Telluride Dispatch 2: 'Steve Jobs,' 'Room' and 'Spotlight' put awards season in high gear

ScreenerBlog

Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs has finally arrived and the conversation around it has been heating up the chilly streets of Telluride since yesterday night. But before Sorkin's signature and unmistakable fiery dialogue overtook the chatter among journalists and festival-goers, the fest's Saturday programming introduced and re-screened several other noteworthy titles, turning the day into a marathon of majors. It is a recurring complaint of the festival-goers that there is never enough time to see everything here in Telluride, or a sound way to make decisions in advance to form a balanced schedule that includes both the hot tickets and smaller, quieter films. And Saturday was no exception to this rule, with a schedule designed to challenge one on a daily basis with clashing titles and events. How could one possibly choose between the Rooney Mara tribute along with a screening of Todd Haynes' Carol, Kent Jones' documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight and Lenny Abrahamson's Room?

Trusting the great word of mouth from Friday, I chose to start my day with Room (spoilers ahead), one of the movies that elevated the awards season conversation among prognosticators. Room is adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel with the same title. And while Lenny Abrahamson's smart direction—especially in the first half when he works around a confined space—is a major force, this is more a writer's film through a story that finds big ideas around life and parenthood in small spaces. Room, at its core, is a domestic drama about the intricacies, delicacies and nightmares of raising a child and creating safe zones against the fear of the world outside. Yet in its first half, it can more accurately be defined as a psychological thriller. We get introduced to the world of a mother—Ma (Brie Larson)—and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in a tiny, claustrophobic space with a skylight. And soon enough, we learn that they are captives of a man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) and Jack, having been born in the room, has never been outside of it before. Thus, Ma makes up stories to keep his mind intact, trying to maintain a sense of freedom in his imprisoned world. As the story reveals more of Ma's history and how she ended up in the room in the first place, the horror grows—especially when she decides Jack is old enough to face the facts and help them escape their captivity. No longer having the safety of lies—such as "There is no world outside of the room," or "Nothing you see in books or on TV is real"—Jack resists at first, but once onboard, helps them escape Old Nick in a heart-throbbing, frightening sequence that the child actor Tremblay (a phenomenal breakthrough) aces with conviction. And at this point, Donoghue's story surprises us with a second half that adds another layer of a parent-child story with the introduction of Joan Allen as Ma's mother. The film might lose some at this stage as the "thriller" aspect first takes a backseat, and then departs the story; yet it won me over even more. Donoghue's complex script throws an incredible challenge to its lead actress Brie Larson, who goes from a mother to someone's daughter with ease, while shuffling through metaphors of parenthood with grace. Room is a forceful film with stunning performances from Larson (who's finally and thankfully given a role to match her caliber after Short Term 12), Joan Allen and Jacob Tremblay—all greeted with a big standing ovation post-screening. Nominations for all three actors, as well as writer Donoghue, shouldn't be too much of a stretch to predict (or hope for) at this point.

My next stop was Laurie Anderson's lovely, poetic documentary Heart of A Dog, a truly personal project that defies categorization. Partly a poem and partly a meditation, the experimental artist's film left me with a feeling of coziness—the kind that lingers when you're wrapped up in a warm blanket with your pooch and a good book. Heart of A Dog is a generous gift from Anderson, in which she conveys her love of her now-deceased dog with the backdrop of New York City. A profound sense of loss is written all over her 76-minute exploration, yet she makes sure the audience leaves with a dose of hope as she celebrates life (and, again, her love of her dog) in deeply sincere and at times humorous ways. Anderson's doc's next stops will be the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals before its limited release later in October.

