Telluride 2017 Diary 2: 'Darkest Hour,' 'The Shape of Water,' 'Hostiles,' 'Land of the Free,' 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'


The weekend is behind us at the 44th Telluride Film Festival. Monday is when we attend the Labor Day picnic at the Town Park, enjoy our BBQ platters while listening to a panel moderated by film historian and Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf and play catch-up with various titles we've missed over the last three days. This year, the schedule of this notoriously short film festival is especially challenging to navigate, with screenings of big titles and hidden gems often conflicting. In any case, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is among the movies I am hoping to catch on the festival’s final day, based on the strong word-of-mouth around Telluride. Everything else will be a welcome bonus. Without further ado, here are some of the films I managed to fit in my schedule since my last dispatch.

In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a feat of exquisite production design (by Paul Austerberry) and visual craftsmanship, we follow the lonely, mute Eliza (heartbreakingly played by Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a government lab facility in 1962 Baltimore. Generously and affectionately tending to her equally isolated neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and finding camaraderie with her caring, observant coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Eliza spends her days in a constant state of longing and sexual desire. One day, she discovers a magical sea creature in a restricted chamber of her lab: a man-like monster (Doug Jones) abused and tortured by the maniacal federal agent Strickland (Michael Shannon as a villain straight out of your worst nightmares) and studied by the kindly doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Both out of curiosity and a kind of irresistible magnetic attraction, Eliza befriends the monster (they share hard-boiled eggs and nostalgic music together). Soon enough, she finds herself in love.

The Shape of Water, not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, is a strange, melancholic, romantic beast that proudly loves film history. (Mild spoiler: You might be put off by sex between a human and a fish-like creature.) But, like any del Toro film, its real magic lies in the metaphors that linger beyond its dreamy, gorgeous surface. The Shape of Water, co-written by Vanessa Taylor (thank heavens for a female co-scribe who understands womanly desires), is a profound, big-hearted story about loneliness. As such, it shares its DNA with myriad other genre films--Beauty and the Beast, King Kong, Splash and many more--that examine the bond between outcasts from different worlds. But unlike its predecessors, The Shape of Water fearlessly engages with sensuality, sex and sexual frustrations (you know, for adults). During the film’s post-screening Q&A with Guillermo del Toro (moderated by his friend Alejandro G. Iñárritu), the director said he wanted to make a film about falling in love with something that’s completely out of the question. He certainly didn’t mince his R-rated words. “In these types of fairytales, they never kiss, and [they] certainly never fuck,” he noted. “The beast turns into a boring prince, and maybe one day they will fuck. I don’t like that shit. Fucking is normal, right? Why can’t we have a proper Douglas Sirk movie about a fishman and a lady?” He continued, “Monsters are my religion. They represent so many things for me, and I wanted to tell a story of otherness.” There is no doubt he accomplished exactly that with flying colors.

In writer-director Scott Cooper’s lyrical, slow-burn 1892 Frontier story Hostiles, co-written by the late Donald Stewart and starring a magnificent, severely intimidating, unassailable Christian Bale (one of this year’s Telluride tributes), we follow Captain Joe Blocker, tasked against his will with transporting a tribe of indigenous people to their new Montana home. Poisoned by prejudice after lifelong battles against the people he considers his enemy, Blocker's attitudes are challenged over the course of his journey. First, he offers protection to the grieving widow Rosalie (Rosamund Pike in one of her career best, most complex roles), whose unimaginable terror we witness during the film’s stunningly gripping opening sequence. On the picturesque, mountainous roads, the cohort faces ruthless challenges, endures violent attacks and hostile weather conditions and inevitably experiences unthinkable losses. Predictably, the aftermath of the harsh journey makes Blocker rethink his misconceptions. A tough, patiently calibrated and gorgeously lit film (lensed by cinematoprapher Masanobu Takayanagi), Hostiles is not for everyone. It will find its most appreciative audience among those who respond to the hard-bitten lyricism and masculinity of films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Still without a distribution home, it is one of the most artful and aching films I have seen during the entire year. Cooper grabs your heart from the very first scene and doesn’t let it go until the film’s ending, which was sufficiently cathartic to prompt a round of applause and cheers from the audience, myself included.

Camilla Magid’s assured debut Land of the Free, a beautifully intimate documentary, joins 13th and The House I Live In as an insightful, eye-opening study of mass incarceration in the United States. But while directors Ava DuVernay and Eugene Jarecki examine the vast landscape and history of this form of modern-day racism and slavery on a broad, detailed canvas, Magid opens a small window into worlds of three Southern California stories, all weighed down and torn apart by imprisonment. The crimes the people we follow range from marijuana smuggling to murder. It’s important to note that Magid neither defends nor condemns her subjects. Instead, she puts a human face on a group of ex-convicts as they try to rebuild their lives, responsibly raise children and find love and intimacy in a cold world where their criminal record shadows them whereverthey go. Filled with humanistic grace notes, the thoughtful Land of the Free encourages empathy without a trace of pity.

Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on a sad, astounding true story. It’s unfortunate, then, that the resulting movie is mostly a letdown--perhaps even insensitive and irresponsible. Written by Matthew Greenhalgh and based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the film follows the relationship between Turner (played by Jamie Bell) and the legendary, Oscar-winning movie star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening, sublime in conveying Grahame’s vulnerability and second-wind excitement once she falls for Turner) across London, Liverpool, LA and New York in the '70s. Trying to rekindle her once-upon-a-time glory on the British stage, Grahame meets Turner at a boarding house, and the two fall for each other almost immediately. When Grahame becomes ill one day, Turner’s close-knit family (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) takes her in and lovingly cares for her. I found myself wondering if Grahame would have wanted a film that often pities her by portraying her as a sad, washed-up figure (not unlike Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond) who temporarily finds life in a new romantic relationship. Like My Week With Marilyn, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool comes from a male place I somehow couldn’t feel comfortable in.

British filmmaker Joe Wright might not be a name many think of when talking about visionary silver-screen storytellers, but as the director of the pitch-perfect World War II melodrama Atonement (its one-take Dunkirk sequence is simply a wonder), the memorably theater-esque Anna Karenina and the wildly inventive, pulsating female-driven adventure Hanna, he certainly deserves to be considered in that crop. His perfect latest, the explosive, impressively orchestrated and heavily dialogue-driven Darkest Hour, comes at a strange and perhaps fortuitous time: It's the third 2017 film, after Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, to tackle the rescue of Allied soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. Wright’s film is just the right addition to the group. Fast, thought-provoking and unexpectedly witty, Darkest Hour chronicles the early weeks of Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany. As the newly appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, who disappears into the role) is naturally at the center of the film, trying to carve out both his spot at his new post and Britain’s future in the war. His closest allies are his tough, no-nonsense wife (Kristin Scott Thomas, superb) and a competent assistant who types Churchill’s speeches (Cinderella’s Lily James, convincing). A non-stop procedural and a detailed chamber piece written by Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour will understandably draw comparisons to Spielberg’s Lincoln. And a (not so) bold prediction: It will win Gary Oldman (nominated previously for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) his well-deserved first Oscar.