scenery, while the likes of Tom Hanks and Isabelle Huppert casually stroll by, as you walk past Ed Lachman enjoying his lunch under the sun. And hey, there is Kenneth Lonergan right across, window-shopping on W. Colorado Avenue. This is more or less a sketch of this laid-back film festival, where there are no premieres, red carpets or competition, yet where seven out of eight most recent Best Picture Oscar winners have screened.

So, let’s do this! Let's see some movies!

One of this year’s most anticipated titles was without a doubt La La Land, directed by Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Following the press orientation meeting at the Sheridan Opera House, where festival co-directors Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy gave an overview of the program and accepted questions, we all headed to the long gondola line for the 2:30 pm patron and press private screening at the Chuck Jones Theater in Mountain Village. Aptly and fortunately, this spot was taken by Chazelle’s magical dream-work (with Chazelle and the film's star Emma Stone in attendance), the exuberant reviews of which have been dropping ever since its Venice opening-night premiere screening just a few days ago. “Believe the hype,” as they say. La La Land is indeed extraordinary. It's an aching romance, a gorgeously shot and choreographed musical that nods to Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain. And above all, it’s a heartbreaking story of love getting in the way of dreams and vice versa for two people who are right for each other, if only they hadn’t met at the wrong time. Her name is Mia (Emma Stone, exceptional), a starlet with big dreams. His name is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, instantly disarming), a jazz pianist and a musical purist, with a shared DNA on that regard with Whiplash’s Andrew (Miles Teller). They resist, but love does its trick…until it takes its toll and runs its course while the two hungry artists crazy for each other starve for a different kind of fulfillment, not necessarily compatible with their togetherness. From its stunning opening number shot in Los Angeles traffic (you will wonder for a long time how they pulled it off) to its end montage that could just rip your heart out (like it did mine), La La Land is the kind of work that will sweep you off your feet and earn your frequent tears of joy. Whiplash editor Tom Cross applies his upbeat stamp here too, alternating between longer scenes and punchy cuts. Linus Sandgren’s photography paints the film with warm, vibrant colors that gently tickle one’s soul, while Justin Hurwitz’s music (with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) induces a melancholic longing. Writer/director Chazelle is one exciting, brazen, transporting talent, who reminds us cinema (like jazz, as spelled out in the film by a character played by John Legend) can be informed by the past and take a revolutionary future form through its roots.

La La Land’s Mia and Seb weren’t the only couple in today’s films who were at odds with their circumstances. In fact, the first day of the festival was marked by fragile relationships and distressed characters shattered by dreams, tragedy or simply the damaging passage of time. Mia Hansen-Løve’s exquisitely intricate and intellectually nourishing Things to Come (which premiered at the Berlinale in February and I recently watched in New York) follows philosophy professor Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), as she reshuffles her life after an unexpected separation from her husband. Following her outstanding Eden, insightful filmmaker Hansen-Løve proves once again that she is one of the best international writer/directors working today. Like her films that came before it (especially The Father of My Children), Things to Come is a masterfully structured story that forms around a number of crises appearing in a person’s life simultaneously. And as Nathalie tackles each facet of her life with wisdom and grace, Hansen-Løve never drops the ball on honoring this rich, beautiful character.

Kenneth Lonergan’s critically lauded Manchester by the Sea was another one of today’s offerings that involves a broken-down character as well as a separated couple, this time ripped apart by a tragedy and resulting grief (read my Sundance rave here.) As one of this year’s tribute honorees at Telluride (Amy Adams and Pablo Larrain being the other two), Casey Affleck (playing the film's central character) had an extended conversation in front of an eager audience, which was followed by a screening of the film, one of this year’s awards season hopefuls. Writer/director Robin Swicord’s Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner starrer Wakefield, one of this year’s lesser-known/off-the-radar offerings, follows Howard Wakefield (Cranston), a family man who hides in his garage’s attic and lives a life of self-banishment following a nervous breakdown. Despite all her efforts, his wife Diana (Garner) fails to locate him and a strange film filled with surveillance-type shots and plenty of voiceover (that pretty much overtakes the entire running time) reveals itself. Wakefield is adapted from a New Yorker story written by E. L. Doctorow, and is clearly a source of pride for both Swicord and Garner, who were present at the screening. (Cranston, arriving tomorrow, was a notable absentee.) “Hope you enjoy our strange marriage,” said Garner, after gushing over her first Telluride experience and the freedom of a casual wardrobe with no makeup or Spanx requirement. Sadly, the film was a letdown for me. This could have been intriguing to adapt as a short, but a feature-length film completely driven by Cranston’s bitter monologues overstayed its welcome fast.

One of today’s heavy-hitters was surely Clint Eastwood’s Sully, starring Tom Hanks in the role of Chesley Sullenberger; a modern-day American hero (a familiar subject for Eastwood) who successfully landed a US Airways plane in the Hudson River and saved the lives of all 155 people on board. The film bowed for the first time at Telluride’s largest venue (Werner Herzog) with several empty seats and earned more of a cold admiration than enthusiasm from the audience. Todd Komarnicki’s script is limited in character insights and sports a largely fragmented, questionable structure that doesn’t allow the viewer to have much of an emotional response. Eastwood successfully re-creates the jaw-dropping Hudson landing, scenes that are sufficiently distressing to watch. But in taking a stab at profiling the character’s inner workings in the midst of a hearing that questions Sully’s competence and decision-making accuracy, he returns empty-handed. Hanks doesn’t necessarily have much to do here (the amount of material he’s handed is something he can handle in his sleep), and neither does Laura Linney in the role of Sully’s wife Lorraine, whose sole presence in the story is through a series of phone conversations with her husband. His political mishaps aside, Eastwood remains one of my favorite filmmakers. But his signature perceptiveness doesn’t save Sully, which fundamentally lacks drama and doesn’t bother with digging into any of the characters further. 

Now, onto the weekend, where Benedict Andrews’ Una, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and the Amy Adams tribute (with a screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival) await. But from the looks of it, not Sydney Pollack’s controversial Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace. It was pulled from last year’s program at the last minute, and sadly, it faces the same fate this year. Yet again.