After this much-needed meditation, I ran to the screening of the Tom McCarthy-directed Spotlight, an investigative journalism procedural of the highest order, and so far one of the best films I've seen in Telluride. Films like Spotlight—meaning, polished political slow-burns carried by an all-star ensemble, the kind Hollywood used to make—are a rare breed these days, as McCarthy also voiced during the film's introduction. Following the true story of a group of Boston Globe journalists who blew the lid off systemic child molestation within the Catholic Church in 2002, Spotlight plays like Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (an inevitable comparison), as the players follow a meticulous process of research, using journalistic instincts and savvy, street-smart skills along the way. Watching Spotlight today—when successful journalism online is increasingly and falsely interpreted as driving clicks, positioning rumors as facts and making up attractive listicles—is fascinating and nostalgic in equal measure. It's a marvel to see a group of passionate reporters take on a painstaking task and move the needle little by little towards a story that can make an immediate difference, driven not just by being "the first" but being "complete and thorough." Performances from Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber (uncharacteristically quiet) and Mark Ruffalo are all around top-notch. During the post-screening Q&A, where McAdams, Keaton and McCarthy were in attendance, the actors talked about the lengthy time they spent with the real-life characters they were portraying (Sacha Pfeiffer and Walter Robinson), and noted their generosity around the information and help they were willing to provide. "She was an open book," said McAdams regarding Pfeiffer. "She did her work with honor and grace." Spotlight isn't an explosive film; it's instead patient, talky and cumulatively engrossing. It might leave some cold, but the film (hopefully) could have legs in the awards season in major categories, including picture, director and script.

The day's final screening on my schedule was surely its most anticipated. While many (including the cast) attended the Steve Jobs screening alongside a Danny Boyle tribute over at The Palm, I stayed at the Galaxy Theater to watch the film (convenient, as Spotlight was also screened in the same venue earlier) and spotted several critics and writers who made the same choice. By the time we were seated, we were all soaked thanks to an intense rain and a long line, which many were (reportedly) turned away from. But none of it mattered once perhaps the most Sorkin-esque of all Sorkin scripts took over the screen. With the risk of throwing a hyperbole out there that I might spend the following six months defending, let me just say this is up there with Sorkin's best work in film to date. Yes, it's even better than the brilliant The Social Network. The script is simply phenomenal, with no moment to breathe out with relief. Presented as a work-in-progress (it should be locked by its NYFF screening in October), Steve Jobs is virtuosic filmmaking from start to finish, with purposefully bold camera angles, risky creative choices that pay off (such as the initial grainy look of the film that sharpens in increments as Jobs' innovations and personality advance before our eyes), crackerjack editing by Elliot Graham and a stellar, memorable score by Daniel Pemberton that hints of the Reznor/Ross-composed score of The Social Network briefly before fully delving into its own ideas. Based on Walter Isaacson's biography and structured as a three-act play, Steve Jobs chronicles three key moments (three product launches) in the genius' life that defined his career as well as his larger-than-life personality: Macintosh computer in 1984, Next in 1988 and iMac in 1998; which is undoubtedly the start of his popular legacy. Each segment takes places only moments away from one of these launches (imagine Birdman, or more accurately, the GoodFellas helicopter/marinara sauce scene with brainy talk, multiplied by three), as Jobs walks and talks and exchanges ideas through long takes, and finds himself in heated arguments with a number of people crucial in his life. The marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet, one of her career bests and perhaps the greatest asset of the film), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels),  Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and his daughter Lisa (played by Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss and Perla Haney-Jardine at different ages) are all present during the crises and seek their rightful stakes in Jobs' life in each of the 40 minutes leading up to the launches. Sorkin imagines many of the exchanges naturally and injects smart fiction into the script to further the reality. As he clarified in Sunday morning's free talk (where he was joined by Winslet, Rogen and Danny Boyle), Steve Jobs isn't a work of journalism. He defined it as a painting, rather than a photograph. At its core is a father-daughter story that humanizes a man often portrayed as an impossible-to-work-with asshole in media (hint: Boyle's film doesn't glorify him either), which helps ground the film's sometimes overwhelmingly fast dialogue as the characters continually confront each other.

Michael Fassbender—despite not looking anything like Jobs—delivers exceptional work, made even better with the performance of Kate Winslet, who balances Jobs' authority with her character's unapologetic assuredness and delicate nuance. In this morning's talk, Winslet said Joanna Hoffman might be the only person in his circle who doesn't expect anything from Jobs apart from being the most decent person he can be, and doing the right thing. "And she is not scared of him, and she truly loves him," said Winslet. The decisive finale of the film (which is already driving much criticism) opts to induce an aura of likability in Jobs, a choice that's perhaps too tidy and convenient for a film of this nature. Yet it doesn't hurt Steve Jobs' overall complexity and its fair portrayal of a deeply flawed genius. We will be talking about this film for a long time, after repeated viewings, all the way through and way beyond the ashes of the upcoming awards season.