Telluride Film Festival: ‘La La Land,’ ‘Toni Erdmann’ and ‘Arrival’

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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3showingsFor those who’ve never attended a film festival or who wonder what other types of films will be playing next to yours when you get your film accepted, here’s a collection of three mini reviews of films that played alongside each other at the Telluride Film Festival this year. The eclectic mix and diversity of quality will vary at any particular film festival, even the same festival from year to year. But this should give you a good feel for what the audience might experience before or after reaching the theater for your film.

La La Land (Summit Entertainment)

For those who will get the reference (and the compliment meant by it) imagine a modern 20-something Peter Greenaway decided to make a musical. Academy Award® nominee (Whiplash 2014) Writer/director Damien Chazelle has constructed the seemingly impossible, bridging between the classic, movie musical with modernist storytelling and visual techniques with his latest film La La Land. Like a grooving jazz quartet, the film shifts mood nearly effortlessly when another instrument takes the lead, swaying from the grand, broad scope of traditional musical retold with today’s sensibilities, to an intimate dramatic interplay between two souls trying to find their way to their dreams against modern day obstacles.

photo courtesy Summit Entertainment

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND, photo courtesy Summit Entertainment

Using distinctive color, realistic and dream like settings, varying camera style and lighting, Chazelle is able to pull off the intricate dance between moods well in this genre. As Chazelle puts it, “I think the musical as a genre is a great vehicle for expressing that balancing act between dreams and reality.”

As in any dance, your partner’s (or partners’) collaboration is key to success. From the original score by Chazelle’s frequent go to, Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and dhoreography by the stellarly talented Mandy Moore, the team behind the scenes rose to the challenges well. Moore’s choreo particularly is perfectly balanced between structured, classical musical sync and improvised, raw, dance like no one is watching joy. Not an easy feat with the jazz-like tone changes Chazelle sets out to accomplish and manages with aplomb.

The best planning and ideas can all go askew if you don’t have the right people in their places when the cameras roll. Luckily, La La Land is perfectly cast with the unexpectedly tremendously talented (who knew they could do all that?) repairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. These two shine bright in the spotlight despite the fact that neither of them are trained dancers. They were schooled by Moore herself as she developed the intricate dance look for the film.

And composer Hurwitz was greatly impressed by Gosling’s dedication to learning to play jazz piano having never attempted it before. Hurwitz intones, “The work Ryan did learning to play piano is absurdly great. I can’t get over it.” And the work paid off. All the piano playing by Seb, Gosling’s character in the film, including the hand inserts, were the actor’s himself.

The question remains, even with something this good, will there be modern audiences willing to go see a musical today? It remains to be seen, but, I suspect that those who do settle into a theater to see this unique work will experience something wonderful.

Toni Erdmann (Sony Pictures Classics)

Family difficulty is universal. So is awkwardness. Writer/director Maren Ade allows those truths to play to nearly farcical resolutions as only well constructed and executed filmmaking can in her film Toni Erdmann. The two leads, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller are stellar in showing every nuance of discomfort in trying to communicate — and failing grandly — until recognizing they are best when they allow themselves to be themselves, flaws and all. Life is full of awkward relations and struggles to make our way. This film allows us to laugh, often uproariously, at its reflections of our selves so deftly portrayed.

Toni Erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in TONI ERDMANN photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A German comedy set in Bucharest may not be first to come to mind when thinking of story, but, the setting isolates the characters and in so doing emphasizes the isolation that each family member feels in estrangement from their loved ones. Ade understands that stark contrast often shows off the absurdity of the situations that we may overlook when the lines are grayed and differences muted.

Contrasts also play out in where the main characters find themselves when we are introduced to them. Simonischek’s father character and alter ego Toni Erdmann seem superficially at first glance to be played with comedic buffoonery reaching extremes only for a laugh. But the long, languid, even painful at time holding shots allow the actor to show the vulnerability underlying the humor, the heart under the grease paint.

Holding onto shots for a long time is one of the techniques Ade uses to great effect, allowing the audience to feel the helpless awkwardness that the characters experience in the lives they currently lead. It takes great acting to maintain the moment as the audience squirms in anticipation or dread. Luckily both leads are spectacularly gifted in nuanced acting and fully convey real emotions we’ve all experience when we feel not in control and spinning helplessly in place. Domestic awards givers should overcome their usual biases against non-English spoken performances and consider both Simonischek and Hüller for accolade. The talent these two bring to the piece are hilariously evident in the nearly farcical extremes their characters need to take themselves in order to find out who they are and how much they love each other.

Funny, touching, poignant and subtle, the film shows all the faces of a true family relationship. We can all relate, even if we don’t go to the extremes these people do to repair a strained, estranged but at heart still loving relationship.

Arrival (Paramount Pictures)

Any genre that has been around enough to have hundreds of films define it, will have classes of works within itself that look completely different than other fare in the same genre. Coming from its literary roots, science fiction has been fracturing for some time, so labeling a film “Sci-Fi” (a term that is admittedly distasteful to modern SF fans) isn’t telling you much about what kind of film it is.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

In broad strokes there have been two main streams of science fiction in film. Currently dominating the genre since Star Wars in the 70s are films that can be grouped under the term “space westerns” with lots of pew-pew shooting ray guns and big, scary, evil minded aliens. This section of the genre often fills the popcorn entertainment desires of the audience.

Another section of the genre hearkens back to the cerebral science fiction of the early 50s writers with a more sociological scope and human condition commentary. Films in this vein haven’t often been seen in the mainstream lately, but great examples are 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (the original 1972 Russian one, not the recent remake so much.)

This more intellectual branch of the sci-fi genre is where the new release Arrival takes its place. Pulling off this style of the genre takes consummate skill, something that director Denis Villeneuve has proven with his previous filmic successes of Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario. The sensibilities of such powerful dramas are in the bloodstream of a thinking person’s science fiction film. But just because there are no space battles doesn’t mean the movie is a staid Waiting for Gort-o talkie. The best of the cerebral genre branch use suspense and thriller styling as well as the other side utilizes action.

Often this style of film bends the dramatic forms with unique and complex structures. Arrival is a stellar example of this in the excellent script by Eric Heisserer adapted from Ted Chiang‘s story. Such manipulations are often difficult for the actors to pull off believably enough for the audience to be carried along. In this film that task falls squarely on the extremely capable and talented shoulders of Amy Adams. The entire film is from her perspective and the audience gleans each stage of understanding alongside her character as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It is her story to tell and Adams’ skill in being able to let the audience feel what she feels through her acting prowess of spoken and unspoken presence allows us to discover the realities of this film through her eyes. A feat not easily accomplished but successfully achieved through her considerable talents.

Still, a female-driven science fiction film, without laser beam shootouts and inexplicably near-human looking aliens, is a tough sell. Will the movie-going public be willing to take the chance? Seems to me there is precedent set before when the movie is well made (hearken back to the days before Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Sigourney Weaver pulled off a similar chancy risk.) My money is on Adams and Villeneuve today.

Eclectic leaves room for anyone, if they’re good

These three films played side by side with many others just as different from one another. The common thread of them all is that they were well made and excellent fare for the audiences at the film festivals to enjoy. So, when your film is ready, if you’ve made it well enough, you can settle right in among a variety of well made entertainment just like yours. And I’ll be settling in my seat ready to watch.

musicals_mediumGet practical advice in Steve Cuden’s webinar on
Creating Stories for Musicals: Screen and Stage

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